The Generic Spectacular

By Drew JohnsonJanuary 14, 2018

The Generic Spectacular
WHEN THE BELIEVER approached Jim Shepard during the early Bush II years, they were hoping he’d agree to write a film column. Shepard gave them a film column: an extended consideration of the peculiarly American movie formulas for onscreen amnesia and perpetual innocence. Shepard can seem like a bleak writer. In his five story collections and seven novels, it’s uncommon to reach an ending that sees the protagonist survive. When he writes about film, especially American film, our favorite cinematic illusions suffer something like the same fate as his protagonists. 

Collected by Tin House Books as The Tunnel at the End of the Light, Shepard’s film essays explore a United States trying to parse itself, but stumbling over genres and conventions seemingly designed not to let things get out of hand. “We write about movies not only because we love them but because their cultural power obligates our response,” Shepard wrote in the introduction to his edited anthology, Writers at the Movies (2000).

By the same obligation, I drove to Williamstown, Massachusetts, to sit with Shepard in his office at Williams College and talk for an hour about film and the United States.


DREW JOHNSON: In The Tunnel at the End of the Light you write about the genre of the weepie — a big slice of American sentimentalism. You were specifically pushing back against a kind of cinematic reboot, in this case, Far from Heaven. Why are we so stuck on “let’s look at the old thing and do it with a new twist”?

JIM SHEPARD: A lot of times the impulse seems to be: Let’s look at the old thing and see how well served we are by these patterns, by these mythologies, and maybe then we’ll see why it is we keep coming back to them. We’re drawn to these stories, and of course if you plug something into a genre you can reassure some of the money people. So you have a lot of filmmakers saying things like, “I can’t get this heartbreaking movie about my brother’s autism made, but when I pitched a noir or when I pitched a horror film there was a lot of interest in that …” And because everybody wants to do a film that’s somewhat personal, for a lot of these filmmakers that’s their backdoor way into personal filmmaking — and that means some kind of renovation of a genre, right? It’s my relationship to horror or my relationship to noir. See Jordan Peele and Get Out, for example.

The weepie seems particularly prone to that given that it seems so much about a kind of self-abnegation on the part of the central female character: I sacrificed for others. And in 2017, that’s a pretty fraught notion at the heart of a movie about a woman, right? But you see all sorts of versions of it.

Yes, filmmakers wind up having to comfort money people. Is the cultural power of films tied up in the fact that it’s really hard to make them without passing through all these safeguards and gateways?

Kind of. All of those problems in the hands of a resourceful director become strengths — a little bit like Robert Frost’s famous formulation that free verse was like playing tennis without a net. When you box someone in, you create a tension that generates all sorts of interesting energies. That was the argument made for years about why certain Hollywood filmmakers should be taken very seriously.

But a lot of the cultural power of movies has come from their being just much more ubiquitous in the American consciousness than other media, and that’s changing. I think movies are losing a lot of their cultural power, probably to games on the one hand and to a general withdrawal from the arts (with maybe the exception of popular music) on the other.

You’ve been teaching film for a long time. Is that part of where you’re seeing this loss of “I must see this.”

Yeah. It used to be, as recently as maybe 20 years ago, there was a sense that if you were engaged in your culture, the American culture, there were certain movies you needed to have seen. It used to be that if you got to college and you still hadn’t seen Casablanca or Dr. Strangelove, you went to the student film society and watched those movies so you could feel like, Well, at least I know those movies when they come up. That morphed into, well, you need to have seen the movie of the moment. You need to have seen The Usual Suspects. You need to have seen Pulp Fiction. The Crying Game. Blue Velvet. Movies that everybody was talking about, that everybody had an opinion on. If you were standing around at a party and said, “What’s Blue Velvet?” people would say, “Okay, did you just blow in from Czechoslovakia?” There’s much less of that now.

I teach film, as well, and to me, there’s also this tendency among undergraduates to rush toward big, popular texts. It’s almost like so many students are reacting to this moment when people are making their own movies on iPhones by going to go see the tent-pole, franchise stuff. Like they’re trying to recreate the thing that went away.

Movies always served a kind of community function in that, going back to the earliest silent films, the studios tried to make them into an event. And the theaters were designed for that. So the students are in some ways getting back to that position with what you’re describing as the big tent-pole movies: we’re all going; we’ve all been waiting for the new Star Wars release; let’s all go. And what’s interesting about that is that anticipation needs to be matched by word of mouth in a way that it always did. A lot of my students were vaguely interested in the rollup to the Blade Runner sequel, but once the movie opened and the word of mouth wasn’t very good, then that went away. They said, “Oh, I don’t need to see that.”

Bringing up Blade Runner 2049 … I kept thinking, “Here’s a compelling sci-fi vision,” and yet, we’re imagining a future where what we really need to get back to is biological reproduction. So the way to rescue the future is to become more like us, which is an inversion of the sci-fi promise of let’s-imagine-a-world-in-which-we’re-not-like-ourselves.

Part of what I argue in various ways in Tunnel is — and this is not a new idea — that Hollywood’s main agenda is really to pretend that we can have it both ways, and that means a movie can be devastatingly direct in its critiques as long as there’s that recuperative power operating in the opposite direction. So yeah, it’s humanity that got the world into the state Blade Runner is in, but the only thing that can save the world is: humanity. And the movie is just straight-faced about that.

What the best Hollywood movies do (and this is not true of some radical independent movies that can be quite different) is to present you with these impossible paradoxes and then to pretend blithely that they’re not paradoxes at all: This Western hero or private eye is too much the rugged individualist to fit into any community, but we can’t build or maintain a community without him. Casablanca offers you a cynical Rick who’s going to become an idealist, we’re sure, because we’re provided with various cues that his heart is in the right place. And when Ilsa comes over to offer herself to him, sure enough, he says he’ll give her the letters of transit, and we’re allowed to believe that he does so either because she offers herself sexually to him and he accepts, or because she reminds him of her vulnerability and his heart melts. We fade from their kiss to a scene later that evening and his decision to turn over the letters. If you’re a cynic, you can think, “Well, that was transactional.” And if you’re an idealist, you can say, “Oh, he was just so melted by her kiss that he said, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’” The movie is carefully constructed to allow both of those readings, so that you and I can sit next to one another in the theater and one of us can say, “Oh man, talk about seeing through romanticism,” while the other says, “I love romantic movies like that.”

We can all think of movies like that. And some of the movies that I mention in the collection are movies that want to both exploit and expose our desire to be lied to even as we feel we’re groping toward truth. One of the central arguments I make about Chinatown is that it operates like it’s The Maltese Falcon almost all the way through, and it’s only when it goes beyond that and refuses to stop that you realize how fundamentally romantic a movie that’s supposedly as cynical as The Maltese Falcon really is. To some extent the same holds true for Goodfellas and The Godfather. The Godfather feels ferociously able to confront some pretty ugly stuff but it’s only when you put it up against Goodfellas that you realize how much of its pleasure resides in the way it allows us to keep a huge number of our illusions intact.

You write about Terrence Malick in Badlands but then you don’t bring up The Thin Red Line at all. Did The Thin Red Line have any impact for you? Because it did seem to say in that Malick way, “I love these formulas but I’m going to do my own strange dance with them.”

I think that’s a very nice way of describing it. And in a weird way, for me that meant that some of the aestheticizing and some of the movie’s central agendas seem oddly separated from the subject of war. Malick chooses big subjects and is a very odd filmmaker, as everybody knows. But at least he does choose big subjects, and part of the strength of his movies is that his relationship to them is so idiosyncratic. But part of their intermittent opacity comes from the same thing. So you see The Tree of Life and you think to yourself, nobody else could’ve made this movie, but you also find yourself thinking, What is that moment supposed to be doing?

The whole Jessica Chastain-Brad Pitt-Proustian thread is incredible —

— and then you have a plesiosaur dying on the shore of a lake. Nobody else could’ve done that, but after you stop marveling, you’re like, “What am I supposed to do with that?” It feels to me that he’ll say, “I want to make a movie about war,” and he’ll start making his movie, and it’s not exactly about that anymore. It’s morphed into something else that relates to that subject. What that meant was that when I watched that movie I was very interested in it, but I didn’t think, “If you talk about war movies, you have to talk about The Thin Red Line.” I didn’t think about it in that way.

Isn’t that a problematic response we have, though? We’re so trained to think, “We’re outside of the genre, so we must be in this cul-de-sac.”

It could be. But it’s a global marketplace and a lot of foreign films are not trapped by American conventions by any means. The Russian movie Come and See, about the war on the Eastern Front, is stunningly outside of American war movie conventions, and I would never say about it, “This isn’t a war movie.” I’d say, “This is strong medicine.” I’d say, “Holy cow, this is the kind of movie we can’t make in America.”

Think of it this way: one of the most ravishing and disappointing movies I’ve ever seen is Days of Heaven, and I assume Malick said, going into it, “I want to make a movie about class and labor.” But you can’t watch Days of Heaven and think that’s what it wound up being about. Even though that stuff is there. That’s what I mean by Malick’s idiosyncrasy. His eye is so extraordinary and so dominant. It’s not facetious to say that Days of Heaven is about wheat. Or that The Thin Red Line is about those amazing grasses — those grasslands. What I remember is thinking that those were some of the most beautiful images I’d ever seen. It’s one thing to say in a Spielberg movie, “That’s a very beautiful image of a very horrible thing.” It’s another thing to be so ravished by an image that you forget it’s a war movie. They were crawling through the grass, and I was thinking, “I want a still of that to hang on my wall. How did he do that?”

One of the things that hit me reading about the weepie in Tunnel is how strange it has been that Gone with the Wind, the American movie about the Civil War, is a women’s picture. I believe the only shot fired onscreen is fired by Scarlett. There are soldiers around but we never see them in any kind of martial glory. Having said that, it’s kind of an anti-weepie. Scarlett refuses to play that role even though she’s moving through and past the conventions, like Melanie, who is a weepie character.

That’s a good point. Part of what made Scarlett such a spectacularly archetypal character was that she was flying in the face of all of that. This is somebody who’s saying I don’t give a shit: I want what I want. And yet she wasn’t just independent: despite all of that independence and strength, at other times all she seemed to care about was that damned Ashley Wilkes. Another example of having it both ways.

But the Lost Cause winds up being a weepy paradigm: it’s the thing that didn’t happen. The Lost Cause historiography says, “This should have happened — this was deserved by white people — but it didn’t happen, and so they’re staring off into the middle distance.” Gone with the Wind has its cake and eats it, too, because none of that is completely negated by the movie, but the character we follow most closely denies it almost completely.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Hollywood has never dealt with the Civil War very well, given the industry’s capitulation to Southern demographics and sensibilities. I mean, I can barely even watch most Civil War movies because they’re so tilted toward making sure they couldn’t possibly offend any Confederate sensibilities. You end up with movies like Birth of a Nation or Gone with the Wind in which you have these jaw- dropping portraits of even the Klan as just energetic local politicians.

I’m not sure what I would say is the most successful Civil War movie. The most successful in financial terms is obvious, but aesthetically? Maybe Glory, though even it has all sorts of problems.

The weepie-as-war-movie segues into the weepie-as-Western. In the Western, we’re looking at all these characters — some of whom, in the original dime novels, were explicitly coming out of the Civil War — who are presented as men without pasts. If you look carefully you can see signs that these are post–Civil War people.

And that is a lovely way for Hollywood to again have it both ways. Like if you’re watching The Searchers, you can note that part of why John Wayne is alienated is because he shows up in a Confederate cavalry officer’s tunic in the beginning. But you can also say, “Oh, he’s just a guy who’s alienated and angry — I don’t know where he got that,” and pretend the Confederate part isn’t that important. The Searchers is one of the most vivid and visceral portraits of racism that the Western has ever generated, and you’re allowed to disconnect that from the character’s Confederate past if you’d like. That amazing scene where Wayne goes and looks at the women who have been Native American captives — when he goes looking for Natalie Wood — that’s the best acting John Wayne ever did. I don’t know what John Ford’s direction to him was, but the visceral panic and the revulsion on Wayne’s face when he realizes that he’s surrounded by women who have had sex with somebody of another color is just astonishing. The ugliness is astonishing.

But the subtler point is that you can have men without a past in a Western … and by that you mean: they were slaveholders. And fought for that cause. After all, what do you mean by men without a past? Everybody has a past.

Sometimes this reset button on American innocence is a kind of self-help truth and reconciliation, where I’ve given myself a new baseline and the movie doesn’t ever call me on it.

The elegy, in fact, is at the heart of the Western: “We’ve lost that world.” The lost world they’re considering with sadness is often that slaveholding world. That genocidal world. That’s the elegy. When we’re moved by the movie, on some level we’re saying we’re sad that that’s going away.

So we find ourselves stuck in this place — this medium, this genre — where everything that looks like happiness is, not very far below the surface, reactionary?

A way of being less despairing than that would be to say that the impulses toward progressivism, the impulses toward subversion of the sort you and I would celebrate, those impulses are powerful and they never go away. They’re part of what continually disrupts what would otherwise be smoothly bland mechanisms. They’re part of why you like movies. They’re part of why I like movies. Because we see these things in a Preston Sturges movie. Or a Frank Capra movie. Think about It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a Christmas movie? Are you kidding me? On the one hand it is: Zuzu’s petals, and we have a Christmas tree at the end, and my eyes are tearing up, and I’m holding my little girl. On the other hand, you watch that movie and you think, “Where do I sign up for the Communist Party?”

Nobody wants to lose a lot of money, which pushes a project toward the conservative. And helps work to eliminate those subversive or progressive impulses. What a movie like that is designed to do at its most pernicious is make you think, leaving the theater, either I have had my little exercise in outrage and can now go about my business as a drone, or, This is so complicated I guess there’s nothing I can do.

The other thing that I talk about in Tunnel in various ways is how we much we, as a country, fetishize being apolitical. And what a weird thing that is to announce proudly: “Oh, I’m not political.” When you leave the United States, people go, “What does that even mean? What do you think you’re saying?”

So many of the anti-war movies in the American canon are just, “I want no part of this.” Not, “Stop the war.”

Almost all of the most iconic male figures in Hollywood movies do some version of that proud apolitical isolationism. And usually there’s a transition to some kind of, “Alright — just this once — I’m going to be interventionist.” So you have Henry Fonda in My Darling Clementine saying, “How does a fella get a drink in this town?” He doesn’t want any trouble; he just wants to get a drink. I guess he’s just going to have to clean up Tombstone to get one. The most famous example is Casablanca’s Rick: “I stick my neck out for nobody.” To thrive as an apolitical isolationist you have to compartmentalize in spectacular ways.

Compartmentalization has been very much in the mix when talking about Hollywood, Weinstein, and all of the ongoing fallout and the resulting discussion. This is a town that has always been bad at gender — onscreen and off — yet has celebrated itself when it has bothered to be good with gender onscreen. Or believed it has been. And now it’s in this moment where it’s attempting to come to terms with the fact that everybody is implicated in one way or another.

The business runs on this wild obliviousness: are the images we’re putting out best serving women in the United States? Hmm: Maybe not. Are we all making a lot of money on that? For the most part we are. Can we every so often push back on that a little, at least, and then celebrate our courage? Sure. Let’s celebrate An Unmarried Woman, or Norma Rae, or Thelma and Louise. And some of the impulses behind such movies are worth celebrating. But Hollywood’s been endlessly resourceful when it comes to self-celebration.

Most American movies, no matter how brave they are, are hedging their bets one way or the other. And to be fair to them, that seems like good business. All you need to do is to get a little bit outside of the United States to see what a movie that’s not hedging its bets is like. Check out a Romanian movie called 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, for example. It’s easy to forget that if you say to people, “You gotta go see this movie, it’s the most depressing movie I’ve ever seen,” they’re not going. They’re just not going.

Which makes me ask what you think of Kelly Reichardt’s movies — Wendy and Lucy or Certain Women?

I haven’t seen Certain Women. I loved Wendy and Lucy.

Wendy and Lucy notoriously received an R rating despite an almost total lack of obviously objectionable material. A. O. Scott wrote that, “The rating seems to reflect, above all, an impulse to protect children from learning that people are lonely and that life can be hard.”

A better way of putting it might be to say that people are lonely, life is hard, and the movie doesn’t give you anything else. Because It’s a Wonderful Life tells you that people are lonely and life is hard, but then it also swoops in and tells you that if you prefer to believe something else, you can try this more pleasant alternative on for size. Whereas Wendy and Lucy says: this is it. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an astonishing movie about a young woman who helps her friend get an abortion in Ceaușescu’s Romania. It’s one of the best movies about the brutality of sexual politics in some societies that I’ve ever seen. And I hesitate to recommend it to people, because it’s so grueling.

There is an audience for that kind of movie. There’s a reason to make that kind of movie. But I certainly understand why that’s not Hollywood’s agenda.

As for movies that you celebrate in Tunnel, you have The Vanishing, Chinatown, Babette’s Feast, The Pianist. Movies that are pushing the outside of their envelopes. I wonder if you’ve seen other movies since that belong in this group of films that are dancing with your paradigms but also rearranging them.

As I mentioned before, a good example of playing with the paradigm — building the machine that allows you to consume it somewhat unselfconsciously but also allows you to really think about it as a subversive text — is Jordan Peele’s Get Out.

It’s a remarkable movie.

Yeah, on the one hand, you can go there as a frat boy and enjoy it as a reconsideration of some of the premises of a movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. You can imagine white boys from Virginia going, “I love that movie! Why do you have to bring race into it?” On the other hand, as everyone’s noted, it’s one of the smartest movies about race in the United States in a long time. And it made a huge amount of money. So that’s an encouraging thing: an intelligent movie that’s subversive and a mainstream success.

In the essay about weepies, you talk about how Far from Heaven allows the viewer to sidestep a lot. This comes up with Get Out — partially because the movie both rejects and tests this idea.

I think there’s a reason Brecht came up with the notion that we need to be a little more alienated from our artistic objects. There is a way that if you’re watching I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang or The Grapes of Wrath, you might come out of the movie fired with a new purpose. But there’s also a way in which movies always — partially because of this duality of giving you what you want and taking it away at the same time — enforce a kind of passivity. Obviously movies don’t just enforce passivity. But if you were thinking, Have Hollywood movies been a force for social agitation or an opiate for the masses?, if those were your only two options, it’s pretty clear what you’d have to choose.

Why not both?

It is, in some ways, both. Nevertheless, people are not coming out as an audience determined to enact social change. Part of Brecht’s complaint about Wagner’s music was that there was something too subsuming about the experience, about the way people gave themselves over to it and lost agency in doing so. That’s also how powerful movies are in some ways designed to work. If you’re on a ride and you come out feeling ravished, you’re probably not ready to act.

A wave rolls over you, and now you’re lying on a beach.

Some of the most powerful movies of the last 50 years — whether it’s Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan — are so powerfully steamrolling of their audiences, they left them limp. Coppola is thinking he’s making an anti-war movie with Apocalypse Now, and he is, but Apocalypse Now is also one the great spectacles that anyone has ever committed to film.

And all the great post-Vietnam, anti-war movies are apparently favored viewing among the combat units of today’s military.

Anthony Swofford notes in Jarhead that the Marines in the Gulf War watched the helicopter scene in Apocalypse Now to get pumped up for battle. Of course, if you’re going to render war, you have to render what makes it so appealing to young men, and that’s part of the attraction. But, by definition, spectacle is enervating; spectacle is something you just gape at. And spectacle is what movies in some ways are all about.

A different part of the aesthetic jungle, but Paul Newman always said he played Hud as a villain.

Yeah. That didn’t work.


Drew Johnson’s fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Literary Review, VQR, New England Review, The Cupboard, and elsewhere. His essays and other writing have appeared or are forthcoming at The Literary Hub, The Paris Review Daily, The Cincinnati Review, The Believer, Bookslut, and elsewhere. 

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Drew Johnson’s grandmother played piano to accompany the silent films showing at her father’s theater in Pearl City, Hawaii, in the 1920s. Johnson’s other grandfather managed the Rialto — a B-movie theater in Danville, Virginia — in the ’40s and ’50s: monster movies, live performers, barbecue. In his own lifetime, Drew has spent some hours staring at the screen. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, The Literary Review, VQR, New England Review, The Cupboard, and elsewhere. His essays and other writing have appeared or are forthcoming at The Literary Hub, The Paris Review Daily, The Cincinnati Review, The Believer, Bookslut, and elsewhere. He lives in Williamsburg, Massachusetts — by way of Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and Florida.


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