by Rob Gonsalves
For rock fans, the early '90s were a bland wasteland. The airwaves were full of tripe from Bryan Adams, Mariah Carey, Extreme (remember them?), Bette Midler ... Need I go on? That all changed on September 10, 1991, when a little ditty called 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' cut through the crap like a scythe. Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, quite accidentally, had produced a sound that millions of teens and college students didn't know they'd been waiting for. Nirvana had been around since 1987, and released their debut 'Bleach' through SubPop, but once they hooked up with Geffen and put out 'Nevermind' — whether or not you dug the disc — it changed the face of rock for years.
The cinematic equivalent of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' arrived in 1994, after a similarly boring few years of American mainstream cinema (with occasional perks like Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, and Schindler's List — excellent flicks all, but they didn't take the youth market by storm and up-end everyone's perception of What Those Youngsters Want, and that's what we're discussing here). Quentin Tarantino had put out his SubPop album, Reservoir Dogs, which like Nirvana's debut was cherished by a few fans but didn't really break out into the general consciousness. (It did far better on video than in theaters.) Then Tarantino delivered his 'Teen Spirit,' a little ditty called Pulp Fiction, and it hit big with critics, audiences, and award-givers. It will likely remain the biggest film Tarantino will ever make. He and his movie were in the right place at the right time; Pulp Fiction gave young moviegoers what they didn't know they'd been waiting for.
This happens every so often in pop culture. In movies, it could be argued that the first What You've Been Waiting For phenomenon was Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969). Others might speak in favor of The Graduate two years earlier, but that film had Anne Bancroft and some sort of establishment legitimacy. Easy Rider had three guys who'd been doing a lot of Roger Corman quickies and a lot of drugs. God knows it hasn't dated well, but at the time it was a revelation to hippies who'd been waiting for a movie that spoke to them and them alone. After the miasma of Vietnam and the accompanying string of depressing, defeatist movies, someone needed to step up and unfurl a big, old-school adventure that made folks feel good again. (Even previous hits like Jaws and Rocky had a certain post-Nam bitterness about them.) That someone was George Lucas, whose Star Wars (1977) was an experiment nobody really thought would work. Again, people didn't know they'd been waiting for it, and it broke records all over the place.
Here I should pause and lay out two requirements for a What You've Been Waiting For movie: (1) It should come out of nowhere, preferably from an artist who was previously independent; (2) it should be often imitated and never duplicated — what William Goldman calls a "non-recurring phenomenon."
So far, these examples all fit the bill — even Lucas used to be an artsy guy who made the non-hit THX 1138. (He then made American Graffiti almost churlishly, to prove that anyone could crank out a manipulative hit.)
Anyway, after Star Wars, escapism ruled the roost for almost a decade. Then came yet another artist out of the independent world. Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986) captured the fancy of audiences, critics, award-givers, etc. Often imitated (hey, it's okay to talk about Vietnam again! Even TV got in on the act with China Beach and Tour of Duty), never duplicated. (Personally, I prefer Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, which came out the following year, but as usual with Kubrick it had been gestating for years and its arrival after Platoon was coincidental. Unlike so many 'Nam flicks that followed, it wasn't greenlighted in response to Platoon's box-office glory.)
Then, kaboom, Pulp Fiction. Which paved the way for endless Tarantino clones — we're still getting them (witness Smokin' Aces). Often imitated, never duplicated — not even by Tarantino. Sure, the Kill Bill movies cracked $130 mil combined, but nobody was quoting those flicks nearly as much, critical response was mixed, and no major awards were given. Like I said, it's very possible that the latent desires of the mass audience and Tarantino's particular obsessions will never again dovetail so neatly as they did in the autumn of 1994.
After that? Big hits aplenty, sure, but nothing that really flipped cinema on its head and redefined what could be universally embraced. The closest thing was the Lord of the Rings series, and even though that does fit the two criteria, I put it alongside Spider-Man and 300 and the other geek-driven franchises that crossed over to the mass audience. Storming into thousands of theaters as it did on the heels of months of hype, LOTR didn't exactly come out of nowhere. LOTR also had a built-in following; Star Wars, in 1977, didn't. (Remember, Star Wars could've gone the way of the previous year's Logan's Run — a respectable success, but nowhere near record-breaking.)
So I think we're overdue for the next What You've Been Waiting For phenom — the movie that serves as the scrappy, fuzzy "Smells Like Teen Spirit" of the multiplexes, carves brutally through the bland shit, the remakes, the family (non)comedies, the movies about movies, all the ways Hollywood has been Hoovering its own dick for years, and gives us all a surprise gift — a movie we didn't know we wanted, didn't know we needed, like a blast of air conditioning to a sweaty, sweltering person who didn't know air conditioning even existed.
Where's it coming from? Who's the little-known indie-flick director who'll give it to us?
Is it someone who's directed a great little film few people outside film buffs know much about — like Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko) or Lucky McKee (May)? Is it someone whose film has fallen through the cracks or still seeks distribution, or hasn't even made it past the script stage yet? Is it you?
Whoever it is, if the movie gods are kind, he or she will weigh in with The Movie We've Been Waiting For before too long.
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originally posted: 04/22/07 21:06:33
last updated: 04/23/07 07:03:15