Abba dabba don't

June 03, 1994|By Frank Rich

IT WASN'T the Devil who made me do it. I had no choice. If you were with your kids over the long Memorial Day weekend and they were dying to go to the movies and everyone was eager to get out of the house before cabin fever turned lethal, then you, too, made your way to "The Flintstones." It was the only new "family" movie at the multiplex for the holiday.

This is why "The Flintstones" took in a record $37.5 million last weekend, and it is also why those millions of ticket buyers went back to school or work on Tuesday a bit more bummed out than usual.

While it would be wrong to pin the decline and fall of Western civilization on 92 minutes of evanescent pap, a phenomenon like "The Flintstones" speaks volumes about why many children, not to mention adults, are alienated from so-called mainstream American cultural values -- and why they would rather consume violent, antisocial pop culture than family entertainment.

If "The Flintstones" is the norm in mass culture, a counterculture couldn't arrive a moment too soon.

What makes "The Flintstones" grotesque is not that it's a lousy movie, but that it isn't really a movie at all.

It is instead a greedy marketing scheme, so naked in its contempt for the audience that the moviegoers at my Saturday night show fell quickly into a deep funk.

The 32 writers (yes, 32) who contributed to "The Flintstones" could not concoct an amusing plot or more than two good jokes, yet they did manage to work in at least four prominent plugs for McDonald's -- which uncoincidentally is staging a national promotion linking its junk food to the film.

Other brand names are also pitched relentlessly, and since Steven Spielberg is the producer of "The Flintstones," so is the fall video release of his "Jurassic Park."

Completing this nightmarish orgy of synergy are the new products spun off from the movie itself -- 1,000 of them, ranging from boxer shorts to jewelry to a $30 talking Fred Flintstone doll. The purveyors' goal is $1 billion in sales.

And the hawking of these products is the only passionate motivation for anything on screen: the movie's stars actually licensed their faces to Mattel for the manufacture of "Flintstones" tchotchkes (even as they left their comic abilities at home).

My children aren't buying, and surely they're not alone. Though they went to "The Flintstones" with enthusiasm, artificially inflated by a week of MTV promos, they picked up on the movie's true aim and instinctively recoiled.

Not only would they not let a "Flintstones" product anywhere near them but they seemed poised to switch their allegiance from McDonald's to Burger King.

For their parents' generation, "The Flintstones" has another layer of insidiousness. The TV cartoon series on which the movie is based was an innocent, innocuous piece of fun from our own childhoods. It's hardly rejuvenating to see it return as a bloated "live action" feature, dolled up like a cheap whore for a few summer weekends of quick tricks at the sales counter.

And "The Flintstones" is hardly anomalous: The distant number two movie on Memorial Day weekend was an adaptation of a contemporaneous boomers' TV favorite ("Maverick"). These films have been preceded by "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Dennis the Menace," "The Addams Family" and "Car 54, Where Are You?" among other cartoonish TV retreads, while "Gilligan's Island," "The Love Boat" and even "Green Acres" are in the works.

Can big-budget remakes of "Love That Bob," "Mister Ed" and "My Mother the Car" be far behind?

It's revealing that one of the few movie critics who praised "The Flintstones" was Michael Medved, the most vociferous public campaigner for a return to "traditional values" in Hollywood movies.

But while "The Flintstones" indeed lacks vulgar language, sexual display and violence, it is so dehumanized in its icy mercantilism that it ends up turning family entertainment and its traditional values into the enemy for its young mass audience.

You can't blame children for revolting against these cynical recyclings of their parents' juvenile TV fads. The hard sell of Fred Flintstone and his corporate sponsors is so suffocating that the scowling nihilism of "Beavis and Butt-head" easily passes for fresh air.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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