In honor of my daughter's military service, and the service of the other soldiers we know and love;
In honor of every hero who pulled people and bodies from the wreckage on September the 11th nine years ago;
In honor of every mother who trains her child to struggle valiantly, "enduring the cross, despising the pain;"
In honor of everyone who turns away from saying, "They hate us," and turns toward generosity of spirit;
A re-posting of the following, from three years ago:
"Show me a hero,
and I'll write you a tragedy."
F. Scott Fitzgerald
And, of course, Fitzgerald could have written many a heroic story and tragedy. He knew that if you have the thing that gets your attention (the tragedy), then the writer or other artist fills in around it, and that background of tragedy makes the main point visible.
That's how background and foreground work. It is true if you are merely assembling a bulletin board in a classroom - you get the elements together, staple them on the board, and then you can "see" them. Get the elements together, back them with dark paper so that they're framed, and you will see them. It's the edges and the background and the contrast that show us a thing.
And this is true for heroes. Heroes are the ones that stand out in the foreground against the background of tragedy. During the last century, these have had names like Schindler - a Sudenten-German Catholic businessman who saved the lives of over one thousand Polish Jews during the Final Solution; and tenBoom, whose Dutch family helped Jews without forcing conversions, and even provided Kosher food and honored the Sabbath; and Rusesabagina.
This from Roger Ebert: In 1994 in Rwanda, a million members of the Tutsi tribe were killed by members of the Hutu tribe in a massacre that took place while the world looked away. "Hotel Rwanda" is not the story of that massacre. It is the story of a hotel manager who saved the lives of 1,200 people by being, essentially, a very good hotel manager.
It would have been possible to reverse the effects in this movie, and to have filmed it so that the background was the heroism of this good man - but that is not the story they told. They told the story instead of a very good hotel manager. The background of genocide was the chaos against which the clarity of his goodness was startling.
And yet, being able to see the thing in the foreground seems to be a learned skill. We have to figure out what it is we're looking at. We have to train our inner eyes to see.
As youngsters of about the ages of ten and fifteen, my little brother and I went together to the theater and we saw the movie they'd made about Corrie ten Boom's life. A worse day I have rarely had. While I watched in an agony of nauseated fascination, poor Clark had to leave the theater over and over, going out to the concession stand to get more napkins for us to wipe our eyes and blow our noses on. (To his credit, he did keep bringing his stunned and terrified self back to the seat after these short breathers.)
When it was over, the scenes that haunted me for years afterwards were all scenes of helplessness in the face of great evil. I did not remember the foreground. To my youthful inner eye, that was a movie about evil. Good people try to stand up to it. Of course they do. What else would they do? And the evil crushes everything in its reach, killing babies in front of their mothers, and crushing hands with the butt of an angry gun. I tried to be brave. I tried to identify with the obvious heroes of the story. But to my inner self, that was a movie about the helplessness of good people.
Now I think I know why I heard a story of evil. Look at that poster! Does that look like a story of the power of a hero? Thinking back on it, I wonder now if the movie makers drew the background so much for effect that the foreground was lost to it. Now look back at the movie poster for Hotel Rwanda. Look at the way the main character is larger, and rises above the horrors he takes action to stop.
And what does the poster for Schindler's List say about the movie? Look closely. The list of Jews slated for death (or worse) in the prison camps marches across the trusting hand of a child, joined together with the grownup person who will rescue the little one. The threat is there. The menace is there. It's horrible. But it's not the point. The hero is the point.
And shame on the people who made the strength and power of evil the point of the beautiful and courageous story of Corrie ten Boom and her family. I can admit that my sheltered teenage life was little preparation for her story at all. But now that I have seen that poster again, I think I was not the only one with an unfocused inner eye. Shame on them.
Stories of heroes are by necessity stories of wars and disasters and great and grave difficulty. Of course they are. Heroes do strive for goodness in the face of evil. That is what a hero is. But the point of the story is not the background. The point of the story is the hero. There is nothing for Kenneth Branaugh to do (or Sir Laurence Olivier before him), and no story of Henry V to tell if there are no soldiers dying in agony on the fields of Agincourt.
Look at that poster. What is that story supposed to be about? War? That is in the movie, and that is not what it is about. The agony of dying men? That is in the movie, and that is not what it is about. The difficulty of knowing one's own courage in the face of terror? That is in the movie, and that is not what it is about. This is a movie about a heroic leader. A hero.
In the past few decades, I have heard these things about hero stories:
"When we saw The Sound of Music in the theaters, we really thought it would only be a little while before that would happen in America." (!!!) "What would happen?" "Communists would take over, and we would have to flee."
Uh-huh. A story about Nazis marching across Europe, and occupying Austria is to the viewer's inner eye a story about "Communists" on another continent coming across the ocean and ... marching us around? A story about restoration within a family and what it really means to serve God - a story about sacrifice and love of country and what romantic love is for ... that's a story that says to you "the Commies are coming, the Commies are coming"? Really? Wow. What kind of inner distortion sees that?
Here's another one, re: the movie Schindler's List. "Well, it was pretty good, but they didn't need to include all that nudity." Nudity? In a story about the heroism of one man in the face of the Nazi menace, amongst the terror of angry soldiers, and the horrors of the death camps, the viewer remembers gratuitous nudity?
Background and foreground. Getting them mixed up makes for some very bad story telling, and apparently it also makes for some very bad story hearing. Mythical or otherwise, modern or ancient, well-known or unknown, a hero is a person who "feels the fear and does it anyway." And the point of the story is the hero.