STATEMENT OF CONCEPT
It's pretty obvious that "Do Ask, Do Tell" sounds like a snazzy title for a movie, maybe a silly comedy. Presumably, the public associates the phrase with homosexuals in the military, and one wonders how readily that topic lends itself to goofball, sitcom-style, "movie genre" comedy.
In my Do Ask, Do Tell book, I instantiated a much broader interpretation of the concept. One a political level, DADT implies that citizens may need to strengthen the firewall between themselves and government interference with their personal lives. Hence, we get to the "Bill of Rights 2" proposal. On a moral level, there are many tensions in present day society over the way people set personal priorities, particularly with regard to "family values" and the distribution of wealth. On a historical level, the post World War II era-- the last half-century of this millennium--has been marked by the rise of individualism as a major ideological influence upon public policy (as opposed to the usual politics of nationalities, races, religions, and other "groups"), and the mixed public credibility of the homosexual community and "lifestyle," as (at least by appearances) compared to the psychological automatically of the "nuclear family" strikes me as a central development marking the growth of this individualism. The 1990's debate over gays in the military characterizes sudden change in public attitudes towards homosexuality and gender roles, and also brings up the question of self-ownership when viewed in comparison to conscription thirty years earlier.
Indeed, the last half of the twentieth century is simply an incredible time to have lived in, and it probably was the first time that an ordinary person could make his own expression important with relatively little bureaucratic approval. This has been a time when, finally, a basic paradox of human civilization is finally recognized. To wit, men and women must use their rational faculties to transcend their own immediate adaptive existences, even (in the long run) to survive at all; yet men and women need focus in making and keeping personal commitments (as with "family values") essential in a fair, just, and "reasonably" free society built on "ordered liberty."
It should be possible to show all of this with a compelling narrative film. The ascent of individualism has been covered in, say, Ayn Rand: The Sense of Life, and the gay community has been chronicled in a number of films, such as After Stonewall; but no film or, for that matter, cable miniseries has put these two together. Furthermore, most sweeping historical films (even the best ones, such as the PBS series by Ken Burns on several topics) tend to focus on short clips and interviews or readings rather than upon continuous drama and character interaction (although Winds of War does an excellent job of the latter). I think that an effective technique would include putting a lot of characters in one room and having them interact in a My Dinner with Andre format, perhaps in Williamsburg's Raleigh Tavern, where they contemplate a Bill of Rights 2. Then their many stories could be interleaved in a flashback Dr. Zhivago style unfolding.
The "Do Tell" epigram refers to a person's pride in following his own purposes (closely related to "being himself" or saying "I am proud of who I am"). The "Do Ask" component refers to a moral duty to be open to answering for his motives, as to whether they really adequately address the needs of others in an evenhanded way.
The “historical epic” used to be a grand tradition in movie-making. We’ve had Gone With the Wind, The Ten Commandments and we’ve had the CinemaScope spectacles of the 1950’s. In the 60’s we had Dr. Zhivago and the musical The Sound of Music. To some extent these films would portray ordinary people interacting with major political forces shaping history, particularly when they were based on historical fiction. In more recent years it seems that there has been a tendency to focus more on the major historical figures themselves, as in some of Oliver Stone’s films (JFK and Nixon). Even so, particularly with World War II material and perhaps now Vietnam, we have seen films that chronicled ordinary people, like The Deer Hunter, The Killing Fields, Streamers and Born on the 4th of July, the mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, and of course Schindler’s List, as well as, in 2000, Sunshine. There has been a tendency to present history in a unifocal manner, from one point of view (sometimes exaggerated) at a time. There has also been a development of excellent documentary historical television, ranging from Ken Burns’s films to the enormous library on the History Channel and on Biography. Yet, the intimacy and detail of these cable programs has not really found its way onto the big screen the way it should, except maybe in a few pictures like Touchstone’s The Insider.
There has always been an
interest in celebrating freedom, most of all in the World War II
films—America even in earlier times was very much the land of the free,
despite all of its faults like racism, homophobia, classism and
exploitation. For indeed the last half-century was revolutionary, and in a
way which no one would have predicted. While decades ago we imagined
progress in terms of, perhaps, exploring space, what has really happened
is progress in empowering the average individual, through the information
technology revolution. We
have watched the progression from books to radio, to movies, to
television, from 78 phonograph records to compact discs, from mimeographs
to home laser printing, from Brownie Hawkies to home digital videocams,
and most of all the Internet itself, with its enormous opportunity for
individual self-expression—any person can publish anything on the web and
the whole world can read it, and that is a profound individual
capability. We are to the
point where self-publishing of books is commonplace and movies may be
There has been a shift throughout these decades: first to more emphasis on basic individual rights, especially privacy—the right to be left alone and lead the life you choose in your own enclave, be it Castro Street or Jordan, Mt. This has been augmented by a desire not just for privacy but for new avenues of worthiness and self-expression, but, at the same time, a new sense of obligation—to form committed relationships, to function as a parent, to serve the community even in the military.
So a story about the last half-century takes on a dimension not seen in previous historical film, one about the individual taking on the system in the most subtle connections and ironies of a life. Freedom becomes the capability to become or do something rather than to be freed from something.
There have, of course, been
tremendous perils. The Cold
War, the oil and energy shocks of the 70’s, the Middle East, the
terrorists, AIDS. And there
will be future challenges: global warming, asteroids, new epidemics, and
terrorists. But in the past
five decades we have always come through these perils perhaps because we
are freer. Indeed, the
problems in places like the Middle East may be understood in terms of the
lack of liberties for the people that live there as individuals. We will, however, face moral
challenge. Other parts of the world will accuse us of living off of their
wealth. New life styles will be seen as threatening to the family and to
vulnerable people and to children. But the old ways, however crouched on
traditional morality, are filled with their own perils: group male
aggression, justified by collectivism, can nuke the entire planet—or it
can lead just to abusive and deadbeat dads.
Yes, my own life related to these events with a number of curious ironies, especially with respect to the role of the military in the lives of men—in my life at the book-neds of my adulthood. Perhaps I am no hero that would inspire a rooting interest; I am more an involved observer. There may be others who have lived through the same decades that would inspire more audience involvement. Even so, no one person’s story will fully show what has happened since VE day; rather it is the interaction of many little stories, much as in an Altman film. But what has happened in the past 50 years in the way of individual progress is so amazing that the story must indeed be told. And it should be on the Big Screen, and it should create a major public event. It will celebrate freedom, and once and for all put away the idea that government itself may ever judge the lifestyles of its people, even if there are moral imbalances created by the private choices of the people. And it should win best picture.