HE was a stranger to me, though a colleague, and he asked me to accompany him. A business reporter, he was writing an article about a small company and wanted an arts writer to see the Japanese block prints on display there. On the road out of town, we talked about the state of the arts, lamenting the fact that so much contemporary art seems shallow or downright mean-spirited. The movies celebrate violence and aberrations of all kinds, and the visual arts so often seem to revel in the merely decorative, or they go off on private or political rants or cynically sift old Angst into new forms. There is so much anger, so little thought.
"Well," he said, "it's a shame. People deserve better than that."
"Perhaps we are only getting the arts that reflect our society?" I asked tentatively, considering that that is what art is supposed to do.
"No," he answered firmly. "People deserve better than that. Everyone I know is so broken-hearted."
He told me one story after another of people he knew well and people he knew casually. He spoke compassionately as he told of a woman whose husband left her. A friend at the end of his career wondering what it was all about, what, if anything, he had accomplished. A woman whose children had grown up and gone away. The ordinary daily sorrows of just about everyone.
He wondered what the arts were doing to address these and even harder issues. Did they bother to inspire or even discreetly to shed a little light where it might help?
Of course, there are works of art being produced now that speak to the spirit in man, as few and far between as they seem to be. As I thought more and more about it, I realized that a number of films had been made over the past few years that were addressing these very things quite modestly and without sentimentality.
You can't expect too much of these movies. But films like "Truly, Madly, Deeply," and "Enchanted April" from England, "Tous les Matins du Monde" from France, "Strangers in Good Company" from Canada, "Leap of Faith," "Grand Canyon," and "A River Runs Through It" from the United States - and to a lesser extent, "Hero" and "Scent of a Woman" - are like trail markers in a dense wood, pointing toward a summit. Sometimes those signs are a bit tough to read, and sometimes they don't get you very far, but they d o point in the right direction.
Set in the 1920s, "Enchanted April" finds two miserable ladies struggling in troubled marriages - one is completely dominated by her husband, the other ignored. They escape together to a medieval Italian castle on the seashore where two other women join them to share expenses - a bitter old woman and a bored society beauty. Surrounded by natural wonders - flowers, trees, and the sea - they have time to reflect on their lives. Lotti, comically bumbling and cowed by her husband, seems the least interesting
of the three. That's because we are used to equating physical beauty in the movies with importance.
Lotti blossoms. She responds first to the natural beauty around her by wanting to share it with her husband, whom she invites to the castle. Love must be generously given, she tells Rose, another of the characters. Lotti realizes she had been counting it out like a miser, being sure to love only as much as she was loved, until it wasn't love at all. She gradually assumes a special role among the four women, the center really, as her nature gathers the strength and power of genuine affection.
But the other women change, too. The society beauty discovers something better in herself than her genteel arrogance and self- centeredness. The elder widow thaws as she releases the past and embraces the present. And the perpetually melancholy Rose finds her joy and generosity.
And the women don't exclude the men. What is more, the men change, too. Rose's husband responds to her irresistible sweetness with tenderness. Lotti's husband finally sees her for what she is, recognizing the riches of her spirit. The society beauty, so tired of men "grabbing" at her, as she says, finds in the funny, impish owner of the castle a man to seize from the brink of sadness and infirmity. This is an enlarged feminism, an equality informed by love and largess.
What comes through in "Enchanted April" is a delicate palette of emotions. Nothing much has happened, but like an impressionistic painting, all the light of affection has been refracted through the lens of this story - pastel colors that nevertheless form the images of a wholly realized, if modest, vision of community: community in marriage and community beyond marriage. Pettiness is the enemy, largess the friend of communion between individuals. Compassion for the other, respect for his or her better na ture, and forgiveness are never spoken of but amply implied in this luscious little film.
Another delicate, impressionistic piece is "Strangers in Good Company." Seven senior ladies traveling with a younger woman bus driver are marooned in the country when their bus breaks down. They come from all walks of life and several races and socioeconomic conditions. Some of them fear death, others abandonment. But during the few days together roughing it in a vacant farm house, they talk about their lives, their children, their trials and joys. We see photos of each of them from childhood through mid dle age. These aging ladies are still beautiful, still innocent. Or perhaps, they have recovered innocence and beauty. But what emerges in this film is the sense of meaning each possesses, their ingenuity and generosity toward each other, their individual desire for peace and community. As they speculate about life hereafter, comfort each other or joke and laugh, they are helping to hearten each other toward the tasks at hand.
"Truly, Madly, Deeply" takes on grief. It is a hard picture to watch at times, because the grieving protagonist is so convincing. When her lover returns from the grave to comfort her - not too much the worse for the afterlife, except that the world is a bit too chilly for him - he has come back with a purpose. He's a bit pushy, a bit intrusive, and his friends keep showing up to watch videos in her living room. There's a basic incompatibility between these two worlds.
This film has none of the earmarks of a ghost story, and Jamie's return is really more of an assurance that being continues on after death. He has returned to help her choose life. As she begins to let go of the past, future possibilities open up.
But it isn't a simple exercise in the psychology of grief. "Truly, Madly, Deeply" works out in subtle shades of gray one woman's movement out of darkness propelled by another's selfless love.
"Tous les Matins du Monde" (which swept most of the French Academy Awards last year) also grapples with grief, and this time as well with the meaning of art: specifically, music. A spare and elegant film, "Tous les Matins" is a long and somber trek through a life of devotion to music based on the life of 17th-century composer Sainte-Colombe and his student Marin Marais.
Sainte-Colombe lives in austere seclusion with his two little daughters after the death of his wife, practicing on his seven-string viol 16 hours a day in a wooden house he has built in his garden. Eventually he teaches his daughters to play, allowing them the comfort of his attention. When the girls grow up, a young man comes for lessons. But he is more interested in making a splash as a court musician than in serving music as Sainte-Colombe serves it, and the master dismisses the apprentice.
A terrible betrayal follows. But at the end of the film, the old man sees his pupil, now middle-aged, once more. The maestro's last lesson is Marais' first lesson. Having been forgiven for his treachery to the old man and his daughter, Marais learns for the first time that music speaks for that which cannot be spoken of - a longing too deep and illimitable for words. In this moment the two broken-hearted men reach each other, understand and commune after two lifetimes of suffering. As the film closes, it
points beyond this suffering to eternal life and conclusive fulfillment.
"A River Runs Through It" is a remarkable, if flawed, film. An old man recounts the story of his family - his minister father, his reckless brother, both avid fishermen, and his mother - and in so doing, reaffirms his sense of the everlasting character of life. Despite a pronounced sense of mortality and its attendant sorrows, the film affirms something beyond those sorrows. Dry fly fishing is a symbol of grace, of art, and of transcendence. The river, which runs through all experience, is here the symbo l of eternity. Under the river are the rocks, the old man tells us, and under the rocks, the word of God. You won't find such a statement in many films. It's practically gauche in Hollywood. But director Robert Redford is his own man, and he addresses the great questions with something more than Hollywood cliches.
"Scent of a Woman" is a story of reclamation. A despairing older man, blind and bitter, is brought back from the brink by an innocent young man. In turn, he saves the boy from a serious injustice. It doesn't go very far with its inquiries, but it does speak kindly of meaning and integrity to the utterly worn-out spirit.
"Grand Canyon," a very mixed bag, is a surprising film, much maligned by critics, but actually very interesting. A lot of the film seems far-fetched, and an abysmal dream sequence should have been left to more capable imaginations. But these complaints aside, director Lawrence Kasdan tries to give us the texture of contemporary life - a generation wandering in limbo, with nothing that can sustain it through sudden, inexplicable violence, middle age, and all the rugged fears weaving through the late 20th century. The main characters seem lost. The word "miracle" crops up unexpectedly and often. And in the end, a character aptly named Simon (Danny Glover) brings all the other characters to see the Grand Canyon - another symbol of eternity impinging on human experience. The sense of greatness dissipates pettiness and self-concern.
TWO other Hollywood films address the anguished heart with humor and intelligence. Both are flawed, but both give viewers more than most. "Leap of Faith" proclaims the power of innocence and genuine faith in the face of the worst kind of fraud when a young boy is healed of an infirmity through prayer despite the machinations of a fake faith healer.
"Hero" investigates the difference between what a man thinks he is and what he actually is. When a thief saves a planeload of passengers after a crash, a homeless man takes the credit, hoping for a few good meals and a few nights in a real bed. The imposter skyrockets to fame and influence, bringing a child out of a coma and inspiring the nation to acts of generosity. The thief confronts the fraud and in a complicated scene, they each save the other from death. They are both heroes.
The complex plot is fraught with mad improbabilities. No matter, brilliant performances bring out the real significance of this film: Genuine goodness will win out, despite the most incredible obstacles, the lamest world view, or the deepest anguish.
These films range widely in form, content, and production values. But what they have in common is a genuinely creative and unsentimental approach to subjects that are generally treated with slick formulaic answers in the movies. And so many movies simply sink the viewer in sympathy with pathetic conditions rather than inspire one to turn and see, to seek creative solutions to the great tasks facing the human spirit so heavily encumbered by ordinary daily sorrows. But in each of these films can be felt, h owever faintly, a sense of new possibility, a sense that there is always a creative response to the very circumstances of one's present experience.