Monday, July 23, 2018

Lilies of the Field

Last night I screened Lilies of the Field, a 1963 Best Picture nominee, featuring the performance that earned Sidney Poitier the Best Actor Oscar for that year. While I enjoyed Poitier's performance, Jerry Goldsmith's music, the lean direction, handsome black and white cinematography, and the simple but affecting story, the film nonetheless left me unsettled and questioning.

In the film, Homer Smith (Poitier), stops at a ramshackle nunnery to borrow some water for his car. Mother Maria (Lilia Sakala, nominated for Best Supporting Actress) believes God has sent Homer to help the sisters build a chapel. Homer demurs, as he's happier to live as a man of the road, taking odd handyman jobs to support his easygoing, itinerant lifestyle. But the nun's ineptitude compels Homer to stay and help, and over the course of the film he reveals himself as not only an able handyman, but a leader, marshalling the volunteers who show up to help into a formidable workforce.

The chief source of drama in the film is Homer's easygoing attitude and desire to leave set against Mother Maria's devotion to a relatively ascetic lifestyle and her unspoken fondness for Homer. She even comes up with a number of excuses and odd jobs in an attempt to extend Homer's stay, but in the end, his task complete, Homer leaves the chapel and the nuns behind, proud of a job well done but true to his own needs.

Lilies of the Field is a simple film, but it's funny and warm and important because it features a well-rounded black character in a time when such characters were even rarer in mainstream film than they are today.

What hit me hardest, however, was the way that Poitier's performance clearly showed the deep but understated pride Smith takes in his work and his finished creation. And a fine chapel it is, once the work is complete. While I recognize that screening films always leaves the viewer vulnerable to emotional manipulation, I couldn't help but question the value of my own work when presented with a vision of something concrete (almost literally) and lasting. The fruits of Homer's labour are obvious and long-lasting. Even though I personally am not religious, I can see the value in a place of meditation and meeting for the community, and I envy Smith and others like him who build things that exist in the real world, with tangible benefits.

My labour, on the other hand, hasn't been physical since my early 20s. Of course I agree that communicating is important, and that the right message can have wide-ranging benefits, but I'm still not sure that anything I've written has had anything more than a brief, infinitesimal impact on the wider world. Aside from a few ghostwritten gardening books, I don't have anything I can hold up and say, "This is what I contributed to the world."

Again, I don't wish to downplay my own contributions to the world, most of which, I hope, are unrelated to whatever jobs I've held over the years. But sometimes I feel like I've missed something important by choosing the career I have. 

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