Bubble Gum for the Brain: A Night at the Hotel Box Office

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

caught.

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):

“Shit!”

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

moviemakers.

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.

Still.