Posted by: ritagone | January 9, 2008

Films and Society

Last week I talked about a movie that was deeply disturbing because it was so hopeless.  That movie is “No Country For Old Men,” based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.  Let me preface my remarks in this Rita’s Ramblings by saying that we have been very fortunate in the Warren household by the standards of cinema.  This is because Michael, being a member of the Writer’s Guild, receives many free DVDs of current films so that he can watch them and vote accordingly when the awards programs come up.  That being the case, we have been able to watch in the comfort of our own home some of the current films being shown around the world.

So I was able to view “No Country For Old Men” cuddled up with a blanket and some popcorn on my own couch in my own living room.  This is good, because had I walked out of the movie theater into the sunlight after seeing this film, I would have gone directly to a bar and drunk enough Scotch to put me into a stupor.  (And I’m not a Scotch drinker, by the way.)

As I got to thinking about the movies we’ve received in the last months, I realized that many of them are about hopelessness.  “There Will Be Blood.”  “No Country For Old Men.”  “Sweeney Todd.”   “Into the Wild.”  While I of course haven’t seen many of the movies in the local theaters right now, it amazes me how many films reflect a general malaise and discontent and depression that seems to be sweeping our world.

If film is a reflection of a society’s psyche and temperament, then we as a culture are in big trouble.

In studying literature and film, one of the things you look for is change: the hero undergoes some kind of adjustment, change, the lightbulb going on, a realization or awakening to behavior or attitudes that need to be realigned.  You can almost see this change of heart sweep over a character in a novel or film in days gone by.  I think of Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” where Jean Valjean, a criminal most of his adult life because he’s just trying to survive and keep his family alive, steals silver from a priest who opens his home up to the wandering ex-con.  When the police catch Valjean and bring him to the priest for identification with the aim of sending him back to prison for the rest of his life, the priest instead tells the officials that Valjean was his guest and was given the silver in the bag he’s carrying.  The police leave, and Valjean, shocked that the priest would do this for him, asks why.  The priest then tells him that he has redeemed Valjean’s soul for God and that henceforth he should live for God, doing right and serving others.

It is a changepoint for Valjean, and the rest of the story shows him kind, grace-oriented, merciful, successful and blessed.

In the current environment of filmmaking, Valjean would most likely not only steal from the priest but slit his throat…with no remorse.

What is amazing to me is the promotion and hype for these types of movies on the interpretive basis  of their artistic quality.  We are supposed to believe intently that form and content can and should be separated and that you evaluate a film strictly on its technical expertise: acting, directing, camera work, lighting, sound.  No matter, then, that the morality of the film is in the toilet or that the characters you are watching not only do not change their behavior but relish the fact that they have no adjustments to make.  The killer in “No Country For Old Men,” we are led to believe, just goes off into the sunset on his murdering spree and there is no one and nothing to stop him.  It was chilling, to say the least, watching this film.  I felt insecure, uncomfortable, oppressed.  I have talked to others who reacted to this movie the same way.

It’s not that I expect every movie I see to be uplifting and joyful.  I appreciate as much as the next moviegoer a film that challenges my thinking and opens my eyes to a world I don’t particularly like and have no desire to inhabit other than for two hours in a darkened theater or in front of my TV at home.

But what frightens me is that movie makers nowadays seem to relish the fact that the dark side is there and can be portrayed with gusto.

My favorite recent change of character is the last six minutes of the movie “About Schmidt.”  In this film, Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, comes home from his daughter’s wedding to an empty house.  His wife has died, his daughter has married a man Schmidt can’t abide, and he has nothing in his life to look forward to.  Throughout the movie, he has corresponded with Ndugu, a young boy in an African village.  As his sponsor, Schmidt has written Ndugu letters, but the letters are all infused with his anger about his life.  Poor Ndugu on the receiving end of these epistles!!  Now, home alone, Schmidt goes through his mail and finds a letter from a nun at the orphanage where Ndugu lives.  She informs Mr. Schmidt that Ndugu (who can’t write, of course, being only 7 years old) was very ill but is now better.  She tells him that Ndugu wishes nothing but happiness for Mr. Schmidt, and the child sends along a drawing he has made: a man and a child holding hands and smiling, with a brilliant sun shining above them.

The last shot of the movie finds Schmidt sitting at his desk, facing the camera, weeping.  There is no dialogue, but you know that this man has reached a crisis in his life and recognizes his need to change.  This letter from a small child in an underprivileged, impoverished village has turned his heart.  In the midst of his own adversity, Ndugu wants nothing but Mr. Schmidt’s happiness and well-being…and Schmidt knows very well that his life needs major readjustments.

If form continues to detach itself from content in films, soon we will have technically brilliant but morally vacant movies that offer us nothing but buttons and whistles.  How sad that will be if it really comes to pass.


Thoughtfully, Rita


  1. Well said sister!

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