"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 13, 2019

Hollywood, Bollywood, And Why We Love The Movies–Fact And Truth Mean Nothing

Hobbes exaggerated only slightly when he said that ‘the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’.  Most people feel this way even though they may have risen above 19th century penurious misery.  Tolstoy perhaps said it best when Konstantin Levin reflects on the cruel irony of a God who created Man with wit, humor, intelligence, insight, and creativity; granted him a few score years on Earth, then consigned him for all eternity beneath the cold, hard ground of the steppes.  No man, regardless of his physical satisfactions or wants, can ignore the fact that such a short, ironic, and meaningless life is indeed nasty and brutish.  It is our fate to live in a vaporless world for a few years, then die and be absolutely and completely forgotten.

How, given these sobering thoughts, can anyone be happy?

Image result for images thomas hobbes

Another Tolstoy hero, Ivan Ilyich, a man dismissive of anything sobering and intent on simply creating a simple, trouble-free life, finds in his dying moments that perhaps he was wrong to be so cavalier.  Perhaps those irritating elements of his life – people especially – were indeed important; and perhaps he should meditate on his indifference.

The moment, however, passed.  Life was what it was; and death, a far more important event which had nothing whatsoever to do with the past (‘We all die alone’) was imminent.  Better to reflect on the eternal void than on the inconsequential events of his life. Yet there was nothing to reflect on or consider since death was and always would be the great unknown.  What to do?

Taking his last breaths he thought

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?"

There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.

Image result for images ivan ilyich

Death wasn’t so bad after all.  It was the fear of death that was the problem, not death itself.

Tolstoy was famous for his epiphanic scenes – those of Ivan Ilych, Count Andrei, Pierre, and Levin – and through these climactic experiences was able to express his own views of being, nothingness, and spirituality.  He continued to write after Ivan Ilyich, mostly religious monographs. In his last novel, Resurrection, he writes of a man’s life gone wrong and his attempts to atone for if not rectify his mistakes. Travelling through the miseries of Russian prisons, he concludes with the following:

All this comes," Tolstoy says, "from the fact that all these people — governors, inspectors, police officers, and policemen — consider that there are circumstances when human relations are not necessary between human beings. ... If once we admit — be it only for an hour or in some exceptional case — that anything can be more important than a feeling of love for our fellows, then there is no crime which we may not commit with easy minds. ... Men think there are circumstances when one may deal with human beings without love. But there are no such circumstances…

If you feel no love, sit still. Occupy yourself with things, with yourself, with anything you like, only not with men. ... Only let yourself deal with a man without love ... and there are no limits to the suffering you will bring on yourself.

Of course few people sober up to reality except when they are approaching the final accounting.  Best to put off the inevitable for as long as possible.  Yet how to keep those niggling thoughts of mortality at bay? To keep the wolf away from the door?

That’s why Hollywood and Bollywood are there.  Except for la nouvelle vague and the Japanese, Russian, and Scandinavian art movies of the Fifties and Sixties, movies were all about life at its most exuberant, youthful, and invulnerable.  Watching The Cranes are Flying, Last Year at Marienbad, The Sign of the Seven Seals, or Hiroshima Mon Amour was meaningful then, painful now.  These movies seem academic, contrived, and impossibly boring.  After fifty years we have shed our European pretentions and gotten over any artistic intellectualism and returned to our roots – romance, shoot-‘em-ups, sex, glamour, and adventure.

Image result for the cranes are flying movie images

Bollywood never went through such a purposeful cleansing.  From the 40s to the present, Bombay films have been melodramatic and romantic with better Hollywood endings than Hollywood itself could ever have imagined; and have served their public well.  Indian audiences after four hours watching the same, routine, formulaic movies can barely pull themselves up and out of their seats.  The experience – so beautiful, so unlike anything in their Hobbesian lives, and so hopeful and emotionally fulfilling – is inimitable and unforgettable.  Bollywood has made billions off of the same, predictable scenarios.  Perhaps the American European art house interregnum was a good thing.  We now know better who we are, what we want, and especially what our fantasies are.

It shouldn’t have taken a European counterpoint to make all this clear.  After all, Louis B Mayer and the studios had been turning out one glorious Hollywood movie after another since the early days of the talkies.  The cult of film stardom was fully established from the very beginning of film.  Romance, beauty, glamour, adventure, and anything that parted company with the America of the Depression and War years was bound to be a success.  The movies were not only an expression of our fanciful and unrequited dreams, but a celebration of celebrity and image.  Once the movies had taken hold, facts, reality, and ‘the truth’ played second fiddle.  Gradually, seduced by Hollywood and its seductive dream machine, we have come to care less and less for the reality behind the image.  The images are plenty good enough for us.

Of course Hollywood movies were never just fanciful stories.  The films of the Thirties and Forties had hard-hitting themes of honesty, courage, valor, and righteousness; but these wrapped in recognizable humanity.  Selznick and Mayer were not interested in teaching morality, but demonstrating it in a Hollywood way – heroes and heroines, victims, and villains.  Good would always prevail in Hollywood because it did not anywhere else; and that was worth watching.  Today’s films are zeitgeist-friendly.  Stories of racial, gender, and ethnic tensions are common; but they all end in the same way, happily, unlike real life.  The cult of identity has helped Hollywood to translate social issues into good storytelling.  Black people are very black, gay very gay, Latino very Latino; but within Hollywood boundaries.  There can be gang bangers, ghetto bling, and playground trash talk; but in the end goodness prevails.  Our negative images of minorities have been confirmed, but given a positive middle class twist.  There may be something white behind all the trash talk after all.

Image result for images movie they drive by night

The point is that reality in Hollywood matters as little today as it did in the first kinescopes.  Whether America has influenced Hollywood or the other way around is a moot point – they have always been mutually dependent; but that interdependency has created the perfect moral storm.  Whoever or whatever is responsible, image matters far more than facts, truth, or objectivity.

It is no accident that Donald Trump is in the White House.  He is more than anything a man of image.  Only Upper West Side liberals take and parse his every word for meaning and accuracy while the rest of the country, like good Derrida wannabes, deconstruct what he says for meaning.  The Wall is not a wall but a metaphor for rationalizing an increasingly dangerous immigration problem.  His politically incorrect tweets and asides are not the insensitive salvos against defenseless minorities the Left makes them out to be but shots over the bow of political correctness.  His sabre-rattling with Iran, China, Russia, and North Korea is nothing but the familiar posturing of Presidents.  He is, avowedly and proudly a vaudevillian in the spirit of Dostoevsky’s Devil who says 

Now I only prize the reputation of being a gentlemanly person and live as I can, trying to make myself agreeable. I love men genuinely, I've been greatly calumniated! Here when I stay with you from time to time, my life gains a kind of reality and that's what I like most of all. You see, like you, I suffer from the fantastic and so I love the realism of earth. Here, with you, everything is circumscribed, here all is formulated and geometrical, while we have nothing but indeterminate equations! I wander about here dreaming. I like dreaming. Besides, on earth I become superstitious. Please don't laugh, that's just what I like, to become superstitious. I adopt all your habits here: I've grown fond of going to the public baths, would you believe it? and I go and steam myself with merchants and priests. What I dream of is becoming incarnate once for all and irrevocably in the form of some merchant's wife weighing eighteen stone, and of believing all she believes.

In other words, as the Devil tells Ivan, without him life would be nothing but churches, masses, and goodness – insufferably boring.

A little blonde Norman girl of twenty—a buxom, unsophisticated beauty that would make your mouth water—comes to an old priest. She bends down and whispers her sin into the grating. ‘Why, my daughter, have you fallen again already?’ cries the priest. ‘O Sancta Maria, what do I hear! Not the same man this time, how long is this going on? Aren't you ashamed!’ ‘Ah, mon père,’ answers the sinner with tears of penitence, ‘ça lui fait tant de plaisir, et à moi si peu de peine!’ Fancy, such an answer!

The word on the street is ‘Lighten Up’ – we have had enough hectoring and moralizing to last a lifetime.  Go to a movie.  Enjoy yourself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.