Thursday, August 23, 2012

 

Do Changing Tastes Signal a Cultural Decline?

Ray Harryhausen received inspiration from watching The Lost World and King Kong as a child; he knew that the dinosaurs and large animals that filled the movie screen were not real but he wondered how they looked so lifelike and he longed to create such creatures of his own. Harryhausen went on to provide the animation effects for many classic science fiction and fantasy films, including 1958's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and 1963's Jason and the Argonauts, which featured a battle between Jason and seven undead skeletons. Harryhausen also wrote, produced and directed numerous films; he retired from making full length feature films after producing 1981's Clash of the Titans, though he worked with Seamus Walsh and Mark Caballero to make 2003's animated short film The Story of the Tortoise and the Hare, completing a project that Harryhausen began in 1952. In 1992 Harryhausen received the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, an honorary Oscar recognizing an individual's "technological contributions" to the filmmaking industry.

The June 1993 issue of Starlog Spectacular contains a lengthy interview by Joe Nazzaro during which Harryhausen discusses his career and the evolution of filmmaking methods from the 1930s until the present day. His comments about the changing nature of the storytelling art are particularly interesting and insightful. Harryhausen recalled that when he began his career, storytellers would save the biggest scene for the climax but now readers and viewers have shorter attention spans and thus expect to read/see immediate, large scale destruction. He explained why this tremendous cultural shift disappoints and concerns him:

I think the taste is rather frightening, when you think the audience has to be entertained by disagreeable things, rather than things that are uplifting. I find that very distressing. The vast audiences that are attracted to these pictures now want to see more gore, so each producer tries to outdo the other in gore.

We had to leave Silence of the Lambs after the first half hour, because I found it disgusting. I've never been entertained by cannibalism; it's always been a negative thing. That's why we have what we're having [riots] on the television today in Los Angeles. People get so jaded to violence that they don't know right from wrong. I think the mediums of television and film have influenced people.

I was enormously influenced by King Kong. I was influenced by Lost Horizon. I was influenced by Ronald Coleman and Edward G. Robinson. There was a balance then, but now, there are no gentleman on screen. The heroes of the young people are violent.

A handful of neurotic people in Hollywood are telling the world how they should live, not realizing that a civilization has to compromise in order to exist together.

It would be easy to dismiss Harryhausen's complaints as the bitter ramblings of someone who has not produced a major movie in three decades and to say that the infamous 1992 L.A. riots were not caused by the media or filmmakers but by underlying social issues/tensions within that community--but Harryhausen is right that the content of books, TV shows and movies certainly has an influence not just on young, impressionable minds but on the overall nature of our culture in general. There has been a general coarsening of our society, a lowering of standards regarding how we communicate with each other (think of the proliferation of books with some variety of S@@@ or another thinly veiled euphemism in the title), how we dress (more and more provocatively at younger and younger ages, particularly females) and how we conduct ourselves in general. Things that would have instantly been dismissed as crass and gross by previous generations are now commonly played for laughs on sitcoms and in movies. Senator Patrick Moynihan referred to this phenomenon as "Defining Deviancy Down." A movie or TV show--or even an avalanche of movies and TV shows--did not directly cause the L.A. riots or any other societal problem but Harryhausen is correct that media members and storytellers are abdicating their responsibilities to society in ways that have negative consequences for all of us. Harryhausen elaborated about this important point:

...they sit there on television, all trying to figure out why people are revolting, why people can't tell right from wrong. Hitler knew this, that films influence people; that's why he had Leni Riefenstahl make all his propaganda films: To influence a nation of intellectuals into barbarism, and the films helped it. Everybody avoids saying that, because there's no responsibility anymore, of looking on the other side of life. It's an old cliche, but if you look up you'll see the stars, but if you look down, you'll be looking at the garbage can and the mess on the road.

No, movies did not cause the Holocaust and, yes, there was a climate of "intellectual" antisemitism deeply embedded in German (and European) society in addition to the primal hatred that Hitler tapped into with his speeches, with Riefenstahl's films and with the notorious printed material produced by Julius Streicher but Harryhausen is correct that all forms of media--internet, film, movies, books, magazines, newspapers--powerfully shape how we think, how we act and ultimately who we become. This was a central theme in George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece 1984 and I have always ruefully laughed at the brave pronouncements nearly three decades ago that Orwell's fateful year came and passed without his worst fears being realized: in many ways we are living in Orwell's dystopia, with the meanings of words twisted beyond recognition by politicians, business leaders and so-called journalists while evil tyrants massacre their own people.

Nazzaro mentioned that Silence of the Lambs did very well at the box office and Harryhausen immediately interrupted him:

And that's even more evil, because it was a well-made film. I'm not denying that, and I think Anthony Hopkins was superb. It was the subject matter. To have a well-made film on such a negative subject is half the problem today.

The writer has no responsibility anymore. He's just paid to make the picture commercial, make it more gruesome than Silence of the Lambs. In the old films, Hollywood had a self-imposed censorship, which taught directors how to use their imagination, and that's why those films appeared to be almost poetic in the way they were made. They have a classic value that today's films don't. Everything is laid on the line. You have to see a man's head blown off. You have to see his guts come out. Why? That's not entertainment and they knew this. In the early days, they knew the effect that films had on people, but they've reversed everything, from the '60s on.

This is why the media are dangerous. They influence people who are on the borderline of being unbalanced. The stresses of making a living today unbalance a lot of perfectly normal people.

We're witnessing the decline of democracy in the western world, and watching it like a television show, but nobody's doing anything about it. Nobody's getting at the root of it. Well, that's enough of my soap box.

Harryhausen uttered those wise words two decades ago, before CNN made stars out of obscure broadcasters and lawyers by turning O.J. Simpson's double murder trial into some perverse "entertainment" spectacle and before "reality TV" dominated the airwaves. Does this mean that there should be draconian self-imposed and/or government-imposed censorship of writers, fillmmakers and other artists, that married couples on film/TV should only be shown sleeping in separate beds and that no depiction of sex or violence should ever be permitted? Of course not; those sentiments are just straw man arguments thrown together by people who think that no moral standard of any kind should ever be applied to any kind of conduct in any situation. There has to be some middle ground, some safe place that our society learns how to inhabit in which artists are free to create while not abusing that freedom to produce works that are ultimately harmful. Perhaps that middle ground cannot be defined by legislation or even agreed upon in any organized way--but if our society does not figure out some way to find this middle ground then Harryhausen's prediction of the decline and fall of our civilization will prove to be quite prophetic.

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