The first one is more than six years old, a fact not lost on a recent correspondent, a screenplay writer who wants to know whether I feel the same now as I did then. The answer is yes, but I'm not interested in continuing that theme in this blog post.
Instead, I want to talk about resurrection, the act of coming to life again after dying.
Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey template, which I discuss here, has resurrection as part of its skeleton description of what could happen in a good story. Apparently the model is used in many movies, though it is most famously used in Star Wars and The Matrix. The following is a very well-done video that cuts in portions of The Matrix with the Hero's Journey template. If you have seen the movie and liked it, it will be very clear and understandable what's going on. If you've never seen The Matrix and don't want the ending to be spoiled, you probably should stop reading now.
I love The Matrix. I've watched it a dozen times, and I don't get tired of it. Part of the love comes from geek credentials honed fine in my teenage years by reading science fiction and fantasy swords and sorcery novels and playing role-playing games. What skinny, pale guy in a dead-end job doesn't want to become The Chosen One with the access to the girl and the explosions and the ju-jitsu moves?
But then there's the resurrection, too.
Resurrection is a dream and a desire lodged deeply in the psyche of many a moviegoer. In the case of stories, resurrection means that the hero comes back, sometimes literally from the dead, to win when it seems as if winning is impossible. I get chills at the end of The Matrix because the resurrection moment is done with such certainty of triumph.
Love those bullets falling on the floor.
The desire for resurrection may be universal in human culture. It's very basic, in any case. But its use in stories is very culture-specific. In Greek mythology, resurrection is almost never used as a motif in a serious story. Even the happy ending of the Odyssey, where Odysseus takes vengeance on the men who have invaded his household, doesn't have the feel of a resurrection. Instead, Homer makes it clear through many side references to fate that the invaders are well and truly doomed-- doomed beforehand, unmistakably. There's no suspense about will Odysseus or won't Odysseus win. It's a foregone conclusion.
I believe, though I can't prove, that the current American love of resurrection in movies comes from a historical change in the plots of movies that began during the Great Depression and became a given as the theme took root in moviegoers' hearts.
My theory: happy endings in movies proliferated in the Thirties, when Americans really needed to feel good about ourselves in the face of horrific social and economic disruption. During World War II, that trend continued in order to keep up the morale of an America threatened by fascism. After World War II there was a wonderful, limited window for the popularity of complex and dark stories known as film noir. But filmmakers like Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life) in the Fifties set the tone for the desirability of resurrection in American films, and today resurrection is the norm, while loss, failure and tragedy are nearly always reserved for the art house.
I also think the emphasis on resurrection comes from the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition of the filmmakers. Resurrection is, of course, the hallmark of the Christian vision, but Jewish scripture, conditioned as it is by the destruction and exile of Israel and dream of return, cherishes resurrection as well.
Psalm 25 communicates such a dream with chilling beauty:
And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it.
(King James translation found here)
I suppose that Joseph Campbell would not say that the emphasis on resurrection in American stories is culture-specific. I think it is, though I don't have the expertise to survey all the world's culture's for resurrection's influence on world stories. I think it is somewhat self-evident that a culture with limited resources and a sense that life is contingent and difficult is probably not going to emphasize resurrection in stories. It is counterintuitive.
Resurrection, indeed, is a counterintutive quality of the Hebrew religious vision. The nation of Israel faced the same challenges as the Greeks-- the same arid conditions, uncertain rainfall, vulnerability to invaders and war, and helplessness in the face of disease. But uniquely of all the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean, Israel believed in resurrection through faith in its one God.
That vision transfered itself to Christianity through its resurrected Messiah, and eventually, to American films.
I still don't know how important the idea of resurrection was to pre-1930's American stories. It may be that the American story is of resurrection, or at least of victory against all odds. I do have the feeling that tragedy and loss would have been more prevalent in American stories before movies de-emphasized them. But it's a question for another day and more research.