Facts about the Cineplex: 1) Several movies play simultaneously. 2) The movies begin at different times. 3) When you purchase a ticket, it is to spend approximately 120 minutes in one movie, not 120 minutes in several different movies.
The experience is both democratic and hierarchical: people with different tastes mingle for a while in the lobby, buying tickets and popcorn, and then split off into individual theaters. The power of the Cineplex lies in the standardization of the moviegoing experience, as each theater is basically the same, an interchangeable auditorium of stadium seating. There is comfort in this, but also numbing familiarity. Close your eyes and open them again; in this room, you could be anywhere.
The surrealists André Breton and Paul Éluard used to enter movie theaters at random and stay only a little while, until the plot became clear to them and the films’ images were drained of their power. In the Cineplex you can do the same thing all in one building. I did that one day this summer. What I saw was not excerpts from ten different movies, but one movie made up of ten interchangeable parts—the imperial power of Hollywood, still alive and well, surviving postmodern fragmentation and resisting détournement.
So real it looks fake, the colors more real than real, the way we imagine colors to be, not the way they really are. Pierce Brosnan narrates as if he is reading from some sacred text. The Ocean: “most of us only experience a small part of it.” Something about “it is more than just a place.” What is happening? A group of iguanas at sunset rest on the shore, and then a rocket takes off on the horizon (the Space Shuttle?) and suddenly they all go alert and raise their heads and look toward the light, as if this were the first time these creatures had seen evidence of human technology. The movie’s dark intonations suggest that the fire in the sky is a bad thing (“Fire bad!”), but why?
For a tortuous twelve minutes Oceans smashes its neo-liberal humanist fist against the natural world, which is not permitted to exist for its own sake, but must be oversaturated with post-production oceanic sound and color and over-glorification of fish and amphibians and lizards that are just being themselves and not performing and that have no moral system as we know it. But Oceans suggests that these creatures are secret gods brought forth by the camera to enlighten pathetic humans about the perils of Homo sapien progress, which has created nothing more than artificial fire in the sky that catches the attention of dumbfounded iguanas, whose look of shock at this fire is designed to remind us of many Bad Things at once. We are charged with having lost our innocence, of disrupting the comfortable myth of the natural world, and, worst of all, of moving ahead to destroy the heavens and earth despite that fact that we know we are destroying the heavens and earth.
Twelve people in the theater, plus me. The first dialogue I hear, in voice-over, is spoken by some kid who turns out to be a major player in the movie: “We see someone in trouble,” he says, “we wish we could help. But we don’t. The world I lived in, heroes only existed in comic books, and I guess that would have been okay if the bad guys were make believe, too. But they’re not.” Cut to a man about to be tortured by having his fingers garden-clipped off one-by-one (then he is shot) mixed in with self-referential banter—lots of talk about Batman, in a movie based on a comic book about comic-book heroes.
Deeply conservative, Kick-Ass announces itself in its very title as the phantasmagoric wish-fulfillment of the Bush doctrine. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality,” a Bush aide told Ron Suskind in 2004. For the dozen-plus minutes that I’m in the theater Kick-Ass slips out of its moral noose and runs amok in a desperate attempt to create and make legitimate its own reality. Characters come and go, but they mean nothing to each other or to us. “This fuckin’ guy comes out of nowhere, kicks our asses, and steals all the coke,” the poor guy about to be tortured and then killed says to the men who will kill him. But only the weak-willed among the audience see him as a “poor guy.” He is instead, in the worldview of the movie, a nothing, a blood-spurter, a screamer, a spectacle, a vessel awaiting the creation of a new reality of torture.
Two plots develop at the same time. Plot #1: Kids Dress in Comic-Book-ish Costumes to Kick Ass. Plot #2: Break Some Taboos. But there are no more taboos, today, except to be boring. The sixteen minutes I watch flip by like comic book pages, and this makes us, in the audience, feel like we are moving together, old and young. Nicholas Cage (b. 1964) plays Big Daddy to Hit Girl (Chloë Moretz, b. 1997). “I’m just fuckin’ with you, Daddy!” she says, and in that one moment we understand that the idea being advanced is this: there is a sadness in the absence of authority. In The Outsider, Colin Wilson wrote that the “world has no meaning for us because we do all things mechanically.” The people in Kick-Ass are smiling but they are sad because they do things like kill other people as a matter of course, and there is no authority telling them to stop. In the film’s overdetermined celebration of this freedom there is a longing for the old strictures.
The Last Song
There is a generational death-match going on here, too. I have stepped into an extended version of Kick-Ass. The words are different, the faces on the screen are different, but this is the same movie. Ronnie Miller (Miley Cyrus) vs. her father Steve Miller (Greg Kinnear), as Steve tries to win his estranged, post-divorce daughter over, enduring her boredom, her sarcasm, her empty-faced gazes. They are somewhere warm. Steve works on a church stained-glass window in his garage or studio. The film wants to be about redemption.
For nine minutes, absolutely nothing happens in The Last Song. People meet each other and say things. The fact that nothing happens makes the movie interesting. The theater is empty. The projector runs for no one except me. I move around and sit in the very back row and then in the front row. I watch the movie standing up. I turn around and look up at the projection booth, but that seems to be empty, too. Steve’s estranged wife, Kim, Ronnie’s mother, is played by Kelly Preston.
Steve: She’s [Ronnie’s] still not playing [piano]?
Kim: Not since the day you left. Brian even bought her an electric piano. She won’t go near it.
A little later:
Kim: We hurt them Steve, especially Ronnie. We can try and pretend that we . . .
Steve: I’m not going to do this, okay? Things happen.
The characters exchange lines like this with the force of gum dropping from a dead man’s mouth. Ronnie is supposedly a piano prodigy who “gave up,” and yet not for one moment do we believe that she even knows that a piano is a musical instrument. There is nothing musical about Ronnie or Steve or the theater I am alone in, watching the screen, waiting for something to happen, even the flickering of an exit sign.
I find the exit, make my way to the over-lit restroom. The kindly assistant manager smiles at me. She is surrounded by over a dozen movies playing simultaneously, and her desk is at the center. Walkie-talkies on her desk crackle to life periodically with reports from the theater staff. She watches me as I make my way back toward the next movie, The Losers, in Theater 15, and it is only then that I see that her smile is a warning: I am being watched.
I enter the darkened theater, punctuated by bursts of yellow and orange explosions in a jungle somewhere. I count fifteen or fifteen backs of heads. I take a seat near the front.
“He’ll kill you too, you know.”
A dead child’s teddy bear on fire. A bus with rescued children smashing down the side of a mountain in Bolivia.
“Sir, there’s not enough room for your team now.”
Everyone inside the bus should have died a dozen times. We are conned. No one today minds the con. The secret of movies, now, is to show us how we are conned. This—revealing the con—used to be someone else’s job.
“Keep your bear. Keep him safe.”
The child is obliterated by a rocket. The stuffed bear survives.
“He’ll kill you, too, you know.”
Americans have sensed that there is no longer any such thing as “orthodoxy.” For many years, there was something sad about this. But now that sadness has lifted. Why? Because they sense a new orthodoxy coming. In The Losers a helicopter of innocent children is blown out of the sky.
“Keep your bear. Keep him safe.”
The filmmakers are orthodox enough not to show the children’s bodies in the burning wreckage. Instead, they show the burning teddy bear. This is the new orthodoxy, a post-neo-conservative impulse to police ourselves, seeping into Hollywood movies which are not too violent, as is so often charged, but not violent enough. “The violence is supposed to be upsetting,” Casey Affleck has said in defense of The Killer Inside Me. In The Losers, the stuffed bear stands in for the children, a synecdoche borne out of fear.
The new orthodoxy denounces representations of reality for representations of representations of reality. In The Perfect Crime, Jean Baudrillard wrote that “contrary to what is said about it (the real is what resists, what all hypotheses run up against), reality is not very solid and seems predisposed, rather, to retreat in disorder. Whole swathes of reality are collapsing.” For nearly 30 minutes, The Losers itself collapses under the weight of how to solve this unsolvable dilemma. The fact that it tries marks The Losers as both a failure (as a movie) and a low-grade form of theory.
The Bounty Hunter
The stadium seating has made me dizzy and I sit in the third row this time, the screen filling my field of vision. In The Bounty Hunter, there are jokes. It is, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, full of false entrances, of eruptions of exaggerated laughter followed by wide-eyed stillness, of physical comedy that hearkens back to television’s blossoming confidence in the early 1960s that it could compete with the movies through the very constraints of the medium. But if The Bounty Hunter tries to capture some of the madcap adventurism of early sitcoms, it fails because its nostalgia is unearned, the product of an attenuated sense of bedlam.
It is around twenty minutes into the film. Nicole Hurley (Jennifer Aniston) is handcuffed to a bed in a hotel room, while a bounty hunter, Milo (Gerard Butler), is in the bathroom. It turns out Milo is Nicole’s ex-husband. It is morning. A woman from housekeeping enters:
Nicole: Um. You’re probably wondering why, uh, I’m handcuffed to the bed.
Housekeeping Lady: I just came from a room where a man was lying in a bathtub full of mayonnaise wearing a dog collar.
Nicole: To each his own.
Housekeeping Lady: You’re not the one who has to clean the tub.
This is a joke, complete with a punch line, and had The Bounty Hunter continued down this path—piling one joke on another—it might have achieved a level of lunacy. There are fake high-tempered tantrums and arguments and the stomping of feet. Pouting. For some moments you think this might turn into something like What’s Up, Doc?, but none of the scenes interlock tightly enough to accelerate into pitched madness. It’s as if someone was hired to make the movie less funny than it might have been. Here, Nicole asks Milo for permission to use the bathroom:
Nicole: Can I have some privacy please?
Milo: No. Something tells me I should frisk you.
Nicole: Oh, pshh. Right. Why, do I look like I’m hiding a weapon between my breasts?
(Shakes her breasts in front of Milo.)
You expect a punch line, even a not-funny one, like Nicole goes into the bathroom and removes a weapon from between her breasts. That’s not funny, but it’s something. Yet nothing like that happens and you begin to wonder, was this movie released before it was completed? Was a joke finisher supposed to come in and write the punch lines? It is the idea of The Bounty Hunter to anticipate that its audience does not need punch lines, and for nearly twenty minutes the film succeeds as an exercise in self-defeat, an experiment in which nearly every comedic moment is undercut by the movie’s relentless insistence on not delivering the goods.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid
The most antagonistic eleven minutes of my life in a movie theater. That includes the ads. Maybe once I left the theater the movie became soft. But I did not see that part. I saw approximately eleven minutes from somewhere near the beginning.
This is a movie written by adults attempting to sound like children. So are most all movies about children, but many of them disguise that fact. The movie is narrated by the protagonist, 11-year-old Greg (Zachary Gordon), who sets up and comments on the action.
Greg (in voice-over): If you’re as discriminating as I am, it can be tough to figure out where to sit on your first day of middle school. One bad move, and you’re stuck next to some idiot for the rest of the year.
But how would Greg know this? The voice-over seems to be contemporaneous with the action (the first day of school) so how would he know about being stuck with a kid for the rest of the year on his first day of middle school? His is really the viewpoint of older people who have failed at disguising, on even the most basic narrative level, their adult voices. Greg and his buddy come across a cute girl under the bleachers, Angie (Chloë Moretz again) reading Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. This shows that she is deep, that she is an outsider despite her good looks. Howl, part II, begins with these lines:
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
their skulls and ate up their brains and imagi-
Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unob-
tainable dollars! Children screaming under the
stairways! Boys sobbing in armies! Old men
weeping in the parks!
Angie is not reading Howl, but holding it in such a way that we can see that the book that she holds is Howl. Because the filmmakers chose to put Howl in the film, it is a duty to respond that this is an unusual form of product placement. Perhaps watching the totality of Diary of a Wimpy Kid would obscure the fact of Howl in this movie. But watching a random, small portion of the movie elevates everything in that portion to a higher level of prominence. What might typically be forgotten as the plot of the movie carries us forward is lodged in memory. Thus, Howl is lodged, a thorn in the brain, an out-of-place book in a movie about the longing for social inclusion and the careful navigation and acceptance of social norms. At the end of “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” Horkheimer and Adorno wrote: “The triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.” Today, the triumphs are of a different order. We consume media like Diary of a Wimpy Kid not even though we see through it, but because we do.
Clash of the Titans
With the exception of The Bounty Hunter, every film discussed thus far was directed by someone born in Europe. Maybe not so surprising as Hollywood has had its share of famous and not-so famous European-born directors over the years. Yet most of these films (Kick-Ass, The Last Song, The Losers, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Clash of the Titans) could easily be dismissed as crassly American. Is there evidence of some sort of European New Wave in these films? No.
“There’s a god in you.”
That is a line from Clash of the Titans. There is dialogue in the movie, but the dialogue is not necessary because Clash of the Titans is pure cinema. We enter into the realm of images so dominating they make talking irrelevant. What does it matter what characters say to each other?
“It’s a message. They’re watching us,” Perseus says. I haven’t been in the theater long enough to know who he means. The gods?
Gigantic scorpions that seize men in their pincers and rip them in two or hurl them against stone walls overpower the false words of human beings. The men and women in Clash of the Titans appear to be lonely. Why are they lonely? Because they secretly wish to be monsters and gods, and yet the actors cannot see the monsters and gods their characters wish to be, because the monsters and gods are not actually there on the set with them. As hard as the filmmakers try not to show it, it is easy to detect how the monsters and human actors are separated by time and space. Maybe the giant scorpions were rendered before the humans stood before the cameras. Maybe they were rendered after. Either way, they are separate.
This separation is tragic for us, too, because it reminds us of our own divisions, from loved ones, from family, from the natural world that we dismiss as a nostalgic relic even though in our hearts we yearn for it, just as we yearn for our teachers from many years ago, or for the difference between the person we hoped to become and the person we are now. In Clash of the Titans, as in so many other films, the actors are alienated from the conditions of their acting, and although the logic and genius of CGI movies today is to erase this separation, it still bleeds through. The beauty of the scorpion fight sequence is not in the seamless integration of human actors and CGI monsters, but in the gap between them.
“There’s a god in you.”
Either Travis Beacham, Phil Hay, or Matt Manfredi (the credited screenwriters) wrote than line. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “God enters by a private door into every individual.” There are two people in the theater, plus me. “Hey, people,” I want to announce, “come over here and let’s sit together.” A screen-filling scorpion chases a man and crashes through a wall that explodes into dust. I am in the back, so as to make my quiet exit after fifteen minutes or so. By the light of the screen I can see a balding man four rows down and to my left, and then a small person whose gender is unidentifiable in the dark, down very close to the screen.
“It’s a message. They’re watching us.” Was the character who spoke those lines referring to us, in the audience?
The Back-up Plan
I walk in to banter. Zoe is played by Jennifer Lopez. Stan by Alex O’Loughlin.
Zoe: This is just not a good time for me. I’m going through some changes.
Zoe: Menopause? Seriously? How old do you think I am?
Stan: Okay, you know, let’s start over, because the more I think about it we’d never make it as a couple anyway. You’re way too skeptical. We should be friends.
Zoe: I have enough friends.
Stan: You can never have too many friends. What are you doing tonight?
Zoe: Getting take-out and going home to bed.
Stan: Clearly you don’t have that many friends.
There are twenty-two people in this theater, and for the first time I sit next to someone. The person next to me does not like that, and I become distracted. He does not appear to be enjoying the movie; my presence makes it worse. I remove myself by two rows. I am now behind the person—a balding man—and so far I have only caught a glimpse of Jennifer Lopez. The man turns around and looks back—I imagine for me—and at the next noisy scene I move again but drop my notes and must fish them out from beneath the empty seat in the row in front of me. I make my way to the back row, against the wall, immediately beneath the projector, which hums above me like a weird whisper from a Robert Coover story about the movies.
Stan says he just wants to walk with Zoe to a take-out food place, order with her, and then they’ll go their separate ways. I’m looking for my notes when this happens, but I have the feeling it’s crucial to the plot. I can’t see the screen, and can’t see Zoe’s reaction. There is a cut to some loud music, and I assume they are at the take-out place. Snatches of dialogue: “trust,” “I told you,” “why don’t we,” “you are persistent.” I look up at Jennifer Lopez and for one moment all my cynicism drains away. I see her beauty and fall sideways through the walls into the next darkened theater.
Death at a Funeral
Dear Neil LaBute: I was forever branded by In the Company of Men. What the fuck happened to you?
Who knows at what point during Death at a Funeral I entered the theater. The funeral. We are at the funeral of Aaron’s (Chris Rock’s) father. Guests are arriving. Aaron and his wife Michelle (Regina Hall) are trying to have a baby.
Michelle (trying to seduce Aaron): Listen, um, we still need to finish that thing.
Aaron: Oh come on baby, I’m just not in the mood right now.
Michelle: I’m not wearing any panties.
Aaron: Hey, my father’s dead!
Michelle: I’m trying to help here. Please honey, I really want to make this baby thing happen. We’ve got five min. . .
To say that Death at a Funeral plays on countless racial stereotypes would be like saying that leaves grow on trees, for without its racism the movie would cease to exist. I watched about fifteen minutes as the film lurched and faltered like a poisoned horse with a broken ankle, my thoughts already confused by dodging from theater to theater. People who are black, I thought, and people who are white. This is a movie about black people and white people. Does it matter that some are black and some are white? It seems to matter, I’m not sure how or why. The black characters talk in exaggerated ways, and the white characters talk in reserved ways, unless they are high. Is this important? But as soon as these questions entered my head they burn away, as if evaporated by light from the projector’s 3000-watt bulb burning out my eyes. I was light-headed, troubled, suddenly full of a hatred that was fed by the images and sounds of this comedy.
Hot Tub Time Machine
I wander in somewhere, I think near the halfway mark, my mind spinning from fragments of nine movies. There are people talking to each other on the screen. There are lights strung around like it is Christmas, but maybe it isn’t Christmas. I look for evidence of time travel. I lose track of who is talking, what their names are. The theater is overheated. Some lines:
“We’re gonna make, like, Hitler president or something. We can’t do this.”
“We’re gonna have sex with this girl. You, me, together.”
“No, you were supposed to do everything that we did.”
“I didn’t fuck that girl, okay, because I’m committed to not changing the past.”
“So you’re telling me I cheated on my wife for no reason?”
Who are these men? One of them is Adam, played by John Cusack, who was also one of the film’s producers. What kind of men are they? They are regular guy men, made to appear representative. They are not afraid to swear a lot or talk about sex.
Are they nostalgic? They are. They are nostalgic for the ’80s. The time machine transports them back to 1986, just like Michael J. Fox was transported back to the ’50s in Back to the Future, in the ‘80s. Their collective father is Ronald Reagan, whom they outwardly hated but secretly loved. They loved him because he sanctioned their behavior. He was not a stern father, but a distracted father, very much a “boys will be boys” father. His anti-regulatory policies extended to them, and they miss him.
“I didn’t fuck that girl, okay, because I’m committed to not changing the past.”
Whether the film endorses this scrap of dialogue I don’t know, but from just fifteen minutes it’s clear that Adam is the voice of sentimental moralism in the film. He longs for something deeper than just fucking “that girl.” Already, from a piece of time near the middle of the film, I can feel the gravitational pull of the faux Restoration of Order that was the symbolic project of the Reagan era. Funny and fitting that in order to learn how to be good men, the characters in Hot Tub Time Machine have to reverse-engineer their futures.
I leave this Time Machine. On my way out, the Cineplex is hopping with people, packs of teenagers I feel a ridiculous affinity with. My brain is scrambled from watching random fragments of ten movies in two hours. By writing this I try to convince myself that I am no slave to images, that I am the master, not the mastered. And yet I know I will be back again, and I am strangely comforted because I am not completely free.