Thursday, July 11, 2013

Morality, Boys and Hollywood

Is Hollywood bad for us? Is our land, as a terrorist said, the Great Satan?...

Before television, or radio shows, or moving pictures, there was Rudyard Kipling's violent short story, The Drums of the Fore and Aft, about two army drummer boys. The boys play this song:

Some talk of Alexander,
and some of Hercules; 
of Hector and Lysander,
and such great names as these;
but of all the world's great heroes,
there's none that can compare,
with a tow-row-row-row-row-row-row
to the British Grenadiers.

I keep chuckling proudly over something about a boy in the TV show Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles ...
I'll get back to these boys later.

...For some bewildered or righteous folks our chaotic nation includes Hollywood TV shows and movies that are "scandalous and violent." Not exactly heroic. For them that rumbling sound you hear is a railway car, shaped like a hand basket, carrying us all thundering down to hell. For me though, as a writer and citizen, Hollywood makes clear sense.

Occasionally, of course, a director with a second-rate understanding for all aspects of movie making tries to load up his movie with sex and violence—ok, and with immorality—no way, and then wonders why his second-rate B-movie sinks like a stone. It is fine for a new director to make a pessimistic movie that speaks to the dark side of an audience; it is fine if his next movie speaks to the brighter side of that same audience—but what he must never do is make an attack on the morals of that audience.

Obviously the public doesn't need to have the conscious eye of a writer or anthropologist. At some less conscious level the immorality of a movie will register, and then the public will register their disapproval at the box office.The average person, I presume, never thinks much about Hollywood morality. Some people, if asked, might smirk and say that (since the 1960's) "anything goes." Not so.

To train one's eye for adult shows it is fun to consider shows for boys. I grew up during the golden days of black-and-white westerns. My peacefull granny bought me a cowboy hat. That summer I fell dead in so many ways: twisted, flopped, sagged—I did a terrific slow sag off a raised oil tank once. This while our TV heroes, such as the Lone Ranger, never once shot or even wounded anyone. (Batman was the same) To disarm the man in the black hat, at the end of the show, the hero would shoot the gun, not the hand. No blood. My brother Pat remembers a horse chase. The robber kept turning in his saddle to shoot at the hero, while our hero, in his white hat, kept winding up his lasso. (Yes, he "caught" the crook) Again, no blood.


TV changed to color, horse chases changed to car chases. Remember Dukes of Hazard? As in this summer's fashion of Daisy Duke shorts? "Just two good old boys, never meaning no harm." In every episode a police car would flip over. Always—despite how every second of camera time is precious—always the cops would be shown nimbly climbing from their vehicle, and thereby showing their prime time viewers that they were totally unharmed. The duke boys meant no harm.

Remember The Fugitive? It was broadcast after bedtime for children. David Janssen played Dr. Richard Kimble, searching for the one-armed man. In the adult world, where hats are often gray, the fugitive often found himself teaming up with shady characters. I remember watching an episode on the couch with a buddy. The fugitive's buddy-of-the-week had to slug a policeman and then the two ran off. My buddy shouted, "You see that? The fugitive never hits a cop! Then if he finds the one-armed man there will be no charges against him!" True. The other issue was: heroes don't hit policemen. Space age writers of digital scripts, and bronze age tellers of tales at hearth fires, have always held their heroes, such as Hector, up to high moral standards. A storyteller is part of the town, accountable to the town.

As a writer and story teller, I am mindful of Orwell's observation that every healthy society must demand a little more from people than it can reasonably expect. As a person, in the darkness away from the story teller's campfire, I know I am not so good. In fact, I am a timid middle aged man. If some one points a gun at me, or if he makes death threats, then I cannot sooth myself that "he is only trying to scare me." Of course, to spare me from taking the law into my own hands, such acts are criminal offences...


But as a timid man I might not risk waiting for the law to prevail. Also, if I have to club someone on the head then I might just be tempted to "clear my back trail," to relieve myself of feeling so afraid of someday being a target of revenge. I might be tempted to... er—, "terminate with extreme prejudice." (sorry) Luckily for everyone I live a nice timid life.

The closest I get to action is seeing Hollywood adventures where if my hero has to knock someone out... then he will take the time to tie the bad guy's wrists and ankles and elbows and and thighs and so forth, not forgetting to gag him too, and maybe take his uniform, and then rush off in disguise to save the day.

In The Terminator, the first movie, we see Schwartzennager, the robot, arrive, then later the resistance hero arrives naked. (It's a time travel thing.) The hero steals a cop's gun, but without harming any cops.

In T2 Schwartzenagger arrives again, then later the resistance fighter shows up and comes across a cop. We see him next wearing the cop's clothes and gun but we don't explicitly see the cop hog-tied. Tension: In our culture this sets up a dramatic tension. The movie is in no hurry, not until page 95 (paperback) of the book by Randall Frakes, to reveal that the "resistance fighter" is not human. Whew! Instantly the movie (and book) is moral again. (The cop must be dead) And the robot's subsequent killings can be explicitly shown.


I found some interesting comments on a blog that I follow of anthropologist Grant McCkracken. He wrote for November 24, 2008:

"...This means TV can't ever ever entertain a tragic view of the world.... TV land is benign.

But on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, life's a nightmare, then you die... The characters know they are doomed in the short term or the long. Even if good wins out over evil, the world will still be reduced to rubble. But the hope of triumph is slender at the best of times, and incredible all the rest of the time."

... Post post script: Anyone interested in what feminism means for popular culture must watch this show."

McCracken also writes, "Please do check it out. It's numbers are down and, as I say, it's really just tremendously good fun."

One might cynically ask: Ha-ha, can a single viewer's tiny act do anything to change the (ratings) numbers? Nevertheless, "everyone doing tiny acts" is the basis of any society. People amidst democracy are accustomed to much greater responsibilities than with any other form of government. So anthropologist McCracken may be "crazy" to ask for action, but in this culture he is perfectly correct in doing so.

In Canada our suburban schoolboys mustn't carry a gun explicitly made for man-killing. Not unless, perhaps, they are in uniform in the army reserves. They can enlist as early as sweet 17 but very few enlist quite that young, for obvious reasons. I was once in high school, at a study table leaning forward to read of Kipling's heroes, while a long-haired classmate dreamed of rock concerts and banged his imaginary drums. I knew my classmate had no business going off to be a drummer in battle—leave it to the adults.

For the opening credits of Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles everyone is walking cool: the camera pans past the determined single mother, Sarah Conner, with her gun, then past her ally, Carmen, with her gun, and then to her son with his cool shoulder bag. As I recall, for season two the camera pans past the first two and then—scene cut. Because for season two John has advanced a grade and turned 16... But to the viewers he is still a schoolboy.

At this I am amused. And I'm pleased at how the TV producers are trying to cope, trying to be moral. And so I am proud to be North American. If any one calls us decadent, calls us "the great Satan" then I look him in the eye and say: "Don't be silly...."

I am so looking forward to seeing the Season Two DVD of Sarah Conner.

Sean Crawford,
drinking infidel red wine,
January, 2009.18


~The link to the anthropologist's site is broken so I deleted it.

~Having bought the DVDs I can see that my memory was off—unless they changed things. After all, Hollywood has been known to do retroactive changes. They say the Gilliagan's Island opening song used to end "and all the rest" before they firmly decided on the number of cast(aways), and today when I see a re-run of even the very earliest episodes of Enterprise I still get the Rod Stewart type singer, and not the original nostalgic-type (for me) singer. So my essay stands.

~On the web, where many of us are young computer (nerd) users, where no one uses sports figure icons, but many use anime figures as our live journal icons... I can forget that many older people use their computers as glorified typewriters and mail boxes. And they don't watch popular culture. Last night I did an abreviated version of this essay as a speech at my toastmaster club. My speech evaluator was puzzled when I went from talking about terminators to some one named Sarah. A club member that I talked to afterwards didn't know any of the shows mentioned except for The Lone Ranger. Well. I've learned something.

~My brother-in-law was a hunting guide for rich crazy foreigners. I first knew that he saw me, his city-slicker brother-in-law, as sensible and competent, on the day he walked about in front of me while I had a loaded 303. This while we were shooting.

When our girls were plinking with 22's they, of course, were never behind us.

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