Hollywood maggots eat dead ideas

If you have any love for the infinite possibilities of film, you can't avoid being horrified by what the movie industry has become.

Published February 3, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The face of human drama in American film over the last 60 years has gotten softer, fatter and deliberately more stupid. Perhaps it's for the sake of that enormous, wealthy cross-section of subnormal-I.Q. people in Peoria to whom everyone is supposed to play. Or maybe it's for some strange, hope-assassinating political reason that only the most tenacious conspiracy theorist could unwind.

The original trailer for the movie "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) announces the following promise in a billowing, heraldic font: "Through the years great motion pictures have been made ... but now Samuel Goldwyn presents ... the best thing that ever happened! ... his masterful production of the love story of today ... that will live with you through all your tomorrows!"

And you think: "Oh, what delicious hype they had back in the Madison Avenue of the '50s, when a vacuum cleaner could elevate you socially, the better hair spray could land you the right husband and doctors recommended cigarettes to clear your 'T-Zone' and 'healthful bacon.'" However, incredibly, like a bloody ray of truth on a blinding field of white lies, the movie stands out and delivers what it so overconfidently advertises.

"Best Years" is actually an incredibly moving film that elevates the whole movie medium into a rapturous zone of artistic and cultural human importance that seems laughably impossible today, given how inured we are to the usual emotionally retarded and insultingly weak Hollywood jerk-off spew.

The movie follows three soldiers home from World War II to their small American town and chronicles their troubles readjusting to life in ways wrought with excruciating everyday realness. They have to jump through many flaming hoops; they've fought for their country and have been heroes and officers, but they can't get a bank loan. Their hardened war-man machismo has impaired their ability to communicate with their wives; they drink too much and their jobs have changed, rendering their prewar skills obsolete.

One of the returning men is a sailor who lost his hands in an explosion and has to reacquaint himself with his "gurl," Wilma, with two mechanical hooks on his arm stumps. You'd think this was some maudlin, venally devised tear-jerker on par with Reader's Digest's raping of Christopher Reeve's spinal injury for purposes of prurient "inspiration," but nooo. This guy, Harold Russell (who plays Homer Parrish), this handless actor who really did lose his hands in the war, has such a beautiful, good-natured face that you never feel sorry for him when he is playing a hook-pounding version of "Chopsticks" on the bar piano with Hoagy Carmichael. But when he shows Wilma how helpless he feels every night when he goes through the sad process of being unable to button his own pajamas, you cry your guts out or you just aren't human.

The real fucking ring-a-ding of the whole situation, though, is this: "The Best Years of Our Lives" is an Academy Award-winning "masterpiece." Why, then, if Hollywood succeeded so beautifully with this movie, did the studio system systematically kill all of the elements that made it emotionally gripping and bar them from all subsequent screenplays, instead of making it the template upon which all other dramatic films would be based?

If it is possible to laugh and cry in the first 10 minutes of a film, and laugh and cry again and again throughout the film, why take the only moving kernel of the whole story and move it to the very end, and make the whole audience wade through predictable, lite, whipped artificial puppy squeeze and C-level "comedic" particle-board dialogue-by-committee until the one "real," "powerful" emotionally rewarding moment at the end?

This is now considered the "buildup." In format-land, you need a "buildup" if you want a "climax." If there are "climaxes" all over the movie, then there must not be enough "buildup," and God be with your screenplay, because it sure as fuck will never see the light of day, let alone the additive light of the big screen. "Best Years" was made in 1946, right when all these events were happening. The boys really were coming home and dealing with all these hard things, and audiences were truly astounded and changed by the movie, and the soldiers who identified with it were probably, in some way, healed by it -- like the 'Nam veterans who held each other's hands through "Platoon" in support groups when it came out.

Today, as a rule in Hollywood screenplay writing, you can't have a movie that is set deliberately in what is considered the "present," because production studios will think it does not have a long enough shelf life. Identify not with the pathos and sweet, average-Joe redemption of today -- here's Bruce Willis! sayeth the studio-heads, pushing the cows around the circle the way they want to lean, toward the skull-puncture machines.

Real life and its ups and downs is not the kind of thing people want to see on film, according to the Hollywood powers that be. Life, in the greedy and cynical brain of Hollywood, is thought of as too distasteful, too "real," too much like life, which is, according to this theory, a lousy roll in the gravel pit of humiliation with evil people pissing all over your jacket until you're dead, with no rhyme, poetry or reason whatsoever, and who (apart from Sam Peckinpah and all those other drunk, sociopathic auteurs from the 1960s and '70s) wants to see a movie about that?

So, instead of morally dignifying the human condition through film, movies now seek primarily to kick life under the rug in favor of stuffing audiences into the saccharin fantasy closets of "You've Got Mail" or the abject moron-aggrandizement pit of "Dumb & Dumber." Here, Peoria. Go masturbate on this plush, velour "Little Mermaid" and we'll give you a nice flamethrower.

Writers like me are forever lamenting and complaining about the fact that the dumb, ugly, violent and sexually backwards material always sells like gangbusters, and always will. There are no true Princes of Light anymore in Hollywood, no Frank Capra heroes who realize that nothing resonates without a good moral backbone, no dignity in the Everyman, unless he's Tom Hanks.

Rare "quality," in a Hollywood context, is limited to whatever fringe didn't get burned off your spangled leotard when you jumped through the thousand flaming hoops. You see a scrap of it every now and then, and you think, "How the fuck did this film even get made? It's so good." And the reason for all the bitching and moaning by writers like me is that a really good movie is still an utterly magical, transforming experience of entertainment. When it's done right, it does become a part of your life. It can "Live with you through all your tomorrows."

If you have any love for the infinite possibilities of film at all, you can't stop whining about what the industry has become: a sweaty, banal tool for Evil instead of a mouthpiece for the propaganda of intelligence, soulfulness, higher cultural and human leanings.

But there are occasional blasts of hope, and for this we can thank filmmakers like Mike Leigh. "Topsy-Turvy," Leigh's new period piece about the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado," is absolutely great. This new offering does everything a film can do -- there are numerous real human drama parts strung together instead of only one climactic drama part that the whole rest of the movie tediously trudges up to, then ejaculates. The fabric of the uh, "plot" (Mike, he doesn't really do plots) is all of the backstage disasters that precede a theatrical production: the usual ups and downs, the ego wars, the arguments and illnesses and ultimately -- the nuts and bolts of real human sorcery -- the overcoming of obstacles. It's a miracle that any theater production ever wobbles up onto its hind legs at all. Here is life, sayeth Mike Leigh, in a way nearly everyone else has been too mercenarily chickenshit to do since "The Best Years of Our Lives."

Without trying to sound melodramatically rhapsodic, I wept when the little pink-powdered geisha girls sang "Three Little Maids From School," because it was such a capsule of true delight, and so fragile in its tiny painted world, so close to never having happened, due to the usual ceaseless bunch of production throwbacks. But the point Leigh makes is that it did happen; "The Mikado" was a big, fat, delirious cherry blossom of a thing, and the joy was hard-earned, like any real joy is or it is meaningless. And that's the way it ought to be, ladies and gentlemen.

Fuck this lightweight "Runaway Bride" shit. People ought to feel difficult, excruciating things. What is the point of Life, after all, if it is all so easy? The little haven, the painted eggshell world of the theater has become the enormous Disney superstructure of L.A., and all the innocence has been skull-fucked away by fat, cynical guys. Yet every now and then, a beautiful, bright child will be born among orangutans and learn to speak; a diamond will be retrieved from the ass of the dead dog.

It gets harder every day, due to the directional undertow of Peorian paychecks, but Mike Leigh shows that though it has always been difficult, a good thing can still happen, occasionally.

By Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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