A ruling came down, clamor arose and rainbows erupted everywhere. Who says art doesn’t impact our lives?
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Supreme Court of the United States nodded its majority approval to the concept of same-sex marriage. It lit an expected fuse, and right before Independence Day to boot.
“That’s cold and calculating jurisprudence, something analytical and divorced from public sentiment,” you might say. “It has nothing to do with art.”
Not so. While law now and throughout history has danced with the zeitgeist, the same waltz can be seen in art, both shaped by and shaping cultural waves, which in turn become law.
In the week following the SCOTUS ruling, I reviewed the arc of change we’ve seen in the last four decades. How did America get to this point?
One answer flickered across my television as I mused, poised perfectly enough between the ruling and the Fourth of July. It was a piece of art from 20 years back that laid a massive paving stone between those days and these.
The effect of director Jonathon Demme’s film “Philadelphia” seems negligible from this vantage point but likely it is because too few of us recall the atmosphere then. We forget how weighty the stigma.
The now-classic film about the fallout when a gay Philadelphia lawyer is fired from a notable firm for contracting AIDS wasn’t daring by modern sensibilities. Neither its writing nor its camera work was revolutionary. There was no Paddy Chayefsky or Conrad Hall at play.
What was notable was the casting of two of America’s favorite actors — Denzel Washington and Tom Hanks — in its starring roles. That alone turned heads and drew attention.
I still recall the things I heard in the months after the movie premiered, people I previously heard express the homophobia acceptable in polite society who were moved by the film. Though much of the plot revolved around courts and law, it wasn’t legal argument that got to them. It was something more pervasive.
Most of it could be found in the crux of the film, a scene wherein Washington’s character, attorney Joe Miller, briefed Hanks’ Andrew Beckett the night before key testimony. Beckett was weak, exhausted by the internal physical battle against his weakening body.
Miller relayed his stereotypical feelings on gay men, their rumored sexual predation and solely lustful focus. His fear was laid bare.
Beckett suddenly changed focus, shifted to the opera in the background, Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier.” He gave a minor crash course to ingénue Miller.
Maria Callas’ transcendent voice filled the air. Beckett was lost in his passion for the art form.
He interpreted the Italian lyrics. The heroine’s mother perished in the French Revolution’s flames while saving her daughter and Callas’ character lamented the tragedy.
“‘Look, the place that cradled me is burning,’” Beckett said. “Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe? In come the strings, and it changes everything. The music fills with a hope, and that’ll change again.”
Eyes clenched tightly, hands grasping, cupping, pulling at the ecstatic emotion in the air, Beckett rolled his IV stand around the apartment. The camera angle rose as he was bathed in scarlet light.
As actively emotive as Hanks’ work was, Washington’s was powerfully sublime. He accomplished it with no words and scarcely any movement, nothing more than his understated yet overwhelming expression as he listened.
“‘Is everything around you just the blood and the mud?’” Beckett’s voice rose. “‘I am divine! I am oblivion! I am the god who comes down from the heavens to the earth and makes of the earth a heaven. I am love. I am love.’” Transcendence was its linchpin and it meant to include us all.
Is it a little over the top? Well, isn’t opera? Yet it still works to heighten emotion.
As Miller watched a man in the clutches of death cling so zealously to life and existing so intensely in the moment, it clarified their shared humanity. Miller left the apartment and the music restarted. He drove home, watched his child, then clung to his sleeping wife as he stared into the darkness and faced his own maelstrom.
Needless to say, Miller was the audience. His experience was mirrored by many.
It’s an evocative and overwhelming merging of disciplines. That’s the power of art, penned by Giordano, performed by Callas, built upon by Demme, crafted by Hanks and Washington and passed to viewers.
This is the salient way creativity impacts our lives. Often marginalized as supercilious, frivolous or unessential, it remains a primal force. Art matters.