A dominant theme in the commentary of such conservative columnists as George F. Will is that the social problems of the 1990s stem from the various excesses of the 1960s. Will and his colleagues are no fans of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and blame programs like Affirmative Action for causing the great racial divide of current times. In their view, the permissiveness of the 1960s undermined the American family and gave birth to a drug culture that continues to plague us.
As someone who graduated from high school and attended college in the 1960s, I've always been offended by the conservative attack on the decade of my coming of age. In defense of my generation I might point out that the Beat celebration of rootlessness and pleasure-seeking was a phenomenon of the Eisenhower fifties. And the nation's concern with drug use was well enough established before World War II that it gave rise to the hysterical and unintentionally hilarious Reefer Madness in the mid-1930s. I might further argue that cowardly white flight in the 1970s, not racial integration in the 1960s, is largely responsible for the decay of inner-city public schools.
In fact, I think Will and his peers have got the whole analysis wrong by ten years. America's current social problems began in the 1970s when the most flamboyant cultural elements of the 1960s were adopted by the same suburban middle-class that was otherwise rejecting George McGovern's liberalism in favor of Richard Nixon's appeals to the "Silent Majority." That majority was smoking pot in the basement and embracing sexual experimentation while remaining resolutely silent about the great ideals of brotherhood and peace which are the sixties' true legacy.
Two superb current films examine the cultural transformation of the seventies in dramatically different ways. Ang Lee's The Ice Storm is a look at the disintegrating suburban family during the era of Watergate, and Paul Thomas Andersen's Boogie Nights is an examination of desperate and radical alternatives to family in the late seventies of pornography chic. Both are must-see films of the season.
Souls on Ice
In what is at once the funniest and most disturbing scene in The Ice Storm, two New England teenagers stumble toward a sexual experience it's by no means clear either really wants. The girl is fourteen, and the boy is fifteen, and they've petted previously but never with much urgency and always, it seems, without even a fillip of pleasure. As the youngsters almost numbly negotiate who will now touch whom and where and for how long, the girl suddenly finds a Nixon mask which she slips over her head. And negotiations continue until clothes are unbuttoned and the boy is lying between the girl's jeans-clad legs. And all the while she leaves the Nixon mask on. The scene reverberates with symbolism, of course. It is 1973, and the chilled gray weather, the messy den, the children joyless in their sex play and the haunting visage of America's most disreputable president all conjure a nation that has sacrificed its soul on the altar of material prosperity and self-indulgence.
Adapted from Rick Moody's novel, The Ice Storm is the story of two 1970s families in New Canaan, Connecticut, and by extension their entire suburban community and even America as a whole. Both fathers Ben Hood (Kevin Kline) and Jim Carver (Jamey Sheridan) are prosperous businessmen who have been able to provide their families wonderful, spacious homes situated on huge, tree-shaded lots. Neither Ben's wife Elena (Joan Alien) nor Jim's wife Janey (Sigourney Weaver) works, but both are discontent, though in different ways. Sixteen-year-old Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) attends an elite prep school in New York City. His sister Wendy (Christina Ricci) attends school in New Canaan along with Mikey (Elijah Wood) and Sandy (Adam Hann-Byrd) Carver. The two families are next-door neighbors, and their lives are intertwined in a number of ways. Ben is having an affair with Janey; Wendy is the girl in the Nixon mask, Mikey her partner. This is the time of waterbeds, leisure suits, flared pants and moral rot. The Hoods and the Carvers have everything they could conceivably want except a sense of purpose. Then on a late fall night when the Connecticut coast is rocked with the worst ice storm in a generation, the children slip away when they're supposed to stay home, and the parents go to a key party, a polite name for a wife-swapping lottery.
Extracting Moody's rich detail, screenwriter James Schamus and director Lee have crammed this film chockablock with meaning. Nothing is random. All text points to subtext. Nixon sweats and prevaricates from every TV screen. Parents cheat. Wendy steals candy. Paul smokes dope in his dorm room. Mikey and Wendy pig out on junk food. Though she hardly needs to, Elena shoplifts make-up from the local drugstore. The world is full of dishonesty and disloyalty. Whereas only a half-generation earlier, friendship meant steering clear of a pal's girl, Paul's prep-school roommate routinely strives to score with any girl Paul finds attractive. Such is the final result of the sexual revolution. Friendship has become much less important than sexual conquest.
Sex, of course, is a central issue here. But all the magic, all the warmth, all the personal elements have been stripped away. Janey and Ben couple on a gray afternoon while Elena runs errands. But their sex has all the heat of Jello. At some point there is presumably a spasm of physical pleasure, but no connection is made. Janey could just as well be using a stud service. Afterwards, when Ben tries to talk about a concern at work, Janey chides him for boring her. Often, we gather, perhaps not to soil sheets on which Jim will later sleep, Janey and Ben copulate in Sandy's bedroom. The coolness of their illicit union is reflected in the sexual experimentation of their children. They are all looking for something they're clearly not finding in the Pandora's box of the new sexual freedom.
Elena knows what's going on between Ben and Janey, and at first she turns, haltingly, toward the church. We learn that she's attended services recently but hasn't continued. And no wonder: the pastor has hair down to his shoulders and speaks in phrases as hip as his outfits. God has become as passe as fifties haircuts. Pastor Philip Edwards (Michael Crumpsty) seems more interested in becoming Elena's lover than her spiritual shepherd. He doesn't seem to have a wife, but that doesn't keep him from showing up at the key party. Repelled but directionless, Elena tries to cope by regressing. She envies her fourteen-year-old daughter and takes to riding a bicycle. Jim makes a comparably adolescent response. He runs away from home, figuratively, if not literally. He spends days at a time on business trips. But he's so disconnected from his family that his sons don't realize when he's gone. Eventually, Elena and Jim draw together in sad desperation and resort to sex, like teenagers, in a car.
In a series of images, Lee reminds us of ice's brittleness. Under sudden pressure, it shatters like glass. Drain a family of its warmth, and it cannot hold together. Janey has become so cold in her pursuit of impersonal pleasure that her family is poised to fragment. She moves from a neighbor's husband to another's young adult son. And though she exhibits at least the surface concerns for her children, they are withering in the frost. At fifteen, bright, handsome, likable and athletic, Mikey uses drugs and escapes into distracted vacancy. Sandy seems even more lost. Lonely and aimless, he blows up all his toys with firecrackers. Questioned about it by Wendy, he shares his fantasies of the treasure of new toys he'll get a few weeks hence at Christmas, new toys he looks forward to destroying in fantastic new ways. Perfunctorily performing her maternal duties, Janey directs Sandy to make noise with a whip instead of cherry bombs, whereupon, left unsupervised as always, Sandy begins to whip the blossoms off a large potted hibiscus. The ultimate price of Janey's chilly negligence will be tragedy, though it's unclear there's enough heart left in her to long care.
Bleak as all this sounds, however, Lee insists on the possibility of redemption. The only real sexual urgency portrayed in the entire film rises between Ben and Elena, husband and wife coupling in the afternoon like the lovers they once were. Perhaps Ben and Elena can stop their slide down the icy slope of self-indulgence. Perhaps their children can be saved. Ben insists that Paul come home for a family meal at Thanksgiving. Before dining, Ben invites his daughter to say grace. And even though the room is filled with tension and faintly concealed acrimony, there's a residuum of love there as well. Things have gone bad between Ben and Elena. But there was obviously once something better, something that might be rediscovered and nursed back to health.
Ben and Elena aren't providing the discipline and the nurturing that their children need, but they've instilled in Paul and Wendy something essential: brother and sister clearly love each other. Whereas Mikey and Sandy seem disaffected and hollow, Paul and Wendy exhibit a moral core. Wendy waxes indignant at Nixon's clumsy coverup of despicable crimes. Oddly, we can even see her core of decency in the sex games she plays with Sandy, whom she treats with great gentleness and evident concern. Sandy is still just a little boy, and she wishes to be just a little girl with him. Her shocking overture, "You show me yours, and I'll show you mine," is the challenge of a grade school child, not an invitation to sexual contact. Wendy yearns for that earlier time when Ben and Elena acted like adults, and after she's caught in a sexual act with Mikey, she wants her father, literally, to carry her home.
Paul shows a comparable substance. He remains a virgin in an atmosphere of rampant teenage sexual activity. And though he has a boy's natural hunger for sexual experience, he wants that something more that involves interacting with a person and not just the interplay of sexual organs. He's grown fond of a bright classmate named Libbets Casey (Katie Holmes). But when she over-indulges in alcohol and drugs one night (activities he's tried to dissuade), he refuses to take advantage of her. Instead, he returns home to his family, striving to keep his curfew. He is caught in the ice storm. But he makes it home where all the members of his family await his return in the rising light and gradual thaw of a new day. Hope springs eternal. The Ice Storm is that rarest of recent cinematic creatures, an American movie that dares to think of itself as a work of art.
Body and Soul
Anderson's Boogie Nights is less somber and more self-consciously seductive. One seduction is executed in the film's opening moments while another is only begun. It is 1977, and the disco scene is raging in the Me Decade. In the roaring dimness of a dance club, a pornographic film director sits with one of his stars and takes notice of a handsome busboy. It's the adult film industry version of discovery at Schwab's Drugstore. The filmmaker is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) and his companion is Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). They signal over a gorgeous blonde on roller skates (Heather Graham) and direct her to gather information about the busboy. Her method is disarmingly direct. Hi, would you like some oral sex (I'm paraphrasing). Who could resist? Mission accomplished, Rollergirl reports back to Jack: The boy is endowed. Jack makes the next contact himself. The lad is seventeen. His name is Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg). Would he like a role in Jack's next film? Eddie is seduced by dreams of fame. And Anderson begins his seduction of his viewers. We are watching people who earn their livings in the flesh trade, and by generations of training in propriety we are prepared to look down on them. But by the end of this film we will come to care about them a great deal.
Boogie Nights takes us on a voyage through the back streets of the late 1970s. Eddie changes his name to Dirk Diggler. And together with his co-stars Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), Amber and Rollergirl, Eddie becomes the toast of the adult film industry. Action clips from a series of his films look like bad "Starsky and Hutch" (yes I know that's redundant). In them, Eddie stars as a secret agent named Brock Landers who beats up bad guys and saves the world as he beds all the beauties along the way. Interesting, isn't it, how close that description comes to capturing the long James Bond series. Is it just a matter of where you put the camera when you shoot the sex scenes?
Eddie and his pals get rich. Eddie buys himself a red Corvette, a fancy pad and furnishings that make us hold our sides laughing. Before we get too smug, though, we need to remember what Graceland looks like. As with Elvis, things go bad after a while. Too little discipline, too much dope. Elvis turned his head and his audience was stolen by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Eddie gets sloppy and pretty soon the naked guy in front of the camera goes by the name John Doe (Jonathon Quint).
Vastly different from The Ice Storm in style and tone, there's still a world of things to admire about Boogie Nights. The film is notable, first of all, for its firm determination to avoid being judgmental. Boogie Nights is neither a champion of the pornographic film industry nor its self-righteous accuser. The characters the film situates in the industry are mostly damaged. Eddie comes from a horrible lower-middle-class home with a vicious mother and an impotent father. Rollergirl is a high-school dropout. Amber is a divorced mother who has lost a custody battle with her cold ex-husband. A black performer named Buck Swope (Don Cheadle) has turned to porn because of the dearth of decent roles for black actors. In one fashion or another, all these folks are looking for a family. Some troubled souls in our society turn to religious cults; these people find an oddly nurturing community in the adult film industry.
But just as Anderson probes the scandalous to find the human dimension at its core, he refuses to romanticize and in that manner to patronize his characters. Eddie is an innocent (his last name isn't Adams by accident). And he's actually quite nice, as illustrated by his relationship with Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the homosexual sound man. But Eddie's not exactly the brightest bulb in the lamp. And in the film's sober denouement we can see the extent to which life has reduced him to his own sexual member. Amber really does care for Eddie, and there's no question that her maternal instincts are both strong and genuine. But she's contemptible for turning Eddie on to cocaine. Jack readily plays father to Eddie and Rollergirl both, but his dreams of genuine artistic achievement are laughable. He means what he says, but his coarse exegesis on art porn is a howler. When Jack studies footage of his latest skinflick and waxes ecstatic about what he has wrought, we can't help but think of his nursery-rhyme namesake's penchant for self-congratulation. And, in addition, Anderson recognizes that the adult film business is a magnet for legitimate creeps. The man who bankrolls Jack's films is busted for kiddie porn, something Anderson obviously does condemn.
Anderson's script is endlessly inventive and far more interested in complexity of characterization than in forthrightness of theme. But he has points to make. One can't help but reflect that the various debauches of the seventies gave way to the cultural backlash of Reaganism in the eighties. The character of Little Bill (William Macy) may be seen as an emblem of this transformation. He works in the pornographic film industry, but he's incensed at the sexual licentiousness of his wife (real life porn star Nina Hartley). His wife's thoughtless behavior is wrong, but Little Bill's responding violence on New Year's Eve 1979 is hardly an appropriate response.
Elsewhere, issues such as race bubble up with great subtlety. Both Buck and the black female star Becky Barnett (Nicole Ari Parker) seem to have arrived on the porn scene for slightly different reasons than their white counterparts. And both try to escape to notably unglamorous places. Becky moves off to Bakersfield with a man who manages an auto parts store. Buck strives to realize a dream of owning his own audio equipment outlet. It is, moreover, fascinating to note that the problems the picture's characters encounter are not the direct byproducts of having sex on film. AIDS is never introduced, for instance, nor are any other sexually transmitted diseases. Neither is sexual jealousy among the performers ever a problem. Rather, trouble stems from that traditional host of vices including greed, vanity, faithlessness and various forms of excess. It is clear that Anderson is not out automatically to censure people who appear in and make sexually explicit films, but he is ready to condemn drug abuse, infidelity and violence.
Boogie Nights' dialogue recalls that of Kevin Smith's for Clerks and Quentin Tarantino's for Pulp Fiction. It is casually explicit and riotously funny. In one segment Eddie drives us into the aisle with laughter as he holds forth on pornography and the lessons of history. And Reed splits our sides with his ridiculous self-assurance as he contemplates what life would be like if he weren't a porn star: "I'd just have sex on my own time," he posits. Funny and imaginative as this movie is, it finally triumphs over a work like Pulp Fiction because of its heart. Tarantino is a terribly clever writer. But he has yet to make us care about the people in his movies. We absolutely do care about the characters we meet in Boogie Nights. They make a living in a manner that makes most of us at least a little squirmy. But they need what all of us need: acceptance, respect, tenderness, friendship, and after we've gone astray, forgiveness.
Like all who have walked the clay of this earth, those of us who came of age in the 1960s were guilty of an array of excesses. We set a variety of bad examples for our younger siblings, and for that and other sins we are in need of forgiveness. But I strongly balk at the 1960s being saddled with responsibility for all the problems in contemporary American society. I would like The Ice Storm and Boogie Nights purely for their artistry, but I take heart at these pictures' implicit understanding that the seeping wounds we face today date to crucial ruptures in the 1970s when the license of the sixties was divorced from its attendant idealism.