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Silence Falls for The Artist

It was a nice surprise to find The Artist every bit as compelling and impressive as it was hyped up to be. There is something immediately profound in the level of complex communication that can be acheived without words; our shared experience as humans seems to enable us to reconstruct entire thought processes and emotional journeys from facial expressions and physical gestures alone. Particularly memorable was the image of Peppy physically enacting the imagined caresses of George with the help of his suit jacket as it hung from a coat stand -- a proficient bit of physical comedy, and at the same time so resonant of that near-universal longing for reciprocated love.

No wonder, then, that the film took on some 'big' themes. The one that stuck out most to me was pride in the face of grace. With the advent of 'sound', silent superstar George is old news and rising 'talkies' starlet Peppy is the next big thing. But Peppy loves George and watches with sorrow, rather than self-satisfaction, as the transition which has shot her to fame leaves him workless, fameless, and increasingly destitute. Unbeknownst to him she begins to take a sort of guardian angel role towards him, using her newfound wealth to buy his cherished possessions when he is forced to sell them at auction, and eventually taking him into her home while he recovers from the effects of a fire started by him in a desperate moment of self-destruction.

George is conflicted - he loves Peppy and is touched by her kindness towards him. But his pride is sorely hurt by his diminished circumstances and loss of status, and the idea of accepting charity from the young woman he loves repels him. When he finds out the extent of her benevolent machinations it becomes to much for him and he dramatically spurns her efforts and walks out.

Peppy's intentions are completely ingenuous: she wants to share her life and the good things she has with George, not to dominate or to hold him obligated to her. But he is blinded to her love and can only see the threat she poses to his self-sufficiency: no amount of poverty or suffering seems worse to him than the humiliation of being indebted.

Just the other day I reached chapter 2.4.7 of Brother's Karamazov, which relates a remarkably similar incident. The youngest brother, Alyosha, is sent on an errand of mercy by a wealthy young woman to bestow a substantial sum of money on an impoverished captain. The captain is at first thrilled with joy and relief as he describes all that the money will enable him to do: get the medical help his wife and daughter need, remove his family from the town where they are scorned and outcast, and make a fresh start. And then, all of a sudden, he can't take it anymore. Rage and pride overtake his joy and he flings the money to the ground:
And suddenly raising his right foot, he fell to trampling them with his heel in wild anger, gasping and exclaiming each time his foot struck: "There's your money, sir! There's your money, sir! There's your money, sir! There's your money, sir!" Suddenly he leaped back and straightened up before Alyosha. His whole figure presented a picture of inexplicable pride. "Report to those who sent you that the whiskbroom does not sell his honor, sir!" he cried out, raising his arm in the air. Then he quickly turned and broke into a run: but he had not gone even five steps when, turning all the way around, he suddenly made a gesture to Alyosha with his hand. Then, before he had gone even five more steps, he turned around again, this time for the last time, and now there was no twisted laugh on his face, but, on the contrary, it was all shaken with tears.
All he needed to do was accept what was freely offered, and he could experience in actuality the very joy and freedom that only moments ago he had relished in anticipation. The 'honour' that he attains in rejecting the blessing seems a hollow substitute -- it's a tragic and frustrating read.

What Christian doctrine refers to as 'The Fall' is often understood as the pride-driven rebellion of man against God. Genesis 1 and 2 describes us as beings created for relationship with God, in Whose image we are made and from Whom our life and purpose are derived. But we wanted to set ourselves up as self-sufficient, independent from the life of God and not beholden to Him. However you understand Genesis 3, the 'eating of the apple' represents this choice of man to try to live on our own terms apart from God's sustaining grace. The promise of the serpent to Eve, in verse 4 and 5, was that this act of disobedience would enable them to become 'like God'. The reality was that from that point on life became a struggle: providing for themselves involves wearisome toil (3:17-18), childbirth - continuing the species - becomes painful (3:16a), there is tension and a power struggle between man and woman (3:16b), they experience shame (3:7), they are distanced from God (3:8), and they face death -- both physical and spiritual (3:19).

Whatever you believe about the Genesis account, I imagine that most people would identify at least in part with the above description of what it is like to live in this world. The implication of Genesis is that ours is a struggle that we have chosen for ourselves in our desire not to be 'ruled' by God. Having been made to live under His gracious, loving Lordship (very different to human ideas and pictures of authority), by rejecting Him we are left at odds with our environment and with ourselves, unable to function in the way we were intended to. There remains, within humanity, evidence to the effect that we are 'made in the image of God'; vestiges of beauty and goodness, acts and characteristics which mark us out as somehow 'more' than just animals. But it is often this very potential which, in its corrupted state, marks us out as so much worse than the animals -- capable of great cruelty and selfishness.* This can be seen not just the large scale atrocities and injustices committed by a particularly evil few; rather, as Solzhenitsyn so powerfully puts it: "…the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" (From The Gulag Archipelago, 1973).

The Bible describes how, in spite of our rebellion, God had a plan for reconciliation from the start (there are even hints in Genesis 3:15). That plan is realised in Jesus, as Paul explains in his letter to the Romans: "For if the many died by the trespass of the one man, how much more did God’s grace and the gift that came by the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, overflow to the many! Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification. For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!" (Romans 5:15-17)

Which brings us back to the 'free gift' conundrum: are we ready to relinquish our pride and receive what can only be accomplished by God's grace? Can we admit our insufficiency and our sin and submit to His Lordship? It is simply a return to how things were always supposed to be…but we recoil against having our lives ruled and we resent the imposition of a God who 'demands' our worship, seeing only a skewed dictatorial picture of Him and not realising that it is out of His immense love for us that He longs for us to be restored to a right relationship with Him. We make Him 'in our own image' and suppose that He wants to get one over on us, to defeat us, to impose His will on ours. But if only we understood what His will for us was we would yield in a shot. His law brings freedom (Psalm 119:44-45); His 'yoke' brings rest (Matt 11:28-30).

* Another quote from BK: "People talk sometimes of a bestial cruelty, but that's a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that's all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it." (Dostoevsky)