Artistry vs. Responsibility

Mar 22, 2001 |Marshall Allen

It’s tempting to go for the glamour when choosing a major. But as this quirky film reminds us, choosing a path that pays the bills is a noble task.

"Why does the world need artists and why do artists need the world? What makes a man try to express his or her emotions in music, painting, and poetry?"
— An unnamed lecturer in A Merry War

A Merry War won’t wow audiences with computer-generated effects, brow-singeing explosions, and rat-a-tat-tat action. Rather, it’s a film that goes naturally with a cup of coffee, a cozy couch and thoughtful conversation – an art movie featuring an eccentric artist as its main character. A Merry War is a character-driven story about Gordon Comstock, a poet on a journey to balance his devotion to his artistry and his responsibilities as a man. The movie provokes thought and freely examines the up and down struggle of a character who is sympathetic, but deeply flawed. It uses creative narrative to tell us something about ourselves – a goal achieved in too few films today.

The fact that A Merry War is an art film puts it in a different class than most current movies, and doesn’t immediately rank it as a blockbuster. But the 1997 release did earn critical acclaim and can be found in most video stores. Based on George Orwell’s classic novel of 1936, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, the movie stars Richard E. Grant (The Portrait of a Lady, The Player) as Gordon Comstock, the moody and decidedly infuriating poet and boyfriend of Academy Award-nominee Helena Bonham Carter (Twelfth Night, A Room With a View), who plays Rosemary.

Set in 1930’s London, Gordon is the star copywriter of an illustrious London advertising firm, where Rosemary is an art designer. But Gordon is haunted by the belief that, despite his excellence in advertising, he is selling out his true self: Gordon Comstock – poet. And truly, he is a promising poet, having published his first compilation, and earned the loyalty of Erskine, his longsuffering publisher. Gordon has studied the finest literature, committing the words of Emerson and Wordsworth to memory – and finds ad copy most unsavory to his sensibilities. Consumed by his passion for poetry Gordon’s mantra becomes, "I’m a poet and a free man!" while citing ad copy as the jailor to his inner poet. Thus, despite the fact that he’s earning 5 £ per week in advertising, he quits his job to write poetry.

Gordon’s heady decision to live a life of artistic freedom is bathed in Orwell’s satire. Gordon says that he’s on a quest to "find out if I’m a real poet," and so lives the bohemian life befitting an artist of his stature. Day after day, the lanky poet walks the streets alone, pensively smoking cigarettes whilst reciting lines to his poems. And although he does need money, he scoffs at the fact that his former boss would want him to return to the advertising firm.

In a matter of time Gordon’s idealism crashes on the rocks of reality when he runs out of cash and is forced to find work. Erskine lands him a 2 £ per week job at a bookstore in a middle class London district which Gordon accepts while pouting, "I don’t want to work at a moldy old book shop…" To say the least, Gordon isn’t a very effective employee, spending most of his time reciting poetry while gazing morosely out the bookstore window. But he does manage, during this time, to get a poem published in a prestigious California poetry review, for which his payment is $50 and a bolstered ego. Unfortunately, instead of this success launching his career as an "international poet," Gordon’s pride accelerates his downward spiral.

In a telling scene, Gordon insists on celebrating his sale to the California poetry review by taking his only friends in the world, Erskine (along with his sex-craved mistress, who detracted from the movie), and Rosemary, to a classy restaurant befitting a poet of his stature. Sadly, this gesture isn’t to appreciate Erskine and Rosemary’s friendship and loyalty, but in order to prove to them, and himself, that he is indeed famous. In the restaurant, Gordon leaves his status as a man in no doubt as he gets sloppy drunk in a scene that’s so pathetic it’s funny. By the time the sequence of scenes featuring Gordon and his new riches is finished, Erskine is posting his bond to spring him from jail.

Gordon’s public infamy results in a turn of events that show how the public’s tolerance for immorality has changed with the times. Because of his arrest, his landlady meets him at the doorway to his flat with his bags packed – she’ll not have a character of ill-repute on the premises. Likewise, Gordon loses his job at the bookstore because of his indiscretion. In our age where publicists have a "No press is bad press" attitude toward their celebrity clients, it’s surprising, and convicting, to be reminded that there once was a standard and expectation of moral behavior.

One of the ironies in A Merry War is that everyone except Gordon sees his plunge into self as wretched – except him. Gordon is so focused on himself that he interprets every relationship and conflict through his own lens – he creates his own reality. Having deluded himself into thinking he’s living a life of freedom, his existence becomes more and more despicable. Again, Erskine sets him up with another bookstore job (pay: 30 shillings per week) and he finds a dumpy flat – this time in a London ghetto called Lamberth that’s so seedy "even the tomcats walk in two’s." The bookshop, located next door to a morgue so overcrowded that it borrows the bookshop’s storage space, is owned by a man who doesn’t even read books. Gordon no longer writes, and although he’s too poor to afford a bath, he convinces himself that he doesn’t care.

Gordon’s "freedom" makes him a frantic and self-consumed boor who treats Rosemary with little regard, bilks his hard-working sister out of her Christmas money, and tells Erskine, the one man who could help him succeed as a poet, to stay out of his life. Gordon’s living large in Lamberth, blinded and bound by the freedom that enslaves.

In a problematic ploy to bring resolution, Rosemary decides to sleep with Gordon for the first time, seemingly as a last ditch effort to save him. (This may work in a movie, but in real life this would be a recipe for disaster. It’s as foolish a decision as they come.) After telling Gordon of her pregnancy from their one-night-stand, Rosemary tells him that it’s up to him whether or not he wants to accept responsibility for her and the child.

"Remember, you’re a poet and a free man," Rosemary says.

"I’d forgotten about that," Gordon replies.

Jarred by the prospect of being a father, Gordon goes to the library and checks out a book on pregnancy. There, with tears streaming down his face while studying a picture of a baby curled up in the womb, he gains perspective on his life and on the responsibilities he’s been shirking. Suddenly, his focus is off of himself, revealing the shame of what he has become. He realizes that he needs to start living for something other than himself. The resulting "baptism" takes place in a public bath where Gordon washes off his old self, leaving the self-consumed poet behind with the ring in the tub.

A Merry War creatively communicates some positive truths. It’s clearly pro-life in its treatment of the pregnancy, and it’s interesting to see how marriage is a civilizing force in Gordon’s character. After his "rebirth," he marries Rosemary and returns to the advertising agency, this time to humbly provide for his family. His family moves into a home that is utterly non-bohemian but is family friendly. Gordon’s joy comes not from living as a tortured poet, but as a blessed family man.

The theme of Gordon’s struggle between artistic freedom and commercial viability is one experienced by most artists, and one A Merry War has fun with. Unfortunately, no matter how gifted a particular artist, only a lucky few earn the repute to make a full-time living with their art. The term "starving artist" is cliché because of its root in reality.

It’s not dishonorable for an artist to use his gifts for business. Through his tragic journey Gordon realizes that performing a job with excellence and providing for his family are noble pursuits, even if he never becomes a world renowned "international poet." It was only after he embraced the responsibility of providing for his family that he was truly free.

Copyright © 2001 Marshall Allen. All rights reserved.

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