Hollywood's superhits -- dazzling and . . . empty?
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Backlash is as dangerous as unanimity, though. Like most things, "Raiders" is neither as good as its fan(atics) allege nor as bad as self-consciously "mature" pundits fear. The first 20 minutes are breathtakingly exciting, the next hour is rousing entertainment. Only in the second half does Spielberg lapse into stale ideas and overlong set pieces, like the endless fisfight on an airplane, which should have been left on the cutting room floor.Skip to next paragraph
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It's harder to tell why "Superman II" has gone through the roof. There's little here that wasn't developed or at least introduced in the first "Superman, " and director Richard Lester keeps the action flowing with the same comic-strip momentum used by Richard Donner in the original. Indeed, Lester's own visual imagination seems largely subordinated to the demands of the story and the precedents of the project.
But then, it's always hard to pick the hits. Perhaps the new "Superman" is succeeding so well precisely because it fellows all the rules -- unlike, say, the sequel to the superhit "Exorcist," a superior film that failed because it violated every audience expectation. And maybe "Raiders" is cleaning up because of its cheerful willingness to treat the oldest cliches with a sigh, a smirk, and a smile -- a very respectful smile -- all at the same time. At least, we might say, the new hits are high in style, if not in substance.
Yet near-stylistics aren't enough, as any veteran of the style-vs.-substance wars will tell you. Unfortunately, today's most influential criticism often tends to value "form" over "content." It locates the "real meaning" of a film in its method rather than its manners or mentality. Thus first- rate technicians and imaginative craftspeople find their work elevated to the status of major art , despite their shaky grasp on deeper and subtler facets of their work.
Spielberg, Lucas, and Lester are masters of technique, structure, and some aspects of movie language. But there's less in their philosophy than Horatio ever dreamed of -- or at least it doesn't show in their films. That's OK, as long as we recognize "Raiders" and "Superman II" as the teenage ticktocks they are. Or should we refuse to leave it at that? Is there a trace of real cynicism lurking in these movies -- a hint that the filmmakers don't fully share their audiences' values, but usem the fashionable thirst for thrills, to their own manipulative ends?
There are such hints. Even though Spielberg, Lucas, and Lester plainly love movies, they also love to manhandle the minds of their spectators, and they will stoop pretty low to accomplish this. Thus in "Raiders" there's the willingness to expand the film after its ideas have expired, and the reduction of awesome concepts -- involving the biblical Ark of the Covenant contested between the forces of good and evil -- to the level of gruesome effects recalling less the Old Testament than "House of Wax" and "X: the Unknown."
Meanwhile, in "Superman II" there's the contentment with being merely a sequel, just another rehash of old gimmicks -- which would be more effective if they weren't spiced up with boorish crowd-pleasers, like Clark Kent beating up a bully. Superman is still a charming character, but that sort of junk went out with the old serials.