Friday, February 7, 2014
How to Fix the Moralistic Decline of Modern Storytelling
In just my twenty-three year lifetime, I have personally noticed a serious change in the way that Hollywood portrays moral issues, and not in the direction for the better. The past decade alone has shown a change so big, that even on major network television, we are seeing and hearing things that used to only be relegated to the likes of HBO. I mean, over the past year alone, there have been more PG-13 movies that used their token one or two uses of the f-word than I can count. Even ten years ago, that would have been unheard of, but it's now considered normal. Why is that?
For me, I really feel like all around the world, moralistic integrity is just falling by the wayside to make way for people doing anything that they want, whenever they want, without any regards as to whether or not it's the right thing. We live in a world of grey areas, nothing is clear cut black-and-white anymore, and if you think that way, then you're old-fashioned. Maybe I am old-fashioned, but I honestly believe in the morals I was raised with through church and my parents. It's who I am. Now, that's not to say choices aren't easy to make, and you may not make the right one all the time, but there needs to at least be some core value system in place that lists out what's right and what's wrong. The thing is, there is no such value system in most circles anymore.
Now, I don't think Hollywood is to blame for everything that's wrong in the world, that's not how I want what I'm saying to be interpreted, but I do think Hollywood, and storytellers in general, play a large part in how people think and feel towards certain thoughts and ideas. When it comes to moral issues, storytellers can greatly influence the thought process of the audience, especially on impressionable viewers like kids.
If everything you're seeing or reading is telling you in your formative years that it's okay to live and sleep together without being married, then when you become an adult, it's your status quo, it's just what you do. The same goes for the casual slipping of the tongue with innuendos and cursing. It's become so common place in film, television, and literature, that a lot of people in my age range and younger, use words like the f-word as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, and anything else inbetween. They don't think twice about cussing because it's become the norm in their entertainment. If it's okay for people that you look up to and idolize to do and say these things, then it's okay for us to do them too, right? That's basically what this boils down to.
The thing is, I don't think people blindly follow through on the actions of their favorite films and TV shows, because if they did we'd be a world full of serial killers, but I do think when people see something that used to be taboo for film and television -- like cursing, marijuana use, or sex -- treated in a casual manner, people seem to think it's okay for them to treat these things casually as well. Truthfully, there are far worse things that people can be doing than any of the aforementioned things, but where do we eventually draw the line? The line has to be drawn in the sand somewhere, or else we'll eventually just let more and more morals go in the name of "progress."
What really inspired all of this was when I realized how almost every film to win the Best Picture Oscar over the past two decades was rated R. Then I looked at the films that were nominated this year, and noticed that majority of the films nominated for Oscars were rated R as well, with a few PG-13 films sprinkled in, and the G and PG stylings of the Animated Feature race being the only real saving grace for innocent filmmaking. It just got me thinking, can a live action film be taken seriously anymore if it doesn't include all of the things that grant these films R ratings? The sad truth is, perhaps not.
Almost every comedy nowadays features tons of inappropriate humor and innuendo, ranging from drug use to excessive violence, all in the name of comedy. Since when did shocking the audience with outrageously perverse things become funnier than a well timed joke? Maybe I am too old-fashioned, but I often find myself pining for the days of Arsenic & Old Lace and Harvey. Those were the good old days, the days where movie comedies weren't about how many innuendos and cuss words the filmmakers can throw at you, but rather it was about how funny they could be through the absurdity of seeing eccentric people in situations that we don't ordinarily go through.
Now, one thing I want to clarify, is that I am not attacking all R-rated films. Sometimes a film needs to be rated R in order for its subject matter to feel realistic. If you are making a film about drug addiction, or war, it would feel odd to water it down to a PG or PG-13 rating. Saving Private Ryan had to be R-rated, so did Requiem for a Dream, or even The Godfather. The thing is, not all films are justified like these films are. Many films nowadays just include tons of violence, nudity, cussing, and naughty parts all simply because they can. It doesn't matter to these filmmakers whether or not it's necessary to the story being told.
A perfect case and point for my argument is the newest film from writer/director, Spike Jonze, Her. The film is nominated for a good many Oscars, and will more than likely win Best Original Screenplay, but to me it takes far more originality to write a film without innuendo or curse-filled dialogue than it does to write one with it. Personally, and I know I'm in the minority here, I think Her could have been recut to be a PG-13 movie, and I think I would have liked it so much more than I did. This was a story that could have been simple and innocent, because the cussing and innuendo isn't what makes the story original, it's the idea of a man falling in love with his computer's operating system. That's original, so why mar it?
Personally, as a writer, I've often struggled with the best ways to write films and stories without any of this sort of stuff. Sometimes I've even caught myself including these things purely because my mind is so inundated with it from the films and TV shows that I watch, it feels awkward to not include them. However, I am making a vow to never succumb to what is the standard film practices of our time again. I feel compromised when I do and I don't want to do that anymore. From now I am going to try to write films that only jive with my moral sensibilities. The thing is, if I don't, then these films and stories aren't me. I want who I am to come through in my stories, because I am truthfully not ashamed of who I am, and I still think I can create entertainment that upholds what I believe to be right and wrong.
The bottom line of this is that, as a storyteller, you are subconsciously rewriting the thought processes of your audience. What do you want your children's children to think is right and wrong? Don't write something just because it's easy. That's one of the important things I've realized about the profession I've chosen to pursue.
As a writer and a director I've often struggled with the question of why is this job important? The idea that we need entertainment in order to have momentary escape from our day-to-day lives works for some stories and films, but it doesn't encompass all of them. Why do we watch films we know will make us cry or get tense? Is it to have an experience, like a roller coaster ride? Perhaps, but I think the real job of a filmmaker is to show who we are through our work. Let me expand upon that idea.
Sometimes you set out to write a story simply because you love the plot, and other times it's because you actually want to say something subliminally through the actions of the story. For me, I've often asked myself why am I writing a certain story when I don't think the story really says anything, there is no message to it, it's merely entertainment. Of course, if I write the film with my moralistic values at the core, then am I not saying something? While there may not be a deep underlying message, and all the story has is pure, innocent fun at its core, it does not mean that an audience cannot take away something from the film or story.
I'm going to get into some corny territory here for a moment, so indulge me. The only way to change the world is to not beat people over the head with a message, but to show them what you believe. If more and more writers stick with their moralistic integrity in their stories, rather than succumbing to the traditional moors of Hollywood, then you will have something that speaks differently than anything else out there right now. Of course, that also doesn't mean you should just adopt a, "I'll just take my ball and go home," attitude and make films for only a small niche market that thinks exactly as you do. If you really want to fix the problem, then you have to weather the storm to make good, old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment. If you just decide to go the complete opposite and not find the middle ground, then you are missing the opportunity to fix the moralistic decline of modern storytelling.