On Cowardly Lying

Yesterday at brunch, as my (most congenial) companions and I were nearing the end of our meal, I was disturbed by something taking place across from us. We were seated on a covered, outdoor patio at long tables with benches, rather than chairs.  A couple in their mid-20’s arrived midway through our meal, and sat on the other side of the patio from us. He was wearing a polo shirt and shorts; she was wearing a fitted, diaphanous skirt, whose hem touched the floor.

At one point I overheard her comment to him that she wanted to switch the bench she was sitting on for another. She then got up, dragged the bench she had been sitting on across the patio, and dragged another bench back to their table. Her skirt being less than ideal for performing manual labor, and the benches being rather heavy, this task was performed in a somewhat awkward, ungainly manner.

What I found particularly disturbing about this incident was the fact that while all of this was going on, her hale and hearty, sporty boyfriend continued to eat his appetizer, and did not make a move or even offer to assist her. Rather, he left her to do all of the work herself, despite the fact that he was in a far better position to lend a hand moving furniture about, given what she was wearing, and that the bench she wanted was one directly across from him.  One was tempted to comment to her, upon leaving the restaurant, “You know, this fellow is probably not someone you want to continue seeing.”

Now I admit, it’s entirely possible that the boyfriend did nothing because, based on previous experience, she may have informed him that she does not like men to do things for her, such as open a door or pull out a chair – a mindset which has its own set of problems. However I rather suspect, from what I observed, that he was quite the dominant person in the relationship. He was simply more interested in eating his boudin balls, than in attending to her needs.

Does this mean that I am judging? You bet I am. For as it happens, I’m not only judging this couple – I’m also judging myself.

When I saw that she was struggling, why didn’t *I* get up and assist her? Why didn’t I intervene, even at the risk of making him seem like the fool which he so clearly was? Couldn’t I have even voiced, “Would you like a hand?”

The answer is, sadly, that we have all embraced cowardice as the social norm, in our uncivilized culture. We roar and wail in our various forms of media about all sorts of perceived injustices and slights. Nevertheless, when we come face-to-face with a situation in which a wrong is taking place, chances are fairly good that we will do nothing. We lie to ourselves, and think that we are brave, because we post a comment that takes a stand on an issue, when the fact is that in the crunch, most of us back away. 

You’ve probably read or heard recent reports about a young man who was stabbed to death on the DC Metro a few weeks ago in broad daylight, on a train full of passengers, only one of whom even dared to say anything to his attacker. The commentariat’s outrage machine, full of armchair quarterbacks as it always is, exploded with nonsense along the lines of, “I would have done x, had I been there.” The truth is, upon finding themselves in a similar situation, most would have done exactly the same thing as the other passengers on the train: embraced their inner coward, sat there quietly, and done nothing.

I do not suggest that all of us need to jump into a knife fight, the next time we come across one in our travels. However I do argue that we need to stop lying to ourselves and recover our sense of courage, if we are also to recover our culture. There is little real bravery in hitting a “like” button, particularly if you never take any action in real life.

Sometimes, yes, it is wiser to keep our mouth shut, and our opinions to ourselves. It would be foolish to think we ought to do so ALL the time. Otherwise, we train ourselves and others to believe that intervention is always wrong, unless the circumstances are such that we will be quite safe, whether in real life, or behind an electronic screen.

We do not need any kind of bizarre, social vigilantism, in which we dash about spreading our jackets over mud puddles for perfect strangers or breaking up fights between drunken louts we see sprawling about in an alleyway. Yet we could make the effort to be a little bit braver, a little bit more conscious of those around us, particularly those in need of assistance. For while it is true that we must “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” it is also true that, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto Me.” 

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Review: “Skyfall”

Over Thanksgiving weekend during his long sojourn back home in the country, The Courtier finally managed to see “Skyfall”, the latest offering from the James Bond franchise.  There are many good things about this film, which other reviewers have discussed in their posts and which I will not attempt to repeat here.  However I want to draw the reader’s attention to one aspect of why the film is so good, and it has to do with the classic plot device of the man on the run, who decides to make a last stand.

It is hard to believe that 5o years have now passed since Mr. Bond first sauntered onto the big screen in “Dr. No” back in 1962.  Since that time there have been a number of terrific films (“From Russia with Love” being my favorite), some simply enjoyable,  and some real turkeys in the franchise.  Increasingly the relative merit of the film as a piece of cinema seems to have little or nothing to do with its box office.  This tells us something about how the world has changed since the days of Sean Connery and Cubby Broccoli.

For example, I saw the last Pierce Brosnan outing as Bond, “Die Another Day”, with a good friend from England.  He had flown over from London to visit here in Washington for a long weekend, and was looking forward to seeing the movie.  He had not only read all of the original Ian Fleming novels, but was a definite Bond aficionado, interested in places and things associated with both Fleming and his famous creation.

When we left the theatre after seeing the film, neither of us could say much, at first.  I was appalled by many things.  The weird face-transplant aspect of the story confused me no end, for example.  Or there was the rather obvious and ham-fisted double entendres in almost every scene involving the various Bond girls,  rather than being carefully sprinkled here and there for a laugh to break the tension, like in a good detective film.

Then my friend broke the silence and said, “I think that’s one of the most awful Bond films I’ve ever seen,” and it made me realize I was not just being precious about it.   Yet despite the painfully apparent awfulness of the film, it was financially the most successful of all of the Brosnan turns as Bond, raking in well over $400 million at the box office.  So why is this case?  Do people no longer care for good stories?

Increasingly we have seen that films which use a great deal of special effects to the point of not even really attempting to suspend our disbelief make huge profits for the studios. There is a hunger for these types of films internationally, because dialogue and plot matter less than big explosions or throwing human beings, albeit virtually, into some sort of grist mill.  It is much easier to sell an action film to a non-English-speaking audience than it is to sell one in which acting and dialogue matter more than seeing people running about shooting things.

This is not to disparage these types of adventures at all, of course, for we enjoy these neo-mythological stories as much as our ancestors did the original versions, seated around a campfire or a hearth hearing tales of people like Achilles or Gilgamesh.  Yet there is a sameness to many of them now, which I find rather tiresome. For example, the thematic villain at present seems largely to come from the nihilist tradition, to the point where it is overdone. I could not help but feel, for example, that Javier Bardem – whom I do not care for as an actor anyway – was trying to channel his inner Heath Ledger in “Skyfall”.

Yet despite certain faults what “Skyfall” does do very well is to give a rather unexpectedly splendid nod to the origins of this particular type of film genre, which go back to earlier novelists like John Buchan and G.K. Chesterton, writing about the good man on the run.  When the film heads to Scotland, and we get a lot of the Bond back story for the first time on film, the director is taking a risk, as my youngest brother (a filmmaker himself and a huge Bond fan) pointed out.  Yet this part of the film works because we are drawn into the idea of the man under siege from evil in his own home: he knows what is coming, and he makes his preparations to take his stand against it.

Bizarre as this analogy may seem this is why, even these many years later, we can still find enthralling what might otherwise be just another 90’s slapstick comedy, “Home Alone”.  There is some flicker of James Bond, or Richard Hannay, or Gabriel Syme in the character of Kevin McCallister.  The boy knows his home is about to come under attack, and that he cannot hope for reinforcements.  He decides to take a stand to defend himself, and after a fashion his family, even though they have abandoned him – not unlike Bond who, at about the same age, is in effect “abandoned” by his parents when they are killed.

While “Home Alone” and “Skyfall” are obviously quite different films, that moment when a man decides to stop running and take a stand transcends genre, to touch on the universal virtues of courage and heroism.  When so many action-adventure films have become enamored of a lumbering amount of noise and spectacle over telling a good story, they forget the point of having a hero to begin with, whether his powers are ordinary or enhanced in some way.  The hero knows who he is, rather than whinging about his fate.  He reaches a crossroads where he decides, “I’m taking stand, here and now,” for the people he cares about.

It is refreshing to see a Bond film where one is encouraged to think and reflect, rather than simply ogle beautiful women, exotic locations, and cool cars.  All of these things are in “Skyfall” of course, for it would not be a Bond film without them. The Bond films are often categorized as little more than escapist films for the male psyche, but in the good ones, such as this, there is more to them than that.

The point of telling these kinds of heroic stories is in fact to encourage us men to be heroic.  What so many modern action films get wrong is that they focus on the details, rather than on the man himself.  The trappings of the hero, whether they are a Walther PPK and a shaken vodka martini, a Batmobile and a hooded mask, or a red cape and blue tights, are all just iconography, just as a medieval knight had his coat of arms painted on his shield to distinguish him from the other men in the fight.  No matter how deadly the weapons or shiny the armor however, said trappings do not make the hero, for heroism has to come from within.  It is why in “Skyfall” when Bond loses one of his iconic props that our masculine hearts wince at the sight, but we cheer the hero as he keeps on going.

The vast majority of us will never be faced with a full-out assault by an enemy, armed to the teeth and bent on our destruction.  Yet we are all tested in life with difficult, frightening situations, where there seems to be no hope of success, and from which we would like to run away.  In finding the courage to face these fears, and do what needs to be done, we become better men as a result.  In the end, that is what the action-adventure genre is supposed to do for us, and it is what this latest addition to the ongoing story of James Bond does very well indeed.

James Bond (Daniel Craig) brooding over London in “Skyfall”