Conflict

24/01/06 Film Essay # , , , , ,

Crash (2004)

Crash (2004)
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul HaggisRobert Moresco
Stars: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton

 

(Published in Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2007)

Quite surprisingly, Crash rose through the ranks of many excellent films in 2005 to win the Academy Award for Best Film and the esteemed 2006 Humanitas Prize for a feature film. It hit a nerve. “The dark secret of America has always been and always will be race.”, says David Mamet*.Crash visualized racial conflict for the big screen, located it in Los Angeles where racial populations are almost equal and won global recognition, making a special connection with audiences. People all over the world are living with the secret. But Crash does more than recount conflict and conflagration. It illuminates an unusual viewpoint, dramatizing collisions between people as capable of bringing down society’s divisive barriers.

Perhaps a film about the power of race to drive such ordinary everyday activities as getting stopped by the police for a traffic infraction, running a small business and applying for health benefits won such prominence because it speaks to a hidden longing in our culture, a desire for conflict to lead to something positive, something other than trouble and war. Its tagline, spoken by a police detective, “we Crash into each other just so we can feel something” frames the deep chasm of alienation left in the wake of unresolved differences. Many people would like to believe there’s a way out of the societal instability and disorientation that turns neighbors into enemies but, at the same time, doesn’t ignore our anger about injustice at the hands of authorities. Crash points to the mythic realm of transformation for an answer.

As Crash opens, it’s a cold night in Los Angeles, cold enough to snow. Extremely unlikely, even if it is Christmas.

Two plain-clothes detectives, an African American man (Don Cheadle) and a Latina woman (Jennifer Esposito), have just been rear ended on one of the winding canyon roads that cross the Santa Monica mountains from the San Fernando Valley to L.A.’s Westside. Common occurrence, even if it’s cops.

An event as common in L.A. as a car accident paired with one so unlikely — snow – sets Crash up to metaphorically reflect a big city as a world of extremes, a mythic centre where nature and society exist as opposites and change will be as magical as it is scarce. As viewers, we become participant observers in a black and white Crash perspective, allowing everyday encounters between diverse people to immerse us, symbolically speaking, in alchemical clashes of opposites. Crash is a collection of interlocking scenarios in which characters of different race, class, religion and gender literally run into one another during the short course of a couple days. Some get more than they bargained for. And so do we. Jung referred to a coming together of extreme opposites for transformation of consciousness as coniunctio. If we shift our point of view and experience Crash as a series of interlocking allegorical stories meant to challenge our personal imaginations and intellect, the film can be a process of learning for protagonists and viewers alike.

The ancient Chinese yang-yin symbol symbolizes nature’s dual distribution of opposing forces as invested with a dynamic tendency. As such, they are comprised of interdependent, integrally connected and constantly balancing opposites that contain within them their antithesis. Yin is soft, warm, darkly fecund and receptive. Yang is hard, cold, inseminating and brightly active. Feminine and masculine, perhaps, but not female and male. They are universal in nature, not gender bound. They exist within us. Each depends on the other for full realization. The white yang side contains a black yin spot; the black yin side contains a white yang spot as reminders that the seeds of one can always be found within the other. In other words, good and bad, misery and joy, losing and succeeding, rising up and falling down are constant and in motion, exhibiting a natural rhythm like a regenerative heartbeat supporting life as we know it — and as we can never know it fully.

Sitting still on the canyon road, Graham, the male detective, seems weary, too weary to jump out and face an angry Asian woman driver ready to do battle. He waxes philosophical, attempting to give meaning to the unconscious motives behind the frequent car accidents in Los Angeles.

“It’s our sense of touch. In any real city, you walk. You brush past people. People bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches anybody. Always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we Crash into each other just so we can feel something.”

His partner, Ria, shrugs off his remark as a little bit crazy and takes the initiative, getting out of the car. With an ironic tone, she offers to go find the “frame of reference” she feels he’s lost. For her, an accident is matter of fact. She approaches the woman driver who’s talking to a motorcycle cop. Out from behind the protection of metal and glass, as Graham predicted, emotion flies between drivers. The Asian driver, not knowing she’s yelling at an officer of the law, deflects responsibility for the accident by hurling insults at Ria about sloppy Mexican driving. Ria sneers reactively, “I blake too fast?”, making fun of her attacker’s English. “How about you being too short to see over the steering wheel so you know to stop?” Their blatant racist blaming exaggerates differences, exposing edges of hatred and inciting animosity.

Meanwhile, Graham walks through police flares to the side of the road. “What’ve you got here?” he asks, recognizing one of the policemen. “A dead kid.” Graham crouches down, using his silver pen to turn over a lone sneaker lying in the dirt. Now, he seems more than weary. His eyes look outward but his gaze pulls inward as if he’s seeing something we’re not seeing, drawing us more deeply into his thoughts. More than a collision of cars has occurred on this isolated road. A line between life and death collapsed.

Yesterday. Crash backs up in time to bring us to the moment at hand. The action starts on the streets of Beverly Hills and picks up speed, quickly running through one racial clash after another, tying them together with threads of festering frustration. Each encounter, like a fender bender on a mountain road is on one level a small, minor incident that should pass without trouble. On a symbolic level, however, death lies near by, letting us know we’re being drawn close to the mystery that links the mundane and the profound. Initiations of consciousness seek such landscapes. We’re in mythic territory. Manners and convention, some kind of moral fabric should prevail and protect. Instead, each confrontation in Crash breaks through an established system that we rely on to get through each day.

Rich or poor, small businessman or big politician, degreed, pedigreed or in need, people are facing an unprecedented fear of losing control over their well being in a multifaceted society. Cultural diversity is developing faster than the thinking and understanding required to handle the range of challenges. Angry accusations based on stereotypes may aggravate difficulties but they’re symptoms of already existing frustrations, not a source. They’re a response to feeling helpless, taxed emotionally and endangered. We live in a society with systems of protection in place that are meant to buffer children born into poverty, assist elders who are ill and provide basic safety in homes and city streets. But these systems are collapsing and, as they fail, it’s like a promise broken. As seen in Crash, people lock their gates, buy guns and harbor dualistically based rationales of the behavior of others as if a wall of prejudice will hold where protocol fails. Worse, many gatekeepers of security – police, social workers, parents – first fail and then become abusive. Trust is broken. Now when prejudice leaps into the void, naked names and acts of retaliation explode, leaving greater, not less, fear in their wake. As buffers of reason and consideration deteriorate, vulnerabilities are exposed and an impatient anxiety rises up and spreads out.

A gunstore owner boils over with contempt when a middle-eastern father, Farhad, (Shaun Toub) and his grown daughter, Shereen (Marina Sirtis), deliberate in their own language about buying a pistol. Because the owner is an outsider to their language, he can’t understand them. He starts fuming, feeling excluded and losing control. To gain back a respect he imagines he’s lost, he demeans their conversation with a racial slur. The father, already agitated and in an argument with his daughter about the wisdom of buying a gun, raises his voice, attacking the storeowner for making an insult he doesn’t feel he deserves. Under pressure, both men picture the other as an enemy with malevolent intent. The owner’s resentment about war in the middle-east restructures his customers as Iraqi when they are actually Persian. The father is irate that he’s not regarded with respect as a man who has worked hard to become a legitimate American citizen. First, race and nationality, then gender infuses the owner’s arrogant attitude toward his customers. After throwing the father out, he demeans the daughter, likening the bang of a gun to having sex. It’s ugly. Buying a gun becomes a sado-masochistic struggle for dominance that has nothing to do with making a purchase.

After leaving the gun store, the Persian father becomes increasingly incensed with his inability to keep his own store safe, helplessness in keeping his own family fed and housed. He’s blinded to consequences of rage he could not consciously accept. He precipitates a heinous act from which only an accident of extreme good fortune saves him. Saved, he’s humbled by discovering the racism he so hates in the outer world within himself. As an allegory of transformation, he is a man who finds the respect he’s looking for in the eyes of others coming – finally – from within himself. And he’s brought back to his senses by the realization.

Most of us deal with the bewildering complex society we live in by drawing lines to help us navigate safely. We draw a line separating one race from another. One religion from another. One gender from another. One point of view from another. We try to avoid conflict, confrontation with “the other” — the one who sees, feels and thinks different from us. However, this dualistic perspective usually leads to more, not less hostility and estrangement. When we project a stereotype onto another person, simplifying as Crash does in its portrayal of differences, it’s a small step to experiencing others as antagonistic. The Los Angeles car culture easily perpetuates an illusion that opposites can be kept separate and an isolationist policy of living maintained. What may not be so obvious is that duality builds a latticework of protective thinking that is short sighted. But to give it up undermines an unconscious structure of security. When we’re deprived of dualism’s feeling of safety, however false or limited, we recoil because it puts us in touch with our vulnerability. It is only in the aftermath of duality’s repeated, painful failure to ease the consequences of prejudice that a larger, more truthful reality can emerge – one in which perceiving differences becomes part of an accepted totality.

Two young African American male friends, Anthony (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Daniel (Larenz Tate) amble down a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. They may be cool dressers but they’re acutely aware of being outsiders in this posh part of town. They’re engaged in an animated conversation about whether they were or weren’t given short shrift by a waitress in a coffee shop based on their race. One argues they were, the other doubts it. An upscale Caucasian couple walks toward them. The wife, almost imperceptibly, pulls up a little closer to her husband. Already in a mood for feeling slighted, the two men make a joke. “Why do people respect us?” They look at one another, laughing. “Because we have guns.” Bam. As if on cue, a stereotype springs to life and become the couple’s worst nightmare, carjackers with guns. They steal the couple’s black Navigator because they can. Fear rips apart a scene that was, a moment ago, funny and disarming.Crash follows the fall out from this clash, showing how – when isolation is broken – a stream of consequences ripples through every level of society with good and bad effects.

Next, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), a seasoned but bigoted Caucasian cop teamed with a Caucasian rookie, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillipe), pulls over a Navigator fitting the description of the stolen car but clearly not it. It’s driven by a well-dressed African American couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard), a Hollywood director and his wife, Cynthia (Thandie Newton), on their way home from a party. A routine check turns into an inflammatory confrontation. Officer Ryan runs his hands over the man’s wife’s body feigning a search for weapons while making taunting remarks for the sheer pleasure of asserting his authority over a couple who felt safe, protected against brazen acts of prejudice by their status and wealth.

It is from the inherent fluidity of a mythical yin/yang dynamic of opposites in nature that Crash reaches for change. It posits racial clashes between people as alchemical vessels for a transformation of consciousness. To grasp the gift of such storytelling, it helps to think of its stories as allegories where the process is always more than it seems, emphasizing the importance of what goes on inside a character rather than between characters. “In the course of their adventures the heroes of allegory discover which ideals are worth pursuing and what things are obstacles to that pursuit.”** It takes a shift in thinking to see that belief rests on attitudes held in one’s own mind as much, or more so than what happens between people.

Later we learn some of the reasons behind Officer Ryan’s need to assert his power over successful Blacks. He is the sole caretaker of an ill father who has lost his benefits along with his job and been rendered helpless by a failing health system. He can barely stand his father’s pain. He treats the couple with disrespect as he believes he’s been treated by anonymous African Americans who’ve displaced his father and, particularly, by a Black HMO caseworker who has control over his father’s health care. He takes out his frustration on the couple, making them scapegoats for his misery.

When the couple finally arrives home after the humiliating experience, Cynthia turns on her husband, accusing him of letting her down because he doesn’t want his name in the paper. She puts her finger on a sore point, the place of conciliatory silence that helps Cameron maintain his status as a Black director in Hollywood. Silence often plays a role in oppressive relationships when speaking up could invite devastating consequences. This is one of many times in Crash that women turn on their men for failing to provide protection in a culture where dire consequences for disagreement are commonplace. When race and gender are both factors, as they are with women, they’re often the first to react to the toxicity – and the first to become targets – of divisive social systems that depend on dualistic thinking, intimidation and separation.

Hurt to the core by his wife’s accusations, Cameron later speaks up and provokes a confrontation when police officers again pull him over. This time Anthony is hiding with a gun in the front seat of the Navigator. Luckily, Officer Hansen — Officer Ryan’s partner during the previous traffic stop, who had been offended by his treatment of Cameron — is on the scene and a disaster is averted. This “miracle” of a black man mouthing off to the police and living to tell the tale takes place in front of a Nativity scene in a cul de sac. It’s a narrow escape for Cameron but an awakening for Anthony.

And then, Officer Ryan comes upon a car turned over in an accident and on the verge of bursting into flames. He’s thrust into saving an African-American woman trapped by her seat belt that requires him to risk his life. Saving her simply calls him to duty. But saving her when she recognizes him as the policeman who molested her requires him to look himself in the eye. Is he a racist who will walk away, not go to the depths of feeling between human beings that will change him forever? She becomes hysterical and fights off his help. He has his chance to retreat. A fellow cop pulls him out. But, instead, he crawls back into direct contact with the woman, near death. To gain her trust so that they don’t both blow up in the car, he has to soften. He convinces her to let him touch her, even to use a knife to free her from her seatbelt. The challenge awakens him to an emotional nuance within himself he didn’t know he possessed. He finds a streak of compassion that cannot change his father’s pain but can ease it for both of them.

Crash portrays its direct clashes of antagonistic differences as containing a possibility of revelation and even redemption. Its tales of black, white, brown and yellow peoples crossing paths in the sprawl of L.A. don’t give us a road map to resolving the angry estrangement between races but they do show instances of personal violation changing to a felt connectedness. To see characters emerging from the terrifying encounters in Crash with life-transforming insight is to acknowledge a reality that heated conflicts often play in our own individuation. Becoming more perceptive, more capable of learning and more empathic as a consequence of surviving the fire of volatile conflicts is more true than we like to believe.

Almost as a living symbol of the threads of frustration bringing the people inCrash together, a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) first re-keys the locks for the upscale couple whose Navigator has been stolen and then goes to the Persian storekeeper whose door won’t lock because the door itself is broken. On his way from one job to another, he stops home to check on his daughter who’s been so frightened by a drive-by shooting that they’ve moved. He finds her sleeping under the bed. To coax her out and comfort her, he tells her a story about a magical cloak, handed down by his mother to protect him in times of danger. Now, he tells her, it’s time for him to give it to her. It’s a high point in the film because it reminds us that we’re living in a very large world of make believe where safety is more mindset than reality. The L.A. inCrash is not a city of perfection. It is one in which belief in the presence of a force for good sometimes works as miraculously well as it sometimes fails. Ironically, this father is a locksmith, one who makes homes safe with real locks. But break-ins occur and breakdowns happen in spite of his locks. However, a miraculous event later in the film brings alive the symbolism of Los Angeles as a mythic land – a city of angels.

Jean (Sandra Bullock), society’s picture perfect wife of Rick (Brendan Fraser) who is L.A.’s district attorney and whose Navigator was stolen at gunpoint, reacts to the theft by having the locks on her Beverly Hills mansion changed. Crazed when she discovers the locksmith is Latino, it’s clear that changing the locks will do nothing to heal the anxiety she is experiencing following the destruction of the fantasy of safety she’s built around her. She lashes out, slandering Latinos, her husband and her friends for being indifferent to the injustice she’s suffered. She feels entitled to foolproof safety. And then, alone inside the house that represents her sense of safety, she slips on its polished floors and falls down her own stairs. Unable to get anyone to help her, Jean becomes like the child under the bed on the other side of town. She feels her fragility instead of defending against it. She can no longer find an enemy or anyone who can prevent anything horrible from ever happening to her. When her Latina housekeeper arrives, she offers help and a kind word. Feelings of gratitude replace Jean’s anger and condescension. She holds onto the housekeeper for dear life, unable to let go, seeking the connection that she has avoided from not only her housekeeper but everyone else in the film. She seems to feel genuine feelings of love rising in her that she didn’t know existed.

The clashes in Crash dramatize encounters in which characters move into the fear zone where prejudices about race and gender dominate. One becomes cut off from “the other”; extremes are bred that do neither side any good. As allegories, stories symbolically expressing opposites in human nature for the purpose of discovering deeper meaning open exploration of how incendiary interactions have a positive side, a side we can learn from. However, even with the best of intentions, the potential of confrontation for healing is often difficult to discern when it’s happening directly to us. In myth and allegory, we can more easily see the details of movement between opposites interacting, creating and allowing transformation where none was possible before. Since we cannot avoid culture clashes, we could look to them for whatever insight they can bring, perhaps uncovering an alternative outcome to the separation and distrust that has led us to withdraw to false islands of safety.

Her husband, L.A.’s District Attorney, is faced with the problem of handling the theft of his Navigator and needing to avoid being called a racist for wanting to prosecute the thieves. He comes up with the idea of a photo op in which he honors an African American man that can be released simultaneously with the news that his car has been stolen. Graham is picked for the compromising honor. It puts him in a strange triple crossfire of professional insult, a desired but tainted promotion, and his mother’s anger. His mother resents that her successful detective son does not take more time to look out for his brother who, good kid that he may be in her eyes, has followed a lowlife of crime. In fact, he was one of the black men who stole the Navigator. Graham travels between his ghetto family and his respectable job, unable to call either home. Accepting the offer from the District Attorney will require Graham to compromise his integrity regarding another case but will also give him the wherewithal to save his younger dropout brother from jail. When duplicity is required for survival, anomie is not far behind. A marginal view of place, identity, and role develops. Circumstance requires what can’t be given freely but which must be rendered. Cooperation. His idealistic separation of good and bad as mutually exclusive cannot be maintained. Graham cannot choose good without choosing bad.

This imaginal inferno of contradiction, an irreconcilable duality of everything Graham holds dear, is a true crucible. He fully experiences a collapse of the line that holds him apart, separate and different. Painful. When we have these kinds of experiences – and survive them, we discover firsthand the meaning of movement between opposites. Our lives become testimony to the underlying unification of opposites in the universe and its unfathomable mystery of redemption. We are initiated into a new range of feeling, humbled by nuance and shaded by emotion beyond intellect.

Drifting and driving the stolen Navigator, distracted by talking, Anthony and Daniel sideswipe a Chinese man who’s been locking up his white van on an isolated street late at night. The Chinese man ends up in the hospital while his van stands quiet on the street until Anthony spots it later as he’s riding the bus home and gets the bright idea that he can take it and get a few bucks from a broker who deals in stolen cars. In the course of events, Anthony discovers the van is filled with Asian immigrants smuggled in by the Chinese man, presumably to fill sweatshops in downtown L.A. Anthony can’t quite go along with the car broker’s idea of selling the Illegal immigrants to him for cash. Is it, perhaps, because his vision of a hopeless future as a black kid was changed when Cameron faced down the police officers and survived? He takes charge of the illegal immigrants, steps far out of character, far enough out to suggest that he might make a break from his path of crime.

His friend, Daniel – who is, as we are to learn, Graham’s younger brother – doesn’t get a second chance. The accident of good fortune that saved the Latina child is now contrasted by its opposite, an irreversible tragedy, and a moment from which there is no recovery. The self-righteous, well-meaning young Officer Hansen, who recoiled at Officer Ryan’s blatant racism and later saved the day for the African American producer in very dicey second encounter with him, offers Daniel a ride from the Valley to the Westside. Off duty and unprotected by his uniform, he becomes suspicious of the wandering black teenager he’s picked up. Afflicted by paranoia, he’s quickly offended by Daniel’s easy-going manner when he reaches out to him as a friend, someone cut from the same cloth of youthful idealism. Hansen doesn’t wait to see what Daniel is pulling out of his pocket to show him. Prejudice colors Daniel evil and Hansen pulls his gun and shoots and kills his hitchhiker before he realizes what Daniel is offering him is an icon that represent the very kinship he has been longing for. Then he dumps Daniel’s body alongside the canyon road, drives to another location and sets his car on fire. The protective cloak of St. Christopher – the patron saint of travelers and strangers – eluded these young men. Hansen’s righteous indignation about racism is not sufficient to guide him when he feels personally threatened. Lacking empathy, he couldn’t see himself in Daniel.

We all struggle to understand how opposites work in our own personal lives.Crash invokes the difficult questions of what it means to contain opposites within ourselves – of sex, race, religion, age and point of view – and confront them in the world around us. The heated exchanges in Crash lead to surprising awakenings. In Crash, we see over and over again that only when an iron bar becomes red hot does it become pliable enough to bend, change direction, and take a different shape. Even in confrontations we’d rather turn away from, Crash opens a door of insight. In the mythic realm of coniunctio, Crashes and clashes activate dormant but potent elements for change that lie buried in the psyche. Perhaps the interactions release individual and collective resources to meet society’s unprecedented loneliness, apathy and neediness. Surely, the stories in this film show how attempting to protect oneself by acting out self-righteous feelings of superiority over the “other” with indignation only leads to greater feelings of fear and greater likelihood of doing damage to oneself as well as others. It’s not that one side is superior to any other, or that it is necessary to erase all sense of difference to arrive at a resolution, suggests Crash, but it is important to learn from and accept our vulnerabilities as shared and common.

If there were a mirror inside Crash looking out, its stories would be reflected inside every person in the theater. Crash brings our psyche, with all its hidden conflicts out of the dark into the light and onto the big screen for us to identify with, participate in. And, in so doing, Crash renews our wonder…how do we do it, be so good and so bad, so dumb and so smart, so predictable and so surprising? It’s a wonder we’re alive at all.

Of course, we have a right to fly in the face of enlightened understanding that “Crashes” caused by differences play a necessary part in the human drama of evolution. A sense of humor is key, of course, and Crash ends with a laugh. We see the imposing African American woman, Shaniqua (Loretta Devine) — the sternly charming gatekeeper who denied Officer Ryan’s request for health services for his father because he was incorrigible — get rear-ended in her car and throw herself into the fray of conflict just as rude and self-righteous as anyone else. Her voice of fair play turning foul makes us laugh at ourselves. We’re never far from a clash that could bring out the contradiction in us.

As I walked out of the movie theater into a mall of shoppers, I took note of a clash that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about before seeingCrash. A group of adolescent boys, mixed in race but each wearing standard gear of provocation – everything too loose, hanging low and jangling – were being herded, ever so quietly but firmly, to a corner exit by security police. They had violated an imperceptible line with their mass and their energy. Now, after seeing Crash, I worried that they’d be back, not to enjoy themselves and make a spectacle but with malcontent in reaction to being seen as ‘the other’ and not belonging. I saw an invisible motive for this newly constructed mall made visible. These rowdy boys had been influencing the architect’s plans before they ever showed up physically. This super clean, upscale mall, designed to signal safe passage, functions also as a sign of our culture of fear. Fanning a fundamentally misleading illusion of safety, it contributes to the continuance of a fear-driven duality, a self-isolating reality.

Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference. Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all – and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient message for modern times in its revelatory stories?

*The New York Times, Movies, June 11, 2006 Quote from “William H. Macy Takes a Walk on the Dark Side in ‘Edmund'” by Neil Amour
** Clifford, Gay. The Transformations of Allegory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pg. 11, 1974.

 

Abstract

This profile examines the film “Crash” as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio–the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes fromCrashing into–and overcoming–the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.

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14/11/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)
Director: Peter Weir
Writers: Peter Weir (screenplay), John Collee (screenplay), Patrick O’Brian (novels)
Stars: Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany, Billy Boyd

 

Original version published in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library
Journal, Vol. 23, No. 2.

 

“New Heroes for New Times”

When I first conceived of this essay on the forging of true male friendship on the high seas in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, I simply thought of the gift of mythic inspiration being offered by the portrayal of a dynamic caring between two splendid men. But then I saw Fog of War in which the inability of two powerful men to speak honestly to one another — a U.S. President and his Secretary of State — resulted in one of the great disasters of the twentieth century. That was when I realized that open communication between men of immense power who know that they must sometimes commit evil in the name of good cannot be judged as ‘gay’ or ‘soft’ or ‘feminine’ or ‘irrelevant’. Now, in these modern times, when it’s not just a matter of individual deaths but the death of nations that’s at stake, our mythology of what makes a real man is critical. In Master and Commander, duty is wed to compassion as both friend and opposite, inseparable companions worthy of and dependent upon one another for survival, healing and success.

In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a deep friendship between men is elevated to the level of heroes. And manliness is given a new strength to face an unknown future. The film reinvigorates the old mythology of what makes a man a real man, showing how consciousness and identity can be forged in intimate relationship as well as in battle. And then it goes one step further. Master and Commanderputs forth a new kind of hero – a boy who finds insects as fascinating as dragons, pencils as necessary as guns and good male role models more compelling than bad. It seems like a good time to be a boy.

A boy’s odyssey to manhood may still be held captive by Homer’s ancient tale of the man who bears its name – Odysseus – but the nature of the journey, once completely singular, has begun to change. Master and Commanderprojects an expanded vision of expectation meeting the boy who is growing to manhood in our society today. It holds friendship with other men and caring for children central to the task of becoming a ‘real man’. This heroic image of manhood calls for self-reflection and listening as well as decisive action and conquest. And decisions, solo as they must remain, are not without context. Individual performance often emerges from intense interaction, be it warm and complementary or antagonistic. And, important to the challenge of today’s complicated conflicts, the expanded myth of manhood taking symbolic form in Master and Commandershows an empathetic understanding of an enemy’s point of view beginning to compete with brute force as a tool for victory. Purposeful expression, honest communication, and a genuine feeling for others gain stature as an integral part of leadership. The consequence is a complex, more complete and more fulfilled image of male identity.

Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World opens fast, sweeping across a wild, vast sea with only a fluttering of sails to suggest that men are present. But present they are. In the creaking hold of a British ship of war, a lone lantern makes its way through the dark. A disembodied hand flips the daily sandglass and shadowy sailors exchange places on the tall masts of HMS Surprise against the dawning light of a new day. Napoleon may represent the enemy in 1805 to British imperialism, threatening to claim the South Seas for France but, in this film – in the hands of master filmmaker, Peter Weir – the French enemy ship, Acheron, represents the threat of a future dominated by technological advancement. The Acheron comes like a phantom from the fog, pinpointing the aging Surprise as if equipped with laser beam radar and sporting an invincibility that will require more wit than gunpowder from its Captain, “Lucky” Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe). Aubrey’s orders may be to keep the Southern Atlantic Ocean under English control, but his truer purpose will be to assert the spirit of man over the reach of machine. This is the stuff of mythology, the coming of a new hero for a new time. But Aubrey, unlike Odysseus, brings friendship to an even level with the power of personality as key to a man’s stature. He enters into a creative tension with the ship’s physician, a man his equal and opposite, Dr. Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany). Friendship undergoes close examination inMaster and Commander, articulating a modern, yet very manly, vision of caring for others. It is the forging of a fit, compassionate image of leadership from a friendship between two extraordinary men on the far side of the world at the cusp of a new age that lies at the center of this film.

Homer’s famed Odyssey established Odysseus as a new hero for his times, a man with a more enlightened consciousness, one in which a mere mortal possesses heightened god-like mental as well as physical abilities. As the tale goes, when Agamemnon forced Odysseus to join Ithaca’s war against Troy and bring civilization to a primitive world, he dragged Odysseus from his fields as a man who knew how to sow seed, nurture it to fruition and reap the rewards of civility. When war became Odysseus’ only pursuit, he hardened and learned to defend himself with a cleverness and pride that excluded concern for community, honing his mind to the fine art of thought designed for action in battle. If we were to imagine Odysseus’s twenty-year journey home from the Trojan wars as a personal quest to develop a male identity more suitable to society than battle, his extended visit with the goddess Calypso could be seen as necessary to the transition, critical to the development of emotional and spiritual sensitivities. Woman was regarded – borrowing words from Joseph Campbell – as ‘being there’ at the center of a man’s quest for wholeness. Odysseus was a battle weary man in desperate need of getting in touch with feelings that would allow him to re-enter his previous life. He was headed across the great seas of the Mediterranean toward home and Penelope, his devoted, patient and much desired wife who had kept his palace, lands and marriage bond intact during his absence. Odysseus could be seen as a man in great need of integrating emotion into his being. He accomplished this task of learning to love, empathize, and be sensual in the typical way imagined for a hero – with a woman. In the time of Odysseus, a man’s spiritual desire was deemed synonymous with capitulating to the lure of feminine beauty beheld in a woman.

The notion of a Greek hero developing or emanating empathy in context of another man was a contradiction in terms. So, when Peter Weir’s Master and Commandershows the brave, cunning and charismatic Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise expressing private worries, seeking out frank opinion and playing impassioned string duets with Dr. Stephen Maturin, his stature as a traditional hero is either in question or under revision. And the same could be said of Maturin, a man of no small heroic stature even though he serves in a secondary position as ship’s surgeon. He not only performs brain surgery in a makeshift open air amphi-theatre of the ship’s hold while the patient’s shipmates look on but he digs the remnants of an errant bullet from his own belly, with little or no anesthetic, backwards through the reflected image of a mirror! These are men whose manhood should not be in question. But, of course, that is what’s at stake. Aside from the intensely emotional confrontations that stretch anyone’s notion of male bonding, there will be two crucial moments when each of these men must choose between his egoistic goals and friendship. Their decisions challenge the self-contained image of stoicism traditionally thought critical to the definition of a real man. The oceanic forces of the collective unconscious are at work once again. Under the pressures of war and weather in Master and Commander, they set male identity in motion — and demand from audiences a greater appreciation of the breadth of male heroism than previous myth would have it.

The two men of Master and Commanderare strong individualists – and worthy adversaries in conversation and vision. Captain Jack Aubrey and Doctor Stephen Maturin are about as contrary in temperament and calling as two men can get. But the differences that lie between them are not there to be mollified, lessening either man’s stature by negotiation or compromise. Having a friend not like himself proves useful, making each man feel unique, strong and true to his nature. At the center of this story lies a choice point for each man, a moment when each must look deep within and choose what marks himself as a man – honoring friendship or pursuing ambition. They shift and ponder and groan, determined to integrate the feelings they have for one another into their larger sense of purpose in the world.

“Lucky” Jack Aubrey is a man of action, Master and Commanderof what it takes to keep men, ship, and country together under siege. As he dares to round the Horn of South America in his creaking brig against great and dangerous odds, he yields to Maturin’s pressure to be self-reflective. Not easily, but he does. He finally admits to his friend that his pursuit of the more advanced Acheron into treacherous seas is, indeed, no longer dictated by orders from England. It is his own will, his own interpretation of duty that sends him forward. Only in the privacy of intimate conversation does he admit such hubris. Aubrey feels he must prove that an experienced man of skill and intelligence will be relevant to a future that promises to be dominated by advancements in technology. As he casts his eyes upon a small model two of his men have constructed of the Acheron, he declares, “That is the future”. But he also comments, “it is still vulnerable at the star, like the rest of us”. Subtly, he refers not simply to the construction of a ship but to the ego of his enemy, the man behind the weapon. This is a leader who values empathy as an advantage in war not to be forgotten.

Dr. Stephen Maturin is a quieter man of science, observant, thoughtful and sardonic, preoccupied by a curiosity for nature. He may be aboard a ship but he is not a man of the sea. With nerves as steely as Aubrey, he holds his own and inspires high regard from seasoned sailors. ‘He’s a physician, not just a bloody surgeon’, snaps a seaman who knows most naval doctors simply cut off limbs after a battle. In spite of his ignorance of sailing, Maturin is not a man to be taken lightly. He may not understand nautical terms but that doesn’t stop him from grasping intention and expressing strong opinions about the direction Aubrey chooses. He also operates upon wounded men with a cold confidence that denies his awareness of the limitations of medical treatment at sea and leaves him optimistic about the future of a boy who loses an arm from the nasty consequences of war. It was common practice for boy children to be sent into naval service by their parents in 1805, but uncommon for them to be regarded with such respect as they receive aboard the HMS Surprise.

Together, Maturin and Aubrey set a tone of mentoring and convey a vision beyond war. Maturin is as intent upon using the Royal Navy to further his scientific investigation of the unknown world as Aubrey is intent upon extending Britain’s power into it. He bristles with anger when Aubrey dismisses his scientific investigation as a hobby, not of worldly consequence. Maturin takes Aubrey equally to task when he refuses to turn back toward England when both men and ship are stressed past the breaking point. “Can you really claim that there is nothing personal in this call to duty?” The two seem to thrive on being honest to the sticking point with one another. Intensely competitive, their exchanges reveal the workings of a friendship, showing an interplay between passion, honesty, and respect that feeds achievement. Each man sees himself in line for legend and, with a little mythic imagination, can be seen as using the navy for higher purpose – to further the reach of mankind beyond the known.

Even when they’re having fun, an exchange between the two carries mythic significance. As all the officers are having a meal together, Aubrey mocks Stephen’s serious nature with a joke. He asks Stephen to make a choice between two bread weevils. And then, with a twinkle in his eye, he takes advantage of Stephen’s gullibility. ‘Don’t you know, Stephen, that there is no better of two-weevils?” Might it be the two natures of these men that pose the choice? Or perhaps something even more profound? Later, when Jack and Stephen are discussing the responsibility they both feel for the deaths of young men aboard ship, the joke comes back to haunt them. Stephen owns to Jack that guilt weighs heavy on him when he operates. He must remind himself that when a man dies under his knife, it has been the enemy and not himself who has caused the man’s death. Then, in somber tone, he returns Jack’s joke to its source. “It’s service to war, Jack, that requires a choice between two evils.” Aubrey’s casual joke is brought full circle, revealing the emotional complexity required of responsible men.

More than the buddy camaraderie seen in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid or in a myriad of movies with the likes of Hope and Crosby, the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin often requires each man to become introspective, look within himself and reconsider what’s important to him. Thus, each man is called upon to develop himself and stretch beyond his own consciousness. The string duets with Aubrey on violin and Maturin on cello are described by the ship’s cook as ‘scrape, scrape and screech, screech’ which is, indeed, an amusing characterization of the insistent nature of their collaboration.

Aubrey, long past his orders and against Maturin’s counsel, pursues theAcheron ’round Cape Horn. It is at this point that Master and Commandertruly lifts into mythic storytelling and opens the way for an alchemical transformation of common friendship into something heroic. The weather gods are not with Lucky Jack this time. Raging storms, freezing winds and bizarre blankets of snow are not relieved but aggravated by a blistering hot dead spell. A stream of fear passes from man to man. Rumors of the Acheron as a supernatural enemy, one meant to sink them into the deep, replaces reason. As tensions escalate, Jack comes down hard on his men to keep order but it’s clear that things are out of his hands. It will take a sacrifice of human life – a young officer committing suicide – to get the winds moving. It’s as if HMS Surprise has entered another world, where life and death choices scrape against one another.

When the Surprise comes upon the strange and never explored Galapagos Islands, rare wildlife comes into view. Flightless cormorants and swimming iguanas can be sighted from aboard ship. Maturin feels they should be his to examine up close. Aubrey, believing the Acheron is long gone, grants Maturin his wish. But then Jack learns from a couple pirates that theAcheron is nearby and can be caught with small effort. He breaks his promise to Stephen, favoring the opportunity to chase after the Acheron. Maturin is furious, confronting Aubrey with the meaning of breaking one’s word. Tempers fly but Aubrey is resolute. And then an uncanny accident occurs that will force a character defining choice from Aubrey. Maturin is shot by mistake; a shipboard marine, attempting to shoot an albatross flying in and out the ship’s sails, misses and hits Stephen. He is not killed but the bullet wound contains a scrap of cloth that will fester and take his life. Removal is tricky, not a task to be performed by a skilled surgeon on board a rolling ship much less by Maturin’s inexperienced assistant. Aubrey must decide. Friendship or duty. Saving Stephen’s life or catching the Acheron.

Aubrey faces the crux of the matter in a world beneath and below; is he Maturin’s friend or, solely, his captain? Scrape, scrape. Duty is no longer a defense he can throw at Stephen in anger. He must ask himself. Is he on this journey alone or is Maturin an integral part of it. To Aubrey’s mind in the moment, it is his friend’s life or his dream, the chance to prevail in English history with singular ego. England’s praises await him. And he’s capable of heartless action to achieve his goals. But, to chase after the Acheron will mean certain death for Maturin. The doctor’s survival requires a steady hand on steady land. In a pensive set of cinematic reflections, Aubrey walks amongst his men, looks at the Acheron so tempting within his scope and ponders Maturin’s cello without a hand on its bow. He makes up his mind. Aubrey aborts his chase and escorts Maturin ashore for the surgery.

Aubrey’s decision to be in service to his friend, however, calls for a bit more of him than captain’s orders. It requires a reversal of roles, casting him in the role of a nursing assistant. For a few moments, he is handmaiden to Maturin who must take the scalpel to save his own life. Seeing Stephen operate on his own body exposes Jack to a queasiness he never feels in battle, a feeling he could’ve avoided for a lifetime but now has an opportunity to integrate. Then Aubrey, who believes the Acheron is long gone, grants Stephen a week to explore the island. Of course, because they are in the land of the gods, Stephen is miraculously up and about the next day, taking a five-mile hike to the far side of the Galapagos Island.

Then, the weevil joke turns again. Maturin faces Aubrey’s choice between ego and friendship. While hiking to the edge of a cliff to get a close look at a flightless cormorant, he sights the Acheron just setting sail from a hidden inlet. Screech meets scrape. Friendship makes another call. Maturin could ignore his duty to the Royal Navy, sure in his own mind that he’s fulfilling a higher duty by bringing home to England an unprecedented treasure. But he can’t deny his emotional commitment to Jack. He must match him. Maturin stares with longing eyes across an island as rare as the moon. He must abandon his investigation, releasing his exotic specimens from their cages, and rush back across the island to alert Aubrey. Now, friendship drives this man away from his chance to go before god and country as a singular hero. In Maturin’s case, there is even more at stake since Aubrey is intent upon taking them into battle with the Acheron, a battle that could take his life as well as his goal into the deep dark sea.

But their friendship yields an unexpected gift.

Later, under sail with Maturin back to work making notes and drawings, Aubrey pays him a visit. Jack commends Stephen for, what in his mind, was the right choice. But he also commiserates with Stephen’s loss. “Nothing saved? All lost?” Then, as they screech and scratch their way through a sensitive parry of pride and loss, something magical happens. Maturin shows him one ‘save’ from the island. He hands Jack a small branch of a bush and, enjoying a moment of foolery at Aubrey’s expense, looks on without saying anything. Aubrey plays along, especially since he has the audience of young Will. He holds the stick under his gaze until it moves ever so slightly and reveals itself to be an insect. Stephen explains that the insect camouflages itself as a stick to elude hungry birds. A sly look creeps across Jack’s face. Maturin has given him just the note he needs to draw in the phantom Acheron and, with Lucky Jack’s luck, possibly take it as a prize. He will disguise the Surprise as a whaler, pretty prey for the Acheron.

The creative tension between Jack and Stephen, epitomized in the music they play together but drawn out in detail in the choices they’ve made to elevate friendship above duty, yields an edge for the HMS Surprise in battle. Jack turns Stephen’s trick of nature into a ‘ruse de guerre’, using an insect’s instinct for survival not simply as camouflage for survival but as a way to get the upper hand against a superior force. Stephen, of course, can’t resist teasing his friend by pointing out that it is Jack, not the captain of theAcheron, who is the hungry bird! Later, in hand to hand combat on theAcheron, it will become necessary for Stephen to pick up a sword, exercising physical aggression as well as intelligence to defend himself. Each man must become more than he has been to meet the future.

And then there’s Will. Early on, when the Acheron came out of the fog like a phantom, its long cannon crashed into the HMS Surprise. It took its toll on ship and men alike. Will Blakeney (Max Pirkis), a bare teen, lost his right arm. But it seemed to make him stronger, more of a leader among the men. He gladly accepted the consequences of battle, determined to make others feel better about their weak points. The boy rises above the wound, using his recovery to study and learn. He reads Aubrey’s books on war at sea, (in particular, one about the renowned naval hero, Lord Hornblower) and draws pictures of Maturin’s insects. He softens the blows of Aubrey’s stubborn command upon Maturin and buffers Maturin’s angry judgments against Aubrey. He is a voice of kindness, especially providing a calm presence to the sailors around him as fear fed superstition characterizing the mightyAcheron as a devil ship. But he also steps up to take command when necessary. Will fills the bill as ‘the one’. He connects the above and the below, the opposites of rule and exception, reason and emotion, light and dark. Hermetic, he listens, carries messages and furthers a mysterious connection between forces when all else is failing. When an officer, designated by the seamen as a scapegoat for the unexplainable adversity of bad weather befalling the Surprise, takes his own life to appease the gods, Will is there to witness it. Of course, the winds began to blow. The ineffable connection between belief and effect has been paid homage – and acknowledged, much like in the ancient days of Agamemnon.

It is no small gesture of mythic storytelling that the fledgling image of a ‘relational masculine’ takes its human form in the ship’s very young midshipman, Will Blakeney. Will may be destined to the action of war but he harbors talents as a naturalist, gluing opposites together with empathy. His mentors may turn to one another for sibling-like solace but Will’s caring is key to his personality, instinctual not behavioral. He not only draws insects, he cherishes a lone beetle saved from the Galapagos. The beetle proves a bit of welcome salve for Maturin’s loss as Aubrey takes off after the Acheron. In case the implication of Will as a new kind of hero in the making might be missed, Maturin reflects out loud to Will that – perhaps, somehow – he will grow up to combine the qualities of a captain of war and a doctor of science. Will likes the idea. “Perhaps I could become a fighting naturalist.” If so, he would transcend and unify the opposites that Maturin and Aubrey find so antagonistic – and add an alliance of male strength to the myth of what makes a real man.

Novel idea, two heroes in the same story. Each made more unique by the other. True friendship. Novel idea, two men parenting a ‘fighting naturalist’, a real man for a future that will call out for both. Out of fierce confrontations, solid disagreements and embarrassing concessions, Aubrey and Maturin wring a broader version of manhood from mythology than the one left by Odysseus. The conflict between two friends drives the center of a drama in the mythic territory of wild seas on the far side of the world. And the boys who watch, the boys who would become men under such unusual tutelage constellate an Odysseus who turns egoism to compassion, avoiding the pride that brought Poseidon down on Odysseus. As Stephen says of the Iliad, “The book is full of death, but oh so living.” Yes, as it is also in the film, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World.

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