It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive


Today, CultureSpace writes eloquently on Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie. The film review alone is worth more than the price of admission—it’s free—but it’s the contextual commentary that makes it brilliant:

Here’s another common assumption in film criticism: if the movie in question examines some deep human flaw or says something profound about the miseries or failures of individuals, then it’s brilliant, but if it delights in people’s quirks or believes in happiness, if its tonic note is one of vibrant optimism, then somehow it’s less worthwhile. I don’t quite understand why something must depress the hell out of you before it’s considered “art.” Happiness, after all, is a real human emotion, and the essential ingredient to a good life. We don’t need less films about it; we need many, many more.

Essentially, CultureSpace saw Amelie reluctantly, several years after it came out, because he’d been told—by reviews, by friends, by respected colleagues—that it was somehow too cheery, too banal, too picture-perfect to be any good. He uses his response to the movie—he loves it, and rightly so—to investigate the general response to happiness in film, why optimism in art can be a good thing, and how Jeunet got this right.

The essay got me thinking about a movie for which I had a similar reaction. In June 2004, I almost convinced myself not to see Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal because of, well, honestly, I’m not sure. I love, love, love Spielberg, which is unfashionable. Hell, in last week’s Slate, critics David Edelstein and Joe Morgenstern held a debate titled “Did George Lucas and Steven Spielberg Ruin the Movies?

On paper, there’s a lot to be wary of concerning it. It’s set in a more-or-less confined space. It’s set in an airport post-9/11, so it’s bound to have a share of political commentary; as much as I love Spielberg, it was hard not to imagine this commentary becoming mere treacle in his hands. It stars Tom Hanks, whose nice-guy everyman act is hit-or-miss (but mostly miss) to me. And my friends sneered about it. One of them, Brünhilde, broke it down to me in a bar: “I just can’t make myself see it. I mean, I like Tom Hanks and I’m sure it’ll be beautiful to look at, but can I really sit through two hours of political punditry done by an eager-to-please Boy Scout?”

I found Matt Zoller Seitz’s essay in New York Press. In particular, what Seitz calls the Friendship Theory rang loud and clear to me:

Most people have lots of friends, for the simple reason that it is impossible to get everything we need from just one friend. Human beings are too complex and imperfect, so we must content ourselves with seeking out friends who satisfy one or two needs, three if we’re lucky. We have friends who are great at giving advice, but whom we wouldn’t trust to feed our cats when we’re out of town. We have friends who’ve deceived or betrayed us, but who are so resourceful and clever that we’d like to have them beside us in an unfamiliar city if our heart suddenly gave out.

This same attitude can apply to movies—and moviemakers. I’d like to think that if it were applied more often, film criticism might seem more reasonable, less full of mindless idolatry, adolescent snottiness, Soviet-style dead-end polemics and all-around b.s.

The theory is equally useful for critics, by the way. Seitz is one of the best we have right now, but he’s so populist and openhearted that he gives movies like Shrek and Revenge of the Sith free passes when they need swift kicks to the head.

Anyway, although he had reservations, Seitz praised the movie unabashedly and with such joie de vivre that I got energized enough to brush off what I’d heard and to—as CultureSpace writes—Think for Thyself. Sometimes, Spielberg’s unrestrained optimism gets in his way, and occasionally he’s so happy-go-lucky that saccharine drips from the celluloid. Still, Seitz reminded me that Spielberg does so much right—almost everything else—that I should be grateful Spielberg is around.

I headed for the cineplex. I’m still thanking Seitz for this. What follows is an edited and revised version of what I wrote—and still stand by—when I came from the movie, bedazzled and slackjawed:

The strings in John Williams’ score surge too mightily, plunge too often in gushy Hallmark-Movie dreck, and get foregrounded so much that they occasionally drown out the dialogue. Call it a favor for an old friend—Williams has scored almost all of Spielberg’s movies, which is proof that the filmmaker sometimes loves not wisely, but too well.

That’s the only proof of any major drawback visible in The Terminal—the rest of it is otherworldly, almost unbelievably great. Spielberg, America’s grandest artistic optimist, gets melancholy here. An Eastern European named Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) lands in JFK International Airport at precisely the moment that his country undergoes a violent revolution. Until his country stabilizes, he can’t call himself an official citizen of Krakotzhia or return home. But, since he’s technically not a citizen of any recognized country, his passport is invalidated and he can’t enter America, either.

Rather, he’s stuck in a no-man’s-land—the international terminal—for nine months. He can shop to his heart’s content, can hear a panoply of languages with every step he takes, and can be flooded by all sorts of ideas—he learns about the revolution not because someone tells him, but because he sees it on the ever-present televisions. He’s bombarded by images and people from the outside world, but he can’t become a part of that world himself.

Viktor becomes a perfect symbol for all of us, for the simple fact that we’re all alienated from each other. This loneliness in the midst of plenty is the common American condition. (We have more stuff, and can get even more with the click of a mouse, but have we ever been in a cultural moment where we’re so isolated from those around us?)

Viktor survives, and forges connections because he realizes, more than anyone who actually works in the place, that the terminal is a world unto itself. It’s a microcosm of America. The movie has the most ethnically diverse cast I’ve seen in an American film in ages, and the characters seem like real people, and not like saints or bucktoothed villains. The class struggles, job tensions, and the post-9/11 combination of fatigue and fear (it’s no accident that The Terminal’s set in an airport) in our lives are all here.

Spielberg therefore pulls off a bit of legerdemain that I don’t quite believe I saw—the terminal is simultaneously a symbol of isolated individuality and clashing, interlocked community. It’s hard to tell where one trait ends and the other begins. The light drenches the characters, but it’s slightly cold and artificial, and has a tendency to glare so brightly that it blots out the characters. In particular, I’m thinking of a scene in which Stanley Tucci (as Dixon, the chief security officer and Viktor’s sort-of nemesis) calmly walks, inspecting rows of customs officers in the morning light. The white sunlight bleeds into his white face, which in turn bleeds into the super-shiny floors and walls. As he gives his rousing/frightening speech, we realize that he’s intimately connected to the airport—he’s bled into it so much that he feels that it’s a part of him, like his skin.

And yet, the film continually makes us aware of the characters’ distinct traits and the individuality/alienation these give to them—Kumar Pallana’s burst of juggling during a romantic dinner; Viktor’s deliriously funny malapropisms and accent-challenged English; the luminous, earth-shivering beauty of Catherine Zeta-Jones, so unlike that of anyone else in the movie; Tucci’s crisp, clipped speech and mannerisms that jut out sharply against the languor and easy-does-it attitudes of those around him.

Spielberg creates a sustainable, complete world, despite the fact that we hardly see a tree or the real sky until the very end. And when we follow Viktor out into the New York night, his joy and release are tempered with grief. He doesn’t quite get the girl, but he goes down trying. He doesn’t get to stay in America long. He fulfills a long-fomented promise, but it’s to a dead man.

That promise, by the way, is interesting and instructive. Viktor’s most treasured possession, and the impetus behind his trip to America, concerns American jazz and African Americans—he understands how inextricably linked to American culture black society really is. Jazz musicians are perhaps the best purveyors of improvised individuality within a group setting. Hanks shows Viktor to be a jazz improviser of the terminal, eking out an existence amidst the chaos with what he can find. (When we see him dance to bebop, it’s funny, but it’s blissful, too.) Viktor sees and loves the potential and communal possibilities of America, but his bittersweet story shows how rarely the country realizes that potential. Full of melancholy and honest critique, The Terminal is nevertheless a love letter to America. It’s filled with grace and hope, which this country needs desperately right now.


And, with this, I’m officially starting my own meme and passing the baton: what movies, or other works of art, have you been urged forcefully against, only to later discover that they are actually quite marvelous? And what have you learned from this sort of rediscovery about your own tastes, and how they might differ from those around you?

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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