Not a Very Sexy Summer at the Cinema

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Labor Day weekend. Already? Well, yes. And a friend of mine reports seeing the first little "Noel" sign, shyly poking its head up over a bin of holiday items when he visited his local Costco last weekend. Maybe we should all get an early jump on our Christmas card lists in the next week or two.

But wait. We movie reviewers may be starting to shutter our cabins here on the shores of Lake Wobegon (they give us special rates to compensate for the drought that annually afflicts our profession). This means we're much too busy to catch Lassie as she limps homeward one more time this weekend — especially since we have been given to understand that Peter O'Toole is not playing the dog. This does not mean, though, that we are insensible to the demand for instant nostalgia, with a dash of instant analysis thrown in.

The summer began, for me, at the Cannes Film Festival, where I was granted a partial view seat for The DaVinci Code. I saw enough of it to be mystified at the failure of the estimable Tom Hanks and the enigmatic Audrey Tatou to generate the slightest romantic frisson (pardon my French) as they darted around Europe on their anti-clerical rounds. It ended, for me, with The Illusionist, a rather handsome gaslit period piece in which I failed to understand what Edward Norton saw in the blandly beautiful Jessica Biel, even though I did like his magic tricks.

Between these occasions, Superman Returned, bearing the weight of a Christological message — this was a second coming — but more moony than passionate in his pursuit of Lois Lane; Johnny Depp was back as Captain Jack Sparrow, in Part Two of Pirates of the Caribbean but he was more than ever mysteriously immune to the charms of Kiera Knightley, his presence too often buried under the weight of witless special effects; and, of course, there was Snakes on a Plane, which more or less definitively proved that Internet buzz is not necessarily a reliable selling tool for a movie.

Excepting the last named — and reserving judgment on The Illusionist — all of these movies were successful at the box office. And all of them were about as sexy as a lettuce leaf. Or should we make that "fig leaf"? The summer's one notable exception to that generalization was Miami Vice, which featured the rip-snorting bedroom ballets of Gong Li and Colin Farrell. There was hunger in their encounters, and inexplicable need, and, for the audience, the joy of seeing two handsome people heedlessly enjoying one another. For reasons that probably have something to do with its grim and murky plot, the picture was, in Hollywood-speak, a commercial "disappointment." But contra the received wisdom (mostly emanating from people who don't go very often to them), movies need to be sexy. This is, I think, the prime source of their best energy, and for years now — we're no longer merely talking about summer '06 here — American films have largely been prim and sniggering, full of gorgeous people, all obviously capable of putting passionate moves on one another, but somehow not getting to do so.

All right, I'm willing to concede this point: Summertime, when the dear ones are out of school, is not the best time to test the limits of our parental guidance skills. We just want to file and forget them for a couple of hours in a place where they're safe from all offense except a plethora of bathroom jokes. But this year even the comedies scored low on the raunchometer. I yield to no one in my admiration for Talladega Nights (how many movies about NASCAR doofuses contain an Albert Camus joke?), but face it, folks, it was no Forty Year Old Virgin. It wasn't even Wedding Crashers. That is to say, it was genial, goofy, a little too relaxed and, when it came to the whole man-woman thing, pretty much stuck in the latency stage.

So was Little Miss Sunshine, come to think of it. Yes, the youngest member of a perfectly dim and dysafunctional American family is determined to compete in one of those horrific sub-teen beauty pageants. That, however, is merely a pretext to cram them into a decrepit VW bus and set them on the road to nowhere. The central joke is that their behavior is perfectly sublimated and perfectly committed to the intricate desperations by which they hope to gain fame, riches or, in the case of a recently defrocked Proust scholar, an alternative to suicide. All in all I thought it was the smartest American movie of the summer, not least because it acknowledged the dark side of the national psyche without wallowing in it.

But that still leaves us a little short in the romance department. Shorter, in fact, than we were when the hazy, lazy days began, what with Mel Gibson having revealed something irreducibly ugly in his nature — in vino veritas, lest we forget — and the world having concluded that Tom Cruise is Public Weirdo #1. I don't say that these formerly adored guys can't make a comeback; America's memory loss, both short- and long-term, and especially when it come to celebrity misbehavior, has reached truly epidemic proportions. But the truth is that these actors have long since ceased to be romantic icons. They're essentially action stars, and the truth is that, the odd comedy aside, all the summer's large successes have once again been action movies.

This, of course, has to do with the fact that young American males — the most avidly courted summer movie audience — get all tense and nervous when they see a man and a woman (or, for that matter, a boy and a girl) get down to consequential lovemaking. It is tiresome to be held in constant thrall to their immaturity. I know there are profits to be made from this kind of filmmaking, but I don't think the movies can really prosper unless they reconnect with their romantic roots, tell us at least a few stories of love lost and found, squandered and redeemed. These stories will require — how many times have the studios been told this? — women's roles whose lengths and strengths equal those of their male counterparts, roles in which they are neither victimized nor objectified and are encouraged to give as good as they get.

It really doesn't matter what these films are ostensibly about; in the movies' classic age the great romances came in every genre guise — doomy film noirs, giddy romantic comedies, even musicals and costume dramas. The point was to unleash some central passion and then throw in a murder or a sea battle to keep the teenagers happy, which most of the time they were — because they implicitly understood that the movies weren't always being dumbed down to their level, that instead they were being encouraged to try on some adult emotions just to see how they might fit a little later on. There were, believe me, worse ways to pass a summer.