Hollywood, Defining ‘Cool’ Since the 1980s

Brad Pitt, director Quentin Tarantino, Margot Robbie, and Leonardo Di Caprio at the premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in Berlin, Germany, August 1, 2019. (Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters)
It’s when our reviewer, as a boy in the Soviet Union, got his first taste of American movies. He leads a tour of the past 35 years.

The Rousing Wonder

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S ay “Hasta la vista, baby” or “May the force be with you” to a person under the age of 40 anywhere in the world and the recognition, perhaps even bond, is instant. Neither expression is English — not exactly — but both are American, dreamed into existence by visionary storytellers, performers, and movie studios free of official quotas or mandates.

Thanks to those catchphrases and a something called a VCR, I saw an American. My friend’s mother brought this curious device from Poland, which in 1987 was as far west as one could stray from the Soviet Union. The man’s carefree grin beamed through the screen’s barbed tracking lines and into our imaginations. “I can’t sit here while I go nowhere,” sang Patti LaBelle as he drove down a sundrenched street of endless palm trees and flashing designer labels, bewildered as we were at this sparkling city where people smiled for no apparent reason. His name was Eddie Murphy, an actor playing a Detroit cop — transported, in his own way, to the American dream factory.

This was more than a full generation after David Riesman wrote “The Nylon War,” a satirical essay in which he imagined carpet-bombing the Eastern bloc not with explosives but with nylon stockings, toasters, radios, washing machines, and Jeeps, in what he called “Operation Abundance.” Hollywood studios made it even easier — they filmed it in Technicolor and showed it to the rest of the world. In the decades to come, the CIA would promote (and sometimes intervene in) films that emphasized America’s strength and military advantage. Take Top Gun, the iconic action-glam blockbuster that made Tom Cruise an international star, or Top Gun: Maverick, scheduled to be released in June. For bottom dollar, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were treated to hardware including fighter jets and other aircraft. In return, Pentagon officials got to edit the script line by line, completely reshaping the plot to suit their vision of a hi-tech, go-anywhere U.S. Navy. “Top Gun was a military propaganda film made as an MTV music video, a delicious form of escapism,” Art Tavana tells me. As a child, Tavana, an Iranian-born culture critic and former Playboy writer, spent two years in a German refugee camp before immigrating to the United States. “Tom Cruise represented the ideal of the post-Vietnam American male — invincible, confident, sexy, and rebellious.”

In the Soviet Union, the jejune moralism and pyrotechnic violence of Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger franchises appealed mostly to young boys. But the films that dealt the worst blows to the fraying Marxist order were those that offered a nearly transparent simulacrum of American life — comedies, buddy cop films, even dramas, which by the time I was 8 years old were bombarding the Soviet Union on bootlegged VHS tapes. At least 5,000 were illegally dubbed by a single linguist, Leonid Volodarsky, who translated all lines of dialogue for all characters synchronously, while their English was still heard in the background. Dragging long vowels to get the timing just right, Volodarsky with his nasal voice had beome a cult figure across the post-Soviet space. He narrated the West for us as we hunkered in front of our grainy screens watching 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and Beverly Hills Cop. There was no greater jolt of possibility for an eight-year old Soviet kid than noticing a Russian obscenity spray-painted over an American phone booth in a scene from Police Academy 2. Conversely, in Rocky IV, everything about Ivan Drago was an absurdist ruse, from his name to his inconceivably high-tech training. But we didn’t care for Volodarsky’s translation of “I must break you” and mimicked Lundgren’s famous line just as he delivered it — in the same broken English, aping a Russian accent.

But Beverly Hills Cop was inimitable. Producer Don Simpson, who conceived it as a more traditional action flick titled Beverly Drive, first considered Mickey Rourke, Al Pacino, and Sylvester Stallone for the lead. When Stallone became attached to the role, the actor began to make further changes to the story. “I rewrote the script to suit what I do best, and by the time I was done, it looked like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan on the beaches of Normandy,” Stallone revealed years later. “Needless to say, they dropkicked me and my script out of the office, and the rest is history.”

The film was rewritten again, this time for Eddie Murphy, who, as Richard Schickel of Time put it, “exuded the kind of cheeky, cocky charm that has been missing from the screen since Cagney.” Murphy’s garrulous wit and bravura parodies were given free reign. He fired at will, improvising a number of lines and scenes, including the banana-in-the-tailpipe prank. We didn’t get all the jokes, but thanks to his spontaneous guffaws we knew when he was joking, which was nearly always, even when facing danger. His catchphrase “Trust me!” had no colloquial equivalent in Soviet Russian, but it engendered a swell of optimism that was quintessentially Hollywood — sunny, reckless, and enigmatic.

The KGB censors knew about the tapes, of course. So “it wasn’t unusual for a few government-approved (and heavily sanitized) Hollywood movies to show up in local theaters,” observed Elmar Hashimov, who immigrated to the U.S. from the then Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Even The Godfather would “make its way to one of the two central, state-run television stations broadcasting to all 15 republics.”

In 1983, after its hit debut at the Moscow Film Festival, Tootsie was another official movie-house purchase. But when Soviet audiences finally saw it, the cross-dressing pratfalls of Dustin Hoffman were lost on them — they were too busy counting rooms in an apartment of a supposedly struggling actor, one who was billed as “desperate and unemployed.” Could people live like that in America? they asked, watching Hoffman roam the streets of Manhattan and pass with manifest indifference enormous piles of fresh vegetables and citrus fruit.

As for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a film I saw as a teenager, already living in Brooklyn, a world apart from the lush suburban opulence paraded in the film, Soviet censors may have been quick to note capitalist overtones. Director John Hughes, a Reaganite, insisted that joy per se was a function of individualism: Ferris, careless and free, was always having a good time. His sister followed the rules and was miserable.

Another risk-taker who may have been flagged was Tom Cruise, this time as Joel in Paul Brikman’s Risky Business, playing a high-school student who learns capitalism by starting a brothel from his parents’ upscale suburban house. Its scandalous sexuality was enough to get it banned in the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, New York Times critic Janet Maslin argued that “you would be hard pressed to find a film whose hero’s problems are of less concern to the world at large.” Maslin may have secretly wished that the picture ended the way Brickman originally intended, with Joel being rejected from Princeton: a critique of capitalism that would ingratiate the movie to the KGB’s information apparatchiks. But the producers insisted on an upbeat outcome. Despite initial protestations, Brickman later admitted that the studio cut was a better one after all: Joel gets to live out his erotic fantasies and go to an Ivy League school.

Other dramas and satires were misjudged by the authorities to be acceptably leftist. Mistaking director Paul Verhoeven for a useful idiot, censors may have assumed that Robocop’s mockery of Reagan-era consumerism would help make proletarian values cool again. This Detroit cop stayed in Detroit and was turned into an actual robot. His movie name was Murphy — another clever reversal. But the propagandist impulse backfired. The subtleties of Verhoeven’s critique didn’t translate into late-Soviet fatalism. Stripped of its political winks and nods, the film achieved an effect that was the opposite effect of what the censors intended. It was a brilliant advertisement of American abundance: Even in crime-ravaged dystopian Detroit, a policeman didn’t have to take bribes to live in a house full of TVs and appliances. Insulated from the cynicism of Soviet adulthood, children, too, saw something amazing: Robocop’s partner, a spunky blonde, took down bad guys while chewing gum and blowing delicious bubbles. How American! We glimpsed toothy smiles and sparkling skyscrapers, sleek cars and stunning animatronic effects that could have never come out the state-run Mosvideofilm studios.

A decade before he brought dinosaurs backs to life, Steven Spielberg made E.T., in which Elliott, a boy the same age as my friends and I, had his own room while his teenage brother practiced parking a station wagon — it was the biggest car we’d ever seen. “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive,” Ronald Reagan declared in his 1986 State of the Union address, “a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement.” In fact, he was talking about a movie, Back to the Future, in which young Michael J Fox, boyish and leather-clad, rode a skateboard, played rock and roll on an electric guitar, and kissed the prettiest girl in school right in front of the principal. “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” Doc, inventor of the time machine, tells them, and together they take off in a DeLorean, which transforms into a flying jet craft.

Near the end of his life, Count Lev Tolstoy watched in awe as the Lumière camera turned light into moving images. He called it “the ticking machine, like a human hurricane.” For us, the time machine were the films themselves. From our crude prefabricated rooms, we saw the future — not that of modernist banners and endless five-year promises, but a true future — realized by the West and projected into our dreams.

The Malaise

‘In the past 20 years, as we all know, the movie business has changed on all fronts,” wrote Martin Scorsese in a rare appearance in the opinion section of the New York Times. “When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made.”

To trace this change, one has to go back to Star Wars, which paired groundbreaking visual effects with structured Homeric storytelling. At the heart of galactic expanses and light-speed travel lay age-old legends about leaving home for something greater, making tough choices, and fighting tyranny. The Indiana Jones franchise, another cavalcade of Lucas–Spielberg blockbusters, followed the same recipe. Harrison Ford played Dr. Henry Jones, a romantic scientist with a spirit for adventure — a 1980s take on Carry Grant in Bringing Up Baby: gracefully masculine, with just the right soupçon of comedic klutz. Unencumbered by political dogma, such heroes made individual choices; whether in space or beneath Egyptian tombs, their far-flung quests were full of breezy optimism and amorous Old Hollywood glamour, ringing distinctly American as they crossed borders and cultural barriers.

The end of the millennium marked the turning point with The Matrix, American Beauty, and cult hits including Fight Club, The Limey, and Eyes Wide Shut, a dark hypnotic dream that would be Stanley Kubrick’s final directorial project. It was also the last time Tom Cruise starred in a movie that sent Top Gun–like shivers across the world. His star power arguably faded in 2005 when, divorced from his Eyes Wide Shut costar Nicole Kidman and no longer dating his costar from Vanilla Sky, Penélope Cruz, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and jumped up and down on her couch, declaring love for his new wife, then 27-year-old actress Katie Holmes. It was also the year when Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the final and most overtly political of the Star Wars prequels, would be met with fan mockery and mixed reviews. “When was the last time a Star Wars film was considered as much a work of art as it was a popular entertainment marketing vehicle?” Tavana asks. “Answer: 1980.”

By the end of the 20th century, Hollywood movies were trudging into the post-Moviefone era on the fumes of visual effects. Big spectacle no longer required industrial-grade machines and animatronics — complex graphics could be modeled, rendered, and animated on computer workstations. The first film in the Matrix franchise would be the last Hollywood movie to deliver the true wow factor. A film about human dependence on machines, it was meta-cinema par excellence: Red-pill aphorisms and other philosophical truisms notwithstanding, its commercial success depended on bits and pixels. But the complex 360-degree camera effects, hailed as revolutionary at the time, would soon seem quaint, even comical.

Conversely, when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out a year later, in 2000, it was a sensation — not because of its gravity-defying sword fighting, but because it brought Chinese folklore into modern filmmaking. Directed by Ang Lee, the film was a joint production of Sony, Columbia, and state-run Chinese studios. It targeted primarily Western audiences but ran with subtitles. Its mystical characters, Wundang sword masters of centuries past, spoke Mandarin. The film’s success was in its unique kind of fabulism — its traditional myth, music, and stylized drama. The magic worked: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won the award for Best Foreign Film and grossed more than $213 million globally.

Terminator: Judgment Day was perhaps the only purely American blockbuster of the early ’90s — its John Connor, an edgier version of Marty McFly and Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a robot sent back from the future only to assimilate American idioms just as Schwarzenegger himself had done a generation earlier. Hollywood’s last great feat of the century was Steven Spielberg’s  Saving Private Ryan (1998). Its opening 15 minutes, in which American GIs storm the beaches of Normandy, German bullets and mortars tearing them apart, were some of the most intense and cinematic in motion-picture history. Yet it is the film’s quiet ending (not part of the original script by Robert Rodat) that embodies the highest expression of American idiom: Decades after the war, Private James Ryan, by then a frail old man, returns to the scene of the carnage with his entire family. The beach is now Normandy American Cemetery, topped with endless crosses and Stars of David. Swept up by emotion, Ryan turns to his wife, his children, and his grandchildren, but when he finally speaks it isn’t about heroism or honor or defeating the Nazis. He simply says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life.” The men who saved him killed and died to win the peace — the good life, the pursuit of happiness.

For the rest of the decade, Hollywood would get marooned at sea (Titanic) and in space (Armageddon), before spilling into even higher-budget Marvel and DC universes of the 2000s. The superhero movies would draw windfall profits because they were flashy, quick to make, and sufficiently anodyne to satisfy for the fastest-growing movie market: China. Unlike the award-winning Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, whose Chinese cut ran without any allusions to Freddie Mercury’s homosexuality, superhero flicks were stripped of any risqué Americanness by design, to mollify the Communist censors. “They are sequels in name but they are remakes in spirit,” writes Scorsese in his Times article, “and everything in them is officially sanctioned because it can’t really be any other way.”

But profit alone did not underwrite trendsetting influence. Sholay, India’s 1975 take on American action-adventure westerns, had the longest theatrical release and was one of the highest-grossing films ever. And while that Bollywood gem has only grown in critical acclaim, it is unclear how many people outside India, China, and the former Soviet Union have heard of it, let alone can recite its lines. In fact, the farther Hollywood pictures stray from their dream factory, the less they seem to entice. Bestselling novelist and film critic Bret Easton Ellis, who penned cult classics Less Than Zero, American Psycho, and Glamorama, described Los Angeles as “the most creatively suggestive place. And I’ve lived in London and Paris. There is a sense of possibility, of freedom.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that some of the more enduring Hollywood hits are set not far from where they are made. One could scarcely imagine two actors more unlike each other than Mel Gibson and Danny Glover — one wrote and directed The Passion of the Christ, the other has testified before Congress to argue for reparations for descendants of African-American slaves. But in 1987 they were LAPD’s most lethal weapon — Martin Riggs, a shell-shocked Vietnam vet, an out-of-control rule-breaker, and Roger Murtaugh, a family man who can’t wait to retire from the police force. “I’m too old for this sh—” was Murtaugh’s perennial catchphrase. That is until the final 1998 sequel, where the two partners confronted, yes, a Chinese triad gangster — a deadly Kung Fu master brilliantly portrayed by Jet Lee in his American debut. Riggs and Murtaugh defeat the bad guy, of course, but this time both admit they “are too old for this sh—,” as if to anticipate the creep of confused politics biting at the heels of Hollywood.

That pivotal social drama exploded into the mainstream in 2000, when American Beauty, a film about a sexually frustrated suburban dad (Kevin Spacey) who falls for his daughter’s high-school friend, won Best Picture and virtually every other Oscar, including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Cinematography. It dared us to “look closer,” as its tagline read, beneath the surface veneer of consumerism and luxury SUVs, into a supposedly real American middle class — miserable, hopelessly adolescent, and in search of escape.

But as the smoke from reflexive praise and frenzied Oscar publicity cleared, this Jamesian take on the American family revealed more about the ideological blinkers of film critics than about the film itself: a display of a very American brand of boredom wrapped in director Sam Mendes’s tony, pictorial style. Lester Burnham, fired from his magazine-ad sales job, grows obsessed with a teenage girl because he is bored. Their next-door neighbor, Colonel Frank Fitts — a Freudian pastiche of a closeted gay man who violently takes it out on his son Ricky — is retired and quite bored. Burnham’s wife, Carolyn (a dazzling performance by Annette Bening), has an affair with the local “king of real estate” because she too is bored. Their daughter Jane is alternately bored and boring, wallowing, in a foggy malaise, between school, cheerleader practice, and their lavish house. Crime novelist Dennis Lehane, author of Mystic River, which itself would be adapted to become an Oscar-winning picture, would later quip about the deeper meaning of the broken bowl in Henry James’s novel: “You’re rich. Just get another f— bowl!” In fact, the only interesting character in American Beauty is the Colonel’s son Ricky, a sensitive drug-dealing high-school loner — not because he films dead birds and windswept trash with his camcorder but because he has an actual hobby. He found purpose amid the malaise, his own pursuit of happiness.

This boredom at the heart of our mismanaged success would confound mainstream critics throughout much of the 1990s and early 2000s. They saw in it a failure of capitalism and consumer society. Others saw it differently, including Sam Medes himself, who later admitted that the film may have received undue praise when it first came out. He wasn’t alone: In 2005, Premiere magazine named it one of the 20 “most overrated movies of all time.” This is not to suggest that Hollywood cinema should be gratuitously upbeat or sentimental. All the President’s Men was arguably one of the most anti-establishment Hollywood films ever made. But the messy democracy, partisan politics, and free press it portrayed were seen as strengths, not weakness: A corrupt American president had been brought down, but our institutions endured. The real American Beauty is what its own characters seemed to elide: the nearly endless span of aesthetic and contemplative possibility, that inspired drive for self-realization.

It would return, 20 years later, in the form of a clown.

The Emergence

‘Look, I like you, Arthur. A lot of the guys here, they think you’re a freak. But I like you. I don’t even know why I like you. I mean, you don’t say much. It’s probably that stupid laugh. It gets me every time. Kills me.”

These words are of course addressed to Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill clown who’s heaving laughter and demented grace would spread like anarchic fire across the globe and make Joker the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time. Arthur violently tugs at his mouth while applying makeup, and a shiver of discovery ripples audiences from North America to South Korea to Mexico and Japan: Fleck is more than a drug-addled enfant terrible of the previous Batman movies. Joaquin Phoenix and director Todd Phillips have transformed a comic-book villain into a one-man theater of shame, terror, and deliverance — or, as Phoenix himself put it, the “freedom to create something unidentifiable.”

Before unwittingly releasing his orgy of clowns onto Gotham, Fleck confronts three besuited Wall Street types on a subway. They taunt a young woman, then turn on him. The fitful hilarity spills into rage when Fleck shoots all three men, executing the last at point-blank range on a subway platform. He then runs from the murder scene, escaping to the streets above, across a squalid Central Park–like tunnel, toward a flourish of Gotham high-rises sparkling in the distance. No one is after him, not yet, except maybe his former self — Arthur Fleck is dying, Joker is in his birth throes. He runs into a rancid public bathroom to catch his breath, but something has stirred in him, a newfound awareness: his limbs loosen; the brilliant score by Hildur Guðnadóttir stretches the cello into a deep, baroque melancholia, and so begins the most haunting dance ever performed in modern cinema. The camera swirls with Phoenix in a slow, careful ballet as he transmutes Fleck’s lifelong torment into pure artistic rapture.

“I think for Joker it’s a part of him that wants to emerge,” Phoenix said about his creation, later adding, “I’ve never had an experience like this. The more unpredictable and looser we left it, the more exciting it was.”

But the film isn’t just a placeholder for Phoenix’s performance. Arthur is initially set off when he is fired from HaHa’s for bringing a loaded gun to a children’s ward in a hospital. Wearing an oversized lab coat and clown makeup, his hair frizzy and green, he plays “If you’re happy and you know it” on a ukulele. Terminally ill children, some wheelchair-bound and hairless, sing and stomp along — until a .38 snub-nose revolver slips out of his pants. No dramatic scene has mocked death so brazenly, not since Hamlet picked up Yorick’s skull and told the gravedigger, “Let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.”

Joker would pirouette into our dreams, winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film festival, where those in attendance stood up and applauded for eight minutes when Phoenix’s name appeared on screen. Despite pressures from merchandisers and Chinese distributors, and warnings that the film would incite violence, Todd Phillips held fast to Joker’s catastrophic imagination, and it paid off:

Joker didn’t need a penny from China to race toward $900 million and presumably over/under $975 million,” wrote Scott Mendelson in Forbes. “Without China, Joker’s likely $975 million total will be above Captain Marvel, Aquaman and the Spider-Man sequel.”

As of this writing, the movie has grossed $1.070 worldwide to become the first ever R-rated film to pass the billion-dollar mark. Both Taxi Driver and King of Comedy, Scorsese masterpieces that inspired the movie, were points of departure for something new, an origin story that broke with its increasingly stale comic-book tropes. A movie made for less than $70 million, devoid of advance CGI or superhero powers, would inspire a pilgrimage of tourists to what’s been christened Joker Stairs, a steep expressionistic street-rise in the Bronx immortalized by the Joker’s convulsive dance and the official movie poster. Joker is a miracle that shows no signs of fading, and 50 years on Joaquin Phoenix will still dance, even if there are no more movies.

The film isn’t without flaws — no movie is — and Phillips’s decision to stray from the DC Universe has caused ire among comic-book diehards, their consternation keeping the film’s Tomatometer rating at 69 percent despite eleven Oscar nominations. Likewise, the lack of backstory to Dark Night’s Joker — Heath Ledger’s searing performance that put the Joker on the map as a standalone character — deepened the villain’s enigma in the 2008 version: That no one knew who he was or where he came from made his nihilism even more chilling.

Joker was fantastic but, I’m far more attracted to the look and sound of a film than a character study,” Art Tavana comments. “I don’t bother with film critics at major magazines.”

But it was those major-magazine critics whose reaction exposed a new kind of divergence — the widening schism between everyday moviegoers, pure audiovisual aesthetes of Tavana’s variety, blasé about history or character or even plot, and mainstream critics, ideologically blinkered to the resurgence of American culture and entertainment.

Richard Brody, part of that third, more insidious caste, begins his New Yorker New Yorker review by describing Joker as “an experience of rare, numbing emptiness.” Then, in a bizarre turn, he shoehorns Bernhard Goetz, who in 1984 shot four young black men on a New York subway, and the Central Park Five (the subject of Ava Duvernay’s 2019 Netflix series When They See Us), five youths of color were wrongfully accused of rape and murder. Even though none of the film’s killings are interracial, Brody suggests that “’Joker’ is an intensely racialized movie.” He spends the rest of the review condemning the filmmakers for not joining his anti-racist crusade.

“It’s an evocation of the shooting, in 1984, by Bernhard Goetz, of four teen-agers in a subway who, Goetz believed, were about to rob him,” Brody writes. “They were four black teen-agers, and Goetz, after his arrest, made racist remarks. In ‘Joker,’ the director, Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Scott Silver), whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.”

Similarly, in a Weekend Update skit on Saturday Night Live, a satirical jingle about Joker and Martin Scorsese’s Irishman, the punchline was Melissa Villaseñor singing, as the refrain, “White male rage!” Meanwhile, Jeff Yang wasn’t joking when, writing for CNN, he called Joker “a political parable for our time,” explaining that “the true nature of appeal” lies in its “invidious validation of the white-male resentment that helped bring President Trump to power.”

“I am not political,” Joker speaks back to his future exegetes when Maury, played by Robert DeNiro, asks if he is involved with the street protest. “I just want to make people laugh.” Each morbid grin and gesture is a cri de coeur: Not everything is about politics, how many must die before you finally see that?

“Why Joker has to have a clearly delineated politics, racial or otherwise,” was likewise lost on Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Self Portrait in Black and White: “We risk destroying the subtle and disturbing pleasures of ambiguity — moral, aesthetic, mimetic and otherwise — by insisting that it does.”

The three-way split was just as apparent in responses to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quintin Tarantino’s gorgeous, painstakingly reimagined comedy about Tinseltown’s golden age. Tarantino has long circled the dream factory as a subject in pictures such as Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he finally gives in by making an auteur film that is pure Hollywood fantasy: ahistorical, over the top, hysterically violent — in other words, pure fun, pure Tarantino.

“It was an aesthetic feast,” Tavana muses. “Like reading Joan Didion on acid and booze.” Film writer Peter Avellino saw it at least six times in theaters across Hollywood, later calling it “the Tarantino version of Fellini’s Amarcord, with its own history of what life was whether it’s what really happened or not, filtered through all those movies, TV shows and half remembered daydreams of billboards never seen again. . . . It’s as close to pure joy as any film I’ve seen in a long time.”

Audiences meanwhile turned out in droves for the star-studded cast, and who could blame them? Improvising several bravura scenes, including a meltdown in his trailer, Leonardo DiCaprio gives arguably the best performance of his career. Margot Robbie is Sharon Tate incarnate. And then there is the brilliantly understated Brad Pitt, who climbs up to the roof to fix a broken antenna and “in the bright sun” and “takes off his shirt,” writes Caitlin Flannigan. “Heaven help us.”

But manqué revolutionaries of the hipster Sixties, now disguised as critics, along with their woke underlings, saw something oddly different. A reviewer in the Guardian made a case for why it’s time to cancel Quentin Tarantino: “Whatever the merits of his new film, Tarantino’s films have reveled in extreme violence against female characters.” Two writers in Time magazine went so far as to count “every line in every Quentin Tarantino film to see how often women talk,” compiling the results in charts.

“Tarantino’s love letter to a lost cinematic age is one that, seemingly without awareness, celebrates white-male stardom (and behind-the scenes command) at the expense of everyone else,” Brody wrote in his New Yorker review. “Tarantino voids those artifacts of substance — of political protest, social conflict, any sense of changing mores.”

Despite its lasting appeal with the aesthetes, if Sam Mendes had made American Beauty in 2020, the ideologues would no doubt skewer it as another expression of “white male rage.” Instead, Mendes returned 20 years later with 1917, a Great War drama that makes the biggest case yet for watching movies on the big screen. With two interpolated long-takes, Mendes, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith, introduce long-sequence filming — a sophisticated form of continuous narrative shot perfected by Russian director Alexander Sokurov — into a $100 million Hollywood war epic. The result is what Bret Easton Ellis called “peak cinema 2019. When you arrive here in the film’s final movement you’re thrilled and moved in equal measure,” Ellis tweeted, adding, “see it in a theater.”

1917 is a story of two baby-faced soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay), ordered across enemy lines to warn another regiment about an imminent German ambush that could kill thousands of British troops. Their life-and-death mission is fictional. But the dedicatee of the picture, Lance Corporal Alfred H. Mendes, a decorated World War I veteran and the filmmaker’s grandfather, did run messages and rescued the wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele. The film’s principal action is also informed by Operation Alberich, a series of tactical retreats by the German forces that wrought confusion on the British side. Unlike the opening minutes of Saving Private Ryan, Mendes’s war is not nearly as gory, but the incubus of slaughter hovers over every scene: Gunfire and explosions convey the dread of unknowing we see on soldiers’ faces.

But to a jaded ideologue, it’s all a sham. In her review in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis described the film as “grandstanding,” a “carefully organized and sanitized war picture from Sam Mendes that turns one of the most catastrophic episodes in modern times into an exercise in preening showmanship.” Dargis charges Mendes with avoiding any criticism of the war, concluding that “the longer this amazing race continues, the more it resembles an obstacle course by way of an Indiana Jones–style adventure, complete with a showstopping plane crash and battlefield sprint.”

Richard Brody went even further to dismiss the cogency of the film as Mendes’s ode to his grandfather. “That tastefulness is a mark of the utter tastelessness of ‘1917,’ a movie that’s filmed in a gimmicky way,” he wrote. “In honoring the recollections and experiences of his grandfather, Mendes remains trapped in the narrow emotional range of filial piety that, far from sparking his imagination, inhibits it. Mendes joins such directors of proud and bombastic craft as Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson, and Damien Chazelle, who’ve recently made films that are fixated on the heroic deeds of earlier British and American generations.”

Predictably, for everyday audiences 1917 was yet another terrific Hollywood war movie; the ideologues expounded their cynical takes in the pages of august magazines while the aesthetes fawned over its elaborate color, its music, its stunning panoramic shots. But as we enter the 20th year of the longest war in our nation’s history, the war in Afghanistan, there emerges another perspective — that of a living combat veteran of an ongoing conflict.

National Book Award winner Phil Klay, who served in Iraq and whose novel Missionaries will be published later this year, enjoyed the film and was befuddled by Dargis’s review.

“The director admires the heroism of the men,” Klay tells me. “He makes it clear that the war is horrific madness. The film avoids the ‘smart enlisted stupid officer’ cliché and instead chooses to make pretty much everyone in the film fundamentally decent but caught in an insane war. Nevertheless, the film wants to say that the choices of the two men mattered. They cannot make the war less horrific or absurd. But they can take this mission, save Blake’s brother, report how Blake died.”

New York Times writer Thomas Gibbons-Neff, who served as a rifleman with the U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, replied to Brody’s review, posting on Twitter: “I’ve talked to several of my friends who have been in combat, dealt with the wounded and dead, and walked away from 1917 deeply moved, and connected to, the scenes you call ‘tasteless’.”

As the 92nd Academy Awards approach, ideologues may for the moment preside over the critical mainstream, with aesthetes nibbling at the margins. But audiences all over the world, perhaps more than ever, are craving American movies. Already sequels to Beverly Hills Cop, Matrix, 48 Hours, Top Gun, and other mega-franchises are in various stages of development. The dream factory is a mirage, but the extraordinary power of American imagination is real. And it continues to set trends, invent new forms of entertainment, and define the meaning of “cool” for the rest of the world.

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