DIM the lights. Pop the gourmet popcorn. At last Hollywood has figured out (for the hundredth time) how to make a supersmash, big-boffo hit. The latest fail-safe formula: Shoot a movie -- and ``shoot'' is the operative word -- that macho young males will want to go to. Again and again.
``Rambo: First Blood, Part II'' is this summer's case in point. The producers estimate that up to 20 percent of the film's gross is generated by customers returning for a second look. And a third look. And a fourth look.
It is not uncommon to find young men and boys staggering out of a theater -- ears ringing from M-16 fire, eyes glazed with battle fatigue -- after seeing ``Rambo'' for the 12th time.
The Guinness Book of World Records is not yet definitive but ``Ramboing'' has become practically the full-time summer job for adolescent cultists. Before the season ends, the number of repeaters in an audience may exceed 50 percent, as it already does for ``Beverly Hills Cop,'' now in its eighth month of circulation.
After three months, the cost accountants contend, a film nowadays depends upon an encore audience. This has been the economic law for the past five or six years, ever since young people (often male) began orbiting, round and round, with Luke Skywalker.
Why do moviegoers recycle themselves? Joyce Brothers told USA Today, ``It's similar to a child's delight at hearing `Goldilocks' a thousand times,'' a comparison that makes you wonder if America's favorite psychologist has seen ``Rambo'' or reread her Grimm lately. Yet Dr. Brothers certainly has a point if she means to suggest that there has to be more to ``Ramboing'' than cinematic excellence, or even a renaissance of the John Wayne myth.
As the young turn their heads into a rerun theater, the rest of us may be tempted to chalk up one more mystery of American adolescence -- and try to forget it. But can we ignore the interesting paradox here? The most desperate restlessness, the most unappeasable hunger for novelty seems to coexist with an equally desperate, if less publicized need for the familiar and habitual. Young Americans may be lost, but they like to know exactly where they are lost. And so we have this ``Play it again, Sam'' synd rome.
Not only do all the young and the half-restless double back to see the same movie, they buy the videocassette when possible to comfort themselves with the prospect of replaying it ad infinitum, 24 hours a day.
Then, after they have saturated themselves in their make-believe until whole passages, whole scenes have become part of the banter of their lives, they demand that another film be made, just like it: ``Rocky II,'' ``Rocky III'' -- and ``Rambo'' to the nth power.
Nobody rereads books this way -- not even Shakespearean scholars.
Nobody buys a second, third, or fourth ticket to ``Gandhi'' either. Nonviolence, evidently, is yawn enough first time around. Would nonviolence get by even once if there weren't those brilliantly violent scenes of the nonviolent being slaughtered?
How self-contradictory it all becomes! The replayers want to watch everything orderly and stable getting bashed and overturned. There is enough chaos in ``Rambo'' and all the ``Road Warrior'' sequels to satisfy a terrorist. But the replayers want it to be nice, neat chaos -- the same old chaos, again and again. And always in the name of law-and-order, pronounced as one word.
Seeing slaughter in replay gives a good name to the prayer wheel, so far as the department of repetition goes.
The young replayers love to apply the term ``boring'' (or ``bor-r-r-ing'') to almost everything except seeing ``Rambo'' or Madonna's music video for the 10th time. But have they invented for themselves the ultimate boredom as their form of escape?
It is time to stop talking about ``them'' and start talking about ``us'' -- us adults.
Like no generations before us, we change the address where we live, the spouses we live with, the kind of work we do and the employers we do it for. If somebody calls us rootless, we call ourselves ``risk-takers'' and ``creative'' in our dizzying freedom. Yet, like our replay children, we too hang onto silly little fixed points of reference -- decorating our interchangeable homes with traditional furniture, wearing fashions from this or that decade past, at least for one season.
We too are children of the replay -- free-floating with one hand on our security blanket.
The future is upon us before we have our past straight, and so we become like our astronauts who explode into starry space, bringing their old-fashioned country music with them as they spin from solid earth toward . . . who knows where? Don't ask Sylvester Stallone.
A Wednesday and Friday column