“The great German actor-director, Maximilian Schell died recently at 83 and his obituary noted his comment that of all the works of art he’d seen and participated in for the betterment of mankind, he could honestly say that none of them had added up to much, and that man had not civilized himself in the least. It was a depressing conclusion to a well-lived life, and one in which I find myself depressingly and increasingly in agreement with. Aside from the sum of poetry, literature, dance, opera, theater, etc—whether it’s Henry Fonda in Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, or the Frank Capra movies, Stanley Kramer, or all our own modern film efforts—we must wonder what happened! Eloquent recitals of Lincoln’s ‘better angels of our nature’ must be autopsied alongside the violence of his assassination.
For every time a filmmaker glorifies man and his humanity, there are corresponding nadirs of extreme irrationality and stress when we descend so readily into caveman emotions—whether it’s August 1, 1914, 9/11, or the roots of most wars. Why does the reactionary concept of military force, or the taking of vengeance without knowing who is actually behind a provocation, so easily predominate over diplomacy and the use of ‘soft power’ to render solutions? Peter Kuznick and I addressed this issue in our Untold History of the United States, particularly in the closing Chapter 10 (“Bush and Obama – Age of Terror”). We also made a point, in the early chapters, of comparing Franklin Roosevelt’s calmer, positive approach to a Grand Alliance to Harry Truman’s “take it or leave it” approach with the Soviet Union—which of course resulted in their leaving it. Out of this attitude grew the Cold War.
During a recent Facebook/Twitter Q&A, I was asked if I had any insight into why my most iconic characters tend to be reactionary instead of progressive. My response was that in life and politics, the outspoken and stubborn often receive far more attention than those who favor conciliation and appeasement. Appeasers are dismissed as soft and weak, although theirs is most often the superior approach; sometimes political goals are reached without decisive ‘wins.’ Movies parallel reality but also offer a larger-than-life reality, and escapes from reality. We like tough characters, we like ‘strength,’ but do we really want John Wayne to run the State Department? Weren’t Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush’s presidencies enough of an example to frighten us?
How can we as filmmakers improve this situation? The odds we carry from the last century of filmmaking and the resulting terrors and wars that have engulfed us are slim, yet ask any young, progressive-minded filmmaker, “What would you do if not this? Could you be satisfied the other way—making homages to violence, racism, torture, vigilantism, and revenge, as so many recent works have done, such as Lone Survivor, Black Hawk Down, 24, or Zero Dark Thirty, etc?” This is an age of corporatized ‘democracy’ and a corporate media that justifies themselves with a view of American ‘exceptionalism’ that is more often propaganda than truth. In its name we create enemies, and like Christian Knights, we set out slay the dragons.
This is a very dangerous mindset and time. We as a country have become so militarily and economically powerful that we dominate the world without many of our citizens realizing how aggrandizing our power has become. The danger is that in our self-love, we applaud ourselves as ‘democratizers,’ ‘freedom-bringers,’ when in fact we can’t provide a true working democracy in our own country. When it takes a billion dollars to become president, that’s no democracy.
Still I continue to believe a film can at least keep the idea, if not the substance, of freedom and dignity of the individual foremost in our minds. And to that effect, if I can do one more ‘lost cause’ of a film, I will, with my last breath, try.” MM
Original illustration for MovieMaker by Sergey Maidukov. See more of his work here.
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.