Today was a weird day. I learned a couple of things that seem small, but feel pretty big to me right now.
First of all: After thirty five years in Amerikay, I still spell like Rudyard Kipling. I fantastise about the Girl From Ipanema. I live in a neighbourhood. Because that’s that was the flavour of culture the Christian Bros. beat into us (that’s a multi-layered joke if ever there was one.) Because that’s what the OED said. And by God if the OED says so? Well there you have it! My friends think it’s crazy that I could so easily adopt a mid-western accent but hold onto the ‘antiquated’ spelling—the exact opposite of every other self-respecting ex-foreigner.
But today I stumbled upon the fact that the OED now considers both ‘ise’ and ‘ize’ are considered correct. And then the final indignity: ‘ize’ is now the preferred rendition. WTF? (Same on both sides of the ocean.) Self-improvement goal #461.
What I find disturbing is that the OED, of all things so stable; so authoritative; so damnably British, has become, for lack of a better phrase, ‘politically correct’. I dunno why that’s such a drag, but gol darn it, if you can’t count on the OED to stand fast, well?
Later in the day this: Though I’d heard about internet ‘flame wars’ before, I’d never been a participant in one, outside of software. But it seems I’ve gotten into a pretty unbelievable ‘on-line argument’ with a bunch of people who love the movie ‘The Searchers’, the classic John Ford western starring John Wayne. For the youngsters, it’s ostensibly the story of a guy who comes back to Texas after being a soldier in the civil war. Almost immediately, he embarks on an epic mission to rescue his niece from an indian massacre. It is one of the most admired movies of all time. Directors from Scorcese to Wells to Truffaut all gush about it’s many layers of meaning; it’s tremendous beauty (every shot looks like a painting that’s for sure.) And fans can’t get enough… to many Wayne’s character ‘Ethan’ defines an American man.
Watched it again the other night. And hated it again. So I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done before: ask a question in an on-line forum of movie fans. I made the mistake of asking: “Why do people like this movie so much? I just don’t get it.” Big mistake.
I said that it’s sort of a ‘rescue story’. But really it’s the story of a very angry man who stayed the same while the world around him changed. I have always found Ethan to be a truly reprehensible character and the movie’s stereotypes appalling—even when compared with contemporary movies. But as I said, if ever there was a movie that is universally admired by critics and fans? The Searchers is it. When I raised my objections to the film’s message, I was told “if you don’t like it you must not be an American.” Wow.
I think that Ethan represents a vision of what a lot of people find great about America: integrity, fidelity, directness, plain-spoken honesty. He may do terrible things, but you always know where you stand. Even though you know he must end up alone; even though he cannot accept or understand the world changing around him. Unlike the OED? Ethan holds fast. I think the appeal of that message needs no explanation. There’s something irresistible in a stable world view for a lot of us. But at the end of the day, I cannot value his ‘integrity’ higher than ‘compassion’… and a willingness to adapt. I did not want to further inflame the on-line discussion, but the thought occurred to me that Erwin Rommel was also had a great deal of integrity.
The final interesting thing today: I heard an interview with the guy who wrote the movie ‘Prometheus’ (another beautiful but empty story.) He is also the key writer for the TV series ‘Lost’ as well as several other sci-fi shows. The common thread of all his work, he feels, is a great love of ambiguity. He believes that it’s never a great idea to try to tell the audience what to think about how the story will ultimately end. At the most basic level, any ending the author tries to impose on the audience could be simply inaccurate. This philosophy has of course become quite commonplace in movies, TV, etc. But something about this point of view suddenly struck me as completely bogus.
The art I admire most has the courage to make a decision. After four acts of waffling, Hamlet die, but he does find a reason to live. Eveline goes back to her abusive father despite her longings. Even Ethan walks into the sunset alone. We may not know the ending of each story down to the last detail; but we know the choice they made… and the road they’re headed down.
Not so these days. If Heart Of Darkness were written today? Conrad would probably fade to black before Marlowe even gets back to England. This current fashion seems to me to be not only poor craftsmanship but just plain cowardly. It’s one thing to let the reader imagine his characters lives beyond the final page; it’s quite another to make the ending whatever he or she desires. It’s artistically weak as well as irresponsible.
Detroit is really the story of how a son went to war (just like Ethan) and came back to a world that no longer played by the same rules. Grandfather is a success and an optimist. His son can never be either, due to forces within himself and the world that he will not and can never understand. On the final day, we don’t see that his ‘pitch’ has failed, but we know it has. What we do not know is whether his son will become the optimist his Grandfather was, or turn cynic and slacker because of his father’s failures.
So today, I’m just filled with questions: I’m wondering if Detroit is courageous enough in leaving that final question so open. I also wonder why I unconsciously created a character like the Son who is so like Ethan in The Searchers; and yet I cannot in any way empathize with Ethan. And finally, I wonder if learning to spell ’empathize’ makes me a bit less like Ethan myself. Or does holding onto the ‘s’ for so long means I’m more like him than I would like to imagine.
I’m sure Freud would have a field day explaining all these obsessions with movies I dislike and dictionaries no one use any longer—not to mention writing music in a format that’s arguably been dead for one hundred years.
Whew. I can’t be like Ethan: Can you imagine ‘The Duke’ over-thinking anything the way I routinely do? 😀