|MADE IN AMERICA|
October 2, 1998
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, essayist Roger Rosenblatt on "Saving Private Ryan" and the American culture.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I went to see "Saving Private Ryan" expecting to like it, wound up disliking it and wondered why. The reason I didn't like it was because it lacked the essential components of a good piece of work - character and story to name two. And it looked like a good piece of work. It had the quality of what is now called "filmmaking," that is, it was made to look like a film. This art of persuasive appearance is true of the work of a whole generation, who have mastered the trappings of things but not the center.
What has happened, I think, not just in movies but in books, theater, architecture, even government, is that technique has replaced meaning. Technique is so polished, so expert, it becomes meaning. In the audience I sat with at "Private Ryan" they sat silently at the end of the movie not because they were moved but because they had been moved to be moved. This is filmmaking, a film made from the outside. Similar manufacturing occurs in theater, where plays - musicals especially - are made from the outside. Start with pre-experienced emotion about "Les Mis" or "Phantom of the Opera," or "Jekyll and Hyde," spin write the songs. In what other era could Andrew Lloyd Weber be hailed as a genius than one in which songs are made, rather than felt.
Many books have a center because there will always be authentic writers. But too many are made, as if with Lego parts, so much exposition, so much violence, so much sex. Books are acquired, not edited. They come prefabricated and pre-sold. Magazines are made. Name your niche and fill it. Buildings are made to look like buildings.
SPOKESPERSON: According to rules set by the candidates, themselves, each man shall make an opening statement -
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Political candidates are made before our eyes. "The Making of a President," once the title of a surprising book, has become a custom. Every candidate has become like the one in the movie "The Candidate."
SPOKESPERSON: Today, at 10 o'clock, I filed the papers to enter my name in the Democratic primary as a candidate for the United States Senate.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Candidates are built out of appearance, voice, the ability to deliver one-liners, out of everything except what is inside them. The inside of a candidate, the reason for a person to behave as he or she does, is not considered an element of the product. Thus, we usually learn who politicians really are after they're in office. To get elected, they simply need to look like what we might expect a candidate to be - just as "Private Ryan" appears to be a winning movie. The goal is to look like the genuine article. As a result, everything in our culture looks pretty good these days. Cars look good. Clothes look good. People who work out at the gym look good, and you look marvelous. The generation that has produced these well-made objects grew up on television, which may be why so much of their work comes in a box. In a way, America is formatted to television.
ACTOR: There it is men - Omaha Beach dead ahead.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Spielberg saw war movies not in the theaters but on TV, and he imitated both the medium and the message.
ACTOR: Everybody saw a lot of people -- midtown - noon - but nobody running, nobody waving a gun.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Television reduces life to appearances. You think you understand the meaning of something simply because you see it. Everything is constructed from the outside A situation comedy begins with a situation, not comedy. Life is approached from the outside and experience is virtual.
ACTOR: Please, someone help me -
ROGER ROSENBLATT: I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV. People speak in terms of careers instead of work, because work comes from the inside and careers can be made. The best in art and life comes from a center - something urgent and powerful - an ideal or emotion that insists on its being. From that insistence a shape emerges and creates its structure out of passion. If you begin with a structure, you have to make up the passion. And that's very hard to do. It is being done, nonetheless, and audiences of life and art do not seem to know it. So they sit, wherever they sit, in movie theaters or at home or at work, waiting for the feeling that is supposed to follow form. They wait - and they wait. I'm Roger Rosenblatt.