“Cut my life into pieces, this is my last resort.”
—Papa Roach, Infest, 2000
has all the guilt gone? It’s the echoing cry of Sunday morning voices everywhere. But it turns out that true guilt is painfully ironic, turning up so often it still seems the hardest thing to get rid of.
Notwithstanding the humanistic projects of the twentieth century, the “revenge of conscience” continues to linger over the human experience like dew over miles of grass—felt, but barely seen. Unless, that is, you visit the cineplex every now and then. In the ubiquitous cineplex large screens mechanically provide images that hordes of people mechanically pay to absorb. The nature of an encounter with a large screen is what it is. Or is it? Off the screen, one would hardly expect the lives of a working-class apple-picker, high-class attorney, and middle-class corporate slave to share meaningful closeness or depth. But on the screen, in the by-now-tired mantra of American Beauty, look closer.
Cider House Rules (1998) brought John Irving’s book and moral vision to cineplex screens, prompting an array of cultural conversation—from the ethical specificity of abortion to the more general and philosophical ethics of the role of law in society. Morality and its personal and social significance sit on the cultural hot seat as we are introduced to Dr. Larch (Michael Caine) and Mr. Rose (Delroy Lindo).
As a doctor in an orphanage, Dr. Larch passionately preaches and embodies the utilitarian spirit: What is important is doing something in order to be of use. As a working-class apple-picker on a farm, Mr. Rose voices and lives his moral choices from a perspective that is hyper-individualistic: Whose business is it? In seemingly every scene with Mr. Rose, he inundates us with that probing and haunting question. Throughout the story of Cider House Rules we see the progressive impact of Mr. Rose’s moral philosophy as it eventually joins streams with the specific topic of abortion, and, perhaps more importantly, with his own bloodstream.
If Drew Carey’s Whose Line Is it Anyway? is ever in need of a ratings-twist, he might consider reinventing the show as a new “reality-morality show” set in the Cider House: Whose Business Is it Anyway? The confrontation scene in the apple orchard between Homer (Tobey Maguire) and Mr. Rose is particularly revealing and edgy as Mr. Rose defaults to his favorite question. Out of breath and out of his mind, Homer—who is morally perplexed throughout the film—comes running up to Mr. Rose asking him if it was true about his daughter. To the question of his alleged incest and the resulting pregnancy, Mr. Rose responds, “It’s not your business.” Whose business is it anyway? Without forgetting that Irving is intentionally inserting humanity and complexity into the argument for abortion, he is also suggesting rather earnestly—through this and subsequent interactions between Homer and Mr. Rose—that morality is a private thing, and it is best for all of us to keep it that way.
Living in a reality-morality that does not exceed our private intuition, experience, or conviction surely has its pick of consequences. One near-inevitable consequence is that we are necessarily left in the private (and lonely) position of taking care of our own guilt. That is, if it genuinely bothers us. It bothered Mr. Rose.
A raggedy, uncomfortable cot serves as a fitting deathbed for Mr. Rose as he explains to Homer that his daughter had run off in the middle of the night. He attempted to reach out and stop her (with his hands no less), but she knifed him in the stomach. As Homer evaluates Mr. Rose’s wounds, he notices there is a second and distinct cut in his abdomen. “I did that with my own knife,” says Mr. Rose. “Sometimes you gotta break some rules to put things straight.”
The business of his guilt had become such that his final request and last resort is to be left to himself and with himself as he bleeds to death in the cider house. Significantly, the cider house is the very place he and Homer burned the sheet of posted rules they had judged irrelevant and useless. This symbolic rule-burning is, in fact, one of the most dramatic moral statements in the film. But as we are left to ponder the remorse of Mr. Rose, a larger symbolism begins to eclipse this burning: the symbolism of a guilty man wanting to be left alone with his business.
Part of the narrative style of Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2002) is to use the power of proverb as a storytelling technique. Periodically the action, dialogue, and overall movement within the film are allowed a pause as we see a quote or phrase presented to us on a black screen with white letters. It seems appropriate: in these “pauses” we are given our own brief pause to reflect. Strangely, as we are forced to pause, in film as in life the messages become less black-and-white.
One of the more provocative messages vying for our attention and reflection comes in the form of two explosive words: “Fuck Guilt.” Although embedded in several characters, the irony and complexity of this message comes home to roost most poignantly in Troy (Matthew McConaughey).
On a typically fateful rainy night Troy is driving himself home when the moral moment happens. He has just finished “happy hour” and is taking his usual cross street when the high-class attorney accidentally runs over something large he did not see. Troy’s horror is humanized as he discovers the body of a young woman in a heap along the curb. Classically—like some Adamesque representative for all of us—he begins to back away and look around for a fig leaf. The best he can do is to get in his car and drive off.
Car commercials have insisted for years that being inside their car is the escape we all need. Troy probably believed that sedating pitch when he purchased his silver BMW. But even if the commute is long you have to get out at some point, and this seems to be the point of Troy’s moral dilemma. Instead of the guilty pleasure of finding his car to be an escape, Troy seems unable to hide from his guilt, and he eventually decides he must sell the car in order to get out at some point.
The damage guilt creates is not always visible, but as Thirteen Conversations moves along we become privy to the combustion within Troy because it spills over onto his face. Leftover from his accident, a small cut over his right temple cracks open a theological window into the subject of guilt, the way it works in us and on us, and our human and inhumane attempts to rid ourselves of it.
No moment in Troy’s journey of conscience is more raw than when he resorts to keeping his wound alive and unwell by cutting it with a disposable razor and then re-applying his band-aid. In the experience of genuine guilt, his conscience assertively begins to trump the silliness of the self-medicating “Fuck Guilt” propaganda he and his lawyer colleagues would drink to after a hard day at the office. His conscience does not allow his memory to fade and is somehow demanding of his body a physical reflection of his guilt. Then, like something anachronistic to Shakespeare, his conscience finally overwhelms him and prompts an appropriate retribution.
Day after day Troy stands before himself in the mirror. Day after day he notices the cut beginning to heal even as he himself remains unhealed and profoundly marked. Day after day he sees no real and true escape from the guilt because he sees no real and true escape from himself. And it is in this moment he decides to make it so memorable that he can never escape.
Quoting a line from a Bill Murray film is still one of life’s secret pleasures. In Caddyshack his eccentric greens-keeper character begins to recount a supposed golf outing with the Dalai Lama. Upon meeting the Lama, Murray’s character describes the look and aura of the man with the wry: “Striking. Very striking.”
Though an obvious pun, striking is still the best way I know to articulate the personal effect Fight Club (1999) leaves on me every time it views me. Among other hit-out themes Chuck Palahniuk’s novel-cum-movie delves into consumerism—the ism that dare not speak its name. One of our culture’s most anointed ideologies, consumerism takes a beating in Fight Club, yet it still remains to be seen if any of the beatings can redeem guilt.
Having lost all his material possessions in an apartment fire, “Jack” (Ed Norton) is bemoaning his current state and current identity status while sitting in a diner with Tyler (Brad Pitt). Raise your hand if you’ve ever been on the other end of diner-booth bitching. Although Tyler is somewhat sympathetic to Jack, he cuts through the psychobabble: “The stuff you own ends up owning you.” And so begins one of those conversations you simply must take outside.
Provocative conversation is strewn all about Fight Club, but the conversation that seems to prop the others is the “confessional” in the middle of the diner parking lot. Tyler confesses to Jack, “I don’t want to die without any scars.” The transcendent significance of this admission lies in the constituting fight that follows and in the movement of fighting it sparks. For that reason, the diner parking lot is as defining to the Fight Club story as the school parking lot is to Grease and the shopping mall parking lot to Back to the Future.
When Tyler first names and proclaims the underground movement “Fight Club,” he also institutes the first precepts of the club. Even house-churches need a form of dogma and tradition. But ultimately, as Jack remembers, “It wasn’t about words.” The most authentic text was the literal flesh-and-blood experience of fighting. In “Fight Club,” quite naturally, the fight is the text that confesses identity and gives meaning.
Complementing the authoritative text of fighting is the analogy of worship explicit in Jack’s re-telling of the beginnings of “Fight Club.” Specifically, the comparison to a Pentecostal gathering is rather illuminating because the Pentecostal worship tradition unabashedly leaves room for and encourages physical expression in worship. What becomes clear through the overnights at “Fight Club” is that the worship it encourages is a more authentic effort to engage guilt than, let’s say, the standard self-help recovery groups and group-therapy enterprises (not to mention some of the Sunday-morning practices of churchgoers). This explains Jack’s theological reflection: “When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. Afterwards, we all felt saved.”
Fight Club is always an occasion to reflect on first things—cultural and, in a surprise move, theological. In one sense Fight Club has the mystical and mythical significance of blood dead on. Archetypal stories of redemption often maintain blood as essential to the experience of redemption, including the cleansing of guilt. But if blood is essential to redemption stories, whose blood is still the primary question of any redemption story—Jack’s or otherwise. Even after the many converts of “Fight Club” embrace its way-of-life scars as their text for confronting guilt, the question remains: Can you really beat and bleed it out yourself if you’re sincere enough, or if you “feel it” enough? The first rule of redemption is . . .
Depending on the circumstances, the gentle cut of conscience might prompt last resorts of a previously unthinkable nature. The intersection where Mr. Rose, Troy, and Jack meet is indeed an unthinkable place: all have symbolically and physically decided that salvation must be something you ceremonially inflict upon yourself.
The opposite and more painful choice—as paradox would have it—is allowing wounds that have been inflicted on someone else to become your salvation. Seeing ourselves through another’s ceremonial infliction is counter-intuitive, not to mention counter-cultural, which is why sight is only gifted to the pure in heart. And so, guilt remains a human experience experienced in high-definition, even as very few have the right medium for seeing clearly.
According to the Christian vision, this way of seeing must happen—if we ever hope to quench the conscience’s thirst for satisfaction, and if we ever hope to really live. The Christian message centered in Jesus Christ invites humanity to arrive (and to continue arriving) at the moral need that conscience awakens: the need to experience a transcendent grace and forgiveness in order to deal with our ever-immanent guilt.
On the subject of guilt Thomas Merton writes, “How wise is the Church when she sings of Adam’s happy fault.” Felix culpa. He goes on to say, “The inner recesses of our conscience, where the image of God is branded in the very depths of our being, ceaselessly remind us that we are born for a far higher freedom.” To be sure, there are quite a few exchanges with this kind of freedom, but they pale when compared to the greatest loss, which is captured so beautifully in the old Christian hymn: “Sinners plunged beneath the cross lose all their guilt and stain.” Thankfully, we also lose the need for self-salvation.
Nathan Elmore lives in Salem, Oregon, with his wife, Amie, and 2-year-old son, Camden, who in the spirit of conscience (and avoidance of consequences) is developing quite a politically quick “I’m sorry.”
Nathan notes a debt to Read Schuchardt's brief discussion of Fight Club in the article “Moving Pictures” written for the former regeneration quarterly.