David Thomson: The hypocrisy of Hollywood

'The real question that arises from this summer is whether the American film business has any interest in adults'
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The Independent Online

Last Friday, in an America so beset with heat that the very air-conditioned interiors of movie theatres seemed as beguiling as Reese Witherspoon with a glass of chilled stem-cell tissue, the last of the summer biggies opened – American Pie 2. By the time you read this, its box-office explosion will be known, and everyone involved will be dismayed if the opening weekend gross (in this case that's the only word) is below $50m. It has to be that big to save face and have a real chance of profit, because nearly every summer movie has followed the pattern of a 50 per cent drop-off from first weekend to the next. It used to be the case that, if a film opened to bad reviews and poor box-office, you were advised to see it quickly, before it disappeared. The same panicky air now begins to attach itself to hits. So, has it been a good summer?

In the innocent days of spring, all the movie chatter was Pearl Harbor, with second thoughts for Steven Spielberg's A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) and the new Planet of the Apes. The reason for that was obvious and crushing: the real Pearl Harbor, mercifully, was a sneak attack – but the movie came after months of preparatory artillery barrage. Cynics argued that this was a way of drumming into the American young the basic facts of Pearl, the Second World War, and so on. Those of a more benign disposition simply noted, as early as last Christmas, that it felt as if we'd seen the film already.

That was the real lesson: for just as movies now go cold very fast, so they never live up to the brilliant advance spin. The most interesting and exciting part of going to the movies these days in America – and it comes free from disillusion – is watching the trailers and living in the future. True outcasts to the Church of Feelgood argue that this is exactly what President W is doing with economics. None of which is heartening.

But Pearl set the tone for summer: a big bang and no echo. On the great thrust of print and TV advertising, film after film has opened huge and colossal, and the first weekend audiences have trailed home spreading the disconsolate word. Critics could lament that Pearl wasn't a patch on From Here to Eternity, let alone the war itself. Audiences knew just that it was flat and boring, and in hindsight it has been easy to guess that its 29-year-old star, Ben Affleck, was already drinking to drown his sorrows. Sure the movie opened "strong". With a tactful scheme of re-editing it even opened well in Japan. But after three weeks it was clear that the picture was a major, long-term disappointment.

Much later in the summer (around the opening of Planet of the Apes, in fact), we American idiots received our kick-back (tax refund) cheques for $300 or $600 from W himself. And those cheques were gone in 48 hours, as hard to recover or remember as Chandra Levy, the missing intern. Movie after movie had the same delivery pattern. Not so much wham-bam-thank you m'am as wham-bam-I'm a sham. In no particular order (because who can remember one week from another?) they were: A.I., Dr. Dolittle 2, Shrek, Scary Movie 2, Jurassic Park 3, Planet of the Apes, American Sweetheart, Rush Hour 2, American Pie 2.

Ten years ago, a list with that many sequel numbers would have been regarded as over-the-top. Today, it's chronic proof that America's young generation – W's model for what education, free enterprise and the American way will do – is ready for little except reiterated promises of more of the same trash you enjoyed before. And don't forget that Planet of the Apes (a numeral-free title) was actually based on the premise that if you swallowed this guff once before, we need only hi-tech it for to be fed to you directly into the veins.

There's another general point to be made: most of these big summer movies were rated "PG-13". Pause for a moment, and try to guess what "PG-13" means. You are going to tell me that it is an indicator that children under 13 cannot see the film, or cannot see it unless accompanied by an adult. This is warming evidence that common sense yet obtains in the UK – but it is not how we do it here. Take Planet of the Apes. Its press advertising says: "PG-13 Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some Material May be Inappropriate for Children Under 13. Some Sequences of Action/Violence."

What that means in American Practice (or American Practice 2) is that children unable to read the posters and barely old enough to count their money can go up to the box office, buy a ticket and be admitted to the film. They may be asked: "Do your parents know you're here?" But even if they answer "Parents?", they will be admitted. The system congratulates itself on the price of a junior admission and on having taken the proper, responsible steps to enlist the rational consent of the parental class.

There is an extensive history to this hypocrisy. The next rating in America (counting up – I suppose) is "R", which means that children under 17 will not be admitted unless accompanied by an adult. You may judge that this allows some mercy, but in practice it means that three- and four-year-olds are admitted to, say, The Silence of the Lambs or Seven if they are "with" a grown-up. Any 18-year-old delinquent qualifies as a grown-up in our republic, of course, and the inverted commas surrounding "with" testify to the alarming refusal of authorities to understand that every imagination is alone in the dark.

You will have worked it out; the American rating system is a foul pact between the business and the alleged safeguards to sell as many tickets as possible without being open to legal action – incidentally, in a land where huge damages are now awarded to those people who may have been tinged by other people's smoke, it seems remarkable that no one yet has cottoned on to the principle of being permanently psychically scarred at the movies. What are they for, if not that?

There have been complaints about this, and about the reluctance of film-makers and the system to make movies for grown-ups. Maybe Hollywood knows how few of that minority there are now. So, actually, Hollywood has responded to public indignation over all the "R"s by homing in on PG-13. Knowing insiders reported that Tim Burton, or his company, had done a good deal of violence-abatement so that Planet of the Apes could sneak in under the barrier and be open to the real summer bounty – kids who have nothing to do except go to the movie multiplexes. It is that kid audience that is setting off the big bangs week after week and then drifting on to the site of the next explosion.

So the real question that arises from this summer is, quite simply: does the US film business have any remaining loyalty to or interest in the people who might by virtue of age and experience be deemed adults? Or is adulthood something, like disease and old age, we are determined to do away with?