Sunday, April 29, 2007
Is it not one of the deepest themes of American history, of the American consciousness, the notion that no matter how bad things become we can always escape? We can always go further west, over the next ridge, disperse across the prairies. We can always move on. We can always find our way into the Sunset, or California, which ever comes first. We can always quit the job. "You can take this job and shove it" was once the title of a perennially popular song. We believe that when we quit our job everything will be fine, much better in fact. Is this not one of the most enduring elements of our national mythology, so deeply embedded in our consciousness that we are not even cognizant of its power over us, not even aware of the gross distortion of reality which this mythos represents?
Such at any rate is the fundamental if banal theme upon which the movie The Devil Wears Prada (IMDB Rating: 6.70) revolves. The plot on this level is common if not commonplace in American movies and literature. Jejeune hero (in this case heroine) finds himself in bad circumstances, said circumstances having been caused by the maleficence of an evil character ("The Devil"), hero learns the hard way about reality, hero simply quits and—mirabile dictu—all is well, life is golden.
Movies and novels interest me for a number of reasons, one of which is the glimpse they sometimes offer into other worlds, other milieus which would in the course of quotidian life completely escape my experience. The world of high fashion holds very little intrinsic interest for me; yet a portal into this alien microcosm can't help but hold some interest. If a portal into other worlds appeals to you as well, then that's the first reason to see this film.
Celebrated though it may be in certain circles, there aren't many such reasons to see it. As one review on IMDB has it: "Let's see, it goes something like this; basically decent, idealistic, young (man/woman) goes to (New York/Chicago/Los Angeles/D.C.) to make his/her mark in (writing/business/music/acting/government) only to be temporarily seduced by the very environment/person they are the antithesis of, alienating his/her(boyfriend/girlfriend/family/friends/all of the above) in the process until he/she stumbles on to the revelation, "To thine own self be true." Devil is all of this. . . again. Only the trendy names being dropped have been updated for those who find that sort of thing significant enough to make them believe this is somehow a different story."
That assessment is a little harsh. There is actually one overwhelming reason to see this film: it provides the only contemporary and au courant portrayal of one of the oldest, and most misunderstood by contemporary Americans, pillars of social organizations, despotism.
Despotism is so alien to the American Mind that we foolishly believe we have banned it and outgrown it, and that, like slavery, horse-drawn carriages, and smallpox, it is a forgotten relic of the distant past never to be seen again. But though it is contrary to our national mythology to say so, despotism is ubiquitous in human relations, if not uniform. I personally have suffered through two tyrannical work situations, one in academia and one in private industry. Until you have been inside one, you can't quite imagine how bad it can be, indeed, cannot quite believe in the reality of tyranny at all. The essence of tyranny is not the threat of violence or unknown gulags. As depicted well in this film, tyranny succeeds because the victims become "willing executioners" in the absence of better choices. It is an odd and unpleasant state; one is slowly converted by the ineffable but very real power of the despot into simultaneous victim and fellow perpetrator. Though I have personally experienced the reality of the process, I have never been able to adequately convey the situation to others, and so, like a rape victim, I have remained silent and guilty. This movie manages to convey the willing and yet unwilling transformation of innocent into guilty fellow traveler.
The star of this performance is Meryl Streep, whose character Miranda Priestly (based on the real-life editor of Vogue magazine) manages to perfectly capture one of the two tyrants I have worked under. The quiet voice, never raised, coupled with the ever-present nebulous but potent threat is the essence of the method used. I have never seen this discussed in public, let alone captured so perfectly in any form. No doubt many who have never experienced it themselves will dismiss it as mere fiction. But surely anyone who has risen to any height in Hollywood, a major corporation, or government knows better.
The ending of this movie is Hollywoodized, by which word we usually mean brought into pleasant conformance with the prevailing optimistic American spirit. When the main character runs away by quitting the job, Miranda Priestly actually helps her get her next job, and even smiles at her. Would that it were so. Real-world tyranny is different. In the real world, the main character would "never have worked in this town again". While it is nice to have pleasant endings, we undoubtedly do ourselves, our society, and our foreign policy an enormous disservice by downplaying and belittling the real-life cost of resisting tyranny, of preserving freedom. Generations raised on soothing Hollywood pabulum can never begin to comprehend the harsh reality that running away is not always an option.