Last week was one of those weeks where I just wanted to roll myself into a fluffy blanket and never emerge. Every e-mail, every phone call, and every conversation conspired against me, and just when I thought it was all done, it took a turn for the worse. What am I stressing over? Work. Is that any surprise? As the week plodded on, I sank further and further into a morass of negative thinking. Why do I put myself through this stress just to increase the number of virtual green slips of money I own? Do the gourmet dinners, the 42-inch TV, or the foreign vacations really make it worthwhile? Why do I stress out about work which feels so pointless? It’s not as though failing at my job would result in anything more than a pinprick in the over inflated ego of some corporate executive. I started to rage about the world and its ridiculous set up. Every setback just amped up my anger until picking up the phone made me break out into a cold sweat. Perhaps it was fortuitous, then, that, in a week where I found myself increasingly upset with the state of my world, I watched Jean Renoir’s 1951 classic, The River, for the first time.
At its core, The River is the coming of age story of Harriet [Patricia Walters], the oldest daughter of a well-to-do family in colonial India. In the dying years of the British Empire, immediately after WWII, Harriet, along with her parents and siblings, live tranquilly in an isolated community of foreigners along the Ganges river. When the neighbor invites his American cousin, who has recently lost a leg in the war, to stay with him, Harriet is forced to learn about unrequited romantic love; she’s smitten with him, but he’s more interested in her friend Valerie. When her much younger brother, Bogie, dies of a cobra bite as he tries to imitate a snake charmer, Harriet learns of the fragility of life and the pain of death. From its description The River seems to have little to say about the currents of modern working life. After all, what could the experiences of an adolescent girl over half a century ago teach me about living in my world?
Surprisingly, a lot. What makes The River a remarkable film is that it takes this familiar story of adolescence and employs it to explore the deeper truths which anchor all human life. The story itself is conventional, but that’s the point. As Harriet, narrating the opening of the movie says,
“First love must be the same anyplace, and it might have been in America, England, New Zealand, or Timbuktu… But the flavor of my story would have been different in each and the flavor of the people who live by the river would have been different.”
She is pointing to the notion that any particular story is the expression of a broader experience that all people share. There is a piece of the eternal flowing right underneath the specifics of Harriet’s story, just as there is under all of ours. The theme is made particularly clear in a story Harriet tells in which a rural Indian woman is followed from her birth, through to her arranged marriage where fate brings her great love. The lovers, played by Melanie [Radha Burnier], Harriet’s half-Indian neighbor, and Anil [Trilak Jetley], the young man pining after her in real life, momentarily become the god Krishna and the goddess Radha on their wedding day.
“The real Radha who lived thousands and thousands of years ago was also a country girl. The love of the god made her a goddess.”
This scene effectively ties the stories of Melanie and Anil, the rural Indian woman and her lover, and that of the gods Krishna and Radha into a single narrative. This tale has happened millions of times before and will happen millions of times again like eddies in the Ganges. The daily life on the Ganges, the feeling of cool river-water on a hot day, and the love between two people are what is real in the world. They last forever, cycling over and over again through all people and all time.
And just as The River divulges what is true in life, it also illustrates what is a mirage. It points out that, in our everyday lives, we get so caught up in illusions that we lose focus on the simplicity of the world around us. Midway through the film, when describing the one-legged Captain John’s source of dissatisfaction, the narrator says,
“[Captain John] fought bravely and they’d glorified him – parades, waving flags, women’s smiles. He’d been caught in an exciting, unreal current. But when a war is ended yesterday’s hero is only a man with one leg."
The film makes it clear that both Captain John and society at large had floated an illusion atop the real world when they engaged in WWII. The war provided ambitious people with the opportunity to prove themselves and reach important goals. It provided members of society with the meaning missing in their industrialized lives. But like all fantasies, this one, too, eventually faded away, leaving us with the wreckage of an orgy of violence. 60 million were left dead and many more were irreparably damaged both physically and psychologically. And why? Because the dreams of an ambitious few became the nightmare of the many. Certainly war has brought out the best in humanity at times. Sometimes this ambition is aligned with a worthwhile cause like freedom or democracy. Some things truly are worth fighting for. At other times, though, it is waged for illusory notions like power, honor, anger, or glory. The neighbor, reflecting on Bogey’s untimely death makes the clearest statement of this dichotomy between the reality of the world and the illusions we make for ourselves when he says,
“…the world is for children – the real world. They climb trees and roll in the grass. They’re close to the ants and as free as the birds. They’re like animals. They’re not ashamed. They know what is important. A mouse is born or a leaf drops in a pond. If the world could be made of children…”
And so, on this particularly terrible week, The River made me realize that I’d trapped myself in a nightmare constructed out of the ambitions of my clients at work. I was running so hard in a desperate attempt to dream someone else’s dream. While my stress mounted, the weather was unseasonably warm. An occasional cool breeze hinted at fall. The coffee was hot and earthy. I could get cozy on the couch in the evening with a wife who loves me. I could walk through my neighborhood and enjoy the last days of greenery before autumn turns everything into brilliant shades of red and gold. Even as request piled on request and deadlines loomed, the real world continued to flow, just the way it always had. All I needed to do was take a deep breath and look. I could awake from this phantasm to find reality.