Monday, June 19, 2006

Enshrining sacrifice: the American Film Institute's 'inspiring' film list

It was inevitable, almost predestined, that Frank Capra's cinematic paean to selflessness and self-sacrifice, "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946), would be voted the most inspiring American film out of one hundred candidates by the American Film Institute. In a culture that values altruism as a primary, uncontroversial, not-to-be-questioned virtue, it is almost an instance of determinism.

On its official website, the AFI's director and CEO, Jean Picker Firstenberg, explained the purpose of the program that aired the choices on national television on June 14:

"The past few years have not been easy in America -- from September 11th to the devastation of hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. AFI's 100 years....100 Cheers will celebrate the films that inspire us, encourage us to make a difference and send us from the theatre with a greater sense of possibility and hope for the future."

The website notes: "AFI distributed a ballot in November 2005 with 300 nominated inspiring movies to a jury of over 1,500 leaders from the creative community, including film artists (directors, screenwriters, actors, editors, cinematographers), critics and historians."

"To make a difference," in the context of the Capra film, is a euphemism for selfless efforts on behalf of others, for "giving back" to society, to the "community," to the world.

The AFI program, broadcast under the title "Cheers," elaborates on its moral criteria of the "most inspiring:

"Movies that inspire with characters of vision and conviction who face adversity and often make a personal sacrifice for the greater good. Whether these movies end happily or not, they are ultimately triumphant -- both filling audiences with hope and empowering them with the spirit of human potential."

And therein is the clincher: "sacrifice for the greater good."

In previous commentary, I cited Bill Gates's decision to "give back" his billions as an auspicious instance of craven selflessness in a commitment to "make a difference for the greater good." It is his money, and he has a right to dispose of it as he wishes. One can think of a number of "worthier" things he could spend the money on than on the insatiable demands of the needy, such as the endowment of a university fully staffed by advocates of reason and freedom.

However, one would like to ask him: "On the premise that you are giving back to society what you took from it, what exactly is it that you took? Ideas for software? Programming innovations? If you concede that you originated those things, and not society, why are you branding yourself as a thief or a repentant debtor? If you concede that you took your customers' money in trade, why do you believe that you don't deserve every penny of it? Haven't your products revolutionized men's lives and made an incalculable difference? If you concede that you gave the public a priceless value, why are you willing to believe that it was immoral, immaterial, or irrelevant, and that you must make amends?"

But it is nearly futile to argue with a convert to altruism. One's only weapon is reason. Altruism is reason-proof. It derogates the self and selfishness. It is a corrosive that eats away at a mind and renders it progressively impervious to rational persuasion. It is why I rarely attempt to persuade an otherwise rational person of the folly and impracticality of his altruist beliefs. To make the transition from an altruist morality to one of rational selfishness requires too great a mental task for a person who at least senses the rightness of a refutation of altruism; he would see that he would need to repudiate nearly everything on which he has based his life. It is too frightening or traumatic a prospect, and the person will choose instead to "blank out" without pursuing the subject privately or in conversation.

This is not so much a digression as it is an elucidation. To the AFI, the term "inspiration," in a literary or artistic context, refers almost exclusively to the motivation to practice altruism and self-sacrifice. It has nothing to do with what Ayn Rand called "spiritual fuel" to pursue or fight for one's values. In her essay, "What is Romanticism?" in The Romantic Manifesto, she writes:

"The archenemy and destroyer of Romanticism was the altruist morality. Since Romanticism's essential characteristic is the projection of values, particularly moral values, altruism introduced an insolvable conflict into Romantic literature from the start. The altruist morality cannot be practiced (except in the form of self-destruction) and, therefore, cannot be projected or dramatized convincingly in terms of man's life on earth...."

In that same essay, she notes:

"Romanticism is a category of art based on the recognition of the principle that man possesses the faculty of volition.....If man possesses volition, then the crucial aspect of his life is his choice of values -- if he chooses values, then he must act to gain and/or keep them -- if so, then he must set his goals and engage in purposeful action to achieve them."

Some of the films that made the top 100 list are "inspiring" for the right reasons, that is, they do not inspire one to devote one's life to others' needs or to sacrifice anything, but dramatize the pursuit of personal values. The values they dramatize the pursuit of are as varied as the subjects and themes of the films. And some of them dramatize apparent sacrifices which are actually actions taken at risk to preserve values.

To cite an example from the AFI list, "Gunga Din" is about a water-carrier for the British army in India. He wants to be a regular soldier in that army, but is scoffed for his ambition. He risks his life to warn the army of a trap, and is killed. This is not so much a "sacrifice" as his achieving his goal of being a soldier (and his knowing the risks of being one). The same could be said about "Glory," in which the principal characters die as soldiers risking their lives to fight for their values. About these and a few other films that feature the risks of warfare, the last thing one would want to hear is President Bush pontificating on the virtue of sacrifice in relation to collectivist or altruist goals. Bush and Hollywood, ostensibly enemies, have more in common than either would be willing to acknowledge.

I personally find these inspiring stories. On the other hand, as a teenager I found the deterministic, Shakespearian "Lawrence of Arabia" inspiring not only for its numerous production values (such as direction, cinematographer, casting, and dialogue), but chiefly because it suggested what is possible if those same production values were applied to Romantic stories.

The majority of the films on the AFI list, however, fall somewhere in between value-pursuit and value-sacrifice, or have little or nothing to do with either end, such as "2001: A Space Odyssey." The list is as mixed as an altruist's premises. One revolts against the presence of some films on the same list as others. "Shane" and "High Noon" should not be in the same company with "Harold and Maude" and "Dances with Wolves." It is also worth noting that "The Fountainhead" did not make it to the list.

There is no room here to discuss all one hundred films on the AFI list of the "most inspiring." That would require a book. But an Associated Press article on the AFI list is instructive about the moral esteem in which "It's a Wonderful Life" is held in modern culture. It is the story of George Bailey, who surrenders his personal ambition to the needs of his "community," is about to commit suicide, when, as the A.P. article describes it, he "got a chance to see how ugly the world would be without him" had he not been born, that is, conned into relinquishing that ambition. At movie's end, George's brother, referring to all the people in Bedford Falls George has "helped," proclaims him the richest man in the town.

"We all connect to that story," said Bob Gazzale, producer of the AFI TV special. "We may not all connect to the story of a fighter from Philadelphia or a singing family in the Austrian Alps. But there's no way to get away from the inspiring story of George Bailey. It relates to us all."

No, it does not, if by "relate" he means that we all have the potential for selflessness or self-sacrifice, or the capacity to tolerate it for the sake of others' needs, as George Bailey chose to tolerate it. The first time I saw the Frank Capra film as a child, I was repelled by it, and for a long time was intrigued about why it was so revered. As a novelist, I have always wanted to rewrite that story. But Ayn Rand beat me to it in Atlas Shrugged, the story about heroes who refuse to be George Baileys.

It would be interesting to speculate on whether or not Bill Gates, now the richest man in the world, found "It's a Wonderful Life" the most inspiring movie he ever saw, and whether or not he ever privately wondered, at the peak of his career, when he was being sued by rivals and hounded by the U.S. government and the European Union, what the world would be like had he not pursued his own selfish ambition to create Microsoft, or if he now withdrew the products of his mind.

That, however, would necessitate the self-esteem of a man proud of his achievements, together with a knowledge of the injustices perpetrated against him. Bill Gates lacks both that self-esteem and a sense of justice; he is motivated by humility and mercy, the twin enemies of justice. He meets the criteria of a sacrificer for the "greater good."

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