News and Commentary – After The Catastrophe: What Can the Movies Tell Us?

And so this has actually happened—America has elected as its President an ignorant, nativist authoritarian.  One would not have thought this possible.  It is still very difficult to process.  

At such a moment, talking about the movies seems, perhaps . . . frivolous?  

I am sympathetic to this perspective.  But I want to suggest that the movies have a role to play in the context of our current existential crisis, especially because the most common question I hear (and the question I keep asking as well) is, “what am I supposed to do now?”

Here’s where I think the movies can play a small part.  I don’t share the encouragement that we might seek out the movies as a safe and familiar harbor for a few hours of comfort-food escapism from the grim, unrelenting realities of the day—you know, like they did during the Great Depression.  (But don’t let me stop you.)  Rather, I think the movies can do more.  I think that some movies – some great movies – can actually help us understand how, indeed, we might carry on.

Many such films come to mind, but in particular I’ve been thinking about Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows.  And almost as much, I’ve been thinking about Roger Ebert's Review of that film, which begins with this:

“Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows" is about members of the French Resistance who persist in the face of despair. Rarely has a film shown so truly that place in the heart where hope lives with fatalism. It is not a film about daring raids and exploding trains, but about cold, hungry, desperate men and women who move invisibly through the Nazi occupation of France.”

Melville was a French Army regular who was evacuated at Dunkirk, and rejoined the fight against Germany as a member of the French resistance. After the war, he would go on to make three extraordinary films about the occupation; the two others were The Silence of the Sea (1949), and Leon Morin, Priest (1961).  Army of Shadows (1969) was his greatest achievement in a career filled with masterpieces.   

Yes, it is a bit of a downer, and when the credits roll, the heroes haven’t won.  (What, this is your first visit to Mid Century Cinema?)  But I have always been in awe of this film.  And today it helps me understand a puzzle.  Why do they do it?  That is, the characters in Shadows—why do they resist?  The odds are impossible, the dangerous enormous, the prospect of practical success remote. 

But, I think, they do it because they can’t imagine not doing it.  Tolstoy once wrote, “There are no conditions to which a man may not become accustomed, particularly if he sees that they are accepted by those about him.”  Most of France became accustomed to the occupation.  The characters in Army of Shadows – portrayed by Lino Ventura, Paul Meurisse, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simone Signoret, Paul Crauchet, and look for Serge Reggiani in a small, meaningful role – simply could not.   

 

Take my coat

Take My Coat (Reggiani with Ventura)

 

Traitor

A Traitor is Exposed

 

Choices

No Easy Choices

  

Felix loses his hat

The Hat is Left Behind . . .

 

Felix is captured

 . . . As Felix (Paul Crauchet) is Captured

 

Rescue

Mathidle (Signoret) Attempts a Rescue 

 

Not Looking Good

Not Looking Good

 

It has to be done

 "It Has To Be Done": Meurisse, as Luc Jardie (based on Resistance Hero Jean Moulin)