The Funhouse Mirror

Proust said that writing involves holding a mirror up to life. The greatness of the resulting literature has more to do with the quality of the mirror than the life.

Movies, by the nature of the medium and for a number of other reasons, hold a distorting mirror up to life. What's worse, due to the nature of the people who dominate the movie business, they fail to hold a mirror to life at all; they reflect either other movies or a plastic version of life.

Movies as a visual medium, demand excitement and action. Thoughts and ideas must be expressed through action; since only great actors can tell a story through their faces, and only great directors can express complex thoughts and ideas via action without either cheapening or overwhelming them, most movies are a highly debased currency. Movies are used mainly to express only the most obvious and unsubtle ideas, because the medium, in the hands of those who consider themselves its experts, is not up to anything more these days.

Proust's point was that a great mirror, held up to a very ordinary life (which he thought his was) is still great literature. A terrible mirror held up to an extraordinary life is not. As Chandler said, the cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter; the cheaper the literature, the more must seem be at stake to make the story interesting, until you reach the genre in which the fate of civilization is always in the balance, because the author is not fine-fingered enough to manipulate any lesser tool. In an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel, oceans of drama may depend on a letter not sent, or misapprehended; the lowest common denominator of drama today and for the last thirty years is the nuclear weapon in the wrong hands that will detonate if the hero does not triumph.

Because the spectacle must fill the screen first, because by filling the screen it must fill the theater with spectators, and because both the medium and its audience demand constant change, light, sound and fury, we are reduced to seeing only stories that will pass through the eye of a needle. Hollywood, which as part of the general loss of common sense, does not even know when it is making itself ridiculous, has coined a marvellous Newspeak term: "high concept." A "high concept" film is one involving a really ridiculous low comedy idea, like a man turned into a dog, or two morons delivering a brief case full of money to a woman on the opposite coast. "High concept" suggests that Hollywood is no longer comfortable with any movie of which you cannot communicate the full flavor in one sentence: "Like the Wizard of Oz with quadriplegics!" See Robert Altman's scary, funny The Player for a series of these one line pitches.

"High concept" suggests that any movie without a strong slapstick theme, easily expressed, has no concept behind it at all. Proust's Remembrance of Things Past would be considered decidedly low concept; it is a wandering, thirteen hundred page river, as shapeless as life itself. Life itself is boring, complicated, and gives us a headache. An accurate picture--a quality mirror-- won't recoup a fifty million dollar investment; no-one will understand it, no one will want to see it.

Of course, there is a little truth to this. It is the truth discovered by the protagonist of Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, who travelled among the hobos to research a movie to be called "Brother, Where Art Thou?" and who ended up concluding that he could better serve humanity by making people laugh. In Stardust Memories, Woody Allen asks some alien visitors what he can do to improve the world, and the answer is the same: "Tell funnier jokes". But just as we need a variety of foods in our diet, we need a variety of stories; very few of us can watch cartoons all day without feeling a little sick; but our movies these days are all cartoons.

Shakespeare wrote a variety of comedies, tragedies, and histories; today, our comedies are all versions of Dumb and Dumber and our action adventure movies are our tragedies. Thus, the emotional and cathartic spectrum of Hollywood cinema, to borrow an expression, runs from A to B. Producers admittedly are caught in a trap, that sensitive movies, with more complex tones, will still cost a lot but won't sell the tickets to justify themselves; nevertheless, they still try a few every year, looking for that runaway success d'estime, but even these largely fail, because they too are made not from the heart but according to the demographics.

So the economics and the nature of the medium create a distorting mirror. Then, to what kind of life do we hold the mirror? Of the entire range of human experience, Hollywood only knows how to portray two aspects, beginnings and exceptions. Hollywood finds middles boring, and has no idea how to do endings.

All movie romances, whether presented as comedies or dramas, are about beginnings. Man meets woman, loses woman, gets woman, is all about the beginning of a relationship; it is about that completely unrealistic opening gambit, the in-love phase, that Tolstoy portrayed with cruel objectivity in The Kreutzer Sonata and Family Happiness. ("Cruel objectivity" is not an oxymoron; objectivity is cruel when applied to passion.) Tolstoy's point was that being in love and loving are two different things; the first is an illusion, the second, a partnership with sentiment. Many are capable of the first who haven't a clue about the second, including practically all the people who make movies. Therefore, all romantic stories told by Hollywood are about the illusions, and since movies like contrasts--rich/poor is the most notorious, but extrovert/introvert and Jewish/Wasp are two other favorites--they are usually about characters who lack any commonalty of interest to the point that it is impossible to imagine them settling down and living the rest of their lives peacefully together. From that point of view, any story that tells us only how two people met, and leaves out everything they did in their lives afterwards, is really covering only the least interesting ground; giving us only the accident and not the work, as it were. How did you navigate? How did you accomodate? Did there come a moment when you looked in the mirror and said "Is this all I am?" Did you ever feel you married a stranger, and how did you overcome it? Movies don't find these problems interesting.

A large part of the explanation for this must lie in the fact that neither the performers nor the people behind the camera in Hollywood seem to stay married any length of time. Thus, the only life to which they can hold a mirror is a distorted one. In Hollywood films, anyone who has been married ten or fifteen years or more is presented as a grotesque or a laughing-stock. Until a few years ago, there were no roles for older women; even now, they are either lonely failures, like Anne Bancroft in How to Make an American Quilt, or, if married, comic combinations of heart and hatefulness, like the same actress in Home for the Holidays. Hollywood clearly thinks that anyone who stays married is ridiculous. Of course, since there are almost no dignified older women in American movies, it would be almost impossible to show calm or successful marriages. Older men in the movies may radiate authority, but only as lawyers, steely-eyed ex-mercenaries, Presidents, mayors or heads of sniper teams; in the house, they are hen-pecked, drink beer, watch football or old home movies, and fart, demonstrating the general lack of regard Hollywood has for the household and anything that happens in it.

Since the rhythms of daily life are not considered cinematic, Hollywood chooses not to hold a mirror to life but only to its exceptions. It also knows little or nothing about the world of work--Hollywood executives may work hard, but the vocabulary, incidents and tempo of their lives do not resemble ours in the slightest. When movie people try to tell us about their own lives, what we see are mostly epics of self pity or self justification like Alex in Wonderland or Grand Canyon; a dispassionate self-examination like The Player is relatively rare. And even these movies are fantasies or at least are full of fantasy: the unlikely freindship that develops between Danny Glover and Kevin Kline in Grand Canyon and the third-rate Felliniesque cadenzas in Alex in Wonderland are both examples. In Grand Canyon, a couple is permitted to keep and raise a baby the woman found in some bushes while jogging; an impossible result in real life, where the child would be carried away by a wave of bureaucracy, to end up a ward of the state or, at best, of some other couple who had been on a waiting list for years. Yet Grand Canyon was one of the more credible attempts at rueful self examination by a Hollywood auteur in recent years. One could easily conclude that since Hollywood lives are to real life as caricatures are to portraits, movies about Hollywood life will naturally be caricatures, not portraits. The Player worked so well because a caricature was all it aspired to be; the same can be said for the more recent Get Shorty, where a gangster becomes a successful Hollywood producer by applying all the people management and negotiation skills he learned in his first career.

So, since Hollywood does not know our type of work, it is not interested in portraying it or does not know how. You never see anyone working in a job throughout an entire movie, except for police officers, and they usually quit, are fired or are slain in the course of the movie anyway. A very typical work scene in films, frequently introducing a character, is the quasi-violent quitting scene, where the character storms out of the garage or factory before embarking on a life of crime. If a character is to stay on the job for most of the movie, it is usually in order to plot a crime against the employer--robbing the safe or the money train--or, in a small sub-genre, to plot a corporate coup d'etat.

For every Light of Day--a small movie which I thought made an honest attempt to show both the tedium of daily life and the hope of escaping from it through music and recognition--there are dozens of Flashdances where beautiful welders dance at night in seedy clubs (which can nevertheless manage smoke and water effects on stage) and then marry the boss.

Ironically, Hollywood looks for the accident and the exception even when it is dealing with inherently dramatic subject matter. Investigating a mad bomber is exciting in real life; but, in Hollywood, the bomb must be attached to a speeding bus that will detonate if it slows below 50 m.p.h. (probably an example of "high concept" and the result of a one sentence pitch). Trials are real life drama, as we all know, and Hollywood occasionally does an excellent job reflecting them realistically; but all too often, the movies still go for the ridiculous and impossible plot twist, like putting the prosecutor or the judge on the stand to prove a conspiracy, instead of relying on the inherent tension of the material, of real life.

All of which goes to say that Hollywood is not interested in the middles of life--marriage, work, children, owning a home--but in the exceptions--the robbery or murder, the affair and divorce, the abducted child, the fire that burns the home or the psycho who invades it. The effect on us is the same one that Neil Postman identified for t.v. news. Since disaster is entertainment, the net result is to make us jumpier and more hopeless than we already were. Lucky for our survival though not our metal health, the number of real serial killers and mad bombers is dwarfed by the number lurking in our imaginations.

Endings are a special problem for Hollywood, for two reasons. First, movie people are afraid to commit. Perhaps endings are more important in movies than in other art forms; Remembrance of Things Past, after all, is an immense shaggy dog story, ending with a small epiphany--Proust stepping off the pavement and getting shaken up--that mainly recaps the epiphany of the madeleines near the beginning. We may say of a book that it contained great writing but ended weakly; but a movie seems to live or die (or at least is thought to live or die) based on its ending. The result is that movie people know how to fly the plane from one airfield to another, but are afraid to land it. The best that can be said of most Hollywood endings is that they are conventional, but relatively unobtrusive. Home for the Holidays and American Quilt, which share the virtue of being attempts at real stories and are both aimed at women, have the same ending: despite all misunderstandings, the man shows up and everything is to begin after all. Holidays, the better of the two films, has the worse ending: in real life, the man, once rejected in the house, would never have shown up on the plane. Holly Hunter would have been alone at the end, as she was at the beginning. But someone obviously made the decision that in order to sell millions of tickets, a hoky ending would have to be slapped on to a serious movie. One commonly hears that alternate endings were filmed and shown to test audiences (as in the upcoming Julia Roberts version of the Jekyll and Hyde story); of endings being, astonishingly, left on the cutting room floor because too bleak, as in the same actress' Dying Young; or even of the actors being summoned back to the studio to shoot more footage after the test screening.

There is a hilarious portrayal of this in The Player. Tim Robbins is supplanted by an executive whom he predicts will fail because the movie he chooses to bet the studio on has "no second act." It is a dark story about a prosecutor who sends a woman to the gas chamber, then later realizes she is innocent and unsuccessfully campaigns to save her. In the end, she is executed. Though exaggerated and morbid, the idea does have the dark, shapeless quality of real life; it is life, not just this particular idea, that has no second act. Tim Robbins must step back in to rescue the studio; when you see the wildly successful preview, Bruce Willis, as the prosecutor, is taking an axe to the window of the gas chamber, inside which Julia Roberts (again!) is unconscious. When she revives, she asks, "What took you so long?" and he replies, "Traffic was a bitch."

The original Dutch version of The Vanishing was the cruellest, most upsetting movie I have ever seen, but also, one of the most direct. The director set out to examine the mind of a murderer and refuses to titillate the audience with nudity or rape, or to reassure them with any hope. At the end of the movie, you are buried alive along with the protagonist, claustrophobic and numb, thinking about screaming but knowing it will do no good. This movie had an ending that made me go emotionally blank for a few minutes; I had to damp myself down because I could not handle the information from the screen. This is not an effect I welcome or would care to repeat; it was the opposite of a catharsis; but it made for one of the most powerful movies--and movie endings--I have ever seen. Imagine the mental state of the producer who, because The Vanishing was an international success d'estime, wanted to remake it, even getting the original director, but who changed the ending so that the hero is rescued by his girlfriend, brandishing a two by four?

My second point is a related one: not only is Hollywood afraid to commit to endings; Hollywood literally does not know how stories end. This is a remarkable thing, and raises the question of whether there are any true story-tellers in Hollywood. For stories mandate their endings. Not every story-teller works the same way, or proceeds in the same direction; but, whether you know your ending first and design your character around it, or know your character so well that you know where his will and flaws will carry him, you always know how your story ends. History and biography don't give us any reason to think that Homer doubted where Odysseus should end up, that Shakespeare wrestled with the denouement of Hamlet, or that Tolstoy wasn't sure if Anna would throw herself under the train. Though in some cases Hollywood is afraid of the obvious ending--as when Dying Young ended with no-one dying--much of the time it seems to be the case that Hollywood simply does not know how to tie a story up.

Perhaps this is true of other arts as well, which adopt some sort of convention to solve the problem. Shakespeare had rules to help him; all tragedies must end with a death, all comedies with a marriage, and sometimes in fact it is only that choice that distinguishes them (The Tempest would work well as a tragedy if Prospero's brother poisoned the young lovers and then fought Prospero to the death). All rock songs end in concert with a single crashing chord, but on record end with the volume dying away while the song goes on. Mark Twain wrote an essay about endings; he said, when you don't know what to do with a character, you drop him down a well, and he illustrated with a short story where an entire family, one after another, run out into the yard to see the Fourth of July fireworks and fell down a well. Hollywood might consider adopting this approach, to let itself off the hook; it might then discover that the penultimate scene, like Holly Hunter boarding the plane alone in Home for the Holidays, really makes a fine ending, and audiences could then start leaving the theater during the obligatory well scene.

I am still getting mail every week from people who hated my essay on Interview with the Vampire and my followup, Morality and Fantasy. A common thread is, if you impose moral choices on movies, if they are not pure entertainment, then all movies will be The Sound of Music (which I agree was one of the most boring ever made). These readers, many of them women, tell me that they want to see vampires feasting on human beings, that the humilation of women is just part of the story, that my mother must not have raised me properly if I think morality should be communicated anywhere but the home. I anticipate the same objection here: no-one wants to see movies about happily married couples or rewarding work experiences. But this is not my point, and anyway, the dismal failure of most Hollywood movies proves that no-one there really knows what the audience wants to see. If most Hollywood movies that play by the rules I am describing--hold a distorted mirror to a distorted life, avoid middles, show beginnings and exceptions, bungle the endings-- succeeded financially, there would be a good argument against mine; I would have to consider whether I am expecting too much. But audiences, including many people who cannot really articulate it, expect much more than they are getting these days. Just as Woody Allen was advised to "tell funnier jokes" (advice he did not follow) movie-makers would be advised to tell more and better stories.