Hey, it’s the end of Blockbluster (for 2009, at least), our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart left their art-house refuges to find out during what sort of movies multiplex-dwellers all over the country were eating popcorn. This week they indulge that late summer-early fall tradition of looking back longinly on the summer that was.
The recession, poverty and racism are way too real, Henry, so much so that blockbuster movie-goers can’t stand to see them pop up in their popcorn fare. As a culture on edge (from war, from environmental deterioration, from financial crises, from rising unemployment), we spent most of the summer basking in the comforting glow of shiny escapism rather than the harsh light of realism (or clever sci-fi allegory), which I suppose means that everything is rosie and status-quo in Hollywood. Given the last four months of cultural megaproductions and the biggest box office season ever (well, tied with summer 2007), it’s hard to be hopeful about the state of mainstream cinema.
Despite early entries (Star Trek, Drag Me To Hell) with discernible levels of political consciousness (with regards to militarism and classism, respectively), the posterboy of the summer, Michael Bay, bombed theaters with the upper-middle-class man-child fantasy Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen Auto Industry. Bay, who flaunts his work’s apolitical tone despite making rabidly regressive — and therefore hyper-politicized — films, set the pace for the season. Arriving right at summer’s mid-point, Transformers eclipsed everything that came before it — indeed, it re-wrote all of human history as an appendix to a much greater, ancient, interplanetary robot history — and left little but scraps for the movies that followed. (Didn’t Paramount literally assemble G.I. Joe from film strips found on the Transformers editing booth floor?)
As far as I can tell, gender was the one thematic sticking point that few of this summer’s movies managed to elide. Whether indulging sexist behavior to unpleasant and un-ignorable degrees (The Hangover, Year One, Transformers, Funny People), fumbling with some sort of diluted gender politics discourse (Bruno, The Ugly Truth, Julie & Julia) or quietly, even unwittingly commenting on blockbusters’ presumed masculine audience (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Drag Me To Hell), gender issues seemed the most difficult to ignore this summer. Even Bay in Transformers had a hard time writing a female character as flat as Shia Labeouf’s lead, which must be how we got both a shape-shifting she-bot chameleon (Isabel Lucas) and Meghan Fox’s classic muscle car of a character with her ex-con dad and working-class fondness for greasy rags and motor oil. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Alison Lohmann’s Christine Brown unleashed an underworld of pain upon herself in Sam Raimi’s fun genre piece Drag Me To Hell, foreclosing on an elderly Roma woman’s house to satisfy her promotion-contemplating boss man. For her, at least, getting to the top in a patriarchal world very literally means going to hell in the next world.
Amy Adams had it both ways as the female sidekick this summer: first keeping a plummeting jumbo jet of a kids’ movie — Night at the Museum II — somewhat on course as a terrific Amelia Earhart (let’s see Hillary Swank do better!), then as the disheartened bureaucrat-turned-celebrity food blogger Julie Powell in Julie & Julia. Given that Nora Ephron’s previous films are split between romantic leads (often Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks), could we even read Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and Powell’s parallel plots as displaced romance? (After all, Julie claims that she loves Julia on at least one occasion.) Maybe I’m just grabbing at straws here in an especially dry summer for subtext. At least we had a few films (Star Trek, Bruno, District 9, Inglourious Basterds) not too afraid to dabble in weighty political themes, right Henry? Right?!
… right! Like all summers, really, this was an escapist one at the cinema, though it arrived at a time when, I suppose, most Americans could really use it. That’s not to say that there wasn’t a mess load of issues—matters of class, gender, war, sexual orientation, etc.—for us to unpack; just that all of it—except in the case of the overt Bruno, perhaps—was concealed in subtexts or the product of broad cultural assumptions. Few summer movies were real boat-rockers. Even the most openly political films of the season, like, as you mention, Star Trek and District 9, were easy to watch without giving them much thought. I can imagine audiences marveling at J.J. Abrams’ shiny spaceships without considering the film’s celebration of Clintonian moderation, or getting giddy over prawns in South Africa without ever once contemplating the (blatant!) apartheid allegory. (On the other end, I fear audiences ingested Bay’s hateful warmongering and did not taste the bile!)
When we started this project, Ben, I was looking at the films through a lens Obama, wondering how the popcorn fare would reflect shifting cultural realities under our new, liberal(ish) black president. Looking back on the movies now, though, very few if any seem to have reflected the new era. I guess because of the lag between when movies get green-lighted and hit screens, the summer felt like one big Bush hangover—not least of all in The Hangover, with its celebrations of misogyny and gay bashing, some of our country’s favorite Bush-era past times.
Homophobia made it into quite a few of the summer’s comedies; the insufferably dull Year One had its share of gay putdowns—even though its leads were totally gay for each other, in a Superbad kind of way—as did The Ugly Truth, with its macho gender role-ing. Above all, though, there was Bruno, with its gay face caricature, asking us to laugh at the way fags love it up the ass, and how all they care about is clothes and their figures. Though I guess you could argue all this contempt for homosexuality is as much an Obama-era thing as a Bush one; despite an ostensibly sympathetic president (at least on the campaign trail!), gays still haven’t gotten their full civil rights, and it looks like they won’t for a while.
Women, though, are doing a bit better these days than in the dark W. ones: there are a bunch in the president’s cabinet (Condi Shmondi), and a new one on the Supreme Court bench. Still, they didn’t fare well at the summer box office. (When they were allowed to show-up, anyway, unlike in The Taking of Pelham 123.) Most of the time they appeared as shrews, most obviously in The Ugly Truth, whose main character, played by Katharine Heigl, was a bitchy professional—not unlike the protagonist of Drag Me to Hell, Sam Raimi’s horror comedy about a curse: the curse of having a vagina. Every woman in The Hangover was a total bitch, and the wife in District 9 was so whiny you wished an alien would eat her brain or something. The only movie with tolerable ladies in it was Julie & Julia—but even then, women were forced into a narrow gender role. Ladies can be famous…if it’s for something women are supposed to do, like cooking. What’s next? Legendary maids? Celebrity housewives? (Oh, wait…)
Hell, despite our first black president, even black people couldn’t catch a break on the big screen this summer, from the jive-talking robots populating Transformers’ fringes to the cat-food eating “prawns” (i.e. allegorical Africans) of District 9. (Oh, and that film’s Nigerians were cannibalistic warlords of the racist-stereotype variety.) Even Ice Age 3, we discovered, was about keeping certain types of creatures—read: blacks—out of gated communities. It was also about drilling for oil in Alaska.
Hey, that was the other thing about this summer: its general rightwing-edness. It’s not just the lack of respect for minorities highlighted above, or Night at the Museum II’s naïve, flag-waving Americophilia—it also showed up in the militarism and reappearing violence fetishes. We got right to it at the beginning of the season with the Wolverine movie; despite its surface-level pacifism, that film got its rocks off on explosions and catfights (with a bare-chested Hugh Jackman). Then there was Star Trek, with its philosophy of violence-solves-everything, followed shortly by the worst of the worst: Transformers II, a thinly veiled argument against withdrawal timetables and in favor of killing Arabs and blowing up their countries. It included cartoon portraits of faggy liberals and even featured President Obama hiding—like a coward—when the shit hit the fan.
By and large, the summer blockbusters just tried to entertain through appeals to the basest pleasures, while exploiting the worst of the status quo: misogynist romantic comedies; homophobic bromances; war-mongering action. Hollywood didn’t want to make anyone think in this time of economic crisis—although it’s easy to argue that times of crisis are when people need to be thinking the most.