In its never-ending struggle to somehow remain relevant in a world of high speed connectivity, sophisticated computer games and TV series like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, these days American cinema repeatedly attempts to tap into such free-floating cultural anxieties like terrorism and child abduction. But two new films, The Banger Sisters and Trapped, demonstrate the different ends to which such psychosocial dowsing can be employed.
In the argot of these times, both films can be considered "homeland melodramas": they focus on securing the family and protecting its domestic space from internal and external threats, at least some of which emanate from the past. But while The Banger Sisters takes a serio-comic look at the cost of suppressing history and dissent, the dismal Trapped does little more than shamelessly exploit fears associated with home and security.
The Banger Sisters is by far the better picture, and not only because its most sensible character, the likable 50-something groupie Suzette (Goldie Hawn), endorses the anarchistic energies of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll--a troika that, until recently, energized the aesthetic of post-studio American cinema. Suzette pays a visit to her former "banger sister" Vinny (Susan Sarandon), who has chosen to shed her past (but, tellingly, not her prized collection of penis Polaroids) and let her youthful juices dry up in the sun-kissed suburbs of Phoenix.
At first, Suzette's presence threatens Vinny's claim to an upwardly mobile lifestyle, but eventually Suzette helps Vinny realize that, to her husband (Robin Thomas) and two daughters (Erika Christensen and a terrific Eva Amurri), she is as beige as the walls of her tastefully appointed home.
Rather than wallowing in nostalgia, this self-conscious film knows its own history and takes an admirable position with respect to countercultural history. It not only conjures up Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and Frank Zappa, it also pays homage to Sunset Boulevard, The Doors, Thelma and Louise, and Almost Famous. Its most compelling moments are scenes in which its characters acknowledge the past--and then reject its fetishization.
Despite The Banger Sisters' need to reaffirm Vinny's nuclear family in the face of female sexual rebellion, the film almost succeeds as an alternative cultural history. Unique in its refusal either to glorify or purge the Swinging '60s from its characters' memories, the film is generous and unsentimental. In it, the act of recalling the past changes the present--predictably in some moments, whimsically in others where it refuses cliché. Ultimately, the film's sense of security depends upon the characters' willingness to accept the changes brought about when they engage in fond, yet clear-eyed, recollection.
As Suzette, Hawn turns in a complex performance, wielding her toned, tanned, yet unmistakably blowsy physique like a bottle passed around in a rock concert parking lot. Hawn and Sarandon's chemistry is worth the ticket price--and rates more screen time. Despite their performances and the film's generosity, director Bob Dolman's screenplay gives several excellent supporting actors too little--and Geoffrey Rush a little too much--to do.
Trapped is an altogether different take on concerns surrounding the need to secure the home turf--and particularly vulnerable little girls--against evil invaders. Cinema may not be dead yet, but surely buzzards everywhere take comfort at carrion like this vacuous amalgam of Ransom, Panic Room and the TV show 24, which exploits fears about the recent disappearances of young children while making a mockery of those tragedies.
Kevin Bacon stars as Joe Hickey, as slimy a role as his slim hips have ever wrapped themselves around. A platinum-haired Courtney Love plays his abused wife and co-conspirator, while angelic honey-blonde Charlize Theron and black-Irish Stuart Townsend are the wealthy couple whose daughter Bacon, Love and a sadly misused Pruitt Taylor Vince kidnap. Dakota Fanning is remarkably able as the kidnapped child Abby, possibly because she's too young to realize how awful the script is.
After insinuating himself into the family home, Bacon makes it clear he expects $250,000 in cash for Abby--but not until the next day. In the meantime, he'll be raping Theron at his leisure and running up his cell phone bill checking in with his partners. Guarding Townsend, Love thrashes her rubbery body around in his hotel room bathtub, waiting for instructions. But the well-respected doctor breaks down her defenses by diagnosing her bruises from Bacon's abuse and recognizing her C-section scar (she's a mother too!). These take place before he temporarily stuns her by holding her down--and injecting her with his new paralysis serum.
Not only are Theron and Townsend the familiar, resourceful victims we've seen in so many slasher films, Dr. Dad packs an added punch. A pilot in his spare time, Townsend manages to fly his seaplane over a busy highway and land, triggering a 30-car pile up. Though little is made of the dozens of bystanders--non-enemy non-combatants--whose cars have been totaled, he miraculously manages to rescue his daughter.
By now the tactic of splicing a home invasion scenario to a special effects extravaganza should come as a surprise to no one. Hollywood's strategy for competing with and absorbing upstart rivals--a process media scholars Richard Grusin and Jay Boulter call "remediation"--has always involved the one-two punch of technology and spectacle. But major studio efforts to remediate the technology of computer games in effects-laden films like The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though once successful at luring hip young audiences to the multiplex, have foundered since last Sept. 11.
Like Trapped, several current releases define heroism through feats that, while uncannily similar to those carried out by the Sept. 11 terrorists, are justified through a near-pornographic kind of patriotism. In XXX, the CIA blackmails an anarchistic extreme sports-minded outlaw (Vin Diesel) into turning his talents to defend the United States against anarchists. In one sequence he does so by unfurling and literally wrapping himself in the American flag.
In Bad Company, street hustler Chris Rock agrees to impersonate his classical music-loving dead twin brother and renders his services to the CIA in exchange for a somewhat paltry 50 grand. But by the end of the film it's personal, and he manages to avenge his brother while saving New York from imminent destruction by nuclear arms-wielding terrorists.
If Hollywood filmmakers really intend to compete with the digital world of the Internet, they would do well to consider a hidden--and frequently neglected--strength: narrative film's ability to draw upon a meaningful cultural history of images to tell a truth, instead of exploiting them to feed our fears and fantasy.