From the "Fiddler on the Roof" to "Up in the Air" Where We Watch the Terrible Strength of "Midsommar"
Considering together films with Belonging Again
How art changes and develops tends to be a reliable guide to determine the state, nature, and thinking of a society. There is no “central planner” in America coordinating through time what art can be made and what art cannot be made, and so the art that is created tends to be “emergent” and a useful guide to the developing values and conditions of a people. Though it cannot force consent, “Fiction Is the Mathematics of the Humanities” by O.G. Rose argued that literature functions as a “proof” of the ontological condition of humanity; likewise, art can function as a “proof” of the state of society and its thinking. How art has developed tends to indicate how we have developed, and in this way I think we can study art to see upload the sociological development described in Belonging Again. Perhaps we may even sense what we should do next? Then again, perhaps not.
For more on the book which this piece refers.
Fiddler on the Roof is a beautiful epic about the benefits, negatives, conflicts, and tensions of “givens” versus “releases.” The main character informs us at the start of the film that “traditions” are what keep the Jewish people “in balance,” and that they are like a “fiddler on the roof” (playing passionately, always a moment from falling, and yet keeping balancing and playing away). A “fiddler on the roof” might be the best personification for society that I know of, for society is indeed absurd, inspiring, capable of playing beautiful music, and capable of falling fatally.
Is it true that without traditions the fiddler would fall? The movie explores the ways that traditions can be unfair, cruel, and yet also beneficial. Furthermore, there is a tradition of associating devils with fiddler-players, so perhaps society is a demonic force? One by one, the daughters of the main character break the sacred traditions of the community, and the first daughter is certainly happier because of it. It’s not easy to tell who is right — shouldn’t the fiddler leap down?
The last daughter the movie focuses on wants to marry outside of Judaism, and eventually does without the father’s permission. The father considers accepting the arrangement, but decides he cannot do so without completely denying everything he believes in. How can he turn his back on his own people? But how can he abandon his own daughter? He reflects that if he bends too far, he’ll break, and yet hasn’t broken thus far, making exceptions for his other daughters, so maybe it would be acceptable? But suddenly he won’t have it: he tells his daughter that she’s dead to him; the theme music for “tradition” roars as he pushes a cart out of the scene like an ox.
Is this cruel? Is this right? The movie ends implying there is reconciliation, but couldn’t this have all been avoided if the father wasn’t such a traditionalist? Furthermore, if the Jews gave up their beliefs, they wouldn’t have been forced out of their homes, so perhaps the negatives of tradition outweigh the benefits? The government does to the Jews in the film what the father does to his daughter, and all the hardship is a consequence of beliefs and “givens.” The father eventually says to the daughter who is dead to him, “God be with you,” which is taken to finally be an acknowledgment of her existence. But if God is the cause of all this suffering, perhaps the blessing is a curse?
The final scene of the movie is of the fiddler playing his violin on the ground, then walking out of the scene. If the fiddler is off the roof, does this mean society and tradition are over, seeing as “a fiddler on the roof” was a symbol of tradition throughout the film? Or does it mean society and tradition are more firmly footed and better off, now that it is more “moving forward” (and more open)? We the viewers are left to decide.
Is it true that if tradition fails, we end up “on the ground?” No, with Marx’s famous quote on melting solids in mind, we end up in the air (suggesting that perhaps “tradition” survives in Fiddler on the Roof). Directed by Jason Reitman and based on the 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, Up in the Air is an impressive film about the tensions of Pluralism, the advantages and disadvantages of “givens,” the simultaneous desire to “belong” and yet also to be free, and much more. Indirectly discussing America after the 2008 Financial Crisis, the movie also hints at the problems of removing the personal element out of work and replacing it with computers (similar to the problem of replacing soldiers with drones — the screen threatens “humanity”).¹ Clooney’s character is responsible for firing people and downsizing companies (hinting at the current “increase profits fast”-maneuver many companies are now exercising at the expense of common people), and for years he has done it in person; now, thanks to Anna Kendrick’s character, cutting down on travel costs, etc., the company wants to increase efficiency itself and use a Skype-like program to do the firing from a distance. Kendrick tells the workers they will finally get to be home for the holidays, horrifying Clooney, whose home is on airplanes. After years of displaying people, Clooney will finally feel what it’s like to be displaced, but not before making Kendrick experience what it’s like to personally be a displacer
Clooney and Kendrick take a trip, and he tells her that she should know what he does before revolutionizing it, voicing a sentiment that many Baby Boomers feel about Millennials, Silcom Valley, and the entire movement to “disrupt industries.” In person to fire someone, it’s hard for the two to do their job; later on though, when Kendrick fires someone over a computer for the first time, she starts to get irritated when the old worker begins to cry and yells at him to hurry up and go. Likewise, where in the past bankers, CEOs, and the like may have found it harder to do some, “unpleasant parts” of their jobs, today, it’s much easier, making them less humane (and perhaps more likely to cause something like the Financial Crisis again).
We all want to be utterly free, but we also want to belong, yet if we’re free, we can’t be tangled up in a home, but if we’re tangled up in a home, it can be hard to feel free. All of us live out a “free range” as opposed to “pure freedom” or “pure belonging,” with some of us leaning more toward “freedom” and others leaning more toward “belonging.” Those who are freer are likely to idealize belonging, as those who belong are likely to idealize freedom. Who’s right? Is one way of life more “real” than the other? It’s hard to say: tension is life. It’s fun not to be “tied down,” but if a balloon is let go, it floats away into the blue void above (though perhaps smiling like Pynchon’s “Byron the Bulb”).
The film constantly returns to a scene of Clooney giving a speech about a backpack in which people’s entire lives are stuffed: their homes, their families, their communities, and so on (noting at one point that the heaviest components in people’s lives are their relationships — Clooney isn’t married). He asks people in the audience to imagine trying to walk with that backpack, and then he asks them to imagine burning it. Exhilarating, right? Symbolically it could be said that what people “keep in their bookbag” is their “givens,” and that a person without anything is someone without any “givens.” By the end of the film, Clooney can’t give the speech anymore because he no longer believes in burning up the bookbag (he subtly at one-point ceases to tell a different audience to burn it, suggesting gradual change in his thinking), but perhaps Clooney should keep giving the presentation? Perhaps temptation for an idealize home life is getting the best of him?
Kendrick’s character tells the company Clooney works at that they need to go “glocal” and combine the global with the local — an impossible ideal, similar to the impossibility of perfectly blending belonging and freedom without any tragic tradeoffs. But this is an impossible ideal that we all want to believe in so we perhaps can all tell ourselves that we can “have it all” and don’t have to choose between family, community, career, passion, belonging, freedom, etc. But this is a myth — we must make choices — and the tragedy of Up in the Air is that many people who chose one thing over another suddenly find themselves having taken from them what they chose without gaining back what they sacrificed. Clooney asks Kendrick at one point to “sell him marriage,” and she fails, but eventually Clooney ceases to be able to keep selling his lifestyle to audiences. As James K.A. Smith discussed on his work about Charles Taylor, we’re all unsure about ourselves now.
Perhaps some Trump supporters feel like they chose “belonging” over “freedom” but now the “givens” are gone which make that belonging and existential stability possible, and yet these supporters are still stuck with the responsibilities, limits on personal freedom, and the like which they accepted in order to gain the benefits of “settling down.” They accepted the ‘lifelong week,’ to use a phrase from Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and now under Pluralism, it’s not clear for what.² Discussing a marriage, DeLillo writes ‘[s]ex was everywhere at first, in words, phrases, half gestures, the simplest intimation of altered space,’ a description that describes the relationship between Vera Farmiga and George Clooney in the film, and arguably a reason both of these characters want to stay “up in the air” and avoid grounding is precisely in order to maintain that state of “sex being everywhere,” which isn’t just about the act itself but the thrill, and “high” that comes from constant possibility and movement.³ Sex has always been possibly seen as a moment of transcendence, of escape from the difficulties of life, and in this way Clooney and Farmiga want to stay in a perpetual state of sexuality, avoiding at all costs the “lifelong week” — but eventually the hunger for “belonging” calls them down from the air.
Are they better off? The movie ends suggesting that Clooney made his choice long ago, suggesting also that it’s perhaps too late for the people left unemployed by the Financial Crisis, though throughout the film Clooney and Kendrick frame being let go as “an opportunity.” Clooney tells Kendrick that, “We are here to make limbo tolerable,” and “being up in the air” is what most people in Pluralistic societies easily feel now (if not because there are no “givens” left which can help them “belong,” then because of economic anxiety).⁴ The film suggests that traveling can be nothing more than collecting photographs, but marriage is also boring, prone to failure, repetitive, and psychologically hard. Clooney finally achieves his dream of reaching ten million flier miles and earning elite status, but lacking “belonging,” it means little if anything to him. He thought it would, but it didn’t when “the plane landed,” per se.
Would the world be better off if everyone could handle being “up in the air” all the time? Maybe, but it’s likely that the majority would suffer this state with so much anxiety that totalitarianism would become appealing to them. Would we be better off to be like groundless Clooney or like his separated sister Kara? Perhaps we would be, but I fear it would come at the cost of our ability to stand against injustice or to recognize right from wrong. “Up in the air,” we just watch Midsommar.
Without giving too much away, Midsommar, directed by Ari Aster, is a film that highlights the tension between living without “givens” and living with them. Within “givens” (versus “up in the air” above them), incredible horrors can be perpetuated and rationalized (“the banality of evil”), and the horrors are only magnified by the fact that community members view the horror with smiles and a sense that all is well. The visiting graduate students, on the other hand, view the Swedish community with distance and as a subject of study, which is why the horrors disturb them (though ultimately they seem more upset about a thesis idea being stolen), but also why they can’t be part of the incredible empathy and emotional connection the people in the community share. Where there are no “givens,” it’s difficult to imagine empathy being possible, for there is too much chaos and uncertainty to determine how and what a person should feel to feel as others do. Empathy in Midsommar is taken to the extreme to show it as horrifying, beautiful, and intoxicating. Ultimately, after suffering a tragic loss, empathetic connection is all the main character wants, as we today, in suffering a total loss of “givens” amidst Global Pluralism, also long for a sense of “belonging.” Will we be willing to rationalize and accept horrors to “lose ourselves?” Even if not, if we are “up in the air” because “the fiddler” no long anchors us to “the ground of a roof,” then we lack “ground” to oppose the horrors. Right and wrong, once solid, for good and for bad, have melted.
Midsommar makes us wonder which is worse: the graduate students who can quickly rationalize the horrors as an example of culture, or the cult members who truly believe in what they are doing. The graduate students “know better” and let it happen, while absorbed by “givens,” the cult members only know their long-standing traditions. Considering this, Midsommar suggests that as “givens” enable “the banality of evil,” so the loss of “givens” can create a space where there is no standard or “given” against which one can say, “That is wrong.” The graduate students, lacking a culture, lack any firm ground to say what they are witnessing is immoral. The loss of “givens” can thus contribute to evil as can the presence of them.
Multiculturalism, as discussed by Dr. James Hunter and which we’ll discuss here as generally the belief all cultures are equally valid though different, tends to emerge in Pluralism and is depicted in the film as weak to stop atrocities which (unquestioned) “givens” make possible. Does this mean the loss of “givens” results in a kind of “banality of evil” like what’s made possible by the presence of “givens?” There seems to be a ditch on either side of the road…Lastly, the fact that the community is radically isolated contributes to the possibility of its participation in “givens” that incubate evil. Does the internet and telecommunication technology in general help us stop “the banality of evil?” In increasing information, exposing us to differences, etc., technology does destabilize “givens,” but if a loss of “givens” gives rise to its own problems, this is not necessarily a good thing. Hard to say.
When art shows instead of tells, art speaks, and we can see through the (perhaps Hegelian) movement from Fiddler on the Roof to Up in the Air to Midsommar a development of our age and thinking. In Fiddler on the Roof, “givens” and tradition lead a father to disowning his daughter, but those free from “givens” like the graduate students in Midsommar have no “givens” to derive authority by which they might say the father acts wrongly. Erasing “givens” doesn’t seem to be the answer, and if we do, we end up like Clooney, “up in the air” and “melting.” At that point, we also end up like the graduate students in Midsommar, who seem to reach a point where the end up “pulled along” by forces outside their control (perhaps like Klee’s “angel of history” according to Walter Benjamin), precisely because there is a lack of “givens” and principles by which the characters could stop their trajectory (“autonomous rationality” cannot save them, though it seems like it can right up until it is too late). This point makes me think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a historical episode I’m always fascinated by, and there is a line from the movie Thirteen Days which I think about often:
Is it imaginable that the characters in Midsommar are capable of a “will” to stop the terrors of things? Or is “good will” only possible where there are “givens” (suggesting only “nonrationality” can save us from terrible “Game Theory”-dynamics)? If so, what is our hope of addressing our world today? Should we hope that the lack of “givens” assures such a situation never arises in the first place? Perhaps, but now that it has, we need to stop “the terrible strength” might be what makes possible the terrors of Midsommar.
It will have to be elaborated on in Belonging Again (Part II), but could we escape this tension if we became “Absoluter Knowers” and “Nietzschean Children?” Perhaps — what else can be done where “belonging” feels murdered? — but for now I will offer one more movie allusion. Memories of Murder, directed by Bong Joon-ho, depicts what many if not everyone in Pluralism now feels. All of us could be the protagonist in the final scene, trying to figure out how to scratch a mental itch, suddenly staring at the camera.
¹A woman tells Kendrick that she is going to kill herself after she is fired, but because of the camera angle, the framing, etc., the audience, like Clooney and Kendrick, conclude the woman is just overreacting. Ultimately, the woman does kill herself, which hints at how people in today’s “in the air” society lose track of the impacts they are having on others — a problem that computer screens are only likely to make worse. The woman said directly that she was going to commit suicide, and when it turns out she does, the viewer is made to feel horrible for not taking her seriously, hinting at the difficulties of knowing what to do when faced with someone who says something suicidal. It’s not clear what’s right, as perhaps little is anymore.
²DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York, NY: Scribner, 2007: 8.
³DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York, NY: Scribner, 2007: 7.
⁴This brings us to another interesting idea the film suggests. When Kendrick and Clooney are firing J. K. Simmons and Simmons gets upset, Clooney calms him down by suggesting that he now has an opportunity to pursue his passion for cooking and that his children will admire him for doing so. Simmons then accepts being fired, but this suggests that the language of “passion” and “pursuing dreams” could be used by corporations and politicians to make everyday people accept abuses and tyrannies of the modern system. Companies are automating, downsizing, and the like to increase their profits, and though perhaps they have no choice but to do this (hard to say), regardless, it’s interesting to think that “passion,” “meaning,” and “purpose” could be used to keep people from rising up against them, to make people accept the status quo and their abuses.
Also, perhaps helping people excuse the tyrannies of Capitalism, people can feel like their life is meaningless without a job. In this way, Capitalism is more than happy to provide people with meaning to keep the system going, and since revolution or massive government intervention threatens this system and thus peoples’ meanings, the people are perhaps more likely to oppose revolutionary activity that might ironically benefit them. On the other hand, perhaps the virtue of Capitalism is precisely because it can help people have meaning. Though we must ask: can careers provide people with the “belonging” that communities and families once provided average people? It’s hard to say, though regardless, the film suggests that being free requires avoiding the conditions in which meaning are possible, and what good is “meaningless freedom?” Perhaps just that: the meaninglessness is what makes the freedom so free, so wonderful — or so horrible.