Living in Babylon: Our Yearning for Home (Pt. 1)
by Jeremy “Jerome” Petersen
When it comes to conversation on movies, most people appear to prefer immediacy–what are the rumors about movie X, which “it” girl will be in the next “it” film, is this movie I haven’t seen yet worth watching, etc. While such discussion is certainly an enjoyable pursuit, it often comes at the expense of long looks at works of art that highlight important cultural concerns. This piece will be an attempt at doing so, and will hopefully highlight some of things that Hollywood is articulating well when they are not trying to find a movie role that actually fits Nicolas Cage.
Taking a look back at some of the film and television that I have watched over the last few months as I have dealt with the usual upheaval and angst that comes with moving to a new place, I have been struck by the ways that many of today’s filmmakers express a sense of rootlessness and alienation. While the notion that very few–if any–people live perfectly contented lives is hardly innovative, the ways that the characters in works like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Mad Men, and Up in the Air work out these concerns sheds some light in new ways on what many Americans yearn for and how we try (mostly ineffectively) to achieve it.
In addressing this topic, I must acknowledge some preconceived notions that will hopefully not cause people to discard any of the conclusions I’ll draw here. As a Christian–and not just in the cultural sense–I view history in light of the Biblical grand narrative of creation in perfection and fall through disobedience. We experience this fall through physical decay, a general feeling of rootlessness, and a continual gap between desire and reality, the sort of “quiet desperation” that Thoreau identified in nineteenth-century Americans. That being said, I wouldn’t write this if I thought that I was twisting in any way the three works I’m highlighting; in fact, part of what initially interested me in this topic is how the Mad Men Season One episode “Babylon” expresses this alienation through the Bible’s Psalm 137.
I’ll argue that the film and television highlight the human response to this sense of rootlessness: to seek situations in which we feel at once intimately connected, cared for (not necessarily in the emotional sense), and released from the struggles of everyday life. For the purposes of this piece, I’ll refer to this collection of longings as the search for transcendent belonging, a sort of sustained, joyful connectedness. Even if people don’t quite know how to express what they are looking for (perhaps referring to it as “home” or “rest”), we all recognize on some level that we are lacking something. Popular music like Daughtry’s “I’m Going Home”–amusingly packaged as a “Christian” song on some stations with nothing more than the addition of uplifting string notes–often expresses this. In Daughtry’s case, the singer’s jubilation at going to “the place where I belong / Where love has always been enough for me” glosses over the fact that, if he is “going” there, he is certainly not there yet.
The recent (and underappreciated) film Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) and based on the series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, deals more self-consciously with this sort of existential homesickness. The protagonist’s last name implies at the outset his rootlessness–he is on a quest for a nebulous sense of place. The details of the plot bear this out. Pilgrim (Michael Cera), 22, is “between jobs at the moment” and obliviously relies on the generosity and forbearance of his friends (and the occasional quarter from his seventeen-year-old girlfriend) for shelter, food, and arcade money; he lives in an apartment with a homosexual roommate (Kieran Culkin) who, as the initial shot of the apartment’s interior humorously shows, owns everything in the place except for Scott’s clothes and “lame” poster; and Scott spends his time–aside from the band practices in which he is only moderately invested–brushing up on his indie credentials by perusing the clothing racks at Goodwill, flipping through CDs at the music store, and playing games at the arcade.
Scott’s response to his situation is perhaps the most instinctive, as he clumsily seeks a serious romantic relationship with the appropriately off-beat Ramona (who, frankly, has little to recommend her other than her dyed hair and vague dark side). Before Scott’s showdown with Ramona’s seven evil exes,
what Scott finds attractive about her is represented by an open door that the pair float towards after their first date. While this is associated in the context of the story with Ramona’s apartment, the door, through which the pair enter to escape a snowstorm, represents what Scott is really searching for–a place filled with both literal and relational warmth. The lyrics of the Beachwood Sparks‘ “By Your Side,” most prominent when Scott and Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) first kiss, reinforce this: “Oh, when you’re cold, I’ll be there / Hold you tight to me.” Scott’s first night in Ramona’s apartment–while involving a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a half-clothed make-out session–is not completely fulfilling, but the promise of it is enough to motivate Scott to fight the League of Evil Exes. Only after defeating them and earning the Powers of Love and Self-respect is Scott able to reach a mature relationship with Ramona. The rather thinly sketched relational growth between the two is apparent almost exclusively through the images of the couple at Ramona’s door that bracket their romantic arc. In the first of these, Ramona leads Scott through the door as Scott is borne away with the hormonal euphoria of a new relationship; in the second, he and Ramona walk calmly through the door on an equal footing, as Scott has realized after seven duels that relationships are just as much about struggle as ecstasy.
Of course, Scott Pilgrim, like most coming-of-age films, prefers a neat conclusion to the rootlessness of youth in the form of a consummated relationship rather than dealing with the messiness of adulthood. What Scott fails to see–and that the more philosophically complex (if less visually stimulating) Mad Men and Up in the Air do–is that what he thinks will bring his life comfort, meaning, and a sense of place will lead to its own problems and ultimately be much less satisfying than he believes. In the next part of this essay (hopefully coming sometime in the next week), I’ll look at some of the ways that Don Draper and Ryan Bingham try to cope with these concerns as established adults.