The Foul Shop: Literature and Movies

In Hollywood vs. America, film critic Michael Medved criticizes the excessive violence and sadism of Hollywood movies, their sensationalism and one-up-manship, and the contempt they exhibit for marriage and the family. I was reading along sympathetically, agreeing with most of his insights, when Medved took a corner so quickly, so to speak, that I was thrown from the carriage.

In the course of illustrating each of his points, Medved savagely criticized several films which I happen to believe are among the best made in recent years for their art and their treatment of serious themes. Medved apparently hated At Play in the Fields of the Lord because it was cynical about religion, Ironweed because it showed a hopeless alcoholic, and Salvador because of the way it portrayed American foreign policy towards Latin America. It dawned on me as I read that Medved does not want the movies to aspire to being a visual form of literature; instead, he wants them to be popular entertainment communicating strong American values.

At Play and Ironweed are both based on serious and successful novels typically found in the "Classics" or "Literature" rather than the "Fiction" section of your bookstore. Both were directed by Brazilian director Hector Babenco, who first came to public attention with Pixote, about a street kid and one of the best but bleakest films released here in the 1970's. (Pixote dies at the end of the movie and he street kid who played him was actually killed by the police after making the movie, if I remember correctly.) Babenco picked both of these novels for his two later American movies presumably in part because they were consistent with his own dark outlook. At Play dramatizes the destruction of a Latin American Indian tribe by a group of mostly well-meaning missionaries, and Ironweed is an extremely somber portrait of an alcoholic who has hit rock bottom. The movies are very different from each other, however, in their endings. At Play ends hopelessly, with the murder of the most likeable and sincere of the missionaries, while everything falls apart around him. Ironweed ends with a hint of redemption and a possible return to sobriety and family life for its protagonist.

If you were to graph both movies, At Play would follow the classical pattern of Shakespearean tragedy, with an illusory rise in the first act followed by a slow fall, and death in the last act. Ironweed graphs more like La Strada: an uninterrupted decline with an uptick in the last moments. Both stories are very satisfying, with the cathartic effect first described by Aristotle in the Poetics. Medved seems to hate them both because they hold up a mirror to the dark side of life.

Salvador, an early effort of Oliver Stone, is not quite on the same level, but is a film of advocacy done with tremendous energy and flair--the best of Stone's movies, in my opinion. He uses an American journalist in El Salvador, played by James Woods, as his "lens" to portray the bloody events of the '70's and early '80's, including the rape and murder of four American churchwomen and the assassination of Archbishop Romero. Medved includes Salvador in a list of movies which give a dishonest portrayal of U.S. foreign policy; but in fact the disgusting facts of U.S. intervention in El Salvador are quite well known and Stone (who went off into space in J.F.K.) sticks quite faithfully to them.

Reading his book, I found myself wondering what his take on Zola or Balzac would have been if he had been a French critic of the 19th century. I am certain Medved would have reviled them for telling such ugly, veristic stories. A plot Balzac used over and over can be described as follows: 1. A victim is identified, typically a man out of his milieu; he may be a countryman trying to survive in the city or someone who has risen beyond his origins. 2. The sharks begin to circle and a plan begins to form to pluck this innocent of everything he has. 3. A chorus of cynical opportunists gathers to enjoy and comment on the spectacle of the innocent's destruction. 4. A more noble or energetic character intervenes to try and save the innocent, either because it is the right thing to do or because he is a lawyer who has been hired to do so. 5. The innocent, aided by the intervenor, resorts to the courts and to politicians to try and save himself; but a series of set pieces illustrate the hopeless corruption of the system, where the good will of a few is overwhelmed by the venality or violence of the dark forces now gathering momentum. 6. The intervenor fails, though his own social standing is unaffected. 7. The innocent is destroyed. 8. Sometimes (not always) the intervenor manages to damage or destroy one or more of the sharks, though he has failed to save the innocent.

Many of Zola's stories are rather similar--La Curee, as I recall, had the classic Balzac structure. Zola, being more of a social scientist, however, was concerned to marshall as many facts as possible into a structure that is sometimes overwhelmed by the weight of the information he wishes it to carry; a good example is La Bete Humaine, where every single character has murdered someone at one time or another, and Zola's desire to illustrate every conceivable type of murderer unhinges a narrative which must bring them all together. Since Zola's all-encompassing theme in the twenty-novel Rougon-Macquart series was to portray the ravages of heredity, an inherited flaw--lasciviousness, greed, passivity or a tendency to alcoholism--must pop up again and again to destroy his characters. Zola would have agreed with Gibbon that history is the record of human folly and misfortune; witness the progression from L'Assommoir, where an entire family is brutally destroyed by alcoholism and only the young daughter survives, to Nana, where the same girl grows up to be a famous courtesan until her life is ended by a horribly disfiguring sexual disease.

Zola may possibly have been responding to the Medveds of his time when he interspersed a few more romantic and optimistic stories in among the grim ones. Given titles like Une page d'amour, these novels were airy, unrealistic and noncommital; one was overtly presented as a fairy tale, possibly because Zola did not know how else to portray romantic love. One senses that in writing them, he was in a hurry to get on to the next book, in which he could portray a dying woman and her lover freezing in the cold water of a collapsed mine, while her slain ex-lover floats nearby (Germinal). Neither Zola or Balzac, as far as I know, attempted a novel about colonialism, but had they done so, the results might have resembled At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Salvador. Ironweed bears a powerful resemblance to L'Assommoir. More so than Balzac, who held a mirror up to the society he knew, Zola engaged in journalistic research, interviewing miners before writing Germinal, for example. His work, like Stone's, often seems to be a super-charged collection of faits divers. Natural Born Killers has something in common with La Bete Humaine, notably the theme that everyone is a murderer.

McLuhan comments that the movies began in the journalistic novel: "The realistic novel, that arose with the newspaper form of communal cross-section and human-interest coverage in the eighteenth century, was a complete anticipation of film form." For this reason, whenever we can overcome our distaste for period drama, we make the discovery that the works of Balzac and Zola are eminently cinematic: Colonel Chabert and Germinal, both featuring that most nineteenth-century of actors, Gerard Depardieu, are two recent examples. Chabert is a bit of a variation on the Balzacian theme; its hero was plucked while he was thought to be dead, then shows up again, whereupon the usual dark forces line themselves up to make sure that he stays plucked and presumed dead.

In 1873, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded and the infamous Anthony Comstock became its first enforcer. He was instrumental in banning novels of Balzac and Zola in this country, because of their perceived indecency. Although Medved stops short of ever advocating government censorship, he resonates sympathetically with Comstock in his belief that the public deserves to be protected from dark literature.

Medved might be shocked by such a characterization, and would argue that movies, like pop songs and television, cannot be regarded the same way as books, because they are "pervasive" and our children (sad to say) are more exposed to them. But our Supreme Court rejected this argument in 1953 when it held a government-enforced movie licensing scheme to be unconstitutional. In fact, dark, depressing, hopeless literature and grim movies share both their origins and their effect upon us.

As I said in Movies, Laundry, Same Thing, the safest ground for making distinctions is on the honesty of the process--or, once again, what Proust called "the quality of the mirror." A great novel is a high quality mirror, as is a great movie. It would be futile to say that literature never manipulates; it does it so well you do not see the strings. Great movies are literature, no matter how dark the theme, and similarly conceal the strings.

Medved complains about the perception that critics should only judge the construction of a movie, not its values, and frequently acknowledges that movies he is bitterly criticizing are well-made. Then, going completely overboard, he complains that the art of the last three hundred years has largely organized itself around the overthrow of conventional mores. He dusts off the old saw about Michelangelo, Dante and Shakespeare praising, not criticizing, the governments they lived under.

Medved is so far off base here that replying to him is rather like arguing with someone who claims the Earth is flat. For large stretches of antiquity, plays of Aristophanes and other playwrights were not permitted to be performed because of their indecency. Socrates held a mirror up to the citizenry of Athens who, not too pleased with what they saw, killed him as a result. Shakespeare created dark tapestries of human desire and greed that were likely politically safe only because he adopted myths, or the men of distant times, as his subjects. When parliament issued an order decreeing the licensing of books and printing presses, John Milton wrote his famous Areopagitica in opposition. Honest art will always try to puncture hypocrisy, and frequently introduces a new way of seeing by subverting existing values. Medved leaves one feeling that he understands everything about right wing politics and nothing about movies.

A study of the lives of most artists yields the impression that the imperfection of the life contributes to the perfection of the art. The late science fiction novelist Philip K. Dick provides a footnote to the inadequate American literary canon; he wrote a lot of trash, and two or three novels which burst the limits of the genre and stand as fine, hallucinatory, American novels. In Dick's work, the relationship betwen the drugs, the dissolution, the self-destructiveness and the beauty of the vision, is unusually direct. As he revealed in A Scanner Darkly, Dick knew he had destroyed himself. But the novel, like La Strada and Ironweed, ends with a tiny tick of redemption. In Dick's novels, the protagonists always, and persuasively, rise above death. Love, or its possibility, leads them to be better than they are. Love transcends horror, hallucination and ashes and creates beauty. Yet Dick in real life was paranoid, chaotic and destructive to the people around him. He did not want to be. His novels are his personal vision of the horror and his statement of the possible. The last-minute, vestigial nobility of Dick's characters represents what he himself wished to be. Though he never achieved it, he deserves our respect, because most people don't recognize the good or seek it. Dick was at once painfully self-deluded and horribly honest.

A much greater artist, William Butler Yeats, recognized the relationship between the chaotic heart and the making of beauty in The Circus Animals' Desertion. He laments that he is aging and no longer able to find themes. He recalls that when he was at his creative height, the images he formed of life diverted his attention from the thing itself, which could not be so perfect as the dream. And despairingly he recognizes what happens when an artist can no longer convert the chaotic, impulsive, violent and accidental motives and materials of everyday life into art:

Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

An artist, whether novelist, poet or filmmaker, should be judged foremost by the honesty of the process by which the art is created-- and only secondarily, a very distant second, by the values communicated by honestly created art.