Redemption

01/09/14 Film Essay # , , ,

Philomena (2013)

Philomena (2013)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writers: Steve Coogan (screenplay), Jeff Pope (screenplay), Martin Sixsmith (book)
Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark

 

(Published in Spring, Women’s Voices, Fall, 2014)

I walked a mile with Pleasure, She chattered all the way; But left me none the wiser For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow, And ne’er a word said she;

But oh, the things I learned from her When Sorrow walked with me.

Robert Browning Hamilton, “Along the Road”

I could have been the main character played by Judi Dench in Philomena. I had a close friend who found herself in a similar position.  To be an unmarried pregnant teenager in 1950’s America as well as in Ireland was not simply frowned upon, it was a slip from grace. Philomena Lee, upon whose story the film Philomena is based, was given shelter and educated at the Sacred Heart Catholic Convent in Roscrea, Ireland. When she was found pregnant by the nuns, it was firm evidence of her fallen soul. For the rest of us, we simply suffered the shame of being a girl with sexual desires. There was no “girls will be girls” impetus for adults to look the other way with an approving smile of recognition as there was for boys. No get-out-of-jail-free card. No respect.

No rights.

The road to respect, in the capable and gifted hands of director Stephen Frears, receives a romantic, innocent beginning in Philomena. Philomena Lee is a young teenage girl who, having gotten pregnant in a happenstance moment of pleasure at a county fair with a boy her own age, loses the rights to her child. She is, after all, a ward of Roscrea Convent and she has sinned. Her three-year-old son, put up for adoption by the nuns, disappears from her life. All her attempts to find him are thwarted by devilish, punishing Catholic rules regarding adoption. Yet, Philomena is still a deeply faithful Catholic at sixty-five as she lights a votive candle for her lost son’s fiftieth birthday. When Philomena confesses the birth and her despairing search for her son to her grownup daughter, she breaks the silence of a secret kept to herself for so many years. Her daughter responds sympathetically—and with a next-generation determination, she sets out to ease her mother’s grief. When she overhears a man at a party saying he’s a journalist, she is not shy about appealing to him to help her mother find her lost son.

In Philomena, the man at the party is Martin Sixsmith, a noted journalist recently fired from his position as political advisor in Tony Blair’s administration on a dubious slander charge. He’s feeling a loss of identity and self-esteem, so he only half-heartedly agrees to help Philomena because a human-interest story is far from front-page news. A visit with Philomena to the convent where she gave birth yields little. But photos of well-known adoptive parents, like Jane Russell, on the wall stir his investigative instincts. Suspicious of the convent’s adoption history, he does a bit of research that warrants pitching Philomena’s story to a friend in broadcasting. Perhaps unconsciously, his own fall from prominence in the Blair administration makes him susceptible to another who has suffered a similar blow, albeit from a very different kind of authority. And he needs a project.

With a commission for a television news magazine piece and a slim lead that the boy was adopted by Americans, Philomena and Martin board a plane for Washington, D.C. to uncover the son’s whereabouts and attempt a reunion. When Philomena begins to realize that Martin may make her dream come true, she knocks on his hotel door late at night to speak to him about his being fired from his job with the Blair administration. Spoken with a sense of urgency as if he needs to hear it, she tells him, “Their loss is my find.” But this is not a documentary. Philomena’s “find” did not accompany her to the States in real life. He did not write her story. Martin Sixsmith wrote a book entitled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about her son, a gay man who grew up to be an important advisor in the Reagan administration.

It is Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan (who also co-starred in the film), and Jeff Pope who in their adapted screenplay turn Philomena’s secret into Philomena’s own story. The narrative power of Philomena reaches beyond the women who recognize its truth as their own. The relationship between Philomena and Martin imaginatively calls to mind what might have been between Philomena and her own son. It makes an invisible loss visible. The cinematic mirroring of a “could have been” mother-son relationship in Philomena arouses empathy for the breadth and depth of a mother’s grief. A lifetime of missed moments is irreplaceable, not to be set aside as a lesser wound than the one crushing scene when Philomena, as a girl, watches her son disappear in a car with strangers. The abandoned child is common fare in literature, fairy tale, and myth. A mother’s lingering loss is rarely seen.

The charismatic Judi Dench transforms Philomena Lee into a stand-in for women who lived through—and past—the stigma of being an unwed mother. As a woman and actress, Judi Dench also provides living testimony to the changes for women experienced in one generation. Dame Dench is playing leading ladies at age seventy-nine. Forget being cast as a technical consultant in the film Marigold Hotel, she is a world class M, boss of OO7 in Skyfall ! What Judi Dench brings to Philomena is an uncanny warmth and stoicism as she bears witness to contradictions that lay within every woman. When she turns her blue eyes toward us, we become knowing co-conspirators.

Many women have now shared their plight of being “caught” pregnant and the consequences of oppressive reactions. Each story has added insight and created a public community of empathy. But, more

importantly, we watch Philomena a generation once removed. We know we were part of an immense change, and we can endow ourselves with respect, reclaim a heritage for ourselves.

Dench’s fictionalized Philomena Lee did not so much see as want to see. Catholicism blocked her sight but fed her spirit. Her desire was not to expose but to discover what others knew. She didn’t want to know the why of the nun’s decision. That was left to Martin Sixsmith, the surrogate son. Philomena wanted a first-hand experience of what had been denied her. She wanted to feel her son’s desire to be known to her. Throughout, she sticks to the choices meaningful to her.

Steve Coogan, the actor who plays Martin Sixsmith and co-wrote the screenplay, cast himself in the role of an investigator intent on getting to the bottom of Philomena’s pain. Why, indeed, had she been denied information about her son’s whereabouts? And why was she so nice about it, when he was so incensed? As director, Stephen Frears honors a feminine sensibility in Philomena, answering the latter question by showing how her grief is a part of a whole, a part of an inner sense of self. She’s feeding her soul, not her anger, with her search.

However, the writers and director provide an effective conduit for the heart of Philomena’s story to join public outrage. Philomena presents a full, multi-faceted reflection of a woman’s ability to simultaneously be herself and a devoted mother. She doesn’t seek change so much as completion. She genuinely wants to know what happened to her son, to know the unknown of his being snatched from her when she was helpless to hold onto him. Unexpected observations and a surprising understanding come forth from Philomena’s simple persona. Perhaps keeping her secret to herself nurtured seeds of connection with her lost son.

As in life, light and humor lace the objectionable and the ominous in Philomena. We smile no less when she unbuckles her seatbelt to knock on the door of her son’s lover than when she rattles on about an entire book she’s been reading to Martin. Philomena Lee had a bit of a career as a nurse and shows evidence of having been an astute learner. She intuits her son is gay before she’s told. The loving tone of her voice trumps any Catholic reserve. It’s not his sexual identity that would lessen her intent nor stop her search. It’s only if he never thought of her, never wondered about her or where he came from. If there’s a chance to get closer to that truth, she will ask to be heard, be given details, shown photos.

Philomena’s spirit prevails when she and Martin confront the aging Mother Superior, the one who kept mother from son, even as her son sought her in person while he was dying of AIDS. It is Martin who angrily pushes open closed doors to find Sister Hildegaard and demand an answer to the question, “Why?” He wants to know what drove such cruelty. Philomena protests, trying to protect the nun. But Martin presses, hard and angry. The nun’s answer arouses a pathos in Philomena. The nun fiercely denounces a woman’s sexual desire as “sexual incontinence,” equaling moments of passion to an embarrassing loss of bladder control. Perhaps Philomena intuits that the nun has separated herself from a critical source of empathy with other women? As Philomena faces her oppressor, she stands on the other side of a rewarding outcome to her quest. She’s learned, with Martin’s help, that her son remembered her.

Philomena forgives the Mother Superior, but audiences gasp. No hands fly to mouth to muffle outrage. Such a clear vision of cruelty links to a growing momentum in a wider community of men and women who speak out against such opaque, high-minded religious authority.

Though the film suggests Philomena achieves peace of mind after visiting her son’s grave and returns to her ways, it’s not completely true. A conjunctio between the opposites of calm grace and sharp mind has occurred for her and for Sixsmith. The near atheist, Sixsmith, is moved to bring Philomena a small religious statuette to place on her son’s grave and she, grounded in her newfound confidence, tells him a story from a book she’s been reading about a woman who didn’t know she was beautiful.

In fact, in real life, Philomena’s story does continue. She joins a powerful community voice demanding fair laws regarding adoption practices. Philomena is providing a platform for Philomena Lee to be taken seriously in Washington, D.C. as she, at the age of eighty, fights for the rights of adopted children to access records of their biological parents. This is not a Hollywood ending. This ending comes from an evolution of respect rising from a far-reaching circle of women who, like Philomena Lee, have been steadfastly removing the mask of hidden realities that have been hurting girls and women for centuries.

…oh, the things I learned from her/When Sorrow walked with me.”

I could end here. But Philomena reminded me of a fairy tale that helped me respect sorrow for its guidance in a time when I was almost defined by it.

In the fairy tale, The Handless Maiden, a young woman whose hands have been sacrificed to the devil to save her father’s mill happens to have the good fortune to marry a king. But when she learns she’s pregnant after her husband leaves for war, the devil returns and using the ignorance of men about women, mixes messages and slanders her name. Tricked by his High Court, the king gives the order to banish his wife from the kingdom. In exile, she gives birth to a son and names him Sorrow. For seven years they live in the woods until one day, Sorrow finds a man sleeping on a wall nearby and, as the tale is told, awakens the man by lifting a handkerchief from his face. When the man visits the child’s home, he finds a surprise. The silver hands he had crafted for his handless wife so many years ago when they married are hanging on the wall. He recognizes Sorrow’s mother as his long-lost wife who he believed had abandoned him. Though she had, in the years intervening, grown her own hands (symbolic for becoming a capable woman in her own right), she had kept the silver hands as a reminder of the king’s love for her. King and Queen are, of course, reunited and Sorrow revealed as an active hope for the future.

Fairy tales always have a moral. Sorrow empowers the young woman and clears the eyes of the mature man, bringing masculine and feminine elements together for a renewal of relationship and a formidable partnership against untoward forces. When the woman holds her own in The Handless Maiden, she gives birth to Sorrow, a spirit of truth capable of removing veils of deceit and promising to play a protective role in generations to come.

In real and cinematic life, Philomena stood fast through strokes of dark fate to emerge as a feminine hero, one who draws upon roots of empathic wisdom for her voice to impact public policy and relieve a baseless suffering known to many. Philomena’s story inspires a new ending for an old fairy tale. Viewers are left with a note of resolve to never fall on the wrong side of love again.

As Philomena liked to say, “I didn’t see that coming.”

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02/08/14 Film Essay # , , ,

Third Person (2014)

Third Person (2014)
Director: Paul Haggis
Writer: Paul Haggis
Stars: Liam Neeson, Mila Kunis, Adrien Brody

 

Third Person draws us into a mythic realm of healing fiction where a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist deftly flays open the human darkness of a loss of trust in oneself – a loss no less relevant today than in ancient Greece where Asklepios, god of medicine, created drama in Epidaurus to heal the sick in body and heart above a labyrinth of snakes.

Forgiveness of oneself can be as elusive as forgiveness of another.  If you have ever experienced the umbilical cord of trust being cut, have ever been thrown into the depths of despair and emotional confusion wrought when fate delivers a blow to your belief in yourself or in someone you love, you will not only see but feel deeply the dilemma of finding a way that is dramatized in Third Person. It’s not simply outside events that fall apart but one’s inner world that can slip on its own weakness, heralding a psychic disaster that requires healing.  If there’s a path to forgiveness, Third Person offers a chance to find one.  It’s a film for adults only.

The title sets the tone to watch relationships as a third person might, like a parent hovering above a child with so much vigilance and so little control.  In the beginning, a coin drops into water setting off a cascade of ripples, one wave affecting the next but without clear definition of impact.  We’re not just going to see Third Person with our eyes. We’re going to feel and sense another presence, like the pull of a undertow beneath the surface.

The way Third Person is put together – three stories of three couples in three cities – requires attention.  As the film unfolds, visual and verbal clues link characters together without regard for physical location to illuminate the complications of one man’s tormented inner world.  A bold leap from simple narrative to intra-psychic exploration occurs when a note written in one city becomes a note is taken in another. Hardly a cinematic gimmick, a shift in perspective from outer to inner is clarified.  To grasp the depth of the human dilemma, we must simultaneously look within ourselves while we track who’s crossing whose path on the big screen.  After leaving the theater, questions will no doubt remain about the exact relations of characters because the facts intensely involve personal interpretation.  Did his mistress really come naked to his door or is his muse rousing him from a sleep of complacency?  Which characters remain?  None or one or two?  Angst hangs heavy when innocence is lost. Which ripples fade, which ones persist?  Maturity lurks in discovery.

Ostensibly, the principle current in Third Person is the plight of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction novelist (Liam Neeson) who is spiraling downward, producing ever less compelling novels since his first won the coveted prize. He’s facing the proverbial blank page, writer’s block. Well heeled and used to the good life, he’s holed up in the suite of a fancy Paris hotel and has just summoned his mistress to join him, presumably to break the cold spell and light a fire under him.  She (Olivia Wilde) certainly looks the part.  Never too skinny or too rich, she’s the woman who can disappear on a dime and keep a man running after her even when she’s asleep.  A gamer from the get-go, she won’t escape the noose of insecurity wrought by betrayal that holds the center of this film. But that comes out later, much much later.  For the time being, she’s a man’s dream and a man’s worst nightmare – completely irresistible.  When he pulls a tiny red lace dress out of a shopping bag as a surprise present, we can’t wait for the scene in which she will wear it.

A good-looking man (Adrien Brody) wearing, ostensibly, a fancy Italian suit is on the phone covertly referring to a con he’s just pulled off.  To pass time in Rome, he wanders into a bar where the bartender doesn’t speak English, makes an ass of himself and falls head over heels into a scam. She (Moran Atias) is wearing a red dress that links, by color, one woman to the other in the Pulitzer Prize novelist’s story but we don’t yet know how.  She has, ostensibly lost her eight-year old daughter to a pimp and needs money to get her back.  When he picks up her purse, left behind when she rushes out of the bar, he’s clearly into her up to his neck and we won’t know why until the end of the film. He’s got money, but not as much as she thought he did.  He wants something, but not what she thinks he does.

While the man in his faux Italian suit is being led down the back alleys of Rome, another tricky situation is unfolding in New York City that also involves a mother (Mila Kunis) who’s lost a child.  Possibly a druggie, she’s been divorced by a renowned abstract painter (James Franco) who has custody of their young son and is legally denying her visitation rights. His wife’s lawyer (Maria Bello) wears a white suit linking her, by color, to the Pulitzer Prize author’s wife (Kim Basinger).  The painter is a self-righteous egoist who epitomizes the kind of judgment with a capital J that feeds insolent condescension and violent reactions. The egoist is brought to his knees by a gesture from his son that kindles a feeling of humility beyond his ability to imagine until it happens.  By this time, judgment and forgiveness are mortal enemies wreaking havoc on each human soul in the film. The path to understanding and empathy lies hidden, blocked and contained by the proverbial blank white page, the empty computer screen in front of the novelist.

The Pulitzer Prize novelist’s wife is on the phone at home in New York City.  She’s waiting for him, soulfully connected and deeply knowing but essentially estranged from a husband who never takes off his wedding ring.  It’s to her that he sends the rewrite of his novel. And it is she who asks, “Does she know?” and leaves us wondering just what and who she’s asking about. Is she asking about his mistress in real life or the one he’s created in his novel? Is the affair over or does she know his grief as well as her own?  Has he made peace for himself?  Is he ready to come home?

Third Person is not a story meant to be told as a narrative but experienced as a dynamic of forces alive and well within each of us and between us and others in relationship.   If the novel at the heart of the film were available to read, personal visualizations would activate the psyche, enlivening the words on the page, and Paul Haggis’ story would become our imaginary story. Third Person lifts hope for a triumph of forgiveness.

When trust is disturbed, a rush to judgment is the least satisfying outcome.  Blame blocks observation, seeing what is.  “Watch me” says a small boy imploring his father to see him for who he is; “I can’t help watching you” says a man who sees a woman’s beauty as a last chance for forgiveness; “It happened on your watch” is the accusation a man can’t get out of his head when he’s taken his eyes off his son for thirty seconds. “Watch me” the mistress declares, running from the market at the end of the film.  “Watch me” lingers in the mind as the exasperated, angry lawyer dives to the bottom of a pool and vaporizes. Is judgment easing as attention is given to the pain?

Loss of innocence can result from deliberate action or by accident. It’s not the cause but the crack that breaks the bond of trust.  Whether trust is disturbed in oneself by crossing one’s own conscience or by suffering betrayal with a beloved, the observer who keeps watch will find healing emerging in plain sight.  A shoelace tied or a glass of milk unexpectedly delivered can shift the tides of grief.

Third Person lifts our point of view above the personal where we can see the other side, feel the pain and craziness of both accused and accuser.  We carry both within us, hear their voices every day. Many forces are at work in the human psyche beneath a wound of betrayal.  How do we move beyond the conflict?  Third Person resorts to an age-old method, anthropomorphizing emotions and creating drama. The voices of emotions are heard, their faces imagined.  Risks are taken and truth revealed until the mythical energy of snakes shedding their skins is aroused and renewal accomplished.

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AFTERWORD:

In 2004, Paul Haggis won two Best Picture Academy Awards in one year, one for Million Dollar Baby directed by Clint Eastwood and one for Crash which he wrote and directed as he has Third PersonHere is my review of Crash, A Transformative Experience, published in “Jung Journal:Culture & Psyche”, 2006:

This profile examines the film Crash as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio — the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes from crashing into — and overcoming — the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.

And here is my closing paragraph from that review, reflecting upon Crash as a film like Third Person, a mirror bringing human nature to light for moral consideration.

“Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference.

Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all — and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient dynamic for modern times in its revelatory stories?”

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19/03/13 Film Essay # , , , ,

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: David O. Russell (screenplay), Matthew Quick(novel)
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro

 

If, as existentialist psychologist Rollo May claims in “Cry for Myth”, the American dream of coming out number one died with The Great Gatsby, Silver Linings Playbook pitches an idea for how to make the best of a society without personal myth.  In The Great Gatsby, no amount of money or success frees Jay Gatsby from his past, nor does access to beautiful women and high society ease his loneliness.  Pat Jr. (Bradley Cooper), the protagonist in Silver Linings Playbook, pins his hopes for an image makeover on getting trim and getting his wife back.  In the first scene he stands looking at the word “Excelsior,” written on a poster adorning the wall of his room in a mental institution. He shall, by force of will, get his dream back on track.

Unbeknownst to 21st century Pat Jr., Fitzgerald identified this path of blind optimism and facade of accomplishment as a dead end to achieving love and happiness.  Pat Jr., as sure as Gatsby before him, believes in “the green light, the orgastic future” across the Long Island sound even as he finds himself in the hell of a broken dream. He’s an involuntary patient in a mental institution where he was sent after nearly killing his wife’s lover.

So, what’s the Playbook part of Silver Linings?  What’s going to redeem the dream?

Pat Jr. is a man linked firmly to a previous generation of lost dreams. His father Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) has lost his job, barely talks to his wife and uses the family home as a hub for his bookmaking operation.  Like father, like son, both are hotheads who fly off the handle regularly.  Their simmering rage hides in the folds of self-absorption, a defensive symptom of alienation.

Pat Jr. is obsessed with getting back his wife because marriage is a fantasy of happiness for him.  Barely thirty, he’s an ex-part-time schoolteacher and was such a loser husband that his wife not only cheated on him, she’s divorced him, moved and took out a restraining order against him.  Psychiatric diagnosis may label the rude, crude and unattractive behavior of Pat Jr. and Pat Sr., but it fails to explain their solidarity of devotion to dysfunction. Reveling in dysfunctional dynamics seems to fuel both father and son’s determination to prevail in an illusory dominance of spirit over reality.

As the film begins we get our first hint of who’s writing the playbook to restore Pat’s chances for a silver lining.  Not his father, not his shrink, not his friends and not his positivistic plan, “Excelsior”.  His mother makes the first move.  He is rescued from an involuntary commitment by his mother, Dolores (Jacki Weaver), who signs a court order for his release to her custody.  This is not because he’s cured.  This is because Dolores feels certain in her heart that her son will be better off at home.

The first challenge to his mother’s instinct comes before they get out of the parking lot of the institution.  Pat deludes her.  He talks her into giving his good buddy, fellow patient Danny (Chris Tucker), a lift only to discover Danny doesn’t have permission to leave the grounds.  Undeterred, she u-turns Danny and continues on home with her son.  Mothers may be fools some of the time but not all. Pat Sr. has not been told of his wife’s decision to bring Pat Jr. home.  Wives – as well as mothers – are no fools.  When Pat Sr. sees his son standing behind his mom, his face contours an irritated disgust.  Pat Jr. proceeds to wear through the already worn out welcome mat at his parent’s door.

Pat’s homecoming becomes a series of clashes that stretch his mother’s good will and test his father’s forbearance.  In his son, Pat Sr. is faced with himself.  Pat Sr. is also hooked on a green light, denying his failures and dysfunctional relationships, betting on lady luck to get him a restaurant to replace the job he’s lost and settling into a spate of frustrated outbursts. He’s as obsessed with the Philadelphia Eagles as Pat Jr. is obsessed with Nikki, his ex-wife.  The mother, in her infinite wisdom, seems to stand quietly by while husband and son occupy center stage.  Pat Sr. blows hot and cold.  Pat Jr. rants and runs, jogging in a black plastic garbage bag that speaks louder than his mantra “Excelsior” about his destiny.

One has to wonder.  Is Silver Linings Playbook writer/director David O. Russell fighting fire with fire?  Throw frustration into the emotional tumult of a dysfunctional family and see what happens?  What’s this mother got in mind?  What big idea – the myth – is Dolores tapping into to find the strength to believe in these two men while they each heave disrespect her way?  Heat the iron bar of alienation until it glows red and bends into intimacy?

Not exactly.  She’s got love in mind, love in the shape of a young woman with diamonds on her soul named Tiffany (Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence; the actress in Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone…no stranger to holding her own) who lives nearby.  Tiffany takes up running on the same neighborhood streets as Pat Jr.  (We’ll discover the mother’s got a hand in this too.)  A girl very different from Daisy in The Great Gatsby, Tiffany sizzles.  From the moment Pat and Tiffany meet at her sister’s house, sexual chemistry leaps between them. She’s got the name and the credentials to challenge alienation.  Tiffany is a recent widow and marked as a misfit in the community by her sexualized acting out after her husband, a cop, was killed. She’s as lost as Pat but she’s not an isolator, she’s a connector.

Tiffany, like Dolores, follows her instincts and maneuvers Pat into a diner date.  Over raisin bran, she calls him on his hidden arrogance, revealing the hubris fueling his rage and separating him from friends and family.  In a few hot moments, she transforms cynicism and changes Pat’s direction.  Not afraid of the dark side of human nature, she’s a match for Pat’s delusional persona.  Next, she offers Pat an opportunity to give a letter to his ex-wife who is a friend of her sister’s and makes a pivotal playbook move.  She lays out the rules of the game for building trust. “If you want something, you gotta give something – and you gotta show up.”

Tiffany’s next move is to ask Pat to partner with her in perhaps the least manly activity he could’ve imagined — a dance contest.  A man who can run can dance, right?  Wrong.  Run is a straight line, done totally by oneself.  Dance is circular, done with another.  If run is masculine – single minded, goal oriented, reasoned and focused — then dance is feminine – instinctive, intuitive, empathetic, relational and contextual. Tiffany, already a good runner, invites Pat to become a good dancer. She holds his feet to the fire. If he wants her to deliver his letter to the ex-wife, he’ll have to give what she wants.

A two-way partnership is a novel idea for Pat – a man whose illusionistic thinking has bound him into the unfulfilled striving so poignantly elaborated in The Great Gatsby.  Pat believes if he can just convince his ex-wife that he’s a man in control of his emotions and a man with a future…she will change her mind and they’ll live happily ever after.  Not one iota of his plan includes what the woman of his dreams feels or longs for.  And while that fact is not lost on Tiffany, she’s a woman in love who’s not afraid of risking honesty.

At the same time Tiffany is getting Pat’s cooperation, Pat Sr. draws his son into a grand scheme of magical thinking taken straight from his bookie’s belief in the Eagles.  Pat Sr. will soon discover that Tiffany is a match for him as well as Pat Jr.  Pat Sr. has been banned from his beloved Eagles stadium for angry outbursts that have nearly ended in jail or institutionalization.  Also a man who stakes everything on a dream, he’s beginning to look like the fool he is.  Father and son, boxed into a corner where neither has a job nor decent respect for others, make a pact.  Pat Jr. will go to an Eagles game and give the team Pat Sr.’s superstitious “ju-ju” support.  Pat Jr. goes, only to get into a fight and be thrown out of the stadium – with his shrink!

This is where the fun really begins.  Pat Sr. tries to put the hex on Tiffany and get her out of Pat’s life.  But Tiffany, no stranger to reasoning in the realm of magical thinking, dances with more than her feet.  With exquisite logic in one of the best scenes in the film, Tiffany bridges the gap between her and the men in the family with aplomb. She parlays her wishes into a parlay bet.  The Eagles will beat the Cowboys the same day that Tiffany and Pat will compete in a professional dance competition and achieve at least a rating of “5”.  Pat Sr.’s stoked by the excitement of a big win.  The day arrives.  The Eagles beat the Cowboys in a long shot.  It’s all up to the dance contest now.  But, just as Tiffany and Pat enter the competition dance hall, so does the ex-wife – the ‘ideal woman’ illusion back in play.  Is the dead dream of turning wishes into reality going to reclaim Pat Jr.?  Even Tiffany’s confidence waffles.

As much as Silver Linings Playbook is about a man finding a silver lining in his obnoxious personality – mental disorder or no – the winning plays come from the women in his life.  He’s rescued by his mother more than once and given a stream of second chances (with teeth) by Tiffany.  On her own, Dolores urged Tiffany to run (literally) after her son.  It’s Tiffany who wrangles Pat into the confidence and commitment to become a true partner – first, on the dance floor and, second, as his shrink clarifies, in real life.  Tiffany’s brilliant risk-taking, bringing unruly dark feelings into the light and making all the right plays, creates a connective tissue of intimacy for Pat that was missing for Jay Gatsby.

With uncertainty an equal player to stability in relationship and alienation as American as apple pie, dreams should be worthy of the individuals who pursue them.  Silver Linings Playbook challenges any unexamined belief that there is nothing relational for men to do.  As part of an antidote to despair, the inclusion of raucous family dysfunction, good-hearted witchcraft and smart plays by some very smart women in a film with a Hollywood ending qualifies as a cry for myth.

There’s so much emotional winning at the end of this film, no spoiler alert is necessary because you can’t imagine it.  You have to see it…and decide for yourself whether its playbook offers an alternative to Gatsby’s alluring green light, a future that moves ever further away as it’s pursued.

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24/01/06 Film Essay # , , , , ,

Crash (2004)

Crash (2004)
Director: Paul Haggis
Writers: Paul HaggisRobert Moresco
Stars: Don Cheadle, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton

 

(Published in Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2007)

Quite surprisingly, Crash rose through the ranks of many excellent films in 2005 to win the Academy Award for Best Film and the esteemed 2006 Humanitas Prize for a feature film. It hit a nerve. “The dark secret of America has always been and always will be race.”, says David Mamet*.Crash visualized racial conflict for the big screen, located it in Los Angeles where racial populations are almost equal and won global recognition, making a special connection with audiences. People all over the world are living with the secret. But Crash does more than recount conflict and conflagration. It illuminates an unusual viewpoint, dramatizing collisions between people as capable of bringing down society’s divisive barriers.

Perhaps a film about the power of race to drive such ordinary everyday activities as getting stopped by the police for a traffic infraction, running a small business and applying for health benefits won such prominence because it speaks to a hidden longing in our culture, a desire for conflict to lead to something positive, something other than trouble and war. Its tagline, spoken by a police detective, “we Crash into each other just so we can feel something” frames the deep chasm of alienation left in the wake of unresolved differences. Many people would like to believe there’s a way out of the societal instability and disorientation that turns neighbors into enemies but, at the same time, doesn’t ignore our anger about injustice at the hands of authorities. Crash points to the mythic realm of transformation for an answer.

As Crash opens, it’s a cold night in Los Angeles, cold enough to snow. Extremely unlikely, even if it is Christmas.

Two plain-clothes detectives, an African American man (Don Cheadle) and a Latina woman (Jennifer Esposito), have just been rear ended on one of the winding canyon roads that cross the Santa Monica mountains from the San Fernando Valley to L.A.’s Westside. Common occurrence, even if it’s cops.

An event as common in L.A. as a car accident paired with one so unlikely — snow – sets Crash up to metaphorically reflect a big city as a world of extremes, a mythic centre where nature and society exist as opposites and change will be as magical as it is scarce. As viewers, we become participant observers in a black and white Crash perspective, allowing everyday encounters between diverse people to immerse us, symbolically speaking, in alchemical clashes of opposites. Crash is a collection of interlocking scenarios in which characters of different race, class, religion and gender literally run into one another during the short course of a couple days. Some get more than they bargained for. And so do we. Jung referred to a coming together of extreme opposites for transformation of consciousness as coniunctio. If we shift our point of view and experience Crash as a series of interlocking allegorical stories meant to challenge our personal imaginations and intellect, the film can be a process of learning for protagonists and viewers alike.

The ancient Chinese yang-yin symbol symbolizes nature’s dual distribution of opposing forces as invested with a dynamic tendency. As such, they are comprised of interdependent, integrally connected and constantly balancing opposites that contain within them their antithesis. Yin is soft, warm, darkly fecund and receptive. Yang is hard, cold, inseminating and brightly active. Feminine and masculine, perhaps, but not female and male. They are universal in nature, not gender bound. They exist within us. Each depends on the other for full realization. The white yang side contains a black yin spot; the black yin side contains a white yang spot as reminders that the seeds of one can always be found within the other. In other words, good and bad, misery and joy, losing and succeeding, rising up and falling down are constant and in motion, exhibiting a natural rhythm like a regenerative heartbeat supporting life as we know it — and as we can never know it fully.

Sitting still on the canyon road, Graham, the male detective, seems weary, too weary to jump out and face an angry Asian woman driver ready to do battle. He waxes philosophical, attempting to give meaning to the unconscious motives behind the frequent car accidents in Los Angeles.

“It’s our sense of touch. In any real city, you walk. You brush past people. People bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches anybody. Always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we Crash into each other just so we can feel something.”

His partner, Ria, shrugs off his remark as a little bit crazy and takes the initiative, getting out of the car. With an ironic tone, she offers to go find the “frame of reference” she feels he’s lost. For her, an accident is matter of fact. She approaches the woman driver who’s talking to a motorcycle cop. Out from behind the protection of metal and glass, as Graham predicted, emotion flies between drivers. The Asian driver, not knowing she’s yelling at an officer of the law, deflects responsibility for the accident by hurling insults at Ria about sloppy Mexican driving. Ria sneers reactively, “I blake too fast?”, making fun of her attacker’s English. “How about you being too short to see over the steering wheel so you know to stop?” Their blatant racist blaming exaggerates differences, exposing edges of hatred and inciting animosity.

Meanwhile, Graham walks through police flares to the side of the road. “What’ve you got here?” he asks, recognizing one of the policemen. “A dead kid.” Graham crouches down, using his silver pen to turn over a lone sneaker lying in the dirt. Now, he seems more than weary. His eyes look outward but his gaze pulls inward as if he’s seeing something we’re not seeing, drawing us more deeply into his thoughts. More than a collision of cars has occurred on this isolated road. A line between life and death collapsed.

Yesterday. Crash backs up in time to bring us to the moment at hand. The action starts on the streets of Beverly Hills and picks up speed, quickly running through one racial clash after another, tying them together with threads of festering frustration. Each encounter, like a fender bender on a mountain road is on one level a small, minor incident that should pass without trouble. On a symbolic level, however, death lies near by, letting us know we’re being drawn close to the mystery that links the mundane and the profound. Initiations of consciousness seek such landscapes. We’re in mythic territory. Manners and convention, some kind of moral fabric should prevail and protect. Instead, each confrontation in Crash breaks through an established system that we rely on to get through each day.

Rich or poor, small businessman or big politician, degreed, pedigreed or in need, people are facing an unprecedented fear of losing control over their well being in a multifaceted society. Cultural diversity is developing faster than the thinking and understanding required to handle the range of challenges. Angry accusations based on stereotypes may aggravate difficulties but they’re symptoms of already existing frustrations, not a source. They’re a response to feeling helpless, taxed emotionally and endangered. We live in a society with systems of protection in place that are meant to buffer children born into poverty, assist elders who are ill and provide basic safety in homes and city streets. But these systems are collapsing and, as they fail, it’s like a promise broken. As seen in Crash, people lock their gates, buy guns and harbor dualistically based rationales of the behavior of others as if a wall of prejudice will hold where protocol fails. Worse, many gatekeepers of security – police, social workers, parents – first fail and then become abusive. Trust is broken. Now when prejudice leaps into the void, naked names and acts of retaliation explode, leaving greater, not less, fear in their wake. As buffers of reason and consideration deteriorate, vulnerabilities are exposed and an impatient anxiety rises up and spreads out.

A gunstore owner boils over with contempt when a middle-eastern father, Farhad, (Shaun Toub) and his grown daughter, Shereen (Marina Sirtis), deliberate in their own language about buying a pistol. Because the owner is an outsider to their language, he can’t understand them. He starts fuming, feeling excluded and losing control. To gain back a respect he imagines he’s lost, he demeans their conversation with a racial slur. The father, already agitated and in an argument with his daughter about the wisdom of buying a gun, raises his voice, attacking the storeowner for making an insult he doesn’t feel he deserves. Under pressure, both men picture the other as an enemy with malevolent intent. The owner’s resentment about war in the middle-east restructures his customers as Iraqi when they are actually Persian. The father is irate that he’s not regarded with respect as a man who has worked hard to become a legitimate American citizen. First, race and nationality, then gender infuses the owner’s arrogant attitude toward his customers. After throwing the father out, he demeans the daughter, likening the bang of a gun to having sex. It’s ugly. Buying a gun becomes a sado-masochistic struggle for dominance that has nothing to do with making a purchase.

After leaving the gun store, the Persian father becomes increasingly incensed with his inability to keep his own store safe, helplessness in keeping his own family fed and housed. He’s blinded to consequences of rage he could not consciously accept. He precipitates a heinous act from which only an accident of extreme good fortune saves him. Saved, he’s humbled by discovering the racism he so hates in the outer world within himself. As an allegory of transformation, he is a man who finds the respect he’s looking for in the eyes of others coming – finally – from within himself. And he’s brought back to his senses by the realization.

Most of us deal with the bewildering complex society we live in by drawing lines to help us navigate safely. We draw a line separating one race from another. One religion from another. One gender from another. One point of view from another. We try to avoid conflict, confrontation with “the other” — the one who sees, feels and thinks different from us. However, this dualistic perspective usually leads to more, not less hostility and estrangement. When we project a stereotype onto another person, simplifying as Crash does in its portrayal of differences, it’s a small step to experiencing others as antagonistic. The Los Angeles car culture easily perpetuates an illusion that opposites can be kept separate and an isolationist policy of living maintained. What may not be so obvious is that duality builds a latticework of protective thinking that is short sighted. But to give it up undermines an unconscious structure of security. When we’re deprived of dualism’s feeling of safety, however false or limited, we recoil because it puts us in touch with our vulnerability. It is only in the aftermath of duality’s repeated, painful failure to ease the consequences of prejudice that a larger, more truthful reality can emerge – one in which perceiving differences becomes part of an accepted totality.

Two young African American male friends, Anthony (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Daniel (Larenz Tate) amble down a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. They may be cool dressers but they’re acutely aware of being outsiders in this posh part of town. They’re engaged in an animated conversation about whether they were or weren’t given short shrift by a waitress in a coffee shop based on their race. One argues they were, the other doubts it. An upscale Caucasian couple walks toward them. The wife, almost imperceptibly, pulls up a little closer to her husband. Already in a mood for feeling slighted, the two men make a joke. “Why do people respect us?” They look at one another, laughing. “Because we have guns.” Bam. As if on cue, a stereotype springs to life and become the couple’s worst nightmare, carjackers with guns. They steal the couple’s black Navigator because they can. Fear rips apart a scene that was, a moment ago, funny and disarming.Crash follows the fall out from this clash, showing how – when isolation is broken – a stream of consequences ripples through every level of society with good and bad effects.

Next, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), a seasoned but bigoted Caucasian cop teamed with a Caucasian rookie, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillipe), pulls over a Navigator fitting the description of the stolen car but clearly not it. It’s driven by a well-dressed African American couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard), a Hollywood director and his wife, Cynthia (Thandie Newton), on their way home from a party. A routine check turns into an inflammatory confrontation. Officer Ryan runs his hands over the man’s wife’s body feigning a search for weapons while making taunting remarks for the sheer pleasure of asserting his authority over a couple who felt safe, protected against brazen acts of prejudice by their status and wealth.

It is from the inherent fluidity of a mythical yin/yang dynamic of opposites in nature that Crash reaches for change. It posits racial clashes between people as alchemical vessels for a transformation of consciousness. To grasp the gift of such storytelling, it helps to think of its stories as allegories where the process is always more than it seems, emphasizing the importance of what goes on inside a character rather than between characters. “In the course of their adventures the heroes of allegory discover which ideals are worth pursuing and what things are obstacles to that pursuit.”** It takes a shift in thinking to see that belief rests on attitudes held in one’s own mind as much, or more so than what happens between people.

Later we learn some of the reasons behind Officer Ryan’s need to assert his power over successful Blacks. He is the sole caretaker of an ill father who has lost his benefits along with his job and been rendered helpless by a failing health system. He can barely stand his father’s pain. He treats the couple with disrespect as he believes he’s been treated by anonymous African Americans who’ve displaced his father and, particularly, by a Black HMO caseworker who has control over his father’s health care. He takes out his frustration on the couple, making them scapegoats for his misery.

When the couple finally arrives home after the humiliating experience, Cynthia turns on her husband, accusing him of letting her down because he doesn’t want his name in the paper. She puts her finger on a sore point, the place of conciliatory silence that helps Cameron maintain his status as a Black director in Hollywood. Silence often plays a role in oppressive relationships when speaking up could invite devastating consequences. This is one of many times in Crash that women turn on their men for failing to provide protection in a culture where dire consequences for disagreement are commonplace. When race and gender are both factors, as they are with women, they’re often the first to react to the toxicity – and the first to become targets – of divisive social systems that depend on dualistic thinking, intimidation and separation.

Hurt to the core by his wife’s accusations, Cameron later speaks up and provokes a confrontation when police officers again pull him over. This time Anthony is hiding with a gun in the front seat of the Navigator. Luckily, Officer Hansen — Officer Ryan’s partner during the previous traffic stop, who had been offended by his treatment of Cameron — is on the scene and a disaster is averted. This “miracle” of a black man mouthing off to the police and living to tell the tale takes place in front of a Nativity scene in a cul de sac. It’s a narrow escape for Cameron but an awakening for Anthony.

And then, Officer Ryan comes upon a car turned over in an accident and on the verge of bursting into flames. He’s thrust into saving an African-American woman trapped by her seat belt that requires him to risk his life. Saving her simply calls him to duty. But saving her when she recognizes him as the policeman who molested her requires him to look himself in the eye. Is he a racist who will walk away, not go to the depths of feeling between human beings that will change him forever? She becomes hysterical and fights off his help. He has his chance to retreat. A fellow cop pulls him out. But, instead, he crawls back into direct contact with the woman, near death. To gain her trust so that they don’t both blow up in the car, he has to soften. He convinces her to let him touch her, even to use a knife to free her from her seatbelt. The challenge awakens him to an emotional nuance within himself he didn’t know he possessed. He finds a streak of compassion that cannot change his father’s pain but can ease it for both of them.

Crash portrays its direct clashes of antagonistic differences as containing a possibility of revelation and even redemption. Its tales of black, white, brown and yellow peoples crossing paths in the sprawl of L.A. don’t give us a road map to resolving the angry estrangement between races but they do show instances of personal violation changing to a felt connectedness. To see characters emerging from the terrifying encounters in Crash with life-transforming insight is to acknowledge a reality that heated conflicts often play in our own individuation. Becoming more perceptive, more capable of learning and more empathic as a consequence of surviving the fire of volatile conflicts is more true than we like to believe.

Almost as a living symbol of the threads of frustration bringing the people inCrash together, a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) first re-keys the locks for the upscale couple whose Navigator has been stolen and then goes to the Persian storekeeper whose door won’t lock because the door itself is broken. On his way from one job to another, he stops home to check on his daughter who’s been so frightened by a drive-by shooting that they’ve moved. He finds her sleeping under the bed. To coax her out and comfort her, he tells her a story about a magical cloak, handed down by his mother to protect him in times of danger. Now, he tells her, it’s time for him to give it to her. It’s a high point in the film because it reminds us that we’re living in a very large world of make believe where safety is more mindset than reality. The L.A. inCrash is not a city of perfection. It is one in which belief in the presence of a force for good sometimes works as miraculously well as it sometimes fails. Ironically, this father is a locksmith, one who makes homes safe with real locks. But break-ins occur and breakdowns happen in spite of his locks. However, a miraculous event later in the film brings alive the symbolism of Los Angeles as a mythic land – a city of angels.

Jean (Sandra Bullock), society’s picture perfect wife of Rick (Brendan Fraser) who is L.A.’s district attorney and whose Navigator was stolen at gunpoint, reacts to the theft by having the locks on her Beverly Hills mansion changed. Crazed when she discovers the locksmith is Latino, it’s clear that changing the locks will do nothing to heal the anxiety she is experiencing following the destruction of the fantasy of safety she’s built around her. She lashes out, slandering Latinos, her husband and her friends for being indifferent to the injustice she’s suffered. She feels entitled to foolproof safety. And then, alone inside the house that represents her sense of safety, she slips on its polished floors and falls down her own stairs. Unable to get anyone to help her, Jean becomes like the child under the bed on the other side of town. She feels her fragility instead of defending against it. She can no longer find an enemy or anyone who can prevent anything horrible from ever happening to her. When her Latina housekeeper arrives, she offers help and a kind word. Feelings of gratitude replace Jean’s anger and condescension. She holds onto the housekeeper for dear life, unable to let go, seeking the connection that she has avoided from not only her housekeeper but everyone else in the film. She seems to feel genuine feelings of love rising in her that she didn’t know existed.

The clashes in Crash dramatize encounters in which characters move into the fear zone where prejudices about race and gender dominate. One becomes cut off from “the other”; extremes are bred that do neither side any good. As allegories, stories symbolically expressing opposites in human nature for the purpose of discovering deeper meaning open exploration of how incendiary interactions have a positive side, a side we can learn from. However, even with the best of intentions, the potential of confrontation for healing is often difficult to discern when it’s happening directly to us. In myth and allegory, we can more easily see the details of movement between opposites interacting, creating and allowing transformation where none was possible before. Since we cannot avoid culture clashes, we could look to them for whatever insight they can bring, perhaps uncovering an alternative outcome to the separation and distrust that has led us to withdraw to false islands of safety.

Her husband, L.A.’s District Attorney, is faced with the problem of handling the theft of his Navigator and needing to avoid being called a racist for wanting to prosecute the thieves. He comes up with the idea of a photo op in which he honors an African American man that can be released simultaneously with the news that his car has been stolen. Graham is picked for the compromising honor. It puts him in a strange triple crossfire of professional insult, a desired but tainted promotion, and his mother’s anger. His mother resents that her successful detective son does not take more time to look out for his brother who, good kid that he may be in her eyes, has followed a lowlife of crime. In fact, he was one of the black men who stole the Navigator. Graham travels between his ghetto family and his respectable job, unable to call either home. Accepting the offer from the District Attorney will require Graham to compromise his integrity regarding another case but will also give him the wherewithal to save his younger dropout brother from jail. When duplicity is required for survival, anomie is not far behind. A marginal view of place, identity, and role develops. Circumstance requires what can’t be given freely but which must be rendered. Cooperation. His idealistic separation of good and bad as mutually exclusive cannot be maintained. Graham cannot choose good without choosing bad.

This imaginal inferno of contradiction, an irreconcilable duality of everything Graham holds dear, is a true crucible. He fully experiences a collapse of the line that holds him apart, separate and different. Painful. When we have these kinds of experiences – and survive them, we discover firsthand the meaning of movement between opposites. Our lives become testimony to the underlying unification of opposites in the universe and its unfathomable mystery of redemption. We are initiated into a new range of feeling, humbled by nuance and shaded by emotion beyond intellect.

Drifting and driving the stolen Navigator, distracted by talking, Anthony and Daniel sideswipe a Chinese man who’s been locking up his white van on an isolated street late at night. The Chinese man ends up in the hospital while his van stands quiet on the street until Anthony spots it later as he’s riding the bus home and gets the bright idea that he can take it and get a few bucks from a broker who deals in stolen cars. In the course of events, Anthony discovers the van is filled with Asian immigrants smuggled in by the Chinese man, presumably to fill sweatshops in downtown L.A. Anthony can’t quite go along with the car broker’s idea of selling the Illegal immigrants to him for cash. Is it, perhaps, because his vision of a hopeless future as a black kid was changed when Cameron faced down the police officers and survived? He takes charge of the illegal immigrants, steps far out of character, far enough out to suggest that he might make a break from his path of crime.

His friend, Daniel – who is, as we are to learn, Graham’s younger brother – doesn’t get a second chance. The accident of good fortune that saved the Latina child is now contrasted by its opposite, an irreversible tragedy, and a moment from which there is no recovery. The self-righteous, well-meaning young Officer Hansen, who recoiled at Officer Ryan’s blatant racism and later saved the day for the African American producer in very dicey second encounter with him, offers Daniel a ride from the Valley to the Westside. Off duty and unprotected by his uniform, he becomes suspicious of the wandering black teenager he’s picked up. Afflicted by paranoia, he’s quickly offended by Daniel’s easy-going manner when he reaches out to him as a friend, someone cut from the same cloth of youthful idealism. Hansen doesn’t wait to see what Daniel is pulling out of his pocket to show him. Prejudice colors Daniel evil and Hansen pulls his gun and shoots and kills his hitchhiker before he realizes what Daniel is offering him is an icon that represent the very kinship he has been longing for. Then he dumps Daniel’s body alongside the canyon road, drives to another location and sets his car on fire. The protective cloak of St. Christopher – the patron saint of travelers and strangers – eluded these young men. Hansen’s righteous indignation about racism is not sufficient to guide him when he feels personally threatened. Lacking empathy, he couldn’t see himself in Daniel.

We all struggle to understand how opposites work in our own personal lives.Crash invokes the difficult questions of what it means to contain opposites within ourselves – of sex, race, religion, age and point of view – and confront them in the world around us. The heated exchanges in Crash lead to surprising awakenings. In Crash, we see over and over again that only when an iron bar becomes red hot does it become pliable enough to bend, change direction, and take a different shape. Even in confrontations we’d rather turn away from, Crash opens a door of insight. In the mythic realm of coniunctio, Crashes and clashes activate dormant but potent elements for change that lie buried in the psyche. Perhaps the interactions release individual and collective resources to meet society’s unprecedented loneliness, apathy and neediness. Surely, the stories in this film show how attempting to protect oneself by acting out self-righteous feelings of superiority over the “other” with indignation only leads to greater feelings of fear and greater likelihood of doing damage to oneself as well as others. It’s not that one side is superior to any other, or that it is necessary to erase all sense of difference to arrive at a resolution, suggests Crash, but it is important to learn from and accept our vulnerabilities as shared and common.

If there were a mirror inside Crash looking out, its stories would be reflected inside every person in the theater. Crash brings our psyche, with all its hidden conflicts out of the dark into the light and onto the big screen for us to identify with, participate in. And, in so doing, Crash renews our wonder…how do we do it, be so good and so bad, so dumb and so smart, so predictable and so surprising? It’s a wonder we’re alive at all.

Of course, we have a right to fly in the face of enlightened understanding that “Crashes” caused by differences play a necessary part in the human drama of evolution. A sense of humor is key, of course, and Crash ends with a laugh. We see the imposing African American woman, Shaniqua (Loretta Devine) — the sternly charming gatekeeper who denied Officer Ryan’s request for health services for his father because he was incorrigible — get rear-ended in her car and throw herself into the fray of conflict just as rude and self-righteous as anyone else. Her voice of fair play turning foul makes us laugh at ourselves. We’re never far from a clash that could bring out the contradiction in us.

As I walked out of the movie theater into a mall of shoppers, I took note of a clash that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about before seeingCrash. A group of adolescent boys, mixed in race but each wearing standard gear of provocation – everything too loose, hanging low and jangling – were being herded, ever so quietly but firmly, to a corner exit by security police. They had violated an imperceptible line with their mass and their energy. Now, after seeing Crash, I worried that they’d be back, not to enjoy themselves and make a spectacle but with malcontent in reaction to being seen as ‘the other’ and not belonging. I saw an invisible motive for this newly constructed mall made visible. These rowdy boys had been influencing the architect’s plans before they ever showed up physically. This super clean, upscale mall, designed to signal safe passage, functions also as a sign of our culture of fear. Fanning a fundamentally misleading illusion of safety, it contributes to the continuance of a fear-driven duality, a self-isolating reality.

Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference. Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all – and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient message for modern times in its revelatory stories?

*The New York Times, Movies, June 11, 2006 Quote from “William H. Macy Takes a Walk on the Dark Side in ‘Edmund'” by Neil Amour
** Clifford, Gay. The Transformations of Allegory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pg. 11, 1974.

 

Abstract

This profile examines the film “Crash” as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio–the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes fromCrashing into–and overcoming–the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

Sightings of a Global Feminine Hero

“What new feminine hero glimmers in the shadows of international filmmaking? Forget about the victim movies. Let’s take a look at the films bringing an empowered image of a multi-cultural female sensibility, prowess and purpose into play in the world. Definitely more than an action figure, a feminine hero does everything a hero was ever meant to do and does it with her eye on what furthers and excites regeneration, rejuvenation and redemption. She’s good, she’s bad, she takes sides, she doesn’t, she holds her ground, she yields, she entices, she looks away, she knows what she knows – and she wants you to know what you know as well. That’s it. There may be another world out there somewhere but, for the moment, life is here to be lived as fully as humanly possible – and it’s not always pretty. So new skills, new values and new visions are in order. Here are a few glimpses of a new feminine hero archetype emerging in well-liked films featuring women protagonists who come from around the world.”

 

CinemaShrink Says – “No one expects ‘The Divine One’ to come as a girl. Whale Rider could well be the Lion King for girls. It’s a lot more than cute, a far cry from the usual victimizing, sacrificing and idealizing of children who come female instead of male into this harsh world. Whale Rider makes the spiritual practical. It celebrates the power of an enlightened girl’s heart to change old ways of elders who have good intentions but an accumulation of far too much fear.” (New Zealand/Maori)

CinemaShrink Says – “In Bend It Like Beckham, a young East Indian woman living in London not only breaks with the traditions of her family to become a successful soccer player, she rescues her father’s dream, makes her mother proud and opens up new possibilities for her friends, family and culture against all odds.” (UK/India)

CinemaShrink Says – “If you didn’t get to see The Secret Ballot, be sure to rent this inspirational film about what a difference one very small and very ordinary woman can make. An Iranian woman makes her way around an isolated island collecting votes from people who never thought about voting, who view her carrying around a cardboard ballot box as an inappropriate activity for a female — and who get won over to her cause by her sheer persistence, her belief in herself and her caring. Awesome.” (Iran)

CinemaShrink Says – “There’s so much of the feminine in Dirty Pretty Things that it goes beyond a single protagonist. The presence of the feminine floats like a good fairy throughout, sprinkling magic dust on the ugliest side of human beings, the seamiest side of London. Somehow – and never has ‘somehow’ held so much promise – hope emerges from a mean game of chess played by ordinary people against a dominant predatory evil. A young woman inspires a man to some fine moves of compassion, intelligence and impeccable ethics to checkmate greed, small mindedness and arrogant indifference.” (UK)

CinemaShrink Says – “Amelie, sprite incarnate? This may be an ‘everywoman’s’ film. In ‘everywoman’ lives a small girl who looks on the bright side of a sorely lacking childhood, dreams of rescuing a depressed father and, in real life, sets clue after clue for a boyfriend to find her. She makes new meaning out of lost, spiking bleak situations with an instinctive ingenuity.” (France)

CinemaShrink Says – “Lola chases after the fraction of a second that changes destiny in Run Lola Run. She may not be faster than a racing bullet but she is so swift that she can reshape time, flip it back on itself and rewind the story until she gets it right. Sounds like a new skill to me. She’s pals with lady luck, gives dad an awful shock, gets the guy – and, and – she walks away with a big bag of money!” (Germany)

CinemaShrink Says – “Colorful, smart and looking right through you with each of her world class paintings and a life to match, Fridademands respect. Sometimes she gets it. Sometimes she doesn’t. But in every instance, she digs deep for a personal, individual and grand emotional response that defines her humanity — and never apologizes. Frida Kahlo – real woman, artist and cinematic phenomenon – commands respect. And while this film comes from the United States, its protagonist is thoroughly Mexican.” (USA/Mexico)

CinemaShrink Says – “Almodovar sticks it in your ear with Talk to Her and makes a fine point. Perhaps it’s not so unusual that two women – even if they’re in a coma – should provoke a friendship between men. Neither man ever ‘talks to her’ but they do begin to talk to each other. Two men locked into silence, shame and a questioning adherence to traditions of what it means to be a real man, come together when they find themselves both loving endangered women. It’s that feminine hero in the closet at work again.” (Spain)

CinemaShrink Says – “It’s rare enough to see a woman in a mid-life crisis portrayed in film, even more rare to see her solve her dilemma by diving deep into her inner world and coming up with a solution that works in the outer world. In Swimming Pool, a crime fiction writer turns her considerable visionary skills to killing off a depression, a fake lover, an old self, a dead end career — and coming up a winner.” (France)

CinemaShrink Says – “Y Tu Mama Tambien challenges the mores of Latino machismo, opening eyes to a different kind of love and lust. It turns endings – end of adolescence, end of innocence and end of a life – into something fun and profound. Two young studs get more than they bargain for when they invite a slightly older young woman along on a joy ride to a hidden beach for the weekend. They find themselves lit by fiery passion and sobered by her touch. She’s the sea that binds forever, flows everlasting and contains all secrets. Well, of course, she’s a girl.” (Mexico)

CinemaShrink Says – “Australian Aborigine are famous for their dreamtime walkabouts, hundred mile treks in the outback without any destination but home. So, when three young Aborigine girls rebel against the idiocy of a British plan to ethnically cleanse them by taking them away from their families and sequestering them in a boarding school, they simply walk away. They follow a Rabbit Proof Fence, defying rules meant to separate them from their rightful destiny. It doesn’t spoil the thrill of following their escape to know they live to be lovely old – very old – women.” (Australia)

CinemaShrink Says – “On the cutting edge, Oasis features a highly unlikely romantic lead, an isolated young woman twisted with cerebral palsy, who inspires a man who lacks common sense or book smarts to the kind of love that heals a family. If you ever wondered what real love looks like, this film reverses every cliché. It’s not the pretty pictures but the depth of character that matters. (South Korea)

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07/02/05 Other Writing # , , ,

Animal Rights

“In The Piano, as Ada sought Baine’s help to return by horseback for her beloved piano left abandoned by her husband, Stewart, on an isolated beach, the camera hesitates for a moment on the eye of Baine’s horse. What vision is being sought of the danger that’s brewing as Ada breaks with convention? Why do we believe animals can see what we cannot, or will not, see? What wisdom lies behind their eyes?”

At the end of the IMAX movie, Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, Goodall says if she had one wish left unfulfilled from her life work with the chimpanzees, it’s to look out from their eyes, see what they see, feel what they feel. What secret vision might she be seeking behind the look she gets from a chimpanzee?

Barry Lopez suggests an answer in his Field Notes* when he writes, “My one salvation, a gift I can’t reason through, has been the unceasing kindness of animals. Once, when I was truly lost, when the Grey Spider Hill and the Black Sparrow Hills were entirely confused in a labyrinth of memory, I saw a small coyote sitting between two creosote bushes just a few yards away. She was eyeing me quizzically, whistling me up with that look. I followed behind her without question, into country that eventually made sense to me, or which I eventually remembered.”

What look passed between coyote and man that day to show him the way home?

We cannot be sure whether we project the wisdom we find in an animal’s eye or whether the wisdom comes on its own but an eye to eye connection between human and animal often creates an alliance of mysterious strength and renewal. Babies know it, chimpanzees know it and especially an endangered animal knows it. It’s a natural, unconscious tendency on the part of humans to see an answer to a desperate need, wild desire or sacred dream in an animal’s eye. An animal’s eye, perhaps, is the ultimate mirror of the wisdom that has brought us this far.

My friend, poet and author Deena Metzger, had an opportunity to have a brief look into the eye of a great bull elephant in Africa when he approached her transport truck curling his raised trunk with clear determination to defend his turf and family from the mechanical intruder. In her book, Entering Ghost River, she wrote about having a few minutes with him, eye to eye, as he came within an elephant trunk’s distance of her. He gave her long enough to ask a question from deep within her mind. What wisdom for an alliance of peace in a world torn by terror, famine and atrocity could he give her? As if a pact were struck, the great bull elephant, his friends and family moved on into the valley along the river. So did Deena’s truck with her friends and family. I’d like to think Deena and the elephant cleared more of a path that day for all of us, one opened by ‘the look’ Barry Lopez followed when he was lost in the canyon. Whether the world itself makes way or we remember our way, ‘the look’ is there if we take a moment to notice it.

In the following films, there are some markers showing that path of creative alliance marked by ‘the look’ from an animal. Films often bring their audiences eye to eye with animals, giving us a gift of being up close and personal long enough to ask a question. Watch for the moment. And ask your question. And tell me the answer you receive by emailing jane@cinemashrink.com.

Horse Whisperer
Directed by
Novel by Nick Evans II
Performances by Robert Redford, Kristin Scott Thomas

“I don’t help people with horses. I help horses with people.” Tom Booker (Robert Redford) says. He might well have said, “I help horses help people. When the horse in Horse Whisperer gets crushed by a Mack truck as he rears in a mighty attempt to protect his young rider, he is left with more than bodily wounds. He is terrified to reconnect with another human being. This 20th century catastrophic collision between machine and horse is a powerful metaphor for the effect of machine on humans that has left so many people feeling alone, homeless and terrified. However, the fear beneath loneliness is usually well hidden beneath the busy lives of modern families – like the one in this film – coping with city life. As Pilgrim, the horse in Horse Whisperer, progresses in his healing with a man who lives close to the earth and near to his soul, the spirit of family is renewed. They find a home they’ve never known with each other and, for the moment, terror is pushed back.

CinemaShrink Asks, “What does Pilgrim need? What does his family need? What does we all need?

Her Response, “A renewal of trust.”

Gorillas of the Mist
Directed By Michael Apted
Written by Dian Fossey, Harold T.P. Hayes (article)
Performances by Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Brown, Julie Harris, Iain Cuthbertson

Fortunately, the best part of Gorillas of the Mist are the scenes of Dian Fossey with the mountain gorillas. She rolls on the ground, squats in the bushes and grunts realistically as she imitates their behavior, making her way into their midst. Perhaps because we don’t get as attached to Dian Fossey as we do to her favorite gorilla, Digit, her murder does not shock us as deeply as his. But, perhaps, we see more death in his than hers. It takes your breath away for this beloved gorilla who becomes our friend (as well as hers) to be crudely decapitated, hands and head stolen by poachers for sale as trophies. Of course, the desperate plight of the mountain gorillas simply mirrors the desperation of people in central Africa. What an awful choice to have to make, kill a mountain gorilla for its trophy value or let your child die of starvation.

CinemaShrink Asks, “What are the mountain gorillas dreaming? What are African children dreaming? What are we all dreaming of?

Her Response, “A safe home.”

Misfits
Directed By John Huston
Screenplay by Arthur Miller
Performances by Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter

Marilyn’s getting a divorce in Reno. “You can’t make me sorry for you any more”, she says on the steps of the courthouse when her husband asks for a second chance.

Eli Wallach’s lost his wife to childbirth and Marilyn asks, “She’s dead because you didn’t have a spare tire?”

Thelma Ritter reminds Marilyn, “Dear girl, you’ve gotta stop thinking you can change things.”

But Marilyn persists, “We’re all dying aren’t we. We’re not teaching each other what we really know, are we?” She dances with the men on her lovely toes but leaves them to dance alone with a tree.

When Clark says he wants to get her home all in one pretty piece, Marilyn asks, “Would you have a spare tire”?

Clark puts the moves on Marilyn without knowing she’s not kidding. He wants respect for being a man but she wants respect for her feelings. That’s a problem. And it all comes out after they pick up Montgomery Clift, a young rodeo rider who can’t even buy his mama a birthday present. Poverty of man meets poverty of horse meets poverty of the spirit.

Cowboy meets Marilyn, an endangered species who can take a bet and keep on ticking but can’t see a man or beast take a beating. One woman, two cowboys and a rodeo rider with a father who was killed by a hunter and became a step-son to a man who wanted to offer him wages on his own father’s ranch. After all, Clift asks, who do you depend on?

All three men look to Marilyn who looks into the eyes of animals looking for an answer that can make yesterday today. Clark has no tomorrow to offer. Only Marilyn has an idea and that’s no idea at all. She can only feel what she feels, looking out from her eyes at men willing to ride a bucking bronco to their death, drink to oblivion and hang on to failing egos for dear life.

Clark is a man who thinks he just gets a little angry, not understanding a woman’s fear that a man will hate what he just, one moment before, found irresistibly desirable. And that’s the story of the Misfits.

Once upon a time, the mustangs were the pride and joy of the very men who now send them to the glue factory. Dogs were wild too, once upon a time. They, like women, are still afraid they’re going to end up dead when a man becomes a stranger. Nothing can live unless something dies; that’s a manly story. A woman’s story of a love that prevents death may seem silly next to it but she wants the same respect a man wants.

When she does her thing, he says he takes his hat off to her. But things look different in the morning. And Clark is back to manly business, rounding up mustangs for sale as pet food pretending that he, himself, is not following the same route. What comes into his sights – a stallion, four mares and a colt — is unmistakably the family he’s never had. And as the men encumber the stallion with spare tires, the metaphor of a woman who died for lack of a spare tire is not far behind.

When Marilyn pleads for the mustangs, a triad of heroism – Clark, Clift and Wallach – falls before her. Clark will give the mustangs to her but not if she gets what she wants, only if she gets what he wants to give her. Wallach will give them to her but only if she gives him what he wants. Clift sets the mustangs loose because he’s a man with nothing to lose, nothing to gain. Marilyn stands screaming in the desert, wanting what a man can’t give her but what he takes from her. Then Clark wrestles the stallion, a battle between man and beast that cannot be settled in any desert of discontent.

Clark’s final manly words? “I don’t want anyone making up my mind for me. I got to find another way to feel alive, that’s all.”

And then he offers Marilyn a ride back to Reno. They pick up the dog. The mustangs run free. And, Clark promises that the big star in the sky will take them right home. He’s right, right?

CinemaShrink Asks, “What do wild mustangs need? What do men need? What do we all need?

Her Response, “Respect”.

This month New Cinema Lab may be searching in the eyes of animals on film for their “common sense politics”. Yet CinemaShrink found a real life story of an animal on the verge of extinction that ran smack into human respect, had an amazing return and inspired a renewal of family spirit. Perhaps it should be a movie?

Once upon a time, the duck hunters in the swamps of Louisiana could look upon wild ducks as an endless target for sport, endless food upon the table. Then duck hunters began to use semi-automatic rifles, killing an unprecedented number of ducks in a single season. Soon the skies above the swamps were empty. Preservationists and game wardens were helpless to stop the slaughter. No amount of game regulation could keep up with the hunting spree. Duck hunters would simply pay the fine, do the time and return to hunting with an even greater sense of entitlement.

It wasn’t until a dedicated duck hunter realized if the slaughter were to continue, there would be no ducks for his children to hunt that things began to change. He began to advocate a quota on ducks so the sport of duck hunting could be kept alive for coming generations. With a little help from his friends and local game wardens, he visited schools, community organizations and corporate headquarters to talk about quotas and the joys of duck hunting. Within a few seasons, the ducks were thriving.

In this case, it wasn’t laws, good intentions or spiritual ideals that made the difference. It was one duck hunter’s desire to keep duck hunting as a sport for his children that connected self-regulation and preservation. To this man’s mind, the sport of duck hunting was essential to a healthy up-bringing of his children. Well, then, it was logical. The ducks as well as his children needed his protection. Tony Soprano sought a shrink when he realized that his life of crime could not protect his family — and the realization launched one of the most successful tv shows of all time when a family of ducks landed in his swimming pool giving him ‘the look’.

Animal wisdom or good common sense?

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14/11/02 Film Essay # , , ,

Secretary (2002)

Secretary (2002)
Director: Steven Shainberg
Writer: Erin Cressida Wilson
Stars: James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jeremy Davies

 

“Don’t underestimate the submissive one, the one who serves and cares for another. The Secretary dramatizes the healing power of the one who gives in, choosing to yield quietly to even the most absurd demands of one who would be dominant – – and then glides past the deadly monster of despair, indifference and alienation to a fresh beginning.”

Not everyone wants to know. Sometimes the pain of living is so deep, so buried beneath the skin that people are driven to take desperate measures that are hard to fathom. We’re a sophisticated society. We know hurt lies beneath anger. We know abuse begets abuse. And we know addiction defends poorly against emotional pain. So when we see a young woman cutting, piercing and carving the smooth skin reminiscent of childhood, the inner thigh so close to the source of pleasure, we ask. What suffering could drive her so mad as to reach for its source with the point of a knife? What other relief might she seek than slicing openings in the soft underbelly parts of her body? The Secretary suggests at least one answer; one path to healing a wound sealed by scars covering an unspeakable pain.

It’s true. Queasy, mixed feelings of vulnerability, fear and repulsion intensify a viewer’s voyeuristic fascination while watching a young woman puncture her flesh, yield to being spanked and crawl around on the floor in the Secretary. She does it so willingly, following her own desire more than the demands of her boss. It’s as if a taboo story has been thrown into thelight, giving us a rare peek into the complicated meaning of a sado-masochistic dynamic between two people in a relationship. Caring and pain are interwoven. In the Secretary, submission lies close to arousal. Giving in, giving up and giving over snuggle up close to a spunky spirit within this young woman that has not forgotten what it feels like to love – – not the other, but her own true self.

Secretary tells the tale of a woman and a man who dare to bring their pain to the surface, scrape through the scar tissue of old wounds and, surprisingly – – to them and audience alike – – find tendrils of love growing between them. The interpersonal seesaw of dominance and submission is surely familiar to anyone who’s been in an intimate relationship – – and, it usually isn’t very funny. But the exaggerated sado-masochistic dynamics in an allegorical story such as the Secretary where each partner gains as they lose, loses as they gain begs the ludicrous, inviting the kind of laughter where, as an audience, we are all laughing at ourselves. And when it’s over, I would venture to say that it will not be whether you believe it’s true that two people who dare to give up control find happiness. It’s about whether you’re willing to ponder the possibility.

Mythically speaking, Lee Holloway (wide-eyed Maggie Gyllenhaal) begins a personal quest when she takes the job of secretary to lawyer, Mr. E. Edward Grey (no one plays repressed sexuality as well as James Spader). It’s a classic hero’s journey into the vulnerable core of one’s being, but usually taken by a male. In this case, a female protagonist enters an inner symbolic realm of extreme trials and humiliating ordeals that will test her feminine mettle, take her to her nadir and return her – transformed – to the ordinary world. Like a true hero, if she’s successful, she will learn to be true to herself, receive a blessing and find her place in society.

Lee suffers a modern hero’s beginning, the deep pain of abandonment felt as a child in a dysfunctional family. She’s destined for happiness only if she can thwart society’s master plan to sacrifice her as throw away child. As a young woman just emerging from a mental hospital, Ms. Holloway responds to a want ad for a secretary. When she arrives for her interview, she finds a permanent “Secretary Wanted” sign outside the law office – – – like a motel advertising available rooms. Single bulbs circle the sign, lighting up on command from a switch inside as if beckoning to the next innocent traveler, “Enter here.” And in she goes, stepping from a disturbed adolescence into the labyrinthine offices of a very strange lawyer, Mr. E. Edward Grey.

As Lee arrives for her job interview, it’s appropriately raining, soaking the barely put together Lee Holloway into a pathetic sight for the waiting, distracted and wolfish Mr. E. Edward Grey. But she’s covered in a blue rain cape – – not red, so we don’t confuse the familiar fairy tale where a girl must be rescued with a woman’s quest for transformation. This journey will require both secretary and boss to be victims of animalistic appetite, both to be rescuers of each other’s most vulnerable selves.

The myth of Theseus lays the groundwork for Lee Holloway’s quest. Theseus willingly entered the deadly labyrinth of King Minos to which he had been sacrificed as a victim of circumstance — he was the only son of a king but born outside his father’s royal marriage. To claim his crown, he had to triumph over the Minotaur (half bull & half man) that symbolized the bestiality that a young prince out of favor must conquer to become the next king. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for young women to step into the role of a Theseus type hero hoping to heal the dualistic, judgmental monster of indifference and alienation that wreaks havoc in her world.

We may fear for Ms. Holloway’s life as she seeks a way out of fear and despair in the dark cave of masochistic compliance but we are riveted – – and strangely optimistic. There’s a gleam in her eye, a soft rhythm to her step. Amazing. She seems to know what she’s doing. She possesses what Theseus had to be given. Ariadne who was the princess daughter of the rigid patriarch, King Minos, gave Theseus a ball of string to unravel as he entered the labyrinth, to follow for a safe return. Lee Holloway holds her string of sensitive instincts and feelings to accompany her in – – and out. There she goes, hanging by a thread, moving steadfastly into the beastly emotions that develop between herself and Mr. E. Edward Grey.

As Lee makes her way through an outer office strewn with papers and files, a morose ex-secretary exits the premises. Presumably, a fallen victim to the Minotaur. Lee proceeds cautiously down the hall into the inner sanctum of Mr. E. Edward Grey. Could a modern Minotaur be defined any better than by his abundant cache of red marker pens ready to slash errors into perfection or a display of exotic orchids kept flawless by his hypodermic injections? In either case, it’s now clear neither he nor she can bear a soft touch. Only the point of a needle, a crisp red pen or a sewing scissors will do. She’s too bundled up in a cloud of sniffling compliance. He’s too equipped with snap judgements, well hidden behind a thick wall of protective condescension. Piercing appearances will be their only chance.

“Yes, Mr. Holloway, I really really want this boring job”, she says and steps further into the labyrinth.

We only get hints of what has driven Lee to carry a sewing kit with implements of torture ready at hand if emotional distress overwhelms her. She has been brought up in a family where pain is its middle name and relief has no name at all. And there’s even the implication that her only option out of the family is back in – – into a marriage with the boy next door, Peter (Jeremy Davis), who idealistically believes that playacting normal married people will solve all their problems. But what sticks Lee to her parents, what has kept her stuck to them – pain to pain – following their way, is a background not explored. But it is clear that addictive compliance to suffering is the home ground from which Lee must break away.

So, when Mr. Grey sneers at Lee’s pitiable presentation of herself, chastises her for sloppy performance and insists on mature behavior, he inadvertently fulfills a primitive, childlike need for caring and attention, setting Lee free to gleefully take control of herself. For the first time in her life, she is nobody’s daughter. She can FEEL because she is not bound to be numb for the sake of keeping peace for the sake of her parents. She is somebody – – a secretary. For the first time in her life, she refuses a ride from her mother and walks home alone! In her fantasies, she is lifted up into a woman of divine destiny serving a greater cause, becoming the sexual woman she is meant to be. She can choose, choose to descend into forbidden, bittersweet darkness of longing for love. She leaves behind being nice, agreeable and the apple of someone else’s eye. She follows her instincts, as politically incorrect as they may be, seeking excitement, delight and desire. Like Theseus, she holds on tight to a thin line of pleasure that got buried long ago. Not the point of a scissors but agonizing pangs of real feelings are breaking through as she searches for the core of the labyrinth where the deadly beast of ambivalence, division and stultification lives. As she goes deeper and deeper beneath surface appearances, Lee dares to sort bestial from beautiful.

Grey, of course, cringes while she sorts. He felt secure in his dominant status, sure that he could maintain control. He was expecting another quick death. Instead, softness invades him at the sight of her willing compliance. He feels her touching him, arousing him and driving him further toward his own vulnerability. This secretary is no ordinary young woman. She revels in her feelings and comes back for more. But he can’t stand to see her thriving on his brutish caring; he resists but he’s simultaneously intrigued. He’s even jealous of her boyfriend. If he can’t control her, he can’t control his feelings. But Lee won’t be quashed. She makes deliberate errors, inviting the slash of his pen and his demand to perfect herself. When errors no longer bring him to her, she resorts to a pointed non-verbal message that does the job. She pastes a dead worm in a letter and conveys to him that he is a man unworthy of her silence. His impeccable image tainted by a reflection he can’t ignore, Mr. E. Edward Grey rises to the challenge. He must make her wrong and, with his great red pen, circles the worm relentlessly and loses control. She has stolen his heart. As a last ditch effort to keep head and heart apart, he orders her to leave. But she refuses.

That’s it. Lee Holloway just refuses. In an allegory, the tables are often turned and, luckily for Mr. E. Edward Grey, he is powerless to turn his rules against her. She eludes him, and luckily for her, she does it in his office where friends and neighbors as well as her ex-boyfriend can find her so she doesn’t die of starvation. This isn’t Romeo and Juliet. When the monster at the center of this labyrinth is killed, Lee and Edward come out together. I can tell you that much.

In truth, Secretary is a date movie – fun, sexy and redemptive of romance. This modernized myth of man and woman sorting bestial from beautiful in the Secretary contains a secret, unexpected resolution. We know love is buggy. For the ‘piece de re-sis-tance’, the right ending for a nasty tale, you will have to see the film.

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16/08/02 Film Essay # , , ,

Blue Crush (2002)

Blue Crush (2002)
Director: John Stockwell
Writers: John Stockwell, Lizzy Weiss
Stars: Kate Bosworth, Michelle Rodriguez, Matthew Davis

 

Do you remember the thrill you felt when Holly Hunter rose from the ocean depths in The Piano after she slipped her foot out of her boot and let her beloved piano sink to its watery grave? We heard Ada’s new voice – full of feeling – declare, “My will chooses life” as she gasped for breath and our hearts leapt forward. We shared the exhilaration of her narrow escape from a silence bred by judgement that women should be seen and not heard, cared for but not cared about and live happily ever after as caged birds who never sing.

In Blue Crush, Anne Marie (Kate Bosworth) breaks through that same membrane of a clutching oceanic despair that her life isn’t worth living. But she does it as a modern girl, not one from a past century. This girl deliberately takes on the crushing waves that have nearly silenced her. And she does it time and time again until she conquers the fear – “girls don’t score”.

Yes, Blue Crush is a summer teen movie and, I cannot tell a lie, I was there simply to see the big waves on the big screen. So, when Anne Marie’s story kept tracking, revealing the powerful inside story of a young feminine hero who has already come of age and is now struggling to make it in the world against many, many odds, I was surprised. And I felt personally touched by this ordinary young woman – sexy, well-meaning and delightful – go for it. We don’t have enough movies where girls get the real challenge of spirit, following what Joseph Campbell popularized as their ‘bliss’ on the road less traveled. And while the traditional hero gets the girl as part of his package of winning and succeeding, the feminine hero meets the guy along the way and must risk losing him to achieve her goal. This movie captures that conflict and much more.

Anne Marie is back on her surfboard in the major Pipe Masters competition after an accident three years previous at this same location in Oahu. A treacherous reef lurks beneath the huge waves like Hades in the dark recesses of the earth, waiting to claim the fragile bodies that dare the awesome pipe waves it creates when they fall from their boards. Anne Marie’s fall nearly took her life. But she has returned to try again.

Anne Marie’s critical re-entry to competition is complicated when she meets a guy with real relationship possibility. Matt (Matthew Davis) may be a pro quarterback on vacation but he comes across as a stand-up guy who truly likes her. Matt presents Anne Marie with what all women know as ‘the heroic choice’ just five days before her day in the pipe. It’s not the man per se, not relationship vs. career per se; it’s the mythic moment when a woman becomes her own person. Like Ada in The Piano who knew Baines couldn’t solve her problem, Matt can’t give Anne Marie the solution to facing an age old fear that a girl can’t actualize her talents and step into society on her own two feet. There are many ways a girl can stay tucked into safety, fit into an old vision of woman as childlike and needy of a man to make her whole. Do you know that they actually say, “she’s laying her line” when a surfer enters the pipe? Could surfing the pipe be any more symbolic of a girl meeting the challenge of following her own path?

In Blue Crush, Anne Marie’s mother has left her daughters to go to Las Vegas with a man while Marie is surfing the same spot where she almost lost her life. Only from the mythic perspective that a girl faces her crossover moment to womanhood on her own, without a mother or parent present, can this be believed. And Anne Marie is not completely on her own, like the orphaned knight of many fairy tales. Since this is a feminine hero’s journey, she is not only tossed to the winds of chance and danger but she has a younger sister to look out for!

Fortunately, she has friends who share her dream, wanting her to succeed not just for herself but for women everywhere. One friend is a coach (Sanoe Lake), the other a personal cheerleader (Michelle Rodriquez). They both want to see her picture on the cover of magazines as ‘Teen Girl of the Year’. Her thirteen-year old sister, Penny (Mika Booren) is a brain, a good kid and lucky to have Anne Marie set an example of willful determination before her. When Anne Marie signs in, a friend is right behind her shoring up her confidence.

And Anne Marie is such a girl, not verging toward tomboy, rebel or toughie. She’s driven by feelings, guided by her desires, and wants to be liked for more than a cutie in a bikini. She takes a chance on Matt’s attraction to her, uses her feminine wiles to embarrass the celebrity football players who abuse privilege by leaving their hotel room utterly gross and then befriends them when they want to learn how to surf. She shies away when women who’ve won a place on the surfing circuit show up. She wants to earn their respect, not be the darling upstart. It’s impressive when one of these seasoned women breaks from singular ambition, reaches out to Anne Marie – a bit paralyzed before her run – and launches her down the face of the wave into the pipe. Somehow, we relax. Things are as they should be.

The challenges of a young feminine spirit will be met.

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18/06/99 Film Essay # , , ,

Run Lola Run (1998)

Run Lola Run (1998)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Moritz Bleibtreu, Herbert Knaup

 

(Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1999)

From post-postmodern Germany comes a film that gives a girl the role of Hero, the special one born with the power to prevail against the collective odds. Lola (Franka Potente), despite her punked-up hair and striking looks, is Everygirl, an ordinary young woman of today, whose mother thinks she’s going out on an errand when she’s really running for her life. This Hero, as if in a fairy tale reinvented, has a daddy who betrays her, is weaker than he looks, and turns out to be irrelevant to her problems. At best, he can’t protect her; at worst, he won’t. But the girl still manages — through her persistence and surprising good fortune — to escape the limitations of the disempowered daughter role and score a victory for the feminine.

Lola is a Hero waiting to happen. Fate interferes with her picking up her boyfriend, Manni (Moritz Bleibtrue), after he pulls off a drug deal in Berlin and that misstep sets off a series of events in which Lola has to tap into an amazing ability to reconfigure consequences. Manni, calling from a telephone booth, reaches her at home on her red phone, and, after blaming her for the predicament he is in, pleads with her to come up with a way to save his life — in twenty minutes. Hapless fellow, he has lost the big bag of cash that belongs to mob bosses who are already on the way to pick it up. They will kill him if he doesn’t have their money.

As if held back only by imagination, Lola transforms herself into an animated cartoon. The sheer challenge of the impossible energizes Lola into using magical powers to rescue the Manni she loves. Her hair is dyed bright red as if to signal her affinity to the troupe of wild women who roamed the hippie San Francisco of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb’s fantasies in the sixties. As Lola slides into action mode on the brink of the millennium, she stretches seconds beyond minutes, banishes the past before it becomes memory, and flips the future back into the present so that she, not time, will be in charge of the outcome.

With a wondrous autonomy, Lola revisits her boyfriend’s crisis three times as if learning from her mistakes, each time increasing her focus and decreasing the constriction of circumstance. Her progressive return to the choice-points of the rescue scenario structures the three segments of the movie: in each segment she gets better at releasing herself from her parental legacy and takes on more creative responsibility for shaping the outcome. In the first episode, Lola is revealed as the daughter of a highly placed banker who could rescue her but instead viciously rejects her. In the second episode, Lola turns the tables on her father and manages to save herself but loses what means the most to her. As she repeats the same flurry of activity attempting to wrest enough money from the “world of the fathers” to avoid disaster, her internal interpretation of events shifts and so do the events themselves. Finally, Lola relies on herself, backs up her date with fate by tampering awesomely with the inevitable and walks away with a new future.

As Lola proceeds though her three scenarios and bumps into the same people one after another on her sprint through the city of Berlin, flashes of images appear on her mind’s screen like 15-second commercials, advertising the way her life is changing. Lola’s internal images align with the different external scenarios and envisioning styles. Imagination strongly figures into how things turn out for Lola, who is like an Imaginal Hero.

There’s a wonderful scene that repeats itself in each of the three episodes. A group of people carrying a huge piece of clear glass is walking right in front of an ambulance that is racing to save a man’s life. In the second episode, the ambulance crashes through the invisible barrier posed by the glass. Once this shield of time and space has been broken, the patriarchal order can’t be put back together again, and the movie shifts decidedly in another direction. In a redemptive, Buddhist way, reality becomes what Lola makes of it through her conscientious mindfulness. This insight is the boon this feminine Hero brings back from her challenge to the odds against a victory for compassion.

If I were a girl, I would like to be told “Run Lola Run” over and over again. Every night when I went to bed I would ask for the Lola story. Tykwer’s film makes me feel like it is okay to be Lola, spinning her red telephone in the air, warping time and slipping from one reality to another like an animated cartoon hero. “Tell me the part about what she did to the phone again,” I would like to beg of the freestyling storyteller.

Forget Clever Gretel who saves her brother through trickery, forget Snow White who, though fairest-of-them-all, doesn’t know a witch when she sees one, and forget that persona-struck Cinderella who goes for a guy who can’t recognize her in street clothes. I want the colorful Lola, who leaps into action when her boyfriend is in trouble, keeps her wits about her when time is running out, and manipulates her perspective like a kid with a computer game. I would insist. If I am to grow up and be comfortable on city streets, I want flaming red hair (not a short red cape) to mark my coming of age, and I want the death-defying, life-affirming ending that any decent Hero gets. I need a fairy tale where the girl is unique, triumphs over evil, and inspires hope.

Miraculously, Lola’s race against the odds is also winning at the box office.Run Lola Run has gotten a better run for its money than most independently produced foreign films: in many cities, its time on the big screen has been extended. Wherever you live, beg for this movie – insist upon it. When you see Lola go for the big bag of fairy dust, you’ll enjoy being with her, and believe again in the possibility of change.

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