HOW CAME WE HERE? (And Then There Was Hollywood)

Risky Business (1983)
D. Paul Brickman

[NOTE: Occasional strong language and possible spoilers.]

Slick, trashy, obvious and irresistible. Whatever it was meant to be–document, satire, pure product, personal statement (the writer/director, Paul Brickman, has done nothing of similar significance since)–Risky Business ended up as the definitive response of the Eighties to the Sixties.

Summation:

Up yours!

Or, as the movie has it, almost as trenchantly:

Sometimes you just gotta say what the fuck!

That’s the message. You can look around and judge the results for yourself. But don’t sell any movie short that caught the zeitgeist of its moment and tracked the future so well without pausing for breath.

If you were alive and culturally cognizant you know some of it. Even if you were neither you probably know the gist.

Hello Tom Cruise (the Last Movie Star). Hello Rebecca DeMornay (a considerable presence herself over the coming decade).

Hello 1980s.

Welcome to Hell, in other words.

Though it’s often characterized as satire–mocking, as opposed to reveling in, the new conventions–I give it more credit than that. Circa 1983, what was there to mock, as opposed to revel in?

Sure, the idea of materialism as the final consummation of the American Dream was making headway, but it hadn’t fully arrived. For that, you needed a Big Event, and while Risky Business wasn’t exactly the Beatles on Sullivan or even Jaws, it was big enough. This is how we will live, the movie seemed to say, with a force few others have ever matched. And, looking at it now (more fun than ever once you see it as Brett Kavanaugh’s Real Diary–if fun’s the word), you can see why not too many wanted to resist. It prettied up everything.

What seventeen-year-old boy from the suburbs (or anywhere else) has not wanted to bend Rebecca DeMornay’s long, Playmate body over a window seat or a stairwell or the inside of a subway car? And, absent Morality, which circa 1983, had been whupped to a frazzle, what would you think of him if she was on offer and he said no? To any sex at all, but especially guilt-free, consequence-free, Beautiful Hooker Sex?

Of course, the narrative trick in Risky Business is that it holds out the idea there just might be consequences after all. Not guilt, of course, (Morality being whupped and all that) but maybe going to jail….or at least being grounded. Maybe not being able to get your folks’ stuff back after you walk in the house and find it all gone?

Better yet, getting your face pounded in or your balls shot off by the Beautiful Hooker’s pimp? Either before or after he absconded with your folks’ stuff.

Any and all of that might have happened to Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson. Even after you’v seen the movie you can’t dismiss the possibility some modern equivalent of penitence might be in order or at least in the offing. That it doesn’t come, that it all works out somehow (in grandly entertaining fashion I should hasten to add), turns out the be the point. How else could the Eighties demolish the Sixties? How else could all that Peace and Love be consigned to history’s ash-heap? (There’s even a scene where the old ethos is mocked openly but the rest of movie renders it gratuitous, one of the few false notes). How else could the film drive home its final message? Only hedonism remains.

I can say with some assurance that most of us didn’t need Tom Cruise dancing alone in his underwear and cool shirt to provide any pointers, just to codify the new reality. (The shirt was important–just your underwear was way too gay. Or fairy or fag or queer or homo, as those who thought putting the Sixties in the rear view mirror was an idea whose time had come, were more likely to say then, or, when they think no one’s listening, now.) I was a divided soul myself. I liked the part of the Sixties hippies had swiped from the New Testament (or its own reputed sources). By the time I saw Risky Business, I also knew that part had been vanquished.

The hedonism was being celebrated–and with Risky Business, given its own Testament and set of rituals, good for a generation at least–because it was all that was left, but also because, like all consequence-free behavior does in the moment–it felt good.

It’s only when you look around the house (if you’re still living with your parents), or the apartment (if you’ve made it to college or beyond) that you realize the come down from the high you got from dancing in a way you’ll never do in public (unless maybe intoxicated, which everyone knows is cheating because, that far gone, it isn’t really you), has only left you a little empty.

Where Risky Business approaches Art, and maybe not even accidental art, is in that empty moment, after Cruise and Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” have created the film’s iconography but before the plot kicks in, when the great problem of the Modern Age our now-despised forefathers created for us to muck about in is lurking in every room of Dad’s house, confronting our hero.

It’s name?

Boredom.

It’s where the otherwise self-repelling styles of Sixties and Eighties hedonism meet like lightning and thunder: The Teenager’s brain…and what to do.

What Joel Goodson would probably do on his own is nothing–maybe another dance that wouldn’t be quite as exciting, then poker with the boys, where they can drink beer and pretend to already be the bored, listless men they’ll become, bragging about the nookie they’ve never had but which otherwise defines their dreams–the only part of their existence that isn’t boring since they live at home and aren’t allowed to get drunk or high enough to forget where they are.

But Joel has a friend–I imagine anyone who has had as many friends as Joel had had one–who lives to get other people in the trouble he plans to avoid himself.

Joel’s friend is Miles.

Twenty minutes after Miles gets Joel in trouble by calling a Hooker, the Beautiful Hooker who came when the first, inevitable, Comically Transgendered Hooker didn’t work out, is riding in Joel’s Dad’s car, asking Miles if he likes excitement.

The question is pertinent since the Beautiful Hooker’s pimp is following along behind, shooting at them.

Even the first time you see the movie, you know it’s going to work out somehow, and one of the ways I give Risky Business enormous credit is that it doesn’t take the path of True Love. After all the plot machinations have played themselves out, the movie doesn’t cheat its own premise. The sex and the shooting and the playing with fire but not quite getting burned was the whole point.

Other parts of the movie want to have it both ways–that’s real hedonism, the avoidance of not merely pain but discomfort. But the end doesn’t offer a way out. It’s evident, even in the ending Hollywood imposed,  that Joel Goodson will live to feel empty again…and that the Beautiful Hooker has never felt otherwise.

They’re just coming down off bigger highs.

That was the story of the part of the Sixties that made the Eighties possible if not inevitable.

It’s never going to be told better.

The Last Movie Star was on his way.

FINALLY, THE CIA GETS THE MOVIE IT SO RICHLY DESERVES (At the Multiplex: October, 2017)

American Made (2017)
D. Doug Liman

Based on a true lie

Well damn. It’s about time.

I don’t see them all, but, as far as I know, the last great movie about the CIA was The In-Laws, all the way back in 1979.And it was all made up.

This one’s about half made up, which is about as close to the facts as any dose of the CIA’s version of reality should ever be. Any closer, and it’s just a documentary, ready to be turned over to Ken Burns and produced on the public dime, like all the rest of the CIA’s activities, Viet Nam war included.

American Made was bound to be advertised as a Tom Cruise vehicle once Cruise was cast as Barry Seal, the Agency’s smuggler of choice for drugs, guns and Freedom Fighters back in the post-Vietnam, pre-Iran-Contra Go-Go phase of the Cold War. I grinned when I first heard about Cruise being cast. No matter the advertising, it’s very rare that I see a new movie coming and say “Well, I’m not missing that one.” And, despite our boy making no particular attempt to physically resemble Seal (who often checked in around 300 pounds), it’s every bit the inspired casting I hoped for.

The same people who complain about this or that historical detail being completely misrepresented in your favorite movie about Wyatt Earp or Jesse James are complaining about the same kind of things here.

My best advice is to ignore them.

Most of what we know about Barry Seal is what the CIA tells us anyway. Anybody who ever saw the In-Laws knows what that’s worth.

Suffice it to say he was a shady character and Cruise gets at the important thing, which is his motivation.

Yeah, American Made‘s Barry Seal has got some patriotic leanings and God knows he’s greedy.

But that’s not what makes him tick.

What makes him tick is a quality almost no movie ever gets right, even when it’s the very subject (as it is here, if only subterraneously). Before and after he was everything else–in life or film–Barry Seal was a primo example of a good, old American Type: the Danger Jockey.

No man who did what he did–in life or film–has ever been really high on anything but Risk.

And no man who did what he did has ever been cured of his peculiar addiction by anything but his Fate.

In Barry Seal’s case, that meant being cut down by Medillin Cartel assassins while reporting to a court-ordered work furlough at a handy Salvation Army depot in his home town of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a moment when, by rights, he should have been in either a Federal Prison or the Witness Protection Program.

American Made stays in touch with the facts just enough to lay out a prima facie case–fictional but convincing–of just why and how all that was made inevitable. The biggest laugh in the theater came on the line “Governor Clinton is on the phone,” which comes just after Cruise’s Seal has assured the representatives of the umpteen law enforcement agencies who are gathered round a D.A.’s desk to determine which one of them is going to bury him under an Arkansas jail that he’s going to walk out of there.

Second biggest laugh?

When he walks out of there.

The film is skillful enough to have let us know by then what he already knows, which is that he is jumping from a frying pan to a fire–and the all-consuming flames will forever await him, no matter how fast he dances.

It’s also playful enough to get those laughs, all along the way.

Liman’s a plenty good director (Go, the first Bourne film, Edge of Tomorrow, Fair Game), but that last is a trick only Tom Cruise could do so well. He has made it look so easy so many times that he’s also made it easy to fool yourself into thinking he’s not acting, the same way Cary Grant and John Wayne weren’t supposed to be acting. But he’s made up his own iconography, without  the help they had from either Hollywood or the Culture (neither of which was any longer offering assistance in this regard by the time Cruise played his first iconic role in Risky Business). That’s not a small thing and he’s never put it to better use than here, where he’s all there is and all there needs to be. (The film’s one big mistake is sticking him with a devoted wife for whom he would do just about anything except give up being a Danger Jockey–it would be a mistake even if it were factual, which it ain’t. If there ever was such a Danger Jockey, it sure as hell wasn’t Barry Seal, and having the devoted wife be a confused, foul-mouthed, hypocritical Hollywood Southern sugarcake, who we’re supposed to love and admire anyway, doesn’t lessen the mistake).

In a world where the detritus of America’s classic transformation from Nation to Empire rolls daily by (just today, we decided that desertion would no longer be treated as a crime worthy of punishment by the American Military, a level of disdain for reason and tradition even Barry Seal might have blanched at if he could have stopped laughing long enough) American Made is just another two hours of entertainment. But when the court chroniclers of our long-promised future Golden Age come to write the last great score against our name, and ask themselves how and why it all went south so far, so fast, they could do worse than take a close, hard look at this great Tom Cruise vehicle, which already says to anyone paying attention:

Ah hah!