Too much to think about from yesterday! I’ll get back to The Big Idea tomorrow... (and feel free to chime in with more answers!)
Re-watching High and Low this week made something clear to me that I’d never really caught on to before: You can’t create a compelling movie character who wants “money”. High and Low was about a man trying to keep his fortune. But in order to make that problem compelling, Kurosawa had to make it clear that there was something specific he needed to spend his money on. Likewise, if you’re writing a script about someone who wants to get a lot of money, it will only be compelling if it’s for a specific need.
It’s no accident that the most common stand-by in these situations is medical bills. In Glengarry Glen Ross, if Jack Lemmon had stolen the leads just to get “money”, we wouldn’t care if he got caught or not. But he steals the money to pay for his sick daughter’s care, so we want him to succeed. In “Breaking Bad”, Walt starts his meth business to spare his family the crushing burden of his medical bills, and we’re somewhat on his side. It’s only when he beats cancer that that he, and we, are “left without excuses for the evils and abuses,” as Johnny Cash would say.
But wait, you say, why should movies be different from real life? In real life, money, in and of itself, seems to be the motivation for most of our actions. Why excuse greed onscreen by giving it medical justifications? Well, I would say that in this case real life is the illusion and movies are telling the truth.
In recent years, the white house tried to deal with a health care crisis and a mortgage crisis, but failed at both tasks, because they refused to admit that they were one and the same crisis. They acted as if people were borrowing on their homes out of selfish greed, and they set out to penalize that greed. But greed usually had nothing to do with it. The most common reason for going underwater on a mortgage was unpaid medical bills.
Likewise, the administration assumed that the solution to the medical crisis was to sell more health insurance. But the only way that anyone had been able to afford skyrocketing insurance premiums in the first place was by using their homes as ATMs. Now that the home-price bubble had burst, the insurance model was no longer tenable, but the administration refused to admit that.
This is actually an example of movies doing what they do best: making clear the connections that get obscured in real life. In real America, we fail to see that our economic desperation is largely caused by our medical/insurance industry, but onscreen, screenwriters quickly realize that they have to make that connection clear, because otherwise the story doesn’t make sense. If only we could carry that clarity back over to real life.