Wednesday, October 8, 2008

France, America, and The Thing

One of the major movies from the period Tony Judt is writing about – at least in America, was The Thing, a 1951 movie in which a scientific expedition digs up an alien and makes the mistake of letting it thaw out. The Americans defeat the alien through Yankee ingenuity and at the end one of the characters warns America to keep a lookout for more of them – to “watch the skies.”

That was good political advice at the time because the alien Communists were out there as well. Meanwhile back in France, the French were just getting over the shock of having been “occupied” by a bunch of aliens: us, America. They were so befuddled by their recent Vichy experience that they were fearful of us. The only people they trusted were Communists. That’s pretty strange all by itself, but they were easily befuddled back then (some would say they still are), despite all the intellectuals they had and the “purchase” these intellectuals had on French citizenry. It seems these intellectuals were really big into painting, poetry and music but didn’t know very much about history or foreign affairs.

And so these intellectuals worked at sublimating their guilt. They had collaborated to some extent with the Germans – all of them had to some extent – even if it was just holding one’s tongue rather than saying what one really thought. There was plenty of guilt to sublimate. So to help them with that, the French intellectuals created Existentialism. Sartre wrote Being and Nothingness in 1943. This work is credited with beginning the Existentialist movement of the twentieth century. There are no universal standards he tells us, and therefore, no reason to feel guilty because guilt implies falling short of a standard. There is also no purpose in life because in addition to their being no God, there is neither heaven nor hell. The most one can hope for in life is to seek some cause to occupy one’s mind. Sartre selected Communism.

I might scoff at French intellectuals, but I haven’t all that much respect for American intellectuals either. They follow after the French rather faithfully. France, after all, is the center of all things wild and wonderful, true and beautiful; so they (the American intellectuals) read all these French intellectuals – instead of reading French history which would have warned them how screwed up they were.

Time passes, French Existentialism is dutifully swallowed by American intellectuals. One of them, John Carpenter, decides to remake The Thing. He gets Ennio Morricone to do the score, and acquires a cast of excellent actors, e.g., Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Tom Waites, David Clennon, and Joel Polis. Only in this new movie, on the other side of Existentialism, The Thing isn’t out there. Oh, it is to begin with, but it doesn’t stay there. Soon it is inside, in the characters. They are all alien and evil and deserve to die and – they all do. There are no survivors in this Existentialist remake – no one telling us to watch the skies. We are on our own, for none of us deserve to live and the sooner we realize that the better off we’ll be – at least according to Sartre and his fellow Existentialists.

Lawrence Helm

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