“The box office never lies,” golden-age Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn once quipped.
These words can be given a somewhat wider meaning than the mogul intended if we look at what the summer season's hits tell us about the broader cultural trends at work in society today. The news is not good.
Two very different films have astonished critics and industry insiders with their runaway success — Shrek, a computer-animated fairy tale about a princess and an ogre, and The Fast and the Furious, an action-driven buddy story set in the world of illegal street racing. Both are well-crafted audience-pleasers aimed at a mass market. But their morality violates their genres’ usual codes of values in a way that would have been banned 30 years ago. The key issue isn't the usual culprit, excessive sex and violence, but something more subtle (and, thus, potentially more pernicious).
Shrek, based on a story by William Steig, is a postmodern deconstruction of the traditional fairy tale. The once-clear difference between good and evil is purposefully sanitized. The title refers to the name of the story's main character, a lovable ogre (voice of Mike Myers) with the id of a 6-year-old. Among other things, this means plenty of opportunities for bathroom humor.
The ogre leaves the swamp he calls home because the despotic Lord Farquaad (John Lithgow) has set up an internment camp there populated by creatures who are characters in other fairy tales. Directors Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson stage a series of clever gags that poke fun at our conventional understanding of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Three Blind Mice and other childhood favorites.
Shrek complains to Farquaad, who promises to remove the refugees if the ogre will rescue a beautiful princess (Cameron Diaz) imprisoned in a castle by a fire-breathing dragon. The prince is not really evil, just short, insecure, and, worst of all, uncool. The ugly but kind-hearted hero sets out on this quest with a comic sidekick, a wise-cracking donkey (Eddie Murphy).
The fire-breathing dragon, traditionally a symbol of terrifying malevolence, eventually turns out not to be so bad, after all. The creature's merely been misunderstood.
The movie thus subverts our expectations about ogres, dragons, handsome princes and beautiful princesses. The filmmakers seem to believe that old-fashioned fairy tales perpetuate politically incorrect gender stereotypes and rigid moral values. To counter that perception, they offer a pop-psychology parable about self-esteem in which, once their characters get in touch with their authentic selves, they turn out to be OK. The message is that learning to love oneself is more important than loving others.
The big finale pushes the envelope in a way that Hollywood's Production Code, in force until 1968, would have forbidden. The princess is being married to Farquaad by a cleric in a Gothic cathedral. Will the ogre, who's better suited to her personality, be able to rescue her before the ceremony is completed? That quandary is the source of the suspense.
This time Shrek subverts our expectations by allowing her marriage vows to Farquaad to be completed and then having her run off with the ogre and live happily ever after. The fact that she's now married in the eyes of the Church to someone other than Shrek is treated as part of the gag.
Equally unsettling is the moment when the dragon, a once evil figure now redeemed by increased self-esteem, blows out all the cathedral's stained glass windows to make the rescue possible. This comic plot twist creates a cunning disrespect for an important symbol of traditional religion.
Like Shrek, The Fast and the Furious subverts the moral code of a traditional genre in a way that young audiences are embracing.
The subject matter — fast cars, pretty girls and the meaning of male friendship — was skillfully exploited by 1960s drive-in movie auteurs like Roger Corman (The Young Racers) and Jack Hill (Pit Stop). The story is recycled from countless 1940s Warner Bros. gangster classics (White Heat): An undercover cop bonds with a criminal gang leader and must decide whether the law is more important than their friendship.
Brian O‘Connor (Paul Walker) is a Los Angeles policeman assigned to bust a band of truck hijackers. He infiltrates the local street-racing scene and loses his car to the subculture's top dog, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel). But when the cops on the beat try to arrest them, Brian helps the criminal escape.
Grateful, Dominic takes him into his racing “family,” where he falls in love with the big man's sister (Jordana Brewster). The gang leader is a formidable dude — a rebel, an ace driver and charismatic father figure. “I live my life a quarter of a mile at a time,” he declares. “Nothing else matters. For those 10 seconds or less, I'm free.” Deep stuff.
When Brian discovers Dominic's a truck hijacker, he's emotionally torn. But, in a manner unthinkable to old-time moguls like Goldwyn, he helps the gang leader get away from his fellow cops even though the criminal is totally unrepentant. Harvard-educated director Rob Cohen uses the ethic of his rap-music soundtrack to transform the genre. The moral is: If you're cool enough, you're above the law.
Parents, educators, clergy and politicians may debate the way in which they think our culture is changing. But if the current movie season is any guide, moral relativism of an extreme sort is becoming the unofficial law of the land.
Arts & culture correspondent John Prizer writes from Los Angeles.