Worst (cultural) Experience of the Year: Rewatching 90’s Action Movies
The 90’s was the Golden Age of the Hollywood Action Movie. When the 90’s began, Spielberg had just wrapped up the third Indiana Jones movie. When it ended, Peter Jackson had yet to finish Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, and George Lucas was only beginning to screw up his legacy with the Star Wars Prequels. The implications of the Spielberg/Lucas revolution were felt as never before or since in Hollywood, and it looked for a time as though special effects could be worked into the fabric of great movies as an enhancer for greatness rather than a substitute. To see the promise which Special Effects and CGI held for movies, all one has to do is look at the imagination on display in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
And yet it never worked like that. Special effects meant that filmmakers had no limits on what they could imagine, so rather than Hollywood using CGI for greater imaginative flights, most Hollywood movies settled for far less imagination. And since special effects could help to stage the most spectacular effects known to the human eye, it would necessarily follow that most of the most spectacular effects humans can think of are violent effects.
This point was brought home to me just this Sunday as I tried to relax at home by watching The Fugitive - an R-rated action movie so beloved that it almost qualifies for most people as family entertainment, indeed I first saw it when I was 11 or 12 during a sleepover with both my friend and his parents. And yet within the first five minutes, we see a grizzly murder of a beautiful woman so graphically rendered that any hope of relaxation is impossible - followed by a 911 tape recording of her dying wheeze. There was simply no reason for this level of violence except to show that they can get away with it. The violence is not there because of any humane horror at the awfulness of murder, the violence is there because audiences find murder exciting. Well, sure, it’s exciting, but it’s also tragic and disgusting, and there’s no reason to make a spectacular movie with its most grisly scene at the beginning of it unless you want to use the graphic murder of a beautiful woman as a means to excite your audience.
I had a similar sinking feeling recently when I watched The Rock. Your teenage self will thank you endlessly if you don’t watch it again. It is so much worse than you remember. From the corny one liners which Nicholas Cage and Sean Connery say when driving their cars alone in a chase scene to no one in particular, to the speeches about honor which various marines make to one another right before they kill each other real good; to the stereotype of the gay barber clearly meant to be offense, to the catchphrases thrown in with no context (“winners go home and fuck the prom queen”); to the psychotically violent threats of ex-marine turned terrorist solders, to the “satisfaction” of watching two of their faces get melted off by a chemical weapon. That last one was particularly terrible to think of as the prospect of chemical warfare’s resurgence in Syria is raised.
I have no problem with violence in movies. In fact, it would be just about impossible to create drama, and perhaps even comedy, without it. But violence has to be viewed with critical distance or else it has no purpose except to excite the people who watch it - perhaps even to imagine, or begin to consider, themselves able to perpetrate all the terrible things which 90’s movies let them see. Even if I opposed their methods, I understand the reasons behind the movement to censor violence in movies, music, and video games. I honestly would have little problem with its censorship it if I thought for a moment that it would be successful or wouldn’t be abused by people who want to ban violence wholesale. But violence cannot be contained. There are certain irrational parts of human behavior that are impossible to stop - sometimes, like in sex, those irrational behaviors are pleasant, sometimes, as in violence, they are loathesome.
The difference between the violence of 80’s action and horror and 90’s action and horror (don’t get me started on horror movies) is simple. The more CGI took over the film industry, the more excited people could be by the gorefests, which could reach a level of realism and disgust impossible in the days of cartoonish special effects. Indeed, there’s a whole subset of violent art movies - from directors like Gaspar Noe, Uwe Boll, Mel Gibson, Michael Haenke, Dario Argento (perhaps the all-time champion), and a whole industry of them in Asia - who try to dress up a taste for mindless violence as though they’re making great art. Sometimes even more prominent filmmakers indulge in the same violence fetish, you can see it in the work of Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Oliver Stone, David Fincher, The Wachowski Brothers, The Coen Brothers, and Jonathan Demme. Even Steven Spielberg is not immune to it. At least filmmakers like Eli Roth and Paul Verhoeven are upfront about the fact that they make trash. But to pretend that art exists to excite our animal instincts is not just high class barbarism, it’s an insult to our humanity and an incitement to evil. The inevitability of people being seduced by violence is one of the great tragedies of human nature - in fact you can make a great movie about that. In fact...many have.
An Approximately Ranked List of the Greatest Films of the Nineties I Can Think Of Right Now:
The Truman Show
All About My Mother
Forrest Gump (yeah, that’s right...Forrest Gump)
Husbands and Wives
Babe the Pig/Babe: Pig in the City
Shakespeare in Love
The Madness of King George
Vanya on 42nd Street
He Got Game
Three Colors Trilogy
Saving Private Ryan
The Remains of the Day
The Lion King
Bringing Out the Dead
A Simple Plan
Boys Don’t Cry
Bullets Over Broadway
Out of Sight
Dazed and Confused
What About Bob?
In the Name of the Father
Beauty and the Beast
Out of Sight
The Big Lebowski
(I reserve the right to change this list as time goes on)