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Jean Bethke Elshtain


Irresistible—and Troubling

The beauty of Johnny Depp's John Dillinger.

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The film romanticizes Dillinger's love interest, his relationship with Billie Frechette, turning it into the monogamous swoon of two beautiful people who pledge never to desert one another. As Billie served time for conspiring to help Dillinger escape capture, he took up with a couple of floozies. But in the film, Depp and the talented and exquisite Marion Cottilard (Academy Award-winner for her incandescent portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose) fill the screen with iconic closeups, somewhat reminiscent of the most beautiful and famous of all such closeups—those of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951). The truth of it all? We don't much care. Just show us those beautiful people. The closeups help us once again to appreciate why movie stars—real movie stars—are different from the rest of us, physically blessed with a kind of preternatural grace and beauty. The camera magnifies rather than diminishes these qualities. They are larger than life.

The television screen minimizes. There is grace and beauty, but it is manageable—it isn't the stuff of dreams. Ah, but that big screen. One finds it as irresistible—and troubling—as Augustine found the Roman theater. His great biographer, Peter Brown, tells us that Augustine had an immoderate love affair with the world. It was both the human habitus, given us by God, and a temptation, drawing us away from God, away from the immutable towards the mutable. As creation, it is good. God declares it so. But human beings muck things up and turn that which is beautiful, or can be, into something tawdry, shameful. Augustine clearly frequented the theater as a young man. He loved performances of the classics, even as he wondered why we should weep over strangers. His vitriol, dished out so cleverly and powerfully in the first ten deconstructive books of The City of God, was reserved for what might be called the "civil theology" of the late antique world, expressed in the theater in a debasing form.

Augustine's most telling passages condemn outright the misuse and abuse of women for theatrical spectacles, intended to venerate and valorize all too male gods or their representations. But even when it is not so obviously defiled, Augustine suggests, theater is problematic. Perhaps we do well to think of film, at least at times, along similar lines: a vexation, a temptation, and yet also testimony to human sociality (films are exquisitely social enterprises, involving a complex company of persons), to human creativity, and to our capacity to create memorable moments of beauty and drama. In transforming a charming scoundrel into a beautiful charming scoundrel, making him quite irresistible, film lures us in to something … but how do we name it?

Public Enemies is not a film that confronts these or other ethical and moral issues explicitly—it insinuates, intimates. There is an important distinction to be marked between a morally fraught or challenging film—and Public Enemies, given how attractive are its criminal protagonists is one such—and a morally damaging film. (These are categories I will be expanding and elaborating in a book project tentatively entitled "Movies and the Moral Life.") Most important among the morally fraught themes is Johnny Depp himself. We are brought face to face with physical beauty on the big screen and just how potent and irresistible it remains. But how on earth does one think about that ethically? Human beings are drawn to earthly beauty. It seems a gift from "the gods." Beauty helps us to ponder periods of "uglification": for example, state social regimes built on ressentiment, on public envy of what one doesn't have, leveling down, creating conditions that inhibit and even deface that which is beautiful.

That, surely, cannot be the Christian way. I am ongoingly struck by St. Augustine's lyricism, his words breathtakingly beautiful as he depicts the beauty of this earth. We desire, we yearn for a kind of perfection of that which simply is. We are—let's be honest—drawn to the beautiful child rather than the plain child, for it is not true that all babies are equally "cute" any more than it is true that all men look like Johnny Depp. We don't stop there, of course, but the eye moves that direction. Grace and charm make the world more alluring and more bearable. Yet Christianity asks us to offer ourselves in love to the disoriented homeless schizophrenic who spews nonsense, reeks of urine, and has head lice. How do we "work this" without diminishing the fact of physical and natural beauty that enlivens our existence but may also trap us exclusively in that which is mutable? Consider the lilies of the field … yes, more glorious than Solomon and yet more fragile. They turn brown, they wither, they decay—as earthly things must—but oh they were so beautiful.

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