TCS Daily

'Corpse Bride' Stares Us Cold in the Face

By James Pinkerton - September 23, 2005 12:00 AM

The new movie "Corpse Bride" is getting great reviews. And it's probably destined for a pretty good take at the box office. But it could have been much more. If it had been more faithful to its source material, it would have been a profound film, not just an entertaining diversion. Indeed, if "CB" had been truer to its cultural and sociobiological roots, the film would have also made a signal contribution to Western Civilization.

"Yikes!" the reader might be saying. "That's a pretty heavy burden to put upon a mere movie."

To which I might respond, "First, since movies are arguably the most important art form in America today, there's nothing wrong with holding them to a high standard, even if they rarely live up to it. And second, if 'CB' had taken itself more seriously, it would make even more money."

Now those are words that Hollywood should understand -- although, as we shall see, when it comes to making money, the movie industry, in fact, Does Not Get It.

Without question, as far as it goes, "CB" is entertaining. Writing glowingly in Rolling Stone, Peter Travers predicted that "the Oscar for this year's Best Animated Feature Film belongs right here." And the website Rotten Tomatoes calls it "one of the best reviewed wide releases of the year" -- although, of course, consider the competition.

So yeah, the film is cool. But it would have been infinitely cooler if it had been more honest about, and with, its origins.

The film's production notes attest that "CB" is based on a "19th century Russian folk tale," but those terse words conceal as much as they reveal. The only film reviewer who dug into the essence of the ur-story is The Village Voice's Michael Atkinson, who writes:

"'Corpse Bride'" isn't roughly 'based on a Russian folktale' but a knowing thievery from S.Y. Agnon and Sholom Aleichem, who in turn made their careers converting centuries of Jewish mythology into fiction."

Atkinson adds that the film includes "tidbits that can be traced back to 17th-century tales and traditions, including the Ukrainian-shtetl 'cholera wedding,' a bridal ceremony held in the cemetery."

The original tale, one of them at least, is Poe-like in its intensity. The emotional climax comes -- no "spoiler" worries here, since this isn't the ending the film uses -- when the living bride cradles the corpse bride into her arms and coos,

"Don't worry, I'll live your dreams for you, I'll live your hopes for you, I'll have your children for you, I'll have enough children for the two of us and you can rest in peace knowing that our children and our children's children will be well cared for and will not forget us." [emphasis added]

Children. Have them. Have them for the sake of the living, and also for the sake of the dead, especially those who could never have their own, even though they wanted to. In a culture where death is common -- and Jews in Old Russia had to fear bloody pogroms as well as the familiar agents of mortality in those pre-modern years -- people must have felt a constant need to overcome death, at least for a little while. And so folk tales that bolstered kin-group morale must have been a tonic, if not a life-vital necessity. Indeed, if one were to apply the strictest sociobiological logic, one would observe that the surest proof that an individual's life has not been lived in vain is the bringing forth of progeny.

Alas, "CB" doesn't touch upon any of those themes. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a Hollywood film embracing fertility as a serious concept. Imagine if that idea were to get around -- imagine all the female movie stars' svelte figures that would be put at risk! Imagine all the paternity suits that would be filed if starlets actually had all the children that were conceived on casting couches! Nope, can't have that.

Instead, the movie is played as an occasion for a few ghoulish laughs, some nifty visuals, a song or two, and a hot chick. And oh yes, this being a Hollywood production, it takes the obligatory cheap shot at religion -- one of the bad guys is a priest. Such Christian-bashing endears the film to The New York Times -- reviewer Manohla Dargis trills that "the anticlerical bit gives the story a piquant touch" -- but it gives "CB" a tone that is both p.c. and sophomoric.

OK, so the film is shallow when it could have been deep. What's new about that? After all, doesn't Hollywood routinely dumb down history, as well as literature? Yes, but two wrongs, or a million wrongs, don't make a right. Perhaps the time has come to start blowing the whistle on these violations, even if they are so routine that most people barely bother to notice them -- even as most people barely bother with the movies anymore. Parenthetically, one might note the spectacular financial failure of "The Brothers Grimm"; one of the best-known "brand names" in Western Civ was trivialized down to lame special effects and slapstick, and nobody went to see it.

And it's falling box office receipts that ought to get the attention of even the most jaded Tinseltowner.

On the rare occasion when a film of depth gets released, people notice. Remember "Chariots of Fire"? That was a moving, feeling, memorable film. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture (and, of course, Best Song), and it also made a ton of money.

So it's worth it to think back on that movie. It, too, dwelt upon the duty that the dead impose upon the living; that's a duty that's both awe-inspiring and empowering. One can feel crushed by that burden, but one can also feel inspired to great feats -- the point of "Chariots."

The mostly true story opens in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of World War One. In the first five minutes, the Master of Caius College at Cambridge University speaks to the incoming freshmen; pointing to the hundreds of gold-etched names inscribed on the wall -- all those killed in the Great War -- he declares:

"The flower of a generation, the glory of England; and they died for England and all that England stands for. And now by tragic necessity, their dreams have become yours. Let me exhort you: examine yourselves. Let each of you discover where your true chance of greatness lies. For their sakes, for the sake of your College and your country, seize this chance, rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task."

Heavy stuff, huh? And the film made money -- that's heavy, too.

And speaking of heavy, let's not forget "The Passion of the Christ". There was a movie that was about something, a movie that Hollywood genuinely loathed--and that audiences loved.

One might presume that financial necessity will eventually open Hollywood's eyes to the entertainment value of deep values, but it will be a slow process.

In the meantime, the ideas that animated the original "Corpse Bride" tale-tellers might animate us, too. Death at a young age doesn't loom over us today, as it did in centuries past. What we must live with instead is in a way even more mysterious and ominous -- the lack of young life.

If Edmund Burke was right -- that society is a compact between the generations; the dead, the living, and the yet to be born -- then something has gone wrong with our society. For two generations now, the world has lived in the erroneous thrall of Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Only now, as argued in a spate of important books, do we see that the real problem is not an explosion of people, but rather a dearth of birth. Pat Buchanan, Ben Wattenberg, and Phil Longman -- authors who respectively represent the paleoconservative, neoconservative, and center-left camps -- have all made the case for a return to pro-natalist attitudes in the West. Each author uses the language of politics and social science to express the same primal cry: "Have children! Have them for the sake of the living, and also for the sake of the dead, especially those who could never have their own, even though they wanted to."

No wonder the Right to Life movement continues to flourish. At the most basic level -- at the level of primal needs, and primordial tales -- there's a basic baby homeostasis at work. All those Baptists, Catholics, and others have a feeling, a feeling deep inside, that there aren't enough children, that there aren't enough little feet pattering around. On this issue, at least, God and Darwin are united.

Some might argue that none of this matters, because technology is pushing humanity to the nuclear or environmental breaking point. And yes, it's possible that humanity will destroy itself or, conversely, that we will soon achieve some sort of techno-rapture -- "The Singularity," some call it -- that will make all of human experience less relevant, and perhaps even moot humanity altogether.

But maybe not. Maybe we won't be released from our old-fashioned Burkean obligation. In which case, the Corpse Bride -- in the original version -- stares us cold in the face. And we, in turn, must look past the excruciating tragedy of her story, and think instead about the archetypal meaning of her life -- or, more precisely, what might give meaning to her life. If she was cut down before she could have children, then we the living might honor her by living all the more fiercely and fecundly.

That's a worthy theme for a movie, as well for society. And who knows -- it might even be worth something to the movie-makers.


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