ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
NEED FOR STRUCTURE, PART TWO
WE ARE OUR OWN WORST ENEMIES
Sept. 1, 1997
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 themselves.
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 appropriate conclusions.
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 without meaning.
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 these days.
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 it.
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 late.
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.