It’s easy to bash the entertainment industry. That low-hanging piñata is stuffed full of moral squalor, preachy hypocrisy, and mindless, slapdash hackwork. Even the best-crafted pieces of popular music, film, and TV produced by skillful professionals are typically shallow excursions in flash-bang spectacle.
Let’s leave aside for the moment the tribalist appeals to white guilt and multicult tokenism; the not-so-subtle shilling for the young to embrace the occult; the pious recital of sexual talking points imposed by the LGBTQMYNAMEISLEGION movement. Rattling off those outrages can be an exercise for the lazy.
How Did We Get Here?
Why is one of America’s leading, most influential industries such a spiritual Death Valley, whose only points of interest are skulls along the roadside and the unreliable promise that there might be some frozen aliens in Area 51? How did things get this way? What goes on in the hearts and minds of the thousands of gifted, ambitious, hard-working people who churn out all this stuff?
I studied the craft of screenwriting for years and taught it for one. I’ve written nine scripts and sold four to a director. I know that few people enter that tough, often thankless industry intending to generate mindless garbage. But by the time they’re in a position to actually make decisions, that’s usually what they’ve gotten beaten down into doing. Why and how did we get here? Isn’t this the industry that once gave us It’s a Wonderful Life, High Noon, Spartacus, The Godfather, and Gettysburg?
Satire: The Most Moral Genre
The best way to ask such questions isn’t to embark on a sociological study, or a moralistic rant. It’s to crawl inside the souls of the people in the industry itself, to try to understand them in three dimensions as real human beings — no different in kind from the humans who write cultural columns, sell insurance, or hand you your pumpkin lattes.
And that’s what my old friend from college Jonathan Leaf (a Stream contributor) has done in his fun new novel, City of Angles. The book is a satire, in the same sense as classics like Day of the Locust and The Loved One (two classic Los Angeles stories), The Bonfire of the Vanities, or films such as Doctor Strangelove and Wag the Dog.
A satire, to do its job, must uphold a moral standard — an implicit code of conduct and criterion for right behavior. Then the writer has the fun of parading his characters as they flagrantly and hilariously violate that code. As they outrage our sense of everything that’s decent, and right, and rational, we gasp, we cringe … and if the writer has done his job we laugh. Albeit bitterly.
Who Done It? Why Would They Bother?
City of Angles centers on the lives of a small group of aspiring actors, writers, and producers in modern-day Los Angeles. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but let’s just say that it involves a bizarre murder of a character curiously reminiscent of actor Tom Cruise, and members of religion suspiciously akin to the “Church” of Scientology.
The story jumps back and forth among the viewpoints of each of these characters, allowing us to see the sterile and unsatisfying world of contemporary entertainment through the prism of his or her upbringing, aspirations, and flaws. We’re forced to sympathize with people engaged in a cult, sunk in a series of short-lived hook-up relationships, consumed by a greed for artistic recognition — and in each and every case, entirely alienated from the beliefs and values of their parents.
The only religious faith that anyone in the novel entertains as a serious option is the made-up New Age pyramid scheme for “self-realization” whose shadowy leaders might or might not be involved in the actor’s murder and its coverup. Aside from that, there are no Christians, no Jews, no monotheists at all. We’re in a world that’s moving from post-Christian to post-pagan, where even the idols have begun to lose their gilt veneers.
The Author’s Not Mean Enough
What’s different about this satire is the product of its author. As I know from personal experience, Jonathan Leaf is too kind a person to write a really savage satire, in the style of Jonathan Swift or Evelyn Waugh. He doesn’t create a bunch of grotesque, malevolent puppets out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, then entertain us by gleefully tearing them to pieces. That’s just not his style.
Instead, Leaf leads us gently but relentlessly into the minds of these poorly formed, thwarted Americans as they wield cultural power which they’re woefully unprepared to exercise. He shows us their flickers of joy, their moments of darkness, even their fitful attempts to follow the natural law—which God wrote on all of our hearts, but our culture so darkly obscures. And he makes us care about them, even those whom (when we step back) we deem irredeemable. No, this isn’t Richard III, but in the style of that classic play (Leaf’s an accomplished dramatist) this story makes even its villains compelling and fully human.
That’s no small thing, these days, and this short book is a big achievement. I warmly recommend it.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”