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"Three Kings" and "American Beauty" are presents from Hollywood

By Peter Keough

OCTOBER 11, 1999:  Another summer, another record box office for Hollywood. Which begs the question, who goes to these movies? Do people gush over Runaway Bride and recommend it to their friends? Do they ponder the deeper meaning of Deep Blue Sea and buttonhole strangers to debate it? Even the ever voluble Star Wars fans have been suspiciously reticent about The Phantom Menace, which is now cruising in on a half-billion-dollar gross. With few exceptions (The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, of which more later), it's been a summer, a whole year, of vapid time killers that have made a lot of money. For people like myself who have to come up with a 10 Best list of some credibility, things have been looking desperate.

It's always that way, of course, though perhaps even more so this year than ever before. Summer brings despair, and then in the fall the 12-year-old boys who are the studios' target audience go back to school, returning the screens to grown-ups. As the leaves turn gold, so do Hollywood's ambitions, and the studios pack the autumn release slate with Oscar hopefuls.

But there is something a little different going on this time around with the release of Sam Mendes's American Beauty and David O. Russell's Three Kings. People are leaving these films not just satisfied that at last they've seen a good picture; they're leaving transformed. These movies don't merely justify the $7.75 spent on a ticket -- they actually vindicate commercial cinema as an art form. Maybe it's just the long wait between worthwhile films. Or is there something divine in that plastic bag blowing in the wind in the home video at the heart of American Beauty? In that scene and others in both pictures -- the notorious shot of a bullet passing through living viscera in Three Kings is one -- audiences get that thrill that only the best movies offer, a glimpse at what has never been seen before, or at something that has been seen many times but never quite this way.

Which is completely contrary to the way business-as-usual operates in Hollywood. High concept (its dominating principle) dictates, as Steven Spielberg once proclaimed, that any film that can't be described in 10 words or less is not worth making. After American Beauty and Three Kings, however, any film that can be described at all might not seem worth seeing.

Not that they are strictly original. One could spend a diverting afternoon coming up with all the movies Three Kings is derivative of -- they'd range from M*A*S*H and The Wild Bunch to Kelly's Heroes and The Three Amigos. As for the punctured American dream and the underside of a wholesome suburban paradise that seem such fresh revelations in American Beauty, they were old verities already when Mike Nichols brought them to the screen in The Graduate.

I remember my feelings when I first saw The Graduate, more than three decades ago, and they were not unlike those I experienced with Beauty. True, some of my responses to the earlier film might have been due to the addled hormonal state of a repressed 13-year-old who was getting a gander, however fleeting, at Anne Bancroft's tits. But it was also due, I believe, to the excitement of a new way of looking at things, of a resurgence in creativity that shook off the old and moribund and embraced a world where everything could be changed and everything was possible.

Well, maybe it was just Anne Bancroft's tits. Neither do I think that Beauty and Kings will usher in a new '60s-style renaissance in film (though an enticing number of extraordinary new films are to open before the end of the year -- see below). Rather, these are just the latest additions to a canon of resonant films that have sprung up unexpectedly from time to time, zeitgeist-gripping strokes of genius that confront with innovative style and insight old, irresolvable dilemmas.

They aren't necessarily great or even good films -- at least in my judgment -- but they all qualify because in one way or another they baffled the experts at marketing and promotion with their success and then foiled most efforts to imitate them. Like The Graduate, they weren't contrived out of the reliable generic parts of the studio assembly line; instead they tapped directly into the cultural collective unconscious. In the past decade, that canon would include films like Forrest Gump (1995) and Life Is Beautiful (1998), though I myself found both inane and insidiously sentimental. More to my taste have been The Crying Game (1993), The Piano (1994), and Pulp Fiction (1995). On the fringe can be considered Fargo (1997) and, to give Mr. High Concept his due, Schindler's List (1993); and in the category of those that missed out for reasons unknown I'd include Rushmore and The Truman Show. Films from earlier this year (suggesting the profound summer drought brought on an earlier fall than usual) that might make the grade would include The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense.

These movies shattered the inertia and preconceptions of audiences, allowing them to see the world and the cinema with new eyes. They also had some specific themes in common. Call it gender bias (or maybe the buzz from Susan Faludi's new Stiffed), but they all seem to me preoccupied with a crisis in the male role and image (certainly that was the case for me back with The Graduate). In Forrest Gump and Life Is Beautiful, the traditional model of a man as agent of his own destiny is usurped by the inexorability of history and the fact that the guys are idiots. In The Crying Game, the traditional role of male as romantic hero and chivalric knight is undermined by the fact that the damsel in distress is another man. In Pulp Fiction, the male hero is undone because the generic conventions he follows no longer apply; in The Piano, it's the social convention of men as owners and women as property that's been transcended.

So, too, in Beauty and Kings -- and in The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense, though these two films might be too gimmicky to endure as icons -- men have found their roles and purposes suddenly meaningless and impotent. Like an older Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, Kevin Spacey's white-collar drone in American Beauty and George Clooney's obsolete war hero in Three Kings realize that all they've worked for and desired has been illusory. Both rebel by turning to a forbidden object of desire -- an underage nymphet in Beauty, stolen gold in Kings. In their struggle to attain these taboo desires, however, they gain instead a kind of enlightenment, a new vision. And so do we.

In both films, the heroes' redemption comes through the intervention of some variation of the film medium itself, and (more important) through the help of a woman. In Kings, Clooney's cynical quest for gold gathers unexpected baggage, and not just of the Louis Vuitton kind. Rather than allow a slaughter of innocents, Clooney seeks out an alliance with the formerly disdained female CNN correspondent, threatening to put a true image of the Gulf War before the eyes of a public bamboozled by the government-controlled media (significantly, Clooney's character seeks future employment in the entertainment industry). In Beauty, Spacey's notion of the title concept is Mena Suvari's nubile, willing Lolita complete with cascades of rose petals; it's an adolescent fantasy that evaporates even as he embraces it.

Compare it to the vision perceived by his alter ego, the teenage drug dealer next door played by Wes Bentley. Like the hero of Steven Soderbergh's 1989 sex, lies and videotape, another film that, for better or worse, changed the way we look at things, Bentley's oddball seeker is obsessed with recording epiphanies, and the most beautiful and ineffable is that plastic bag dancing in the wind. Unlike Spacey, Bentley shares this beauty with someone else, a woman (in fact Spacey's estranged daughter), and so achieves the reconciliation of the sexes that is one of the cinema's main functions, however illusory. He also shares it with us, and that may be the movies' and art's most important function of all: discovering the beauty in the overlooked and commonplace and allowing us to recognize it.


Sleeping beauties?

American Beauty and Three Kings have stirred hopes of an independent-film revival, and though it might be premature to expect a renaissance the equal of the late '60s and early '70s, upcoming movies should at least make the Oscar race interesting. I haven't seen such potential candidates as Martin Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead, David Fincher's Fight Club, Alan Parker's Angela's Ashes, Anthony Minghella's The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil. But here are three I can vouch for (four if you include Steven Soderbergh's The Limey).

David Lynch's movie might be from Disney and G-rated, but it's still weird and disturbing. Based on a true story, this is the tale of 73-year-old Iowa farmer Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), who heads to Wisconsin to visit his stricken brother, making the 300-mile journey on a John Deere lawnmower. It sounds like a Norman Rockwell freak show; in fact it's a stark and moving fable of mortality and redemption.

Being John Malkovich. So The Straight Story isn't original enough for you? (Believe it or not, a second movie based on the same premise -- Abilene, starring Ernest Borgnine -- is looking for a distributor.) How about John Cusack as a puppeteer married to pet-store worker Cameron Diaz who takes a job in a filing office where a folder falls behind a cabinet uncovering a portal that leads into John Malkovich's mind? MTV director Spike Jonze (he plays the redneck soldier in Three Kings) matches his bizarre flights of fancy with subtlety, pathos, and terrible haircuts in one of cinema's most frightening explorations of identity, gender, and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Snow Falling on Cedars. In films like Three Kings, The Limey, and this Scott Hick adaptation of the David Guterson bestseller, ambitious filmmakers are beginning to transform mainstream material into layered works mimicking the rhythms of time and consciousness. Set in the Pacific Northwest after WW2, this is ostensibly the tale of a Japanese-American on trial for murder and the one-armed vet (Ethan Hawke) who's in love with the accused's wife. But as one of the most amazing Dear John letters in the history of cinema demonstrates, it's also about the fate of the individual in the darkness of history. Slow, challenging -- and vastly rewarding.


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