Sunday, December 23, 2012

Storyteller's Rulebook #166: The Past is a Foreign Country, So Learn the Language

After seeing Lincoln I found myself doubting everything.  How could a director as bad as Spielberg make a movie this good?  Had I misjudged him?  I decided that I would finally take a look at Amistad, his 1997 movie about the court case resulting from a slave ship rebellion. As a  history buff, I’d always wanted to see it, but I’d avoided because of my certainty that Spielberg could only screw it up.

The verdict: Amistad is even worse than I feared.  I could write for weeks about how insulting it is to its audience’s intelligence and good taste, but instead I’ll just focus on one small speech by a one-scene character, real-life Senator John C. Calhoun, who appears briefly at a dinner party to offer an ominous threat to the president about the case:  
  • They ignore the fact that slavery is so interwoven into the fabric of this society, that to destroy it would be to destroy us as a people. It's immoral. That's all they know. Therefore, so are we. Immoral and inferior . . . we're not as wealthy as our Northern neighbors -- we're still struggling. Take away our life's blood now -- well, we all know what happens then, North and South. They become the master, and we the slaves. But not without a fight. What president wants to be in office when it comes crashing down around him? The real determination our courts and our president must make is not whether this ragtag group of Africans raised swords against their enemy, but rather, must we?
So basically: “Who cares if slavery’s immoral, we need it, and we’ll kill to protect, so you’re stuck with it!”  This speech does an okay job of summing up what historians now feel to be the truth of Sen. Calhoun’s situation at the time, but it totally misrepresents his actual beliefs and language in every possible way. 

As many still do today, Calhoun thought it to be obvious that the North was inherently immoral, and the South was the nation’s beacon of morality.  He believed that the South defended slavery so zealously not because they depended on their slaves (he thought these were “men of the soil” who could just as easily work their own land) but because they were the last defenders of a virtuous ideal of land stewardship and its attendant “positive good”*: servant stewardship. 

In the North, by contrast, Calhoun would argue, they imported immigrants for temporary factory work, recklessly gave them citizenship, then cast them aside when they weren’t needed, creating a shiftless-yet-enfranchised rabble who threatened to overrun the country and turn it from a genteel agrarian republic into a brutal mob-ocracy.   But even if this mob-ocracy eventually necessitated secession, that still wouldn’t result in violence.  Instead, the North, left to stew in its own filth, would realize its mistake and come crawling back to the South on any terms.   

Calhoun believed that, just as blacks weren’t fit to rule themselves, the North wasn’t fit to rule itself, so the South had the solemn responsibility of taking up both duties.  All three branches of government must be continually gamed, whether through democratic or undemocratic means, to ensure continuous Southern domination, lest Northern incompetence and short-sidedness be allowed to wreck the country.

Now don’t get me wrong—Calhoun was totally delusional, but to put our modern point-of-view into his mouth then is bad writing in so many ways... 
  • It shows that a lazy writer hasn’t done his research.
  • By failing to show that abolitionism seemed like a radical, absurd, and suicidal proposition to North and South alike, Spielberg robs his abolitionist heroes of their heroism.  In this version, their cause seems like such an obvious no-brainer. 
  • It’s dramatically inert because everybody knows exactly what they’re getting into.  Every discussion is about “the issue of slavery,” rather than all of the smaller things it seemed to be about at the time.  If Spielberg had pitted his heroes against Calhoun’s actual, seductive, topsy-turvy logic, he might have created something meaningful.  Storytelling requires irony, and this was indeed a very ironic case, but Spielberg has ironed all the irony out of it. 
Compare this to Lincoln.  Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner know full well that, on a moral level, the audience is going to identify most with abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and they encourage us to do so, but they also make it very clear how radical he seemed to be at the time, and why Lincoln regarded him as more of liability than an asset in the fight against slavery.  That’s called irony, and it makes stories better.  All of Stevens’ scenes are suffused with irony, even before we get to the astonishing final reveal, which makes everything he said seem all the more ironic in retrospect.

Great period-pieces wrench us out of our modern perspective.  They don’t allow us to frame issues in familiar ways.  In the “Mad Men” pilot, when Lucky Strike screams bloody murder to Don Draper about a cancer exposé in “Reader’s Digest”, Don doesn’t launch into a public health debate, as we would today.  Instead, he quickly mollifies his clients by saying “Well, ladies love their magazines.” 

See it how they would see it, not how you see it. “Reader’s Digest” is a women’s magazine so who cares?  Knock your audience out of their comfortable modern perch and plunge them down into the muck of the past.  Believe it or not, they’ll actually enjoy shoveling their way out.  

*Calhoun’s most famous speech, given two years before the Amistad case: “I take higher ground. I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good... I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age. Compare his condition with the tenants of the poor houses in the more civilized portions of Europe—look at the sick, and the old and infirm slave, on one hand, in the midst of his family and friends, under the kind superintending care of his master and mistress, and compare it with the forlorn and wretched condition of the pauper in the poorhouse...”


Bill Peschel said...

The choice of a screenwriter probably made a big difference here, as Kushner researched how the people in Lincoln's time talked, as described in this story from the Boston Globe.


Bill Peschel said...

I'm reminded that Randy Newman wrote a great song called "Rednecks" that gives an interesting example of how to write sympathetic characters.

After spending a few stanza talking about how dumb rednecks are and how they're 'keeping the ******* down,' he concludes:

Now your northern ******'s a Negro
You see he's got his dignity
Down here we're too ignorant to realize
That the North has set the ****** free

Yes he's free to be put in a cage
In Harlem in New York City
And he's free to be put in a cage in the South-Side of Chicago, the West-Side
And he's free to be put in a cage in Hough in Cleveland
And he's free to be put in a cage in East St. Louis
And he's free to be put in a cage in Fillmore in San Francisco
And he's free to be put in a cage in Roxbury in Boston
They're gatherin' 'em up from miles around
Keepin' the ******s down

James Kennedy said...

"A director as bad as Spielberg"?

j.s. said...

Speilberg obviously isn't a bad director. He just does way better with material that's either pure pulpy fun like DUEL, JAWS, RAIDERS and to some extent CATCH ME IF YOU CAN or that's written by a real writer like Tony Kushner's MUNICH and LINCOLN. The difference between AMISTAD and LINCOLN has much more to do with their respective writers than the director (who admittedly did choose both scripts in his capacity as his own producer). Spielberg has too much power for his own good and has for decades now to the extent where the only creative who can stand up to him with any authority is a writer with Kushner's intellectual and aesthetic chops. Here's hoping they work together more.

I'd say that the point of this post applies more broadly to any subculture. The past isn't just a foreign country but so is the world or New York advertising we see in MAD MEN or the floor of the U.S. Congress. I'd say the bulk of LINCOLN has more in common with present-day political maneuvering in Congress than with anything else that was going on in the Civil War era. Historical context is important but it's equally important I think to situate your characters in the mindset of the specialized jobs/roles they occupy.

Matt Bird said...

Don't get me wrong, Spielberg was pretty great back when Carson was still hosting the Tonight Show. But that was, alas, a while ago.

Hopefully Lincoln might mark a return to form. I'll have more to say about its many strengths (and a few flaws) in my best-of-the-year round-up (which may, once again, not run until February)

James Kennedy said...

Carson stopped hosting the Tonight Show in 1992. Since then the good movies Spielberg has directed include Jurassic Park, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, Lincoln . . . we should all be so "bad"!

Matt Bird said...

Catch Me If You Can was good.

Anonymous said...

I'm new to this blog and I've really been enjoying it since I discovered it a couple weeks ago. I've already recommended it to a few people.

But Matt, I've got to tell you - your post and comments here were a big turnoff. I'll respect anyone's opinion on art as long as it feels sincere (as yours does here), but to so casually dismiss Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Minority Report, Saving Private Ryan (I suppose Munich too, though it wasn't mentioned specifically) - and of course, you defend the biggest outlier, Catch Me If You Can - it feels like a call for attention.

And the "director as bad as Spielberg" comment - all sounds way more arrogant than anything else I've read from you. You seem to be begging for someone to challenge you with that comment, which is the biggest turnoff. It sounds like you're trying too hard to assert your view of yourself as a superior writer in a really ugly, insecure way.

I don't expect anyone on a blog to refrain from expressing their opinion, especially on there own blog. So I'll just say that the superior attitude was unpleasant, and not in line with all the other posts and comments that I've come across so far. I'll keep reading, but it doesn't feel the same now.

Matt Bird said...

Hi Anonymous, I just found this old comment, (since the tool in the sidebar that alerts me to new comments is broken.) Sorry that I sounded snide. As you can probably tell, I usually strive to have a populist tone and sensibility on this blog.

Believe it or not, it truly didn't occur to me that anyone would take offense. I think it may be a New York thing: the film culture here is very insular, and Spielberg-hate is so ingrained here, that I've gotten used to everybody feeling that way. In fact, I was worried when writing this post that I'd lose the respect of my audience for praising Spielberg at all.

You and James have made me want to re-examine my reflexive Spielberg disdain, especially in light of my new ideas about storytelling, so I may have an upcoming post or series of posts entitled "What's the Matter with Spielberg?", in which I investigate my objections to the above movies.

Anonymous said...

That's a very generous, genuine response, Matt. I appreciate it. The comment was left only two days ago, actually.

I didn't realize Spielberg was hated generally in any one place. Yes, it might be good to try to watch his stuff without that New York-influenced mindset.

Take care - looking forward to reading more of your stuff.