“At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. He stood before us, suspended above the earth, free from all its laws like a work of art, and I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”
For one of my classes I was asked to evaluate the ideology in book or film and post my evaluation on the class discussion board. Literary criticism always leaves me feeling a bit like a scientist dissecting butterflies, so take it for what it’s worth. I do give a short plot synopsis, so if you want to experience the story for yourself, quit reading now and come back later. Either way, the film is worth your time. I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say that it’s one of the most literarily rich movies I have seen. Maybe because the story is semi-autobiographical?
If you enjoy my take on it, the original print version is on my Amazon wish list.
Here is my take:
Robert Redford’s film, A River Runs through It, tells the story of two boys alternately reacting to and coming to terms with their geographical, familial, and religious identity. Raised in the wilds of Montana, under the stern direction of their Presbyterian minster father, the boys, Norman and Paul, take divergent paths in life. Whereas Norman cultivates a life of reflection and writing, his younger brother Paul lives a reckless and exuberant life on the edge—an attitude which would eventually kill him. Despite their differences the boys and their father are united by a passion for fly-fishing. Throughout the film, fly-fishing serves as a metaphor for their individual approaches to life. The story is full of metaphysical reflections, commentary on nature, and literary allusions. However, for the sake of brevity I want to focus on the character of Paul.
Paul is an existentialist in the truest sense of the label. He rarely reflects on his actions. He just does, and in the doing he finds great delight, especially if it involves death-defying stunts like rowing a boat over a waterfall. Like an existentialist, Paul rebels against the authority of his father, both in morals and fishing style. Instead of following the careful, rhythmic fishing patterns taught by his father, Paul develops his own flamboyant method, plunging into deep water and casting in wild patterns. Norman, the narrator, highlights this individualism when he states, “Paul broke free, into a rhythm all his own.”
In Norman’s evaluation Paul’s style was not just original but artistic. After watching Paul nearly drown rather than give up on a particularly big trout, Norman declares, “At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. He stood before us, suspended above the earth, free from all its laws like a work of art, and I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last.”
This quote foreshadows the dark side of Paul’s approach to life. Throughout the film, Paul drinks heavily and accrues large amounts of debt at the local gambling dens. He takes offense quickly and fights a lot. Eventually he is killed in one of these fights.
Paul embodies the paradoxical goodness and the tragedy of existentialist living. When surrounded by water and pristine wilderness, he enters into life with an innocence reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the perfection of Eden. The human spirit, however, is not free and innocent. We are all bent toward evil; therefore, the soul released to its own passions will ultimately bind and destroy. St. Paul indicates that we naturally follow “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” and that we are “by nature children of wrath” (ESV, Eph. 2.3). While existentialism gives us true glimpses of authentic human life, it cannot curb the destructive power of sin inherent in the human soul.
Existentialism calls us to authenticity. In it we remember the faint but familiar sights, sounds, and tastes of Eden. The ability to live in the direct light of goodness without the shadow of the knowledge of evil. And in our angst and despair we sense the longing to return.