Sunday, April 18, 2004
FILM: The Eternal Navel Gazing of the Modern Mind
I know, I know, I'm beginning to sound like a broken record. But having just seen The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Charlie Kaufman's "most mature" film, I have to say this. All this egocentric, lost soul, navel gazing can be clever and entertaining. But at the end of the movie, when the lights go on, I'm left with a big, "So what?"
Most of us wonder why we're here and what life means, but there's a limit to the number of times you want to see the Unhappy Answers of the Most Confused. At least that's true for me. Particularly when so many of the movie critics I respect, like the New York Times's Elvis Mitchell, give these movies good reviews. Enough already!
It's NOT like 50 years ago, when Nihilists like Jean-Paul Sartre were expressing the inchoate thoughts of many. Kaufman's clever script disguises the fact that at their root his ideas have become cliches that express beliefs the culture has passed by.
You can see clips at http://www.focusfeatures.com/. Jim Carrey gives a good performance. Kate Winslet gives an even better one. (How come the Brits can play us so much better than most of us - Gwynnie excepted - can play them?)
INCHOATE THOUGHT(S) OF THE DAY: We are spiritual beings in the bodies of evolved apes. (More on this below.)
That's an unusual idea that's almost certainly not what Kaufman believes. I've never met him or heard him speak on the subject, but his work speaks for itself. And that clearly says he is a late-2oth century materialist who believes that life is some sort of cruel joke caused by the random turns of the universe.
But if they're random, why is life cruel? Because people who believe this often believe, as Woody Allen said, that "the universe and I are two." They don't believe in God, but there is a grand purpose to the universe, in this sense: It's against them. (There's that connection between Modernism and Adolescence again.)
It was the French intellectual branch of this school of thought that caused Jean-Paul Sartre to say, "Hell is other people." (Some point out that he was surrounded by Parisians when he said this. For more thoughts on Sartre, see Mrs. Premise and Mrs. Conclusion visit Jean-Paul Sartre.)
Kaufman's movie title comes from Alexander Pope (1688 - 1744). Pope was an English Catholic, when Catholics were officially persecuted by Parliament, and a hunchback whose growth was stunted by tubercular bone disease. He lived in a small English village, at a time time when we're told you could smell English villages half a mile before reaching them. Yet his satire misses the pessimism of Kaufman, who undoubtedly lives in sybaritic LaLa Lotusland, with a personal assistant and a Porsche.
From Eloisa to Abelard:
How happy is the blameless Vestal's lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot:
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each prayer accepted, and each wish resign'd.
Pope's poem is not about hopelessness, but a great love story, and the struggle of grace and nature, virtue and passion.
It's about the the good life, love, and the body -- or "the temptations of the flesh," as they used to call it.
It's perhaps a different expression of the idea that " we are spiritual beings in the bodies of evolved apes."
Most of us can agree that we have souls (Kaufman may disagree). And most of us can agree that there is some basis to Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Put those two ideas together, and you have what I've just described.
The divine is in the soul. The material is in the body. Most of the world has believed and continues to believe that we have souls that live on after the body is gone. Much of the world believes that the soul exists before the body as well (in other words, reincarnation). Yet when the 2oth century debates Nature versus Nurture, it leaves the soul out of the equation.
I have two 14-year-old dogs who were neutered a year or two ago. I can't help noticing with them (Bud and Frank, two brothers) how decisively their neutering has affected their character. They used to fight fiercely 3 or 4 times a year. If I weren't around to pull them apart, one of them might not be alive. Now they're sweethearts, who never fight. But until Frank was neutered, no one but me, who knows him the best, could see Frank's sweetness.
That's Nature, of course. Really, it's testosterone, or the body. How much of our own behavior is formed by our hormones alone?
A lot, is the answer. Women are more intimate with this than men. Butch lesbians take hormones to become butcher. And the new thing, transgenders, take them too. It affects a lot more than just their looks. In this way, we're not that different from our dogs.
So let's take it one step further. I've been thinking about the idea that " original sin" came when we took on the bodies of evolved apes, and every time one of us takes on a body.
We get all these hormones, and we get the ego, which is in the body. The ego has its good side, but there's practically no limit to the damage the ego can cause. Every religion says that if you can get the ego out of the way of the heart and the mind, bliss follows.
I don't mean that the body is bad, by any means. I'm talking about the difference between the afterglow of exercise and the feeling of a hangover. Or between making love and embarrassing sex.
When the material overwhelms and misuses the body, that is original sin.
The conscience is in the soul. The ego is in the body.
I also noticed something else with my dogs. I had the mother, and was there for the delivery of her 5 sons (2 of which I kept). Each tiny little 6 oz puppy had an individual character from the beginning, even before their eyes were open. And that character has stayed with them until now, when they are all as individual as they can be. Even though they're all affected by their bodies getting older on them.
Similarly, mothers often say they felt the character of their children while they were still in the womb. That's the soul.
One further, inchoate stretch.
Democracy necessarily embraces both the body and the soul, using material comfort to create a place where the conscience is safe to grow. The invasion of Iraq can embrace either the higher purposes of democracy or the petroleum-driven, SUV-based, wealth-accumulating dreams of Bush.
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Re Brits in US film:
...possibly because we are constantly exposed to your culture via film, television and literature.
Forget Gwynnie, Angelina Jolie and Renee Zelwegger are pretty good too.
Posted by: mrs mcmuffin at Apr 30, 2004 10:03:14 AM
We (Human Beings) are inextricable inseparable marriages of material and immaterial substance. We symbolize our condition with verbal symbols like 'advanced apes' and not 'child angels' because we experience division between matter and spirit, and the distance between imagining perfected human embodied existence, and never being able to achieve it, often achieving the opposite, as the trapping of something perfect (the soul) by something imperfect (the body subject to decay) from which it needs to be freed. So, the 'soul' gets all the breezy positive symbolization, the 'body' the stormy negative ones. The Second Law, you know. We, on our own, build forever and a day artistic and architectural symbols of the spirit 'transcending' (Libeskind's Albert and Victoria addition, for example) material existence, leaving it for the Mother Ship of perfected spirits who have left decaying material bodies behind.
Who has ever seen, touched a Spirit? What Man would talk to a Spirit unless the Spirit clothe Himself in Matter? Doesn't every high art architectural object seek to approach the Pure Spirit Who animates the soul, the Form of the Body?
The Divine is 'in' the body *and* the soul, because without either, you have an angel on the one hand, an animal on the other, and in neither case a man. Man is separated from that which sustains his life, and 'religion', 'liturgy', is his seeking to salve his insatiable hunger to reestablish this fundamental umbilical connection.
Posted by: Carl Jahnes at Jul 30, 2004 1:27:45 AM