It's almost required of a film critic that you emerge at least once a year, spluttering bits of locust through your beard, and announce the death of screen writing, craftsmanship, the small French film, romance, comedy, storytelling, or simply the death of movies altogether.
Well, the movies aren't dead this summer, but they're not exactly out back chopping wood, either. Accounting for inflation, the summer box office is down 22 percent, according to Variety's A.D. Murphy, the godfather of box-office analysis. There has been only one bona fide hit: "Rambo," with grosses of $125 million in eight weeks. "Back to the Future," with $33 million in two weeks, is headed in the same direction. Otherwise, there's a handful of movies that will break even, and a bunch of big-budget bummers, particularly "Perfect" and "Explorers."
When a movie performs poorly, Hollywood always looks elsewhere -- to poor marketing, to the weather, to the impact of cable or videocassettes, to the economy -- whereas the simple fact is that the industry is hurting because the movies are hurting us. It's a season of knockoffs, rip-offs and retreads; Hollywood thinks it can dress up movies people have seen before, repackage the formula and sell it again, and no one will notice. It treats people like lab animals, mindless consumers chugging on a treadmill, and people aren't buying it.
Nobody, after all, wants to feel like Inspector No. 54 at the end of the Fruit of the Loom assembly line.
Particularly critics, who can't just do what everyone else is doing, and stay home. It's not just that the movies are bad -- critics thrive on bad movies -- but that they're all bad in the same way. So when you say you didn't like a movie and it's the same reason you didn't like the last 12, it takes you from high dudgeon to the high chair. People think you're . . . a whiner.
"But Maaaaaaaaaaa, I don't like peeeeeeeeeeas."
Now, I know whining isn't the kind of thing that gets your back thumped at Duke Ziebert's. But here goes:
"But Maaaaaaaaaa, every movie I seeeeeeeee looks like a a cheap Steven Spieeeeeeeelberg rip-off."
All summer long, we've been trapped in the Spielburbs. Let's walk through it. Clint Eastwood makes his first western in years, "Pale Rider," and who should turn up but a little girl looking to the heavens for a friend. Ron Howard makes a touching comedy about old age, "Cocoon," that takes a precipitous turn for the worse with the entrance of creatures and a spaceship straight out of "Close Encounters." "D.A.R.Y.L" comes complete with an otherworldly innocent who changes people's lives and, true to "E.T." till the end, experiences death and rebirth. "Explorers" takes three kids, all of whom have troubles at home and school, and transports them to the wonderful world of outer space. "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome" unites Max with a tribe of lost children.
Spielberg is, himself, at least partly responsible for this epidemic of the epigone. As Hollywood's most powerful producer, he shepherded "The Goonies" to theaters this summer. Like the rest of Hollywood, Spielberg himself doesn't seem to realize that he is an original, the peerless master of the camera -- where to place it, when to move it. He has said that when he's storyboarding (a series of preliminary sketches for a sequence), he takes 15 shots and figures out how to get the same information into 10; takes the 10, figures out a way to do it in six; takes the six, distills it to two. It gives his films a condensation, and a fluidity, that no one can approach. You're his -- he can tell you any story he wants, because he tells it so well. Banality becomes myth, because the technique is dreamy.
Hollywood can't capture Spielberg's magic, so they crib the incidentals: the weak father and unpleasant family life; the suburban milieu; the sprigs of pop culture, video games and TV sets in the background; innocents on Earth meeting innocents from other worlds. It's like making a movie with English subtitles and thinking you've captured Truffaut.
So Spielberg movies only work when the Master himself commands the helm. They also work when he teams up with a director with a strong personality that is, in some fundamental way, opposed to his. "Goonies" quickly crumbled because a Richard Donner movie doesn't have any identifiable quality; the ephebe-leminded Donner spent the movie yodeling about what a big kid Steven was, Spielberg yodeled back, and the movie felt like drowning inside a Twinkie.
"Gremlins," on the other hand, worked because all the while executive producer Spielberg was building his Norman Rockwell village, director Joe Dante was defiling it. Similarly, "Back to the Future" has all of Robert Zemeckis' and Bob Gale's cynicism and archness, but Spielberg, as executive producer, has added the touch of humanity that brings audiences in. It's a Spielberg universe, but when vintage convertibles run into a manure truck and a kid travels in time only to be the object of a crush by his own mother, it's clearly a Zemeckis and Gale film.
And the point is not how cramped the Spielburbs are -- the limitations of his social vision, the outright lie about what kids are like, the way its mere escapism never changed the way anyone looked at the world. It is that the 12th time through a sausage grinder manned by hacks, any artistic vision gets tiresome. The Spielburbs have taken on a life, and a lifelessness, of their own.
Critics, and pundits generally, like nothing better than to go to the movies and divine from them the mood and mores of America. The Thumbsucker. The Chinpuller. " 'Rambo' -- Cause for Alarm?"
This kind of armchair entrail-reading is about the most fun a critic can have, but even this is lost to us, because movies this summer aren't about anything but other movies. "Silverado" isn't a western, but every western you've ever seen, a pastiche that explicitly refers back to other movies. "Rambo" has less to do with Vietnam than with old American propaganda movies of the World War II era.
To say that the return of the western signals a conservative movement in American culture, then, or to say that the popularity of "Rambo" means we'll be in Nicaragua by Christmas, is to misrepresent what's actually happening in the theater. Audiences are responding not to the content of these movies, but the form, to the resonances set up between what's on the screen and the B movies most of them watched in reruns on television or in revival houses.
The ironic distance associated with camp, in other words, has become universal; postmodernism has come in the back door, through the logic of shlock. You can't sit back and say what the secret purport of "Rambo" is when the audience is so remarkably self-aware.
Part of this results from pressures created by the audience itself. The contemporary audience doesn't have time for characters to be developed, for situations to be spun out; the most common complaint about movies, both in conversations and on that most powerful of Hollywood's fetishes, the sneak preview rating card, is that a movie is slow.
The shortcut that moviemakers have adopted is to give people characters out of old movies, characters they can recognize. They can come from old movies (as in "Rambo" or "Silverado"); more typically, they come in sequels: "Rambo" again, "Return to Oz," "A View to a Kill," "Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome." In the not-distant-enough future, we'll see "Poltergeist II," "Police Academy III," "Karate Kid II," "Ghostbusters II," "Animal House II," "Rocky IV," "Psycho III," "Airport IV," "Fletch II," "Jaws IV" -- you get the point. The trick is that we already know who everyone is -- we can get straight to the good parts.
Those given to hand-wringing might ruminate on this impatience. After "Raiders of the Lost Ark," we want 10 thrills a minute; after "Airplane!" the requirements for a density of gags has become almost insatiable. As consumers of pop culture, we've become a nation of speed freaks, without time to think, without patience for the slow workings of a democracy, which could well serve as the root of some native fascism. Gosh . . . could it be?
" 'Rambo': Cause for Worry?"
But if the audience demands to be constantly tickled and jolted, if they're saturated with pop culture and call for self-referential dumpster-rummaging, the main cause of of the big screen's torpor lies elsewhere. To wit:
People in Hollywood are lazy.
Why write a new story when you can just steal an old one? That's why "Brewster's Millions" is just a remake (the fifth at last count) of an old story, why "Pale Rider" steals whole scenes from "Shane" -- it's easy! And the only thing easier than a remake is . . . a sequel!
Also: People in Hollywood are chicken.
That's right. Few in Hollywood have the courage of their taste. If a movie flops, you can't say to your boss, "Well, I thought it was good." But you can say, "Well, it worked before." Or: "According to the books, the sequel should do at least half as well as the original."
Finally: People in Hollywood don't read.
In the '30s, a generation of writers arrived in Hollywood from the magazines and newspapers of the East. They worked as writers, and had grown up in the discipline of the short story or the magazine feature; their heroes were Fitzgerald and Faulkner, or better still, they were Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Today's writers grew up on movies. Their heroes are movie directors or worse, rock stars. Narrative isn't important to them; mood and effects are.
What Hollywood really needs is a dose of free-market capitalism. If a shrewd entrepreneur were looking at 1985, he'd see that the formula pictures, like teen sex comedies, had mostly bombed, as had many of the sequels, like "A View to a Kill." And he'd see that the movie that's shaping up as the summer's blockbuster, "Back to the Future," is one that's really written, that takes the time to build its props, establish its characters. Then he'd forget about Spielberg and demographics and what worked in the past and just get down to telling stories.
Of course, it'll never happen. But what is it they call Hollywood? City of Dreams?