Also known as that “masterpiece movie” or “Monument Men.” Of course I saw Monuments Men (that ‘s’ is important, although all the middle-aged folk I was behind in line kept dropping the final letter). I’m listening to the book right now, which I can’t recommend highly enough, and I was looking forward to a film that combined camaraderie, WWII, and art history. For the most part, it lived up to this expectation.
The gist of the movie is that there was a small group of men tasked with preserving/finding/returning works of art as the Allies invaded Europe in 1944-45. The movie gets this point across. But it shortchanges the actual “monuments men.” What I’ve liked best about the book is getting to know the men. They come from dirt farms in Alabama, rural Iowa, St. Louis, NYC (mid-west is the best!). They were architects, conservators, art museum directors, sculptors. They were men who loved their wives and children. They were men who questioned the legitimacy of their mission (which leads me to my next point).
All of these men loved art. But did they value art more than human life? George Clooney (and the script writers) lead the audience to believe that works of art are worth dying for. But after listening to the book (thank you half-marathon training for giving me so much listening time), you know it’s much more complicated than this. One of the things that stood out to me was the monuments men’s delight at sharing these works of art with the soldiers and educating them about their importance. I think George Stout writes to his wife that seeing their curiosity and appreciation was more important than the works of art themselves. So no, on the whole, these men weren’t willing to stake their lives on works of art. After all, human beings are eternal, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child not so much. But they knew they were important. Also, in the book there are no grandiose speeches about saving culture forever. Probably because when something’s that important, you don’t necessarily have to spell it out.
One other objection…Hollywood’s incessant need to put in a love interest. I love romantic storylines. I felt slightly cheated that Frozen‘s Princess Elsa didn’t get a prince at the end of the movie. But it felt wrong to turn Cate Blanchett’s character, an indomitable and inscrutable French curator turned spy, into a lonely, desperate spinster. They had her flinging herself at Matt Damon’s character, even though she knew he was married. In reality, these two had warmish working relationship and together managed to save and return countless works of art. They respected each other as colleagues and human beings. Why isn’t that enough for us? I felt embarrassed for Cate and for Matt. What nonsense!
So should you go see it? Yes, because at the very least, it tells a little-known story of America’s greatness. America is great for many reasons, and I will never grow tired of learning of the courage of the common soldier, but there’s something wonderful about a group of experts carefully preserving, repairing, and returning some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known. Winning at any cost has never been (and I hope never will be) the American way. If anything, the movie made me think about the purpose of art and how that fits into the life of the believer.
Speaking of more works of art…it is hard to appreciate art and be a human being. I went to a concert of Spanish and Portugal Renaissance choral music today. I sat quietly in the church, waiting for the concert to begin, when I felt a tap on the shoulder. The woman behind asked if she could borrow my phone to make a call. I, of course, lent it to her, thinking she needed to coordinate plans with a friend or let someone know where she was sitting or something like that. No. She called three people and chatted loudly for about 15 minutes just shooting the breeze. An usher had to ask her to get off her phone. She glared and handed it back to me. And let me tell you, it was hard work to get back into my somber “I am now appreciating beautiful works of art mood.” And coffee. I drink too much coffee. One of the greatest joys in life is drinking endless cups of coffee over a good conversation. One of the greatest pains in life is sitting through a concert, with no intermission, having to go to the bathroom. Also, the priest sat beside me, blocking the one inconspicuous path to the bathroom. It didn’t seem dignified to crawl over him. At the end of the concert, we applauded and, horror of horrors, they sang an encore. Longest 4 minutes of soul-lifting “amens” of my life. I bolted as the last note hung in the air.
On my walk back home I had to laugh, though. Being human is such an odd thing. One minute you’re tearing up at the beauty of certain harmonies (what is it about certain chords?) and the next you’re inwardly cursing the day the Spanish and Portuguese ever decided to write choral music because this is taking forever and the bladder cannot hold indefinitely. Sigh. It’s odd being so great and so wretched .