Today, then, is an effort to simply share some preliminary impressions on three different representations that have struck me in the last few weeks: David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, a film given rave reviews in the mainstream press; Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a book given rave reviews in the mainstream press; and Grey’s Anatomy, a television show that entered its second season this fall, also garnering rave reviews.
Americana Run Amok
After the fluff of the summer film season, I was instantly drawn to the reviews of A History of Violence. All of the various newspapers and magazines I read regularly heralded this film as the most riveting, ethically and even intellectually gripping film of the year to date. How disappointing, then, to see a film that proved so retrograde and old fashioned, politically and narratively. Why don’t mainstream reviewers pick up on the values that movies broadcast so baldly? Why did none of them notice how the film reviles “northern” values, represented by stereotypical characterizations of mobsters, and valorizes small town (white) living, applauding Americans’ ability to start their lives over, if they commit to ages old ethical systems that rely on Mom and Pop and literally apple pie to anchor their new existences?
The Viggo Mortensen character, a stalwart family man who walks to the diner he owns from his clapboard house on his Indiana homestead, isolated on a rural road far from other social intercourse, is quiet and upright, the kind of man who greets his regulars and knows their preferences and desires without being told. He keeps the coffee brewing; he’s kind to his help; and he focuses in a simple, resolute way on the tasks at hand. Until, that is, two wayward killers come to town, dissolute drifters whose cold-blooded practices have been set up over the credits. In the only scene in the film that could be parodic, the killers enter the diner and begin to rattle at the cage of its complacency, figuratively spitting in the coffee and sneering at the pie. They go too far, however, when they threaten the diner owner’s waitress. He goes into high physical gear and becomes, himself, a killing machine, neatly dispatching the villains and quickly becoming a hero on the local news.
And so the character’s cover is blown. Rather than the simple, kindhearted mid-western stereotype he appears to be, this man has in fact his own history of violence. He’s run to Indiana from Philadelphia, which becomes, in the narrative, shorthand for everything wrong with America, the site of all moral rot and evil. In the process of remaking his life, he’s changed his name and has convinced himself that he’s changed his soul. When the tentacles of his old life reach out to recapture him, he resists fiercely, killing the mob emisssary who’s come to track him down, and wreaking havoc on his henchmen. Knowing that there’s more where they came from, he finally travels back to Philly to take out the mob boss who wants him back; the boss turns out to be his own brother (William Hurt in a wonderfully campy turn that might have lent the movie some irony if his scenes were longer).
Meanwhile, back on the home front, Mortensen’s wife–played by Maria Bello as a woman equally strong and lightweight, whom we see carrying a briefcase but doing no work, who’s disturbed when she realizes the rumors about her husband are true and at once repelled and turned on by his past and his new, virile, violent power–tries to come to terms with the truth of her husband’s identity. While he appears to beg not for forgiveness but for her to become complicit with his willed amnesia, she can’t decide if her own lust should outweigh her own sense of ethics. The film ends a bit ambiguously, with the Mortensen’s character’s teenage son tentatively passing him the vegetables at the metaphorically weighted family dinner table. Will the family welcome the killer in the man they know as their gentle father and husband?
Cronenberg doesn’t say. But what he does say instead is even more disturbing than the notion that vigilantism will go unpunished, or that one man can clean up his past with a gun. What the director implies in his romantic vision of the mid-West is that Americans can remake themselves if they subscribe to the foundational values of a country that prides itself on being self-made: heterosexuality, reproductivity (two kids, a boy and a girl), whiteness, cowboy masculinity, and middle-classness (the mobster brother’s palatial home is photographed as if it’s pornographic, while the slightly ramshackle country house in Indiana is filmed through soft lenses with a kind of homey charm). Mortensen teaches his erstwhile ironic, would-be intellectual son that expressing yourself in violence is more effective than expressing yourself in thought–over the course of the film, the son learns to fight back at the two boys who bully him, and saves his father from certain death by shooting his nemesis (Ed Harris, with a strangely comic disfigured eye) dead with a shotgun and not flinching when his father hugs him with a shirt full of the man’s blood and brains.
This isn’t fabulous moviemaking–this is Bush propaganda from a Canadian director who should know better. I longed for a point of view here that would lend an edge to this whitewash; I longed for commentary that would let me know, David Lynch-style, that something in fact was rotten in this prototypically American town, something beside the stink of the past that comes to ruin the diner’s fragrance. But instead, Cronenberg holds out hope that the heartland can be reestablished, better, even, for the evil it’s expunged. One last righteous murder spree, he seems to imply, can clear the killer’s heart and let him keep the girl and the kids and the house with a clean spirit, forever. Chilling indeed.
Academia Run Wild
Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, on the other hand, is a lovely meditation on American values, filtered through the strange and wondrous world of the academy, as told by a Black British author with a fine eye for the workings of race and class. The novel is an academic satire in the David Lodge vein, one filled with knowing references to the excesses of academic behavior when it’s not constrained by real life. On Beauty paints a somehow loving picture of a world that’s both separate from the rest of culture and intensely reflective of it, while at the same time shaping it by teaching values, modeling for students how to be in the world. That none of the models really work only underlines Smith’s point, which seems to be that forgiveness and even faith are necessary to get along in the world at all. Nothing goes unpunished here, but all the chastisements are meant to make the world better, to inspire a kind of hope that we might find our best selves in the core of our worst, rather than pretending that we can outrun who we are by returning to a mythic American middle where hiding is living.
The novel pits two families against each other, and traces their unpredictable overlaps and alliances. One family includes a white British father who’s a Rembrandt scholar of post-modernist critical leanings, who lectures on the instability of meaning in the artist’s paintings and refuses the trappings of conventional aesthetics. A Black Britian of Caribbean descent heads the other family; he’s a Shelby Steele kind of academic who rails against affirmative action and preaches Dinesh D’Souza’s party line. The two men come to blows when they wind up teaching at the same institution, a privileged liberal arts college in the northeast that sounds a lot like Harvard or Wesleyan.
Smith parodies academic pretensions, but she also somehow gets the complications of trying to believe in things in a world that’s too cynical to navigate. The white father is married to an African American woman who won’t truck with intellectual pretension, but who searches for meaning in her own life through an unlikely alliance with the Black British father’s wife, a fragile, wise woman whose death prompts the plot’s crisis and its eventual denouement. Both father’s daughters are troubled young women looking for love and relationships in the wrong places, too assured of their intellectual power and ultimately only further unmanned by their attempts at sexual intrigue and agency. The sons fare no better; one is rigidly dogmatic, another insecure and ambivalent, and his biracial brother a kind of minstrel who’s trying to achieve a presumptive sort of African American authenticity by mouthing hip hop pieties and salutations that don’t fool any of his “brothers” on the street.
None of the book’s characters provide a clear moral center, although the African American mother comes close. But they all have luminous moments of self-understanding and insight that gave me hope for myself and for all of us, that in our most self-deluding illusions about ourselves and our worlds, we might still learn something, might still find a kind of faith that will let us not just get through our lives, but get through to each other, let us love each other just a little better and more truly. I laughed at Smith’s book, and recognized myself and many academic types I know in her characters. But she moved me, too, with the ultimate generosity of her observations and her vision of how we might resolve our differences. The villains here are punished not with violent exile, but only with having to live with themselves and their mistakes until they can see their way through to change them. That’s not redemption, exactly, but it’s hopeful. And it works for me.
Grey’s Anatomy, an ABC television show produced by an African American woman named Shonda Rhimes, has become a new guilty pleasure for me and my partner every Sunday night. We started watching summer reruns, after hearing rumors of smart writing and compelling characters. Despite the formulaic plots and rather stock personalities–a group of interns competing with themselves and each other at a teaching hospital–the acting and the writing make it a consistently compelling hour of television. The plot’s driven by a love story; it’s the rare network television show that can forego romance as its motivator and engine. But the love story here is complicated by ethical issues of power and nepotism–one of the interns, whose mother happens to be a famous neurosurgeon, has what she thinks will be a one-night stand with a handsome man who turns out to be her supervising doctor. His Romeo good looks and soulful, wounded expression set him apart from the more macho, preening male characters who’ve come to define the genre. The central couple grapples constantly with their desire for each other and their desire to do the right professional thing
The show twists all the medical story stereotypes in slightly new directions, often by changing the character’s gender or race from the more typical. For instance, the head of this hospital (or at least the head of surgery, I’m not sure of his administrative position) is a smart, kindly African American man; the resident who oversees the interns is an African American woman with exacting standards and exasperated but ultimately human expressions; one of the interns is an Asian American woman blithe about her own ambitions who finds her emotions more complicated than she predicted; another is a slightly paunchy white man with a hangdog expression but a kind and determined soul. There are more doctors and nurses and hospital personnel, all running into each other’s egos, all having sex, eating together, living together, feeling exhausted together.
But somehow, they’re all smart, articulate, and seem to have an eye on their futures, on an elsewhere to which the show implicitly refers. That is, most tv dramas become claustrophobic, because the very intensity of the plots each week make the situations and characters quickly feel hermetic and self-referential. In Grey’s Anatomy, these people seem fleshed out enough to have dreams, to hanker after positions outside this hospital, to have choices to make about their fictive lives, now, not when the series finale is being planned and shot. Their fraught but somehow respectful and even tender interactions seem compelling, moving, because there’s more to them than fancy fake medical language or cheap and bloody shock shots.
There seems much more to see and to read and to watch and react to. Hopefully, in due time, I will.
Meanwhile, your comments are always welcome and thanks for reading.
The Feminist Spectator
October 14, 2005