`Of Innocence and Experience'
Scattered through the history of film are stories of guiltlessness retained (or regained)
"Innocence has nothing to dread."
- Jean Racine
IN his fine introductory essay to "The Portable William Blake," Alfred Kazin wrote, "Experience is the contrary of innocence, not its negation ... experience lifts innocence into a higher synthesis based on vision...." Mr. Kazin was speaking, of course, of Blake's poetic vision, especially in "Songs of Innocence and Experience." But these words struck me as helpful one day in thinking about the theme of innocence and experience in various films I have cared for over time.
In many films when innocence meets experience, innocence is riven away. The "loss of innocence" may mean degradation, since the disillusioned often become the debauched ("Platoon"). Or, often the innocent person is vulnerable because unequipped by experience to recognize and defend against evil (Carl Dreyer's "Joan of Arc," D.W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms") and is therefore simply swallowed up by evil.
But scattered over the history of film are stories of innocence retained (or regained) in the face of the most terrible experience. In these films, innocence informed by experience and still preserving its own character evolves into virtue. The individual's embrace of virtue in the full knowledge of evil in the world is innocence married to experience, the contraries that do not (necessarily) negate each other. In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Born Yesterday," "Pelle the Conqueror," "Babette's Feast,"
"Big," "Field of Dreams," "The Fisher King," and "Europa, Europa," to name a few, innocence meets experience and is transformed into wisdom rather than lost.
"Innocence" takes on different connotations in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" than it does applied to "The Fisher King." But in both films, innocence ultimately signifies guiltlessness rather than naivete. "That which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary," wrote John Milton. The heroes of these films are sorely tried.
Perhaps no Hollywood director was more immersed in the trial of innocence in experience than Frank Capra. The best of Capra's films of the 1930s and '40s posited an innocent who runs smack up against experience, falls perilously close to despair, and then regains his or her innocence newly wise. "It Happened One Night," "You Can't Take It with You," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "It's a Wonderful Life," and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" make whole worlds structured into allegory.
The so-called sentimentality of his work has been dismissed as "Capracorn" by some critics (and worse, by others). But sentimentality, in the way the word is used here, is really a cheapening of human feeling. There is nothing "weakly emotional" or "mawkishly susceptible" (Random House Dictionary of the English Language) about these films. Those critics are missing the point, because while Capra's characters are tender and warmly humane, they each struggle for and gain enormous ground in moral strength.
There are layers and layers of meaning in these films. They can be interpreted in a variety of ways (each extreme side of the political spectrum has accused Capra of leaning to the opposite extreme - all errant nonsense). But each of these films approaches the struggle for innocence after experience with an energy difficult for the cynical to comprehend. In the best of these films, what the individual knows to be good or right (based most pointedly on "love thy neighbor") passes through the fire with the m. The individual emerges from his trial with a new intensity, a deeper, more discerning commitment to his ideals.
In "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a young senator, Jefferson Smith, arrives in the nation's capitol a babe in the woods - full of patriotism and Jeffersonian ideals untested by adversity. Good and simple himself, it takes him a little while to recognize the truth about the greedy, power-hungry men who seek first to manipulate and then to destroy him when he does not yield to manipulation. His ignorance has laid him open to manipulation (as when a beautiful woman is commissioned to keep him away from the
Senate at a crucial moment). But ignorance is offset by integrity - he inquires into the shenanigans of the political boss from his home state and the corrupt senator and congressmen controlled by the boss. His inquiry leads to the truth. He understands the nature of human fault, but he had not expected to find it in the institutions he so cherished. He is devastated.
LIKE other Capra heroes, Smith sinks in self-pity and fear almost to despair. But he is brought back from the brink to reclaim his innocence - his guiltlessness - by another reclaimed innocent, his secretary Sanders (Jean Arthur).
Blind with experience, the "wised-up" woman has become a cynic and so fails to recognize innocence when she first sees it. She thinks Smith is a phony or a dope or both. To be "wised up" to the point of cynicism is to be foolish and stupid and blind in Capra's films. Innocence must be married to experience, not stifled by it. Innocence may be both ignorant and guiltless at the same time, of course, but it can only be strong when it is free of ignorance. While innocence may be sustained, ignorance can be outgrown. Guiltlessness lies only and always in positive virtue.
Sanders gradually comes to see that Smith's moral vision is authentic, however naive he may be about the wide world of politics. Fortunately, her experience has another side, too. She knows exactly what Smith can do to save himself and uncover the evil he has discovered. It is she who points the way out of the fire.
George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life" is another great James Stewart character, another innocent whose journey into experience leads to a different kind of wisdom. Many of the elements are the same - a conniving villain who attempts to destroy the good man, a complex social web that holds the hero to his purpose, and a helpmate (this time an angel) who understands the meaning of life.
This time, the hero has to learn his own place in experience, the value of his own life of selflessness. What's really important to him is not what he thinks it is.
The young man wants scope for his dreams. He wants to travel, to study, and then to build things - great big things. He wants out of the small-town, small-business life. At one critical moment just as he is about to leave for college, he is faced with the choice between his own passionate desire for freedom and the demands of meaning. The camera seems to arrest George in the act of departure, and the close-up struggle played out on Stewart's expressive features is still as moving as it ever was. He choos es to stay and keep his father's little building and loan in operation.
Later, entrapped by the villain Potter (Lionel Barrymore), George Bailey prays for guidance. His prayer has already been answered before he asked. But the answer isn't the one he looks for.
This innocent triumphs only when he comes to see by the light of experience (provided by the angel) what his selfless life has meant to all, how great is the contribution of a good man. It is his greatness of spirit that makes his modest fight against petty local tyranny so compelling. The Battle of Bedford Falls may seem penny ante, but it is quite as heroic, however unsung, as the greatest dreams George Bailey has ever dreamed.
The cynical man (Potter) is also the guilty man, as he always is in Capra's films. His narrowness of mind cannot comprehend innocence. He cannot understand the motivations of a man like George Bailey, though Bailey can certainly understand his. In Capra's films, cynicism is always a shallow state of mind, likewise misanthropy. Innocence has no ground there, so guilt is its form and meaning. In innocence, life is rich and endlessly meaningful, full of promise and wisdom. But cynicism is always petty.
In a world as difficult as ours is, the vision of the meaning of innocence grounded in experience is still heartening. Perhaps in our time, though, the vision of innocence sought and fought for has particular relevance. Though it has little in common with any of Frank Capra's films, "The Fisher King" seems to me to be the most important recent film dealing with the pursuit of innocence.
In this picture, the innocent man, Parry (Robin Williams), is mad - maddened by experience. Another man, cynical radio talk-show host Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), must save him. But having despaired of his ability to do good, Jack, too, is "sick with experience." His retreat into degradation and alcoholism culminates in attempted suicide when the innocent madman intervenes as a knight to the rescue.
Now begins a long process of regeneration for Jack, which is actually a reclamation of innocence. Responsible for the madman's state of mind, Jack helps Parry, at first out of guilt and at last out of love.
The story is really a retelling of a medieval legend - in modern dress, of course. But what is most remarkable is how relevant the chivalric code still is when seen through the lens of innocence and experience. The qualities of a great knight were courage, prowess, largess, and courtoisie (which amounted to a profound understanding of respectful treatment of others, an academic source tells me). And these are the same qualities the film presents as needed to confront the massive threats of modern experie nce and retrieve innocence. One of the knights is seen to be the Fisher King of the title, who is rescued by a fool (an innocent). Jack must retrieve his own innocence in order to save the Fisher King, which we have been led to understand is Parry.
And so Jack changes. Guilty feelings after all don't do much for a person, but remorse coupled with love and eventuating in change, do. At the end of the film, Jack has found the "Holy Grail" (which Parry believes was ensconced in a rich man's house), Parry is returned to sanity, and Jack has discovered the largess of his own innocence fought for and won.
"The Fisher King" offers a very grim picture of homelessness, dissolution, violence, horror, and madness. But even in this hell, innocence may be, must be, reclaimed. Jack's hate-filled state of mind (cynicism and misanthropy) had been a guilty state. In innocence is liberty.
As W.B. Yeats wrote, "All hatred driven hence, the soul recovers radical innocence."