Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar and the Horror of Compromise

Speaking of questioning...

Saturday's This American Life came at an inconvenient time for me. I was running a couple of crucial errands for my girlfriend, who was home sick with the flu. A few of these errands required me to get out of the car during this, one of the most captivating pieces of radio programming my ass has ever heard. I was so torn!

This American Life "The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar"

I was conflicted listening to this story of a woman who begins questioning her own family story, a story which involved the kidnapping and eventual rescue of her great grandfather. She goes on a search for the truth, approaching the issue with a hunger for objective facts with a journalist's code, a code we've all been told is a high ethic to uphold. My whole life I've wanted to be fearless about the truth, and to face it straight on. But then at some points I've asked myself, as this story asks of her, what good does it do? And whether I, like she, like every journalist, have an agenda I'm not acknowledging.

A friend of mine and I have been hitting on this topic recently, not just of questioning the building blocks of our own story - most of which has been supplied by those who came before us - but of the value of questioning itself. I think it's one of the hardest things of all to come to terms with. To wonder, after spending your whole life unraveling a ball of yarn, if you shouldn't have just left it in tact. Is there a point where questioning is just destructive? When it's done in the service of a quest for absolute truth - so-called truth for its own sake - doesn't that reduce truth to something amoral, like a block of ice existing in a void. What about people's feelings? What about getting along? And doesn't the idea that facts and histories have a greater value than anything else an idea that other people thought of for us? In other words, is questioning everything just another way that we are being a follower?

And yet another question about questioning - do we even have a choice in the matter? My gut says no, that some of us were just born to blow things up. So it is what it is. If the lie is more comfortable, but you see through it, what difference does it make that it's convenient? It's too late either way.

I just saw Revolutionary Road after waiting for weeks to get the chance. I almost don't even want to talk about the film. I'm still getting over it. It's an artistic devil articulating the unmentionable and asking the most inconvenient questions about happiness, hope, change and the compromises that come with stability. It's like a horror movie about domestication and it scares because it calmly, clearly, with terrifying accuracy picks off all refuges - and then doesn't offer any answers in their place.

Revolutionary Road is the story of a couple in the 1950s, Frank and April Wheeler, who lose themselves in the search for stability. The obvious route for telling this kind of story, especially with this time period, is to create characters who blindly accept the suburban dream and then watch them fail. Something we've all seen before. But Revolutionary Road is different because its subjects are soulful, passionate people who are ambitious about ideas and are trying to live uniquely and be the exception. They see through the trap. Watching them get ensnared it anyway, I felt like I was watching a possible version of my own future.

The film is about taking the clear-eyed view of life, no matter the consequences. This kind of crystal-clear focus is even a visual motif, as the film is shot in a bright, open and transparent style that allows you to see every detail, every skin pore, every dark sparkle in the hard empty eyes of the film's most soulless characters. And the clarity is painful. Road doesn't flinch. And it's not fair. It isn't just about coming to an awareness of the truth, but whether awareness is enough.

There was a scene that killed me where one of the Wheelers admits to an infidelity and the other asks, "Why did you tell me?" They would have rather not known, not because they're in denial but because they've reached a point of clarity about the marriage that makes the cheating irrelevant in light of the corruption that has already taken over.

The best line happens after the Wheelers hatch a plan to move to France and "really begin living." They're discussing it with John Givings, a mental patient they've befriended recently, who's on a short leave from the hospital. Givings' true illness is his inability to play nice, and he makes enemies wherever he goes as he challenges the tiny lies around him that people are using to fuel their lifestyles. Walking through the woods with them, Givings asks why the couple is moving. Frank says to get away from the "hopeless emptiness." This stops Givings in his tracks. "Now you've said it," he says. "Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness."


Marie Lasferatu said...

I love this movie...in the way that it scared me too. It stayed with me for days, the terror of that becoming my life. Brilliant. I have to check out the novel.

Tara said...

Just finished the novel a couple of weeks ago but have yet to see the movie. I'm almost afraid to...