ecently, more and more of my friends, for the most part intelligent people, have been encouraging me to consume, and in some cases enjoy, beyond apparent reason, popular, mass-marketed culture. As a proverbial grouch, I have difficulty doing anything merely for the sake of lightening up. I look at the list of supposedly fun summer blockbusters and cringe. Why cant I be left to my own devices? (Those include watching Charlie Rose chortle into his coffee cup with the director of Lincoln Center or listening to some hipster naïf sing wry jingles about public transportation in Glasgow.) My friends sentiments have mounted, however, to a level at which they merit investigation. An important clue, I think, lies in a lighthearted populist comedy released in the summer of 2001.
When I told a coworker I was working on an interpretation of Legally Blonde, his immediate reaction was: Oh, come on, you have to admit that was a pretty good movie.
Initially I was confused. I mean, I liked it too . . . kind of. I never said it wasnt a good movie. So I casually brought it up to a few other acquaintances and got the same slightly defensive response: Back off, man, we actually liked this movie. Whats more, I have to admit that I myself experienced a certain thrill in telling people that I liked Legally Blonde. Try slipping it into conversation between Jesus Son and Man Bites Dog. Youll see how invigorating it can be.
It seems that MGM has figured out a way to invoke some sort of elder-brotherly defensive hormone in the viewer, causing him to (a) like the film, and (b) believe that theres an element of intellectual achievement in that affection. Roger Eberts review boldly comments on this effect by saying of Legally Blonde: It is impossible to dislike. The implication is that an intelligent, review-reading moviegoer would dislike it . . . if only she could.
The films charm lies in its pluck rather than its plot, but it is interesting to note how the specifics of this movie serve as a kind of transparent Trojan horse for this new pheromone Hollywood is wearing these days. Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, is a familiar avatar of the pop film industry itself. Elles sorority girl life in Los Angeles is literally a product of Hollywoods excesses. Her Harvard-bound beau, played by Matthew Davis, gives this as his reason for dumping her: I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn. In order to win him back, this Marilyn, this physical embodiment of the industry where dreams are minted, must go to Harvard and be accepted by the world of academia. Legally Blonde is a love letter from a jilted Hollywood to the intellectual: You cant escape from me, you cant leave me stranded here in L.A., and above all, you have no right to judge me.
Elle is ill received at Harvard. The establishment there sees her as self-aggrandizing, over-privileged, and frivolous, precisely the way many intellectuals view Hollywood. Through a series of admittedly silly twists, her frankness and frivolity develop a relationship with intelligence and inquiry that solve an important criminal case. It is, of course, a completely unbelievable plot, but thats because, in reality, the movie is a primer for the academic mind, the left brain of culture, on how to actually like that which doesnt make linear sense.
The only characters who dont judge Elle unfairly are her manicurist (Jennifer Coolidge) and a recently graduated lawyer (Luke Wilson). Coolidges character represents the silver screens already converted audience, those who have always looked to it for a kind of morality-lite and a few laughs. The manicurist is enamored of Elle and cant figure out how anyone so beautiful and witty could be so unlucky in love.
The young lawyer, however, is Hollywoods hope for the future: an intelligentsia that, on some level, appreciates, interprets, and actually likes Hollywood films.
Legally Blonde succeeds as a love letter and a movie. It succeeds because it is a populist inversion of the art-house and cult film concept of exclusivity: Only the few are everyman enough to appreciate this movie. This is the reason for the defensive stance of smart people who have seen and liked Legally Blonde.
Some critics have knocked it as being an inferior imitator of Clueless, but as a love letter, it was more successful than Clueless precisely because Clueless was a little too intelligent, a little too self conscious, a little too good of a movie. Only a technically bad film could serve as the vehicle for Hollywoods message of self-revelation: I have stopped making conscious decisions and have become the dreaming mind of the world.
Like the dreams of an individual, the dreams of the silver screen must be unbelievable, irrational, and crude. Like the best dreams, the best movies are those that generate a vague sense of placeless familiarity.
Look at the mechanism by which the industry generates these communal fictions: It takes thousands of cells working unconsciously and independently of each other to make a Hollywood-style movie. It takes production assistants with stars in their eyes, fame-hungry actors from all over the globe, career-minded directors and parsimonious producers and gaffers and sound guys and caterers and marketers and agentsmany cells twinkling in the dead of night, each concentrating on personal glory. The film is created as a byproduct. This is corporate REM-sleep.
Elle and her possessions are portrayed in a whorl of pink plastic dreamlike hyper-clarity. Clutching her Chihuahua to her chest she is an anti-Dorothy come from Oz into the gray, utilitarian world of the left brain. In the beginning, the film gives L.A. the carnivalesque atmosphere of a tasteless City of Lost Children. Harvard, by contrast, is shot in the unflattering fluorescence of a British sitcom. Reese Witherspoon is herself an ideal dreamlike character. She has an unnerving quality of being simultaneously petite and larger than life, pretty and weird looking, happy and silly and yet somehow violent with emotion underneath. The intellectual is invited to watch himself watching the dichotomy of the dream world and not understanding it.
The industrial and technological revolutions have put so much stress on civilization that we cannot expect not to have a lot of crazy dreams and more than a few nightmares. The problem we face now is that the conscious part of the collective mind has been neglecting its duty towards these dreams, which is to interpret them.
Weve been spending too much time with Jackie, and Marilyn is getting jealous. The dreams have become more perplexing, more inane. The interpretive part of the collective brain has been running from Hollywood and into the self-interpreting films of the art-house. These movies are consciously made by strong-willed directors with complete artistic visions: they are beautiful but they are more like waking fantasies than full fledged dreams.
I realize that Ive been looking at the screen backwards until now. Hollywood requires more of the viewer than the art house does. Hollywood requires interpretation. Not only that, but it also offers relief: relief from wandering fruitlessly through the aisles of recorded culture in an effort to define ourselves through tasteful purchases. We have moved further and further into the obscure corners of the record shop and video store in an effort to find culture that redeems us. We want something so sophisticated that it requires no effort on our parts. No wonder the more painstaking a culture collector you are, the more disappointed you are by your collection. Tasteful and educated consumption is still consumption. The era of collection is over. The era of interpretation has begun.
Hey, Marilyn is saying every summer, how meaningless and beautiful do I have to make myself before you fulfill your responsibility? Are you everyman enough to interpret me?