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Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Ignorance, Bliss and Entertainment…

Occasionally, I like to do a bit of research. That might shock some of my more regular readers. If I’m covering a particularly topic, I like to have a bit of background knowledge that will allow me to offer some nuanced or informed commentary. Hopefully, I might be able to tell you something you didn’t know – after all, hopefully the time spent reading my review isn’t wasted if I can tell you something you didn’t already know, regardless of whether our opinions agree or disagree. Also, it’s just nice to know these things because they can help my understanding of a particular film.

However, sometimes delving behind the scenes is a surprisingly painful experience – particularly for a movie or television show that I enjoyed, especially as a youngster. I don’t mind if the production of a bad film was marred by in-fighting, wrangling and creative disagreements. I’d rather all productions were relatively happy, but you can’t always win. Still, there’s something disheartening about discovering that something you are fond of was a distinctly unpleasant experience for all involved.

There are a wealth of examples of movies and films that had troubled behind-the-scenes histories. After all, Apocalypse Now is arguably just as famous for its troubled production as it is for its powerful exploration of the Vietnam War. Even today, that still reads as a cautionary tale. You want to direct a movie? Well, let me tell you about the time that the lead actor almost died on Apocalypse Now. Or let me tell you about how another, bigger-name actor held up production so the director could read the story to him. Do you think you could cope with the full-on madness of have a young Dennis Hopper on set? What do you do when it turns out Lawrence Fishburne lied about his age?

Of course, Apocalypse Now is probably a film it’s hard to go into blind. It has become something of a pop culture reference, so it’s very hard to imagine somebody sitting down to watch it without a hint that making it was a very painful and soul-consuming experience for all involved. Knowing that going into the film makes it a little bit easier to swallow, as the viewer has yet to really process the film and form an opinion of it. As such, the behind-the-scenes realities can be integrated into the perception of the movie in an “it is what it is” sort of way.

It’s a very different animal when you’re delving into the history of something you quite enjoyed. Consider The Birds, Hitchcock’s rather strange (and enjoyable) avian-themed horror film. I remember quite enjoying it when I saw it, and I hold a great deal of affection for it even today. However, the realities of how Hitchcock treated (and abused) his star Tippi Hedren somewhat impinge on my enjoyment of the movie today.

During production, Hitchcock took sadistic pleasure in torturing her, to the point where the studio psychiatrist halted production for two weeks to allow Hedren to compose herself. The director seemed to relish the opportunity to throw the live birds at her. The recent HBO film, The Girl, makes all manner of vaguely more sinister allegations. Hitchcock himself exploited Hedren’s studio contract to keep her from working, and intentionally ruined her career. She winded up as a perpetual television guest star, and appearing in dire films like The Birds II: Land’s End.

To use another example, I’ve being doing research into Star Trek to prepare for next year’s release of Star Trek Into Darkness. It’s my first time returning to the franchise in a significant way in well over a decade. I was quite fond of the show and its sequels as a kid, even if I’d concede that the franchise has its problems. However, if digging into the background of various plots and series and stories, it became quite clear that the cast and writers of Star Trek: Voyager hated one another. (Or, at least, a significant portion of one another.)

Writer Ronald D. Moore, who would go on to shepherd Battlestar Galactica, famously departed the franchise on bitter terms after spending only a few weeks inside the Star Trek: Voyager writing team. Lead actress Kate Mulgrew was less than thrilled by the decision to hire Jeri Ryan. Robert Beltran wasn’t happy with the quality of the scripts. Garret Wang has been quite vocal in his distaste for the producers. More than that, it’s quite clear that certain lines and references were barbs at the work of other writers and producers working on the show. I was never a massive fan of Voyager, considering the weakest of the spin-offs, but it’s depressing to hear that the creative team on the show spent seven years working with people they couldn’t really stand.

That’s not to suggest that none of this information should be put out there. Tippi Hedren certainly deserves an opportunity to let the world know how horrendously she was treated. I am not suggesting that legitimate criticism should be concealed in order to maintain the illusion of harmony. Even in less serious circumstances, I can understand that people behind the scenes deserve to have their voices heard. After all, that work will determine their future employment prospects – a chance to temper criticism by providing context is something I can definitely respect and understand.

More than that, even on my end, I certainly don’t regret that I know a bit more about how things worked – it colours my opinion of the work in question, gives my opinion a bit more depth and adds a degree of shading. It would be trite of me to overlook these aspects just because they might spoil my enjoyment of a film or television show. Whether I know something or don’t know something doesn’t make it any more or less objectively true. This is hardly the Washington Post, but I also like to think there’s some measure of personal integrity involved as well.

That said, it doesn’t stop me from admitting that ignorance has its virtues – at least from the perspective of the viewer. Ideally, we’d be able to view a piece of work entirely on its own merits, free of any outside factors and judge it on those terms. Unfortunately, that’s a bit of an impossibility. Whether we admit it or not, we all come to entertainment with preconceptions and preferences and even the mood we’re in as we sit down to watch it. Compared to all those subjective factors weighing in our conscious and unconscious as we process a film, a bit of knowledge about the behind-the-scenes goings on seems practically objective.

Then again, I suppose, there’s also the chance that not all news is bad news. Star Trek: The Next Generation is twenty-five years old this year, and I plan on celebrating that a bit next month. I’ve been digging into the background of the show, and it seems as if the cast and crew genuinely loved every minute of working together – and seem to enjoy spending time with one another even now, after all those years. That’s quite heartening, and it probably provides me with a bit of hope as I work my way through some of the dire and misjudged first season episodes.

Ignorance might be bliss, but it’s not honest. And sometimes diving into something means that you have to embrace everything that comes with it. Sometimes that is good. And sometimes it is not. But such is life.

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2 Responses

  1. I never knew about the conflicts on “Star Trek: Voyage” (other than Mulgrew’s objection to bringing in the character of Seven of Nine simply because it seemed to be a cheap ploy by the producers to sex up the show). As for Hendren, I wonder how much of Hitchcock’s mistreatment of her has been blown out of proportion over the years to vilify the director.

    • The Voyager thing sort of comes between the lines, sort of a connect-the-dots approach.

      Mulgrew hated Ryan. She’s actually diplomatic about it and her points are reasonable. I actually agree, in principle. Seven of Nine’s catsuit pretty much legitimised all the pop culture clichés about Trek fans. Ryan was great, though, and at least her character developed.
      Beltran hated the writers. He actually got pretty vocal about Chakotay’s lack of character development, and has criticised the show’s scripting.
      Wang hated the producers. He wanted to direct an episode, but was turned down after making a jab at Rick Berman in public. He was almost axed in Scorpion, but he made People Magazine’s 50 Sexiest that year.
      Ronald D. Moore has gone into his troubles in depth, but the show ended his writing partnership with Brannon Braga, which is a shame. It also finished his involvement with Trek. Given Trek went on to do Enterprise and Moore did Battlestar, I don’t think Trek got the best part of that deal.

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