Thursday, December 3, 2009

“The Road” Revisited

Posted by Webster 
I don't really want to walk another mile on this road, but I have been thinking about Jason Patterson’s thoughtful comment on my review of the new movie “The Road,” based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. I want to expand on my earlier thoughts about the film and about such films in general. This is not so much a rebuttal of what Jason wrote as my own meditation on it.

Jason wrote (and you can find other comments beneath the original post here):

I personally like the book, and like McCarthy. I'll agree with you that it is an incredibly bleak world, but there are themes in this book (not sure about the film) that Catholics can relate to: the love of the father and son that rises above the nihilism of this godforsaken world; the sacrifice analogies withing the Father/Son relationship; the discussion of morality (the son wanting to help other survivors while the father wants just to survive); and keeping the spark of hope alive.

Yes, it seems absent of God, but I do believe you can see the book/film as a bleak answer to the question "What does the world look like when God is absent? And what takes His place?" the answer is nihilism. It is a cautionary tale in that sense.

Let's take the merits Jason imputes to the film, one at a time:

The love of the father and son that rises above the nihilism of this godforsaken worldI have written elsewhere that, because I have two daughters, I am a sucker for father-daughter stories. Since my father died a year ago, I am also, frankly, a sucker for father-son stories—which I guess just makes me a sucker. In fact (didn't mention this the first time around) I went to see “The Road” because I expected to be moved by its father-son story. I was not. Maybe Mortensen is unable to move audiences; maybe the boy actor was chosen only because he looks so uncannily like Charlize Theron (shown as his mom in flashbacks). Maybe the screen connection just doesn't crackle. But I think it's more than that. There is no value for which father and son are striving together, except the ocean, and the film shows that to be without redeeming value. Further, there is no hope of the fire or whatever they say they are carrying being transmitted to the next generation. (If you think the boy is going to marry that little girl at the end and become another Adam to her Eve, you're not counting for the cannibals.)

The sacrifice analogies within the father/son relationship—Sorry, Jason, but this alone is just not enough to warrant my two hours or $9.50. I'll just pull down the Bible from my shelf (free!), and reread Abraham and Isaac.

The discussion of morality—The son wanting to help while the father only wants to survive is, admittedly, an interesting character difference. But in the world, the cosmos, given us by the film, the only value is survival. There is no hope, there is no redemption. I wonder whether there can even be morality in such a world.

Keeping the spark of hope alive—Hope, as Father Luigi Giussani (probably others) teaches, is only real or at least durable when founded in faith, a faith that is founded in experience, in fact. Given nothing in which to have faith, there can be no objective hope. A glimmer that one might survive tomorrow, maybe, but ultimately nothingness, death, obliteration. I think Jason's most challenging point is his last one:

You can see the book/film as a bleak answer to the question "What does the world look like when God is absent? And what takes His place?" The answer is nihilism. It is a cautionary tale in that sense.

First, I think it would be a better "cautionary tale" if God—some belief system that arcs above the human level—were even posited by the film. The film decidedly does not say what the world would be like without God, because the film never mentions God (except as an imprecation muttered by Robert Duvall).

Second, and to me more important, and this goes back to my statement that my criteria for judging art have changed radically since I became a Catholic—For art to be worth the effort of creation and worthy of the name art, I think it has to draw us to a new state of ourselves. That's why so much in the media these days is not art, but entertainment: It only reinforces our own passivity, our suggestibility, our appetites. Premodern art—from Homer and Greek tragedy to Dickens and Hugo—described dire conditions and states of being but it always (right?) gave us something positive to contrast them with. It gave us something better than our lives, as normally lived. Dante showed us hell, but he also showed us heaven.

“The Road” only drags us down—Where? To despair. I, for one, will do my best to avoid such “art” in the future.

While I was mulling this post, Frank sent me a thought from his mentor, Blaise Pascal. Did Blaise see a sneak preview of “The Road”?

693. When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe and man without light, left to himself and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island and should awake without knowing where he is and without means of escape. And thereupon I wonder how people in a condition so wretched do not fall into despair. I see other persons around me of a like nature. I ask them if they are better informed than I am. They tell me that they are not. And thereupon these wretched and lost beings, having looked around them and seen some pleasing objects, have given and attached themselves to them. For my own part, I have not been able to attach myself to them, and, considering how strongly it appears that there is something else than what I see, I have examined whether this God has not left some sign of Himself.