Ten Years Ago: The Passion of the Christ

28 Mar

In this week’s 10YA, EJ Legaspi does what no Catholic should have to do twice: watch Mel Gibson’s paschal epic The Passion of the Christ. Here, EJ re-views the film in light of Gibson’s own tormented passions, and questions his faith in Gibson’s project.

10YA: The Passion of the Christ

By EJ Legaspi

If there is one movie that challenges me to be absolutely objective as a film viewer, it’s Mel Gibson’s religious opus, The Passion of the Christ. I mean, as a Catholic, how could I not be moved by the sheer brutality that flickered before me as I sat slack-jawed in the darkness of that movie theater ten years ago? Good thing it was dark because I had never cried so consistently and so profusely while watching a film. Pixar’s Up is the only film that comes close, but that is another story altogether.

I grew up extremely Catholic, maybe excessively so. I devoured books on saints and pored over paintings and drawings of the suffering and death of Jesus. When our house was being rebuilt, I’d go to our carpenter, ask for some spare wood, and hammer together my own crosses. I’d take some paper, draw out Jesus, the best as a kid could, spread-eagled, in pencil. I’d make sure that the crown of thorns was amply sharp and I wondered which placement of the nails would be most historically accurate. Perhaps I thought it would bring me closer to heaven, maybe I was being thoughtlessly reflective, but needless to say Catholic iconography was deeply ingrained in me.

Without a doubt, therefore, I was the perfect audience to view this film. And after I came out of the theater that warm Lenten evening, I was spent and relieved from all that cathartic crying. Mel Gibson had crafted a masterpiece. I loved the imagery, the grit, and the passion displayed in the film. I was not entirely happy with it, but it was everything that it could have been.

Ten years later, I approached this film with slight trepidation. I know of many friends who could not sit through it the first time, much less a second time. I have come to realize that I have not seen it all the way through as well. I knew this was going to be a challenge to sit through. Besides, times have changed ever since this was released. Mel Gibson is essentially a Hollywood pariah now, and if there was movie that demanded to be seen sans the author’s intent, this was it. So it was with this in mind that tried I to re-view The Passion of the Christ.

Very quickly, I realized that I was not going to be successful at accomplishing this goal. The accusations of “torture porn” and anti-Semitism echoed in my head even before I hit the play button. By avoiding that issue, I would fail to honestly look at the film from where we stand now. Context is king, and this film is prime evidence that serves as a window into Mel Gibson’s mind, prior to his scandalous drunken arrests and recorded phone calls.

I decided that the best way to view this is how Mel Gibson intended to initially release it: without subtitles. The entirety of the film is spoken in either Aramaic or Latin, and Gibson posited that the visuals should speak for themselves since the story is well-known enough.

To an extent, he was right. The visuals are indeed striking still, with Jim Caviezel’s contorted face and mutilated body carrying much of the pain of Jesus’ torture and Maia Morgenstern’s pained tears bearing the emotional weight of Mary’s grief. However, the loss of the nuance of the dialogue and knowing the specific words, whether lifted directly from Catholic scripture and tradition or placed primarily due to artistic license, fails to establish the context for the visceral imagery. The result: I was not able to tear up this time around.

Don’t get me wrong, the protracted scourging at the pillar still got to me. There was a definite buildup of moisture in my tear ducts, but for one reason or another, the swelling of emotion failed to burst forth.

Part of the reason is that I found myself questioning what now seem to me many paradoxical choices that Gibson has made in this film. Was he trying to make a more historically accurate Jesus movie? If so, that should explain his obsession with recording the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. However, his constant reliance on extra-Biblical information suggests that this is meant to be a largely spiritual experience.

I have to admit that ten years ago I was more than willing to accept the non-English speaking, non-subtitled film, but now as I trudge through the film without a clue as to what was being said, I found myself focused on how the actors delivered their lines. I am naturally suspicious of movies where actors do not speak in their native tongues. There’s usually a strange disconnect between the words and the actor that seems to stem from trying not flub the strange lines they have to say. It’s hard enough to act, but in another language one does not speak must increase the challenge exponentially. So many lines seemed to be delivered in a distractingly declamatory style usually reserved for high school Shakespeare performances or for spell-casting in high fantasy shows. Then again, maybe it’s just me. Either way, it would probably not have been a problem had I watched it with the subtitles on.

Historical accuracy, I concluded, was something that Gibson tried to approach, but was not his primary objective. At worst, it was not as bad as the blonde blue-eyed Jesuses of other Jesus movies or passion and death pageants, and at best, he was able to create an image of Jesus that almost looked like a Middle-Eastern man, but at the same time still look good (read: handsome) enough to be a Hollywood leading man. Jim Caviezel is a fine actor, and it’s a shame that Gibson’s prediction of him never working in Hollywood again after this film has essentially come true, but by gum his teeth, his beautiful perfect teeth certainly stood out amidst all the blood and gore. Was he really smiling while he was being scourged? I had to take a second look. He wasn’t, but it was almost certainly as if his pearly whites where the keys that unlocked the pearly gates.

While I can’t really fault Caviezel for good dental hygiene, I do question Gibson’s insistence on heavy-handed symbolism and imagery. He doesn’t dwell too much on perspectives and representations that could potentially complicate the emotional impact of the scenes. Although this could be read as effective filmmaking, this is the root from which the anti-Semitism accusations spring forth from. The Pharisees and scribes were not portrayed under the most flattering light. They were all blinged-out in stark contrast to the generally blood and tunic work by Jesus and his followers. It would be unfair to lay all of the blame on Gibson, as traditional passion plays do go this route. Mel Gibson didn’t write the book on prejudice, he simply made a very famous movie that may allowed us to peek into his personal prejudices.

Christ’s torturers didn’t fare much better, save for the repentant half-blind centurion Longinus, as most were repugnant heartless caricatures. I found it a little easier this time around to dissociate myself from the scene and imagine the Roman soldiers to be twirling their imaginary bad-guy mustachios or licking their hypothetical Freddy Kruger claws. It’s possible that they really were that cruel and ignorant, and maybe it speaks more of who I am now and my personal worldview that I insist that not everyone is an absolutely terrible person, and that this time around, the abject cruelty feels like it diminishes the poignancy of the scene.

Gibson extends the use of this shorthand for good and evil by casting very sympathetic and attractive women. From the gorgeous Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene to Rosalinda Celentano as the wife of Pontius Pilate, and the aforementioned Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, the pious and the faithful as synonymous with the beautiful. And how could he not? Traditionally, from religious icons to Disney heroes and heroines, beauty and good have been used interchangeable as values and virtues that well aspire to have. Have you ever seen an ugly, or even a plain Jane, Mary? Perhaps it was not Gibson’s place to change or challenge this, but once they pull out Barabbas, you just know this is not the guy you’d want to let loose in Judea.

One good thing that Gibson does is the androgynous Satan who frequently taunts Jesus throughout the film. The oddly beautiful whilst simultaneously disturbing demon famously mocks Jesus during the scourging scene, which at this point should be clear to all is the scene I am most fixated with, in guise of a corrupted Madonna and Child. This reference is more of a direct taunt to the audience and should be perfect if not for one of Gibson’s mortal sins, his excessive use of slow motion.

Slow motion, one of filmdom’s most abused tools for emphasis, is used ad nauseam in many key moments that Gibson intends to highlight whether its coins tumbling away from Judas to implements hammering away at Jesus. If he really believes that the story is familiar enough and that he intended to show things for what they are, Gibson should have just let these scenes played out as they would. They ruined perfectly good shots by letting them overstay their welcome and ending up almost becoming hokey.

What did work were the flashbacks between Mary and Jesus. These moments of everyday stillness between mother and son formed the emotional core of the film. It is one thing to see a great man tortured, but to see it from the perspective of how a mother sees her child was a much appreciated layer of humanity. In addition to this, it was distinct pleasure to see Jesus working as a carpenter who took pride in his work, a scene not too often portrayed in Jesus films, and this one worked beautifully. The humanity of Jesus is often lost under the veneer of divinity and arguably a greater achievement than the torture and suffering depicted in the passion itself.

If there’s one major beef that the Catholic in me has with the film, it’s the afterthought that was the resurrection. I understand that Gibson comes from a specific tradition that dwells in the guilt of the suffering of Jesus, but the central belief in the paschal mystery is in the passion, death, and resurrection. It felt uncomfortably odd that the film, after all that intense drama, chose to raise Jesus from the dead as if he just woke up from a bad dream.

As a work of faith, The Passion of the Christ almost dangerously distills the faith experience as an emotional experience of suffering. I’m sure many of the faithful, Catholic or otherwise, felt immense guilt after watching this. Some would have also gone on to be appreciative of their faith. Good for them. However I wonder if how many actually became more thoughtful and reflective because of this film. I am a firm believer that belief in one’s religion requires both faith and reason, and I thank my Jesuit education for this, but Mel Gibson probably thinks otherwise.

Viewing The Passion of the Christ as a film, it can be quite impenetrable and almost exclusive in its attitude with its subject matter. It’s certainly a far superior film to many cheesy Sunday school movies on Jesus, but its brutality will not suit everyone. On that note, it is hardly the “torture porn” that some people purport it to be. Yes, it is violent, but only those who are truly sadistic or those detached from their humanity would insist on this argument.

Yes, Mel Gibson may be a bigot. And yes, this film may hint at some parts of his personal flaws, but this man believed in what he believed in, and this film has certainly affected many different people , and in many of them, good ways. This is an unforgettable film and everyone should see it. Maybe just once though. And certainly not without the subtitles.

Ten Years Ago: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

23 Mar

Erik Jaccard tackles Michel Gondry’s multi-layered sf masterpiece Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and ponders forgetting, the meaning of “okay,” and Kate Winslet’s hair.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Dir. Michel Gondry/Original Screenplay by Charlie Kaufman

Like many of the films I’ve reviewed for Ten Years Ago, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is one that has been a long time coming. Like many, I have long considered it to be one of the better, more creative, and more satisfying cinematic experiences of the last ten years. In what I’d guess is also fairly common practice, I’ve held it dear to me for a number of very personal reasons, some having to do with the circumstances which surrounded my first viewing, others which have accrued in the ensuing years. Finally, although for some reason I am loathe to use this phrase, I find it to be an incredibly thought-provoking film, one that asks more questions than it answers, and one that therefore demands multiple viewings and ongoing consideration. This is probably the best and most readily applicable motive behind my saying that the film holds up extremely well under the test of time. No matter what associations we may have attached to it on our first viewings, the film will not let us reduce them to that experience. The questions arise every time we watch the film and our answers to them grow with our experiences and memories of the moments in between [this all sounds very vague, but I deal with these questions in more detail below, I promise]. In fact, the film demands that we revisit our memories in relation to the questions it asks. It demands that we scroll through the past and discern what it was that made us so receptive to its premise in the first place. It makes us consider the interludes in between its release and our current moment with care and deliberation. It asks us to consider where we would be, even who we would be, if those moments were taken from us.

The re-view below does its best to address some of these questions, but it is fantastically incomplete and far less expressive and affective than I’d intended it to be. This is for all the usual reasons that attend my writing—time constraints, a predilection for mental clutter—but also because, when the time came around for me to revisit my love of the film, I found that the things about that I loved ten years later were not the things I loved about in 2004. That I was still able to gather to myself a new collection of fine qualities this time around says a lot about the film’s ability to remain relevant across time and place.

Anyway, onward…

Some General Thoughts on Script, Character, Direction, and Content

Kaufman’s script, based on an idea introduced to him by director Michel Gondry and French conceptual artist Pierre Bismuth, deftly balances the film’s central conceit—that it could be possible for a person to have their memories of another strategically wiped clean—with the primary meat of the narrative—the relationship which provides the testing ground for that process—and all without overburdening either with too much attention.  Had either of these components taken center stage, they would have made the other seem like perfunctory window dressing, much in the same way that genre sci-fi has been faulted for emphasizing idea or technology at the expense of character, plot, and emotional complexity. In fact, one of the film’s greatest achievements is that it manages to transform sf’s characteristic fixation on its fictional novum—the ‘what if?’ element—by applying it to a more specific scenario driven by the very real and complex personalities of its protagonists. By the same token, it is precisely the depth and believability of those two people who lend meaning to the implications of the speculative question. The result of this synergy is perhaps the best (only?) dystopian-romantic comedy-thriller we’ve ever had the chance to enjoy. While this might be lofty praise, I think it’s deserved. If I’m being honest with myself, I’d never seen a film quite like Eternal Sunshine in 2004 and I haven’t seen one since. It’s extremely rare to see a film which proceeds from a clever sci-fi premise that doesn’t also end up glorifying that premise as an end in itself. It’s equally as rare to find a film that fully admits to being a romantic comedy about two people coming together and splitting up, which doesn’t also bend to the formulaic dictates of that genre without abandoning it completely and moving into drama. In one dazzling cinematic gesture it manages to humanize its sf component while simultaneously using that component to demystify much of what makes romance plots so frustrating, and all while operating within an aesthetic context that is at least half the time a nightmarish Kafkaesque funhouse.

In thinking through this, let’s start with the film’s characters, who lend it so much of the human depth that both its component genres so often lack. Ten years later, both Carrey and Winslet still seem somehow all the better and more believable for the fact that they’re playing outside their traditional strengths. For Carrey, who we all know generally as a hyperkinetic, herky-jerky physical comedian, the challenge was to suddenly draw back within himself and play a callow, diffident anti-hero. Anti-hero is the operative phrase here, as his previous dramatic turns in The Truman ShowThe Majestic, and Man on the Moon had all been in their own ways both A) comedic and B) ultimately heroic, the drama emerging precisely from the need to heroically face weighty situations (authority/control, amnesia and questions of belonging, and death, respectively). Eternal Sunshine offers us no such contexts for heroism and, as such, what Carrey is called on to produce with Joel is a struggle against the mundane, against the self, and against the frustrating but ultimately redeemable things we do in our day to day lives that round us off as people capable of both nastiness and compassion, bitterness and faith, hate and love. At the same time, because he is not called on here to be one-dimensional—his anti-heroism isn’t entirely tragic or comic—his gestures and facial expressions, so long his comic bread and butter, are here used as supplements that can add dimensions to Joel’s otherwise gloomy character.

For Winslet, one supposes the challenge was to break free of her own past as a primarily dramatic actress, and one often tied (though not exclusively) to period dramas. Her goal, as far as I can tell, is to take the manic, kooky pixie princess character (one might even say ‘the cool girl’) and make her both a real person and one who can emerge as a force in her own right. It would have been easy in a less imaginative script, for example, to create Clementine as a paragon of virtue, waiting for Joel to grow up and make adult decisions (which, in a romantic comedy, he eventually would), or as a flighty, capricious dreamer, thrilling him with her moxie and brash daring, calling out for Joel to become the person he is meant to be. This is, of course, what Joel wants her to be, the ‘concept’ she repeatedly warns him she is not, the model person who will ‘save him’ from himself. To both Kaufman and Winslet’s credit, Clementine stubbornly resists being incorporated into Joel’s fantasy scenario, continuously asserting that she is her own person, with her own needs, and her own faults and virtues. As she says, “I’m just a fucked-up girl looking for my own peace of mind, don’t assign me yours.” Winslet’s most enduring achievement with the character is her ability to lend specific dimension to this pose, to make it real with attitude and tone, to embody it and remind us often enough that Clementine is not merely a function of the narrative or an object of Joel’s clingy need for love and attention. While the relationship’s failure is as much her fault as Joel’s, it is a failure to which she admits. No, it’s more than that. It’s a failure that she lives, as though she were relatively at peace with its immutability.

As I mention above, it is this actual weight of two real people struggling to come together and stay together that makes the sci-fi premise of memory erasing technology more than a clever sleight of hand or simplistic satire. That a company like Lacuna might exist, offering a quick-fix solution to personal unhappiness, is entirely plausible in our hyper-individualistic consumer society which would love nothing else than for everyone to treat happiness as only a purchase away. Thankfully, this satirical element remains merely an interesting side-question for viewers willing to explore the full social implications of the technology. Likewise with the idea itself, which is surely neat and suggestive, but which really only stands as a metaphor for the larger question of whether we would be better off if we could erase unhappiness from our lives. The social dimensions of this question have been in play since at least the 18th century, when classical liberal thought began speculating on how to make the human person—theorized as a perfectible creature—less inclined to do all the bad things that make themselves and others unhappy. As later dystopian writers are fond of telling us, bringing technological innovation or social engineering into the human equation doesn’t solve the problem of unhappiness per se. Or, well, it does, strictly speaking, but only by fundamentally altering what it means to be human. It is all the more important, then, that the film channels this question through the experience of two people whose individual selves are fully formed and realized. It is precisely because we see them interact as people—wonderful, imperfect people—that we can acknowledge the consequences of trimming away the vital memory which makes them what they are.

For my part, ten years later, I still love the way Gondry communicates this loss, both visually and sonically. Gondry—who weaned his visual prowess directing music videos—retains much of that dynamic energy here, investing a number of the memory-deletion scenes in Joel’s mind with the powerful force of destructive inevitability. As the world he has built with Clementine begins to unravel, cars fall from the sky, houses crumble, people’s faces turn blank, and disembodied voices carom off dimly lit, Kafka-esque hallways. While one might criticize Gondry for over-stylizing what is already a fairly hyped-up and stylistic script (and to be fair, there are some very jumpy moments), I think we ought to stand back and appreciate that he not only honestly reflects the disjunctive narrative, but also uses visuals to explore the questions it implies, questions that are not asked openly. For example, one of the implied issues raised in Eternal Sunshine is whether we experience life primarily in terms of perceiving minds, with our bodies being only secondary receptacles in which this essential inner component resides. This is the assumption from which Lacuna’s revolutionary procedure proceeds: change the mind, change the person. It treats the mind as a machine that has been programmed and can thus be deprogrammed. But the question the film asks is whether you can reduce human experience to brain waves and currents. In the scientific abstract, this all seems fine, but when we see Joel, represented as a body experiencing the targeted destruction of a part of his mind, the conditions seem to change, and the body takes on a more important role.

We can generally deal with the way our memories mark linear time because we experience their dissolution so slowly. Rather than having a memory of person, place, or thing ripped unceremoniously from us in one brutal swipe (like the proverbial Band-Aid), we tend to awaken one day simply remembering less about that one time at band camp. To see it all fall away so quickly, and in such dramatic detail, like we do in this film, is devastating because it makes it feel like we are fading along with the landscape. [Caveat: I’m not a neuroscientist (clearly), so I could be spouting a load of shit here.] There is something about how we live the past mentally in the present, physically, as bodies. While most memories fade, the ones that remain are tenacious precisely because we affect a kind of ‘time travel’ in remembering them. We remember being there, not just in an abstract way, but in a very tactile way, such as when a smell or taste or sound can trigger a jaunt ‘backward’ in time to another space. The memory is not just a context that we can step into, like a painting. We’re tied to it across time by our physical being. I think ultimately this is what so disturbs Clementine throughout the narrative’s ‘present’ moment, the idea that she has been removed physically from her embodied reality-as-memory. It’s what makes her exclaim to Elijah Wood’s wormy boyfriend-come-lately, Patrick, that she feels like her skin is falling off. The implication is that, while her mind has changed, her body has not, and therefore that her physicality has retained in its senses a kid of cognition that resists the invasive scientific procedure to which she has subjected herself. While we might shrug off  this suggestion with the defensive rejoinder that what we’re talking about is ‘intuition’ or ‘fate,’ an inexplicable way of knowing something to be true, I think I’m more talking about knowledge as freed from the mind, and as expressed in the capacities marginalized by the assumption that we are primarily thinking creatures.

A brief personal interlude

Ten years later, I find that I am a lot less like Joel than I originally thought. I don’t mean to compare myself to him in overt characteristics—those who know me would hardly describe me as introverted or diffident—but rather in terms of his pose vis á vis Clementine and women in general. These days I’m a lot less concerned with the notion that a woman is going to ‘save me’ from myself or make me whole or better or take away all my worries and concerns. In 2004, however, I don’t think I could have said this. In fact, right about the time I saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on a dark, stormy, tropical night in Cairns, Australia, I was lost in the throes of what I guess I’d call bitter resentment over the fact that the woman I’d chosen to be my savior had not, actually, turned out to be my lady in shining armor. And this is not to say that she didn’t try to do the things I asked of her, or that she withheld desired love or affection. Rather, she did about as much as any honest-to-gosh individual person can be asked to do without turning their own life into one lived entirely for someone else. As much as I hate to say it, I think this latter process is what I irrationally asked of her—to make me the center of her existence and shoulder—as Clementine puts it—my own weighty and elusive ‘peace of mind.’ This is more heavy lifting than one person can be fairly tasked with performing while also maintaining their own life.

Having this personal failure (and as common as it may be, it is still a failure) in mind this time around dramatically altered my affiliations such that I often wondered what the story would have been like had we been treated not only to the narration of Joel’s procedure, but also to Clementine’s. What might we have learned about the truths Joel takes for granted? Would we have seen that her daring impulsiveness and bizarre antics are as much an armored cover-up for her own insecurities (as one of Joel’s memories would lead us to believe)? Would we have been granted a fuller picture of what it meant to be ‘Joel’s Clementine,’ or even an extended look at what it was like to be Clementine’s Joel? One day I hope to be rewarded for this curiosity with a paranarrative prized from a vault somewhere, Clementine’s hidden process. I hope to learn more about her than can be expressed in third-person narration or in the strange solipsistic dreamspace that is Joel’s head. Knowing and synthesizing both sides of that equation is where the post-Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind film pops into being, even if just for a moment, as a space of potential and possibility we may never actually experience as long as we remain stuck in our own heads.

 “Tussling with ‘Okay,’ or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept that My Life is Going to be Ugly Sometimes”

“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

The film’s final scene, a confrontation between Joel and Clementine in the hallway outside Joel’s apartment, has had me puzzling over the contextual meaning of the word ‘okay’ for the last ten years. Forced with the inevitable conclusion that they may only end up repeating the same uneven pattern of success and failure which characterized their first romantic go-round, the pair—and the film—bid us farewell with a simple assent seemingly intended to have us believe that the two are prepared to do it all again. Which is to say that they are willing to try, and fail again. The quote I provide above from Nietzsche’s Gay Science gives a name to this seemingly irrational decision to endure failure: amor fati, a love of fate.

In order to understand what he means by this ‘love of fate,’ it is essential to first de-link fate from any ideas we may have about it being necessarily tragic or redemptive. We have to remove the idea of that which is fated from its associations with higher planes of existence or being or control, as though fate could only be the product of divine intervention or cosmic processes, of ‘star cross’d lovers,’ tragic kings, or heroic warriors. For Nietzsche, loving fate means instead “that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” In other words, it doesn’t mean simply loving the outcome because it squares with what you want from fate, but rather loving everything fate has to offer, the good and the bad, the whole truthful process as well as its denouement. The problem with this idea for most people is that our ‘whole truthful processes’ are rarely even or pretty or without failure. We do not like to talk about our failures, whether individual or collective, partly because we don’t want them to define us and partly because we find them embarrassing and shameful. Because it remains so important for us to produce an image that is successful (because only successful things can be true), we often conceal our failures, clean them up, talk around them. We make of them skeletons to be hidden in dark places. As Nietzsche—one of the best and most entertaining of the ‘tell it like it is’ thinkers—would have it, this only produces the truth of our lives as falsity, morals as immorality, knowledge as ignorance, and so on. This is why we have to read Mary’s quoting of Nietzsche as ironic in the context of the film’s drama: “Blessed are the forgetful: for they ‘get the better’ even of their blunders.” Because she is enamored of what Dr. Mierzwiak ‘gives to the world,’ a chance to be spotless and clean and innocent, Mary reads the line literally, concluding that to be made child-like in innocence is to be blessed and essentially sin-less. In this way, the Lacuna procedure is akin to Christian baptism: You get to start over with your nasty past cleansed. However, entirely  unaware of how the process has robbed her of her own past, and thus the meaning of her present, Mary does not see until much later that ‘blessed’ is intended by Nietzsche as satire, that to be blessed in this instance to be cursed. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a Nietzschean film in this respect because it dares us to remember that which we so often will ourselves to forget, and to bring the fuck-ups and failures of our lives into full view, to re-include them in the full picture of what makes us ourselves.

I bring this up here because I think it provides useful context for investigating that troublesome ‘ok,’ which can be read either fatalistically or affirmatively, depending on how one looks at it. Beginning with the proposition in general, it might look like this: Ok, we’re going to do this all over again and probably lose each other, again, because that’s how it’s supposed to go. This alone doesn’t really get at the fissures contained therein, so let’s break it into two postures one might derive from this statement:

1.  We’re going to do this all over again and probably lose each other again because this is the best we can possibly hope to achieve (aka ‘The Fatalistic “OK”’). The problem with this one is that it places all the emphasis on the outcome, which is to say on the glum, inevitable failure. It makes fate and failure synonymous by condemning the ending at the expense of how one got there and turning necessity into a one-dimensional affair that must be suffered through. It asks the question of whether you would willingly fail again, failure here operating as the most important part of the question. This ‘ok’ demands an idealism—in this case about love—to which it can contrast itself, a more perfect version of the events or the players involved that will redeem the process once and for all. To my mind, and given my experience of humans and relationships between them, this ‘ok’ clouds the discussion of what we can do and be by insisting that we hold ourselves to an impeccable, impossible standard that, because it can never happen, ultimately leads us to wonder why we ever bothered in the first place. Borrowing from Nietzsche, I would offer that this stance denies the fundamental truth that we are often at our most beautiful when admitting to and accepting the necessity of our own ugliness. Indeed, following the Nietzschean thread outward into the world beyond Eternal Sunshine, we might link this question to the central metaphysical dilemma of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wherein another permanently vexed couple— Tomáš and Tereza, are faced with the choice of whether to endure the weight of their mortal, imperfect being together—to say yes to fate—or, like Tomas’s lover, Sabina, flee from any connection at all into a relation-less, weightless state of insubstantiality. In certain ways the latter is certainly safer in practical and emotional terms, but it also seems less human, closer to living-as-death than to living and dying. This will be, for some, an unpalatable idea and I recognize that it has its weaknesses. Why settle for ugly when you can have something better, something that, if not perfect, is at least less grievous? The thing is, I’m not advocating for ugliness or failure as means in themselves, but rather as the opposite of that insufferable idealism which would make them unbearable necessities (i.e. ‘if not this perfect outcome, then failure’). Were one to conclude that the lesson here is to reduce all experience to a pattern of failure, one would necessarily go out into the world looking for failure, unable to see the future condition implied by Nietzsche’s desire to be someone who one day will have learned to say yes. Learning to say yes to failure is not the same as learning how to say no to life.

2.  We’re going to do this all over again and probably lose each other again because this is part of the process, which is, in itself, worthwhile (aka ‘The Affirmative “OK”’) There is a terrible beauty in this ‘ok,’ a tenacity and forthrightness which damns the inevitable torpedoes and doesn’t simply admit to, but actively claims, the uneven process to which the ambiguous ‘ok’ gives assent. As I would argue the film makes clear, it is this connotation which underpins the literal utterance between Joel and Clementine. Faced with the weight of their collective failure, a failure in many ways derived from the incommensurability of their individual selves, they choose it again. I see this most clearly in what I think is the film’s most poignant image of Joel trapped in the back of his friends’ station wagon, covered under an entire beach of sand, crushed by the weight of regret and longing. While Joel dourly remarks that he wishes he’d done a lot of things differently, the ability to go back and make different, better choices is not the point. The point, I would argue, is whether he can live with the choices he has made, whether he can recognize the necessity of those choices and see them as part of the whole beautiful process, rather than as stains on a tragic outcome. Because the film seems to suggest this progression, from an ironic ‘I’m fine without you!’ to ‘my life is fuller with you in it, good and bad,’ I think we have to move from an overt fear of the failure implied by ‘ok’ to an acceptance that failure is sometimes what we get when we try. As Beckett put it succinctly: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This conclusion is only pessimistic if you reduce its meaning to an impossibly perfect outcome that will redeem all failures, making them clean again. The only such outcome available to us is death, a condition of non-being that Lacuna’s memory-erasure attempts to simulate in miniature. Rather than this, I choose—and I think Joel and Clementine elect—to affirm a process of becoming which just may help them see and create the beauty in necessity that Nietzsche so wistfully hopes to achieve.

Ok, I’ve run out of steam, so I’ll end it here. Sorry for not ‘trying’ things up more concretely. Sometimes there just isn’t time.

A few thoughts:

  • It didn’t seem very apropos of my main thoughts above, but I thought I’d mention here that  I’ve been crushing hard on Kate Winslet for  pretty much my entire adult life. As such, Eternal Sunshine is an extraspecialloveysexywonderful experience for me, particularly when she’s in that 1970s dress with the bright red hair. No matter the 35-year-old man exterior, there’s still an 18-year-old in me with his heart all gooey at the sight of that woman asleep against a car seat with the morning sun shining on her face.  
  • It wonder what kind of movie this would have been if more of it had been sound tracked by Beck’s Sea Change album, a gorgeous collection of break-up songs. 
  • I have to admit that my intense attraction to the film’s ‘main plot’ in Joel’s head sometimes leads me to be very frustrated with the exploits of the characters inhabiting the ‘real world’ storyline. As necessary as it is to the plot as a whole, I often find myself counting the minutes until I’m rescued from the Dunst-Ruffalo-Wood-Wilkinson narrative.
  • I think I’ve developed a Pavlovian response-mechanism in relation to the Focus Features intro credit/score. So often have I loved the films distributed by Focus that just a glimpse of that water-refracted title shot and brief orchestral score gives me goose bumps.
  • Um, Joel and Clementine go to drive-in movie theaters and sit outside drinking wine from the bottle while they do MST3K-style comedic dubbing. Not only does that look like a lot of fun, it’s also clearly the kind of activity that two people fated to be together would enjoy. Fate-infused nerdathon on the cheap!
  • I didn’t have much to say in my main thoughts about the supporting cast, but while most of them underwhelm me, I would want to point out here that I am generally in favor of Tom Wilkinson in all roles. As before, so now.
  • There are a lot of ways to mark the quirkiness of a person, and never have I thought to do it by having that person collect potato dolls. But hey, she also listens to sitar music and has old movie seats in her living room! She is not of the ‘normal’ culture, folks.
  • The costume designer must have had fun with that retro-‘70s dress Kate Winslet gets to wear in the ‘Baby Joel’ kitchen scene, and again with the his and hers kid costumes they wear in both child and adult sizes.
  • I don’t point this out as a flaw, because I don’t think logical consistency is the goal here, but why wouldn’t Joel remember Huckleberry Hound or ‘Oh my Darlin’ Clementine’ after having his memory erased? These two things were facets of a much deeper knowledge we know he possessed prior to meeting Clementine. For example, when we finally see the first day they met, he notes that his Huckleberry Hound doll was among his favorites as a child.
  • Speaking of logic, I wonder whether mister smartypants science man at Lacuna, Inc. ever stopped to consider that erasing his patients’ memories in reverse chronological order might actually be extremely traumatic. Especially considering that, by the look of the grief-stricken creatures in his waiting-room, most are there to have memories of dead loved ones erased. One wonders why more patients didn’t suddenly develop curious resistances to the procedure.
  • I, too, was a Barnes & Noble ‘book slave’ for years. Which means Clemenkate and I have something in common. Zing!
  • Where does Kaufman come up with his names?!? I mean, Stan Fink? Mary Svervo?!? And not one, but two Polish-Americans, Clementine Kruczynski and Howard Mierzwiak. Does he, like, draw them out of a hat? Or are they names to long-dead ghosts he found while perusing Tobin’s Spirit Guide (R.I.P. Harold Ramis).
  • Is there a person out there who didn’t like being bathed in the sink? Even now that sounds safe and cozy.
  • Am I alone in thinking that Clementine’s admission that she’s ‘high maintenance’ is salutary? Whenever I watch that scene, I always think to myself, well that is some very useful, honest information sharing. From the guy’s side, we would all do well to let people know that we’re high maintenance in our own ways, too.
  • I both love and am annoyed by Stan’s wormy attempt to say something about The Clash while simultaneously saying very little at all: I mean, like, The Clash! Social Justice! The only band that mattered!
  • There’s a certain satisfaction in watching Jim Carrey, so long an insane clown, play a bumbling, bashful nerdy type.  Just as there is, I suppose, a certain satisfaction one gets from watching Kate Winslet dye her hair crazy colors and play what is probably her most idiosyncratic role ever.

Ten Years Ago: Hidalgo

7 Mar

Sarah Kremen-Hicks takes another longing look at Viggo Mortensen’s Hidalgo, otherwise known as Aragorn of Arabia, a film that’s most definitely only about how remarkable horses are . . . which means you should all watch it with War Horse. Right now. Preferably with an eight-year-old and not a forty-year-old.

Sometime in 2003[1], I went on a third date[2] with a guy who, in hindsight, was completely wrong for me. We all do stupid things in our early twenties. I skipped out of work early and saved us a spot in line at Pacific Place. I had emailed him that morning to say that I’d gotten us tickets, to which he replied “Aragorn of Arabia, huh? Okay.” He may have been a bit of a git, but he had a way with words, and I’ve never been able to think of Hidalgo by any other name.

When Hidalgo initially came out, we all though Viggo Mortensen was going to be big, but his horsey bromance didn’t really catapult him to fame and glory. (IMDB tells me, however, that he’s still steadily appearing in things I’ve never heard of. Good on you, Viggo!) Perhaps it would have helped if he hadn’t been playing Aragorn in a cowboy hat, complete with mysterious Elvish Sioux wisdom, mystical mixed-race upbringing, a tendency to lapse into subtitles, and a Very Meaningful Necklace.

If I were a good reviewer, I’d talk about the fact that this film is all about how a white guy gains mystic wisdom by interacting with the racial other and watching experiencing their suffering as his own, and how it propels him to do amazing feats of featliness, win lots of money, and nobly save the wild mustangs and free his bestest horsey friend. But I’m the woman who likes to make lists, so let’s pause here only long enough for me to cop to either missing or having forgotten all of the craptacular racial politics in this film (It’s okay because his mother was Sioux! Even though he never gives any indication of that! And he’s played by a white dude!), and move on to: 

8 reasons why Aragorn of Arabia is a terrible date movie, and a perfect one to watch with an eight-year-old

  1. Eight-year-olds don’t mind if you hold their hand during the tense bits. As opposed to 40-somethings, who are far too cool for that, and think you’re a bit of an idiot for pawing at them.
  2. Eight-year-olds are just as enthusiastic about makeshift spear-throwing and falcons scratching people’s eyes out as you are, and don’t give you side eyes when you forget to stifle your evil chuckles.
  3. An eight-year-old will listen to many sentences of your chatter about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” and how “Glory be to God for dappled things” is about horses like Hidalgo without his eyes glazing over, although he will interrupt to ask you for a snack.
  4. Similarly, an eight-year-old will allow you to pause the film and tell him all about parallels to Scheherazade and slave Leia. He will become very excited about the slave Leia bit.
  5. A date will absolutely understand that you mostly wanted to see this because Viggo was really hot in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, and may make you feel bad about this. An eight-year-old will not care, but will be very excited when you point out that the guy on the horse is also Aragorn.
  6. An eight-year-old will give you a hug when you start crying because the horse got hurt. A 40-something will pretend not to notice, and force you to scrounge for your own tissue, which is actually a grungy napkin covered in popcorn salt.
  7. Eight-year-olds are totally cool with the fact that you still sometimes secretly want a pony. They would like one, too, and are happy to point out which of the herd in the final scene they would like to take home and love/hug/refer to as George. 40-somethings think you ought to be a grown-up, which, as we all know, is mug’s game.
  8. 40-somethings are jaded, whereas an eight-year-old will ask “but why would they round all the horses up and shoot them?” in a tone that reminds you that, yeah, that’s a damned fine question that deserves a good answer.

All of which is to say, always watch movies with eight-year-olds rather than grown men. Everyone will have a much better time, and no one will care if you bounce around the sofa while the racing is happening. But be prepared with an explanation for why you have to shoot a horse that’s broken its leg.

[1] It was a preview screening

[2] Or so. Early days, in any case, although this was not a relationship that had late days.

Ten Years Ago: The Passion of the Christ

28 Feb

In this week’s 10YA, EJ Legaspi does what no Catholic should have to do twice: watch Mel Gibson’s paschal epic The Passion of the Christ. Here, EJ re-views the film in light of Gibson’s own tormented passions, and questions his faith in Gibson’s project.

10YA: The Passion of the Christ

By EJ Legaspi

If there is one movie that challenges me to be absolutely objective as a film viewer, it’s Mel Gibson’s religious opus, The Passion of the Christ. I mean, as a Catholic, how could I not be moved by the sheer brutality that flickered before me as I sat slack-jawed in the darkness of that movie theater ten years ago? Good thing it was dark because I had never cried so consistently and so profusely while watching a film. Pixar’s Up is the only film that comes close, but that is another story altogether.

I grew up extremely Catholic, maybe excessively so. I devoured books on saints and pored over paintings and drawings of the suffering and death of Jesus. When our house was being rebuilt, I’d go to our carpenter, ask for some spare wood, and hammer together my own crosses. I’d take some paper, draw out Jesus, the best as a kid could, spread-eagled, in pencil. I’d make sure that the crown of thorns was amply sharp and I wondered which placement of the nails would be most historically accurate. Perhaps I thought it would bring me closer to heaven, maybe I was being thoughtlessly reflective, but needless to say Catholic iconography was deeply ingrained in me.

Without a doubt, therefore, I was the perfect audience to view this film. And after I came out of the theater that warm Lenten evening, I was spent and relieved from all that cathartic crying. Mel Gibson had crafted a masterpiece. I loved the imagery, the grit, and the passion displayed in the film. I was not entirely happy with it, but it was everything that it could have been.

Ten years later, I approached this film with slight trepidation. I know of many friends who could not sit through it the first time, much less a second time. I have come to realize that I have not seen it all the way through as well. I knew this was going to be a challenge to sit through. Besides, times have changed ever since this was released. Mel Gibson is essentially a Hollywood pariah now, and if there was movie that demanded to be seen sans the author’s intent, this was it. So it was with this in mind that tried I to re-view The Passion of the Christ.

Very quickly, I realized that I was not going to be successful at accomplishing this goal. The accusations of “torture porn” and anti-Semitism echoed in my head even before I hit the play button. By avoiding that issue, I would fail to honestly look at the film from where we stand now. Context is king, and this film is prime evidence that serves as a window into Mel Gibson’s mind, prior to his scandalous drunken arrests and recorded phone calls.

I decided that the best way to view this is how Mel Gibson intended to initially release it: without subtitles. The entirety of the film is spoken in either Aramaic or Latin, and Gibson posited that the visuals should speak for themselves since the story is well-known enough.

To an extent, he was right. The visuals are indeed striking still, with Jim Caviezel’s contorted face and mutilated body carrying much of the pain of Jesus’ torture and Maia Morgenstern’s pained tears bearing the emotional weight of Mary’s grief. However, the loss of the nuance of the dialogue and knowing the specific words, whether lifted directly from Catholic scripture and tradition or placed primarily due to artistic license, fails to establish the context for the visceral imagery. The result: I was not able to tear up this time around.

Don’t get me wrong, the protracted scourging at the pillar still got to me. There was a definite buildup of moisture in my tear ducts, but for one reason or another, the swelling of emotion failed to burst forth.

Part of the reason is that I found myself questioning what now seem to me many paradoxical choices that Gibson has made in this film. Was he trying to make a more historically accurate Jesus movie? If so, that should explain his obsession with recording the dialogue in Aramaic and Latin. However, his constant reliance on extra-Biblical information suggests that this is meant to be a largely spiritual experience.

I have to admit that ten years ago I was more than willing to accept the non-English speaking, non-subtitled film, but now as I trudge through the film without a clue as to what was being said, I found myself focused on how the actors delivered their lines. I am naturally suspicious of movies where actors do not speak in their native tongues. There’s usually a strange disconnect between the words and the actor that seems to stem from trying not flub the strange lines they have to say. It’s hard enough to act, but in another language one does not speak must increase the challenge exponentially. So many lines seemed to be delivered in a distractingly declamatory style usually reserved for high school Shakespeare performances or for spell-casting in high fantasy shows. Then again, maybe it’s just me. Either way, it would probably not have been a problem had I watched it with the subtitles on.

Historical accuracy, I concluded, was something that Gibson tried to approach, but was not his primary objective. At worst, it was not as bad as the blonde blue-eyed Jesuses of other Jesus movies or passion and death pageants, and at best, he was able to create an image of Jesus that almost looked like a Middle-Eastern man, but at the same time still look good (read: handsome) enough to be a Hollywood leading man. Jim Caviezel is a fine actor, and it’s a shame that Gibson’s prediction of him never working in Hollywood again after this film has essentially come true, but by gum his teeth, his beautiful perfect teeth certainly stood out amidst all the blood and gore. Was he really smiling while he was being scourged? I had to take a second look. He wasn’t, but it was almost certainly as if his pearly whites where the keys that unlocked the pearly gates.

While I can’t really fault Caviezel for good dental hygiene, I do question Gibson’s insistence on heavy-handed symbolism and imagery. He doesn’t dwell too much on perspectives and representations that could potentially complicate the emotional impact of the scenes. Although this could be read as effective filmmaking, this is the root from which the anti-Semitism accusations spring forth from. The Pharisees and scribes were not portrayed under the most flattering light. They were all blinged-out in stark contrast to the generally blood and tunic work by Jesus and his followers. It would be unfair to lay all of the blame on Gibson, as traditional passion plays do go this route. Mel Gibson didn’t write the book on prejudice, he simply made a very famous movie that may have allowed us to peek into his personal prejudices.

Christ’s torturers didn’t fare much better, save for the repentant half-blind centurion Longinus, as most were repugnant heartless caricatures. I found it a little easier this time around to dissociate myself from the scene and imagine the Roman soldiers to be twirling their imaginary bad-guy mustachios or licking their hypothetical Freddy Kruger claws. It’s possible that they really were that cruel and ignorant, and maybe it speaks more of who I am now and my personal worldview that I insist that not everyone is an absolutely terrible person, and that this time around, the abject cruelty feels like it diminishes the poignancy of the scene.

Gibson extends the use of this shorthand for good and evil by casting very sympathetic and attractive women. From the gorgeous Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene to Rosalinda Celentano as the wife of Pontius Pilate, and the aforementioned Maia Morgenstern as the Virgin Mary, the pious and the faithful as synonymous with the beautiful. And how could he not? Traditionally, from religious icons to Disney heroes and heroines, beauty and good have been used interchangeable as values and virtues that well aspire to have. Have you ever seen an ugly, or even a plain Jane, Mary? Perhaps it was not Gibson’s place to change or challenge this, but once they pull out Barabbas, you just know this is not the guy you’d want to let loose in Judea.

One good thing that Gibson does is the androgynous Satan who frequently taunts Jesus throughout the film. The oddly beautiful whilst simultaneously disturbing demon famously mocks Jesus during the scourging scene, which at this point should be clear to all is the scene I am most fixated with, in guise of a corrupted Madonna and Child. This reference is more of a direct taunt to the audience and should be perfect if not for one of Gibson’s mortal sins, his excessive use of slow motion.

Slow motion, one of filmdom’s most abused tools for emphasis, is used ad nauseam in many key moments that Gibson intends to highlight whether its coins tumbling away from Judas to implements hammering away at Jesus. If he really believes that the story is familiar enough and that he intended to show things for what they are, Gibson should have just let these scenes played out as they would. They ruined perfectly good shots by letting them overstay their welcome and ending up almost becoming hokey.

What did work were the flashbacks between Mary and Jesus. These moments of everyday stillness between mother and son formed the emotional core of the film. It is one thing to see a great man tortured, but to see it from the perspective of how a mother sees her child was a much appreciated layer of humanity. In addition to this, it was distinct pleasure to see Jesus working as a carpenter who took pride in his work, a scene not too often portrayed in Jesus films, and this one worked beautifully. The humanity of Jesus is often lost under the veneer of divinity and arguably a greater achievement than the torture and suffering depicted in the passion itself.

If there’s one major beef that the Catholic in me has with the film, it’s the afterthought that was the resurrection. I understand that Gibson comes from a specific tradition that dwells in the guilt of the suffering of Jesus, but the central belief in the paschal mystery is in the passion, death, and resurrection. It felt uncomfortably odd that the film, after all that intense drama, chose to raise Jesus from the dead as if he just woke up from a bad dream.

As a work of faith, The Passion of the Christ almost dangerously distills the faith experience as an emotional experience of suffering. I’m sure many of the faithful, Catholic or otherwise, felt immense guilt after watching this. Some would have also gone on to be appreciative of their faith. Good for them. However I wonder if how many actually became more thoughtful and reflective because of this film. I am a firm believer that belief in one’s religion requires both faith and reason, and I thank my Jesuit education for this, but Mel Gibson probably thinks otherwise.

Viewing The Passion of the Christ as a film, it can be quite impenetrable and almost exclusive in its attitude with its subject matter. It’s certainly a far superior film to many cheesy Sunday school movies on Jesus, but its brutality will not suit everyone. On that note, it is hardly the “torture porn” that some people purport it to be. Yes, it is violent, but only those who are truly sadistic or those detached from their humanity would insist on this argument.

Yes, Mel Gibson may be a bigot. And yes, this film may hint at some parts of his personal flaws, but this man believed in what he believed in, and this film has certainly affected many different people , and in many of them, good ways. This is an unforgettable film and everyone should see it. Maybe just once though. And certainly not without the subtitles.

Ten Years Ago: EuroTrip

23 Feb

For our first-ever tandem re-view, my sister Kate Gorman and her boyfriend Joe Horton sat down and watched EuroTrip for the zillionth time. They kept a log of their observations, hopes, fears, and dreams. 

Kate:  It’s showtime!

Joe:  First of all… That green guy is SO MUCH. On the DVD menu, why in the world would you have a green fairy yelling at you all the time?

Kate:  He is so sassy.  I love that these opening credits have nothing to do with the movie. But they are so good.

Joe:  Devil stewardesses! Remember when everyone vomited everywhere on the plane in the credits? And the map in the credits! All the countries they go!

Kate:  My favorite thing that we realized watching this movie (maybe the 18th time) is that everyone in these American scenes are Eastern European extras. Like, Slovakian extras.

Joe:  I mean they are in an EASTERN EUROPEAN HIGH SCHOOL.

Kate:  They are all so tall and blond.

Joe:  EVERYONE IS FROM CHERNOBYL.

Kate:  Except for Jeffrey Tambor.

Joe:  And there’s Uncle Moke! He definitely does not know he’s in a movie.

Kate:  I hope Uncle Moke is still alive out there somewhere getting in people’s photos.

Joe:  That guy cost $1 more to hire for the entire movie, and now he can open his own hotel!

Kate:  Haha sweet flash forward there.

Joe:  Man, look at Scotty’s computer. Email those days looks like sending telegraphs.

Kate:  Hey, remember high school? When I saw this 10 years, I was in college, and it was finals week, and it was necessary.

Frommers 2004: Kate in finals at USC

Joe:  I mean, here’s Michelle Trachtenberg. This whole thing about her being mistaken for a guy is so bogus. Oh, the party. Those Russian guys pounding beers in the background, wearing letterman jackets. They have NO idea what they are wearing.

Kate:  Motherfucking Matt Damon!!!

Joe:  Frommers 2004: Matt Damon is in EuroTrip. What in the WORLD.

Kate:  …who somehow looks his hottest as a punk rocker.

Joe:  He received a lot of Oscar buzz for this role. Also he is the worst fake-singer.

Joe: “I bet we’ll be just as popular in college as we were in high school.” I love movies made by people who were not popular. They are so PISSED at popular people.

SCOTTY DOESN’T KNOW

Kate:  He just doesn’t know.

Joe:  Do NOT tell Scotty.

Kate:  All the Czech people in this party scene look so crazy. Some of them are definitely vagrants.

Joe:  I bet it was 20 degrees and freezing rain when they shot this summer scene in Eastern Europe.

Kate:  MAIL MOTHAFUCKA. “Perhaps we can zussamen.”

Joe:  “I was sad to hear about your lady woman dumping you…”

Kate:  Another amazing discovery we made was when we realized that the mail Scotty sends Mieke isn’t what he typed at all.

Joe: Oh yeah the letter! It’s totally different.

Joe:  “Listen Mike,” the letter says, and “goodbye fucface”

Joe:  Also, they’ve got a guy on a bike delivering a newspaper. That’s what they think America is?

Kate:  Also, what was “Gate Crasher?” Scotty has that poster up in his room. Was that a thing 10 years ago?

Joe: Look at his email—these huge error signs came up? Like a nuclear reactor?

Kate:  (beep beep beep)

Joe:  Remember when email was like Carmen Sandiego?

Kate:  Archaic.

Joe: How can Scotty have this bond with her immediately? Kate has it right. She has always claimed that this romance doesn’t make any sense. In two seconds he was like, “Boy/girl whatever. She can email me, so it’s love.”

Kate:  Why is Scotty applying to med school? He just graduated from high school earlier today.

Joe: Aaaand Cooper, “He ended up using a public bathroom in New Delhi and they had to cut off his leg.”

Kate:  Such a well-delivered line.

LONDON

Joe:  Remember when we went to this spot on the Thames and saw that the background doesn’t match? A great/terrible moment. People were like, you’re in the best city in the world, and we’re like, hang on, let’s get this EuroTrip detail right.

Kate:  Totally. We needed to know. It doesn’t make sense but they tried really hard for a minute for it to look like London. But then they gave up and went to the Feisty Goat pub to film the rest of London.

Joe: They spent their entire budget on green screen backgrounds. And then they get to the pub and the producers are like, “Hey who looks like a hooligan? Ok, everyone? You’re hired. “

Kate:  Hahahahaha. Starring Vinnie Jones.

Joe:  EVERY EXTRA IN THIS MOVIE DOESN’T SPEAK A WORD OF ENGLISH AND THEY HAVE TO LOOK TO THE SIDE OF THE SCREEN LIKE A DOG TO THEIR TRAINER. This pub is one of the best examples. They literally don’t know what’s being said in the scene.

Kate:  Uh-oh, it’s time for the German incest fantasy.

Kate:  Fun fact: Scotty’s mom is reading a Jackie Collins book in this scene, which Scotty reads later on the train. Which means they only had ONE prop book on set. Which I love.

Kate:  Cooper’s hair is SO late 90′s, early 00′s style.

PARIS

Joe: The movie’s like, England, you are many things, but you are mostly hooligans.

Kate:  So…I have been to that “Parisian” square in Prague. And in that museum that is standing in for the Louvre. It’s a natural history museum…in Prague.

Joe:  And the background is so amazing here. Like a screensaver.

Joe:  “Who, Robot Man? He’s just trying to feed his robot family.”

Kate:  Do they think they cast this actor (Scott Mechlowicz, who plays Scotty) because he could do a pretty solid robot?

Joe:  Yes.

Kate:  Like, that was the whole audition.

Joe:  They’re like, “Can you be the seul robot dans ce coin?”

Kate:  “Do the robot.”

Kate:  VRAIMENT.

Joe:  “Tu n’es pas un robot, VRAIMENT.”

Kate:  The girl with the balloon is BRILLIANT filmmaking.

Joe:  So this scene at the dinner table in Paris ALWAYS reminds me, Kate, of our dinner with Tim when we were studying abroad. Deciding what trip we should take, settling on each person getting two countries each, settling on a trip from London to Morocco, almost totally overland.

Kate:  Yes, at a Chinese restaurant in Mile End. We went to 6 countries in 2 weeks.

Joe:  There was a huge blue fishtank. Also, like Jamie, I used to wear a money belt. My dad said it was a good idea. I did it for a week at study abroad.

Kate:  Every dad says it’s a good idea.

Joe:  …and then I stopped. I really had to get my act together studying abroad. I totally became a new person in the best way.

Kate:  Thank goodness.

Joe:  Hey remember when European royal sex predators prowled train stations? By the Coke machines, picking up American sluts?

Kate:  Haha.

Joe: This newspaper headline kills me. “Merde alors! L’Hooligan!”

Kate:  Here is Scotty reading the Jackie Collins book on the train.

Joe:  The sets for the train in Europe and backyard in America are like two feet apart. They just brought the book over.

Kate:  Bon giorno, Fred Armisen!

Joe:  “Ah, si!” This should be a new Portlandia character: “When you get Eurosexed in Portland.”

Kate: Totally. Also why is his newspaper pink? Such a good costuming/props choice.

Joe:  I mean Italy has a PINK newspaper. “M’scusi.”

Kate:  Mi scusi, mi scusi, Fred.

CRANS-SUR-MERE

Kate:  How did they find this beautiful railroad station in the Czech Republic?

Joe:  “Ladies? Bitches?”

Kate:  OH GOD SO MANY PENISES.

Joe:  This extras ad for this was like: “Hey, you want show penis in American movie? Come to Prague.”

Kate:  Uh-oh.

Joe:  “Ce monument me touche.”

Kate:  I love that “oui” translates to “Let’s make out” in this movie.

Kate: Aaaahhhh no, there are the horny man zombies!!!

Kate: Ugh, so many penises.

Joe:  Another ad for extras: “Do you want to run with dangle out on beach in American film?”

Kate:  Scotty printed out all his emails with Mieke. Good thing he had time to do that.

Joe:  Remember when we printed emails?

Kate:  Remember when we didn’t look at everything on our iPhones?

Joe:  Remember when we were like, let me take this email with me via a folder I carry under my arm?

Kate:  Hahahahahaa it’s so true.

Joe:  Also remember when guys were allowed to burst out of ladies’ closets? Maybe that’s only in Germany.

Kate:  Countdown to David Hasselhoff…

Kate:  3…

2…

1…

 

 

Joe:  DUUUUUUU

Kate:  DOOOOOO

Joe:  DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOALSISGHSLHAFFFJJ

DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Kate:  DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Joe:  DISJDEOESPFKEDSOKFDOIEe….Ah….”Mi bella”

Kate:  FRED! Love him. He just licked the makeup off Scotty’s face.

Joe:  ME FUCKING SCUSI!

Joe: Also they definitely did not hire Fred Armisen for this movie. He just showed up and they were like, No sudden moves.

AMSTERDAM

Joe:  And a BARGE TRAWLER in the river is the first shot. “This is the drunken sex capital of Europe.”

Kate:  They didn’t’ even try to make anything look like Amsterdam. The filmmakers were like, “Eh, Amsterdam isn’t iconic enough. Let’s just find a canal and call it a day.”

Joe:  They were like, “Let’s just get a road…with doors…and put ladies in them.”

Kate:  Equals Amsterdam.

Joe:  CLUB VANDERSEXX. There’s a free teeshirt with flyer.

Kate:  This was Lucy Lawless’ best role ever, but now it’s her on Parks and Rec. Who knew she was so awesome?

Joe:  “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”

Joe:  “This is great / you’re so innocent.”

Joe:  “Hans! Gruber!”

Joe: Fleughenghenghenheimer?

Kate:  Fuggen-OOOWWWWW

Joe:  Kate just said, “Oh my god. Amsterdam is so scary. You’re stoned all the time and you don’t know where you are.”

Kate: It’s true.

Kate:  “You might randomly get butt-raped against your will.” – Amsterdam

 

 

Joe:  So Kate bought me this Vandersexx shirt. I own it. It exists in the real world. It is my most prized possession.

Kate: Jamie just had the longest blowjob in the world. It took, like 10 hours.

Joe:  Yeah. I mean, he was NOT letting her off easy. Jamie is getting HIS tonight.

Joe: Oh, Humphrey again. Humphrey’s getting is SO MUCH TROUBLE.

Kate:  I want to see a movie about Humphrey’s experience that summer.

Joe:  Humphrey is a role Macaulay Culkin would play in his late teens.

Kate:  YES. Looking all wiry and hollow-eyed.

Joe:   Humphrey Goes Down.

Kate:  OMG. Like Igby Goes Down, which is a great movie.

BRATISLAVA (or ???)

Joe:  YES. HERE COMES THE BEST PERSON IN THE MOVIE.

Kate:  “You are Americans?”

Joe:  “I love America.” “Miami Wice is Number One Hit New Show.” “STOP: HAMMERTIME.” “It’s good you are here in summer. In winter, it can get very depressing.” This guy is the greatest living vagrant actor.

Kate:  Good thing Jenny has been carrying around a disco tank and leather pants in her backpack this whole time to wear at this warehouse dance club.

Joe:  Christoph is back. Don’t worry, he’s still here to rape you as a prince.

Joe:  Absinthe: drink it as your sister becomes a sex-slave on a yacht.

Kate: Is this song lyric’s “PUT IT IN THE HOLE, PUT IT IN THE HOLE”?

Kate:  Second incident of incest in this movie. I mean, how is that a thing? They just brush over it.

Joe:  This director is like, “PUT IT IN THE HOLE.”

Kate:  But it’s really a serious thing…psychologically…for the twins to be attracted to each other. This could turn into August: Osage County.

Joe:  Well they kissed each other and that was a thing. Oh, hey, remember when they ran out of money and filmed the next scene outside an abandoned tile factory?

Kate:  It looks like the set from “Legends of the Hidden Temple”

Joe: “Where is the Beef?” He’s baaaaack.

BERLIN

Joe: Hey get ready for some Hitler humor.

Kate:  Good times with the Hitler toddler.

Joe:  The movie is like, London is drunk soccer buffoons. Germany is Nazis. Oh man here comes the family maid.

Kate: I hope she and Uncle Moke are an item in real life.

Kate:  Too bad Mieke will be “quite unreachable.” Hey also, remember denim skirts with belts? That was a thing 10 years ago.

Joe:  “I’m going to…

ROME

Kate:  They are again at the natural history museum in Prague. This is the interior. Decidedly not the Vatican. And it is amazing. I love this crane shot here of all three floors.

Joe:  Yeah they were like, “By not hiring anyone and using mostly vagrants and dog-people we have so much money right NOW.”

Kate:  Look at all those concerned friars at the Pope’s death.

Joe:  They just found all the bald guys they could find and were like, “You’re Italian.”

Joe:  This movie says if you get separated from your tour at the Vatican and swirl around in drapes, you are THE NEW POPE.

Joe:  Thank GOD for HOOLIGANS. And always accept romantic advice from a guy you met at the Feisty Goat pub.

Kate:  How come Mieke hasn’t seen Scotty’s picture?

Joe:  Yeah true.

Kate:  She was so into her anonymous pen pal that she didn’t care what he looked like?

Joe:  Yep.

Kate:  She could have been CATFISHED for all we know. It could be that Scotty is actually a 90-year-old married rapist in prison.

Joe:  This is literally actually the Catfish origin story.

Joe:  It’s actually Jeffrey Tambor reading Jackie Collins…nude…with his kids away in Europe.

Kate:  It seems likely. Now Cooper and Jenny are just all like, “Let’s have sex,” but then they don’t do anything.

Joe:  And these other two! Mieke’s all like, “Scott, I have to GO ON MY SUMMER TRIP OF THE WORLD. So I just MET YOU…”

Kate:  “…and I’m probably pregnant…byeee.”

Joe:  “And what do you feel about naming our baby DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU”

Kate:  “DOOOOOOOOOOOOO….vlee flech scnhata doo be doo”

Joe:  “DO ALISMSHAMFT BEEEFSHESHTEIN”

Kate: Hey it’s Arthur Frommer! I wonder what he is actually like.

Joe:  Arthur Frommer just whipped out a picture of himself from his undershirt. GAY

Kate: Totally.

Joe:  Oh god damn it Humphrey. That poor guy. They screwed him over. That dude probably just shot himself in a barn his father made by hand.

Kate:  Poor Humphrey/ Macaulay Culkin.

Joe:  These kids were shitting it up in Europe and Macaulay Culkin just died in a barn.

Kate:  Hahaha…

Joe:  Cooper’s like, “Vandersexx” and Humphrey’s like, “I JUST DIED.”

Kate: Goddamnit Humphrey. Should’ve let loose a little.

USA – OBERLIN COLLEGE

Joe:  Hey Mieke, can you SNEAK INTO A MAN’S DORM IN AMERICA? Where is HOMELAND SECURITY?

Kate:  At some other college campus, Cooper’s about to beat up a robot performer with a bat. Another serious issue to consider in the grand scheme of things.

Joe:  Yeah. I mean, he’s not going to make dean’s list. He’s like the dude who ends up fighting an RA in the hall over a dog.

Kate:  Oh good Mieke and Scotty, now you can live together after having met for 15 minutes and having sex at the Vatican. I’m sure that’s gonna work out for you.

END CREDITS

Joe:  “HELLO AND WELCOME TO AMSTERDAM’S FINEST YOUTH HOSTEL. THERE IS NO BATHROOM, NOR IS THERE ONE NEARBY…IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO HAVE YOUR VALUABLES SCHTOLEN, I SUGGEST HIDING YOUR VALUABLES IN YOUR ANUS.

Kate:  Joanna Lumley’s best role to this date.

Kate:  Good times. We did it.

Joe: We did it!

Kate: Still good 10 years later. It’s always good.

Joe:  The message so much better. I get way more out of it now. It’s aged in a way that makes me able to see more of it. We’ve uncovered all these little bits and pieces over time.

Kate:  It allows us, I think, to connect to the way we felt at the time.

Joe:  Oh yeah.

Kate:  The way we dressed, the way we travelled. Which is rare. It’s kind of like the knowledge you gain from reading an old journal, but in a more entertaining and less melancholic way.

Joe:  I mean I remember every part of this movie. I remember laughing, at some point, at everything. We’d watch it in your college house, the Red Door House. We’d watch it like three times a week and everyone else in the house was like, uhhhhh.

Kate: We also watched this in NICARAGUA.

Joe: Oh yeah we did. At that hostel. Our valuables were not hidden in our anuses. And to show this movie has karmic power, the lock was broken on the beer fridge that night. I carried that DVD in my bag for three weeks so we could watch it.

Kate: I also met the actor who played Jamie at a Muse concert in LA and was so nervous and excited to tell him how much I loved the movie.

Joe: And one of our mutual friends gave him a blowjob once.

Kate: It’s true.

 

 

Joe: And I mean this movie is such a particular taste that if you get it, you’re going to love it forever. It will only get better. But maybe you’ll never get in late on it. You either started with it or you didn’t, you either believe that this is the highest and most hilarious aspiration of going abroad or you don’t.

Kate: Definitely. And in this time period. 10 years ago.

Joe: Yeah—the first time, really, absolutely anyone could go abroad and could stay friends abroad; you could go as a group, you could experience what seemed like everything and start right away. Study abroad, at that right moment in your life, makes everything seem possible and limitless.

Kate: Well, whoever is out there: We love this movie and always have. I hope the creators know that it means a lot to us.

Joe: It does.

Kate: I hope there are other people out there who like it as much.

Joe: They’re out there, and they are sweet-ass people. That, at least, is clear.

Ten Years Ago: The Dreamers

7 Feb

This cold Seattle eve calls for a fresh re-view of Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, now ten years old, as well as another writer joining the ranks of 10YA. Please welcome Colette-Yasi Naraghi, Student of Comparative Literature by day, photographer by night, possessor of the best ringtone e’er I heard.

The Dreamers (2003/2004) dir. Bernardo Bertolucci

Ten years ago, I was 16 and facing another move at the behest of my parents. This time, though, it was an intra-continental instead of an inter-continental move. I would even say I got lucky since we didn’t have to move languages; we were merely moving from one coast to another. A few months after the announcement, we arrived on the west coast and I was allowed a television in my bedroom, which I believe was an offering to my teenage angst.The Dreamers was the first DVD I bought on the west coast. The purchase was prompted partly because, as any self-respecting lost teenage girl, I was obsessed with the French New Wave (my phone’s ringtone, which happens to be the theme song from Les Quatre cent coup still suggests a fondness for the Nouvelle Vague) and partly because I wanted to watch beautiful naked bodies on the screen.

Ever since, The Dreamers has been a visual soundtrack to many of sleepless nights; however, this was my first viewing it in years with undivided attention. As the opening credits roll I am, again, enamored with what Bernardo Bertolucci has done here. The vertical pan of the Eiffel Tower in black and white highlighted by the colors of France – blue, white, and red – imposes the Maoist Godard upon the sentimental Truffaut. The 26-year-old me is already as giddy as the once 16-year-old. This is a film by a cinephile for cinephiles. It is for those individuals that not only enjoy watching films but approach cinema as if their lives depended on it; these people have membership cards to film clubs and can point out the broken seat in a theatre. As a 16-year-old, I knew exactly what Matthew (Michael Pitt) meant when he says, “It was here that I got my education” as he approaches the Cinémathèque française. I, too, received my education from films. When I was younger and appeared more foreign than I do now, I learned how to speak and assimilate from watching American films. When I wanted to resist my situation, I would watch any film that wasn’t in English. There was something very real at stake for me in deciding what film to watch. My moments of conformity and rebellion were both marked by what I read and what I watched. And by the time I was 16, I somehow understood the three leads’ eerie relationship with cinema.

Before I dwell too much on my years as an aggrieved adolescent, I should move on to the content of the film itself. The Dreamers takes place in Paris during the 1968 riots and it begins with the closure and defunding of the Cinémathèque française at behest of André Malraux. Amidst the 1968 footage of a young Jean-Pierre Leaud protesting in favor of Henri Langlois, the founder of the Cinémathèque, and the filmed recreation of an older Leaud recreating his youthful manifesto, Matthew, a young American Studying abroad, meets the ever-so-sexy (oh god, they are so sexy) brother and sister duo, Theo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green).

Deprived of their beloved Cinémathèque and films, Theo and Isabelle invite Matthew to stay with them in their labyrinthine, pretentiously intellectual, capped with a sense of decaying bourgeoisie St. Germaine apartment while their parents are away. The rest of the film is a game of “guess the film,” the forfeiture of which is performed sexually. Matthew, perhaps, spoke too soon when he proclaimed the Cinémathèque as an educational institute. In this apartment, he voyeuristically witnesses the quasi-incestuous relationship between Theo and Isabelle, stands by Isabelle watching Theo masturbate to a magazine cut-out of an actress, and takes Isabelle’s virginity.

Never have I had any problem with the amount of nudity in this film. Or the perversion.

Never.

Unfortunately though, the one thing that mildly bothered me ten years ago and enrages me now is these beauties’ glaring ignorance of the events surrounding May 1968. If you ignore history and its pesky details and only watch this film, you would think the riots of May 1968 occurred because Parisian cinephiles were denied their imported films. This is not to say that the arts are ineffective in causing an uprising but is only to say that the defunding of the Cinémathèque constitutes a small portion of what occurred in ’68. In 1968, there were general strikes joining factory workers with students against de Gaulle’s regime. Certainly these characters who speak of themselves as avant-garde revolutionaries should have an inkling of what is going on outside of their apartment. But no, they are absolutely pathetic in their convictions. I would like to think that this is part of Bertolucci’s greater cinematic objective. After all, he is responsible for Last Tango in Paris (1972) and The Conformist(1970), two films fraught with repulsive characters who still manage to solicit an empathetic response from the viewer. (The Conformist is so praiseworthy that it is one of four films included on my reading lists for my PhD exams; I am pretty sure I’m only including this fact because I am taking my exams in one month.) I would like to think that Bertolucci is making a point about isolation and hamartia. That he has locked Matthew, Theo, and Isabelle in this apartment to show that they will miss the mark if they continue looking through such a narrow lens. He does release them, eventually, when a brick breaks through a window interrupting Isabelle’s homicidal/suicidal measure. And this time around, I noticed something about Isabelle and Theo, in particular, that I haven’t before. They exhibit mimetic behavior that betrays their intellectual facades; in this sense, they are akin to children trying to orientate themselves within their environment by observing and repeating the behavior of others. They, for example, repeatedly call the police “fascists,” echoing the voice of the crowd. Imitating scenes from films in their apartment, even with its sinister undertones, is a charming game until it reveals their incapacity to act genuinely in the world.

The sibilings’ reintroduction – and to a degree, their redemption – to the world outside of their apartment is to unquestionably join the rioters in violence as Matthew begs them otherwise. Although I would politically agree with their decision to join in the riots, their last action is characterized by a certain passivity, as if they are moving with the crowd for the sake of moving and nothing more. Isabelle and Theo may be provocative but there is little originality in their transgressions.

Final Thoughts:

  • As a 16-year-old whose taste of the perverse was still in its stages of denial, I experienced a slight revulsion watching all the bodily fluids and waste – spit, piss, puss, cum, and the sleep in the eye. But this time around, I appreciate Bertolucci’s visual obsession with the body’s production of waste. There is something very tactile and innocent in the way our three protagonists interact with each other’s as well as their own excretions.
  • There are scenes in which Matthew is deliberately feminized. At first I was very excited for this since Bertolucci has a track record for astutely representing sexual and gender ambiguity and/or fluidity. Sadly, Matthew’s feminization does not yield any thought provoking, sexy, exciting, or any interesting result. Tant pis.
  • In an attempt to break Isabelle’s “unhealthy” attachment to Theo, Matthew takes her on a date. When Isabelle wants to sit at the front row of the movie theatre (a privileged row at the Cinémathèque for the “insatiable” cinephiles), he takes her to the back row explaining that the front is for those “without a date.” The immediate scene is of them noticing the barricades built by May ’68 rioters suggesting that it is only when they have distanced themselves from the screen that they have the capacity to look at the world around them.
  • Regarding the above point, I always thought that Matthew took Isabelle on a date because he is one of those boys who are incapable of having a sexual relationship free of a relationship.
  • The Dreamers will always be one of those films in which I find comfort but only if it is playing in the background as I putter around my apartment. This time around, as I attentively watched this film for the purpose of re-viewing it, I realized my sustained infatuation was (and will have to be) due to a fleeting concentration. This is quite an exquisite film to see if this seeing is merely the apprehension of images. It is also scored beautifully, with Jimi Hendrix’s visceral guitar riffs, ultimately, creeping up on the sweet and naïve chords of the theme to Les 400 coups. I, however, no longer have the patience for Isabelle, Theo, and Matthew as ideologues. They exasperate any sense of ideological integrity, which I find amusing since integrity is not a requirement of ideology. There is no other way of explaining my annoyance with these characters but to say that I have grown older curmudgeonly.

Ten Years Ago: Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed

31 Jan

In her re-view of Ginger Snaps 2: UnleashedMaggie McMuffin reveals a dark, terrible secret: her intense childhood obsession with lycanthropy. (#TW: subtance abuse & suicide.)

Ginger Snaps was a formative movie for me. I saw it when I was 12, about a year before getting my period. (I was actually one of the late bloomers in my class so naturally I was the girl who really wanted it to happen.) It kick started a weird phase of mine where I read everything I could about lycanthropy and actually tried to find a way to become a werewolf. (Many of the methods involved needing a werewolf or at least a wolf around so I was out of luck.) Really, if I had to choose a movie that really affected me it would be this one and I still hold it up as my favorite horror movie and my favorite lycanthropy-as-metaphor for puberty/high school movie. It’s great. Please go watch it.

But this review is about Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed. A less talked about follow up that came out a few years later. By the time trailers were showing on TV, I was out of the werewolf woods and settling into the throes of adolescent depression. I wore less black but read more sad Victorian literature. I had managed to make more friends but often felt more isolated. But Ginger Snaps had had such an effect on me in middle school that I jumped at the thought of a sequel. Even though the last few moments of the first movie end in such a wonderfully depressing way, it clearly had an opening for future adventures with Brigitte Fitzgerald.

It took me months to see the film. It didn’t play anywhere near my small town and it wasn’t until I was visiting my dad and stepmother that summer that I saw it high up on the new releases shelf. I begged my dad to get it for me (DVD rentals were normally a family thing) and might have ended up having to pay for it myself with allowance money. I didn’t want to watch the movie with anyone else. I wanted to watch it by myself, while people were out of the house, because I was an angry fourteen-year-old ashamed of my past history of wanting to be a freaking werewolf. (Seriously, it was some otherkin territory and this is the first time I’ve really admitted it to anyone.)

Admittedly, I didn’t remember much about the movie. And I didn’t rewatch it as much as I did the first one or even the really off-the-wall but more likely to be shown on TV prequel (which came out when I was nearly done with high school). In fact I think I watched it once, deemed it satisfactory, and watched it one more time in high school as a personal marathon of the trilogy. I didn’t qualify it as bad but it wasn’t the experience I had had with Ginger Snaps. In a way that was disappointing. But I was at a point in my life where everything was disappointing so it didn’t really stick out to me.

Still, when I saw this film up for grabs I quickly called dibs. Because I love this series so much, folks. So very much.

And you know what? I’m glad I had an excuse to watch this film again because, while it isn’t as adept at metaphors as its predecessor, it is really not that bad.

The opening credits are a huge montage of Brigitte (presumably) shaving every part of her body. But we are never shown her shaving her vulva even though that’s the only part that gets called out in later dialogue for being bald. The shaving eventually gives way to shots of presumably Brigitte cutting herself. The shots are accompanied by snippets of dialogue from the previous film and honestly the most amazing thing about this credits sequence is that‘HOLY SHIT TATIANA MASLANY IS IN THIS?’ Because Orphan Black’s amazing star is indeed in this as a creepy child that is blonder than a Daenerys Targaryen cosplayer.

After sitting through those credits we wind up in a library (Note: Your local library probably has tons of information on werewolves. Mine did) where Brigitte is sitting alone reading a book titled ‘BLOODLETTING.’ A library guy comes up and says she must be attracted to him. He retracts his joke when Brigitte scowls at him. I am so glad to see that this movie continues the first movie’s trend of the main female characters not giving a fuck what men think of them. And this goes on through B (I’m using her nickname because I’m lazy and I can) trying to check out the book, being denied due to overdue charges, and just leaving.

We get back to her motel room (so I guess she’s been on the run since movie one? We’re gonna get to the movie’s main plot hole here soon) where B has apparently been holed up, injecting monkshood into herself, then cutting and monitoring the heal time. It looks a lot like self-harm but is in actuality B taking care of herself the best she can. And she seems to be doing alright. Well, except for the fact that the most recent cut healed in four hours and B needs another dose. As she goes for it, her sister Ginger (who very much died at the end of the first film) does a voiceover saying, “You already dosed today. It’s poison, B.”

So B is technically hurting herself. But she’s hurting herself to avoid a worse fate. It’s only holding it off, sure, because B becoming a werewolf is inevitable and only becomes more inevitable as the film goes on. But at least she’s trying. Unlike some people. (Ginger.)

Ginger also talks about a ‘he’ that is coming after B. Which would explain why she’s living in motels. Do you want an explanation about who this ‘he’ is aside from ‘he’ being another werewolf that is fully transformed? Well too bad because that is never happening. Move on from it and enjoy the rest of the movie.

Speaking of things that are never gonna happen, Library Guy shows up at B’s hotel room as she’s both having a bad reaction to the monkshood and panicking. He tries to help her but they only get as far as his car before the werewolf hunting B attacks and kills him. The car crashes and B wakes up in an institution. To be more specific The Happier Times Care Center.

The first person she sees is baby Tatiana Maslany, who is a creepy pre-teen named Ghost. The next person she meets is Dr. Alice, a recovered addict herself who now seeks to help young women dealing with their own issues. We get a tour of the building, which used to be a TB ward and now only has one open wing. The others are abandoned because this is a horror movie and we’re going to need some spooky places for the end of the second act.

Dr. Alice also explains that the HTCC does double duty as a rehab center and a place for chronic care patients because “girls on drugs don’t go over well in private funding circles.” This is why Ghost is there. Supposedly. Because her grandmother caught on fire and is now bedridden and being cared for. Totally the only reason Ghost is there.

B has trouble adjusting. She tries running but doesn’t make it. She is up front about her ‘worst case scenario’ in her first group session and the only note taken about her is ‘LESBIAN?’ B even tries reasoning with Dr. Alice in a one-on-one. Alice says they can help, that she’s been where B is, that she gets it. Everyone feels alone. Lots of people turn to substance abuse. Even though Alice doesn’t understand why B is injecting herself with literal poison (they ran bloodwork), she wants to help. And B wants to accept that help. She does.

“If I was messed up in the way you think I am, I would really appreciate someone like you helping me.”

But then she says if they keep her here people will die and she gets locked in her room. This is around the time that Ghost starts attaching herself to B, listening at her door, whispering creepy things. Ghost has a hidden stash of horror comics in her grandma’s room. And honestly, every time Ghost goes into the room, her grandma tries super hard to wiggle her fingers just enough to hit the nurse call button.

The horror comic that Ghost grabs is one dealing with werewolves. And also a mistress who controls hell hounds. She reads these to her grandmother who seems uncomfortable even for someone covered in burns.

The film’s time in the ward is both mundane and not. Even though we don’t learn the names of all the girls there, we do learn some things. We learn Beth Ann is a bitch. We learn that one girl writes a lot and is possibly making up stories of childhood abuse. Another girl is also a bitch. It’s a wide variety of characters, clearly. Okay it’s not, but every bitchy girl is actually a different level and flavor of bitchy. And there are distinct relationships shown between them that carry between scenes. For example, there’s a girl who specifically bullies Writer Girl. They have more back and forth with each other than any of the other characters, even if their dialogue is limited. And you see some of the same girls who get no lines sitting with each other in multiple scenes. Even though we don’t get to focus on the other girls who are living there, they don’t feel completely like cardboard background characters. That’s nice.

Who we do focus on is Tyler, a male orderly who seems to be one of the few people willing to interact with Ghost and who also trades drugs for sexual favors. He manages to get drugs for the girls (because they seem to be kept there on site for…reasons? Do rehab facilities often just keep the drugs that people have on them when they’re admitted?) and goes into their rooms at night. When he tries this on B she refuses, even though her transformation is deepening. She gets ear points. She cuts them off. Because if you can’t solve a problem one way, you deal with it in another.

After getting shut down, Tyler finds Ghost drawing super violent images and saying creepy things. Ghost speaks in third-person narrative, possibly things she picked up from her comics, possibly things she made up. They have a brief squabble over whether the phrase is ‘moral terror’ (as Ghost insists) or ‘mortal terror’ (Tyler’s argument and also the correct choice). Then they feed Ghost’s dog, Rocky.

Meanwhile, over in B’s room, Ginger is making more frequent haunting stops to explain what’s happening. That B is gonna get massively horny and then want to kill things. That she can’t stop what’s happening to her. That the guy-wolf is gonna find her. Ginger is a very supportive haunt.

While at HTCC, B hits bottom. She goes from monitoring her cuts (which she administers with glass from a stolen picture frame) and cutting off the tips of her ears to nearly slashing her throat. There’s a shot where she holds the glass up and starts pressing it in but in the end she just can’t do it. Luckily Ghost shows up and says she can get her her monkshood. This plan is ruined by Tyler, who B does try to flirt with and give into. Unfortunately, he is a massive dick and decides that if this isn’t on his terms, it’s a no go and so winds up spilling the stolen dosage all over the bathroom floor. B licks it up. It does nothing.

This movie has a lot of references to B killing herself, actually. Ginger mentioned their suicide games in the motel, saying B ‘always chickened out.’ B is accused of having every girl in group thinking she ‘really sucks at suicide’ and then we have her trying it later on. It’s a carryover from the first film, where Ginger and B had a suicide pact that B was becoming less and less attached to. B may be depressed, and she may hate what she’s becoming, and she may be intentionally hurting herself, but she doesn’t want to die. She really, really wants to live but she wants to live as someone who isn’t a monster. As long as she’s human, she can hold onto hope that she can beat the werewolf back and stay herself, and at this point in the film she hasn’t quite decided if becoming a werewolf is a fate worse than death or just an equal one. It’s a greyer area, wanting to live alongside and numb the pain rather than end it. B’s depression is treated, perhaps because it is a literal monster and not just a figurative one, as not something to be romanticized. This isn’t a young woman shown reading The Bell Jar and cultivating a look based off of it. It’s someone struggling to keep being the person they want to be. It’s awful. It hurts other people. It hurts her. But it doesn’t mean she’s going to kill herself to make it stop.

Eventually, we need to leave the hospital. First, there needs to be an issue between Ghost and B. Ghost’s dog, Rocky, gets killed and she gives the head to B while reciting a poem about the dog’s playful nature. Ghost suddenly doesn’t like B anymore but after B explains that it was totes the he-wolf, they settle an escape plan. Which means we get to see all the abandoned wings of the HTCC! Did you think a low budget horror movie was just going to forget they set those up?

We spend more time down there than we need to. Tyler is having sex with another patient in return for something snort-able and then heads off. The girl gets high, runs into B, and then gets mauled by the werewolf after a few moments of being really, really blissful. The shots of her being killed are some of the more graphic in the film. Which is to say it’s really the only murder we see but there still isn’t a ton to see. Beth Ann gets killed standing up, pressed into that construction plastic with blood slowly making it harder to see through. It’s understated but effective.

Then Ghost shows back up (because she just comes and goes when it’s convenient for both her and the writers) and her and B get into a fight with the creature. B breaks her leg, snaps it back into place like a badass, gets bit but the wolf never goes for the kill. Eventually she and Ghost set it on fire (because crematorium), steal a car, and head out. They wind up at Ghost’s old house because B needs a needle and to hole up for the foreseeable future.

We start to focus in on Ghost now. We learn she can drive a car, operate a generator, and build booby-trapped scarecrows that will explode if they are touched. You know, girl stuff.

She also took care of her grandma after she caught on fire. Apparently from falling asleep with a cigarette. And she likes to cut up comics and make new ones that are full of improvements. She says she ‘assesses weaknesses’ of characters (by which she also means the people around her) and takes them away. One example is of a burned grandma (who Ghost only refers to as Barbara) who has had her nerve endings removed ‘so she can’t feel pain.’ Another is a sexy Brigitte with bare breasts and a wolf head. It’s basically what B would be if she had transformed like Ginger did in the first movie, i.e. giving in and getting all the boys. But this scene is mostly to show more of Ghost’s obsession with fictional worlds.

B and Ghost engage in several talks about sisters. Ghost always wanted one and is thrilled to have B around and is so jealous that B has a sister. B sort of ruins the moment by explaining that Ginger isn’t around anymore, but in their second chat on the subject B reveals that she misses Ginger all the time. Considering Ginger is still harassing B from beyond the grave and their conversations are getting progressively more heated, we can surmise that B misses who Ginger was before she got wolfified.

The other important thing to grab from this conversation is that when Ghost tries to deduce why the he-wolf didn’t kill B, B tells her very plainly that it doesn’t want to kill her; it wants to mate with her. Ghost is sort of stunned because, well, this had never occurred to her as a possibility. Apparently there was no sexual assault in Ghost’s comics because she seems to genuinely not be able to wrap her head around this idea. For about a second. This will be important later because holy shit this film has a lot of foreshadowing about Ghost and it’s all going to pay off.

Grandma’s house is woefully free of needles. B improvises with eye drops (because membranes are thin and I don’t know if this is a true or they just bullshitted really well) but she’s out of monkshood. So they call Tyler, who will be joining us at the house for the next length of time.

Tyler showing up makes Ghost aggravated. He says Ghost took care of her grandma for a length of time after the fire (43 days, a number Ghost just has memorized) and is staying at the hospital too. He helps B inject her monkshood, but the reaction is terrible. Since he isn’t allowed to take her to the hospital, he at least sets her up in a bed somewhere. There’s no funny business, just Tyler actually being a good guy and trying to get B and/or Ghost to come back to HTCC. He takes care of B and is gentle to Ghost. But in a…in a really predatory way. Possibly.

And we’re led to believe that he is a predator. B wakes up and finds Ghost, in a tank top and shorts which is a far cry from the turtlenecks, long sleeves, and pants we’ve seen her in the whole film. She cries, has a hand between her legs, and says, “We shouldn’t have brought him here.”

B confronts Tyler, who is nursing a face wound. He starts saying that he doesn’t think Ghost understands the difference between reality and fiction and B, full of rage, ends up sending him outside to ‘help with the generator.’ Tyler is promptly eaten by the he-wolf. Ghost watches from her room but then plays dumb when B goes back up to check on her.

Because, seriously, Ghost is literally the worst.

Next in our game of guest stars is Dr. Alice (Tyler called her before he got ate) who shows up between a deer setting off the bombed scarecrow and the final showdown (which B and Ghost were prepping for, complete with a pit of spikes!). While Alice freaks out at Ghost, going off about how she was doing so well in her treatment and that she needs to stop talking about monsters and come back and seriously she’s really troubled and needs to get this ‘fantasy vs reality’ issue under control.

And this very important bit of info is barely audible. It’s not the focus. Like, you’d think that if we were going to reveal that Ghost was also undergoing treatment at HTCC it would be done in a way that was clearer than dialogue we happen to be able to kind of make out while following B through the house. Though B is finding an important thing: an anti-smoking sign that means Grandma Barbara didn’t light herself on fire from a cigarette.

B puts it together and angrily confronts Ghost about this. About how she must have set her Grandma (who was by all accounts a fine upstanding citizen except for what Ghost said about living with her) on fire and also lied about Tyler. Ghost confesses by way of shouting, “He was going to take you away from me!” Dr. Alice is not amused by this malarkey and tries leaving but the he wolf is still out there so…I guess everyone has to stay inside.

Alice and Ghost hide upstairs and the final battle happens. B waits at the kitchen table and stabs man-wolf, which goes back and forth between her and trying to get at Ghost and Alice. Eventually it attacks B, leaps over the well-constructed spike pit (good use of cellar door) and B bludgeons it to death with a curling stone because this movie was made by Canadians.

Dr. Alice comes down to investigate, shotgun in hand, and Ghost kills her with a hammer because the cat’s out of the evil bag now so she might as well.

B, still alive, crawls up the stairs. She’s super wolfed out now (Ginger mentioned early on that her proximity to the male wolf could possibly speed up the process) and begging for death. B’s finally made her choice about if being dead or a werewolf is worse. This should be a nice moment where B gets to die holding onto her humanity. It should be. It’s not. Ghost shoves B down into the basement and locks her in there. Because she is The Worst.

We then skip ahead to maybe a few days? A week? However long it takes for missing persons in Canada to be reported?

Ghost has set out dinner and hung up a ‘Welcome Home Barbara’ sign and is upstairs doing her comics. She voiceovers more narration, talking about a mistress and her hell hound who does her bidding for her ‘reign of moral terror’ and dispatches ‘her mistress’ enemies….of which there were many.’ The doorbell rings, and Ghost goes to presumably unleash a fully transformed B. The last shot is an artistic representation of Ghost and her new pet.

I guess they had to top the unhappy ending of the first movie somehow.

Thoughts

– Can I say how well they foreshadowed Ghost being terrible? From the really subtle shots of her grandma reaching for the call button to her obsession with horror to even little phrases that evolve and repeat as the film goes on. There are even a few that seem to be directed at B but could actually be Ghost referring to herself. And they also have her absorbing things around her (“I’m very impressionable” is the reason she’s not allowed to consume horror media). Ghost’s narrations and their details change based on new information she gets. For example, she never plays the sexual abuse card until B mentions that this is on the list of terrible things that can happen to people (though Ghost knows Tyler visits patients’ rooms at night, she doesn’t seem to really know what he does). Ghost also is less interested in werewolves until she starts eavesdropping on conversations related to B freaking out about becoming one. Also, just how she reacts to things isn’t normal. Sure, Beth Ann bullied Ghost and threw coins at her head but Ghost’s reaction to Beth Ann’s mauled corpse is to very calmly ‘pay the ferry man’ and put coins over Beth Ann’s eyes. Ghost gets excited about death and destruction or she remains cool about it. Neither of these are appropriate reactions for a pre-teen girl.

– The overarching metaphor for this film isn’t quite as strong as the first one. WhereasGinger Snaps was about puberty and sisters growing apart, this movie seemed like it tried for an addiction and recovery metaphor. It has strong moments, like making B’s self-treatment easy to mistake as drug abuse. More importantly, the metaphor is not simply ‘lycanthropy = addiction.’ It’s trying to say that you can’t just shove help down someone’s throat and expect it to work. You need to listen. Like B says, were she actually dealing with substance abuse, Alice would be a great help. But that’s not the issue.

The flip side of that is people like Ghost, who abuse the help they are offered, are not good. Ghost makes up abuse claims about multiple people but that’s not a real problem. Ghost does have problems, legitimate ones, but she’d rather play the victim and/or hero in her made up stories than admit to her real issues. Which is, you know, killing people.

It all sort of falls apart at the end with the push for a creepy child ending but it’s good. And I think it’s a totally reasonable follow up to the high school metaphor since a defining thing people in their early 20s go through is being told everything they should do with their life rather than getting assistance doing the things they might actually want to do.

– I watched this movie with a friend and she pointed out that the men in these movies, while often suffering consequences and getting fucked up by werewolves, are presented as grey area douchebags. In the first movie we had the pot dealer who slept with high school virgins and then dumped them but who also was a major help to B and came up with the monkshood cure. In this film we have Tyler, who is a jerk and coerces women to have sex with him but who tries to help B out and who didn’t rape Ghost (though he’s still a sexual predator because of how he treats patients and I’m not sorry he died). The women are often the same way. Dr. Alice is strict with her patients but she will stick her neck out to help them. Beth Ann is presented as a total bitch but her death is still framed as horrible and undeserved. You aren’t supposed to take joy in it like Ghost does.

– WHO WAS THE HE-WOLF? I thought it was the pot dealer from the first film but Ginger killed him before he could turn. And the only other guy we saw contract lycanthropy in that film got cured. So who is this wolf? Where did it come from? How did it find B? Do people really transform faster if they are near another werewolf? I NEED ANSWERS ABOUT THIS.

– I also need answers about who is ringing the doorbell at the end. Are they really bringing Barbara home? Or is that the police coming to investigate the missing people? I can’t really see Ghost controlling B for very long, even if one of B’s main characteristics is attaching herself to other women. (Seriously, the closer she gets to and more protective she becomes of Ghost, the less Ginger shows up.)

– There’s a weird hallucination scene where the group session therapist tells all the girls to masturbate (they all do and it’s about a minute of ladies writhing about and moaning in sweat pants) and when B’s about to climax her hand turns into a claw. There’s that and all the references to wanting sex leading to wanting to murder people. I’m not sure what the writers of this film were trying to say about female sexuality, but it doesn’t seem like they were heading in a very good direction? B never does have sex, BTW. Even when she’s consenting to Tyler she sends him away because, well, she’ll kill him. And the he-wolf never succeeds in mating with her. I feel like this movie talks about sexuality a lot because sexuality was a key part of the first film. But instead of growing off of that and forming new ideas it just sort of kept repeating the word sex over and over again.

– Someone seriously killed a werewolf with a curling stone. I love you, Canada. I love you so much. And if that doesn’t make you want to watch this film, I don’t know if I can be your friend.

Ten Years Ago: Peter Pan

5 Jan

Kelly Buettner reminds us of what its like to be on the crux of childhood and adulthood, and why Peter Pan and his quest to never grow up is important to see at 14 . . . and at 24.

Ten years ago, I had just turned 14. This was the year that I had just started high school, I was hanging out with a new group of friends, and let’s just say that I was not exactly excited to be a “teenager.”

And then there was this movie.

I had always been the kid that liked going through classic child entertainment, especially animated. While everyone else was learning about the Ninja Turtles and the Pokemons, I was rewatching classic Donald Duck cartoons for the millionth time and knew Fantasiabackwards and forwards. So while other kids of my generation might not have been familiar with the 1953 animated film, I was intimately so, and was a little bit skeptical of what this film would bring. I distinctly remember the ads being absolutely everywhere and the Coldplay song the film’s trailer used, “Clocks,” was being played every hour, on the hour, as well as a few smatterings in between.

And then, there was this movie.

You know in the Warner Brothers Little Red Riding Hood cartoon, where red is actually a cabaret singer and the wolf is a creepy womanizer? You know that sound when his tongue would roll out of his mouth and he would slap the table? There would be a boing, an aOOOOGah, and other such general noises to inform us that, yes, this wolf does in fact want a piece of this woman’s cherry pie?

Yeah, that happened to me. It’s like there was some kind of creepy and probably very inappropriate hormone that was being secreted through the vents of my theater. Every person has a moment or two of sexual awakening, and this was it for me. It was like a boiling bucket of water was dumped on my head, I felt hot and cold at the same time, and I physically could not speak. Walking out of that theater held the same experience for me as walking through a world of whimsy that I had actually not really felt in my childhood.

You see, in terms of childhoods, while mine wasn’t by any stretch of the imagination the worst, it truly was not the best. Up until age eight, everything was actually ok, pretty much normal in terms of growing up, but then by January of the following year, both of my grandfathers, one grandmother, and my father were all dead. The fluffy blanket of an unbroken home was ripped unceremoniously from my clenched fists. For the next ten years of my life, it was like every interaction was tempered with the absolute knowledge that everyone I have ever known or ever loved was going to die someday.

So, kind of tough to dream about daisies and starlight after something like that.

And then, by god, there was this movie.

This movie was so immersive, so colorful, and most of all, so sure of itself in its wonder and majesty that I was absolutely floored, completely taken in by the unabashed joy and sweetness that held this movie aloft. Kids movies of today are so awash in an acid bath of irony and fourth wall-breaking that this movie could never have been made in the current climate. This movie was made just a couple of years after the 9/11 attacks, and there just hadn’t been a time of collective suffering like that in a very long time. There, on all of our televisions was the absolute, unmitigated proof that we are fallible, and not only that, we are mortal. We needed Peter Pan to remind us that wonder and childishness were not necessarily things to be gotten rid of or ignored, but things to be celebrated and reveled in.

And so, by god, there was this movie.

The movie itself is truly a testament to the marvel and wonder of modern filmmaking. The cinematography alone is both childlike in nature, and yet older then time itself with its brilliant use of color. There is this sense that everything in the world is tied in with Peter’s emotions. (In Neverland, it quite literally is, but in the real world it is more emphasized in the usage of screen tint.) The flying-to-Neverland scene is absolutely breathtaking in the film, and it is an absolute travesty that it was not used in any kind of immersive 3D ride deal, although Universal was so swamped by Shrek (ba-doom-tish) that there’s no way something this beautiful and subtle would have warranted more than a passing nod.

The story, you know. Peter flies into Wendy, John, and Michael’s room late at night and tells of this place called Neverland. They fly there, have adventures, defeat Hook, and then go home. The difference in this film is in its framing. In previous movies, the emphasis was always more on Peter. Wendy and her brothers were much more representative of the audience and how we would feel being thrust into such a strange and different world. In this one, however, the frame is set quite squarely on Wendy, even though so much is affected by Peter. There’s more story built at home, of the expectations placed on men and women in Victorian and Edwardian society. This gives the incentive for the children to leave their home and join Peter, or at least for Wendy, the gang leader, to persuade her brothers to join her.

All throughout the film, there is much more of an emphasis on emotions and on relationships than really on action. Every action scene is preceded and followed by some kind of exploration of emotion. *Spoilers* At the climax of the film, a kiss is ultimately what saves the day. There really is a lot of push towards romance, and my 14-year-old self (as well as, let’s be honest, my 24-year-old self) can most definitely get on board with that. This is the girliest Peter Pan movie ever made, and I absolutely went ga ga over it. I mean, I literally would not close my window for days afterwards just in case Peter wanted to come on through and take me away.

This movie, like every movie, is not without its faults. There is the strange way that the scriptwriter seemed to place women on a pedestal, at the same time as he highlighted their worst attributes (worst attributes being performed by Tinkerbell, played by French actress Ludivine Sagnier to perfection). Girls in this story are constantly being reminded of their worth and their power, while “girly” is used as a negative and an insult. Problematic also is the usage of Tiger Lily. I have a feeling that the filmmaker didn’t really know what to do with Tiger Lily in this movie, and so she kind of comes and goes with no real impact on the film. Her feminine wiles are used to help John become stronger to help them all escape Hook’s clutches, but other than that she was pretty useless. If I were really going to use Native Americans in this film (which, thank god, at least the girl playing Tiger Lily was) then I think I would have involved her more in the Lost Boys storyline, or at least found more of a usage for her tribe. I am also thanking god that they went nowhere near the 1953 version’s usage of Native Americans (let’s just say that Disney has more than just Song of the South to be ashamed of).

But truly, the thing that is most worrisome about Peter Pan is the stalking aspect. In this post-Twilight world, we can all pretty much agree that the absolute creepiest thing that any boy can do when he really likes a girl is to watch her sleep. And damned if that isn’t the exact first thing that Peter does. There is so much creepy stalker to the beginning of his appearance that you really don’t know if you’re going to like him or not. I mean, he’s not just watching her from the window, he is hovering over her. Literally. But, to the movie’s credit, I really don’t know how you could have done Peter Pan without the scene in which he loses his shadow, and I mean, come on. It’s a teensy tiny little eeeeny weeeeensie bit hot.

As I sometimes say in my reviews, films are an integral part of my life. Every important milestone I have passed has been, in some small way, related to movies. They have saved me (as well as my sanity) more times than I can possibly count. They help me to frame the worst and best moments with the right music, the right words, the right feelings. Peter Pansaved me in more ways then I care to think about at a time in which I was going through more darkness and more joy then I had ever experienced before. The night I came home from that film, I searched the sky, thinking happy thoughts and counting the stars. Third star on the left, and straight on ‘til morning.

And then, thank god, there was this movie.

Notes

One of the best lines of the film: “Wit is very fashionable at the moment.”

This really is a movie that seemed to be geared toward girls. Most of the major male roles are played by Hottie McHottersons.

This movie: Pink. So much goddamn pink.

Ten Years Ago: House of Sand and Fog

31 Dec

Our New Year’s Gift to You: Bri LaFond‘s hilarious live blog of her experience re-watching the extremely melodramatic House of Sand and Fog.

House of Sand and Fog (2003)

I’ve been avoiding re-watching this movie for nearly ten years.

I wasn’t avoiding the movie because I thought it was bad or anything; I’ve been avoiding 2003’s House of Sand and Fog primarily because it made me cry like a freaking baby when I first saw it in theaters.

I had just moved to Santa Barbara to attend college, and I was feeling a little awkward since I was a mid-year transfer and everyone had already had a quarter’s worth of school to get to know one another. I was sitting in one of my first classes—a huge lecture course on Dante’sInferno—when this guy randomly turned to me and introduced himself. JR was a mid-year transfer, too, but instead of wallowing in awkwardness like myself, he was making up for lost time. We decided to go see a movie together and, for one reason or another, we pickedHouse of Sand and Fog.

Big mistake.

I can count on one hand the number of movies that have made me downright sob in the theater—most recently Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) and most vehementlyChildren of Men (2006) (a movie I’m still avoiding)—and here I was, watching a movie with someone I’d just met and bawling my eyes out.

Luckily, JR is a bit of a crier, too.

JR ended up being one of my closest friends in college, and it all begin with a trial by fire (crafted by Dante) quickly followed by water torture (the two of us sobbing in a mostly empty theater together).

Re-watching House of Sand and Fog, I must admit that I’m a little embarrassed by 20-year-old me’s reaction. In my nearly 30-year-old opinion, this is not a good movie. This is a trite melodrama, and though there is some fine acting by Ben Kingsley, Jennifer Connelly, and Shohreh Aghdashloo, if you think about the plot for one minute, the entire thing falls apart. This is the story of a recovering alcoholic (Connelly) who loses her house due to an error on the part of the county. A hard-working Iranian immigrant (Kingsley) uses all of his savings to buy the house from the county as an investment property. The family comes into conflict with the woman trying to reclaim her house with disastrous results.

Even if one considers this less of a plot-driven story and more of a character study, there’s not enough consistency in the characterization for it to be effective on that level. Characters seem to act in order to make the plot move forward as opposed to their actions arising naturally. For example, there’s a second act suicide attempt by Connelly’s character that comes out of nowhere other than the need to get her back into proximity with Kingsley’s character.

I can’t say I’d recommend this movie to anyone, though it’s not terrible per se. It’s just not very good. Since this re-view turned into such a revision of the original film for me, I’m curious to see how I’ll react to some of those other flicks that made me weep like a child… But I’m not touching those for at least another two (Children of Men) to ten (12 Years a Slave) years.

Free-Floating Thoughts

[Editor’s note: The Patented Bri Lafond Live Microblog of Awesome]

-We open with the aftermath: Connelly stands in the rain smoking a cigarette and looking down at flashing police lights. “Is this your house?” an officer asks. This is the central question of the movie… Symbolism!

-We cut to Nadi (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and some children laughing and dancing on the beach as Behrani (Ben Kingsley) directs workers to cut down the trees in front of his home: “To reach infinity with our eyes.” This turns into the speech Behrani gives at his daughter’s wedding. (Aside: the husband is ROUGH looking.)

-This whole movie is kind of weird to think about in a post-Shahs of Sunset world since everyone accuses the Iranian Behranis to be money-grubbing social climbers. They totes aren’t, by the by… the Shahs of Sunset on the other hand…

-Some people in the wedding party argue about where Behrani works. How odd and completely out of nowhere…. Except then we cut to him working as a construction worker on the side of a road in San Francisco. Also, conveniently, every possible minority is represented in the back of the construction truck: an Asian man eating something with chopsticks, a Latino man eating a burrito. This is not stereotypical AT ALL.

-Cut to recovering alcoholic in the midst of deep depression, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). It’s hard to buy Jennifer Connelly as a recovering alcoholic. She’s just too… put together. I mean, someone so caught up in the depths of depression that they can barely get out of bed would not have such pristine eyebrows.

-Suddenly everyone busts in to Kathy’s house to put up eviction notices! Immediately the sheriff (Ron Eldard) starts making eyes at Connelly. Evictions are the best place to pick up chicks, man.

-Also immediately the sheriff is doing her favors! “Some movers owe me a favor… Go down to Safeway and get me some boxes: let’s help this lady move.”

-Meanwhile: a doorman gives Behrani sass for coming into his establishment looking all working class. Turns out, he cleans up in a public bathroom every day before going home in order to hide his real job from his family.

-Cut to Behrani’s second job as an overnight gas station clerk. He keeps careful handwritten financial records… but what is he saving up for? Could it be… a tasteful seaside bungalow that has recently been put on the auction block by the city?

-”Today God has kissed our eyes… I today have purchased us another bungalow.” And the wife’s pissed? Because she “didn’t come to America to live like an Arab”? Umm… What? I’m pretty sure that’s racist.

-Some shit gets smashed and things are settled: These folks are moving!

-Kathy’s legal aid lawyer (Frances Fisher) informs Kathy of the facts: She was evicted over $500 in unpaid “business taxes” despite the fact that she never owned a business… But the county has already sold the house, making things complicated… But Kathy needs it back before her aunt visits so she doesn’t look bad in front of her family… Because that’s clearly priority number one.

-And now Sheriff Stalkermuch shows up at Kathy’s storage unit in the middle of the night while Kathy is there looking at family photos. That’s… odd. And convenient. How closely is he watching her that he knew she’d be at the storage unit?

-And Sheriff Creeper has a wife and kids, too? Umm…

-Okay: I’ll buy that a dude sees movie star Jennifer Connelly and starts to obsess over her… But I don’t buy that a dude would obsess over Kathy the depressed recovering alcoholic who answers the door in a T-shirt and robe.

-And now Kathy gets kicked out of her motel for lack of funds. Here’s the thing: We’ve established that Kathy has a mother who is concerned about her, an aunt who is coming to check on her, and a brother who co-owns the house. On top of that, she has a lawyer (albeit legal aid) who knows how bad the county fucked up. This is not a woman without resources, so it seems downright ridiculous that Kathy ends up sleeping in her car and, frankly, it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for her. The situation is fucked up, yes, but Kathy makes it worse for herself and everyone involved. If she just waited for the lawyers to take care of things, she’d get her house back plus a settlement, most likely.

-Kathy spends the night in her car in front of her old house, then goes and screams at some dudes trying to build a terrace on the house. She ends up stepping on some nails barefoot, then has to be saved by Nadi and her son, Esmail.

-Kathy goes to see her lawyer and tries to start shit about the construction. The lawyer confirms that Kathy shouldn’t be going over to the house and making more trouble for everyone. Kathy drops the “Middle Eastern” card to the lawyer. Here we go…

-The lawyer effs things up further, though, by sending a letter directly to Behrani by courier. Umm… He has done nothing wrong. It’s the county that has fucked up, so why are you bothering to send a letter to Behrani?

-And the lawyer is getting all huffy with Behrani about how he shouldn’t be trying to cut a profit on the house. Again: HE HAS DONE NOTHING WRONG. The obvious solution here is for these folks to get together and sue every-freaking-body. This is a payday, yo.

-Kathy decides to hit up Sheriff Inappropriate for…?

-Why did Kathy’s husband leave her? Because he didn’t want kids. This gets Sheriff Spermdonor all extra hot and bothered.

-Then this fool takes Kathy out to a fancy dinner and drinks in front of her the whole time… And immediately confesses that he planted heroin on a dude who beat up his wife. This makes him a good guy? I guess?

-Aaaaaaand now she’s drinking wine. Kathy, girl… I just can’t with this… Also: the wine causes her to immediately start playing footsie with the dude under the table. Because that’s how that works.

-Holy crap! Is that the dude from Mathnet as the process server guy?! It totes is! Joe Howard!

-Now Sheriff Modelhusbandandfather talks about how he “married his best friend” and is only with her “for the kids.” What a nice guy. He totally deserves to bang Kathy in a seedy motel intercut with scenes of Behrani banging his wife.

-”Things are finally in motion. I’m finally going to get it over with.” Dude has decided to throw away his marriage—and possibly career—over one night with Kathy. Super classy.

-This is such bullshit: the lawyer says everything is Behrani’s fault and because he won’t play ball.

-And now Kathy’s all: “You stole this house from me, you son of a bitch! This is a stolen house!” He leads her to her car by her arm and ends up leaving a small bruise on her arm.

-Sheriff DeadbeatDad moves into the motel with Kathy. Instead of dealing with his own shit, he immediately obsesses over Kathy’s bruise.

-Sheriff Professionalism decides to go hassle Behrani and his family since they’re “foreigners” who “don’t know their way around.”

-”The only one who wants trouble around here is you. I have friends in immigration.” Sheriff Racism is totes over-doing this harassment thing.

-Sheriff Intimidation’s visit leads to a family fight amongst the Behranis. Behrani ends up pimp-slapping Nadi. Frankly, I feel like the reactions among the Behranis aren’t realistically played. They go from zero to eleven for no real reason beyond maybe trying to make them look somewhat equally at fault in the conflict. But I still don’t buy it: This is Kathy’s shit show with Sheriff Boner working as a multiplying factor.

-Sheriff ClassAct’s wife shows up with the kids to stage a parking lot drama fest. She’s a class act, too.

-And Behrani is able to identify Sheriff Douchecanoe, so guess who’s in trouble?

-While Sheriff Jerkcheese is off getting in trouble, Kathy has the goddamn nerve to show up at the house to feed Nadi her sob story. I give zero fucks when Behrani tosses her ass in her car.

-Kathy finally calls her brother for help, but instead of, you know, telling him what’s up, she pitches a shit fit and runs off to buy liquor, gas, and matches. When she discovers that Sheriff Employee-of-the-Year has left his gun in her trunk, however, she gets a new shitty idea.

-Bitch straight up tries to blow her head off in the driveway at the house! *insert Ron Burgundy “Well, that escalated quickly” gif here* But it’s okay: Sheriff Peabrain at least managed to leave the gun unloaded.

-So Behrani goes and carries this broad into HIS HOUSE and comforts her. Straight ridonk. And Nadi runs this bitch a warm bath and serves her tea! That shit cray.

-AND AFTER ALL THAT, homegirl steals pills from the medicine cabinet to try and OD in the bathtub. This chick, man…

-And now Sheriff Wherethehellhaveyoubeen shows up at the house to start some more shit. Straight up BREAKS IN and trains a loaded gun on people. And won’t believe anything they say. What the hell does he think happened? This dude is not among the best and brightest, that’s for sure.

-Aaaaaand hostage situation. Sheriff Genius locks the Behranis in the bathroom and tells them to rest since they’re selling the house back to the county in the morning. I would once again like to point out that this is all goddamn Kathy’s fault. They could all be rolling in dough if they’d just kicked back and sued the county.

-I was definitely not this frustrated with the movie the first time I watched it, but goddamn, I can hardly stand this mess.

-So Behrani decides to negotiate and with a plan that makes, like, zero sense. They agree to go to the county government and sign the house back to Kathy, then give her the money he gets back from the county, then she’ll sign the house back over to him. -Esmail grabs the gun from Sheriff Dumbass when he stops to talk shit, so, of course, poor Esmail gets shot and Behrani gets tossed in the back of a squad car.

-The final twenty minutes of the movie are what tore me up the first time I watched this movie. Essentially, Behrani’s life and family have been destroyed. After finally being released by the police, Behrani runs to the hospital and prays to Allah for the life of his son… To no avail. Even this time around, I admit, I got a little teary-eyed during these scenes. Despite the fact that the movie itself makes no sense, Kingsley is a fine enough actor to make these scenes effective.

-Sheriff Incarcerated uses his one phone call to listen to a now-ironic family voicemail greeting. So glad he’s out of the movie. Worst. Character. EVER.

-This is the shit that REALLY did me in: Behrani serves Nadi overdose tea so that she never has to learn about her son’s death (though the look in her eyes suggests that she suspects). Instead of drinking some himself, Behrani puts on his old military uniform, wraps a plastic dry cleaning bag around his head, and duct tapes it into place. Uncle Sam, goddamn: talk about waterworks.

-And goddamn Kathy… Turning in circles on the beach, chilling with the seagulls. (There’s this whole throughline of bird symbolism in the movie: most prevalently an Iranian proverb about a wounded bird getting trapped in the house being an angel that has come to test the inhabitants’ faith and kindness.)

-Kingsley makes suffocating to death look very classy and almost painless, I’ll give him that.

-And this ending… Man, oh man, this ending. It pissed me off then and it pisses me off now: Kathy comes home to find the Behranis dead in bed together. After attempting CPR on Behrani for, like, five seconds, she calls in the cops. We come back to the beginning of the movie and the cop asks: “Is this your house?” AND THIS BITCH REPLIES: “No, it’s not my house.” I mean, on some level, I get it: This house was really the Behranis in that they lived and died here, but the ENTIRE PROCEEDING TWO HOURS is about Kathy ruining these people’s lives to get this house back. To say, flippantly, with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, that the house isn’t hers feels like the Behranis died for nothing.

Ten Years Ago: Cold Mountain

27 Dec

Jessica Campbell revisits the 2003 Civil War odyssey Cold Mountain and isolates the beauty of the film’s small moments. 

Ah, 2003. The Weinsteins still ran Miramax (which, apparently, they’ll be doing again soon). Writer/director Anthony Minghella was still alive. Nicole Kidman, recently post-divorce, was throwing it all into her movies (as I discussed in my review of The Hours this time last year). Jude Law was not yet known as “the handsome actor who cheated with the nanny” and Renée Zellweger actually had, you know, movie roles. And so aroseCold Mountain.

Minghella, before his untimely death in 2008, had produced Iris (2001) and directed The English Patient (1996) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) with Miramax; after the Weinsteins left the company they founded, he worked with them on Breaking and Entering(2006), Michael Clayton (2007), The Reader (2008), and Nine (2009). He worked with Kidman again as a producer of The Interpreter (2005). Like Cold Mountain, many of these films involved scores by Gabriel Yared and cinematography by John Seale.

All this is simply to say that Cold Mountain, a story of the Civil War South, did not arrive in theatres out of thin air, and I look back on it as an installment in a larger cinematic phenomenon. One, I might add, that was just my cup of tea at the time. These movies were my favorite combination: aesthetically beautiful and extremely serious in subject matter. I felt intuitively then (and believe more firmly now) that you don’t have to be Brechtian or Kafkaesque to convey despair and alienation; there is something particularly acute in the painful contradiction between surface beauty and inner turmoil (see: Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven [http://bit.ly/1a7vE0Y]. Also Mad Men. Also Casablanca. And so forth.). Some find this approach overwrought. Me, I don’t mind a sweeping score. Because, after all, that’s how it feels to you when you’re the one experiencing said inner turmoil. Which, it must be admitted, I was when I saw Cold Mountain. I spent the better part of December 2003 reading Charles Frazier’s novel of the same title and watching my father deteriorate under a brain tumor, and the following month I saw the movie exactly one week before it killed him. So I was doing a lot of crying anyway. This was the year I decided once and for all to devote myself to obsessing about books and movies, on the theory that they, unlike people, could be depended on not to leave me. I was in a tough place. But although Cold Mountain has never held for me in subsequent viewings (of which there have been a small handful over the years) the power it held then, I still think it deserved the accolades it got. There is a lot to this movie, and ten years later, the good still outweighs the bad.

The bad, a sampling:

–Nicole Kidman’s face is never dirty, despite the fact that she’s working a farm and/or starving for much of the movie. C’mon, folks. The woman is a knockout; a little realistic mud will not substantially compromise that.

–The fact that one of the evil characters – perhaps the most evil character – is albino. Do we have to? I get that, unfortunately, many a moviegoer will get an extra whiff of “sinister” from the albino features, but (a) that’s because movies do this, and (b) for my money, any dude who gleefully jumps up and down on a board in order to crush an elderly woman’s hands is bad news regardless of his skin tone; the added physical trait is overkill anyway.

–The brightening up of the ending. The movie is more or less true to the novel, with the usual cuts and Hollywood simplifications. It follows the book in bringing the main action to its tragic conclusion and then providing a short epilogue to show that, nine years later, the surviving protagonists are still living together and doing reasonably all right in the aftermath of the war. But whereas the novel ends on a “Life goes on. Tomorrow is another day” note, well, the last word in the film is “sun.” This is a dark damn movie. No.

Speaking of dark, though, I like the epilogue visually in that its warm, bright colors make me realize how cool and dreary the colors are throughout most of the movie. The movie is visually stunning all the way through; Inman walks through beautiful country to get to equally beautiful Cold Mountain, and people with more technical filmmaking expertise than I have do a lot of raving about the opening battle scene. We get some nice period costumes before war and economic downturn take over. The score has always tugged at me; it’s lovely without getting too lush, and Ada’s main piano theme for years had the power to make me cry.

When I first saw Cold Mountain, it struck me, not surprisingly, as a movie about loss. Which it is, certainly. Loss of loved ones, family, subsistence, property, stability, beauty, comfort, dignity, the list goes on. It’s not entirely unlike Gone With the Wind in that it foregrounds the hardships of Southerners on the home front in the Civil War; heroine Ada Monroe (Kidman) is a rather less egotistical, more subdued version of a Scarlett O’Hara southern belle who suddenly finds herself barely able to survive. Cold Mountain really doesn’t deal with slavery at all (we see small farms, not plantations; nobody in the town of Cold Mountain seems to be that wealthy), and I wouldn’t quarrel with a viewer who objects to that, although for me it works as a story about people who get swept up in bigger conflicts and find themselves losing everything without being entirely sure what they’re losing it for.

At any rate, now it strikes me more as a movie about journeys. Place is a key concern; the title is a place, after all, and half the plot consists of hero Inman (Jude Law) struggling, Odysseus-like, to make his way home from the war. Yes, he wants to be reunited with Ada, but he also speaks explicitly about missing the hills and farms of Cold Mountain (after all, he has known them all his life; unlike Ada, whom he barely knows at all – but more on that later). Like many a journey narrative, Inman’s is a metaphor for life, of course. He has a destination in mind, encounters various problems and people (sometimes they are the same) along the way, and ultimately dies. He’s under the threat of death the whole time, since he has decided to cut out of the war before it’s come to an end. Whereas his journey is to keep moving, Ada’s is to keep standing. Kidman’s Ada is a lot less flashy than Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett, but she still displays quite a transformation from complacent and refined to helpless to capable. At the very beginning of the movie, before the war breaks out, she’s the accomplished, fairly well-to-do daughter of a preacher (Donald Sutherland) just moving in to a new church at Cold Mountain. Pretty soon, though, the war has broken out, her father has suddenly died, and all the men have gone off to fight, except for a handful of ne’er-do-wells (led by Ray Winstone and the evil albino) who have taken to calling themselves the Home Guard but mostly bully and threaten people. Ada is on the verge of starving to death when her kindly neighbor Sally (Kathy Baker) directs her way a young woman named Ruby (Renée Zellweger). It’s about 50 minutes into the movie when Zellweger arrives, and she comes as a breath of fresh air. Everything picks up. She’s capable, proactive, no-nonsense, and funny as hell. Zellweger, incidentally, took home the one Oscar the apparently Weinstein-weary Academy voters were willing to give the film; to say she deserved it is an understatement. Ruby has had her fair share of experience with hardship and mistreatment long before the war, having been neglected and beaten as a child by her father, Stobrod (Brendan Gleeson, who ultimately resurfaces and is to some extent redeemed). Ruby won’t take excuses from anyone. She forces (and teaches) Ada to do real farmwork. Of the war, she says, “Every piece of this is man’s bullshit. They call this war a cloud over the land. But they made the weather and then they stand in the rain and say ‘Shit, it’s raining!’” It’s appropriate to Ruby, and it’s a good reminder in a movie that might otherwise feel bogged down by a sense of fate. Particularly because of a touch that I don’t think came from Frazier’s novel (I don’t remember it being in the novel and didn’t see it on a cursory page-through; apologies if I’m wrong, and please correct me): Sally persuades Ada to participate in a folk tradition by gazing into her well, backwards, via a hand mirror. What she sees there is supposed to be prophetic. Urbane Ada is of course a skeptic, but since Sally has been kind to her, she humors her. She is extremely shaken to see an image that looks for all the world like Inman, surrounded by a flock of crows, walking toward her and falling. Over the course of the movie, as the prospect of Ada and Inman’s happiness rises and falls, Ada interprets this vision differently. When he returns to Cold Mountain and they are briefly reunited, she happily concludes that she must have misinterpreted; really, she had seen him walking back to her. But hold your horses, Ada – later the same day, she can only watch in horror as Inman, shot by the albino, does, after all, walk toward her with a flock of crows and fall down into the snow. The well didn’t lie, and Ada’s first interpretation turned out to be right. The movie makes no particular attempt to account for the accuracy of the prophecy; instead, the viewer is left to feel that on some level they were star-crossed lovers after all.

So it feels like the journey’s bad end is preordained. After all, much of what happens along the way is bad. The Home Guard men get more and more dangerous, and Inman lurches from one crisis to another. But I believe now that the key to the movie comes in a very early scene, before Inman has fully made up his mind to leave the war hospital he’s been in since the battle at Vicksburg and make a run for home. He chats with a blind peanut vendor who insists that no, he wouldn’t want to have his sight back for just ten minutes because “having a thing and then the loss” is too painful – at which point Inman replies, “Then we don’t agree. There’s not much I wouldn’t give for ten minutes of someplace.” Or, the astute interlocutor adds, “someone.” This conversation prefigures exactly what happens over the course of the movie, and it suggests that Inman is entirely willing to make the wager he makes. He knows perfectly well that he will be in trouble as a deserter even on the off chance he makes it back to Cold Mountain and Ada. But unlike the peanut vendor, who would rather not risk a move that might make him feel his loss even more keenly, Inman figures that taking the chance of getting even the smallest taste of what he wants is worth the risk of pain or failure.

The small and ephemeral. This brings me to the love story, which I experience entirely differently now than I did at sixteen (shockingly). Ten years ago, never having been in love or really had any romantic relationship to speak of, (a) I was a believer in Love Conquers All, but/and (b) I was annoyed by fictional relationships that did not seem to be based on anything. Item (a) I’ve regretfully abandoned altogether, and I’ve eased up a bit on item (b), having become aware of the Instant Irrational Attraction and Disproportionate Behavior Arising Therefrom. Cold Mountain appealed to me ten years ago as an epic near-instance of item (a), although I was a little bothered by the fact that it seemed to stem from an item (b)-esque scenario. But now I see it in the opposite way. It’s not really an epic romance at all. On the contrary, it’s a self-aware instance of item (b). When Inman goes off to war, Ada and Inman have exchanged very few words, a couple of pictures, a book, and one kiss. Their relationship is based on almost nothing. But they talk about the fact that it’s based on nothing, unlike most movie romancers. When they finally reunite near the end, Ada demurs when Inman credits her with having kept him from losing hope. “We barely knew each other. A few moments.” But Inman has learned a lot about the value of moments. “They’re like a bag of tiny diamonds glittering in a black heart. Don’t matter if they’re real or things I made up.” And really, it doesn’t matter at all. When you’re floundering, you have to cling to something. It doesn’t have to be an epic, full-fledged, well-rounded, well-adjusted romantic relationship (thank goodness). It was a little thing, but that was a hell of a lot better than nothing. Similarly, Inman had reflected earlier (while under the roof of delightful zen goat woman Eileen Atkins) on the arbitrary nature of place names, noting that the coves and ridges near Cold Mountain had Native American names long before the ones he knew. “How can a name not even the real name break your heart? It’s her, she’s the place I’m heading. And I hardly know her. So how can a person who’s maybe not even a real person…” (here he drifts off to sleep). Well, even though it isn’t the “real” name, it does still break his heart to read about Cold Mountain. And even though he hardly knows Ada, it does get him through the war to think of her as his goal, just as it gets her through the war to hope that he is coming back. Yes, it’s all arbitrary and small and not enough. But that doesn’t mean it’s nothing, or that we’re necessarily better off like the peanut vendor, turning down a short-lived joy because it is short-lived. (I say this as someone who has always tended toward the peanut vendor’s point of view.)

Inman’s half of the story, in particular, amounts to the stringing together of moments. The vignettes are positively star-studded (Natalie Portman, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Eileen Atkins, Jena Malone, Giovanni Ribisi, and Cillian Murphy cycle in and out) and keep the journey from feeling monotonous (like, say, the Frodo and Sam sections of The Two Towersand The Return of the King, if you’re a less rabid Lord of the Rings fan than I). But the encounter that was and is for me the most striking is the one with Sara (Portman). Roger Ebert, in an uncharacteristically dense comment I’ve always remembered, wrote of this scene, “Nothing takes the suspense out of Boy Meets Girl like your knowledge that Boy Has Already Met Star” (I checked this online to make sure I had the wording right; you can see the full review here). Apparently Ebert thought this scene was about potential romance. But wow, it’s not. Quick refresher: Inman knocks on Sara’s door for charity on a rainy night; a widow alone with a feverish baby, she tentatively lets him in, gives him some food and some clothes of her late husband’s, and points him to the corn crib as a bed for the night. Before long, she gets up and asks him to come in and sleep next to her in bed without doing anything else. He agrees, and so they lie down together, he holding her and looking serious while she cries. The next morning, just as Inman leaves, a small group of Union soldiers bursts into Sara’s home all set to rape her, probably kill the baby, and take the last of her farm animals (and, thereby, the last of her sustenance). But Inman comes back, and together he and Sara manage to trick and kill the two most aggressive soldiers. The third and youngest (Cillian Murphy), seems more hungry than vicious and hesitates throughout the whole operation; Inman, having seen this, lets him go. But before he gets far, Sara appears in the doorway with a rifle and shoots him dead.

For me, this scene holds up best out of everything in the movie, I think because it develops slowly, unexpectedly, and with a healthy dose of moral ambiguity. The night is an oasis for both Inman and Sara – both of them in their separate ways have spent months barely a step ahead of starvation, violent death, duplicity, loss of loved ones, and, in Sara’s case, rape. This encounter could have gone sideways for either of them; it’s no surprise to see them both edging very cautiously around each other, manifestly on the alert up to and, really, including the final rapprochement. Ebert must have been around Hollywood too long, thinking Beautiful Male Star + Beautiful Female Star had to mean romance. Sex is present in this scene as a threat, not as a goal. Sara is obviously concerned about rape from the beginning, and even Inman had had sex used as a weapon against him in the vignette in which he was lured into captivity and then turned over to the authorities by Giovanni Ribisi and his harem. Even setting aside the fact that Inman is preoccupied with Ada and Sara with her dead husband, the encounter between them is very broadly about trust – about keeping alive the possibility that people can actually coexist and even comfort each other in such a violent and uncertain world.

Meanwhile, I had actually forgotten that Sara ends up shooting the more-decent Yankee soldier the following morning. Inman mostly looks tired when he sees what she has done. The scene ends without our seeing them talk about what happened. How’s a viewer to feel? Glad that Inman and Sara both get out of the confrontation unscathed, certainly, though the feverish baby probably isn’t long for this world after a prolonged stint on the cold ground. Glad that the two soldiers who seemed to enjoy the raping and pillaging are punished. But what about the Cillian Murphy soldier? You really can’t blame Sara for shooting him, since she doesn’t see the moments we do of him protesting and trying to cover up the baby. Her number one concern is ensuring her son’s safety, and that’s what she does . Inman was going to let the soldier go, presumably because he’s seen too much killing already and has contended with a considerable amount of gnawing hunger himself lately. Murphy is good in this very small role; you can imagine a different movie with him as a protagonist. Not a perfect protagonist, but just as worthy as anyone in Cold Mountain. This scene is the most striking example of the many instances in the movie in which you aren’t quite sure whom you’re rooting for and may change your mind along the way. Everything is uncertainty and flux. In one strange moment in the scene, the viewer is actually tricked along with one of the Union soldiers into thinking the other one is in the act of raping Sara, only to learn with him that she’s fake-crying, the raping soldier is already just a dead body, and Inman is around the corner waiting to kill the soldier whose perspective we’re sharing. This doesn’t change the fact that you definitely root for Inman and Sara in this scene, but it amplifies the sense of ambiguity.

Similar muddlings happen in Ada’s story. I mentioned earlier that Ruby’s father, Stobrod, is arguably redeemed (and, regardless, accepted into the family fold as we see it in the nine-years-later epilogue). Teague, the leader of the evil Home Guard (and Evil Albino’s boss), shows some humanity by responding to music and having a hard time executing Stobrod’s friend and fellow musician. I don’t think the movie wants us to reconsider Teague altogether, but it certainly gains in realism by avoiding portraying these men as unmitigated cookie-cutter villains. Then, of course, we have Ada’s series of opposing interpretations of the vision she sees in Sally’s well. I said I thought this movie ended up being about journeys: the longer you’re on a journey, the more twists and turns you’re bound to run into. Inman might as well be three different people over the course of this movie: the boy who leaves Cold Mountain, the man who leaves the war to go home to his love, and the man who has passed through a lifetime’s worth of strange encounters but can’t quite seem to make it to the end of the road. I like Jude Law very much in this role because he doesn’t overplay any of these iterations.

Uncertainty, chaos, human error, and violence. That’s what we get the most of in Cold Mountain. An epic love story doesn’t really sit well with that. (Or maybe it can only do so if it has a really epic score – I’m looking at you, Maurice Jarre circa Doctor Zhivago). If you don’t want to like Cold Mountain, you could see it as a failed attempt to present an epic love story in the throes of chaos. I do want to like this movie, for all the nostalgic reasons provided above. And I do. Is it a little too pretty? Maybe. But it’s more aware of its own possible limitations than I realized the first time around. And I’ll be damned if I’ll ever believe beauty and soul-shattering pain and chaos can’t exist side-by-side. Outside of real life, I’ve rarely seen them juxtaposed as strikingly as they are here.

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