We can never know necessarily the true center of anything, really. There is shaky fact that defines a beginning and an end, depending on who you’re asking, their own relationship to the subject, and the motivation as to why one would lie. There is always confusion over whether we care about the spiritual center – a task’s essence – or if we care about its temporal center – a task’s chaos. If each aspect of our lives is governed by an asymmetric sense of place and time, then locating the exact center(s) is good in retrospect, sort of. A post-mortem does us no good until after we’re dead.
If art mimics life in its absurdity only, it can be useful to try to identify an art movement’s center. The creative apex is a reasonable as any point to start a debrief for all those that come after. And still there will be argument, and for good reason. The most methodological way to go about choosing a center-point is to throw a dart at it and hope it sticks; fight away. Film, literature, painting, poetry, sculpture theory will be better for it.
In film it is helpful to talk about eras in terms of technology and we talk about firsts too often, and lasts not often enough. The “western” is a concrete example of this boxing; John Wayne’s mainstay is an obvious and therefore contentious center of the genre. We can think about the timeline imaginatively to organize these thoughts; humans love lists. The more we striate, too, the more nuanced the arguments can become: what about the British period drama?
The spiritual center of 1971’s Upstairs, Downstairs and 2010’s Downton Abbey, is 2001’s Gosford Park. Part Clue, too, Gosford Park captures turn-of-the (last) century class considerations in a haughty, but wholly British way. The landed elite dine and demure in lavish luxury while the working servants and butlers clean and crude in dingy dungeons. The air is of “other,” which, through an omnipotent, omnipresent technique allows the reader to decide who is “better.” We are meant to disparage the wealthy and root for the poor; the most well-written British period dramas also allow for some room to question our presented assumptions: the wealthy, while obnoxious, must churn or burn their wealth or find themselves pariahs, with no outside from whence they may gaze on what was once had.
Do we care about these people anyway?
We are meant to empathize with the lower classes, who without social mobility, will remain at the beck-and-call of the greedy upstairs-dwellers. But their pettiness is alarming and jealous reigns supreme.
Do we still care about these people?
The center-line, that ground floor, is a metaphor that extends, probably to architecture, propels the notion that commonality of place extends past the social construct of what must be a time-honored tradition of the haves and their other halves. In Manor drama, good writers will play characters against type to have their audiences challenge their assumptions: in Gosford Park a major plot point is the intentions of traveling butler, Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe stars). Somewhere past the temporal center of the film, but probably at its spiritual one, Denton crosses the proverbial line from downstairs, where he was working as a staff to upstairs, where it is revealed that he had integrated himself as a butler to prepare for a film role in an upcoming movie. This reveal endears him to no one.
The center is a dangerous place because it is impossible to carve out a position. When people can’t place intent, the offender becomes a grenade. This pin is not only static and unpullable, but no one else can know it. It’s what makes agnosticism dangerous to the religious right and left and what makes free-floating political consultants the ire of one side and the darling of the other. A person untethered from any position at all can operate with any agenda or no agenda at all.
The British are somewhat known for stoicism, the idea of having a “stiff upper lip,” and “Keeping Calm and Carrying On,” so the Britishness of having no pragmatic agenda often is mistaken for having no moral agenda. This is only exacerbated by the popular media portrayal of centuries-old class struggles as ruthless and cold, which they are. The question remains, unanswered by Gosford Park: have we passed Britain’s Centerpoint?
A Beautiful Mind won Best Picture in 2001, amid a strange Age of Optimism II before 9/11. This is a fine movie, though the most interesting instance of John Nash is his doctoral thesis: 26 pages and three citations, but that makes for a boring movie. Funnily, his mathematics is an approach to find an equilibrium – a center – among choices. Nash equilibriums don’t allow for agnosticism. As for the other films in 2001, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was always due its crown after Return of the King in 2003. Moulin Rouge! should be discarded as pastiche nonsense. In the Bedroom is probably a little too arthouse for the biggest stage (what’s the smallest film the Academy has ever awarded Best Picture?), though this story was worth exploring visually. Gosford Park maybe hit the right note at the wrong time – presaging Downtown Abbey as Anglophiles would soon prove to clamor for nine years later.