Monday, July 29, 2013

The Dangers of Tropes

The efforts of Hollywood writers to condense the various aspects of a marriage into a compelling three-act structure has, for decades, brought forth a frustratingly distorted and misleading characterization of marriage. This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't that many people look to the movies to understand the world around them. My warning to these people: Movies lie.

The subject of marriage in film is explored extensively in Jeannie Basinger's I Do and I Don't: A History of Marriage in the Movies.  Before I purchased this book, I made a point to check out the reviews on Amazon. One reviewer found the book infuriating. Another thought it was "grim reading." Neither blamed the author because it was clearly the subject matter that had stirred up their bad feelings. Marriage is a sensitive subject, but Hollywood's ham-handed treatment of marriage has been anything but sensitive.

Before Midnight, which is a truthful and insightful study of marriage, is a rare exception to the hopelessly inept marriage films that have come out of Hollywood in the last hundred years. It is, far and away, the best film ever made about this combustible union of husband and wife. The relevant issues are laid out clearly, genuinely and, most of all, painfully. Tomas Hachard, a critic for the Los Angeles Review of Books, summarized the film's message as follows: "A movie that tells us, while piercing holes through a fairy tale, that if love is to be more than just commitment, we must still commit to love." For certain, neither love nor commitment is as important to marriage as a husband and wife's commitment to love. Most people believe that we have no control over love. They remain steadfast in their view that a person cannot, in any way, help who they love. They are apt to shrug nonchalantly when they speak of an acquaintance who has fallen in love or fallen out of love. But they are plainly wrong. When we wed, we vow to sustain our love for our partner. The love between a husband and wife is a solemn duty. The marital vow is best known for the phrase "to love, honor and obey." People have even greater trouble with the vow's "obey" part as they equate obedience with slavishness. But this pledge to obey simply means that a person agrees to set aside ego and self-interest and submit to this other person. If both parties in a marriage practice humility and deference, neither party can truly become subjugated to the other.

Ego has certainly driven a wedge between the couple in Before Midnight. In our modern world, men and women are self-important creatures. Marriage may be too mundane and restrictive for these sort of people. Too many people make the mistake of carrying on as if they are the star of their own personal Hollywood production, which is not a practical way to go through life. Life is real while movies, as I said before, are lies. At one time, the working title for my gag history book was Lies that Buster Keaton Told Me.

For decades, Hollywood pounded it into our heads that news reporters were sleazy (The Front Page, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Citizen Kane, Ace in the Hole) and then they pounded it into our heads that that news reporters were noble (All the President's Men, The China Syndrome, The Parallax View, Killing Fields).

At one time, consumers of films and television were told that the jock was a hero. Wally Cleaver was a jock. His parents were proud of him. His little brother looked up to him. His friends held him in high esteem. He was, in every way, a good guy. He showed up for every practice and he worked hard to succeed. He cooperated with teammates and did what his coach told him to do. In contrast, the coach had little use for the clownishly inept and unruly Eddie Haskell, whose role on the team was restricted to handing out towels.

But then a new trope was created. Now, according to Hollywood, the jock was a villain. The jock was, to everyone's dismay, a bully and a jerk. The unruly clown was the hero. I call this the wedgie era of cinema.

 To my knowledge, the earliest jerk jock was Flash Thompson, 
who tormented Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book.

Unfortunately, tropes alter the way people see the world. A trope may start out as a convenient tool for a lazy writer, but it soon becomes a form of propaganda. The nerds vs. the jocks became a political and ideological battle between intellectualism and athleticism. It became an argument in favor of the socialist idealists and in opposition of the fascist "men of action." In other words, it became nonsense that some people swallowed whole. I personally admire intellectuals and athletes. I favor the cooperation of different groups as opposed to conflict and competition. But films are about conflict and competition. It is for the same reason that marriage is portrayed in films as a battle of the sexes. I worry that this self-destructive battle has spilled over into real life.

Jesse Cataldo, critic with Slant, wrote of the Before Midnight couple, "Unmarried but united by children and a host of mundane responsibilities, the former trans-Atlantic soul mates are now a committed couple, no longer just a theoretical entity ready to be activated for another round of flirty debate. They have history and obligations, in addition to a growing sense of conjugal exhaustion, feelings made to seem even more prominent by the looming ruins of the film's Greek setting." That's what marriage is. It is history and obligations. . . and, oh yeah, diapers. It is not as juvenile, suspenseful, or enchanting as films usually make it out to be. It is not about drunken bachelor parties or lavish wedding receptions. It is not about the world recognizing or validating a couple's love for one another. That is the perspective of a person who imagines himself in a movie and is waiting to hear the audience applaud. The vital parts of our existence, such as our marriage and our job, are personal commitments that do not need to be announced to the world.

Let's talk about jobs. The notion of a career was inflated to absurd proportions by films. It was no longer enough for a man to work hard on a job so that he can earn a steady income to support his family. Careers came to the fore, causing the simple idea of a job to be obliterated. Careers give a person an identity, inspire their dreams and ambitions, and provide them with value. But isn't this really something that writers latched onto for the purpose of telling a good story? After all, writers have to find a way to clearly define a character. A character can be instantly defined in a film by his occupation. A character needs goals. Career ambitions translate into simple and distinct goals. A character needs to achieve a heroic victory in the end. Getting a contract with a new client or winning a promotion is a great curtain-closing victory. The difference between a job and career has been discussed extensively online. One writer claimed that, unlike a job, a career has a significant impact on society. Another writer said that a person puts time and energy into a job in return for money while a person puts his heart and soul into a career. That is self-important rubbish. A job is work with a paycheck. A career is work with a narrative. We walk through life as if we are characters in a movie. That, frankly, is stupid. Howard Beale said it in Network (1976): "You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here, you're beginning to believe that the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. You do. Why, whatever the tube tells you: you dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even think like the tube. This is mass madness, you maniacs. In God's name, you people are the real thing, WE are the illusion."

We are imaginary heroes in our own lives. We script our dialogue on Facebook. Party affiliations have become the white hat that we don in our daily showdowns in Internet forums. Draw, pardner! We have transformed ourselves into media figures.

My grandparents were too busy with their many obligations to go to a movie theatre. My grandfather owned a fruit stand. He was out of the house early in the morning to buy fruit at the farmers' market. At night, he watched the first half hour of the Ten O'Clock News before he went to bed. That was the extent of his television viewing. My grandmother watched The Mike Douglas Show while she cooked dinner. She once sat down with me to watch The Dean Martin Show. She affectionately referred to Martin as "that bum." She showed no other interest in television. My father, who worked multiple jobs, also never had much time for television. He once heard me down in the basement laughing my head off at an episode of F Troop. He came to see what I thought was so funny, but he didn't stick around for more than five minutes. I don't know what to make of people who watch a large amount of television and then spend hours talking about what they saw in online forums. That much television is bound to distort your perspective and generally rot your brain. I admit to having viewed more than my share of television, which explains the poor state of my own brain.

I love movies, don't get me wrong, but I know the difference between life and art, entertainment and propaganda, and enjoyment and overindulgence. A well-known saying is "History is written by the victors." A more accurate assessment of the situation is that history is written by the writers. God protect society from the lazy writers and their foolish tropes.

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