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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Carrying the Fire

I'm going to bypass the unwritten law stating that a writer should always recommend the book before the movie. I'm ethically justified, of course; I think this movie will drive you to the book.

The "post-apocolyptic" thriller is becoming a theatrical staple. A slew of films dedicated to our society's expiration seem to fill our screens every month. Cormac McCarthy, who usually restricts himself to copious bloodshed on the Texas and Mexico borderlands, makes a contribution to the genre with, The Road. All similarities end once we move past the generic category. The remarkable economy of the book is matched only by its ferocious honesty. The language is parred down--one is tempted to say worn down--and effectively conveys the austere conditions in which the protagonists find themselves: A world reduced to a bed of ashes, and traversed by marauding bands of cannibals, everything either devoured, or in the process.

The film matches McCarthy's furnace-of-a-world visually and atmospherically. The actors are haggard and emaciated in the manner of concentration camp victims. They are known simply as "the man," and "the child." Their names have been effaced along with their homes, along with society. All that matters is the bond uniting them, which the man calls, "the fire." This fire might also designate "humanity," since the character uses it to refer to those few who have chosen to retain their "human" values, rather than embracing their animal instincts, and consuming flesh indiscriminately. It is a striking name. Fire has primal connotations, bringing to mind a key element of the dawn of civilization. Fire is also a source of animation, combating darkness with light. We seek it also for warmth. Taken together, it seems a highly spiritual manner of describing the thread running through mankind.

It's a harrowing film. The imagery is harsh, and the director is uncompromising in his visual translation. The extreme conditions in which the characters find themselves throw the tenderness between them into sharp relief. The bond (the fire) is powerful, but their bodies are so fragile; we know that both can't survive. And here is where the film/book grows very interesting. What drives these two to survive, and to affirm life, as many in the story refuse to do, is something beyond their biological instincts. It must be. The only options otherwise are suicide, or savagery. The Man and the Child opt for neither because they believe there is something which elevates man above this squalor, something transcendent, something sacred. If they both carry the fire, others must also. If others carry the fire, who bequeathed the fire to them?

After I first saw the film, two days before Christmas, the resounding question in my heart was: In whose image are we made?

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