– Somehow I feel that an ordinary person–the man in the street if you like – is a more challenging subject for exploration than people in the heroic mold. It is the half shades, the hardly audible notes that I want to capture and explore. (Satyajit Ray)
What happens when an ordinary person is deprived of the normal life that he or she once led? Consider the 1960 Satyajit Ray film “Devi” which portrays a 19th-century Indian housewife who is at the mercy of her superstitious father-in-law. He has a ‘vision’ and proclaims her to be a goddess (devi) and she herself comes to believe that she has supernatural healing powers. Eventually, when someone in her care dies, she is ‘exposed’ and loses her sanity. In the 1991 Zhang Yimou film “Raise the Red Lantern”, a young woman in 1920’s China who can no longer afford to be a college student has no alternative but to marry a man who already has three wives. She eventually goes mad when she finds herself not only at the mercy of his will, but also of his whims. The movie ends with her ranting and raving through her household as a new wife arrives.
“Vertigo” and “Citizen Kane” have been proclaimed the two best films of all time. Part of the reason may have been because they both portray the tragic outcome of women who are not accepted for who they are because of men who hope to transform them into an ideal more imaginary than real. In “Vertigo”, a man brushes aside the chance to have a normal relationship with a woman who loves him because he finds her just too average. He then obsessively pursues another woman who grudgingly allows him to make her over into his notion of feminine perfection. The main character of “Citizen Kane” also tried to transform his second wife into a diva and even built an opera house for her to make her debut. It turned out to be a fiasco because his obsession to make her into a star blinded him to her very limited vocal resources.
Sometimes ideals might actually be even imaginary:
– He never really existed at all, except in my imagination. I loved something I made up, something that’s just as dead as Melly is. I made a pretty suit of clothes and fell in love with it. And when Ashley came riding along, so handsome, so different, I put that suit on him and made him wear it whether it fitted him or not. And I wouldn’t see what he really was. I kept on loving the pretty clothes—and not him at all. What a fool I’ve been. (“Gone With The Wind” [1936,Mitchell])
What happens to civilians who are dragged into the chaos and turmoil of war? In the 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, the military ideals (e.g., honor, duty, heroism, courage) of a high-ranking commander derailed his men’s sense of norms which had to do with not taking survival for granted and the tragic result was the unnecessary loss of lives. The notion of the ‘glory’ of war caused that leader to lose sight of the horrors that war was creating for his followers and in the final scene, an onlooker of the needless and avoidable carnage could only exclaim, “Madness! Madness … madness!” Shouldn’t the tragic outcome of Willaim Holden’s and Geoffrey Horne’s characters remind us that if a good system brings out the best in people and a bad system the worst, that war somehow manages to get rid of what’s left of the best?:
– You make me sick with your heroics. There’s a stench of death about you…You and that Colonel Nicholson, you’re two of a kind. Crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman. How to die by the rules when the only important thing is how to live like a human being. (Holden’s character)
With regard to norms over ideals, consider what Zefra said to Moses in the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments”:
– A jewel has brilliant fire, but gives no warmth. Our hands are not so soft, but they can serve. Our bodies not so white, but they are strong. Our lips are not perfumed, but they speak the truth. Love is not an art to us. It’s life to us. We are not dressed in gold or fine linen. Strength and honor are our clothing. Our tents are not the marbled halls of Egypt, but our children play happily. We can offer you little, but we offer all we have.
Concerning the 2019 film “Ad Astra”, isn’t its message that rather than reach out to the stars ala Star Trek’s “…To explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before!”, we should be reaching out to each other? “Ad Astra” began as a journey of discovery to see if there was any extra-terrestrial life at the edge of the solar system and it ended as a journey of self-discovery with Brad Pitt’s character saying “We’re all we’ve got.”
If ideals (e.g., bravery, courage) exist to differentiate and distinguish individuals from each other and to entitle the best to rewards and prizes, could group norms be viewed as allowing people to live together harmoniously and encouraging them to work together productively? The routines and repetitiveness of those norms cultivates basic values which serve to strengthen the average person’s resolve to cope with the adversities, hardships and obstacles that are put in their way often by their ‘betters’. Aren’t the masses (as opposed to the elite) struggling to not stray from the straight and narrow by trying to keep things on course, trying to not to fall behind, and trying to not lose sight of the long term common good? And aren’t they wise to not allow the rewards and prizes of success blind them to the importance and necessity of not taking survival for granted? Are the winners those that succeed or those who survive? Should one strive to win the battle of glory or to win the war of survival?:
– It isn’t important to come out on top, what matters is to be the one who comes out alive. (Bertolt Brecht)
– The strength of a man’s virtue should not be measured by his special exertions, but by his habitual acts. (Blaise Pascal)
And with regard to the growing social violence in our own times, has the promotion and glorification of ideals which recognize and reward outstanding individuals with success blinded us to the importance of group norms which help to provide for a secure and stable society that contributes to the survival of humanity? If ideals can help to raise the level of individual performance, then don’t norms serve to keep us together and on course? And whenever we get carried away and let ideals seduce us into thinking that anything is possible, then don’t norms ground us again by reminding us that we mustn’t let even the glory of success blind us to the need to survive?:
– Not even a collapsing world looks dark to a man who is about to make his fortune. (E.B. White)
And just what are those norms composed of? Taboos, prohibitions, and thou-shall-nots which provide the cohesiveness and bonding that allows us to live together harmoniously and work together productively.
Concerning Kurosawa’s “Rashomon”(1950), some have criticised its last scene where the poor woodcutter agrees to take care of an abandoned baby as being unrealistic considering that all that preceded it portrayed human nature as weak as the result of the turmoil and chaos of the times the characters lived in:
– War, earthquake, winds, fire, famine, the plague. Year after year, it’s been nothing but disasters. And bandits descend upon us every night. I’ve seen so many men getting killed like insects, but even I have never heard a story as horrible as this [the story of the crime and subsequent trial]. Yes. So horrible. This time, I may finally lose my faith in the human soul. It’s worse than bandits, the plague, famine, fire or wars.
But that final scene reminded me of the end of the film “The Grapes of Wrath” when Ma Joad gives her “We the People” pep talk about the resilience and perseverance of the masses. In the struggle for survival, the attitude and behavior of the lowborn can be inspiring as they keep their chins up and continue to work hard and do their best in spite of the burdens placed on their backs often by the highborn:
– I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means – except by getting off his back. (Leo Tolstoy)
Getting back to Rashomon’s final scene, according to the book CINEMA EAST…(1983), “…Kurosawa himself says that he wanted to present gigantic columns of clouds (cumulonimbus) above the gate, but they never appeared during the shooting of the final scene. The image of cumulonimbus predicting approaching rain…” Rather than have the woodcutter carry the abandoned baby into the bright sunlight which Kurosawa probably would have viewed as too obvious in its optimism, perhaps he was thinking along the lines of what Gandhi once said:
– I am in the world feeling my way to light ‘amid the encircling gloom’.
Could that be so difficult to understand and appreciate by anyone who has had to live through tough times?
The author is a freelance writer and critic