Movies and the Failure of Courage

There is a leadership vacuum in the world today. The same phenomenon that results in our politicians following polls instead of leading public opinion has contributed to the death of the movies.

The Contract with America is a political platform based entirely on opinion polls. Not very long ago, it was a leader's responsibility to select the unpopular but right path, and make the public understand why it was right. Hollywood makes movies the same way, preparing alternate endings, cutting the guts out of a movie based on response cards, changing the endings of famous novels, in its endless quest for a popularity the rules of which it cannot really comprehend.

Comparing film makers to Shakespeare or even to Arthur Miller is a useless endeavor. Shakespeare titled one of his lesser plays As You Like It, as a cynical nod to the audience, a possible recognition it was a potboiler. King Lear and The Tempest were written to his own specification, not the audience's. Arthur Miller did not walk out on stage on the opening night of Death of a Salesman and ask the spectators whether it worked better if Willy Loman lived or died. A Hollywood version of Lear would end with the aged king, restored to sanity, hugging a living Cordelia, while a Hollywood Salesman would end with Willy hugging Bif, after which his co-workers would file in and confess that Willy is not only liked, but well-liked.

I'm not just talking about the Anna Karenina filmed in the thirties with a happy ending, or The Sun Also Rises of the fifties, where Tyrone Power, a moment after uttering Hemingway's famously bitter line, "Isn't it pretty to think so," admits (as Hemingway's protagonist doesn't) that, its not only pretty to think so, it is pretty. I'm talking about The Scarlet Letter with Indian attacks and a happy ending, The Vanishing, American version, with the doomed young man rescued by his girlfriend with the two by four, of movies like Dying Young or Guarding Tess where the people who died in the script don't die on screen because the preview audience found it too depressing.

If people in audiences knew how to make movies, they would probably be making them, not just watching. Just as a cat may be soothed by music without knowing what it is, let alone how to write or play any, most of us respond to art without really understanding why we do. The poignant words, the G minor note dying away, the montage expressing the heroine's regret affect us in large part by their magic. They wouldn't hurt us so much, be able to reach inside us, if their workings were revealed. (This is why narration ruins movies.) If we knew how to produce the effect, it wouldn't move us, any more than a magician's trick which we know how to perform ourselves. But, if we can't create art for ourselves, why would you trust us to create your film for you? As theater audiences, we are smart enough to know that any performance where the players take all their cues from us is a novelty, something that may entertain us once at the Improv but which won't sustain us through ten or fifteen nights of theater a year. Why do you, the makers of films, not know that lesson, and trust us to make your movies for you? Politicians relying on polls are not guaranteed re-election, but have a much stronger chance than moviemakers relying on audience opinion; we may have stopped hungering for leadership, but we will never stop hoping for art, even if we do not call it that.

Ironically, if you want an authorial voice, look to television's hour long dramas these days, not the movies. There is more cinematography, more feeling, less explication, in an episode of NYPD Blue than in most movies these days. Hour long dramas have to be ground out fast; there isn't time to stop and worry about what the audience will think of the episode being filmed. This unselfconsciousness is good. The author is not looking at the audience for approval. He is operating on the serene assumption that, since it feels right to him, it will be right with the audience.

No other popular art form is based on audience feedback. Billy Joel doesn't engage the audience in the creation of a song; he knows better than they do what will work, and trusts himself. When you hear a Billy Joel song--and he is a good artist, not nearly a great one--you know immediately whom you are hearing, not just from his voice but from the urban setting, the youthfulness, the sense of humor, the image of young lovers bursting out of Italian restaurants and roaring away on motorcycles to homes in Bayonne. If you show me ten minutes of a movie I have never heard of by Bunuel, by Truffaut, by Bergman, chances are good I will figure out whose work I am watching. In this country, I may recognize a Woody Allen movie, or something by Terence Malick or Tim Burton. There are no other voices, just interchangeable hacks whose names you don't remember ten minutes after you leave the theater.

Movies are a business and cost too much money to justify any risks. But then you might as well stop making them entirely. No one really wants to see a play, buy a painting, or live in a building designed by opinion poll. A family in an opinion poll play would, I suppose, have 2.7 children. You are the carpenter. Don't ask us how to use your tools. Amaze us instead, and we will give you our applause and a living.