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February 17, 2005

The Shawshank Celebration

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Continuing the film thread from below.

Under Michael's post "Repeat Viewings", Nick writes:

Azad mentioned The Shawshank Redemption and Office Space as movies that everyone of a certain generation (the tail end of Gen-X, I guess) has seen many times.

Which got me thinking. I only recently became aware that Shawshank is a legitimate phenomenon--not a cult movie adored by a self-selected slice of the population, but an honest-to-god big deal for an entire cohort. And further, that there is a generational aspect to the thing.

To me, an almost embarrasingly stereotypical boomer, it seemed like a pretty good movie. Better than most, but nothing to write home about. And certainly nothing that I would have considered bound for glory.

It's not that I am unaware of the appeal of certain films to generations. Me, I date the End of the Sixties to my first viewing of Chinatown. No countercultural themes there, pro or con. But, as I wrote here previously, until around 1974 I was still unconsciously hanging on to certain Aquarian delusions, and Chinatown shook me violently awake, reminding me that the world is composed of prosaic things like water systems and municipal finance, and that no amount of wishing and hoping will change the basic way the world goes round.

So in that sense, Chinatown spoke to me generationally at a precise generational moment. Might I ask those assembled how they reacted to Shawshank? Why did it speak in a special way?



posted by Fenster at February 17, 2005


My first thought on your question is that it's all about the narration. Morgan Freeman's voice. His timing. I anticipate the end of the movie when he's talking about his hopes (something he scorned while in prison) and he says "I hope to see my friend." In "Stand By Me" Richard Dreyfuss does a memorable voice over and helps make that movie unforgettable. On top of all that, there's Stephen King who is responsible for both movies, and the man can definitely write well in the first person.

Posted by: bridget on February 17, 2005 7:44 PM

yes the voice! i hate narration. i think it instantly turns sex and the city into the worst most trite painfully unaware attempt at self-awareness.

oh but that drawl. quite frankly i really remember nothing else from the movie... something about a jail.

Posted by: azad on February 18, 2005 1:01 AM

I'm baffled by the "classic" status that Shawshank has accrued in recent years. As far as I can tell it's only been relatively recently, too, I certainly don't recall people getting as excited by it at the time of its release. I saw it at the cinema and remember thinking it was good but not that good.

Posted by: James Russell on February 18, 2005 3:37 AM

Gosh...I think I do remember it being a big deal at the time it was released.

My most profound memory of it was a line by Tim Robbins: "I gotta either get busy living or get busy dying." It is a rather poignant discussion of Life.

But my dad, who was turning 70 at the time he said this---no Gen Xer---made an interesting remark: the Tim Robbins character just plain won all the way around at the end; he got his freedom, he got all the money, the Bad Guy had to blow his brains out. He lost it all, but he engineered a beautiful revenge that just plain worked. No dangling threads. It was very satisfying.

And, well, Morgan Freeman is one of the greatest actors ever.

Posted by: annette on February 18, 2005 9:36 AM

PS---and Robbins (spoiler alert) really was innocent so of course he deserved to win. The fantasy element. And the principal difference with "Chinatown"--"Chinatown"'s cynacism required the girl be killed, not the old man. It wasn't "just"--but maybe "realistic". "Shawshank" allowed a form of justice to be done!

Posted by: annette on February 18, 2005 9:46 AM

I wouldn't have thought of connecting 'Chinatown' and 'Shawshank' before reading these comments but I do see a thread there.

'Chinatown' (like other paranoid thrillers of the 70's) echoed Watergate in exposing corruption and shattering America's faith in government. The 80's were full of dystopian sci-fi movies like 'Blade Runner' and 'Brazil' predicting a horrible future.

'Shawshank' came along with a message that, even in the bleakest of conditions, a 'little guy' with brains and courage can not only endure but eventually *win*. And it ends with Morgan Freeman's gorgeous voice, finnally admitting, "I hope."

Posted by: Scott D on February 18, 2005 11:48 AM

of course, the actual word is 'finally'...(grrr)

Posted by: Scott D on February 18, 2005 12:01 PM

I would agree. I remember, even at the time, an unusually large number of people who seemed to have a rather profound connection to that movie. It went well beyond thinking it was 'well-made' or anything of that ilk.

I've only seen it once, and I wouldn't claim that sort of connection for myself, but I will admit there is something floating around in the guts of that movie that is...well...different. I can't think of another film with quite the same feel.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 18, 2005 2:30 PM

Scott D: Lileks summed up seventies movies so well one time:

"I've said it before; might as well say it again. Movies like this paved the way for Star Wars, inasmuch as SW let the good guys not only win, but live, AND get a medal from the dame at the end. (Except for Chewie. That still rankles.) If the style of early 70s sci-fi had infected Star Wars, all the Rebels would have been crushed, Tatooine would have been blown up by the Death Star, and the soundtrack would have played 'One Tin Soldier' as the Death Star retreated into the infinite blackness of space. War, man! It's so . . . futile."

One Tin Soldier. Oh my.

But the need for happy endings can get just as tiresome as the overuse of tragic ones. I've been bugged for the past two days by a really dumb post on the right-wing film blog.

What? You didn't know there's a right-wing film blog? Well, there is.

Anyway, the post develops into the usual mind-reading paranoia about "liberal Hollywood", and finally writes off the grit and corruption of The French Connection by saying that it "belongs with Jimmy Carterís infamous 'malaise speech' on the dust-heap of history", which you'll agree is a silly thing to say. They want Reagansque buoyancy or nothing, I suppose. God help us.

So what's the ethics of dwelling on darkness and misery and failure and so forth? Is the viewer, as the right-wing guys implicitly claim, sanctioning it - and by that sanction giving up ever trying to correct it? Kubrick said no. He held the view that only when we acknowledge the dark side of human nature will we be able to do anything to correct it. But many filmmakers who've followed in his wake seem to regard dwelling in darkness as an end in itself, a sort of anti-Norman-Rockwell iconoclasm. Hence, One Tin Soldier. But is this whole notion of film-as-moral-corrective a useful one?

It seems to me a film should presume to show us what is important, whether good or bad or happy or sad. But it's a question to which I haven't yet developed a neat answer.

Posted by: Brian on February 18, 2005 4:30 PM

M. Blowhard - I would have thought a media-flunkie/junkie such as yourself would have had an eye on cable rating and VHS/DVD sales and rentals.

One aspect of the film that's a little different is that this is a standard action-guy film set in the rough and gritty world of prison - yet while brutality and murder and dropping the soap are present, the story is about friends. Basically, it's Stand by Me about grown-ups whose lives have gone horribly wrong. Our hero was a victim, our narrator made a tragic mistake, both have the same happy ending. Very neat.

Posted by: jc on February 19, 2005 3:38 PM

I don't quite understand why the movie is so popular either. It's a good movie, but not great. My guess is there's some sort of value-promotion going on, on some level, and a lot of people who just like the movie a lot and have never seen anything better. With regard to values, I am kind of stumped. Maybe a nostalgia for that time period? (But most of the people who fetishize the movie never lived then...)

Posted by: . on February 20, 2005 10:08 PM

I'm 30, so fall pretty neatly, I think, into the late Gen-X bucket you describe. For me, the attraction was all about Stephen King; as a major fan I had read the source story ("Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption") several times, and was just stunned by how accurately Darabont was able to capture King's tone and voice in the story.

That said, Freeman's performance, and narration, does do wonders. But a lot of the film's appeal may have to do with it coming by it's admittedly long-shot dream ending honestly. That is, I'm not sure that on a first viewing it's evident that such a happy end is in store. And that end IS hard-won.

One of the things I simply adore about Thomas Newman's oft-imitated score is how he approaches the triumphal escape scene. While the music swells and triumphs appropriately as Andy escapes it almost immediately stills to a bit of true melancholy. It's a subtle reminder, timed to precisley the moment of triumph, of how much Andy has lost before getting to that point. Not just the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse, but the sheer time lost. Andy doesn't escape after doing a year to resume his life, he escapes after (if memory serves) 20+ years, the prime of his life taken away completely. The bitter nature of the triumph is even more poignant for Red; he's been in Shawshank for the vast majority of his adult life before he's paroled at what we're to assume is well into his 60s. And, to me, that's what moves the film from just a well-told, well-acted gripping yarn into the realm of great movie--that it acknowledges that hope is a powerful thing NOT simply because of the triumph that can be reached, but in and of itself. The film implies, even if it doesn't, in the end, go there, that even if Andy had died in Shawshank at the ripe old age of 80 he would have still, in some way, triumphed over reality, because he had hope. And that's a powerful notion.

Posted by: John on February 21, 2005 3:23 PM

All I can add to the "I don't quite get it either" viewpoint about Shawshank is that it gets shown a lot on television. Repeat viewing begets repeat viewing?

The hero fools his jerk boss? Maybe a little guilt conscience about capital punishment?

Posted by: Rob Asumendi on February 21, 2005 8:56 PM

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