Thursday, November 1, 2007

Clooney and Ibsen

Michael Clayton, with George Clooney. Great movie. Hollywood at its best. Great acting, great casting, great story. Happy Hollywood ending. Little guy against the system. You can watch it and think Kant and the vicissitudes of the Age of Enlightenment. Or you can watch it and think George Clooney is a cool guy. Something for everybody.

Then there is Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Bizarre play. Very old Europe. Anything but a Hollywood ending. Little guy against the system. You can watch it and ponder Kant and the limitations to the human capacity for morality, but you can never watch it and think the main character is cool. Definitely not for everybody.

Perhaps because I saw the two on consecutive nights, these differences seemed minor to me in light of the similarity. Both are morality plays – one American, set in 2007, one Norwegian, set in the 1860s. Both tell the same story of a man, one a bit of an egotist (Ibsen’s Dr. Stockmann) and one (George Clooney’s character, Michael Clayton) a kind of a loser caught up in making ends meet and dealing with a gambling habit. Both ride their destiny when the gods lay a moral choice on them.

Michael Clayton is the greater hero (a comparison such as the one between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) because he has the farthest to climb out of degradation. But both are the moral heros we understand the world cannot do without, if we are not to surrender entirely to despair and cynicism.

Ibsen, I understand, wrote An Enemy of the People in response to the bad reaction from the public he got to Ghosts, the play in which he takes on the subject of syphilis. The public wasn’t ready to have this tabu broken. Ibsen wasn’t ready to have the public turn on him, so he writes a story about a character who loses faith in the democratic masses and takes refuge in the thought that a moral minority of one is the only hope against man’s weakness.

In Michael Clayton we see modern-day America where money is king and it is no secret that anybody who is anybody is both rich and ruthless. There are still lines we won’t cross – murder – but when others cross them, we understand why and stand idly by. This is an America run by and for corporations aided by lawyers and supported by the American taxpayer, an America where the rich not only get away with murder, they get impatient with their lawyers who don’t help them get away with murder fast enough. A completely cynical view of the human race. Only the hero, at the end, and a small bunch of small people come out clean. The parallel with Ibsen’s play is almost perfect.

I have to take note of the vehicles in which these two stories came to me. I watched Michael Clayton in a comfortable theater in Buenos Aires, was annoyed at the habit people have in Buenos Aires of talking through movies in loud voices, played with the Spanish subtitles, and nonetheless remarked when I came out that I found the two hours had flown by. The story is tight, and despite the kind of convolutions you find in a Grisham novel and other tension-filled thrillers involving high technology, the writers have you in the palm of their hand the whole time. It’s the kind of entertainment people go to the movies for.

An Enemy of the People, or Un Enemigo del Pueblo, as I saw it at the Teatro San Martín (Argentina’s National Theater), was anything but easy theater. I had to work for it. I have seen enough Spanish-language theater now to realize if I don’t work at it, too much escapes me. So I got an early English translation and read it before going. Whether I would have found it as rewarding if it had come packaged as a modern-day movie, it is difficult to say. I suspect going in with lowered expectations from the limitations of the script meant I came out ahead in the end. Experiencing this possiblity of live theater added to my pleasure immeasurably.

The story, briefly, is this. Dr. Thomas Stockmann lives in a small town that is investing all its resources in building a spa. Trouble is, there is a tannery leaking pollutants into the water, and visitors to the spa will be at risk of serious illness, possibly death. He gets proof of this from the lab and decides to tell the story to the press. However, Thomas Stockmann’s brother, Peter, the mayor, persuades everyone that if they listen to Thomas, they will all lose their fortune. The mob goes with the mayor, and Thomas is reviled. The play ends with stones coming through his window and Thomas huddled with his family, insisting that he cannot deny the truth. Highpoint of the drama is Thomas’ speech to the mob in which he tells them he has lost faith that people are ever anything but ignorant mobs.

The English play version I got hold of was written in 1906 in a style that was hard to take. A British English upper class mentality takes the story from the comical to the absurd and, as a result, the characters lack any warmth, their actions feel ridiculous, and Thomas Stockmann has almost no appeal. The Spanish stage version was done in modern Buenos Aires vernacular. All of the characters, Thomas especially, come easily to life and in the end the audience was on its feet. It was hard to determine whether they were applauding the actors (most of the cheering went, naturally, to the very sympathetic Thomas Stockmann character), or the morality play speaking to a nation which has known so much political corruption, and seen such evidence of how willing people are to go along with power. One need not doubt why the play was selected in the first place. Nobody in the audience could miss the message.

The gap, in other words, between a script in black and white and a play brought to life on stage, couldn’t have been greater. You understand what Ibsen was after, and you can see both the craft of those who put the play on and the potential that was there (and which I missed in the reading) in the first place.

That I should have seen these two productions so close together was coincidence. Stockmann is an innocent and the enemy is the ignorant mob; Clayton is anything but innocent and the enemy is the greedy manipulative mob, but at heart, both are old fashioned morality plays of Everyman confronted with a moment of truth. Stockmann’s character is an abstracted moral hero; Clayton’s character is vastly more complex. There is much in the comparison that would provide evidence for anyone arguing modern-day cinema is a richer medium than 19th Century drama – but I’ll leave that for others to take on.

After all is said and done, each in its own way makes great theater, because the themes are classic ones. If you are ever faced with the protagonists’ moral dilemmas and you manage to do the right thing, you will know the satisfaction of having lived a great life. You also know, sitting in the cinema and in the theater, that chances are, if this happens to you, you might very well not be up for it.

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