I stayed up very late Tuesday Night when I realized that Chinatown was playing on TCM. I’d seen it at least twice before, and for years, it’s held up in my mind as as great and devastating a movie as has ever been made. To be sure, the movie’s still a virtuoso miracle of craftsmanship, plotting, pacing, acting, and relevance. In our era of The Great Recession, few movies have more to teach us about the evil which makes our world a worse place to live. But as it is with Rosemary’s Baby before it, and The Pianist afterwards, Roman Polanski shows a mastery of locking you into a plot, and slumping you further and further into your seat as you feel claustrophobically trapped by the disgust of the situation he exposes. He doesn’t entertain you, he brutalizes you - he puts your sensations on edge and lets you feel every raw nerve in your body. This is not a movie to be experienced lightly; if you watch it too often, you could go mad.
The Wednesday before, I watched Lincoln. I saw it last year, and while I liked it, the movie seemed trapped in its own staginess. It seemed far too dialogue heavy and far too enamored of its subject matter to truly branch out into real vibrancy. But during this viewing, tears welled up in my eyes five separate times. It is not a movie with anything approaching Chinatown’s perfection, but it does make you feel hope. Like Chinatown, it has no illusions about the evil which men do, but it does offer us the possibility that by engaging in acts which resemble evil without yielding evil’s most potent temptations, evil can be surmounted and virtue win out. Is it a more truthful portrayal of humanity than Chinatown? I have no idea, and I’m inclined to believe that humanity usually acts closer to the manner which Chinatown portrays. But even if Lincoln is based on a lie, then it’s based on the lie which we all need to believe if we’re to keep on plugging away at life.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Lincoln as an earnest, inspirational movie which should provoke us all to greater action because of its message. But that’s much too easy a write-off for a movie which is so cynical about the political process it nevertheless espouses. In this movie, Abraham Lincoln is so powerfully charismatic because he is very much a cynical, wheeler-dealer politician who always puts his Machiavellian machinations at the service of higher ideals. The hope which Lincoln offers is that moral compromise need not automatically mean the triumph of corruption. In our lifetimes, we will all make hundreds of thousands of moral compromises, and we all need to believe that we can still be good people who retain our humanity in spite of often acting badly. The only alternative is to believe that fanaticism is our only weapon to triumph over evil, and once we believe in fanaticism we allow ourselves far greater acts of evil in good’s name.
The compromised, crooked timber of humanity is what shines through in Lincoln. Like all of us, this hero is deeply flawed, but it’s by using his flaws that he makes the world better. Perhaps what Lincoln shows us is not a true glimpse of humanity, but if the straight-and-narrow pessimism of Chinatown is humanity’s accurate portrayal, then what is served by our knowing it?
Just as it does with people, the humanity of artworks shines through. Some people give back, and you feel better, more consoled, more supported, more uplifted in their presence than you would if they weren’t there. But some people are airless, they sap you of energy, they make you less your best self in your presence, and you hate yourself a little more by the time you leave them. Just as with people, without that human quality, the work in question is in some sense spoiled and corrupted - less great, perhaps far less, than it would otherwise be. Too much compassion and the work seems overly full of shit, too much contempt and the work feels abusive. It is in that middle ground between compassion and contempt in which a peaceful person exists. If human nature is ever to be better than that of Noah Cross’s, then we need more things - people, art, religions, philosophies, sciences, tools, moral maps - to show us the way.