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Silver Screen as Philosophic Mirror

Silver Screen as Philosophic Mirror

10 Mins
April 12, 2010

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 America in the 1920s, told in the high style of a Hollywood musical. It centered on the sensationalized cases of two nightclub murderesses competing for the attention of the media, as well as the machinations of sleazy lawyers.

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 Manhattan woman of today—whose spent emotions seem to lack causes and who contemplate suicide. (Woolf, of course, succeeded.) Emotional highpoint: The Manhattanite finds solace in a friend's suicide—after meeting his mother—and comes to accept her own life, the promise of which she feels was lost long ago in her youth.

The Pianist was based on the true story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, an accomplished Jewish pianist who survived the horrors of the Nazi occupation of Poland. While the events of the film are compelling and dramatic, and there are heroes who show courage and take great personal risks, Szpilman is not one of them. He is an observer, hiding and peeping out at the Holocaust. If that was in fact his means of survival, fine. One can hardly object. But to present an individual story in this way is to give the impression that the world is a place governed by powerful evil, where life depends on remaining inconspicuous. What we do not get is a film like Schindler's List, which provided an understanding of the causes of the Holocaust, the philosophical premises of the people who made it possible, and ultimately the opposing values that were able to defeat it.

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.


Consider the story of Lost in Translation, directed by Sofia Coppola: Bob Harris, once a famous American movie star, is alone in Tokyo to pick up an easy $2 million by filming a series of ads for a Japanese whiskey. His career has long since peaked, his stateside marriage is devoid of any affection, he can't sleep, and he is undergoing a mid-life crisis. Staying in the same hotel is Charlotte, a recent college graduate, accompanying her distracted, celebrity photographer-husband on assignment. She is bored, lonelier than Bob, and equally sleepless. Her marriage, too, is on shaky ground, and she is undergoing a quarter-life crisis.

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 Tokyo night; go to a strip club, a pachinko parlor, a karaoke bar; go dancing and clubbing with Japanese acquaintances, desperately trying to experience something, anything. In the end, Bob and Charlotte find themselves in bed—and nothing happens. When they finally do say goodbye, it is bittersweet and unfulfilling. Bob spots Charlotte walking away down the street and stops his limo for one last parting hug and an unheard whisper.

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."


Mystic River, superbly directed by Clint Eastwood, is a story set in blue-collar Boston, where three childhood friends divided by tragedy are reunited twenty-five years later by another tragedy. Sean Devine, Dave Boyle, and Jimmy Markum are playing in the street when two men claiming to be policemen confront the boys and order Dave into their car. But the men are not cops, and after four harrowing days of rape, Dave manages to escape.

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 Mystic River raises are philosophically disturbing: Are we merely the products of a deterministic past whose imprint we try all our lives vainly to escape? Is there an aspect of manhood whose mean impulses defy civilized context, one that simply gets passed down through the generations? Is society, too, merely a disturbed extension of man's tribal primitivism, ever haunted by its competing natures of nobility and violence?

Lost in Translation and Mystic River might lead one to think that no one was interested in tackling stories of romanticism. But that would be false. Two other films nominated for Academy Awards showed that filmmakers do occasionally grapple with the Romantic vision of life; they just don't know how.  


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 America during the Depression and became an inspiring example to a country and a people trying to pick themselves up from adversity. One can almost hear writer-director Gary Ross's pitch: "It's the middle of the Depression. America's down, hurtin' bad—people lookin' for work, waitin' in lines, scratchin' the land. Then, boom! What happens? Along comes this broken-down racehorse and these three broken-down guys, and they start winning everything in sight. Suddenly, everyone's happy again. America's happy again! It's Rocky on horseback!" Unfortunately, what we get is Frank Capra meets Ken Burns in a big, handsome evocation of the 1930s, full of Stetsons, vintage newsreels, and period slang, not to mention Randy Newman's over-the-top score.

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 Hollywood classic, but Ross never allows us to get emotionally involved with the characters. Nostalgia and symbolism are fine, but they must be founded on characters whom we get to know from the inside, not as symbols and representations. Ross's use of narrator David McCullough furthers the problem. His stentorian voice-overs undercut the story by insisting on how important it is. As Ayn Rand  and many others have pointed out, characters and the ideas they represent must be realized through dramatic actionsomething that speeches (Ross wrote speeches for Dukakis and Clinton), swelling music, and pretty pictures can never achieve.

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 London, there is a painting of Napoleon Bonaparte taking his exercise on the deck of the HMS Bellerophon, en route to England and eventually to exile on the island of St. Helena. It is said that, admiring the discipline and seamanship of the ship's officers and crew, Napoleon remarked to the Bellerophon's captain that he understood why he had lost control of the seas. If Napoleon had had the opportunity to see Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, he might have amended his assessment.

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 Brazil and the subsequent pursuit of the French ship Acheron. This continent-circling cat-and-mouse chase thus becomes the backbone of the film, which is one of its larger problems—the story does not provide a sufficiently complex plot.  As Ayn Rand  wrote: "The plot of a novel serves the same function as the steel skeleton of a skyscraper: it determines the use, placement and distribution of all the other elements" ("Basic Principles of Literature," The Romantic Manifesto, p. 84). In Master and Commander, however, the predator-prey plot is only one of three unequal story lines. Apparently in order to pad his thin plotline, Weir (who co-wrote the screenplay) has also thrown in the struggle between Captain Jack Aubrey and his officers, and the personality duel between Aubrey and the ship's surgeon and naturalist, Dr. Stephen Maturin.

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 Maturin's dumb luck that culminates a long, boring middle period and sets up the final battle scene.

To compound the film's problems, Weir tries to cram the picture with all of Hollywood's clichés about naval warfare and seafaring: the flogging scene, the compassion-for-the-young-officer scene, the mutinous-rumblings scene, the captain-drinking-with-his-officers scene, not to mention the bellowing-of-nautical-terms scenes and many others. But Weir's most unpardonable sin is his non-development of the characters of Aubrey and Maturin. In Master and Commander we get a thin buddy-movie: Aubrey, the man of action, does everything based on intuition and revenge; Maturin, the man of the mind, is a doctor and scientist. Almost completely lost is what Christopher Hitchens has characterized as "one of the subtlest and richest and most paradoxical male relationships since Holmes and Watson." For example, what moviegoer would guess that Maturin is a crack shot, an expert swordsman, and a former Irish rebel who has become Britain's best spy in order to fight Napoleon's dictatorship?

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.


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.


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 U.S. politicians.) The music industry made a brief effort in that direction when artists such as Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young produced commemorative songs. Perhaps filmmakers would make the case that the historical dramas of the past two years are their attempts to find dramatic content involving heroic characters and moral vision, with history providing cover for sharply defined portrayals of right and wrong. But even in these historical contexts, Hollywood has failed to overcome its penchant for stereotypes and slices-of-life and provide us with uplifting tales of virtue and value that resonate with an audience's deepest principles.

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.

Russell La Valle
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