“It’s nothing to laugh at, sir.”
-Tim O’Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
Richard Cohen inadvertantly poked a bear this week. A self-professed bear, that is. One that goes by the name of Andrew Sullivan.
“In the new James Bond movie, ‘Skyfall,’ Daniel Craig takes off his shirt and examines his wounds,” writes Cohen in the Washington Post. “There appear to be two of them — small holes on his skin from bullets fired at the beginning of the movie. He touches his wounds and winces. So do I. Bond is in pain from his wounds. I am in pain from all the hours he has spent in the gym.”
Sullivan’s response is, in one post, everything I love and hate about him. It’s sharp and insightful while surprisingly obtuse. It’s pointlessly polemical and (hate the word, but lo here I am writing a response) provocative. And it’s a complete mess from the opening line:
“But” may as well lacerate someone over it. ‘Cause, you know. Slow news week.
No, Andrew. No, no, emphatic no. Cultural analysis does not ever require an apology or a qualification. Events that happen today touch few and are forgotten tomorrow. Culture touches everyone and resonates for centuries.
Sullivan's interesting angle is that we live in the new age of steroids and a time when the male form is, finally, celebrated like the female form. That's a good point, but Cohen's point of what we often lack in pop-entertainment is not even addressed. Cohen says of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, “He had the experience, the confidence, the internal strength that can only come with age.”
Now, Cohen does slip up by claiming this is how Bogie got the girl. That’s a reach, and Sullivan rightly hits him for it. (Hollywood is so full of autumn dudes landing spring babes that it is pointless to list examples.) But otherwise, he is dead-on right
I opened this post with a quote from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War memoir, “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.” That’s O’Brien talking to his platoon commander, Captain Johansen. O’Brien is a bookish version of the all-American boy. As he says in “The Things They Carried,” “I had the world dicked—Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard.” These are exceptional traits in middle class America, but just about useless in an infantry platoon.
So he searches for models in the art he loved: Frederic Henry in “A Farewell to Arms,” Robert Jordan in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” Captain Vere in “Billy Budd,” Rick Blaine from “Casablanca,” and Shane... from a movie whose name escapes me. Best of all, he finds a real life model in Captain Johansen. He needs these models not just for survival, but for self-respect and meaning.
“Courage is nothing to laugh at,” O’Brien writes, “not if it is proper courage and exercised by men who know what they do is proper. Proper courage is wise courage. It’s acting wisely, acting wisely when fear would have a man act otherwise. It is the endurance of the soul in spite of fear—wisely.”
James Bond cannot compare to such a definition of courage. He never could. The Sean Connery version was silly, but the new, steroid-inflated version is straight-up idiotic. While Bond movies have always been comedies at heart, they are now the action cognate to gross-out comedies. That’s all in good fun, of course, but no one can relate to them. No stable adult male watches a Bond movie as a template of behavior. But many stable and even wise adults have watched "Casablanca" and seen Rick Blaine as a template. Take, for example, Tim O’Brien:
To a man, my heroes before going to Vietnam were hard and realistic. To a man, they were removed from other men, able to climb above and gaze down at other men. Bogie in his office, looking down at roulette wheels and travelers. Vere, elevated; the Star, searching justice. Shane, loving the boy, detesting violence, looking down and saying goodbye aboard that stocky horse…
It’s telling that Sullivan runs to the defense of such a cartoon. Pico Iyer once wrote that William F. Buckley could have been a great thinker, but he had a plane to catch. Sullivan could be one of our finest thinkers too, but, well—he has a blog to update. His blog is titled “the Daily Dish,” after all, and at 50 posts a day for over ten years the output is, like a steroid-inflated weight lifter, both impressive and ridiculous at once.
Sullivan can tut tut Cohen all he wants, but he can't refute the core of his argument. We do not turn to movies simply for entertainment. We also turn to them for models of behavior, for heroes, for templates on how to live. That’s how culture works. At times in our lives when we need heroes most, we often turn to those mere entertainments and find they are something more--or less. How we depict them on the screen matters greatly, be it a slow news week or not.
Take it away, Czeslaw Milosz:
A man is lying under machine-gun fire on a street in an embattled city. He looks at the pavement and sees a very amusing sight: the cobblestones are standing upright like the quills of a porcupine. The bullets hitting against their edges displace and tilt them. Such moments in the consciousness of a man judge all poets and philosophers. Let us suppose, too, that a certain poet was the hero of the literary cafes, and wherever he went was regarded with curiosity and awe. Yet his poems, recalled in such a moment, suddenly seem diseased and highbrow. The vision of the cobblestones is unquestionably real, and poetry based on an equally naked experience could survive triumphantly that judgment day of man’s illusions.
Pico Iyer’s comment about Buckley being too frivolous to be a true thinker is not just a pithy political dig. He is saying that thinking deeply about things is vital. Captain Johansen knew that, and the effect he had on his men was powerful. I'll close with O'Brien, who, after all, has considered the matter far more than Andrew Sullivan, Richard Cohen, or I have:
I thought about courage off and on for the rest of my tour in Vietnam. When I compared subsequent company commanders to Johansen, it was clear that he alone cared enough about being brave to think about it and try to do it. Captain Smith admitted that he was a coward, using just that word. Captain Forsythe strutted and pretended, but he failed.
On the outside, things did not change much after Captain Johansen. We lost about the same number of men. We fought about the same number of battles, always small little skirmishes.
But losing him was like the Trojans losing Hector. He gave some amount of reason to fight… Captain Johansen helped to mitigate and melt the silliness, showing the grace and poise a man can have under the worst of circumstances, a wrong war. We clung to him.