Warning: Contains minor Michael Clayton and Rosemary’s Baby spoilers, as well as some grossly massive overgeneralizations.
Over the past week, my Bonnie and I went to see the new George Clooney vehicle, Michael Clayton, and—in her ongoing attempt to educate me about movies made before 1985—we watched Rosemary’s Baby at home. For very different reasons, these were both interesting experiences for me. In the case of Michael Clayton, we have an intriguing, emotionally heavy, and complexly constructed legal narrative with some career-worthy acting performances (Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton had exceptional turns, and George Clooney keeps getting better, and more subtle; kudos as well to Sydney Pollack). While Roman Polanski’s direction of Rosemary’s Baby somehow seems dated (or maybe it’s simply Mia Farrow’s “I’m a dumb little girl” acting that bothered me), the story—and the pacing of the story—kept me intrigued.
I’m coupling these films together, however, not because I’m endorsing each of them—which I am—but because I want to talk about the role of redemption, and my reaction to it, in each film. At the conclusion of Rosemary’s Baby, I turned to Bonnie and observed that I thought it was a gutsy movie because it ended without redemption. If anything, the only traditionally redemptive character in the film gave in to the particular forces of evil in the narrative. You cannot leave the film feeling as if the forces of good won out (well, I suppose you could if you’re particularly fond of shouting heavy handed stuff like, “All hail Satan”). After I made this comment, Bonnie made the claim—and I have no idea about its quantitative truth although it seems right—that classic popular films were always less redemptive than contemporary films.
Holding that question for just a moment, I want to turn from Bonnie’s observation of the cultural to an observation about the personal. To do so, I turn back to Michael Clayton. While I had some major problems with the cliché way in which the “bad guys” are caught at the end of the film, the conclusion was a redemptive one, and while I generally think of myself as someone who enjoys nontraditional, nonredemptive, or ambiguous conclusions over morality narratives, I wouldn’t have this film conclude any other way. I wanted to see redemption.
However, just as Bonnie noted a difference in the generations of films and their tendencies toward redemptive conclusions, there’s a generational story here as well. The day after seeing Michael Clayton, I talked to a younger friend of mine who had seen it as well. When she told me she was disappointed by the conclusion of the film, I excitedly thought that, like me, she was going to express her frustration with the hackneyed plot device. But no, not at all; instead, she was angry that the film had ended on a redemptive note. As I listened to her, I thought, “Wow, that’s exactly how I used to talk about films only a few years ago.”
These two experiences lead me to think about two questions. First, if our popular films have taken more of an overall turn toward redemption narratives (Note: overall not exclusive), what might that suggest about “us” as a whole? Second, if in my own personal turn, I’ve taken a turn toward the redemptive, what does that say about me?
The cultural question is probably a bit too complex for me to take on here, although I’m open to the thoughts of others. As a first matter, there would probably be a great deal of argument over the “quantity” of redemption in popular films “then” and “now” (whatever those terms signify). Second, film is only one aspect of popular culture. If we take Steve Johnson’s argument in Everything Bad is Good for You seriously, film is not only “one” aspect of popular culture, but it also differs from other aspects. Johnson, argues that while almost all popular texts in other media forms (e.g., television, video games, music) have become more complex and more morally ambiguous, films have been fairly stable as a narrative form due to a number of constraints (primarily, the time limits not faced by other texts). Overall, then, my guess is that we have a fairly mixed bag when it comes to the types of narratives we tell. Certainly, television allows multiple options, from the morally redemptive to the morally repugnant, and the same seems true of most cultural narratives.
On the personal level—and while I’ll talk about myself, this is a question about everyone’s reactions—I can probe a little better. In the past, I indeed had a very difficult time enjoying any film that suggested a “happy” ending. I kicked back against any film that encouraged characters to fit into dominant or conventional patterns of happiness or lifestyle. I don’t want to present my reaction now as a Pollyannaish turn to only “happy” or redemptive endings. Certainly not. However, it is the case that not only do I now root for such an ending at times, but I also am less likely to let such an ending ruin my experience of a film, especially if it makes sense within the narrative.
My question to myself is: why the change? Is it something simple like, as I get closer to death, I prefer the idea of some form of redemption? Perhaps as I see global events, including environmental conditions, that make me uneasy, I look for narratives that make for “easy watching.” Am I simply become less and less reactionary as we tend to do as we age? Is it more sinister? That is, am I less flexible in my thinking, having less of a desire to think about film narratives in complex ways?
As with all such questions, it’s probably a mix of all of these issues and a great deal more. I suppose my greatest fear is that—looking at these stories of redemption as a personal and cultural inkblot—we are all becoming a little less willing to pick at, and think through, moral ambiguity and moral “otherness.”