In spite of the fact that the new WWII flick The Monuments Men is peppered with Hollywood royalty like George Clooney, Bill Murray and Matt Damon, its idealism and patriotic tone has induced mental vomiting among the cultural elite.
Case in point is Philip Kennicott’s scathing criticism of the film in the Washington Post titled “George Clooney saves Puppies from Nazis.“ Ironically, Kennicott misses the point of the movie and then uses the same point to argue his case against it.
In yet another twist of fate, our new series exploring the works of Ernest Becker beginning with The Birth and Death of Meaning sheds a different light on the movie, Kennicott, the Allied Forces and Hitler.
Let’s start with Kennicott, who writes:
“If you care about art, you are obliged to loathe the film “The Monuments Men,” a star-studded history drama that purports to tell the story of American efforts to rescue and repatriate art stolen by the Nazis in World War II…“Monuments Men” is so bad I will save you the trouble and expense of seeing it with the following summary. To make the film a bit more coherent, I’ve substituted the word “puppies” for art.
Over in Europe, the Second World War is raging, and Clooney is very worried about the puppies. He takes this concern directly to Franklin Delano Roosevelt… He explains to the President of the United States the basics of the allied invasion of Germany. He uses a big map with arrows on it, with the Russians coming in from the east, and the allies moving in from France and Italy. Caught in the middle of these armies are a whole lot of puppies. Clooney says he doesn’t want to live in a world without puppies.
Roosevelt tells Clooney to go save the puppies and there ensue several derivative scenes in which Clooney rounds up a rag-tag gang of misfit puppy lovers who all agree to help him return the puppies to their rightful owners.”
His opening with, “If you love art you are obligated to loathe the film” should give you your first whiff of a fermented ideology. The basis of his argument begins by informing us of our obligation to accept his emotions and condescension as the standard of righteousness, and our allegiance to art. Then Kennicott proceeds to obscure the gravity of the facts by replacing it with warm fuzzies–then ridiculing the absurdity.
Like a fresh gulp of air in a stale room of smoke and mirrors, this film is based on American history not yet rewritten–even in Hollywood.
And that alone makes it worth a closer look.
Throughout the film, this question was posed in different forms: Considering the lives lost, the utter destruction of a world at war, and within the larger scheme of life, why should anyone care about art? Does a painting really matter? What is the worth of a statue compared to the life of a man? Why should we bother to save it?
The fact is that no one, not the real life Monuments Men, nor their fictional counterparts went into the mission believing the physical matter of boards, canvas or marble are of the equal value of a man. This was clear from the start–yet lives were risked, and lost. In spite of this clarity, Kennicott opines,
“But to get to the fundamental dumbness of Clooney’s film, we again need to use the puppy substitution: Hitler, he tells us, hates puppies, which is why he is rounding up all the puppies and keeping them for himself. This doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
Which thoroughly exposes the Kennicott’s just-don’t-get-it factor. Here’s where Becker comes in.
Our heroes ultimately uncovered, and recovered something greater than the art itself. Something they did consider worth dying for. Hitler knew it, the American’s knew it but the depth of the author’s critique could only go one layer deep.
“Any meaningful film about art must address our relationship to art, rather than blithely fetishize the objects themselves.”
So close, yet so far.
Monuments Men does exactly that. The film is entirely about our relationship to art. Then it goes under Kennicott’s skin; it reveals our identity to art and America history.
Becker explains it this way.
“The body is one of the things in which our true feelings are located, but it is not the only one, and it may not even be the principal one for believers in karma and reincarnation. Least of all is the self limited to the body. A person literally projects or throws himself out of the body, and anywhere at all. As the great William James put it almost 80 years ago: A man’s “Me” is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his mind, but his clothes and house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, his yacht and his bank account (1892, p.44). In other words, the human animal can be symbolically located wherever he feels a part of him really exists or belongs. This is important for an understanding of the bitter fighting between social classes for social status…”
The Monuments Men ultimately saw much more than their social status or anything they could put ownership on. They projected the genius and creativity of Western civilization onto Rembrandt, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci–as belonging to them, and to us all. Their projection was of a collective self that is timeless, that belonged to not only these men, but also future generations.
There is another reason Kennicott couldn’t grasp the film, which had nothing to do with art and everything to do with hate.
The real choking hazard for Kennicott is the national identity reflected in the actions of a few brave men that risked everything.
“Clooney uses this story to assert his own ideology, a farrago of Hollywood banalities that align remarkably well with standard-issue beliefs about capitalism, freedom and America. Struggle and you will succeed; everyone can rise above their demons; teamwork will lead to success; faith in yourself is the key to everything.”
For some, the notion that Americans did overcome against the odds, they did sacrifice and achieved something that would not benefit them as individuals at all, simply is unacceptable. It’s on this altar of contempt that Kennicott would have gladly sacrifice the art he claims to care about.
His closing lines,
“Et tu, Brute? Has anyone from the National Gallery even seen this wretched piece of drivel, which stands antipodal to the values of art? Reaching out to new audiences is one thing. But this smacks of collaboration with the enemy.”
I’m indebted to the real Monuments Men and grateful for men like Robert M. Edsel, who made it his life’s work to tell their story. For the record, I don’t want to live in a world without puppies, art, or the real Monuments Men.
Which do you think he considered the enemy the art world has collaborated with, Western culture or American heroism?