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WILL THERE BE A Do Ask, Do Tell MOVIE? (Large Proposal)

progress report on film proposals as of 9-2002.

I'd like to pontificate for a moment on "serious" movies.  I've read recently about customers walking out on movies that many critics and persons with an intellectual curiosity (me) found challenging. The include such films as Schindler's List, Saving Private RyanAmerican Beauty, and Paying It Forward.  One customer wanted a refund on Paying It Forward because he didn't like the "depressing" ending. When I discussed the "social message" (the weak position of much of the working class) of The Perfect Storm (as based on Sebastian Junger's book) on an AOL movie review page, another reader emailed me back that I had arrogantly insulted everyone, and another reader complained that (in a non-fiction film about a well-known event) I had given away the "ending."

There is a common public belief that theater pictures should "entertain" people, not reproduce real life. Indeed, there is a resurgence of the "kids' movies" genre, maybe because family films can sell three or four tickets for an adult film's one or two. And some of the best "family films" (like Babe, A Bug's Life, Stuart Little, and even Grinch) indeed have "adult" social, political or moral messages in satire form.  To big-budget Hollywood's recent credit, though, major social controvseries have been well explored in films like Erin Brokovich, The Insider, Philadelphia, and (farther back) Silkwood. (Traffic was independent, as below.)  

We're seeing that many issue-oriented films (Any Mother's Son, Deliberate Intent) and funded and made specifically for cable, and most of these films focus on just one issue, viewed by itself in simplified form. These films may become more effective in conveying their messages as high-definition television becomes affordable and common.  Still, there is nothing like the social experience of sharing a moving film with a reactive audience in a large, stadium-seated theater with state-of-the-art digital sound, and a large screen with Todd AO or VistaVision photographic high fidelity, often lost in today's Panavision process.   

Now, my own taste as a consumer is for the several-decade historical epic (like Sunshine) that draws the threads of difficult issues today, to show the complexity of the "social studies" of the modern era, so people will become interested in understanding issues beyond their own immediate comfort. I like to be placed in a setting-- whether Gettysburg, Jerusalem, Wall Street, the Millennium March or even the 93 March, Vietnam era Army basic, and AIDS hospice, a wedding, a birth, the Supreme Court, or the Raleigh Tavern-- as it is (or was) without hyperbole-- the "you are there" experience. There is a tradition on Hollywood of historical epic film making--20th Century Fox most notably with the introduction of CinemaScope--and there was always a tendency to gloss over the history and cast some of it into compressed dialogue that runs away from the characters are real people, even sometimes with the parts for fictional protagonists as "ordinary people." There was also a need to keep the audience entertained with exaggerated special effects. Over time, larger studios have tended to become more "superficial" with their biggest offerings--again because of the need to meet earnings and fill suburban multiplexes. A more honest style of film-making has migrated to independent film making, much of it for cable networks or independent video and DVD sales.  Some compromise is reached with television movie specials for major networks, where multi-series are possible (The Winds of War).  Even with independent film making, there has been a tendency in scripting to focus upon one issue at a time (censorship, the environment, gay rights, etc.) and keep the cultural focus rather specific and narrow.

So more "creative" films normally have to be in a sense "self-funded."  One usually has to go out and find investors (somewhat in a "self-publishing" spirit) to bring one's dream to the audience.  (No, most films don't burn credit cards, but some producers work without income until their projects are sold.)  A system of accepted business practices for doing this is now well evolved.  There are "hub companies" and "production companies," casting previews, and later in the process, several recommended protocols for approaching distributors (many involving festival exhibition).  Securities law and intellectual property law is trying to keep up with the changes, now encouraged by technology.  But some larger studios and distributors have been developing "cooperative financing" possibilities for some projects. A review of the end credits of most independent films once in commercial distribution shows the complexity of the process. A good reference for this is the Indepedent Feature Project, at

.   Now, back to my own work.


Here is one way that I think it should be set up if the participation with a number of other individuals were possible..

Imagine a gathering of people at the Raleigh Tavern in Willamsburg, Va, to debate the possibility of rewriting the Bill of Rights. The people are varied as to age and gender, and as to economic, cultural, religious, and racial backgrounds. The idea is to set up a "shadow convention" (or "town hall") to discuss a few controversial issues where the rights of the individual and the welfare of the community as a whole appear to many people to come into conflict (proposals about paid family leave, health care, censorship, guns, drugs, social security, elder care, military service). There would be proposals to draw up a new "Bill of Rights 2" (based on the due-process notion of fundamental rights) and a "Bill of Responsibilities."  The "weaknesses" of individualism could be shown in one or more characters' lives. 

Some of the participants are persons who have taken on the military ban.  A position of the film is that the military "don't ask, don't tell" and its predecessors owns a public importance that affects many other areas, as it touches on areas like defensive public hypocrisy, civic obligation, gender roles, and differentiation among citizens. Others have taken on "gay issues" in areas like the church, or adoption, as well as overcoming the carnage from the AIDS epidemic. 

The stories of a number of the people are woven together in connected dramatic  "flashbacks," providing the screenwriter the opportunity to cover a lot of history (with its progress towards individualism as an unarticulated public expectation). Some of the points that can be covered include

  nursing care for combat victims of Vietnam

  the 70s and 80s energy crises and patrolling the Middle East

   Desert Storm and the treatment of Iraqi POW's

    submarine service and Service Academy values

    the 93 March on Washington; the 2000 Equality Rocls

    the civil rights marches of the 1960s and the King assassination

     what did we really have to do to win the Cold War?

Other scenes include

      unusual psychological encounter groups

      what Roswell may have been about

      the Cathedral of Hope

      Vaccine trials and experiments

      getting on the ballot and winning an election without a major party

My own "historical detail" would emphasize my expulsion from William and Mary, mildly reparative therapy at NIH (ironically the center of HIV research 25 years later), leading to my "self-redemption" through the draft. An important point is that the Cold War, as much as it originally contributed to homophobia and McCarthyism, actually gave nerds like me a ticket out.  Later I come back at the end with a twist involving the Internet, as I battle efforts to keep me off while the "shadow convention" debates are staged.  

But the point of the stories of the many protagonists is not to show them as "victims of discrimination" but to show the continuity of history through their contributions and the possibility of "ordinary people" to affect history.  Service--and that may often comprise military service, other service like the Peace Corps, or even domestic volunteerism on a large scale like Habitat for Humanity or even extensive involvement with AIDS or elder care-giving--sometimes brings one into on-stage contact with major events or public initiatives that change history, followed by--after surviving being "shot at"--unusual forms of personal growth or opportunities to challenge the system through a much more personal expression.   If one could obtain the services of a few high-profile performers from the entertainment industry playing some of these protagonists (also performing in the background, as with musical numbers), the attitude of the public on issues that have been difficult to talk about or think about (the "don't ask don't tell" mentality of staying comfortable with one's own immediate family commitments) might be gradually reversed.       

The film should have a comic narrator, a matriculating college student too young to have experienced our previously collectivist history, but having learned it not just from social studies textbooks and exam bluebook questions but also from the protagonists.  

There would be about thirty minutes of coverage of the terrorism crisis, starting with Sept. 11, 2001. The emphasis would be on drawing parallels between hatred of our flaunted "democratic capitalism" by both marxist and religious-hierarchal societies, with emphasis on the fact that freedom requires not only responsibility to care for others but also to recognize one's own personal weaknesses, a concept that totalitarian societies try to hide from their public consituencies.

.In the last scene we'll have a celebration on the Mall, with something better than the Tchaikowsky 1812 Overture.  Even so, as the film closes, a new serious environmental "purification" challenge will have been reported to be approaching, challenging the more libertarian ideas of how to encapsulate individual rights and responsibilities away from bartered political solutions.  

And the closing credits will show a computer realization of a restored lower Manhattan and New York. There will be a tall structure there again, even if a monument, even if a hologram. The film would force this to be built.