The Importance of Yin and Yang

         Movies, theatre and literature are often used to examine the world in which we live. With that said, life is not always sunny and happy; and, therefore, if cinema is to truly comment on society and human existence, then it must include at least some amount of heartache, such as in The Heiress and A Streetcar Named Desire. However, because life also includes happiness, film can not remain immersed in melodramatic tragedies, but it must also produce some amount of sweetness, such as in My Fair Lady.

         Tennessee Williams’ 1947 A Streetcar Named Desire is a play filled with beauty and harmony, but that only refers to its dialogue and its composition of characters. The play itself explores abuse, violence, and hardship and mental instability. As in many of Williams’ plays, most of the characters are quite miserable, all consumed by their own needs and desires. This play offers the kind of plot that one only wants to see every once in a while because no one desires to delve into two hours of psychological unrest on a frequent basis. However, people have been in the same situations that the characters find themselves in, and understanding these situations helps us to understand these people and humanity at large.

         Henry James’s 1880 novella, Washington Square, filmed by William Wyler as The Heiress in 1949, remains an important piece of literature for the same reasons that A Streetcar Named Desire remains important to film—it examines an element of humanity that many find unpleasant. The work discusses betrayal and bitterness and disappointment, all of which was brought to the screen by the film, The Heiress. Both Washington Square and The Heiress tell the story of Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland), an unremarkable girl, whose father (Ralph Richardson) does not want her and whose lover only cares for her money. In the end Catherine changes, whether becoming shrewish and jaded or closing off her heart to anyone’s love, depending on whether you read the play or watch the film. Understanding the psychology of this story not only lets the audience glimpse human nature, but it lets them question themselves. Heartbreak onscreen often resonates with viewers because it identifies with the heartbreak in their own lives. To gloss over this kind of story in film would essentially deny its presence in reality.

         However, Hollywood sometimes overdoes the misery for the sake of “art”—as do several students in the Murray State English and Theatre Departments. Contrary to common belief, just because something is sad does not mean that it is deep. There is a place for happiness and joy because that is a part of life as well. My Fair Lady, directed in 1964 by George Cukor and based on George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 Pygmalion, embodies that perfectly. It shows struggle while balancing it with light, carefree humor; and then it ties the whole thing together with a sweet, if not slightly unrealistic, ending.

         To truly comment on existence, film must comment on the vast array of emotions included in existence. That means misery must be depicted in movies such as A Streetcar Named Desire and The Heiress, along with the laughter of My Fair Lady. To forget one of these emotions would be to forget part of life.

Casey Northcutt

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