February 21, 2013

STALEY: Four Perspectives on Four Freedoms

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In the upcoming months, Cornell students will have the opportunity to attend three screenings and resume one TV series that feature four protagonists who typify the American male identity. These men appear in stories that either question or champion the freedoms promised by American doctrine. While steeped in American heritage and idolatry, these four icons are pitted against the attitudes of their times. They are four departures from their era’s conventions that have since become conventions. Each stands as either a torchbearer of FDR’s “Four Freedoms” — speech, worship, freedom from fear, freedom from want — or exemplars of the pitfalls these freedoms dig up.

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird plays March 1 and 3 at Cornell Cinema):

Finch, a patriot and father, represents “the freedom of speech” and the moral triumph of civic virtue over mob mentality. While defending Tom Robinson from a racially-charged, unfounded accusation of rape, Finch stands strong against the town’s disapproval. Through the trial scenes, author Harper Lee proves that while provincial attitudes may be backwards, freedom of speech is there to safeguard against immoral positions. Finch’s brave usage of the first amendment makes him our first hero. American Film Institute’s “Heroes and Villains” poll voted Gregory Peck’s 1962 role as Atticus Finch the “Greatest Hero of All Time.”

Dean Moriarty (On the Road is currently in U.S. theaters and comes to Cinemapolis April 5):

Although Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s tracking devices are unorthodox (stolen cars, hallucinogenic drugs, etc.), Jack Kerouac stated that his most acclaimed novel “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God,” taking “the freedom of worship” to its peripherals. Moriarty is a devout cowboy who has seen the American frontier mentality spread west, then close back in on itself, spawning a post-war era of claustrophobia and cultural homogeneity. Moriarty goes on the road to evade this narrow cultural atmosphere. Fleeing a lifestyle of “settling” and following traces of God, Kerouac’s duo takes the ecstasies of sex, nightlife, danger and drugs as fleeting brushes with divinity. The high priest of their new religion is undoubtedly Moriarty, the restless prophet that begot a generation of acolytes and imitators we called “hippies.” Although we now see this religion of hedonism as growing in response to America’s Judeo-Christian ethic and the ‘50s Cold War mentality, Kerouac’s notoriously celebrated the McCarthy trials with marijuana-infused parties and defended himself as a normative American Catholic. His and Moriarty’s take on Catholicism embraced a new, more liberating mode of spiritualism, natural to those who were “mad to live.”

Don Draper (Mad Men Season Six begins on AMC April 7):

Draper, nestled in his suburban cushion of materials, traditions and lies, has come to represent “the freedom from fear” of an America quickened into uniformity under the specter of an atomic bomb. During the several days of panic over the Cuban Missile Crisis portrayed in the Season Two finale, Don negotiates the selling of Sterling Cooper to Putnam, Powell and Lowell to ensure his company’s financial stability. The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, said the episode shows how “Americans in particular always respond to crises by going to work.” From the manufacturing output surge in WWII to Cold War middle-class prosperity, Americans have many distractions to free them from fear. Arguably, Draper’s whole lifestyle is meant to secure him from his fear of guilt, warfare, danger and his past. His story is ironically cast against a map of the world where arms competition has made the bombs more destructive and the consequences graver, defying the “Freedom from Fear” promise that “a world-wide reduction of armaments” be ensured so “no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor … anywhere in the world.” When we catch up to Season Five, we find a conservative Sterling Cooper Draper Price fearful of a radicalized America and social change, but Draper in an Upper East Side apartment, safely distanced from the revolution in the streets.

Jay Gatsby (The Great Gatsby opens May 10 nationwide):

Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) throws the best, rowdiest parties on Long Island, owns the biggest, gaudiest mansion in West Egg, New York and is in love with the dream girl of the American South, the most beautiful and sought-after belle, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). He aspires to the grandest heights of success in quintessential American fashion, and his will to reward is so strong that he bypasses human relationships (no friends greet him in the novel’s end) and the law (his money is illicitly obtained) to get what he wants. Since he has everything that cornerstones American success, he should have the “Freedom from Want,” right? Author F. Scott Fitzgerald instead argues that want is menacing, ruthless and endless. Gatsby is both consumed in want of the past (his times with Daisy) and want of the future and its fortunes, so consumed that he doesn’t attend his own parties and enjoy the present. Surrounding him is a circus of “wanters,” ruthless Jazz Age socialites who attend his parties but abandon him when he has nothing more to give. According to Fitzgerald, the “freedom from want” is untenable and so are the things excessive want demands. Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald argues that our rewards will infinitely tag behind our “capacity for wonder.”

To Kill A Mockingbird and the two novels (On the Road and The Great Gatsby) have captured America’s wonder; let’s hope the two film adaptations and Mad Men’s second to last season do as well.

Original Author: Henry Staley