Monday, March 10, 2014

to die loved is to have lived

"No man is an island."

Or so John Donne taught us.  He was probably wrong on several levels concerning that observation -- as he was on others.

But there is little doubt that men fear becoming islands.  Unattached.  Lonely.  Insular -- to take advantage of a too-obvious Latin pun.  A fear that induces Emerson to echo in our heads that we "lead lives of quiet desperation and go the the grave with the song still in [us]."

Even those of us who enjoy being alone fear absolute isolation from all human company.  Very few of humans can thrive on the psychology of the hermit life.

Such ruminations came to mind yesterday while I watched two of the nominees for the best picture Academy award.  And both were about human isolation.

The first was 12 Years a Slave -- the winner of that coveted award.  The movie is based loosely on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a Black freeman living in New York who was lured from his middle class home to Washington, DC., where he was shanghaied into slavery in the South of the 1840s.

My first reaction was that the film was flat.  Beautifully filmed, but free of almost any emotion.

But that is the film's center.  Even though the film concerns slavery, it is actually a movie about the impact of isolation on the human soul.

Lost in slavery, with no way to escape or to contact his family, Solomon Northrup learns to survive as a slave by complying.  By becoming a good servant.  A role that repeatedly save his life.

That is exactly what slavery is.  An institution where emotion serves no purpose, and hope has no place in daily living.

Solzhenitsyn wrote that he could not understand why Russians did not resist when the KGB came to arrest them -- moral outrage required resistance.  But, when they came for him, he wrote: "I did nothing."

If the movie is relegated to its surface text, it is not very interesting.  If this is supposed to be solely an anti-slavery movie, it would fall far short of its mark.

After all, it is the tale of one middle-class American who was illegally sold into slavery.  It is not the story of the rest of slaves who were immorally held within the vice of the peculiar institution.

At the other end of the emotional scheme is American Hustle -- a clever movie about the Abscam sting operation of the 1970s.  It is all emotion.  Often played out at full volume.

The film centers on a two-bit con artist, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), and his equally conning partner and mistress, Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), who are forcefully recruited by an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), to help DiMaso make four additional arrests.  That scheme, through a series of coincidences, ends up being the Abscam sting -- involving phony sheiks, a cast of shady politicians, and the Mafia.

Bale's character is the center of this corrupt universe.  A small-time swindler who cannot stand the prospect of losing any of the people in his life who show him the slightest bit of kindness -- his demented wife (Jennifer Lawrence), his adopted son, his mistress, and the sting's primary target, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.

It is his fear of isolation that eventually brings the movie to an extremely clever ending.  An ending of which the actors provide fair warning early in the movie.

I have seen only three of the nine movies that were nominated for the top Academy award this year.  (I saw The Wolf of Wall Street in Mexico.  don't worry -- be happy)  Of those three which was the best?

Let me answer that question with a question.  Which of your mother's dishes were best: her fried chicken, her apple pie, the bread she bought from Safeway, or the crystal bowl she inherited from her great aunt?

Such questions make no sense without a shared perspective of what we mean by "best."  What objective criteria are being applied.  And just what it means to apply them.

What I can tell you is that I enjoyed all three.  Having said that, I doubt that I would want to see any of them a second time.

But for American movies of this decade, that may be high praise, indeed.

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