It's official: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Superman II" are major hits. Variety, the show-business newspaper, calls them "true champions" which jointly collected more than 25 percent of the total June box office.
Hollywood is cheering, as well Hollywood should. Last month marked a sharp turnaround for filmgoing, which has been in recession for 2 1/2 years. In fact, June registered the two most lucrative weeks in movie history -- though though that's measured in dollars, not the number of admissions.
But should the rest of us be cheering? True, the new superhits are fast, colorful, packed with action, and reasonably clean. Still, they're also . . . childish. There's hardly a scene, word, or gesture to provoke a thought or stir an emotion in the grown-ups (regardless of age) in the audience.
And that's the problem with today's Hollywood "product." It's all aimed at the 15-to-22-year-old crowd who see their favorite films again and again, pouring their disposable dollars through the ticket window, the candy counter, and the Asteroids "videogame" in the lobby. Is it any wonder that the movie on the screen now tastes like the candy and looks like the Asteroids game? Sweet, dazzling, and empty.
Oh, fun is fine. But there's such a thing as freshm fun. "Star WArs" was fresh. We'd never seen anything like it, even though its inspiration came from old space operas and romances. "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" was fresh, with a starry-eyed optimism that was childlikem in the best sense.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the brain child of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who directed those earlier films, respectively. You can see the same formulas running right through it, from the lightweight "Star Wars" imagery to the canny "Close Encounters" finale here given a dark and dangerous twist. And "Superman II" -- which registered the most profitable opening weekend ever -- is a clone of the original "Superman," still taking most of its ideas from a venerable comic strip and adding little of its own except some welcome comedy.
Of course, we expect Hollywood to repeat its successes. But imitations used to be regarded as minor, secondary films. Titles like "Son of . . ." and ". . . Rides Again" were universal jokes.Obviously, times have changed. Today, when the hype is as noisy as the hit, the moguls expect us to accept the pastiche of "Raiders" as bold new stuff, charged with Lucas and Spielberg "genius."
The promoters of "Raiders" had a lot to work with, given the past credits of Mr. L. and Mr. S., stretching back to "American graffiti" and "Jaws." Yet not everyone automatically played the press agent's game. Shortly before its release, "Raiders" was considered a "dubious summer release" with "scant awareness" among the public, according to industry analyst Stuart Byron, writing in the Village Voice.
So what transformed "Raiders" into a must-see blockbuster? Rave writeups in Time and Newsweek, Byron theorizes. The movie became a media event, and people rushed to see what the fuss was all about. By now, almost everyone seems to feel "Raiders" is the one to catch this season, forgetting that all the critics didn't play the promoters' game, either: Byron lists the Voice, The New Yorker, the SoHo News, Us, Inquiry, and The Chicago Reader as publications printing mixed or negative reviews by members of the Raiders Resistance League.
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.
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.
And if that isn't enough, consider the moments when both movies cheat. That's right, cheat -- openly and shamelessly, as if the whole worldwide audience didn't have a single brain in its credulous head. In "Raiders" we seem the heroine hide in a basket, and we seem it loaded on a truck, and we seem the truck go up in flames. And there's no waym in terms of the plot she could have escaped -- until she pops up a few scenes later, and the hero mutters something about "They musta switched . . . ."
"Superman II" is just as egregious. In our presence, with a long buildup, the hero is told that he willm lose his powers (forever!) if he does certain things. He goes ahead and loses his powers and that's it -- until the plot begins to drag, and suddenly he's as powerful as ever, as if the filmmakers could cancel half the story (in retrospect, yet) anytime they felt like it. Also, the movie exaggerates some flaws in the Superman myth, through second-rate storytelling. One minute, he's strong enough to move the whole planet. The next minute, a supervillain gives him a good wallop and we're supposed to believe he's down for the count. Sorry, but it just doesn't work.
None of this matters very much, of course; these are just rip-roaring summer entertainments and what's a plothole between friends? Anyway, there's some mumbo jumbo about a crystal in "Superman II' that might explain the shell game with our hero's powers. But it's neither clear nor convincing.
As for "Raiders," it seems to think it can get away with anything (including a deliberately wishy-washy finale, if there's enough energy behind it). But when storytelling is your entire stock in trade (especiallym in a light summer yarn), the storytelling can at least be honest. When it isn't, even for a little while, we have every reason to suspect the integrity -- or, at a minimum, the high standards -- of the storytellers.
And let's not pin the whole rap on the moviemakers, who are obviously -- look at their success! -- giving the public exactly what it wants. By accepting the con games as well as the occasional glories of these films, audiences share the blame. Without millions of customers, after all, media events and superhits and must-see movies simply couldn't exist.
Do people enjoy being conned like this, by movies that suck us in with real excellence in some areas, then think nothing of choking us with a red herring? Perhaps that's the basic problem. In the July issue of Scientific American, reviewer Philip Morrison discusses a new book on two popular "mentalists," one of whom -- Uri Geller -- claims to have true psychic powers. Observed by careful outsiders, Geller's methods soon became plain, almost embarrassingly: While some of his ruses are clever, he gets some of his effects by simply peeking around his hand or past the edges of his blindfold!
How have countless people been taken in by such nonsense, bolstered by Geller's references to "the wizards on the spaceship Spectra"? The answer must involve the wish for something more exciting and more engaging than our everyday lives -- the same wish that takes us to empty- headed blockbusters and carries us thoughtlessly past lapses in logic and credibility.
Perhaps too much of our current entertainment-seeking is guided by a Roman epigraph Morrison cites in his review: "Populus vult decipi" (People want to be deceived).