From The American Spectator.
October 31, 2003.
Writing in The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell takes the death of John Schlesinger, legendary director of Midnight Cowboy, as "a reminder that the adult-rated studio film also seems to have died." Nor is "adult-rated" just a euphemism to Mr Mitchell. He goes on to ask, "Is there a fear of dealing with grown-up sexuality in movies? Absolutely." But then he includes among his examples of "films that deal with adult sexuality" Y Tu Mamá También, a movie about two teenage boys whose wet-dream fantasy of sex with an older woman comes true.
It was just another indication, if another indication were needed, that we have grown so used to the the movies’ representation of teenage culture and teenage sensibilities that we could hardly recognize a genuinely adult picture in the unlikely event that one were ever presented for our inspection. But then Mr Mitchell may have thought that, because the woman was dying — a fact which, along with her husband’s unfaithfulness, was meant to account for her improbable willingness to run off with two teenage boys — and the boys ended up in bed with each other, the movie transcended its puerile origins.
Even if this were true, Y Tu Mama Tambien would still show how far the primary first-run audience of teenagers has to be taken into account by the movies no matter how putatively "adult" their themes if they are to broaden their audience enough to earn back the absurd sums of money it costs to make them. Either there are not enough adults in the first-run audience — most adults now wait to watch movies until they have come out on video or DVD — or in the age of what the New York Times, in another article, recently called "re-juveniles," there are just not enough real adults left in the world. Or both. In any event, if you look closely, you will generally find that any successful movie has learned the lesson of how you make movies that will appeal to 13-14 year-olds, whose dollar is most powerful in the movie-marketplace.
There are quite distinct strategies for boys and girls, though some movies are able to appeal to both. The difference is not only in subject matter — car chases, explosions, gunplay and fart and sex jokes versus romance and family dramas — but also in purpose. Boy-movies are made for showing off, mainly of special effects. Their aim is to make the audience say: "Cool! How did they do that?" Girl-movies, by contrast, are made for wish-fulfilment. Their aim is to make the audience say: "Sigh! I wish I were her." Inevitably it is Disney who pushes this concept as far as it can go in Freaky Friday — supposedly about a mother and daughter getting inside each other’s heads but really about the mom learning what it’s like to be the daughter so that she stops, mom-like, spoiling all her fun.
It may be just my imagination, but I think that this summer’s movies suggested that the deference paid by Hollywood’s premiere artistes to the conventions of girl-movies are beginning to creep even into such boy-movies as S.W.A.T. and Open Range. It’s true that there were several satisfying explosions and car chases in S.W.A.T. In one a limousine (with the good guys in it) chases down a Lear jet (with the bad guys in it) as it tries to take off on a bridge in Los Angeles. Cool! How did they do that? But the impression you take away from the film is really more of a girlish sigh and a wish to be as buff and as cool and as attractive as Colin Farrell, famed Hollywood "bad-boy," who plays the main character.
Or course a certain amount of this kind of wish-fulfilment goes into the portrayal of even the most he-man heroes, but it always used to be more subtle and sub-textual. A guy might want to be like Gary Cooper or John Wayne or Steve McQueen without wanting to be him. Wish fulfilment in boy-movies began to creep in with the super-hero flicks of a couple of decades back, though there it was usually leavened by irony. The movie was constantly reminding us that it was just a movie. Nowadays we can take this for granted, which is what makes Mr Farrell’s performance so seductive. More even than Indiana Jones, he’s a hero who’s all movie-hero, not so much a role model as a super-model who is always striking the right attitude but without any discernible heart or inner life of any kind.
There was also a decidedly feminine quality to Kevin Costner’s performance in Open Range. Ever since he has been a big enough star to approve a script, Mr Costner has opted to be a victim-hero, the kind of guy that women like to mother. In Open Range he took a leaf out of Clint Eastwood’s book (in Unforgiven) and made himself the victim of his own conscience. He was such an effective killer during the Civil War, it seems, that he has had to retreat to the open range and the life of a cowboy to forget the guilt he feels. Well, we all know what happens when an effective killer tries to forget about being a killer. It happened to Eastwood too, just as it happened to earlier heroes as different as Shane and Michael Corleone: he’s got to go back to killing one more time.
Yeah, well. We can’t believe in a hero anymore who kills with the moral insouciance of an Achilles or a Beowulf or a Roland — or even a Sergeant York or a Sergeant Stryker or a Marshall Will Kane. Even when the bad guy is as bad as Michael Gambon in Open Range, we expect our heroes to feel equally bad about gunning him down. Once again the emphasis is not on deeds, on the manly qualities of strength, courage or endurance, but on feelings, and the natural feminine sympathy [Dear Editor, Am I allowed to say this? JB] with the weaknesses of a strong man. The wish-fulfilment in such a film is not so much directed at the guys, who are meant to be content with some pretty nifty gun-play, as with the gals, who will share in the feelings of satisfaction experienced by Mr Costner’s love interest, Annette Bening, at having a psychically damaged man-with-a-past as the science project of her middle age.
I wonder why Miss Bening plays the part so well?
More straightforwardly feminist was the wish-fulfilment in The Secret Lives of Dentists, Alan Rudolph’s film in which Hope Davis gets to live every young girl’s dream of having a husband (Campbell Scott) who will respond to her having an extramarital affair by suppressing his unreconstructed masculine sense of sexual possession, conveniently personified in the movie by Denis Leary, and welcome her back by saying, "I don’t want to know. . ." Doubtless it takes a special kind of woman — the novella (The Age of Grief) on which the film was based was written by Jane Smiley, whose toxic feminism also spawned A Thousand Acres — to prefer cuckolding such a man to mothering a Costner-style damaged hero as in Open Range, but the element of wish fulfilment in both films is the same.
Because, as you may be able to tell, I disapprove of the girlish tendency towards wish-fulfilment in the movies, I nominate as not one but two Movies of the Month a pair that go against the fashionable Hollywood grain. Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen actually takes a young girl’s urge to emulate a sexually precocious seventh-grade classmate and shows it issuing not in the misty adolescent dream-world of Freaky Friday but in the nightmare of pain and squalor that pandering to teenage fantasies is much more likely to produce. Shane Meadows’s Once Upon a Time in the Midlands takes the old-fashioned boy-movie’s rite of passage — an account of the test of courage that it takes to be a man — and gives it a new and unexpected lease of life, treating Rhys Ifans’s test of manhood with respect as well as (inevitably) a good deal of fun.
There are no ironic super-heroes or cool, SWAT team members who resemble male-models here, any more than there are impossibly beautiful and popular and successful girls in Thirteen. Instead, pretty much everybody in both movies is deliberately uncool. Nor is either of them a great movie, and Thirteen is at times difficult to watch. But they are both, at least, genuinely adult movies and, as Mr Mitchell notes, that’s not something you very often see anymore.