Tim and I watched Argo last night after watching the Oscars Sunday, where it won “Best in Show.” We had high hopes for the movie–a story based on true events, a Hollywood cover-up, the CIA–it seemed to have all the right ingredients for a great film, with the Little Gold Man as an official stamp of approval. If you haven’t seen it yet, the film is about a CIA agent who, with the help of Hollywood insiders, creates a fake movie so that he and some American hostages in Iran can pose as a film crew and escape the country.
About halfway through the movie, I got bored and got up to make cookies (they were delicious). By the time the credits rolled, I had long decided what I wanted to watch next (Project Runway). Tim was less disappointed than I, but we were both left asking the same question: “How did that thing win Best Picture?” Granted, the Oscars haven’t always been the most reliable barometer of true quality. But usually, even if I don’t personally like a movie, I can appreciate its quality and see the merits that other people would appreciate more. With Argo, I didn’t get it.
But then I realized something. That movie turns movie makers into heroes. It feigns a little wry self-deprecation: “A Rhesus monkey could direct movies,” says John Goodman character to Ben Affleck, who also happens to be the film’s director. But underneath the facade of not taking themselves too seriously, we see a group of people taking themselves quite seriously indeed. In Argo, the people of Hollywood get to break the fourth wall for a moment and become the hero of the film. For once, they’re not actors presenting us with the stories of Mandela or Wilberforce or Churchill or even imaginary heroes like Batman or Captain America. They’re the Ultimate Good Guys who get to win in the end. Of course it won Best Picture. It gave movie makers a sense of significance, a sense that their jobs mean something beyond mere amusement of the masses. I imagine it must be frightening sometimes to realize that your primary purpose in life is to help people’s 80-odd years on earth go by little faster. It has to feel like you’re a glorified Ferris wheel operator. Argo gave Hollywood a chance to see themselves as Christ figures, as saviors who drop in from the sky, tell a compelling story, and carry helpless people away to a land of safety and freedom. It’s an utter fairy tale.
Don’t get me wrong–movies can be beautiful and important. But they’re usually not life-changing. And they rarely, if ever, save anyone. I’m not trying to mock filmmakers. I am susceptible to the same fears and occasionally resort to the same meaning-making tactics as they do. There’s a big part of me that hopes I’m teaching the next Nobel Peace Prize winner who will use his acceptance speech to thank his dear old English teacher for inspiring him to achieve greatness. I love movies like Dead Poets Society and Mr. Holland’s Opus and Freedom Writers because they give me that same imaginary sense of importance that Hollywood got out of Argo. Those movies allow me to fancy myself a Christ figure who swoops in from the sky, rescues children from the poverty of ignorance, and carries them off to a land of enlightenment, where they will always appreciate the ennui of Woolf, the politics of Orwell, and the complexity of Dostoevsky.
That’s not reality. The reality is, most of my students will hardly even remember my name and what subject I taught. It’s highly unlikely that any of them will win the Nobel Prize (and even if they do, they won’t thank me in the acceptance speech). If I’m hanging my hat on being The Person who transforms their lives, I’m going to be disappointed. There’s no life to be found there.
Where there is life to be found is in the ordinary. I recently read a book called By Nightfall, an extraordinary and beautiful story which I cannot, unfortunately, recommend without reservation due to some objectionable content. However, the book had quite profound things to say about the beauty and deep meaning that there is in everyday life. The novel’s middle-aged protagonist struggles and searches and stays up at night trying desperately to find meaning in exceptional beauty. He’s an art dealer who wants to find something that he can truly adore, he wants to live an unusual, daring life, and it’s about him coming to the realization that underneath its pretentious wrappings, the “extraordinary” life disappoints. He doesn’t commit suicide, which I expected. Instead finds that the act of living is in itself an unspeakably powerful work of art. Grand gestures, global accolades, throwing everything away and going and living on top of a hill in Greece–nothing can compare to the piercing beauty of the ordinary. He says to a friend, “Who isn’t an ordinary person? How horribly presumptuous to want to be anything else. But I have to tell you. I’ve been treated as something special for so long and I’ve tried my hardest to be something special but I’m not, I’m not exceptional, I’m smart enough, but I’m not brilliant and I’m not spiritual or even all that focused. I think I can stand that, but I’m not sure if the people around me can.”
When I stop to consider my faith, I’m overwhelmed by the ordinariness of it. We took communion today at church. Bread and wine. Symbols of a sacrifice. Sin. Savior. Salvation. The Gospel isn’t complicated; in fact, it’s easy enough for a small child to understand. But it’s where our search for meaning ends. Because a life lived for God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is a life that doesn’t require anything else for validation. In Him we live and move and have our being. And that, quite simply, is enough.