Friday, October 22, 2010

Here and Now

On CNN I caught the preview of Hereafter, the new Clint Eastwood film, and I had to endure the comments of one of the network's movie reviewers, who couldn't help calling the film "depressing." My immediate reaction was to wonder if the young man was perhaps too emotionally fragile to be a film critic - people who are routinely subjected to affronts to their sensibilities.

Hereafter is about a psychic (Matt Damon) and three people who have been confronted with death. I commented on this phenomenon a few months ago in a post called
Talking to the Dead. The CNN reviewer found it necessary to remind me that this is not what people go to the movies for - having to deal with depressing subjects - since, he argued (lamely) their own lives are depressing enough already.

I don't expect Eastwood's film will be anything but another of his nice tries (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Invictus). His work has certainly been notably sanguinary. Once, in Pale Rider, he even played Death. So, I suppose, at the age of 80 he is qualified to tackle the subject more directly.

Death is an undeniably disagreeable subject. Even people who profess to believe in some kind of "hereafter" aren't attracted by the idea. But the wholesale avoidance of "depressing" subjects in movies and books falls under the general rubric of escapism, which is still something of a dirty word for a serious artist (almost as dirty as the word "serious" to the average consumer). For those who demand that art should only flatter and reassure us, there is a whole range of experience that is effectively off limits to the writer or filmmaker.

However instinctive the avoidance of pain may be, it is occasionally instructive to address weighty issues with the gravity they deserve. The real problem arises when a work of art challenges us to look at our own lives as fearlessly as it does the lives of its fictional heroes. Even a painting or sculpture can present us with such a challenge. When Rilke saw a Greek sculpture of the torso of Apollo, it moved him so deeply that he composed a poem devoted to its beauty, and ended it with the exhortation "Du mußt dein Leben ändern."

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,

lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn't dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must change your life.

(H. Landman, trans.)

Rilke was pointing out, as it forever needs pointing out, that after the encounter with great art, we cannot simply return to our old lives. We have been changed, and it remains for us to change our lives.

If the lives of all those filmgoers mentioned by that CNN critic are depressing enough without their wishing to be further depressed by a serious consideration of a serious subject, a great artist (not dear old Clint) would have told them to change their lives. How many of them would be listening?

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