A Complete Lack of Direction

The night before the megadud Last Action Hero was officially released last summer, one of my best friends called the house around 10:30 p.m. and asked if I would like to attend a midnight preview of the film.

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"Do I look like the kind of person who goes to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies?" I replied, somewhat piqued.

"It's a John McTiernan film," my friend corrected me. "His movies are pretty good. He made Die Hard."

Oh. Oh, now I understood. A John McTiernan movie. A film by John McTiernan. A cinematic project that utilizes the inexhaustible thespian resources of a semiarticulate Austrian weightlifter who's a bosom buddy of Kurt Waldheim to delineate the personal vision of one John McTiernan. Oh, now that was different.

My friend, who has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Johns Hopkins University, and who once studied with the famed film critic Mark Miller, is the only person of my acquaintance who has the faintest idea who John McTiernan is, much less knows that he directed Last Action Hero. Virtually everyone I know--and virtually everyone you know--is the sort of person who could care less who directed the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood or Tom Cruise movie. Americans are intelligent, sophisticated people who intuitively understand that the motion picture industry is a glorified form of manufacturing, not unlike the canning industry, where a bunch of interchangeable packagers with interchangeable skills compete to see who can produce the most serviceable, durable merchandise, and who can do it in the most timely, cost-effective fashion.

The American people do not know or care who Ridley Scott or Adrian Lyne is, and they haven't the faintest idea which one of them directed Indecent Proposal. The American people also do not know or care whether it was Susan Sarandon playing Thelma or Geena Davis playing Louise. They have better things to do with their time than to keep movie trivia straight. They've got kids to raise, lawns to mow, guns to clean, wives to beat.

Or am I just imagining this? Hey, it's all well and good for me to sit here in the refined comfort of my quiet, suburban home and disparage the cinematic efforts of Messers. Scott, Lyne and McTiernan, and act like anyone could have directed Last Action Hero or Flashdance. But is my sneering contempt for most directors actually shared by the vast American public? And can that contempt or indifference be calibrated in an empirical, statistically meaningful way?

Obviously, the average American does not care who directed the latest Ernest movie, nor does he care who directed Ghoulies Go to College. But what about serious movies, like, oh, I don't know, Falling Down? Think about it. If it is true that Americans only go to the picture show to see movie stars they enjoy, or to see the latest installments in series that they have come to love and trust (Alien, Star Wars, A Nightmare on Elm Street), and couldn't care less who directed the most recent episodes, then why do studios insist on taking out big, splashy advertisements that read:

"Dave: An Ivan Reitman Film"

or

"A Mario Van Peebles Film: Posse"

Surely, the studios do not pay for such advertisements merely to stroke the egos of directors, merely to make them believe that someone, somewhere actually cares who directed the latest Kevin Kline movie or gives a hoot who was behind the camera when the latest sociopathic Boyz-N-the-Zeitgeist film was being midwifed into existence by some surly film school asshole in a tight-fitting baseball cap. Surely they pay for these extravagant, attention-getting directorial kudos because it helps to sell tickets, because it helps to create product loyalty, because all across America, tired, hard-working people come home every night and say, "Hey, toots, how about loading the kids into the Voyager and checking out that new John Singleton movie?" or "Look, honey, drop everything and let's go see what John McTiernan's been up to lately. You know, John McTiernan? The guy who directed Die Hard . . ."

To establish once and for all whether the average filmgoer knows or cares who directed a movie, I spent four days standing outside theaters in New York City asking people pointed questions as they emerged. I attempted, as scientifically as was humanly possible, to construct my sample in a demographically meaningful fashion, including substantial numbers of teenagers, Hispanics, blacks and senior citizens, while avoiding obvious scum-sucking pigs, people who looked like movie critics, and retards.

Generally speaking, I asked the first 10 plausible-looking people coming out of the theater if they could tell me the name of the man or woman who had directed the film they had just seen. Occasionally, when I elicited particularly unexpected responses, I would expand my sample to as many as 25, just to make sure I had not stumbled upon some sort of demographic Bermuda Triangle that would unfairly skew the results and make people like John McTiernan (who directed Die Hard) seem even less important than they actually are.

For the sake of methodological equilibrium, statistical relevance and overall journalistic fairness, I confined my research to directors with a certain reputation and stature in Hollywood. I did this to avoid needlessly rigging the results of my study by requesting the identities of hopelessly unimportant directors or of directors of hopelessly unimportant films. Thus, I did not ask anyone who had directed Dennis the Menace or What's Love Got To Do With It or Life With Mikey. I did not want to turn my study into a complete joke.

Instead, I confined my study to major films by major directors (Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg), major films by individuals who would like to be thought of as major directors (Nora Ephron, Renny Harlin, Neil Jordan, Adrian Lyne, John McTiernan, Ivan Reitman, Mario Van Peebles), and James Ivory. Then, as a sort of control, I threw in a trio of highly praised foreign films (Orlando, The Story of Qiu Ju, Un Coeur en Hiver) whose aficionados would be familiar with the auteur theory, and thus would be more likely to know the identity of the director of this or that film.

Finally, I included a movie by a pair of up-and-coming directors (the Hughes brothers) who were taking Hollywood by storm with their new film Menace II Society, and were getting written up almost daily in The New York Times and other important publications.

The results of my study are presented herewith.

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