Film: Slim and Shady

The screens are alive with the sound of sequels: Die Another Day, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, The Two Towers, Star Trek: Nemesis, Analyze That, Friday After Next, The Santa Clause 2, Rocky VII. (OK, I made that last one up, but you believed me for a moment, didn’t you?) And yes, it’s a trend—Hollywood is said to have released more sequels in the winter of 2002 than at any other time in recent memory.

In one of those unintentionally revealing locutions with which American pop culture abounds, a hit movie that spawns a series of successful sequels is known in the trade as a “franchise,” just like Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell. Indeed, the objectives of both enterprises are for all intents and purposes identical: to make each “new” product taste the same as its predecessor, thus allowing the cautious consumer to buy without risk. Nobody eats a Burrito Supreme or goes to a James Bond movie expect­ing to be surprised. Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile is a different sort of “franchise,” one that pretends to be an independently owned restaurant. Alas, it serves exactly the same chicken as the chains: only the gravy has been changed to fool the gullible.

Nothing is quite so embarrassing as the spectacle of middle-aged journal­ists falling all over themselves trying to look hip. 8 Mile, the story of Rabbit (Eminem), a lily-white Detroit rapper who seeks to make it in the aggressive world of black hip-hop, has been praised to the skies by critics who hear the pop-culture train passing them by and long to jump on the caboose. In their desperation, they seem not to have noticed that Scott Silver’s screen­play is nothing more than the gazil­lionth iteration of the old, old story of the plucky young “artist” from the wrong side of the tracks who Makes It Big without compromising his Gritty Authenticity. Believe me, you’ve seen this movie a dozen times, if not more. Remember Flash dance? And Strictly Ballroom (where the clichés are played for laughs)? The only difference is that this time, every fourth word in the script starts with “f.”

While we’re at it, let’s dispose of the equally preposterous notion that Eminem, star of 8 Mile, is an actor in the making. Like most pop singers (though not all, as Madonna has proved time and again), he can get through an undemanding role without falling on his face, but what he does in front of the camera has as much to do with acting as the nightly activities of TV anchormen have to do with jour­nalism. His face is a mask of unintelli­gent indifference, his voice flat and dull except when he’s on stage rapping. He is, in short, playing himself, and you can only do that part once.

To the extent that 8 Mile works, it’s because Curtis Hanson, whose previ­ous films include the neo-noir L.A. Confidential, has directed his other­wise excellent cast with tremendous energy, situating them in a blighted, rust-caked Detroit that looks horrifically plausible, right down to the squalid trailer park that is the home of Eminem and his white-trash mother (Kim Basinger, who’s about as believ­able here as Halle Berry was in Mon­ster’s Ball). As is so often the case with

Hollywood films, the surface of 8 Mile—the look of the locations, the sound of the dialogue—is so convinc­ing that you can be fooled for minutes at a time into thinking that you’re watching a good movie.

Would that it were so, but the truth is that 8 Mile is reminiscent of nothing so much as a big-budget version of the early Elvis Presley films that made some pretense of showing Presley as he more or less was, a kind of musical idiot savant who stumbled into super-stardom almost by accident. Times have changed, and so 8 Mile contains a spectacularly gratuitous sex scene of the sort that would have given Eisenhower-era viewers heart attacks, but otherwise there’s nothing in it—well, almost nothing—that would have been out of place in Loving You, Jailhouse Rock, or King Creole.

I add the qualifier because 8 Mile does something that none of Presley’s movies did: It plays the race card. Eminem is, of course, white and is thus regarded by many blacks as an inter­loper whose commercial success (like that of Elvis before him) merely proves that America is a racist society. One of the not-so-implicit purposes of 8 Mile is to defuse this criticism by portraying him as a white man who has immersed himself fully and respectfully in black working-class culture. Most of his friends are black, and the film’s climax is an inner-city rap contest in which Eminem contrasts his trailer-trash background with that of the reigning champion, a middle-class black who turns out to have gone to an arty pri­vate high school.

Naturally, the all-black crowd cheers Eminem as one of its own, a denouement that made me laugh out loud, given the fact that Eminem’s real-life audience, as is well known, consists primarily of suburban white teenagers. Their embrace of hip-hop is the latest example of a peculiar cul­tural phenomenon that has been with us ever since the 1920s. A few days before I saw 8 Mile, I happened to read The Land Where the Blues Began, a memoir by Alan Lomax, the white musicologist who spent a half-century touring the Deep South making field recordings of black blues singers. To be sure, Lomax really did love the blues, but there was more to it than that, as he acknowledged in his book:

I strolled along, wrapped in my envelope of Anglo-Saxon shyness and superiority. We had grabbed off everything, I thought, we owned it all—money, land, factories, shiny cars, nice houses—yet these people, confined to their shacks and their slums, really possessed America; they alone, of the pioneers who cleared the land, had learned how to enjoy them­selves in this big, lonesome continent; they were the only full-blown Americans.

Rarely has white liberal middle-class guilt been summed up so neatly. One doubts it occurred for a moment to Lomax (who was, not surprisingly, a Communist fellow traveler) that his self-flagellating praise of working-class black life was at bottom every bit as condescending as the happy-darkies stereotypes he held in such deserved contempt. To be sure, Eminem, unlike Lomax, has bonafide working-class roots—he’s something like what he claims to be but one may similarly take leave to doubt that very many of the people who are lining up to see 8 Mile, much less those who have gushed about it in print, have ever been within ten miles of a trailer park, much less lived in one.

Art need not be real to be emotion­ally convincing, and if you want to see a very good movie that’s as unreal as 8 Mile, take a look at Sandra Nettelbeck’s Mostly Martha. It’s a small-scale romantic comedy from Germany about an obsessive-compulsive chef (Martina Gedeck, who is exquisitely good) and the uninhibited Italian sous-chef (Ser­gio Castellito) who invades her orderly kitchen and shakes up her too-careful life. Talk about ethnic clichés! But the off-the-rack plot is played out with such unforced sweetness and charm that you come away feeling as though you’d just read a really good book—or eaten a really good dinner.

Needless to say, both movies are fantasies, but Mostly Martha was made by and for disillusioned but hopeful adults, whereas 8 Mile is pitched at naive teenagers who are merely playing at cynicism. That it has received such fawning praise says something worthy of note about the sort of people who review movies today.

  • Terry Teachout

    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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