A couple weeks ago, the sound editing for “The Land” began. The composer will be starting his work too, so I need to deliver notes and temp music soon. One of the films that I’m scouring for samples is Martin Scorcese’s “The Departed”. After the first act, I havent found anything that peaks my interest for this project but did discover something else. It’s funny how by looking for one thing, sometimes you find something else entirely that’s just as useful.
In the first act we meet several police academy cadets who are all working towards a career with the Massachusetts state police. One of them is the young cadet Billy Costigan played by Leonardo DeCaprio. Despite his exceptional work ethic, 1400 SAT scores, and a performance at the gun range that would give Will Smith’s Deadshot a run for his money, the police Captain is dead-set against giving him what he wants; a normal life as an officer in the state police. The reason is that Costigan has a family with a checkered past that includes organized crime. Their sketchy history combined with Billy’s record of assault (minor confrontation) makes Costigan the perfect agent to send into the Irish mob because he’s believable as a criminal. As they slowly cook up a recipe of beratement meant to lock him down as their in-house stoolie, the superiors of the department use a healthy dose of family history and then pepper in knowledge of his wealthy upbringing (proof that he’s no real blue collar cop) to manipulate him into understanding that despite what he thinks he earned, he will never be a member of the state police. With no real family after his mom dies of cancer, Billy’s only option is to take their offer and become a mole within the Irish mob in order to have a career. In this, one of my favorite scenes, the captain and staff sergeant Dignam work their good cop/bad cop routine and berate him for being, simultaneously, too good and too bad to be a true member of the Justice system. The reason I love this scene is because it is a distillation of a theme; “The Injustice of Justice” because it shows a blatant act of manipulation that can only be legitimate in total absence of conscience. Of course, there (arguably) are justifications for the act because the murderous gangster Costello has to be stopped. But, that doesn’t absolve the department from destroying the future of a promising young man who only made one slight mistake that, under normal circumstances, society would quickly absolve. In this scene, we witness the police department’s hypocrisy as they rationalize that “If you want to make an omelette, you have to break a few eggs”.
This got me thinking about the two characters in “The Land”. When the film comes out I’ll wager that audience will pick only one of the characters as the victim of the justice system (if that), but I think they’re both victims because both of their attitudes were altered by the system irregardless of their family’s affluence, or lack thereof. This scene in “The Departed”, also raises the question of another possible theme that is tacitly weaved into “The Land”. The theme of Moral Turpitude. If you were forced to publicly punish another by robbing them of their God given rights of freedom you’d likely be tempted to use Moral Turpitude as justification (I mean, really, what would be easier?). Regarding Billy’s predicament, the captain and staff seargent don’t make this accusation explicit but it is insinuated when highlighting the assault and the criminal history of Billy’s relatives. In “The Land”, this condition is also suggested by the local sherif. But the question is this, is he looking out for the public interest or is he working his PR skills under the auspices of justice in order to show the public that he’s tough on crime? If the later is true, then what is he selling? And, what’s his reward?
There’s an interesting parallel taught in the study of communications sciences, specifically as it relates to PR and Advertising. In the history of advertising we see that the media has often been used to “create a need” in order to sell a solution. This means that the solution pre-dates the problem. To execute this tactic, a manufacturer of a new product hires an advertiser who creates a convincing message, and inserts it into mass media. The message is that there is a new solution to a problem the public was not aware existed and now that they are, they must have the solution. One example is the socially offensive condition of halitosis (bad breath). This condition was invented by advertisers who were trying to sell mouthwash. After a successful ad campaign, the manufacturer benefits financially by the fabrication of an idea. By using this same tactic, a person of high social stature…say law enforcement, has the power to manipulate public perception in the same way in order to sell the public on some idea. So the sherif in this example could also be fabricating an idea….or maybe, as he would have you believe, he’s just stating facts; objective reality. I guess without having access to both sides of the story, you’d never know which is the case, but then, that’s where narratives come in real handy. By showing the other perspective that the public would not normally see, a true objective evaluation of the statements made by the public service figure can be derived. Even if we give the benefit of the doubt, and assume that under most circumstances that leaders in our society are being objective, it’s still interesting when you come to the realization that other realities are possible. Especially since, prior experience only gave us the one conventional option: Sherif = Hero = Truth (clothed completely in white) and Fugitive = Villain = Deception (clothed completely in black with a curly mustache).
The Hero\Villain dichotomy is an antiquated narrative device (designed to captivate audiences) that has been burned into our psyche by hundreds of years of storytelling and in recent decades has become passé (But that’s another post for another week). The main purpose for this blog is to rediscover my own treatment of the themes identified above and invite y’all to join in. When the film is finished it will make more sense but hopefully this post serves as a good invitation and your interest has been piqued enough to create a desire to see this Texas based, home grown story about two estranged friends whose futures will be altered forever by the many dimensions of the Piney Woods of East Texas and its most guarded secrets.