Friday, July 11, 2008
Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for drawing my attention to this article by James Bowman. It echoes some aspects of my own article on current US cop shows. The gist of Bowman's argument is in this sentence: 'American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of the disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes.' He cheats in order to stand this point up by dismissing superheroes and space opera heroes as evidence of a desire to put no pressure on the audience - 'It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire.' Er, bollocks. What about Juno then or any number of 'real life' films with real heroes? Having, perhaps, noticed this problem, Bowman then cheats further by, towards the end, restricting his lament to war films and westerns. Well, yeah, but these are more issues of genre aesthetics than moral shifts in Hollywood. You can't make a John Wayne film because they've all been made. And, while on that subject, Bowman's analysis of that great movie The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance leaves out the crucial aspect that this is, in part, a meditation on heroism and the Wayne character certainly does not become the unconditional hero he seems to imply. John Ford is a greater artist than Bowman understands.
But what about this sentence? 'Where there is no hope of a better world, there can be little to distinguish heroes from villains.' This is also bollocks but it's slightly more interesting bollocks. Bowman is suggesting the hero must be an agent of the future, a common delusion of utopians, most recently the neocons. But I can think of no greater hero than Chandler's Philip Marlowe and there is no prospect of a better world in any of those books. Or there is McNulty in The Wire; anybody who does not see his profound heroism is morally blind and the whole point of The Wire is that the problems of the present are intractable. True heroism is about keeping going when everything, the future included, has turned against you.
The movies are as full of heroes as they ever were, though it may be true to say that the apparent horizon of heroism has narrowed. It is a commonplace of contemporary heroes that they are aware of their limitations and do not, unless they are superheroes, expect to save the nation or the world. Indeed, it is a crucial aspect of their heroism that they fight on in spite of this. To wish, as Bowman does, that the movies would feed an (entirely fictional) audience appetite for supposedly traditional heroes is to miss the peculiar beauty of which both film and especially TV is now capable.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 8:16 am