Intermediaries in Film, Politics and Religion
As we approach Christmas, it is timely to consider that one of the most important characteristics of heroes is that they are usually intermediaries.
Lincoln, with his all-encompassing mission of bringing two battling regions and two races together into a single union is clearly an intermediary. Oscar Schindler, who was one of the rare members of his tribe to develop sufficient compassion to save the lives of those he could from the other side. T.E. Lawrence, repeatedly went between not only two great tribes, the British and the Arabs, but also went between the tribes of Arabs themselves, inspiring them (unsuccessfully) to have a vision of their own potential as a single entity. Gandhi went between the British who controlled his country and the great mass of impotent citizens who needed someone to lead them. Pi Patel in Life of Pi learns how to cross between the human world he is at first trapped in to the animal world and ultimately into a spirit world.
In the real world, we spent over a year watching two candidates who both searched, as most politicians must, to be intermediaries. Romney demonstrates the problem of not being an intermediary and was spectacularly unable to appeal to anyone but certain segments of whites. Obama seemed to appeal to everyone else but, proving that a coalition of relatively small minorities can have the power to triumph over a much larger majority when it is led by a skillful intermediary.
Andy Dufresne, the protagonist of The Shawshank Redemption, goes between the brutal and corrupt warden and guards and the many imprisoned innocents. Michael Corleone, whose father in The Godfather, wanted him to become a “true” American, maybe Senator Corleone, goes between not only the powerful politicians and his impotent immigrant countrymen, but also between the powerful five families that control many aspects of New York City (triangulation again). R.P. McMurphy, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, pretends to be crazy, but defiantly goes between the powers who control the institution and the people who are trapped within it. Will Kane, the sheriff in High Noon is like Dirty Harry in the series named after him – someone who defies all the voices that tell him he’s crazy and should get out of town, but who insists on rescuing towns that in the end prove themselves unworthy of their hero And then there’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca, who can go between the Nazis, the Vichy French and the great freedom fighter Victor Laszlo and his lovely wife Isla. Captain Benjamin L. Willard in Apocalypse Now goes on a mission for the U.S. Army directly to Colonel Walter E. Kurtz and assassinates him, but as so often happens to intermediaries, they end up not belonging to either side they have gone between. (Heroism invariably comes at high cost and the hero more often suffers loss rather than being rewarded.) And finally, for this note, there is Jack Gites, in Chinatown, who goes between the powers that control law enforcement and the upper classes who control the city, and between them and the innocent victims who seek justice, ironically bringing about the death of woman he has learned to love and tried to rescue.
Intermediaries are seen in other kinds of films we don’t usually credit with profundity. Wall-E, Up, all three Toy Story films – in fact, all the Pixar films have learned how important the role of the intermediary is. And how can we leave out the power on our imaginations of costumed characters such as Superman, Batman, Spider-man, etc. who are constantly flying around, driving around, or swinging around in frenetic back-and-forth movement from one group to another?
Myths and religions invariably place an intermediary at the center of their most prized stories. Prometheus gave humanity the gift of fire, which his fellow gods saw as an act of treason to his own side. Moses was an intermediary between, on the one hand, God and Pharaoh, and on the other hand, between God and the Israelites. (Notice the role of triangulation in so many of these stories.) The Buddha began life as the son of a king who did not want his son to experience the pain of ordinary life, but the man who eventually became The
Enlightened one defied his father by escaping from his father’s palace (traps and escapes being at the heart of such stories) – and wandered the earth, partaking the pain of others, and teaching them how to reach nirvana.
Christ, one of the two most well-known intermediaries, mediated between man and God, but also between life and death. He not only died and came back to life, he taught those who believe in him to transcend death.
Muhammad The Messenger, the other most well-known intermediary, transcribed for forty years words that followers of his faith believe were brought by the angel Gabriel who, in turn, brought them from directly from the mouth of Allah. (I won’t go into the triangulation that structures so many religious stories.)
There are many similarities between sacred stories and I call “sacred dramas for a secular society” – films like those I’ve mentioned above or others in the Touchstone Film list I keep referring to in The Power of Film.
It’s good news, in storytelling terms, if you can go between different levels of society, different classes, different ethnic or ideological groups, etc. That ability makes you useful. But it also means that both sides know you really don’t belong to them, that you aren’t “one of us” and therefore are not totally to be trusted. In fact, what the intermediary does is frequently seen by one side or the other as treason, which is one reason intermediaries often encouraged to leave town as soon as they’ve completed their mission.
It might be useful if you look at yourself and try to figure out how you might be an intermediary, because being an intermediary is potentially as great a source of power in life as it is in film.