Sunday, April 06, 2008

For the benefit of my English-speaking readers

Modern film and the crisis of human values
In illo tempore, when the Roman Catholic Church wielded some power in Spain, a Human Values Film Week used to take place at Valladolid. The notion then was that cinema could be used as a means to educate the people. I do not know if Valladolid has kept any kind of Film festival at all; but I am sure that, if such a Festival still exists, it will have little to do with human values. Spain is in this respect no different from the rest of the civilized nations, which have finally deigned to welcome her into their fold. In order to deserve such honour, Spain had to shed some bad habits which for centuries had kept her in a state of anything but splendid isolation. One of these bad habits was to promote human values through motion pictures in festivals like the one at Valladolid. It was high time that Spain should do as the civilized world had done before her. I do not know if this behaviour fits in Professor Girard´s mimetic pattern. At any rate, why should Spain be different from everybody else? Gone were the dark ages when Spanish subjects felt proud of belonging to a country that was “different”. At long last subjects became citizens and human values were replaced by human rights.
It is in the name of human rights, that the citizen has the right to reject those “human values” concocted by Church and State, especially since those “human values” are not legal tender any more. Such “human values” implied a code of conduct aimed at making good subjects, while, on the other hand, human rights are the conditio sine qua non of good citizenship. And any good citizen has the human right to refuse being patronized by Church and State. In other words, no citizen is to be indoctrinated or “brain-washed” by the Establishment.
When “human values” film was riding high, the film industry enjoyed a sort of protectionism. Certain films would be pronounced to be “of national interest” and Censorship would do the rest. Censorship was supposed to prevent moviegoers from exposure to foreign ideas that might be detrimental to human values, and in fact tried to protect the national film industry from competition with foreign ones.
Film Censorship was by no means invented by the Spanish Inquisition. Film Censorship came to life in the America of the New Deal and it has a name - the Hays Office. The America of the New Deal believed in human values and knew how to make them compatible with human rights, and in the name of both fought a war and created the Hays Office. It was under the sway of the Hays Office that American moviemaking came of age and reached its golden age. The movies of that period promoted all the myths that allowed the American utopia to come true. Hollywood was a tremendous propaganda machine that promoted the human values that had made Americans well deserving of their human rights. Let me say that human values are the sum of human rights plus human duties. I always wondered why the United Nations did never publish a Universal Declaration of Human Duties that would match the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Professor Alvaro d´Ors has explained that it is so, because that Declaration already existed. It was proclaimed by Moses to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.
Hollywood set not only patterns of conduct but standards of beauty as well. Girls were glamorous, matrons were good cooks, boys handsome, men reliable and villains just villains. The picture, we must confess, was rather naïve, but a people, as the American people then was, in the throes of Depression, needed it very badly in order to believe in itself , pull itself together and face the formidable challenges of that time. Movie actors had also to be very careful off stage and live up to the moral standards they usually embodied in the screen. I do not mean to say that all would lead an impeccable private life, but the carryings on of many of them would not be touted or flaunted about lest their careers be jeopardized. Image means everything in the show business.
This rosy picture was by no means uniform. Evil had an important role to play; only it did not usually get mixed up with good and, as the morale went, “crime did not pay”. There were pirates, racketeers, double-dealers, wheeler-dealers, arms dealers , crooks, carpetbaggers, slave-traders, secret societies, foreign agents, but in the end the good guy, the “all American”, the embodiment of the American Dream, prevailed over the “public enemy number one”, in other words, over the “enemy of the people”. There were also scapegoats.
When Hollywood rallied to the war effort, the picture remained mostly unchanged; human values came to the rescue of human rights threatened by the forces of evil unleashed overseas. Germans and Japanese replaced red skins and XVII century Spaniards as scapegoats and, for brief spells during the Cold War, were joined by Soviet agents and Third World terrorists.
The 60’s did away with all that. The motion picture industry freed itself from the shackles of Censorship and had to cater to a new sensitivity. The only thing it kept from old times was some of the old scapegoats. Peaceful coexistence and the Vietnam war toned down the Soviet menace and turned terrorists into freedom-fighters, thus leaving the scapegoat role to Nazi Germany alone. The New York Times Sunday Magazine published an interview with the Spanish-Mexican moviemaker Luis Buñuel, who said that any man with a scale of values was a Fascist. Thus, from then on, human values became part of the parafernalia of the Scapegoat by excellence. No wonder, then, that Spain, an offspring of the Scapegoat, tried to promote them through the Valladolid festival.
In the mid 70’s Spain managed to shake off its fetters. Nothing could now prevent Spanish filmmakers from keeping up with their foreign counterparts. Finally Spain was in a position to give to the civilized world what the world always expected from it. The free world wanted Spain to change and Spanish films were the harbingers of that change. One of the human values of old that went down the drain in the process was the obsolete notion of patriotism. The Spanish film industry made a point of deriding everything that old Spain used to stand for, and very particularly Religion, motherland and family. Many Spaniards have taken to love their country, not only for the feats of its discoverers and conquerors, but for the accomplishments of its painters, its geographers, its architects, its men of letters. Men like Cervantes and Velázquez make me proud of being Spanish. Spanish pride has been one of the ingredients of patriotism. This is why the present Spanish film industry did apply itself as soon as it could to show that being Spanish was nothing to be proud but rather to be ashamed of. It is actually with a deep feeling of shame that I have often come out of a theatre in a foreign country after watching some film product with which my fellow-countrymen stun the world nowadays. If I had any patriotism left, that took care of it.
Not being a masochist by inclination, I have not watched so many films as I ought to and, among the few that I have watched, I find it rather difficult to single out one or another. Actually, I have a confession to make; for me, going to the movies today is like for a child taking a medicine or for a convict climbing the stairs of the scaffold. This does not mean that I am not aware of present trends in moviemaking. We live under the rule of the media and it is very difficult to escape the movies that are imposed upon us in means of public transportation or in the homes of inconsiderate acquaintances.
In the daily life of the Spanish people, television has taken over the role the Church used to play. The spiritual influence of religion has been replaced by the influence of the media. The television set is to common people what the pulpit and the confessional used to be. I suppose that this applies to all Spanish-speaking countries, with the exception of Argentina, where the television set must have replaced, not the confession booth, but the psychiatrist´s couch. Family counselor and oracle, television has wrenched from the Pope the dogma of infallibility, with this difference, that the Pope is infallible only when he speaks ex cathaedra, which happens seldom, while television is speaking ex cathaedra all the time. Besides, in many Spanish households the television set is permanently on, as a sort of sacred fire, as the domestic hearth of lares and penates.
This is why no one is free from exposure to modern cinema. Willy-nilly one must get acquainted with samples of a cinema where sex and violence count more than human values. One of the aims of the media, and film is one of them, is to contribute to the education of the masses. This was already so in the times of Lunacharsky and Goebbels. Now as then, educating the masses means making them “politically correct”. In order to be politically correct, the masses must discard all the taboos that a repressive education had imposed upon them in the name of human values. Many of these taboos had to do with sex. If the Church used to emphasize the Sixth Commandment - or the Third Deadly Sin - , so does the film industry in an opposite sense, of course. Sex is no more a sin, but a human right. Free speech is also a human right, but we know all too well that by “free speech” filmmakers understand what used to be called “foul language”. Words that in the good old times of human values could not be uttered “in mixed company”, are nowadays used by women with no inhibition whatsoever.
Racism is the denial par excellence of human values. Racism is, to say the least, unchristian. If there is anything for which the media might be commended is their insistence in putting racism in a bad light. However, this noble purpose is frustrated when it is pursued through the wrong means. The film Much ado about nothing is an excellent film by any standard, but it has two flaws. These flaws are due to the toll Art must pay today for the sake of “political correctness”. One has to do with sex and the other one with race. The film and the play it is taken from revolve about the notion of chastity. However, its first sequences manage to convey ribald innuendoes, when the viceroy and his party burst in the palace at full gallop, undress themselves and jump into the water while the women in the same palace are undressing to do the same. Male and female bathe separately, but the scenes are filmed so cleverly as to drive home a powerful erotic message. The other thing is the impersonation of the Spanish Viceroy by a black actor, while his half-brother, who happens to be the villain and is a bastard in every sense of the word, is played by a white man. Fiction can be fantastic but always should be plausible, especially if it is set against a precise historical background. Both actors ought to have swapped roles, if only for the sake of likelihood. The normal thing for a nobleman to do at the time was to marry into his own social class and eventually take a mistress who could very well be a slave girl from Africa or America, who would present him with beautiful bastards.
Here is another case of breakdown in verisimilitude for the sake of “political correctness”. In order to prove that Spain had actually changed and had broken all ties with its history, a production of Verdi´s opera Don Carlos was staged at El Escorial monastery, of all places. The villain in that opera, and in Schiller´s play, is Phillip II, who, in the above said production was impersonated by a black singer. It may be argued that the role of Othello has always been played by white comedians or white baritones, but they have had to make themselves up like Negroes, sometimes with very convincing results, as in the cases of Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier. The opposite is rather unlikely, we must admit. It would be quite a challenge for imagination to picture oneself a Hapsburg ruler in the skin of, say, Paul Robeson. I discussed once the subject with a friend who is also fond of opera and cinema and he argued that he did not see anything wrong with that, for it was high time that audiences should get familiar with certain facts. My idea is, on the contrary, that such facts - colour-blindness for that matter- happen to be a matter of opinion. If the antiracist message is too obvious and too crude, it may prove self-defeating.
Let me say that I approve of the use of the media to combat racism; for I am old fashioned enough to be for the educational role of the media. The trouble is that the media do not confine themselves to the teaching of human values, as they purportedly do in the fight against racism, but they promote at the same time patterns of behaviour that are an utter denial of any human value whatsoever.
There is no movie that does not carry a message. In other words, there is no single movie that, one way or another, does not indoctrinate the masses. In the old times the masses used to be lulled into stupidity with canned laughter sitcoms. Now they are told that the proper thing to do is not to wince in front of the worst aberrations of human nature. Take a recent film like The king of New York. An ex convict comes out of prison and tries to rebuild his empire by eliminating other mobsters. He is a sadistic killer and no gory scene is spared the spectator. In the long run, all he does is to take justice in his own hands. So do some cops and pay for it with their lives. The lesson is that law and order are to be left to tricky lawyers and corrupt politicians, who after all have been elected by the people. I have not yet made out if the hero is a villain or the villain a hero, for not only is his the only dignified death in the whole film, but he exposes all the vices and malfunctions of democratic society and, on top of all, he has developed a case of AIDS. The only thing the spectator has to do is to pay him homage by pinning a purple ribbon on his or her lapel.
Enough of a film I do not intend to watch ever again. On the other hand, there are pictures I never tire of watching. One of them is Babette´s Feast. Another one is L’albero degli zoccoli. Off-hand I cannot think of other titles, but I am sure that there are a few more that redeem moviemaking from its present murkiness. It is something if you come out of a movie theatre without thinking of suicide. The films I have just mentioned bring out everything that differentiates human beings from animals. That is, they are films about human values. They show that life is worth living and that happiness is to love your neighbour. They do not conceal the fact that life is strife; that people not always make the right choice; that our trespasses can be forgiven if only we forgive those who trespass against us. In order to reconcile himself with others, a man must first reconcile himself with his own self. And this is done by reconciling body and soul. This reconciliation should take place not only at the deathbed, but all life long, when the body is healthy and the spirit is full of zest. René Girard has acutely observed that there are two sorts of reconciliation in extremis, depending on which paragon one sets for oneself in life. If this paragon is materialistic, the thing for a man to do is to reconcile himself with his own self and forget about the people he tried to emulate. If, on the other hand, the paragon is idealistic, say, spiritual, the dying man will reconcile himself with his community. The first case, according to Girard, would be Julian Sorel´s in Red and Black; the second would be Don Quixote´s. In Babette´s Feast reconciliation does not have to wait to the last moment. It is not achieved at the deathbed but at the dinner table. And it is not only a reconciliation of village people with each other; it is a reconciliation of everybody with his or her own past, with the life they had led, for which and for the meal Babette fixed they say grace, they thank Him who decided for them, for, after all, everyone but Babette is a Lutheran.
Somebody said in France that you do not make good literature with good feelings. That cynical remark can be applied to cinema too and I am tempted to agree with it, for the fact is that good feelings are not enough when a work of art is in the making. Actually, good feelings pose quite a challenge and you have to be a Dante, a Cervantes, a Shakespeare or a Goethe in order to be able to face and overcome it. Human values by themselves do not make necessarily good pictures. A picture about human values should never be made to look like a propaganda film. It takes more than good feelings to make a good film, say, against racism.
In one of the cultural programs conducted in the French television by Bernard Pivot, someone accused the then Minister of Culture of trying to set cultural standards and treat the people as if they were schoolchildren. The dominant idea in that round table was that the Government agencies and the media must confine themselves to find out the tastes of the people and give them what they demand. A man is a human being. Three men could be a team; four men are already a gang, and a crowd is a herd. Herds have a natural disposition to fall upon all fours. This is why the media and Governments find it easier to drive them to the pastures they prefer than to set standards that would make them stand on their hind legs.
A French lady I used to know in Rome told me once that she did not want her daughter to get a religious education because that was lavage de cerveau. Lavage de cerveau (brain-washing) is a Cold War term that in France has replaced the prewar bourrage de crâne (skull-stuffing). People that allegedly refuse to be “brainwashed”, say, by teachers or scholars, lend themselves to have their skulls stuffed by the minstrels and charlatans of our time. But I would say this; that this is not the people´s fault. People do not know any better. People always do what they are told to do. I know a publisher in Spain who boasts of being capable of making a best-seller out of a book of blank pages. Actually, none of his best-sellers is a book of the sort. All the books he sells by the thousands are printed, but they are almost invariably trash. I am persuaded that with the same effort he could equally peddle good literature.
Whenever I look at the “people” or the “crowd” or the “masses”, I think of the individual human beings who make them up and whose human values are ruthlessly trampled by the very ones who pay lip service to “public opinion”. I am old enough to remember the times when a masterpiece could be a box-office hit. I could go on for hours citing pictures that became a world success. Take some of Pabst´s or Murnau´s or Hitchcock´s or Max Ophüls´ masterpieces. Take a film with such a fine acting, such a well contrived plot and such a demanding content as All about Eve. Was Der blaue Engel or Shanghai Express ever a flop? None of these films was about human values, but they were not against them either. They were meant to entertain, not to make despair. What shall I say about the filming of plays like Shaw´s Pygmalion or Shakespeare´s Hamlet? I saw a dubbed version of Laurence Olivier´s Hamlet in the back yard of a Spanish tavern many years ago and I can assure that the whole village was there and enjoyed the film. Then I understood how Culture can easily reach all kinds of people, provided those who own it are in a position and have the will of imparting it.
However, nobody can give that, which he has not. The trouble with our time is that there is no leadership. Robert Michels used to say that leadership and democracy are incompatible. This was not always so. Some democratic rulers in the 30’s and 40’s were leaders. A leader is a man who knows and shows the way. When a man knows the way he may also know what Culture is about. Then, he has every right to tell the people which way to go.
This is not so nowadays. Even cultivated statesmen, like the late French President Mitterrand, are above all politicians and, culturally speaking, bow to the mob rule. This is done by privatizing the media. Privatizing the media does not mean giving them out to the “people”. It means putting them in the hands of big money, and big money usually has little use for human values. Human values mean very little for those who control the mass media, and shape through them “public opinion”. These people are certainly no leaders, for they are, as the Beatles used to sing, “men of nowhere” who come of nowhere and don’t know where they go."

Paper read at the seminar held in Graz, Austria, by COV&R (Colloquium on Violence and Religion) in June 1997.

1 comment:

alvaro said...

Los valores por los que se mueven los medios es el económico.Si un producto vende aunque sea nefasto se promueve.El consumidor ha de tener la suficiente formación para saber decir NO.