"Stories & Society"
("Pleasantville" and "Enemy of the State")
A society expresses itself through its stories. As Ezra Pound said, "Artists are the antennae of a race." Stories pose what appear to be a dramatic situation of its day and the solution that seems reasonable at that time. A story will seem old-fashioned when we no longer believe in the dramatic situation or its resolution.
Probably the most popular story in Mesopotamia between 3000 BC and 1000 BC was "Gilgamesh," of which there have literally been hundreds of different versions found. ("Gilgamesh" was frequently used as a text in scribe school and students would copy and re-copy the story for practice.) In "Gilgamesh," the king of Ur (it should be noted that in most ancient stories–like the ancient Greek dramas–the lead character had to be royalty or there was seemingly no reason to tell the tale; commoners were not worthy of having stories told about them), and his best friend, Enkidu, have a number of adventures until Enkidu gets killed. Gilgamesh spends the rest of the story trying to find a way to bring his friend back to life, which he cannot do. The point being, as I understand it, when you’re dead you’re dead, even if you’re the king’s best buddy.
A very popular story of early silent films, from 1910 to 1920, was about the man with a starving, ill-clothed family, who goes out to the bar on Friday night, spends his week’s pay on booze, then comes home and beats his wife and children (ah, the good old days). Drinking was obviously on people’s minds and in 1919 came nationwide prohibition.
Prohibition and the desire of illegal booze brought the advent of organized crime and, subsequently, gangster movies.
A popular dramatic situation of the 1930s and 40s was the mother who sacrifices everything for her child, including her good (or bad) name. The author Fannie Hurst made a very respectable living telling this story numerous times, and all of her books were filmed and re-filmed ("Imitation of Life," "Back Street," "Humoresque," etc.). The variations on this story are simply somebody, not necessarily one’s mother, sacrificing everything for someone else. The film that jumps to my mind is "City for Conquest," wherein James Cagney becomes a boxer and loses his eyesight so that his brother (Arthur Kennedy) can become a classical composer. The point being, I think, that a family member or friend can’t do enough to help someone they love escape poverty and achieve their goals. This was during the great depression, or immediately thereafter, and I believe it was reassuring to know that if you did display some sort of ability that with a loved one’s help you could overcome the odds and succeed.
That story seems dated and silly now. When Joan Crawford goes to work in a diner to help her snotty daughter (Ann Blyth) enter society in "Mildred Pierce" it simply seems laughable now, particularly when Ann Blyth finds her mother’s waitress uniform, becomes utterly aghast, goes through the tortures of the damned, then tells Crawford, "You smell of grease!"
By the time I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, if my mother got up and made the kids breakfast it was a big deal. Which is not to say that if her children were starving my mother wouldn’t take a job in a diner, but certainly not so we could have nice clothes to attend rich kids’ parties.
Which finally brings me to my point, or question, as the case may be: What do the stories that are being told today say about our society?
My first contention is that the stories of present-day are sadly lacking in irony. Everything simply is what it is. Good guys and bad guys. Black hats, white hats. Bruce Willis is a cop locked in a building fighting Euro-trash; Harrison Ford is a cop (or the president) locked in somewhere fighting terrorist Euro-trash (generally led by Gary Oldman). A good guy fights a bad guy and ultimately kills him.
In 1935 John Ford made "The Informer" where a guy (Victor McLaglen), in a fit of pique, turns in his wanted friend to the police for money so he can get drunk and show off, and you are actually made to feel bad for this poor son of a bitch.
Staying in 1935-mode for a moment (stick with me here), I just saw "Enemy of the State," which is a cross between Coppola’s "The Conversation" and any of Hitchcock’s wrong-man stories, but with none of the irony or wit of "The Conversation" (it has Gene Hackman instead) or any of Hitchcock’s films. I was immediately put in mind of "The 39 Steps," which was made in 1935 (there is a method to my madness), and has the great moment when Robert Donat tells of the man they are looking for who is missing half of his ring finger, and the man they’re speaking to raises his hand and he is missing half of his ring finger!
Well, "Enemy of the State" hasn’t got anything nearly that good in it. And what’s supposedly "new" about it is its paranoid, you’re-being-watched, "The Conversation" angle, except that "The Conversation" came out in 1974—25 years ago! And this, by the way, is a good Jerry Bruckheimer movie, because it at least makes sense (unlike, say, "The Rock").
But there’s no irony, no wit, and certainly no sense of a greater intelligence lurking behind the mundane situations.
So anyway, I’m down in Florida last week visiting my Mom and my sister (which is how I ended up seeing "Enemy of the State"), and my sister said, "Hey, let’s see a movie," and I said, "OK." The next thing you know we’re walking up a hallway heading toward the theater showing "Pleastantville," and I suddenly remembered seeing a commercial for it and it seemed to be about nothing more than switching back and forth from between black & white and color, and suddenly I felt trapped. I said, as we passed the various other theaters along the hallway, "Hey, how about ‘Enemy of the State’ or ‘Celebrity’ or ‘The Rugrats Movie’?" But no, to my chagrin momentum carried us along and we saw "Pleasantville."
It’s not that a story like "Pleasantville"– two kids get stuck in an old TV show – inherently can’t be good (although I can’t think of a positive example), but since it is a severely whimsical premise, it is then incumbent upon this sort of story to be a metaphor for a bigger point. Since, sadly, "Pleasantville" is not a metaphor for a bigger point, what you end up with is a full-length act one.
All right, what if these two kids get caught in an old TV show? Yeah, then what? Then nothing, that’s it. And since there never was a show called "Pleasantville," we the viewers have no idea what world these two kids are trying to fit into.
As act one drags on interminably, people and objects randomly metamorphose into color for no apparent reason. Is it because they are now hip, or understanding, or see life in color, or have finally done a good deed, or finally had an orgasm, or all of the above? No clue. It’s only about the optical effect of having black & white and color mixed. It’s the feature version of the commercial where the black & white person dumps two yellow pills in their hand.
Although I have not seen "The Truman Show," I have it on good authority that it is another example of this same problem—an act one leading nowhere—as is Woody Allen’s "The Purple Rose of Cairo." What these all are, in essence, are the beginnings of run-of-the-mill "Twilight Zone" ideas without the endings.
So what does it tell us about our society if our stories no longer make sense and don’t even function as stories? I ascribe it to apathy and laziness—with a big dollop of paranoia dumped in. "What’s the difference, I can’t be bothered," you say. "Beside, they won’t let me."
I’ve got news for you—they is you. There’s nobody out there watching you or stopping you from doing anything. You won’t let you because you can’t be bothered.
And then you end up as an enemy of the state in Pleasantville.
Dec. 5, 1998