Thursday, July 30, 2009

A night on the town

I spent last night going out on the town (I know, I know, it's Peoria, but still...). I went shopping by myself. At Gander Mountain I bought shotgun shells for Saturday's squirrel opener. At Wal-Mart I bought some field points for my arrows and a camo T-shirt (also for the squirrel opener). I looked at a larger size travel kennel for our dog since she is now full grown and needs a slightly larger one than the puppy kennel she has. I couldn't get happy with any of them, so I left with just the T-shirt and arrow tips. I bought some sushi at the "gourmet" Kroger on Knoxville (well, it's gourmet compared to the one in Chilli where we live) and some gas at their pumps (no, not at the same time!). I also went to see Public Enemies at the Rave, the local stadium seat movie theater.

I came away from all these events with a couple impressions:

Thought Number One - "So this is what's it's like to be a divorced father. Mom and the kids are living somewhere else and I'm alone with nothing much to do and no one to go home to. This is the loneliest I've been in fifteen years!" Seriously, is there anything more lonely than going to the movies and out by yourself when no one is expecting you back home? By all reports, Karen and the kids had a great time visiting old friends over in Iowa, but can you tell I'm ready for them to be home?

Thought Number Two - "Why can we no longer make morally clear movies?" The title Public Enemies is, I think, meant to be deliberately ambiguous. Certainly Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger are not portrayed angelically. Indeed, it's pretty clear that they are killers who are motivated by little that is more complex than their greed and their glands. But it's the movie's portrayal of Special Agent Melvin Purvis, his mob-hunting crew, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that is especially vexing. Director Michael Mann wants us to see that the FBI, for all the weight of federal law it carries, are willing to do almost anything in the pursuit of justice. Tjhe scene of an agent beating Dillinger's moll, Billie Frechette, while another looks on during the interrogation is particularly compelling in this regard. Mann seems to want us to ask the question, "So who are the real Public Enemies?"

Now let me be clear. I have no doubt that Director Hoover and Agent Purvis were far from being plaster saints. There is far too much evidence to the contrary. And the tactics they sometimes used to "get their man" were at least questionable and sometimes despicable. But it is also true that there is, at some point, a bright line between good and evil. As William F. Buckley once said, "A man who pushes an old woman in front of a bus and a man who pushes her out of the way of a bus should not be equally denounced as men who like to push old ladies around." That seems about right to me. And it raises the question why we no longer make movies in which the line between good and evil is clear. Is it because we no longer believe that good and evil are valid categories for reality? And if we do believe that, then why don't we act like that?


Matt Winfrey said...

I think it is not that we (people of the West, America in particular) don't believe they are valid categories, but instead we take the view that everyone is human (by which we mean flawed). Portraying characters with no or few flaws doesn't ring true to most people; I think most people believe that everyone is deeply flawed (which is true) and that apart from a couple of saints here and there (This is where Mother Teresa would enter the conversation.) no one is that noble or good. I believe this is true apart from Christ, and I think it means we, as Christians, need to do a better job of being in but not of the world.

Christ is real and living in us, and His promises of redemption and sanctification are true; and so we, as individuals and communities, should appear different than the world around us. But certainly apart from Christ, most people in America are more or less "good" but morally flawed and so, I think, expect the people they see in movies to also be this way.

The Bullhorn said...


Deep thoughts, old friend. I certainly agree that we are all deeply flawed. Even those of us who follow Christ need to remember that. That said, I'm still disturbed by the trend toward movies which feature characters more like Clint Eastwood in "Unforgiven" than John Wayne in "Rooster Cogburn" if you understand my meaning. Rooster is a deeply flawed character, but he is still unambiguously good. William Munny? Well, maybe you could make a case that he is carrying out justice in some sense, but it's a bit more of a stretch. And I guess for me that moral equivalence seems like one of the besetting evils of our times. For example, Israelis are condemned for accidentally killing civilians with their military, but Palestinians are rarely, if ever condemned for deliberately blowing up school buses and shopping malls. It's true that in both cases civilians are dead, but the causes and reasons matter, don't you think?

And that's my point about "Public Enemies." It's true that Melvin Purvis and certainly J. Edgar Hoover were flawed men, perhaps as equally flawed as the criminals they pursued and killed. But the cause and reasons they took up arms against other men matters. One is in service to the law, the other is in the service of greed, personal vendettas, and criminality. Surely God does not stand neutral between these, does He? And I guess I just wish that our entertainment and our culture generally had a more finely drawn line between good and evil, because the line isn't all that fuzzy in most of life.