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Movies: The Big Fat Year in Culture

17 minute read
James Poniewozik

In a year’s books, TV, movies, music and theater, it’s possible to see deeply and clearly into the hearts and minds, the secret dreams and fears of a nation. Until you try explaining The Ketchup Song (Hey Hah). Page 251 of the pop-culture-sociopsychologist’s handbook tells us that we must have used this novelty tune as an escape from relentless bad news amid war and recession. O.K., so what did that make Macarena in 1996? If America’s fortunes have changed since 1999, why hasn’t Harry Potter’s popularity? And can any blather about America’s longing for superheroes change the fact that a competent adaptation of Spider-Man with Kirsten Dunst in a wet blouse would have been gold in any year you threw a dart at?

It’s better to think of America’s pop-culture choices not as a monolithic State of the Union address but rather as a mix CD we make every year. The tempo and tone don’t always mesh. Some of the songs have a direct message; some have emotional meaning; and some, in gimlet-eyed retrospect, make you wonder why you ever picked them in the first place (this means you, Anna Nicole). But then you play that CD back on the stereo, a few older, fatter years later. Your toe taps. A memory comes back. And you realize that in that nonsensical mess of cotton-candy lyrics and throwaway choruses, you somehow managed to write down your life.

A DATE THAT LIVED IN INFAMY, AGAIN

One of the recurring strains of this year’s mix (to finally kill the metaphor) was a gloomy tune from 2001, remixed several different ways. This time last year, we were still asking if and how 9/11 would change pop culture. In 2002 we got some answers. Defying warnings of tragedy fatigue, books about 9/11 (Bush at War, Let’s Roll, The Cell) dominated the best-seller lists. CBS drew some 39 million viewers for 9/11, a tear-jerking documentary shot inside the World Trade Center on the day of the attacks. All broadcast and many cable networks tossed out their normal programming schedules (and their advertising) on the anniversary, as if supersaturating the airwaves–turning Sept. 11 into a virtual national holiday–could magically confine the terrible events to history, never to be repeated. There was mawkishness, anger, finger pointing, navel gazing, bathos, pathos–every possible response except forgetting.

But of all the cultural predictions after 9/11, the first proved the wrongest: that grief and war would moderate our culture and elide our differences. Movies would stop blowing up buildings; reality shows would stop humiliating people; comedians would stop being ironic. Atlantic Monthly editor Michael Kelly envisioned a day when American men would again be able to wear fedora hats without smirking. It was a fleeting moment for cultural critics who, like The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, longed to see the world “in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.”

In 2002 we got the moral attention but not the uniform. 2001 couldn’t last. It was the temporary, shocked pulling together of a feuding family after a sudden death. 2001 gave us the music community performing A Tribute to Heroes. 2002 gave us Eminem electrocuting Dick Cheney (in the video for Without Me) and country singer Toby Keith, in his controversial song Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue, promising the nation’s enemies, “We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.” The culture wars returned, with books from political playground scrappers like Michael Moore and Sean Hannity. Online, the explosion of self-published weblogs revealed a community as divided and outspoken as in the angry-white-male ’90s. Architects last summer released their first proposals for rebuilding the World Trade Center site–and the designs were quickly smacked down by the public as too blah and timid; a more adventurous set of plans, replete with soaring towers and sky gardens, was unveiled in December. During its second season, the terrorism drama 24 planted a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles. The Sopranos showed how quickly tragedy can become a banal, catchall excuse, as mobster Tony Soprano phonily blamed his behavior on 9/11 during a therapy session. Oh, and that business about movies not blowing up buildings? The Sum of All Fears blew up Baltimore, Md.

You could say that pop culture was the one American institution that whipped terrorism. Osama bin Laden would have liked little better than to subdue America’s entertainment-media machine. That thong-wearing, freedom-flaunting international corrupter of values inflames his followers as painfully as any military base in Saudi Arabia, and there is no irony in Osama’s Islam. But pop culture, as it turns out, is the Western equivalent of al-Qaeda: it’s hard to kill because it is borderless, amorphous and stateless, and because it throws back at you the weapons you use against it.

If 9/11 changed culture in 2002, it was to make it more of what it already was. Niche culture continued to erode mainstream culture. Except for a few uniting events–the 9/11 anniversary, the opening weekend of Attack of the Clones–the mass market continued to fragment, with a digital cable channel and a bootleg Internet remix for every consumer, while the online version of real-life-simulation game The Sims promised players a chance to be virtually together, alone. The mainstream became more mainstream (that is, more reverent and safe); the niches got nichier (more outre and provocative). E pluribus, pluribus.

WHO’S THE BOSS?

Nobody embodied the mainstream-niche schism better than Bruce Springsteen and Eminem. (They also showed that mainstream and niche are about sensibility, not sales. Eminem’s CD actually moved 5.5 million more copies than Springsteen’s, according to SoundScan.) The typical victim in the Twin Towers was a man under 50, from New Jersey or New York, blue collar or not many generations removed from it–in other words, Springsteen’s born subject matter. With 2002’s tribute album The Rising, Springsteen became the mainstream’s Maya Angelou of 9/11: the event’s unofficial poet laureate, the articulator of the most heartfelt–and publicly acceptable–forms of response, with something for the grandfolks and something for the kids.

Springsteen has made provocative albums before, channeling the grievances and yearnings of Vietnam vets and drifters. But with The Rising, released near the Sept. 11 anniversary, he stuck to what we could all agree on: a feeling of sadness and a yearning for hope. Maybe because of the latter, The Rising’s music can be oddly cheery–Empty Sky and Lonesome Day are awfully toe tapping for songs of mourning–as Springsteen keeps circling back to one central image: the clear blue sky over the Eastern seaboard on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. The Rising is poignant, even wrenching (“Without you I’m … an ice-cream truck on a deserted street”). But if it has any political doctrine, it is on-one-hand-on-the-other-handism. Several tracks look at the East-West culture clash, but Springsteen’s only prescription comes in one unobjectionable song title: Let’s Be Friends.

It is not clear that Eminem has ever wanted to be friends with anybody, even his fans. But he sure wants to talk. While The Rising was hailed as pop’s first major response to 9/11, that title really should go to The Eminem Show, released in May. It was as polarizing as The Rising was unifying. When Eminem declared, “We need a little controversy … it feels so empty without me,” it was, like many of his lyrics, arrogant, self-aggrandizing–and true. Beyond the self-serving message–those other records are boring, so buy mine–the lyric was also a pointed rejection of the get-alongism that prevailed after 9/11. (As if his words weren’t enough, he dressed up as Osama bin Laden in the video.) On the album’s opening cut, White America, the rapper whose lyrics preoccupied moralists in Congress in the summer of 2000–when they had more time on their hands–declared war on the Bush Administration and slammed his critics as racial hypocrites who discovered rap only when white teens started listening to it: “Hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston.” It’s Eminem’s most political song, even if it is rooted in his bottomless sense of personal grievance, which seems to grow in direct proportion to his bank account. On Square Dance, he anticipated that Iraq would be next on America’s target list long before it dominated the headlines: “When I say Hussein, you say Shady,” he taunts, alluding to his nom de rap, Slim Shady. “F___in’ assassins hijackin’, Amtraks crashin’/All this terror America demands action.”

Outside the studio, Eminem continued to act like someone who listens to too many Eminem CDs. At the MTV Video Music Awards, he threatened to deck Moby, the pencil-necked vegan techno musician who criticized him for his homophobic lyrics. And yet this fall Eminem managed to win over even p.c. middle-aged white critics with his semiautobiographical movie, 8 Mile, playing a rapper from Detroit who defends gay men and pulls himself up by his vocal cords to escape wage-slave trailerdom. The movie’s implicit premise is one that our public figures rarely acknowledge: that a poor white kid has more in common with poor black kids than with more-well-off white kids–that is, that class still matters in America. His obnoxiousness aside, Eminem is the first music superstar to make class in America a major subject since, well, Bruce Springsteen. Meet the new Boss.

PRIME-TIME CRIME AND THE FEAR FACTOR

As the country waited for the other shoe to drop (somewhere, that is, besides Kenya, Moscow and Bali), it had to do something with all that surplus anxiety. The news and entertainment media were happy to oblige. Stories of random shootings and disappeared and murdered girls were everywhere, from the increasingly graphic, grisly prime-time franchises of CSI and Law & Order to the orange DANGER!-DANGER!-DANGER! graphics of Connie Chung Tonight and the rest of its cable-news cohort. (Curiously, from the news media’s perspective, little girls miraculously stopped being abducted as soon as the Washington sniper drew his first bead.) Some dozen-and-a-half cop shows dominated prime-time series TV, not counting the numerous cable crime series and a steady stream of increasingly popular reality shows like Forensic Files. The result was a feedback loop of fear in a society that was not experiencing any crime wave except this virtual one: crime news begat crime curiosity, which begat crime dramas, which begat more crime curiosity, which begat more crime news.

It’s not much of a stretch to see all these investigations and authority figures as a kind of shadow 9/11 drama. (Who is stern-talking Oprah protege Dr. Phil, after all, but a more down-home John Ashcroft?) Hollywood’s crime stories were neither uniformly authoritarian nor bleeding heart. FX’s cop drama The Shield introduced Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis), a crooked, brutal–and extremely effective–L.A. cop, and left it up to us to decide whether his results justified his means. HBO’s The Wire used the story of a single Baltimore drug investigation as a parable for the crisis of confidence in American institutions. Its conflicted, bureaucracy-ridden cops could just as well have been wearing priests’ collars or Enron workers’ pinstripes. And in Minority Report, we learned that a futuristic, omniscient crime-fighting system involving government-enslaved psychics and near total surveillance is actually kinda neat–at least until it targets Tom Cruise.

The dead-girl motif surfaced most poetically in publishing’s surprise sensation of the year, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. In its bravura opening, the narrator, Susie Salmon, lucidly describes her brutal rape-murder at age 14, then goes on (telling the story from heaven) to show us the slow journey of her family and friends to recover from her loss. (This is not only a 2002 phenomenon, of course. The Sixth Sense and Crossing Over with John Edward both indulged our need to believe that our lost ones are still aware and, more important, still aware of us.) Women’s nonmortal distress also got its share of attention, in two novels–The Nanny Diaries and I Don’t Know How She Does It–that comically examined mothering anxiety (at least among affluent, educated white women), even as Sylvia Ann Hewlett was warning young women, in Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children, that they had better get married pronto if they ever wanted to have children. With bad men on one side and indifferent men on the other, biological and career clocks hammering in both ears–and with Oprah no longer serving up female-positive fiction to her book club–what was the stressed-out career woman to do?

She watched The Bachelor.

THE PAST AIN’T WHAT IT USED TO BE

We heard a lot about nostalgia this year: the vogue for vintage blue jeans (or mock-vintage blue jeans at premium prices); the continuing popularity of retro design elements (like ’30s club chairs and surfaces “distressed” to look antique); punk and garage-rock revivalists like the White Stripes, the Hives, the Strokes and the Vines. The Bachelor, with its retro-style dating theme, was just one among many nostalgia-oriented television shows. There were reunions of The Cosby Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, M*A*S*H and numerous others (for God’s sake, even Alf made a comeback, if only in commercials). But if The Bachelor was retro–even Paleolithic–in its harem-style courtship setup, that’s not the same as saying it was nostalgic. Rather, it was an example of the ambivalence underlying most of today’s so-called nostalgia: the past is a nice place to visit, but we don’t really want to live there.

Instead, the typical reality-TV hit of 2002 took a retro format and gave it a good nose piercing. The Osbournes was a ’50s nuclear-family sitcom with dog poop, drug rehab and F words. American Idol, with its aspiring teen stars and vicious-insult wars, was Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour as reconceived by Jerry Springer. And The Bachelor wed–literally–’50s gender relations with 21st century sex. The show’s secret (clear to its viewers but not to the paleofeminists and moralists who decried it) is that while The Bachelor pretended to celebrate a primitive dating ritual, its audience was meant to laugh at it. That’s why its viewers, mostly young women, watched: they didn’t aspire to be one of the 25 dewy-eyed dim-bos seeking their M.R.S. degree any more than your average young male Fear Factor viewer wants to eat earthworms.

In music, the White Stripes, the Vines (who wowed critics but didn’t come close to selling a million records) et al. were not nearly so successful as real relics such as James Taylor, Santana, Springsteen and even Elvis Presley, whose remixed A Little Less Conversation shook its pelvis up the singles charts 25 years after the King’s death. This phenomenon was as much a matter of technology as psychology: with the spread of CD burning and online music piracy among kids, middle-aged folks are essentially the only people who buy music anymore.

Theater, meanwhile, tried to keep from likewise aging itself out of business by expanding into youth-targeted productions like Def Poetry Jam and a La Boheme from Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann. But it also repeatedly reached back to baby-boomer-and-beyond icons (nostalgic, perhaps, for a time when you could get people to see an original Broadway show). It revived Oklahoma! and Into the Woods and Flower Drum Song. It adapted movies: Hairspray (John Waters’ movie about early-’60s Baltimore), The Graduate, Marty, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It even got choreographer Twyla Tharp, for Movin’ Out, to become the first person to hold the phrases Billy Joel and dance number in her head simultaneously since whatever poor sap directed the video for Uptown Girl. In all, the best way to get onstage was by having been a movie or a pop song. Being theatrical helped, but being theater didn’t.

USED CELEBRITIES FOR SALE–CHEAP

There are years of national crisis in which America worships its celebrities more lovingly than ever, hoisting them atop pedestals so that their glamour might light the way through our darkness. 2002 was not one of those years. True, it is still not entirely bad to be famous. Jennifer Lopez continued her hip-swinging march to world domination. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry enjoyed a night as Oscar royalty the evening the Academy finally recognized two actors of color. But if America took any comfort from the famous, it was mainly this: celebrities had things far, far worse than we did. Martha Stewart got pan-roasted for her suspicious stock dealings, Robert Blake and Winona Ryder had run-ins with the law. Britney Spears and Michael Jackson fell afoul of the tabloids. And none of them had the good sense to sell their indignities as cable reality series.

On TV, the prestige of celebrity was dropping like shares of WorldCom, while the has-been market was booming. It started innocuously, with Ozzy Osbourne taking out the trash, doddering around his mansion and becoming America’s new favorite dad–Homer Simpson without the articulateness. Of course, there has always been p.r. value in celebrities’ pretending to be jus’ folks; that’s why every time J. Lo has another hit movie or picks up a zillion-carat engagement ring, she releases a single that reminds us that she’s still “real,” that she’s just “Jenny from the block.” But once Ozzy came down to the audience’s level, it was a short trip from there to laughing at Anna Nicole Smith (and Liza Minnelli, whose show didn’t even make it on the air), watching the celebrity edition of Fear Factor and seeing Tonya Harding knock the last scrap of dignity out of Paula Jones on Celebrity Boxing. If you’re wondering, “What’s next–pimping out has-been celebrities on blind dates?” then you haven’t got around to watching Star Dates, now playing on the E! network.

Still, at least TV’s has-beens had the chance to be stars once. The biggest movies of 2002 were not necessarily even about actors: Ice Age starred endearing digital animations; The Two Towers features a soulfully CGI Gollum; and as for Attack of the Clones, no one has acted in a George Lucas film since Leia told Han she would just as soon kiss a Wookie. Who was the big human movie star of 2002? We would say Vin Diesel, but not until he lets us check the back of his neck for rivets. Instead, we must nominate Nia Vardalos.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding inspired the question of the year among film critics, namely: “What the hell?” The little indie romantic comedy snowballed into a $200 million–plus smash on the strength of 95 minutes of affable, chizzburger-chizzburger multiculturalism that boldly grabbed the torch of swarthy ethnic stereotype from the Jews and Italians. Yet for all the Mediterranean men talking with their hands and women serving steaming trays of lamb and mother wit, there was something touchingly real about it–or, really, about its Rubenesque writer-star, Vardalos–in a Hollywood whose usual idea of an ugly duckling is Sandra Bullock. It was an anticelebrity film for an anti-celebrity year, and maybe that was enough to persuade moviegoers to overlook the gobbets of flaming cheese. That, plus a crowd-pleasing love-conquers-culture-clash story, which ends with the father of the bride noting that her name and the Wasp groom’s came from the Greek words for apple and orange. “We’re all different,” Dad pronounces, “but in the end, we’re all fruit.” Except for celebrities, who continued to prove, to our endless gratification, that they’re mostly nuts.

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