Mar 20, 2011

Why does nobody die in movies anymore?

Jay Michaelson analyses the theme of fate in The Adjustment Bureau:

"Fate is supposed to be fate: it’s final, and it’s the way it is. In religious and spiritual systems that subscribe to it, the best thing a religious person can do is resign oneself to it, to cultivate the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, to paraphrase theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. But not in Hollywood, where human agency knows no bounds. Of course Norris shouldfollow his heart, disobey God’s plan, and marry the girl of his dreams. And of course he can; while Norris frets about free will, it’s obvious that he does have it. He’s up against some powerful adversaries, but he calls the shots. We know all this because we know Hollywood’s sentimental religion, which is indeed a kind of neo-Romantic fanatic narcissism. And it is fanatic: once Norris makes his decision, he risks his own life, her life, and the life of countless collateral damage casualties."
In this of course, the film delivers exactly the same message as almost every other modern film on the subject of that old pseudo-debate, free will versus fate. Not that Hollywood was always like this. Reading Stefan Kanfer's recent biography of Bogart I was struck by how casually contemporary audiences accepted the fact of Bogart's death at the end of his movies, and how the notion of paying the price for living in a fallen, sinful world seems enfolded in the very shadows of film noir. It's so rare that anyone dies at the movies these days, which is why I was so struck by Jeremy Renner's last stand in The Town, slurping on a coke before stepping out into a hail of bullets. I blame video games, and in particular the modular thinking that allows heroes to choose between an array of plot options which they don and doff like a clip-on tie. Once Keanu Reeves got the chance of a do-over in The Matrix, downloading whichever skills were necessary to get him out of the hole he happened to find himself in, that lovely bone-weariness with which Bogart ascended the mountain to meet his fate in High Sierra, or made his way through the jungle in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was lost from American movies, seemingly for good. Bogart didn't need a do-over. Once was enough.


  1. Well, remember, Bogart for most of his career played bad guys, and bad guys had to pay in the Production Code era, lest their actions be romanticized by impressionable moviegoers. Characters aren't killed off as much now because the last thing Hollywood wants to do is bum out that fickle teen demographic; besides, there are often sequels to consider. If Bogie were playing Dobbs today, he'd have to hang around for Treasure of the Sierra Madre 2. It's a different world.

    I should add that I was impressed by Renner's Cagneyesque climax in The Town as well, and would have admired the movie's ballsiness even more had Affleck's character bit the bullet too. Your Matrix analogy is a good one, though it should be mentioned that the Wachowskis finally killed off Neo in the third and final installment. Of course by then they'd alienated any remaining fan investment in the series, so they weren't exactly hedging their bets.

  2. Fascinating, and it never occurred to me before, but that's a great "Sierra" double bill, right there. I'd add that in a lot of older movies, especially noir, fate is tied tightly to character. In Sierra Madre, Huston talks early on of what gold does to men, but he and Tim Holt retain their essential decency. Fred C. Dobbs had a venal nature already, gold just brings that demon roaring out of him.

    But (I'd point out to Craig) in High Sierra, it's the opposite. The Code may have mandated that a lawbreaker must come to a bad end, but it is quite pointedly Roy's compassionate side that gets him killed.

    Movies made under the Production Code are often derided for artificial happy endings, but (didn't this come up once before in another thread?) there are a lot of deeply gloomy, death-haunted endings in the era. I do think there's a lot of reluctance now to have a highly sympathetic character come to a bad end, and has been for a while. Whether it's more common now than back when would take a lot more thinking than I can do at the moment, but it would be a great think session. I was expecting much more doom from Shawshank and LA Confidential, for example, and Sheila O'Malley complained about The Town (spoiler) that in the 70s, Affleck would have gone down in a hail of bullets, too, not just Renner.

  3. Quite right, Farran. I was just speaking from the perspective of the Codemakers, who probably weren't as attuned to the artistic nuance of those films as their makers were. Ever read The Dame in the Kimino? I just started it; it's a nifty overview of the Code era.

    The interesting thing about L.A. Confidential is the movie's ending is the same as the book's; that's Ellroy's soft, romantic side. Shawshank was originally going to end the same as King's novella, more open-endedly with Red on the road, but Darabont felt that the movie needed more closure. That film's always accused of being too sentimental, but I like how the understated the final scene is staged, with the camera pulling away from Red and Andy's reunion instead of moving in for a tight closeup, and Deakins bringing in the light after more than two hours of ensconcing the characters in darkness.

  4. El Kimino Real!

    I don't know, I wouldn't call the Shawshank ending understated--the camera soars and all that light just underscores how great everything's turned out in the end. I quite like the ending, though; in that case, having my expectations defied was pleasant. Haven't read LA Confidential, so don't know how having Crowe live played in the novel. In the movie, it was a deeply WTF moment. I seem to remember William Goldman having a small cow over it in some essay somewhere.

    What's striking about the Code correspondence I've read is just how much larger themes were ignored in favor of really, really petty shit. Exhibit A being Joe Breen's correspondence with Chaplin over The Great Dictator. Chaplin had worried that burlesquing Hitler would be a problem in and of itself, but Breen wrote a letter in which he fawned all over Chaplin...before reminding him that while it might seem "small and picayune," the word "lousy" had to come out. In that context, High Sierra makes sense; as long as he's dead, whatever...

  5. Goldman's rant is funny (as his rants often are). He argued that the movie should have ended where Exley shoots Dudley. And he has a point. The "Bud lives" coda plays like an instance of studio meddling, when really it was faithfulness to possibly a fault.

  6. Incidentally, I just disrupted my colleagues' lunch break by laughing out loud at this passage from Dame in the Kimono: "When Goldwyn made The Children's Hour, released as These Three in March 1936, an assistant worried that the censors would ban the picture because its central characters were lesbians. 'So what's the problem?' Goldwyn asked. 'Make them Albanians.'"

  7. I'd forgotten Neo dies at the end of the final Matrix. I'd actually forgotten there was a final Matrix. Based on the internal logic of the series, wherein power is accumulated and ramified endlessly on both sides of an equally matched equation, I never saw a logical reason for those films to end and always assumed they were still going on, somewhere.