The Song Remains the Same

Let's look it this way for once: The cultural scripts Americans have cherished for years, for centuries, are so punched full of holes one can hardly read them. Try as the conservative Right may, no one can return us to the glory days when white men were men, and women, along with children and the colored help, sewed costumes and painted backdrops. Pandora has jumped out of the box with the signifying monkey, and the two won't shut up.

So what does a culture do when its traditional sagas are wearing thin, even being drowned out? What does a powerful storyteller do when his best tales are labeled sexist, classist, racist? If you're a politician, you close your eyes, stop your ears, and yell. If you're a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker, you present the old stories with multiculti gender-sensitive accessories. You accommodate. But you do not give up the stage. Because, at heart, you really believe that no one else deserves to command it.

If you are a wily Hollywood filmmaker, you make both the accommodations and the stubbornness look heroic. I'm speaking now of Steven Spielberg. Saving Private Ryan is a war movie, yes--the war that began in 1945. It is a movie about the contemporary battle, joined first by those postwar babies, over gender. Tom Hanks (born to the role) plays a man caught between cultural scripts: the stern, established procedure that transforms boys into soldiers, girls into talking tits, and obedience into honor (the story of life as war); and the feminist utopia of men as loving caretakers and empathetic companions (the story of life as peace).

What kind of man should Hanks's captain be? The movie bluntly presents his choice via two characters, a callous killer and a pathetic coward--and so loads the dice. Of course, no decent man relishes brutality. But neither would any decent man cower as his fellow grunts/buddies/teammates fight for dominance. Spielberg and Hanks redefine the American patriarch as a guy smart enough to know that the rules suck and loyal enough to keep following them. He cries and he shoots. In other words, it's horrible having to Be A Man, but if the only other choice is being a woman...hand me the gun.

What a pacifying plot for the millennium: The decent man continues soldiering for manhood, but, Lord, it kills him. How perfect that, when the captain advises Private Ryan to treasure his life, he uses the language of economics ("Earn it"): The promise of a man's paycheck (as opposed to our 72 cents on the dollar) has long been the ruse that keeps decent men from questioning their dull plight.

Such revivified gender mores appear to go bottoms up in There's Something About Mary. The male characters goofily humiliate themselves, struggling to meet Mary's high standards. She's a ridiculously generous, beautiful, strong surgeon. They're unemployed, graceless, plain (or flat-out hideous) nerds. But, as in Woody Allen's ugly comedies, the men's geekiness around Mary doesn't communicate male admiration so much as terror--the neurotic fear that love is a degrading, besmirching weakness.

Ben Stiller's suitor is no less gross than any of the others. He's stalked Mary, lied to her, faked nice to her retard brother to impress her. Mary still opts for him, over the Brett-Favre-man-of-her-dreams, because the men behind and in front of the camera want to see Cameron Diaz kissing Ben Stiller. By the film's lights, that act finally humbles her character. And, weirdly, it elevates Stiller's, who now (in the other suitors' eyes) bones/owns her.

I like the way Rush Hour brays "Shove it up your ass!" to every one of its white male authority figures, recklessly stomping all over Hollywood's usual racial order. But Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker adopt the master's tools--guns, insults, miniaturized females, the LAPD--and instead of dismantling his house of violence, they get paid for renovations. In all these films, the hierarchical social script of yesteryear is eventually shored back up, dusted off, and repainted. It leaves them safe entertainments, comforting returns--not to the status quo, because that is a chaotic poetry slam--but to some dream we have of a past when everybody agreed on the story, however unfair.

I want to believe that art can make today's anarchic script sound lovely rather than scary, that it can uncover for us the enchantment and delight of many true stories. Last week, I read a recent novel by Patricia McKillip called Song for the Basilisk. It is a story about revenge. A boy who was cruelly treated grows up to be a musician who can kill with a tune. The king who destroyed the boy's family is greedy, cold, horrible. He deserves, you think, to die. Yet something happens before the musician can murder the king and, in doing so, become him. Other voices intervene: a son, a femme fatale, a lover, a chorus of strangers and friends. They change the ending. And the musician springs out of the mossy tale, freed to seek new songs.

 
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