Frantically Seeking Desperation

Q uestion: What do Caesar and Madonna have in common? Answer: immortality. No, Dewitt is not talking about a certain

Question: What do Caesar and Madonna have in common? Answer: immortality. No, Dewitt is not talking about a certain greasy salad dressing or the lint-free bellybutton. Augustus and Madonna have given us the most prized possession of historians and glibmeisters: the buzzword, what historians who like to use foreign languages call (and italicize) the zeitgeist. Augustus gave us the Augustan age; Madonna has given us the Age of Desperation.

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN (Harvard Square, Sunday) is no longer just a movie title. Now we have Desperately Seeking Re-Election, Desperately Seeking Lunch. And think about why. It's not just the felicity of the phrase Desperately Seeking.... It's the statement of an age, an age of scarcity. Neither Tocqueville, nor Gibson, nor even Garry Trudeau could find a more concise image of the age than poor Susan (Madonna) drying her forest of armpit hairs under an air handdryer at Grand Central Station.

It's not that Susan whines out against the desperation. It's not tract, but satire, asking that most forbidden of questions: Can anything come between the suburban housewife and her Calvins? Will the quiet wife of a New Jersey hot tub mogul seek excitement in a Susan universe so desperate that it allows for wet armpits? To paraphrase Aristotle, all the pipes in the world can't buy excitement.

But where did all of this desperation come from? New York, you say? Good answer, but desperation goes too far back and strays too far afield from New York. For all its Newest Wave, mod feel, Susan traces its anxious female motif back to the gangster melodrama films of the 30's, with one twist. Like the vapid blonds in film noir, our housewife seeks her thrills in a more happening world, but there the comparison must end. Her idol is not a man, but Susan; her goal not to grab her idol's pants, but to wear them.

In the style of this desperate age, RISKY BUSINESS carries the same 30's drama, with a different sex swap. Sure, Joel actually says, "Sometimes you just gotta say, 'What the fuck.'" But what he's really saying, desperately, is that "sometimes you just gotta fuck." What do we have for our lucky couple? Well, for the dumb, anxious, ersatz blonde, there's Tom Cruise, the dumb, protohulking, died-brunette--and vice versa (if you haven't lost me).

For those who spent the last few years in a U-boat contemplating the essence of tubular technology, the Risky Business plot/phallic line is simple enough: parents vacate, boy stays home, boy meets prostitute, boy and prostitute open brothel in the folk's house, boy loses girl, boy loses furniture (prostitute played by daughter of noted conservative TV talkshow host). It's yer basic bare bones plot. While Joel calls himself a businessman, he's really just the businessman's Girl Friday, and the businessman's the girl in the world's oldest profession....

In any case, it's a nearly flawless production. The role of Joel calls for the acting talent of a foot-long hot dog, and Cruise, who has yet to star in another successful film, only barely disappoints. Beautifully filmed and with a gradually endearing Tangerine Dream soundtrack, it's the most graceful teen satire in years.

Which ties it to THE GRADUATE (Harvard Square). Mike Nichols' masterwork whips the desperation motif into full-fledged obsession with a strong 60's tinge. It's Dustin Hoffman's first film role and arguably his best as the boy next door seduced by the mother next door who falls for the girl next door. For freshmen, at least one screening is as perfunctory as first-year writing class--not to be practiced on vacations, but for collegiate literacy the next time someone mumbles, "Just like The Graduate."

There's not the same compelling reason to see James Dean's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (Orson Welles), except to toss the title around. Here we have desperation at its most stylish and vacuous, the new boy in town who has to pose tougher than a steroid-fed General Patton. But it's not just a cause that The Rebel needs, it's a family, friends. Where Natalie Wood's acting slips up a little, the skillful filming covers up, setting Dean in a fraction of a frame filled with lonely cliffs and ravines.

For all its spacious feel, Rebel never gave Dean enough room to strut his stuff. As a frinstance, he never gets a chance to play the role he most convincingly embodied--that of the reckless actor killing himself in a car accident.

GIANT (Orson Welles), the longish tale of the fading Texas aristocrat, played by the Rock Hudson (hoid o' him?), and the messed-up poor kid who slips on oil to become the messed-up rich kid. The one rising swiftly up, the second slipping pathetically down, the once and future giants both are desperately seeking the same Elizabeth Taylor. His last film, Giant whispers the tragedy of Dean's death more painfully than any possible obituary.

All of this desperation suggests a certain pathos, but little can match the pathetic, yet typically wry, desperation of Woody Allen's THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (Harvard Square, Sunday). Superficially, Mia Farrow sees her movie idol step off the screen, but the Safari suit-clad hero enters not reality, but the world of movie-madness, the realm of the film addict who knows reality too well to want to face it. "You're a wonderful person," Farrow tells her dream man when he arrives in the flesh. "You're fictional, but nobody's perfect."