Saturday, February 12, 2011

Redemption characters Part II

Our apologies, dear friends, for the unintended hiatus. We will try our best to keep our updates more regular. As always, life with its myriad complexities, wonderful, frightening and awesome, plays its part in one's ability to write about beautiful things. But fear not, we shall trudge forward, unhindered, with love of cinema and philosophy in our hearts and a drink in our hands. Let us proceed, dear friends and cherished readers.

Here are five more characters from film and television (and as before, in no particular order) that have represented the wonderful spiritual and philosophical theme of redemption in one way or another. I hope you enjoy.

5. Professor Grady Tripp (Michael Douglas) - Wonder Boys

One of my favorite films of all times and definitely one of the most underrated, and amazing meditation on age, hope, success, failure and art. The book by Michael Chabon is a wonderful work and Michael Douglas brings Grady Tripp to life in a beautiful, subtle ways, a broken, confused man who tries his best to navigate the minefield of life through drugs, literature and love. Grady is a novelist whose debut is considered a minor American classic but Grady has not subsequently been able to live up to the promise of his first novel, incessantly working on a behemoth of a follow-up whose page count numbers in the thousands, meanwhile working as a professor of creative writing and literature in Pittsburgh. He's a dubious character in many ways but a good man at heart, someone who has been momentarily subdued by life but whose spirit shines bright. He takes under his wing a young, confused student(Tobey Maguire) and through a couple of bizarre, drug- and booze addled days Grady comes to realize that his happiness and art are not dependent upon drugs, cynicism or some ill-defined muse of genius but rather through sober insights into the human condition, the ability to face up to his own failures and shortcomings and in turn to reveal something funny and beautiful about the human condition.

4. Rob Gordon (John Cusack) - High Fidelity

A definitive film for my generation, one that is almost as underappreciated as the masterful Wonder Boys. High Fidelity cuts to the core of the existential angst, confusion and despair of a generation of people whose culture is so philosophically and spiritually empty that the only means by which we can express our questions is through art, perhaps primarily that of rock n' roll, that American medium of anger, hope, love and faith that has become one of the definitive elements of the 20th century. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the character of Rob Gordon is that he's a complete asshole, a wretched, pathetic human being who is nonetheless trying his best to be good but whose selfishness and egoism cloud his love, his reasoning and his talents. And this is a rare thing indeed in American films where characters are usually relegated to stereotypes and awful clich├ęs. Here we have a man who is human in the most beautiful and awful sense, someone who views his relationships, hopes and dreams only in terms of himself, not realizing that the only way to fulfill his potential is by letting go of his own ego and humble himself through love. Rob goes through immense change and development in the course of the film, and this change is reflected in his changing attitude towards music. Even though art can never provide us with our spiritual salvation it can be a moral and philosophical compass. When we move from viewing art as only echoing our own inner angst to the realization that art opens up pathways of communion to other people we have grown and flourished. The final scenes of High Fidelity represent the most beautiful kind of redemption, that of a man who is starting to know beauty in an intimate way, someone who is ready for commitment and love.

3. Earl Hickey (Jason Lee) - My Name is Earl

A wonderful, philosophical show. Earl is a redneck lowlife whose lief revolves around leisure, comfort and pleasure, someone who steals, cheats and hurts in order to satisfy his own desires. Through a series of events Earl becomes convinced that his unhappiness stems not from external sources but rather from the condition of his soul and by learning about the Buddhist metaphysical concept of Karma (from the spiritual sage Carson Daily) he sets out upon a path to redeem himself by righting the wrongs he has committed, literally crossing them off a lengthy list jotted down on a yellow legal pad. Little by little Earl seizes to view his spiritual quest in terms of possible earthly gains and rather becomes transformed in the depths of his being, even though he remains astoundingly flawed and silly, as are we all. The show is incredibly funny but also incredibly good-natured. Most television series revolve around horrible people doing horrible things, reveling in what is darkest and most pathetic about the human condition, while My Name is Earl celebrates something intrinsically noble and good in us, using humor not to demean but to elevate. 

2. Zuko (Dante Basco) - Avatar: The Last Airbender

One of the more engaging storylines in any television series or film I've seen, Zuko starts off as the primary villain of the saga and then evolves into a noble and good person, someone who lets go of his pride and lust for status and acceptance in order to do the right thing. In this journey he is guided by his uncle Iroh, a Buddhist sage who enables Zuko to live more fully in the eternal present, to enter into a meditative relationship with the world, to let go of passions, desires and thoughts and become one with the simple pleasures of a falling leaf, the joy of conversation, the warmth of the human touch, the beauty of a perfectly made cup of tea. The story arc of the series is basically a long reflection on beautiful spiritual principles shared by many of the great Oriental philosophies, most specifically those of Taoism and Buddhism, revealed most clearly in the beautiful redemption of Prince Zuko.

1. Phil (Bill Murray) - Groundhog Day

When first realeased Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day was considered nothing more than a standard romantic comedy but has in later years it has increasingly been recognized as a deeply spiritual and philosophical film, a meditation on salvation, repentance and redemption. Phil, played by Bill Murray, is an egotistical jerk whose life is primarily defined by suffering, his own and that which he imparts upon other people. He gets stuck in some unexplainable metaphysical limbo/purgatory where February 2nd (Groundhog Day) repeats itself endlessly, forcing him to undergo the kind of spiritual examination that is essential to our happiness and welfare (represented in the Greek world by the dictum of "Know Thyself" inscribed above the entrance of the Oracle of Delphi). Phil utilizes his dilemma at first to fulfill his passions, mirroring the philosophical challenge of Glaucon in Plato's Republic, the story of the Ring of Gyges that would enable the wearer to perform any act without fear of consequence - the point being that such power would unavoidably lead to people committing horrible, immoral acts to fulfill their desires. Yet as Socrates argues, such a life can at best serve as a kind of anesthetic, masking the spiritual pain that defines our existence. Phil soon realizes this when confronted by the two great mysteries of life, love and death, after which he devotes himself to the healing of his soul, little by little trying to become a better person, as silly, messed up and humiliating as that process is. Bill Murray is so perfect in this role that I remain convinced that it will be considered one of the all-time great performance of American acting in the 20th century, perfectly portraying both the shallowness and banal wickedness of the human condition as well as the spiritual and communal heights to which we can ascend.

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