Thursday, March 08, 2018

Two Views of Revolutionary Road

I first watched Revolutionary Road (Sam Mendes, 2008) soon after it came out.  I watched it again yesterday.

It was quite amazing to me how a mere ten years had made me see the film in a completely new light.

I remember being quite impressed by the film in 2008, and recommending it to family and friends.  It was the portrait of a suburban couple who dared not take a risk for happiness, and it ends in disaster.  It resonated with my own thoughts on society.  The film's narrative confirmed my own viewpoint: that most people live lives of "quiet desperation" (cf Walden Pond, Thoreau), that socialized living was full of hypocrisy and in-authenticity, and most people were too scared of realizing their full potential.  Also, that people gave excuses for not living the life they wished for, because they were probably too scared (or so I thought), and they were loath to give up the comforts of certainty and security for adventure.  I saw myself as an iconoclast, having taken the "road less traveled", and had an attitude of condescension toward the regular folks who were doing unexciting jobs, and taking care of their family.

But in these ten years, 2008-2018, I have come a long way.  Richer in life experiences, and having studied sociology, politics, gender dynamics, modernism in all its forms (modern jobs, modern family, modern urban living) and the individual and communal consequences of modernism, I now consider the film and the director's message to be deeply flawed.

The film is based on a book, and I'm not sure how much the film deviates from it.  Perhaps the book is more balanced and may be less flawed in its message.

But I cannot recommend the film anymore.  Not for its message at least.  Some of the performances, especially by one of my favorite actors, Michael Shannon, are nice, even if over-dramatic.  But I will recommend it to anyone who can watch it without getting influenced by it.  It can be an interesting sample in the study of at least three things:

1.  Creativity versus tedium.
2.  Narrative obfuscation: I call it the "Ayn Rand" technique.  How one's opinion of a character and a situation is prejudiced by the narrator.
3.  Gender dynamics, as portrayed by Hollywood and its financiers.

A heavily flawed book or a film can nevertheless be an instructive study-aid, if there is enough clarity in the reader/viewer.  I wouldn't give any awards to Mein Kampf, but I do consider it required reading for anyone interested in the history of Europe. 

I consider "Revolutionary Road" to be a pretentious, facile film.  It pretends to be deep and insightful, but it has very little depth and understanding, as it depicts its characters and their interactions.  The film is cartoonish, with caricatures instead of real characters.  Its message is Oprah-esque, with much Betty Freidan thrown in.  It is apparently the faux intellectual's version of "Eat Pray Love".

My second viewing of the film made me aware of how blind I was to not notice these in my first viewing:

1.  The woman as the sympathetic, self-aware character, with the male being depicted as an insensitive brute, closed to his own subconscious.  This continues the overwhelming bias of Hollywood in non-noir films: the woman being on the pedestal and having the higher moral standard.

2.  Regular life being demonized and worthy of rejection, with very little understanding of what Unabomber called the lack of "power process" in modern times.

3.  The "unhappy wife" blaming all her unhappiness on a husband, and her refusal to love him as a valid, justifiable state of affairs.  If her lack of love for him was only because of his lack of risk appetite and spirit of adventure (while he being an otherwise good man), the film's message would be weak.  So the director/author throws in some other character flaws as well.  The husband cheats.  He is a bad listener.  He is obviously therefore to be hated.  But observe how the affair of the wife is then later depicted.  It is as if we are supposed to feel sorry for her. 

4. The depiction of gender roles, motherhood and domesticity as subtly evil and oppressive.  In a telling scene, the wife is shown to be irritably and harriedly tidying up the house.  While the husband is shown as having "fun" at work, with very little drudgery, despite the proclamation that he hates his work.  So he hates his job, and the wife hates cleaning up around the house.  I would venture to say that the problem is not what they are doing, but something else.  They go to the beach, they play with their kids.  But notice the total lack of joy (especially in the wife's character).  She loses her temper frequently with her daughter, and has no enthusiasm for a new baby.  She has no friends to speak of.  She doesn't enjoy reading or cooking.  Does anything in her current life bring her joy?

5.  The Maslow model of human fulfillment being a perverse consequence of modernity.  Fulfillment or self-actualization was earlier realized in the day-to-day living and its challenges.  But since those are no longer enough for a man's soul, he or she needs to "find" themselves.  The finding never happens.  But this fantasy has been peddled relentlessly by new age philosophy, spirituality and self-help authors.  "If only you live in a different way, either inwardly or outwardly, you will find the pot of gold."  For the inwardly ambitious, they seek to demolish their egos (while in the process inflating it to be bigger than an average bloke).  For the sheep, the message is to leave this herd and become a different kind of sheep (cuz "Think Different"): finding fulfillment through Lonely Planet or Anthony Bourdain or the iPhone.  For the vast majority of the world population, the lifestyle of the Wheelers would only be a heavenly dream.  But for the Wheelers, it is nothing but hell.

6.  Most people do not really have enough of a creative/adventurist side to them, even though they might want to think romantically of themselves.  For such people, it will be far more helpful for their contentment and happiness if they, with self-awareness, accept their vocation instead of constantly wishing for something in "Paris", where no one bakes bread or drives the bus, but everybody is an artist and is on the verge of finding themselves.  A parallel study to this film can be the book/film pair "Into the Wild", in which a romantic young man leaves society to live free, and travel.  With no long-term goals or commitments, his life is one adventure after another.  The century of the self, indeed.  But then, who will till the soil?  If only we could be back in the Garden of Eden, with apples falling from the trees.

1 comment:

Venkat said...

Hi Harman,
I can relate to your post. I have been recently married, and I live in India (Yes, I ignored your advice)! Anyway, the point I wish to emphasize is this. My wife loves cooking and cleaning and "taking care of me" (in her own words). She also loves painting for no reason. He is also excited by the prospect of motherhood in the future. The old me of 10 years back would have decried this sentiment. But I no longer do so. I think there is a balance that one can reach between work and creativity, between 'finding oneself' and working in an otherwise monotonous job.
I think the biggest lie/propaganda of the 21st century is that we are meant to love our job unconditionally, that we are meant to do something fulfilling, something that serves our soul. Of course, no one suggests working in a terrible work environment but this new age dogma deserves to be questioned. Who will drive the Ubers/taxis/buses/trains/ambulances? Who will sweep the streets? What if every nurse wanted to become a doctor? The list is endless. It would be the breakdown of modern society.