Our Summer of Disaster

Hollywood's trilogy of terror frightened the blockbuster into art

At the movies, it was the summer of our discontent. George Lucas's Revenge of the Sith delivered not only Burger King toys and bath towels, but a downbeat return to the classic antihero sagas of the '70s. Memento-maker Christopher Nolan wowed the critics and the box office alike by treating Batman's origin myths with Bergmanesque gravitas. Fallen hitmaker Tim Burton rebounded with a sarcastic adaptation of a beloved children's novel, a $100 million movie whose secretly tenderhearted hero was played as a creepy riff on Lee Liberace in rubber gloves. What was going on? Was America merely indulging its affection for the Imp of the Perverse? Was suppressed grief over the war swinging our moods even in the places we go to escape? Did Tom Ridge's Orange Alerts finally make us snap? Or could it be that a new model of Major Motion Picture was being born?

The history of American movies is the story of commercial genres being turned, usually against their will, into art. D.W. Griffith, an early maker of seamy, two-bit melodramas, transformed popular cinema into something larger and more complicated than it was before. Samuel Fuller put his background in yellow journalism and pulp fiction toward an appallingly vivid first-person narration of American life in the '50s and '60s. And in the summer of 2005, a trio of directors who cut their teeth on lowbrow shockers bent the Summer Tentpole into what it was born to kill: art. George A. Romero, Wes Craven, and Steven Spielberg made not art-as-argument in the Anglo-American tradition of Shakespeare and Shaw, but art of an even older variety: art as ritual dance, as intoxication, as an experience that can't be distilled into words. And they somehow did it in the context of the highly marketed, expensively packaged, wildly risk-averse summer thrill-ride.

In the 20 years since the last installment of his ongoing zombie fresco, Romero was able to formulate the ideas of his '05 edition with cool precision. In Land of the Dead, the shiny mall where blue-faced ghouls once did the Ubangi Stomp to Muzak has decayed into a melancholy ruin, a Pittsburgh prole's fantasy version of Angkor Wat. In the celestial parapets of this megamall, a Cheneyesque tycoon-cum-civic leader (Dennis Hopper) hopes to keep the zombie hordes away from the "landed gentry"--i.e., the people with indoor plumbing. As a Howard Hawks-style team of laconic professionals does the dirty work of zombie extermination, Romero lays out an elegant series of overlapping metaphors. The zombie-suppression maneuvers can't help echoing our futile "crackdown" on insurgency abroad. And when one of the bigwig's disappointed employees gets rudely awakened from his dream of making it, he aims rockets at the half-dead city as Romero etches a piercing and poignant study of the psychology of terrorism. I'm not sure that even Michael Moore's summer blockbuster of a year ago mapped our precipitous coordinates so thoughtfully.

Like Spielberg with War of the Worlds, Craven returned to the reasonless brutality of his first great movie in order to conjure--and maybe exorcise--our terrors of the moment. "Mom, I'm eleven, not nine!" whines a kid in the airport lounge at the opening of Red Eye--a comic wink from Craven to the audience, signifying that, to give us the heebie-jeebs, he's not above subliminal references to recent tragedies. The best-crafted work of the director's career, Red Eye remakes Craven's own Last House on the Left by way of a fiendishly ingenious modern formula. Rather than follow two forest-crossing hippie chicks on an unwanted date with the Manson family, Last House 2.0 sends a can-do American girl (Rachel McAdams) into a latter-day Black Forest--an innately terrifying cross-country flight. Waiting to board, our heroine meets a Big Bad Wolf (Cillian Murphy) who tries to ply her with the Sex and the City girls' favorite cocktail before embroiling her in a terrorist plot--"Something...brash," he says--just after takeoff.

The black-comic genius of Carl Ellsworth's script is in positing the heroine as an adorably overbooked, commitment-phobic singleton who lets her guard down for a guy who turns out to be Carlos the Jackal. And Craven lets our boarding-zone anxieties loose on a crisp thriller schematic that critic Duncan Shepherd wisely likened to the taut B movies of Anthony Mann and Richard Fleischer. Still, the masterpiece of summer art-blockbusters was Spielberg's. In War of the Worlds, Spielberg gets away with drawing on America's post-9/11 anxiety because his vast excavation of images--a catalogue of horror from the Holocaust to the fall of Saigon and the bloody rivers of Rwanda--results in a genuinely new kind of artwork: a combination roller-coaster ride and traumatic tone poem, wherein pictures of atrocity are abstracted and made cathartic in the same instant. A king-sized upgrade of Michael Haneke's Time of the Wolf, War is a threnody to what Spielberg described as the "American refugee experience"--an experience that actually hadn't happened...yet. The director works our fears and fantasies like a wizard, staging a collision of '50s sci-fi into the Twin Towers.

Is there a point to Spielberg's pastiche or is it just, as Stephanie Zacharek screamed in Salon, a cheap exploitation of the innocent dead? The challenge and beauty of War--as with Red Eye and Land of the Dead--is that it negotiates the dangerous straits of big budgets, mass-hypnotic marketing, and the exigencies of art as never before. In the past, American directors, to borrow Martin Scorsese's eloquent description, were "smugglers" dragging subversive content into routine programmers while no one in the front office was paying attention. Now, Romero, Craven, and Spielberg are daring to mix political inquiry with visceral attack--as in the best horror movies of the '70s--while the entire world is watching. The result gives us that sickly feeling of the familiar and the alien that people got from the first Pop Art paintings. Critics who are used to having art over here and commerce over there are clearly unsettled by the summer's trilogy of terror. They might as well raise the white flag, though, as these monstrous hybrids of money and genius aren't on their way: They're already here.

 
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