Sometimes advocating for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a very sticky wicket.
Like most people, there have been instances over the years in which I have doubted the veracity of those hiding behind that all-important clause. It seems to be human nature to find ways around a law, bending and twisting it to fit nefarious ends and, in a sense, creating an atmosphere in which the very people the law was enacted to protect winds up hurting them instead. It’s a conundrum with which we all wrestle, especially those of us who make our living within the purview of the media.
Maybe that’s why this particular infraction has me so steamed. I made my living, for a time, in the motion picture industry. My affection for that particular brand of storytelling goes back to my childhood, when I spent long hours glued to the television set late at night or Saturday afternoons, watching classic movies that both captivated and inspired me. Like most first world denizens, movies have helped shape my passage through this constantly shifting tapestry we call life. Much of what I have learned about human nature has come from movies. Books, too, but not nearly as much.
Books couldn’t really teach me how to give a proper kiss. Or how body language really works. Or the power of silence and a simple look. Or a multitude of subtle variations and not-so-subtle subtexts that make up the human experience. We learn from watching other people, not reading about them. For better or worse, we learn even more by watching certain social mores repeated incessantly in large-scale format and glorious Technicolor. That’s also what gives rise to overused tropes. Ordinarily, I’m not a fan of tropes, but neither am I fan of blatant disregard for integrity and that, more than anything, is the basis for my agitation in this particular instance.
It all came about when a friend, who was celebrating his birthday, asked us to watch the movie Nightcrawler with him. I had heard good things about the movie and that Jake Gyllenhaal had, once again, created a character that was gaining him widespread attention. Unlike American Sniper, which has stirred up massive amounts of controversy for its depiction of anti-Muslim behavior – don’t even get me started on THAT – it was one of the movies on my gotta-see list, so I happily acquiesced to the request. Little did I know the ire it would raise.
To begin with, Nightcrawler is a beautifully crafted film. The suspense builds appropriately, the cinematography is professional and the pacing brisk. There are no gratuitous instances of extreme violence, though it is often implied. The main character is believably established as a sociopathic antihero with few, if any, redeeming qualities, while supporting characters are maddeningly superficial and obtuse. The story, though calculable, is far from predictable. I was hooked right up until the end when shocking disappointment left me feeling, quite seriously, victimized.
I apologize in advance to any who may not have seen this film for the obvious spoiler, but c’mon, Gyllenhaal’s character actually gets away with it? Seriously? I find that ending unconscionable. Especially in this current populist environment where, due to the proliferation of social media, people seem to think it’s perfectly okay to harm, hurt or otherwise inconvenience strangers for no other reason than to have a viral image or video post that will gain them a few seconds of fame on Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr or Vine.
Now, I have never been a fan of neat endings tied up with a pretty little ribbon, because, quite frankly, I don’t believe in that sort of romanticism. We all have good days and we have bad days, but we rarely ride off into the sunset with our prince or princess and live happily ever after. I believe that popular entertainment should reflect the real world because, as I said before, that’s how we learn what it means to be human. Yes, there is always a place for fantasy, science fiction or speculative fiction, but it must always have a ring of truth in order to have a sociological and emotional impact. That’s a given.
Here’s another given: Only 8-year-olds believe that villains in comic books actually exist. At a certain point, we all realize that villains are constructs and death rays are not only really expensive to build, they’re kind of hard to hide. That’s why nobody wants to grow up to be Lex Luthor or Magneto after the age of, say, 10. Show them an average schmo struggling to make ends meet on the other hand, a guy who finds a way to cheat the system, break every law, kill whomever he wants to kill without the aid of super powers or large amounts of money and that’s a game changer. You’ve entered the realm of possibility and that’s where the problems start.
There is a razor thin line between what is and isn’t acceptable in terms of social consciousness. As storytellers, we all walk that line. None of us want to resort to tropes and in many cases will do whatever we can to avoid it. Yes, we want to entertain. Yes, we want to thrill. Yes, we want to find new and innovative ways to do so. But, no, we cannot allow ourselves to believe that we are above reproach when it comes to the depiction of right and wrong. Actor Charles Bronson summed it up best when he said, “Audiences like to see the bad guys get their comeuppance.” I take that one step further by stating, not only do they like to see it, they need to see it. A trope it may be, but in certain instances, like this one, it becomes a necessary evil.
This philosophy was explored beautifully in two recent television series, Dexter and Breaking Bad. In both, we got to watch as the protagonists dealt with their demons and many times actually rooted for them, despite the despicable nature of their afflictions. In the end, however, we always knew what they were doing was wrong and that, if they were caught, it would destroy not only their lives, but the lives of everybody around them. It took a while, but in the end, that’s exactly what happened. After watching these series, it’s doubtful anybody sat back and thought, ‘y’know, there’s something to this… I think I’ll give it a go and see how I like it.’
I don’t believe this is true for those who watch Nightcrawler. I know I’m not alone in my belief that there are a lot of very sick and twisted people out there, trolling for their next bit thrill. Nightcrawler makes it far too easy. It is, in a sense, a step-by-step manifesto of manipulation. Do these things, in this order and, despite the blatantly unethical implications of your actions – because what you’re producing is exciting and will help grab ratings – you will become successful and popular. Ugh.
Just thinking about this movie gives me heartburn. It has been nominated for and won several awards at this point. It’s up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Despite my long-standing and unshakable belief in the First Amendment, I think it’s a travesty that the entertainment community has so fully embraced what is, to me, a miscarriage of justice and a slap in the face of all those storytellers who have come before, working so hard to entertain AND educate, rather than simply smear disdain across both page and screen.
Almost 20 years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing the late director John Schlesinger, in anticipation of the release of his feature film, Eye For An Eye. The movie starred Sally Field as a distraught mother who is an unwitting ‘witness’ to her daughter’s vicious rape and murder via the telephone. It was a brutal indictment against home invasions and the miscarriage of justice that can follow when technicalities interfere. Like most of Schlesinger’s films, it had moments of extreme violence that shook me to my very core.
During that interview, I asked the director if he felt that he was glorifying violence, by making it such an integral part of his characters’ motivations. His answer was very illuminating.
“It’s a question of degrees,” he said. “We’re surrounded by violence in life, so violence is a valid and necessary thing to occasionally use, but I wouldn’t say I glorify it. I don’t like gratuitous violence. It terrifies me, anyway. But it’s human nature to use one’s own horror and revulsion as a catalyst. It makes the audience pay attention.”
All very true, but what he followed it up with is where the artistry truly lives. This is the part that some modern filmmakers don’t seem to understand.
“Our job as storytellers is to raise questions about human nature,” Schlesinger said. “We must never, however, leave our audience feeling betrayed. We must strike a humanist balance. We have a responsibility to entertain, without descending into nihilism. The last thing we want to do is glorify that which we detest most. A good storyteller knows how to avoid that.”
Perhaps writer/director Dan Gilroy should have thought about that when creating his scathing, and in many ways deserved, indictment against media sensationalism. The message is an important one. Allowing his protagonist to himself sidestep justice and become a media sensation, however, is the lowest form of nihilism. In a way, it flies in the face of the very message he’s trying to get across concerning responsible journalism.
Here’s the deal, Dan, you may not be a journalist, but you still have responsibilities to your audience. In this respect, you have failed miserably. The conceit that crime sometimes pays is a bad message to deliver, especially when the vast majority of your audience has the social IQ of a Walmart shopping bag.
Do I think you should be silenced for advocating this sort of behavior? No, of course not. This is America, after all, not Korea. I do, however, whole-heartedly discourage the recommendation of Nightcrawler to anybody with a moral compass. It’s also doubtful that I will ever willingly sit down to watch another movie with your name attached to it, because, quite frankly, I think you suck. Welcome to America, where the First Amendment allows me to say that, loudly, proudly and with impunity.