5:05 PM EDT, June 20, 2011
The arrival this week of the new Tommy Jones movie "Company Men" on DVD raises the question: Is there anything less entertaining than watching middle-aged men coming to terms with unemployment?
How about following each step in the dissolution of a marriage? Or seeing a mother working through her grief over the death of a child?
All these topics were tackled by some of 2010’s most ambitious films: “Rabbit Hole,” “Company Men,” “Revolutionary Road,” “Blue Valentine.” ... And for the last month or so, we have been seeing their bodies wash up on the shores of Maryland homes.
I’m sure their makers are still hoping they will at last fulfill some of their promise on DVD and Blu-Ray Disc. They have all had their media champions, and they came with big-name stars attached, like Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Gosling, Nicole Kidman, Ben Affleck, Michelle Williams and Kevin Costner.
So, what went wrong exactly at the box office? Are our limited attention spans to blame? Or was it something about this new strain of modern dramas that kept audiences away in droves?
Having seen all of the above films and dozens more like them, I have concluded that the trouble is not that their woes are too big, but that their catharses are too small.
Face it: There’s nothing at all novel about making human suffering the subject of drama. Classic Greek tragedy has thrived for two millennia on getting audiences to identify with kings and queens as they are put through an emotional wringer.
Grief, abandonment, loss, marital betrayal, family dissolution — no subject was off-limits to the masters. Remember the guy who ripped his eyes out after learning that he had been unnaturally fond of his own mother?
The Greeks coined the term catharsis for the purging of emotions that followed witnessing the consequences of human suffering. Classic drama is designed to take us to the ash heap of human experience in order to reconcile us to our own place in the universe.
Today's audiences still flock to revivals of those classics. If they didn’t, they would vanish from seasonal lineups, and an outfit like the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company might have to rebrand itself as the Chesapeake All-Yucks-All-the-Time Company.
I believe the trouble with many of the most serious modern works of art is that their authors no longer believe in the sort of ordered cosmology that has a noble spot for human beings in it.
More and more artists are nihilists and skeptics. How can they reconcile their audiences to a harmonious nature if they themselves no longer feel comfortable with the universe?
This was not true even a couple of generations back, when an Arthur Miller or a Tennessee Williams, despite their own wounds and cynicism, could find a wrenching human beauty in the most bleak and dire of destinies.
Today’s dramatists seem more content to paint a bleak picture and then leave us at the final fade-out on the same rocky, unsettled road we started on.
If a character is lucky, he or she may be given an epiphany. Life will go on. Let’s start over. ... Now, where are my slippers?
The critical praises have all been sung for “Blue Valentine” and “Rabbit Hole” and “Company Men.” They are well acted, artistically produced and they no doubt deserve a wider audience.
But would I recommend them to my own friends? Truthfully, my friends deserve a whole lot more than that.