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Friday, April 28, 2006

Is it too soon? 

Well, it's finally out, and thank god for that. No more endless weeks of all the usual media outlets asking the same tired questions because they can't be bothered to further the dialogue -- United 93 is now in theatres and, surprising absolutely no one, it's met with a slate of 4-star reviews.

First, a disclaimer. I don't care about this movie. Not because it offends me, or because I'm disgusted by it, or because I question the intentions, or because I think Paul Greengrass sucks (he doesn't), or because I'm trying to make A Statement. I don't think my apathy on the subject makes me "Cool." I'm not 15 and a goth, so I don't take indifference as a badge of authenticity or rebelliousness.

Nor do I care if the movie leaps to conclusions or fills in the blanks or mythologizes the basically unknowable.

It's none of that.

I'm just not interested.

But I do read a lot of film press, and I tend to have CNN on at all hours of the day, so the question that forms the title of this entry has been burned into my retinas... by repetition, if nothing else. Granted, it's mostly the hack journalists who even bother asking the question. Well, them and that blonde woman on CNN whose name I forget, the one who doesn't have an original thought in her pretty little head. Forever damned to ape stories she read about a week ago, that one...

But now the movie comes out and everyone's opinion swings in favor of the movie. Really, that's a no-brainer; anyone who had any right at all to bitch about "too soon" gave the film the thumbs-up to be made, so everyone else can shut the fuck up on that end. What we've got left is a film that's utterly critic-proof, and a press that wouldn't say "boo" on it for fear of looking un-American.

Two weeks ago many considered this film a slap in the face and its trailer (that audiences should have been told about, apparently, though I have never in my life been told what trailers will appear before any movie, sans "event" pictures) a grave gutpunch. Now it's a gauge of patrotism, a "must-see" for anyone who wants to claim pride for the spot of land they came out of their mother on.

So which is it going to be, America? Is United 93 "too soon" or is taking it in as vital as knowing the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, if you want to be a real American?

It's a strange kind of schizophrenia, what we have. The "too soon" crowd -- absurdity, really. The underlying assumption, the reasoning implied but never outright spoken, is that such a film should only be made after all emotional resonance is now safely at arm's length. But why would that be? Why can't film approach uncomfortable subjects?

Did anyone tell Picasso that Guernica was "too soon"?

Maybe they did. Likely, even. But I doubt the reasoning was the same. Art is art, after all -- and a movie is just a movie. Entertainment. A bauble. A means to provide us the latest Mission: Impossible iteration and never, ever challenge us or make us feel something authentic. Apparently only books and TV docs and paintings can approach the "real" subjects; movies are just there to let us escape.

Doubt me? Well, you remember the silly "is Hollywood disconnected from middle America" stories floating around just before Oscar season? The angry letters to the editor (third one down) asking why filmmakers insisted on talking about stuff that was important to them and invoked their passion? No. Really. This is the voice of the average movie-goer, or so many would have us believe:

Your comment illustrates an obvious belief on your part that the people involved with financing, writing, directing and acting in films -- most of whom live in the unnatural and aesthetic environments of Hollywood and other cloistered situations -- know better than I and the rest of the public what WE want and need in entertainment! Many of us are TIRED of the continual diet of political, environmental and societal issues forced upon us by today's moviemakers.

Wow, huh?

Still, there's some conflict here. Immediacy, the "too soonness," doesn't seem to be the sole reason why Timely films get hounded the way United 93 was. Thank You For Smoking, for instance, launches just as the Abramoff/Delay scandal kicks off a serious (but ultimately not serious enough) look at lobby reform. Or the current run on The Punisher, "Barracuda," that is so transparently about Enron (while Lay and Skilling are on trial!) it's easy to pick out which fictional character stands for which real-life bastard. Or how about the arc "The Unshredded Man" in Human Target, whose secondary character is a man who used the events of 9/11 to cover up his own death in a way to hide from... drum roll, please.. Enron-like bookcooking? This arc was published in 2003, by the way.

Who's writing that story?

I guess it's easy to dismiss the latter two: They're just comics, and who reads those? But what about Thank You? Why no furor? Why no news stories drawing the connection between that film's success and the lobbying scandal that's been riding high in the headlines for several months?

Maybe those stories exist, and I just haven't seen them. But I guess that's the point, isn't it? I couldn't fucking blink without catching another take on the "too soonness" of United 93. How come no one gives a flying fuck about any other movie (or comic) that draws sharp, pertinent, unflattering portraits of American life?

Fuck if I know. Been thinking on it for a couple weeks now and I can't offer much more than guesswork.

But that's the Jekyll part of our schizophrenia, that cold and limp mental and emotional conservatism that doesn't like anything that rocks the boat.

The Hyde is the patriotism. The Timely Movie is now here, and everyone on earth is praising it as bold, visionary, a celebration of modern heroics, et cetera, all the usual talking points that make everyone feel good. All those fears calmed. Good god, we wouldn't want to be made uncomfortable by such a movie, would we?

No. Just tell us everyone's a hero at heart and we can safely report back to the rest of our fellow countrymen that is their patriotic duty to see a movie that two weeks ago had everyone squirming in their seats.

I think I'll just go see Akeelah and the Bee instead. I hear it's quite good.

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