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

3. The Mall of America
Americans' mania for "Now!" and our penchant for organizing the elements of existence like items on a shopping list have drawn attention from art and movie theorists like Anne Friedberg, author of the provocative, sophisticated Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern, whose key chapter analyzes shopping malls. Friedberg describes the mall as "the ultimate extension of nineteenth-century urban artificial environments -- parks, passageways, department stores, exhibition halls." But I respond to malls, instinctually, as a strictly suburban experience -- everything I wanted to escape from as a kid. Friedberg attempts to treat mallgoing -- and moviegoing in malls -- as modes of spectatorship that are easy to isolate and define, no matter how vast and elusive. But these days malls mean something like the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota -- to use Life writer Robert Sullivan's phrase, a "glass-enclosed ecosystem" containing everything except a graveyard. Friedberg writes that "the spectator-shopper" at mall movies "tries on different identities -- with limited risk and a policy of easy return." I think the movies shown in malls do nothing but confirm the suburban identities that filmgoers already have outside the multiplex.

It's no accident that the forthcoming Titanic was test-screened (successfully) at the Mall of America. Watching American movies is like living in the Mall of America -- even if you see all of them in the city. The multiplex atmosphere has wafted through what drama critics call "the fourth wall." Hollywood hasn't succeeded in simply lassoing crowds into theaters before and after they graze on fast food and do some forecast purchasing; it's succeeded in making movies a natural extension of life as it is lived in enclosed retailing complexes. All you get to see in most movies, as in most malls, are the inevitabilities of American suburbia: kids manipulating their parents into paying attention and buying them stuff, teens and young adults going on thrill rides and roaming in hordes before pairing off and chewing each other's lips off, and adults trying to go through life without getting squashed.

In American movies everyone is supposed to be middle-middle-class, from Schwarzenegger to supposedly way-out talents like Martin Lawrence or Jim Carrey -- Lawrence's ridiculously controversial concert movie You So Crazy includes Honeymooners-era gags about men expecting their women to cook. I once jousted with an editor who questioned treating movies "as art, not life." I replied that we could debate whether they were art, but I could guarantee they're not life. The next day I visited a suburban housing development and realized I was looking at a replicate of the same model that Tom Cruise had moved into in The Firm. Democracy has always bred liberty and conformity. Seen en masse, American movies are inseparable from at least one part of American life: the urge to achieve a unifying banality.

4. Hollywood's Two Ages of Man
In American movies -- as in malls -- kids rule. In the "all the world's a stage" speech from As You Like It, Shakespeare posited seven ages of man. Hollywood sticks to two: man in his youth, and in his fighting prime. (As a result, 30-ish stars will play male ingenues, and 50-ish stars will play action heroes.) That's due both to our culture's obsession with youth and to our longtime national identity crisis. Legions of movies besides Face/Off have depicted people who get confused about who they are, ranging from last year's Oscar winner The English Patient (the hero forgot he had helped the Nazis) to a number of comedies, such as the Steve Martin-Goldie Hawn vehicle HouseSitter, the Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate, and the Michael Keaton vehicle Multiplicity. A hero or heroine flailing around for a code of values and core emotions has become a dominant Hollywood motif, reflecting everything from overwork, stress, and psychoactive drugs to the deterioration of institutions (church, school, family) that used to help the self define itself. Of the farces, only the hit Groundhog Day proved rounded and satisfying; Bill Murray used the curse of continuously reliving the title holiday to fill in the intangibles of his personality. Of the dramas, only the little-seen indie Suture confronted the conundrum of humanhood head-on. The San Francisco-based writer/producer/directors, Scott McGehee and David Siegel, a pair of deadpan wiseacres, cast Dennis Haysbert, a solidly built black man, as a character who is constantly said to look exactly like his half-brother -- played by Michael Harris, svelte and white. When Harris rigs an accident that results in Haysbert taking on his identity, the casting becomes an avant-garde ploy with punch. It pivots on questions of what constitutes identity -- the internal stuff of life or the external components of race, wealth, and status. By contrast, the campy identity catastrophes in Face/Off amount to Cage/Travolta leering at Travolta/Cage's daughter and bedding down with his wife.

Since Hollywood moviemakers can't imagine what normality means to an individual man or woman, they're completely lost when it comes to concocting plausible scenarios for love and marriage. At the climax of the most acclaimed American comedy of 1996, the saccharine Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise barges into his estranged wife's house and spouts off a speech that's supposed to show he's changed his life -- and she says, "You had me at hello." You had me at hello? That's a line an executive gives a writer at the end of a successful pitch meeting, not one that a wife gives her spouse at their moment of rapprochement.

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