I’ve believed for a while that it is increasingly in books and movies that the perception of things – and thus often, the thing itself – is defined.
I don’t think that’s completely new; Homer, his tales, and his lyre defined much of what classical Greece thought of itself, and I can push the model forward through history.
I was thinking about it because of three films we’ve seen in the last month, each of which, in its way says something about what America means to its creators and reflects strains of what I see and we all see as well.
The films were “Walk The Line,” “Syriana,” and “The World’s Fastest Indian.”
To me, “Walk The Line” was a wonderful display of incredible, pitch-perfect, believable acting. The plot is unmemorable, except for one scene, where Cash and his band have managed to beg Sam Phillips of Sun records for an audition, and are playing competent country spirituals – old folk spirituals to a harder beat. Phillips is obviously bored, and stops Cash and says (something like):
“We’ve all heard those songs before. I’m not interested in recording them again. If you were dying in a ditch and could only sing one song, what would you sing?”
And Cash begins to awkwardly play “Folsom Prison Blues,” gaining confidence as his band figures out the song – which they’ve never played – and joins in.
It’s an incredibly powerful scene – where Cash finds his real voice – and it nails the image of America where we are most powerful because we are most ourselves; we believe that where we find the thing that is truly us, we are fulfilled.
In Cash’s case, it is a pretty complex self, and the film works most of all because Joaquin Phoenix manages to make the contradictions – a man deeply in love who has affairs; a pious man who takes drugs; a deeply rebellious man who comes to a local church every Sunday – believable; he makes them something that one man could plausibly contain, and shows us the struggles between these contradictions inside himself.
America seems much the same to me; we accept and absorb contradictions in personal and national character that should shatter us.
We were then invited to Arianna Huffington’s screening of “Syriana.” (thanks, Arianna!)
The movie is another exercise (like Traffic) in a John Dos Passos-like fragmented narrative, centering around a fictional emirate in the Middle East, it’s leaders, their oil, and the people who want it.
The fragments about the terrorist cell were actually quite good; it traces the path of two young terrorists from displaced oil workers to members of an Islamic school, to their final act. The facts are slightly different, in that many of the real jihadis aren’t driven by the need to get a decent meal, but are in fact disaffected middle class kids – and that story would also have been a powerful one.
George Clooney’s performance is a great one; it takes the young swaggering alpha male and runs him forward about twenty-five years, when he’s been passed over for promotion because he won’t play bullshit games, and he’s physically headed down the curve. He’s the reason to see the movie, surprisingly. He’s been a star more than an actor for most of his career, but here he raises the bar and jumps over it. I’ll never think of him in as limited a way again.
The core of the movie is the conflict between the emir’s good son (the reformer), a greedy oil company (whose lobbyist explains that corruption is the American way of life), a noble oil analyst, and the CIA.
Simple plot explanation: CIA bad, oil companies bad.
Sadly that oversimplified plot is pretty close to what actually unfolds; had the film had more moral nuance (see “Walk The Line” above) it would have been far more interesting.
The audience we saw it with loved it (except for Marc Cooper, apparently); as I pointed out to TG as we pulled into the parking lot set aside for those attending the screening “every Prius in L.A. is here tonight.”
The writer and director, Steve Gagan got up and gave a rambling speech, the nut of which was a simple sentence about halfway through.
“We’ve got problems as a people. We’ve got some kind of hole where our hearts should be; it used to be BMW-shaped, and now it’s Iraq-shaped.”
That pretty much summed up his views for me.
Which brings us to the next movie, which is really about hearts; the damaged heart of an obsessive old Kiwi motorcyclist (wonder why we went to see it?) and the warm hearts of the Americans who – literally in some cases – take him in and support him in pursuing his dream.
Bert Munro was a real man, who at the age of 63, went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, after setting records in new Zealand and Australia, and – on a shoestring and a home-made motorcycle – set world land speed records.
The movie is the story of his first trip, and it’s a simple narrative, as he is handed from one helpful American to another – from a transvestite motel manager to a pot-smoking used car salesman to an indian to an amorous grandmother to the Wendover land speed community, who at first rejects him and finally supports and embraces him.
Anthony Hopkins is Bert Munro, and he’s unsurprisingly wonderful. the part is made for him; it’s a man who completely shields his inner self from the world, and expresses himself only through action (think ‘Remains of the Day’ with sex and motorcycles).
The uniform kindness of those that Munro encounters – from the Immigration official who’d read about his motorcycle in Popular Mechanics and so gives him a visa, to the speed community that houses him and chips in to help fund his trip home – bothered me when I saw the film. It felt saccharine. Where’s the antagonist? Where’s the drama, I asked.
And, to be honest, it would have been a better film with more conflict – even if Bert’s wonderful streamlined motorcycle has been more fragile and less twist-and-go fast.
But constant kindness to strangers is almost a uniquely American thing, and the community that converts gasoline to speed is also one that is intensely welcoming and helpful.
We do open our hearts frequently and widely, and from my experience in Europe, we do so more thoughtlessly – more automatically – than most other cultures.
Gagan may have a hole in his heart, but the ordinary Americans shown in “Indian’ certainly don’t. And, to be honest, I think more of us are like them than like him.