The problem with Hollywood movies today is not necessarily stupidity or too much sex and violence. It’s that in too many of today’s movies, characters never change.
A perfect example is Rent, the film adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s hit play. I absolutely loved this film — that is, for the first 90 minutes. The gifted cast is charismatic and the songs terrific (if not Rodgers and Hart). More importantly, the story is compelling. A group of bohemians in New York circa 1989 can’t pay their rent. Their landlord is the father-in-law of one of their former comrades, a former boho who “sold out” and became a yuppie.
It ain’t Shakespeare (or even Puccini), but there are interesting lines of conflict. Mark is a film maker whose footage of a riot gets him noticed by a local tabloid television show. Rock musician Roger resists the advances of stripper Mimi because he is HIV positive — not knowing that she is also. A lesbian couple struggle because one of them can’t be faithful.
These are situations that are ripe for the kind of personal transformation that give drama its heft. How will Mark negotiate the world of television and the conflict with the conventional? How will New Mexico change Roger? How will Maureen struggle to overcome promiscuity, which hurts her preppie girlfriend? After all, change and transformation are the very stuff of drama; Scarlett O’Hara goes through the hell of war and hunger and is reborn as someone tougher and wiser — “after all, tomorrow is another day.” In Casablanca, Bogey goes from cynic to patriot — and gives up rather than gets the girl. In The Lord of the Rings, every single character changes dramatically from beginning to end. More recently, in the great film Capote we see a writer undone by his own ambition and manipulation.
But to most the Hollywood left, the defense of leftist orthodoxy means that characters do not change. This is what undoes Rent. Near the end of the film a character dies, and it blows apart friendships. The rock musician sells his guitar and moves to New Mexico — for about 45 seconds, then he returns to New York. Aspiring director Mark actually gets a paying job — then quits. The “uptight” lesbian decides that promiscuity ain’t all that bad. Mimi the stripper dies — but wait! She’s actually alive again, saved by the dead transvestite Angel, who told her to “go back.”
To be fair, there was one film conservatives embraced that was guilty of the same thing — the awful Forrest Gump. Lead character Forrest doesn’t change — heck, he doesn’t even think. He just stands there for two hours, reacting to what goes on around him. Yes, his values of love and loyalty are venerable. But he never has to pass through any fire to come to hold those beliefs. When things get rough, he goes on a cross-country jog.
This is not only dramatic malpractice, it evidences a kind of cowardice. Liberal orthodoxies about politics and culture have become sacramental in some circles, and better to make a movie that moves from point A to point A than risk undermining those beliefs. In North Country — which tanked — a woman has to take on the sexism of her workplace, and is exactly the same person after two hours. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck spends almost two hours on Joseph McCarthy and the 1950s and never mentions Mao, Whittaker Chambers, or any of the actual Soviet spies who were in the government. Edward R. Murrow serves as liberal Gibraltar, everlasting, unchanging, implacable in the face of a genuine communist threat. Forget politics — how much more tonic would be a film about a character who must alter course at the risk of his life. Indeed, why has no one ever made a film of Witness, the remarkable memoir by Whittaker Chambers?
Because Chambers traveled from left to right, and that just can’t be depicted in Hollywood. And it’s been going on a long time. I recently revisited the Woody Allen film Manhattan, and I was struck by a particular scene. Woody Allen’s character meets a woman played by Diane Keaton, and they fight. Keaton’s character is a woman from Philadelphia, and she’s in New York working as a journalist. She works for a magazine called Insight that is run by “shmucks mired in 1930s radicalism.” She rejects what she calls “the hall of the overrated.” In that hall are, among others, Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer, Carl Jung, and Ingmar Bergman — Allen’s favorite film maker. Allen bristles when his hero is attacked, but Keaton goes in for the kill: “[Bergman] is just so bleak and Scandinavian. It’s all that fashionable pessimism and Kierkegaard — ‘the silence of God.’ Ok, I get it. I loved it when I was at Radcliffe, but you outgrow it. Let’s face it: it’s the dignifying of our own psychological and sexual hang-ups by attaching them to these grandiose philosophical issues. I mean, I’m from Philadelphia, I believe in God.”
You have to give Allen credit: he pulled no punches in introducing a smart, articulate character to challenge his Upper West Side liberalism. But then, with no explanation, Keaton’s journalist loses her edge. She suddenly becomes Annie Hall, fumbling, stuttering, and smitten by Allen’s charms. But then she goes back to the married man she had been having an affair with. He ends that film at exactly the place where she began it — sans the wit and edge and conservative streak. This is not to say that a character can’t go from right to left. But there’s no reason for it. Perhaps Allen, like most of his audience, simply assumes conservatism is a mental illness and Keaton got over it. Indeed, in Crimes and Misdemeanors Allen depicts conservatism literally as a mental illness.
Yet the best movies are the ones that turn characters’ lives inside out — and they tend to be conservative or family-friendly movies. The Harry Potter series is really about nothing but transformation and meeting the challenges of life. Ditto The Incredibles, whose accept-your-destiny theme was embraced by the Right. In both Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, characters experience epiphanies, triggered by life experience and the face of evil, that dismantle then reconstruct their world views.
My favorite number in Rent is “La Vie Boheme,” a high-energy defense of the boho lifestyle. What makes it so winning is how light it is; the playfulness of the scene, a wink to the audience, says that the characters are self-aware enough to realize that they will grow our of this phase in their life — that they too realize that they are a bunch of dumb, if sweet, kids. Too bad it didn’t come at the end of the show.