Sunday, October 28, 2012

Storyteller’s Rulebook #157: People Hate Stuff

Sweet Liberty is the story of a history professor who undergoes the indignity of watching his historical novel turned into a ludicrous Hollywood blockbuster.  I’ve never actually seen it, but I’ve heard quoted more than once a piece of wisdom that the professor hears from a boorish movie producer:  “You’ll be okay as long as you do three things in a picture: defy authority, destroy property, and take people's clothes off.”

As soon as you hear this quote, trust me, you start to notice this belief everywhere, especially in older trailers.  You can check those three off every time, no matter what the movie is about.

Of course, this movie was made in 1985, just on the verge of the anti-sex puritanism that soon resurged and still has us in its grip.  In the years since, American movies have become less and less interested in taking people’s clothes off, but that just puts even more pressure on the other two…Screenwriters have to let their characters defy a lot of authority and destroy a lot of property. 

I’ve already talked about audiences’ insatiable need to see authority disobeyed, even if it’s an authority we would side with in real life.  Our need to see property destroyed is just as elemental and just as absurd. 

Recent TV pilot purchases have seen a resurgence of two genres: the Western and the post-apocalyptic show.  Why is that?  If you want to take a dark view, you could say it’s because America seems to be dying, and we’re trying to prepare ourselves for what to do if we have to start over from scratch.  And I’m sure that’s part of it…

But there’s also a more benign explanation: these shows are born not from our fear of America’s failure, but our guilt about America’s success.  Since at least Thoreau, Americans have had a big existential question gnawing at our soul: Do we own our stuff, or does our stuff own us?  This debate underlies many of our political disputes, and suffuses much of our art.  Thus we get the Western and its close cousin, the post-apocalyptic story. 

What would I do without my stuff?  Would I fall, because it’s propping me up, or would I rise, because it’s weighing me down?  This is the essential question that both of these genres pose.  And we all know what we want the answer to be: we want to believe that our stuff is a burden and that, like Thoreau, we’ll be better off without it. 

Whenever anyone in any story starts talking about how much they love a possession, then start writing that possession’s eulogy.  In real life, the destruction of a car is one of the most disastrous things that can happen to the average American family, but in movies and TV, cars are happily crunched to death all the time, and anyone who mourns them is made to look like a fool.

Audiences pretty much love to see anybody destroy anything.  Look at this innocuous scene from Caddyshack: a groundskeeper destroys a flower arrangement with a golf club for no reason.  In real life, this would be a nasty, rotten thing to do. But onscreen, it’s delightful.  We love it.  This guy is our hero because, unlike us, he feels free to destroy the stuff around him.  In the dark, we revel in the fantasy that maybe someday we’ll summon the courage to do the same.   


j.s. said...

This reminds me of Steven Pinker's recent piece on Red States and Blue States in the NYT. Disaster films, apocalyptic stories and Westerns are almost never about collective solutions (unless it's their total failure) but instead about rugged individuals creating order and justice by themselves. To start again from scratch with nothing. To find water where it isn't, like Cable Hogue. The myth of the American individual is all about "I built that," whether it's a town or a business or the mere fact of order again in a small corner of a world on fire with chaos. In some ways, the so-called "creative destruction" of venture capital recapitulates all of these American shadow selves through our founding myths. If there's not enough chaos in the world for us to tame, we'll make some of our own and then conquer it all over again.

j.s. said...

There's also of course the childish Freudian pleasure we all have in seeing anything destroyed. And the Death Instinct, which is the bigger darker manifestation of these impulses.

I disagree slighting about nudity. Yeah, this is a puritanical country and it's a shame that we can't show men and women having sex as a normal thing, the way it's no big deal in Europe. But there's plenty of fresh skin to be found on some of those new cable shows and in the perennially disregarded genres like horror where the morals police don't go looking anyway. In part, this has more to do with the market for theatrical movies, which all aim for PG-13 nowadays. And an MPAA who still holds graphic sex and foul language as transgressions much worse than explicit violence.

Finally, I'd say that the best kind of character to defy authority is a protagonist who's -- you guessed it -- underestimated by the powers that be.

Matt Bird said...

Yeah, you're right, it's hard to blame it entirely on neo-puritanism, because sex is enjoying a bit of a renaissance on cable TV. Onscreen, meanwhile, cultural trends and market trends have formed a perfect storm.

I should find that Pinker article. I noted before that Fort Apache might be underrated because, unlike The Searchers or Stagecoach, it praises the community over the individual.

Mark Bell said...

Actually, the scene with Carl is better than mere wonton destruction. He is tasked with removing the bed of mums to plant something else (he wields a weed cutter, not a golf club) and he has turned this menial chore into a game: he acts out a fantasy that most serious golfers share - being the come-out-of-nowhere rookie hero that wins the Masters' Tournament.

Matt Bird said...

I totally missed that he'd been told to remove the flowers. Not the best example then. Whoops.

Paul Worthington said...

"What would I do without my stuff?  Would I fall, because it’s propping me up, or would I rise, because it’s weighing me down?"

Whoa. That is thought provoking.
[Aware I sound shallow perhaps that I haven't thought of it like that before.] 

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

Have you seen Cloud Atlas? Would love to know what you think about that movie. With those it connected with (myself included) it feels like it's resonating as a kind of new myth. Rather than defy authority alone to destroy, defy authority together and create. A meta-narrative that holds up the myth of the American individual and says "nope, wrong way to go about things." I wonder if that's part of why the audience response was so divisive.

This was a really interesting post, thanks.

Matt Bird said...

I doubt I'll make it to see it in the theater, but I'll probably get a screener and see it then. You make it sound like my kind of movie, (though many of the more acidic reviews make it sound like not-my-kind-of-movie). The clash of solidarity vs. individualism is a great good vs. good theme that is too little explored.