Dispatches from adolescent territory reach me occasionally through my niece Michelle, who has moved into her teen years like the Wehrmacht hitting Belgium. Her most recent posting has taught me this about contemporary film culture: While visiting a Midwest resort town with a friend, Michelle was delighted to discover a street of quaint shops, as well as a theater that played old movies. Which old movies, I wanted to know. “Spider-Man,” she said.
In the hope that this column might fall into the hands of teenagers, I therefore begin with an apology. Some of the movies I am about to discuss have been running for two weeks, or even longer. That’s enough for them to have earned most of whatever theatrical revenue they can expect; enough that they are now being pushed into the back reaches of the public’s attention, so that next week’s movies can be marketed. I want to write about these pictures precisely because they were made to be forgotten (like Men in Black II); or, conversely, because they are already starting to fade, despite their makers’ best intentions.
I also want to write about a film that just might stick in the mind: Langrishe, Go Down, starring Judi Dench and Jeremy Irons. But there I’m cheating. Although that film is only now being released, it doesn’t really count as current, since it was made in 1978.
To people who dislike movies and attend only films, it might seem obvious that Men in Black II can’t compete against Langrishe, Go Down (which has not only Dench and Irons to its credit but also a screenplay by Harold Pinter). But then, to my mind, Langrishe, Go Down can scarcely compete against the original Men in Black, which so brightened the summer of 1997. While that picture cheerfully fulfilled every duty of a sci-fi special-effects comedy, it also won a permanent place in memory by developing a theme that should interest thoughtful teenagers and adults alike.
In its portrayals of agents Kay and Jay (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith) and of the coroner who stumbled onto their secrets (Linda Fiorentino), Men in Black proposed that knowledge has to be paid for, and that the cost is often loneliness. Fiorentino, you may recall, played a scientist whose zeal for research allowed her no living companions. Smith played a New York cop who had to choose between satisfying his curiosity and maintaining relations with his friends and family–not much of a decision in his case, since he was already thoroughly alienated. (In a training exercise, Smith shot to death a cute little blond girl but left unmolested a fanged and tentacled potato from Outer Space, with which he seemed to empathize.) As for Jones, he strutted and snapped his way through the movie as if a show of bravado were all that could keep him going. “We are a gullible species,” he sighed at one point, as if wishing he might lay down his burden and rejoin the credulous. Everyone except Smith understood this ragged man was on his last case.