There comes a moment in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (photographed by Carlo Di Palma) in which his character, Mickey, struggling with something of an existential crisis, is pestering his off-camera father with complaints about life in general. Mickey concludes with a simple but eternally perplexing question: “Why were there Nazis?” His father's reply from the next room always strikes me as hilarious. “I don’t know how this can opener works, and he wants to know why there were Nazis?” This is not just funny; it’s clever. Besides the obvious intent, Allen is making a point that’s worth a closer look.
Any sentient being will identify with his feeling that we’re living in a world turned upside down. Despite all our amazing advancements in such areas as medicine and technology, it seems humanity is never able to get ahead of itself in terms of how we deal with one another, whether it be on our own streets, in our cities or across national borders. True and lasting peace is a tenuous concept, and though we’d like to believe our elected officials are doing their best on our behalf, we know that’s rarely the case. I’m not defending them, but how can they? In order to function in their arena, morality must be malleable and its application tailored to the situation they’re facing. Does virtuous behavior always draw its meaning from the same source, or does it merely reflect what someone says it does in order to suit the desire of a specific moment? The willingness of an individual to make this distinction can be vetted for any number of meanings, yet in every case it marks the dividing line between good and bad character.
Loyalty, Progress, Artistry. You’ll notice which word the ASC’s founders chose as the lead in their motto when they formed the organization in 1919. Though I suppose it carried significant weight to the people of that time, the choice seems quaint in our postmodern world — and that’s unfortunate. When you consider that cinematographers generally do not collaborate with one another, you realize there are no accepted rules or codes governing our behavior. Within the ASC, the notion of loyalty — not just to the organization but to fellow members — creates an understanding that helps fill the gap. None of it is written down, but the example set by those who have gone before us serves as the invisible glue that holds us together. In the course of what can at times be a messy business, we don’t dishonor each other — or we at least strive very hard not to. And on the rare occasions during which someone might stray beyond the lines — say, by unethically snatching away a job, mistreating his crew, or replacing another cinematographer without first calling for the full story and a blessing — the situation is addressed quickly and seriously. There’s no ambivalence regarding loyalty at the ASC, though it might as well be defined as “character.” In addition to a superior body of work, it’s the single most important prerequisite for invitation to our ranks.
Clearly, the motion-picture industry is not a pure meritocracy. The cream does not always rise to the top. Day by day, it seems many of us are forced to navigate an increasingly cutthroat and uncaring environment. It’s filled with instances of good people who did their jobs well and faithfully only to find themselves chewed up by bad political situations or the greed, madness or incompetence of those for whom they worked. There is no shortage of examples that would lead one to believe it’s a magnet for sociopaths and egomaniacal lunatics. Nonetheless, we’re also privileged to work among quite a few brilliant and talented professionals whose decency, humility and gratitude somehow manage to shine through in even the worst of situations.
It’s those individuals, people of good character, to whom everyone should pay more attention. By concentrating on what makes them tick rather than giving in to the dark side, there might be a way to turn the ship around before it hits the rocks. And in the process, we might for once attain what I suspect Mickey was after while badgering his father: peace of mind.