Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Captain Fantasy

I saw “Captain Fantastic” last night and have some thoughts.  Some are trivial, but eventually I want to get to the socially relevant part.

Start with trivial.  Man, is this movie a fantasy.  So this guy lives in the North Cascades as a Noam Chomsky-loving, leftwing survivalist.  His brood is beyond perfect: athletic outdoorskids, academically brilliant, courageous and creative.  No sibling rivalry, except for one black sheep.  The mountains are stunning, and it’s always summer.  (I’ve hiked the North Cascades, and even at the peak of summer they can get pretty harsh.)  There are no other humans to get in their way or make trouble for them.  They grow, hunt or gather all they need and are generally in great health.

This comic book vision is a problem for Viggo Mortensen.  He’s an extraordinary actor; his portrayal of Freud in “A Dangerous Method” was like a biographical essay.  I feel he was miscast here, however, because his subtlety and intelligence clash with the cartoonish aspects of the story.  The potential for something a lot better glimmered from time to time (for instance, the exchange with a daughter about Lolita), but mostly I found myself thinking, “This is just a put-on, but then, what’s the point?”

Oh, and someone out to show his cultivated musical tastes might specify he prefers the Goldbergs with Glenn Gould, but never the solo cello works with Yo-Yo Ma.  A weird, out of place middlebrow play.*

But let’s get to the more substantial stuff.  The real politics of movies is generally unconscious, what’s assumed by the film maker and the audience in order to get to the more deliberate parts of the package, like plot, character, ambience, or whatever.  Here are three political assumptions about the left that I noticed in this movie:

1. Wide open nature good, crowded cities bad.  The “organic” life is one that needs a lot of landscape.  Just in surface-of-the-earth terms, this family has a pretty big footprint.  How generalizable is their lifestyle?  Not at all.  We have a name for cool things that only a few can have the opportunity to enjoy: privilege.  It’s like people who think “green building” means rammed earth single-family homes surrounded by acres of inspirational forest or desert.  Multiply that by tens of millions and what do you have?  Rammed earth suburbia.

2. Rejection of the division of labor.  Self-sufficiency is assumed to be a foundation of “left” thinking.  It’s the ultimate in localization; forget the global economy, we’re not even going to import from the people down the road.  Of course, the accouterments of a modern, division of labor economy are all there when and as needed: the bus, the hospitals, the climbing gear, and even the Ball jars used for putting up food.  And all the clothing that isn’t made from animal skins.  So what does this family specialize in producing so they can pay their way in this economy?  Beats me.

3. Politics as aesthetics.  We all have our preferences.  We like some foods, music and activities more than others.  Fine.  And aesthetic criticism is OK too.  (I implied this about Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach, although my point was more sociological than musicological.)  The film, however, is steeped in the assumption that a “left” perspective on America is tied to, almost equivalent to, an aesthetic rejection of mainstream American culture.  Maybe that’s an accurate depiction of how it is, but if so, bad news for the left.

*Incidentally, if I read the credits correctly, that wasn’t Gould on the soundtrack, but they did have Ma.  My guess is that the recording quality of Gould would sound strangely antiquarian in this context.


kevin quinn said...

Peter: But the burning question is: which Gould - late or early? I'm in the Late camp myself, and the Earlies are nothing but running dogs of imperialism and Schactmanite splitters to boot!

Peter Dorman said...

His live concert in Tirana, Albania is the only correct version. It brings out the contradiction between the proto-humanist Bach, who points toward a future liberation for which the material conditions were not ripe, and the composer-worker at the mercy of pre-capitalist remnants of the Leipzig clerico-aristocracy. The fugal form captures this two-sided artistry perfectly, but only an articulation informed by critical distance from all class forces at play in transitional Germany can reflect this. Gould's Albanian concert is fully articulated in this way.

kevin quinn said...

Well said, Peter.

E. Hoxha

PS: Did you see Bach in the USSR? Me, neither!