Brief on brilliant cocktail conversation? This reader-friendly collection will help you apply Foucault to Keanu, Derrida to Spielberg, Macbeth to Blair Witch, and pull it off with panache. Stimulating in small doses, its 34 essays deconstruct 1990s cinema, and the decade too, with intellectual vigor and a wry sense of humor.

Brief on brilliant cocktail conversation? This reader-friendly collection will help you apply Foucault to Keanu, Derrida to Spielberg, Macbeth to Blair Witch, and pull it off with panache. Stimulating in small doses, its 34 essays deconstruct 1990s cinema, and the decade too, with intellectual vigor and a wry sense of humor. As Y2K dawned, English professor Jon Lewis invited film studies friends to write short papers about any topic whatsoever relating to nineties cinema, and write they did … about everything from media conglomeration to masculinity in crisis, from fat rights to the privacy rights of Pamela Anderson. Certain essays are academically clunky, repeating the central thesis statement like a mantra, but many more flow smoothly and begin to simulate a dialogue with other pieces.

In his introduction, Lewis prepares us for Entertainment Armageddon, comparing 1990s film production to a high-stakes poker game in which noisy, effects-heavy movies were the contenders. But he finally places an optimistic bet, looking to film history for solace and finding signs of renewal, casting the ’90s as maybe just maybe “a transitional period from one new American cinema to another.” Because he hints at a destination, we wander with him down a corridor of theoretical discovery.

At times, the book backtracks entertainingly to the freshman dorm to ruminate on phallic issues. A lively, compelling debate develops between two scholars who agree that “Fight Club” is emblematic of the celebrated end-of-century crisis of masculinity, but differ on whether we end up with feminist victory or misogynist flick. Alexandra Juhasz insists that Helena Bonham Carter’s character Marla’s dildo possession marks the end of men’s stranglehold on the phallus, whereas Henry A. Giroux and Imre Szeman worry that the rowdy movie legitimates the relationship between oppression and misogyny. Giroux and Szeman go so far as to encourage us to “reclaim the discourses of ethics …” Talk about homework.

Proposals for changing the world of cinema abound, adding vitality to the text. In a tightly written treatise titled “A Rant,” screenwriter and producer James Schamus challenges us to save independent freedom of expression from the clutches of media congloms by reading about key mergers, studying the Telecommunications Act of 1996, following the WTO and WIPO intellectual property talks, and so on. The hefty reading assignment seems doable, but has reading ever saved anything? Maybe a little action is in order.

Jan-Christopher Horak’s “The Hollywood History Business” does not offer a call to arms so much as a somber warning: “For the studios, the exploitation of film history is never more than a short-term goal.” Particularly readable for its confessional tone — “The names have not been changed, since there are no innocents,” he advises — the essay describes Horak’s unhappy experience as archives director for Universal Studios, a job he accepted during the late ’90s, just after film history became a hot commodity and a post that evaporated two years later. Among other damning data, we learn that the studio burned its nitrate holdings in 1949 to reclaim the silver, destroying 5,553 silent films produced between 1912 and 1930. Horak offers little optimism but — good news — no homework.

In reading “The End of Cinema,” if the questions get too tricky, or the bridge to new cinema too difficult to visualize, I recommend flipping ahead to Chuck Kleinhans’ piece, “Pamela Anderson on the Slippery Slope,” which details a portion of Pamela Anderson and then-husband Tommy Lee’s sex tapes. “When you going to get me preggos?” Pamela asks Tommy. If a discussion of documentary authenticity doesn’t jumpstart the cocktail party, graphic Pamela/Tommy photos and silly, salacious transcripts ought to.

The End of Cinema As We Know It, American Film In The Nineties

NYU Press; 385 pgs.; $18.95

Production

Jon Lewis, Ed.
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