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Fade to Pitch-Black : The real evil in film’s current obsession with bleak subject matter lies in the blocking out of more positive work.

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

On a July day in 1987, a quirk of fate gave me the last full-scale interview with John Huston. Six weeks before he died, the director was seated in a garden in Malibu, smartly dressed in a black turtleneck, blue windbreaker, pressed white pants, white socks and penny loafers, receiving oxygen from a nearby tank through a clear plastic tube.

The talk turned to Huston’s interest in the far corners of human behavior, to the way he relished exploring troubling material. “The dark side is very bright indeed,” he said, offering a rare smile in the late afternoon sun. “The dark is gleaming, like a fire opal or a black pearl.”

The dark that gleamed brightly to a dying Huston more than a decade ago shines like a bank of Klieg lights today. What the French call epate les bourgeoisie, the eagerness to startle the middle classes, has always been an aim of artists, but we are now overwhelmed by a creative culture that is passionate about going to extremes to the exclusion of everything else.

Film is where this darkness is most pervasive, and where it threatens to take over the intellectual soul of an entire medium. It is also in film, as it turns out, that this trend is most dangerous. Not, as might be expected, for what it puts on the screen but for what it blocks from view.

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But this is not to say that other arts and other aspects of our culture are immune from the dark glow of this kind of material. In fact, it’s just the opposite. The determination to create in areas where no one has ventured before has been so visible for so long that picking examples can be done pretty much at random:

* artist Andres Serrano’s crucifix submerged in urine, which, famously, got the NEA in trouble;

* the zeal for new and unusual “extreme sports” among the young and fit;

* the New York Times’ recent celebration of Sandra Bernhard’s scathing one-woman show for its ability to turn “wickedness into a grotesque thrill, a joyful release”;

* the Sundance Channel’s enthusiasm for celebrating Thanksgiving with “Stuffed With Dysfunction,” a selection of films cheerfully described as “a cornucopia of family neuroses.”

A recent visit to a photography bookstore illustrated the trend’s growing influence: Prominently displayed was an entire section devoted to images that would have been unthinkable a few decades back. Possibly inspired by fine-art photographer Joel-Peter Witkin’s mixture of corpses and the grotesque, there were several volumes of daunting medical photographs as well as books with titles like “Death Scenes: A Homicide Detective’s Scrapbook” and “Murder in Rotterdam: Diverse Pictures"--expensive books in handsome jackets that seemed poised to haunt the nightmares of the unwary.

It’s in film, however, that this trend is most noticeable, most celebrated and most pernicious. The bleak, sour and critically acclaimed “Your Friends & Neighbors” comes complete with a long and detailed monologue that lovingly recounted the remembered joys of same-sex rape. The upcoming “Very Bad Things” is proud as can be of its attempts to make a comedy out of grotesque murder and dismemberment. A friend on a film festival selection committee reports that the gleeful and nihilistic mixture of bloody violence and comedy symbolized by Quentin Tarantino’s ascent has made its mark on wannabes in national cinemas around the world.

In short, the closer anything once was to a taboo, the more ardently current filmmakers embrace it. How else to explain the simultaneous appearance in theaters of three films dealing with the once-unspoken subject of pedophilia? Adrian Lyne’s “Lolita,” Todd Solondz’s “Happiness” and the excellent Danish film “The Celebration” all go brashly where Louis B. Mayer couldn’t even imagine setting foot.

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Not that these films were universally welcomed. “Lolita’s” difficulties finding an American distributor were assiduously publicized. While the film’s excessive cost and lack of commercial potential were major factors in that reluctance, a queasiness about the subject matter doubtless played a part.

With “Happiness,” the resistance was even greater. Speaking at Cannes, director Solondz recalled a furious participant at a test screening who “swore he would personally see to it that this film never saw the light of day.” And the New York Times reported that Ron Meyer, president and chief operating officer of Universal (which forced its subsidiary October Films to halt plans to distribute “Happiness”) told friends, “I don’t want that to be part of this company . . . as long as I have the job and can throw my body in front of something, I will.”

Hip New York audiences, however, did not agree with Universal, buying so many tickets on the film’s opening day that Variety wrote a story about the unexpected size of the success, suitably headlined “ ‘Happiness’ at B.O.: Gotham venues embrace controversial pic.”

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Several things are upsetting about this phenomenon, but, paradoxically, they’re not the problems that might be expected. No, the appearance of these films isn’t a sure sign that the end of civilization as we know it is at hand. All three have their strengths (even “Lolita,” the least exploitative, most phlegmatic film of Lyne’s career, has some value), and “The Celebration,” which approaches the subject with intelligence and insight, will deservedly figure on many year’s best lists.

Understanding why this mania for darkness is troubling means instead looking at things through the other end of the telescope. The problem is neither the presence nor the success of these films, it’s what we’ve been missing and continue to miss as a result. Isn’t it, after all, as narrow-minded to say that all dark, unpleasant motion pictures are good as it would be to say they were all bad?

Unfortunately, that’s what the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, is saying. Even though they often end up not being happy with them, sophisticated viewers are pushed by what’s in the air to see these often pointlessly and simplistically grim films. In their rush to check out the latest foul items, audiences are encouraged to trample, neglect and, in general, make harder to get off the ground equally smart items like “Next Stop, Wonderland” that have the unfashionable temerity to have a sunnier outlook on life.

As the swell of elite public and critical support gets greater as films go farther and farther out on the ledge of acceptability, one result is that the notion that yearning for standards of even the most minimal kind has become a laughable and almost quaint idea in certain quarters.

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Just because repression is to be avoided, just because there’s no desire to go back to the days when Victorians put slipcovers on sofa legs because unclothed limbs of any kind were a scandal, does that necessarily mean that freedom by definition can’t be abused--that it’s not possible to go too far in the opposite direction?

And because societies tend to be like children, not recognizing that they’re in danger of having gone too far until they’ve already done it, that doesn’t mean there aren’t limits that shouldn’t be crossed, that we shouldn’t weigh the benefits of this kind of material against its drawbacks.

Jon Else’s exceptional documentary study of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the first atomic bomb, “The Day After Trinity,” offers an interesting point of comparison. To scientists reporting to work on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, the bomb, super-powerful though it was intended to be, was thought of as just another weapon in history’s long line of ever-stronger agents of destruction. It wasn’t until the test at the Trinity site and the obliteration of Hiroshima that many of the bomb’s creators realized that they had unknowingly crossed a line and created a completely different class of thing. By then, however, it was far too late to put the genie back into the bottle.

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Though an interest in bumping up against boundaries is not new, the accompanying derision about the possibility of being both intelligent and positive is relatively recent. In literature, aesthetically groundbreaking but life-affirming work ranging in time from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” have always been part of our tradition. And in film, there is a tradition of intelligent romantic dramas (“Casablanca,” “From Here to Eternity,” “An Affair to Remember,” “Doctor Zhivago,” “The English Patient,” to name a few) for serious filmgoers to admire. While Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” presented a director who couldn’t decide if entertaining filmmaking was worth doing in the face of a chance to make the despairing “Brother, Where Art Thou,” he concluded it very much was.

Today, pitch-black pictures like “Happiness,” “Clay Pigeons,” “Your Friends & Neighbors” and its predecessor, “In the Company of Men,” the upcoming “Very Bad Things” and “A Simple Plan” are becoming the only things acceptable to our culture’s taste-makers. Yes, films with happy endings are popular with mass audiences, but the high-end buzz among the nominal intelligentsia has become increasingly focused on what’s bleak and hopeless. If it doesn’t make you squirm, the feeling is, it’s got to be simplistic and beneath serious notice. And if something leads to wincing, it’s automatically presumed to be, as one of “Very Bad Things’ ” producers grandly put it, “talking about deep and disturbing truths.”

It became chic to complain last year that the sharply funny “As Good as It Gets” was too cheerful in its resolution, but the voices who said “Your Friends & Neighbors” was way too schematic and one-dimensional were far fewer. Granted, all films can’t have pleasant endings, but if you admit to enjoying those that do, you’re considered to be in the grip of a boring, unsophisticated state of mind. As a result, the serious part of our culture is in the process of abandoning positive films to cliche-addicted idiots, to giving adult audiences the horrific choice of getting things dark or getting them dumb.

One man who definitely was dark was the great country singer Hank Williams. Often depressed and suicidal, he was, or so the story goes, frequently driven around all night by band members who feared for his safety. One morning, surprised by a sunrise, Williams and his coterie broke into a chorus of “I Saw the Light,” the singer’s celebrated gospel composition. When it ended, Williams sobbed, “that’s the trouble, it’s all darkness, there ain’t no light.”

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Williams died tragically young not long afterward, and unless we’re willing to go along with him and die young artistically as a movie culture, we should recognize the importance of restoring some much-needed balance in our thinking about what’s of value in film. And we should refrain at all times from mindlessly scorning the all-embracing light.


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