If 2005 saw rivulets of the country’s divisive political and social atmosphere begin to seep into the upper tier of the film world (Oscar baiters like “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich”), 2006 might be remembered as the year when the rushing stream of current events burst through the heretofore Hollywood-imposed dam and began to saturate all levels of the movie world. The release of V for Vendetta inspired pundits to analyze where the film’s masked anarchist would fall on the political spectrum. Just this week, Universal Pictures refused to pull their unsettling trailer for Paul Greenglass’s 9/11-themed “United 93,” despite protests from a handful of the families of 9/11 victims.
The most visible cinematic reaction piece at the moment is Paul Weitz’s “American Dreamz,” recently pre-screened at Wesleyan and set for an April 21 release. At the post-screening Q and A, Weitz repeatedly expressed his concern, only half-jokingly, over the general reaction to the film. With Dennis Quaid, Willem Dafoe, and Marcia Gay Harden cast as barely-veiled versions of George, Dick, and Laura, and featuring a show tune-loving wannabe singer who happens to double as a potential Islamic suicide bomber, Weitz’s concerns are, in theory, not without justification. If the advanced screening resembles what will be released nationwide, he shouldn’t lose too much sleep over red-state rebellion. A far darker vision of the post-9/11 American psyche has been playing for weeks: Alexandre Aja’s jarring “The Hill Have Eyes.” Both act, not as perfect films, but as cinematic artifacts in a time when movies are trying desperately to decipher the mood of a troubled nation.
This judgment has little to do with film quality. “The Hills Have Eyes,” a remake of the 1977 Wes Craven cult classic, delivers squirm-inducing sequences of rape, murder, and mutilation as gleefully orchestrated bursts of envelope pushing gore. It’s hard to lift one perverted moment above the rest, but if forced to choose, I’d have to give the blood-soaked statuette to the scene in which one of the mutated cannibal hill-billies violently suckles a woman’s breast while holding a cocked pistol at the skull of her wailing infant. Images like these do not tie your stomach in knots as much as cause it intense indigestion, and Aja takes the unpleasantness one step further by casting actors we actually care about. Why bother hiring talent only to joyously feed it to the meat grinder?
Even at its most stinging, Weitz’s wry compassion for his characters comes through in much of “American Dreamz,” a somewhat unwieldy but always sharp-witted burlesque that imagines a conservative American president, recently re-elected but down in the polls, agreeing to guest-host on the smash TV sensation, American Dreamz (you don’t have to be as smart as Ryan Seacrest to figure out what other smash TV sensation Weitz ribs here). Weitz draws particularly strong work out of Hugh Grant, who plays both host and judge of American Dreamz as a witty conglomeration of Seacrest-ian vapidity and Cowell-esque exasperation.
Weitz’s political satire, however, rarely transcends the limits of an on-target Saturday Night Live skit. Dafoe’s Cheney can coerce with the best of them, but underneath it all he’s proud of the lovable lug he helped become Commander-in-Chief. Ditto to Harden’s Laura, who quickly becomes President Bush’s (pardon me, President Staton’s) ally in taking back his White House from overzealous handlers. Weitz’s portrayal of Bush as a clueless bumbler comes across as kind and even quaint. In a New York Times article written the August before the 2004 election, Jason Zengerle commented on the evolution of the Bush joke in the national dialogue. What began in 2000 as jabs at “about poor syntax and low I.Q.” evolved over the course of his first term into a portrayal of “the president as an irresponsible, duplicitous menace,” something Weitz clearly avoids. For all his faults, President Staton clearly fits Weitz’s mold of insecure, well-intentioned masculinity, joining the ranks of Jason Biggs’s Jim Levenstein in “American Pie” and Hugh Grant’s Will in “About a Boy.”
The argument can be made that “American Dreamz,” with its underlying implication that media, particularly participatory television shows, has usurped elections as the principle means of democratic participation, does carry a satirical sting. This claim indicts both out-of-touch politicos for failing to connect with the populace and apathetic voters who prefer warbling would-be starlets over world issues. Fantasy and reality do collide by the film’s end, in a moment too queasily funny to give away here (let’s just say, to paraphrase the age old maxim, that if a bomb is introduced in Act I, it must go off in Act III). But Weitz, to the film’s slight detriment, is too empathetic to follow his thesis to a cynical end.
“The Hills Have Eyes” does not possess anything remotely resembling a thesis, but its nervy pastiche of post-9/11 imagery casts a harsh and perhaps irresponsible light on the rage instilled in the citizenry when attacked by the unknown other. Unlike the majority of horror films, Aja’s does not cast petulant, horny teenagers as its protagonist (because who cares if they get decapitated). The characters are a family, a pleasing and well-scrubbed nuclear unit traveling cross-country in celebration of Mom and Dad’s wedding anniversary. When their gas-guzzling truck mysteriously breaks down in the middle of the desert (looking as barren and desolate as video footage from Iraq), Dad and Son each grab a gun from the glove box before going to look for help. Doug, the bespectacled husband of the family’s eldest daughter, won’t touch a firearm, chides Bobby, the youngest son: “He’s a Democrat.”
Once his family begins being picked off by violent men, who often speak in inscrutable noises and occupy caves in the desert, Doug the Democrat, presumably pitching the granola and organic parkas, grabs a hold of the nearest gun and begins blowing away these terrifying foreign figures bent on destroying his all-American family. Upon killing a particularly vicious creature, he finds the American flag the monsters had stolen from the family’s truck. Eyes ablaze with rage, he plunges Old Glory straight through the skull of the lifeless corpse, a final conquering of all things alien and murderous.
Subtle it’s not. But I’ll be damned if, sitting in a screening with no more than ten other viewers, there was not a collective and consuming desire to see these heartless murderers get what’s coming to them. Dead or alive? Viewing the film’s bloody, revenge-fueled final sequence, I was rooting for the former. But to what end? “The Hills Have Eyes” is pornographic in the truest sense: inspiring the emergence of repressed emotion without a purpose to guide it. The viewer can accept the film’s primal pull to bloodlust while feeling more than a little empty once the climatic moment has come and gone.
Taken together, “American Dreamz” and “The Hills Have Eyes” provide a fascinating, if very flawed, picture of the film industry’s understanding of the American temperament: seething but hopeful, seeking direction but enjoying chaos, wounded but not going down without a fight.