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
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
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.