Of my two local-ish movie theaters in New Hampshire, one has an irksome habit of always showing the film just a little larger than the screen, so that anything happening out on the borders of the frame remains a mystery: If memory serves, it was the most recent Die Hard sequel that had all the dateline stuff in the lower left-hand corner, so that the two-line "MOSCOW. AUGUST." appeared intriguingly as "COW. GUST." My second local theater's even worse, a dingy box that always reminds me of being a young cadet at my boys' school, and the dispiriting huts the sergeants used to muster us in to show us ancient public-service films on how not to catch venereal diseases.
So, when I'm in the big town, I like to catch up on the big movies and see them on the big screen. The other day, the big town wasn't that big — Burlington, Vt. — but it had a multiplex or two, so I scanned the listings: Monsters University, the prequel to Monsters Inc.; Man of Steel, the re-reboot of Superman; Pacific Rim, something to do with robots vs. aliens; Despicable Me 2, a sequel to a computer-animated cartoon about a reformed supervillain; Grown Ups 2, an Adam Sandler sequel with all the urine and feces gags they cut from the first film; Grown Ups 2 in 3D, the same urine and feces gags but viewed through cardboard spectacles . . . And, for the first time that I can recall, there wasn't a single movie I could face the thought of sitting through.
I see that conservative critics are blaming Hollywood's listless summer on its blockbusters' off-putting politics: In the new Lone Ranger, the sidekick is the star and the bland pretty boy playing the Ranger is just (in Tonto's words) a "stupid white man"; in White House Down, an Obama-esque hopeychangey president comes under siege in the people's house from Tea Party–type terrorists.
Granted, it's all terribly tedious, but it's not really "political" in any meaningful sense. In The Lone Ranger, the baddies are top-hatted mustachioed railroad barons because the formula dictates someone has to be the villain and, for a multinational conglomerate like Disney, big business is the easiest to hand. In Olympus Has Fallen, last month's blockbuster about terrorists attacking the White House, the baddies were North Koreans, which superficially has some connection to reality but in the end is no more grounded than the right-wing Palin worshipers. There's a scene in which the president demands to know why traitorous Secret Service agent Dylan McDermott has gone over to the Norks, and he mumbles something about banks . . . bailouts . . . whatever . . . Are we done yet? Can we get back to the explosions now? Rehearsing Damn Yankees 60 years back, the great Broadway director George Abbott was famously asked by one actor what his motivation was: "Your paycheck," snapped Abbott. Dylan McDermott's motivation is apparently Lehman Brothers' paychecks, which is even less persuasive. The Russian villain in A Good Day to Die Hard dispenses with the same perfunctory pretext more adroitly: "Do you vont to know vot I hate about America?" Stage pause. "Everything!"
Everything — and nothing. Which is a bit of a problem if you're looking for a film about . . . something. The producer Lynda Obst has a new book out purporting to explain the age of globalized "tentpole" "franchise" movies selling on "pre-awareness." It's called, after her best-known romantic comedy, Sleepless in Hollywood, which isn't quite as boffo a hit title as her previous tome, Hello, He Lied. Everyone loved that one — such a perfect distillation of the industry's flattering self-image as a shark tank of ruthless cynics that you didn't need to read the book. Hollywood is now approaching the condition of Broadway in the "abominable showman" David Merrick's dotage: The shows are boring but the backstage machinations preserve the glamour a while longer.
What did I call those 3D glasses? "Cardboard spectacles"? As Ms. Obst explains in her book, they love 3D overseas. So Hollywood now makes cardboard spectacles for the youth of developing countries, a half-billion-dollar summer stock for the barns of Asia. In Guangdong, the Chinese make America's Walmart filler; in Hollywood, America makes China's multiplex filler. The Chinese were the co-producers of the recent futuristic dystopian time-travel shoot-'em-up Looper, which I dimly recollect as a film so disciplined about its nothingness that, when the old Bruce Willis materializes from the future and meets his younger self and the young Bruce asks old Bruce if he'll remember meeting young Bruce upon his return to the future, old Bruce advises him not to get hung up on details. Don't even think about it.
And so it goes on: Iron Man 4, Cardboard Man 6, Franchise Man 12. I'm half-ashamed I even know that word, but that's Hollywood — from Franchot Tone to franchise drone. What happens to a culture whose economic incentives drive it ever further from telling its own stories? Say, maybe that's why the Chinese are so keen to annex the movie industry — to so neuter us that, by the time we need to make another Casablanca, we'll no longer know how, or why . . . Hey, perhaps that would make a good conspiracy thriller: Alan Rickman as the sinister studio chief bought by Beijing, Scarlett Johansson as the plucky vice president of development who figures out what's really going on, Liam Neeson as her ex-CIA dad who rappels into the backlot and kills all the extras . . . Oh, don't worry. When they option the script, they'll change the villains from the Chinese politburo to a Tea Party 501(c)(4) owned by a subsidiary of the Koch brothers.