Dark Men Brooding
The complex characters in these classic films provoke probing questions about love, faith and life
Such an arrangement is sufficiently sensible, and we needn’t argue with it. It’s been this way for a while; but for the cost of admission, it could almost be seen as a public service, as a way to keep people happily air-conditioned during the dog days. Besides, maybe all these superhuman protagonists have something to teach us about power and courage.
Of course, that’s a big maybe. The whole superhero thing feels so played lately, as though it’s been worn to such a thin veneer that it’s impossible to appreciate each and every one of these protagonists and their backstories. (Incidentally, if there is any meaning to be drawn, the backstory or exposition is generally where we find it. Character development serves action in these films. That’s fine, except that we get so little of the one and so much of the other.) Doesn’t the male psyche run deeper than this?
So by the time we get to say, the first week in August, and as the mercury continues to climb, we may have a certain, well-earned sensation that we’ve had about all the giant ants and ultravillains and Happenings we can stomach. When that point is reached, then it’s time to sound cinematic retreat, reorder our Netflix queues, and make popcorn at home. Here we can partake in films that occupy smaller stages—that showcase actors rather than bluescreens, and that carefully utilize the elements of storytelling.
Here, we can turn to complicated characters—to people subject to normal human frailties and failings. We might boldly ask of these films, and those who populate them, what they would teach us about our faith lives, rather than be forced to retroject our own life-lessons into them.
For starters, you could spend a few hours with Reign Over Me (rated R), a surprising little picture that’s as deep as it is spry. When it was released in the Spring of 2007, it made about as much as it cost to make. However, it seems to have found a solid footing in the DVD niche, which was where I encountered it after hearing good things about it.
At heart, Reign is about how we pick up the pieces of our lives after they’ve been shattered by external circumstances. Charlie Fineman (Adam Sandler [I know!]) lost his family on 9/11 and, rather than address his pain, he has simply become addicted to it.
Charlie has all but abandoned his former life to accommodate and feed his pain. He is a creature of empty New York City night hours, the haunt of coffee shops and record stores and triple-features. He tanks up on artificial stimuli and then returns to an all-but-abandoned apartment where he engages in rituals of tired existentialism. There’s a video game, “Shadows of the Colossus,” that’s about beating incredible mythic monsters; there’s a dark music room where Bruce Springsteen’s The River becomes a makeshift concert space; there’s a mysterious, never-ending kitchen remodeling project that has everything to do with Charlie’s deceased wife.
Throughout the picture, Charlie understands himself and his actions well enough—by his own admission, he’s just nursing a terrible, gaping wound, which Sandler’s sad-clown characters generally seem to do quite a lot when you stop and add them up—but it takes the intervention of an old friend (Don Cheadle) for Charlie to see himself as he truly is and to reach for anything resembling redemption. In his case, redemption ultimately means that he simply throw up his hands and ask for someone to help get him out of his glut.
Watching this film, I was reminded of Jesus’ admonition to his believers as reported in the eighth chapter of John: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Charlie’s finding of the truth is hard-won (it’s hard-won watching for us, too). The truth for him is finally that it takes lots of time (more time than the film has to offer) to be “healed” of a great loss; truth, too, that he cannot make that journey without first accepting the care of others; rock-bottom truth that he can’t receive care until he’s willing to admit that he’s worth caring for.
Someone once said that finally, all good spirituality is really just about what you do with your pain. In the case of this film, Charlie’s pain seems ultimately to be offered up to something, somewhere beyond him, as otherwise it would be too great a thing to be borne all by himself. Charlie wouldn’t necessarily call that something God, but he would strongly concur with the notion that were it not for that something, all hope of connection with the outside world would be otherwise lost.
If you watch movies to escape and be entertained, chances are that Reign Over Me might land uncomfortably close to your experience, and that, along with the Adam Sandler imprimatur, may be a big part of why it took time for this thoughtful work to gain a hearing. In that case, nevermind—there’s plenty of summer left, and I have a few more titles for you.
For instance, unless you’re a potential widow-strangler on the lam, you shouldn’t necessarily be offended by Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), starring Joseph Cotton, Teresa Wright, and Hume Cronyn. Every moment of the film is a master class in the mechanics of evil and the intuition we possess to confront and overcome it. It’s also pure Hollywood in the best sense of the term.
Cotton deftly plays Uncle Charlie, the brother of Emma Newton (Patricia Collinge), a happily married and deeply naïve mother of three residing in the suburban splendor of Santa Rosa, California. Emma named her eldest daughter after her brother, and so when Uncle Charlie decides to visit for a few weeks, it’s Young Charlie (Wright) who comes to pick him up at the train station.
Their kinship, however, runs deeper than just names; Young Charlie seems to have a direct line of sight into her uncle’s spiritual condition, and the more of him that’s revealed, the less she wants to have anything to do with him. Uncle Charlie is held by those around him as a scamp, lightly tinged in darkness, but Young Charlie perceives that her uncle is more darkness than anything—a hungry animal instinct dominating him—and she can only hunt for the physical clues to back up her sense of what’s wrong, and what may be about to happen.
Because of this production’s genius casting and screenplay, Hitchcock is given generous room to practice upon us the one move he made famous in his films, which is to repulse us at precisely the same time he’s drawing us further in. He opens up two sides of the same soul named Charlie—one a brooding perpetrator, the other a tough angel—and lets us witness them fight it out.
In the end, of course, cinematic convention has its say, but not without urging us to honestly consider our own dual natures. Hitchcock and company are telling us clearly that we all have this propensity to be two things at the same time: blind yet wise; life-loving and death-dealing; dark hustlers and stand-up guys.We want to have it all, be it all, but we can’t. One side will eventually win. And no matter who it is, we’ll be left with a shiver as we’re forced to acknowledge the brokenness and beauty we are, and all in the same breath.
If the pain of 9/11 in the year 2007 is not your thing, or if getting stylishly pummeled by Alfred Hitchcock doesn’t float your boat, you can always go back to Xanadu, and to one of the most important films ever made: Citizen Kane (1941).
Okay, you got me. Kane doesn’t exactly fit the criteria for simple storytelling technique, does it? For that matter, it was a real technical trailblazer for its time in terms of how it used the available gimmickry to advance its story. To a great extent, the world of possibilities seized upon by the superhero summer movie of today owes much to the outright vision and gall of Orson Welles and Kane.
The narrative driving the film is essentially that of a great faith lost to the lures and trappings of the world. Charles Foster Kane, a filthy rich empire-builder and media mogul, succumbs to the baser temptations that surround him, his many forms of hubris paving the way for his many sorts of downfalls, which in turn become the marks of his humanity. In effect, the more he submits himself to sin, the more fascinating he becomes—until he’s left with nothing but his raw humanness, his lifetime of regrets and could-have-beens.
Seen in the context of the entire film, Kane’s death (which is not much of a spoiler, by the way, since it happens in the first five minutes) leaves us with a host of unsettling questions: how am I living right now? How can I do better? How can I measure spiritual “success” in life independent of material success?
It goes on. What if I am tremendously powerful and prestigious but have no one I can really trust? What if I have all the esteem and pleasure I can possibly handle but have nothing approaching happiness? Would I be willing to trade? What if I have tremendous charisma and insight, but also an unwillingness to use those traits for the greater good because I’m too busy focusing them on my own advancement?
Kane is finally bold enough to both ask and answer one last, crucial question: What if I can’t love? What does every other last little thing mean in my life if I am incapable of loving and of receiving love? What if I have all these gifts to give humanity but can’t get my life out of first gear because all my gifts are too busy being used for my own personal benefit?
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “[then] I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Those incapable of either accepting or giving love, which is itself the primary language of God—no matter their powers, superhuman or otherwise, seem doomed to dwell in shadow lest they be pulled from the pits of their own making.
Dark men, all. Some choose the good.
Copyright @ 2008 Torey Lightcap