What has happened to cinema over the last thirty years is a mystery so surreal that it can only be understood in flashes and starts. The Mad TV movie mash-ups, and later those from YouTube, have probably come the closest – like ideas that come to you in your dreams, stay on the tip of your tongue as you wake up, only to be forgotten again as you buy your next movie ticket.

Those of us who participate in “the business” in some capacity – whether as a critic, a distributor, a frequent IMDB user, or the writer/director/star of Tropic Thunder – all participate in the same echo chamber of clichéd rhetoric – Why Can’t They Make Movies Like They Did in the 30s/50s/70s?; All You Need Is A Good Story; Film Is A Visual Medium; Write What You Know; Don’t Forget The Audience. These are the prescriptions we toss around for a perceived decline in the quality of cinema, even though they often contradict one another and probably exacerbate the symptoms. No one and no film, however, has been able to fully mold these contradictory myths into one fixed, coherent expression. Until now.

Tropic Thunder tells the story of the latest era of film history, beginning with Coppola’s Apocalypse Now – which marked the end of cinema’s prior epoch (a chapter that could, in a global context, be referred to as New Cinema – that fifteen-or-so-year experimental lapse between studio systems when Hollywood embraced the “film as art” paradigm because it momentarily seemed lucrative) – and ending with, well, Tropic Thunder.

It is a historiographer’s dream-film as it comes at a moment when some seismic shifts in film production and distribution seem to suggest that we are entering yet another era. But before we push on towards the post-35mm, post-DVD future – which will surely bare an equal measure of good and bad films, ideological pluses and minuses – it is the Tropic Thunder team’s intention to try and grasp what cinema has been doing to us for the last thirty years, or in the words of another film-about-film that debuted at Sundance this past year… what just happened.

Much of what has happened since Apocalypse Now has had to do with actors, agents and studio heads. Well, mostly actors. (Not so much directors, a fact that is cleverly implied by the narrative fate of the director within this film, played by Steve Coogan.) To reflect that reality, the most inspired thing about Tropic Thunder is almost certainly its casting. Each actor is a huge star, but each actor also essentially plays some other huge star(s) from Hollywood past: Stiller as Cruise/Stallone, Jack Black as Eddie Murphy/Andy Dick, and Downey Jr. as Crowe/Day Lewis as Glover/Freeman. Add to this cameos by Matthew McConaughey, Nick Nolte and Cruise himself, as a Rudin/Weinstein-inflected studio boss in what Manohla Dargis aptly referred to as Jewface, and you have quite the postmodern circus. That, in real life, Cruise ostensibly runs United Artists fails to interfere with the joke; in this movie, every role aims for the Absolute, which of course means the studio executive must be a bald, hairy, vulgar, overweight Jewish man who has internalized all of the worst, most egomaniacal aspects of Hip Hop song lyrics without having ever had to live the thug life or pull himself out of poverty. All of this, by the way, is conveyed beneath the surface of Cruise’s incredible, unreal performance.

The scene that made me laugh hardest, however, had Tugg Speedman (Ben Stiller) captured by Vietnamese heroin-traffickers who, having only access to one VHS cassette tape that happens to be Simple Jack, starring Speedman as a “full-on retard,” force Speedman to reenact the entire film by gunpoint. Using elements of their own culture to recreate the sets, costumes and make-up, but borrowing the American narrative (and star), the Vietnamese essentially create an exemplary model of truly globalized art. The story of cinema over the last quarter century has been enmeshed in the larger narrative of globalization, by which national cinemas have become blurred by economic incentives to film outside one’s home country, and also the speed with which nations have seen each other’s films (via international distribution of Hollywood films, via film festivals for the jet-setters, and via the DVD black market for everyone else). Many criticize this process as it allows American product to dominate screens around the world, but defenders of globalization like Jagdish Bhagwati have pointed out some of the positive effects, including the way that the global conversation can create new “hybrid languages.” For Ben Stiller, it may be that this scene amounted simply to the movie actor’s worst nightmare and nothing more – forced to reenact the worst and most offensive choice of his career. But it is crucial that the reenactment is for an audience whose preferences are different from those in the States who decide who wins Oscars and who gets picketed for mocking minority groups. It’s the same logic that explains why Jerry Lewis is bigger in France than America – there is simply no accounting for taste.

Another relevant evolution in cinema since the early 1980s was the shift towards the “high concept,” epitomized by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson’s Top Gun pitch: “Star Wars on earth.” Tropic Thunder’s high concept is not quite as elegant: movie stars think they are making a movie about Vietnam, but are actually just… in Vietnam. What it lacks in elegance (a whole 16 words), it makes up for in ideological charge. Jean Baudrillard wrote an essay about how Apocalypse Now was an extension of the Vietnam War, using “the same immoderation, the same excess of means, the same monstrous candor” of the war that had preceded it. He went on to say that in the mind of the film’s creator (Francis Coppola), the Vietnam War “would not fundamentally have existed” were it not for the creation of his “superfilm,” completing “the mass-spectacle effect of [the] war.” The key here, whatever else you take Baudrillard to mean, is how the production of wars and the production of films have become so similar. And Tropic Thunder simply goes one step further, showing how the kind of physical and mental energy that was needed to build the epic production of Apocalypse Now is now as easy as an afterthought, essentially akin to taking an expensive shit onto celluloid – which, of course, reflects the way we make wars now as well. Francis Coppola and Richard Nixon went insane; Ben Stiller and George W. Bush will likely maintain whatever mental faculties they own.

As much as I enjoyed Tropic Thunder for all of its laughs and provocations, and how easily it fits as the last chapter in a dementedly frustrating novel, there is a missing ingredient, which basically proves fatal. The team behind the film, clearly well ensconced within the world of making movies, nails the industry in just about every way. That is, with the notable exception of what it means to watch a good movie. Watching this one, you’d think that not a single good film has been made since 1979. Maybe Ben Stiller simply hasn’t seen the good ones.

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