Film: Whatever Is, Is Right

How do we know that we live in postmodern times? Were he alive and sane, Friedrich Nietzsche, the prophet of modernity, would no doubt tell us to be on the lookout for signs and portents of what he called “the transvaluation of all values,” the great ethical inversion that he expected to occur when modern men freed themselves at last from the ancient yoke of faith. Hollywood is particularly fertile ground for those seeking evidence of such a sea change, since a key function of popular movies is to reassure uneasy Americans that they need not listen to their consciences anymore. So the president of the United States is an avowed adulterer? It doesn’t matter—everybody does it. So the divorce rate is sky-high? Not to worry—single mothers are just as good as married ones, if not better, aside from which they have more fun in bed. (The makers of Dance With Me, for instance, went out of their way to portray Vanessa L. Williams, who snags the sexy Chayanne, as a single mother.)

This is not to say that all movies are immoral, or even amoral. Indeed, it stands to reason that in the wake of the transvaluation of all values, there may even be an inverse relationship between the ostensible “seriousness” of a film and the extent to which it espouses traditional moral beliefs. You can say anything in the movies or on TV, so long as you smile when you say it. (Bill Clinton’s toughest critic is Jay Leno.) But if you want to make a Big Statement, it had better be a safe one, or you’ll end up in script-development hell, the only kind of hell whose existence Hollywood acknowledges.

Saving Private Ryan is nothing if not big: It was directed by Steven Spielberg, the emperor of portentousness, and is nearly three hours long, meaning that it must be serious. Therein lies the catch. In New York and Hollywood, war is bad and valor worse, but the less sophisticated folk back home can’t seem to shake off the quaint notion that it is sweet and proper to die for one’s country. How, then, to make a big-budget combat movie without offending your thoroughly postmodern peers? Nothing could be easier: Simply invert the values of the combat movies of the ’40s and ’50s. Make the bloodshed sickeningly graphic, scissor out the moralizing, and replace John Wayne with Tom Hanks, and the critics will fall all over themselves to congratulate you for showing the naked face of war.

Too many veterans have praised the authenticity of Saving Private Ryan for it to be casually dismissed as an exercise in political correctness, and there is certainly something to be said for a film that tells the unvarnished truth about the ghastly brutality of modern war, though the battle scenes are so explicit that the viewer quickly becomes numbed by the mounting carnage. (The worst horrors of all are the ones you can’t see.) But take away the severed limbs and special effects, and what’s left? A solid performance by Hanks, a screenful of off-the-rack stock characterizations, a tear-jerking mock-Copland score by John Williams, and a script so shamelessly manipulative as to make Sands of Iwo Jima look like Grand Illusion. The only thing missing, in fact, is the now-unfashionable moral certainty that lent a much-needed touch of gravity to those old-fashioned tales of derring-do that Spielberg apparently holds in unearned contempt. At least John Wayne knew why he was pretending to fight.

Small movies can also aspire to pseudo-seriousness. Take The Opposite of Sex, the summer movie most admired by upscale critics, some of whom actually described it as daring, a very bad sign indeed. To be sure, the film starts out nicely, with Christina Ricci playing a sociopathic teenager who gleefully wreaks havoc in the lives of a group of people, most of them gay, who are variously obsessed with sex. This is a promising subject—we could use a black comedy about the violently disruptive power of unrestrained sexuality—and Lisa Kudrow, the ditsy blonde from Friends, is superlatively good as a frigid spinster who falls in love with the irresistibly ugly Lyle Lovett. (Don’t be fooled by Kudrow’s dumb-blonde image: She’s a real actress.) But to treat such matters satirically is to run afoul of the prevailing cultural assumption that sex is good and more sex better. Something has to give, in this case the integrity of Don Roos’s “daring” screenplay: Ricci turns out not to be sociopathic but merely confused, and everybody ends up living happily ever after.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight, though it makes no pretentions to being anything but a eel-slick shoot-’em-up, nonetheless contrives to confront its characters with a passably interesting moral dilemma. The plot is well short of plausible: George Clooney is an escaped con on the run who gets romantically entangled with Jennifer Lopez, an FBI agent who is assigned to hunt him down. Never were two prettier people cast in two less likely parts. But the chemistry is right, the dialogue (by Scott Frank out of Elmore Leonard) bacon-crisp, the direction stylish, and the supporting cast exemplary (the marvelous Dennis Farina is used much more effectively here than in Saving Private Ryan), and you get to spend the last twenty minutes trying to figure out whether Clooney will do the right thing, and whether Lopez will shoot him if he does.

The point, of course, is that there is a right thing for Clooney to do, and that he—and we—know what it is. In the age of postmodernism, such clarity is only possible within the stylized context of a wisecrack-encrusted genre movie, preferably one in which the good guy is a bad guy, or at best a regular guy. The reason why Tom Hanks can get away with being a hero in Saving Private Ryan, for example, is that he is a schoolteacher, not a Regular Army captain, and that the war in which he serves is World War II, not Korea or Vietnam. If it’s actual gallantry you want, you have to turn the clock back another century or two.

Which brings us to The Mask of Zorro, a hugely entertaining movie whose heroes, believe it or not, are both good and gallant. Naturally, it’s a costume drama set in a foreign country, complete with elegant swordplay, hard-charging horses, a venal villain, and a bosomy damsel in distress, all of which are meant to signal that any resemblance between the values expressed in the screenplay and the ones adhered to in present-day America is purely coincidental. For The Mask of Zorro is—to borrow from the current critical argot—transgressive in the extreme. Anthony Hopkins is … an aristocrat who fights for the people! Antonio Banderas is . . . a common thief who achieves greatness by adopting Hopkins’s rigorous code of honor! It goes without saying that we are meant to snicker knowingly at all this swashbuckling nonsense, but I didn’t hear anybody laughing in the wrong places when I saw The Mask of Zorro at my neighborhood theater: They were too busy cheering. It occurred to me that these were the same people who affect not to care what President Clinton did to Monica Lewinsky in the Oval Office, yet they most definitely cared when Anthony Hopkins rescued three innocent men who were about to be shot by a firing squad. Perhaps that’s the difference between having a lawyer and an actor in the White House.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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