Movies Give Us The Meta-Message
My husband and I went to the movies yesterday. We are not excited by hype or first run or being the first on our block to see or do anything. So we went to a second-run movie and saw the third in the “Shrek” series. Now the story was fine and the animation was impeccable. But me, being me, I always look for the “meta-message” in movies. What “message,” what lesson are the children (and adults) who sit through this movie getting pumped into their subconscious mind? I am assuming we are talking about the subconscious mind, since I have never heard other people talk very much spontaneously about this issue, which to me is a very fascinating one. First, a little about Shrek III for those adults and children who may have missed it.
Shrek is bored with the non-ogre like life as a father of a family with Fiona, his own true love. So much so that he signs a pact with Rumpelstiltskin – who seems to have purchased the embodiment of evil franchise from Satan. This launches him into a plot that is essentially the same as Jimmy Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life” (and if you’ve never seen that movie, just wait until Christmas season and it will be on every TV channel night and day for a month).
Shrek has some pretty hair-raising adventures, and – rest assured — ends up happy to be the father of a family again by the end of the picture. So the “meta-message” is that the best thing to be is what you already are, even if it is disagreeable on some level. Yes, diapering bratty, farting babies has its own rewards, and sure beats being lonely and battling witches. In other words – CHANGE.
The power of the meta-message might have missed me entirely if it were not for a lavish commercial that proceeded the movie, that showed that Americans were a nation of craftspeople. (Don’t you just love going to the movies and sitting through a half hour of commercials?) The commercial’s message was “the things that we made, made us.” Actually, the message was, “buy a new car – our brand, of course.” The visuals treated us to great parades of people working in factories to make high quality stuff. Great. I don’t even remember what brand of car the commercial was for. I was enraged. Why was I enraged? Maybe it’s just me, but I would rather be the person who designed the car or owned the company, and lived in a better house than everyone else. An affluent person who sold ideas instead of handiwork. Clearly, neither the commercial, nor the movie, was really meant to appeal to me. So I talked to my husband about what the movies were and have become. Sequels are conservative investments, and the movies are as much a money business as anything else, maybe more. People want assured successes – a return on their investment.
I have never heard anyone say this before, but this probably has something to do with congratulating people for being as they already are, making them feel satisfied and comfortable with their lot in life. Sure, everybody has fantasies — men love explosions, so we get to see explosions and car chases and good-guy buddies putting a stop to the bad guys.
Hollywood gives the audience what they want. Blockbusters can get made only because they are sure to make money. Now for someone like me, who is not a celebrity follower, who goes to the movies with her husband as a respite from vicissitudes of life, the great subculture of movies and how they get made remains very confusing. It seems like an old boys club(and maybe now there are some old girls) who plays with money like candy-canes, who speak in high-faluting terms about dreams and vision, but still mostly make movies where things blow up. Or maybe, on a good day, chick flicks where people get physically intimate within a context that makes it good and right.
Maybe there are no accident, but as luck would have it, we recently watched a documentary: “Overnight.” It is the true story of someone from the part of Boston my family so carefully kept me from as a child – a rough-at-the edges Irish bartender/bouncer type who lived on the knife edge of senseless violence, and had the ambition to write a screenplay about it. He also performed in a rock band – who were purportedly talented, but not exactly to my taste in music. He came up with the right script at the right time, and got accepted by mainstream Hollywood – The William Morris Agency and Miramax Pictures. The young man – Troy Duffy – was going to be the next big star – like Sylvester Stallone was with “Rocky” 40 years earlier.
The movie itself is a formula revenge flick, about two brothers who go after the bad guys, shooting, crashing cars, exploding – making lots of noise. The rock band got the contract to provide songs for the soundtrack. In addition – to really sweeten the deal – Miramax was going to buy the bar where Troy worked and give him 50% ownership (Miramax was going to own half of a bar).
As a native of Boston, I am interested whenever a program has some kind of a message about that city, and senseless violence, maybe even about the levels of pseudo and real sophistication of Boston society and scheming that make Boston such a wonderful base for stories. However, there is a TV series called “Leverage” that does it so much better.
The point of the documentary was how success spoiled Troy Duffy and he frittered away the best deal anybody could dream of – if you are a dreamer with Hollywood aspirations. It was filmed by his closest friends, who set out to document the meteoric rise of a nobody to a somebody – but ended up as a cautionary tale that could have been subtitled “Don’t Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch.” He started out as the goose that laid the golden egg, but some cross between Hollywood Politics and the fact that Troy has some kind of a severe personality disorder — something with a healthy dollop of narcissism — meant that nobody is could work with him. Not Hollywood, not the buddies from the ‘hood:” nobody.
There are painful scenes of Troy on the phone cursing at his agent and at MiraMax studio representatives before the movie is even off the ground. He thinks his movie deserves Robert DeNiro and other top-caliber talent. His ego has run away with him. Troy’s film got scrapped by Miramax but eventually made at a fraction of the budget by a ninth-rate studio who moved the filming to Canada (parts of which could realistically pass for Boston). “Boondock Saints,” never got wide distribution theatrically. It played less than a week in half a dozen theaters. The soundtrack album of Troy and his band sold a total of 700 copies.
In this age of home video, “Boondock Saints” found success and made a healthy amount of money for it’s studio – but Troy’s agent didn’t negotiate any percentage of home video or cable TV sales so Troy was back at the bar, checking IDs at the door and bouncing rowdy drunks.
But I digress — Back to movies in general.
Now if you went to my grandmother of blessed memory, and asked her what her favorite movie of all time was, she would probably say the “Life of Emile Zola” starring Paul Muni. My husband took less than ten seconds to explain to me why a movie of that sort could never be made again. Something about the old Hollywood studio system when the stars were under contract, the studios had standing sets and lots of costumes, and they also owned the theaters so they had to pump out tons of movies and an audience that had no TVs at home was anxious to see any pictures that moved and had sound. Now granted, my grandmother had a crush on Paul Muni, whose real name was Muni Weisenfreund. He had been a star of the Jewish theater in New York and she said she saw him perform there in person before he made it in Hollywood. But there were other things.
Emile Zola had been basically exiled from France and came back; he voluntarily took on hopeless political struggles. The grandiosity of the theme of the movie was so intense; well, my grandmother of blessed memory knew about Dreyfus, the Jewish officer downed by prejudice, and how an older Zola took on the cause and wrote “J’accuse” (I accuse) and had vindicated Dreyfus.
This she somehow linked to reasoning that it was all right for me, Jewish Estelle, to go to medical school in France because of Paul Muni. My life has been directly enhanced by this movie, which I didn’t see until many years later on one of those classic movie cable channels celebrating the birthday of Paul Muni. Never mind that Paul Muni played a non-Jew, he helped a Jew, so he was one of my grandmother’s heroes, like Harry Truman who recognized the state of Israel. My grandmother was struggling with English, I would not have classified her as an intellectual. But something in that movie did uplift her.
We are not making movies like that now, and we are not going to. The only movies that get made are star vehicles – Brad and Angelina, Tom Cruise, Denzel, Streep, Will Smith and others who can assure a crowd at the box office. Or maybe remakes of old movies (as I write this The Karate Kid is popular once again with Jackie Chan and Will Smith’s son starring and Disney’s Tron will soon be released). Or sequels like Shrek and Toy Story. Or comic book, toy and video game spin-offs like Iron Man or Transformers.
Then the film must be vetted by focus groups – after which new endings might be shot, or scenes might be eliminated.
In other words, Hollywood wants assurance of the economic acceptability of a movie before it is shown in the theater.
Paul Muni and his peers – from Clark Gable and Gary Cooper to Barbara Stanwyck and Joan Crawford – were under contract and were assigned a script to shoot at a flat salary. Today, movies are sliced up and everyone gets a piece of the pie – actors, director, writer. Instead of a studio system, there are networks of friends, like Ben Stiller’s string of movies, and Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler with their cronies.
But through the years and the changes in Hollywood, one thing is still the same – the meta-message.
TV, Movies and most other kinds of mass entertainment have always tried to make the public believe that we all have to be the same. That our rebellions have to be lockstep. That we have to have the same things that everybody else does, that we need to copy the looks and the actions of the celebrities.
I grew up in a world where any boy (girls were not yet allowed in the game) could grow up to be President. I had a classmate in the third grade, for the brief time I was in public school, who wanted to be President. His father was an alderman or something, but that boy was going into politics and we all knew it. I think he actually became something in local politics. I remember seeing his name in the newspaper when I returned home years later, and a picture of him smiling. I had not thought him to be excessively bright. We all know by now that is not a prerequisite for politics. The programming by his folks was. There is no programming discernable in the society that surrounds us to be extraordinary, to be an achiever, to be a leader. We are taught not to question authority. Anyone who breaks out of this indoctrination does so on his or her own – seeking truth and justice and The American Way. But by the time we are formed – and it is very early in life — everyone has internalized a group identity which includes low self esteem.
Me, I don’t think I could fit in with a crowd if I tried. In my heart I believe if we each have one life, it should be spent being true to ourselves, which is likely to be labeled eccentricity and perhaps even criticism. But this is the only chance of leading to greatness. Movies do not now seem poised to tell us that. If anything is, it should be the parents and family. This is one thing I think my folks got very right. I frankly do not know anyone else who does. I certainly do not know any current hit, really popular movies, about extraordinary people, that make us want to be extraordinary people.