December 07, 2008

A brief complaint against Borzage

My last post might suggest I have nothing but praise for Borzage's films, but that's not true. To be fair to myself, I want to complain about something that bugs me about Borzage: religion.

Because he was working in Hollywood and making movies for a mass audience, his films had to be secular to ensure a profitable run. That's one of the nice things about Hollywood and something I have seen few people comment on. Occasionally, however, Borzage's religious feeling slips through and I can't help at times but feel alienated, frustrated, and offended.

There are minor religious moments that I can overlook--Chico's frivolous re-acceptance of God because of his survival in Seventh Heaven (1927), for instance, or much of the thematic symbolism in A Farewell to Arms (1932). But Strange Cargo (1940) is nearly a sermon on faith that hits enough false notes of enlightenment to make the film an enormous wince in my memory; and The Mortal Storm (1940)... well, these are the lines that close the film: "I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year, 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than any known way!' "

The whole of The Mortal Storm is about the persecution a family faces under Nazi Germany, and it ends with a heavy, tragic note. It is a bitter plea for life and tolerance, but that final quote subverts the entirety of the film's message. The Nazis are no more than people of blind faith, believing their leader to be the way to power and enlightenment--after attacking this blind faith for an hour and half, the film openly suggests to adopt another blind faith.

The rest of the film is wonderful, and had the ending suggested "Be a light unto yourself" instead of the blind faith nonsense, I would be drooling over it today. But as it stands, the ending is something of a betrayal, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Undoubtedly it is Borzage's faith that gives him the refined sensibility I spoke of. I can overlook it, perhaps, because that sensibility is not exclusively reliant on faith. In fact, I more often associate faith with a radically different and terrifying sensibility, so it is refreshing to see one who is more genuine than his religious peers. It is when Borzage openly suggests faith that he seems to me his least consistent, betraying his thematic interests, even if he is sincere in this faith.

I must say that I am thankful for a secular Hollywood.

2 comments:

Allison said...

You may complain against Borzage all you like! Muahaha. While he is an excellent filmmaker, some of his films annoy me too.

Lauren said...

You know, I'd never thought of it explicitly. I completely took it for granted. But thank God for a secular Hollywood! :lol: