Two weeks after 9/11, in perhaps the finest and bravest act any American media institution undertook before Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondents Dinner roast, the Onion ran a story with the headline, "American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie."
They got that right.
One of the many things besides irony that faded in the few days after the attacks was a sense that assembly-line, ham-fisted, institutional movie violence of the kind so ably demonstrated by Bruckheimer's entire oeuvre was now behind us. A new era of a truly United States was ahead, and after the inevitable capture of Osama bin Laden, a new City on the Hill would rise, along with that magnificent Freedom Tower.
Well, as John Cusack says in "2012," ripping off Woody Allen in "Annie Hall," welcome back to Planet Earth.
This week marks the release of the above-mentioned blockbuster from that Auteur of Dumb, Roland Emmerich, a director who makes Irwin Allen seem like Michael Haneke, the man who puts the "nothing" in sound and fury signification. The most offensive thing about "2012" isn't that it is stupid, or about an hour too long, or full of bad science and worse dialog.
No, the truly offensive thing about "2012" is that it is impervious to my scorn, amassing such a critical mass of stupid that it is beyond anyone's ability to mock it. Stopping the tsunami of dumb of "2012" just can't be done, any more than stopping the apocalyptic events it delightedly depicts. And really, why bother to try? The entire thing is trailer for itself, with no actual movie attached. One thing I will say, "2012" has the courage of its lack of convictions. Any time the film was faced with making the drama human, or blowing up something iconic, the choice was made.
Like some sort of spiritual Novocaine, "2012" numbs your face, and after the third "plane takes off as runway crumbles" scene, you actually find yourself wishing a nerve, somewhere, might inadvertently get hit.
One can imagine the story meetings for this idiocy. As in Daffy Duck's frenzied story pitch in the 1950 classic "The Scarlet Pumpernickel," absurd climax follows absurd climax, only lacking Daffy's cavalry charge and the $1,000 piece of kreplach. Perhaps that moment can be found in the DVD's extended scenes menu. I do know that like Daffy at the end of "Pumpernickel," after watching "2012," I too wanted to blow my brains out.
Now, there are some good things about this bloated epic. A friend of mine adept in CGI assures me that the effects are absolutely state of the art. Not only do the L.A. skyscrapers crumble, but you also see ant-sized people at their desks, falling to their deaths. Hmm, where have I seen that image before?
But to rage against the soulless machine that created, marketed and distributed this film is as much a waste of time, mine and yours, as sitting through this epic, so let's move on to a film that is all about those ants, "Miracle Mile."
Released in 1989, and starring a shockingly young Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, "Miracle Mile" (the only movie ever made by writer-director Steve De Jarnatt) takes place during the countdown to doomsday, this time, a self-induced nuclear war. The movie starts with a meet-cute in Los Angeles' iconic Page Museum overlooking the La Brea Tar Pits, and the film and its protagonists never leave the 'hood. While waiting around at the still-extant Johnnie's Restaurant for a late night date with Winningham, Edwards intercepts a call at an outside phone booth. The voice at the other end hails from a North Dakota missile silo, and briefly confusing Edwards for his father, the terrified caller tells him that the war has begun. The missiles are incoming, and will obliterate Los Angeles and everything else in just an hour and 10 minutes.
The entire movie revolves around one simple question.
The rest of "Miracle Mile" is set in real time, and we watch the tremendously likable Edwards as he tries to connect with the new love of his life, and, in a parallel plot development to "2012," just get the hell out of town. Or get anywhere rather than the world they are about to inhabit.
This ticking clock begins as Edwards tries to rally the late-night shift at the diner, where it seems "Eggs-O-Stential" must be on the menu, for dialogue, performance and archetypes are all a tad on the overwrought side. But, hey, the world's ending in a little over an hour, so all is forgiven. And as that hour progresses, the viewer forgives an awful lot -- even the '80s outfits and haircuts. Some of the plot beats in "Miracle Mile" are not very much more logical than those in "2012," but the shadow that falls on the characters in the first few minutes covers up those trespasses.
What "Miracle Mile" has that "2012" so disastrously lacks is a focus on the perspective of its characters. It is all about a reality transformed by the unthinkable. If the budget had been any bigger, it would not have been nearly so good, or nearly so haunting. The desperate quest as Edwards tries to escape his fate is reminiscent of Griffin Dunne's hallucinatory lower Manhattan imprisonment in another bit of '80s marginalia, Martin Scorsese's "After Hours."
But this time, the stakes are as high as they can possibly be.
The Age of Reagan inspired two other "Armageddon Out of Here" films, "The Day After" and "Testament," and while there is nothing in "Miracle Mile" that approaches the desperation and pathos of Jane Alexander's brilliant "Testament" performance, "Miracle Mile" still resonates. Watching it after its elephantine doppelganger is akin to sipping a glass of ice cold water after a bracing draught from those La Brea tar pits. There are a few times when "Miracle Mile" resembles the effects sequences from "2012" as essayed by the Max Fischer Players in "Rushmore," but, unlike in "2012," these sequences are not the entire point. Overshadowing everything is that damn, pulsing, insanely compelling concept.
What would you do if you knew you had a little over an hour to live?
"Miracle Mile" builds to an unexpected and absolutely wrenching climax, and stays in your head like some kind of brainpan hologram, while the well rendered pixels of "2012" fade from memory within 10 seconds of the beginning of the end. Not the end of humanity -- the end of its own credit roll.
The sad thing about "2012" isn't that it is so bad, it is that it actually could have been so much better if only the filmmaker exhibited any spark of soul, of humanity.
But, maybe -- well, definitely -- this is beside the point.
"Only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow men for two hours in the dark," Frank Capra once wrote, "and only the artistically incorrupt will earn and keep the people's trust."
Emmerich's incredibly successful and critic-impermeable career invalidates the second part of that observation, but that is not his problem.
It is ours.
Now, if the preceding doesn't exactly inspire you to run out and rent "2012," there is another release this week that might restore your general faith in humanity. And that would be "Ponyo," yet another masterpiece from Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. And the fact that I can be so blasé about tossing around the "M" word should in no way suggest that I take Miyazaki for granted.
His artistic existence, incorrupt and otherwise, soothes the soul.
I can't wait to see what the Master has in store for us, in say, 2012.