from my archives: politeness matters


[This spring/ summer, I will be randomly publishing posts from my archives, in order to be more productive in other areas of my creative life. I hope you enjoy this post, which was originally published March 9, 2012.]

Last weekend, my husband and I watched The African Queen for the first time (on Netflix streaming, which is rocking my world lately). I grew up watching classic movies (and then took film appreciation, which widened my knowledge base even more) but I had somehow avoided this classic Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart movie.

I think I was worried it would have too many awful Hollywood stereotypes in it. I haven't ever been able to watch John Wayne movies for that reason; it is just too much for me to take.

But my husband wanted to watch something with Bogey in it, and so we did. And it was amazing.

Two things struck me, watching this movie that was filmed in the 1950s (but set nearly 40 years earlier).

The first was how very kind and (mostly) polite the characters (mostly Bogart) were. The stiff British siblings are not nearly so polite to him (after all, he is below them in class as well seeming to be an unbeliever), but they still maintained a level of politeness. Even when circumstances are flipped and Bogey "has the upper hand" so to speak, he never takes advantage of this, never gets it into his head to just do his own thing, Katherine Hepburn's schemes be damned. Oh, he complains, but he does not leave her behind.

Contrast this to one of my favorite movies, Romancing the Stone, which shares a lot of similarities with The African Queen. In it, the two main characters act fairly monstrously towards one another, all whilst supposedly falling in love! The love between the two main characters in The African Queen is more believable; they have treated each other decently for most of the movie! (Aside from her pouring his gin into the river. That wasn't very nice at all, but he forgives her and she apologizes.)

The second point that struck me was how very resourceful and independent Katherine Hepburn's character is. Talk about a can-do attitude! (Until, yes, even she gets discouraged, but by that point, she has given courage to Bogey's character enough that he is now able to give her courage, too. Until they both cannot keep going any longer. And then there's a deus ex machina.)

The movie doesn't pass the Bechdel test since there aren't any other female characters in the movie other than her, but she holds her own, thank you very much.

But what really struck me the most was how very different the attitudes of the characters were to what I perceive to be the attitudes of the people around me. Not only was there more civility and more kindness, there was less of that obnoxious sense of entitlement that seems to have spread through our culture like the Smith character in the Matrix sequels. (I'm infected, too, how could I not be? There's no escape. Entitlement touches you and you merge. Matrix-y, yes? Yes.)

I think this might be in part because the movie was set in the past and Hollywood has always embraced and promoted the idea of the "golden past" where everything was better. And perhaps me seeing this movie and thinking how much nicer everyone was is in part doing the same thing; after all, there were inherent class and race issues in that time that were completely skimmed over, as if they didn't exist.

But really, what I want to take away from the movie is this: it is possible to keep widening our circle of compassion so that it embraces more people. All creatures. And the beauty of nature itself.

I can see it in myself. I consider myself a very kind person. But I am not always polite. I am not always civil. (And ok, it is hard work to stay kind and civil all the time.) But there were basic niceties that this movie took for granted that I do not take for granted. Little things, like not taking something when you are not offered it. (Oops, my entitlement shows: I often don't ask before I take a bite of my husband's food.)

Maybe this film is an imperfect example. But politeness counts. Civility matters. How much more pleasant it is to listen to two people not bickering.

Yes, I'll be doing my best to take the politeness challenge to a new level this week. And next week. And the week after. Until it becomes part of me.

Widening my circle of compassion just that much more: feels good!