Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Films That Ate America

In 1915, early Hollywood innovator D.W. Griffiths released a film called THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

The film portrays a bigoted version of post-Civil War America, where a righteous Ku Klux Klan rises up to drive out the corrupt African American scourge that was (apparently) running the South.

The film's antagonists (played by white men in blackface) were presented as sexually predatory to white women. It went on to become the most-viewed film of Griffith's era. Things got ugly.

Because of the film's popularity, the Ku Klux Klan saw a re-birth in many Southern States. And because of that re-birth, the lives of a whole lot of people got much, much worse.

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In 1975, Steven Spielberg put out a film called JAWS, which quickly became a smash hit, entrenching the idea in the public psyche of sharks (previously viewed as mostly harmless to humans) as vicious, vindictive killing machines. Even I, having never watched the movie, am more scared of sharks because of it. Just the thought of that soundtrack. Shudder.

As a real-life result, catching and killing sharks became sexy in the U.S., and the populations of some varieties of sharks declined by as much as ninety percent.

The movie also sparked an intense scientific interest in the previously-ignored species, and conservation efforts picked up, as well.

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Movies. Films. Cinema.

Whatever you want to call them, they've got power. A combination of sound and pictures thrown together in service of a story, they sweep us up in their narrative force, causing us to feel what the protagonist feels -- to engage along with him or her in the moral question of the piece. And make no mistake: movies are morality tales. 

They are written by people with real points of view. And because they are emotion-machines, they have the capacity to impact the way we think far more deeply than any dry, reasoned argument.

This... scares me.

It scares me because one of the best and worst things about filmic art is that it can never be fully controlled.

Films are pieces of art made by committees -- a communal act that creates a weird, potent fusion of art and commerce. No one person is either in charge of or responsible for the outcome.

Steven Spielberg's movie got a whole lot of its emotional impact from the fact that the tech guys couldn't get the shark to look right. Spielberg ended up having to cut a whole lot of their mechanical shark's scenes; and as a result, the shark became a (much more terrifying) evil force, lurking in the dark waters below. Spielberg didn't mean for everyone to end up terrified of sharks. He just wanted to tell a good, engaging story.

But his story -- like all stories -- had a life-force of its own.

Sometimes I wonder why I'm trying to do something so crazy as to write movies.

What if we get my recent short film LOCKER 212 all cut together, and it doesn't really work? What if the thing somehow encourages everybody to think that violence is a good solution to violence? What then?

On the other hand, movies have also been responsible for some of my greatest leaps in personal empathy, and have become touchpoints in the growth of my character. Would I give that up, because of the risk?

In the end... there is no end. Just a complicated, frustrating journey of making, making, making; throwing art over the wall between me and the Other... out into the endless dark.

My conclusion -- if I were to have one -- is that this is okay.

That people need and will have their stories, and that I want to tell them.

So I will try to do so. I will try to banish my fear, and remember to tell my stories with as much love and kindness as I can manage, hoping that that my best intentions will win the day. That the KKK will be vanquished, and sharks will come to be seen as the cute and cuddly creatures they no doubt really are.

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