Back in the cowboy days there was a saloon owner in Kansas City who had an elephant tied up outside in the back. Not being an indigenous species and zoos being something that only existed out east, this was quite an attraction, and all the cowboys who came to town at the end of a long hard cattle drive would make a beeline to the saloon, down a couple of thirst-quenching beers, and then get in line to see Miss Kitty And Her All Prostitutes Review. Then the next day they’d go look at the elephant.
And from this comes the phrase “I saw the elephant.” When you’ve seen the elephant, that means you’ve had yourself one heck of a time and saw and did everything possible and it was amazing. But originally, it was you saw something you had never seen before and it was pretty awesome.
The fledgling film industry back around the same time period was quick to latch onto this concept of showing people something they had never seen before. One of the first things was a short bit of film of a steam locomotive rocketing by. This was thrilling. And I have read frequently of how the people in the little theater, viewing the locomotive coming closer and closer, would fearfully throw up their hands and duck at the last instant just as it seemed the engine was going to come through the screen! which is the stupidest thing I’ve ever read. And I would appreciate it if film historians would stop relating this anecdote in the first chapter of their books, as it erroneously suggests our evolution from apes to humans didn’t start until after 1900.
But that’s not the point. The point is the film industry from its inception has been showing us things we’ve never seen before. They have always strived to show us the elephant. And now that we’ve seen the elephant, they feel compelled to show us the exploding elephant, along with all sorts of other things I never wanted to see in the first place. There is officially no such thing anymore as “bad taste” in the film industry. I’ve never once heard a movie reviewer in the last decade say that they were either offended by something they viewed or found it to be in bad taste. I think the mindset here is that if you say something is in bad taste it means you’re a square. In terms of advance warning from a film critic, if I’m lucky, I’ll get a comment saying the movie is “not for the squeamish.” So, there’s nothing wrong with the movie, see, it’s just that I’m a delicate flower.
Consequently I’ve taken to watching just independent movies. I know that they’re not going to subject me to gruesome special effects. It pleases me that the independent film community gravitates to a higher intellectual standard than the large movie studios. It also pleases me that they can’t afford special effects. Unfortunately they can’t seem to afford a camera tripod either. Fortunately for them, in that regard, they’ve been able to bamboozle the film critic community into thinking an entire movie filmed with a handheld camera is some sort of revolutionary technique, providing the sensation of “you are right there in the room watching,” except in reality it’s more like “you are right there in the room watching but you’re really drunk and you may throw up on Parker Posey at any moment.” It’s also known as the “I’m too lazy to set up a shot or write a script and so I’m just going to follow these actors around and see if they do or say anything interesting” technique, first championed by John Cassavetes.*
*(Please don’t leave comments regarding John Cassavetes. Thanks).
But that aside, the major movie studios could take a lesson not only from the independents (other than John Cassavetes) but from the great filmmakers of bygone eras. I see nothing wrong with reverting back in time, to when we didn’t go to the movies just to bear witness to the new, the shocking, and the tasteless. Fine acting, writing, and a thrilling musical score is more than sufficient to transport us to a different, fascinating, or scary place. I’d like to see more movies allow our imaginations to take over by giving us just a subtle hint or glimpse of the reality that deservedly lurks in the shadows. A movie can be tasteful but still effective. Suggestive but scary. And in good taste, like in the old days. You know, like Psycho! and Freaks!