I love movies. I love them good, I love them bad. I consider American movies a great liberating force, and anyone who doubts this need only attend a theater in Asuncion, Paraguay, and watch Independence Day with the locals to be persuaded.
Even the goofiest movies out of Hollywood used to have a certain, wholly nonconscious, moral aspect: whether the little guy, the ordinary person, won or lost, he was always in some sense the hero. This was true of Jerry Lewis, whose movies I loathe. This was true of Hitchcock, whose idea of an ordinary man was Cary Grant. This was true of the endless number of cowboy and space sagas, with their appalling shootouts and body-counts. It was even true of a movie as perverse as Midnight Cowboy.
At some point, Hollywood lost its bearings – simply became unable to tell the ordinary man from con men, killers, and thieves. It can’t be because people in the movie business are any worse. The old-time producers and executives were pretty grim specimens of predatory humanity.
It must be, I suspect, a matter of unfamiliarity. Nobody in the place has any reason to encounter a normal American. Nobody there can tell a story about us. I am rarely even tempted to watch a new movie, except for that peculiar cluster of titles Mark Steyn calls Britlit: The Ring trilogy, Harry Potter, Narnia, etc. So far as I can tell from the incredibly long previews, most of the rest flaunt unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things.
Everything is now inverted. In the couple of Quentin Tarantino movies I’ve watched, cold vicious murder is comedy. In many others the coolest character is invariably criminal-minded. Conversely, respectable people can be relied on to behave monstrously. Corporations, and those who work for them, are evil beyond belief: see Syriana. The Federal Government, and those who work for it, are even worse. I once sat through a movie during a transatlantic flight in which a character said, “I’m CIA, and we shoot down airliners before breakfast.” The CIA shoots down airliners? It was a throw-away line: everybody knows they do it. Before breakfast, too.
The result isn’t bad because it’s fantasy – it always was, and always should be – but because it’s ugly. Ordinary person that I am, I’m never sure who I’m supposed to root for. Usually, I end up cheering for the villains. They seem more like me.
When Hollywood makes a concerted attempt at “real-life America,” the result can be comical – unintendedly so, even with a comedy. I just read a review of Fun With Dick and Jane in the NYT. The plot, we are told, “pivots on the plummeting fortunes of Dick and Jane Harper, … a happily married couple with a cute kid, a subdivision house stuffed with shiny consumer goods and a German import parked in the driveway.”
I get it. It’s suburbia. Naturally, nastiness happens: an Enron-type scandal leaves Dick and Jane penniless. Naturally, they recur to crime: it’s in every suburbanite’s DNA, no? Here is the NYT’s summation, the moral of the tale:
One of the film’s insights is that poverty stinks, which could be news only in the la-la land of Los Angeles big-studio moviemaking. It’s nonsense to expect social commentary from a high-concept comedy, especially one as self-congratulatory as this one (they care, they really, really care), but this is the rare studio comedy set in something like the real world. If the film never settles into a groove, zigging and zagging from belly laughs to pathos, it’s because Enron remains raw as a wound.
That’s real life in America: the pathos of Enron. No wonder most movies at the moment are remakes or retreads of old TV shows. Like the clueless poet writing of nymphs and satyrs, imitating a Roman style that itself looked back to Greece, producers today rummage in attic of the past, hoping to snatch someone else’s forgotten inspiration. Good luck to them.