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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The Grand Illusion

Dear Neal Gabler,

I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your piece in the Week in Review section of Sunday’s New York Times. While certainly not new in deploring the way so many American movies and television shows don’t entertain so much as give off Pavlovian stimuli to make us think we are being entertained, you stated the case very eloquently, as you usually do. Arguably, you made your case a wee bit easy by choosing to contrast the current film Mr. Deeds with the original Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. While the comparison certainly makes your point, there really isn’t a lot of sport in pitting Adam Sandler against the great Frank Capra. To put it in musical terms, that’s a bit like holding a singing contest between Frank Sinatra and Britney Spears (with lip synching not allowed).

I do have a question, Neal. You know the joke that people make when they both wear the same thing to a meeting? (“I see you got the memo that we’re wearing blue today.”) Did you and Maureen Dowd both get a memo to trash Hollywood in the Week in Review section? Her op-ed piece seemed to complement yours perfectly. I really enjoy reading Maureen, although not as much since Bush II got up and running. Her jaded, pop-culture-laced attacks on Bill Clinton were great precisely because Clinton was so culturally aware and such a film buff. When she goes after Bush, the extremely culturally unaware current president (the only three movies he has apparently are the Austin Powers trilogy, for God’s sake) is such an easy target for the quick-witted columnist that she seems like just one more of a multitude of commentators piling on poor W.

In her column on Sunday, she loosed her poison pen for some reason on filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. She pans his new film Full Frontal in an attack piece titled “Sex, Lies And Bad Lighting.” Her point is that “independent” films, i.e. movies made without major studio backing, have come to represent artistic integrity, but now they have been co-opted as a virtual marketing brand. As she puts it, “independence becomes a style accessory.” Boy, talk about cynical. According to Maureen, big budget movies are lousy, and now low-budget movies are lousy too. Calm down, Maureen. You can just say that you didn’t like this film without having to generalize your dislike to all independent films. I know it’s a lot of work to take each film one by one instead of as a group, but really, it’s a lot more fun that way.

Anyway, she did say one thing in her column that really piqued my interest. In trashing another current “indie” film, she called Tadpole, which recounts a relationship between a male teenager and an older woman, “merely a pale version of ‘Rushmore,’ a pale version of ‘The Graduate.'” In other words, independent films are like a series of copies made on a very old photocopying machine: each new copy is inferior to the previous one. I haven’t seen Tadpole yet, but dismissing Rushmore as a rip-off of The Graduate risks betraying Maureen as a cranky old codger, who begins each complaint with “In my day…” If she actually thinks Rushmore was trying to tell the same story as The Graduate, no wonder she finds movie-watching so frustrating.

But I’m glad that she brought up The Graduate, Neal, because that classic film is the first one I saw where I became aware of what you call “the illusion of entertainment.” Everyone always remembers the scene where the guy gives a very young Dustin Hoffmann the famous one-word piece of advice, “Plastic!” But I always remember another scene. It’s the one where Hoffmann is talking to the versatile character actor Murray Hamilton, playing the cuckolded Mr. Robinson. Hamilton is having a highball in his suburban family room with the television blaring in the background. That alone provided a rude shock of recognition, since most real American homes always seem to have a TV blaring in the background. (You wouldn’t know this from watching most American movies, where people never seem to turn on their televisions except at just the right time to hear a news bulletin pertinent to the plot of the movie.) On the Robinsons’ TV is The Newlywed Game, a fixture of the airwaves at the time. It was produced by a man named Chuck Barris, who also gave us The Dating Game and the infamous Gong Show. At the time, this is what passed for “reality television.” On The Newlywed Game, the entertainment derived from the way the bemused host asked recently married couples ostensibly innocent questions, which were usually open to a titillating secondary interpretation. (As a teenager I vividly remember a man in the local barber shop haranguing emotionally for quite a while about how indecent the show was because the night before he had seen Bob Eubanks submit the question to three women, who all happened to be pregnant, “What is your favorite thing to do for fun?”) In the clip that we see in The Graduate, Eubanks has asked three husbands which of their wives’ do they find annoying. One contestant replies sheepishly, “She never shaves her legs.” The television audience breaks into uproarious laughter, and Mr. Robinson, distracted from his conversation with young Ben, chuckles appreciatively. This simple scene spoke volumes about the vacuousness of American middle-class life as well as what was already passing as entertainment for the masses. The difference, over course, was that back then a movie like this was parodying the illusion of entertainment rather than practicing it.

Another question, Neal. Do you think more or fewer people read your article because of all the fuss that was made about another op-ed piece in the same section? I mean, of course, the one by Al Gore, in which he (similar to the way Bill Clinton the week before made an amazing outburst on camera in a belated attempt to blame, while ostensibly denying to blame, Bush I for his administration’s problems) insisted that he had been right to pit “the people” versus “the powerful” in his most-vote-getting-but-losing-anyway presidential bid. As this son of an esteemed senator, whose seat he virtually inherited, excoriates “those who believed they were entitled to govern because of their station in life,” I can’t help but wonder if he should have paraphrased you and called his tirade “The Illusion of Political Choice.”

Best regards,

-S.L., 8 August 2002

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