Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Age of Innocence -- the labyrinth of social conventions

Director: Martin Scorsese, 1993.

Like many of Scorsese's films The Age of Innocence is set in New York. But these are not the Mean Streets of the late 20th century Little Italy. Neither is it the dark and violent underworld of the civil war era Gangs of New York. No, this is the highly cultured and civilized central New York of the late nineteenth century where convention and social expectations were paramount. Scorsese's usual violence and bloodshed are replaced by repressed emotions and inner turmoil.

Based on an adaptation of Edith Wharton's period piece novel, Scorsese creates a beautiful visual feast for the eyes, even though the narrative is as slow as the multiple course dinners the main characters enjoy or endure. The film earned five Academy Award nominations and won the Oscar for best costume design.

The focus of the story is Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis, with whom Scorsese would work again in Gangs of New York). A society bachelor and lawyer, Archer is about to be engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder). Welland is beautiful but superficial. Her focus is on the conventional aspects of society life: garments, gatherings, and gossip. They appear to have nothing in common except the expectations of society. The Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the third key character in the film. Welland's cousin, she has returned from Europe to New York seeking a divorce and a new life.

As beautiful as Welland, Olenska is her opposite in many ways. She is refined and well travelled; Welland is immature and limited in her geographic exposure. She is free-spirited and irrepressible; Welland is restricted and repressed. She sees no issues in associating with many single men, despite the appearance of impropriety; Welland is most proper in her associations.

Olenska's disparaging and ignoring of the social conventions cause her to become something of a social outcast. Archer, to his credit, goes out of his way to defend her before the high society's unofficial judge Henry van der Luyden. When he wins her a dinner thrown by the van der Luyden's it would appear Olenska has been granted a reprieve. But she does not understand the expectations of this society and strays once more.

Archer's slow understanding of Welland as a clueless socialite causes him to look at the only free-bird in his social circle, Olenska. As he does so, he comes to realize they are a match for one another. But his engagement to Welland and Olenska's marriage to the count prove to be barriers to their love. Unconsummated, his love is not unrequited. Sadly it remains unfulfilled.

Archer's pursuit of Olenska does not go unnoticed by Welland, his wife. Her clueless nature is actually a facade, hiding a covert deviousness and manipulation. She knows more than she lets on.

The Age of Innocence is like The Wings of the Dove in many ways. Both are beautiful period dramas centering on a love triangle. Both have a scheming beauty in the main role, although Welland is seeking to keep what is hers, while Kate (Helena Bonham Carter in The Wings of the Dove) is trying to get what is not hers. Both are restricted in their actions by society and relatives. Ultimately, both movies are somewhat dull and over-long.

One of the key themes of The Age of Innocence is the maze of social customs and norms that permeate a culture. As Ellen Olenska says to Archer, "Is New York such a labyrinth? I thought it was all straight up and down like Fifth Avenue. All the cross streets numbered and big honest labels on everything." Archer retorts, "Everything is labeled, but everybody is not." Olenska wanted a simple road map, all in plain sight. But high society is not like that. It is a jungle, a civilized one, but one that is uncharted.

Our society, wherever we live, places expectations and cultural standards on us. If we choose to identify them, to recognize them, and to conform to these conventions, then we are usually accepted. If we don't, then we are ostracized, to some degree or another. We can become, like the Countess Olenska, a social outcast.

Jesus defied the social conventions of his day. He touched lepers (Matt. 8:3). He talked to tax collectors (Matt. 9:9). He dined with sinners (Matt. 9:10). When he was questioned about his followers' behavior, he said: "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them" (Mark 2:19). He would not be pressured or conformed by the traditions of his people. He had come to set them free (Heb. 9:15). This freedom included the liberation of inner transformation (2 Cor. 3:18). We, too, must live within a social situation but do not have to conform to all its norms or expectations. Yet, by refusing to navigate the labyrinth we must be willing to pay the price. For Olenska, that price was exclusion. For Jesus, it was execution.

As Archer treads deeper in his plot of emotional treachery, he tries to persuade Olenska to somehow be with him. But she understands that even with their liberated approach, this could not be. "How can we be happy behind the backs of people who trust us?" The price for their love would be the unhappiness of their friends and relatives. That is too high a price. There are some social customs and norms that even Olenska was willing to accept. Likewise, Jesus was not an anarchist. He did follow Jewish tradition. He obeyed the law (Matt. 8:2-4). He worshipped in the synagogue (Lk. 4:14-20). He prayed to his father (Mk. 1:35). As we live within our social situations we must conform to some of its norms and expectations lest we become a malcontent, an insurrectionist, a rebel. Jesus was a counter-revolutionary, but not a rebel.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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