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The Arts

Amusing Ourselves to Death

By Ian Grey | Posted 9/26/2001

Even a week after the horror of Sept. 11, nothing seemed more irrelevant than seeing a movie, to say nothing of writing about one. Such trivial pursuits seemed an effrontery to the still-fresh memory of the dead. And I was still anxious over my shattered delusions of a privileged security reserved for no other nation, and the revocation of my seeming God-given right as a post-'90s American to ignore the rest of the world. But it was time to get back to normal life, or some facsimile of it, even if life could now be abruptly truncated by conventional, chemical, biological, or nuclear attacks. So I popped a copy of the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski into the VCR.

The Big Lebowski is mainly about the friendship between an unreconstituted hippie (Jeff Bridges), an Orthodox Jewish 'Nam vet (John Goodman), and a kindly everyschnook (Steve Buscemi, an ex-New York firefighter recently seen helping out at Ground Zero). For 117 minutes, this ass-backward, egalitarian comedic valentine to, and critique of, the assumed basic goodness and generosity of the American spirit made me forget all these incomprehensibly horrific things I could do nothing about.

But movies are never "just" movies. Even weirdies that play at the Charles Theatre have to be seen by millions to turn a profit. When you watch a movie, you're also watching a film company's high-risk interpretation of what it hopes are parts of the collective dreams and nightmares of an awful lot of customers. And so the movies are not just entertainment; they're us.

It's no less true for being a cliché that the '90s found us as complacent, politically uninterested, pathologically ironic, and all-around blasé consumers fat on the not-very-evenly shared fruits of the now deceased boom economy. Perhaps it's no great shock that, in this context, Lebowski tanked at the box office.

At the time of the attacks, millions of us were watching The Princess Diaries, an inept ode to the superiority of upper-class whites, and Rock Star, with its operative assumption that life as a regular American is so worthless that it can only be redeemed by the insipid title occupation. Planet of the Apes took the political de-contextualization of the Non-Specifically Foreign Bad Guy, started in the jingoistic actioners of the '80s, to its ultimate extreme. Here, simian bad guys threaten a curiously unheroic Mark Wahlberg with deadly trampoline jumps on a distant planet in a time far, far away. The Musketeer doesn't even bother to limn much difference between its moronic good guys and anonymous bad guys amid lots of computer enhanced, Hong Kong-style martial arts.

Such diversions are costly. In order to assure a boffo opening weekend, movies must appeal to a Hollywood studio exec's notion of our lowest common denominator. Fortunately for Hollywood, spectacle is safely apolitical (or so it seemed), and our appetite for such fare is bottomless. But as mainstream American film has chased after debuting-at-No.-1 perfection, it has become largely irrelevant to any notion of human, social, or political life. Its market-driven denial of anything beyond our national obsessions is also eerily in sync with President Bush's pre-attack policies of global indifference to anything beyond our boundaries. In our movies, which are the United States' biggest export behind military hardware, the rest of the world has become little more than a colorful backdrop, its assorted troubles vague, overly complex, and comfortably distant.

We are ultimately complicit in the success and continuing escalation of this sort of cinema, a cinema of separation and discontinuity. Just as we elected this president--if only by not roundly protesting the mere idea of an appointed leader in a democracy--we buy the tickets. If the movies are indeed a reflection of us, then you can't blame the dealers for the drug we crave. But perhaps this is, in 12-step speak, our moment of clarity.

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