Life and Art – Sometimes They Both Stink

Life is like walking through a cow pasture. A cow pasture is a lovely meadow that, from a distance, looks great for strolling, for picnics, for ballgames, etc. But, because it is a working farm, a place where bovine may browse and munch contentedly, it is also a place where there are spots that are not so lovely. Know what I mean?

We can’t help but be aware of all the stinking messes that dot the landscape of our lives. They’re all around us. And at some point or other we will put a foot down wrong and have to deal with it. So as we stroll through this pastoral setting (pursuit of happiness, normalcy, etc), we watch our footing, because who in their right mind would deliberately “step in it”. This is not called being unrealistic. This is called sanity.

But for too long the landscape entertainment — TV, movies, books, etc., a huge part of our lives — has been cluttered by cow piles of crude and offensive language, nudity, sleazy sex, and graphic violence. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m past reading Dick and Jane and watching the Smurfs. I am well aware that our warped world is crowded with stuff that offends and assaults our senses. But, as with the cow piles in the meadow, I certainly don’t want to be dragged through them, or have them shoved in my face.

Good art should heighten our awareness of the unsavory without bombarding us with it. I’ll tell you what I mean by that. Anything gratuitous thrown in as a selling point for a TV show, movie, or book, is offensive and degrading and, rather than lifting or empowering its characterization or plot line, it belittles and weakens it. Not only that, it’s a ploy that stops the story’s momentum dead in its tracks.

Movies

For example, I love superhero movies and most of the time, especially with Stan Lee keeping them straight, they are not only exciting and entertaining, but have some depth to them. But in X-Men: First Class (2011), a movie I dearly love, there was one brief, two-word line uttered by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), that was so offensive I went from shock to rage in about 1.3 seconds. It was spoken in a theater filled with children and, hopefully, adults who trusted that the movie they had chosen would allow them to enjoy, for a little while, a fantasy world where heroes set things right. Yes, I could have understood Wolverine’s bitterness and anger, and the director’s need for the bad boy to verbally bite off the end of a firecracker. But that was not the way to do it. It exploded in our faces with all the grace of a fresh cow pie shot from Eastwood’s .44 Magnum.

Am I saying everything should be bucolic, bland, and homogenized? Not at all. But the language and actions should fit the character, the story, and the audience, and even then, not slamming the offensiveness around like sledgehammers for shock effect.

Let’s take one of my favorite movies, for instance — Princess Bride. In this movie you’ve got some grown-up scenarios and emotions couched in a funny, fairy-tale setting. I love all the characters, but my favorite is Inigo Montoya (Mandy Pantinkin). All through the movie, this Hispanic, self-styled, self-taught, greatest swordsman, is motivated by only one ambition — to kill the six-fingered man who so cavalierly cut down Inigo’s beloved father, making him an orphan at age 10, and leaving him a scar on each cheek to remember the occasion.

As often as he can, Inigo tells anyone who will listen just what he will say when he finds this six-digited nemesis. “Before I keel him,” he says, “I will say — ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You keeled my father. Prepare to die.'” He says this softly, but you hear the depth of feeling, the longing for the lost father that was so suddenly and violently taken from him. And when the time of confrontation finally arrives, he says these words over and over during the swordplay, driving them into the psyche of his enemy as if the words themselves were sharpened blades.

Then when Inigo has the man’s heart at the point of his sword, he taunts him. “Ask me what I want,” he says. “Offer me money to spare your life. Offer me the world.” — “Anything. Anything,” replies the man. “Anything you want.” — It was what Inigo was waiting to hear. “I want my father back you son-of-a-bitch,” he says softly.

This was the only profanity I remember from the movie. And it was powerful. Now, I know that’s a pretty bland vulgarity comparatively. But my point is, because it was not overdone, because it was left for this final confrontation, it evoked an emotional response from the audience. As for other, more offensive words, there is only one movie I’ve seen where the dreaded and over-used four-letter word actually fit the character and the occasion. That was at the end of “Sixteen Blocks” starring Bruce Willis and spoken so forcefully by David Morse (Detective Frank Nugent), as if he was blasting a hole through the very concept of truth.

Television

But language is not the only crappy culprit. Let’s take for instance the TV show “Unforgettable” starring Poppy Montgomery. It has a hook — Poppy’s surreal gift of total recall. The actors are fine. The plot lines okay. Good enough to tune in every week since at that time of night most people are either getting ready for bed or couch potato-ing anyway. But then they throw in her sexual escapades (in order to “flesh” out her character, so to speak). In my neighborhood, when our connected families first started watching, we were hoping this was something tossed in as a come-on for the peeping Toms and voyeurs of the television audience. After all, how many times do you have to let an audience know that a woman is sexually active and doesn’t much care who she’s active with? We now “get” her character. So why not get on with the story? Our families quit watching many episodes ago. When Poppy Montgomery’s name came up recently in a conversation I turned to Mike and said, “What is that forget-me-not TV series she’s in?” He laughed and replied, “The forgettable “Unforgettable”. And that’s a sad commentary for a show with an actress who was so good in “The Cold Equations”.

How many popular TV series do you know that dropped their viewing audiences when they picked up sleaze? How many are still popular without it? Sexual tension among characters is more provocative than promiscuity.  Our families continue to watch and enjoy “The Mentalist” and “Person of Interest”. We are delighted with the characters on the one, and are intrigued and mesmerized by the other. We have watched the first two episodes of the new series “Longmire”, and, so far, find it a real standout in originality, content, characterization, and spot-on actors.

Recently we have discovered “Flashpoint”, which has been airing for several years. A great show, which, though based on violence, does not worship it. The tightness, control, and character of this series should be a standard for those who don’t seem to know how to get these things across without insulting or pelting us. Don’t know how we missed “Flashpoint” for so many years except to say it comes on a channel that doesn’t always come through for us. We gave up cable and satellite a few years ago when we finally got tired of paying for what we didn’t watch. We’ve been streaming happily ever since.

Books

There’s an absolute plague of smarmy writing out there. Trying to find a good book among today’s literary Black Death is like searching for a cup of pure water in a land of polluted wells. And, to make matters worse, the really gifted writers think they have to write like their own hearts are disease-ridden. Take George R. R. Martin (Game of Thrones) for instance. The opening of the first book in this series grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It’s one of those stories, so well-written, that you lose yourself to the point you don’t even realize you’re reading. You are there. In that world.

Then he starts dragging in the pollutant of incest — not just to the point of letting us know it’s there — but strewing the pages with filth. It’s not like we don’t know what it is. It’s not like it hasn’t been written about before, and better, by Sophocles. But since you can “fast-forward” in a book as well as a movie, I tried to flip my way through to the conclusion. Two books later I let it go in disgust. All the emotional investment I had in the characters (and the pet direwolves) came to nothing. He killed them all off, one by one, till there was no one left to care about but one or two. And, if Martin was staying true to course, those few could hang it up.

The TV series based on Martin’s books had some of the best actors you could find anywhere, especially Peter Dinklage who played Tyrion Bannister, the dwarf. We hoped for some editing on the TV series. Nope. We watched it till the nudes came out to play and ditched it in the garbage.

I’ll say the same for Ken Follett — Pillars of the Earth could have been one of the best books I have ever read. The characters and the historical story are beyond compelling. But the play by play dalliances gave me the slimy feeling I was reading one book by two different authors. One who could have rated as a 20th century classic writer, and one who rated below pulp porn at the corner adult bookstore.

In conclusion, I’m writing this, not because I think it will make any difference to those who make movies, produce TV shows, and write books. But it might help one or two readers to think about the fact that they can voice their outrage over the crap thrown at us.

No, we don’t have to watch or read those shows, movies, and books that are obviously made to titillate and called entertainment. But for those of us who get blindsided, or led down the garden path straight to the dump, that’s hardly a good option.

Then there are the ratings. They are the same whether the language or situation fits the character, story, and audience, or whether they are thrown in gratuitously. So what do you do? ——  You gripe about it, like I’m doing.

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