Sept. 1, 1997
The Need for Structure, Part Two:
We Are Our Own Worst Enemies
I was taught in high school
that there are three forms of drama: Man against man, man against nature/society,
man against himself. That was back in the early 1970s before things
were cleansed for PC. Now it would be (and more appropriately,
too): Person against person, person against nature/society, person against
During the 1930s and 1940s,
the heyday of Hollywood, when most of the good movies were made, everyday
life offered not only the drama of a person against him- or herself
but also people against society, in the form of an economic depression,
and people against people, in the form of World War 2. Basically,
no matter where you looked, there was an abundance of drama.
Since most of us are not in
the military awaiting the next war nor are most of us in prison or a
gulag, our main difficulties these days are with ourselves. We
are the problem.
In the 1950s the movie business
began to fall apart. With the looming threat of TV (mainly shot
live in New York at that time), Hollywood, with a predictable lack of
foresight, went into a total panic. Instead of saying TV is just
like movies -- actors saying lines on sets recorded with a camera --
so we'll just make TV shows here in Hollywood, too (which is what ultimately
occurred), the moguls decided that movies should be bigger, longer,
and wider. Thus came the glut of wide-screen, sword-and-sandal
epics. As Darryl Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, told David
Brown, the head of the story department, "I want stories that are
wide, not deep." This from the man who was renowned for bringing
controversial subjects to the screen (gangsters, racism, anti-Semitism,
unsafe factory conditions, etc.). Hollywood movies went into an
intentional intellectual slump from which they have never entirely recovered.
Then all of the old-time movie
moguls lost power and died, or, in some instances, vice versa (Darryl
Zanuck and Jack Warner were both attempting comebacks until the dirt
was shoveled onto their coffins). Panic then ensued. Just
who ran these movie companies anyway?
Miraculously, out of this
confusion and new found freedom came yet another little golden age of
filmmaking: the late 1960s and early 1970s (the worst years of the Vietnam
War as well). From 1967, with The Graduate and Bonnie
and Clyde through 1974, ending with, let's just say, The Godfather
Part Two. In that eight years an astounding number of very
good to great movies were made: Rosemary's Baby, In the Heat of the
Night, Patton, The Godfather, Cabaret, Five Easy Pieces, Midnight Cowboy,
Deliverance, Point Blank, The Conversation, Mean Streets, Wait Until
Dark, Cool Hand Luke, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl, The Producers, A
Lion in Winter, Rachel, Rachel, Faces, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bullitt,
Planet of the Apes, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, True Grit, They
Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, Airport, The
Conformist, M*A*S*H, The Last Picture Show, Women in Love, Frenzy, A
Clockwork Orange, Little Big Man, Woodstock, The French Connection,
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, American Graffiti, The Exorcist,
Cries and Whispers, The Sting, The Last Tango in Paris, The Last Detail,
Serpico, Papillon, Day for Night, Chinatown, Alice Doesn't Live here
Anymore, Blazing Saddles, A Woman Under the Influence, Young Frankenstein,
Amarcord, Hearts and Minds.
That's 57 movies without trying
very hard, and I have no doubt that there are more. Divide that
by 8 years, 1967-74, and that equals 7.125 very good to great movies
came out a year during that period. Better than one every two
months. In retrospect, seven and a third weeks between terrific
films wasn't too long of a wait.
Then there was 1939, Hollywood's
accepted very best year, with I'd say 10 very good to great films released.
Not quite one a month.
In the past 8 years there
hasn't been 5 very good to great films made, nor 5 more in the 8 years
previous to that.
On the other hand, we haven't
had any major economic disasters nor any big wars in the past 20 years,
either. It's a give-and-take situation.
Would you rather have good
movies in a world of economic and military turmoil or bad movies, with
peace and harmony? Although I love good movies, I'd rather have
the latter situation, thus I reluctantly accept this sad state of affairs.
Art reflects a society's state
of mind. Twenty-odd years of peace and unhindered capitalism has
brought us to a state of moronic stupidity; most movies now are completely
idiotic and we're supposed to just accept it. "Oh, it's just
a movie." The joke between a friend of mine and I is that
all film reviews now begin like this, "The story sucked, but it
looked great," or "The story sucked, but the performances
were wonderful," etc.
A local news crew went to
a shopping mall in the San Fernando Valley (Northridge Mall, if I recall
correctly) and put a single question to kids, both male and female,
eighteen-years-old or younger: "In what half-century did the American
Civil War take place?" They said that they did not receive
one single correct answer. The answers they broadcast were along
the lines of: "Whoa, you're kiddin', right?" and "The
1700s?" and just plain old giggling.
It's now perfectly okay to
be a moron. Wanting to be anything other than that is pretentious.
What this all boils down to
is: what's really worth caring about? We are the sum total of
all our decisions. Your character, in other words, is your fate.
The late French filmmaker
Jean Vigo managed to secure himself a place in the great filmmaker's
pantheon with just two feature films: Zero for Conduct and L'Atalante
(plus two documentary shorts). What Jean Vigo managed to do by
the age of thirty-one with two films, I have not done at forty-three
with four films. I'm not lamenting this fact, simply pointing
it out. Had Orson Welles dropped dead after Citizen Kane
and The Magnificent Ambersons, at the age of twenty-six, he would
probably be even more highly regarded than he is today (his numerous
crappy films, character roles in cheap horror movies, and Paul Masson
wine commercials didn't help his later reputation very much).
Then you have the one-book
literary giants like Margaret Mitchell with Gone with the Wind
or Harper Lee with To Kill A Mockingbird, but there sure aren't
many of those. You could toss in Plutarch and Herodotus, who each
have one extant book. From all accounts, it took both of those
men their whole lives to write that one book; and they may have written
others that no longer exist.
Most notable artists created
an entire body of work. There were writers like Edgar Wallace
and Ernest Poole who were very popular and famous in their day (rather
like John Grisham and Norman Mailer today) who are all but forgotten
now. If Mr. Poole is remembered at all, it's for winning the very
first Pulitzer Prize in 1918, whereas Mr. Wallace's one remembered credit
is as co-author of the screenplay for the 1933 version of King Kong.
Most of the well-regarded
filmmakers created bodies of work ranging between 20 and 100 films.
Martin Scorsese has made 15 films, John Ford made over 125. Everybody
else is stuck somewhere in the middle. Scorsese has made 5 very
good to great films in thirty years, Ford made possibly 20 very good
to great films in fifty years.
Most of the filmmakers I know
are all standing in their own ways and they all pretty much know it.
They all have their own various justifications for not doing what it
is they would like to be doing because, in one way or another, it just
doesn't seem to matter.
Well, that's honestly too
bad. Something's got to matter. And the only things that
do matter are the ones that we say matter.
"They are able because
they think they are able," Virgil, from the "Aeneid."
Likewise, they are not
able because they don't care enough to even try. If you say nothing
means anything, then you're absolutely right, nothing does mean anything.
I care to believe that something
does mean something. If nothing else, there is posterity.
Alfred Hitchcock the man is gone, but his 53 films live on. Somewhere
someone in the world is watching a Hitchcock movie at this very moment.
I just watched The Birds again on a Delta business-class flight
on the little video screen in the arm of the seat. The older guy
beside me switched through all ten channels of first-run movies five
times, then settled on The Birds and left it there. A true
testament to Hitchcock's visual storytelling prowess. Even on
a tiny little screen it was more spectacular than everything else.
The 300-pound British man named Alfred Hitchcock is dead, not his movies.
Maybe in a 100 or 200 years
they too will be gone. Maybe it is all for naught. But I
don't care to look at it that way.
I think that people like stories
-- movies, plays, TV shows -- narrative entertainment, because, for
a brief moment at least, there is certainly a God, or the hand of a
creator, if you will. Somebody already knows the outcome of these
characters' fates. They are being led inevitably to their conclusions.
That's what we would like to believe about life, too, isn't it?
That there is a hand of the Creator leading us inevitably toward our
Sadly, we are all skeptical
that this is in fact true. Our guts are gnawed at by the fear
that everything is really just chaos; utterly haphazard, and entirely
To give in to this is to succumb
to the dark side.
In this age of new age-this
and spiritual-that, apathy has been re-termed "contentment."
When a good buddy of mine finally reached the stage in his life, at
the age of 40, where he could pay his bills without a total panic each
month (and very little more than that), he declared that he was "content."
To me, quite frankly, it felt more like resignation. Contentment
and resignation, not the same thing in the slightest, are easily confused
If I could make a feature
film every year or two I believe I would be content, but certainly not
resigned. I would then be striving toward the next level.
One can still be driven and hopeful, yet content.
I used to live across the
hall from two fellows that had just gotten out of the Navy. They
told me endless stories about "skating," which in military
lingo means, "avoiding work." Both of them would hide
under their beds or in a closet or behind a boiler, anything to avoid
drills or work details.
That is how, I believe, most
people view life now; finding a way to skate through it is the big answer.
At least two, possibly three, of my friends feel that they deserve a
medal every month just for paying their bills. The fact that they
don't starve and aren't evicted they obviously consider a triumph.
If these were dumb people I suppose it would be some sort of victory,
but not much of one. For very bright people, this seems to me
more like failure. They are skating through their lives and not
admitting it to themselves. I truly don't think that there are
any awards for who skated best through their own lives. As Mickey
(Burgess Meredith) says to Rocky, "You're nothin' but a cheap leg-breaker
for the mob." Rocky replies, "It's a living."
Mickey exhorts, "It's a waste of life!"
What this all comes down to,
in regard to achievement, is -- what have you got to lose?
Whether you write a book or
sculpt a statue, how can you possibly come out worse afterward?
Perhaps you didn't get to watch as much TV as usual while doing this
work, but you'll subsequently have a new book or a statue (or whatever)
that you didn't have before. It could be David or it could be
a block of marble reduced to dust, either way it was worth it.
Doing anything is better than doing nothing. When
not in the military, skating through life is a sin.
Being a student of history,
I fear the upshot of all this apathy and skating, is another war.
When you become both sufficiently
wealthy and weak-looking, someone is bound to try to take advantage
of you. Sadly, that's the way of the world. The oldest law
that exists in the western world is Hammurabi's first law, "The
strong shall not take advantage of the weak." Well, Hammurabi
wouldn't have gone to the trouble of making it a law if it didn't occur
regularly. In many instances it is really the imagined
strong taking advantage of the presumed weak.
Of course, a new war might
very well bring on better movies, but it's most certainly not worth
Being a student of history
also teaches me that everything moves in cycles. Things go up
and things go down; wars come and wars go; the economy gets better and
the economy gets worse.
America is like Rome before
it was sacked by the Visogoths; instead of watching Christians fed to
the lions, we now watch endless automatic weapon fire and explosions;
either way it's still meaningless death and destruction. The Romans
luxuriated in the comfort of being the greatest, most powerful nation
on Earth, never giving the Visogoths a second thought until it was too
If nothing truly matters,
then it shouldn't really matter if barbarians loot, pillage, and destroy
your world. Why be picky? Then you get to see meaningless
death and destruction up close and you don't even have to bother turning
on your TV. Nothing relieves boredom better than war. If
people can't be convinced of this intellectually, emotionally or spiritually,
then they will ultimately be convinced of it violently.
Then, once again, everywhere
you look there will be drama.