Cartoon Nation
Wanted: Adults in America

   by Don Thompson

I ventured into a video store the other evening and rented Under The Tuscan Sun (dir. Audrey Wells). This bold act was prompted by my significant other, who had a hankering for a little Italian landscape. I told her that I heard the movie was supposed to be bad; I wasn't quite sure where I had heard that, but I had read it somewhere. Probably the Washington Post – Stephen Hunter or somebody. Or maybe A.O. Scott of the New York Times. At any rate, I suggested we rent Pirates of the Caribbean, since I wanted to see why Johnny Depp's performance had gotten so much attention. I asked the manager of the store what she thought -- she definitely advised we should pass on Tuscan Sun and go for Pirates. She went on to say that Depp had based his performance on Keith Richards (the rock band Rolling Stone's Keith Richards, I assumed), and I joked: "I hope he doesn't look as wrinkled as Keith Richards." Neither the manager (probably in her 40's), nor the cashier (probably in hear late teens or early 20's) laughed at the joke. I wound up renting both movies.

Back at home, instinct told me to put on Tuscan Sun. Maybe it's my rebellious nature. I live in a kind of suburban la la land, not quite what I'm used to, since I just spent a lengthy stint in downtown New York, wearing black and going to a lot of art house films. Now I go to a Cineplex and the closest thing to an art film in the area we're likely to see is LadyKillers -- which I'd really call a kind of art house cartoon. But more on that later.

At any rate, Tuscan Sun wound up being one of the sweetest films I've seen in a long time. And its sheer sweetness prompted me to ponder: what the hell was it about this sweet little film that made the manager at the video store frown like as if to watch it would be painful, much too painful for me to bear, and that we should opt instead for Johnny Depp? What are people trying to protect me from? Terrorists? Anarchy? Or is it something much simpler: pain?

Pain. That's what Tuscan Sun was about, in a nutshell. Pain and how someone deals with it. It was a somewhat serious, somewhat human, somewhat get under your skin kind of film that you can (if you've gone through a very painful experience) relate to. Tuscan Sun was about pain and how one woman learns from it. The performances were simple and direct. Diane Lane was quirky and charming and a lot of fun to watch.

Anyway, this series of events led me to some pondering, and a subsequent conclusion about U.S. culture I thought worthy to share with SolPix readers. Much like the U.S. is becoming divided (at least that's what they want us to believe) into Blue and Red states, we are also becoming divided into human beings and something else. I'm not sure what that something else is, but it doesn't seem to be human because it isn't interested in stories that relate to anything resembling human beings. The stories this new breed or species like have to do with super things that can leap over buildings and devastate entire towns in video games. This new species seems to like destruction -- the more of it the better -- and revels in "squashing" the bugs, even if those bugs happen to be other human beings (such as in Iraq).

What this new species doesn't like is pain. That is, pain that they could possibly suffer. They do, however, like the (cartoonish) physical pain of others, inflicted with relish via digital effects, a kind of "gotcha" pain that says "I hurt you first." They like pre-emptive pain, such as inflicted on Iraqui war prisoners. This same spirit also shows up in films. Whether that be in commercial movies like Pirates or “art” films like LadyKillers and Kill Bill or “spiritual” films like The Passion. Give me that pre-emptive, Looney-Tunes pain. It's appropriate for kids, little kids that can be easily led around by the nose by aggressive, confident politicians, defense secretaries and media parents –- sorry, I mean pundits. Yeah, that kind of pain.

The pain of a Cartoon Nation.

Not real, personal pain -- emotional pain, adult, human pain. That's considered whimpy pain. That kind of pain must be buffed out, censored, eliminated, digitally enhanced, and/or relegated like the coffins from Iraq to the "inappropriate." Emotional pain is what sex used to be (i.e., swept under the carpet), while nowadays painless, commitmentless, aggressive sex is all over the media, like Cheerios and Wheaties once were. I sound nostalgic, don't I? Or maybe reactionary, conservative? But am I, or do I just long for a basic humanity our daily discourse, a humanity that often seems drowned out as the next news caster cheerfully announces another 10 war dead in Iraq, followed quickly by images of Spring Break revelers in South Beach getting it on in bathrooms? And it was a good thing too, because I wasn't sure what values we're defending.

We have, in America, become parodies of the commodities we consume. We are so categorized, polled, discussed, pandered to, at once homogenized and demographically sliced and diced that we actually think of ourselves as products rather than humans. We are "Red" and "Blue" state people that are pro this or anti that. We are the fiction of Reality TV, where people are so out of touch with their own emotions that all they can feel is the falseness of a performance reality that they somehow believe is more real than direct emotions garnered from unmediated (innocent?) experience. We are the numbingly same teenage accent and slang spoken by adults and kids alike. We are the college students who march to the “rebelliousness” of Spring Break with a conformity not seem since Hitler Youth. We are the blockbuster sequels that deal in re-tread themes based on re-tread characters and types that are themselves based on a distorted facsimiles of reality once or twice removed from the original. And film reviewers speak of these contrivances as if they somehow contribute to culture in a positive way. And we all march in lockstep to the sham, munching on the popcorn and hoping our next distraction will not remind us of anything hinting at truth.

Like a cartoon, we have our own internal logic, reality be damned.

Boy, that sounded good! Considering the fact that I'll probably rent Pirates of the Carribean next weekend, I better watch myself. Truth may be there too. Embedded, maybe, like a journalist in Iraq.

Yeah, blockbuster films. Many film reviewers, understanding they don't write to a human audience anymore, don’t think about these films in terms of their impact on society, but how the particular star will use that film in a particular way to forward their career in a particular fashion. These films are seen in the context of an overall marketing or demographic plan, a plan that at its heart has the overarching morality of our nation: to make money, lots of it, and the quicker the better. I mean, there is an urgency to cashing out, since Jesus is coming soon. Or is it the terrorists? Either way, I feel manipulated into believing it. Anyway, back to the point. Reviewers in general support blockbuster films because, after all, there's so much goddamn money at stake.

Money. Our values. What we fight for. That's of course why we need to see the coffins of the Americans killed in Iraq (which are themselves emblems of our Cartoon Nation, sanitized and neat, like rows of Post-it notes on a computer screen). Leave it to America, when we deal with soldier consumption -- sorry, death -- we will be organized. However, having just lost my father, I know that the grief of those who lost family in the war is not so much organized as it is chaotic. Grief comes over you in waves and is indiscriminate, like a carpet bomb. It seems to take a life of its own, until it is done with you, leaves you a spent husk, and moves on to the next in line.

Back to the "Reds" and the "Blues." The Washington Post recently profiled a "Red State" person in a very in-depth article. In one telling section, this man read the Melitta coffee filter packaging as he prepared his morning brew, and noted that the company "plants four trees for every one that it cuts down for its products." This Red State guy said: "What do I care?" Exactly.

The new species, be they a Rush Limbaugh Red or an Al Franken Blue, does not care because they don't want to hassle the messiness of feeling. They want to go through a series of actions, predefined by others, a Kodak Moment, mapped out kind of life that makes it easy. And this just doesn’t apply to America. The new species is in fact globalized, whether they be Blue, Red, American, Christian, Arab, Jew, college kid or teenager -- they seem to tend toward a simplistic, commodified, fundamentalist attitude that life comes down to the sqasher and the squashee, and better to be the sqasher then the squashed. The problem is, all this pain avoidance or reactionary lashing out to get the other guy first won't ever lead to something that is required for global evolution: maturity. A maturity garnered through life experience and seen in films like Tuscan Sun that evoke a little known emotion seen today: empathy.

It is a maturity, an empathy, apparently found more often on Melitta coffee filter packages than in government policies. In other words, maybe we should educate four (or maybe 4 million) poor children for each one killed by war. Why? Because we empathize with their plight. And maybe "I don't care" isn't the best response. But no... we only really care about our little neighborhoods, our little SugarLand Texas (the subject of the recent Washington Post article about the "Red" state that I mentioned), our neat little houses that look just like those neat little flags on those neat little coffins coming from Iraq.

By the way, a recent study stated that for the cost of maintaining our soldiers one month in Iraq, we could provide minimal education to all of the children in the developing world (U.S. $5 billion). But then, aren’t we generous enough? After all, the U.S. gave a whopping $100 thousand to North Korea for its recent train catastrophe -- that’s about what Donald Rumsfeld spends on one plane ride to Iraq, I’m sure.

But back to Tuscan Sun. The humor evident in Tuscan Sun was much like my dry, pretty silly joke relayed in the video store, which told me why that manager and cashier didn’t laugh when I told it, as if we all lived in parallel realities, and mine wasn’t I sync with theirs. It was a kind of humor reminiscent of two other human-laced, woman directed films: Sophia Copolla’s Lost In Translation and Nancy Meyer’s Something’s Gotta Give. So maybe I’m becoming a little too feminine in my humor. A little too whimpy. Maybe I’m starting to sound like a Woody Allen movie, whose sense of humor is a little dated, a little too adult, for most under 40. Since I am over 40, I guess that explains it. I'm just trying to stay human, but might be waging a losing battle to the adolescents, be they in gross out comedies or the White House. We'll have to see. They may make a cartoon out of me yet. Until then, I feel like I’m Bill Murray in Tokyo, not wanting to come back to the U.S. until the adults take over again.

-- Don Thompson

Don Thompson is a filmmaker/producer and co-founder of SolPix. You can find out more about Don by going to the website for his production company nextpix. You can also email him at

Copyright Web del Sol, 2004


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