If our political parties insist on producing bad show business, then the least we should demand is that Hollywood make good movies. Yet who this August could click off the TV, open the newspaper and locate a refuge from the conventions in the air-conditioned dark? This has been one of the shabbiest movie summers in memory–a stretch as desolate as a beach closed by the Board of Health.
Still, out of habit, people make the trek, and while remaining fully dressed poke at the debris that’s washed up. There’s always something to be admired in this old boot or that chunk of scrap metal, decomposing amid the syringes and jellyfish. Is Space Cowboys amiable and unpretentious? Sure. Does Scary Movie provoke a few laughs? You bet. And X-Men is in focus, all the way through. So we convince ourselves, almost, that we’re having fun, for lack of anything better to do. If the political conventions were good television–if they showed the juicy stuff, such as deal-cutting and money-passing–then maybe we’d have better choices, and not just in entertainment. Instead, we’ve reached the point where John Waters has to drop the avuncular pose he spent the last decade cultivating and once more frolic through the trash. By doing so in his new opus, Cecil B. Demented, he’s made the summer’s liveliest movie and, by extension, put on America’s most vital political show.
But first, a glance at our most dispiriting current show: Bryan Singer’s X-Men, an effects-laden movie translation of the cult Marvel comic. It’s a picture that took in $100 million in its first two weeks in release and got respectful notices from a few reputable critics, which is reason enough to flip it over with a stick. And what do we find underneath? The Republican National Convention.
This year, the Republicans put on camera a parade of black, Latino, female and gay delegates. To what end? To make everyone feel easier about the party leadership, which is pretty thoroughly white, Anglo, male and straight. In much the same way, X-Men begins with a plea for tolerance for marginalized people: mutants in this case, whose uncanny and sometimes disgusting traits make them social outcasts. Playing to the fear and anger of normals, a slickly groomed US senator has introduced a bill that would require all mutants to be registered. As if the poor creatures weren’t suffering enough! Look at Rogue (Anna Paquin), a pretty teenager who draws the life force from anyone she touches and who must therefore exist without human contact. Singer directs us, none too gently, to identify with Rogue, knowing that anyone who’s survived adolescence has also, at some point, felt like a weirdo. But then, in casting his entire audience as mutants, Singer does not delve into alienation but instead practices flattery. Rogue gets to be part of a supercool team, which lives in luxury and is led by no less of a benevolent dictator than Patrick Stewart. And what is the most pressing goal of his X-Men team? To promote tolerance for normals.
No sooner do we know about the threat against mutants than we’re asked to ignore it–because the immediate mission of the X-Men is not to save themselves but to defend the straight population from bad chromosomal deviants, under the not-so-benevolent dictatorship of Ian McKellen. First the good mutants encourage moviegoers to imagine themselves as exceptional; then they allow viewers to leave the theater feeling protected, and even justified, in normality.
At another moment, I might have described this strategy as an instance of having-it-both-ways, the art at which Hollywood has always excelled–and if the action in this case is fitful, the acting semaphoric, the narrative movement clunky and the plot ultimately self-canceling, that would merely mean that Hollywood isn’t what it used to be.
But X-Men stinks. As its first gesture, it introduces the McKellen character in his teenage years, as a survivor of the Nazi death camps. This means that Singer has not just raised the specter of intolerance in order to reaffirm the existing order (with all inequities intact). Once again, as in Apt Pupil, he’s used the Holocaust as a plot gimmick. I can think of no better image for the moral vacuity of this action–for its isolation from a real world, with real responsibilities–than the principal motif of the X-Men production design: Repeatedly, the film presents you with big, imposing sets that feature a geometric solid floating within an enormous void.
Given the hollowness of X-Men, I prefer, though only a little, the forthrightly meanspirited Scary Movie. Any picture that sends the editor of Variety, Peter Bart, into high-dudgeon editorializing has clearly done something right. (His complaint: Scary Movie “broke the penis barrier” by showing an honest-to-gosh male member and still getting an R rating.) I’m also delighted that director Keenen Ivory Wayans, who has rained so much pleasure upon the world since the days of In Living Color and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, has beaten at the box office such would-be blockbusters as The Patriot and Gone in 60 Seconds, and on a fraction of their budgets.
Wayans’s burlesque of Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer gets laughs the old-fashioned way, by waving the facts of anatomy in your face–or, for that matter, dripping, spurting and expelling them. With each successive biological display, Wayans also hopes to expose the inanities of the teen-horror movies he parodies. It’s a problematic game. Scream was playfully explicit about its own conventions, so Scary Movie sometimes finds itself explaining another picture’s jokes. This doubling-up eventually becomes genuinely frightening, rather than funny-scary, as Wayans piles on references to more and more films. By the end, no fewer than nine not-so-great movies have been sent up, ranging from American Pie to The Usual Suspects. When a movie is bloated with so many fictions, even Wayans can’t expose enough flesh to deflate them all.
Scary Movie threatens to become as self-enclosed as X-Men. If it escapes that isolation, that’s perhaps because a genuine nastiness keeps breaking through. I get the feeling that Wayans isn’t playing around–he really wants to hurt and humiliate these characters, principally for their sins of being young straight women and young gay men. I laughed some at Scary Movie, but I came away from it feeling dirty.
That’s an inconvenience I was spared in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys, a cheerful, thoroughly unambitious yarn about old-time Air Force test pilots who get to fly a Space Shuttle mission. Starring Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, James Garner and Donald Sutherland, the picture is a certified Testosterone-arama–though who can complain, when the entire principal cast is so relaxed and self-confident that they even give you a group moon shot, and in wide screen? The script, by Ken Kaufman and Howie Klausner, is no masterpiece–it affords each geezer exactly one character trait, while being generous enough to talk out its plot points some three or four times–and the last third of the picture contains entirely too many images of wires being pulled apart and reconnected. But given the competition, it’s easy to understand why Space Cowboys should be instantly popular. Not that anything’s been left to chance. The stars’ promotional visit to the Leno show has actually been incorporated into the movie, in advance.
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Such foresight would be unforgivable, though also unthinkable, for the crew of underground filmmakers celebrated in John Waters’s Cecil B. Demented. They’re the kind of crazy kids that the cheaper Hollywood studios recklessly glorified in the fifties and early sixties in a string of memorably bad juvenile-delinquent dramas. Now Waters revives the tradition by blithely inciting his audience to terrorism, through a lurid tale of kidnapping, manslaughter, mayhem, drug abuse, cross-dressing and hard-core auteurism.
The premise: Honey Whitlock (Melanie Griffith), a Hollywood star with peekaboo auburn hair and too much attitude, has come to Baltimore for the benefit premiere of her new picture, Some Kind of Happiness. Little does she realize that the staff of the Senator theater (apart from its clueless manager) is a crew of guerrilla filmmakers, under the direction of Cecil B. Demented (Stephen Dorff). The cinemaniacs kidnap Honey and take her to the abandoned Hippodrome movie palace, where they have set up headquarters for the violently anti-Hollywood epic in which she must star. As Cecil descends on his shag-rug-covered boom, Honey sees she’s in trouble. On one arm he’s tattooed the name of Otto Preminger.
Soon, Cecil’s hair and makeup artists have transformed Honey into the archetypal moll of underground cinema. Given chopped-off, peroxided bangs and enough lipstick to wax a Corvette, she looks like a Fassbinder diva trying to imitate Deborah Harry. Hoping to escape, and no doubt impressed by Cecil’s Preminger-like use of a stun gun as a directorial aid, Honey puts herself through the first scene of the script. (She’s cast as the enraged proprietor of a failing art cinema, who can’t sell one single ticket to a Pasolini retrospective because everyone’s at–the mall!) But enough of canned drama. The rest of Cecil’s movie will be shot impromptu, on the streets, where Honey will lead actual, armed assaults against multiplex cinemas and the Maryland Film Commission.
I doubt I’m giving anything away by telling you that Honey eventually becomes a convert to the underground–though maybe I am revealing too much by adding that Waters has given a small role in these proceedings to Patricia Hearst. Does this picture leap off the screen, or what?
Yes, it leaps–thanks to Melanie Griffith’s eager participation in this act of revenge, Stephen Dorff’s unbuttoned nuttiness, an uproarious funk/rap/MGM soundtrack and Waters’s knowing, caring intelligence about movie culture and its decline. “We’re the ultimate bad review!” scream Cecil’s accomplices, as they rampage into a screening of Patch Adams: The Director’s Cut. A mere print critic such as I can only envy their methods, murmur in gratitude and note that Waters has kept Cecil B. Demented to a running time of eighty-eight minutes. Bless him.