Dulce et decorum est

Nine dollars can do a lot of things. And I don’t even mean feeding-a-kid-on-a-quarter-a-day things.

I mean, it can buy really good hummus and some cucumber, tomato, and pita. It can buy a shirt on sale at the Gap outlet on Chestnut. It can buy a Belgian beer with change to tip. It can buy the Juno soundtrack on iTunes. But Sunday night, I used my nine clams to cry.

Atonement has been reviewed, reviled, and revered all over the world, and I have no interest in wasting even free, nonmaterial Internet space reviewing it myself. The only pertinent information here is that it’s a very sad movie, and its sadness is couched in an array of beautiful trappings.

I wondered, while images of war mixed with chic, verdant satins, about the difference between a sad event and a tragic one. And why the tragic one always benefits from beauty. Scenes at Dunkirk were graphic, and shots of obliterated soldiers at the hospital were shocking and gory, but the sepia tones and the swelling orchestra cast them in a glow of certain beauty. Somehow, war and death, and separation and broken romance were christened in beauty. People sniffled demurely.

What interests me most is the evolution of an event from raw emotion to the state we saw in Atonement: detached, quiet tragedy. I suspect it’s more than stiff-upper-lip Anglicism. I suspect it’s a theory we swallow wholeheartedly, and with hope. No one wants to face the actualities of sadness, or tragedy. It’s much more pleasant to consider them through a prism several layers removed. Where years have elapsed and the immediate grief has somehow melted into a shallow pool of distant melancholy.

In reality, Atonement is not a beautiful story. Peel back the layers of score and costuming and symmetrical actors, and it’s a story about neglected children, rape, war, lying, and death. Does it make a more palatable story when it is couched in beauty? Isn’t there even a little danger in sugaring up that pill first?

I suppose there are documentaries more faithful to the actual horrors of war and loss. But I couldn’t help but feel a touch of resentment toward the people affiliated with Atonement for glossing over certain truths with such wide, magical brushes. I couldn’t help but feel a little angry at myself for paying $9 to cry over a retouched vision of death. There is always a certain suspension of disbelief in theaters, but this particular brand of bullshit touched me more deeply than most. In addition to knowing intimately that paroxysms of death don’t mirror the silent, lingering glances before the final blink we see in movies, I will not believe that the most beautiful love stories, the ones to be most lauded and honored, are the ones where the protagonists are separated by mortality.

This is obviously a topic I’m unable to expound on objectively. But the part of me that finds survival more beautiful than grief itself is in revolt. And I’m promising to never again waste money on a story the apotheosis of which is sadness, and sadness only. There is no catharsis in an ending that is only death. It’s half a story. And glorifying that sadness is a luxury that, frankly, I wish I could still afford. Without wanting to be overly sensitive about a topic that happens to have touched me personally, I simply cannot believe there is much redeeming value in a movie (or book, or documentary) that uses death as its endpoint. What is the lesson there? Sadness is beautiful?

Sadness is only beautiful to spectators who haven’t endured it.

Peel back the layers, and sadness is heavy sighing, and tears that crop up so easily you don’t bother with mascara anymore. Sadness is leaving a shop because an old song comes on the radio. It’s smashing old plates against the wall simply for the release. Not particularly cinematic moments, those. But real.

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.


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