Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Far and Away" and Here Today

Since we have just had political elections here in the United States, I thought it might be a suitable time to make a post regarding some political topics; however, just to make it interesting I'm putting this discussion within the framework of a work of artistic criticism. Specifically, I'm going to attempt to draw out the themes of Distributism which I see reflected in the 1992 film Far and Away, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. (That being said, this article contains spoilers for the movie, so if you want to see it, you should probably avoid reading on until you do.) I think this approach is useful because it expresses both the fact that artistic expression can passively give birth to a bubbling forth of truths of the human condition in a wide variety of areas and can also, actively, demonstrate how artistic media can be useful as a vehicle for the propagation of the Catholic faith and teachings if you in an appropriate manner.

The film itself opens, finding us in Ireland in the late 19th century with a title card which reads: "The tenant farmers, after generations of oppression and poverty, have begun to rebel against the unfair rents and cruel evictions imposed upon them by their wealthy landlords." And it is this concept the brings us specifically to Joseph Donnelly (Cruise), a young man working on the farm which he shares with his father (who is fatally wounded in the opening scene) and brothers, rented from a landlord who lives far off. Joseph is immediately characterised by the opening action in which he struggles to work his rented fields while his brothers taunt him and, speaking of his "grand ambitions" his brother says to him: “Ambition is it? To break your back on land that isn’t your own?”

With such a thought in mind we can turn our attention to the words of Pope Leo XII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891):

If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another. A further consequence will result in the great abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. That such a spirit of willing labor would add to the produce of the earth and to the wealth of the community is self evident. And a third advantage would spring from this: men would cling to the country in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life.

In this particular instance, of course, the focus is placed on the second aspect described here, namely that men will work diligently and joyfully on their own property to a greater extent than the land of another. This concept is shown quite clearly in the case of Joseph's brothers, who would rather drink and fight than bother working the land, with specific reference to their lack of ownership.

As the film progresses, the agents of the landlord arrive and burn down the Donnellys' farm due to a failure to pay their rent. As a result, Joseph sets out to exact revenge by murdering the landlord. To make a long story short, it doesn't go according to plan and Joseph ends up a prisoner in the landlord's house awaiting a duel the next morning against the man who burned down his farm. However, in the night, the daughter of the landlord, Shannon (Kidman), enters the room and offers him the prospect of coming with her to America where, she informs him, they give away land for free. Incredulous, Joseph informs her: "I'm of Ireland and I'll stay in Ireland til I die!" This brings us to the third of the statement of Leo XIII, that a man would not abandon his own country if it could give him sufficient support. However, it seems that Joseph violates this principle, desiring to stay in is country despite the fact that he has no property of means of his own. However, the next morning shows the reality of Pope Leo's words, as Joseph ultimately relents and heads to America with Shannon, realising he has nothing left for him in Ireland save for fear of death.

Ultimately, the pair end up in Boston and become affiliated with dangerous criminals who provide them with a place to live and jobs. Ultimately, Joseph begins to engage in boxing matches for them and comes into a number of material luxuries as a result of his success. However, when he loses an important fight (notably as a result of being distracted by inappropriate advances of one of his employers against Shannon, whom he seeks to defend), all this material prosperity is proven to have been an illusion--immediately they are ejected from their boarding house, driven away from employment and shunned by their former patrons.

This is ultimately the untenable situation of the vast majority of wage labourers under the system of capitalism who live their lives at the whim of those wealthy patrons who provide their salaries. This should be regarded as especially relevant to people in the United States, a country in which in 2001 a mere 1% of the population owned 38% of the wealth (if we look at the top 20% we find that they control over 80% of the wealth) and the bottom 40% owned less than 1%--a situation which has only grown more extreme in the intervening years. Furthermore, we have to bear in mind that a significant number of the people in that bottom 40% own literally nothing--their net worth is below zero, in that they owe more than they possess. The situation of individuals in this position is literally no different from that of Joseph and Shannon in the movie. How is this equitable? How is this just? What is the solution?

Well, Far and Away has a solution. And that solution is a wider distribution of productive property. This is envisioned in the idea of the free land grab in the Oklahoma territory--where everyone, the rich and the poor alike, theoretically have an equal chance to attain possession of land. This is particularly emphasised by the fact that we see Shannon's family--the wealthy landlords from Ireland--come to the United States to participate in the same land grab race with Joseph after revolting peasants destroy their manor in Ireland. And what does that bring us to but Pope Leo XIII's last remaining point: if the poor have a chance to gain possession of land, a bridge will be built between the social classes who will grown nearer to each other.

This is exemplified in two ways in the film: first, the relative equality of Shannon's wealthy family and the poor Joseph in their attempt to claim land in the Oklahoma territory where they will be, essentially, neighbors in possession of an equal amount of productive property. And finally, in Shannon's decision to be with Joseph rather than the more wealthy man to whom she was originally paired. The union of these individuals exemplifies the union of classes brought together by the appropriate distribution of land, as emphasised in their jointly driving in the stake which declares their ownership of the land they have chosen together.

Now, I have a couple of other points to make which I think really drive this movie over the top in this respect. The first is when Joseph attempts to defend Shannon against the advances of his corrupt employer during his great boxing match, which ultimately results in the lose of his material prosperity. I greatly enjoyed this scene because it emphasises a point which I think is largely lost in politics and economics today--that is, that they are not natural sciences. Rather, politics and economics are branches of moral science and they should, at their foundation, be regarded as dealing with people and not with objects. Is great material wealth worth the manipulation and exploitation of even a single individual? I think that if we are morally honest with ourselves, we must say no. So, even though winning the boxing match would be enough to secure for Joseph the wealth with which he could attain his dream of property ownership, if the price of attaining that economic vision were to sacrifice of Shannon, a human person, then the price is regarded as simply too steep. Humans are not means to an end, we are ends in ourselves!

The second scene which gave me great delight is the final scene. In a struggle with the other man seeking Shannon's romantic affections, Joseph is thrown to the ground and injures his head on a rock. As Shannon hovers over his body, begging him to live, the camera gives the impression that Joseph's soul is leaving his body and he is dead. However, at a few simple words, Joseph's soul rushes back and he is instantly revived and their dream is ultimately realised as they claim their land together as one. And what are those words which call him back? "I loved you." And this is the essence of the entire political, social and economic vision of the film, in my opinion: without love, not only is the entire process of social reform completely worthless, it is also fruitless. In fact, I limit too much, I think by saying social reform. No form of politics or economics--existing or reformed--is worthy of preservation if it is not founded on this simply fact.

So let us take this message away from this little movie of Ron Howard: let us love one another, not in a vague and sentimental way, but in way which finds its expression in sacrifice and self-gift to one another; where instead of trying to cheat one another and outdo one another, we embrace life of charity for our fellow men; and ultimately let us follow that path of love to the social, economic and political structures that are most congruent with that fundamental truth, like the natural fruit of a great and giving tree. Let us live lives based entirely in love.

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