I watched "The Letter" last night. It's the story of a married bitch who murders her lover and claims self-defense, and gets away with it thanks to the casual racism of the legal system. Seems the fact this Anglo man had taken an Asian wife was grounds enough to believe he'd tried to rape another Anglo woman. The ending is silly -- one where everybody gets their just desserts -- but necessary thanks to the restrictive Hayes Code of the times. But this is the first time I've seen it all the way through and what struck me was how honest it was about what the bitch did. She cheated on her husband with this man, twice a week for months, then killed him because he dared fall in love with a woman the bitch considered inferior to her.
Now no question it helped having Bette Davis play the bitch; nobody can portray cruel-hearted humans better than her (witness her chilling performance in "The Little Foxes"). And with a story by Somerset Maugham (who loves to pick apart British hypocrisy) and direction by William Wyler (who's responsible for more actors winning Oscars or getting nominations for one than any other director), it's a well-told tale of human duplicity and frailty. But it would never be made today. Period. Even in the independent film realm. Not as is.
The protagonist is a nasty human being who commits murder because she can't have what she wants. The antagonist is the dead man's widow, who wants her own form of revenge. The "heroic and honest" lawyer who thinks the bitch is innocent winds up helping her even after he learns she's not, due in no small part to his sense of duty to his race and society. And the husband is a weak man who still loves his wife even after finding out exactly what she is. Not one of these people has a truly redeeming quality amongst them. And yet, this was a huge hit of a movie in 1940. Nominated for Oscars and is considered a classic.
We don't make movies like this, anymore. We don't tell stories like this, even in novels. It's all totally dark ("Angela's Ashes", "Continental Drift", any of today's so-called horror films), or it's insipid (damaged hero fights the good fight and redeems himself, superheroes save the world, the world ends in magnificent images done through eye-popping CG as our hero navigates the horror like it's an "Indiana Jones" movie instead of the catastrophic deaths of billions, all good dramas have a life lesson learned in ABC dialog by the end of act 3)...or it all winds up as a lie to trick you into caring but on a superficial level ("Atonement", "The Orphan"). And I hate stories like that.
I remember going to see "Sophie's Choice" back when it first came out (I was in graduate school) and despising it because it was silly manipulative trash, and not that well done. Yes, Meryl deserved her Oscar and Kevin Kline did what he could with a poorly written role, but the only reason I stayed through the whole thing is, I was with friends. I DID walk out on "Legends of the Fall" when Brad Pit did that ludicrous scalping of German soldiers bit that was supposed to MEAN SO MUCH. And the only reason I stayed to the end of "Mystic River" was out of respect for Clint Eastwood, who HAS made some startlingly good, very complex dramas ("White Hunter, Black Heart", "The Bridges of Madison County"...and I know I'm in the minority saying this is good, but forget the idiotic book and focus on what Eastwood does with the characters and story and sense of place and time period; it's phenomenal).
But real, honest stories about real human beings in all their complexities don't sell in the US, anymore. They barely even exist in Europe, either. It seems the vast majority of the world's various cultures and peoples have decided film is to be no deeper than a video game, and if you can't entertain them and make them happy, they won't come see you. Even books have to be on the level of Jackie Collins of Judith Krantz in their complexity, no matter what direction you're taking the story. It has to say on that side of the fence and cannot cross over or include anything that contradicts the main story.
For example, "Hope and Glory" -- a movie about a boy living through the London blitz and enjoying it, even as people's homes were bombed and many died. It was brutally criticized for daring to suggest that kids could have fun in the middle of a hideous war. Same for Stephen Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun", which shows how a boy learns to fend for himself and comes of maturity while being held captive in a Japanese concentration camp. His idolizing of the Japanese was ripped as offensive, considering what they'd done to China and the Pacific rim. It was ludicrous, the vicious comments reviewers (who should have known better) tossed out. But what hurt both most was, they weren't box office hits. No one went to seen them because they weren't easy feel-good movies.
I guess this ties into the whole burgeoning "Dark Ages" idea I have building in my mind -- that people just want to be left alone and not think so they're letting themselves be dumbed down by psychotic fanatics (both religious and political) and the world is regressing into the same type of period as after the Roman Empire collapsed, when only isolated outposts like Ireland kept the knowledge of the ancients from being completely wiped out (supposedly). Read "How The Irish Saved Civilization" by Thomas Cahill. It oversimplifies the period and probably overstates the role the Irish Monastic system had in keeping the arts and letters of the past with us, but it's an enjoyable read.
Now excuse me while I try to figure out how to put into practice what I've just been preaching, as regards my writing "Place of Safety." Seems I just bumped my own bar up a bit before even trying to make my first jump. Only time will tell if I was an idiot to do so.