The Innocent Oscars

  • February 6, 2009
In “Songs of Innocence and Experience ,” William Blake, poet of the industrial revolution, asks the Tiger (or Tyger, as he spelled it), “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” He asks the lamb, “Dost thou know who made thee?”

Old, mad Blake seems to haunt Hollywood this Oscar season. Each of the five films nominated for best picture in the 81st running of the Academy Awards Feb. 22 tells a story of innocence and experience — of how we pass from trust to terror, and what we lose and what we gain when we learn the truth about the world and our role in it.

To begin with the worst of the five, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seems profound, even inspiring for the two-and-a-half hours it unspools. But as soon as the audience filters back into the mall everybody’s talking about special effects. It’s like a Batman movie with Hallmark Card sentimentality substituted for tension, pace and purpose.

The tale of how Benjamin is born old then races backwards through 90 years of life, going full circle from senility to babyhood, is an ideal vehicle to show the audience innocence and experience colliding. Button sees the world, experiences love and disappointment, breaks hearts and has his heart broken. All this brings him to the most banal conclusions. Button’s broad and unique experience teaches him that in the course of a life bad things will sometimes happen, but you just have to get through it as best you can.

Just as Blake wrote amidst the traumas of industrialization, director David Fincher has adapted F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story in the age of globalization. Button’s journey from innocence to experience is a sojourn from protection and confinement to wandering across the globe. As he begins his life in a nursing home in New Orleans, Button meets people at the end of their lives and knows them for themselves. In the wider world where Button grows younger he encounters war, schemes, betrayal and misunderstanding.

Should we be surprised to discover we live in a fallen world? Or surprised that we were ever capable of innocence?

Two of this year’s nominees are based on American political history. Frost/Nixon and Milk go back to the 1970s to mine material that might seem suited for a civics class. But both remind us America was never quite so innocent as we may wish to remember it.

Harvey Milk was the first openly gay man elected to public office in America. As Anita Bryant campaigned across the United States to have gays fired from their jobs and their civil rights taken away, Milk stood on the steps of San Francisco’s city hall quoting the basic precepts of the Declaration of Independence and the inscription chiselled into the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“You can never erase those words from the Declaration of Independence. No matter how hard you try, you cannot chip those words off the Statue of Liberty,” declares a very convincing Sean Penn as Harvey Milk.

Though Milk is murdered, his basic claim on the respect and sympathy of his fellow citizens for all homosexual Americans outlives him. Bryant’s appeal, based on a false and sentimental notion of sexual innocence, fails the tests of justice and human dignity.

In Milk, experience should teach us how to be kind, generous and truthful. Kindness, generosity and honesty are not mere private virtues for this film. They are also civic virtues. They are the connective tissue of the body politic.

In Frost/Nixon the encounter between innocence and experience is embodied by its central characters. David Frost seems an overgrown boy who has stumbled into a man’s world with his scheme to interview the man who had escaped the clutches of the Washington press corps and a Senate determined to impeach him. Richard Nixon knows such an interview is actually combat, but because Frost is such an innocent Nixon believes he is safe.

He is not.

“Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?” Frost asks.

“I’m saying that when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal!” intones a mesmerizing Frank Langella as Nixon.

Suddenly the tiger burning in the forests of the night is a wounded bear — and all of us who are not perhaps worthy of casting the first stone will feel some sympathy for the sinner before us, as he stares back at the television cameras fearing the lenses themselves might punish him with hell fire.

 The Reader does not settle for easy answers. Its moral universe is intricate, complex and unsettling. Kate Winslet’s  performance as Hanna Schmitz, ex-Nazi prison guard and tragic illiterate, leaves us suspended between sympathy and condemnation. The only way out of this confusion is to examine the very notion of guilt and innocence.

Hanna’s young lover, Michael Berg (played by Ralf Fiennes and David Kross), is forced to confront hard truths when he realizes no combination of his own supposed innocence and Schmitz’s guilt will produce justice.

“Societies think they operate by something called morality. They don’t,” a young Berg learns from his law professor. “They operate by something called law.”

By letting the law take its course, Berg washes his hands of Schmitz. Guilt and innocence remain neatly separate categories, and Schmitz and her burden of guilt remains conveniently separate from Berg’s everyday reality. But this artificial justice satisfies nothing.

“It doesn’t matter what I feel. It doesn’t matter what I think. The dead are still dead,” says Schmitz. Berg and the society he represents cannot reply to this.

No one leaves this movie talking about special effects. The effect here is upon the heart and the conscience.

If there is a place the visionary poet Blake would recognize in the 21st century it would surely be Mumbai as portrayed in  Slumdog Millionaire — the best of this year’s Oscar nominees. Vast differences between rich and poor, the collusion of great, invisible forces with criminal and shameful oppression are right in line with Blake’s portrayal of his own home town in “London” at the turn of the 19th century:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

True enough, but who knew the social evils of globalization could also furnish the backdrop for a story as funny, hope-filled and inspiring as Slumdog Millionaire.

The magic of Slumdog is that hope is not abstract. Hope lives as real people — young people who remain in love and human despite every attempt by the world to take away their humanity.

Jamal and his brother Salim have the innocence of their childhood shattered by religious riots that sweep through their slum, killing their mother. In their desolation, the orphan boys are united with Latika, an orphan girl. The three rush through their lives experiencing all the horrors of poverty (beggermasters, child prostitution, gangsters) and glories of globalization (tourism, call centres) until finally someone asks Jamal, “Who wants to be a millionaire?”

The game show is the boy’s final gambit to win back his lost love, Latika.

In this fairy tale of globalization, the magic works. It is not a triumph of innocence over experience, rather it is an experience of hope which opens the door to kindness, generosity, sacrifice and love — civic virtues in the city of God.

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