Families lack a sense of togetherness these days. John Cleese tells how people come up to him – not just to compliment him on the ingenious scripts and ensemble cast of Fawlty Towers – but to mention how his 70s comedy classic united the family, if only for half an hour.
Nowadays everyone does their own thing; one person is on their mobile, another on their tablet or laptop, while someone else watches TV. The choice of distractions and gadgets is overwhelming, so much so that it’s difficult to find a group activity to interest everyone. Perhaps that’s why today’s children seem so restless, distracted, vague and quarrelsome – eyes permanently rolling, yawning, searching for a new screen to engage them but only momentarily.
So it was great over the holidays to see a real feel-good film that united us all. Everyone laughed when I suggested that we all go to see Paddington. Thankfully they were still laughing when they saw the movie itself. Here was a film that my wife and I and two children (aged nine and three) thoroughly enjoyed. Apart from an unnecessarily silly, sadistic scene where Nicole Kidman dangled Matt Lucas upside down, it was gentle, playful, easy on the eye and endearingly old-fashioned.
Several decades ago people argued incessantly over whether violent films/TV programmes made people aggressive. The consensus was that there’s little correlation between on-screen and off-screen violence. And I agree with that. You would have to be extremely puerile to be influenced by the cartoon-strip violence in nonsense like The Expendables. So it is with a tinge of sadness I have to say that watching Charlie Bronson or Edward Woodward splatter muggers with bullets probably did not influence others to do likewise. Perhaps the streets of some of our cities would be safer if they had done so. But that’s another point.
So movies may not make us violent but they definitely have other insidious effects. They can make us feel pessimistic about the human condition and about ourselves. I realised, after viewing Paddington and experience a temporary elation that comes from a little koochy coo kindness and botched fun in the bath and tonnes of marmalade, that almost every movie I had seen recently had depressed me. They may have been worthy, they may have been well acted and they may have even displayed a masterful technique but they were all so relentless in their quest to expose us to man-made nastiness.
Take The Wolf of Wall Street, a formulaic film clearly made for the box office and duly Oscar-nominated – directed by Scorsese at his most heartless. If you haven’t seen it, it’s best described as a two-hour assault on the senses in which greed, debauchery, dishonesty and generally vacuous values are depicted as fun. And those who challenge them are characterised throughout as hopelessly square. The film’s defenders say that what was depicted was supposed to uphold decency by inversion. Yeah, nice try! American Hustle was very similar.
Then there was August – Osage County in which everyone, but everyone, is at war over the dinner table – except of, course the hapless Native American housekeeper who just happens to find herself among these deranged white rednecks. Even the gentle simpleton (Benedict Cumberbatch) is ripped apart by his parents. Talking of Cumberbatch – was I the only one distinctly underwhelmed by The Imitation Game in which the young Turing is seen buried alive by his classmates? Did this really happen?
Other movies I’ve seen recently feature general torture and sadism. Gone Girl featured several graphically bloody scenes including bloodbath in a bed murder and plenty of self-mutilation.
Nobody wants all movies to be soppy and soft, of course. One of my favourite films of all time is Sidney Lumet’s The Hill – a classic study of institutionalised brutality. The difference nowadays is that it’s all so gratuitous; filmmakers want to cram as many vicarious thrills into two hours as they can. Look at the golden age of Walt Disney for a welcome throwback to old-fashioned values of decency, loyalty and goodness.
What is it about today’s filmmakers that they all want to show us what’s bad in the world? Why can’t filmmakers uplift us every so often? Perhaps the key to peace of mind is to shun modern entertainment and just watch old TV series and films. I’m getting the Jimmy Stewart classic out right now. You know the one.