Monday, September 27, 2010

Does Hollywood Pay Osama Bin Laden Residuals?

Gimme five points on the back end, Infidel!
If there isn't a P.O. Box in Kandahar stuffed with uncashed checks then Osama should seriously think of switching agencies. CAA would make certain that the self-styled "Cecile B. DeMille of Tora Bora" was getting a taste. He is after all the creative visionary behind much of the last decade. Bruckheimer? Abrams? A couple of hacks that have been riding Osama's coattails all the way to the bank. Seen it a million times in Hollywood: one guy comes up with a fresh take and then the imitators get rich packaging and repackaging the idea until it's a stale cliche. That's how we felt watching the premier of The Event last week - just another riff on the Bin Laden zeitgeist.

Film has long served as the coal mine canary for American paranoia and fear. Not because it is some sensitive touchstone that reflects the culture back to itself. No, it's mostly because capitalizing on people's fear is an easy buck, and Hollywood doesn't like to think that hard. In the 1950s, during the dawn of the Space and Atomic Age, audiences were either bombarded by gruesome things falling from the sky (The Thing, 20 Million Miles to Earth, The Blob) or else menaced by a revolving carousel of giant irradiated monsters (Them, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla). Out went supernatural and in came super-science as the source of all that scared the bejusus out of Americans. The plots remained essentially unchanged, but Hollywood gave the bogeyman's back story a ripped-from-the-headlines makeover.

The Sixties saw horror make a nascent shift from rubber-suited monsters to people themselves as monsters. Evil children were a major motif: Village of the Damned, Rosemary's Baby, Psycho. Psycho wasn't about a child, but it was a nasty little postcard from Hitchcock on the danger of being a bad mother - raise 'em right or they'll embalm you, dress in your Sunday best and kill Janet Leigh in a shower. Sorry Boomers, but you basically scared the shit out of everybody. Imagine if you will... a small, peaceful farming community until a half million unwashed, shambling creatures descended on it. Are we describing Night of the Living Dead or Woodstock?

By the late Sixties/early Seventies things were finally turning good and bloody courtesy of Vietnam. Apparently, if you televise combat footage at dinnertime for ten straight years the country may come out hungry for entrails. Lesson learned, and lesson exploited. Formally bloodless genres like the western and the gangster flick got painted red in The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde. Sonny Corleone kissed his clean, quick death goodbye in favor of being swiss-cheesed at a toll booth. While over in horror, guys such as combat photographer Tom Savini were treating us to gore-fests like Dawn of the Dead, highlighted by his famed zombie head-shot montage. Youth also made a comeback in the late 70s, but less as the monsters and more as the catch of the day. Responding to the sexual permissiveness of the decade, Hollywood took Savini's technical innovations and combined it with Little Red Ridding Hood to give birth to the slasher. The medieval version, mind you, where Little Red wanders of the "path" and gets eaten by the "wolf" for being a "slut." Countless teenagers were sacrificed on the altar of Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers and their merry band of crazies to teach America that in the era of AIDS that Sex = Death.

Frankly, the 90s saw horror enter a bit of a wasteland. The Cold War was over, the economy began to hum and American life enjoyed a short, uncontentious period that left Hollywood unsure how to proceed. The best they could muster were prestige projects like The Silence of the Lambs, self-referential irony like Scream or else gimmicky snot-fests like Blair Witch. Articles speculated that horror might be dead as a genre, and there wasn't much on the horizon to indicate otherwise. But deep in the bowels of Tora Bora, a plucky polygamist named Osama Bin Laden was cooking up a fresh batch of holy shit! And on September 11th, Bin Laden reminded Americans how much they need to be scared to death. The brilliant PR firm of Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove hyped the hell out of the project, and Hollywood has been recycling his script ever since.

Well it's been a good run fellas, but it's getting old and we're ready for something new. Torture Porn? Been there. Cities CGI'd out of existence? Seen that. Biological agents? Yawn. We'd argue that The Human Centipede, 2012 and 28 Weeks Later effectively signaled the exhaustion of those three topics. But the single most overused device in Hollywood's arsenal is hi-jinks on a plane. Please knock it off. It was fine for a while but enough, find something else. No more passengers getting sucked off a disintegrating planes. No more cockpit takeovers. No more snakes or vanishing children. And find another way to kick off a sci-fi series on television. It was cool when LOST started with a plane crash, but then Abrams went back to the well for the premiere of Fringe and a mysterious planeload of dead passengers. The final straw came on Monday when NBC debuted it's new we-want to be LOST show The Event, and the whole thing comes full circle. The episode was about a group of "detainees" at a secret facility and a plane being used as a missile. Hmm. Even the passengers didn't seem all that alarmed...a little shrieking and that was it. Like maybe they'd seen it all somewhere before... scary.

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