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Volume 13, Issue 2: Ex Imagibus

Submerged Gospels

Erin Brockovich. Dir. Steven Soderbergh. Universal Pictures, 2000.
Remember the Titans. Dir. Boaz Yakin. Walt Disney Pictures, 2000.
Chocolat. Dir. Lasse Hallstrom. Miramax, 2000.
All the Pretty Horses. Dir. Billy Bob Thornton. Miramax, 2000.

Reviewed by Douglas Jones

Whenever films "based on a true story" show up, complaints almost immediately surface about factual distortions. The film Erin Brockovich provoked the same reaction. "The movie is mostly lies," said one of the real-life plaintiffs. But these sorts of complaints miss the art at issue. It is like objecting that Hamlet didnít see a ghost or that Aeneas didnít break Didoís heart. At their deepest concern, stories are always mytho-poetic expressions of the deepest ways we cut up reality into types of people, conflicts, and resolutions. Documentaries are about facts; films are about naming, about reflecting and shaping reality through types.

Traditional films pit the plain types of good and bad against each other. Over the past two decades, Nietzscheís distinction between Apollo/Dionysus or rational vs. instinctive, order vs. disorder, guard vs. rebel, uncreative vs. creative, soulless vs. soulful has become more prominent, if not beaten to death. Bad people arenít evil, theyíre just boring. Rebels are good because theyíre instinctive and creative. This aesthetic shift has its profound side (largely because Nietzsche stole biblical categories) and can be very powerful, but in the wrong hands itís just propaganda.
Erin Brockovich is clearly a Dionysian whirlwind who, like ancient worshipers of Dionysus, dressed to provoke, neglected their families, violated boundaries, and ran on pure instinct. She is supposed to be alive while everyone else is narrow, orderly, tired, and ugly; she alone is a source of life amid death. The film presents these Nietzschean types very heavy-handedly in religious tract fashion.
Erin realizes that the health of a neighborhood has been crushed by corporate pollution. Other films may have teased out a solution to such horror by having the characters mature and overcome the hardship in personal terms. The tantalizing lure of Erin is the huge lotto payoff. Happiness comes from cash and punishment. The clash between Apollo and Erin is a fall that can only be resolved by legal coercion, a gospel of politics and resentment at base.
Remember the Titans also follows the clash of Apollo and Dionysus. This time Apollo is flatly played by whites who are narrow, bigoted, boring, and uncreative. Black football players are Dionysus, bringing instinct, creativity, and soul to a lifeless high school. The stodgy, bureaucratic whites slowly learn what it is to live. Like Erin Brockovich, this film finds its peace in political coercion as well. The film opens with the conflicts arising from forced busing in Virginia in the early seventies. Busing is supposed to lead to racial reconciliation. This same approach is used by coach to bring harmony to his new football team. Bigoted people are forced to live and play together to produce harmony. In other words, physical coercion kills sin. Coercion changes hearts, not the work of the Spirit. The assumption is not only legalistic and Pelagian, itís the same assumption that drives fascist visions. In short, the ugly irony of this film is that it uses the vision of Mussolini and Hitler to fight racism. Somethingís amiss here, quite apart from the overload of sports cliches.
Chocolat is yet another clear Apollo/Dionysian story with a much stronger fairy-tale feel. The Apolline characters here are boring, hypocritical, uncreative Roman Catholics of a gray French town. The Dionysian source of life and creativity this time is the chocolatier woman (and daughter) who blows into town as a principle of chaos and magic and chocolate. On the surface, this is just more pagan propaganda, but the film makes some interesting links to a healthy Christianity.
Instead of a gospel of brute coercion, this story reveals a more biblical gospel of seduction. The mythical chocolate takes on the properties of the Holy Spirit, bringing goodness and beauty to the soulless. At one point, the Apolline mayor puts the chocolatier in the same category as the Huguenots—a curious insertion, given that most moviegoers wonít know who Huguenots are. And at the end, the weak priest explicitly defends the seduction of chocolate-culture by an inference from Christís Incarnation. Even the chocolatier and her pirate lover abandon their lives of Dionysian chaos to lead stable, middle-class lives in the village. Something very interesting is going on here. At the very least, if we read the chocolatier as a "Huguenot," then we have a wonderful image of Christian missions as seduction by beauty and goodness.
In contrast to redemptions by political coercion or delicious seduction, All the Pretty Horses gives us old-fashioned regeneration. Itís about two young cowboys in search of the nostalgic West. This film doesnít fall into Nietzschean categories, though it still contains some intriguing characters. It begins with skepticism and ends with belief. If Christians had made this film, it might sadly be called Christian propaganda. In the end, the sort of romantic fornication glorified in other films is here confessed explicitly as pure arrogance. Quite uncharacteristically of Hollywood, this film is not designed for the emotional depth of ten-year-old boys. Thatís why it received plenty of poor reviews.1

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