Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Prologue to the Prologue: In Which I Talk to Myself:

(Note: These next three posts (a prologue to the prologue, a prologue, and a review of Adaptation) were originally written for the Filmspotting forum. On the forum once a month, those who would like to, participate in what we call "The Movie Dictator Club." Each person dictates a film to another person to watch - the dictatee must watch the film and report back with some thoughts about the film. I was assigned Adaptation for July's dictator club - I put off writing and put off writing until I finally published my write-up, two months later, in September. The prologues reflect my problems in getting started in writing - and interestingly, the film, Adaptation, dovetailed beautifully with my writer's block.)

[Kaufmann]:"To begin... To begin... How to start?
 I'm hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin.
Okay, so I need to establish the themes. 
Maybe a banana-nut. That's a good muffin."

Me: [Yes, how to begin? Hmmm, . . . hangnail, there – ooo, like that shot of the jagged skin on the finger of Kaufmann in the movie – yes, yes, there’s something about that shot that captures an essential part of the movie, I think . . . ] 

Me: [Ok, but talk about that image later maybe. Here goes:]

There’s something infinitely comforting . . .  

Me: [“infinitely”? no, that won’t work, pretentious – less is more. Ok, go again.] 

There’s something comforting about Charlie Kaufmann’s neuroses and self-doubt as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation

Me: [wait, should I say “Charlie Kaufmann” or “the Charlie Kaufmann character”? Does it matter? Yes, . . . but that question is part of what the movie’s about isn’t it? Errr, ok, get to that later. Maybe. Go.]

There’s something comforting about the self-doubt, the ordinariness, the neuroses, the paralysis of the character of Charlie Kaufmann as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation . . . 

Me: [I think Aoife’s crying. Should I go check? . . .  I’ve [i]gotta [/i]get this write-up done. This was a July assignment, Melissa, July. You slacker.]

[Kaufmann]: "If I stop putting things off, I would be happier. All I do is sit on my fat ass. If my ass wasn't fat I would be happier . . ."

Me: [Heh, both true. Go.] 

There’s something comforting about the self-doubt, the ordinariness, the neuroses, the paralysis of the character of Charlie Kaufmann as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation – he couldn’t begin, I don’t know how to begin. He was afraid of being cliché: "My life is a walking cliché."
I’m afraid of being cliché, of being boring. A little bit afraid of being so almost every time I speak, write, post something online, on the boards, on Facebook, wherever. Of course, Kaufmann - both the character and the man – has much less reason to doubt his writerly abilities and wit than I do, but he, the character at least, acts the way I feel when I’m supposed to be creating something, especially writing something . . . 

Me: [Yes, she is crying. Dang. When am I going to get back to this?] 

[6 hours later . . .]

Me: [Where was I? Errrgh. [/re-reads] 

Me: [Sigh. This is stupid. What am I trying to be, Kaufmann? Heh, very funny, just write already. Edit out the edits. Go, go, go.]

Prologue: In Which I Indulge and Write about Myself, Not the Movie

There’s something comforting about the self-doubt, the ordinariness, the neuroses, the paralysis of the character of Charlie Kaufman as I sit here trying to write about Adaptation – he couldn’t begin, I don’t know how to begin. He was afraid of being cliché, I’m afraid of being cliché, of being boring, of being a cheap imitation of someone else. A little bit afraid of being so almost every time I speak, write, even post something online, on the film forum, on Facebook, on Twitter (there’s some real paralysis there), wherever. Of course, Kaufman - both the character and the man – has less reason to doubt his writerly abilities and wit than I do, but he, the character at least, acts and thinks the way I feel and often think when I’m supposed to be creating something, especially writing something. The hesitations and falterings, the bursts of words that seem profound and perfect at first but then quickly reveal themselves to be what they are, shallow, pretentious, imitative, and stupid. On the forum I can’t compete with the quick, omniscient wit of a member like pixote or the dry, confidence of an sdedalus (long-time forum member) or the fluid, wonderful charm of a worm@work (another long-time forum member) or any others of all the amazing Filmspotters. And I guess I don’t want to, compete with them, that is. I’m quite happy to admire. Mostly, it bothers me that I can’t compete with myself, my best work - hmmm, the stuff I wrote in grad school, I guess that would be? A very long time ago. Where is it now, anyway? Moldering away somewhere in a box in our garage? So I’m haunted by that old stuff, paralyzed in trying to write new stuff ‘cause it’ll never be as good or interesting or original. (If it ever was.) And yet, on I go.  I will force myself to write about this film, Adaptation, because I loved it, because I love films in general and love to think about films – and because writing forces me to think more deeply than I would otherwise. I say that to my writing students, and I believe it. I believe with E. M. Forster that “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” So I’d better try to see what I say about this thing. Here goes: (see next post)

Adaptation (Spike Jones, 2002)


Adaptation: In Which There Either Is or Isn’t

Why am I here? How did I get here?
Adaptation is now the last in the line of Kaufman films I’ve seen. I suppose I shouldn’t call them “Kaufman films” – they’re Gondry/Kaufman, Jonze/Kaufman, and only one Kaufman/Kaufman – but the themes and ideas are so similar in all four films, it’s difficult for me to focus on the directors over Kaufman’s screenplays. And with the exception of Eternal Sunshine, which I first saw some years ago, I’ve seen Synecdoche, Malkovich, and Adaptation in pretty quick succession, in that order, relatively recently. So in some ways, it may be difficult for me to stop the urge to trace the similar threads in all the films as I try to write about just Adaptation here, but I’ll indulge just a little here and there. The images and quote above is part of one thread that runs through all the films (though maybe more obliquely in Eternal Sunshine), I think - those often asked, so very human questions coupled with the main character’s sense (but also the side characters’) of being out of place, uncomfortable in, and out of sync with his own body and mind. We’re “All trapped in our own bodies, in moments in history,” he writes – he feels trapped rather than at home. After the brilliant opening voiceover by Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman (the film had me, absolutely, from those opening moments), highlighting the character’s discomfort and frustration with his own body and mind -

- Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head. . . . Fat ass. I should start jogging again. Five miles a day. Really do it this time. Maybe rock climbing. I need to turn my life around. What do I need to do? I need to fall in love. . . . Why should I be made to feel I have to apologize for my existence? Maybe it's my brain chemistry. Maybe that's what's wrong with me. Bad chemistry. All my problems and anxiety can be reduced to a chemical imbalance or some kind of misfiring synapses. I need to get help for that. But I'll still be ugly though. Nothing's gonna change that – 

- we move fairly quickly to the set of Being John Malkvovich, where Charlie feels out-of-place and uncomfortable though it’s one place of all places he should probably feel most comfortable, in a set built to a design of, essentially, his very own. If my sympathies weren’t with Charlie, the character, that is, in the voiceover, they certainly are now in this scene in the beginning:

And then later in the film on the same set, Charlie attempts to be friendly, confident, and nonchalant,

but is effectively rebuffed by the blank looks from Cusack and Keener and by his own insecurities surging beneath the surface.

So painful and absolutely identifiable even from the opening moments. Doesn’t matter if I’m not a famous screenwriter, I know all too well those same humiliating kinds of moments. In places, with people in/with which I ought to feel at home, I still say to myself, “Be confident, be yourself, be friendly” – then, ha! Internal mortification and misery with myself. My only desire is to get away, get away, get away:

And so the film has begun. With Charlie feeling alone and on the outside. And when the film turns in, and turns in, and, wonderfully, turns in again on itself so that I don’t know what is real world and what is film world, who is character and who is real person, what is fiction or fantasy and what is reality, Charlie, as that utterly sympathetic character, remains the core of the film experience. From the very beginning, with the words “screenplay by Charlie and Donald Kaufmann,” I know, because there is no Donald Kaufman, that I am entering a world where classic conventions are being overturned – those conventions that direct me as a viewer as to how and when I should suspend my disbelief are upended. The boundaries aren’t the same boundaries anymore if I can’t take even the credits at face value. And yet still, this Charlie Kaufman character, played by Cage, is a steady emotional core – I’m on the journey with him. Really with him.

The film constantly draws attention to itself as a film, as a thing that is, or once was, a process of creation – a few recurring phrases spoken by different characters at different times come to mind at once: 
“Laroche is a fun character” and “Who’s going to play me?” 

The Laroche line demonstrates that real people are made into “characters” in the film (and in films in general), made smaller – caricatured – made larger – made into something that may or may not reflect the real person at all. 
The “who’s going to play me line” reflects something of the same thing, and more. It draws attention to Meryl Streep playing Susan Orlean, Chris Cooper as John Laroche, Brian Cox as Robert McKee, and, of course, Nicholas Cage as Charlie . . . and Donald. 

And in Donald’s presence throughout, I am kept, as a viewer, on unsure footing, in a state of unease about the boundaries of the film. Streep and Cooper are playing just one real life person each. Cage is playing one real life person and one fictional person – what does it mean? Does Donald represent something? Maybe he, with Charlie the twin brother, represents the two real halves of Charlie Kaufman the real person in some way? Is Donald even real in the world of the film, or is he in the film maybe a figment of Charlie’s neurotic imagination? A split personality maybe? When Charlie calls home at the end of the film, at the scene of the accident, he says only, “Mom?” And she doesn’t say, “Is this Charlie or Donald?” She assumes it’s Charlie. So is there no real Donald? Was Donald’s screenplay actually Charlie’s? The film leaves those questions essentially unanswered, and ultimately, I didn’t really care whether I knew the answers or not - though I like asking them anyway. Even if the questions are unanswered, both Charlie and Donald, whether one person or two, are absolutely sympathetic – the one insecure and neurotic and probably brilliant as an artist, the other confident and charming and probably fairly generic as an artist. 

The interplay between Charlie and Donald is some of my favorite stuff in the film. Charlie both winces at Donald’s attempts at screenwriting, a screenplay rife with Hollywood clichés and happy mediocrity, and looks on enviously at the happiness and freedom Donald finds in his writing and in his life. 
The contrast between the two men is wonderful: Charlie, a successful screenwriter, awkward socially, unhappy and tortured by paralysis, brought on by insecurities, insecurities related both to his writing and to his relationships with women; 

Donald, unsuccessful from a career-related perspective, but charming socially - moving at ease on the Being John Malkovich set and apparently unselfconsciously befriending Catherine Keener as well as becoming involved with Caroline, the make-up girl – he is happy and secure in himself as a writer of typical Hollywood fare (even though he cheerily bows to Charlie’s genius) and in his relationships with women. 
Donald is, perhaps(?), the kind of person I think most of us want to be; Charlie is, perhaps, the person we most often are(?). 

Another theme of the movie that runs throughout all the Kaufman movies I’ve seen is the theme of what I’ll perhaps call solipsism, and, ultimately, an awareness of that solipsism (Charlie identifies his own screenplay as solipsistic) and the attempt to deal with it. This solipsism and, especially, the awareness of it, is most exemplified in Charlie, but there’s a telling scene featuring Streep as Susan Orlean and Cooper as John Laroche that beautifully captures the idea, too:
Orlean is riding with Laroche in his van, ostensibly interviewing him, notebook in hand. Instead of writing down Laroche’s words, Orlean writes about her own reactions to what she is experiencing: Laroche says one thing, and Orlean writes down something else – her own interpretation of and thoughts about Laroche. 
She can’t, at this point in the film (or ever perhaps?), really see or care much about anyone but herself. It’s much easier to say, “Laroche is a fun character” and leave it at that – though she seems uncomfortable with that particular designation by others - than to truly engage with him as a real person. Her written words are things that keep Laroche contained, keep him in that purely professional space, keep him away from her personally.

Charlie does the same thing – he is absorbed in himself, and his written words are things that contain, encapsulate others - on a much larger scale. His task as a screenwriter is to adapt a screenplay from Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief. He wants to write about orchids or even about Orlean, but his repeated attempts fail, and he finds that instead of writing about something else or someone else in a real way, 
“I’ve written myself into my screenplay. It’s narcissitic, solipsistic. . . . Because I’m fat and I suck.” 

Instead of writing a screenplay about a real other, he’s found he cannot write about anything except himself. He spends hours dreaming about who Orleans is, and he creates images of her for himself, relative to himself: 

so that when he has the opportunity to meet her, he simply cannot go through with it:
 The very idea of getting outside his own head is terrifying even though he knows he should, and he’s weighed down by the guilt and failure of not really engaging with others.

There is a longing in the film, for all the characters, I think, to somehow get outside of their own heads and bodies and be truly connected with someone else or with something else – to find a way to be passionate about someone or something outside of themselves. There is the sense that the three most central characters – Charlie, Orlean, and Laroche – want to find a way to get away from themselves – the selves they are so tired of - but also to, perhaps, find themselves more truly, by being in a real relationship with something or someone outside of themselves. The question of the movie is, in part, whether that relationship is possible. They are, all three, lonely characters. Donald is the only character in the film – one that has no real life counter-part – who knows who he is and is happy with himself but is not obsessed with himself either; he has easy, happy relationships with others. 

Orlean is alone even in her marriage:

Laroche is alone, having killed his mother and being left by his wife:

Charlie is alone, trying to find empty comfort in his sexual fantasies – born of his own imaginings, not out of real relationship. 

He murmurs under his breath at one point when he is in the room with Donald, “You and I share the same DNA. Is there anything more lonely than that?” 

Charlie writes, “It is the journey of evolution, adaptation, the journey we all take, the journey that unites each and every one of us. Darwin writes that we all come from the very first single cell organism. Yet here I am, and there’s Laroche, and there’s Orlean, and there’s the ghost orchid.” 
And so there is the sense that all living things are united even while there is a terrible loneliness. And with the loneliness, while there should be adaptation, change, survival, there is only this heartache and this sense of standing still, this paralysis, so that the characters want to go back, not forward, and start over:
Orlean, with the dead or dying Laroche in her arms says, 
“It’s over. Everything’s over. I want my life back. . . . . I want to be a baby again. I want to be new.”

Part of the question of the film whether adaptation is really taking place at all- 
Charlie remains stuck in his writing – his failed adaptation – until Donald takes over. But then the question is, is what the film becomes something new or merely more of the same? For it does become, in the last 30 minutes, something that follows all the clichés of a Hollywood genre – 
with drugs,

a kidnapping and guns, 

a chase,

a violent death 

or two, 

the central character who has an epiphany about himself, 

the central character who finds love. 

Charlie’s screenplay, the film itself ends by following McKee’s 10 commandments after all
. . . with a few small exceptions. 

But in the end, as we see Charlie, happy at last, and saying, “I know how to finish the script now,” I come back to the same kind of question about whether Charlie is a Charlie with a split personality or Charlie is just Charlie who has a twin brother named Donald, because here’s the thing: I don’t think I really care and I don’t think the movie wants me to care whether Kaufman has succeeded in truly adapting, in changing, in producing something brand new and in being something new. 
What matters, I think, are two things:
Charlie’s made a connection – one that feels real – with someone who loves him
And he’s succeeded in creating something that is whole, that is complete, “conclusive,” that feels right, and he can say, “I like this. This is good.” 

He knows it: he is a creator of some thing, and it is good. 

I think it’s pretty good, too. But I don’t know if that really matters.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dead Man Walking (Tim Robbins, 1995)


I had seen this film before but only once and at least 12 years ago. The impact of the film then was pretty devastating – the scene when Matthew Poncelet is executed, intercut as it is with scenes of the Walter and Hope killings – has haunted me all these years, and I admit I felt some trepidation in revisiting it now; I wasn’t sure I wanted those images refreshed in my mind. I was curious, however, to see if my memory would match a renewed viewing of the film. I remember thinking then that one thing I most appreciated about the film was that though it was what we might call an issue-driven film, I didn’t feel pushed or manipulated towards one conclusion or the other. I very much dislike issue films – I hate being preached to and mostly, I hate the fact the issue films often overwhelm the story and the characters.

This film though, absolutely, holds up; the characters and the story are vivid and central, and while it is a film about capital punishment, while it does push the idea that the use of capital punishment seems mostly to be driven by politicians who want to be re-elected, while it does push the idea that capital punishment is meted out only to those who can’t afford high-powered lawyers so that the poor are at a disadvantage, ultimately, the film raises a question or questions (namely, I think, “if a murderer is a human being, is it just or satisfying to take that human’s life?”) that it doesn’t presume to answer in an absolute way.

Matthew Poncelet, played brilliantly by Sean Penn (and I’m not really a big Penn fan), is not presented as merely an innocent from a disadvantaged background who has been taken advantage of by the system– yes, he came from a poor family, yes, he was mostly without a loving father, but the film doesn’t really offer those things as a justification or even reason for his crime. It doesn’t give a reason, in fact, for his crime, and as Sister Helen Prejean (played, also humanely and delicately, by Susan Sarandon) discovers, Poncelet gives us and her very little to love in himself (though she is determined to do so because of her conviction that he is a human being who can be loved, who can be redeemed). He spews racism and misogyny; he is callous, it seems, to the suffering of the victims’ families (even in the end when he apologizes to the families, it’s not clear what his motivations are – is he truly sorry or is he just afraid of death?). He is, truly, repellent, and the film highlights rather than hides from this fact. I still have the image in my mind of Poncelet’s heavy, hooded eyelids,
and I have to shudder.

The film also faces, head-on, the grief and devastation of Walter and Hope’s respective parents. The structure of the film works wonderfully in this respect as the first part of the story dwells only with Poncelet and Sister Helen, the development of their relationship, and then Sister Helen is brought up short when the parents ask her why she has not bothered to hear their side of the story. The scenes in which she visits the parents, sees pictures of the young Walter and young Hope, hears about their life hopes and dreams, and sees the emptiness of the grief-stricken homes are absolutely moving, and the anger of the parents is completely sympathetic, never heavy-handed. The film will not/does not excuse or justify the murders.

The scene of Poncelet’s execution, too, is powerful and beautifully done, if horrifying, on several levels: Poncelet, at this point, has become a human being for us – a human being who has committed a horrifying crime, but still a human being, not a monster, (a term for Poncelet used throughout the film by the parents and by politicians – a term which helps, the film implies, to justify his execution), a frightened human being who has, just moments before, shown us his love for his family (there’s a beautiful scene in which Poncelet spends his last hours with his mother and brothers – they don’t really know what to say to each other, but they clearly love each other) and shown us the tears and emotion and fear he has kept from seeing until now. The execution scene, though, does not allow us to feel only sympathy for Poncelet – as I said earlier, it’s intercut with images of the murders of Walter and Hope, murders we have not seen in full until now, and as Poncelet dies, ghostly reflections of Walter and Hope shimmer on the glass which the separates the execution room from the viewing room, where the parents sit, hoping for some kind of relief from their burden.

The film does, ultimately, come down on the side of anti-capital punishment – Poncelet’s death is, again, not the death of a monster but of human being and we see that the parents do not really get any relief from Poncelet’s execution. Walter’s father’s struggle, in particular, speaks to this when at the end, we see him watching from the side at Poncelet’s funeral and speaking with Sister Helen – still longing for some kind of resolution, still angry, but not knowing how to find peace: “I don’t know why I’m here,” he says. And we see that the grief of the parents has not been lessened but grief generally has only increased as a new grief is given to another set of human beings: Poncelet’s family – his brothers and his mother.

In sum, I have to say that this was still a difficult film to watch – but it’s difficult for good reasons – I didn’t feel I was told what to think and I felt the reality of each of the characters, so well-acted, and their respective struggles.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Iron Giant - A Film by Brad Bird (1999)

I was eager to watch this film as I’d not seen it before, and as I had been convinced by a number of people I trust that it was worth my while. I admit to a bit of a disappointed “oh” when I first began the film; I think because I am so accustomed to the glossy Pixar look that this animation felt outdated. BUT I soon found myself swept up into this magical story, and I rather reveled in the relative simplicity of the animation than otherwise.

I suppose the film is not without its stock characters and near-clichés – the spunky little kid (bullied at school) as the main character; the struggling, doing-her-best, but sympathetic single mother; the artist (a beatnik) on the fringe of society with pearls of wisdom to offer (“you are who you choose to be”) and a heart of gold, ahead of his time (he drinks espresso) and willing to think outside the box; the unimaginative, egoistic, bullying government man – but all of these characters were somehow fresh enough, fun enough, within this story to make me forget they were or could be clichés.

The story itself is well-told and it captured me, and there are any number of especially effective or poignant moments. The opening is great: a “meteor” flashing past the screen, past the Sputnik satellite (a nice move that immediately orients me to the era), hurtling towards earth – cut to a lone fisherman on a raging sea, unable to see the lighthouse – then a light that is not the lighthouse, but our first introduction to the Iron Giant – the terror of the fisherman – then cut to a red dawn and a peaceful seaside town just waking up and a small boy cycling through town towards a place that just says “Diner.” We follow him inside and in the scene that follows we are introduced to (most of) the main characters and themes of the film.

There are some really wonderful moments, too, between the boy Hogarth and the giant. I loved this one:

There is something irresistibly sweet about the giant crashing ungracefully to the ground in order to sit across from Hogarth (it’s a moment that delighted my then 5-year-old daughter, too – and convinced her, finally, that the giant was “a nice giant”).

The film also brilliantly, but not heavy-handedly, sets the stage in terms of the atmosphere of the times – the paranoia about foreigners, about Sputnik, about being spied on, about the nuclear threat – and atmosphere that produces the strike first, think later mentality that precipitates the crisis for the giant and (because the giant only arms itself when threatened) for the people themselves. I loved the scene in the classroom in which the students have to watch an appallingly perky, cheery film about what to do in case of an “Atomic Holocaust”:

Some things did feel heavy-handed about the film, particularly, the government/military people – the general, for example, apparently likes killing (he’s got animal heads on his walls and an animal rug on the floor – these things contrast with the scene in the forest when the hunters kill a beautiful deer and the giant learns about the horror of death) and he probably thinks of himself as a grand cowboy in the Wild West (he’s watching a show with a shooting cowboy racing across the screen).

But ultimately, the heart of the film is the relationship of the giant and boy coupled with the awakening (self) consciousness (and conscience) of the giant. The rather trite phrase “you are who you choose to be” gains a beautiful freshness at the climax of the film when the giant gently pushes the Hogarth away and chooses to be “Superman,” instead of “Atomo,” zooming up to stop the nuclear bomb with his own body and so sacrificing himself. It sounds bland on paper, but the sacrifice of the giant was incredibly moving. Overall, just a captivating, wonderful film I’m eager to recommend as I know it’s one that has passed under the radar for so many people.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Winter's Bone - A Film by Debra Granik

Hush-a-bye, my baby, go to sleep on mama’s knee.
Journey back to these old hills in dreams again with me.
It seems like your mama was there once again
and the old folks were strummin’ that same old refrain.

Women with hard, lined faces
Doors that slam open and offer no entrance, or dubious entrance
Children who learn to spot and gut a squirrel, but still jump, laugh, play in the cold air on hay bales taller than they
Yards with stray shoes, scattered and broken toys and cars, clothes hanging in the wind, and ramshackle coops where hens cackle
Men with closed faces and a heavy presence
Thick blood, hardening in its maze of lines
One mother gone quietly and sweetly mad

And this girl-woman with a round face and wary eyes and hands wrapped tight around what she wills not to lose

Winter’s Bone, the story of this girl-woman, Ree, opens with a lullaby – a lone, unaccompanied voice, singing out its tenderness and warmth, heartache and years. And while the story and the characters here are driven forward by a particular need, a particular mystery, what this film really does is immerse me in a place and a people and a feeling, at once utterly foreign to me and somehow deeply familiar – as foreign as an unknown, winding road in the night and as familiar as my own mother’s voice.

This film feels like music, but not like the complex density of a Bach fugue – it’s something at once simpler and less traceable than that. There’s a scene in the movie in which Ree, on her quest, steps into the home of friend – here, other friends, family, neighbors, perhaps, have gathered to celebrate a birthday. The rooms are full but the celebration is quiet and unassuming –and in one corner a group of musicians is playing, as much for themselves and their pleasure as for anyone else - country instruments and a woman singer, a woman with a face that would never sell an album but with a voice so sweet and low that I at once fell under her spell. Like that music – particular music I’ve never heard before but feel I must have because it so quickly embedded in my bones – this film burrows deep.

Way down in Missouri where I heard this lullaby
when the stars were blinkin’ and the moon was shining high,
and I hear mama callin’ as in days long ago,
singing hush-a-bye.

(To hear the full lullaby, go here: )

Looking for Eric - A Ken Loach Film

(I will have to get back to writing about the Decalogue at some point - I've finished all the films and just need to type up my thoughts about about them ("just" - HA!), but for now, I'll be posting reviews to a few other films that I've watched this year.)

Looking for Eric (Ken Loach, 2009)

Walking out of this movie, I had a big, probably silly, smile on my face, and when I made eye contact with a woman who was also walking out, we both just outright grinned at each other. "It was so great, wasn't it?" she asked. And yes, yes it was. It was the kind of movie that makes me want to hug a random stranger and laugh up at the sky; it feels something like being in love, I suppose, all that joyous giddiness. Strange for a Ken Loach film, right? I’ve been discovering Loach this year, and having watched three other Loach films (Sweet Sixteen, Raining Stones, and The Wind That Shakes the Barley), I've discovered that Loach is certainly the gritty political realist of the screen that people say he is. He shows us real, working class people and offers us no easy answers to their hardships. I am in awe at Loach’s skill at showing us these lives and fleshing out these characters, and especially in Sweet Sixteen and Raining Stones, making large political realities come vibrantly, painfully alive in particular individuals and the small communities in which they live.

Looking for Eric is a bit different. We are still immersed in the lives of working class people and in the life and pain of one particular soul. Eric is a middle-aged postman, lonely and unhappy, whose life feels out of his control and very far from the happiness he felt in love and in life in his earlier years. We sense that he is not sure how he’s reached the place where he is now, without a wife and love, but with two teenaged sons, who are living under his roof but who are essentially estranged from him, getting on with their lives and despising Eric.

The central device of the film, the device that moves the action forward, is a bit strange, but somehow, I completely accepted it. You see, Eric is a football fan, a Manchester United fan and a Eric Cantona, footballer, fan, to be exact. And it is through Eric’s imaginary conversations with Cantona, that Eric begins to see a way out of his desperation. I will not comment on that aspect of the film further, except to say that somehow, it works. It really works. And you don’t have to be a football fan to love the way that Eric loves his hero. It’s absolutely moving. I believe that Eric would be moved to action by that love and by that belief, however fantastical.

Along with Cantona, and also in the midst of Eric’s loneliness are his postman friends, his “lads,” who, we get the sense right away, are a close-knit, roughly kind group. There’s a wonderful, small scene early on in the film in which the lads are watching Eric wearily going through the motions of sorting mail and they resolve to try to make him laugh. I don’t want to give away the scene, but it’s simply lovely, full of gentle humor and warmth. Again, a small scene, but indicative of the film as a whole (though I should say that the film does go to some dark places).

Loach has a knack, at least in all the films I’ve seen, gritty and grim or not, for getting friendship right, for showing us the bonds of people with one another in small communities – they are relationships with no pretensions, they are not without bumps and bruises, but the relationships we see on screen make us deeply love these characters and the communities, however small, of which they are a part.

Ultimately, the joy of this film comes from the depth of the relationships among the friends and the family members, a depth that is revealed as the film moves on and as Eric begins to act, to change. The community is everything, and if Eric has to realize one thing above others, it’s that.

Some reviewers have complained that this film feels too neat, too tidy, that the ending, essentially is too happy and resolved. But I, for one, am satisfied with that ending. I love gritty Ken Loach, but I love the Loach who can see some happy resolution in the midst of the difficult, messiness of life, too.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Decalogue: Part I "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me"

Clearly, my intention to write about Part I was interrupted in November. And December. And January. And so on. But I think, at last, I'll be continuing on with my watching of, and writing about, the Decalogue. Part II will probably be put off until July, until after the school quarter ends, but I will at least begin now!

Part I, in brief summary, describes the relationship between a father and a son. The father is an essentially agnostic university professor, who is incredibly excited by new developments in computer technology. He believes that computers will be able to predict and solve many of life's difficulties - no more guessing. The father and son have a close, harmonious relationship - and they are, in fact, the two primary characters in the film. There is an aunt, too, a devout woman, who is close to her nephew and would like her nephew to enter the Church. She and the father represent two worldviews, I believe, one that holds that the material world is all there is - a material world that is predictable and controllable - and one that embraces something beyond this world in the form of Catholicism. Also central to the film is a computer, which is programmed to predict ice's thickness and various other things, an icy pond, and the boy's new ice skates.

So, some reflections on the film:

Oh my - I. loved. it. And I don't really even know what to say next to begin to express why I did love it so much. I think, first, I just loved the father-son relationship. So simple and
unstudied, both of them, I believed their relationship absolutely. Child actors can be awful, but I loved this little boy. His expression as he was watching a pigeon on his window in the beginning, his face when he was asking his father questions about death, his spontaneous joy - kissing his father on the cheek after they won a chess game together. The film itself felt perfectly constructed - the way it was bookended by the black and white tv footage, and then from the opening shot of the ground to a mysterious man by a fire near the pond (a man whose presence is never explained), suddenly staring at me and then looking away, to the sudden upward shot of the apartment building - a series of crosses that towered over me. And then after the opening, a simple morning routine of the father and the boy, and the set-up of the life of these two, and then the introduction of the aunt, the conflict of the two worldviews between the siblings -- all the way to the devastating conclusion.

The mother is not dead, but she is not present in the film, except as she is in her son's thoughts. We do not know why she isn’t there. We are, I think, simply getting a small view into these people’s lives, and we don’t know everything – we only know what we see in their reactions and actions. We know that the mother is dear to the boy and that she is absent and that he longs for her, for being connected to her. It’s enough to know that because it tells us something about who the boy is and what he is thinking.

On another note, I loved how the boy is portrayed as precocious, but never in a way that felt false – his intelligence is still simple and childlike, very much un-adult. When he is asking questions of his father about the death of a dog he's seen, for example, they are very mature questions, and yet when his father asks what prompted his questioning, his eyes brims with tears and he describes the dog very simply, in a way that a child would.

I am in awe at how Kieslowski achieves the atmosphere that he does – this film is not a visually, sensually dense one – not in the same way that Double Life of Veronique is, for example, but it manages to totally immerse me in its world. The suspense and dread it so subtly builds are almost unbearable, and it is, beautifully, a kind of suspense that is a building uneasiness, like something that has been like a weight growing in your mind or a shadow that begins to intrude on your vision more and more, rather than a certain knowledge of coming tragedy. And this same dread and unease were there when I watched the film a second, even when I knew exactly what was going to happen.

And oh, I was so much with the father in those final scenes – I was amazed that he and the boy had so captured my emotions and heart so quickly, so simply, in such a short film. I was wound up so tightly in the intense desire for there to be some mistake, for the tragedy not to be true, and then I was shattered by the final, inescapable knowledge.

So how is the commandment, "Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me" related to this story? I think it is fundamental to ask what the films, all together, are intended to be – parables, warnings, . . . ? Are we to understand the tragic conclusion of this particular film as some kind of punishment? I very much do not want to understand the films this way. I’d much rather that they are more like meditations – meditations on the commandments' meanings, meditations on how the commandments are related to human thought and action – I very much do not want Kieslowski to have made films that are lessons. And it’s hard to imagine that a filmmaker like him would be doing that, isn’t it? In spite of the fact that Poland has been a Catholic country? As I noted in my previous blog post, Kieslowski did write about his process of preparing for making the films,

“We read everything it was possible to read in libraries; a mass of interpretations of the Commandments, discussions and commentaries on the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. But we decided fairly quickly to dispense with all this. Priest draw upon it every day and we weren’t here to preach. We didn’t want to adopt the tone of those who praise or condemn, handing out a reward here for the doing of Good and a punishment there for the doing of Evil. Rather, we wished to say: ‘We know no more than you. But maybe it is worth investigating the unknown, if only because the very feeling of not knowing is a painful one.”

And that’s quite wonderful, isn’t it? He calls
The Decalogue an “investigation,” and I get the sense with his “we know no more than you” that he doesn’t presume to offer absolute answers and/or parallels. I do think that the Catholic church looms quite large in the film – there is a huge cross in the background as the boy walks across a snowy field, there is a church the father passes after checking the pond's ice, there is the faith of the aunt, there is a closing scene with the father in the church, and even, as I mentioned earlier, there is the series of crosses in the architecture of the residential building. Still, I’m wondering if we have to take those crosses, the indications of Catholicism as absolutely and exclusively tied to the commandments as they are "Catholic." From this first film, I get the sense that “God” may not necessarily mean “God” in the sense that he is described as such by the Catholic faith. The father trusts to what he can see, describe, prove, explain, predict in the material world – and I think anything that is mysterious or unexplainable or unpredictable, anything that is outside the realm of the human understanding and control could, perhaps, fall under the idea of God. Not that I want to remove the commandments too far from their Christian source, but “having no other gods before me” could in this film, I think, mean more than being a Catholic - it could extend to the more broadly metaphysical world.

There is a scene at the end, in which the father goes into a church and smashes the altar, and we see the Virgin Mary statue crying. It's curious scene - a scene that may or may not be an answer to the father's tragedy. I don’t think I want to read the Virgin's tears as a miracle, per se, and I’m not sure the film necessarily pushes me into that conclusion. The explanation can be a perfectly natural one. But I’d like to interpret the tears as an indication that while things may be explained, explained away, the occurrences themselves are not necessarily within the human capacity to predict, and the events may possibly have explanations or deeper meanings that the father may be unwilling to admit. Even if the tears could be explained, does that prove that there is nothing in life that is mysterious, that there is no God?

There is an incident earlier in the film - an wonderful scene - full of unease - in which an ink bottle simply, breaks. It is not dropped or bumped. It just begins to leak. The ink incident gives us more to say about human inability to comprehend and control life events, I think. The bottle may have been faulty, perhaps there had been temperature changes in the house that weakened the bottle – any explanation could be reasonable – but for the father, the broken ink bottle carries with it a dread, an indication that he is not omniscient. His computer program did not predict this broken bottle, and so it becomes linked to a symbol of something beyond him, like the tears on the Virgin.

I think the film is saying that the father cannot reject this notion of the mysterious, the notion of his human smallness, merely because (some) life events can be explained scientifically. When the boy asks his father about the death of the dog, the father gives a perfectly rational physical answer to "what is death?" His answer - the heart stops, life ends – is a scientific answer that works. But the film exposes how very little that answer satisfies that something deeper within us that cannot be quantified or explained. That answer does not answer the boy's hurt about why the dog died or what the death means. That answer does not answer the father's ultimate tragedy.

I would like, finally, to reflect a bit on the mysterious man in the film - the man who sits by the pond, who never speaks, who seems to see us, the viewers. Who is he? What is he doing in this film? I read some tidbit somewhere previously that there is an unexplained observer in
all the films of The Decalogue, and I guess now that he is that observer. I thought I also read that Kieslowski was never willing to explain him, and so I’m very curious as to what I will make of him as I continue to watch. I wondered, as I watched, if he represents a god-like observer, but again, I wondered if that was too much, even if he does appear in each film. Like the ink bottle and the tears on the Virgin, his presence could have a perfectly ordinary explanation, but his presence is certainly more than that. The way he looks directly into the camera at the beginning of the film, breaking the fourth wall, is so unsettling – it sent chills down my spine – I had the irrational, sudden thought, “What does he make of me?” And then when he looked away from the camera, I felt almost ashamed for some reason. I felt it was almost as if he was saying to me, “you’re about to tread in places that are private – are you really ready to go this way?”

I wonder if his presence speaks to the, perhaps, human sense that we are being watched, observed – don’t the commandments kind of speak to this somehow? Where would guilt be if we weren’t being watched? Is there a Person behind the commandments? What does he think of us? Is he going to step in, or not? I wondered about the man when the tragedy happened – he’d been sitting there by the pond the whole film, as far as we knew – but he was gone when the father looked in that spot later. Was he there when the ice broke? If he was, why didn’t he do anything? If he wasn’t, why did he leave when he’d been sitting there the whole time? This is all to say, I’m just not sure about him – I wonder if he could possibly represent the human feeling about God, viz. "Who are you? Are you watching me? Why weren’t you there – if you are there – when this thing happened? Why don’t you speak?" Do these questions make sense in the film's world? I'm not sure. I suppose I will continue to ponder this man as I continue to watch. In the meantime, I’m both drawn to him and frightened by him.

And I am eager to continue on the Part II.