humanity

What’s the Point?…Or Something Like a Manifesto

For about a year now I’ve been struggling with my “cinephilia.” What is the point in writing about movies? What is the point in going to movies? What is the point of making movies? Wouldn’t my skills, time, and effort be better used in the service of something more directly meaningful in the world?

If you guessed that I am middle-aged, you’re correct, however I don’t think this concern is confined to my age range. You can probably recall numerous times in your life when an existential crisis stared you in the face and left you temporarily paralyzed; I know I can. And if you are, like me, someone involved with the arts—a field that I feel stronger every day has much to offer this disturbing world, but which is rarely celebrated as “important”—that questioning of your life’s purpose probably pops up more often for you than it does for those in fields more readily accepted as valuable to society.

So why write about movies? Isn’t it a medium that vacillates between meaningless Hollywood product and inaccessible, irrelevant “small films”? I don’t really have the answer, but I do know that for me at least some of the most enlightening experiences I’ve ever had have been in a dark theater entranced by someone’s vision. And on occasion, I’ve even been transfixed by such visions on the small television screen in the comfort of my living room. I’ve seen worlds I could never witness first hand. I’ve met characters that help me understand my place in the world even as (or maybe because) they do not resemble me in the slightest. When I learn about a film coming out by a director or writer that has given me this in the past, I am delirious with excitement. So often I find that the film I am anxious to see never makes it to a movie theater near me because I do not live in a city anymore. I travel hundreds of miles to film festivals to see such films so I can share them with someone either through this blog, through my work at Provincetown Magazine, or even just in private conversations and on social media. This deeply held connection I feel tells me there is something there that is worth writing about.

Why make movies? There are lots of ways to communicate with the rest of the world creatively and otherwise, but in the 25 years that I’ve been making films professionally, I have found that there is no better way to learn about aspects of life that mystify you. Whether interviewing feminist sex workers, Cold War era veterans, or Catholic nuns, spending time with an eccentric recluse, or exploring the dimensions of my grandmother’s religious faith and mental illness, each film as forever changed me and made me into who I am today.

I can’t make any promises because this is a blog I write without compensation from anyone and with very little feedback from anyone, so it is hard to sustain my motivation. However, I am going to try to continue writing here about films and filmmakers that move me. I do not want to write about films that don’t move me or that are poorly done unless they hold some mirror up to our society and show us something about ourselves that needs discussing.

There is something beautiful about the empathy films can generate.

There is something enchanting and magical—even now, in the age of the Internet —about losing yourself in someone else’s dream on the screen.

Film is not the only art to have the capacity for building empathy or for mesmerizing us, but it is an incredibly important one because of its sheer ubiquity. Cinema came about as a working-class art form and remains that way for me, even as it’s been elevated in academic departments and media studies echelons (even ones I belong to as a Associate Teaching Professor at The New School). It will always be an art for the masses, and I think it could become an art by the masses as well. We are finally seeing films by people of color, women, and others who have been relegated to small projects in the past, and I am heartened by this.

So I will continue to write about films that stand out to me as much as I can, and I will continue to make films about people who do things I would never do. I still don’t know why I make films, why I obsessively see films, or why I write about them, but I continue to feel this powerful urge to engage with others about what I experience on the screen, and so I will continue to do that here. I hope the point will become clear to me some day, but in the mean time please forgive my self-indulgence, if that’s what it is.

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Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri

 

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Frances McDormand in Three Billboards outside Ebbing Mssori. Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

I did not run out and see writer/director/producer Martin McDonagh’s new film Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri because I knew it had something to do with an abduction of a young girl, and as a  parent, I tend to avoid plots like that. I didn’t really read about the film either, just enough to know that Frances McDormand was in it and that it was curiously labeled a dark comedy. This last factor is what got me to the theater earlier today; how could a film about the loss of a child be comic?

Three Billboards accomplishes this difficult feat because it isn’t actually about what happened to the lead character Mildred Hayes’ daughter Angela as much as it’s about what happened to the community around this awful event, and by extension, what happens to communities all over the world in the face of trauma, injustice, and tragedy.

McDormand plays Hayes as a steely-eyed, somewhat frightening, divorced mother trying to make it through each day in the wake of her daughter’s vicious rape and murder several months earlier. Frustrated with the lack of suspects brought in and her sense that the police are too busy harassing African-American kids for misdemeanors to “do their job” and investigate the murder, she takes the odd step of purchasing space on three billboards on the remote road near where her daughter was killed to chastise the police chief by asking why there have been no arrests. When it is revealed that the chief has pancreatic cancer, the town turns on Hayes, seeing her billboards as cruel considering he is on his deathbead.

And in a sense, it is cruel for her to leave those signs up in light of the chief’s devastating illness that will leave his two young daughters fatherless in a matter of weeks or moths. But it is this sort of  morally ambiguous circumstance that is piled up in layers throughout the brilliantly constructed script. The characters face tragedy after tragedy, each one responding in the way humans ordinarily do: with anger, violence, and hatred. And time and time again that response leads to further injustices, more pain for someone, and little by little an erosion of the community itself.

I could talk about the strength of McDormand’s performance, the equally solid work of Woody Harrelson as the Chief and Sam Rockwell as a racist police officer, but the weight of the film is carried by its script, which never feels predictable, but ends up seeming very real and very familiar. Police brutality, anti-cop violence, misogyny, racism, the victimization of young women, even the crimes of the Catholic Church are all subjects broached here, but ultimately, I was moved by everything in the story leading to the conclusion that anger in the face of tragedy must be tempered by thought, compassion, and an abiding vigilance guarding our common humanity.

A Different Kind of Romance

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze's Her (2013)

Joaquin Phoenix in Spike Jonze’s Her (2013)

In Spike Jonze’s new film Her, which he wrote and directed, Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a depressed professional letter writer living in the not so distant future. In the midst of a breakup with his wife, Theodore’s life is in flux. His apartment features lots of space and empty shelves; he kills time playing videogames featuring foul-mouthed characters who berate him; and he mopes about in a state of apathy, simply going through the motions of life. Then he updates his computer to a new operating system named Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and they fall in love.

Much has been made of this uncanny romance between a man and his computer system, but while Jonze’s plot is ripe for opening up a discussion about the limits of human beings vs. the limits of technology, or about the dilemma we now face as a society overly dependent upon technology, it would be a real stretch to say that’s what Her is ultimately about. In Jonze’s hands, this is a story about what it means–and what it has always meant–to be human.

The near-future world in which Her takes place is very much like today, and there isn’t any scathing critique of our tech-obsessed culture. It is merely the setting. In fact, when Theodore makes a great reveal about his relationship with Samantha to his friend and neighbor Amy (Amy Adams), she barely bats an eye, having developed her own deep friendship with her OS since leaving her husband. It’s as though dating and falling in love with your computer’s operating system is only a slight deviation from the norm, neither perverse nor even eccentric. Theodore and Samantha even go on double dates with Theodore’s boss (Chris Pratt) and his live girlfriend. The more provocative issue is about how human beings continue to struggle with expressing ourselves to each other. We can and often do share intimate details with the great void of the Internet via so-called “social networking” sites, but how do we communicate offline? We’re still stuck in the same human-to-human dynamic that Jonze has always shown as awkward and difficult.

This point is made marvelously clear in Theodore’s profession as a personal letter writer, writing beautiful love letters, congratulatory notes, and familial communiques for the less creative masses who no longer even know how to write a letter to their wives, grandmothers, or children. Like in Jonze’s 2002 film Adaptation, our hero is a writer, sensitive and capable of revealing emotions through the written word. But where Adaptation, which was written by Charlie Kaufman, has a distinctly misanthropic undertone (as does their other collaboration, Being John Malkovich), Jonze’s own scripts are more hopeful, with leads who are outsiders, not totally comfortable with who they are, but also considerate to a fault–people who just mean well. Theodore is doing the best that he can, as is Samantha, who, in her own computerized way, is just learning how to be more human.

What makes Jonze so unique and singular as a writer/director is his attention to the ways in which human beings communicate. It’s easy to get carried away with the quirkiness factor and discuss Her as unique for the human/computer love affair at the center of the plot, but to do so is to miss the overriding themes of this, and I’d argue all of Jonze’s feature films so far: the ways in which love causes us excruciating joy and devastating pain in equal measure; and the awkward process of growing (up) as human beings, emotionally, physically, and intellectually.

Other Jonzian touches evident here are in the way he gives us characters who, as offbeat as they are, appear almost mundane against the even greater absurdity of the people and society surrounding them. For example, in Her, Theodore calls a service that connects people for an intimate phone-sex encounter. As their dirty talk progresses, the woman on the other end reveals a fetish involving dead cats, making Theodore seem incredibly normal by contrast.

I am a great admirer of Jonze as a director, and everything about Her maintains those feelings, but I am even more impressed with him as a writer with each film he writes. Although widely misunderstood as a badly made children’s film, his previous film Where the Wild Things Are was perhaps the best written film about the experience of childhood, written for adults. This is why Maurice Sendak fully endorsed the film even as it took major liberties with his sparsely written original children’s story. Her is a continuation of this type of work for Jonze, exploring the vulnerabilities of the human experience in a fresh, compassionate way.

Oscar Thoughts: This is my pick for Best Original Screenplay.