The Common Good
August 2010

Paths to Freedom

by Gareth Higgins | August 2010

It’s ironic that the explosive, high-budget thrill rides understand so little about their own themes.

The summer film season began in earnest with the rapid-fire multiple punch of horror meets action meets medieval tea-partying, polished off with a dose of ultra-violence. The remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street squandered the serious social commentary of the original (one of the first popular films to try to face the consequences of normalizing family breakdown) in favor of ever more horrifying depictions of killing beautiful, plastic young actors. It manifests what the original warned about: This is what happens when a generation reared by people who don’t care to parent, or don’t know how, grows up and makes movies.

The following week came Iron Man 2—a satire of U.S. military might and the political game. Bunker-busting weapons fail, senators take the superficial word of big business instead of actually thinking, the easy acceptance of violence in the U.S. is explained with a simple “this isn’t Canada,” and the hero, Tony Stark, becomes the axis of power on earth precisely because he threatens the greatest violence. Far more is going on under the surface of Iron Man 2 than most critics have allowed.
Which may also be the case for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, a medieval action film that attempts to be pro-tea party and pro-liberal at the same time. Alas, what it’s most in favor of is killing people to teach them a lesson.
While Freddy, Tony, and Robin left me alternately bored, amused, and horrified, antidotes appeared in the form of three smaller films. The Philosopher Kings, a documentary about the wisdom of blue-collar workers, manages to be both amusing and moving, and never patronizes its subjects. (You can request a local screening at philosopherkingsmovie.com.) Walkabout, the artful British director Nicolas Roeg’s astonishing 1971 film about coming of age, masculinity, and becoming aware of our roots in ancient traditions, was rereleased on DVD. The DVD includes a documentary about David Gulpilil, the leading Australian aboriginal actor, who embodies an indigenous national tradition and carries the honorable burden of representing his culture to the rest of the world. And I Am Love enthralled—an Italian film that explores how the human impulse toward freedom must be contended with, or it will kill you.
Freedom, of course, is what all these films are about—it’s ironic that the explosive, high-budget thrill rides understand so little about their own themes. The $225 million Robin Hood climaxes with a nefarious king’s refusal to endorse the Magna Carta, leaving his people shackled to feudalism, countered by a rebel thief who believes the best way to get rid of a tyrant is to fire an arrow through his neck. In contrast, the janitors in the microbudgeted The Philosopher Kings know that their freedom derives more from their inner state than from whomever happens to be president. Freedom starts with thinking, not killing.
Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Carrboro, North Carolina.
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