Facebook Twitter

Civility is as dead as the ‘Blair Witch’

SHARE Civility is as dead as the ‘Blair Witch’

The gravestone will read: "Born: 1776. Died: Sometime in the 1990s."

What died? America's sense of class, that quality that separates the truly dignified and responsible from the uncouth rabble who are fast taking over. You can feel it, can't you? Isn't something terribly wrong out there, in the America of the 1990s and beyond?

There's no sense of decorum or propriety any more, and decency may soon become an obsolete concept. What ever happened to the notion that your private life should be kept private, that some things simply were not for public consumption?

How many times have you been in a movie when, in mid-film, just as the plot thickens, you hear a funny chiming sound or an annoying series of beeps? Someone close by whips out the old cell phone and talks like the rest of the audience isn't there and didn't pay big bucks to see the flick. They're trying to impress us, of course, but they forget that some impressions can be bad. We're not impressed that they have a cute little cell phone — many folks do these days. We're impressed, and badly so, by their boorish and rude lack of consideration.

When this trend started is not clear, but we know what contributes to it. Few television talk shows today are about anything serious. Rather, they're about folks with no class, no manners and the intelligence of the average cactus telling us intimate details of their personal lives we'd prefer not to hear.

Our scorn for privacy is surpassed only by our obsession with profanity. Will you scream, hurl a Molotov cocktail at the screen or burn Hollywood to the ground if you go to the movies and hear the F-word one more time? Its use may have been an exercise of free speech and artistic freedom when screenwriters first employed it, but its persistence today reflects a lack of higher vocabulary skills. And it's not just old fogies like me who think this way.

This past spring semester, I taught an opinion-writing class at the Johns Hopkins University. I had the students review two films: "The Blair Witch Project," which came out in 1999, and "Touch of Evil," Orson Welles' film noir classic from 1958.

There were no neutral opinions of either movie. The college-age students either loved or hated each film. But their comments about "Blair Witch" were interesting. Half thought it was a great, scary movie. The other half felt the movie not only was not scary, but that it was an exercise in tedium about three college-age students who get lost in the woods, run around for three days shouting the F-word copiously and then get caught, 90 minutes too late for viewers' liking, by the Blair Witch.

It's interesting that this movie was compared to "Touch of Evil," in which Welles plays a racist, corrupt sheriff of a town on the Mexican border. At one point in the film, a Mexican detective, played by Charlton Heston (please rein in your laughter), tells Hank Quinlan (Welles) he won't interfere in a murder investigation.

"You bet your sweet life you won't," Quinlan snarls at Mike Vargas, the Heston character. Of course, a cop as hard-boiled and dirty as Quinlan wouldn't have said "sweet life." He'd have said something about the backside. But this was 1958. Such words weren't used. In this case, it wasn't even necessary because Welles, acting superbly, uttered the phrase with such contempt and vulgarity that "sweet life" came out with the same meaning.

That's what good writing, acting and directing will do for a movie. Don't expect it in today's films. Our society's standards have deteriorated to the point where superior verbal, reading and writing skills are no longer valued. Privacy and decency are no longer esteemed. Class is dead. All that's left is for the stone-cutter to hew out the dates on its headstone.