Wednesday, August 11, 2004

A Room With No View

Merchant and Ivory's 1985 movie classic A Room With A View offers an analogy of a world of established norms on the verge of dramatic transfiguration. The movie is based on a novel of the same title by E.M. Forster, set in Italy and England around 1908. The characters live during the height of the British Empire, soon to be transformed by the Great War. Victorian class mores were still alive. Gentlemen and ladies were absorbed in the meticulous dance of refinement, couture, the virtue of young ladies, and the disciplining of passion.

What is so engaging about the movie is how it transports the viewer to 1908 so effortlessly. Obsession with propriety is carefully constructed around laws governing class and manner---it is easy to become lost in the Belle Epoch, with its beauty and prim culture.

All the while, the story serves as an object lesson to the world we live in today, a century later. We see people who were utterly absorbed in custom, yet they could not see the falling gavel that was soon to strike their fragile world. Custom would not save their society from the trenches of Verdun, Ardennes and the Marne. A tragic last gasp of 19th century propriety would occur in No Man’s Land at Ypres Salient with the Christmas Truce of 1914 :
We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans - Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz occasionally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street corner orators.

Soon most of our company ('A' Company), hearing that I and some others had gone out, followed us... What a sight---little groups of Germans and British extending almost the length of our front! Out of the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German lighting a Scotchman's cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Where they couldn't talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!
The truce between men of goodwill would last but a few days, never to be repeated. And so the flame of chivalry was forever extinguished by the steel treads of the new century. Chivalry had no place in a world of poison gas and machine guns.

The setting of A Room With A View can be made contemporary, the actors becoming ourselves, in 2004. There is a variant of primness to be found in our media---incessant advertisements, reality TV, Janet Jackson’s nipple, the constant drone of commerce---a primness that mutes the approaching steel treads that we all face. Cable TV only seems to satirize the gravity of a world in a life struggle with a global death cult on the verge of committing nuclear blackmail. Even as we voice our concerns, there is still a sureness in our minds that our cozy world of suburban minutia is resting upon solid bedrock. Idle conversation still dwells on consumer ephemera; spam still enjoys its global trek; houses are still priced to the stratosphere; redundant product brands still stock our shelves in warehouse-sized megamarts. All is status quo in the bustle of our seemingly 20th century world, frozen in a loop since 9/11. Our Belle Epoch may yet be facing its maker, but it still looks the same as before.

Perhaps there’s one last toast left for us to share during this Christmas Truce we have lived in since 9/11; one last song of goodwill to sing---though we are bracketed by trenches far deeper than we can imagine.