America’s Sweethearts

I’ve written before about the movie America’s Sweethearts. I would like to add to those thoughts, since I’ve watched it a few more times since then. (It’s one of a handful of movies I watch while debugging code because it helps to keep me from getting distracted while I wait for compiles, and because I know it so well it doesn’t distract me from doing the work because I always know what happens next.)

One of the very curious things about the movie America’s Sweethearts is that all of its characters are bad. (For those who are not familiar with it, America’s Sweethearts is a romantic comedy.) The show opens with the information that the titular couple of Eddie Thomas and Gwen Harrison has split. During the filming of their most recent and now last movie together, Time Over Time, Gwen took up with a Spanish actor and left Eddie. Eddie went crazy and tried to kill them, then retreated to a sort of faux-hindu wellness center and stayed there.

This is recapped fairly early on; the plot of America’s Sweethearts begins with the director of Time Over Time refusing to show the movie to the head of the studio until the press junket, when the press would see it at the same time as everyone else. This causes the head of the studio to panic and re-hire Lee, the studio’s publicist who he had fired as a cost-saving measure, to put together the junket because his talents really do match his salary. The only other major character is Kiki, Gwen’s sister (it’s unspecified who is older; they might even be fraternal twins, which would help to explain shared high school experiences). She’s a mousy creature whose life is mostly taken up pleasing the whims of her famous sister, but she’s played by Julia Roberts so you know that won’t last through the end of the movie.

We now have all of the major characters: an adulterer, a lunatic, an unscrupulous businessman, a wimpy woman who lets herself by tyrannized by her awful sister, a publicist who follows the line which Hercule Poirot’s friends said of him: he would never tell the truth if a lie would suffice.

And what’s really weird is that they’re a loveable cast, and it’s a really enjoyable movie, even though it is not a redemption arc for most of them.

I think that part of what makes it work—apart from the massive charisma of all of the actors, which cannot be understated as a causal element—is that the characters’ vices, while not repented of, are not excused, either.

The movie has something like a happy ending for about half of the characters in it, but it is very fitting because it’s a very small happy ending. The head of the studio gets a movie which has a lot of legal liabilities but which might make enough money to cover them. The publicist has what is probably going to be a successful movie. The adulterer is embarrassed, but she stays with her Spaniard for whatever that is worth. Eddie and Kiki wind up together, but shortly before they decide to give it a try, Kiki prognosticates that it’s never going to work, and she might well be right.

I think that ultimately what makes the movie work is the subconsciously stoic theme that vice is its own punishment, and so successful vice is still punished vice. America’s Sweethearts is all about people who do not deserve their natural virtues—beauty, fame, wealth, power—who are punished by getting to keep them. But—and this is an important but—the movie is so short that one is left with the hope that the punishment may serve its purpose and the people may in time learn to repent.

This may be the formula for all successful movies about vicious people (that is, people who practice vice). At least where they do not repent. Redemption stories are probably better. But if a story about vicious people is not going to be about their redemption, I think the story of how they are punished by success may be the only other option for a good story.

Because good stories need to be true to life.

America’s Sweethearts

One of my favorite movies to watch when I’m in the mood for something comfortable is a mostly forgotten film starring John Cusak, Catherine Zeta Jones, Julia Roberts, and Billy Crystal called America’s Sweethearts.

The premise is that Eddie Thomas (Cusak) and Gwen Harrison (Zeta Jones) were an incredibly popular hollywood couple until Gwen cheated on Eddie with another actor in a movie they were in, Hector. The movie, Time Over Time, during the filming of which those events happened is about to be released but the eccentric director, Hal Weidmann, won’t show anyone the movie until the press junket. So the publicist for the film (Crystal) must put together the press junket with the two stars of the movies not being on speaking terms and there being no film to show the press. Hilarity ensues.

And hilarity does ensue; it’s a very funny movie. It pokes a lot of fun at Hollywood and the selfishness and complete dishonesty that characterizes the movie industry. Which brings me to the modern difficulty in watching movies of knowing how awful the people who makes movies are.

I think this may be best summarized by sci-fi author Rob Kroese, a few years ago, in response to some idiocy out of Hollywood in the wake of some disaster or other:

Nice to see celebrities taking time off from raping each other to condemn prayer.

(As a side note, there seems to be law of human behavior that a person’s private virtue is inversely proportional to the number of public statements he makes condemning vice in others. Or, more briefly: virtue signaling is often camouflage.)

So, the question come up, unavoidably: does one go on watching movies in spite of their deeply flawed origins?

I think that the answer is yes, but it’s not a question which can simply be dismissed; people who simply say “who cares?” about this are just people who don’t know enough—they’ve never looked in the kitchen to see how the sausage is made.

(I should note that I’m talking about things which do not enrich Hollywood further or do so very minimally. I already own the DVD of America’s Sweethearts so watching it again puts no more money in the hands of the Hollywood. And even buying DVDs of older movies does little to support the current degeneracy of Hollywood, though strictly speaking more than zero. But for older movies, much of the money goes to people who are no longer working in the industry or their descendants because they’re dead. Life is more complicated when you’re talking about watching a new movie in a Theater.)

There are two reasons why the answer is yes—that we should still enjoy the movies made by the wretches of Hollywood. The first is practical (and probably more accessible), the second is philosophical (and more conclusive).

The practical reason is that this is a fallen world and everything is made by wretches. Some are worse than others, but even the best men will inevitably have their work tainted by their imperfections. Worse still, from a practical perspective, many men (rightly) keep their vices secret (so as not to encourage others in vice), and so one will not know what vices secretly infect their work. When it comes to the near-devil-worshippers of Hollywood, one is at least forewarned (and thus fore-armed) against their messages of lust, sloth, and pride. This does not remove the danger, and certainly doesn’t make their work preferable to people who aren’t consciously trying to promote evils, but it does put it in the realm of what can be done safely—or at least as safely as anything can be done in this fallen world.

The philosophical reason is more complicated, but at its heart is the philosophical insight that evil is a negative, not a positive, thing. Evil is the (partial) absence of being—it is a thing being only partially itself. This partial being warps and twists things, but it is impossible to be purely evil—a thing which is pure evil would completely not exist. There’s a sense in which Nothing (with a capital N) is pure evil, but that’s not really different from saying that nothing is pure evil.

This means that in all things which exist, there is good. Evil does not, properly speaking, taint the good in a thing. What it does do is disguise the good. This is not, however, an insurmountable problem. A tainted thing can be safely consumed, since the taint has a positive existence—you can’t drink a poisoned glass of wine and drink only the wine but not the poison. But a disguise can be seen through.

Seeing through disguised good is a skill and thus a person can be good or bad at it; this is highly contextual to the person, the good, and the disguise. What one person may watch safely another may be misled by; it requires wisdom to tell the difference.

And there is no substitute for wisdom.