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Send in the Clones

An orgy of sequels fills the screens of summer with junk-food cinema--not that there's anything wrong with that

By Richard von Busack

THAT OLD art-school motto "Artists talk about money, and bankers talk about art" comes to mind whenever the box office is mentioned. After I'd been outed as a critic at a free screening, the people next to me couldn't wait to ask, "Which is going to have the bigger opening weekend, Spider-Man or Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones?"

There's certainly more fun in the story of Spider-Man than there is in George Lucas' precertified summer blockbuster, less of that synthetic spiritual austerity that's seeping into the Star Wars lore. That New Age patina encrusting the story of the Skywalker clan can be blamed on the franchise's Northern California roots. Here, spirituality isn't just a way of life, it's a good business.

(If you're irked at the stand-offishness of Lucas' Jedi, reread Victor Hugo's hell-rant about monasteries in Les Misérables. One sample: "In the light of history, reason and truth, monastic life stands condemned ... mouths closed, brains walled-up, so many hapless intellects incarcerated in the dungeons of eternal vows.")

But even a critic as canny as J. Hoberman in the Village Voice refers to Spider-Man as a "chair-filler until Attack of the Clones comes out." That's an unfortunate way of looking at moviegoers--so manipulated by advertising that they have no will of their own, that they're just inanimate objects to fill chairs, grown like the clone army on planet Whatchamacallit.

Roger Ebert gives the audience slightly more credit, considering them animate, if nonhuman. As he said recently on KQED radio, the mass movie audience sometimes reminds him of a flock of birds all rising at the same time, all settling at the same time in a different tree, until, as if they'd heard a signal, something else rouses them again to leave, all in a flock. It's a valid complaint. If only Ebert hadn't been out there filling the bird feeders.

Jaws of Fate

I've been guilty of this snobbery myself. Certainly, anyone who puzzled over the box-office grosses of Snow Dogs does doubt the mass audience's sanity. How did the summer-movie business become like an interstate highway, with every mile just like the mile a few miles back?

It wasn't always thus. The young Steven Spielberg once asserted, "Making a sequel is a cheap carny trick" (at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1975, as quoted in Joseph McBride's biography). And it wasn't his decision to stretch Jaws, as if with Sharkmeat Helper, into three sequels. And it was after Jaws and his friend Lucas' Star Wars and their collaborative effort on the Indiana Jones series that every summer (and beyond) turned into the annual Attack of the Clones.

Spielberg, according to McBride again, used to claim that there was a difference between a winner and a WINNER, that Americans loved the former and loathed the latter. Thus Spielberg, who made real box-office money, got shunned at the Oscars. Or so the argument went.

Today, though, the WINNER does enamor movie fans, who love to reccite the box-office grosses. They're following the lead of newscasters and magazines alike. The hugeness of the box-office numbers spurs journalists to seek out the significance in dumb movies like The Scorpion King (and there's a film that represents as complete a retreat from significance as our cinema offers today). The Scorpion King has made a bundle (boxofficeguru.com will tell you how much.)

No matter how cooked the figures may be by exhibitors, reciting the numbers makes people think that part of that money is jingling in their pockets. It's the same trick that keeps newscasters repeating the sums won on Super Lotto. You may be unemployed--your friends may be unemployed--but when you hear about those jackpots you're reassured the money's out there somewhere.

Blockbusters and Blockheads

The word "blockbuster" was originally a slang term for a World War II bomb that apparently never got past much experimental use. (There's a picture of an actual blockbuster on http://www.390th.org/museum/gallery/Vintage/ blockbuster.html; it's a 50,000-pound bomb filled with conventional explosives, large enough to bust up a city block.) Appropriately, the continual creation of blockbuster summer movies has had a destructive effect: the sucking up of money into monumental event-movies, while the basic cinematic infrastructure falls apart.

Sequels have been with us since the 1930s, from MGM's almost A-list Thin Man series to the countless dozens of Bowery Boys films. Since-forgotten series like Scattergood Baines at RKO or Lupe Velez's Mexican Spitfire pictures turned up on the bottom half of double features several times a years. But these were cheap back-lot movies, dashed off. No one put a great deal of imagination or effort into such sequels. The joke was "They liked it once; they'll love it twice." Diminished returns were built in at an early stage in the sequel-making process.

What's most distressing about sequels today is that they take characters one cared about and treat them with contempt. Look at the way Mel Gibson's serious depression in the first Lethal Weapon became ordinary zaniness by Lethal Weapon 4. Look at the way Batman, a romantic, haunted figure, became a cheap tin toy in the last episodes of his franchise.

The first Austin Powers movie, a risky in-joke when it began, begot the Mike Meyers egofest The Spy Who Shagged Me. And this summer, like clockwork, comes another Austin Powers movie, Austin Powers in Goldmember, even though Meyers has apparently run out of spy-movie jokes.

All these sequels--Men in Black II, Halloween: Resurrection, Stuart Little 2--are augmented by the films cloned from TV: The Powerpuff Girls, Scooby Doo, The Crocodile Hunter.

Before the opening of Jaws in 1975, "platforming" was a part of the film-release schedule. Important films opened in the big cities and trickled down everywhere else. Platforming is now only used for prestigious art-house films. Today, the would-be blockbusters open on the same date from coast to coast.

As opening day for a blockbuster approaches, millions of viewers reverberate with orchestrated emotions, echoed on TV news and in newspaper stories. And lately, the American movie industry is exporting this kind of manufactured mass-event overseas. These films open even earlier across the Pacific, in the wealthier parts of Asia. (Usually, the release date is a day earlier, because of the International Date Line.)

This Asian strategy is necessary, according to the studios, because bootleg copies of American features hit the streets with frightening rapidity after the opening date. Attack of the Clones, for instance, opens in Asia and Australia the same day as it opens in America--thus the unusual Thursday opening in the United States.

If all that American excess strikes you as gross, then think about this: If it's true that "digital film" is the wave of the future, as George Lucas asserts, then the risks of film piracy are only going to be increased by hackers. And one method of fighting piracy would be to further synchronize film releases. The future may see worldwide opening dates. What's already a national ritual could evolve into a global orgy.

In 80 percent of the country, the best-advertised movies in our summer preview would be your only choice--mostly satires of satires of satires, reduced into infinity. For a snapshot of how grim it is elsewhere, see Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's book Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Conspire to Limit What Films We Can See.

Luckily, we Northern Californians still live in an area with art houses that take risks, like the Camera Cinemas in San Jose, the Landmark Theaters on the peninsula and the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. Here, there is a new film fest every week, the Stanford Theater continues to program vintage golden-era studio movies, and a few second-run and rep houses such as the Red Vic, the Balboa and the endangered Roxie in San Francisco continue to offer rarities and experimental fare. Nearby are several film museums, the best of which is the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley.

This selection befits a region with an abiding interest in gourmet cuisine. It's usually wrong to compare the devouring of movies with food, though they are so often described as the same experience. Critics compare the "sumptuous cinematic feasts" at Chez Merchant-Ivory to "popcorn movies" gulped down at the googleplex. What you pick from the menu below is up to you, but you know what happens to someone who subsists on a steady diet of junk food.


High Tide: Surprise--some of this summer's movies actually provide food for thought.

Terrorism Alert Schedule: Homeland security requires all filmgoers to be ever vigilant.

Don't Worry: We'll Think of an Ad Campaign. Jennifer Lopez. Everyone has a limit. Enough.

Subversive Stupidity: 'Undercover Brother' isn't afraid to get smart about being dumb.

Spy Games: Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Find a spy movie worth seeing this summer.

Candid Cameron: What to make of Hollywood's fave girl next door? An alien? A reincarnated Gidget?

Endless Summer Flick Finder: An epic summary of what's coming soon to a theater near you.


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From the May 16-22, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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