My Year Of Flops, Disgustingly Patriotic Case File #122 The Rocketeer
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Anyone who tells you the appeal of moviegoing isn't at least partially voyeuristic is a goddamned liar and should be punched in the face repeatedly. We go to the movies in no small part to watch uncommonly beautiful people woo, romance, or reject other preternaturally fetching creatures in photogenic settings. As a young boy, I embraced movies as a socially acceptable way of looking at boobs. The fact that films were capable of art and truth was a neat bonus.
It's been that way from the very beginning. In a famous, perhaps apocryphal story, early moviegoers were so terrified by the image of a train barreling toward them in the notorious early short, "Oh My God, There Is a Real Train Barreling Toward You, You Are So Going to Die, Flee, Flee In Horror Unless You Want To End Up Flat As a Pancake, Your Internal Organs Splattered Against The Walls Of This Theater!", that they all began masturbating feverishly.
Later, movie studios realized that showing sexy women and men in erotically charged situations was nearly as arousing to filmgoers as the prospect of imminent death. The scandalously erotic possibilities of film terrified The Man, so he sent a joyless scold named Will Hays to keep movies from devolving, or rather evolving, into a sticky, sweaty mass of writhing bodies pummeling every orifice in an omnisexual fuckfest of epic dimensions. In keeping with our nation's history of hypocritical puritanism, the Hays Code dictated that kisses couldn't last longer than a fraction of a millisecond, jaywalking must be punished with the death penalty, and that single people shown hugging, cuddling, or hand-holding must immediately be run over by an out-of-control train.
But The Man couldn't control our daydreams, so filmgoers continued to fantasize in the dark. Moviegoing is simultaneously a communal and anonymous endeavor. Lusting after the same handful of beauties binds filmgoers together. Drooling over Marilyn Monroe united fathers and sons, beatniks and squares, Americans and people who wish they were American on account of America being so awesome. USA! USA! USA! (Sorry 'bout getting jingoistic there. A little-known provision of the Patriot Act dictates that the phrase "USA! USA! USA!" must appear at least twice in all ongoing online columns lasting more than 120 entries.)
The language we use to talk about these figures of mass lust says a lot about the safe voyeurism of moviegoing. The term "America's Sweetheart," for example, conveys our shared appreciation for women so irresistible, so delightful, so incontrovertibly sweet and wonderful and wholesome that a cultural consensus has been reached that they embody everything that is good and true and American about womanhood. Who doesn't love Audrey Hepburn, for example? Only a goddamned Nazi, that's who. And Nazis have no business pining for our Audrey.
Sex symbols, in sharp contrast, need only ignite the universal libido. America's Sweethearts are metaphorical virgins no matter how often they get married; sex symbols are voracious whores.
An amusing subsection of the sex-symbol genus is what is quaintly known as "The thinking man's sex symbol." That concept flatters cinephiles' innate sense of superiority. It implies that even their libidos are discerning and educated. Let the ignorant rabble have their saline-inflated Pamela Andersons and Jessica Simpsons. These sophisticated souls prefer the rarified likes of Maggie Gyllenhaal or Tina Fey. Hey, you know who else finds Fey and Gyllenhaal delightful? Everyone. Digging them doesn't make you a class act. It makes you human. You may have five post-graduate degrees, but to paraphrase Woody Allen, the penis wants what it wants.
Critics consequently walk a fine line between acknowledging the innate voyeurism of moviegoing and coming across as trenchcoat-sporting super-pervs. Pauline Kael playfully acknowledged the voyeurism of cinephilia by giving her books suggestive titles like I Lost It At The Movies, Taking It All In, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, Deeper Into Movies, When The Lights Go Down, and the notorious Handjob By The Popcorn Stand. Other critics let their prose drool for them. Reading Nicole Kidman, David Thomson's heavy-breathing "appreciation" of the Australian ice queen, I didn't know whether Kidman should send Thomson a thank-you letter, or take out a restraining order against him. Similarly, Jeanine Basinger spends so much time panting over Tyrone Power in The Star Machine that I feared that she'd dig up Power's skeleton, dress him up in fancy clothes, and gush, "My goodness, Tyrone, you're even more divine-looking as a rotting bag of bones! Why, if I were 20 years younger and you hadn't died 50 years ago, I don't know what might have happened!"
On a more personal note, when the good people over at AMC tested my poorly rated, mildly disreputable basic-cable movie-review panel show Movie Club With John Ridley with focus groups, some of the folks in Atlanta took exception to one of our panelists' leering, lascivious comments about Jude Law. Of course, the fact that the reviewer in question was an incredibly effeminate black homosexual might have played a minor role in the focus group's sniggering disapproval.
What does any of this have to do with today's entry in My Year Of Flops, 1991's The Rocketeer? Well, I always have wanted to write the world's longest, perviest, most needlessly digressive introduction to an essay about a PG-rated family film. Mission accomplished, just like our glorious commander-in-chief said when he single-handedly won the Iraq War. USA! USA! USA!
More to the point, The Rocketeer features perhaps the most divine creature in the history of film: a 20-year-old Jennifer Connelly. Watching Connelly in Rocketeer, I was reminded of Brian Posehn's bit about how Kate Beckinsale possesses the kind of jaw-dropping beauty that makes him angry, since he could never hope to possess it, such that he felt like he was going to Hulk out and run amok due to sexual frustration.
In Rocketeer, Connelly plays a character originally modeled, in the late Dave Stevens' comic book upon which the movie is based, after Bettie Page, a woman whose strange, sordid career was predicated on being an impossible object of desire, a beautiful blank upon whom perverts could project their twisted fantasies. In the comics, the love interest is even named Betty, though the film changed the character's name (to Jenny Blake) and profession (from nude model to actress). Page lived to be seen, worshipped, adored. Connelly plays an idealized version of Page, the one Bettie Page wanted to be: an actress, a good girl, not the kind of virgin-whore who retains an air of innocence even while getting paddled by a mistress in bondage gear. Here, Connelly receives an appropriately iconic, leering introduction:
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In The Hot Spot and Career Opportunities, Connelly radiated the incandescent sexuality of a sex symbol. In The Rocketeer, she's the quintessential America's Sweetheart. Since Requiem For A Dream, she's become a frighteningly skinny doe-eyed waif who suffers disproportionately for humanity's sins in an endless series of downers, earning her ambiguous status as a thinking man's sex symbol. She's all things to all people.
Connelly isn't the only breathtaking aspect of The Rocketeer. It's a film of staggering glamour and beauty, an all-American tribute to the dangerous, exciting world of pulpy serials and escapist cinema. Alas, it had the misfortune of opening two weeks before Terminator 2, so it could have boasted the most beautiful woman in existence and a cameo from J.D. Salinger and a resurrected Jesus Christ, and it still would have bombed at the box office. Given a choice between Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Terminator movie and some guy named Billy Campbell in something called The Rocketeer, moviegoers throughout the world went with the safe bet.
A film series was snuffed in its infancy, leaving behind a legacy of unsold Rocketeer action figures, cookie jars, lunchboxes, models, pins, cards, and videogames. Campbell and Connelly both signed on for sequels that were never made. Even the biggest TV-ad push in Disney history at the time, bigger even than Dick Tracy's, couldn't drive audiences to the film. In spite of okay reviews and okay box-office, the film was a brutal disappointment to Disney.
Today, The Rocketeer stands as both a fascinating precursor to the film adaptation of Iron Man—though Iron Man made its comics debut decades before Stevens introduced The Rocketeer in a Starslayer comic in 1982 —and as an antidote to the current spate of revisionist superhero efforts. We've been inundated with so many cinematic superheroes in desperate need of therapy and mood stabilizers as of late that it's refreshing to see a superhero whose biggest psychological weakness involves neglecting his bestest gal in favor of flying.
As played by pretty boy Billy Campbell (Christ, even his name is disgustingly all-American), The Rocketeer is a man devoid of existential angst and neurosis. He's a real live nephew of his Uncle Sam, born on the fourth of July. All he wants to do is fly. He's less a flesh-and-blood human being with doubts and anxiety and angst than a comic-book Hero. We are dealing with archetypes here, big, bold stereotypes lustily embodied by the dependable likes of Alan Arkin (as the Crusty Father Figure) and Paul Sorvino (as the sausage-fingered Mobster).
The Rocketeer is proudly, defiantly old-fashioned. Like his mentors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, director Joe Johnston injects the pulp ephemera of yesteryear with newfangled technological sophistication. It's not at all coincidental that before he graduated to directing, Johnston picked up an Oscar for the special effects in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Period films tend to age gracefully, but The Rocketeer, like the Indiana Jones series, feels like it could have been made in 1940 or yesterday: It's fucking timeless.
Johnston; screenwriters Danny Bilson, Paul De Meo, and William Dear; and cinematographer Hiro Narita give the film an epic scope and comic-book sensibility. The dialogue in an early sequence where mobsters are pursued by G-men is so pulpy and larger-than-life that I half-expected the camera to pull back to reveal the entire scenario as a movie shoot. The Rocketeer is very much a movie-movie. It's telling that many of the film's central characters are actors and filmmakers, including Connelly's radiant starlet, heavy Timothy Dalton as a mustache-twirling bad guy modeled on Errol Flynn, and a dashing and authoritative Terry O'Quinn as filmmaker/aviator Howard Hughes.
The Rocketeer's plot concerns a glistening, alluringly mammary-like rocket-pack developed by Howard Hughes; it falls into the hands of mobsters, then gets discovered by hotshot flyboy Campbell and mentor Arkin. Campbell is immediately fascinated. What red-blooded American boy wouldn't want a jetpack of his own? When I was a child, we were all promised personal jetpacks by the year 2000. That was the promise of the future, not that bullshit about computers changing everyone's lives. The Rocketeer taps into four fantasies shared by every strapping heterosexual lad throughout our great land: flying, being a superhero, battling Nazis, and having sex with Bettie Page.
Campbell uses the jetpack to become costumed adventurer The Rocketeer. Of course, by superhero standards, The Rocketeer is kinda lame. He doesn't shoot fireballs or have X-ray vision or superpowers or titanium skin. He's just a handsome guy with a rocket pack. But rocket packs are so inherently awesome that they make other superpowers unnecessary. Like the simpatico Superman, The Rocketeer beautifully exploits mankind's eternal longing to fly. There's a reason people dream about flying and not filing their taxes.
Bilson and De Meo envisioned Kevin Costner or Matthew Modine as the film's lead during the writing process, while the studio's first choice was 21 Jump Street heartthrob Johnny Depp. But Johnston held out for Campbell, who suffers from a serious charisma shortage as the film's airborne do-gooder: He's little more than a floppy-haired pretty boy. Dalton, however, is tremendous fun as an evil Flynn parody, imbuing the role with all the scenery-chewing lustiness and brash charisma inexplicably missing from his portrayal of James Bond. Dalton is ever so much more compelling as a villain than a hero.
When Dalton conveniently learns that Campbell has stumbled upon the fantastical rocket pack, he decides to romance, then kidnap Connelly so he can hunt down the rocket pack and hand it over to his Nazi bosses, who can then create a super-army of indestructible flying rocket-men. Yes, Virginia, there are worse sins than statutory rape, binge drinking, and shameless womanizing.
The Rocketeer takes place in an alternate-universe 1938 Hollywood where Bettie Page is a doe-eyed extra, Errol Flynn is a Nazi secret agent, Howard Hughes is a dashing good Samaritan who happily sacrifices lucrative government contracts for the sake of the public good, and a rocket pack has the potential to shift the balance of power between the good guys and Nazi bogeyman. In that respect, it's like James Ellroy by way of Richard Donner's Superman. In reality, Hughes was less Mr. Smith than Mr. Burns. But in The Rocketeer's flag-waving comic-book world, even mobsters and penny-pinching war profiteers are patriotic above all else.
With its lusty recreation of pre-war Hollywood and raging patriotism, The Rocketeer threatens to give gee-whiz cornball Americana a good name. It's concerned less with characterization and plot than with delivering a sumptuous feast for the senses. Johnston and company appeal directly to everyone's inner child. Though I have a famously contentious relationship with my inner child, I was won over by the purity of its vision of a Sunday-matinee universe with no need for irony or cynicism.
Watching The Rocketeer it's easy to see why Disney thought it had the next Indiana Jones on its hands. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to cast an unknown in the lead role. Jon Favreau could take a chance and hire someone like Robert Downey Jr.—a great actor but nobody's idea of a top box-office attraction—as the lead in a gazillion-dollar tentpole blockbuster because everyone knows Iron Man and likes Robert Downey Jr. But asking audiences to shell out their hard-earned cash to see an unknown actor play an obscure superhero was a huge commercial risk that didn't pay off.
The Rocketeer soars as pure visual spectacle. Every element feels perfectly in place. The dialogue is slangy and fun. The setpieces are constant and astonishing, from the swashbuckling epic where Connelly and Dalton meet to a spectacular climax aboard an exploding Nazi zeppelin to the many flying sequences. The supporting parts are uniformly executed with panache and vim, not to mention vigor. Bit players like a hulking mob flunky who looks like Boris Karloff after taking a few too many frying pans to the face illustrate the truth of Konstantin Stanislavski's famous line about there being no small parts, just shitty parts played by horrible fucking actors who waste everyone's time with their terrible performances. All this, plus the most beautiful woman in human history at the height of her nubile beauty. As a great man once said, USA! USA! USA!
Well, friends, that's about it for the first installment of superhero month here at My Year of Flops Incorporated. What should my second entry be? The Shadow? The Phantom? Superman IV: The Quest For Peace? My only requirement for a follow-up is that it needs to be an American superhero joint, on account of our country kicking so much ass, then taking so many names.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success