Hype Dreams

The film industry is commonly regarded as either a cultural landfill, a General Motors assembly line or a self-adoring, power-lunching version of ancient Babylon. For me, I've always pictured it as a giant, wind-breaking gastrointestinal system, trying its best to digest the non nutritious mountains of Batman Cereal that are shoveled into its maw.

Movies are consumed, after all, just as surely as the "golden flavored" popcorn that makes more money for theater owners than ticket sales. And though the hapless film-goer experiences, on a film-to-film basis, a mad seesawing between constipation and malnourishment, the industry does make the pretense of offering a '90s health regimen, allowing some fatty foods (the occasional four-pound Arnold pork roast), then compensating with a low-sodium bowl of oatmeal like Sister Act.

So what keeps it all regular and running smoothly? Hype. If profits are the protein and ego the binding carbohydrates, then hype is the fiber, helping the system's eventual end-product slide easily from the roiling depths of the movie making belly to the dawning light of the media's rectum. Here the movie reaches us (if you'll allow me to extend an already merciless metaphor for one more moment) accompanied by startling aural detonations that can often obscure the film itself. Hype is an integral part of the Hollywood diet, without which the system would grind to an uncomfortable halt.

Still, no one ever has much good to say about hype--it's regarded as a necessary evil, like AstroTurf. No one knows this better than the Hollywood freshmen, whose talents and opportunities are viewed in the light of their own ever-hype-able youth. Of all Hollywood success stories, none fascinate or bug us more than the wunderkind--the twentysomething screenwriter punk who picks up a cool million for a brainless screenplay, or the executive granted Olympian power at about the same age the rest of us get our first apartment. Most grating of all is the director who would, in an alternate universe, still be busy paying off his college loan by waiting tables at Planet Hollywood.

Let's face it, nothing hypes as well as directors, those presumed polymaths whose authorial presence hovers over even the most horrible of films. Our concept of the director at work hasn't changed much since Erich von Stroheim dressed the Merry-Go Round cast in real silk panties from Paris; no one really needed the auteur theory to characterize the director as the egomaniacal Rommel of filmmaking. But when directors are the age of the average Taco Bell night manager, the ante is upped considerably. The younger these third-or fourth-generation movie brats are, the more fascinated we become--it's as if we care less about the movies they make than about how they got this great career.

It's easy to forget that directors as young as John Singleton (24) or David Fincher (30) are a relatively recent phenomenon, like flapsticks or 10-year-olds divorcing their parents. With the ceaselessly invoked exception of the 1941 Orson Welles, directors of yesteryear are best remembered today as old, overweight, working-class, cigar-chomping autodidacts, given to hectoring sensitive actors, hunting big-game animals between shoots, and nursing Napoleon complexes. Ford, Huston, Wyler, Stevens, Hawks, Fleming, et al.--these hardboiled guys learned about making movies by being boxers, fighting in world wars, rum-running, or at least putting in a decade or two as a studio prop boy first. Failing as a novelist and drinking heavily generally helped, too. If an aspiring youngster was lucky enough to get employed at a studio, he spent the early half of his career running for coffee before anyone would allow him to helm a picture.

Then came Welles, an apple-cheeked Mozartian prodigy who reinvented the syntax of film at the age of 26 with Citizen Kane. And we all know what happened to his career. The system wasn't quite ready for the rule-fucking director brat. The phenomenon for which Welles was the prototype didn't bloom again until the '60s, with the advent of two disparate but powerfully influential forces: film schools and the skid-row apprentice system of Roger Corman. Any driven, would-be director could either go to college or work five jobs for Corman's American International Pictures and eventually be entrusted with a low-budget quickie. Many did both, and ever since Coppola, Scorsese, Lucas, Spielberg, Demme and Bogdanovich emerged on the scene in the early '70s like a law firm of snot-nosed frat boys, the Young Turk Club has been with us, right up through Jarmusch, Lee, Coen and Soderbergh.

One of the things that separates the current season's crop of whippersnappers from the previous wave of the mid-'80s is MTV. Though thoroughly schooled in the three-and-half-minute dynamics of grand-mal montage, powercuts and the ubiquitous "cool shot," when it comes to the big screen, the young firebrands of video still couldn't pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were written on the heel. Of course, it's not their fault the studios consider a Def Leppard video sufficient resume for a big-budget feature-film assignment. Thus, there are as many veterans of music videos in today's Hollywood as there are Sons of Scorsese. In fact, MTV and Mean Streets split time as this generation's point of departure.

For an example of an MTV toddler, you can't get higher-on-the-ladder, farther-to-fall than David Fincher, the then 29-year-old Madonna alumnus who was given about $40 million to make the third Alien movie. Proclaimed a genius in the Wellesian tradition, despite the absence of anything longer than five minutes in his filmography, Fincher produced the only box-office lemon in the series. (With foreign rentals and video sales, Alien3 will pass into the black, but it's still a long way to hoe between that and the pocket-fattening pedigree of the first two films.) Despite all the media rumpus during the troubled production of Alien3, no one expected what Fincher came up with--a muddled, unscary, personal film that scans like a hybrid of The Passion of Joan of Arc and Fincher's own rain-and-chains video for "Express Yourself," a postindustrial dirge-like tone poem more concerned with reproductive rights than suspense. You can't say he played it safe--pulling a Renny Harlin or burping out a Predator 2. His daring disregard for the people whose money he spent is breathtaking.

Today's elite cub-scout pack has been so easily and unjudgmentally adopted by the industry that they make the currently lionized Reservoir Dogs auteur Quentin Tarantino look like a hard-luck case. Many of these kids, of whom David Fincher is only the most notorious, were blessed with agents and contracts before they had even made a feature film. Robbing the academic cradle has become common practice; Hollywood knows Zeitgeist when it sees it, and today studio scouts regularly attend the student film shows of schools like USC, searching for the next hot new thang. This is more a function of hype than anything else: the film industry doesn't actually need any more directors. The DGA lists thousands of experienced directors who have to settle for working on cable movies and episodes of "Murder, She Wrote." But hiring a veteran hack for your latest production is hardly an attention-getter. "Discovering" a 24-year-old whiz kid fresh out of NYU plays much better on "Entertainment Tonight."

As a result, we have the unsolved mystery of John Singleton, who was signed with CAA before he'd even graduated from film school and went on to break Orson Welles's record as the youngest director ever nominated for an Oscar. With its connect-the-dots "After school Special" script and faux sense of Ice Cubic "authenticity," Boyz N the Hood doesn't look like a studio film, but it is one, which is what accounts for its huge national publicity sweep during the summer of 1991 and its subsequent grosses. Easily the most overrated film ever made by an under-30 American, Boyz is as pure a cinematic product of hype as any the industry's ever seen. Without hype, Singleton's movie might've mustered some of the limited notoriety of Straight out of Brooklyn, the made-for-pennies lovechild of the then 19 homey Matty Rich. A much cruder, much more mature entry into the Spike Lee Jr. Sweepstakes, Brooklyn managed a rough-hewn charm and brutal realism without the multimillion-dollar budget, studio support or publicity machine Singleton had at his disposal. Rich, for the moment, remains an outsider, while Singleton basks in the spotlight of opportunity and fame.

Once the industry adopts an heir, he can pretty much skate until he does something outright scandalous. Singleton's next movie couldn't really hurt him in Hollywood's eyes if he shot it in Swedish. (Not a bad idea, actually, Singleton remaking The Seventh Seal.) Certainly, if his guardian angel is at least half as on the ball as whatever benevolent spirit watches over the once-hyped Phil Joanou, he'll have a long career, regardless of results. Joanou, an extraordinarily fortunate, maladroit mainstream director, has been running on empty since his first forgettable feature, Three O'Clock High, released in 1987 when he was a mere 25. He hasn't a single decent movie to his credit: U2 Rattle and Hum, State of Grace, Final Analysis. His most recent project was the first installment of an Americanized version of Michael Apted's groundbreaking Up documentaries. You'd think someone in the studios would realize that hiring Joanou to direct their film is like handing Dean Martin the keys to their Porsche.

Address the phenomenon of industry wunderkinds, and you must confront Tim Burton and Chris Columbus, the twin 100-mil youth-Zeuses of the last few years. Just as Spielberg & Co. reigned a decade ago by dint of their unprecedented box-office savvy, Burton and Columbus--both 34 and counting--ascended to superauteurism on the strength of profits, and set the pace against which young comers are measured.

Significantly less distinctive a film making personality than Burton, Columbus is the bastard offspring of Steven Spielberg and John Hughes, and thus comes with two strands of hype in his DNA. At 25 he saw two of his scripts produced: Reckless, a minor bomb starring Daryl Hannah, and Gremlins, which made him simultaneously chili-hot and the favorite scriptsmith of Spielberg, who went on to produce Columbus's Young Sherlock Holmes and The Goonies.

In many ways, Columbus quickly revealed himself to be even more a creature of Hollywood than Spielberg, who, however popular, has always followed his own second star to the right, so to speak. Columbus's Fantasy-Comedy Lite strategy served to exemplify mid-'80s American movies: inoffensive, formulaic, cartoonish, for-the-kid-in-all-of-us. Columbus is the unassuming, comfortable Zeppo of young directors. It's difficult to imagine a thinner premise than Adventures in Babysitting, Columbus's debut, or a more foolish one than his Heartbreak Hotel, unless you consider the pictures already generated by John Hughes. When the two of them united for Home Alone, which has a story line the Ritz Brothers would've scrambled to flesh out, it became one of the top-grossing films in history, and Columbus got his sugar-coated revenge, assuring himself a place in the cash-cow pantheon.

Next to Spielberg, Tim Burton may be the most famous director working today. Surely no one else's movies have ever been as thoroughly drowned in hype. The most remarkable thing about Burton is that he doesn't care. He knows he's a child of popular trash culture, comic books and Walt Disney World, and revels in it. He manages, therefore, to make each of his gloomy fantasies both populist and personal. How many other A-list directors of huge moneymakers have visual styles so distinctive that the average filmgoer can recognize them? If Batman Returns failed to live up to Batman's cash flow, it still earned enough to prove Burton a studio treasure. Consider these films, together with Pee-wee 's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, in comparison with any other director's first five films, and Burton emerges as perhaps the only studio-owned stripling in town who's worth his salt. Naturally, Burton can pick his projects, and even if he goes off the quirky deep end--he's currently considering working on a biopic of fringe grade-Z horror director Edward D. Wood Jr.--no one can doubt his ability to turn the contents of his mental attic into mainstream pop art. I can't wait for the ED hats, personally. Or the ED breakfast cereal.

Having proven himself as natural a commodity as tie-in action figures, Burton unwillingly incited the industry's fool's gold rush for the next young visionary weirdo, a dubious quest that inevitably leads them not only to film schools but to the world of independent filmmaking, where chutzpa and idiosyncracy are in limitless supply. Housebreaking the indie wild child can, however, be an expensive and messy proposition, as Hollywood has learned and unlearned repeatedly since Easy Rider.

In fact, being an independent filmmaker is a bit like being a bachelor: you can sleep around, stay out late, watch football games all Sunday long in peace, leave the toilet seat up, toss dirty laundry on the floor. There's no reason to plan more than a week in advance--forget about taking out a mortgage, saving for the kids' college, prestructuring a retirement nest egg. (This is truer than you think: the only Darla Hood to today's "Little Rascals" He-Man Women-Hater Club is Stacy Cochran, the 33-year-old Columbia grad behind the conspicuously unhyped My New Gun.) Bachelors don't have to make anyone else happy, or answer for their (in)actions. And when independent filmmakers do the equivalent of sitting home naked on a Saturday night with a bowl of Cherry Garcia in their laps watching an amateur cricket game on cable TV, no one has anything to say about it.

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