I'm happy to announce that our friend Charles will be joining in as a regular contributor to this blog. Here is his first piece.
THE GOLDEN AGE vs THE HAPPY ENDING:
THE REAL CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS?
Dag's recent post mentioned the French director
Jean-Luc Goddard. This got me to thinking about
other French filmmakers, and the tone of European cinema in general.
Isn't it fair to say that one of the
distinguishing characteristics, historically,
between European cinema and Hollywood's film
output, is the concept of the Happy Ending? Our
films end with the hero victorious, boy getting
girl, cowboys riding off into the sunset after
ridding the town of outlaws. The Happy Ending is
so routine that we barely notice it exists until
the rare exception reveals its absence.
Many Europeans I've spoken with over the years
tend to mock American movies for their Happy
Endings. "Life's not like that", they solemnly
declare; "life is tragedy, and its naïve for Americans to believe otherwise."
The unspoken implication (and sometimes not so
unspoken): only an idiot believes that the future
can be better than the past. Life is about
failure, and degeneration. The future holds only
sorrow: it's all downhill from here.
Therefore European films, unless they are
strategically aiming for box office success with
a North American audience, tend to provide
endings that are either inconclusive, Pyrrhic
victories, or outright tragedy. There is genuine
disdain for the option of living happily ever after.
Why is this? Why the different point of view?
I've long wondered about this distinct difference
in tastes, and what might lie at the core of this
difference. I propose that the cause of this
effect is the belief in a Golden Age.
I've grown to hate that term, for the damage that
I see it causing us all, due to its assumption
that change is only negative. Isn't it harmful to
a person's sense of initiative to go around
believing that the best things have already
happened? Doesn't it deflate our sense of
adventure to believe that our discoveries will
matter less than those of the past? Where is the
urge to make a contribution if we truly believed
that we would only be contributing to making things worse, not better?
Surely, belief in a Golden Age is a cage that
traps the soul by chaining our inherent ability
to improve. Belief in a Golden Age is an
admission of only one form of change: decay.
Belief in a Golden Age is an absolute denial of
another form of change: progress.
Denying progress condemns us to a view of life
more as animals live it: endlessly formulaic,
seeing human beings programmed like robots to
merely repeat that which was done before, and
judged by nature by how successfully we duplicate
this "ideal" model established by our teachers.
Our art is an extension of ourselves. The
Traditional Hollywood Ending, as the Happy Ending
is condescending called by its critics, reflects
the North American experience of The New World,
and our success at improvement over the old model
of the Old World of Old Europe. We are treated as
blasphemers for having exceeded our betters, for
having succeeded in making our present better
than their past, as the curious child dares to
add to the foundation of learning its parents
provided him. For as children we recognize that
we live in only a temporary state of inferiority;
if we live up to our potential we can rise higher
than our parents have, we can lead a new life;
"What do you want to be when you grow up?" is
such a common question we pose to our children
that we take it for granted. How universal a
question is it these days? It is not indulging in
childhood fantasy to ask it: almost any answer is
within the realm of possibility. We are not
cursed to live in the shadows of greatness, like
a medieval peasant toiling behind oxen on a
baron's land. And we are definitely not cursed to
repeat the lives our parents led, following in
their footsteps because there is only one trail that remains open to us.
Our increasing clash with Islam seems built on
this clash of beliefs: that man has the potential
to choose his fate, that a loving god like a
loving parent would expect us to discover this
potential; that a truly loving parent, like any
good teacher, would not feel lessened to see the
child improve so as to one day live a greater life than the parent did.
The student must never surpass the teacher: that
is the burden of the Golden Age.
The student can exceed the teacher: that is the promise of the Happy Ending.
Which side are you on?