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Let dystopia bury dystopia

February 19, 2009

I have a friend I’ll call Cindy, and all we really have in common at this stage of life is the duration of the bond. We’ve trekked from junior high to middle age together. I’ve been puzzled along most of the way, especially about the duration of the bond.

Cindy lost her job of more than 20 years in 2003. I think she was let go because of untreated menopause, a cause she rigorously denies. The Economy wasn’t yet a universal cause. She’s worked off and on since then, but is not working now. She’s divorced and has the usual upscale American debt load. She’s depressed. That’s because–though she would rigorously deny it–all things are disciplined by theology (cite deserved but not referenced), and her theology is rotten.

She does not think so. She emphatically calls herself a Christian. Her baby-soft body was sprinkled with holy water, a trophy she brandishes with great conviction. That’s because Luther’s teachings are not taught in churches that use his name. At least, they were not in Cindy’s church. But that was a long time ago. She stopped going when she was 12.

Okay, so Cindy writes me and says she is amazed that They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? has not made a comeback. She saw it in high school and it depressed her. The idea of being poor terrifies her. Her grandmother was poor during the Depression of the 1930s, and Cindy has worked hard to avoid being poor. Two master’s degrees and a vice presidency in a mid-sized publicly traded corporation is a lot of hard work. And the idea of being poor is certainly a terrifying thing: terrifying beyond imagination for anyone who is not poor.  I think if the movie were to be re-released, Cindy would go to see it.  She would go to see it because it would vindicate her terror.  Hollywood would make the terrors of penury real for her. 

By God’s grace, Cindy has no idea what being poor is. Neither do I. We have been more protected from that knowledge than we can possibly imagine. Pictures of Bangladesh and Darfur just don’t imprint for very long in our minds, and they don’t permanently impact our bodies. I can read about it and then go unload the dishwasher. For WWJD buffs, Jesus would be poor. Jesus was poor. We don’t understand what that means. That’s because we can’t understand what that means.

But Cindy finds it amazing that no one has re-released a nihilistic movie based on a novel only the French existentialists of its day embraced. I hope that the movie will never return. I hope there would be no demand for its revival at all. I hope Cindy is as out of touch with America as she is with being poor. I hope life continues to have meaning for most Americans enduring harder times–even very hard times. From what I’ve seen, most people are meeting challenges with an upbeat spirit. Maybe the really demoralized people aren’t interviewed; maybe they aren’t selected to send in their iReports to CNN.

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? was admittedly iconic, and for the wrong reasons. I never saw it, having been providentially protected with an aversion to Jane Fonda movies generally. You can read the synopsis of the novel here.

Given the novel’s  lack of joie de vivre, I can’t guess the movie was too heartening.  Basically, Jane Fonda won an Oscar for getting a guy to shoot her. Life had lost all meaning. There was no money. She had no family, no real friends. She and some guy had tried to win a dance contest to get enough money to survive the Depression. It seems to have been sort of a twisted Rollerball prototype. I didn’t think Rollerball was terrific, but I liked it pretty well. At least its low world view was earnestly dystopic. At least Jonathan E. still had values: life, love, marriage, doing well at Rollerball. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? posits the end of values and all hope with the end of a rolling-good-times economy.

I really have to hope Americans won’t line up for this nihilistic bruiser if it makes a comeback. Life is too long to submit to such a weary brand of hopelessness.

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