In Cinema veritas
“It was like a scene out of a movie.”
Everybody who saw September’s* Grand-Guignol show has voiced or thought some variation of those words.
Of course it was. Our films reflect us. On that day they finally showed us the moral ambiguity and crippled ethics of a divided planet, too far along the road of selfishness and narrow-mindedness.
The relation between cinema and reality did not change after September 11*. The two have always driven, pushed and challenged each other.
As an example, in the last quarter of the 20th century it became increasingly inconceivable for many people to support the continuation of the nuclear arms race, and increasingly obvious just how suitable the acronym for Mutually Assured Destruction was. Can we seriously claim that the apocalyptic scenarios of cinema’s Dr. Strangelove or Fail-Safe or Mad Max 2 or The Day After or Testament or The Terminator or Edge of Darkness had no effect on this attitude?
What has changed is our perception of this relationship, now is the time to examine exactly what we demand of our entertainment and what it asks of us.
Wheat from the chaff
I love cinema, I will watch anything, and I am the first to admit that 99 out of 100 films are a waste of time. This percentage is no better or worse than any other art form’s. But I know that while 99 out of 100 war movies are ridiculous, 1 in 100 will make veterans weep. While most police procedurals are foolish, 1 in 100 will give a forensic expert the shivers. While most romances are inane, 1 in 100 will make the most committed misanthrope smile.
Cinema is equally lax in its portrayal of complex political situations, whether it is ignoring last century’s Middle East shame, spit polishing the Second World War, or totally misrepresenting the distant days of the Roman Empire. Now and again, not often, it shows us moments of rare truth (as distinct from reality which has no place in certain truths).
Film will not change in the future; truth and beauty will continue to be equally rare.
A single bag of money is stronger than two bags of truth
Western cinema’s much-publicised thoughtfulness regarding the vetting of upcoming releases to avoid offending those affected by the events of September* has been widely praised. Many have cited this new mood as proof of an emerging empathy and maturity on the part of Hollywood and her foreign cousins. Unfortunately this confuses circumspect (or gutless) protection of market share and fear of censure with genuine sensitivity.
Rather than compassion, this is actually a further example of Western cinema avoiding real analysis of terrible events until they are well and truly in the past. The first (and least) Vietnam film was the shallow, jingoistic totally one-sided The Green Berets (John Wayne & Ray Kellogg, 1968); it was several years before anyone even attempted to make sense of that conflict on celluloid.
Whether we believe film should be purely entertainment or not is beside the point. Because much of cinema aspires to greatness (as art, commerce and craft), many films attempt to deal with issues. In reality, they rarely delve deeper than a brief glance past easily digestible issues that affect cinema’s primary consumer; the First World’s middle class. Market forces dictate that you not offend the largest portion of a potential consumer base. The potential consumer base for the majority of film distributors is everyone with the money for a ticket. And that’s why it’s impossible for the vast majority of films to deal with complex issues in a significant way. When you think about it, it’s amazing any movies get made at all.
Any serious, mature, empathic approach to the events surrounding September 11* would certainly offer a lot of potential offence. I fear that when film crawls out of its hidey-hole and attempts to deal with this episode, it is almost a certainty that the only questions we’ll ask are “how could we have won?” A small portion of films will turn the events into an adversarial situation to be exploited and resolved in three easy to digest acts. The rest of the vast majority will continue to ignore reality and instead present escapist fantasy. I love escapist fantasy the way I love chocolate: not all the time.
Ironically, savagely, this “leave it on the tree to ripen” approach was a contributing factor in bringing us to the crossroads of September 2001*.
Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die
Cinema is society’s shadow. Our society spends much of its time using material luxury in the belief that it will fill the void left by the absence of the fundamentals that we truly need. The Close-Up of our society is a convict at meal-time, hunched over his plate. His arms are around his food, protecting it and drawing attention to it at the same time. He glares at people off-screen from under lowered brows.
How can we be surprised when events took the turn they did? How dare our global village profess to be a place in which all can prosper (while our cinema shows details of unattainable lifestyles)? How dare we play impartial global rent-a-cops (while our films make it easy to tell the bad-guy: he’s Arabic or Jewish or Black or White or Rich or Poor or Female or Male, or Everyone)? How dare 5% of us live in wealth while the 95% that make this possible stand on the sidelines (while our film is a medium for the masses made by a tiny elite)? How dare we have the gall to cry foul when other’s cries have fallen on our deaf ears? Sowing selfishness reaps selfishness and there are few acts more lacking in empathy than crashing a plane full of blameless people into a building full of innocents.
While consideration for the feelings of New Yorkers is admirable, why is it now offensive to show a helicopter hanging between the twin towers from Spiderman’s web? If the same shot involved the Empire State Building, it would be acceptable. And yet it would still portray the film’s hero (not just a protagonist in this case), as a vigilante, apprehending alleged criminals with reckless disregard for due process and the safety of everyone involved (including innocent bystanders).
In the past, few of us cared about the impact our films had. If our cinema had shown more of the depth and truth in those it portrayed, then the audiences it reached might have cared more. Perhaps even enough to ensure they treated each other as human beings rather than ciphers to be dealt with.
Why is now the time to stop making terrorist-based pieces like Die Hard? Surely it would have been better to stop making them before all the xenophobic, self-involved films that have used terrorism (or any violence) as a cheap dramatic turning point. However, before it was fun for us…now it’s not. What we forget is that there were always people for whom it wasn’t fun. It rarely occurred to us that films like The Siege or The Devil’s Own or Rambo or Rising Sun might not have been fun for Arabs or Irish or Vietnamese or Japanese. We also rarely cared that we never attempted any perspective but our own, never analysed our own impact on the world, only that of the world on us.
I think we should all have been offended by some of the delayed or cancelled films, like Collateral Damage (Schwarzenegger’s firefighter takes on “evil foes of democracy™”) or Jackie Chan’s next project (window washer takes on “evil foes of democracy™”) even before September. Back when it was okay to make shallow, politically slanted films that use terrorists as bad guys the way Indians were used in westerns; never examining their motivations or the events that might lead them to consider it reasonable to hate an entire nation.
Cinema has exactly the same responsibilities it had before: to reflect, to provoke debate, to stimulate thought and to support the human spirit.
Humanity’s greatest achievements come from pain. No-one who is fully satisfied, spiritually enriched and happy with the world around them wakes up in the morning with a burning desire to create something that will speak to people. The cliché of the tortured creator is ubiquitous because it’s true.
In the wake of this new pain, I hope western filmmakers will make movies that ask how one half of the world comes to hate the other half. Or movies that ask how a man can be so alienated that he believes a valid solution to his people’s problems is to hijack a plane and crash it into a building under the orders of a sociopath who sits safely thousands of miles away?
I hope that we make movies that encourage people to work towards a world in which there is always a better option than terrorism. To ensure that there is never any reason for the downtrodden, the marginalized, the selfish or the just plain crazed to take terrible actions.
I fear that we won’t. Of course, no matter what there will always be the 1 in 100 that ignores the rules and does something worthwhile; offers that rare truth
It is the responsibility of filmmakers to aspire to be the 1 in 100 and the responsibility of the audience to seek out that 1 in 100.
* * *
*Any semi-competent participant in society will understand that referring to the events in terms of a single date is problematic. I’m using this terminology for the sake of brevity.