Paucity of Premises, by Paul Chitlik

This article previously appeared in the LA Times Calendar Section some years back:

Maybe David Fieber’s problem with the movies (“Is ‘Armageddon’ Really the End:,” Counterpunch, July 13) isn’t that they are shot and edited MTV-style, poorly directed, acted, or even written. Maybe the problem is that they are all about the same thing. I noticed several years ago that sitcom episodes have only two themes: “Ya gotta be yourself” and “Everything is OK as long as we’re together in the end.” Go ahead, point out the exceptions. Memorable, aren’t they?

There are reasons for this: The grinding machine that is sitcom production doesn’t allow much time for the exploration of real themes, the networks are uncomfortable with anything that requires true thought on the part of the viewer, and jokes are hard to come by when you’re talking about the nature of being.

So it’s just easier to stick to what works, over and over again. I always though films wouldn’t get caught in this trap. I was wrong, especially this summer. I mean, humans face dilemmas other than the struggle to be themselves, don’t they?

I thought “The Truman Show” was on to something, that it had the potential to be a really great movie. But the most interesting aspect of the film went completely unexplored: How did the actors surrounding Truman deal with their double lives? How did they deal with deceiving the one they were paid to love? Instead, it’s a film about, yes, say it because it’s true, “Ya gotta be yourself.”

What is “Dr. Dolittle” about? Is it about the nature of man and his relationship with animals? Is it about the rights of animals to exist on a planet of species-centered humans, or is it about Dr. Dolittle recognizing and accepting who he really is? If you guessed “C,” you’re ready to be a studio executive.

“Mulan” was a groundbreaking movie for Disney, but its theme, well, what could be more plain? We all cringed when she was taken to the matchmaker, who tried to turn the young woman into her culture’s vision of what a beautiful, submissive wife should be. Obviously not Mulan. Then she disguised herself as a man to fight in her father’s place, but it wasn’t until she was revealed as a woman that she truly came into her own. She had to be herself. Listen to the theme song.

There are exceptions. You can point them out; I can point them out. But look at “Godzilla.” If we accept that the main character is the Matthew Broderick character, we have no theme. If it’s Godzilla, then it’s back to “Ya gotta be yourself.” Maybe that’s why its box office didn’t approach expectations. The film wasn’t about anything other than special effects.

On the other hand, isn’t that what “Titanic” would have been without is love-conquers-all theme? That’s what attracted audiences around the world though it does have a lingering “It’s OK because we’re together in the end” motif).

Why the paucity of theme? Could it be the emphasis on style over content, effects over story, producers and directors over writers?

It’s hard to keep track of complex themes if a writer is called in just to work on the dialogue of a specific character. The writer will just be servicing that character, rather than the theme or story suggested by the original writer.

Or maybe it is the writer who is at fault, even if there are nine of them on a film. Instead of relying on the old standbys, why not write about love conquers all, good triumphs over evil, guilt and expiation, avarice destroys the soul, poverty stinks, thought separates us from the animals, there is no such thing as good and evil, liars lie to themselves, the human spirit can triumph over adversity, humanity transcends race, rust never sleeps, a bird in the hand – whatever, just so long as it isn’t “Ya gotta be yourself.”

If you’re worried that would make for boring drama, look at Shakespeare, Shaw, Preston Sturges, Herman Mankiewicz, Robert Towne, Frank Darabont, Woody Allen – choose your favorite screenwriter.

Just don’t look at today’s blockbusters.

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