Sunday, January 27, 2008

Worst Cliches of Movieland #1: The Gun

Peter Medak's superb 1991 film, Let Him Have It dramatizes the case of a somewhat dim young man who becomes a petty criminal in 1950s England, gets caught in the middle of a robbery, and winds up being hanged for his alleged part in the shooting of a policeman. He was convicted because of something he said to his fellow thief, who happened to have a revolver pointed at a policeman: "Let him have it!" The defense claimed he was telling the guy with the gun to hand it over to the policeman. The prosecution argued (successfully) that he was using the old line from countless Hollywood gangster movies whose universal meaning was - shoot him!

Americans would've recognized the line and would've sent the young man to the gallows (or else had him fried in an electric chair) regardless. Long ago, James Agee was reviewing a British film and commented on how something comes across in British films that he never saw in American films - a higher regard for the sanctity of life and a high seriousness about killing. The film revealed something about the British - a respect or love for one another - that he didn't find in American films. Medak's film has the same effect: an attention that an American viewer would regard as sentimental or inconsequential - a loving attention to people and to their fates.

It is an ongoing, and probably endless, argument: does the violence in American films merely reflect the violence of the culture or does it somehow influence it? If mainstream American films (I won't even mention typically abysmal American television) are anything to go by, Americans are a gun-happy, unruly mob always just on the brink of exploding into violence. And you would think the same after watching or reading the news.

Never mind the influence it has had on American society, the Gun is virtually ubiquitous in American film, and by now synonymous with it. Take away the Gun and you barely even have American film. The careers of filmmakers like Coppolla, Scorsese and Tarantino would be inconceivable without the Gun. For me, this reflects the extent to which American film has distanced itself from life. When Francois Truffaut tried to justify the melodramatic conclusion of his film La Peau Douce by stating he got the idea from reading stories in French newspapers, he merely demonstrated how desperate he had by then become as an artist - gleaning ideas from yellow journalism. He had, in fact, betrayed everything else he had accomplished in an otherwise fine film - he had resorted to melodrama, the infusion of a blatant violation of his realistic art.

And 100 years of American filmmaking has done nothing to escape from its original roots in Victorian theater - the roots so plainly visible in D.W. Griffith's tawdry melodramas. If done well, and some American films have almost domesticated the Gun through sheer dumb bravado, it is acceptable on the grounds that even an "entertainment" is difficult enough to pull off successfuly. But if it is relied on merely as a prop for poor material - as it is in 99% of what passes for entertainment in Movieland - the Gun is the ultimate interloper, an intruder in the midst of life, and a whopping excuse for Movieland's worst examples of its trade.

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