Conspicuous Compassion
Edward Byrne

As the 1990s have begun to unfold, many critics and social observers have been busy attempting to sense the distinctive characteristics which will identify this decade as different from the past ten years. In the shorthand of historical summary, particularly in twentieth-century America, writers have enjoyed labeling time periods. Especially since the Jazz Age of the Roaring '20s, each successive decade of this century has acquired a clever title which evokes impressions embodying the decade's dominant political mood and social concerns, and which immediately distinguish­es it from other decades, before or after. Some decades have taken a few years to establish their own iden­tities; however, the Nineties already have exposed their true nature, easily seen in a spate of new films this summer—and it is not a pretty sight.

The summer of 1991 has been a disaster for American cinema, both artistically and economically. As the leaves of autumn begin to fall, so too have the expectations expressed last spring by many studio executives for high box office receipts and notable filmmaking. Only two films—Terminator II, an adventure sequel, and Hot Shots, a slapstick parody, have proven to be successful hits living up to the early expectations. At the same time, no clearly superior movie has emerged to garner the accolades of film crit­ics. Nevertheless, American filmmakers have accomplished one feat this summer. They have con­firmed the suspicions many have held about the emblematic charac­teristics by which the 1990s are becoming known. Rather than the decade of conspicuous consump­tion, symbolized by the "yuppies" and the economic politics of the Eighties, the Nineties are beginning to be seen as the decade of conspic­uous compassion, marked by the "greenies" and the demands for political correctness.

Of the half dozen films released in the last few months which could have been cited, two films for which one would have held high hopes as the summer season began, Regarding Henry and The Doc­tor, display most clearly those themes and concerns which might be anticipated as the focal points for films in the Nineties. These two movies, like a number of others screened this summer, can be viewed as further reflections, along with additional aspects of American arts and academia in the last few years, of an unfortunate trend toward self-congratulatory compas­sion which has spread throughout the country. This trend has been recognized in recent issues of vari­ous academic journals and arts reviews, as well as in current copies of national magazines and newspa­pers, such as Time, Newsweek, Esquire, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

In its September cover story, entitled "Have a Nice Decade!", Esquire sarcastically describes the Nineties as a period which appears to be signaled by "a New Sincerity." In two cover stories this summer ("Who Are We?" and "Busybodies and Crybabies"), Time characterized the Nineties as a time of hypersensitivity and moral posturing on a whole range of issues, including political power, anti-capitalism, sexu­al politics, environmental concerns, ethnic diversity, the revision of histo­ry, and a rejection of materialism. Some have suggested that in this new decade sensibility has been sac­rificed by many in the effort to publicly display sensitivity. An excel­lent example of this outrageous behavior surfaced in the August issue of The New Republic, which reported that a number of public school systems across the nation, in an effort to be more sensitive about educational materials which might promote "racism, sexism, ageism, handicapism, and other anti-human values," have determined the follow­ing books no longer suitable for elementary classroom use, unless the teacher should choose them as objects for ridicule: Rumpelsliltskin, Snow White, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Babar, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.

This trend toward a self-aggrandizement gained through the discovery, even if it may be some­what artificial, of a heightened awareness, not only of the feelings of others, but also of one's own feel­ings, is evidenced in fashionable adult reading fare. Positive proof exists in the popularity of Robert Ely's New Age, pop psychology text about rediscovering the sensitive side of manhood, Iron John, which is currently the longest running non-fiction entry on The New York Times bestseller list, and which was a source for a series of specials on Public Broadcasting stations by Bill Moyers, perhaps the sensitivity guru of the Nineties. In the political are­na, the most interesting example of '90s thinking can be observed in the debate which arose upon Judge Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court. Most of the objections to Judge Thomas did not concern any problems in the cre­dentials of his judicial record, but instead questioned the depth of his sensitivity toward the conditions of the underprivileged, women, and minority members.

Since it appears that the nation has become obsessed with vague notions of sensitivity or sin­cerity in all aspects of culture, education, government, and per­sonal relations, one would expect American filmmakers to follow suit. Throughout its history, Hollywood has served as a barometer, record­ing the changing social atmosphere in the country, and today's films are no exception. A number of critics noted the inception of the Nineties' new sincerity and sensitivity in the recent films of Kevin Costner. Dances with Wolves (1990) and Robin Hood (1991), although challenged by some critics for their heavy-hand­ed use of politically correct themes and characters, as well as their revised visions of history, have opened a floodgate for dogmatic and condescending films which pro­mote certain acceptable behavior and ideologies, especially those con­sistent with the aims of special interest groups currently in vogue.

When Dances with Wolves won the Oscar for Best Film in 1990 over Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (recog­nized overwhelmingly by critics as the best picture of the year), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, representing main­stream Hollywood, offered its imprimatur to a new approach to filmmaking which prefers '90s sincerity over '80s cynicism, pretentious sensitivity over true grittiness, and posturing revisionism over stark real­ity. Consequently, the first wave of films filled with scenes portraying the new self-conscious sincerity and sensitivity of this decade reached shore this summer.

One might have guessed that Mike Nichols would be among the first filmmakers to exploit this new trend. Throughout his career as a film director, Nichols has repeatedly made movies containing characters or themes which reflect current social situations and chic attitudes. Some of Nichols' wonderful earlier films were presented with precise and mostly uncompromising style: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1965), The Graduate (1967), Carnal Knowl­edge (1971), and Silhwood (1983). Even Working Girl (1988) managed to succeed despite an obvious soften­ing of the Nichols' vision. However, Regarding Henry represents a turn from soft toward flabby.

Regarding Henry is the story of a New York lawyer consumed by his work and inattentive to the emotion­al needs of his wife and daughter. Henry Turner, as portrayed by Harrison Ford, is the ultimate stereotype of the egotistical, selfish, and materi­alistic individual of the '80s. Nichols relies so much on such an apparent­ly exaggerated profile presenting the cold and impersonal traits of his main character in the opening scenes of the film that it becomes about impossible for viewers to trust the accuracy or honesty of any of the film's subsequent events. When Henry is shot in the heart and the head by a thief, causing the loss of all Henry's physical and mental abil­ities, the audience is even encouraged to perceive this as a for­tunate occurrence. After all, this incident allows Henry to turn mirac­ulously into an equally exaggerated and stereotypical man of the Nineties; as his heart renews itself and he relearns his language and motor skills, Henry also develops a new sensitive and sincere personali­ty, full of innocence, caring, selflessness, and compassion.

The Doctor, directed by Randa Haines, who previously had con­tributed Children of a Lesser God, seems to have followed the same for­mulaic script as Regarding Henry, with only slight adjustments. First, the protagonist, Jack MacKee, played by Wiliam Hurt, is a heart surgeon instead of a lawyer. Second, Jack's transformation from a heart­less, self-centered doctor, who ignores the emotional needs of his wife, son, and patients, into a sensi­tive and compassionate husband, father, and doctor arises as the result of having to overcome the growth of a malignant tumor in his throat, rather than a gunshot wound. Nevertheless, the scenes which depict both sides of Jack's character are just as stereotypical and extreme as those which chroni­cle Henry's regeneration.

Like other films this summer which ostentatiously display the new sensitivity of the Nineties, Regarding Henry and The Doctor fail despite decent performances by their actors. These movies fall short because contrived plots dishonestly designed by the directors do not allow viewers to determine for them­selves the relative importance of various values and morals. Continu­ally, these films dictate preferred emotional and intellectual respons­es to the audience members, particularly those who might share the economic and social back­grounds enjoyed by the films' protagonists. The movies' messages indicate it is possible to maintain suitable principles, even a moral superiority over others, only by behaving in a prescribed, politically and socially correct manner, and by denying any other advantages that might have arrived through one's achievements. These films deliver the point that, unlike in the Eighties, those who decide the direction
this decade follows will deem wealth, career success, social posi­tion, political power, and personal ambition as characteristics which one must renounce, or at least for which one must constantly apolo­gize and express guilt—especially if one is a White Anglo-Saxon Protes­tant male who has never had the benefit of viewing the world as a recognized "victim"—because, inevitably, they all lead to corrup­tion of the soul. As in numerous routines by stand-up comics, doctors and lawyers are the easy targets for the cheap shots in these pictures. (Successful businessmen, another group which came to prominence during the boom years of the Eight­ies, were left to be attacked likewise in a third film this summer, Life Stinks, a Mel Brooks comedy.) How­ever, the ease with which these targets have been drawn on the screen only emphasizes the shallow and simplistic nature of these films, as well as the kind of thinking they represent.

The recent death of Frank Capra, whose finest films (It Hap­pened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It's a Wonderful Life) contained genuine empathy for the problems of the average American, reminds everyone of the need for directors to reinvigorate the film industry with new movies which continue to investigate the importance of values to individuals. However, Nichols, Haines, and the other moviemakers responsible for this year's collection of clumsy and self-conscious films have not fol­lowed fully Capra's advice. Although these directors in the Nineties would like to wear the man­tle which once cloaked Capra's shoulders, signifying him as the champion of the masses, they have disregarded his warnings not to overlook the primacy of common sense, his stress on the need to earn honestly the emotional allegiance of the audience, and his advice to avoid a conspicuous compassion which condescends to the very peo­ple heralded in the film. As Capra once stated, "I would sing the songs of the working stiffs, of the short­changed Joes, the born poor, the afflicted. I would gamble with the long-shot players who light candles in the wind, and resent with the pushed around because of race or birth. Above all, I would fight for their causes on the screens of the world. But not as a bleeding heart." Unfortunately, on and off the screen, this summer Hollywood was filled with bleeding hearts, from Henry Turner's bullet punctured heart to the open-heart surgery performed by Jack MacKee to the bleeding-heart direction evident in a few misguided movies.

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