This post contains details from a 21-year-old movie which is based on a 33-year-old novella;
kindly consider this fair warning!
Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (Parts I and II), will probably always be my favourite film, but Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption is likely to be the silver medal contender for years to come.
I saw it in 1994 in the theatre, with Audrey, possibly as one of the '4 movies in a single day' marathons we did occasionally on $2.50 Tuesdays (that's right. sissies: 4 movies for $10! sigh). I loved it immediately, and I've seen it a few times since, having owned a copy on VHS, but probably not since it was released on DVD. I've had a copy in that medium for years, but, seemingly, without an opportunity to view it.
With Glory away babysitting tonight, it seemed an ideal opportunity to round out my eldest daughter's film canon, and she chose it from a set of three immediately, without even glancing at the competitors (which, for the record, were Sergio Leone's The God, The Bad and the Ugly and John Woo's The Killer). I chided Fenya for the swiftness of her decision, then praised her for the wisdom of her choice - such is the oblique and counter-intuitive way of my parenting style.
The Shawshank Redemption is as good a movie as we all remember; I believe Empire magazine called it "The Best Movie to Never Win An Oscar" based on a reader's poll they did years afterward. Considered a box office failure, Shawshank had the misfortune of being released the same year as not only Forrest Gump (which had a very good night at the Oscars) but also Pulp Fiction, as well as Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Quiz Show.
I was gratified how much Fenya appreciated the film, sharing my fear for Tim Robbin's Andy Dufresne in his early years at Shawshank, the joy of seeing his perseverance rewarded, the morally ambivalent satisfaction of watching a sadistic guard beat his tormentor.
Shawshank has always been a profoundly moving film for me, but I was astonished at how differently it affects me now that it has been nearly two decades since I last saw it. Part of this is no doubt due to Thomas Newman's tremendous score, particularly the cello-based "Shawshank Prison (Stolic Theme)", which lost out to Hans Zimmer's Lion King soundtrack, which is awfully good company. A greater part of it has to do with the intervening passage of years, a major focus of the movie.
I would be willing to bet that the last time I saw it I was not a parent, nor a homeowner; as a younger man, my emotional highwater-mark is a tie between Andy's actual escape and the comeuppance of the warden, once he realizes that he has been duped. In later years, my joy is greatest at the reunion between Andy and Red (Morgan Freeman) in Zihuatanejo, a Mexican town I had never heard of prior to viewing this movie, and a place which now holds as much significance to me as Casablanca or Mos Eisley.
Tonight, after so many years, two other scenes stood out for me; starkly, insistently.
The first is when Andy breaks away from a work party tarring a roof to offer tax advice to brutal corrections captain, played with brilliantly charismatic menace by Clancy Brown. He literally risks his life for no greater reward than three beers apiece for his fellow inmates, who he refers to as his 'co-workers', to the amusement of the guards.
Red: [narrating] And that's how it came to pass that on the second-to-last day of the job, the convict crew that tarred the plate factory roof in the spring of forty-nine wound up sitting in a row at ten o'clock in the morning drinking icy cold, Bohemia-style beer, courtesy of the hardest screw that ever walked a turn at Shawshank State Prison.
Captain Hadley: Drink up while it's cold, ladies.
Red: [narrating] The colossal prick even managed to sound magnanimous.
Red: [narrating] We sat and drank with the sun on our shoulders and felt like free men. Hell, we could have been tarring the roof of one of our own houses. We were the lords of all creation. As for Andy - he spent that break hunkered in the shade, a strange little smile on his face, watching us drink his beer.
It is difficult to say with any surety, but if we respond to art because of resonance to our own lives, my mind is brought back to this past May, when my friends came over and spent a few hard days building a second bathroom in our basement, for about as much reward as those convicts. Our family only stopped renting nine years ago, and I often find myself coming up short with the skills, gumption and willingness to experiment that make basic home improvements possible, qualities I am very lucky that many of my friends have in spades, and those that don't share my willingness to work hard and well when given direction. My humility and gratitude at the thought of this simple grace and the incredible generosity of my friends, and the simple sentiment I share with Red, are almost enough to unman me.
The second is less of a scene and more of a theme underlined with a scene, and the theme is hope.
When Andy defies Warden Norton by not only continuing to play opera music over the prison p.a. system (a scene that did not appear in the Stephen King novella the movie was adapted from) but wistfully smiling and willfully turning up the volume in full view of him, he later tries to explain to the other inmates why his time in solitary went so easily, and why he did it:
Andy Dufresne: That's the beauty of music. They can't get that from you... Haven't you ever felt that way about music?
Red: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn't make much sense in here.
Andy Dufresne: Here's where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don't forget.
Andy Dufresne: Forget that... there are places in this world that aren't made out of stone. That there's something inside... that they can't get to, that they can't touch. That's yours.
Red: What're you talking about?
Andy Dufresne: Hope.
Red, who at this point considers himself institutionalized, is resistant to Andy's message of hope, as heard in their final conversation in Shawshank: "Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."
Are these statements true? Can most of us attest to their fundamental veracity? Does anyone care to contest their validity?
Even those of guys who have lived, for a time, without hope, have clung to the memory of it, less like a man clutching a life preserver and more like someone following a rope through a blizzard. Even if they should discover a frayed end sliding through their mitt, the knowledge that hope was once there and might possibly be found again is enough to forego despair, if only we can remember.
Things are a bit tough where I work, presently. A major technological update has proven to have significant shortcomings, and instead of simplifying our lives, as we were assured, it is actually adding complexity to them, which is incredibly frustrating. Combined with an extremely adversarial approach to our current contract negotiations and a number of other vexations, morale is about as low as I have ever seen it in what will be seven years next month.
And yet, surprisingly, hardly anyone is heading directly for the exits. Sure, there is talk - isn't there always? But although turnover is probably a little higher than it was a year ago at this time, the number of people actually filing notice to depart are surprisingly few and far between.
Life, and work, continues. Even though people struggle sometimes to reconcile contradictory objectives and impossible timeframes, they continue to struggle, in hope for something better to come along. A cynical part of me hears the response to the Beatle's "It's getting better all the time (it couldn't get much worse)", but another part of me, a better part (I hope!) believes that with this many decent and hardworking people pulling together, things can't help but improve. And maybe that's what hope is supposed to do: like faith, it gives you enough resolve to stick things out another day, a week, a month. Enough perspective to realize that things always appear differently from the inside than when you have exited out the other side, like Andy Dufresne, who crawls through 500 yards or confined pipe filled with human sewage.
It is probably not by accident that Red refers to Andy's hope as "a shitty pipe dream", is it?
Is hope what gets us through these things? Probably. Maybe that's why, on this viewing, I was less moved by Red and Andy's reunion on the beach then I was by Red embracing hope at last, after 40 years imprisonment, beginning when he reads the note Andy has left for him under a stone wall in a farmer's field:
Andy Dufresne: [in a letter to Red] Dear Red. If you're reading this, you've gotten out. And if you've come this far, maybe you're willing to come a little further. You remember the name of the town, don't you?
Andy Dufresne: I could use a good man to help me get my project on wheels. I'll keep an eye out for you and the chessboard ready. Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend. Andy.
But most of all, in Red's final narration:
Red: [narrating] I find I'm so excited, I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it's the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope.In Darabont's original screenplay, that dialogue was supposed to end the movie as Red travels south on a vintage Trailways bus, in search for Andy, not having found him. Darabont agreed to the studios insistence on the reunion scene, but shot it from a distance to deemphasize it. My heart leapt to see two old friends embrace on the shores of the Pacific, the ocean which Mexicans, we are told, believe has no memory.
But Darabont's more ambiguous ending really does underline the importance and significance of hope, and now I am not entirely sure which ending I would have preferred. Thankfully, knowing the director's intent, I can take my pick, and hope for the best.