One of many nice things for me about teaching this course is that I get to "visit" old "friends"….e.g., remember movies that I have watched over and over again, movies I may have in some instances first watched decades ago.
This movie was written by the married team of Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin who received the Academy Award for their effort ---Ruth later starred in the wonderful comedy Harold and Maude, (a must see film if you have not had the opportunity thus far---Gordon also won the academy award in 1968 as best supporting actress for her role in Rosemary's Baby). Adam's Rib starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In it the Hepburn character says the following line:
"All I'm trying to say is that there's lots of things that a man can do and in society's eyes it's all hunky-dory. A woman does the same thing---the same thing, mind you---and she's an outcast."
This movie was made in 1949 and came out in 1950. It was a classic war between the sexes movie with Tracy and Hepburn as married attorneys on opposite sides of the courtroom in the trial of a woman charged with attempted murder of the lover of her philandering husband. Hepburn and Tracey made 9 movies together and some critics consider this one to be the best of the lot. (They were also lovers off-screen.)
Why am I telling you all this? Because both Ruth Gordon and Katherine Hepburn didn't just create movies, they were trying to change the way you see and relate to women. We are, a half-century later, still struggling with these same issues---however, women as well as men were changed by movies such as this one. We most likely would not have gotten as far as we have gotten without the likes of the Gordons and the Hepburns helping to pry our eyes open.
Sexism has been a major part of Hollywood throughout the years as demonstrated by the following comments by Lillian Gish (1899-1993): "You know, when I first went into the movies, Lionel Barrymore played my grandfather. Later he played my father and finally he played my husband. If he had lived, I'm sure I would have played his mother. That's the way it is in Hollywood. The men get younger and the women get older."
In 1988, 38 years after the above movie was released, we at best had only one eye open. That was the year The Accused was released. This movie starred Jodie Foster who is gang-raped in the movie only to have people accuse her of leading the men on. One of her great lines in the movie is where she is describing her rape and she says:
"I heard someone screaming and it was me."
This movie was based on a true story of a gang rape in a bar where the onlookers cheer. Foster won the Academy Award for her role.
However, movies can effectively deal with more than sexism. In 1981 Sally Field played a newspaper reporter and Paul Newman played a decent and honest man that she is attacking in the newspaper. In one scene the Sally Field character is meeting with the newspaper's lawyers regarding what she can and cannot put into the paper. The lawyer comments:
"As a matter of law, the truth of your story is irrelevant. We have no knowledge the story is false, therefore, we're absent malice."
The movie's title is Absence of Malice and it was nominated for several Academy Awards including best actor (Newman lost out that year to Henry Fonda for his role in On Golden Pond.)
In the great Stanley Kubrick movie Dr. Strangelove: Or How I learned to stop Worrying and Love the Bomb we see government being ridiculed. The President of the United States, the military system we have created, all are fair game for ridicule. This is one of the most important tasks of the movies, to deflate the overinflated, to help our citizens in this democracy to see the flaws in our institutions. This movie came out in 1963 in the height of the cold war, not long after the Cuban Missle Crisis during the Kennedy Administration when we came perilously close to starting World War Three. In the movie Sterling Hayden plays the General Jack D. Ripper who has become insane and has ordered an atomic bomb strike against Russia.
Ripper: "I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." George C. Scott plays General Buck Turgidson who feels that the only way to deal with the airstrike illegally ordered by Ripper is to send all of our planes against Russia. If we didn't, then Russia would retaliate against the Ripper assault and the United States would be damaged tremendously. It is interesting how years later, long after the movie was released, we found out that during the Cuban Missile Crisis generals were arguing just like this with the President.
Turgidson: "Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million people killed, tops, depending on the breaks."
Even low-budget independent films can have a significant influence in how people see the world. An excellent example of this is Easy Rider, the 1969 "Hippie-era" cult classic. Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern wrote the movie which Fonda , Hopper and Jack Nicholson starred in. The Nicholson character said the following lines: "They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent to them…What you represent to them is freedom…But talking about it and being it, that's two different things…It's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace…Don't ever tell anybody they're free, 'cause then they're gonna get real busy killin' and maimin' to prove to you that they are."
What I am pointing out is how movies, the really good ones, help us in positive ways to understand the world around us and what is going wrong that needs to be changed. The tremendously talented minority of writers and directors and actors who do this are delivering one of the most important services imaginable to the public. They are helping to move our thinking ahead, to help us see and understand what is happening around us that we are either not seeing or taking for granted. One of the reasons they are in a minority is that the people in charge, the producers and owners of the movie industry, are often motivated my profit and not by the challenges of creating great art. The following are some of the quotes about those in charge of the Hollywood production offices:
"The development guys are very young. No one's over 30, they have absolutely no life experience, they talk in cliches and their reference points are other movies." Comment by Warren Adler, American novelist and executive producer, April 14, 1991.
"People in Hollywood can't face the truth in themselves or in others. This town is filled with people who make adventure pictures and who have never left this place. They make religious pictures and they haven't been in a church or synagogue in years. They make pictures about love and they haven't been in love---ever" (Richard Brooks, American director (1912-1992). This might sound like sour grapes if it were not for the fact that Brooks was a very successful director who made films for over 30 years including some of the really great films such as Elmer Gantry and The Brothers Karamazov. So, obviously, he wasn't talking about his own movies but about Hollywood movies in general.
James Cameron (Canadian-born director and screenwriter (1954- ) says that:
"Film-making is a battle between business and aesthetics." That tension can produce great art; however, the tendency is that it is more likely to produce unbelievable stupidity. As French director Claude Chabrol said when commenting on Hollywood films: "I'm fascinated by the technology and the huge amount of money that goes into making them---and by their unbelievable stupidity." Chabrol's comments are reflecting upon the current state of affairs in Hollywood. Chabrol has been making films for 40 years.
William Goldman, American screenwriter and novelist (1931- ), wrote that: "Studio executives are intelligent, brutally overworked men and women who share one thing in common with baseball managers. They wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they're going to get fired." The pressure tends to drive people toward playing it safe and away from taking risks. Great movie making is the art of risk taking. Goldman went on to write that: "Compounding (the studio executive's problem of no job security in the decision-making process is the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING…Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work." So, even if you want to create a great movie, even if everyone thinks it's going to be a great movie, even if you start out with a great script and great actors and a great director….you never really know that you are going to wind up with a great movie! You have to be willing to gamble.
The studio bosses try to hedge their bets in a variety of ways. One is to remake a successful picture or to have a sequel. One day we will probably go to the movies and see "Die Hard 200" or the 200th James Bond movie. Ernest Hemingway's novel A Farewell to Arms was successfully made into an award-winning movie in 1932. In 1957 they remade the movie and it was awful. On seeing the remake, Hemingway said: "You write a book like that you're fond of, then you see that happen to it, it's like pissing in your father's beer."
Part of the problem is the audience. Movies are often made to please the audience. As St John Ervine, Irish playwright and novelist (1883-1971) said: "American motion pictures are written by the half-educated
for the half-witted."
Kubrick would probably say the same thing but in very different language. His recent movie Eyes Wide Shut borrows its title from one of Kubrick's own sayings: "Governments, politicians and generals are leading the world with their eyes wide shut." The same can be said of most of those in charge of Hollywood. Considering how important the movies are in creating how people feel, think, and act; the fact that they are doing so with their eyes wide shut is rather frightening.
As Ben Hecht (1894-1964), American playwright and screenwriter, said in his book "A Child of the Century" (1954): "Movies are one of the bad habits that corrupted our century. Of their many sins, I offer as the worst their effect on the intellectual side of the nation. It is chiefly from that viewpoint I write of them---as an eruption of trash that has lamed the American mind and retarded Americans from becoming a cultured people…They have slapped into the American mind more human misinformation in one evening than the Dark Ages could muster in a decade." These are powerful words given the man who is delivering them. Hecht was a very successful screenwriter (he won two Academy Awards for his efforts and was involved with over 70 screenplays), a director, producer, and playwright and novelist (he authored 35 books). Hecht also said: "The movie-makers are able to put more reality into a picture about the terrors of life at the ocean bottom than into a tale of two Milwaukeeans in love."
To illustrate just how influential movies are, think about the most technologically advanced organization in American history, NASA. When they fire off their rockets, when they sent a man to the moon, they count down from 10 to 1. 10, 9, etc., blast off. So why do they do this? In 1928 Fritz Lang made a movie in Germany entitled "By Rocket to the Moon". In Germany it went by the title "Frau im Mond" (The Woman in the Moon) but the title was changed….one more of an infinite number of examples of sexism at work in Hollywood. But, I digress…. In the movie they use a backward countdown to a rocket launch because Lang considered it more suspenseful……and when real life caught up to reel life the backwards count down was employed.
One of my all time favorite films is The African Queen starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, two of my also all time favorite actors. James Agee wrote the script for this 1951 film based on a C.S. Forester novel. This John Huston film (also one of my all time favorite directors) was filmed in Africa and has Hepburn playing an aging spinster and Bogart (who won the Academy Award for his role) as a rum soaked owner of a small river boat. The Charlie Allnutt /Bogart character has a life philosophy that is summed up by the following line:
Allnutt: "Never do today what you can put off till tomorrow."
The Rose Sayer/Hepburn character has a life philosophy that is summed up by the following line:
Rose: "Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above."
During the movie they take the boat down a very dangerous river and after they successfully run the rapids she remarks:
"I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating."
By the end of the movie their adventures and impact upon one another have powerfully changed both of them so they are quite willing to give their lives to achieve a higher cause. (I'm not going to give you any more details, you will just have to go and watch the movie.)
Just as in the movies we see the characters change; those movies can literally change those of us who are watching them. Agee was both a screenwriter and a critic. (In reviewing a movie he once wrote: "I would like to recommend this film to those…who could with pleasure eat a bowl of Yardley's shaving soap for breakfast.") Too often we are given shaving soap for breakfast by Hollywood and the result from consuming such a diet is anything but healthy.
In 1958 the movie Auntie Mame came out and the lead character said:
Auntie Mame: "Oh, Agnes! Here you've been taking my dictations for weeks and you haven't gotten the message of my book: live!"
Auntie Mame: "Yes! Live! Life's a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!"
This is the philosophy of Agee and Huston and Hepburn and Bogart and most of the leading creative talent of Hollywood's best films: Live!
Although drama is often the vehicle through which great ideas are delivered in novels, screenplays, and the movies; comedy can often be an extremely effective way of getting to the audience and having them see life differently. In the early days of films W.C. Fields was one of the comic masters. In 1940 he wrote and starred in The Bank Dick and had his character deliver the following lines:
"Egbert, is it true that married people live longer?"
"No, it just seems longer."
Another one of the early comic masters was Groucho Marx, who like W.C. Fields based much of his humor on an attack upon married life. In The Big Store Groucho, who plays Wolf Flywheel, delivers the following lines:
Wolf Flywheel: "Martha, dear, there are many bonds that will hold us together through eternity."
Martha: "Really, Wolf? What are they?
Wolf Flywheel: "Your government bonds, your savings bonds, your liberty bonds…"
Later in the same movie:
Martha (reflecting on his marriage proposal): "I'm afraid after we're married awhile, a beautiful young girl will come along and you'll forget all about me."
Wolf Flywheel: "Don't be silly. I'll write you twice a week."
In Duck Soup Groucho Marx plays Rufus T. Firefly.
Mrs. Teasdale (of her husband): "Why, he's dead."
Firefly: "Ill bet he's just using that as an excuse.
Mrs. Teasdale: "I was with him to the very end."
Firefly: "No wonder he passed away."
Mrs. Teasdale: "I held him in my arms and kissed him."
Firefly: "So it was murder!"
I hope that a lot of this humor is recognized for what it is---sexism. Men fear and try to control women. One way we try to control women is to ridicule them. Humor is one of the ways we ridicule. Tragically we also use physical force to control them and to control our fear of them, which results in rape and battered women. When we watch movies, we have to pay attention to not only what people say but also how we are reacting to what they say. After we get in touch with those feelings, the next step is to ask ourselves WHY we experiencing those thoughts and feelings in reaction to what we have heard and seen. Only in this manner can we begin to take charge of our lives and not be manipulated by the movies. The following two examples show not only how actors listen to other actors but how they also deal with their fear of women.
What is rather fascinating is how actors often end up quoting each other. In a movie in 1940 the Gary Cooper character says: "I've always held that a bachelor is a feller who never made the same mistake once." In the 1980s Warren Beatty was quoted as saying about marriage: "I'm not going to make the same mistake once."
Charlie Chaplin, English actor, writer and director (1889-1977) saw himself as a clown and created one of the most famous characters of all time in his little tramp. In Chaplin's autobiography, he said of his Tramp character: "A tramp, a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, a lonely fellow, always hopeful of romance and adventure." Chaplin was in many ways our greatest silent poet. In The Great Dictator (1940), which was an attack upon Hitler before America got into the war, Chaplin, who was the screenwriter, director and leading actor of the film, has his character, the Jewish barber say: "We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness." Mind you, we need to think, we need machinery, we need cleverness---but the priorities should be feeling, humanity, kindness and gentleness…even when we are creating a comedy.
Not all humor is about loud belly laughs. Much of it is about a warm smile. A good example of this is the movie and stage play Harvey. The movie was made in 1950 and starred James Stewart as Elwood P. Dowd. (I acted in a college production of this stage play in 1958.) Elwood's dear friend, Harvey, was a giant invisible rabbit, really a pooka. The plot line evolves around who is crazy and who is sane. Elwood went around saying things like: "Every day's a beautiful day." Since he believed in his mystical rabbit, his relatives wanted him put away in an insane asylum. When he talks with the doctor he says: "I've wrestled with reality for 35 years and I'm happy, doctor. I finally won out over it." Great comedy is designed to simply make you feel happy, to feel better about life, to let go of some of your angst and lighten up. Movies can do this marvelously well at times. In fact, some hospitals use comedies to get patients to lighten up and feel better emotionally because they have learned that in so doing the patient heals more quickly!
"Film as dream, film as music. No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls" (Ingmar Bergman, the great Swedish screenwriter and director).
Famous Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961) said of movies: "The cinema, like the detective story, makes it possible to experience without danger all the excitement, passion and desirousness which must be repressed in a humanitarian ordering of life."
C. Day-Lewis, the Anglo-Irish poet and critic (1904-1972) wrote the following about the movies:
"Enter the dream-house, brothers and sisters, leaving
Your debts asleep, your history at the door:
This is the home for heroes, and this loving
Darkness a fur you can afford."
Hein Heckroth, German art director (1901-1970) said that: "Movies are the folklore of the twentieth century."
"The truly absorbing aspect of the motion picture ethic, or course, is that it affects not only motion picture people but almost everyone alive in the United States today. By adolescence, children have been programmed with a set of responses and life lessons learned almost totally from motion pictures, television and the recording industry." John Gregory Dunne, American screenwriter and novelist (1932- ).
The power of movies is very hard to measure because we all have very individual reactions to them. As Molly Haskell, American writer and critic, has said: There are two cinemas: the films we have actually seen and the memories we have of them." This is the bane of movie stars. People leave the theatre feeling that the person on the screen is the same person that exists off the screen. As Rita Hayworth, beautiful American actress and dancer (1918-1987) once said about the character she was most famous for portraying on the screen: "Every man I knew had fallen in love with Gilda and wakened with me."
We see actors doing the impossible and we begin to think that we should be able to do that as well. Jeremy Irons, the fine English actor (1948- ) said: "She (his wife, actress Sinead Cusack) doesn't get jealous. When she sees me in sex scenes she says to herself, 'Oh, he is only acting. I know he can't last that long.'" It's all illusions. And they become dangerous illusions if we fail to see them for what they really are.
Since it was recognized early on that movies were having a powerful impact upon the lives and behavior of large numbers of people, it was inevitable that some people, who felt they were the ones in control, would want to censor what movies were shown and what was acceptable content for the movies. The movie moguls quickly recognized that they didn't want to be censored by others so they created their own censorship system.
Paul Goodman, American writer and psychoanalyst (1911- ) wrote that: "The stultifying effect of the movies is NOT that the children see them but that their parents do, as if Hollywood provided a plausible adult recreation to grow up into" (quoted from Goodman's excellent book "Growing Up Absurd" written in 1960). Given the wisdom of Goodman's remarks, the idea of censorship, in theory, is clearly a good idea. However, the problem with the theory is that it produces the opposite effect of what an intelligent censor would want to create. Instead of making movies more literate, more creative, the tendency of censorship is that it dumbs-down the product. The best evidence of how censorship develops into a disaster area is the Hays code that was created to guide the censors.
One of the most famous lines in movies is the one by Rhett Butler delivered by Clark Gable to Scarlett played by Vivian Leigh in Gone With the Wind.
Scarlett: "Where shall I go? What shall I do?"
Butler: "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
When Margaret Mitchell wrote the novel, "damn" is the word she used. So, being faithful to the novel, that is what the screenwriter put into the script. These famous words were only allowed on to the soundtrack after months of negotiation with the Hays Office, which controlled film censorship. The producer, David Selznick, argued at great length with the censors over which was to be used. Selznick argued that the dictionary described "damn" not as an oath but as a vulgarism. The censors suggested he use "darn" instead. The censors finally allowed the word in but fined him $5,000, a very large amount of money in those days (1939)---you could build a very nice house for that amount back then.
What exactly did the Hays Code say could and could not go into films?
"No picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
"Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
"Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
"The technique of murder must be presented in a way that will not inspire imitation.
"The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld. Pictures shall not infer (sic) that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing…Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.
"Obscenity in word, gesture, reference, song, joke or by suggestion…is forbidden.
"Complete nudity is never permitted. This includes nudity in fact or in silhouette, or any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture."
Mae West would deliberately write things into the script that she knew the Hays Office censors would throw out so that she could slip other less obvious sexual references into the screenplay!
Mae West, by some measures the sexiest woman ever in movies, wrote many of the great lines she delivered. In I'm No Angel she says: "When I'm good, I'm very, very good. But when I'm bad, I'm better." In She Done Him Wrong (1933) Mae delivered the following line: "Is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"
The censors and the studio heads that created them as a defense mechanism stifled creativity every chance they had and this is at the bottom of Jean Renoir's comment when he left Hollywood and 20th Century Fox to return to Europe: "Goodbye Mr Zanuck. It certainly has been a pleasure working for 16th Century Fox."
"There's not much to say about acting but this: Never settle back on your heels. NEVER RELAX. If you relax, the audience relaxes. And always mean everything you say." James Cagney, famous American actor (1899-1986).
"Film acting is not so much acting as reacting, doing nothing with tremendous skill." Michael Caine, English actor (1933- ).
Glenda Jackson, English actress and politician (1936- ) said of acting: "The important thing in acting is to be able to laugh and cry. When I have to cry, I think of my love life. When I have to laugh, I think of my love life." What is most important about this remark is not its self-effacing humor but the concept that the actor draws upon their own real life experiences and emotions when they act.
Tom Cruise says that: "A lot of the time, what acting is really about is meeting someone's eye." (Apparently he couldn’t do this with his wife of the time, Nicole Kidman, who commented after their breakup: "At least I can wear high heels now.")
Bette Davis (1908-1989) was one of the greatest actresses of all time. She once said: "If Hollywood didn’t work out I was prepared to be the best secretary in the world." In short, whatever she was to become, she knew she wanted to be the very best at it. Fortunately she became an actress despite the resistance in the system to any female that was not physically beautiful. She once said of herself: "I was never beautiful like Miss Hayworth or Miss Lamarr. I was known as the little brown wren. Who'd want to get me at the end of the picture?" It was not her looks that made her successful. It was her commitment to excellence and her inner energy. E. Arnot Robertson said of her in 1935: "She would probably have been burned as a witch if she had lived two or three hundred years ago. She gives the curious feeling of being charged with power which can find no ordinary outlet." The great actor George C. Scott said of her: "Bette Davis is my bloody idol. I admire her more than any film star." Her career lasted over 50 years and she made her first movie in 1932 and her last in the year she died, 1989.
Kirk Douglas would point to another force that helped him become a major star in Hollywood. He has been quoted more than once saying: "My children didn't have my advantages: I was born into abject poverty." Obviously his children had other advantages and Michael Douglas has used those "other" advantages to his advantage.
Clint Eastwood (1930- ) said: "My old drama coach used to say: 'Don't just do something, stand there.' Gary Cooper wasn't afraid to do nothing." What Clint didn't mention was that Cooper was often the butt of many jokes about his lack of acting skills. However, some people just have a powerful screen presence and can become successful largely because the camera likes them. Another very famous actor known for his lack of acting skills was John Wayne. In The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) Wayne had only one line as the Centurion: "Truly, this man was the son of God." The director, George Stevens, unimpressed by his wooden delivery, gave him some advice. "You're referring to the son of God here, Duke, you've got to deliver the line with awe." Wayne accepted the advice. On the next take he said, "Aw, truly this was the Son of God!"
As noted above, it isn't JUST about acting. The camera loves certain actors. "The camera just loves some people and it sure loves Marilyn (Monroe). Look at Bogart. Funny little man you wouldn't notice in a crowd, but on camera….! Look at Gary Cooper. Wonderfully tall and good looking, yes, but can't act for toffee and never even tries. Doesn't ever change his expression by a hair's breadth, and yet when you see him on camera, everyone with him seems to be overacting. Just born with the magic. And so is Marilyn. However confused or difficult she is in real life, for the camera she can do no wrong" (comment by Allan Snyder, American make-up artist).
But even being a skilled actor isn't enough. Sometimes you also have to be a decent human being. When the great Czech director Milos Forman was making One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest he commented that: "One of the criteria of casting was that we couldn't afford to have a prick in the company."
Roger Corman, American producer and director (1926- ) was quoted by Martin Scorsese as having said: "Martin, what you have to get is a very good first reel because people want to know what's going on. Then you need a very good last reel because people want to hear how it all turns out. Everything else doesn't really matter." Although this is an obvious generalization that is not completely accurate, it does have a very important fact built into it. The beginning is very important because you have to grab the watcher's attention and get them interested so that they start to think and feel about the events in the movie. Then the ending is terribly important because it helps put the picture together, helps the watcher make sense of it all. Many a potentially great movie has been ruined by a flat or poor ending.
What is so tricky about making a movie is that you need to have the "whole equation" in your head during the filming. This is the genius of the demented director Roman Polanski. F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) said in his unfinished novel about Hollywood entitled The Last Tycoon: "Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their head."
The famous English director Sir Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) said that: "Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story…What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?"
In the film Pierrot Le Fou (1968) screenwriter/director Jean-Luc Godard has Sam Fuller (who plays himself) say: "The film is like a battleground…love…hate…action…violence…death…in one word: emotions." (Fuller was in real life an American writer and director (1912-1997).
Today, many of the big budget films have very little to do with acting. As Lord Lew Grade, Russian-born British producer (1906-1999) accurately commented in 1998 on hearing Pierce Brosnan had only sixteen minutes of dialogue in a Bond film: "They could call them something else instead of actors. People today, they don't have to do any acting. Actors are a sideshow. The real movie is about car chases and things being blown up." Australian-born critic Clive James (1939- ) said a comparable thing when he remarked: "All television ever did was shrink the demand for ordinary movies. The demand for extraordinary movies increased. If any one thing is wrong with the movie industry today, it is the unrelenting effort to astonish."
John Grierson, the Scottish producer of documentaries (1898-1972) once said that: "Film-making belongs like all show business to that magical world in which two and two can make five, but also three and even less. It is by that token, not a business to which the Presbyterian mind is natively and nationally attuned." Therefore, in the final analysis, the structure of a film, a great film, cannot be determined in advance like the building of a bridge. Yes, you can plan and prepare, and that is essential. But, in the final moments it becomes an on-the-spot collaborative creation, a gestalt that adds up to more than the sum of the pieces.
One of the long-standing rules in Hollywood deals with structure. The ending of the movie is supposed to have a "Hollywood-ending"….which means a happy or up-beat ending. One of the greatest movies ever made about war was the 1929 film All Quiet on the Western Front based on the novel by Remarque. It is the story of World War One as told by the Germans who lost. The ending of the film is a very poetic scene where the hero is killed. The director was asked by the studio head to create an up-beat ending. Lewis Milestone (1895-1980) responded: "I've got your happy ending. We'll let the Germans win the war." If the movie is going to reveal truth, if it is going to be art, it must be made by those who resist petty rules.
In the movie Five Easy Pieces there is this great scene where Jack Nicholson can't get a sandwich made the way he wants it. The waitress refuses to serve him plain toast because it is not on the menu. However, a toasted chicken salad sandwich is on the menu. So Nicholson says to her: "Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules." (Nicholson was nominated for an Academy Award in 1970 for this role but lost out to George C. Scott for his role as Patton.)
One of the greatest movies about rule breaking is Network in which Peter Finch as Howard Beale says to the audience: "I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and stick your head out and yell: 'I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more!" That is the loud mantra of the rule breaker. At times you are going to have to be assertive, even close to aggressive in breaking the rules in order to create great art.
In Gandhi (1982) Ben Kingsley plays Gandhi and delivers the following line: "They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body---not my obedience." Wow! That is some dedication to breaking the rules! (They gave Kingsley the Academy Award for that role.)
Other great lines he delivered are as follows:
Gandhi (to man who has killed Muslim child in retaliation for the death of his own son by Muslims): "I know a way out of hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father have been killed, a little boy about this high, and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one." Again, wow! Another rule buster!
Gandhi: "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always." This is the creed of the hopeful rule breaker---that one day the rule makers will fall.
One of my favorite directors of all time is John Huston. Many of his films are simply marvelous. Huston said: "I don't try to guess what a million people will like. It's hard enough to know what I like." The rule breaker has as their primary rule, don't try to please others just to make a buck. First, find out what pleases you. Then try to create something lasting.
So what is the point, the point is that the creative talent of Hollywood, the best actors and screenwriters and directors, love to make movies about breaking the rules. This is often the central point of great art. Breaking the rules is how we make positive change in any society and art and the creative process are about change. Great! Well…..sometimes great, sometimes disastrous. For every great idea, for every great movie, we will have to suffer through a thousand bad ideas put forth as if they were great. I love most of Woody Allen's films, have for years; but, he puts a lot of neurotic nonsense into them that the audiences often take seriously. For example, in Husbands and Wives he has himself say: "My heart does not know from logic." Keep in mind that this movie, which came out in 1992, and stars Woody and Mia Farrow, his wife at the time, is generally viewed as prefiguring the break-up of Allen and Farrow's relationship. He has Farrow deliver the following lines to him in the movie: "It's over and we both know it." So what is so important about all of this? In real life, Woody ran off with Mia Farrow's adopted daughter, Soon-Yi and in real life, not reel life, Allen is quoted as saying: "The heart wants what it wants. There's no logic to these things." True, I agree, the heart doesn't know from logic. He is right. But that completely ignores the fact that you have a will, a mind, an ability to resist temptation. So often the films that we watch fail to provide us with a mature view of the world. The audience walks out half-educated and often the half they walk out with is dangerous to their emotional and physical well-being.
One of the most important parts of creativity is your ability to borrow from the past. In order to borrow from the past, you must be aware of it! That means you need to be well read, to be someone that has studied others and applied those studies to your own life. Since your movie is going to be about life, you need to have studied life. As Fernando Trueba, the Spanish critic and director (1955- ), has said: "La vida es un pelicula mal montada." (Life is a badly edited film.)
As the great French screenwriter, director and critic Francois Truffaut (1932-1984) said: "I renew myself at the fountain of the past."
Kimitri Tiomkin, the Russian-born American composer (1899-1979), said when he was accepting the Academy Award for his score for The High and the Mighty in 1955: "I would like to thank Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Rimsky-Korsakov…"
Quentin Tarantino says that: "I steal from every single movie ever made. I love it---if my work has anything it's that I'm taking this from this and that from that and mixing them together. If people don't like that, then tough titty, don't go and see it, all right? I steal from everything. Great artists steal, they don't do homages."
To do as Auntie Mame said: "Live!" That is one of the secrets of the creative process. You need to involve yourself in all of life. Go to synagogues and temples as well as churches. Read, read, read! Be eclectic in your listen habits and go to classical concerts as well as rock, jazz, and folk concerts. Become a whole person and then draw from that fullness. This is just what Orson Welles did when he created what many consider to be the finest movie ever made, Citizen Kane. He also drew upon the depths of his understanding of life when he acted in another great movie, The Third Man. In this movie Welles delivers the following lines: "You know what the fellow said---in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love; they had five hundred years of democracy and peace---and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." During the shooting of the film, for timing purposes, they needed some additional dialogue. Welles, off the top of his head, gave them the above which to this day continues to be one of the best lines ever delivered in a movie. Mind you, the statement is not historically accurate. The Swiss are famous for making watches, not for making cuckoo clocks. Welles said about the making of movies that: "A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet." By poet Welles means someone sensitive to the finest nuances in the lives of those around them. To develop that sensitivity is what is required and it then becomes the foundation on which all of your creative endeavors are built.
In Zorba the Greek, a wonderful story about life, Zorba (played beautifully by Anthony Quinn) says: "To dance, one must be a little mad." Not completely crazy, just a little mad. This requires that you let go, that you experiment, that you are willing to take risks, that you pick yourself up and try again when some of those risks don't lead to success. That willingness to "dance" is at the heart of the creative process.
Movies can be great art. Great art rarely is a collaborative product---the novelist, the painter, the composer usually work alone. Even more unlikely is it for art to be the result of deliberate planning to make a buck. Great art usually comes out of quiet meditative thought and struggle; it is a lonely and painful birthing process. Therefore, movies, by the usual definitions, fail to be great art. Exceptions exist. Their rarity proves my point. So, if you want to create great movies, artful cinema, you must be careful about who you collaborate with and avoid having the buck become the driving force. Also, within that collaboration, you must allow yourself the time to be creative.
Since the quality of our films powerfully effects those who watch them and our society in general, we clearly need more quality in our films. Jennifer Stone in her book Mind Over Media in 1988 said: "Movies have mirrored our moods and myths since the century began. They have taken on some of the work of religion." That is a scary thought!
Now I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse. Where did I steal that line? It comes out of the Godfather and is now a part of our language. I use it to illustrate the power of films. But, I am also going to make you an offer you can't refuse. Do you remember what happens if the person does refuse the offer? They die! That is the inference. You can't refuse the offer because, if you do, then terrible things will happen to you. My offer is this: If you pay attention to the movies you watch, then you can begin to control them rather than have them control you unknowingly.
I guess the best final final words for this essay is one you can apply to life in general or to movies in particular. In Forrest Gump (1994) the Tom Hanks/Forrest Gump character says:
"My momma always said, life was like a box of chocolates…you never know what you're gonna get."
The main sources for this essay were:
Cassell's Movie Quotations by Nigel Rees
The Film Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition by Ephraim Katz
VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, 1998, Martin Connors and Jim Craddock, Editors