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Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Book of Eli (2010)

"It was a dark and stormy night."

So begins Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford, and hundreds of stories which mock it. Bulwer-Lytton, a popular and prolific nineteenth-century author, was also a politician, which may account for another of his other coinages - "the pen is mightier than the sword." This second slogan is etched onto the western window of the Library of Congress' South Corridor, from which the United States Capitol can be seen.

I like the first line, which has a fine and strong directness to it, but dislike the second. To me, it seems either banal or untrue, and either way, dangerously naive. It's shallow, and it shows a disregard for history and human experience.

But I don't doubt that moral writing can have a transformative effect. The Book of Eli spins upon a variety of implausible conceits, chief among them Denzel Washington's possession of an ethical rulebook, with which he manages to defeat bands of gangsters in post-apocalyptic California.

I'm troubled by the film's theocratic paternalism, its soft-hearted ideology, and its attempts to normalize the supernatural. By the film's end I felt conned twice over. But its genre-bending loopiness belies its charm. The book ends up in a library on Alcatraz Island.

Incidentally, Alcatraz Federal Prison had a library, and a notable one. Every new inmate was given a library card and copy of the catalogue. A Federal Bureau of Prisons booklet, published in 1960, noted that "these men read more serious literature than does the ordinary person in the community. Philosophers such as Kant, Schopenhauer, and Hegel, etc. are especially popular." The library was the chaplain's responsibility (for more on librarian chaplains, see this earlier post), who ensured that all references to sex, crime, and violence were excised from the collection's books. There's brief library scene in Escape from Alcatraz (1979).

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