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Noise that Follows A Quiet Man
• James Morford
Years ago on television I saw the John Ford directed film, “The Quiet Man.” The film’s best scene is the fist fight between John Wayne and Victor Mclaglen. Inside and outside wood-lined stone structures of an Irish village, these giant men clobbered each other. One would wallop and knock down his opponent, who rose and returned the punch. Along rivers, across bridges over water ponds, they took turns hitting their foe. A spectacular brawl that was great fun. For a fleeting moment I questioned how such huge guys with massive fists could do so little physical harm.

The Sting

At the finish, except for a few cut and bruises, they were nearly unmarked. Both men easily topped six feet in height. Together they must have weighed over a quarter of a ton. Why weren’t their faces black, blue, and badly bleeding? No matter. At my age, Hollywood facts spoke for themselves. Unfortunately, my childhood was in many ways, film.

That fight between those Hollywood legends occurred in a magical green country where colorful old men, Barry Fitzgerald, and young ravishing women, Maureen O’Hara, floated above cobbled streets to join Wayne and Mclaglen in an enchanting fairy tale. It was not to be taken seriously. Except by a ten year old, me.

The Quiet Man My childhood mentality filed “The Quiet Man” lesson away for adult reference: Fist fighting, I told myself, was not all that dangerous; a cut here, a cut there, a little swelling. Maybe a back tooth spit out for affect. Afterwards your fingers weren’t mangled and crushed, no broken bones, everything continued to work in one piece. Following a fight you could talk and think just as before. Fist fighting was no big deal. As a matter of fact, it looked like fun. You fought, won, then waited for a beautiful redhead to kiss you. Nothing to worry about.

Eight years later I got punched in the face.

The circumstances behind this blow are irrelevant. Suffice to say, a punch delivered from a young man smaller than myself, struck the bridge of my nose nearly halving my eye-glasses. Staggering backwards, I saw a blur under my left eye, a horn-rimmed lens dangling from a plastic strand. My right hand fingered the second lens, now slanted crookedly on my brow. Both eyes had swelled and brimmed with water. I could barely see.

When I arrived at my parent’s house, my eyes swollen half-shut and black, I resembled a raccoon that had stuck his head inside a rancher’s fiendish trap. Half blind, I was totally confused.

Thus evaporated whatever predilection I harbored about fist fighting. I didn’t need a movie to understand that when men, and they don’t have to be large men, hit each other in the face, great damage can be done. One well-placed blow can not only end a fist fight, it can shatter bone structure and cause worse things. Years following my encounter I met a man who at the age of thirty had been permanently blinded in one eye by the knuckles of a clenched fist.

I wonder how many young fellows take Hollywood fist fighting seriously. I guess a lot of them do. Not just fight scenes, but everything portrayed by Hollywood and eventually recycled on television, is recorded by young people for future use. Why? As I alluded above, where else are children going to gain adult experience? Advice from parents, teachers, siblings? The child, knowing these produce canards too tendentious to be taken seriously, must go elsewhere. Sometimes they never find that elsewhere. I have known grown people of both sexes that almost unconsciously related everything to movies. Movies were their reality. If it wasn’t on the large or small screen, it wasn’t true. Motion pictures and television dramas were truth.

How little credit, or blame, we give movies for shaping our current lives, not to mention our destinies. There are many examples, crime being one. Crime in popular media is usually romanticized. The hero or heroes, are invariably sympathetic. To give one example, a film aired constantly on television, “The Sting” where Robert Redford and Paul Newman play loveable, handsome, con men. The makers of the film would no doubt admit these portrayals unrealistic, but would deflect that criticism as heavy handed and lacking humor. There is some truth to their defense, but the lingering residue of such films, when thrown atop a pile of similar entertainments, helps a society define what success means – in this case a triumph over others. You have to be shrewder than the next guy, not necessarily of a different moral stripe, but quicker to take advantage. All the friends of Newman and Redford in the “Sting” film are sympathetic, colorful, and quick to "sting” the next guy. They are also nice people. Would their real-life counterparts be the same?

Let us look back on Hollywood’s gangster films. They have been around a long time. Back in the Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney film era, gangsters were glamorized as colorful characters. However, they were not given the same dimensions as today’s gangland film heroes.

Following the early l970’s, and release of “The Godfather,” media gangster leaders have been elevated to imperial status. They resemble Roman Emperors. The viewing public seizes upon their oratories as they once did Horatio Alger stories. “An offer he can’t refuse,” a quote indelible in the national vernacular. In Hollywood films, Mafia heads are different than the lackeys surrounding them. The Godfather

In a common gangster film hierarchy, Numbers two through a number well up into the teens, are simple souls besot by greed. “Number One,” their “boss of bosses,” suffers from greed as well, but his actions are governed by a philosophical view. While his subordinates, half-crazed by momentary opportunities, scream how they want to ”whack” a foe before they get whacked, “Numero Uno,” takes a patient view: ‘"Better wait awhile,” he says, “He hasn’t met Angelina. She may soften him up.’’ Angelina, a new gun moll, may well spell trouble for the mob since she could be a police informant, but the thought of “Numero One” offering a tempering influence to a common enemy, make the boss more interesting. He is perhaps educated at an Ivy League University. His manners are either too terrible, or too good, but always hard to be believed. He brags on his knowledge of French wines or degrades such bragging activities (which he shares on the sly) as genteel nonsense. Of course, regardless of his persona, he orders people murdered. He wouldn’t be the “boss of all bosses,” if he didn’t.

In truth, mobsters could ethically switch places with some leaders of the corporate world, but they lack the polish. Real life mobsters, like the criminals they are, seldom, if ever, have the sophistication seen on the screen. They resemble criminals and thugs because they think like criminals and thugs. They needn’t hatch elaborate plans to take over the world, diabolic schemes involving NASA, ICBM’s, or world-wide cybernetic fraud, they just want to get along, enjoy their families, and hoard money and material things like the rest of us . There is no metaphysical pattern to their behavior. They haven’t chosen a life of crime for any reason other than crime is all they know. In their psyches reside no delicate balance between good and evil. They are crooks pure and simple. To treat them as something else (I do not mean “as real people”), interchangeable with exceptional souls that have achieved success in less dangerous occupations, is not only unexciting, but false. And perhaps this is why truth, or approximation of truth, is not performed on the screen. It is dull. Tickets must be sold. The box office rules.

1917 Even more ominous is the entertainment media influence on the perception of war. I don’t mean Hollywood or television glorify war, far from it, almost always (unless they deal with pre 20th century wars, that often exhibit a patriotic slant) they go the opposite direction. The film viewer is told again and again that, “war is hell.” He can’t much think otherwise after watching hours of both sides spilling their guts on the battlefield.

“Isn’t war awful?” these films ask, and quickly answer with a resounding yes! During such “message movies” injuries mount, occupied hospital beds multiply, heroes and heroines endure and endure. But they do not undergo the aftermath horrors of actual battlefield injuries, with their resultant bacterial infestations and incontinence, nor the emotional depressions that follow surgical operations. Seldom are many movie minutes devoted to the unceasing agony of paralysis or amputation, these are traumas delivered by doctors and nurses nearly off camera, spoken in quick asides.

We admire the bravery of the purple heart victim(s) and, of course, we get the point - war is hell. But where is there a film illustrating cause(s) of war rather than a pedestrian theme that war is harmful? Doesn’t everyone know war leads to bad ends, and that the worst horror of all, nuclear war, cannot be seriously considered without the thinker becoming a tad deranged? Instead, we view the sufferings and admire the stoicism of those involved.

When Stanley Kubrick formulated his film classic “Doctor Strangelove,” he confessed he had to make it satirical, because the reality of nuclear war was too unreal for anyone to believe. So, reasoned Kubrick, let the viewer laugh at a ridiculous spectacle.

But, of course, Hollywood film doesn’t spend all its time on the creation of gangsters, war films, or fist fights. The leading subject is undeniably male and female relationships. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Love, if you will, rules. That this love is concerned basically with sex and (or) a sappy romantic love between what amounts to be (regardless of age) teenagers, is another thing.

There is a “reality problem” with on screen battles between the sexes. I do not mean that those actors portraying ordinary people are obviously so much better looking than actual people. Of course the actors are better looking! People don’t go to films to see themselves or their neighbors on the screen. The “ordinary life” is what customers are trying to escape. Instead, when I speak of “reality problem,” I refer to values, in this case how low a price protagonists pay for the phantasy world they create.

Hollywood loves to explain the price of success within terms of the entertainment industry itself, usually Hollywood. A young man or woman arrives in “tinsel town” in search of acting success. To achieve this they “use” their friends and lovers and inevitably break many hearts. Eventually they achieve “stardom” but are drained of goodness and depth. They dry up, doomed to an emotionally isolated existence. They lack what Hollywood says one must possess in life – love. Often, when discovering their lack, the screen character commits suicide. Or, after they realize they are devoid of humanity, they continue living a life not worth living. Their fate is up to the makers of the film. Will we end with suicide or emotional vacuity? Shall the last scene be a recently opened 20 story hotel window that reveals a now empty room, or will he or she sit alone on a park bench staring jealously at members of a family enjoying themselves?

The paradox of these films is that many in the audience, when viewing a film character pause in their ascent up the success ladder so as to make love to a beautiful person, (a ladder requiring many “film minutes” to climb, such films can be realistic!) or when they cash-purchase yet another snazzy car, may decide the price paid for that success is worth it. The pimply faced adolescent sitting in the audience, trades places with the character on the screen, and thinks: “Why not sacrifice a chance for future real love if I can possess all those things in the extended present? Besides, aren’t material things and sex what everyone struggles for even when not successful?”

The only way these films can illustrate that the “money and success are not everything theme,” is to show the protagonist emotionally shriveling inside as they achieve success. Difficult to do as it may bore the audience, just as the successful person (in real life) is bored with their fifth new automobile in the past three years, or their fifth new boyfriend or girlfriend in the past three weeks.

One would think that Plato may have been right when he decided to ban the poet from his ideal state. It might be worth eliminating the indirect discussion of ideas by artists. Let that area of the market place die from neglect. If the public can achieve this, and eliminate the bogus nonsense fed them by commercialized art, why not do it?

But who will decide how to do it? A city council? A citizen censor board? A philosopher-king?

Too complicated to accomplish? Of course it is! So complicated and difficult, it may not be even viable. It takes sophistication to create true art, and sophisticated audiences to appreciate that art. Without the common denominator needed to get things done, money, it would seem an impossible task. And, if you still decide to make the attempt, where do you get that money? In the USA it is difficult to procure Congressional funds for PBS shows focusing on national emergencies, much less creative endeavors.

So the public must wait for the once or twice in a generation commercial art that somehow can entertain, edify, and not mislead. And in the interim try and stay out of fist fights, or whatever activity learned at the cinema or on television.

© James Morford July 2013

The World's Outsiders
James Morford

Has there ever been an ethnicity so little understood? In Europe they are called Roma (Romanies), Americans call them Gypsies.


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