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the '90s, part four:
a new golden age?

11.21.99

"Compared to the '80s, the '90s are gonna make the '60s look like the '50s."
-- Dennis Hopper, FLASHBACK

Last week, I rattled off an exhaustive (and probably exhausting) list of fine filmmakers who've emerged between January 1, 1990 and 2:00pm last Tuesday. Add in the many filmmakers who got their start before 1990, contributed some of the great films of the decade, and are still in there pitching -- Scorsese, Stone, the Coens, Spike, Spielberg, Gilliam, on and on -- and you may be excused for thinking we might actually be living in another golden age of cinema. Don't let the millennial naysayers get you down: It's been a kick-ass decade.

Are there a greater number of stupid films? Yes (because there are a greater number of films, period). Should there be a larger percentage of smarter films? Yes (or at least a smaller percentage of idiotic films). Can any '90s film stack up to CITIZEN KANE? Let's let the pundits of 2050 decide that, okay? Point is, you can slam any decade -- yes, even the hallowed '40s -- by focusing solely on the ARMAGEDDONs or THREE TO TANGOs of the era. What people who romanticize the '40s (usually people who first started seeing movies back then) overlook is that there were plenty of dumb-ass movies then, too. More recently, the period between, say, 1967 and 1977 has been sanctified, as if cinema began with BONNIE AND CLYDE and ended with the corruptive Force of STAR WARS.

But cinema survived STAR WARS. Look at this year -- a year that, yes, made Lucas hundreds of millions of dollars richer with PHANTOM MENACE, but has also made sturdy sellers out of AMERICAN BEAUTY and BEING JOHN MALKOVICH; a year that had room for THE SIXTH SENSE and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT -- okay, so I didn't like the latter, but part of me is still happy that two shnooks from East Nosewipe gave Lucas a run for his money this summer. [NOTE: The bulk of this column was written before I received the new Entertainment Weekly with the cover story on "1999: The Year That Changed Movies," about which more later. It pisses me off that magazines keep stealing my thunder -- I have all these '90s columns planned out through the remainder of the year, and invariably some magazine writer goes into the portal of my head, sees what topic I'm doing this week, and copies it. Damn. In the name of God, this portal must be sealed!]

And guess what? There hasn't been one apocaflick this year. Not one. No end-of-the-world disaster blockbuster like ARMAGEDDON (I think that trend has passed, thank God -- I don't really count END OF DAYS because that's more of a supernatural thriller). The closest thing we've gotten is LAST NIGHT, a bleak Canadian drama. There was no shortage of lame movies last summer, but there weren't many aggressively stupid ones. THE HAUNTING, yes, I'll grant you that one. WILD WILD WEST, fuck yes. There may have been others I've forgotten, but the point is, I've forgotten them, and so has everyone else -- they weren't hits. With the exceptions of PHANTOM MENACE and potentially POKEMON -- heavily driven by repeat kid business -- there haven't been any obscenely successful movies this year that you looked at and said "Fuck, go away already, you suck."

The audience is starving for something new. Action is out. Teen movies are on the way out. Slasher movies are so out. (Is anyone seriously interested in SCREAM 3? I would guess 99.9% of us are in the "I'll probably go see it just to see it" camp; nobody really has a hard-on for it except the webmasters of SCREAM fan sites.) Whatever's in is only in for a season. THE SIXTH SENSE may turn out to be a non-recurring phenomenon: STIGMATA opened strongly but faded fast, and STIR OF ECHOES didn't do it either. I don't feel much anticipation in the air over END OF DAYS, and LOST SOULS got bumped to next year. (So did SCREAM 3. They both got nudged to February.)

Point is, as always, you can't count on any formula to deliver asses in seats. What you can count on is the idiosyncratic movie that no studio wanted, that gave the audience what it didn't know it had been wanting -- a PULP FICTION, a FORREST GUMP, a TITANIC, a SIXTH SENSE, a BABE, a SCREAM. None of these movies were guaranteed hits. (TITANIC could just as easily have been a colossal flop, don't forget. Nothing but negative buzz. Over schedule, over budget, over three hours long; sad ending, cheesy dialogue, mixed reviews. Biggest hit in history.) None of them were copies of recent hits. They were their own thing. Sui generis. That's why all the movies that have tried to duplicate PULP FICTION, to recapture that FORREST GUMP feeling, or to copy SCREAM have generally gone down in flames. GUMP, yes; SIMON BIRCH, no. PULP, green light; GO, red light. SCREAM, yep; URBAN LEGEND, nope.

And we've probably seen more sui generis hits in the '90s than in any other period since the halcyon days of the '70s. The '90s have not been a warm and welcoming decade for movies that try to give us the same shit twice. Sequels, for instance, were much more readily accepted in the '80s than they have been this decade. The change in attitude was signalled by ROCKY V and GODFATHER III -- both surefire sequels, you'd think. Both released in 1990. Both disappointments at the box office.

And it's been a rare sequel in the '90s that's equalled or surpassed the grosses of its predecessor. THE LOST WORLD, for instance, opened huge but, when all was said and done, failed to surpass JURASSIC PARK. Same with SCREAM 2 or any of the three BATMAN sequels, especially the last one. Other sequels to 1990s megahits, like the follow-ups (two each) to HOME ALONE, FREE WILLY, and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, didn't come near the grosses of their predecessors (an encouraging pattern -- this means we'll only get two more POKEMON movies before that craze flames out). Even the brilliantly charming BABE sequel sank without a trace. Who wants to bet that 102 DALMATIANS will suffer the same fate? (There have been only three major exceptions to the '90s sequel rule: 1991's TERMINATOR 2, 1999's AUSTIN POWERS: THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME, and of course PHANTOM MENACE. None of them really gave you anything new, either, except bigger budgets and, in two of the cases, better FX. We'll see whether TOY STORY 2 joins this roster.)

In a way, unofficial sequels are the new thing. If they'd tried to do PRETTY WOMAN 2, it would've tanked; but as RUNAWAY BRIDE -- same stars, same director, different story -- it cleaned up. A case could be made for SIXTH SENSE as the unofficial sequel (and a far superior one) to the never-sequelized GHOST. One could as well say that SE7EN and SILENCE OF THE LAMBS make a good matching set. (Consider the lukewarm grosses for the aptly named COPYCAT, released shortly after SE7EN, to its detriment.) U.S. MARSHALS disappointed at the box office; the real sequel to THE FUGITIVE, in theme if not in quality, turned out to be DOUBLE JEOPARDY (coincidentally also starring Tommy Lee Jones). Winston Groom tried and failed to sequelize his most famous creation in a novel a few years back, GUMP & CO. (you can probably find it in the remainder bin at Barnes and Noble), but Robert Zemeckis, the director who brought Gump to the screen, has made not one but two possible unofficial sequels to FORREST GUMP: 1997's CONTACT, a similarly sweeping American drama with a comparably idealistic protagonist, and the upcoming CAST AWAY, which reunites Zemeckis with Tom Hanks.

The message is clear: Sometimes, audiences want the same tone, a similar flavor, but not the same narrative, the same problems to be overcome by the same heroes. Sometimes not, though: BOOGIE NIGHTS had the hipster-epic feel and juicy ensemble of a new PULP FICTION, only without PULP's richly woven script (or formidable grosses). A SIMPLE PLAN had the snowy bleakness of FARGO and a similar theme (no honor among thieves), but missed FARGO's digressive playfulness -- there was no "I'm so lonely" guy in A SIMPLE PLAN, and maybe it could've used one. A CIVIL ACTION could've ridden the legal-eagle, David-vs.-Goliath coattails of THE RAINMAKER, but didn't. Other examples abound.

Sometimes, though, the comfort of a known quantity can steer a movie to the head of the class. Beginning with THE LITTLE MERMAID in 1989, Disney's animation division has pretty much owned kiddie cinema throughout this decade (though that may be changing with the runaway successes of RUGRATS: THE MOVIE and POKEMON). There has yet to be a Disney cartoon flop -- even the "disappointments" like POCAHONTAS or HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME did well. The words "Directed by Steven Spielberg" have guaranteed asses in seats more often than not during the '90s, and this was also the decade he grabbed two Oscars -- name another working director with such a consistent track record. If Tarantino owned the '90s, Spielberg has owned the last quarter-century, literally, starting with JAWS in 1975.

(George Lucas doesn't enter into the discussion -- during his 28-year career as a feature filmmaker, he has directed a grand total of four films, putting him a close second behind Terrence Malick for the title of Hollywood's Most Overrated Unproductive Guru. It's as if Spielberg had only directed THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, JAWS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and then a prequel to RAIDERS 20 years later, after letting other people direct the two other INDY films. Spielberg has whiffed hard a few times, make no mistake, but at least he's been in there swinging for the past 30 years. Lucas bolted from the director's chair after STAR WARS because he pussied out -- the stress got to him. Don't be fooled by his bullshit about how he was just waiting for film technology to catch up with his dazzling ideas. He was waiting to grow back some balls, that's what he was waiting for. End of rant.)

...So have the '90s been a new Golden Age of Cinema? If you go by shite like RANDOM HEARTS and THE HAUNTING, definitely not. If you go by risk-takers like BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and PULP FICTION, definitely. These things tend to go in cycles, and maybe we are just now awakening from the long national mainstream nightmare. The '80s -- probably the most stifling period for creativity in American film since the '50s -- were very much a reaction to the excesses of the '70s, which came to a head when Michael Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE crashed down like a dead tree in 1980. For at least the next ten years after that, studios kept a chokingly tight leash on the hotshot auteurs of the '70s: Scorsese, Coppola, Altman, and certainly Cimino felt the pinch (about the only one to escape was Spielberg, who was always a studio execs' dream -- even after 1941, Paramount gave him the keys to RAIDERS). The '80s, however, also produced Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, and the Coens, all of whom laid the groundwork for the indie resurgence we're currently enjoying (not to mention Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, who got their start in the '70s but painted their masterpieces -- 1985's BRAZIL and 1986's BLUE VELVET -- right smack in the middle of the dreary decade of Reagan and Rambo).

If this is a Golden Age, it has to end somewhere, somehow. Entertainment Weekly, in its recent, amusingly short-sighted cover story on "1999: The Year That Changed Movies" (oh really?), suggests that audiences may just get sick of originality the way they got sick of teen flicks and apocaflicks. I don't think that's true. I think originality is a benevolent Pandora's Box that can never fully be closed once opened; once you've had FARGO, it's tough to go back to THE BONE COLLECTOR. What may spell the doom of this new Golden Age is, as always, money. Too many expensive failures spoil the broth: if today's hot young turks like Spike Jonze, David Fincher, or Paul Thomas Anderson make too many pricey flops like Coppola's ONE FROM THE HEART, Spielberg's 1941, and Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE, we could see '80s conservatism all over again as the studios crack down on these iconoclasts.

The young directors interviewed in the EW story -- especially Paul Thomas Anderson, who comes off, to use a favorite Harlan Ellison phrase, like a banjo player who's had a big breakfast -- all sound eager, optimistic, and dangerously cocky. They sound very much like William Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, and all the other hot young turks of the '70s, right before the studio axe fell and they got their asses handed to them. Success leads to cockiness; cockiness leads to arrogance; arrogance leads to HEAVEN'S GATE. And the writing may already be on the wall -- too many more bombs like FIGHT CLUB, which still hasn't begun to make back its cost in America after six weeks in release, and David Fincher may find himself directing Mickey Rourke in a racist Chinatown thriller.

Still, if this decade has been a Golden Age -- as I believe it has been, beginning as it did with MILLER'S CROSSING, GOODFELLAS, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, and DANCES WITH WOLVES, and ending as it is with a slew of arty breakout hits that prompted EW's typically trendoid cover story -- I say we sit back and enjoy the rest of it. The previous Golden Age, after all, lasted about thirteen years, if you date it from 1967's BONNIE AND CLYDE to 1980's HEAVEN'S GATE. That gives us until, say, 2003 before everything crashes down again.


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