Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Guilt trip

One of my charming traits that most reliably annoys the Missus is my apparent complete lack of guilt. It drives lots of people crazy, but none more than the good Irish Catholics who surround me these days.

But, as is usually the case with these things, my lack of guilt is more apparent than real. I did manage to grow up without any specific religious guilt, for the simple fact that my parents never brought us to any church. So I did avoid the guilt feelings that most of my childhood friends experienced from endless sessions of Sunday school in which they were taught that they were sinners. But, in compensation, I experienced a different kind of guilt: the kind that comes from belonging to one of the very few families in a small town—with no fewer than 20 different churches—that never attended any church.

By the time I grew up, I had shaken off that kind of guilt with no problem and actually came to appreciate very much my own spiritually neutral perspective on the world. This was in spite of the fact that I was always quite friendly with people of various and deeply held religious convictions—as well as those who just as religiously believed in their atheism. I was frequently told by my Christian friends that living and dying with no religion was analogous to graduating from university with undeclared major, but somehow I never found this cause for much worry. I preferred to think of my non-church-affiliation as dealing with God directly and cutting out the middle man. Sort of like a no-load fund for spirituality.

But when I got to university, I found a host of new reasons to feel guilty. Thanks to my exposure to politically and socially engaged professors, friends and strangers, I was taught that I had plenty to feel guilty about. For a start, I came to feel guilty for being an American because America was an imperial power that had for years exploited and continued to exploit other peoples all over the world. Moreover, I was taught to feel guilty for being a man because men had exploited women since time immemorial. Additionally, I came to feel guilt for being a white man because the white man had enslaved the black man for centuries. I felt guilty for being a straight man because straight people had forced gay people to repress their true selves in most places around the world. If all of that did not provide enough guilt for my burdened conscience, I could always ponder the fact that my ethnic background, at least on my mother’s side, was German and—even though her people with pacifist Mennonites who wandered the world for centuries rather than take part in any wars—that meant that I had some cultural relation to the Nazis who engineered the Holocaust. If I wanted to get extreme about it, I could also feel a bit of guilt that my ethnic background, on my father’s side, was Swedish, and the Swedes did nothing militarily to stop the Nazis.

Somehow I survived all that guilt and made peace with all these associations with which I had been born without asking for them. By the time I became a manager in a corporation—and therefore part of the class that exploits workers—guilt was pretty much bouncing off me like water off a duck. When my wife dragged me to priest-ridden rural Ireland, I was pretty much immune to guilt. But nature always finds a way. I guess that is why I started my own movie web site.

Since I started writing whatever came into my head about every movie I saw or, especially, since sitting down once a week to spew out random thoughts and observations, I have managed to annoy and offend not only numerous individuals but also large groups of people and even whole countries. As documented on my feedback page, I have offended the entire Danish nation for besmirching the Dogme 95 movement. I have certainly inflicted more than a bit of ennui on every French person for confusing the pronunciation of the name Cannes. And, most egregiously, I have committed an eternal affront to every fan of the movies that are shown on the Lifetime channel. And those are just the messages that are fit to post.

Now my latest reason for feeling guilty is the insult I have thoughtlessly cast on the young actor Daniel Radcliffe and, more importantly, his legion of fans. The week before last, I received not one but two reprimands that, coincidentally, arrived four minutes apart and from the same ISP in the same time zone. My offense was to suggest, in a review of the movie Driving Lessons, that Rupert Grint might be a better actor than his Harry Potter co-star, Daniel Radcliffe. In my best politician’s formulation of an apparent apology, let me say to Mr. Radcliffe and, more importantly, to his legion of fans that I am sorry if you were upset by what I wrote.

Somehow, this doesn’t seem like the most earthshaking question facing our planet today. And, as a defender wrote a few days later, I was technically reporting what I had read in other people’s reviews. But it would be a bit weaselly of me to try to get out of this that way. I also made clear that I concurred with the opinions I was citing, therefore it was my opinion too. And what opinions was I citing? Well, I don’t actually remember. I just have a vague recollection of several of the reviews I read of the various Harry Potter movies mentioning that the author thought Radcliffe was actually the weakest of the three main teenage actors. And I don’t remember reading any that argued that he was the strongest. And, in any event, that doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, the only opinion that counts in a review, in one that I write anyway, is my own.

Just for the heck of it I did a quick Google search to see if I could find any discussion of the relative thespian merits of messieurs Radcliffe and Grint. What I came up with was discussion on a Yahoo page as to whom, between the two young actors, the respondents “preferred.” Frankly, the debate seemed to have precious little to do with their respective acting abilities, but rather more with which of them was the “cuter” or “hotter.” It seems that the two contrasting young Englishmen may have become a litmus test for what kind of guy the upcoming generation finds attractive. Kind of like the way an earlier generation would go on about whether they would rather have a roll in the hay with the doctor played by George Clooney or with the one played by Anthony Edwards, in their ER roles, or how an even earlier generation argued whether they would prefer being cast away on a desert island with Ginger or with Mary Ann. (Definitely Mary Ann.)

This does raise an interesting philosophical question. What is a reasonable way of measuring who is a better actor or director or writer than anyone else? The pure answer is that you can’t. The quality of an artist’s performance is entirely a subjective judgment. Any two reasonable, well-educated, professionally trained critics can, on any day, disagree over the quality of any artist’s performance. And yet, it is not completely subjective. If you found the worst actor in the world and put his or her performance next to that of the best actor in the world, a majority of reasonable people would agree on forming a clear judgment as to which was the better performance. It is all the actors in between that would get a bit tricky in the evaluating.

The messy truth is that consensuses can be formed among large groups of people as to who is a better actor than whom. But there will always be dissenters, and the dissenters’ opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. Forming opinions and disagreeing with other people’s opinions and defending our own opinions are part of what makes life interesting. We shouldn’t shy away from any of it.

Nor, I suppose, should we feel guilty about it.

-S.L., 7 September 2006

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