by Lucius Shepard
June 12, 2006
In a better world than this, Tom Hanks would be a high school janitor and Ron Howard would be his balding, baseball cap-wearing, mentally impaired buddy, with whom he goes to the dog track. Sometimes after a good night at the races, they will amble down to the package store to buy some fortified wine, sit on the curb outside and inhale the gas fumes from the West Hollywood traffic while they drink. When business gets slow, the night man at the package store, Dan Brown, will join them. They've become pals, they swap lies, they share fantasies . . . One of their biggest goofs is that they're going to make a movie. Tom will act, Dan will write the script, and Ron, who has the creative aptitude of a woodchuck, he'll direct. Tom and Dan get a kick out of watching Ron bounce around on the curb, losing his hat whenever he gets really excited. They like teasing their little chum, but he has such a bad life (he lives with an older sister, who abuses him), they want him to enjoy what few pleasures he has, and so they work at furnishing his favorite fantasy.
Now this is no ordinary fantasy like, say, Tom's fantasy about the waitress down at IHOP, although it's every bit as unattainable. They've fleshed it out, given it detail and body. But in that better world, the fantasy remains a fantasy, and the three return to their sour, separate lives: Ron, to the abusive embrace of his sister; Dan, to an apartment he shares with his ex-brother-in-law; Tom, to a rented room above the IHOP. In the world we live in, however, their idiot dream has come true. An inept actor, a post-literate novelist, and a director responsible for the blandest, most sanitized films in recent memory, a real hack's hack . . . this trio has joined forces in a perfect storm of mediocrity to create the least dramatic, most uninvolving and tedious "thriller" in the history of the cinema. If you buy a ticket to this insultingly awful excuse for an entertainment, you will be thrust into a stew of plot points and dialogue exposition spoken by characters you know nothing about, stirred now and again by a spot of the old ultraviolence perpetrated by an albino monk with a predilection for self-flagellation. I imagine actor Paul Bettany saying between strokes of the lash, "Must never work with Ron Howard again," whack, "Must never work with Ron Howard again . . . " Even Tom Hanks, who by now should be accustomed to such debasing experiences, wears throughout the look of someone who has caught a whiff of bowel, and Ian McKellen, reduced to chortling lines like, "Oh, my dear! You make an old cripple so happy!", seems downright relieved to be free of Hanks and Howard when he is led away by police. I happened to catch a "Making Of . . . " spot he did for HBO and the most amusing thing in and/or relating to the film is his half-hearted attempt to say something positive about Hanks as an actor. "Well, he's a gentlemanly sort and that comes through, I suppose," damneth Sir Ian faint-praisingly.
So, directed by a man who has never made a film deeper than a drainage ditch; starring an actor who in every role he essays reminds us of a plumbing outfitter we once saw in a local staging of Bus Stop; based on a Dan Brown novel that strives in its retarded fashion to whip up liturgy and scholarship into a bowl of nutritionless gruel that "everybody can understand" but will drive anyone with a shred of brain tissue mad with despair over the death of the artistic ideal in our culture; funded by an aesthetic that presupposes the audience to consist of congenital idiots who must be led by the hand through the script's countless subtleties lest they suddenly wake to the fact that they're alone in the dark with bright flicky-flicky pictures on the screen and wet themselves . . . it's pointless to review such a film. Instead, I'll let what a teenage boy (one of eight sitting behind me, sent by a high school teaching drone to write a paper on the book, the movie, its meaning to America, etc.) said stand as commentary. After one hundred and forty-nine minutes of te deum and dominus vobiscum, he was heard to opine, "That was one long-ass movie." This was, I should point out, the same intuitive manchild who (along with myself and a number of others) figured out where the Grail was buried five minutes in—it would have been difficult not to avoid figuring it out, the director's finger pointed it out so unwaveringly—thus rendering the last one hundred and forty-four minutes irrelevant.
As an exemplar of our dumbed-down culture, The Da Vinci Code stands second to none. You want proof? How about Hanks explaining to a crowd of educated (purportedly) Parisians that symbology is "the study of symbols"? Or how about the fact that after two and a half hours of slagging the Catholic church and debunking Jesus, the movie ends with a last second miracle (sort of a crummy miracle involving a shaving accident) that inspires our boy Tom to go to his knees at Grailside. But if selecting an exemplar were my purpose, any movie of recent Hollywood vintage would do. MI3, X-Men: The Last Stand, The Break-Up . . .
The Break-Up is interesting to consider in light of all this. In it, Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston play their usual characters—Vaughn a loud-mouthed, beer-guzzling, TV sports junkie, and Aniston as, essentially, the blank slate upon which he projects his uniformly vacant dreams and desires, in this instance an art gallery manager and not little Ms. Perky of Friends, though the roles are interchangeable. The two cohabit in a condo fit for a Trump and, when an argument escalates into the potential grounds for a break-up, the condo becomes the bone of contention. There ensues a War of the Roses Lite. Anniston brings men to the apartment, Vaughn engages in a strip-poker orgy, and eventually the two break up. You see, this is a serious romantic comedy and we're not only supposed to get all misty, but we are expected to draw profound conclusions about the dissolution of the partnership between Mr. Beer Nuts and his squeeze. Along the way we are treated to a repugnant exercise in gay-guy humor in the person of Aniston's cousin, and nice turns by Vincent D'Onofrio and Jon Favreau as Vaughn's neurotic brother and best friend, respectively . . . but since these threads are left dangling, we are forced to focus on the Vaughn-Aniston union . . . which is rough, because we can't understand why these two are together in the first place. They're not merely a case of opposites attracting. Think Katherine Harris and the drunken garbage man who tosses the cans around in your neighborhood. Despite the fact they're a real-life Hollywood couple, they generate no screen chemistry whatsoever and their romance is handled in such a juvenile fashion, in the way of all formulaic romantic comedies, it comes as a letdown when we realize that, oops, this is intended to be an illuminating experience and no magic bean or Rube Goldberg construction of plot is going to save the day. Now, had these characters been portrayed as real folks, a real couple, well, that's another thing. But what we have here is the equivalent of a Tom-and-Jerry cartoon with an ending in which the cat gets his throat cut and the mouse runs off and sleeps with half the Italian World Cup soccer team. Yet we are being sold this product shrink-wrapped as a serious theatrical experience—it is posed as a thought piece for the generation raised up on Adam Sandler movies. You know, movies that are intended to be funny but aren't? The Break-Up isn't funny, and though it has some insight into the vileness that can be bred between men and women, it isn't serious, either. It just proves how neutered our culture has become.
Any Hollywood movie of the last decade, as I was saying, would serve as an exemplar of our dumbed-down culture. It should not come as a news flash that a country led by George Bush is intellectually stunted. And this phenomenon is scarcely relegated to the multiplexes. As a nation, we're on an IV drip of pure stupidity. We nod our heads sagely as Angelina Jolie does her tits-out impression of the World's Greatest Mom and intones about peace and famine. Who do we turn to for advice? To a porky doofus like Dr. Phil. For our spiritual needs, we may seek out a shithead like Jerry Falwell, an evil old maggot like Pope Mumbles the 99th, or Oprah . . . at least with her, you might get a free car. Intelligence has become equated with nerdishness, liberalism with weakness, an artistic sensibility with sexual preversion (sic). The militias of the Nineties had it wrong. It's not the right to bear arms we should worry about, it's the right to bear brains. Pretty soon, you'll have scenarios like a kid turning in his mother to the Mind Police because he overheard her muttering the name Wittgenstein in her sleep. That may seem far-fetched to those who travel in certain circles, but all of you, I'm sure, know bars in which, if you openly discuss . . . well, anything intellectual, really, heads will turn, dark looks will be directed, and a physical challenge may be offered. Intellectuals (and my definition of the word has loosened a great deal) are becoming the newest "nigger" of a culture that buys whatever is set before it. Let me repeat that: that buys whatever is set before it, whatever is pushed or jammed or pissed into its face; that will swallow any obscenity that's put forward as tasting good or being good for you or having some virtue that outweighs the harm it does, like those adds for prescription medicines that promise relief from migraine, but hey, watch out for those side-effects which may include hemorrhoids, lymphoma, and the growth of an extra limb.
Let's examine, for instance, a TV commercial for Wellbutrin, an anti-depressant. In it, healthy, normal people smilingly testify that Wellbutrin does it for them, "without the risk of sexual side-effects." This phrase is repeated throughout the commercial, and, finally, an Afro-American man appears onscreen to testify that he's glad he chose Wellbutrin, which is "without the risk of sexual side-effects." Since the Afro-American male remains, as the advertisers are aware, something of a sexual symbol in our culture, no doubt a large number of white men are filing away the thought that, hey, if Wellbutrin does it for the black guy, it might just cure my depression without the risk of sexual side-effects. What's really scary about this is how numb we've become to these sorts of repetitions. A few years back, they were something to remark on, but now they're part of business-as-usual. We're accustomed to them, we ignore them, but they have their effect. The bastards are wearing the edge off our intellects with them, with simple-minded direct-by-numbers movies, with dunderheaded books, with prattling news readers, with idiot celebrities, and if you shout out against them, you will be called an elitist and a snob, you will be charged with hating all things Hollywood, by people—AKA victims—who step forward from the majority, wearing a slogan on their T-shirt that declares them to be a defender of some moronic ideal, usually the idea that it's they—not a corporate monster—who dictate what's best for them, and that by God we need more Da Vinci Codes and King Kongs and etc., because these delightful entertainments provide our minds with needed respite from the tremendous stresses with which modern life burdens us. The thing that's not understood here is that the most oppressive stress-maker of modern life is, in fact, the media, and that even the most innocuous of these films is laden with suggestions that to consume more of this crap will make us happy.
I'm not saying this is happening, I'm saying it has already happened, so there's no point in analyzing or debating the phenomenon. We have to decide what, if anything, can be done about it. Now I'm not suggesting we form a secret cabal and send suicide bombers to the homes of every studio and ad agency and network executive. Not at all. I would never suggest such a course. Farthest thing from my mind. But really we don't have a ton of options. Public taste has been so corrupted, there's simply not much hope. And when the box office slumps, as has been the trend lately, and people seek out new modes of entertainment, as, for instance, a virtual world such as Second Life, you can be sure the corporate tentacle will follow. (For those not in the know, Second Life is a virtual world in which one can game, buy property, sell clothes, display one's artwork, have autograph signings [I believe Cory Doctorow has done this], and, I imagine, show one's movies.) It's conceivable that a rebel virtual culture may be the antidote to the creep of cultural homogeneity, though I suspect that that culture would ultimately be marginalized by corporate interests. But there is some hope, some teensy flame flickering in, perhaps, some Internet cave, waiting, hoping to be fanned. Until then, we'll have to while the time away by . . . Oh, I don't know. Maybe by watching X-Men: The Last Stand, in which Brett Ratner, the auteur who gave us Rush Hour, a director who openly wears a Ron Howard medal blessed in the chapel at Dreamworks, takes over the only superhero franchise with a pulse and improbably turns it into a misogynistic, misanthropic gay exploitation movie. We could talk about that, but frankly I don't have the stomach for it.