15-Minute Movies

If movies worked like real life, they would be a lot shorter.

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I go to fewer and fewer big Hollywood blockbusters, because they are so predictable. The villains are too villainous and the heroes and heroines are too virtuous. The underdogs always defeat the overdogs.

Would it kill Hollywood producers to make a movie or two in which the overdogs are the good guys?

Over the years, I’ve come up with scenarios for a number of motion pictures in which the scrappy rebel outsider is not necessarily the hero and in which authority is not necessarily evil. I think of these as “15-minute movies” because, for reasons which will become clear, they would tend to come to a crashing halt at what would merely be the first act in a traditional Hollywood melodrama.

I’ll illustrate with my unwritten war movie, “Behind the Lines.” Here’s the synopsis:

When an American soldier is shot down behind enemy lines, his buddies demand that their commanding officers authorize them to undertake a rescue mission. The brass overrides them, insisting that it is too dangerous.

At the 15-minute mark, in defiance of orders, the group of buddies steals a helicopter and ventures by night into enemy territory. They are shot down and all of them are killed instantly.

The brass was right. That’s why they’re the brass. Roll credits.

Another 15-Minute Movie is one I call “Eminent Domain”:

In the Depression-era South, the federal government condemns all the property in a valley to be flooded by a hydroelectric dam project. Only one property owner holds out: a Blind Widder Lady determined to keep her small family farm.

At the 15-minute mark, in a town meeting, the Blind Widder Lady calls on her fellow citizens to join her in standing up to the powerful federal government. The representative from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) then explains how hydropower will create new well-paying jobs and provide residents with recreational opportunities on the new lake, including fishing, water-skiing and revving up motorboat engines so they’re really, really loud. The townspeople side with the TVA guy and shout down the Blind Widder Lady, who soon sells her farm for a good price to the government and relocates to spend more time with her Okie grand-children in California.

Roll credits.

As these two examples show, the basic idea of the 15-Minute Movie can be explored in various genres. Here’s one set in the present, entitled “Rocket Science”:

A brilliant NASA engineer has an idea for a new propulsion system which can revolutionize space travel and allow humanity to colonize the solar system. NASA bureaucrats cut off his research funding, arguing that it won’t work and it’s a waste of time.

Enraged, the rocket scientist quits NASA. With the help of a maverick billionaire, on a Midwestern farm he and other rebel scientists and engineers build a prototype of the new spaceship.

At the 15-minute mark comes the countdown. The rocket blows up, killing its designer and bankrupting the billionaire.

The NASA bureaucrats were right. Roll credits.

My personal favorite, among all of my unwritten and un-green-lightable 15-Minute Movies, is my costume drama, “The Round Table”:

Dark Age Britain. King Arthur has an idea: why not replace warlordism with limited government and constitutional monarchy? Merlin looks into the future and tells him that this could work in theory but only when certain social preconditions are in place in 1500 years.

King Arthur ignores his risk-averse wizard and calls a constitutional convention, including peasants and fish-mongers as well as knights and clerics. While the debate on the new constitution drags on for months, a Saxon warlord named Gunnar the Controversial invades Camelot, killing Arthur and the rest of the men, enslaving the women, and annoying the livestock.

Arthur should have listened to Merlin. Roll credits.

My 15-Minute Movies may not be the sort of sentimental melodrama that movie audiences like, but you can’t argue that they aren’t realistic. After all, American public policy has been one 15-Minute Movie after another, for the last thirty years, if not longer. In America’s real-world 15-Minute Movies, the nay-sayers have usually been powerless outside experts like Post-Keynesian economists and professors of the Realist school in international relations, while the fools have been in power.

Consider the economy:

As stock market prices climbed in the late twentieth century, gloomy nay-sayers claimed that it was all a gargantuan bubble that would wreak global financial havoc when it popped. A bold, brilliant Federal Reserve Chairman, claiming that new developments in technology and the global economy made apparently excessive stock and real estate prices realistic, stood up to the pessimists, keeping interest rates low in defiance of warnings that this would just add fuel fire to the fire of out-of-control speculation.

The gargantuan bubble popped, wreaking global financial havoc. Roll credits.

Meanwhile, our foreign policy in Iraq and Libya has been a series of 15-Minute Movies (Syria might turn the series into a trilogy):

A Middle Eastern dictator was challenged by a domestic insurgency. Gloomy scholars warned that deposing him might just make matters worse, by replacing tyranny with anarchy and chaos, in which radical jihadist terrorist groups could flourish.

Boldly defying informed expert opinion, the President of the United States launched a war that toppled the autocrat. Sure enough, anarchy replaced tyranny and radical jihadist terrorist groups flourished in the ruins of the regime that the U.S. and its allies had shattered.

Roll credits.

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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