Every spring, American camera crews and sound-teams and the boys and girls of ‘the pencil press’ (as it is still quaintly known) load their equipment or stuff their notebooks in a pocket and set off for the unthrilling town of Punxatawney, Pennsylvania. The occasion is ‘Groundhog Day’, when a local creature named Punxatawney Phil is reputed to predict the coming season’s weather. I think it’s the angle of his shadow that is supposed to work the trick. A long time ago, this media ritual passed the point at which it could be called self-satirising, and became instead a ludicrous and embarrassing chore. The reading and viewing and listening public would not notice if this non-event went uncovered, and the media would be glad to be shot of the tedium of ‘covering’ it, but nobody quite knows how to stop the dance. Locked together and sobbing with boredom (as in They Shoot Horses Don’t They?), the numbed partners drag their way across the floor one more time. Russell Baker once wrote a brilliant column about these gruesome proceedings, which summarised for him the participation of the press in events that are staged only for the press’s benefit.
There are several other pseudo-spectacles which evoke or produce the same ritualised, desperately inauthentic sensation. The State of the Union speech. The New Hampshire primary. The White House Easter egg roll. The presentation of the Presidential Thanksgiving turkey (which even comes complete with its own self-satirising pun). I would add the Nobel Prizes though not, oddly enough, the Booker ones. Nothing that has to be done every year is, however, likely to be much good. (Think of Christmas.) And now, the Oscars themselves are starting to bore people. When the original non-event goes stale, then the society of spectacle is in serious trouble.
Groundhog Day actually produced a very good sub-Dada movie, entitled Groundhog Day, and starring Bill Murray, which took the piss out of the repetitious and the banal by capturing the star in a time-warp where he was doomed to enact the same day over and over again until he could learn to act his way out of it. Other smart films have been made on dumb subjects, or about apparently dumb people. Rain Man was a masterly study of the idiot savant. Wayne’s World and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective took the intrinsic humour of the condition of stupidity and, as they say in Hollywood, ran with it. So, at the very dawn of the Reagan era, did Being There. Even Dumb and Dumber managed to take lavatory comedy to a height so far unattained. But Forrest Gump, or perhaps better say the reception accorded to Forrest Gump, is a departure of a different kind. Here is stupidity being, not mocked or even exploited, but positively and wholesomely and simply and touchingly celebrated.
I believe in not getting too excited about supposed cultural signifiers such as Oscar night, but for once I found myself paying attention to the conversation. Perhaps because, for the first time, I was actually present. I also believe in not writing about either one’s children or one’s ailments, but it is germane to the plot to mention that I attended in the company of my cinéaste ten-year-old son (without whom I would not have gone to see Dumb and Dumber, true, but without whom I would not have gone to see Groundhog Day either). My generous employers at Vanity Fair threw a post-Oscar bash, which now replaces the one that used to be thrown at Spago by Swifty Lazare. In spite of trade rumours that Mike Ovitz of Creative Artists had not liked his ink in our special Hollywood number, and had been working the phones to keep people away, everybody came. Or almost everybody. Madonna, who was next to me on the dinner placement, cancelled at the last moment, as is her right. Perhaps she didn’t feel she had been well seated. Never mind; I was able to introduce Alexander Hitchens to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, both of whom were very nice to him, as was Jessica Lange and as were Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey. His only autograph refusal came from Jane Fonda.
I was impressed by how many people didn’t go for Gump. Usually, success is everything and brings everything in its train, but the idea that the industry regarded this as its best effort was widely thought to be embarrassing. As the movie’s director Robert Zemeckis gave his speech of acceptance (which he did, excruciatingly, by speaking ‘on behalf of Forrest Gumps everywhere’), the girl seated next to Madonna, in the words of my colleague Frank DiGiacomo, ‘turned to the pop star and displayed the universal hand symbol for masturbation’. The Material Girl herself interrupted a speech on how FG ‘stood for several qualities’ by chirping: ‘How about mediocrity?’ So there is sales resistance even to the biggest gross.
Nor did the press play its customary role of acting as a cheering section for Movieland. ‘Welcome to Oscar night,’ grinned Johnny Carson as ‘emcee’ a few years ago. ‘Two hours of dazzling entertainment spread across a four hour show.’ People laughed that time. This time, the critics were asking how come an industry whose whole point is entertainment, for Chrissake, can’t keep the ball in the air for even an hour? Especially hard to take were the innumerable acceptance speeches. On the preceding Sunday, the New York Times Sunday magazine had run quite a witty page of advice to winners, printing all the dull and conceited and hypocritical things that winners have been prone to say and constructing an all-purpose ‘don’t give’ speech out of them. And yet, on the night, speaker after speaker came to the microphone to say that the award was really for teamwork, or really for all the little people, or really for their spouses and children. It’s interesting and rather frightening when people ignore, or don’t understand, jokes made at their expense. Julian Barnes once wrote a salutary essay on this, recalling the great Monty Python sketch about an obscure island completely inhabited by men sounding and looking like Alan Whicker. They paced to and fro, droning horribly and trailing microphones. It was, as Barnes pointed out, impossible for Whicker to have missed the item, or the point. Yet on his very next appearance there he was, pacing about and droning horribly and trailing a mike. What can you do?
At least this year there were not very many ‘cause’ speeches. The liberal conscience of Hollywood was never as strong as the conservatives made out, and the only occasions on which really hard political positions were taken at the Oscars were also occasions on which boos and hisses and gasps resulted. (The director of Hearts and Minds welcomed the ‘victory of the Vietnamese’ in the Seventies, and in the Eighties, Vanessa Redgrave took the opportunity of a not-too-heavily-goyish captive audience to give her views on ‘Zionist thugs’.) In recent years, Richard Gere’s moist tribute to the Dalai Lama has been more the sort of thing. That, plus a lot of red ribbons in solidarity with Aids victims. This year, the red ribbons were down a bit and the preferred cause was Public Broadcasting, which the Gingrich majority wants to ‘de-fund’. Mr Gingrich and his ally and publisher Rupert Murdoch both have shares in commercial cable and television, so any removal of public subsidy from America’s only non-commercial airwaves would benefit them directly, as well as confirming the hold of Beavis and Butt-Head on programme scheduling. Thus, the general ‘dumbing down’ of America was a topic both on and off the screen as the evening wore on, or off.
Somewhere over on the other side of town, the O.J. Simpson jury sat in sequestration. Judge Lance Ito had decreed, in yet another of his loopy rulings, that they should not even be allowed to watch the Oscars on TV. He feared, irrationally but not without reason, that there might be some O.J. gags during the proceedings and that these might be prejudicial. So, heightening the atmosphere of unreality in which they already dwell, the jurors were prevented from sharing a quintessential experience with their fellow Americans. As it turned out, not even the terrible David Letterman managed to squeeze off a burst about Mr Simpson or anything related to the trial. The evening was, as some magazines have taken to claiming on their covers, ‘100 per cent O.J.-free’. In truth, the industry does not quite know what to make of the Simpson affair. Pity, if you will, he who pulls the job of making a motion picture or a mini-series out of the story. It has, from its very first moments, all been on screen already. In the very week of the Oscars, the pathetic film extra Kato Kaelin won and lost his fifteen minutes; parlaying a slight acquaintance with the superstar defendant into a Gump-like appearance on the witness stand, the offer of a book contract, more bit-part work than he can handle and the grand sum of $50,000 for spilling the beans to Rupert Murdoch’s trash-TV flagship A Current Affair. If Andy Warhol were still alive, he would not be thought of as a satirist of the Post-Modern.
In the bad old days, there used to be something called the Hays Office in Hollywood. This office laid down certain dos and don’ts for movie-makers, most but not all of them to do with indecency but all tending to a respect for authority and ‘family values’. (Warhol’s early movie, Kiss, which showed couples kissing for a gruelling three minutes apiece, was originally made as an explicit defiance of the Hays Office rule that limited lip-contact to three seconds.) I think movie people secretly miss the Hays Office, because it provided a comforting formula and some reassuring ground-rules and a safe context in which to operate. It was ideal for an industry which likes to repeat itself and which is generally terrified of risk.
In his Minima Moralia, Theodore Adorno wrote that an aesthetically faultless movie could be made, in perfect conformity with all the rules and requirements of the Hays Office, as long as there was no Hays Office. This Frankfurt koan has always struck me as especially pregnant. It is the attachment to formula itself; the sort of derivative, poll-driven, synthetic compromise so well depicted (not satirised) by Robert Altman in The Player, that is turning out turkey upon turkey. A few years ago, Pauline Kael wrote a celebrated article, based on a season spent in Hollywood, about why the movies were so rank these days. She anatomised the process now known as ‘development’, by which every drop of blood and every smidgen of originality was extracted from a script.
Now John H. Richardson, a writer for Premiere magazine, has updated the Kael concept. When Richardson writes that ‘the only big-canvas film-maker of stature we have today is Oliver Stone,’ he meant it to sting. His essay is full of good lines. (A Hollywood publicist tells him that when he goes out to push a new movie, he feels ‘like the emperor’s new dry cleaner’.) It also contains a fine John Huston joke: ‘These two producers were lost in the desert. They’re dying of thirst, crawling along when they come upon an oasis. What a beautiful sight. They’re saved! They fall to their knees and one of them scoops up the delicious sweet water to his face when the other producer stops him. “Wait!” he shouts. “ Let me piss in it first.” ’
But the meat of the article is its revelation of the formula now taught in screenwriting ‘programs’. Richardson took one of these ever more influential courses and discovered that ‘a movie should introduce two buddies, build their relationship to a crisis, separate the buddies so that they can learn some lessons on their own, and then bring them back together. This is the model of movies as different as Rain Man and ET.
Lost in this process is the idea that any real work will be in the last instance the work of an individual. Writers and directors – the temperamental and creative’ X-factor in any movie – are now seen as necessary and (at least individually) disposable evils. Did you know that it took 30 writers to produce The Flintstones? (Note even Alexander Hitchens had a good word for that mother.) As a consequence, the final cut of The Flintstones was even more Gumpish and moronic than the first version. And the first version was less good than the old and unpretentious Fifties cartoon had been.
This is indirectly reassuring, because such steep dives in standards cannot be the result of increasing cretinisation among the populace. (Any more than the rises in IQ performance cited in The Bell Curve can be the outcome of changes in genetic make-up.) Calcified slogans about popular culture and more meaning worse don’t do much work either. Market forces are giving people what the studios want, and the studios have enslaved themselves to an intellectual version of Gresham’s Law.
That this is so can be illustrated by the fate of two of this year’s movies: one of them a surprise winner and the other not even nominated. Blue Sky, Tony Richardson’s last film, sat in a can on the shelf for years before anyone got around to releasing it. And when it was finally released you had to avoid blinking if you wanted to avoid missing it. I caught it in a deserted semi-art-house in Washington with not so much as a ten-year-old for company. It is an intelligent and amusing and upsetting film about a services marriage in the early years of American nuclear testing. Tommy Lee Jones is good as usual (I can’t imagine him as Al Gore’s roommate in college, try as I may, but so he was) and Jessica Lange gives the performance of her lifetime. When people could get to this picture, they loved it and rewarded it. So there is an unslaked demand for quality ‘out there’.
Hoop Dreams, the documentary which created a huge fuss by its exclusion from the nominating process, sounds sentimental in most of its reviews and descriptions but is actually anything but. It is an arresting depiction of the use of basketball as upward mobility. And it tells a grainier and grittier story of life in the inner city, so-called, than many of the drive-by fictionalisations. Whenever it was mentioned in passing during the ceremony, it was clapped. But that was all.
I have never found out why this outfit calls itself. ‘The Academy’ and I have never met anybody who understands how the process of ‘nomination’ works. But at lunch in Santa Monica the day after the gala, I did learn a useful piece of Hollywood etiquette. What do you say when you are introduced to somebody who has just made, or starred in, a film that you think should never have been made, let alone screened? Answer: you shake the hand and smile and say: ‘You must be very proud ... ’