Theology + Movies

Ad hoc reflections on cinematic depth

Tag: Plato

Sullivan’s Travels (dir. Preston Sturges, 1941)

The great American filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen, have long been interested in the question of what it means to be an artist. However, this theme has been at the very core of their last two films — Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) and Hail, Caesar! (2016). The latter work attends to cinematic art in particular, and it probes the ambiguity of making films, from the hypocrisy of movie stars to the medium’s tendency to lapse into shallow, mindless entertainment. And yet, as Hail, Caesar! concludes, the Coens seem to land on a position: whatever the flaws of cinema, the world is better off with films than without them. Might as well pull up a chair and enjoy!

Doubtless, it is a thesis of which Preston Sturges would’ve approved. During his career peak, he was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated (and well compensated) auteurs, and he won a screenwriting Oscar for The Great McGinty (1940). Yet it is Sullivan’s Travels — a film centering on the failed attempt to make a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a title later repurposed by the Coen Brothers — that stands as Sturges’ most enduring work. That significance should be ascribed to Sullivan’s Travels is more than a little ironic, since the film is commonly interpreted as a dig at self-serious Hollywood “message pictures.” Joel McCrea stars as John L. Sullivan, a director of popular yet vacuous comedies. Young, rich, and marketable, Sullivan is nevertheless unhappy, since his films are profitable at the expense of socially conscious themes. But, as Sullivan’s studio bosses ask, what does he know about poverty, loneliness, and heartbreak? Thus he resolves to acquaint himself with human misery and leaves his California mansion to ride the rails.

It is a plan fraught with difficulty, and eventually Sullivan comes to know more about hardship than he bargained for. But it is precisely here — in the film’s best and most poignant scene — that Sturges undermines his protagonist’s quest. Jailed and now forgotten by those who once lauded him, Sullivan and his fellow prisoners are hosted by an African-American church, where the pastor (Jess Lee Brooks, in a timeless scene) welcomes them with a rendition of “Go Down Moses.” And yet, just after this moment of sublime sympathy, the prisoners are treated to a Disney cartoon:

Here Sullivan comes to learn a profound lesson — that laughter can also help the poor and the outcast or, more precisely, that laughter is more beneficial than po-faced pontificating about “causes” and the like. Hence, when Sullivan is finally released from jail, he resolves to return to Hollywood and to resume his career in comedy.

It’s an ending that has been read as a validation of Sturges’ own vocation, and that may very well be true. However, it bears a wider and more ambiguous meaning as well. To be sure, one might wonder if Sturges is implying that all comedy is inspired work? Could we apply his premise, say, to Jackass: The Movie (2002)? Such questions get to the very core of the nature of comedic art — questions that date back to Plato (who generally warned against comedy) and Aristotle (who generally commended it).

What’s more, in linking Christian charity with comedy and laughter, Sullivan’s Travels makes a provocative theological point. Yes, a key aspect of Christian discipleship concerns the so-called corporal works of mercy, e.g., feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and so on. But there are also spiritual works of mercy, and, rightly done, comedy would seem to have a role here. After all, laughter provides comfort to those who are sorrowful, and the heart of Jesus’ message is, in the end, “good news.” (The English word, “gospel,” comes from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good message.”) Thus Sturges’ intuition to situate Sullivan’s redemption in a church is not incidental but, rather, critical to his overall point. Comedy’s most basic impulse — to make people happy — finds its footing in the salvific work of the Body of Christ.

Breaking Bad (Vince Gilligan, 2008-13)

My posting has dwindled over the last month or so, partly due to work-related reasons, but also due to an overdue commitment — finishing the captivating television series, Breaking Bad. For several months, I had avoided reading about the show, which was not always easy, given the plethora of opinions and reviews that followed its conclusion in September 2013. But now that I can enter into the cyberdebate, it’s hard not to throw out just a few thoughts on Breaking Bad, which was a series that I didn’t so much love to hate as hate to love.

According to Thomas Aquinas, judgment, in its eminent sense, cannot be rendered while something is still developing. Likewise, I’ve been reluctant to reach any conclusions about Breaking Bad before learning of the fate of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher, who decides to “break bad” in order to leave his family with a financial nest egg. Putting his knowledge of chemistry to an all too practical use, he becomes the notorious “Heisenberg,” expert methamphetamine cook and kingpin of an international drug empire. The show’s premise is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, but creator Vince Gilligan and his cast pull it off with such narrative dexterity and moral gravity that it’s hard to resist. That’s why some commentators have proclaimed it the greatest television show of all time.

But what, ultimately, is Breaking Bad about? With the end of Season Five, and with (spoiler alert!) Walt’s death, I think it’s now clear that the show is best understood against the backdrop of two well-known philosophical motifs: (i) Nietzsche’s “Overman” [Übermensch] and/or (ii) Plato’s conception of sin as ignorance. Consequently, it is primarily a vehicle for non-Christian ideas, though, at the same time, it raises wide-ranging cultural and religious issues that demand a Christian response.

Contrary to what is often heard, Nietzsche’s Übermensch is not meant to be an evil figure, who murders, rapes, and pillages at will. On the contrary, as Nietzsche understands him, the Übermensch exemplifies a kind of aristocratic nobility: no longer shackled by Judeo-Christian morality — which Nietzsche thought  life-denying — he creates his own values, beyond the old binaries of “good and evil,” “right and wrong.” The Übermensch, then, will show mercy on whom he shows mercy and vengeance on whom he shows vengeance. He does not fear God, for Gott ist tot. Rather, he himself is a kind of god, albeit one of this world. Thus he will die, but his life will be so rich that he would not hesitate to repeat it. He lives as he wants to live.

In Breaking Bad, this perspective becomes a distinct possibility in the show’s finale. Since the first episode, Walt had appealed to his family (and, perhaps indirectly, a Judeo-Christian ethic) as the reason for his actions. He repeatedly insisted that his wrongdoing was “for his family;” he was only doing what was required of a loving father. Yet, as he confronts his (now estranged) wife for the last time, he confesses what had long been apparent: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And, I was really… I was alive.” Gone is any sense that he is “sorry” for things he has done. On the contrary, there is nothing to be sorry for, since “sorry” would imply a failure to meet a certain standard of morality. Walt, however, has become his own measure of good and evil — a person capable of noble acts of self-sacrifice (most notably, his liberation of former accomplice, Jesse Pinkman [Aaron Paul], who suffers perhaps more than anyone else throughout the show) and horrifying acts of cruelty (his willingness to watch Jesse’s girlfriend die of a drug overdose). On this view, Breaking Bad does not end with Walt’s redemption, because he came to realize that redemption, as such, is an illusion. The only thing to do is to do what you want to do — what makes you feel “alive.”

Another avenue of interpretation is provided by Plato. In dialogues such as Protagoras and Meno, Plato (via Socrates) argues that human beings do not sin because they want to sin. Rather, they always already desire the good but fail to attain it out of ignorance. This line of reasoning can be applied to Walt. The things that he wants are good — to provide for his family, to use his considerable knowledge of chemistry, even just to be alive. But he cannot see how to achieve these things without resorting to wrongdoing. On this reading, he is closer to a pitiable figure, as the lives of most human beings are, in a certain sense, pitiable. One can imagine Plato watching Breaking Bad (despite his reservations about drama!) and saying: if Walt had been a philosopher in addition to being a chemist, he might have perceived good from evil, true from false, eternal from temporal.

Of course, the latter perspective overlaps with that of Christianity in a number of ways. One only need to think of Jesus’ famous statement from the cross: “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). On the other hand, in a tradition popularized largely by St. Augustine, Christian thinkers have tended to view moral failings against the backdrop of “original sin” — the idea, broadly speaking, that the human race as such is liable to sin and death, given the rebellion of Adam and Eve in Eden (Genesis 3).

Yet, in Breaking Bad, Gilligan never hints at this topic. In fact, other than a handful of materialist suggestions, the show tends to avoid metaphysical considerations altogether. In my view, that is why it’s ultimately indebted to Nietzsche. For some commentators, this fact, coupled with Breaking Bad‘s extensive fan base, might be worrisome — a further sign, perhaps, of America’s deteriorating values. It reminds me, however, of something that one of my philosophy professors once said, namely, that no archetype better sums up Nietzsche’s thought than “the American cowboy.” Notably, this is a motif that Gilligan plays with, and the series has been referred to as a kind of postmodern Western. It’s set in New Mexico, and many of its most important scenes take place in the desert. Walt even discards his professorial look and takes on the guise of a cowboy:

Yet, if all of that is true, then the popularity of Breaking Bad can’t be hung on the Millennials or the end of family values or what have you. Rather, the show taps into the very core of the American mythos — the rugged individualism and unbridled capitalism that have defined so much of American history and culture. For those who root for Walter White, this may be an uncomfortable truth, as his nihilism hardly jives with pet causes or political correctness. But for those who despise or fear him, the truth may be even more difficult. To quote another Walt — Walt Kelly, the cartoonist and satirist — “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (dir. Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)

Why do human beings produce art? What is art for? To make others happy? To give expression to the artist’s interior life? To make money? These questions swirl about Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest feature from Joel and Ethan Coen. And while they are loath to give a determinate answer — typical for a Coen brothers’ film — they ultimately suggest that one ought not confuse art with the artist.

From the start, Inside Llewyn Davis makes clear that its protagonist is not a pleasant character. Acerbic and irresponsible at best, mean and purposeless at worst, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer, who bounces around New York City, playing gigs for change and mooching off of friends for food and shelter. It’s the early 1960s, just before Bob Dylan broke on the scene, and the folk-music community is as insular as it is thriving. Everybody knows everybody, and they all prize the same cozy aesthetic. As one person rhetorically asks, “Isn’t music a  joyful expression of the soul?”

It is just this perspective, however, that Llewyn can’t stand. He peers behind the three-part harmonies and knit Aran sweaters and finds the sadness in the folk tradition. “Hang me, oh hang me, and I’ll be dead and gone,” he sings as the film opens, “wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave so long.” The audience weakly claps when he finishes, but that’s the least of Llewyn’s problems. Not only is he broke, but his best friend committed suicide, his father has dementia, he may be the father of two children (by two mothers)…and, oh, he lost his benefactors’ cat. As his former lover, Jean (Carey Mulligan), bluntly puts it, “Everything you touch turns to shit! You’re like King Midas’ idiot brother.”

Amid such pain, Llewyn soldiers on. Better to be an artist, he notes, than simply to “exist.” Desperate, he bums a ride to Chicago, hoping to impress a big-name record producer, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). After a series of misadventures, he finally gets his chance. Grossman watches intently as Llewyn sings the traditional English ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane”:

The doctor was called for and set by her bedside

‘What aileth thee, my ladie, thine eyes seem so red?’

‘O doctor, O doctor, will ye do this for me,

To rip up my two sides and save my babie?’

It is a poignant, soulful performance, and Llewyn’s deep-seated sympathy for the material is not lost on Grossman. Still, as Grossman sees it, Llewyn’s talent is not suited for commercial success. The art that Llewyn creates is not the sort of thing that others would want to purchase. If anything, it speaks to themes that they’d probably prefer to forget, much like Llewyn himself has been forgotten.

Thus Llewyn is brought to a choice: either keep going or give up. And, in raising this problem, the Coens encourage us to consider the nature and purpose of art. Why should Llewyn, the artist, keep creating? It is a question at least as old as Plato, and one that has been treated in a variety of ways since the advent of Christianity. One thought, intimated by the film itself, is that art is simply an articulation of the artist’s psycho-spiritual state. This view has been popular since the Romantics and would seem to align with Llewyn’s rugged and uncompromising individualism. And yet, another thing that the film makes clear is that, despite his pain, Llewyn’s art is attractive. When he sings, something else, something not really intended, also shows up. This is beauty — the beauty of doing something well, of “repeating” the world in poetic form, of allowing the created thing to communicate its truth freely. On this understanding, as Rowan Williams has explained, art is a kind of self-dispossession, a holiness independent of the artist’s moral character.

Of course, whether or not the Coens have something like this in mind is hard to say. It is interesting, however, that Llewyn does not write his own material but, rather, serves as a conduit for old folk songs. In him and in his sorrow they speak again, thereby revealing a depth to reality that commercial interests and the vicissitudes of daily life would have us ignore.