Hermits Rock

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This weekend we rented both Good night, and good luck. and Syriana, since we didn’t see either in the theaters. Good night is a well-acted film, a lot like ER in the CBS newsroom, when ER was good and the CBS newscast was little more than a newspaper in front of cameras. I was struck by the appeals to truth Edward R. Murrow made on camera. With careful attention, Murrow explained exactly what it was his viewers were seeing on screen: “These are Senator McCarthy’s own words, unaltered,” he would say. More compelling than that were his appeals to the written word: “Because we believe what we report is important, we will read the following from a script,” he said. In other words, Murrow assert a journalistic mistrust of extemporaneous speech. To appeal to what’s written is to appeal to a greater truth than to memory or belief or extemporaneity. It’s an archaic sentiment even in 1953, and I wonder if it appears there because of the peculiar nature of journalism. Neither politics, which thrives on extemporaneous speech, nor academia, which stands upon the article and the monograph, journalism is at root instant writing, quick judgment about current events. Murrow was a pioneer of broadcast journalism who appears to have recognized that new media required a reassertion of journalistic authority; he appealed to the printed word to make that assertion work.

Syriana is an interesting, convoluted mess that resonates with Gn&gl toward the end, when one of the primary conspirators, a high-powered Washington, D.C. lawyer, quips, “In this town, you’re innocent until investigated.” The plot is four-headed: 1) a major American oil company, Connex, wants to merge with another company, so some characters do what they can in the halls of Congress and the halls of business to see that it happens. (Tim Blake Nelson gets hung out to dry). 2) An Arab emirate’s future is pulled between sweet short-term oil profits from the Americans, endorsed by the emir and his younger prince, at the expense of the emirate’s populace; and long-term investment in the emirate’s citizens thanks to a different oil contract from the Chinese and the older prince’s dream of Westernization. (The older prince, whose wife wears pants, is hung out to dry.) 3) Two lackeys, one a CIA operative played by George Clooney, and the second a poor boy, who worked in the oil fields but was pushed out of a job by the oil companies’ merger, thread their ways on the outskirts of Plots 1 and 2. Clooney is at the tail end of a long career of intrigue; the boy is at the beginning of a short one, since he gets drawn in to a fundamentalist sect by the promise of lamb skewers. (Both get hung out to dry.) 4) Matt Damon plays a financial analyst in Switzerland, a young father whose son is electrocuted by the Emir of Plot 2. He meets Older Prince and becomes a believer but in the process loses his family; then, when Older Prince (with George Clooney) is blown up by the Americans (presumably because of a promise to Younger Prince) he stumbles away into the desert, and eventually makes his way home to reunite with his wife and last remaining son. It’s enough to say that the movie struggles to keep it all together, but that George Clooney still manages to look sexy with an extra 30 pounds and after having had all of his fingernails ripped off. The plot’s machinations, which each have money as their root cause, are both incredible and strangely unsettling because they’re not outside the realm of credibility.

Matt Damon’s story appears to be a favorite crutch of Stephen Gaghan’s. As in Traffic, Syriana is at end the story of a family almost destroyed by a father’s career ambitions and/or external circumstances. But, by the story’s end said family is reconstituted wiser, but whole. It’s a literary throwback to sentimentalism in both cases: the American family represents the one social structure that could, conceivably, be corrupted, but in the end is incorruptible because it is the real symbol of (American) life. There is no end to this narrative: it has been entrenched in American fiction for nearly two centuries, in spite of efforts by the likes of our better writers to turn our concerns elsewhere. (Toni Morrison, for example, has spent much of her career avoiding it, seeking other social units by which to measure American life—the town, for example, in Paradise, or extended families, as in The Bluest Eye. She has also met the symbol face on and disrupted it, as in Beloved.) The unified family was cliche long before Gaghan began writing and directing, and in his hands it still is, a plot device meant to supply a sense of ultimate security that, in fact, is a turning away, an absenting oneself from the conflicts and concerns raised by every other part of the movie. It’s the narrative equivalent of Willy Loman’s belief in Biff. If Gaghan’s smart, he’ll write the nuclear family out of his next screenplay, for no better and no worse reason than to not give himself the excuse to end with that iconic image of families hugging. But I’m not holding my breath it’ll happen.



I am really intrigued by your comment on the history of the sentimental literary notion of the American family as incorruptible…more thoughts on this? It seems so completely out of whack with what our work, government, and all other policies actually accommodate and support. Has that notion always been purely one of escape & desire, or did it begin as rooted in reality?

I’d say primarily escape and desire, and I’d add that it’s also been a way of asserting political positions by those (and on behalf of those) who have no or have limited political positions to assert.

In respect to that last bit about politics, in the 1990s a lot of Americanists studied sentimental fiction of the mid 19th century and developed that thesis. The family as symbol of American unity was used especially by bourgeois white women writers and editors (of whom there were lots). If you’ve got JSTOR access, check out Amy Kaplan’s article, “Manifest Domesticity,” which situates the domestic sphere as an extension of empire. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is also a good marker, in that it realizes the breakup of family is the trademarked nightmare of abolitionists—it is one of the greatest sins perpetrated upon slaves. William Wells Brown, in his fiction and autobiographies, used the narrative similarly. I think in a broader literary history this 19th century sentimentality (to which Gaghan’s is akin) is different from that of the late 18th century. Although it shares some of the same narrative features (breakup of family by way of waywardness and/or seduction; desire to hold it all together) it’s much more tied to outside statements than otherwise.

I’ll think further on it and try to come up with a few other examples and nuances—some of which K can probably supply, too, if she is willing to indulge us. By “out of whack with what our work, government, and all other policies actually accommodate and support” do you mean stuff like family leave, overburdened workweeks, taxes, and such? Why it is that we live up to our symbolic mythologies is a good question… Perhaps it’s because this sentimental family narrative has historically been a feminized story?