Bugs, Drugs and Thugs

Dan Kohn (dan@teledesic.com)
Fri, 28 Nov 1997 12:07:18 -0800

This season is guaranteed to bring at least one breathtaking,
sadism-free triumph made with state-of-the-art wizardry in Hollywood's
great storytelling tradition. (Hint: it involves deck chairs and a lot
of water.)=20

Invading Theaters: Bugs, Drugs and Thugs
Consider the shocking movie sights of 1960: a motel
assignation, a woman in a shower, a man in a dress, a nasty-looking
knife. Those, not to mention a mother who wouldn't hurt a fly, made
Hitchcock's "Psycho" the envelope-pushing violent film of its day, yet
it looks so quaint by current standards. Ratcheting the threshold of
audience abuse ever higher, today's filmmaker is likely to confuse the
skewering of a green-blooded space insect with transcendent excitement
or wit. Trouble is, it isn't smart and it isn't often working. When was
the last time you heard applause at the movies? Half-empty theaters are
mostly home to the sound of one hand clapping.=20
"Skip it," I heard an elderly female usher whisper to
two friends at a multiplex, scotching their plans to see "Boogie
Nights." In case the title had made them expect a nice little dance
movie, she explained, this was a big dirty one, so they were sadly
mistaken. Then these two customers, who should have ignored her and
taken a chance on one of the most imaginative films of the season, =
and atmospheric enough to well justify its raunch and excess, wound up
going home disappointed. Maybe they trusted the usher because they had
been burned too often. Anyway, after studying the marquee, they made it
clear that they had no second choice.=20
Bugs, drugs and thugs dominated the movie agenda that
weekend, as they so often do nowadays. "Starship Troopers"? (Moronic
dialogue and fascist bug slaughter.) "I Know What You Did Last Summer"?
(Stalker in a slicker with a deadly fishhook.) "Kiss the Girls"? =
serial killer.) "The Devil's Advocate"? (Demonic morphing and bloody
ovaries.) "L.A. Confidential"? (One of the year's very best, but full =
lurid shocks.) Not even the lobby posters offered much hope for the
future, what with "Scream 2," an animated Rasputin and a new batch of
horrible, slime-dripping aliens on their way.=20
Well, there are always Henry James and Jane Austen, safe
ports in a storm for audiences that value gentility over cheap thrills.
But even audiences with a vintage literary bent have had to embrace
riskier material if they care about film's cutting edge. Moviegoing
Darwinism means understanding that the darkness and mayhem in a "Pulp
Fiction" or "The Silence of the Lambs" are inseparable from splendid
work, filmmaking that orchestrates its effects carefully and comes
equipped with a moral compass. But today's bottom-feeding exploitation
films, the ones meant to remind teen-age boys of video games, try to be
just as startling for no reason at all.=20
The saddest casualties in this overwrought atmosphere
are films that stumble on the high road, trying to tell straightforward
stories without attention-grabbing tricks. "Mad City" might have said
more to pre-teen-age audiences than "Bean" did, but it was made without
benefit of stupid jokes or geeky behavior. "John Grisham's 'The
Rainmaker' " shows off fine acting and strong, atmospheric =
but hardly anybody gets killed on camera. "Gattaca" is cool, cerebral
science fiction, but where are its rampaging mutants? Only rarely does =
throwback like "Soul Food" catch on simply because people like its
values and share its idea of a good time.=20
Back to bloody ovaries: the compromise nowadays is often
the traditional film that has been tarted up for more sensationalist
tastes. "The Devil's Advocate" tells a story reminiscent of "Rosemary's
Baby." (Remember when weirdo neighbors and a few shots of demon claws
were evil enough?) But despite all its sneaky ingenuity, it still wants
to pander. So Al Pacino's winking Satan plays the pimp around Keanu
Reeves as the story's clean-cut hero. And Charlize Theron, as the =
dewy, na=EFve wife, must grapple with the most graphic scares the film =
supply. In a dressing room at a clothing store, she watches a
bare-breasted friend suddenly develop a monstrous face, and the =
body roils violently to indicate something hideous inside. Back home,
she sees the nightmare image of a child playing with those stray
ovaries, which are doused in gore.=20
Kudos, I guess, to whoever had the technical expertise
to create these memorable moments. But who really needs them? They =
add anything to the film. Because they don't tell us anything we don't
already know. The morphing woman has been well established as witchy,
and the heroine's infertility has been discussed in the reasonable,
nongrisly fashion that once would have sufficed. But the film piles on
graphic excess as a way of appealing to post-"Seven," jolt-loving
audiences. Even if that means scaring anyone else away.=20
This season is guaranteed to bring at least one
breathtaking, sadism-free triumph made with state-of-the-art wizardry =
Hollywood's great storytelling tradition. (Hint: it involves deck =
and a lot of water.) But films that achieve their impact that honorably
and artfully are rare. It isn't simply a matter of luridness; after =
a genuinely transfixing documentary this year is "Sick," which deals so
graphically with a dying artist and his sexual masochism that it shows =
nail being hammered into his penis at close camera range. Terrible this
may be, but it does have a ragged honesty that "Flubber" lacks.=20
The shocks have to mean something, even in a film that
deliberately sets out to rattle viewers. Last summer, some of the more
macabre moments in "Men in Black" -- like the shooting off of an alien
pinhead that grew right back -- were creepier than all of "Face/Off,"
which featured enough gunfire for a small war and the sight of faces
being surgically removed. Context mattered: "Men in Black" was quirky,
comic sci-fi aimed largely at young audiences who might have enjoyed it
just as much without the freakish exploding head. "Face/Off," on the
other hand, had a wildly over-the-top style from the start and kept its
bizarre elements very much in the service of its tricky story. And for
the record, the face-switching scene was rendered with
scientific-looking detachment and reasonably decent taste.=20
Undoubtedly today's films have good reasons for raising
the drug-bug-thug ante: they want to command the viewer's increasingly
overloaded attention, and sometimes they want to comment on the very
debauchery they describe. In "Boogie Nights," the porn movie scenes are
often played as deadpan comedy, but the druggy atmosphere has a real =
frightening intensity. The drug-induced madness of the disco years is
summoned spectacularly in the film's most wildly depraved scene, in
which the film's porn-star Candide finds himself terrified by a rich,
crazed, gun-waving loony (Albert Molina) who encapsulates the arrogance
and decadence of his day. The sequence is fierce and volatile in ways
that would make no sense without the character's drug high.=20
It's a tough episode to sit through, but surely the
seasoned movie veteran can watch anything -- almost. I have to admit
that "Alien Resurrection," one of the purported treats of the holiday
season, made me seasick in ways that no sinking-ship story could. Here
in the primeval ooze beloved by fans of the "Alien" franchise, there =
throbbing larvae and bursting bodies and face-hugging alien spawn. =
are foam and ooze and all sorts of dank, indeterminate drizzle, and
there are effects profoundly threatening to the sense of an ordered
universe, let alone a rot-free one. Today, this passes for intelligent
catharsis and hard-boiled, seriously interesting science fiction. But
there were days -- better days for a Hollywood that brought forth flop
after shocking flop in 1997 -- when it would have been only a bad dream