S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 15 October 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
Shamesploitation

 

[Impure thoughts of pure minds]

Americans are a deeply

embarrassed people. It's not

just the daily humiliation of

allowing clerks at 7-Eleven or

Helmut Lang to touch our change

and credit cards; it isn't just

the "men are from Minneapolis,

women are from St. Paul"

snipe sessions about whether to

stop and ask directions. It

isn't even the ever-expanding

ridicule bubble we have to live

in, where everyone's third job

is making remarks about the

Roman hands of our politicians

and the shrinking waists of our

spokesmodels. (For God's sake,

some people are just naturally

thin! People would kill for the

metabolism of a Lara Flynn

Boyle! Jealous!)

 

More than any of these, it's

just how flat-out gross people

are in general. Especially the

people in our neighborhood,

those pathetic slobs we have to

see everyday here in dumb old

yucky America. Look! There's one

now, watering his lawn, the creep.

We wonder what he does when

he's not holding that hose in

his hand and it's just him and

that too-quiet wife of his eating

Lean Cuisines with the TV

droning Gallery of Dolls as the

sun goes down in the picture

window. And those pants! What

are those — jams? Jesus

Jones, they are. Couldn't you

just die?

 

[experience the unexperienced]

In a land so noticeably

mortified, is it a surprise

movies like American Beauty

— movies that replace quiet

desperation with muffled

degradation — are packing

them in? When humiliation and

shame become the dominant

emotional responses of an entire

population, everything from the

would-be art film to the not-so-

quirky comedy is outfitted anew

and a style emerges. Call it

shamesploitation. Genre definers

like Happiness, Election, and the

Kevin Spacey vehicle no one can

stop talking about —

unassailable movies we're all

supposed to love if we're not a

bunch of Promise Keepers (and

we're not! we're not!) —

have decidedly proven

themselves with critics and

the public alike. Get ready for

mainstream features stocked with

ordinary people so odious they'd

make David "Big Daddy" Lynch a

little green.

 

Or maybe Lynch would be proud of

the way his illegitimate movie

offspring have grown into fully

functional manchildren. When the

cartilage and karaoke behind the

red roses and white picket

fences of Blue Velvet shocked

supposedly complacent audiences

out of their alleged stupor,

cinema sophisticates fell all

over themselves. It was an orgy

of self-congratulation unrivaled

since The Graduate wowed 'em

with its post-teen

exposé of a society

turning inside its Tupperware.

Maybe the sickness festering

under Lynch's banal (if vivid)

suburban lawns was the Oedipal

antitoxin Reaganite America was

waiting for after too much Jedi.

But the one thing his

CinemaScope chef-d'oeuvre lacked

was disdain for its characters

— if anything, the director

of Eraserhead over-identified

with Kyle MacLachlan's

ultranormal boy-next-door and

Dennis Hopper's gassed-up gun

nut.

 

[Filthy, filthy]

The new breed of ranch-style

dramedy solves this problem,

serving up feel-good movies in

which all the characters are

disgusting jerks. Audiences

respond in kind, hiding

open-throttle contempt under the

uncomfortable tittering of

embarrassment, only resorting to

knee slapping when they're

supposed to: at jerk-off jokes,

drug references, and spit takes.

American Beauty's US of A

may superficially resemble Blue

Velvet's, but at its heart it

has more in common with

Cheech & Chong's.

 

Unfortunately, shamesploitation

lacks the looseness associated

with Chong-esque mise en

scène. It would be hard

to find movies more clenched

than Happiness, Election, and

American Beauty. Clipped, highly

controlled scenes shot against

Sirkian primary-color exteriors

and secondary-color interiors

incessantly remind us that the

façade is — are you sitting

down? — a little different

from what's behind it. In

Happiness, the

dryness of tone was mostly anal;

in American Beauty, coming as it

does from DreamWorks SKG, the

lingering over upscale

living-room sets feels tetchy

— people who make millions a

year are looking down on the

pretensions of those who merely

make tens of thousands.

 

[the caged bird must be set free]

Because the actors in

shamesploitation have so much

more to do than is normal in

American films, and because

these films are usually cast so

much better than your average

feature — they tend to mix

underutilized '70s actors and

recontextualized TV players with

big talent like Kevin Spacey and

Reese Witherspoon — their

directorial tone gets hidden

under the performances.

Gladdened to see people actually

doing things in a movie besides

entering car chases and bullet

showers, we ignore the shallow

irony of titles like Happiness

and American Beauty and the

false oneiric of the dream

sequences in both.

 

Harder to ignore is the

spoon-feeding. Election takes

the trouble to use an

explanatory flashback in case we

wonder how its disgruntled

janitor got so disgruntled in

the first place. And the

director of American Beauty

thinks we're so numb that we need

two-headed, MST3K-style

foreground commentary from the

film's teen heroes as they watch

a moment of questionable

transcendental beauty on

videotape — a plastic

grocery bag twisting in the

wind, that well-known urban

tumbleweed more people have

marveled at than the filmmakers

seem to realize.

 

Compared to that execrable

billboard we put up with before

American Beauty came out, the

one that used a female torso

that looked like it had been

pasted up with a Return key,

American Beauty itself is a

triumph — a victory of

content over billboard.

Unfortunately, it's a triumph on

the moral order of after-school

specials. The teens in the movie

wield all the authority, and

their superiority remains the

kind that comes from being

embarrassed by your parents and

learning to mock them for being

old and gauche. The hilarity

that goes with the feeling that

those in the audience are

fabulous because they're not

going through a midlife crisis,

are not child molesters, or

— worst of all —

are not suburban high school

teachers, may mollify viewers

still looking for reasons to

laugh at mom and dad, those

fools who live in suburbia instead

of in converted warehouse space.

The post-teenagers in the audience

may have their problems, but at

least their lives aren't

farcical gross-outs full of

intergenerational lust —

yet. Shamesploitation

exaggerates the distance between

the asphalt present and lawn-

care future, but the way

Spacey's suburban father is

humiliated for drooling over a

cheerleader in a film that still

makes room for teen titty is

probably a road sign: If you

lived here, you'd be home now.

 

For decades filmmakers have

supplied false happy endings

designed to lessen the harshness

of what's gone before.

American Beauty's square-up,

which presumes to tell us how

great things will be when we're

dead, pushes cineplex movies

to a new level: not just

the false happy ending, but the

extreme false happy ending. Even

though it all ends in a horrible

bloody puddle, the filmmakers

can internalize the values of

everything they seemed to

criticize, deliver a message of

hope and transcendence, and

score it to a Beatles cover.

It's a far tweet from the fake

birds of happiness that closed

Blue Velvet. The bloom may be

off the rose, but the box office

has finally caught up.

 
courtesy of Slotcar Hatebath