President Gorbachev held a meeting with American intellectuals here in Washington last week, and nobody can say he didn't make a heroic effort to draw the cream of the crop. Yes, he managed to rope in the librarian of Congress and a professor from Princeton, not to mention the author of that pathfinding intellectual treatise, "Megatrends," but more to the point he got the Bach, Beethoven and Brahms of American artistic life: Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda.
One could scarcely hope to find the depth and breadth of American thought more generously represented than it was in the Soviet Embassy for those three scintillating hours, which is why Gorby was heard to say: "I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together in one room, with the possible exception of when Mamie Van Doren dined alone." But truth to tell, a few empty chairs were noticed by beady-eyed observers on the fringe of this Mensa convention. No, Arnold Schwarzenegger wasn't there. Neither were Warren Beatty and Madonna. Tom Cruise was elsewhere, maybe hiding out with Bruce Willis.
That's a lot of intellectual firepower, so those in attendance at the Russian-American brain-fest can be pardoned if they felt just a tiny bit cheated. An American intellectual summit with only three movie stars can't be called a summit: a dormitory bull session, perhaps, but scarcely a genuine meeting of the minds.
Still, you have to get what the circumstances permit, and what any reader of history can tell you is that in late spring and early summer, American intellectuals are hard at work spreading gray matter into all corners of the continent; it's hard to get a quorum, much less a full house, when the intelligentsia are so far-flung.
For most of the rest of the year the double-domes are easy to find: Stroll into any $150-a-plate eatery in L.A. and there they are, doing the kind of luncheon deals such as a couple of centuries ago produced the Federalist Papers but are now devoted to the conception and production of each year's high intellectual season. By May the fruits of their labors have been picked, and there they go: off to the promotional races.
Yes, boys and girls, it's summer-movie time, that bright and shining moment in the calendar when Hollywood shows America and the world what can happen when great minds think alike. And what, you ask, is that? Well, for starters it's "Total Recall," starring the egregious Schwarzenegger, a film so violent that almost every frame is, as we like to say in intellectual salons, blood-splashed. It's "Days of Thunder," wherein Cruise drives a stock car, though if previous performance is any guide, he won't do much acting. It's "Die Hard 2," a Bruce Willis sequel. It's "Jetsons: The Movie," a feature-length film starring the happy little space-traveling family we all know and love. It's "Dick Tracy," a Disney production starring those lovable cartoon characters, Warren Beatty and Madonna.
There they are, the movies of summer, the time of year when the entertainment capital of the universe puts its best, its very very best, on parade for all to see. Dr. Johnson's London, fin de sie`cle Vienna, Paris in the '20s -- none of these holds a candle to Hollywood in the summer, when the movie industry shows us (a) just how bright it really is and (b) just how bright it really thinks we are.
Summer at the movies. Last year, Advertising Age reminds us, it was "Batman" and "Ghostbusters II" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." In other summers it's been "Jaws" and "E.T." and any number of "Star Wars" and "Star Trek" clones; now it's "Dick Tracy" and "Die Hard 2" and -- can you stand to wait? -- "Total Recall." From year to year the intellectual level just gets higher and higher, working its inexorable way upward to the 97th "Rocky" sequel and the induction of Sylvester Stallone -- speaking of whom, Gorby, where was he? -- into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
But this year summer at the movies is extra special. Not merely does it offer enough blood and guts to keep George Patton and Curtis LeMay spinning merrily in their graves, it also comes with a veritable abundance of brand-name tie-ins. As Ad Age says, "It's going to be a long, hot movie-marketing summer," and it doesn't mean marketing movies, it means using movies to market just about anything else in the course of "the largest number of promotional tie-ins ever with major advertisers in a summer."
It all has to do with money, as is always the case when the American intellectual elite goes about its business. Thus there's "Days of Thunder," which may seem to the innocent moviegoer to be about Tom Cruise and his stock car, but is really about a Chevy Lumina that is nicknamed Mello Yello, in honor of a soft drink -- sounds appetizing, doesn't it? -- manufactured by Coca-Cola. The Chevy Lumina and Mello Yello brand names will be much in evidence during the movie; other tie-ins will be for Exxon and Hardees.
"Dick Tracy" has tie-ins with McDonald's, and with Quaker Oats too; "Jetsons: The Movie" has 50 (!) tie-ins, from Wendy's to Kool-Aid to Shedd's Spread; "Total Recall" has hooked up with Brut 33, Hilton Hotels and Nintendo. Throughout the summer, but especially in the early part when the movies are opening and the competition for the audience is at its most intense, the marketing efforts will be so clamorous and so ubiquitous that it'll be just about impossible to tell what's marketing and what's movie -- though that, in truth, is probably just what the moviemakers have in mind.
No doubt there's a spoilsport out there who's grumbling about the violence and the gore and the sex and, well, the general inanity of it all, but that's a person who's fallen out of step with American intellectual life. In a country whose Mother Church is Disneyland and whose Bible is "Valley of the Dolls," Hollywood has to be taken seriously, and what Hollywood is here to tell us is that summer is the time to get serious. In a country whose president can -- in all seriousness, folks -- offer up Arnold Schwarzenegger as what we like to call a "role model" for the little ones, then who's to say that "Total Recall" isn't the reincarnation of "Sense and Sensibility"?
This is why Gorbachev didn't need writers and scholars -- unless you call John Naisbitt a writer and Henry Kissinger a scholar -- to tap into the mainstream of American intellectual life. The real business of American thought isn't carried out at -- heaven forfend! -- the New York Review of Books or -- heaven double forfend! -- the English departments; it's done when Arnold Schwarzenegger sits down with his producers and directors and says, "Let's make a summer movie."
Gorby knows all this, which is why in the White House they say that Boris Yeltsin is a lightweight and Gorby a heavyweight. It is also why, in the remotest and most secret chambers of the State Department, they're working out the final details of the deal that's going to save Gorbachev and breathe new life into perestroika. You read it here first: To revitalize the Russian intelligentsia, the brain trust of the Kremlin, we're going to give him Charlton Heston, Joan Rivers and Sean Penn. If he says pretty please, we'll even let him have Sally Field.