January 23, 2008

Dumb and Dumber

The percentage of new recruits entering the Army with a high school diploma dropped to a new low in 2007, according to a study released yesterday, and Army officials confirmed that they have lowered their standards to meet high recruiting goals in the middle of two ongoing wars.

While back in the United States -- where everything is half as expensive as in London -- Abu Muqawama took his special lady to see a few movies, among them the excellent No Country for Old Men and the equally-excellent There Will Be Blood. (Both movies were nominated for Best Picture during yesterday's Oscar nominations. ) Walking home from There Will Be Blood a few nights ago, we tried to figure out what, if anything, the two movies have in common, and Abu Muqawama mused that both films speak to an America, five years into its war in Iraq, that doesn't feel very good about itself right now.

In No Country for Old Men -- the book of which Abu Muqawama read while home in Tennessee before seeing the movie -- the main character wonders whether things have always been this bad or whether the violence and decline of life on the Texas border just keeps getting worse. He seems to conclude the latter, but there is an important scene in both the film and the novel (the former is a faithful adaptation of the latter) in which he visits his aging uncle who more or less tells him that this country -- southwest Texas -- has always been hard on people. Having been left to pick up the pieces of a drug trade-fueled bloodbath, the aging sheriff is reminded his great uncle, also a sheriff, was once gunned down on the front porch of his house by Apaches. At the end, though, we're left wondering whether or not things have indeed always been this bad or whether we're in the midst of a sharp decline into chaos. (The fact that the movie takes place around 1980 makes us wonder further how far we have slipped since then.)

There Will Be Blood, meanwhile, takes on two pillars of American civilization -- charismatic Christianity and unrestricted capitalism -- and proceeds to demolish them both with TNT. This was not a movie meant to make Americans feel good about themselves, and it doesn't. But like No Country for Old Men, one of the reasons the movie works is because Americans are so ready to hear its message. Americans are depressed about themselves these days, so much so that our friends at the Economist felt the need to tell us to cheer up over Christmas.

Today, on the heels of this new report saying the number of high schools graduates in the U.S. Army has reached a new low and news that the economy is on its way to collapse, it seems appropriate to partner with that column in the Economist and remind our American readers and everyone else of the message found in an equally important but slightly less lauded classic of American cinema:

“DUMB and Dumber”, one of the modern classics of American comedy, tells the story of an affable idiot, Lloyd Christmas, who falls in love with a classy beauty, Mary Swanson. In one scene he asks her the chances of “a guy like you and a girl like me” ending up together. The answer is “Not good”. “Not good like one out of a hundred?” asks Lloyd. “More like one out of a million,” Mary replies. Lloyd pauses for a moment, then shoots back, “So you're telling me there's a chance?”

That is the American spirit.

So cheer up, kids! It's not all bad.

Then again, Dumb and Dumber may be appropriate for another reason. It seems to be a pretty good description for some of the Army's recruits these days.