Jewish World ReviewSept. 8, 1999 /27 Elul, 5759
Say what you want about horror and science fiction movies-and I hate them-they do not have to obey rules of evidence, human judgment, and human understanding. Uncovering the truth no longer matters. Truth, nowadays, is located in some inaccessible realm, based on the occult or special effects. "What really happened at Roswell," "Are there such things as witches," "will he get l--d"--have replaced "who killed him and why" as what moves movies.
This marks a real break with the past. Great drama-and film is merely drama staged in front of a camera rather than on stage-has been about finding the truth. The reason for this is simple. Since we are alone of all the animals in having property that extends us beyond our physical existence-we accumulate possessions, professions, roles, reputations during our lifetimes, and pass them on to our children--there are for us certain basic questions whose answers are so important to us that they shape all of our relations. To give an example: our children inherit our property, our status, our skills, our friendships. So it's critical to know: Are our children ours?
Mothers can answer this question; fathers can't. And this difference between the sexes in our intimacy with the truth has shaped the most basic laws and customs of the various human cultures. In fact, it's not too far-fetched to say that all of civilization is an attempt to make sure that the question now advertised on taxi-tops-"1-800-WhosMyDad"-is answered with some specificity.
From this biological difference in knowledge comes every part of culture that seeks to differentiate men and women. So from the Torah to Oedipus Rex to Hamlet, Dickens, and The Lady Eve, our stories have concerned themselves with uncovering the mysteries of human relationships. Heroes search for certainty about a very simple and profound set of questions: who are my parents; who am I; who shall be my spouse; can I trust him or her? Even the shallowest of us can identify with literary heroes at times in our lives.
Think of how deeply rattled we become by something we ought, rationally, to be casual about: sexual betrayal. This must come from an instinct deeper than the moral: from being reminded that our biological descent may be compromised.
Ordinary people haven't ceased to be concerned with the truth of biological descent. The queues stretch around the block outside fertility clinics; the public record offices are full of adopted children searching for their biological parents. But the mandarins of our culture have given up on the project, and this shows in the movies. Were Hitchcock born a Gen-Xer, his movies could not be made. They don't concern themselves with the occult or the unexplained, but with men and women who are evil hurting those who are innocent or ignorant. (It's a sad commentary that Hitchcock's worst and least characteristic movie, "Psycho," is now his most admired, precisely because its hero is boringly insane rather than interestingly wicked.)
Instead of the detective struggling to uncover the truth we get heroes who confront an impossibly complicated--perhaps supernatural or extra- terrestrial--conspiracy; instead of a victim suffering because of the greed, cruelty, jealousy, or desire of another, our victims suffer because they are "possessed" or abducted. Even movies retelling historical events important to us are about fictionalizing or re-packaging them: "Saving Private Ryan" and "Life is Beautiful" both celebrate a kind of pretense that World War II isn't really happening.
In the mean time, on TV, you can see a dreadful new fictionalization of the
Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill conflict. This film succeeds in dehumanizing both
Hill and Thomas, ignoring the human conflict between them (which was a
tragedy for Hill the pathetic liar as well as for her victim), and inventing
instead a vast right-wing conspiracy that drives the whole affair. The
program is dismal. Still, it's wonderfully apt that it's produced by Jacob
Epstein, who began his in the entertainment industry 20 years ago by leaving
Yale and (in the opinion of some, including me) plagiarizing liberally a
novel by Martin Amis-"The Rachel Papers." Epstein is the perfect impresario
for an age whose elite has turned its back on the search for
JWR contributor Sam Schulman is deputy editor of Taki's Top Drawer, appearing in New York Press, and was formerly publisher of Wigwag and a professor of English at Boston University. You may contact him by clicking here.