Movies and Politics Collide in Jim Shepard’s ‘Tunnel at the End of the Light’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Tunnel at the End of the Light: Essays on Movies and Politics

By Jim Shepard

Tin House Books

272 pages

 

Anyone who reads short stories on a regular basis is probably familiar with Jim Shepard’s work. In story collections like The World to Come and Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Shepard has carved out a unique storytelling niche with fiction set in specific historical moments or as flights of fancy most other writers would never even consider. These stories feature fluid prose, an array of beguiling first-person voices and detail-rich narratives that often prove unsettling to read, but equally impossible to put down.

 

In The Tunnel at the End of the Light, Jim Shepard, a professor at Williams College, exercises a different set of muscles. These essays, written for The Believer during the George W. Bush administration, closely explore a handful of iconic American films for insights they can shed on American ideas of individuality, power and imperialism.

 

Shepard isn’t shy about naming the wrongdoers and political leaders who led the US into unwanted wars and a pernicious global recession: “… a clutch of carrion-eaters in charge of our political and corporate landscape who appear positively ebullient in their rapacity, and who appear more and more openly and shamelessly to understand that now, finally, in ways only dreamed of before, the gloves can really come off …

 

 

By focusing on films like GoodFellas, Chinatown, Aguirre, Wrath of God and several others, he explores how Americans think about ourselves—as expressed in the films we watch—and how our collective self-image often leads to trouble.

 

His central thesis is best exemplified in the opening essay, “Badlands and the ‘Innocence’ of American Innocence,” one of the strongest of many strong essays in this book. He describes the nihilistic acts of violence in Terrance Malick’s 1973 film, acts perpetrated by two teenagers in love, Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), and then expands the cultural lens to take in a nation at war, c. 2003:

 

Badlands as it proceeds becomes more and more interested in another of our preoccupations, in terms of our self-image as Americans: our insistence upon our essential innocence. Part of the reason we’ve been willing to accept being stereotyped as not very sophisticated is because of the way unsophisticated nestles right up against innocence … we may screw up, we may blunder about, but we always mean well. Any harm done to others is either unforeseen or couldn’t have been avoided … And one of the smartest and subtlest aspects of Badlands is just how slyly Holly’s voice throughout the movie plays to that desire we have for ourselves.”

 

Shepard offers a perceptive and knowledgeable analysis of these films, along with using them to illustrate a broader point. It’s where his love of cinema shines through—as does the careful thought and skeptical enthusiasm he brings to each movie under discussion.

 

On Saving Private Ryan: “During that spectacular set piece of an opening, Saving Private Ryan feels like it was made by someone who’d actually been in the Normandy invasion. After that, it mostly feels like it was made by someone who's seen a lot of war movies.”

 

 

 

 

Aguirre, Wrath of God, “like the rest of [Werner Herzog’s] movies, alternates between a sloppy chaos that feels documentary-like and a highly stylized still life.”

 

There’s an occasional overreach here and there. Shepard makes what seems a tenuous connection between highly self-assured cinematic figures like Lawrence of Arabia and the aforementioned Aguirre, and George W. Bush, with his early self-pronouncement as a “wartime leader.” Except that, for Bush, there was always the sense that, as president of the United States—you could see it in his eyes that terrible morning of September 11, 2001—he was in way over his head.

 

There’s also the sickening irony that, as outrageous and malevolent as the Bush Administration proved to be, there was no way to know when these essays were written, that a different, more appalling menace lay ahead. Shepard acknowledges as much in the introduction to The Tunnel at the End of the Light, castigating “a regime that presents as its public face hacks and sociopaths who have no trace of shame about lying directly in the face of contradictory evidence.” Amen to that.

 

Fans of Jim Shepard’s wonderful fiction will be further entranced by the range, scope and emotion of his nonfiction work.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, has completed a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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