You gotta wonder, in our pimply-faced, iCarly-ed, CGI-stoned, giant-fucking-robots-&-superheroes teenage CandyLand, where the millions of dollars “young adults” somehow obtain to spend on everything overrule the rest of us and Hollywood movies rarely get made if they do not beg for a pubertal audience, what the deal is with George Clooney. Just skill, intelligence, good looks and the lust factor of middle-aged filmgoing women can’t fully explain his power and prominence. His movies, good or bad (mostly pretty damned good), coming usually two per year, are always aimed at educated, discriminating adults, a chunk of society normally as valuable to Hollywood as Papuan cannibals.
“The American” provides a clue, or rather, I should say, “The American”‘s ad art does — the composition and graphics are deliberately retro, deliberately 40 years out of date, evoking more acutely the posters for “The Quiller Memorandum” or “The Mackintosh Man” than any film made this millennium. But it’s not a marketing designer’s inspired fluke — it fits Clooney’s entire persona like a silk suit, because Clooney is not Of the Present but a deft, carefully engineered manifestation of the ultracool past. There’s nobody else that does this; he is our only retro-icon movie star, a vital cultural presence strangely and exhilaratingly connected to yesteryear.
Nostalgia is a dirty word, for good sociopolitical reasons, but it’s also a pleasure. For one thing, the past is beautiful. History is beautiful. Michael Chabon, admitting in an essay in “Maps and Legends” to suffering “intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before I was born,” makes a concise claim toward the impulse’s reevaluation:
The mass synthesis, marketing, and distribution of versions and simulacra of an artificial past over the last thirty years or so, has ruined the reputation and driven a fatal stake through the heart of nostalgia. Those of us who cannot make it from one end of a street to another without being momentarily upended by some fragment of outmoded typography, curve of chrome fender or whiff of lavender hair oil from the pate of a semiretired neighbor are compelled by the disrepute into which nostalgia has fallen to mourn secretly the passing of a million marvelous quotidian things.
I’d be as happy as the next guy to blame the situation on rampaging commodification, as Chabon does, though I suspect a good many cultural pressures are responsible collectively. Whatever — if you belong to this tribe, Chabon provides you with an anthem in the next paragraph:
We are not, as our critics would claim, necessarily convinced that things were once better than they are now, nor that we ourselves our parents, or our grandparents were happier ‘back then.’ We are simply like those savants in the Borges story who stumble upon certain objects and totems that turn out to be the random emanations and proofs of existence of Tlon. The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one.
Here, here. George Clooney would probably agree, because his career choices have routinely harbored forgotten DNA in them: the neo-Sinatra heist films, the menopausal dramas (so popular in the American New Wave), the love of old time broadcasting, the history-drenched political voyages, even rash experiments like Soderbergh’s “The Good German” and Clooney’s own “Leatherheads,” both of them misdirected attempts at literally reincarnating Golden Age genres. I’d even suggest that the Coen films Clooney’s starred in are closer in spirit to the Peter Sellers films of the Johnson-Nixon years than contemporary comedies. But the way Clooney is marketed and framed, even for films not inherently nostalgic, still recalls the day and age when Clooney was a boy hanging with his dad in Midwestern TV station newsrooms.
There are two factors at work, and one is simply the seductive power of nostalgia in general, which I’m surprised is not more prevalent now. (Think about it: nostalgia for the previous decade or two was a rampaging cultural blight ever since “Happy Days,” but right now we seem only interested in the next five minutes. Meaning, frankly, that I am a little nostalgic for when nostalgia was cool and ubiquitous.)
But there’s also this, on behalf of Clooney’s audience: he’s a man. There’s no mistaking him for a cute-teen-idol-turned-baby-faced-semi-adult, a la the Depps and DiCaprios and Pitts of the world. This is something remarkable in and of itself these days, now that Harrison Ford has aged out, and most leading men otherwise seem like earnest, protein-shake-swilling lacrosse players. This is not how it used to be: going back to the ’30s, movie stars always seemed like fully grown, savvy, experienced adults, even when they were in their 20s.
No one then or now would confuse Clark Gable or Cary Grant or Humphrey Bogart for post-teen hunks, and neither would we, come the ’60s and ’70s, wonder when Steve McQueen or Sean Connery or Charles Bronson were going to start playing believable adults. Things began to change quickly with Star Wars and the Reagan Administration, two successive forms of cultural infantilization — suddenly, adolescence was the new adulthood, and movie stars who would resemble teenagers deep into their 40s gained eminence.
Clooney is a throwback in this way most of all, to the bulk of the 20th century and movie history, to the days when male movie stars had lines in their faces and needed to shave every day. Over three-quarters of Americans are old enough to legally buy whiskey, and Clooney is for us, the undertargeted majority who do not spend days playing “Halo,” do not read graphic novels regularly, and do not know or care to know who Ke$ha is. At least for now (Clooney will be 50 next year), he’s the one-man living proof in theaters that the world is not owned by tenth-graders.