In the United States, where educational standards are a steady encouragement to satirists and confidence tricksters, school ends early. As early as possible, to avoid anyone's guilt or depression, and so as to allow the kids to be another gun guarding the ripening corn against the warring Huron. Or so that the kids can be customers at the multiplex running the summer pictures. This year, that business has been good enough to put last summer's record $3 billion bounty in serious jeopardy, and the leaders in the marketplace have been Mission: Impossible 2, The Perfect Storm and now, having opened last week-end, X-Men.
X-Men was taken to be the test case by experts. The comic books were decades old; the animated TV series was a classic; and even the toy figures had been around for 10 years. Would the craze hold on the big screen? Well, in its first week-end, X-Men did $57.5 million, mere pennies less than M:I 2 had done a few weeks ago.
We are meant to be gobsmacked by these figures. Whereas, $57.5 million suggests that only about 10 million kids actually saw the film; this in a country of about 250 million. Pause for a moment and you may deduce that the American kid is actually, also, playing baseball, getting to the beach, sitting on the sofa at home, inventing a brilliant e-enterprise, or even beating up such relic minorities as the abashed Huron. The trick is that, somehow, the message goes out that America has gone to the movies.
Thus is this truth overlooked: that in the summer the American movie business is content with the kind of flashy rubbish that will hold the most mindless 10 per cent of the young. The odd thing is that the summer season in American movie-going was only really recognized in the 1970s - Jaws was the movie that defined it. But Jaws was thought of in 1975 as an adult film - supposedly too frightening for kids. Twenty-five years later, kids are nerveless with the slaughter, and if you were to re-make Jaws today you'd make sure that there was a teen couple on the boat (scrap the garrulous Robert Shaw) who want to have sex.
It's far harder now in an American summer to find grown-up movies. The Perfect Storm respects both the hard lives of fishermen and the turmoil of the sea. But it's not a good or interesting movie. And there are demented critics in America who say that the entire first half of this year has produced nothing worth seeing. This comes after a stirring close to 1999. In the last few months of that year, we had The Talented Mr Ripley, American Beauty, Being John Malkovich, The Insider, Boys Don't Cry, Magnolia, Girl, Interrupted, A Map of the World and The Cider House Rules. I don't mean to say that all of those were masterpieces. Still, I saw them without suffering after 10 minutes the certain knowledge that the rest of the running time was a test of endurance. There was something in all those films to sustain an entertaining evening - and in some there was more. Virtually all of these movies figured in the Oscar contest that carried over from the end of the year into 2000. And that's my point: I suspect that increasingly the picture business is holding anything like merit for Oscar season, and letting the kids - or childishness - own the summer.
This is all part of the movies' actual retreat from the status of a mass medium. For the tacit suggestion is there already that adults can wait for the last quarter of the year, and avoid the rest. If I were a betting man, I'd anticipate design consequences to this rationale. I'm waiting for a kind of pool/movie theatre - an auditorium with three or four feet of water, where kids can swim and play as they watch (and much more easily have sex). And if you think that's a satirical suggestion, go look at the most advanced pool designs in Las Vegas, and wonder.
One thing brought comfort in the first half of 2000. There is a film that has been out for three months now, and which has been getting the best word-of-mouth recommendation some of us could give it. It's an English film, Croupier, by Mike Hodges and Paul Mayersberg. You think you've heard of it? Could be. It opened in Britain over a year ago, had one or two respectful reviews, but never held an audience. It was then picked up for American release and opened in a very canny way - in one city, at first, and then gradually going wider. It has still played in only a little over 100 theatres, but week by week its revenue goes up because more and more critics (and ordinary filmgoers) are saying it's the only smart, movie movie they've seen all year. To date, Croupier has taken in $2.1 million. That's tiny, still. But it's a sign that adulthood is a tough, sour monster unto itself that will not go quietly into the hazy summer nights.
' The Perfect Storm' is released 28 July, 'X-Men' 18 AugustReuse content