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A Very Scary Scenario

To the male teen audience that most movies seek, going overboard has become the sole selling point. Is there any relief in sight?

August 27, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

I know what happened last summer. And I know why.

I know why "Scary Movie" was the season's most unexpected hit, and why "Titan A.E." landed with a thud so intense it may have cost Bill Mechanic, Fox's highly respected studio chief, his job. I've known why for years, since an afternoon in 1975 when I went to a Washington triplex to see a matinee of "Benji."

For those with conveniently short memories, "Benji" (still playing though it had come out the year before) was a cute dog movie that was successful enough to eventually spawn three sequels. In front of me in the theater lobby was a kindly grandmother looking forward to taking her 6- or 7-year-old grandson to this paragon of childhood cinema. Only the kid didn't want to go.

"I wanna see the shark," he said, loudly and insistently, pulling his embarrassed and resistant elder toward the theater where, yes, the super-popular "Jaws" was playing. Left to their own devices, I realized then, youthful audience members not only don't want to see what adults think they should, they almost perversely gravitate toward precisely what adults think they should under no circumstances be exposed to.

As children like that little boy grow up into the powerful teenage and early-20s audience, that drive to search out and patronize the transgressive wherever it's found gets stronger and stronger. The Oxford English Dictionary defines transgressive as "overstepping the bounds, especially of social acceptability, passage beyond limits or boundaries." It's a natural coming-of-age impulse, and it drives a lot of what finds its way onto movie screens during the summer season and, not to put too fine a point on it, every season of the year.

Of course, transgressive art is not an exclusively teenage phenomenon. Some of the now-acknowledged classics of modern culture, from James Joyce's "Ulysses" and Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and Luis Bun~uel and Salvador Dali's "Un Chien Andalou," started out as seriously over the line themselves.

But when the transgressive sensibility is translated into terms young people will understand and pay money to experience, a lot of nuance, sensitivity and sophistication get tossed aside as so much excess baggage. The problem for transgression for teens is that it is almost stridently one-dimensional, its gotcha sensibility focused obsessively on the kind of scatological, sexual and bodily function material that have fascinated kids and pained adults for what seems like most of recorded time.

So it mattered not that "Titan A.E.," though hardly a complete success, was an eye-catching and involving animated feature that boasted distinctive visual wonders. It's the kind of film teenage boys might actually enjoy if they went to see it, but it was about as transgressive as "Benji," and that core audience could smell its innate squareness and conscientiously stayed away. (It would be ironic if "Titan's" expensive failure did in fact lead to Mechanic's exit from Fox, because he championed the pumped-up transgressive "Fight Club," a film whose middling record at the box office showed that even over-the-line material can be undone by tedious philosophizing and smug pretension.)

While "Titan A.E." floundered, "Scary Movie" flourished. And how. It's $42.3-million-plus opening was the highest grossing debut for both an R-rated film and one directed by an African American. It was the quickest to reach the $100-million mark of any film in the history of Miramax (whose Dimension Films subsidiary released it), and though it's still earning, at $140 million-plus, it's made more money than any film the company's had. More than "Shakespeare in Love," more than "The English Patient," more than "Good Will Hunting," more even than that transgressive pioneer, "Pulp Fiction."

In its defense, "Scary Movie," directed by Keenen Ivory Wayans and partially written by his brothers Shawn and Marlon (who co-star as well), does have a good sense of humor capable of creating genuinely funny moments. But the film's success can't be chalked up to its clever parodies of everything from "Potemkin" and "Titanic" to "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Usual Suspects." Not in today's market, anyway.

More likely a box-office booster is "Scary Movie's" nonstop barrage of jokes about flatulence, oral sex, ejaculation, pubic hair and more, culminating in a visual set piece involving a large, erect penis. While that used to be enough to get a film declared obscene and hauled before the Supreme Court, today's MPAA, blissfully asleep at the wheel as always, can't even be bothered to give it more than an R rating.

Both "Scary Movie" and the Eddie Murphy-starring "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps," whose PG-13 rating for a film with an anal rape subplot is yet another example of MPAA ineptitude and malfeasance, underline the way comedy has become the unashamed front line in the teenage search for the out of bounds.

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