It felt as if the world was somehow ending, but all that had really happened is that America has now been placed on the same level as the rest of the world. Up to now, geography has prevented the continental U.S. from direct attack. Anyone who bothered to think about knew that eventually communications would trump geography and the jig would be up. That’s what they mean, this time, when they say we’ve lost our innocence.
Even now, at times it seems as if anything can happen. Personally, I’m reassured that the vast majority of the world seems to be rallying around the U.S. – a small miracle of human feeling given our long history of frequently miserable worldwide behavior and our recent bouts of pitiful, small-minded unilateralism. On the other hand, the tiniest minds on the right may still prevail. We may still respond with the “disproportionate response” that William Bennett called for on The O’Reilly Factor. I can’t be sure, but I fear that the former Drug Czar and Book of Virtues author means that we should kill upwards of 100 of “their” civilians for every one of ours. If that happens, the cost will truly be too awful to contemplate. I don’t want to be a citizen of a country that responded to vast horror by unleashing its worst monsters and slaughtering hundreds of thousands; and I really don’t want to die because someone had to get even for that horror.
In the light of all this, thinking much about movies is way past stupid. You could even make an intelligent case that we should make an effort to avoid thinking about movies much right now. They’re a distraction from the epochal forces that faces us all.
Then, I think about a movie. One I didn’t expect to like, that I thought would be silly and sentimental.
I was sort of appalled by the prissy “don’t mess with my holocaust” criticisms of Richard Schickel and other upper-crust critics, but I nevertheless expected to be annoyed by Life is Beautiful. The idea of Roberto Benigni as a zany father trying to insulate his son from the horrors of Auschwitz by pretending it was all a giant game seemed like it could lead to the worst kind of Italian sentimentalism. And the similarity with the premise of Jerry Lewis’s still-unseen The Day the Clown Cried seemed to promise something monstrous.
I spent the first part of the movie worried but mildly amused, then engrossed – but feeling a little guilty. Then came the scene in which Benigni rigs the speaker system at the death camp so that his wife can hear an aria from a favorite opera. As the sound of the music wafted across the camp, the artificiality and obvious phoniness of the music seemed to symbolize the artifice, the “lies,” that make us, for lack of a better word, human. I wept like a beaten child…and I don’t even like opera.
People love that which is not real. Too much reality would probably kill us. We need to make up stuff – whether that takes the form of art, theater, movies, religion or comics books and even opera – because simply eating, evacuating, having sex (or pretending to), and eventually dying are just not enough.
The reason we cry when we realize that thousands of our countrymen who were once living are now dead is that we can easily imagine what they’re now missing: They won’t be able to play games with their children, to play poker, watch Football, or go shopping with their friends. They won’t be going to church, the theater or the movies. All utterly unreal activities which, nevertheless, may be the real reason most of us bother to get up in the morning.
Humans are artistic creatures. Michæl Eisner, Michæl Ovitz, Michæl Bay and all the other Michæls be damned, movies — even silly movies — are still an art, and therefore part of what makes life worth living. And that’s why I’m going to keep watching them, talking incessantly about them, and having arguments about them.
The day of mourning and prayer is behind us. Tonight, I’m going to the movies.
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Posted on September 18, 2001 in Features by Bob Westal
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