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The future of an illusion

By PETER KEOUGH  |  November 15, 2006

Spielberg followed close on the heels of his pal Lucas’s Star Wars with the artier Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Together with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), it tapped into the culture’s longing for deliverance from crushing suburban anomie, if need be by supernatural means, a prefiguring perhaps of the growing onslaught of fundamentalism.

Taking a less, or perhaps more, sanguine approach to the extraterrestrial-life question was Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); as the unforgettable birth scene with John Hurt suggested, creatures from beyond for Scott were not so much emissaries from heaven as they were embodiments of our own worst impulses. Nor did the world of the future look rosy to Scott, as his Blade Runner (1982) posed a bleak dystopia in which, weary of exploiting mere humans, the powers that be manufacture their own proletariat — androids. This Philip K. Dick nightmare of the encroachment of the non-human on the human, of conflict between the mechanical and the living, would be further acted out in such ingenious and commercially rewarding allegories as James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1987).

Those last two films serve as a reminder that high concept for the most part directed its pitch to males of a certain age and mental development. Hence the heyday of the Action Hero and the Buddy Movie. Arnold Schwarzenegger played a cyborg in The Terminator, just the first of many steps leading to the California governor’s office. Meanwhile, along with fellow box-office biggies Sylvester Stallone (Rocky and Rambo), Mel Gibson (Lethal Weapon), Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Eddie Murphy (Beverly Hills Cop), and Clint Eastwood (Dirty Harry), he and his muscle-bound macho persona set the decade’s tone of brute force, mindless vigilantism, and vague homoeroticism.

Until, that is, around 1988, the time that Arnold teamed with Danny DeVito in the inexplicable buddy flick Twins. Or maybe the turning point was Rambo III, in which the aging Stallone took on the Soviets in Afghanistan (though the pushing-60 director and star will be entering the ring as Rocky Balboa in December and is currently filming Rambo V in Thailand). Regardless, at some point it started to occur to the people who decide these things that, to echo the sentiment repeated by Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon and each of its sequels, they were indeed getting too old for this shit. That’s when a film so low-budgeted that they couldn’t even afford uppercase letters for the title made its move . . .

40th_sex_lies`
sex, lies and videotape
New Hopes?
When Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 1989, some bigwigs in the film industry might have been dismissive; others might have gotten nervous, but the shrewdest saw dollar signs. People like Harvey and Bob Weinstein, owners of the young studio Miramax, who bought up Soderbergh’s fable of voyeurism, boredom, sexual dysfunction, and new recording technology. It would establish an official return of independent filmmaking as a profitable and prestigious (especially at Oscar time) adjunct of the studio process (Miramax would be bought by Disney in 1993, an arrangement that ended last year).

The film would also inspire a generation of imitators, as would Miramax’s next big pick-up, Pulp Fiction (1994), another Cannes winner and an even bigger winner at the box office and in the Oscar race (six nominations, including Best Picture; it won for Best Screenplay). That year the Oscars also saw three nominations for Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red (director, screenplay, cinematography), a recognition that foreign film industries (Red was a co-production so complex they had a hard time deciding what country it was from, keeping it out of the Best Foreign Language Film category) were keeping pace with the creative fervor brewing in the US.

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