Saturday, May 20, 2006

Triumph of Human Spirit or Triumph of a Cliche?

Slate has an article on the new Hollywood film United 93 by columnist and writer Ron Rosenbaum. He raises a few excellent points in it:

Could it be that the three films are a symptom of our addiction to fables of redemptive uplift that shield us from the true dimensions of the tragedy? Redemptive uplift: It's the official religion of the media, anyway. There must be a silver lining; it's always darkest before the dawn; the human spirit will triumph over evil; there must be a pony.

That's always been the subtextual spiritual narrative of media catastrophe coverage: terrible human tragedy, but something good always can be found in it to affirm faith and hope and make us feel better. Plucky, ordinary human beings find a way to rise above the disaster. Man must prevail. The human spirit is resilient, unconquerable. Did I mention there must be a pony?

Now I have nothing against hope, optimism or faith in the future but the way the culture industry and media package these things as products and sell them to unsuspecting masses who eagerly devour the "message" and generally feel good about themselves and the world -- it just troubles me. This particular film might have some artistic value but it sure is being packaged and marketed as the "feel-good 9-11 movie". Rosenbaum gives some examples from interviews and press releases related to the film and proves this point.

What a shame it is that "triumph of human spirit" has become such a dishonest cliche! It is perhaps better if the subject is completely fictional but to use historical events like 9-11 or worse, Holocaust to drive home such banal message is just plain unethical, just plain wrong. I mentioned Holocaust because it is perhaps the most "profitable" historical event in this sense. Incidentally I remember reading an article by Rosenbaum titled something like Chaplin and Benigni: The Arrogance of Clowns in which he lambasted such movies like The Great Dictator and Life is Beautiful. It was an excellent and very provocative read. I can't find the article on the net now.

Godard in his film In Praise of Love raises similar questions. In the film a couple of Americans representing "Spielberg and Associates" visit an elderly French couple who fought on the side of French resistance in the second world war to "buy their story" and make a Hollywood movie about it, starring Juliette Binoche, no less perhaps indicating another instance how another "artifact" of European high-art is being appropriated by the monster of Hollywood popular culture.

I was also thinking whether a genuine tragedy is indeed possible in any art form in this age. I really don't think so, at least not in Hollywood or anything related to popular culture. Such is our need for hope and faith and such is the power of the ubiquitous culture industry! This is perhaps the real "death of tragedy" critics and philosophers talk about.

Not having seen United 93, I really don't know how "Hollywoodian" the film is but I am not very hopeful or enthusiastic about watching it. I hope I am proven wrong when I get a chance to watch it.


Guptavati said...

This post reminded me of what I liked about Sebald's The Emigrants.(Don't remember if I saw it on this blog or some place else)

Alok said...

Thanks for reminding me of Sebald. Yes, The Emigrants is one great example of how to use Holocaust as subject without getting into the trap of usual cliches.

km said...

I felt like a *bad person* for having hated "Life is Beautiful" when everyone else around me was going "oh, what an uplifting film". At least "The Great Dictator" is a wicked satire and not so desperately eager to please as LIB.

That's also the reason I am still not convinced about "Schindler's List". He was a great man, sure. But is it a great film? I don't think so.

Alok said...

I think schindler's list is an extremely well crafted film, a huge tenchnical accomplishment but it is the tone of the film that almost turns the holocaust into a human-interest story, specially towards the end, which I find problematic and slightly dishonest.

It is a very fine line and very delicate thing to make films on these kinds of subjects.

km said...

Alok, I agree. Schindler's List is a well-crafted film (other than the fact that it was shot in b/w, which made me really angry the first time I saw it) but the director's tone....

Alok said...

Hmm. I thought the B/W cinematography was excellent in the film.

Although when I saw that scene with the girl in the red, I realized that B/W was used more to make a cheap and easy rhetorical point (colour represents hope!) rather than for the purposes of historical verisimilitude.