Wednesday, November 23, 2011

"'Twill be a storm": Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, 2011)

“This tempest in my mind / Doth from my senses take all feeling else / Save what beats there.”  (King Lear 3.4.12-14)

There’s something in the air this year.  Or maybe something, as Lars von Trier would have it in his most recent film, Melancholia, hurtling towards our planet, bent on destruction.  Or maybe something, as Jeff Nichols would have it in Take Shelter, in the rain, sickly yellowish and oily.  Or maybe it’s not anything external at all, neither air nor destructive orb nor sickly rain - but rather, something more like Lear’s tempest in mind.  

Indeed, Melancholia, Take Shelter, and King Lear each use external, literal storms as analogs for mental disruption and turmoil, and, on a deeper level, for states of existential crisis.  

If there is "nothing new under the sun,” perhaps I should not be surprised that the film I saw last night and the one I saw last week, Take Shelter and Melancholia respectively, remind me of Shakespeare’s great tragic play of the early 17th century with its doubling of chaos within and chaos without.  But other critically well-received films this year, while they do not have the same doubling, also evidence a fear and unease, a mood that surely says something about the way we are all feeling about the state of things in our world: Margin Call with panic and corruption in the financial world; Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with its return to the paranoia of the Cold War days; Drive with its lonely, violent anti-hero; Contagion with its fear of sudden, uncontrollable disease and death; The Ides of March with its corruption of the political system; Meek’s Cutoff with its dislocation of space and traditional structures; and even Rise of the Planet of the Apes with the downfall of the human race.   Coincidence?  Maybe.  Maybe every year has this sort of crop of gloomy films, and I’ve noticed it only now because I happened to watch Melancholia and Take Shelter back to back.  

Whatever the case, I left the cinema last night after seeing Take Shelter, and the same oppressive spirit of a few days ago, relative to Melancholia, weighed upon me again.  The driving rain on my windshield seemed ominous; I did not have the sense I usually have when I drive in my rainy home state, that sense of triumphant cozy comfort within, barring all damp wet from without.   No, this time, my car didn’t seem such a happy, peaceful shelter.  Like Take Shelter’s main character, Curtis (Michael Shannon), I needed something more than the ordinary to keep out the storm.  While Curtis suffers from what seems to be exclusively personal hallucinations, paranoia, and nightmares - mental disorders born of his genes more than anything else - I still could not help but see myself and feel my own fears in Curtis.

We are introduced to Curtis’s nightmares in the very opening scenes of the film; in fact, we are thrust, without knowing our location at first, directly into one of his nightmares, a storm.  His nightmares and his hallucinations contain similar elements throughout the film: a storm builds or rages; the sky and clouds and even the birds shift into phantasmagoric shapes; rain pours down as an oily substance; Curtis must save his vulnerable, deaf daughter from the storm or from shadowy figures who come to snatch her; people he trusts behave strangely, threateningly; he must exert great physical effort to withstand the assaults or to act as savior in the midst of the assaults.  

Throughout the film, from scene to scene, we are often not quite sure of what we are seeing, from moment to moment - are we in one of Curtis’s nightmares?  Is he awake but hallucinating?  And he himself suffers from the same disorientation; he doesn’t know how to distinguish between his horrific visions and the reality.  At least twice during the film, as he gazes at the sky, he mutters, “Is anyone seeing this?”  And we’re not ever quite sure.  Some of his visions or nightmares seem to be, clearly, nightmares; we understand at some point, “Ah, this one is just another nightmare.”  But we are kept, nonetheless, in a state of disorienting unease.  In the beginning of the film, a real, but mild rain storm, fills the sky, and we see Curtis’s wife Samantha (the marvelous Jessica Chastain) teach their daughter the sign for “storm” as they gaze out the rain-glazed window together.  Real things without are linked almost indistinguishably to the disorder within Curtis’s mind.  

As the film goes on and Curtis continues to struggle - his fears about his sanity increasing, his behavior increasingly bizarre and unaccountable to his family - we begin to see, at least, we think we begin to see, the real things, the real fears that have triggered Curtis’s nightmares, and it is in understanding and sympathizing with these fears that Curtis takes shape, not as someone who is merely an individual suffering from some mental disease (though it may be that, too), but as someone who represents the responses to more universal fears.  

In spite of the intensity of some of Curtis’s nightmares, the film builds our understanding of Curtis’s world and his fears very slowly, with small clues.  It is a film unafraid of demanding patience and unafraid of lingering shots, and Curtis is a man of few words, whose silence we often long to break, especially given the turmoil that we know lies beneath.  We come to understand his daughter’s deafness and isolation, and we see his desire to protect her; as he sits by her bed at night, we feel his fear for her.  We come to see a possible disunion between Curtis and Samantha’s family, when Samatha’s father comments, accusingly, over a Sunday afternoon meal, “We didn’t see you in church again this morning, Curtis.”  We come to understand something of the precarious economic situation, both of the family and of the community.  Samantha sews pillows and other handmade items and sells them each Saturday, not, we sense, because she loves to sew, but because their family needs the extra money; we see her carefully stowing the money away in a tin, notably, not depositing the money at the bank.  We come to understand that Curtis fears repeating the sins of his parents, particularly his mother's; he fears for his daughter a repetition of his own childhood, and he fears what he has inherited.  

All of these fears while utterly believable and unique in terms of this film and in terms of this character, are also uneasily universal, and they seem particularly resonant with the general unrest of our times, the unemployment and economic depression, the obsession with parenting and fears about raising our children just perfectly, the fears that we’ve inherited political and economic structures from those that have gone before us that will collapse in disarray.  

And so when Curtis begins to give in to his nightmares, acting according to those visions as truths - when he takes out a risky loan, when jeopardizes his job, when he begins spending money on things that are not conceivably practical, when his behavior seems to put a hope for his daughter’s healing at risk - the tension is almost unbearable.  His giving into his visions seem only to bring his fears to life more quickly, and we long for him to stop, to just be reasonable, to, at the very least, speak openly to someone about those fears – and so, we hope, to exorcise them.  You are only creating more quickly, we want to say, what it is that you fear most.  

Curtis understands the dangerous implications of his hallucinatory visions and dreams; he understands that they can be only irrational things, but he is still compelled by those visions, unable to resist them, and even while we fear what he may do – where will his visions lead? what will they tell him next? – we also understand that he is driven by a desire to protect his family and that all of his actions, though spurred by his fearful visions, are motivated by his love for his wife and daughter.  And so we look on in horror and sympathy, waiting for a crisis. 

When the crisis comes, it is not quite what we expect, and thus, I was held, riveted, unable to predict the outcome.  At the crux of the crisis is Curtis and his little family; his visions, his mental disorder, as we expect, stand between him and any continuing and healthy relationship with them.  In one particular moment, we can almost feel the agony of his mind as he looks at Samantha, not daring to do as she asks, because her request goes against every fiber of his desire, against the conviction that he must protect her and their daughter.  He feels sure he is right; he knows it – but Samantha cannot follow him in his conviction.  The dilemma brings him to such a peak of intensity that we see him visibly, slightly shaking, bringing the whole of Michael Shannon’s beautifully understated and spellbinding performance to the height of its forcibly suppressed energy.

Just how the crisis resolves - or explodes - I cannot say without spoiling the ending.  But even without explicitly discussing the ending, I might still ask, what is this film?  What is it about?  At the halfway point, I wondered – is this to be a crushingly convincing portrait of a mind losing its bearings?  That alone, because of the performances and carefully constructed story, would be enough.  But even at the halfway point, I could not shake the resonances of Curtis’s fears relative to myself and our times.  The shadowy figures of Curtis’s dreams reminded me of zombies, those living-dead, the living-flesh eating monsters of the horror genre which are not intended to produce merely feelings of horror but to reflect something about the disorder of the modern world we live in.   And I do believe Take Shelter is something akin to the best of the horror genre, which immerses us in a fantasy world and tells us something about our real world, about our deepest fears.

King Lear’s Fool – standing in a long line of truth tellers who live on the fringe and can thus see more clearly than anyone else – says of the storm, the setting of Lear’s downfall, “This cold night will turn us all fools and madmen” (3.4.77-8).  And when we understand the play, we understand that the madman is not really the fool; it is not he who is the one out of touch.  We understand that it is only through devastating madness that Lear begins to see the truth about himself and about the world.

In Melancholia Justine (Kirsten Dunst), the anti-social depressive, becomes the visionary and the artist, the one in whom the ordinary, rational folk might take shelter and find comfort when everything around collapses.  In Take Shelter, Curtis is the madman, the one alienates himself by his mental state and his behavior from the normal society around him.  Whether, by the end, Curtis is still just a frightening madman or a kind of Shakespearean wise fool, I think only each viewer can decide.  Curtis’s state, his visions, will speak truthfully to you about our world or they will seem only like foolishness.

For my part, in considering this film, the last lines of King Lear - when the king is dead, Cordelia is dead, and all is brokenness – resonate both clearly and truthfully, reflecting the fearful spirit of our times:

“The weight of this sad time we must obey;
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young

Shall never see so much nor live so long.” (5.3.329-33)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Something Rotten in the State of Things: Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011)

Albrecht Durer’s engraving, Melencolia I, is surely a reference point, if not the inspiration, for Lars von Trier’s latest film, Melancholia, though the film title also refers to a planet of the same name on a possible collision course with earth and further refers, more elliptically, to the disorder, melancholia, that malaise of the spirit, so difficult to define, to diagnose, to cure.  

Durer’s engraving at once embraces the mythic epic and the individual, an engraving that might indicate some kind of terrestrial apocalypse even as it indicates personal failure and stagnation.  In the scene, the alchemist sits slumped, head in one hand, other hand idly holding his tool.  Above him, the sands of an hourglass have nearly run out, the scales are tipping, the bell may soon toll; he is passive in the face of these things. Having given up, perhaps, the pursuit of gold or wisdom, he merely sits, seeming to wait for an end.  Is the light out over the sea a promise of a new dawn or of something else?  Interpretations of the many details of Durer’s piece abound, but I am nonetheless tempted to tie the art to von Trier’s film.   Like Durer, he makes Melancholia preside over all though for von Trier, it is a shining planet looming towards earth as much as it is a suffocating mood slowing enveloping the characters.  

But von Trier, does more, I believe than merely reference Durer; his film alludes again and again to other artists, to other works of art.  In so doing, he deliberately celebrates art, specifically, painterly art, as that medium that can express what the purely rational, scientific mind cannot see or express.

The film opens with an overture of sorts, previewing for us what is to come by way of impressionistic, surreal snapshots or tableaux: painterly, barely still-slightly moving, images of the characters we are about to meet, images of the fate about to overtake them.  

The woman we are to come to know as Justine (Kirsten Dunst) appears in this overture first, her face a kind of gruesome mask as dead birds fall slowly around her to the ground

It is a face, a scene, recalling, perhaps, Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix, Dante's Beatrice who rests in the contemplation of her own death, with the bird as a messenger of that death, the sundial shadowing out the fleeting time.

The overture continues, and we see a huge sundial on still, deserted grounds with neat, sharp-shadowed hedges, a scene recalling a surrealist painting, a cool Magritte, maybe.

Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow appears,filling the screen, and turns ashy and burns,
artist and ash recalling another of Brueghel’s paintings, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, in which Icarus, waxed wings melted by the sun, falls, small and unnoticed, to his death.

We see also a window seat, foregrounded by arched columns in a house interior  - a scene reminiscent of paintings of the annunciation

- but through the window in von Trier's scene, something is burning.  The room is empty; there is no Virgin Mary, no angel bringing a lily and announcing redemption.

Instead, in another scene, Justine floats, attired in a bridal gown and holding funereal lilies, an echo of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia

In other scenes, Justine touches a storm

or walks with feet entangled.

And the woman we are to come to know as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), clutches child, glides, sinks in slow footsteps, wading through a golf green.

Interspersed among these images is a view of the earth and the planet Melancholia from space, moving together in a slow dangerous dance, 
until finally, at the overture’s end, the earth glides smoothly into the larger planet, dissolving quietly to a puff of powder.

And that is the beginning.  It’s all very, very grand.  

The film situates itself in the center of the artistic tradition, referencing what came before, both recreating it and destroying it.  I, too, am Art, it seems to say; I, too, follow in this tradition.  

So, I am pushed to ask, at the film’s outset, whether it is what it claims to be.

But how, even at the film’s end, am I to answer that claim?  The subjectivity that is as inherent in the artistic process as it is in the judging of a piece art defeats a definitive answer.  I suspect von Trier knows I will be defeated, too; but he will still push me to say whether I believe his film is Art, and to engage with it, I must try to answer.

We might try on a few definitions of art, by way of beginning, at least, the conversation.  Jeanette Winterson, in her essay, “Imagination and Reality,” says,  “Art is a reflection of an unseen, complex reality - art sees beyond the window frame.”  Art, she says, rejects “money culture” and with it the dubious thing called monetary value, and instead works according to "its own currency," producing a window to something, to some value or truth that is at once much more real and much less definable than money.

Von Trier, in this film, referencing the art that has come before him along the way, reaches for that kind of complex, unseen reality by way of his own artistic, filmic metaphor.   The central metaphor of his film - a gigantic planet called Melancholia on a destructive course towards earth - seems, at first, too obvious to be anything more than melodrama. It is an almost obscene sort of memento mori that originates in a depressive state of mind: we’re headed towards destruction and death; we are all going to die.  See? Just look at that planet.

But the film, with its allusions and direct references to art (allusions and references I am not at all sure I am seeing or naming properly) and with its cast of characters, with its development of two particular characters, two sisters, elides my grasp in many ways, dancing around the obvious metaphor, daring me to try, if I might, to make all of the elements fit neatly, daring me to categorize it all, as I might be inclined to do, as self-important melodrama.  

But I find, just as melancholia - the mood disorder - cannot be managed, cannot be easily contained or cured, this film, too, will not allow me to manage it by a simple one-to-one metaphor, will not allow me to dismiss it as grandiose melodrama.

If I cannot dismiss it, I must engage with its details, and so let's examine a few. After the overture, the film is split into two parts: "Part I: Justine" and "Part II: Claire."  We might say that these two parts, the two sisters, represent two kinds of opposing responses in the face of an impending doom though it is not so easy, by the end, to characterize them, not so easy to make the pairing mean something as simple as a dichotomy.

Justine we might call intuitive sister, the one who sees or understands something that others don’t.   On her wedding day, she is beset by a strange despondency, a malaise we do not understand and do not see at first.  She disconnects from everyone - smiling but not really smiling, smiling as she flees from the presence of others and submerges herself in a long bath - Ophelia-like - smiling as she flees out over the grounds, away by herself to look at the sky.  She is increasingly cold to those around her, and thus difficult for us as viewers to love, difficult to understand and sympathize with as Part I goes on.  And her sister, Claire, watches her, urges her to participate, but Claire cannot control Justine or help her. 

From what does Justine’s depression and alienation stem? What does Justine know that causes her depression? The crashing planet of the overture looms over Part I for us, but does Justine know about this planet?  No explicit references to it are made in Part I, and we begin to doubt what the overture means even as that overture’s mood still affects what we see.  We are not sure what Justine knows; we are not sure what we know.  

We are tempted, by the end, to pair Justine’s melancholia with the planet Melancholia, each signifying something related to death, disaster, hopelessness.  The one is indefinable, dangerous, and uncontrollable, the other, though definable, a literal planet, is also uncontrollable and dangerous.

Additionally, given the references to art throughout the film and also given Justine’s profession, in which she has been working in advertising but aspires to the arts, we might also be tempted to pair Justine with the artistic imagination, if a thwarted and depressed one.  We might say she understands something about the world not by articulating a fully fleshed notion but by embodying emotion, fleshing out dread, affecting those around her.  

But I am uneasy with those neat characterizations of Justine.  She still eludes me.

Claire, the focus of Part II, is perhaps the more accessible figure.  While Justine’s affliction is impenetrable and difficult to grasp, making her difficult to sympathize with, Claire is more transparent.  She even voices twice in the movie her feelings about Justine: “Sometimes I hate you so much.”  And we know how she feels.  Justine may know something, but that knowledge distances her from us and from others, isolating her.  Claire is also easier to access simply because it is clear, in Part II, that the characters on screen know about and are responding to the threatening planet; there is, in fact, a planet that seems to be on a path towards earth, and we understand Claire in terms of her knowledge of that. And Claire is much different than Justine. While afraid of Melancholia, Claire has not given in to doom in the nihilistic way that Justine seems to.  Claire cooks meatloaf to coax Justine to eat, she tries to make Justine bathe, she saddles her horse and makes Justine go out riding with her.  

Claire stands, in a way, between two kinds of being (and here is where the earlier suggested possibility of a dichotomy between the sisters breaks down): her sister, who has given in to her intuition of doom, and Claire's husband, John (Keifer Sutherland), who is certain that science assures against that doom.  Claire is connected to both people - she wants to believe her husband but fears that her sister is right.  And so she negotiates between the two of them, both ideologically and personally, trying to make peace on both sides while she fights down her own unease.  

We are very much with her in both her hopes and her fears.  While we’ve seen the overture of destruction, we still cannot be sure that that vision has depicted the characters’ actual fate; it is, perhaps, only an artistic impression. The planet is there; all three characters stand and gaze at it.  
But whether it will hit . . . who has that answer?  Do we trust the artistic vision of the beginning and the irrationality surety of Justine, or do we trust the assurances of John and his claims to science?  

Will it be a spoiler to say what does happen? Would I spoil it to tell you?  The film begins at the ending, or so it seems, but in my own experience of the film, over the course of its story, I lost my bearings; I did not know what I knew.  Following beside Claire, I was not sure; I only felt with her, apprehensive and unsure.  

I think I can say, while still avoiding spoilers, that Justine, though she is the melancholic, is the one who becomes a sort of alchemist in the end, believing for Claire that gold can be made, rejecting John's science and embracing a more spiritual sort of science, putting her nihilism to good use.  Though she has embraced melancholy and isolation and offers cutting unkindnessness increasingly throughout the film, she is, in the end, the only shelter for those nearest her.

Is it too much to say that von Trier identifies himself with Justine, the melancholy visionary? Someone who, like Justine, sees himself as isolated in some way from others, but still seeing - or being willing to see - something the rest of us don't? If that is, in fact, von Trier's vision of himself, it is, indeed, grandiose, melodramatic.

But whatever von Trier's idea of himself, I have not him, but the film before me, so I must consider it on its own. What can I say now, that it is? What does it do? It does not mirror our ordinary reality; that is certain. It does want to be, I think, Winterson's “view beyond the window frame,” something that, as art does, shows us the world from a new, unfamiliar angle.  The film's vision is a depressing one, but art often is.  The best art often makes us uncomfortable or nervous; it provokes. Art is not, as Dorothy Allison says in her essay, “This Is Our World,” “polite, secret, coded, or timid.”   

Still, even with Winterson's and Allison's handy definitions, I am not sure how to answer von Trier's placement of himself within artistic tradition.  I think, in the end, I can only try to articulate what my experience of his piece has been, to try to say what it has left with me.

The film says something to me about the inevitability of death - as well as the disorder of our world - and it asks me to consider what my answer is to that death and disorder. I do not think about death often; I am not often - maybe I have never been - truly depressed about this world. I do not have a skull on my desk, as literati of another time used to do, that physical thing reminding them of their fate.  
Indeed, I am preserved, as most Americans, I guess, from those visible and near signs of death.  Scenes of devastation on my computer screen or running across my TV in the news do not really seem real; at least, I do not often think of them as indicators of my own coming death.  And I am happy, comfortable in mind, most of the time.

I think von Trier’s film might act as something both more visionary and surreal but also more vivid and real than the reminders of death or disorder I see on the TV or the internet.  Art has the power of defamiliarization - the power to make the familiar unfamlliar, thus making the familiar new, more real, more present.  It shows me what I think I know in a new way, showing me I did not know it as well as I thought I did.

But I did not walk away from the film feeling as if I had been impacted in that way.  I appreciated the technical skill, the layers of meaning, the intellectual questions and problems, but nothing about it truly hit me at the gut level. I understood Justine's, and particularly Claire’s, turmoil, without really feeling it myself.  The film, by its end, had not moved me.

Still, in the small hours of the next morning, I woke up, suddenly; the wind was whistling and moaning around the house; the power went out; I was left in utter darkness, the dark clouds blocking out light of stars or moon. Power outages, when I was a girl, used to be fun - an opportunity for flashlights and candles, exciting flickering shadows, a game of hide and seek, perhaps.  Now, I am a practical adult, and power outages serve only to annoy me; I wait impatiently for normal life to resume so that I can get on with things  But that dark early morning after seeing Melancholia, the power out, I felt only fear; everything was strange and unfamiliar, hideous and disordered somehow.  I could not get scenes from the film to leave my head. The fear, surely, wasn’t rational, but as I lay there, fighting that ridiculous fear, it did not seem so ridiculous - and the darkness seemed to mean a real Melancholia, a thing that would soon crush me and everything in the world.  And I felt completely alone.

I woke in the morning and the sense of horror, the fear and the mood were gone, or very nearly.  For the film, with the intervening night resting on it, had left its impression on me, its unsettling presence hovering at the edges of my mind.  And there it remains.

I do not love it, and I cannot say whether Melancholia should join Millais’s Ophelia, Durer’s Melencolia, Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow, and all the other art that has endured down through the years.  But I do know, that I cannot myself dismiss it so easily. In the end, I feel for myself, with the film, something of that indefinable, irrational, unscientific thing called melancholy - that mood that comprehends some doom, or that comprehends something wrong, something rotten, in the state of things.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fractured States: Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, 2011)

It was about halfway through the movie, when a scene dissolved yet again into a flashback, into a scene in the spare but unkempt rooms of the isolated farmhouse where commune-cult leader, Patrick (John Hawkes) keeps his “family,” that I realized, pit in my stomach, just how effectively filmmaker Sean Durkin builds a sense of helpless dread in his debut feature, Martha Marcy May Marlene.  And the dread, while heightened sometimes to an almost unbearable pitch in the commune scenes, is never quite absent from any scene, even those in which the protagonist, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), has escaped from the commune, damaged and confused, and is living with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and brother-in-law, Ted (Hugh Dancy).   For the film works to immerse us in Martha’s damage, a damage that, while physical, is most insidious at the mental level.  

From the opening scenes, we understand Martha’s disorientation – she has run from the commune and has called her sister for help, but she struggles to tell her sister what she needs; her disjointed sentences and her confusion about place and time indicate just how far she has fallen into some other world, a world that cannot comprehend the ordinary, matter-of-fact questions her sister offers.   We sense that she desperately wants to escape but also is desperately afraid to leave the life in which she has been immersed.  The film’s title indicates this fractured identity: Martha is her birth name – the name her sister calls her; Marcy May is the name she is given by Patrick; Marlene is the name she and the other women all take on if the world outside the commune happens to intrude.  And it is that conflict of identities – that mentally confused state that is the core and one of the biggest strengths of this film, which, on the whole, does not live up to its potential.

While the film effectively places us inside Martha’s disorientation – seamless shifts from past and present and elegant dissolves between Lucy and Ted’s house and the commune life indicate that Martha is increasingly unable to distinguish between time and place, memory and imagination and present – I could not quite understand nor even ultimately sympathize with Martha herself.  We are meant, I realize, not to understand her completely, and Lucy’s experience of Martha’s mute blankness and of Martha’s insistence upon her own health mirrors our own experience with Martha: we cannot see into her fully and understand what, exactly, she is thinking or feeling at every given moment.  But the film does also give us a good deal of her experiences and of her mental state – we see the disturbing life of the commune, the suave presence of Patrick,  his absolute invasion into her physical and mental life – and we are meant to understand or feel with her quite deeply in some ways.  My failure to fully sympathize with her by the end – even if I could still feel the dread and paranoia she experiences – has to do, I believe, with what the story leaves out. 

It is clear that especially the young women of the commune have come there because they have been damaged or neglected in some way in the past; they are vulnerable.  It’s clear we are meant to understand that they give into and even embrace Patrick’s abuses of them because they want to believe he offers them some kind of stability and love that they have not felt before, that he offers some kind of community in which they are made to feel valuable, needed.  We know, when Patrick tells Martha, “But you are special” or “you are my favorite,” he’s said that to all of the women and that each believes he’s said those things only to her.  
But the film gives us no real insight into Martha’s past, no insight that helps us understand exactly why Patrick would hold such sway over the women, Martha in particular.  We know that Martha’s mother died when she was young, that her father was absent, that she lived with a crotchety sort of aunt by herself while her sister Lucy was away.  We know that there is some difficult history between Lucy and Martha, that Lucy feels some guilt over not caring better for her younger sister, that Martha blames Lucy for that lack.  But are these things enough to make Martha so gullible, so open to the life of the commune, which we never see from any kind of idyllic perspective?    

There are just two moments which showed me why Martha might possibly be drawn in: in one scene Martha has just experienced her horribly disturbing initiation into the commune, and she and the woman to whom she’s closest, Zoe, are lying snuggled in the common sleeping area.  Martha is clearly hurt and confused, and Zoe is trying to comfort her; Zoe’s words - her reasons - are patently ridiculous, clearly echoes of the shallow rhetoric that justifies the commune’s life - and Zoe’s words don’t seem to impact Martha much – but when Zoe smiles joyfully at her, snuggles in closer, and presses her nose gently against Martha’s, Martha can only smile joyfully back.  The two are like little girls, close sisters who share a common life, common pains, common loves.  In this moment of companionship, I can see that it was, perhaps, the promise of being truly close to another person, close to a community of people, that Martha wanted – not because she, particularly, wanted it, but because we all, I think, long for close community with others. 

In the other scene, the group is sitting together on the ground, listening to each other play music.  Patrick takes the guitar and sings a song for the group, one, he says, that is for Martha, or rather, for Marcy May.  It is a lovely song, and we can see Martha’s face change and become luminous as he plays.  The song is for her alone, and that song, more than Patrick’s words “you are special,” might convince any unwary person that the community might be a place she can belong, truly, be loved for herself.  Music - song-writing, in its implied intimacy - does, I think, hold a peculiar power. 

But those two scenes in themselves or taken together are not enough for me to understand the why – even a nebulous emotional why – of Martha’s journey, Martha’s seduction.  We don’t know enough about Martha to understand how she could be so deeply naïve and vulnerable, and the commune itself shows nothing of itself that is really idyllic or lovely - the moment with Zoe was the only warmly communal one that I could see.

There is the suggestion that Martha is perhaps fleeing from the shallow materialism of a consumerist society – she explodes in one moment against the wealth of her sister and brother-in-law, berating them for the essential selfishness of their life, and the pair are, indeed, portrayed as being among the rich and privileged who see nothing wrong with living such a luxurious, essentially self-centered life.  But Martha’s explosion seems to be coming more from the persistent remnants of Patrick’s apparent indoctrination (we never see any convincing moments of indoctrination) rather than from any deep and organic beliefs of her own.  And if the film is trying to demonstrate Lucy and Ted’s life as appallingly consumerist so that we might see the appeal of the commune, with its claims to cooperative living, healthy poverty, and sustainability, then it fails.  Lucy and Ted may be rich, but they are not at all unsympathetic characters and their lifestyle, while surely sheltered from the griefs of the have-nots to some extent, is not so excessive as to be despicably extreme. If it is, we don’t see it.  We see only, that they are wealthy and pursuing their own lives, and we see that when Martha comes into it, they disrupt their own easy life out of real care for her.  Ted is, understandably, less sympathetic, but Lucy shows nothing but care for Martha, a desire to disrupt her life for Martha.  Indeed, if I sympathize with anyone in the film, it is Lucy, who wants to reach her sister but doesn’t know how.  

The commune, on the other hand, if we are to imagine it as Martha was seeing it for the first time, seems pretty bleak, whatever its claims to cooperative sustainability.  We jump almost immediately and exclusively into the disturbing and potentially violent life of the commune - Patrick claims Martha's body very early on, and the threat of his physical power hangs over her.  On the farm itself, there is no garden – we see Martha and the others beginning to plant a very bedraggled looking one at one point – there are no farm animals.  The outbuildings appear to have no purpose.  From the outside, what about it might look like some kind of answer?  Where is the appeal?  The appeal, it seems, lies only in Patrick’s rhetoric, which, again, we don’t get much of.  He certainly has a charm and a charisma – and he is played subtly and creepily by the great John Hawkes - and I do not fault the performance.  But those qualities alone don’t seem enough to win over someone not already enmeshed in commune life.  So we are left with Martha alone, that something in her past made her vulnerable enough to embrace the unseen pleasures of the commune and the charm of the brief initial interactions with Patrick.  And I just don’t believe it.  I don’t see the draw of the commune or Martha's need for it, and therefore, Martha’s entire journey, even after she escapes the commune, is problematically difficult to see. 

Even as I cannot fault Hawkes's performance though, I cannot fault any other performance of the film either; everyone is astoundingly good.  If the film’s biggest strength – by way of editing and camera work - is placing me within the fracturing mind of one person, that strength is also dependent on Elizabeth Olsen’s performance.  As much as I do not believe in the character arc for her, I do believe in her.  She embodies her character in each moment – subtly showing us her shifting emotions; as the film moves so frequently back and forth through time, she moves with it, and we know when she is by small and yet powerfully communicative changes in face and body language.   

As strong as the performances are, as deft the camerawork, as beautiful the cinematography, and as carefully unrelenting the mood of dread, I cannot fully embrace this film.  I am happy, generally, to embrace the elliptical, to embrace films that give me hints of things – I prefer a film not to spell out its message.  But I do need to hear the film speaking about something - like Martha Marcy May, herself, the film is blurred in its purpose, fractured.  It does offer me a convincing portrait of a mind that has been invaded, disrupted, but it does not tell me anything convincing about an individual, human journey towards that invasion; it does not tell me anything convincing about a cult-commune; it does not show me why someone might join one; it does not offer a compelling critique of any modern social malaise; it does not offer me a deep portrait of a broken family (something I thought Lucy’s relationship with Martha promised).  In short, I do not know what the film wants to say.  And so, in spite of the skill involved at so many levels, I’m not sure I can say the truly brutal nature of so much of it – especially the brutality of one man against vulnerable women – is worth it.  The brutality is more suggested than explicit, but it is nonetheless painful in the extreme, and I’m not sure why I needed to live through it.   

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Power and Weakness of Fiction: The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen, 1985)

** Some spoilers ahead for both The Purple Rose of Cairo and Midnight in Paris **

"If you want a happy ending, you should go see a Hollywood movie," says Judah Rosenthal (Martin Landau), in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989).  Happy endings.  Beautiful people.  Beautiful people who fall in love, who say all the right things, who have plenty of money – those are things Cecilia (Mia Farrow) in Allen’s earlier film The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) goes to see when she goes to the movies.  For Cecilia’s own life in New Jersey in the 1930’s doesn’t offer her much to speak of in the way of luxury, love, beauty, or wit.  Her husband spends his days with the fellas, making a game of throwing rocks at walls instead of scrabbling for what little work there is to be found, and he spends his nights belittling Cecilia, beating her when he’s irritated, and taking her money out of her hands for himself.  Cecilia spends her days as a waitress, daydreaming about the films she’s seen, 

about the films she will escape into when she gets off work and before she has to go home to her husband; the cinema is a refuge, the place where she might, momentarily, forget the life she leads and immerse herself into a more beautiful life.  Cecilia becomes particularly captivated by a new film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and she goes to see it over and over again, memorizing every line, every inch of footage.  One evening, however, the film changes – it goes off script: a minor character, Tom Baxter, walks off the screen.  

He’s noticed Cecilia, and he’s in love with her.    And she’s not just dreaming; it’s not that the she’s become so immersed in the film that Tom’s exit from the film seems real only to her – it is real: the character from the screen really loves her and really wants to - and somehow can - leave the world of the film to be with her. 

What follows is utter delight to anyone who has been enchanted by any fictional world and who has wished - believed for a moment, even - that that world is real.  For isn’t it true, that when we are immersed in a good story, there is no need to force a suspension of disbelief?  The disbelief simply disappears and belief takes its place, unaided by volitional force.  Yes, that belief may be a matter of seconds, but it’s there – we do, truly, believe what we are seeing on the screen or what we are reading in a book or what we are seeing on the stage.  There are no little black marks on a page representing character and story, there are no actors playing characters and saying lines, only real people living naturally, speaking spontaneously.   Signifier and signified are one.  Here, in this film, Woody Allen plays joyfully - and yes, mischievously - with our desires for a fictional world, with our dips into belief in those other worlds.
Allen is a savvy creator of his own fiction, of course, and he teases our awareness of the layers and levels of the film -  the meta-ness, the story upon story, of the film within a film, two films of the same name – the one we watch and the one we watch the characters watch.   Story circling story circling story.  Tom Baxter’s exit from one story, his story, his exit from the film within the film, causes all sorts of problems, both for the film he’s in and for the world outside that film – his exit halts that film’s story (even while it drives forward the bigger film we are watching).  Tom is a minor character in his film, but he is nonetheless needed to move its plot forward; the rest of the characters must wait for him to return before they can get on with the script – they are stuck, for the time being, drinking pre-dinner cocktails in a drawing room.  And Tom’s refusal to follow his plotted story, his entry into the real world (*ahem*, Cecila’s world, not ours – not the real real world), also disrupts the cinema’s schedule – the proprietor can’t continue the film, but he can’t show another one either.  Likewise, the lives of the producers and screenwriters back in Hollywood are thrown into chaos; other Tom Baxters living in other reels in other cinemas begin walking off their screens, too; Gil Shepherd, the actor who plays Tom Baxter, rushes to New Jersey, worried about his image and career.  Tom Baxter must be stopped – the fictional must not intrude so on the real; it just won’t do. 

Tom Baxter though, has found freedom and love – he’s a little naïve, of course, he knows only what’s been written for him in the script; worldly knowledge is not his forte, and his backstory is a little sketchy.  His talents, too, and his wealth are good only for the film’s world, not Cecilia’s world – he has only his personality, his bonhomie, and his love for Cecilia to offer.  He finds all his failings out but thinks he still, in himself –whatever that may be—is enough.  He thinks perhaps he can push beyond the bounds of the character written for him, grow beyond it, past the actor who played him, past the screenwriter who wrote him.

But, tempted as we might be to think of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when we watch Tom try to manuveur around the script written for him, it is Cecilia’s dilemma, not Tom’s, that is really at the heart of this film.  And since Cecilia is the protagonist, her dilemma is ours, too; it’s the one with which we identify.  Cecilia is swept along by Tom Baxter – he’s handsome, he dashing, he’s brave, he’s kind, he loves her – he’s like no man she’s encountered before.  She longs for what he has to offer.  And so herein lies the dilemma: can she really have what she longs for?  Can this fictional world offer her real things? 

It has been said that Woody Allen’s best work is behind him, that his films in later years have been, in large part, disappointing.  His very latest though, Midnight in Paris, many have said is a return to form; here, they say, is the Allen we know and love.  Midnight in Paris is, indeed, a delight in so many ways; like The Purple Rose of Cairo, it blurs the line between the real and the fictional, it puts the world of historical and literary imagination on the screen.  Midnight in Paris’s protagonist, Gil (Owen Wilson), a struggling novelist, finds time and space collapsed, and he visits the Paris of the 20’s, the Paris of Hemingway, of Dali, of the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, Luis Bunuel, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso – the time he’d dreamed of as ideal, beautiful, invigorating.   

Gil is caught up in and captivated by that world of the 20’s; it is exactly the world of his idealized and nostalgic imagination, but Woody Allen doesn’t allow his character to remain comfortably in that nostalgia for the past.  Gil discovers something about the way nostalgia operates, something about the danger of idealizing the past, of thinking an earlier time in history must have been better.  And so, in the end, Gil leaves the 1920’s and embraces his 21st century life.  At least, a sort of 21st century life.  For while Allen disrupts his character’s idealized vision of the past, he does not disrupt all of his ideals, most notably his idealization of Paris (and, we must note, Parisian women).  The film ends with a Gil who is finally happy – in part because though he parts with his visions of the past, he is still handed the Paris of his dreams, the woman of his dreams.  It is a 21st century Paris, but it is still a Paris that has very little in common with anything associated with darkness or pain or depression.   It is a happy postcard Paris made for lovers that Allen gives to Gil and to his viewers.  It is, in fact, a Hollywood ending.

So in spite of my love for being swept up into a fictional world, Midnight in Paris left me with something wanting; Gil could, perhaps, stay up on the screen in his ideal Paris, but I had to leave my seat, and Gil’s life left no real resonance with me.  

Midnight in Paris and The Purple Rose of Cairo might be considered companion pieces, for Allen is asking similar questions, playing with similar human desires in both.   Both are in love with the fictional in some sense; both play joyfully in the fictional world; both query the boundaries and overlap between fact and fiction.  Where Midnight in Paris left me feeling hollow, however, The Purple Rose of Cairo left me with something that went much deeper.  Its ending offers a real answer to Cecilia’s dilemma about the line between fact and fiction, about the power of the fictional to save her from the hardness and difficulty of her life - poor as she is, loveless as she is, powerless as she is.  The answer in Purple Rose is bitter – and Cecilia discovers, in the end, what we guess she knew all along.   And she sits in the cinema and watches the screen and weeps as Fred and Ginger – that beautiful pair – dance and sing and fall in love.  Her ending isn't a Hollywood ending

But what The Purple Rose of Cairo manages to do is celebrate story-telling, fiction, imagination, and cinema even while it also manages to say something to me about real life – about the difficulty and pain of it.   And the beautiful, bittersweet combination of those two things is what makes The Purple Rose of Cairo a story I’ll love to immerse myself in, over and over again.  Cecilia and I, you see, are very much alike.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Two Quick Reviews: Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Dead (1987)

Rabbit Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002)
This film is almost unbearable; in part because I can’t say to myself, “It’s only a movie.”  Yes, it is a kind of heroic journey, and the heroes, three little "half-caste" aboriginal Australian girls, one of them particularly smart and determined, gain what they set out to achieve.  But lying wordlessly beneath the one journey based on a true story are the countless untold true stories of those children, ripped from parents’ arms, who do not triumph over the odds.  And much of the horror lies not just in the fact that parents and children are separated, but that the separations are so coolly calculated, calculations bolstered and protected by the government appointed "Chief Protector of Aborigines" and his unwavering belief, “it is for their good.”  

Individual heroism is often turned, in films, into a showcase, and that showcasing lapses inevitably into a blind sentimentality that overshadows a bigger problem that affects a large group.  But this film, while celebrating the achievement of the protagonists, isn’t, at its core, a celebration at all.  It is a generation’s heartbreak.

The Dead (John Huston, 1987)

What an odd film.  Based on James Joyce’s short story, “The Dead” from his short story collection, Dubliners, the movie is, essentially, a Christmas dinner party.  The tagline on imdb, “A vast, merry, and uncommon tale of love,” doesn’t really work at all.  The tagline is far too perky, for one thing – and there is none of the Christmas party atmosphere of  Bergman's Fanny and Alexander; it hasn’t that sort of florid robustness.  This dinner party has a kind of gentle regret, a weariness, or maybe just a quietness, resting over the whole affair, but it is not a chilly party all the same.  If there’s weariness, it is a kind touched by the warm bonds among a group of old friends, companions, family members.  There is a mother, embarrassed of her drunken son (an embarrassment everyone overlooks, the drunkenness overlooked, too); there are the spinster sister hostesses feeling their lengthening years but still beaming with benevolence on their guests and becoming sweetly tearful when they are toasted; there is another old woman – once a singer – who offers a song in her aging voice and receives only kind accolades from the other guests, though everyone knows her voice is not what it was; there is dancing, a love poem recitation, a piano performance; there is a husband and wife who move mostly apart from one another among the other guests while the husband remains conscious of his wife at every moment, puzzling over something about her, we feel.  

Is this film an “uncommon tale of love”?  Perhaps it is more that than it is “vast and merry” though this film’s story cannot be contained by the phrase “a love story” either – it is, perhaps, a story about the remembrances of love stories, of youth gone by, of winter softly settling down on those who are still living warmly but know they soon will die.  Yes, an odd film that is shy about saying straight out what it is thinking.  I think, perhaps, I loved it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Lavish Essential: Senna (2010)

I admit it.  Before last night, I knew little about Formula 1 racing and even less than that about Aryton Senna, the Brazilian superstar driver, who blazed onto the racing scene and into the hearts of the Brazilian people in 1984. And frankly, I didn't think I wanted to know anything about Formula 1 or about the drivers in that world. 

But the wonderful thing about filmmaking at its best is that it has the power to usher you, your mind and tingling senses, into unfamiliar worlds; it can introduce you to people, to places, to cultures you would never otherwise encounter.  And it has been through great films that my life has thus been enriched in the most unexpected ways.

Senna, a new documentary directed by Asif Kapadia and detailing the career of Formula 1 racer Aryton Senna, is just such a film.  Knowing relatively nothing of Formula 1 racing didn't matter, for from the opening moments of the film, I was swept headlong into the excitement, speed, daring - and yes, joy - of the sport.  And, more significantly perhaps, I fell in love with this driver, this Senna.  His love for the sport, his drive, his ambition, his endearingly expressive face and body, immediately caught me up into that racing world I had previously cared to know nothing about.  

The film is extraordinary as a documentary.  Unlike so many films in that category, there are no talking heads, no people telling me what to think and how to feel about the sport, about Senna himself: Senna depends exclusively upon archival footage, television footage and some footage from Senna's family's home videos.  The effect of the dependence upon the archives is that the film avoids nostalgia and builds, instead, real heart and warmth, solely derived from the scenes playing out before me.  And while all films using archival footage are edited and pieced together for a particular impact and story, I never felt that I was being manipulated into feeling something; I felt I could make my own conclusions about this man and about this sport.  

Also unique to this documentary is the sensory experience it offered me in theater.  Many documentaries don't need a big screen viewing.  This one was simply wonderful on the big screen.  With its footage from cameras situated right inside Senna's car, I, as a viewer, sat right inside the terrifying and exhilarating speed and movement of the race.

I purposefully did not read about Senna before seeing the film, so while I knew, intuitively, how the film would end, I did not know the exact circumstances, and for that last half hour of the film (a beautifully paced half hour), I was on the edge of my seat, filled with dread and terrible anticipation.  The end, when it came, was moving and cathartic in a way I'd never have anticipated a film about racing would be for me, and the very last piece of footage, without giving it away,  was, quite simply, perfect, delivered to me in beautiful closure, a tribute to Senna and to his deep love for racing.

Ultimately, the film captures the way Senna himself captured racing fans' hearts and it lovingly depicts the intense adoration the otherwise impoverished and despairing people of Brazil had for the man, their national hero.  There' s a kind of glorious extravagance in the way that a people can so embrace a man and his incredible skill in a sport, even when they themselves are living in such terrible circumstances.  

Their love, I think, reflects the need we have as humans to hold onto something beyond the day to day necessities of living and grubbing, to find sheer joy in something that is an end in itself, something that benefits us only on the emotional or spiritual or aesthetic level.  Senna reminded me that our sport, our play, the deep investment and love we can put into these things is anything but trivial; it fulfills a deeply human need to lavish love on something that does not seem necessary, that does not feed or clothe our bodies; it feeds something much less definable but just as essential.