The Reluctant Writer: Something Else to do When I Should Be Writing

February 24, 2009

Oscar’s Prisons

(Spoiler alert — if you haven’t seen Revolutionary Road or — god forbid — don’t know the important place of Harvey Milk in our culture’s history)

The Oscars were held last weekend which, for a lot of us, meant a scrambling race to the finish line to try to view all the major contenders before the ceremony Sunday night.  Something else to do when I should have been writing. I did pretty well though, missing only two of the upper tiered films, Happy Go Lucky and Frozen River.  This year’s batch of films was particularly stimulating, and I couldn’t help but wonder if anyone else noticed an understated theme amongst many of the cinematic messages.  Prisons.

Whether the prison walls were made of flesh and failings, as were those for the characters played by Kate Winslett, Mickey Rourke and Brad Pitt in The Reader, The Wrestler and the Curious Case of Benjamen Button, respectively; or those built out of years of guilt, grief and blame, as were those that imprisoned the subjects of Anne Hathaway, Richard Jenkins and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performances in Rachel Getting Married, The Visitor and Doubt — the intensity of  the lack of freedom that all these characters suffered was staggering.

But probably the most difficult states of confinement to witness were those created solely by the  constructed standards of intolerant societies in the films Milk and Revolutionary Road.  In both these films, the leading characters battled defiantly against the essentialist gender roles their frighteningly patriarchal and heteronormative societies had assigned them.  Kate Winslett’s character in Revolutionary Road, and Sean Penn’s portrayal of the real crusader Harvey Milk, both bucked some of the most strident of those arbitrary norms that typically arise as antidotes for humanity’s fear of the uncategorizable.  Women who don’t know their place.  Men who are just a little too soft.  People who think and analyze and question and therefore, must be crazy.

Sadly, a happy ending is as rare for this type of character in fiction, and in real life, as it was for the writer Virginia Woolf who, in 1941 in the throes of depression and an ongoing frustration with a world in which she felt she didn’t neatly fit, finally filled her pockets with stones and walked slowly into the River Ouse.   Be it a botched home abortion or bullets fired by the hand of a homophobic man, the real cause of all these deaths, Woolf’s included, was a world too tiny for more than one type of woman or man — a world that forced those with the audacity to think outside the cells in which they were given to live to ultimately sacrifice their lives for their prison walls to fall.

Ironically, the big winner of Oscar night was Slumdog Millionaire, a film that celebrates a young man’s escape from the prison of poverty in India — a country far enough away from the western world for American viewers to safely criticize its culture.  Unfortunately, it is less ironic, and actually pretty typical, that the socially approved means of escape for this valiant and spirited young man was money.  A happy ending courtesy of both Holly- and Bollywood.

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