Over the holiday, I saw an old film of someone riding a unicycle across a tightrope, the tightrope stretched between two skyscrapers. I’m sure you’ve seen it before, I had. It looks like it was from the 20’s or 30’s, and it’s shot above a city skyline in a way that manages to give this modern view of the city the same daring and bravura of the act itself. It’s a vision of a brave new world where anything is possible. Things you would have never dreamed of were happening. Humans could do things they could never do before. This was a celebration of risk.
In today’s world, of course, you could never pull off a stunt like that, riding a unicycle across a tightrope stretched between skyscrapers. And it’s not because there is no one in the world who is capable or brave enough to do it. It is because there are laws preventing that from happening. Today, the police would come and physically stop you from doing this, and probably arrest you for trying.
There are a lot of reasons why doing this stunt are a bad idea. Someone could get sued. Children could see this and copy it. And, of course, there’s the reason that’s always been there: you could fall off and die. Do we really need the police to come and put someone who does this in jail? That’s what happened when the guy climbed the New York Times building last year.
What happened to our sense of adventure? The reason you do something like this is to celebrate adventure, to captivate people (and children too) and to prove that what we thought was impossible is actually possible.
I watched MAN ON WIRE a few weeks ago and, even back in the 70’s, Phillipe Petit, who illegally tightroped between the two World Trade Center buildings, was given a slap on the wrists and released. Today, he would spend years in prison. Am I wrong?
Think about how travel has changed over the last fifty years. Going to far away places was adventurous. It took a long time. It was fun. My grandmother tells me about taking the train to Florida in the 40’s when they would make a special stop at the Florida border for fresh squeezed orange juice. Now, you can fly to Florida in a few hours, but its a fucking nightmare. Essentially, you hold your breath and wait for the plane ride to end. Not that long ago, if you missed you plane, you could actually run out on the runway and try to flag it down before it took off. Now you’d be shot. Now we can get orange juice anywhere and maybe it tastes better, but it’s lost its specialness.
How did this happen? It’s as if people’s attitudes toward freedom and adventure have changed so gradually that we didn’t notice all the fun and excitement that has been taken out of our lives.
So I began thinking about how this related to my own life and to art and film, because risk is what makes art worthwhile. Is it possible that the same sense of risk and adventure in an artistic world has the same consequences as this daredevil act from the past? Are there actual police that would physically stop you from making your film risky, brave and adventurous? Sure, there are the old reasons, like self-censorship and fear of failure, but how many new reasons, actually imposed on us by some law, are there? Have we just become so accustomed to them that we don’t even think about them anymore? Has film lost that specialness because we can get it everywhere, or is it because there are rules about film that make it so that films are not allowed to be special?
There are very clear rules on film out there right now that prevent sex and drugs and smoking and even religion to be discussed in film in any meaningful way. So, let’s be clear that these rules do exist. Are they laws? Hollywood has essentially banned smoking in films because if they don’t, Congress will do it for them. How much is actual law and how much is just our increasingly passive attitudes toward our increasingly police state? I’m not sure. Film (and art) imitates life, so if it is happening in the real world – and it most definitely is – then it’s probably already happening in film.