By Darren Hughes
Note: This post serves as an introduction and guide to the ArtandFaith.com Top 25 film list for 2012.
I first read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer in the summer of 2005. I pulled it off the shelf because I needed an excuse to step away from the TV, which during those humid, late-August days was broadcasting 24-7 the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I’d become addicted to the images and to the jolts of anger, sorrow, and shame that pulsed through me as I watched, hour after hour, from the comfort of my too-large, air-conditioned home in Tennessee. In Dispatches, his memoir about his experiences as a correspondent during the Vietnam War, Michael Herr nails my mindset that day when he recalls the confusion and fascination he felt as a child while looking at photos of dead bodies in Life magazine: it was “like looking at porn, all the porn in the world.”
I’m not a southerner by birth, but I’ve spent all of my adult life here, and like many in this part of the country, I was more powerfully affected by the decimation of New Orleans than I had been by the toppling of the towers four years earlier. The more news coverage I watched, the more surreal it all became, and the more I felt degraded by the countless tragedies there on display for my consumption.
The Moviegoer is about a young veteran named Binx Bolling who sells stocks and bonds from an office in Gentilly, a cookie-cutter suburb outside of New Orleans. He passes his days with casual romantic flings and with trips to the local theater. The girls and the movies comfort Binx but fail to soothe his larger anxieties; they’re just distractions, really—diversions from his deeper calling, which Percy famously calls “the search.”
For Binx, the search is "what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something." Percy’s search is a battle against malaise, "the pain of loss." It's a fumbling yet heroic quest for permanence and wonder. It's a determined refusal of despair. It's simultaneously agnostic and holy. It's creative and endowed with impossible power.
Early on in the nomination process, we considered narrowing the definition somewhat—the word “pilgrimage” was bandied about a good bit—but we decided, finally, to leave the theme open to individual interpretation. A&F has existed in various incarnations since 1999, and the body of voters this year includes critics, teachers, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers, artists, pastors, and every manner of amateur (in the best sense of the word) film enthusiast.
As a group, we take film seriously because we consider it a complex, global art form capable of engaging deeply with the most intimate, universal, and transcendent realms of human experience. While the vast majority of us self-identify as Christian, the catholicity of our tastes and interests is represented, I think, by this list of 25 Road Movies, which includes a Pixar blockbuster (Up at #13) and a study of historical trauma that is indebted to structuralist cinema (Les rendez-vous d’Anna at #7), a timeless children’s classic (The Wizard of Oz at #20), the wonderfully strange debut by Thai avant-garde filmmaker Apitchatpong Weerasethakul (Mysterious Object at Noon at #21), a John Ford western (The Searchers at #16) and a sweet-natured story of family and reconciliation by David Lynch (The Straight Story at #1).
Looking over the list now I suppose I shouldn’t be so impressed by the variety of eras, cultures, and narrative genres on display. The renowned American mythologist Joseph Campbell likely would have nodded his head approvingly at the list, noting how each of the films conforms to and deviates from the classic structure of his “hero’s journey.”
The “on the road” theme has such staying power, in part, because there is a shared ethic at work in these stories. Some people, including a majority of A&F voters, would argue it’s a God-breathed and essential ethic—that each of these stories reflects a fundamental desire for spiritual improvement or progress toward sanctification or, more simply, a moment of epiphany or grace. (Not by coincidence, American evangelicals have taken to calling their lives “walks with God.”)
As habitual storytellers, we humans have transformed this ethic into countless odysseys, coming-of-age tales, and allegorical paths toward enlightenment. Hollywood has celebrated the “freedom of the open road” and the glory of a trial by fire. Ultimately, road movies offer us a brief glimpse of potential alternatives to the soul-sickening “everydayness” of our lives.
The Moviegoer is a touchstone of Cold War American literature because it acutely diagnoses the particular existential dread of its day. Binx is one of those “inner-directed” souls that David Riesman identified in his best-selling sociological study, The Lonely Crowd (1950)—a young man struggling to create meaning in the new, conformist, “outer-directed” world of postwar America. (I’m writing this a few hours before the season premiere of Mad Men, and it occurs to me that Don Draper has a good bit of Binx Bolling in him, too.)
I can’t help but wonder if we, the members of A&F, were drawn to road movies this year by similar, anxiety-causing shifts in the economic, technological, political, and religious foundations of our social lives. (Again, not by coincidence, A&F members have recently been debating the causes of the on-going exodus of Gen Xers and Gen Yers from American Christian churches.)
Instead of Reisman, we have Neal Postman to deliver the grim prognosis: drowning in relentless waves of images, soundbites, status updates, tweets, texts, and unprocessed, chaos-making information, we are “amusing ourselves to death.”
Consider these 25 Road Movies a kind of antidote. They are the opposite of mindless entertainments; they are signposts for the search.
Darren Hughes is a communications professional and an amateur writer and teacher. He lives on a small farm in Knoxville, TN with his wife and daughter.
Go to the ArtsandFaith.com Top 25 Road Movies list here.