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Against Black-and-White Movies (Not Black and White Movies)

Most movies are too simplistic; 'Michael Clayton' and 'In the Valley of Elah' are exceptions.

by James Leroy Wilson
March 6, 2008

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Against Black-and-White Movies (Not Black and White Movies)
The Hollywood Production Code aka the Hay's Code, was enforced from 1934 to 1967, and had more stringent standards for appropriate content than the subsequent (and current) MPAA ratings system. That's why all the content in old movies would be rated G or PG today. Many great movies were made under the discipline of the system, and helps feed into nostalgia for that era for being more moral and less vulgar than today.

But for those who didn't grow up in the era, the Hay's Code presents a problem. The problem isn't the great movies, but rather the less-than-great. An average movie made today is more interesting to watch than an average movie made fifty years ago. The problem isn't that most movies were in black and white back then, but rather that they were too black-and-white.

One example: one character in the 1950 film The Asphalt Jungle is a corrupt cop. To offset his presence, one character goes into a monologue about how most police officers are courageous, clean, first-rate people. It's a dumb scene, and wouldn't be included if it was made today, but it had to be included back then.

Of course, black-and-white morality persists in movies today. From action thrillers to legal dramas to comedies, we constantly see the story of the lone courageous x who must overcome tremendous obstacles to bring down the evil y.

Movies then and now also feature too many black-and-white, one-dimensional characters. The villains tend to complete psychopaths, and their henchmen are brainless. The good guys are not much better: there is the superspy or supercop hero, the love interest, the comic sidekick, the smart one on the computer, and the obnoxious guy who may have betrayed them and gets killed.

That's why it was easy to become a fan of director Steven Spielberg early in his career. One reason was Roy Schieder's character in Jaws - though a cop, the hero in this adventure thriller is not super-competent, or an athletic marvel. He is, rather, an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation. Another reason is the Other Guy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Taking off their gas masks and running for Devil's Tower, Richard Dreyfuss and Melinda Dillon are joined by a third person, who is just as smart and determined as they. That made the movie more believable. Movies where the heroes - and only the heroes - buck the System make me remember that Close Encounters wasn't that lazy. Lastly, I was a fan of the Last German on the Truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark, because he was every bit Indiana's equal. His presence in the movie told me that Indiana Jones wasn't invincible. Action movies would be more fun if there were more goons, henchmen, and enemy soldiers of his caliber.

But not only are characters too often shallow and predictable, but movies are often too implausible - and if not that, too preachy. Too black-and-white. That's why I admire the 1996 movie Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern plays a pregnant drug addict caught in the middle of the abortion controversy. Although a comedy, the film plays into stereotypes but not caricature; both pro-life and pro-choice activists are depicted as thoughtful and morally committed to their cause. Arguments both for and against abortion are laid out, and we understand why those on both sides are committed to their cause. But while none of the major characters on either side have evil intentions, nobody warrants much sympathy either. There are no heroes, but there aren't any villains either, just people committed to doing what they think is right.

Two recent movies, In the Valley of Elah and Michael Clayton, also avoid black-and-white conclusions. This was accomplished by taking two stock characters normally given short shrift in movies - the Strict Military Father and the Shady Lawyer - and telling stories from their point of view. These are usually supporting or minor characters. Depending on the size of the part, they're either cardboard characters played by journeyman actors, or colorful supporting characters for a veteran character actor to make either compelling or funny. It is not often they are the protagonists. But when stories are told from their point of view, when we see right and wrong from their point of view, we begin to see that they're human, too.

Tommy Lee Jones plays the Strict Military Father, Hank Deerfield in In the Valley of Elah. His son, a soldier just returned to the United States, disappears from his base. Deerfield is a retired army seargent with experience in the Criminal Investigation Command, and investigates what happened. Hank is very neat and orderly, curt with friends and strangers alike, cold, unemotional, and to the point - the kind of character that is often (comically or tragically) one-dimensional when in a supporting role. But this story is told from his point of view, and we see that he is fully human, after all. As are all fathers of his ilk.

George Clooney plays the Shady Lawyer, the title character in Michael Clayton. A "fixer" for a large law firm with corporate clients, Clayton seems to be on the side of Goliath in a nation of Davids. He uses an extensive network of contacts and his own negotiating skill to help his firm, his high-priced colleagues, and their wealthy clients out of jams. On the surface, he is the kind of guy that, in another legal thriller, would have slick hair, be totally obnoxious, and end up dead or in jail.

But in this movie where the Shady Lawyer is the central character, we see that he is fully human. So is his boss. So is his mentally-ill friend. Even the villain is depicted as an insecure, nervous wreck rather than as a cold-blooded criminal. And the "corporate conspiracy" involves just three or four people - including the professional killers. And the killers are neither crazy nor stupid. Indeed, Michael Clayton takes a fairly standard legal thriller and turns it upside down by populating it with human beings instead of cardboard characters.

This is what sets apart good movies from bad.

When movies are filled with human beings instead of cardboard black-and-white characters, they help viewers see things from another point of view. Nobody is all good, and nobody is all bad. Some let events turn them into bad people, and sometimes events force morally ambivalent people to make the good decisions. Even people on the wrong side of war think they're right. People who "sell out" for money do so because they have financial problems, not because they are evil.

It isn't the language, sex, and violence of today's films that make them generally superior to the old. It is rather, the freedom of movies today to provide morally ambiguous situations, and characters "on the wrong side" we can empathize with. It's too bad Hollywood doesn't take advantage of this freedom more often, but it did so with In the Valley of Elah and Michael Clayton.

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