Monday, January 26, 2015

"Speaking About Having It Both Ways..."

Which I did not too long ago about “movies based on actual events”…

This, however, is a different form of “having it both ways”, one providing a distinct, and often surprising, strategic advantage. 

Wanna hear about it?  Great!

Let me see now.  Should I start with the more recent example, injecting contemporary currency into the undertaking and then work backwards?  Or should I start where the phenomenon originally came to my attention and proceed forward?
Flip a coin?  Okay.  I’ll be right back.  I need to find a coin.


Okay.  I flipped the coin, and its determination is that I work forward.  In the interim, however, I have decided to do the opposite.  I am sorry I wasted your time.  I just could not allow a flipped quarter to determine my writing strategy.

Okay, so here we go.

The surprising commercial success of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper – which broke box-office records during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Weekend – a film whose title alone should have repelled the female contingent of the audience but did not, catching even its financial backers off guard –

“These are the moments in your business where you don’t see these things coming; they are certainly few and far between.” – Dan Fellman, Warner Bros, head of domestic distribution – 

exemplifies how a “Killing Machine” movie with an injection of moral ambiguity can appeal to the entire range of the moviegoing spectrum.

American Sniper caught heat for having it both ways – depicting the violent sniper activity on the one hand, while showing the personal damage the sniper’s actions inflicts on himself and his family on the other.
Although offending the purists on both sides – 
“Glamorizing violence is always unacceptable.” 
“Violence in the service of country need never be apologized for.” 
the majority of the audience departed the theater believing that the movie represented and supported their own personal (in reality, entirely disparate) beliefs. 
Which is a neat trick.  And an assured moneymaker.
This phenomenon may be a product more of artistic ambivalence than of commercial calculation.  Responding to the criticism, Eastwood admitted, “I’ve been on the left and on the right in my lifetime.  Now I don’t know where I am.”
The approach may not be deliberate.  But it unquestionably works.
The first time I saw the “having it both ways” arrangement succeed was with the TV megahit, All in the Family (1971-79).
Adapted from the successful British situation comedy Till Death Us Do Part, All in the Family comedically debated the “hot button” – from racism to Women’s Lib – issues of the day, spearheaded on the Right, by Archie Bunker and on the Left, by his live-in liberal son-in-law, Mike Stivik. 
(The arguments were ostensibly balanced, but there may be a glimpse into the creators’ bias when they insert the word “bunk” into the name of one of the adversaries.)
As with American Sniper, All in the Family delivers an ideological “Rorschach Test”, each segment of the audience believing the series to be in sync with their personal perspective.  The show’s co-creator Norman Lear is committed liberal.  But if his personal “Mission Plan” was persuasion and conversion, these intentions were entirely overlooked by a substantial (arguably, the majority) portion of the audience, as exemplified by my grandfather, whose undiminished enthusiasm for what Lear would call the “mistaken perspective” was transparent in his referring to the long-running series as “Archie.”
“Did you see ‘Archie’ last night?  That guy knows what he’s talking about!”
A single program, showcasing opposing beliefs.  Everyone watches, and All in the Family, successful in every imaginable manner, has it both ways.   
Bonus Tidbit:
Historical Counterpart:  (overheard on some NPR broadcast).
When the delegates left the Constitutional Convention, though many retained opposing views on significant issues, due to the cleverness of the Framers, they departed confidently believing they had gotten what they had wanted and that they could therefore recommend the constitution to their constituents. 
“We got ‘States Rights.’”
“They just think they do.”
The constitution was ratified, and we became a country.  Which would never have happened if that hallowed document’s careful wording had not deliberately had it both ways.
So it is not always a bad thing.
Unless you think we should not have become a country. 


JED said...

I'm reading a fascinating book entitled You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney that points out how we delude ourselves (and are deluded by others) into thinking we are unbiased and fair in our judgements. But what we end up doing is either searching for things to read and watch that verify our existing beliefs or, as is the case with American Sniper and All in the Family, interpreting things so that they match our biases.

None of this is absolute, of course. We do get things right a lot of the time and we do change our minds from time to time. But this wonderful book points out the times when we are likely to misinterpret things and it helps you see when you may be prone to being tricked.

Canda said...

ALL IN THE FAMILY is still remarkable for having a lead that the creators created to make fun of.

Carroll O'Conner's acting brought much depth and sympathy to the role, and that is why many Americans related to him.

In fairness, the writers did make Rob Reiner's character often unbearable and obstreperous, and this helped balance things.

John-john said...

We've been over this a time or two, so here's some interesting bits of trivia regarding AITF:

Norman Lear's father used to call him Meathead when he was a child, and Lear gave that "nickname" to Mike Stivic.

Gavin MacLeod read for the part of Archie, but did so reluctantly. Macleod was personally opposed to bigotry of all kinds, and felt the subject matter was inappropriate in a comedic format. MacLeod also said at the time of his audition, he knew that Norman Lear had always been set on casting Carroll O'Connor for the role.

The role of Mike Stivic was offered to Harrison Ford who turned down the part because he felt Archie Bunker's bigotry was too offensive.