The power of film and television can challenge us to use our freedom to grow and become more fully human. It can illuminate the options we face to create a better, more peaceful and loving world. And most important of all, by bringing into our living rooms human beings who are very different from ourselves, it can dissolve the walls of ignorance and fear that separate us from one another.
We believe television can do three things for its audience. It can expand the knowledge of what it means to be human. It can contribute to the growth of freedom. And it can unite the human family. When it does those three things, TV is a servant to humanity, not a parasite.
You don’t have to be Jewish to like Levy’s rye bread. You don’t have to be straight to like orange juice. And you don’t have to be denominational or even devotional to know that television has an enormous power, both actual and potential, to shape the way we all see and think about ourselves and each other. It can force us to be eye-witnesses to our own cruelties, failures and frailties. But, it can also put us in touch with our common humanity and remind us of our idealism, our aspirations, and the heritage of hopes we carry forward into new and unusually troubled times.
Pasteur taught us that by taking a little piece of death and introducing it into our bloodstreams we gave ourselves back a gift of life. The irony of the metaphor must be continued in our writing for television. Not to avoid the truth, but to prepare a serum of the proper proportions of light and dark, death and resurrection, with which to fortify our aesthetic and insure our subsistence. Not to shrink from unpleasantness, our first tenet. Not to wallow in it, our second. Rejuvenation and survival our final goal.
The artistic and technical power of television enables it to convey “images” of the world to the mind and heart of the viewer. And the total combination of these images help shape the viewer’s vision of the world and of people. In a very real way, television is to the viewer what a parent is to a young child. Television presents, informs, entertains, invites, and shapes the images that become part of the thinking and feeling of the viewer. And so, for the television writer, there is a most serious responsibility, a sacred responsibility if you will, to create images of the world and the human person that humanize rather than destroy. Writers can uplift, inspire, encourage, and give some path of light in an often confusing and threatening world. Or, writers can present a vision of the world that prompts the viewer to bitterness, resentment, dulled passivity, total confusion or final despair. In short, you have the power to create a vision that instills life, or leads to a form of death.
Creation begins at the typewriter. By affirming the dignity and importance and the conscience of the writers who are shaping our culture, its tastes, its lifestyle and its values, HUMANITAS has made all of us who live by the pen aware of our capabilities and our responsibilities, and encouraged us to try a little harder, in a medium that must also entertain and create profits. HUMANITAS is applying its influence at the fulcrum, the writing, where its effect is multiplied.
Stories are the vehicles by which human beings, primitive or modern, sift things out, fit things together, and make sense of their lives. Stories are the way we probe the mystery, explore its depths and address to it our why’s. Stories are the means by which we assimilate the mystery and learn to live, more or less, comfortably with it. Stories delight us. We love to tell them. We love to listen to them. Why? Because they enable us to make sense of our lives.
We need these writers because we are, most of us, mutes. We see well and hear well, but express ourselves poorly. A writer’s job, then, is to go ajourneying. If, in that journey, he finds his heart, his soul, his blood, and his dreams, we are all the richer. On days when we do not feel brave, it may be that his words will swim into our heads and out of our mouths, and hearing them will resolve us to action. And we have need, in all of this, for those who look and truly see, hear and truly hear, touch and tell us shapes, taste and tell the vintage of each year, and then—embrace it all! Good and evil…light and dark…down into the microcosms, outward to the stars. These writers say: ‘I lived today, and here is my life. I dreamed last night and here is my dream. My nightmares? Yes- they’re here – choose one.’ These writers add: ‘You say you live alone? I’ve come to visit. Grant me a room. I’ll tell you a tale.’
Arthur Miller once wrote that drama reveals to the audience what is already known, but heretofore unrecognized. Without that common ground of shared values and feeling there is no basis for theater. The TV writer works with these feelings he shares with his audience—he can lead, he can show new ways of experiencing these feelings, but he cannot convert. Television may not be destined to introduce new ideas. But, it is where we transact the common business of our hearts. Sitting in the dark in our separate living rooms we see, therefore, a writer’s reflection of what we feel and believe.
And when the letters start coming in to the network, to the sponsor, to you, you realize something else – that this audience wants to share its feelings with you, to tell you how the movie affected them, their husbands or wives, their children. There is nothing like that in any other dramatic medium. It is unique…TV comes into the living room and takes off its shoes and loosens its belt and opens a can of beer. Sometimes it yawns and falls asleep. But when it doesn’t, it has the ability to reach into people’s minds and hearts and change their lives, as nothing else can. What a heady opportunity that is, what a challenge! But what an awesome responsibility.
Poorly used, television can do great damage. It can stunt the process of human growth. It can impoverish its viewers, leaving them bored and empty, alienated and hostile. Yet, well used television can greatly enrich their lives. It can cast sparks into the dark corners of the minds of its viewers, so that they can discover the answers to those questions which, late at night, we all wrestle: ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What am I doing with this life of mine? What does it all add up to anyway?’
Granted, we writers are not in the business of delivering intellectual concepts. We deal in emotional experiences. Our stories must be moving and we must touch the viewer, not win an argument. What HUMANITAS advocates is not the abandonment of tension, confrontation, conflict, jeopardy, and rising crisis, elements that make a story cook, but in addition, HUMANITAS looks for some insight into the complexity and wonder of the human personality. The HUMANITAS nominees have solved the puzzle. They have given us shows that gained immediate attention and also made a lasting impression. They have written stories that give us hope for a rational world… stories that not only show man in conflict with bad guys and bad fortune, but reveal a faith in his dignity and his perfectibility.
Because of the ingenuity and the power of the thoughts and words of writers, they help America regain perspective. My wife and I have had the privilege and pleasure of raising four children to adulthood. We learned very early that examples and storytelling were far more effective than lectures, warnings, or threats. I believe you agree that the same approaches can help in so many ways, every night and every day, via your scripts and the stories you can tell about the satisfactions and positive results of solid family life, volunteerism, community service and basic humaneness—simple consideration for one another. I know we can’t inflict a steady diet of any one approach, but I am constantly amazed by your resourcefulness and by your capacity to make differences in people’s lives.
I tell up-and-coming writers to write about themselves, that they are, as themselves, totally unique. That their view of the world and life in it is separate from anyone else’s. Their own special view. And it doesn’t matter if that view will change with maturity. What it is today is what they should commit themselves to. Most are uncomfortable with that idea. Exposing themselves to the public, as one of them put it, is not exactly the goal of a lifetime...I say it’s the best we have to give the audience who will not easily accept this, but regard it as an invasion of their private domain. But if its truth they hear it.
As storytellers, we must put ourselves in partnership with those whose value mutually empowers. And as creators we must integrate our continuing public demands for equity and decency with our personal nature whose intuitive, spiritual dimensions provide a nurturing, balancing sense of reality. That defines the heart of the work distinguished today, at the HUMANITAS prize awards.
Knowingly, writers accept the fact that they inhabit the perimeter of the Hollywood Circle and not its center rubbing elbows with the Last Action Hero. Knowingly, writers go to executives’ offices and see their unmade, important scripts lining the walls. Knowingly, writers have chosen to fight the good fight, against the odds, against history. And every once in awhile, writers win. And as a consequence, all of us win—the creative community, the caring producers and the gutsy executives here today, even the studios and networks that turned you down. Because we get to experience the fruits of your labor. To be informed. To be moved. Honestly. To understand something real. And that kind of victory—for all of us—is the very sweetest there can be.
And television can show us the courage of those who dare to break this tragic cycle of violence, who have the moral stamina to confront abuse with kindness, hatred with love, who chose to meet physical force with soul force, to endure suffering rather than inflict it, to put flowers into the barrels of the guns of their oppressors. Television can illuminate the necessity—and the rigors—of nonviolent conflict resolution. Talking things through, affirming our adversaries, appealing to the best in them, seeking the truth through honest dialogue, even if that should demand we change our position; seeking justice for the adversary as well as for ourselves, even if that should require we cut back on our demand. The HUMANITAS Prize is built on the premise that TV has a significant contribution to make to the growth and fulfillment of its viewers.
My wish for television is that it recovers that early sense of constructive engagement with American culture and politics. My wish is for a new birth of socially visionary leadership. It is tempting to think that this will emerge from the new technologies and delivery systems themselves. And while they will open up a great new range of possibilities, they will not necessarily help bring us together as a nation, heal the wounds of our troubled, cynical society, assist in the reduction of racial tensions, or help educate today’s young people. Such needs have little to do with technology—and everything to do with the character, values and aspirations that we will bring to the shaping of that technology. If television is indeed failing its promise to America, as our critics charge, it is because we in television are not living up to our full potential. The exceptions that prove that rule may be the rare and distinguished work HUMANITAS honors here today.
We do have responsibility for what we write and film, for what we send into our viewers’ homes and it can and should have violence, sexuality, adult dialogue and language. We are right in our contention that these things are all elements of our society, of our day-to-day lives, and as writers and artists it is our duty to show them. But we have ceded this moral ground by lazily refusing to show the consequences of these actions by appealing to our collective fantasies of action without consequence. Guns are fired yes, but not without blood, tragedy, ruined lives. People do have casual sex but not without loss of self-esteem, AIDS, and pregnancy. We must regain this high ground; it is our right. But we are going to have to earn it through our own responsible actions as artists. Through establishing higher standards for ourselves and for our work.
We writers need the courage to look with brutal honesty at human evil, not flinching at its lethal effects, but not succumbing to a despairing cynicism either. I find if I go deep enough, I can always find grounds for hope.
Yet, as we have told our children a thousand times, freedom does not exist in a moral vacuum. It always involves responsibility. So, what does responsibility mean for us writers? I think it means being faithful to the truth, not the part of the truth our audiences want to hear but the whole truth they need to hear. And it means being concerned about the well-being of our viewers, especially the most vulnerable ones.
In a disenfranchised, wired world, people aren’t turning to religion, they’re turning on television. They sit in darkened rooms in front of flickering screens and seek a much-promoted connectivity that only manages to make them more alienated. The computer promises communion, but provides instead something undifferentiated, enervating, anomic, neutral and numb. And so, it befalls us, the storytellers, to help organize peoples’ experience. In the absence of the sacred, it is our job to provide language for the mysteries, to offer interpretation of the chaotic. Because the act of writing a story is, in itself, a search for meaning. In Kafka’s words, writing is ‘the ax to unlock the frozen sea within us.’ And it is in our stories that we become who we are.