Friday, August 16, 2013

"American Censorship"

Really?  In the Free Speech Capital of the Universe? 

Free Speech is protected in the Constitution.  In the very first Amendment. Before they got to billeting soldiers in your house.  Even before gun ownership, though it appears that, at least in their heads, some people have rearranged the order.

Free Speech is up there with the Biggies:  Freedom of the Religion, and Freedom of the Press.  (Along with “Freedom of Assembly” which is less of a big deal, unless you’re assembling peacefully and get arrested because the local constabulary says you’re not.  No, he decides retrospectively.  It’s pretty big.)

We’re not talking about Soviet Russia, where if you wrote “The government is really great”, you got a Communist writing prize, but if you wrote “The government is murderous and corrupt”, you got a “Change of Address” to the Gulag.

We’re not talking about some African dictatorship where, if you wrote “The Dictator is a monster”, you had to flee the country to avoid serious reprisals to your person, (though if you wrote, “The Dictator is a fine cook”, you got invited over for a frittata.)

We’re talking about America.  Where you can write or say whatever you want.  A country where no one is above criticism or satirization, or being turned into a less than flattering balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.   

Barring issues of slander, and yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater (when there’s no fire, which I’m not aware happens that often, probably because how many people get their jollies on watching theater patrons fleeing unnecessarily for the exits?), barring those few legally delineated exceptions, the sky, in terms of self-expression, is the limit. 

Writers are free to let their imaginations run wild.  A screenwriter, for example, can craft a movie script about anything that comes to mind.

So how come they don’t? 

How do you know that?

Because I’ve seen the movies.

Overall, American movies are variations on a tightly circumscribed number of issues, the predominant one, as I have frequently mentioned, being,

“Somebody wants something, and they get it.” 

What do they want?  Love. (Every commercial romantic comedy.)  Success in their chosen area of enthusiasm.  (Including ping-pong.)  Self-respect.  (Often reflected in “token” victories, like in The Help, when a mistreated housekeeper puts poo-poo in a cake.)

Unlike movies from other countries – where “slice of life” stories, first of all, get made, and second of all, are not required to be obligatorily upbeat (I have seen two memorable Manchurian movies of this description), America, based on some deeply ingrained cultural imperative, insists on telling stories where everything works out, or at least shows the possibility of working out in the future.  (What is more uplifting than a sequel, guaranteeing the things Americans love best in the world – more?)

In America, very little is taboo in terms of subject matter.

As long as the subject matter is hopeful.

This may just be a personal craziness, or a consequence of being burnt out from being bombarded with the same triumphant story trajectory again and again, but I wonder about all the subtle and nuanced but less than sunshiny stories we have been deprived of the opportunity of seeing, because the writers, resulting from a calculated consideration of the marketplace, or because they are generically in sync with “the can-do American Spirit” decide, of their own volition, not to write them.

The preponderance of movies are wish-fulfilling fantasies – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished I could go outside wearing a flamboyant costume, and if the price for this privilege is saving the Earth from destruction, so be it, I’m more interested in presenting myself in a cape and a mask. 

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence from this cinematic onslaught of nothing we are personally familiar with – specifically the message that the protagonist inevitably wins – leads me at least to the conclusion that my life, as I lead it, is considerably less than successful.

Rather than putting a smile on my face, these movies make me inordinately sad.  A couple of hours of  “ Happily ever after” or “The world cheers your accomplishments”, and its back to “We now return to your regular programming.”  The “regular programming” being an existence no “eye on the prize” screenwriter would ever think of turning into a movie.


Which the recent too-soon demise of The Sopranos James Gandolfini brings to mind, though not necessary in that role, though, on second thought, yes, because of the way he played it. 

But first, a precursor.  

In 1955, there was this movingly human movie called Marty, Patty Chayefsky’s expanded version of a 1953 TV drama he wrote for the Goodyear Television Playhouse.  Both Marty and The Sopranos showcase a less than movie-star handsome regular person whose life is lacking in inner fulfillment, the main difference being that “Marty” was a butcher, and “Tony Soprano” killed people.  But I’d call that cosmetic.  Underneath, they were the same “salt-of-the-earth”, tortured character.

It is worth noting that “Marty” was produced in the early days of television when the medium was just getting started and there were less rules and, more importantly, less competition.  The Sopranos was a cable outlet’s deliberate strategy to stand out from the crowd, their distinguishing slogan being, “It’s Not Television; it’s HBO.   

You could do stuff back then that you cannot do today.  Today’s writers know it, and they don’t even bother trying.  And in time, ideas about what you can’t do don’t even come to mind.  Echoing a recent post, your “Thought Collective” tells you what’s acceptable, and you write it.

It’s an odd thing to lament what you didn’t get to see, because you didn’t get to see it, and you don’t know if you’d have liked it if you did.  Still, it makes me wonder.

Other places make you not write things.  In America, we just don’t.

In a Free Speech situation where the possibilities are endless?

I kinda wish we did.

Wow.  No wonder they don’t write downbeat material.  I got depressed just writing this post.  I think I’m going to lie down. 

1 comment:

Canda said...

Some of Paul Giamatti's films, like WIN WIN, and BARNEY'S VERSION, don't tend to follow the classic American happy ending.

As for THE SOPRANOS, that was a TV series, and an overwrought, overpraised one at that, that depended on the "F" word whenever cleverness escaped the writers, which was often. Excess brutality for brutality's sake is not effective drama.