Sister Act & True Lies: Genre In The 90s Blockbuster

The mechanics of genre are as complicated in their motives as is their perpetual state of flux as these mechanics adapt to follow new trends in media.  The most obvious case being the Western, whose metamorphoses at the hands of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci indicated not only a desire for more sex and violence in the genre, but a more Freudian approach to the films’ characters.  In fact, most books dealing with an overview of cinematic history divide the progression of the Western into two distinct halves; before The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly (1966) and afterwards.  Despite the obvious differences between the Westerns of “then” and “now”, there are in the genre a set of unchanging aesthetic principles, and it is these principles that define the Western, justifying the very label of “genre”.  Westerns typically center on a protagonist finding redemption and overcoming his or her own inherent “evil” for the good of a community or a virtuous protagonist at odds with a massive “evil” force such as Apache, avalanches, sand storms, cattle barons, a gang, etc.  It is in these two basic character and narrative types that the Western attempts (and rarely succeeds) to construct an allegory for America.  But not all genres are as dynamically defined or as popular as the Western.  Some genres are so obscure that they exist only as sub-genres under the umbrella of larger and more abstract categorizations like “comedy”, “drama” or “horror”.

Sister Act

When The Walt Disney Company released Sister Act (1992) through Touchstone Pictures they sold the film as a family comedy and targeted parents with children between the ages of 8 and 14 as their primary demographic.  In part this was meant to cash-in on the built-in fan base for Nun comedies instilled in the parents by Sally Field’s The Flying Nun television show as well as to appeal to those who grew-up and were fans of Motown.  But to be fresh, new, and exciting Sister Act could not follow the formulas of The Flying Nun or other popular depictions of Nuns in the media like Lilies Of The Field (1963) and The Nun’s Story (1959) anymore than a Whoopi Goldberg vehicle could recreate the lack of success of Nuns On The Run (1990).  Instead screenwriter Joseph Howard and director Emile Ardolino returned to a tried and true Disney formula freshly imbued with the same nightclub edginess that made Pretty Woman (1990) one of Disney’s highest grossing films of the nineties.

The tried and true Disney formula I refer to first occurred at the height of Fred MacMurray’s tenure with the studio.  The basic premise, exemplified by Follow Me, Boys! (1966), concerns a protagonist who is forced to take charge of a group of misfits and imprint these misfits with the protagonist’s own personality traits, thus creating a surrogate family where the protagonist belongs.  Ironically this formulaic plot is the antithesis to popular culture’s preferred depiction of Nuns since the boom of the porn industry in the early seventies.  From Boccaccio’s The Decameron to Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls (1978) to Norifumi Suzuki’s School Of The Holy Beast (1982), Nuns have been portrayed as lesbian sodomites, a far cry from the sweet and familial Nuns under Maggie Smith’s care in Sister Act.  Oddly, Disney took it upon itself to project its typical family film plots into arenas where one would hardly suspect.  Where Sister Act puts Whoopi Goldberg into a Nunnery to rejuvenate the family film genre, Operation Dumbo Drop (1995) puts Ray Liotta, Danny Glover and Denis Leary in Vietnam with an elephant to keep up interest in their live-action family films.

In short, Sister Act is the redressing of a genre to perpetuate box office receipts.  This is not always a negative trend in the cinema, and in the early to mid-nineties it was a hugely popular approach.  Which brings us to James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).  What Cameron sets out to do, and does, is to make a genre film that is absolutely about its genre without ever being openly analytical or challenging.  The film’s star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, teamed with director John McTiernan on The Last Action Hero (1993) the previous year, constructing a film whose concern with genre mechanics is similar to True Lies but whose “on-the-nose” execution prevents the film from ever sustaining the suspension of disbelief for very long.

True Lies

True Lies essentially casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as the ultimate action hero, but subverts the trappings of the genre by pushing the extremes one associates with action films to comedic places.  For instance a chase scene that should be a motorcycle in pursuit of another motorcycle is transformed into physical comedy by putting the hero on a horse instead.  Likewise, True Lies has as its centerpiece the narrative arc of infidelity in which the spy (Arnold Schwarzenegger) uses his Bond-like resources to terrorize his wife’s (Jamie Lee Curtis) lover (Bill Paxton).  The subject of marital difficulty is not often a part of the action movie vernacular in this respect.  Typically, as is the case with Die Hard (1988), the male protagonist’s marriage is saved by the end of the film in the same way the world is saved.  Much of Cameron’s humor in dealing with infidelity recalls the oddball Alan Arkin comedies Chu Chu & The Philly Flash (1981) and The In-Laws (1979) in so far as the seriousness of the situation is undermined by the absurdity of the circumstance in which the situation has come to exist.  The absurdity, in the case of True Lies, is the very fabric of the action movie genre.

Listing all of these various components and stylistic tactics may give the impression that Cameron’s film is not so much reflexive with a sense of humor, but rather an incoherent mess.  This very well could have been the case if not for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence.  Arnold Schwarzenegger even being in this film becomes a means by which the genre is parodied and its hubris analyzed, almost in a parallel fashion to Tim Allen’s role in Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999).

What both True Lies and Sister Act are indicative of is a desire to manipulate genre to re-sell narratives and celebrities all too familiar to audiences.  The degree of innovation, however successful or not, points to the possibilities that are often overlooked in favor of remakes or adaptations from other visual media.

-Robert Curry

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