catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 18 :: 2007.10.05 — 2007.10.19


Do not go gentle into that good night

I have to admit that while I was growing up, my interests didn’t include reading all that much, unless it was required for a class. I was more interested in the glorious cathode ray tube. It was typically through television or movies that I would get exposed to other elements of culture like classic literature or poetry. I recall one poem that kept appearing. First, it popped up in Back to School starring Rodney Dangerfield and Robert Downey Junior. I was glazed over with curiosity as I had hoped one day to go to college. In the mix I indirectly discovered Kurt Vonnegut and Dylan Thomas. In a climactic scene of rigorous academic testing, Dangerfield utters these eloquent words of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”: 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Here and there it emerged, one evening during a traditional Cosby show episode and later in college while watching the movie Dangerous Minds. It was in this latter movie that the poem’s actual meaning is reasoned through by a group of students. Meaning is so often entangled with intention and various interpretations. For me it most certainly deals with our finitude and our resilience. It evokes for me an innate interdependence. One idea cannot truly exist without the other as to embrace resilience without understanding our finitude or vice-versa is an absurdity. The poem beckons us to know that we are ultimately aging, dying. It is inevitable. Yet Thomas evokes a spirit of resilience amidst that fact. Our innocence, like our bodies are progressively deteriorating. From this reality a question emerges as to how we will face it. I resonate, despite the often bleak reality of our aging and dying, with the call to  “rage, rage against the dying of the light”.

One thing that provokes thoughts of innocence and its loss for me—and I think it’s fair to assume for our culture—is war. Its effects know no bounds. The soldiers and the families on both sides of the river are touched and never again the same. In one sense we seem merely to be players. In another sense we are conspirators. Whatever Dylan’s poem might mean to you, I believe there are various cultural aesthetics at play which are churning a similar sentiment to Thomas. In brief, let us consider the new film In the Valley of Elah.

“…Encamped in the Valley of Elah”, King Saul commissioned a young shepherd boy named David who slew the Philistine giant Goliath. The essence reveals the curiosity of what happens when the young are sent to fight giants, innocence slaughtered. What ensues is an underlying metaphor for Paul Haggis’ In the Valley of Elah. Inspired by the 2004 article “Death and Dishonor” by Mark Boal in Playboy, Haggis laced his tale with various veteran accounts and featured Tommy Lee Jones as the centerpiece of the film. Elah, the encore effort to Oscar winning Crash suggests that war by its very nature deems that we cast human innocence into the fire from which we should never expect a recognizable return. Elah positions us face our cultural dissatisfaction regarding war’s emotional and psychological degradation. Yet it also explores our complicity.

Hank Deerfield, a retired Army sergeant and Vietnam vet, now a Tennessee truck-hauler, is beckoned to Fort Rudd in New Mexico when the ringing phone reveals to him and wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that their son Mike (Jonathan Tucker) has returned from service in Iraq only to turn up AWOL. Hank sets up camp in a cheap motel and finds Mike’s comrades only mum. However, when Mike turns up as only charred remains, the search for answers leads to an onslaught of local law and military malfeasance, as concealment rather than truth is ushered in by police chief Buchwald (Josh Brolin), Lt. Kirklander (Jason Patric) and Sgt. Carnelli (James Franco). Only local detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) emerges as an ally. Together, their ambition takes on the Army and the ensuing rabbit-hole is both a personal and societal journey that attempts to make sense of what Hank deems this “shithole” of democracy.

What could be seen as a lambasting of our current cultural hullabaloo is more an acknowledgement of war’s lasting effects on our history, our soul. We see war through the lens of a military family. What emerges is elusive and complex. For Dylan, for Haggis, for so many of us, our lives are laden with loss and the question emerges: how shall we respond?

Tommy Lee Jones, whose eyes and demeanor alone leave most actors mundane, gives a capital performance. His fellow players Theron and Sarandon deliver simply but amply, and new hidden gems emerge such as Iraqi veteran Jake McLaughlin. Elah features production designer Laurence Bennett, editor Jo Francis, composer Mark Isham, and the amazing lens of Roger Deakins who captures both the rugged landscapes of Americana and the grungy shadows of grief. 

In the Valley of Elah evokes the emotional and psychological caveat of Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter and more recently Sam Mendes’ Jarhead. Couple that with the gritty exploration of grief in loss found in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom or Tommy Lee Jones’ recent The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and you get a film that purges the current military milieu of its impotent boasts of American glory lore and exposes its perpetually debilitating emotional effects. All in all, chew on Dylan Thomas’ exploration of life’s finitude, or Paul Haggis’, for the taste, though bitter, can be sweet and life giving.

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