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The shaggy dogs, the fidge and the vase
From taglines to global dominan – America is everywhere, by Camus
 
It's OK, this noble Japanese warrior is actually an American.

 

Someone once described America as a large shaggy dog in a small room. If its tail wagging knocked over a precious vase then it was forgivable because its general intentions were good. Right. So does that advocate a detachment of overall responsibility? What if you lived in the vase?

In the name of honor... In the face of battle...
In the heart of one man... Lives the soul of a warrior...

TOM CRUISE... THE LAST SAMURAI

Stop laughing. It's for real. And it's why I will not pay money to see The Last Samurai, the first big Hollywood movie for a long, long time whose marketing has inadvertently turned me away. By the way, I would also decline a free ticket.

If those taglines had turned up on the satirical puppet show of the 80s, Spittin' Image, we'd still be on the floor clutching at our sides. There are probably earlier examples of the multi-tagline examples of film marketing. The Rambo series' third outing shone brightly. If it has slipped your mind, the poster for Rambo III was emblazoned with a bandana clad Stallone (looking like a chronically depressed hippy) announcing:

"The first was for himself. The second for his country. This time it's to save his friend."

Let's forget the fact that the 2nd line makes no sense and all three lines scan worse than a Kwik-Fit ad. It's that heavy handed, over-ripe, earnest quality, so inviting for satirists and yet so inexcusably beloved of Hollywood. Now which global American movie star might fit that description?

'Tom Cruise' is no longer the Thomas Cruise Mapother IV his mother dotes on. Let's be clear here. There is a very big distinction between both Tom Cruises. There's Tom Cruise, the hard working human being and 'Tom Cruise' the quintessential image of what it is to be an American astride the multi-cultural globe like some perfect giant espousing universal truth. Well, it may be Universal's truth (or even Warner's or Fox's). I know from a trusted personal source that the actual DNA-comprising, human-being, Tom Cruise, is a generous, gregarious and entirely focussed individual. Tom Cruise, though, is not 'Tom Cruise'. The former works extremely hard to have fun and entertain people albeit reported by too many sources a tad too earnestly. Do any of you actually read Empire?

Tom Cruise has the same DNA as us, the same number of legs and fingers as us (if we've not strayed too far into the workings of any factory machinery). He breathes the same air and eats the same food. But through a series of life choices, coincidences, luck and hard work he has become 'Tom Cruise', an icon whose face is plastered across buildings from Norwich to Nairobi almost guaranteeing a definition of entertainment to be had and the global masses flock to it. Take a look at that face in Coppola's The Outsiders. With teeth uncapped, he's a very different Tom Cruise. But that's what the American dentistry... my apologies. That's what the American dream is all about. I'm the last one to criticise dentistry.

I have not met the man but I suspect his marketing people don't have to try too hard to buff up his mettle. The 'Tom Cruise' is the brand name, the shining smile of ample wattage, the shape of the face on the posters. If there were movies in Roman times, 'Tom Cruise' would be the face sewn into the pennants that rippled in the wind as much as the Centurions' biceps. The face sells. The face sells 'Tom Cruise'. Whatever piece of celluloid is attached to that face is largely immaterial. It helps if the movie is in the action genre. Whaddya know? The guy can out-fly an explosion. Mission Impossible, indeed. It is no coincidence that the close up of Cruise's head or upper torso has been the poster image of choice for his last six or so movies. Let's not include Magnolia where he had a supporting part but all credit to the man, he pulled off that nasty specimen of overt masculinity very convincingly.

And there again is the principal difference between the actor and the star. The actor has to be convincing. The star has to be the star. Did it matter if John Wayne wore a six-shooter and a cowboy hat or a machine gun and marine fatigues? You paid for John Wayne. If ever the man was convincing as anything other than John Wayne, you'll find that the box office receipts reflected the change. Spielberg's forays into "Please, take me seriously as an artist?" territory also go some way to fitting that template. Give us childlike awe and we're with you, Stevey-baby. Be artistic, honorable (sic) and noble and... well... Na, stick to the aliens.

Cruise does take commercial chances which is refreshing given that if he sneezed, Hollywood would still make The Handkerchief...

In the name of Double Stitching... At the heart of the Floral Design...
One man had the Mucus... The Mucus of a Warrior.

Tom Cruise
IS
'The Nose'

in

THE HANDKERCHIEF

Even that kind of works and that is why it's pervasive and persuasive. By the way, 'warrior' is pronounced 'woyur' for some unfathomable reason.

There is a great story, possibly apocryphal, about another shaggy dog, this time a movie (Beethoven's Second if anyone's at all interested). It was turned down for a Children's Film Festival in what used to be Russia. The American film-makers were aghast. "Why?" they lamented. The Russian organisers replied that they had turned it down on political grounds. "It's a shaggy dog movie!" wailed the American producers. "Regardless of this," came the reply "every time a character opens the refrigerator IT'S A POLITICAL STATEMENT!" (my capitals). That opened a few doors in my head about how Americans are perceived around the globe. When your principal cultural ambassador is a man who can do impossible missions, fly jets with uncanny skill and make both Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz love you (in the same movie!) no wonder Uncle Sam's children are regarded with such low esteem - that and George W. Bush.

The man Tom Cruise notably champions directors and pours his soul into his projects. This is admirable. But he's still unconscionably American. There's not much he can do about that. So when he makes The Last Samurai, all I can think is that it will be generally believed in his home country that Japan would have been perfect (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding) if it had only had an American to give it credibility. Kurosawa is just a name to be brought up as a reference to The Magnificent Seven? Please. So the Samurai would be great if only... if only.... their fridges were full. Has The Last Samurai presented the Japanese in an artistically truthful way or are they a backdrop for 'Tom Cruise' to 'get' nobility? Don't ask me. I'm not going to see it.

'Tom Cruise' has become a human American fridge. He physically represents what it is to be American but he is exploited in countries and cultures where the American way no longer has the same Nike-Levi reverence. Let's face it, with Bush in command, the Americans are not the most loved people on the planet right now. And Hollywood movies work the way Bush's government is forcing their people to see things - IN BLACK AND WHITE. There are precious few examples of ambiguity in 'Tom Cruise''s movies. He is loved/adored no matter what. The films are designed that way. Take one of his most affecting roles as Jerry Maguire.

This film acknowledges that to be a good guy in a world of bad, you will be derided. Could anything else so neatly encapsulate Bush and Blair's 'mission statement'? A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do (as led they both are by God - Jesus Christ). Maguire's own 'mission statement' (to sports' agents everywhere: "Take fewer clients to serve them more personally,") fires up a romance and the requisite life lessons. But again, it's a perfect Hollywood movie. Cameron Crowe's screenplay is erudite and clever without being overtly schmaltzy. And it was huge, dollar-wise.

But then the ultimate Hollywood question is: WHAT MAKES MOST MONEY? If the current sure fire answer is 'Tom Cruise' then fingers crossed for the real Tom Cruise. Can he pour some of that singular power he has earned into projects that are less culturally invasive or is he bound by his own abbreviated persona?

The shaggy dogs, the fridge and the vase
From taglines to global dominan – America is everywhere

by Camus
article posted
14 January 2004