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Silver Screen As Philosophic Mirror
April 2004 -- Cultures, like people, have a sense of life, which Ayn Rand characterized as an "emotional atmosphere." "This emotional atmosphere," she said, "represents a culture's dominant values and serves as the leitmotif of a given age, setting its trends and its style" ("The Age of Envy," The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution, p. 162). With that in mind, it is illuminating to look at the films nominated in the "Best Picture" category of the Academy Awards since 9/11, in order to see how they reflect the values of our culture.
In 2002, all but one of the "Best Picture" nominees represented the Naturalist school of drama at its lower levels. Typically, in this view, individuals inhabit a bleak universe, living lives of unrealized fulfillment, moral cowardice, and misplaced values. Rather than make choices to determine their fate, these characters react to the exigencies of life and helplessly (often hopelessly) accept change from outside forces. The single non-Naturalist film was a fantasy.
Let's look briefly at the nominees from 2002:
Chicago, the winner in the Best Picture category, offered an unrelentingly cynical view of
Gangs of New York was another historical portrayal, this time of the mid-1800s. It focused on a series of bloodbaths between ethnic street gangs. While the protagonists are capable of goal-directed action—if incessant bloodletting may be so called—the proffered ending of the story was morally repellant: the Manhattan of the 1860s morphed into its modern counterpart, and a surviving thug's voice-over suggested that these murderous cutthroats were part of the spirit, creativity, and capitalist drive that created such a wondrous city.
The Hours was built on three separate storylines about three depressed women—the writer Virginia Woolf, a 1950s housewife, and an urbane
The Pianist was based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, an accomplished Jewish pianist who survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation of
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was the sole exception to the unrelentingly bleak assessment of the universe presented by 2002's top films. As the second installment of J.R.R. Tolkien's sweeping saga about good versus evil in the realm of Middle Earth, The Two Towers has many uplifting moments. For example, at the end, Sam bolsters Frodo's spirits by recalling other great epics, with protagonists who faced equally daunting circumstances yet were able to overcome their plights by dint of sheer will and determination. In essence, it is a clarion call that individual choices shape our lives and can inspire others to great achievement.
So, if we take the five films together as an image of our cultural values, what is the message? That the world is a place of evil, cynicism, despair, and terror, where morality is irrelevant to our lives—and nobility and the power of the mind to act and make reasoned choices are relegated to the realm of unreality. Fantasy has taken precedence over the very reality that it is supposed to symbolize.
This year's nominees offered a different mix—and a different message. A few filmmakers tried to break away from Naturalism, but they failed. Meanwhile, the third part of the Tolkien fantasy succeeded brilliantly. But what did it all add up to?
Let us look first at films that simply rehashed the Naturalist approach.
Torpor in Tokyo
Consider the story of Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola: Bob Harris, once a famous American movie star, is alone in
Bob and Charlotte start running into each other, and idle conversation ensues. Seeing the pain in each other's faces and realizing they are alienated, sleep-deprived soul mates (despite their age difference), they seek each other out, eventually spending every waking hour together, developing a joking, flirtatious intimacy. They still can't articulate anything, however, and they certainly can't solve each other's problems, but they feel good—as good as two depressed people can. So, they venture out into the garish
In sum, the film depicts lives of loneliness and despair, broken only by transient and unexplained moments of empathy, which we are led to believe are the most people can expect from life. Worse yet, Coppola presents this situation as normal, and we are asked to feel the characters' pain. When character development stops in this way at suffering and disorientation and leaves no opportunity for joy and fulfillment, the story becomes neither romance nor comedy but something hopeless and unengaged in between.
Lost in Translation did not win the Oscar for best film, but Coppola's script did take the Oscar for "Best Original Screenplay."
Cry Me A River
Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective, Jimmy is an ex-con turned grocery-store owner, and Dave is marginally employed, a father and husband but still damaged and haunted—hopelessly locked in the past. Their lives intersect once again when Jimmy's daughter is brutally murdered after a night of barhopping with girlfriends. (Note: Jimmy is played by Sean Penn, and the emotional power of Jimmy's heart-wrenching pain and anguish when his daughter's body is found is a triumph of acting that alone is worth the price of admission.) In a convenient twist of fate, Sean is assigned to head the investigation, which increasingly points to Dave, who longingly watched Jimmy's daughter dance atop a bar on the night she was murdered and who returned home hours later, covered in blood, offering his wife an implausible explanation.
While Sean and his partner proceed with the official investigation, Jimmy and a pair of local hoods set out to find the murderer and mete out their own brand of justice. But Jimmy's torment is part of a larger tragedy that he doesn't quite understand—have the sins of his own life played a part in his daughter's death? Watching him become the perfect dead-behind-the-eyes predatory instrument, we understand that there is something dark in him, and that Jimmy is not truly Jimmy until he can unleash this violent animal.
As the three friends and their wives are drawn into an ever-tightening noose of shifting emotional allegiances, we watch Dave shrink into himself until, in the end, he has lost the ability to explain himself to Jimmy, who, in turn, can no longer listen. Dave's great silent cry is to be put out of his misery (regardless of innocence).
The film might have ended here, but there are two additional scenes: One involves Jimmy's wife, who delivers a Lady Macbeth soliloquy exhorting her husband to forget his conscience and remember what a man must do—in the process revealing a soul as damaged as his. The final scene is of a festive, patriotic parade where Sean and Jimmy exchange knowing glances about their friend's murder—each realizing that Dave's ghost is still very much between them.
Obviously, the questions
Lost in Translation and
One of the pleasures of reading Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit: An American Legend was the anticipation of seeing the movie version—hoping to experience again the moving story of an improbable racehorse who mesmerized
In a movie full of cornball lines—"You don't throw a whole life away just 'cause it's banged up a little"; "Sometimes when the little guy doesn't know he's the little guy, he can do big things"—the one most emblematic of the film's theme is: "Sometimes all somebody needs is a second chance….I think a lot of people out there feel like they could use a second chance, too." For "a second chance" substitute "a New Deal."
Seabiscuit is awash in second chances. There is auto-dealer mogul Charles Howard, who loses a son in a car accident, his marriage in the tragedy's aftermath, and his money in the stock-market crash. Johnny "Red" Pollard is the young son of once-prosperous parents who have lost everything and who abandon him at a racetrack to make a living as a jockey—a job for which he is too big and too heavy. Horse trainer Tom Smith has grown bitter about the loss of the frontier and now has no use for people. Losers all, yet redeemable ones, just like the era they symbolize.
Perhaps the biggest loser is Seabiscuit, who does not enter the movie until a third of the way in. Though a descendent of the legendary Man o' War, he is runty, ill-tempered, and knobby-kneed, and he has a distinct flair for losing. In fact, along the way, we learn that Seabiscuit "wasn't trained to win but trained to lose" by his previous handlers. But, sensing the animal's spirit, Smith goes about retraining him—"teaching the horse to be a horse again and learning how to win"—and in the process reclaims both horse and man.
Given such fodder, one would think that Seabiscuit might become a
This was most evident in the two most seminal, feel-good victories of Seabiscuit's career: the match race against 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral and the comeback race at the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap. These are certainly exciting, with their Hollywood-enhanced "in the action" perspectives. But because they are presented in such a quick-cut, choppy fashion, the excitement becomes stroboscopic and we are always waiting to settle into the rhythm of the race. Ross also plays fast and loose with the facts in the Santa Anita race—Seabiscuit did not run last for most of the race, but second, before pulling out the win at the end.
Unfortunately, then, Seabiscuit ended up as a midsummer, cotton-candy, coffee-table movie. It certainly offered more than its competition—Bad Boys II, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Spy Kids 3-D—but it was a lost opportunity for a film based on such a big-hearted story. Sadly, Ross allowed the lights to come up with the audience still waiting to be moved.
At the Tate Gallery in
Loosely based on the tenth volume of Patrick O'Brian's twenty-volume saga, director Peter Weir's vision apparently tried to distill O'Brian's long narrative into one archetypal story: a surprise attack on the HMS Surprise off the east coast of
Because these story lines fail to coalesce, their interconnections are painfully arbitrary. Most notable is the scene in which Maturin, having been accidentally shot by a crew member and having just performed life-saving surgery on himself, traipses off gleefully in search of never-before-seen Galapagos flora and fauna—until, lo and behold, he stumbles upon the sought-for Acheron directly in front of him. It is nothing but
To compound the film's problems, Weir tries to cram the picture with all of
One thing Weir cannot be faulted on is Master and Commander's production values. The overall look, the feel of the cannons, the rigging and snapping of sails, the murky lower decks, the swelling of the sea, and the well-staged battle scenes are all palpable, and the film deserved its Academy Award nominations for art direction, cinematography (winner), costume design, sound editing (winner), and other production elements.
What cannot be forgiven, however, is his transformation of Patrick O'Brian's magnificent source material into a bad Cliffs Notes adaptation. Weir squandered a golden opportunity to fashion art in the Romantic tradition: involving issues of freedom and tyranny; self-discipline and leadership; cunning, craft, and courage. And for heroes of Romantic art we would need a Stephen Maturin who shows his keen social conscience and steely hatred of tyranny, and a Jack Aubrey with something more than his to-the-ends-of-the-Earth saber-rattling and cannon volleys at any enemy the Crown throws in his path.
The Delusion of Fantasy
Film history is littered with the carcasses of trilogies whose third installments ended up festering alongside the first two: The Godfather: Part III, Return of the Jedi, The Matrix Revolutions. By contrast, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is not only the best of the three Rings films, it also makes the first two look better. In this film of colossal spectacle—packed with passionate heroes, unavoidable dangers, transforming power, relentless urgency, palpable evil, hope, salvation, and climactic cataclysm—director Peter Jackson's prodigious imagination ultimately allows us to see the arc of his trilogy, synthesizing the best of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers and imparting such energy to the battle of good and evil that Star Wars and other fantasies seem like Toys "R" Us knockoffs. After seven years, not to mention nine hours and seventeen minutes of cinematic achievement and daunting special effects, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King has brought the evil ring back to the fires that forged it and paved the way for the Age of Man.
I cannot here do justice to the movie's fantastic plot and parallel story lines. Suffice it to say that the scene is set for the greatest of all battles, the stakes of which are nothing less than the survival of good and the preservation of mankind. Once the pyrotechnics have died down, the outlines of Tolkien's (and Jackson's) moral vision begin to surface. The war waged in The Return of the King is a holy war and thus a war that is as much against the self as against the other. As a Christian, Tolkien believed that evil could not be defeated on the battlefield alone but must be fought within man's spirit as well—specifically, man must surrender the corrupting craving for power that enslaves his soul. The Return of the King reinforces this Christian idea of man's need to acknowledge his helplessness. "Can we win?" one character asks, and another responds: "No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless."
Structurally, The Return of the King is a quest myth and embodies the idea that each person has an overriding mission in life and that he grows by undertaking it. This mission must lie beyond the person if it is to bring him to a higher level, and that is the first problem with this moral vision. It says that one's destiny cannot lie in self-realization but only in some human accomplishment larger than oneself that benefits others. Fail in this responsibility and the community suffers.
Of course, this leads to the problem that a person's quest or destiny is given, not chosen. "Ye must take the adventure that God will ordain you," as Arthurian knights often remind each other. Hence, all a person can do is stumble upon his quest and pursue it. This grates against the sensibilities of Objectivists because we believe in choosing the direction of our lives and making our lives the product of what we desire—not something already preordained for us. In the end, we reject destiny because it is a form of slavery.
Lastly, as was alluded to earlier, the sense of life embodied in fantasies like The Lord of the Rings trilogy is diluted by metaphysics. Fantasies create their own cosmologies and need not obey the rules of causality. The writer can play with time and space, mind and matter, identity and difference, as well as blend in as much of the supernatural as he pleases. How deeply can we respond to a character's nobility when his entire relation to reality is different from our own? A fantasy works best when its inhabitants face a world of knowledge and action that is tightly bound by natural laws. That, at least, reproduces the objectivity of existence and consciousness that are axioms of our own world. When magic is introduced, our struggle to respond to the heroes of a fantasy world must fail to a significant degree. This is borne out in the fact that only one of the actors (male or female) in any of the Rings films was nominated for an Academy Award in any of the four acting categories.
Of Cultural Mirrors
The ten Oscar-nominated films nominated for a "Best Picture" Oscar since 9/11 suggest that Hollywood has not yet been able to reflect the new scale of the American people's concerns. (To be fair, neither have most
One might celebrate the Romanticism of the Tolkien films, but there is a question about how to interpret their success—even beyond the inherent philosophical problems raised above. In the nineteenth century, when Romantic art was prominent, Romantic fantasy was just another part of the landscape. Some Romantic novels had realistic settings (Hugo's Les Misérables); some had highly imaginative settings (Scott's Ivanhoe); some Romanticism involved a touch of fantasy (Tennyson's Idylls of the King); and some Romanticism was thoroughly fantastic (Weber's Der Freischutz). A Romantic fantasy was just a Romantic fantasy. Today's context is quite different. In an era when serious films are expected to be Naturalistic, and no one seems able to challenge the Naturalists' monopoly by creating a solid Romantic narrative with a contemporary or historical setting, successful Romantic fantasy (or science-fiction film, or spy thriller, or detective story) will tend to entrench rather than overthrow the prevailing Naturalist prejudice against Romanticism. The cultural lesson drawn from the successful fantasy will be: Romanticism is by nature suitable only for minor genres that are not to be taken seriously. Romanticism, alas, still awaits the return of its king.
Russell LaValle is the author of several made-for-cable movies that have appeared on HBO, Showtime, Cinemax, and the Movie Channel.
This article was originally published in the April 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to the New Individualist.