1997: Movies and the usable past

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

Abstract

The animus of this year is a peculiar melange of death, commerce, and corpses. Princess Diana was killed in a car crash after being hounded by paparazzi through the streets of Paris. Five days later, Diana's friend, Mother Teresa, passed into immortality and quickly began her journey toward full-fledged sainthood. The Heaven's Gate cult took a less conventional route to the afterlife, staging the largest mass suicide in U.S. history. Believing they could rendezvous with a spaceship tailing the Hale- Bopp comet, Marshall Applewhite and thirty-eight of his followers (many of them professional web page designers, some of them neutered) took poison with their applesauce and left a collective suicide notice on their web site. The death of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping seemed equally poetic, having occurred just months before the expiration of the vestigial British Empire in Hong Kong and the territory's concomitant return to the mainland. Deng's contradictory legacy of economic liberalization and the Tiananmen Square massacre set the stage for a dance of attraction and repulsion between his country and the United States. Following Deng's demise, President Bill Clinton visited China, pushing a free-trade agenda while perfunctorily rehearsing criticism of China's human rights record. The financial crisis that hit the Asian region in the middle of the year made Clinton's proposition all the more appealing to China and the other countries of the Third World. A similar calculus of currency and corpses was seen in the high-profile trials of Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. The process disinterred memories of the 168 souls who perished when the duo bombed the Oklahoma City federal building. Still more corpses were kept in circulation thanks to widely covered investigations into the previous year's killings: child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey, an American infant at the hands of a British au pair, a woman during the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, and 230 people in a Paris-bound TWA flight out of New York. Major events in the domain of culture also revolved around narratives of life, death, and rebirth. The demise of the videocassette recorder was predicted anew with the American debut of the digital versatile disc (DVD). Beat luminaries Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs went gently into the good night, while the Notorious B.I.G., the hip-hop superstar, was violently murdered when coming home from a party. The twentieth anniversary of Elvis Presley's death predictably inspired new rumors that he was still alive. On the Great White Way, old musicals such as Annie and 1776 were mounted in new revivals while Disney's animated film The Lion King and Robert Louis Stevenson's novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde each enjoyed a new afterlife onstage. Hollywood made money on the dead by resurrecting them in pictures. Alan Parker's screen version of the musical Evita used Madonna to restore to life both Eva Peron's legacy and Andrew Lloyd Weber's 1970s rock musical. Another biopic, Gregory Nava's Selena, turned the Tejano singer's death into a star-making vehicle for Jennifer Lopez. Steven Spielberg successfully revived his dinosaur franchise with The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Cute extraterrestrials revivified the year's second highest grosser, Men in Black, and George Lucas hit pay dirt with a reissue of his Star Wars trilogy. Other figures exhumed from Hollywood's crypt via sequels and remakes included James Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies, the duo of Batman and Robin, blaxploitation star Pam Grier (through Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown), Ripley and her alien opponent in Alien 3, werewolves in the remake of An American Werewolf in Paris, the absent-minded professor in Flubber, the comic book Neanderthal in George of the Jungle, and the live-action but still myopic title character in Mr. Magoo. A man with no Hollywood past of his own, Austin Powers, successfully mooched off nostalgia for James Bond and sixties boy bands in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. More sophisticated evocations of old times brought modest returns but better critical notices. With Boogie Nights, indie film maverick Paul Thomas Anderson boosted his commercial appeal by renewing interest in seventies pornography and the myth of John Holmes. Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential channeled American film noir and breathed life into the career of Kim Basinger. In The Ice Storm, Ang Lee returned to the scene of the sexual revolution in 1970s suburbia to show how the children of two swinging couples pay dearly for the sins of their parents. The film's deathby- electrocution climax, aided by the forces of nature, befitted Lee's disarmingly moralistic perspective on the heyday of sexual liberation. Otherwise, and predictably, Hollywood lured moviegoers to multiplexes by churning out its perennial assortment of romance films (Julia Roberts's comeback My Best Friend's Wedding and the Jack Nicholson-Helen Hunt As Good as It Gets), science fiction flicks (Contact, Starship Troopers, Event Horizon), thrillers (Air Force One, Con Air), and comedies (Liar, Liar, Jim Carrey's collaboration with the transgressive Farrelly brothers). On the independent front, the critical acclaim and profits fetched by playwright Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men fed the dreams of the country's young directors. Films populated by African Americans and clearly aimed at that demographic performed well at the box office, among them Kiss the Girls, Soul Food, Eve's Bayou, Booty Call, How to Be a Player, and Good Burger. But their commercial success was not necessarily a good thing, according to Spike Lee, who publicly criticized some of the comedies for being "coonish" and "clownish" (Judell; Merida). While this diverse corpus of films does not easily suggest a common theme or represent a specific development in Hollywood aesthetics and industry, a striking constellation of historical films commands attention, first and foremost for their authorial pedigree: Steven Spielberg's Amistad, Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, Martin Scorsese's Kundun, and James Cameron's Titanic. By linking these films to some of the year's most pressing issues and elucidating their discourses on the essential stuff of history-corpses, commerce, catastrophe, and the like-one can explore and answer questions of how and for what purpose they summon the usable past.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationAmerican Cinema of The 1990s
Subtitle of host publicationThemes and Variations
EditorsChris Holmlund
PublisherRutgers University Press
Pages180-202
Number of pages23
ISBN (Electronic)978-0-8135-7668-8
ISBN (Print)9780813543659
StatePublished - Dec 1 2008

Publication series

NameScreen Decades: American Culture/American Cinema

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ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

Cite this

Capino, J. B. (2008). 1997: Movies and the usable past. In C. Holmlund (Ed.), American Cinema of The 1990s: Themes and Variations (pp. 180-202). (Screen Decades: American Culture/American Cinema). Rutgers University Press.