Monday, January 10, 2011

"A Principle With A Punch"

I have frequently mentioned what I believe to be the dominant theme of American movies. 

“Somebody wants something, and they get it.”

I suspect these cinematic happy endings have contributed greatly to our immigration explosion. 

“In America,” American movies tell them, “everyone gets what they want.  That almost never happens in Latvia.  Let’s go there!”

And do what, be in movies?  Real life is real life.  It’s not really the same.  Oh, well.  Let ‘em enjoy the illusion on their way over.  What would it hurt?

There is also, I have noticed, another prevailing movie theme, a story arc found repeatedly in action pictures, though I can only reference the older ones, as the escalating levels of violence have kept me away from such pictures pretty much since the late sixties.

Action pictures of the past, however, followed a familiar trajectory:

“A man doesn’t want to fight…and then he fights.”

Three examples:

Sergeant York (1941).  Having found God, a Tennessee sharecropper applies for exemption from service in World War I on the grounds that he’s a Conscientious Objector.  His request having been denied, York goes into combat and becomes the most decorated soldier in the war, this acknowledgment due, at least partially, to the fact that he mowed down an enormous number of people.

Straw Dogs (1971).  A mild-mannered mathematician.  Prototypical liberal; wouldn’t hurt a fly.  Hooligans attack his wife.  He slaughters every one of them.

Friendly Persuasion (1956).  The guy’s a Quaker.  The Civil War’s imperiling his family.  He gets his gun, and he’s out the door. 

These movies – and I imagine others as well – adhering to the same structural template: 

“I don’t want any trouble”, they get pushed too far, they have their “Popeye Moment”,

“That’s all I can stands.  I can’t stands no more”,

And then they go off! 

They fight like Popeye too.  They’re really good at it.

That’s the tradition – nice people, going all Rambo.  And this doesn’t just happen in old movies.  Saving Private Ryan (1998).  (I didn’t see the whole thing, but I know about it from cable glances.) 

There’s fierce fighting in Europe.  And who’s heading up the platoon? 

Tom Hanks. 

The nicest man in movies.  Maybe in America, total.  Tom Hanks reads bedtime stories to his children.  Tom Hanks doesn’t shoot people.

Unless you push him too far.

So they’re still doing it.  Americans, these movies are saying, are a peace-loving people.  But there’s a limit. 

And then we bomb cities. 

There was a backlash to this civilized depiction, exemplified most famously by Dirty Harry (1971).  “Dirty” Harry enjoyed shooting people.  His provocation?  Other people who reminded him of the people he was shooting.  “Dirty” Harry didn’t make individual distinctions.  He shot categories of people. 

The “amoral” action picture?  I believe they’re still with us.

The contrast in these two approaches gets me wondering which genre is really the most honest – “I don’t want to fight” and then you do, or “Hasta la vista, Baby”?  Both end up at the same place – mayhem – but with differing messages.  

One genre says, “We’re civilized people, but don’t underestimate our willingness to assert ourselves physically when necessary.”  The other says, “We’re animals, and we don’t pretend that we’re not.”

As you’ll notice, not fighting at all is not an option.

Obviously, there’s an “Entertainment Factor” involved here.  You pay good money to see a movie, the story builds to an inevitable confrontation… the two sides go to arbitration, and they settle things amicably.

“I’d like my money back, please.”

You can’t do that in a movie.  Except maybe in Tibet.  Om Producutions.  The audience conditioned to a different type of surprise. 

“They’re boxed in.  They have to fight.  I can’t see any way around it…oh, look!  They made up at the last minute!  Hooray!”

That wouldn’t work here.

Box office poison.

“How was the movie?”

“They were building to a fight, and then they didn’t.”

Not an option.  But not strictly because of a movie convention.  The movie convention is a consequence, resulting from cultural, if not visceral (except for Tibet), expectation. 

Call it “Practicality 101.” 

In Best of the West, Sam Best, the Good Guy, is drawn into a gunfight with the Calico Kid.  Attempting to get out of it, Sam appeals to the Kid’s sense of decency and fair play:

“I’m unarmed.  And shooting an unarmed man won’t be good for your reputation.”

The Kid replies,

“That is my reputation.”

So that appeal doesn’t work.  A bystander then hands Best a pistol.  Objecting, Sam proclaims,

“I don’t want to shoot at this man.”

To which the bystander replies – underlining pacifism’s fundamental drawback:

“Suit yourself.  But he sure as hell’s gonna be shootin’ at you.”

It’s a real life conundrum – you can surrender your principles.  Or you can be shot down like a dog.  In show biz, it’s easier.

Simply give the people what they want.

“A man doesn’t want to fight…(so we’ll feel good about ourselves)

…And then he fights.”  (So we’ll feel even better about ourselves.)

I’ll bet you could still sell that today. 

1 comment:

Max Clarke said...

Good ideas about the DNA of American movies.

Take a look also at the use of Joseph Campbell's "Power Of Myth" approach to screenwriting. Chris Vogler is the name most associated with it, "mythic storytelling" for motion pictures.

It's relevant to your idea of the man who doesn't want to fight and then fights. In the Joe Campbell/Chris Vogler approach, the hero is called to some action, but he hangs up the phone. That's "refusal of the call." Very quickly, though, he is thrown into a situation which requires him to answer the call and embark on his journey. Good example is Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie.

The line from the Kid, "That is my reputation," terrific.