I am not the target audience for summer blockbusters. I see
movies erratically, and television hardly ever. But, like more than a few of
the abstinent, I binge in secret. It happens generally when I am alone and
depressed: in a Holiday Inn, after an out-of-town writing assignment, for
instance. I have brought a book, but I can’t read it; the coffee shop closed at
10 o’clock. The Medusa eye of the television stares at the foot of the bed, so
I grab the remote. Spinning through the channels-the ballet of storm systems, Leno
and Letterman, matchbox-size stock cars, yelling heads-makes me feel still more
remote. Descartes worried that the world we see might be an illusion created by
an omnipotent demon. Television sure could be. But then my attention gets
One of the most recent things to catch it was the last hour
of Armageddon , a recent summer
blockbuster, dead and gone to the little screen. An asteroid is hurtling
towards the earth-a big one. Some scientists think the dinosaurs died from a
prehistoric collision between Earth and an asteroid. If this one hits, the
dinosaurs will come back. So NASA puts Bruce Willis and a party of demolition
experts in a space shuttle and sends them up to the asteroid to blow it apart.
What did I find so compelling?
The MTV style . By this
I mean quick and relentless editing. No scene lasted more than a few seconds.
Asteroids have already hit the editing room of this blockbuster: All we see are
shreds and shards of film. Dialogue occurs in two-beat snatches, like haiku
minus their punch lines.
Scene 1 (something goes wrong):
Bruce Willis: “That’s O.K., we’re tough!”
Scene 2 (something may go wrong):
“This will be tough!”
Bruce Willis: “That’s O.K., we’re full of shit!”
Scene 3 (something is about to go wrong):
Bruce Willis: “I’m tough shit!”
Daughter (sobbing): “I’ve always loved you, Daddy!”
Many children with attention-deficit disorder, according to
the medical literature, are quite intelligent beneath their disability. Not
Stereotypes . With
the action cut into bits, it is impossible to characterize anyone except as
gross, pre-familiar types. The man who cracks under pressure: giggles and says
kind-of-funny things, glassy-eyed. The Russian: smart, crazy, unshaven. The
military: At one point, the President of the United States sends the Army into
NASA headquarters to take control of a nuclear weapon back from the scientists
who have appropriated it. Imagine-the President of the United States, elected
by the people, or at least the Supreme Court, thinking that he should control
the nuclear arsenal, rather than a clique of scientists! Leaving the Federalist Papers aside, when the Green
Berets (or SEAL’s or elite whoever) arrive, they come straight from central
casting. They’re white, they have jaws like Cadillac fenders, they move in the
quick-march trot of riot police, Nazis and all military heavies. Finally, the
Loyal Negro. Stereotype Negroes surround us: the Numinous Negro, vessel of
holiness; the Raping Negro, of the Willie Horton ad and the rap industry. But I
thought the Loyal Negro had done gone, but here he was in Armageddon : a member of the demolition team who, when Bruce Willis
must detonate himself along with the asteroid, murmurs in awe, “You da man!”
(this, unlike the lines above, is actual dialogue)-so Loyal a Negro is he.
Where is the Reverend Al when you need him?
Our friend, the
government : As the demolishers battle with the asteroid and each other,
down on Earth children play with model space shuttles. Your government at work,
protecting us all. It is the daydream of every clock puncher: I’m Civil
Service, and I save the world, and they love me for it!
The Family of Man :
As the demolishers battle with the asteroid and each other, the people of the
world, diverse but all simple in their diversity, wait in fear and trembling,
and finally in hope. Walker Evans yokels crowd their tornado cellars. Irish
peasants crowd their Irish-peasant churches (real Irishmen now are running
customer-service lines and getting divorces). An old rabbi in his shtetl and his payes explains the new miracle (there are no old rabbis left in shtetls ; didn’t the moviemakers see Schindler’s List ? The only ones left are
in Brooklyn and Rockland County). So different! So the same! So puke-making.
The Nazi moment :
It had to come, and it does. The asteroid is demolished (Bruce was da man), the
space shuttle returns, and the world’s heroes stride down the runway to their
families and lovers. Like, if you’d been on an asteroid, wouldn’t you be
quarantined for at least a month, until NASA made sure that, the planet having
been saved, every living thing on it wouldn’t be felled by some space germ? But
no-they come out, and they stride, and their stride is straight out of Triumph of the Will , maybe mediated by Star Wars . The Good Nazis have saved us,
so we worship them.
Clearly, I have lost control, a little bit. I gave an hour
of my life to this, and in wrath and shame I have lost control. That is bad,
because loss of control panders to despair, and despair is a sin. And
inaccurate besides, because the very same night, while spinning, I caught five
or six climactic minutes of the end of The
Untouchables , an even older blockbuster. A young Kevin Costner has just
realized that a certain thug has murdered his partner; there is a chase;
finally, Mr. Costner catches the thug on the roof of a building. The editing is
crisp, but not nuts; there is gunplay, but no surfeit of explosions. Finally,
the focus is on Mr. Costner’s eye, the symbol of his soul. When Mr. Costner
first spots the thug, he can easily shoot him and be done with him. But he
debates the matter; without hearing a word, we understand him to be thinking,
“That would be an eye for an eye; but that’s not the law I am upholding.” So he
arrests the thug instead. Then the thug tells him that his victim, Mr.
Costner’s friend, squealed like a pig as he died, at which point Mr. Costner
does kill him. Self-betrayal? An appropriate response (the thug had added
insult to injury)? What do you think?-because, even though you’ve been excited
and entertained, you are also thinking. When moviemakers remember that they and
their audiences are bodies, minds and souls with choices, fine work can ensue.