Susan Sarandon was once challenged in an interview, why she made so many political movies. “All movies are political,” she replied, “especially those that aren’t”.
Replace the word ‘political’ with the word ‘religious’ and we come closer to the moral core of the North American film industry. Hollywood, for the most part, makes religious movies.
Not in the sense that gods and demons are almost always the (obvious) theme. But in the sense that whether cops, robbers, priests, cowboys, Wall St brokers, heists, tragedies, weddings, restaurants, mountains or barmitzvahs, morality reduces to trouble-free choices between good and evil, true and false, ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Hollywood has always been beset by the urgency to moralise, too quick to accept censorship, preferring self-censorship to that imposed. So it has come to appeal to the most simplistic and quick-to-judgement dispositions: the struggle between good and evil, and ease in distinguishing one from the other. Hollywood mostly fails the test of public education, of challenging us with real-life complexities and paradoxes. It has a disturbing tendency to settle for duality.
Films like Crash and Doubt, and The Third Man are still rare.
In Crash, we see how ‘good’ people do ‘bad’ things – the good cop shoots a young, innocent black man with no reason – no reason other than a deep-seated, incipient suspicion of….well, young black men. Meanwhile, ‘bad’ people do ‘good’ things – the racist cop, of whom the young cop is condemning, rescues from a near-fatal car crash a black woman he had previously sexually and racially abused.
In Doubt, the Mother Superior relentlessly and with deep conviction hounds a priest accused (uncertainly) of child abuse. Her conviction that she is right links seamlessly with her authority as a school principal. Meanwhile, the mother of the boy whom the priest denies abusing pleads with her not to pursue the priest who is the only support the boy has – “It’s only until June – “. The priest is forced out. At the close of the movie, the Mother Superior tearfully admits to a young colleague, “I have doubts…I have such doubts”.
Meanwhile, The Third Man famously challenges us to calculate – from the top of a Chicago wheel – how many ‘dots’ on the distant ground (ie. people) would we take away for profit until we felt immoral.
“Tell me,” says Orson Welles’ character, whom we know waters down penicillin in post-war Vienna leading to child deaths, “would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?”
You and I are good people – but do we pause for thought, make a calculation – even if only to experiment naughtily with the idea?
Orson Welles was the master of these moral complexities – no doubt, for me, one reason why he was driven from Hollywood. Producers seemed always to be afraid of his desire to present life in the kind of complexity that might well challenge, and therefore deter, audiences. The most egregious example of Hollywood’s displeasure came with his second major film, The Magnificent Ambersons, from which he was barred from post-production editing and retakes. Infamously, the movie was changed to show an upbeat, rather than tragic ending, defeating the moral thrust of the film. The film was about social change and the shifting nature of social structure and its elites. Hollywood just could not bring itself to confront contemporary society.
In his film of Othello Welles explores the theory that Othello and Iago are two sides of the same person, a “perverse marriage” – Iago the impotent, Othello the virile. Iago contrives, manipulates, conspires – but Othello commits femicide (he kills Desdemona whom he thinks he is losing). Welles rejects the good and evil interpretation of the relationship, instead seeing it as the source of human struggle with the self – internalised, and so impossible to resolve. We are all Iago, and we can all kill the object of our passion.
But more typical of Hollywood, surely, is Lost in Translation. This is a film about social isolation, of existential hopelessness. A man and a woman find themselves in Japan where their cultural resources are neutralised and they are socially naked. Both are, for their own reasons, adrift. They float towards each other, clinging desperately to each other’s wreckage. The narrative tells us that they will never connect – that we are alone on this ocean of alienation. But in the last moment of ‘the producer’s cut’, comes a crass and obvious absurdity – a wild celebration of the butchery applied to The Magnificent Ambersons. He is in a taxi on his way to the airport to return home, abject. He sees her in the street, stops the taxi, runs out and in a moment of pure Disney redemption, he runs to her, embraces her, kisses her with passion and relief – and the audience is uplifted. As though Romeo and Juliet had spontaneously awoken from temporary slumber and lived happily-ever-after.
In Hollywood, in some senses, we get the film industry we deserve. We ask, let’s say, for too little. Like Hollywood producers we settle for the minimum. Through the ages – from Zoroastrianism through Judaeo-Christianity and beyond – we have settled for dualities, for the trope that our struggles with life can be resolved through simple choices and by avoiding complexities – multiple narratives. Religion has a deep and enduring effect on our sense of morality. If Hollywood has a claim to social authenticity, it is in its pandering to this age-old moral weakness. Multiply the narrative.