Last weekend my wife and I watched the old Jimmy Stewart movie “Shenandoah”, in which Stewart plays a Virginia farmer who has carved out a succesful farm with just the help of his sons and daughter. His wife has died, and he’s raising his family as best he can while the Civil War swirls around them. He manages to keep himself and his sons out of the war until his youngest boy is accidentally mistaken for a Confederate soldier and take prisoner. Then Stewart and family saddle up to go get him back, leaving behind the oldest son, with a wife and a new baby to watch the farm.
It’s a good movie, though fairly intense–it’s not your usually lighter Jimmy Stewart fare.
There is one scene, however, where a group of bandits come to the farm, kill the son, and then head in to search the farmhouse. They find the wife still there. She runs up the stairs into her room. The last we see is the three men slowly walking up the stairs. We later find she has been killed, though the details are left out. It’s up to us to imagine what happened.
There was a time when that was enough. They trusted us to figure it out. But I couldn’t help but think what they would do with that scene today. Most directors would feel it an obligation to put all the lurid details on the screen. They’d consider themselves “edgy”, true-to-life, consumate artists–whatever. But they’re lying to themselves to justify their addiction to shock-art. It’s an ongoing game of one-upmanship and seeing what they can get away with.
It’s not necessary. What they’re doing is trying to deprive us of our imagination. They don’t give us any credit for being able to think for ourselves, so they feel they have to spell it out in gory detail for us. They feel they can’t be taken seriously as a director unless they can get that all-important ‘R’ rating, the red badge of convention-bending. Except it’s become the convention.
Today the brave director is one who tries to create a movie that is accessible by a wider audience, framing details carefully to allow the viewer to read into it based on their own level of understanding. I could let my kids watch “Shenandoah” and they’d think the bad guys were just going to kill the woman. My wife and I would know better, but we wouldn’t have to disillusion the kids. They’ll figure it out soon enough. How is showing everything in graphic detail better than figuring out a way to tell the story so that different levels will see the same story different ways? That seems to me the much more difficult task.
This is one reason why I prefer older movies. Their self-restraint wasn’t a constraint, it was a challenge to rise to. They became masters of showing more with less. They were focused on the story and telling it as well as they could instead of showing off their special effects, make-up skills, and naked starlets. I have to wonder if all the gratuitous sex and violence these days is just camoflage to hide the fact that there’s no longer anything behind it. Movies have lost their souls, but so long as we give the audiences flash, bang, and bosoms they probably won’t notice.
I notice. And I haven’t paid for a movie in probably five years, at least. Hollywood, get back to telling stories–good stories–and leave out all the unnecessary stuff. If you had half the skill of the directors in the golden age you wouldn’t need it. And you probably wouldn’t have to blame piracy for sagging box office receipts, because your movies would still sell well to the rest of us who have caught on.