In this episode, Johnnymelodica takes a look at infamous portrayals of healthcare professionals in film: Alec Baldwin’s ‘I am God’ speech as Dr. Jed Hill from Malice (1993), and Laurence Olivier’s ‘Is it safe?’ speech as Nazi expatriate Dr. Christian Szell in Marathon Man (1976). Next, he combs the silky-smooth coat of 1950s sitcom Mister Ed, a show centered around the eponymous talking horse, for anthropomorphic tropes and tendencies in popular media. After a brief bout of ‘Name that Quote’s Author: Nietzsche or Oscar Wilde?’ and a detour through Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he ends with a discussion of the anti-industrialism and aristocratic pastoral nostalgia of Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
What is the proper relationship between the individual and the state? What does it mean to be loyal, and with whom should our fundamental loyalty lie- with lover or friend, family or mentor, ancestral mandate or status quo? How does one sort one’s priorities, and can they be unified? What can one hope for, and what can one retain, under the totalitarian boot?
These are just a few of the questions grappled with in the 1959 epic Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston. Heston plays Judah Ben-Hur, a provincial aristocrat-prince on a journey that will turn out to be (we moderns might say) personal, political, and indeed spiritual, against the backdrop of first century Roman-dominated Judea and the deeds of a certain prophet.
Though the setting is remote in both time and place, Ben-Hur is the Angry Young Man, the Rebel Without a Cause- he is a force unto himself, young, male, and physically imposing, at odds with almost everyone he meets (at first) and a deep critic of the establishment. The film’s screenwriters (of whom prominent author Gore Vidal is one) are clearly still working out one of the dominant preoccupations of the fifties: how to reconcile youthful rebelliousness, and indeed the very concept of an individual will, with a monolithic state that demands (and practically ensures) an all-encompassing conformity of not only deed but also thought (America, or in this case Rome).
Early in the narrative, we are presented with two alternatives in the form of Judah himself and a Roman citizen he saved as a boy: Messala. Unlike his provincial and individualistic savior, the young Roman is ruthlessly ambitious, and throws a boundless energy towards his own advancement and the sadistic enjoyment of a personal power that the government affords a select few. Messala returns, a newly minted tribune, to rule Judea and says in no uncertain terms that he will accept nothing but his old friend’s total loyalty and assistance with the task of further subjugating the province. By refusing to betray his people, Judah seals his and his family’s fate as captives and slaves, and by way of trumped-up charges, is sent off to row, chained to an oar in the galleys.
During a fateful shipwreck, Ben-Hur ends up saving yet another life, this time that of the relatively noble Roman consul Quintus Arrius. Arrius, the sonless paterfamilias, adopts Ben-Hur and names him Quintus Arrius the Younger. The gaining of a second name further fragments Judah’s loyalty and identity, and we are treated to more than a few shots of the brilliant Heston’s portrayal of agonized, soundless internal conflict. He truly loves his new, Roman father, but still has business back east. It may be of note that Judah’s real father is never mentioned or seen, and his entire family- mother, sister, and romantic interest Esther- is female. So in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur is an authority without equal, sole protector and alpha male. This role will deepen when Ben-Hur later returns to defeat and mortally wound Messala in a chariot race and is called by Pontius Pilate “their [his people’s] one true god- for the moment.” Perhaps this all goes to his head.
What happy outcome is possible for one who opposes Rome, or any equivalent entity? Judah soon removes the ring of his father Quintus Arrius, and thereby renounces the protection of his mentor.
The ever-pragmatic Pontius Pilate offers hothead Ben-Hur this line of wisdom: “Perfect freedom has no existence. A grown man knows the world he lives in. And for the present, the world is Rome. Young Arrius, I am sure, will choose it.” Here it is: that acceptance of the things as they fall, that old, pre-scientific determinism that could be called a faith in fate, that goes back to the Stoics. Judah has the choice of a prosperous life as an adopted Roman, but he throws it away, still haunted by that mirage of his forefathers: an independent state for his people.
Ben-Hur, despite victory against Messala and numerous improbable escapes from death and meaningless servitude, would have gone on grinding his unbreakable will against Rome till he was nought but dust. As the dying Messala croaks, “The race… the race is not over. It goes on, Judah. It goes on.” With his mother and sister crippled by leprosy after spending years in a Roman dungeon, Ben-Hur can find no outlet large enough for his vengeance and hatred, and is unable to enjoy his love for Esther.
As we, the mid-century American audience are shown, rebellion blocks the individual from the comforts and pleasures of conformity, and poisons his relationships with other members of the tribe. It is only after he shrugs off his juvenile antics, that the young man can get down to the agreeable business of producing offspring.
Sooner or later, our protagonist would have met a bloody end, were it not for the interventions of a certain proselytizing rabbi. A man we can only conclude (from his luscious golden locks and pristine white robe) is Jesus of Nazareth, gave Ben-Hur water while he was trudging, chained and enslaved, across the desert. Later, when Ben-Hur is at his true crisis of identity, he finds redemption in giving the convicted Jesus a sip of water- in returning the favor. Here we have the solution: not violent revolt to precipitate political change, but simple reciprocity at the individual level- the Golden Rule. After watching the prophet crucified, Judah returns to find Esther waiting for him, and his sister and mother cured of leprosy.
The film ends with Judah returning home, embracing his family, and saying the words: “And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand.” His fiery passion has been quenched with love; he has made the transition from charismatic rebel leader to placid Christian. Thus, we are shown the route by which one can reconcile oneself to odious and arbitrary earthly powers: disregard all public ambitions and national concerns, and focus on the domestic unit. Project all hopes onto a kingdom that is not of this world, and stay in one’s house, with one’s family, where one belongs- and be thankful Rome has allowed one even that. Nietzsche would be proud.
I have no doubt that, over the past forty years, a lot of ink has been spilled on account of Joseph Losey’s The Servant, a 1963 film adaptation of Robin Maugham’s (a nephew of W. Somerset’s) novelette. And why not? It’s a perfect literal telling of Nietzsche’s myth of the inversion of master and slave morality, the odd phenomenon that occurs when a master gives up all his powers and responsibilities to his slave for the sake of convenience, and somehow (go figure) loses his authority in the process. Something akin to this must have been what our patron saint B. Franklin was afraid of, when he warned (under the guise of Poor Richard): “Those who would give up freedom for security deserve neither.”
It’s a tale that every society fat enough to support an idle aristocracy must come to terms with, and the Brits, with their peerage that has managed to prolong its existence through all the turbulences and revolutions of the past four centuries only by relegating itself to the status of a quaint tradition, the knickknacks on the nation’s cultural shelves, obviously take the cake in this category. To conjure the right image here, just think of the BBC show, Jeeves and Wooster. Whose name comes first in the title? The personal valet’s, the servant Jeeves’, of course. High-born Wooster is more of a pretext than a character, an idle parasite cowed by his aunt, the holder of his trust fund, an animate, awkward, unpolished plot device who gets himself into jams precisely so Jeeves can show off his finesse, masterful grasp of British social convention, and deep nobility of character. It’s almost inevitable that the slaves (and the future eye of history) will in the end think more highly of themselves than of their masters. Not to steal from Nietzsche again, but just think of the Christians and the Romans.
So why am I writing this, if all this territory has been covered already, and brilliantly, by philosophers, historical commentators, and literary critics? Well, because I am interested not in the first and last iconic scenes of this movie, but the ambiguous middle. I want to know precisely how and when the aristocratic Tony, with his nonchalant after-dinner talk of building cities and toying with whole populations, loses his power to his cunning manservant Hugo Barrett. In what scene did this happen, on what look, on what turn of phrase did tall, blonde Tony seal his future fate—cowering like a dog on the floor while Hugo has his way with both the women Tony loves, in Tony’s house and bed, wearing Tony’s smoking jacket, and drinking Tony’s liquor?
It’s easy to say that this process is inevitable, a slippery-slope eventuality—but let’s nail this down. Let’s be scientific here. Let’s establish some causal relationships, as far as that can be done with a piece of fiction.
Hugo’s first assertion of will over his lord Tony is indirect, and not physical, but artistic. Tony has already given over to Hugo the task of decorating the new house, and when Tony’s fiancée Susan comes over with a vase of flowers, Hugo almost immediately removes them. Even after Susan retrieves them and voices her dislike of the manservant to Tony, Tony does nothing. I suspect he’s caught in a bit of a power struggle here, and views Susan’s attack on his manservant as an attack on himself. Wouldn’t want to get henpecked, right? Well, as Tony will see, better to be henpecked than slave-pecked. After Susan leaves, Hugo throws out the flowers, commenting to Tony, “Not very practical, they aren’t, sir.” So here we see the lower taste, practicality, overcoming the higher, more refined taste of superfluous intricacy. From here on, it’s only downhill. Once Tony cedes control of interior decoration to Hugo, he basically seals his own fate as a dog.
A few scenes later, young Tony gets a glimpse of his future, when he visits his fiancée Susan’s aristocratic parents at their country manor. There’s a great shot of the Sir and Lady posed before classical arches, indoor faux roman columns, and statues of classical figures, the man with a cane, the woman reclining on a couch, dressed to a T, devoid of the spark of life, more like statues themselves. They’ve become relics, and the distinction between owner and owned has fallen apart. They’re just part of the aesthetic, their only purpose to display a long-dead way of life to the onlookers of their social circle. Their country manor is more like a museum diorama than a home.
And there you have it, folks. Tony’s downfall was, initially, artistic. Cede your aesthetics to your lessers, and they will rule you. When does Tony finally realize his plight? In the last scene of the movie, when he holds a crystal ball up to his eyes, and sees, through this convex lens, his house inverted, the peasant partygoers lounging, upside-down, on his antique, heirloom furniture.
So the artistic eye is everything. Just ask the Romans, with their fondness for imported Greek architecture, philosophy, and slave tutors for their children; as the saying goes: “First the Romans conquered the Greeks, and then the Greeks conquered the Romans.”
What would you do if your wife was assaulted and raped? If you’re Nicholas Cage, you’d buy two candy bars.
In Seeking Justice, Nicholas Cage plays Will Gerard, a regular guy driven, like so many of Cage’s characters, to the edge by extraordinary circumstances—driven to do things he never would have thought himself capable of, driven to employ skills he never would have guessed he possesed. In short, to transcend the commonplace. To be transformed by an oftentimes cruel world, and in turn to transform it, to bend fortune to his own will. Did I just compare Nicholas Cage to Nietzsche’s Ubermensch? Yes, I did.
As the high school teacher sits in a New Orleans hospital lounge, waiting for his battered wife to regain consciousness, a curiously Bostonian, Wahlberg-esque fellow approaches him. Sympathizes. Introduces himself as Simon. Offers to “take care” of his wife’s attacker. What must Gerard do to signal his approval? Saunter over to the lounge’s vending machine and buy two ‘Forever Bars.’ What would Gerard owe this Simon, were the deed done? Eh, a ‘favor.’ What does Will do? What any dazed, emotionally traumatized, and enraged husband would do. He ‘goes ahead,’ as Bill Lumbergh would say, and drops some change for a little snack.
And so the deed is indeed done. But that’s not all, folks! Simon’s group, like any vigilante conspiracy, is given to excesses, and Will Gerard, the english prof and avid chess player from New Orleans has bit off more than he can chew. And I’m not talking about those Forever Bars.
“The hungry rabbit jumps,” goes the shadowy group’s catchphrase (for every secret society needs a cool thing to say; it’s like a handshake!). Meet another member of the Brotherhood? “The hungry rabbit jumps.” Eliminated a target? “The hungry rabbit jumps.” Mutate into a long-eared rodent a la Donnie Darko, become ravenous and leap up onto the kitchen table to reach some truffles? You guessed it: “The hungry rabbit jumps.” The whole time I’m sitting there going, “Put the bunneh in the box. Why didn’t you just put the bunneh in the box?” What is it with Nicholas Cage and these furry little creatures?
New Orleans works wonders for any film with a dark, criminal theme, and Seeking Justice is no exception. It’s no wonder why Nicholas Cage, that pioneer of the bizarre, seems to favor this setting (see “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”). The post-Katrina city is a place of sharp juxtaposition, of wanton, costumed Creole excess crowded up against shopping-cart-pushing destitution, of posh hotels with Versailles-style french architecture a few blocks away from shantytowns. I like to think of it as a place where our dreams collide with our nightmares, where things both sacred and profane can occur. Like so many places recovering from devastation, New Orleans has an aura of unreality about it, of being outside of time, of being beyond any common measure of health or normality. And what could be more surreal than wandering through this mad place, pursued by criminals and cops alike for a crime you didn’t commit? Ask Will Gerard, he knows.
The suspension bridge-tense plot takes Gerard from the jazz-echoing streets of the French Quarter to the obscure bayous of rural Louisiana, from the Superdome to a still-vacant mall replete with creepy mannequins, their plastic stares paranoid and accusatory in the lonely darkness, on a desperate quest for truth and redemption.
Will the unfortunate English wonk find what he’s looking for, let alone a fairytale ending with his stunning and (and stunningly accurate with a pistol) wife? If you like vigilantes, candy, unintentionally humorous deaths, gun rights, or Nicholas Cage’s oddly sincere and utterly unique acting style (which he calls “Noveau Shamanic;” I do not jest—google it), then take the journey to find out. I give Seeking Justice four out of five melodicas, because I’m a hungry rabbit for more Cage. Put me back in the Cage. I could go on, but you get the idea.