by Robert Mandel
What can we learn from a film made 67 years ago by the son of an Impressionist painter?
Chicago, Wednesday, September 12, 2001.
It has been a long two days. It is too humid, but even so it is a surrealistically beautiful day; sunshine so painfully bright it forbids you to ignore it. Life goes on, it seems to say. I am not so sure. Despite the sunshine the day is covered with the musty, sad mask of sorrow. We are a nation in mourning.
Tonight's soirée is yesterday's half-sister. Home Vision and The Culture Club's Dinner and a Movie is a wonderful concept given the worst possible birthday. Speaking of which, Tuesday was my fiancée Kathy's birthday as well, giving September 11th even more poignancy. It is no one's fault; Nostradamus could not have predicted that day's events, no matter what is circling the internet. Postponed, the turnout is only half of Tuesday's originally sold out event. The mood is somber; we won't admit it openly but we are all still in shock.
The Dinner and a Movie series is being held at the Chicago Cultural Center, a beautifully adorned, turn-of-the-century (1897) building formerly the central location of the Chicago Public Library. The library was originally founded when the English Parliament and Queen Victoria sent books as a gift to the suffering people of Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871, opening it's doors January 1, 1873 in a surviving, abandoned iron water tank.
The resilient sun gives way toward the horizon, and the golden light of the six o'clock hour sheds a warming glow through the giant arch windows as we sit down to eat a lovely meal of Salad Nicoise and apple tart in a vanilla crème sauce with fresh whipped topping and mint sprig. It is not surprising that our conversation turns to the overwhelming events, as we turn to each other for solace and camaraderie. Play the numbers however you will until the final tally comes in, six degrees of separation is inevitable. It is certainly not appropriate dinner conversation, but the need to talk‹to share‹is magnetic. I doubt that anyone in the room is without a feeling of unease drinking wine at white-clothed tables in such a stunningly posh setting, while our brothers and sisters in New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania are putting their lives on the line uncovering the dead (and hopefully some survivors) from the rubble of our national Hubris.
At 7pm we move to the theater room for the film (the film is free; dinner costs $15). Chicago Tribune film critic Robert K. Elder provides background introducing Jean Renoir's 1937 Grand Illusion (Le Grande Illusion), dubbed by Orson Wells the one film he would save if he could save only one. The lights dim and I fight a tiredness brought on by the duress of the past two days. I am also still wrestling with Doubt and Guilt. What can we learn from a film made 67 years ago by the son of an Impressionist painter? The thought of a "Gentleman's War," as Mr. Elder put it, seems ridiculous in our present world. With all of the hatred playing itself out like a rabid dog in the streets of NY and Washington D.C., the thought of an Iraqi officer inviting the American pilots he has just shot down to lunch is ludicrous.
But then it happens. The audience lets out a burst of cathartic laughter and, at least partially, the lightness of being returns. Grand Illusion may be an anti-war war film, but it is also often wonderfully witty.
So now, in our darkest hour, the Grand Illusion has so much to teach us still. Forget about the beautiful cinematography, the wonderful use of light, the tracking shots and long focus as we have been well prepared for by Mr. Elder. Forget that the acting seems remarkably natural for a film of this era. The film may be 67-years-old, but the message is still incredibly poignant: it matters not the caste, the color, the language‹there is, at the heart, an inherent goodness in all‹or at least most‹of us. There is hope that behind the hatred passed down from generation to generation, that given the correct set of circumstances we can find familiarity and friendship with anyone. Rodney King asked the question, now is the time to determine the answer; to find the hope from the rubble of our broken hearts.
We need to reassess our priorities. We need to stop trying to kill each other more efficiently, and determine how we can live together more effectively. There is mutual ground to be found, no matter that the map is considerably hidden under centuries of sand. But if we cannot band together now as a brotherhood of Humanity, we may never find a foe better able to deliver us to the Promised Land.
Not only will life go on, it MUST. It seems so damn difficult, but we heal by resolutely returning to our daily lives, and holding dearer to us our family and friends.
It is the night's host, Theodore Hahn, who says it best: "It is difficult, but life must go on‹and we figured that 'Dinner and a Movie' with friends is a very good start."
I cannot agree more.
(**Editor's Note: I wanted to mention that it wasn't until afterward when commenting how beautiful the print looked that I was informed the film had been projected from the DVD. My compliments to Criterion on an extraordinary job!! I hope to see you at next month's installment, featuring Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. -Bob)