Stuck in the Sixties
In Hollywood, even nostalgia's running behind the times
By Noel Murray
MAY 8, 2000: I spent the past weekend in a time warp caused by Hollywood's perpetual confusion about how to deal with the past. The weirdness started with Frequency, a paranormal thriller about a man who discovers he can talk to his long-dead dad over the old man's ham radio. Jim Caviezel stars as a New York City cop whose fireman father, played by Dennis Quaid, perished during a daring rescue back in 1969. Strange atmospheric conditions in 1999 lead to the son being able not only to contact his dad, but to warn him about his impending doom and thereby change the past. But the change affects the future as well, and a series of coincidences leads to a serial killer being loosed in the city.
Frequency has an appealing "what if" quality, best displayed in the scenes where the world of 1969 is altered and the effects are immediately (and spookily) felt in 1999. Caviezel's performance is fairly underwhelming, but Quaid has matured into one of our more reliable low-budget leading men; time and a string of box-office failures may have humbled him, but he still has the charisma of an A-list star (at C-list prices!). Frequency also features an eye-catching supporting performance by Andre Braugher as Quaid's best friend in 1969 and Caviezel's partner in 1999, and the only character who seems suitably amazed and delighted by what's going on around him.
The movie might've been more effective had it stayed on the level of the light fantastic, with the father-son relationship being explored across the decades. Still, the mystery-suspense element of Toby Emmerich's script is genuinely exciting, at least until a climactic action sequence so patently ridiculous (and so sloppily filmed by director Gregory Hoblit) that the film suffers near-fatal damage.
More interesting than Frequency's gimmicky plot is the way the filmmakers use the span of decades. Jim Caviezel, who is actually 31 years old, is playing an unmarried 36-year-old cop, and the 45-year-old Dennis Quaid plays his 30-ish father. Though the core story would be practically the same (and maybe even more resonant) if the two actors were playing closer to their actual ages, Hoblit and Emmerich have to make the characters a certain age to fit the movie into the time period they want to exploit--namely, the era in which the Miracle Mets won the World Series.
Granted, the Mets angle leads to some nice moments--turning the infamous Cleon Jones "shoe polish" incident into a plot point is especially choice--but the use of the late-'60s milieu is ultimately calculated to exploit our sense of nostalgia. Although we've had movies set in the '70s and the '80s, the father-son story that Boomer Hollywood loves so much is still built around the atmosphere of '50s and '60s sitcom-land. Hoblit and Emmerich are stuck in the ever-constricting time-frame of modern Hollywood, which believes that audiences who grew up in '70s and '80s won't understand a "dad fantasy" set in their own era.
Want to get weirder? Check out The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas. First of all, follow this: The original TV cartoon series aired from 1960 to 1966 and was essentially an animated remake of the live-action sitcom The Honeymooners, which aired for the bulk of the '50s. In 1994, The Flintstones was turned into a live-action movie, and this year, we have a "prequel" that purports to tell the story of the events that preceded the first film--but with an entirely different cast. The new film also borrows plot elements from the original animated series that would, continuity-wise, postdate the events of the first film. Got it? Do we even know what's being copied at this point?
Then there's this: Even though Viva Rock Vegas is set in the prehistoric era, and was filmed in our modern one, the references in the film are more mid-'60s than millennial. Sure, The Flintstones originally aired in the '60s, but is there any other reason why a movie aimed at the children of the '00s (and their parents, who mostly grew up in the '70s) should be using The Rolling Stones and Ann-Margret as cultural signifiers?
As a movie, Viva Rock Vegas is a forgettable piece of merchandising-driven product. The few good gags only remind the audience of how much funnier and lighter the film could've been, and at least two of the leads--Stephen Baldwin's dim-bulb Barney and Kristen Johnston's uncomfortable Wilma--are painful to watch. Mark Addy's Fred is likably Gleason-esque, and there's a fine turn by Alan Cumming as a Stone Age Mick Jagger and as the tiny alien Gazoo (the special effect of which is more disturbing than cute). The real find of the movie is Ally McBeal's Jane Krakowski, who is so lively as Betty that she deserves to be cast in a better movie right now.
But again, what's absolutely stunning about this second helping of live-action Flintstones is how once more we're stuck in a past that doesn't really belong to us--and by "us," I mean the core moviegoing audience that Hollywood covets, namely the 18-to-34s. I first noticed this "Boomer creep" last summer, when the misbegotten, mismarketed Dick and Detroit Rock City demonstrated how the dominance of the Baby Boom generation led to films that could only connect to their target audience through that audience's familiarity with other movies, not through firsthand experience. My generation is rarely offered a film set in our own past, featuring families and moments in time that we can remember.
Here's what I can't figure out, though: Are Hollywood executives hopelessly out of touch, or can the audience really identify with a story only if it's put through the same generational filters that have been in place since American Graffiti? Maybe it's time to change the filter and breathe something fresh...just to see if we like it. --Noel Murray
Cultures in collisionAt the turn of the 20th century, we've seen Asian anime become an underground sensation; Japanese punk and pop inspire loyal cults among U.S. teens; and hip-hop and Hong Kong action unite for left-field successes such as Rush Hour and Romeo Must Die--all of which involve scramblings of American and foreign influences. That's the kind of cultural cross-pollination that fascinates Jim Jarmusch. At least as far back as 1985's Stranger Than Paradise--in which a Hungarian teen idolizes outré '50s R&B singer Screamin' Jay Hawkins--Jarmusch has examined the ways America is refracted through the eyes of outsiders, who form most of their impressions of the country from our pop culture.
In his new movie, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Jarmusch turns his focus to the shifting cultural boundaries inside the United States, and the peculiar anxiety of facing a new century as old social hierarchies are biting the dust. He does this within the context of a hit-man thriller, a tale involving a top-notch button man, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), who carries out mob assignments according to the Japanese code of the samurai. Foremost in its teachings are obeisance to one's master--in this case, a mob intermediary named Louis (John Cormey)--and above all, a constant awareness of one's imminent death. When Ghost Dog botches a hit, through no fault of his own, Louis' bosses demand his head.
If, like me, you think the last thing the world needs right now is another assassin flick, rest assured that Jarmusch has more on his mind than mining The Whole Nine Yards territory--although one of Ghost Dog's incidental pleasures is watching his oddball handling of routine action-movie elements. He's more interested in the blurring of cultures as the century comes to a close, as personified by a dreadlocked black man who lives by an ancient Eastern code of behavior that predates the idea of America. Ghost Dog looks to the distant past for guidance in the here and now; the mob bosses reminisce about the old days, when they slugged it out for dominance using clear-cut rules of the street. Everybody feels obsolete.
But the movie is far from an elegy for the good old days of gangland crime; it looks forward hopefully to a time when the American melting pot will produce a powerful new mixture, like the pulsing Asian-influenced hip-hop laid down on the soundtrack by the Wu-Tang Clan's RZA. In many ways, Ghost Dog is an extension of Jarmusch's brilliant acid Western Dead Man, in which dislocated Easterner-turned-outlaw Johnny Depp goes on a hallucinatory dying journey that takes him farther and farther away from white civilization. The closer he gets to death, the more he leaves behind his identity as a white man and becomes something harder to define--a ghostly, transcendental figure swaddled in furs and Native American markings.
Aside from Louis, Ghost Dog's main friendship is with an ice-cream peddler (Isaach De Bankolé) who speaks in unsubtitled French. The untranslated conversations leave us feeling lost--like tourists in our own country--but it's central to Jarmusch's themes that the two men form a bond without entirely understanding one another.
Like Dead Man, Ghost Dog uses the form of a specifically American genre to debunk the notion of cultural isolation. Jarmusch includes playful homages to the gangster pastiches of other countries: a loony through-the-drainpipe hit from Seijun Suzuki's berserk Japanese thriller Branded to Kill, extended nighttime prowls that echo Alain Delon's restless stalking in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai. But he doesn't always transcend the pulpy limitations. For all the lip service the characters pay to codes, we're never sure enough of them as individuals to understand why they adopted them in the first place. And when Ghost Dog lovingly tends to pigeons on his rooftop, it's a crummy B-movie given that the birds'll wind up blasted. While Jarmusch draws a distinction between the random viciousness of the mobsters and Ghost Dog's controlled killing, he stacks the deck so that everyone Ghost Dog knocks off deserves to die.
At the same time, his riffing on hired-gun conventions makes Ghost Dog one of his most accessible and entertaining recent movies. Jarmusch's freaky deadpan wit is in evidence throughout, from the use of Itchy & Scratchy cartoons as a Greek chorus to the way-out performance he elicits from veteran heavy Henry Silva as a desiccated mobster. Ghost Dog crept into town last week with scarcely a whisper of advertising, but it's worth a trip to the theater. --Jim Ridley
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