Sunday, January 19, 2014

August: Osage County

For years I've been hearing my friends sing the praises of a certain Tony award-winning play that I missed during its Broadway theatrical run. I was encouraged to go see it, not just because it was such a wonderful play, but because it takes place in my home state of Oklahoma. Now the play has been made into a film with a dreamlike cast of powerhouse actors, and I finally had the chance to see it last night.

August: Osage County was a masterfully written and beautifully acted story of despair, addiction, self-delusion, alienation, competitiveness, greed, cruelty, perversion, desperation, resentment, lies, secrets, shame, anger, manipulation, betrayal, vengeance, rage, hatred, disease, decrepitude, psychological breakdown, and suicide.

A perfect Saturday night date movie.

Meryl Streep was nominated for yet another Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in this film, and I can't argue with that. She is a force of nature who never fails to impress, and in this film she delivers the goods. The rest of the cast, too, was amazing. The story was well-told, and as someone who grew up in Oklahoma I felt they got the atmosphere right. And the story's inherent bitterness was leavened with just enough skillful black humor to make it possible to swallow the whole pill.

But afterwards I found myself asking: why is it that we are so drawn to such miserable, discouraging, demoralizing stories? Why do we bestow the highest accolades on tales of such utter hopelessness and emotional violence? What is it about them that attracts us so much?

When I was younger, I felt a stronger pull towards these kinds of stories. In high school and college I went through a phase of complete obsession with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a film of comparable emotional violence and hopelessness about the human condition. It was a story that, at that time in my life -- full of youthful anger and rebellion -- resonated for me on a very deep level. It was appropriate to my life stage.

But the older I get -- or maybe it has less to do with my age than with my spiritual practice -- I find myself yearning for stories that demonstrate humans being basically decent and kind to themselves and to each other. I don't long for sugar-coated, Hollywood narratives that look away from conflict or from the darkness within us — for we cannot pretend it isn't there — but I do long for more stories that at least point towards our capacity for stepping into the light and helping others to do so. I'm increasingly turned off by stories that show people dragging everyone around them down into their personal pits of darkness and stabbing them with verbal knives and kicking them when they're down and bleeding.

Rob Brezsny's essay, "Evil Is Boring," very accurately describes "the perspective of many modern storytellers, especially the journalists and novelists and filmmakers and producers of TV dramas…"

"They devoutly believe that tales of affliction and mayhem and corruption and tragedy are inherently more interesting than tales of triumph and liberation and pleasure and ingenuity.

"Using the juggernaut of the media and entertainment industries, they relentlessly propagate this covert dogma. It's not sufficiently profound or well thought out to be called nihilism. Pop nihilism is a more accurate term. The mass audience is the victim of this inane ugliness, brainwashed by a multibillion-dollar propaganda machine that in comparison makes Himmler's vaunted soul-stealing apparatus look like a child's backyard puppet show. This is the engine of the phenomena I call the global genocide of the imagination.

"At the Beauty and Truth Lab, we believe that stories about the rot are not inherently more captivating than stories about the splendor. On the contrary, given how predictable and ubiquitous they are, stories about the rot are actually quite dull. Obsessing on evil is boring. Rousing fear is a hackneyed shtick. Wallowing in despair is a bad habit. Indulging in cynicism is akin to committing a copycat crime.

"Most modern storytellers go even further in their devotion to the rot, implying that breakdown is not only more interesting but far more common than breakthrough, that painful twists outnumber vigorous transformations by a wide margin." — Rob Brezsny

The thing is, I've watched movies about vampires and demonic possession that demonstrated more interest in basic goodness and human decency than August: Osage County. And I'm not saying that makes it a bad film, because it isn't. It's extraordinarily well-crafted and emotionally compelling, and it will probably win at least one Academy Award.

But I guess, like Brezsny, I'm growing bored with narratives that express what he calls a "devotion to the rot" — stories that do nothing but revel in the darkest shadow material and emotional violence that they can possibly dig up (unless, like 12 Years a Slave, they are historical narratives, which have a pedagogic purpose).

I walked away from August: Osage County thinking how important the shadow is in the human psyche, and how we ignore it at our peril — but for God's sake, it's not the sum total of who we are.


jps said...

That's a very insightful analysis. I took my wife to see it three weeks ago, and couldn't sit through it. My feeling was that it was overwhelmingly pointless - which was a shame, because there was a lot of talent involved in making it. But, I thought, why make it? There are a small number of movies I regret seeing, and that was one of them.

Linden Morris said...

Oh No! Pointless? Really? I walked away from that movie feeling very much reflected in the content. I cant be the only person who comes from that level of dysfunction! How great was it to see that my story, and I suspect a few other peoplesvwas being told. Heck, I had the opportunity to turn my experiences in my own life inside out by watching that movie; to get inside, by watching from the outside. There is SO SO much to be gained from a movie like this. But I guess you have to be open or maybe seeking. It was an awesome movie, full of depth. Pointed!

Dennis Hunter said...

Thank you for your comments. It's quite interesting to see how a film with such strong content polarizes people in their opinions and reactions. There are, of course, no right answers. It's very individual, and it all depends on the mind that you bring into the viewing.