Cinema & 'the centre cannot hold'


For those of a literary or particularly alarmist turn of mind, or who remember the lessons of their high-school English classes, recent political and cultural events may bring to mind a famous poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming.” The work describes the unrestful and unravelling state of modern affairs, the only outcome of which must “surely” be a kind of blasphemous “second coming,” in which humanity isn’t saved by Christ, but rather by the mythical embodiment of an enigma, the sphinx:

     Turning and turning in the widening gyre
     The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
     Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
     Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
     The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
     The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
     The best lack all conviction, while the worst
     Are full of passionate intensity.

     Surely some revelation is at hand;
     Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
     The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
     When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
     Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
     A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
     A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
     Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
     Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

     The darkness drops again but now I know
     That twenty centuries of stony sleep
     Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
     And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
     Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

First published in 1919 in response to the horrors of the First World War, Yeats’ poem has served many an allusion-ary purpose over the past century. Joan Didion borrowed the phrase “Slouch[ing] towards Bethlehem” for the title of her 1968 essay describing the counter-cultural, hippy, druggie, lost-children scene of the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco; Chinua Achebe appropriated “Things fall apart” for the name of his 1960 classic novel, which addresses the effects of white European colonialism on the African people.

If, today, we were to title a work that purports to depict the contemporary atmosphere, we might also borrow a line from Yeats: “The centre cannot hold.” The riots in Ferguson, MI; the reengagement of military manoeuvers in Iraq; the violent conflict in Gaza; the outbreak of the Ebola virus; the increase in illegal immigration to the United States, and the political bickering surrounding the issue; even the tragic suicide of Robin Williams, a whirligig of a comedian, a mainstay of so many children’s films, all seem to stand behind the phrase, “the centre cannot hold.”

Yet, if anything can be said for upheaval, it is often the art rendered in response. When filmmakers start to feel the give at the center of things, the results can be powerful, shocking, wonderful, for all that they, like Yeats’ sphinx, resist a facile answer to the questions they provoke.

Here is our compilation of those films that best embody the timely and timeless feeling that “the centre cannot hold:”

Do the Right Thing
The hottest day of the year brings to a boil ethnic tension in the multiracial Bed-Stuy Brooklyn neighborhood in which the film is set. Spike Lee’s masterpiece.

TV network executives exploit the declining health of a former news anchor to garner high ratings. Paddy Chayefsky’s Academy Award-winning script is considered one of the best ever written, and includes the populist cri de coeur, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

Like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Kids takes place over a single summer day in New York City. Chloe Sevigny makes her feature debut (along with Rosario Dawson) as Jenny, a teen trying to track down her ex-lover, a classmate who only sleeps with virgins, in order to tell him he has given her AIDS. The film’s final sequence is more disturbing than anything you’ll see in writer Harmony Korine’s more recent and similarly themed effort, Spring Breakers.

The Wages of Fear
This 1953 French classic follows four men charged with driving barrels of poorly packaged nitroglycerin across windingly treacherous roads. Pauline Kael summed up the Cold War-era thriller nicely: “When you can be blown up at any moment, only a fool believes that character determines fate… If this isn’t a parable of man’s position in the modern world, it’s at least an illustration of it.”

Ivan’s Childhood
Another black-and-white classic, this one a Soviet production released in 1962, the WWII film centers on 12-year-old orphan Ivan, whose zeal to exact revenge against his family’s German killers leads him to enlist, of sorts, with the Russian military. Much like Kids, acclaimed director Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut feature is a cinematic corollary to Yeats’ phrase, “The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

A Clockwork Orange
A violent delinquent undergoes behavior therapy to curb his dangerous tendencies, though the treatment doesn’t so much reform as mentally cripple him. Societal morals are skewered to memorable effect in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic.

Donnie Darko
A cult classic for the children of A Clockwork Orange fans, Donnie Darko centers on a teen with apocalyptic visions that feature “Frank,” a man in a rabbit suit. A famous, eerie cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” included in the film says it all, tonally as much as lyrically.