The Weather Underground got an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category. It shows the power of talking heads. The other, clever documentary stuff could be replaced by any amount of other clever documentary stuff. What’s powerful here is that that they give aging radicals a chance to talk about building and delivering bombs, and how they feel about having done that, now that they have had time to think. For real interest, nothing beats a close-up of a human being talking honestly about something important. The documentary has one other major virtue: it tells the story in order, so that one can think about how various events added up for these people who decided gradually to adopt limited violence as their communication strategy. One sometimes thinks of such decisions as arising from an argument, but what’s clear from the documentary is that such decisions might be the natural outcome of someone’s ongoing reading of events.
For thought purposes, see The Weather Underground as a double feature with another documentary, Bonhoeffer. We have, in each account, people who initially opposed violence but came to adopt it as a necessary tactic. Further, Bonhoeffer makes clear the context within which 70s radicals might have made their decisions: those who grew up wishing that someone would have done more to stop Hitler came to see themselves as having a chance to get resistance right in an exactly parallel circumstance.
I am left with a question. The Weather Underground was formed because some people lived in an intellectual climate in which violence came to seem necessary. The alternative they saw was dishonorable: denial and retreat into mindless self-gratification. Some of them come, at the end of their lives, to regret their violent past. But what sort of intellectual climate, intellectual food, would have given them a real alternative? I imagine what sort of morning radio show they might have encountered, in a different possible universe, to set up a slightly different attitude toward the real evils of their time – an attitude that might have made different ways of acting seem possible, that might have conceived of violence as one option, rather than making it seem necessary.
TO CHRIST OUR LORD
I caught this morning morning's minion, king-
dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn
Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the
hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, the achieve of, the mastery of the
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume,
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion
This poem, which Gerard Manley Hopkins thought was the best thing he wrote, puts flying and Jesus together. Another link is in a contemporary hymn about Jesus which has the words “unthinkable his death.”
Most of us have very thinkable deaths because we are only somewhat “alive," and thinking our death is just thinking the continuum down to zero. But birds in flight constantly fly, if they fly at all, are in connection to every muscle and to the air every second. The poem says all this better and also says what real aristocracy would be.
I come at last to two movies, of different quality. Winged Migration is bird-level footage of birds flying, landing and eating, then flying off again. It is an immense movie because of what Hopkins noticed: flight perfectly expresses something immense.
Then there’s The Aviator, about Howard Hughes. It isn’t much as biography or history or Hollywood atmosphere, but what sticks is the picture of Hughes trying to stay constantly alive, as madness and social constraint and economics close in for the kill. It captures the moment when flying summed up “life worth living” for a generation. We’re past that now; an airplane is just a giant bus. But there’s something important to remember.
These are of different quality. See Winged Migration for your soul’s sake.
My friend Kristin put me on to rottentomatoes, a website that amalgamates reviews, gives movies overall ratings from rotten to fresh, depending on how many critics liked the movie. I immediately put in Forgotten, the movie I had just watched. It was well into “rotten;” people didn’t like that in never settles on a way of being paranoid, floating between fear of madness, the National Security Agency, aliens, and possibly God. I knew all that, and also that the special effects were right out of Monty Python. Yet the movie was powerful for me. It incubated an emotion: the desperate sense of having almost lost a piece of reality that is merely personal. In the movie, a mother remembers having lost her son, but no one admits that she ever had a son, and all the physical evidence disappears. That kind of thing happens. We are all of us sometimes fighting normalcy to remember something important that is being stolen from us as we speak. Plato makes that feeling the center of philosophy in his great myths of forgetting. So, this is an important, if uncomfortable, human feeling – one of the big ones. And Forgotten reminds us how this feeling goes and teaches us to pay attention to it. I think that’s good enough.