Therapeutic Nonsense

Article excerpt

We've become superior to those who've struggled.

Some of my patient correspondents-at least they will have to be patient as I am now about five months behind in answering my e-mailhave taken me to task for my review on the TAS website of October Sky. Though generally favorable, the review criticized the movie for celebrating the vulgarity of the rocket-boys' desire to "escape" from their West Virginia coal town, as symbolized by a sexy girl and a sexy car, which takes precedence over the rocketry by which they eventually do escape and which is the ostensible focus of the picture. These correspondents claim that I was wrong on two points, namely that all 16-year-old boys are susceptible to such allurements, and that boys in a grim mining town in West Virginia in 1957 would have been especially susceptible, and hardly to be blamed for being so.

All of which I most devoutly believe to be true, though it is beside the point of my review, which was that the movie purports to represent something more lofty than the natural, hormone-fueled desire of teenage boys for money and fame and sex. Dramatically, this desire gets in the way of the movie's more serious purpose, as both science and patriotism are overshadowed. Also, it makes the wish of the father (Chris Cooper), that the young rocket-boy, Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal), follow him into the coal mines as a foreman, look merely perverse and incomprehensible. One correspondent even insisted that the company representative who told Homer that coal mining was "an honorable trade" really should be considered, as the film almost seemed to suggest he was, a villain.

This is what it is to live by therapeutic rather than honorable standards. America's world power was first built not of rockets, but on the backs of men like Homer's father, whom the film comes perilously close to seeing as a mere sucker, already coughing with the black-lung disease that was to kill him some two decades later. Of the industrial and military might built by the steel made from the coal dug by men like him, the world remains in awe, even though many of their sons and grandsons now see their forbears' sacrifices only in terms of the damage to health, theirs and others , and to the environment that was a by-product of its creation. They take our world hegemony for granted while idealizing an imaginary world of nature-loving savages who live in peace, engage in useful handicrafts, and scorn to tear up the bowels of Mother Earth for money.

How odd, then, that the men who shoot off rockets should be classed with such proto-hippies rather than the masters of war, just because they don't get their hands dirty and do get nicer cars and prettier girls! Luckily for American power and the relative peace it continues to maintain in the world, technical progress has allowed more and more of the dirty work of empire to be kept from the sight and smell of our high-minded intellectual classes, a fact which largely prevents their sentimental protests from being made with any urgency. It is not so lucky, however, for the culture, and in particular for that part of it which finds expression on film. The therapeutic imperative, whose natural artistic domain is the TV soap opera, has now spread like a horrible blight to every imaginable cultural manifestation, and is endemic in the movies.

But the therapeutic mentality, in the arts at least, is itself a disease, producing a kind of anti-art in which heroism is reduced to victimhood, evil to illness, and the pity and terror that tragedy elicit to mere pity. For example, The Other Sister, directed by Garry Marshall, is antiart. Like other pseudo-artistic enterprises, it is designed not to shock us with unexpected and hitherto unseen reality, but instead is an appeal to complacency. It is designed to make us feel good about ourselves, rather than to evoke any genuine feelings for others. Juliette Lewis's mentally retarded character is specifically intended to evoke feelings of patronizing sympathy, the warmer because of the remoteness of her condition from our own; Diane Keaton, as her overprotective mother, is likewise meant to stand for the prejudice and snobbery that we, wise and fortunate people, have happily overcome. …