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

In Winston Groom's much-maligned but refreshingly ungroomed novel, Forrest is a runaway character whose odd assortment of capabilities -- including an autistic savant's grasp of mathematical formulas, and facilities for harmonica-playing, Ping-Pong, and chess -- lands him everywhere from the All America football team to a remake of Creature from the Black Lagoon. The moviemakers whittle down these larger-than-life attributes to swiftness and strength. In the process, they transform Groom's novel from a satiric celebration of good ole American eclecticism -- the tall tale of a Huck Finn with a space-age hard-on -- into an all-too-poignant plea for righteous behavior and Zemeckis's weepy brand of closure.

At the start, the filmmakers take an evenhanded parodic stance toward Forrest's mentally semichallenged standing -- what makes him a first-class soldier is his dependence on his mother's hand-me-down wisdom and easily understandable rules. After he lands in Vietnam, the filmmakers begin to accentuate the patriotic and put Forrest on a pedestal. In the book, Gump scores with student protesters when he calls the war "a bunch of shit," but in the movie, a loudspeaker snafu silences him. Zemeckis depicts the counterculture as a behavioral sink and the American masses as an indistinguishable herd -- a point driven home when Gump, down in the dumps, starts running, and inadvertently touches off the jogging craze. Gump may be a democratic character, but he's locked into the center of an anti-democratic movie. Much of the way through Tom Hanks, a master of eccentric timing, conjures a steady stream of tragicomic flourishes. But when Gump's adventures halt, Forrest becomes a caricature of the congealed American doggedness Forties film critic Robert Warshow brilliantly described: "The 'affirmation' of practical people who have accepted the burdens of their lives, however narrowly they may conceive them, and expecting no final victory or full satisfaction, are still unable to believe in the possibility of defeat, if only because a certain stupidity makes them incapable of imagining a threat to their inner selves."

5. Myths, Soap, and Prozac
Just as malls are designed to propel shoppers around an array of stores en route to an entrance or exit, Hollywood has devised strategies that make audiences think they're sharing new experiences while they're being led right back to where they started. You can divide studio movies into four basic types:

Prozac Movies (The Lost World, Con Air):
Flimsy back story
Frenzied motion
Ad hoc relationships
No emotion
Flat characters

Myth Movies (Disney cartoons, Contact):
Way back story
Ritual motion
Predetermined relationships
Static emotion
Circular characters

Biodegradable Soap Operas (Forrest Gump, new-age romantic comedies):
Continuing story
Treadmill motion
Poignant relationships
Ersatz emotion
Recurring characters

Sugarcoated Serials (Batman & Robin):
Repeated story
Going-through motions
Installment-plan relationships
Big-star emotion
Identical characters

In 1989, before doctors routinely talked of drugs as character-building devices, I first heard of Prozac at a dinner in Beverly Hills. Every movie person at the table was on it. At the time I chalked it up to their need to stay on the psychopharmacological new frontier. But I wonder. The movie business runs on anxiety, but usually it's been alloyed with something else, whether counterculture chic, wretched excess, or good old-fashioned glamour-lust. In the Nineties the anxiety is naked and up-front. Creating blockbusters both inspires anxiety and relieves it. Nervous execs reduce everything to sentimentality and adrenaline, and viewers conditioned to accept that mixture lap it up. Post-Speed action movies operate on a mass audience much like Prozac (and shopping malls) does on some individuals: They provide a feeling of mastery over a tense existence.

Because of the subsequent success of De Bont's Twister and the flop of his Speed 2, Speed is often treated as a paradigm of action moviemaking. Looking back on it, what's astonishing is how completely De Bont eliminates not just "back story" but emotion, individuality, and even morality from his story line and characters. In Listening to Prozac the drug's Boswell, Peter D. Kramer, reports that a couple of patients experienced "the numbing of moral sensibility" -- a malady that also afflicts Speed and movies like it. Speed's makers were sure to establish good and evil in monolithic terms -- the audience never doubts whom to root for. Still, every now and then the movie's ethical control mechanism goes bonkers. In the final climax, Reeves and his right-hand gal Sandra Bullock are hell-bent for oblivion on a runaway subway. His colleagues warn him that he and Bullock are heading toward the unfinished end of the line -- but that message doesn't reach the construction workers who, minutes later, must scurry out of the way. Great action directors thrive on the dramatic possibilities of moral complications. Compared to Speed, Jaws, the father of summer action blockbusters, is like Moby Dick and All the President's Men rolled into one. Part of what gave Spielberg's sea adventure its sense of jeopardy was the political coverup back on land. Today's action experts ruthlessly seek the escalating motion of a three-stage rocket. (A movie like Air Force One splits into three acts with raw calculation.) If viewers can't wait to be steamrollered by films like Speed and Air Force One, if the market seems able to bear one more robotic thrill-ride after another, it's because the rides have no aftereffect. When the ride is over, it's over -- to repeat the dose, you either buy another ticket or find another whirligig.

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