I Lost It at the Multiplex

The malling of American cinema has left audiences with little choice but to take their Prozac and like it

Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle.

-- De Crevecoeur

1. The Fugue State
Watching American movies in the Nineties may remind you of the ad for Easy Rider: "They went looking for America ... and couldn't find it anywhere." American movies were once known for the robust portrait of this country they painted for the world; their scrambling energy and inventiveness helped the United States invade international dreams. The conventional wisdom is that the Thirties and Forties -- the decades of the studios' golden age -- were "simpler times." With political-economic crises at home and Hitler and Stalin threatening democracy in Europe, the times weren't simpler, but the popular art of the movies responded to that volatile climate with exuberance and clarity. The main feelings our movies give off these days are exhaustion and inertia. The comedies have rarely been so frantic and the action movies so superpowered, but they have scant ebullience or spontaneity. They're the spawn of artificial hearts and minds. In 1967 the hero of Mike Nichols's The Graduate was told to go into "plastics." In the Nineties the movies have gone into plastics -- including Nichols's The Birdcage, which turns South Beach into a gay theme park for heterosexual delectation, just as Fargo turns Minnesota into a Scandinavian-American cartoon and Sling Blade turns Arkansas into Yokelville. Most films lack even this comic book version of local color. Big-studio crews roam across the country and return with suburban blandness.

The Big Oranging of America -- the reduction of nearly every setting to undifferentiated Sun Belt sprawl -- hit a pasteurized peak when Jan De Bont, the director of Speed (and then Twister and Speed 2) erased the graffiti from his real Los Angeles locations in order to make them look more like people's TV-bred dreams. Leaving movies like these prepares you for nothing more than a ramble down to the video arcade or the high-tech burrito outlet. The heroes and heroines of our mass-audience movies work in chic cool metallic locations and reside in cushy digs in outlying areas of Portland/Seattle/San Francisco/Boston/Chicago/D.C./Greater New York/ Greater Los Angeles. If they live in the center city, it's in neighborhoods devoid of homeless people or racial tensions but full of crises that culminate in men with worried expressions running away from billowing fireballs. Good and bad guys fit neatly into these locations -- nary a square peg scrapes against a round hole. The men are daredevils or nebbishes or corporate schemers or sociopaths. The women are those, and devils, too. (The children are fonts of wisdom or nasty manipulators.) The adults put up with the emotional blackmail of the kids; the kids put up with the whining of twenty- and thirtysomethings and the smugness of forty- and fiftysomethings. Mostly, the characters' concerns are limited to physical or spiritual middle-aged spread (on the one hand) or growing pains (on the other). Then one day they find themselves threatened or kidnapped by terrorists, bomb freaks, disgruntled ex-cops, or hit men. Some discover that their gym work and professional maneuvering, or their youthful vigor and freshness, make them veritable swashbucklers, able to overcome the scheming of Dennis Hopper, John Malkovich, or Steve Buscemi. Some face the deep-rooted flaws -- addiction or emotional dependence or cowardice -- that are usually hidden by a comfy lifestyle. Those who die are escorted to Heaven by guardian angels.

With few exceptions, 1997 movies have barreled into a creative cul-de-sac. In a vain attempt to conjure snob and slob appeal, filmmakers gear their narratives to function both as hyperactive dramas and self-parody. The result isn't that audiences segue from laughs to gasps, as they do at multilayered films from Scarface to Bonnie and Clyde to Devil in a Blue Dress and the new L.A. Confidential; it's that half the audience giggles and the other half, ignoring the chortling, cheers. Con Air has a particularly ridiculous premise: An honorable soldier gets a hefty prison term for defending himself against a man who'd pawed his wife and was leading a whole gang of attackers. Don't buy it? There's nothing to do but snort and go along for the ride. At one time the desperation of that Con Air gambit would have been considered too low-rent for an A-budget picture. Not any more. Once they get through studio committees and rewrite teams, scripts are no longer tissues of emotion and incident but adrenaline flow charts.

In general, the stories are either as rudimentary as the people-against-the-elements plot of the movie Twister or as knotted up as the bodies in a game of Twister. The horror-movie "Gotcha!" that De Palma mastered in Carrie (1975) -- giving the audience one last jolt after the action appeared to be over -- has crept into all genres, whether it works or not. An accomplished and underrated action romance like Conspiracy Theory (by far my favorite summer movie) will loop-the-loop once or twice too often, while a comic special-effects show like Men in Black (which at least had a few laughs) careens from playfulness to arbitrary absurdity.

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