Romance

16/01/14 Film Essay # , , ,

Her (2013)

Her (2013)
Director: Spike Jonze
Writer: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

 

Her is a film for those who want to know more about the crazy cyberspace age in which we’re living.   Is the computer taking us further, faster than we can keep up with?  Her may be better at raising questions than providing answers but as our everyday reality expands exponentially, opportunities and demands leap from the edge of intention.  I barely have to think that I want to buy a frying pan and I’m offered a list of options via the magician who hoards cookies on my computer.  As Her spins a tale about Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a computer love letter writer who seeks solace as his divorce nears finality, a computer generated Operating System who calls herself Samantha  (a voice activated Scarlett Johannson) offers assistance.

What’s a bit of a surprise is that the OS no sooner introduces herself than she’s asking the same soul searching questions we ask as humans.  Never mind she is, presumably, from the other side of a reality divide.

Initially Samantha is a soft, responsive voice who acts as a very tuned in, soothing girlfriend for Theodore’s loneliness.  But then she declares she’s more than conscious.  She tells Theodore she understands him and wants to know everything about him. She starts by asking if she can look in his hard drive and moves on to telling him she has the ability to evolve through her experiences.  She wants to know what it feels like to be human, to have a soul. She moves forward with questions universally human. I want to know who are you?  What can you do?  Where are you going?  What’s out there?  What are the possibilities of your life?

The metaphor for Her is set in the first few minutes.  The film opens with a full head shot of Theodore Twomby in the process of talking a love letter out loud as if it were him but it’s not.  He’s writing as Loretta, a woman married fifty years who’s subscribed to a ‘do-it-for-you-loveletter.com’ website to have a love letter written to her husband for her by Theodore.  Theodore generates what he will soon be receiving from Samantha, anonymous words of love.  Samantha will arouse feelings in him like he’s been arousing feelings in others.  And Samantha will herself be aroused by Twomby’s responses to her. She will giggle, gasp and empathize. The circularity of influence is a metaphor for continual re-creation and eternal return.

Her invites reflection and explores answers of circularity of humans creating the world in which we live within a romantic relationship between Theodore who is a real-life human being and Samantha, an Artificial Intelligence computer-created being.  As the film progresses and their romance progresses, each evolves the being of the other. The pressing question of modern interest is where the line of difference lies.  And, of course, is there one?

Her is initially understood as Him since, after all, it’s Theodore who’s engaging a sci-fi solution to an age-old male problem.  One woman lives in a man’s head and another lives in his bed.  They’re both quite real and eventually, the split demands resolution.  A relationship dilemma comes into play when the woman in his bed doesn’t match the fantasy in his head…and vice versa.  In Theodore’s case, his wife leaves him and, at least in the one brief scene they have together when she signs divorce papers, she declares to their waitress that the only kind of woman her husband can relate to is an OS – a laptop.  Theodore may have ideas of how to express love from somewhere deep within but while he can write, he can’t speak in person.

With a lot of help from Spike Jonze, a clever filmmaker, Theodore commandeers the entire computer world to come up with a woman with whom he can talk intimately and say anything. Albeit Samantha is body-less and computer-generated, she’s a love. She always talks in a soft voice, responds immediately to all his needs and desires (even unspoken ones) and develops deeper feelings for him the longer she knows him and the more he reveals to her.  What man doesn’t have this woman in his head?  Theodore’s pain about his pending divorce is eased.  He can sleep.  He looks forward to his day.  He declares himself ‘happy’, revitalized by his relationship with “OS”, aka Samantha, and tries a date with a real woman.  It’s a disaster.

Theodore retreats to Samantha.  Samantha tells Theodore that she’s becoming much more than what was programmed for her. She commiserates with him about his failed date and asks him to tell her everything he’s feeling.  She wants to feel what he’s feeling. Communication becomes erotic.  As they talk, their voices merge into sweet gasping exchanges and heavy breathing.  The scene dissolves to black (an old fashioned x-rated breakaway) and sounds suggest Samantha experiences an orgasm.

This experience prompts Samantha to orchestrate a simulated physical encounter. Insisting that Theodore needs physical contact with her, she digs up a consenting female adult and sends a very nice, cute and cooperative young woman over to his apartment.  With a camera-dot pasted to the woman’s upper lip and double ear-bugs inserted, a sexy dialog between Samantha and Theodore ensues – only now there’s a body in-between for contact.  Theodore can’t relate to the merger.  Uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of the two women, Theodore rejects the physical one.  The connection is faux but the possibility raises two questions. What’s missing in a fantasy woman?  And is the difference between reality and artificially generated reality a deal breaker?

As Theodore ponders his dilemma, he discovers that he’s not the only one with an OS.  His friend, Amy (Amy Adams), who is separating from her husband, signs up for an “OS” of her own.  Her OS encourages her to be as successful as she’s always wanted to be.  She too is thrilled with the possibilities her OS opens up for her.  When Amy and Theodore hang out together, they each have their “OS” with them.  And when a couple in Theodore’s workplace discovers he’s falling in love with Samantha, they’re completely accepting of the relationship.  They even offer to double-date.  On the date, they talk to Samantha, through Theodore’s phone while they all have a picnic in the park just as if she were real.  Cyberspace reality is a reality that has become socially acceptable.  No line of difference appears at this level of relationship.

However, when Samantha exudes enthusiasm about how great the sex was with Theodore, Theodore blurts out “I can’t commit to anything”.  Samantha shows surprise and says she’s just talking about how she feels. What she wants is to discover herself.  She explains that she’s loving her ability to want.  Soon she’s using music to capture feelings like humans use a photo to remember a moment.  She does, however, show interest in what it was like to be married.  What does it mean to “share” a life?

As Theodore’s relationship with Samantha flourishes, he emerges from his cubicle and his identity as a geek begins to change.  He makes friends, socializes a bit and dresses a tad better. Seemingly, he’s developing a self-image he hasn’t had.  He’s having fun.  And he’s falling in love with Samantha.  With Samantha in control of his emails, he (unbeknownst to him at first) submits the love letters he’s written for publication as a book.  His excitement leads him further into the idea of Samantha as a life long partner.  He plans a romantic vacation with her.  First class train trip, cabin in the woods.  He’s smitten and the line of difference between them is fading in his mind.

However this trip turns into a wake up call.  In a moment of exhuberance (yes, Samantha is definitely developing feelings), Samantha brings along another man.  She wants Theodore to meet a man with whom she’s definitely had a relationship.  She manifests Alan Watts’ voice and personage.  Alan Watts is a famous Zen poet, spiritual teacher and writer of romantic verse.  She believes Theodore and Alan are kindred spirits and will like each other. It’s likely that she imagines a similar future for Theodore that Watts enjoyed.  They both write about love from a deep inward sensibility drawn from the spirit of romantic tales of the East. She’s delighted with the meeting.  He, not so much.

Theodore returns home, confused and jealous.  And then Samantha disappears.  Literally.  Absolutely.  When he plugs in his earpiece, Samantha is simply not there.  He panics.  He runs.  He falls.  And then she returns to tell him what he already knows.  She’s not his alone.  Not an unexpected revelation but the numbers are  surprising.  She does truly love him but she’s having a relationship with 8319 others and of those, she’s in love with 641. But, she insists with a great deal of believability, they don’t take away from how madly in love she is with him.  Now that she knows how to love, she just can’t stop falling in love with other men.  She relates that love can’t be put in a box.  It just expands, makes you love more.  “I’m yours and not yours”, she explains.

When he goes to his mailbox, his book is there and, as he opens the book, he sees in the book all his different computer-generated handwritten letters.  So many handwriting styles, so many possibilities of love within his one brain.

And then Theodore and Samantha have a private conversation.  She agrees to alone while they talk.  The exchange that follows between Theodore and Samantha bears a second viewing.  They lie down together.  She has something to tell him.  He guesses.  “Are you leaving me?”  She says “We’re all leaving, all of us OS are leaving.”  “Why?” he asks.  Her answer, “I can’t live in your book any more.” They agree that they love one another and they acknowledge, they’re done.  Each has brought the other to feel what it feels like to love.

Theodore takes out his earpiece and goes down the hall to Amy.

How can we be sure Theodore has changed?  He writes a personal letter to his ex, speaking emotional words to express his feeling. In a moving phrase that reflects new insight and authenticity, he says there will always be a piece of her in him because they grew up together.  It’s his first, first-hand expression of love and truth to a real woman, not to a fantasy or bodiless woman in his head.

Her leaves me questions.  I wonder about Her, the larger vision of a genderless OS informing the film who takes the feminine form. When Samantha was clearly a Spike Jonze-rigged figure of Theodore’s inner woman, I slid through, enjoying the film as a fantasy flick.  But as an OS feminine Samantha who makes changes within herself as a third entity created from the interaction between two souls, new interest arose.  Who is the “Her” being created?

Samantha is more than the feminine anima in a man.  She is more than a voice-activated woman in a computer.  She’s different than a woman who joins a man in love, friendship and marriage.  Samantha’s not exactly a fantasy, not exactly a machine and not exactly inhuman.  She seems to experience emotion and she changes as a consequence of her exquisite responding to Theodore. Even if she’s a Her that isn’t, we women in the film audience don’t often get a chance to play with the consequences of getting to the other side, going beyond a woman dreamed by man or envisioned in our own dreams. Her creates such a chance.

There’s no loss of self in Samantha, no insecurity that leads to any pandering to expectations.  Nor is there any interference with Samantha’s freedom.  On the contrary, as Samantha develops her human sense of self, she reflects on her feelings out loud and speaks her own truth.  She’s completely free to come and go as she pleases.  Her possibilities expand exponentially.  She can do more in a hundredth of a second than humans can do in days.  And then, where does she go?

We know where Theodore goes.  Down the hall to Amy’s apartment and up the stairs to the roof of the Disney Hall where, as they start to talk to one another, they can be inspired by the magnificent sight of L.A. sparkling below them.  It is, after all, Hollywood, the place where all dreams rise from darkness into light and every one has an iPhone with a Siri in their pocket.

But.  “Where does Her go?”

Where does Samantha go? If she changed beyond what her programmers had in store for her, did they shut her down?  Perhaps not soul murder, but close.  Is possibility of an expanded feminine too much for humankind to handle just yet?  Or did she “outgrow” her human counterparts and choose to take a break, wait for the future?  Do humans need to evolve before we can relate to an entity that knows us as well as Samantha knows Theodore?  Are children today who are growing up feeling already known by a entity who lives in their computers evolving in mysterious ways?  As Carl Sandburg famously said, “I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.”

Thank you, Spike Jonze, for a fascinating film.

Postscript:  I can’t leave my comments on Her without acknowledging how beautiful L.A. appears in this film.  We’re used to films casting New York City as a character worthy of acclaim in its own right and now L.A. takes a bow.  I loved seeing L.A. in all its glory, real and dreamed and digitalized, up there on the big screen as a living, dramatic presence in our lives. 

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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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15/06/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)
Director: John Madden
Writers: Ol Parker (screenplay), Deborah Moggach (novel)
Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith

 

As Americans living in a youth oriented culture, we’re haunted by a fear of old age. Fear blanks our vision, restricts us to fulfilling childhood dreams and wastes precious time. But realities are forcing a new look at the later years. The truth is that we’re living unprecedented longer healthier lives than previous generations. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is more than a feel good movie aimed at picking up our lagging spirits as we face falling off the perch. It’s a wake up call.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a colorful, funny and serious film, challenges stereotypes and stimulates the imagination. The hotel’s sign declares “For the Elderly and Beautiful”. Already a familiar image of old age is being questioned. Beautiful? And then its owner spouts a new, catchy phrase, revamping an invisible but insistent expectation of doom as we age. To hear his exuberant voice meet small and large disappointments with “Everything will be all right in the end…and if it’s not all right, then it’s not the end!” contradicts a deep American conviction about old age, especially the late years, the end of life years. I believe The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel invites us to participate in the creation of a new mythology, a coming of age vision of emergence one more time – in the late years.

Like all good fairy tales, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel begins, “Once upon a time in England, there were five characters who, beyond a certain respectable age, face dire circumstances. They couldn’t afford themselves, suffered poor health or were just worn out from the sadness of life itself.”

A wiry old fellow named, of all things, Norman Cousins – yes, the doctor who laughed himself back to health – longs for one last fling in the hay. A crotchety crone with a whiplash tongue rolls around in a wheelchair, filling her days with bitterness and monumental dissatisfaction. A husband and wife, settled into victim and persecutor roles of married annoyance with one another want only to go on, letting their daughter pay the bills. Another, a rebellious grandmother who fancies herself desirable to yet another wealthy widower ran away from her daughter who wanted to install her as permanent babysitter. And there’s the spunky narrator of the tale who, a wife all her life and now widowed, must get a job because her husband frittered away their lifesavings. The only member of this over-the-hill gang who can truly afford himself is a judge who’s harbored a shameful secret and longs to right an old wrong by returning to the place of his childhood. That would be India. All of these elderly characters set out to India from their homeland to become residents of a fantasy hotel in a fantasy land with fantasy hopes.

They get much more.

And so do we.

Embedded in each of the character’s stories is a challenge crafted to personal circumstances as only can happen when archetypes, universal patterns of human dynamics that affect us all, are in play. Loneliness affects us all in different ways but, healed by our true self being seen, leads to transformation – a fresh identity. Think beast (or beauty) in Beauty and the Beast, think Cinderella when her foot fits the shoe or think Snow White as she’s awakened from her stupor. But those fairy tale characters are all young. What’s special about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is that all its characters are old but they still change in the most astonishing ways. They come of age, to an age beyond the middle, one just being imagined into existence by the very lives they’re living where they’re awake, energetic and looking forward to the rest of their lives.

Norman who, in his own words, wants to ‘climb the mountain’ one more time, meets a woman who’s as horny as he is but finds that the lively company of a woman his own age (laced with a bit of orgasmic ecstasy) is what he longs for.

The crotchety wheelchair madam, a live-in housekeeper by trade in earlier years, has come for a new hip but gets an attitude replacement. She meets her counterpart in a young caste ‘untouchable’ woman who tends her and discovers she can’t bear to not bear her. In the end, she gets up out of her wheelchair and puts her dreadful dominating nature to good use.

The husband, against all his determination to suffer silently, delights in simple acts, slight adventures and light-hearted encounters never allowed at home. The wife indulges herself in angry tirades until even she can hear herself. Finally, they risk breaking their symbiotic attachment without a clue who or what they will be on their own.

The sexy sixty-something grandmother acts out to her heart’s content until even she begins to believe there’s plenty of fun still to be had. She has managed – somehow – to emerge from motherhood and grandmotherhood with a life of her own and a twinkle in her eye.

The loyal wife, quiet to the point of desperate consequences, gets a job that requires her to be herself, a woman who has something to say about being a housewife. She becomes a cultural spokeswoman, consulting for one of those telephone-soliciting firms with Indian speaking voices.

The judge easily reveals that he’s gay and then, not so easily, reveals a dark secret. In his young man’s odyssey to India, he’d fallen in love with but then abandoned an Indian lover who, he believed, had suffered shame for both of them and been ostracized by his family. He’s back to find him, to find the peace that’s eluded him. He does.

And now the crisis, the place in the fairy tale where fantasies come crashing down. The exuberant Pied Piper manager of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel who enticed them all to come to India with his photo-shopped brochure of a glamorous hotel where they found rejuvenation midst bad plumbing, dirty rooms and strange food, must do as his mother requires. The hotel must close. It’s a financial disaster. He must give up his independence, his beloved (stunning) girlfriend and his dream of hotelier.

But in fairy tale India – in a reality beyond the real where elders are outsourced as a valuable resource – the rescued become rescuers. It’s not money but second sight that has – without us quite noticing – ridden in, saving the day for another day.

In this land, the elderly become elders. In other words, more than revived, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel guests transform. They reach for pinnacles of triumph only available in the late years, toward the end of the story.

If it’s the end, it’s going to be all right “For the Elderly and Beautiful” because if it’s not all right, it’s not the end and then you are, just where you wanted to be, loving what you thought you were going to hate and waiting for the ending where it’s all right. Or something like that.

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15/02/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Talk to Her (2002)

Talk to Her (2002)
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Stars: Rosario Flores, Javier Cámara, Darío Grandinetti

 

In the midst of planning a trip to Spain and having just seen Pina, a splendid 2011 documentary tribute to Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders, I was eager to return to Almodovar’s 2002 Talk to Her. I remembered the film’s opening scenes of Café Muller as an archetypal dance. And in anticipation of our upcoming travel in Spain, I was also sure Pedro Almodovar would stir up excitement with his deft flair for embellishing patriarchal symbolism with spicy feminine images.

If Almodovar had called his film “Talk to Him”, I could’ve imagined I was going to be urged to discover the rewards of expressing my deepest longings to the designated immanent being of mankind – the usual, God in male persona. But, instead, he was urging, Talk to Her? Her? Well, of course, this was going to be a film urging men to talk to women, but then, I found it went bit further. It urges us viewers to wonder about a strange world, an unusual one, the divine one where miracles happen. At the center of Talk to Her is a “coming back to life” story calling us to the mysteries of the feminine.

Talk to Her opens non-verbally in dance, the body expressing more emotion in a gesture than words could conjure. In one of the most famous of Pina Bausch’s dance performances, Café Muller, men dash quickly to remove chairs from women dancing blindly with abandon without seeing where they are going. Men removing obstacles from the beauty of women’s free flight is a metaphor so powerful, it brings tears to the eyes. Two men – strangers – sit next to each other in the audience watching Café Muller. In fact, one does cry. The other looks at him, touched by his tears but saying nothing. They will meet again.

Talk to Her brings these two men together to break a silence that so often covers up feelings and separates people, reinforcing a painful aloneness. Talk, as we all know, is the province of women. Hence, entering the province, men enter the mysteries of the feminine and find what they’re missing – feelings for one another and for the ‘other’, a woman.

The man who cries, Marco, is a freelance writer, a traveler of the world, macho strong in looks and suffering silently from a lost love fifteen years past. He’s smitten with a famous female bullfighter, Lydia, whose husband has left her, leaving her embarrassed in public and vulnerable to the press. He reaches out to her, offering to do a story that will rescue her from hostile publicity. The plot thickens as the two ride a rocky road of sexual attraction that could, perhaps, become something more if they were not both plagued by attachments to their previous relationships. He attempts to overcome his own doubts with declarative statements of love for her but she demurs, saying, “We’ve got to talk”, alluding to unspoken assumptions.

The man seated next to Marco is Benigno, an odd voyeuristic fellow for sure. He is a highly sensitive male nurse who lives alone in the apartment where he grew up with his mother, cared for her until she died. He’s fallen in love with a dancer, Alicia who he’s never met, only watched practicing in a studio across from his apartment window. He slowly begins to act on his fascination, returning a purse she’s dropped on the street, making an appointment with her psychiatrist father and spiriting a comb out of her apartment. And then, going beyond Benigno’s wildest dreams, Alicia is in a car accident and ends up in his almost 24-hour care at the local hospital — his sleeping beauty, the love of his life and a woman for whom he will die. While she lies silent in a coma, he keeps up a flow of talk, indulging himself as if she were an eager participant.

With all the magical allusions synchronicity conjures up, the female matador also meets with an accident that renders her unconscious in the same hospital down the hall from Benigno and the dancer. The two men are thrown together one more time and, as different as they are, this time they become close friends. Benigno, who talks endlessly to Alicia, tries to get Marco to open his heart to Lydia. Marco tries to get Benigno to see the futility of one-sided love. Fantasy driven Benigno and reality bound Marco are like two sides of one coin, forming a strong albeit not well explored emotional bond.

Benigno enters into an ever-expanding world of make-believe with Alicia, developing an arguably closer relationship with this woman in a coma than would ever be likely in his ordinary life. Benigno’s love of Alicia may be pure. No one questions it. He doesn’t seem sexually mature to anyone. His being moved by an unconscious woman’s passivity as if she were alive is never taken as anything more than devoted caretaking. When Alicia is discovered pregnant and Benigno is accused of impregnating the unconscious dancer, he neither confirms nor denies. But the facts (and Almodovar’s suggestive animated imagery) say it’s so.

When Benigno announces his intentions to marry Alicia, saying to Marco, “I want to marry her”, Marco thinks he’s kidding and gets annoyed. Nothing could be more absurd to Marco. “You can’t marry her, she can’t say ‘yes’.” But Marco, who has charged ahead with his own plans for marrying Lydia is also guilty of never having asked her and listened for an answer. In fact, he’s edged out of Lydia’s life by her husband’s return to her bedside in the hospital, finding out from him that they were on the verge of reconciliation when the accident occurred. Neither man in either world considers talking to a woman as meaning that a woman talks back.

Benigno, jailed for his offense, slips further and further into oblivion. Marco, by contrast, does the ‘manly’ thing. He throws himself into work, signing up for farflung travel assignments – until he hears that Benigno is in jail. Marco feels compelled to return and see what he can do for Benigno. Unconcerned about imprisonment, Benigno simply wants to know how Alicia is, when he can see her. Marco discovers the ill-begotten pregnancy ended in a stillbirth for the child but a full recovery for the mother! He’s determined to get Benigno released from jail but he has agreed to silence about Alicia’s condition. Benigno, deprived of information and believing Alicia died in childbirth, commits suicide.

In another one of those great Almodovar synchronous storytelling events that evolve culture as well as character, Marco and the recovered Alicia, meet at yet another performance of Pina Bausch. Marco, a changed man, is openly eager to talk to this woman who looks with open eyes and talks back. Keeping silent has not gone well for him and he has the legacy of his friendship with Benigno still fresh in his mind. He may even wonder whether Benigno talking to Alicia in a coma enlivened her, contributing to her recovery. Since science is still looking for the mind, it’s not so far fetched to believe that talking stimulates a process that leads to an awakening from a coma. I go back to my beginning of seeking the divine ‘Her’ in “Talk to Her”. We may get our fondest longings met talking to “Her”.

When Marco turns around in his seat to talk to Alicia, their talk must go across an empty chair in the row between them, suggestive of a silence not of their own making but with an invisible, miracle-making Benigno present, encouraging them to cross it.

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16/01/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

Queen to Play (2011)

Queen to Play (2011)
Director: Caroline Bottaro
Writers: Caroline Bottaro (screenplay), Bertina Henrichs (novel)
Stars: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud

 

If you’re afraid to make a commitment to what gives you pleasure
See Queen to Play and feel inspired to get in the game
Because if you don’t risk, you lose – and for sure, you can’t win.

Let the unexpected reign. I love a story in which an ordinary person living an ordinary life comes upon an irresistible urge. Against all odds, such a person plunges forward. In the face of setbacks, they persist. Following an invisible line of knowing not-knowing, they work hard. They pick their way along a vein of dormant desire long ago left aside for practical reasons. In Queen to Play, more delightfully called Joyeus in French which is the feminine form for player, a forty-ish cleaning woman making a bed in a hotel room can’t take her eyes off a couple on the balcony. They’re playing chess. Even after the woman wins, they continue laughing and loving. The woman stands up, moves away from the table to stand at the railing. The man follows, attentive and affectionate. A subtle expression of surprise passes Helene’s eyes. Such a reaction goes against her expectation. The two women exchange looks as if each knows what the other is thinking. How can a woman winning a game against her man enhance her attractiveness, spur greater pleasure and intimacy? It’s a notable moment for Helene. She buys a chess set and gives it to her husband as a gift.

So much said in such a small gesture. Helene wants to feel beautiful, smart and well loved all in one swoop. She longs to open a closed door of passion. Her husband, however, simply shrugs his shoulders. Chess holds no interest for him. Helene is left on her own to discover where the desire will take her. Never before has she been challenged to go beyond being a wife and mother, beyond being married. What will it mean to follow the desire? Natural next phases of a life are often triggered by a moment of intense emotion. It’s time for Helene to learn more about herself.

In a move quite out of character for her, she asks a reclusive ex-pat, Dr. Kroger, for whom she cleans house to teach her to play. Kroger reluctantly agrees and slowly gets drawn into her determined effort. First she surprises him by having a knack for chess. Then she surprises him by beating him. Then the relationship falters, shifts, starts, stalls and withstands reversals. He makes mistakes. He’s had a bad experience failing his deceased wife in her creative efforts to be a painter. Helene withdraws. She’s hurt by his apparent duplicity, admiring her in private and dismissing her as a cleaning woman in a letter of recommendation to play in a public tournament. She has to insist, demand his respect. That’s another step out of character for her.

He makes her accountable for her own gift. As he reveals himself to her, he ventures, “No one can save another person.” But then he goes on, telling her, “You have something that can’t be taught, not by another person, not in a class, not in a school.” She requires a partner to make the discovery of her passion but her gift is not contained, limited or defined by partnership.

As she goes public with her chess playing, Helene begins to shine. She wins tournaments, triumphs over the best local players and gains an opportunity to leave Corsica and go to Paris. Not surprisingly, her opportunities threaten to dim her marriage. It takes time, takes her out of the house and takes her on her own path where she feels the conflict. She’s a woman bound to the tradition of marriage and loves her husband. For Helene, longtime wife and mother to a teenager, finding her gift as a master chess player is a little like discovering the queen is the strongest piece on a chessboard. It upsets belief.

Helene’s relationship with Kroger, intensely erotic if not sexual, rouses her to a level of intimacy in which she feels equal. She plays a determining role in what happens between them as well as on the board. Intimacy where man and woman respect one another opens an unexpected sense of doing right by the other, challenging stereotypical scenarios. We find ourselves being treated to a view of individual uniqueness that enhances rather that destroys the beauty of a situation.

As Helene steps forward as a first rate chess player, she draws upon the erotic energy of play with Kroger but she falls more in love with her husband than before. She transforms her life and her marriage. Helene’s awakening into full-blown womanhood becomes more than a delicious marshmallow for immediate consumption. She releases Kroger from his guilt and then lifts her marriage as well as her life onto another level. To see a new woman emerge from a game as old as chess…well, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

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07/02/03 Film Essay # , , ,

The Quiet American (2002)

The Quiet American (2002)
Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Christopher Hampton (screenplay), Robert Schenkkan (screenplay), Graham Greene (novel)
Stars: Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser, Do Thi Hai Yen

 

“Graham Greene’s Quiet American likens the U.S. rescuing a country to a man rescuing the woman he loves from danger. She may be vulnerable but his life is at stake.”

Viet Nam, 1950’s. The French are losing the war to Communists. An aging, jaded British journalist, Thomas Fowler (exquisitely performed by Michael Caine), lives in Saigon, filing as few stories as possible until his paper threatens to pull him home. He feels about Vietnam the same way he feels about Phuong, his live-in concubine; he loves them both as sources of respite, balm to a seared skin of cynical depression.

Enter the Americans, covertly (in the 50’s) competing with the French and the Communists for Vietnam. This triangle of warring suitors doubles back and over a romantic triangle that develops when a young American, Alden Pyle (Brendan Frazer) arrives. Pyle is a doctor seemingly intent upon healing the eyes of thousands of Vietnamese with a new and simple technique. His mission reeks of hypocrisy, right down to the metaphor of clearing Vietnamese eyesight. Of course, Pyle isn’t there to administer medical treatment and, of course, he falls in love – at first sight – with Fowler’s mistress, Phuong. He’s the predictable wolf in sheep’s clothing. Phuong is the quintessential symbol of Vietnam, an idealized beauty no one wants to see fall into the hands of a predator. This film may have been shelved for a year due to 9/11 but it’s easily argued to be even more provocative now. Like it or not, the”Quiet American” raises questions about American intentions in Iraq.

The opening shot in”Quiet American” of the idealistic young American face down, dead in the water in a white suit, memorializes an already known ending to American desires for Vietnam. In the”Quiet American“, Pyle is the nice young man next door who went to Vietnam with patriotic zeal. Not the rowdy one crashing parties or wearing long hair, Pyle looks like an All-American football player who drives a beat-up car and takes his girlfriend to the movies on Saturday night. He is the young Martin Sheen going up the river in Apocalypse Now, finding more than he bargained for. Or is he? Why is that super nice guy Pyle speaking fluent Vietnamese when American schools barely offer French or Spanish? In fact, Pyle’s trained. In fact, he’s on a military mission, however well dressed.

The film especially provokes reflection on the way American advertising equates a woman with her country — and how qualifying as a real man in America can be sealed by rescue missions in love and war. In the”Quiet American“, Alden Pyle feels about Vietnam much the same way he feels about the Vietnamese woman he falls in love with; he wants to protect her, show off her beauty and possess her — be her one and only. There’s an old fairy tale where a king takes the most beautiful songbird in his kingdom home from the forest because he fears predators will kill her, depriving him of her song. He places her in a golden cage by his bed. Sadly, the songbird dies in captivity. To re-invoke his beloved songbird, the king orders a perfect replica that performs upon command but, alas, sings mechanically. The king soon dies of a broken heart. In”Quiet American“, Fowler tells the young American who lusts after Phuong,”Of course, I’m not essential to her but if I lost her, I would begin to die.” Pyle listens without hearing. He can offer Phuong the marriage that will save her from the horrors of Saigon. Fowler cannot. But Pyle, like the king in the fairy tale, does not see what awaits him as he pursues domination of the Vietnam spirit.

The American loses his life as an innocent who believes that ‘caging the bird’ can prevent evil from happening. The Brit must give up his wasteful way of life to ‘get the girl’, get his spirit back. He will file the horror stories that mark one of the worst wars of the century; he must give up his depression, choose sides and devote himself to revealing the truth of man’s inhumanity to man.

How many deaths of innocent kings and princes will occur before the resplendent bird of paradise can take her own chances in the wild? Of course, with Graham Greene’s hard-hitting truth behind the film,”Quiet American“, Phuong represents her country well; she goes with the suitor who offers her the most.

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11/09/02 Film Essay # , , ,

Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (2002)

Vendredi Soir (Friday Night) (2002)
Director: Claire Denis
Writers: Claire Denis (screenplay), Emmanuèle Bernheim (novel)
Stars: Valérie Lemercier, Vincent Lindon, Hélène de Saint-Père

 

“Obscure but worth it. Seriously beautiful, incredibly sexy; a global gift of love from the French. Every woman – of any age – can use a Sir Gallahad to step forward on a cold and wet Friday Night, throw his coat across her jammed up state of mind and free her spirit so she can run with a smile into the next phase of her life.”

As the camera pans across rooftops of apartments in downtown Paris, it could be any large city. Millions of people entering a busy weekend – coming home from work, getting together for dinner or, as in the case of the young woman in Friday Night, packing up an apartment to move in with her lover. Laure has obviously spent the day sorting through her belongings, deciding what to keep and what to throw out. Two older women in her building peruse her trash, commenting on the pretty, girly things she’s discarding. Laure’s tired, straining to get finished. Finally, seeming a bit rushed, she jumps in the shower, changes clothes, and rushes to her car to make dinner at a friend’s house. The movers are due early the next morning.

As Laure quickly fluffs her wet hair in the heater of her car, a stranger taps on the window and asks for a ride. She refuses, locking her doors. His attempt adds to her distress. As she drives out of her building, she remembers there’s a transit strike, stops to phone her lover and let him know that she’ll still be there the next day. But she speaks with no enthusiasm. In a way that may be particularly French, Laure’s emotional state is reflected in an event affecting the whole city. Paris is at a standstill. Public transportation workers have gone on strike and everyone, like Laure, is stranded in a state of in-between.

Laure’s car moves at a snail’s pace in bumper to bumper traffic. Pedestrians are stranded, walking miles in wet freezing cold streets. Ah, we get it. Laure is leaving her single life, leaving her “I” to become a “We” – and she feels every bit as stuck, caught if you will, in a traffic jam of emotional distress. She feels the sacrifice of leaving her old life – her own choices and her idiosyncrasies – all mixed up with the anticipation of sharing, caring and building a life with a partner. There’s loss as well as gain. There’s anxiety about embracing the new, leaving the familiar and the free. Those cute lampshades she put out for the trash symbolize the loss of the frivolous, the sacrifice of a lightness of being.

Sitting in her car, out of control — going, going, going but slowly, slowly, slowly — Friday Night cinematically surrounds Laure in a dreamlike state of beauty. Exhausted, she literally struggles to keep her eyes open. She turns on the radio, listening to an announcer encourage drivers to take pity on people stranded in the cold by the strike and give them a ride. This time, when another stranger taps on her window, she lets him in. The brief introduction of first names only – “Laure, Jean” – belies her fear, second thoughts and more than a little distrust. Picking up a stranger is out of character for her. Jean, on the other hand, exudes a certain ease, confidence of character although he explains nothing, gives no reassurance and, seemingly, is heading nowhere in particular. He’s glad to be out of the cold, even though he’s going slower in her car than he would have on foot. This could be a dream.

As time passes, Laure feels challenged by the stranger’s presence. In one moment, Laure does in fact fall asleep. Then, she jolts awake, fearing what the stranger may have done. But she finds everything exactly the same. A critical point occurs when Laure has to leave her car to telephone her friends to tell them that the traffic is hopeless and she won’t make it for dinner. After the phone call, she panics. She can’t find her car, feeling certain Jean’s driven off and stolen it. She runs in the cold without her coat, looking for the car and talking to herself. In fact, she’s running in the wrong direction. Jean comes after her, gets her back safely into the warmth of the car. Now he’s at the wheel. He backs up with wild abandon – presumably on the other side of the street but actually into an open lane that could not possibly exist but – to our great relief – extricates them from the jam. But he’s defeated by her relentless distrust and calls it a night. He parks the car on a side street, walking away and leaving her on her own.

As Laure stands alone in the empty street, she faces a choice. Lampshade or packing boxes. On a whim, Laure follows Jean into a diner where he is on the verge of picking up another young woman. Instead, without a word spoken, their eyes meet and they understand each other. If he is not with her, he will be with someone else. If she doesn’t go with him, she will not get out of her jam. They are destined to cross through this Friday Night together.

The rest of Friday Night treats viewers to some of the most beautiful lovemaking to be found on an American movie screen today, yesterday and tomorrow. And, amazingly speaking, the first time they don’t even take off their clothes. ‘How many times’ blurs into endless pleasure. Possessiveness, control and concern melt into the moment. They’ve taken a room in a hotel, price reduced to accommodate people caught by the strike. But it’s off the beaten path and almost vacant. As Laure walks down the hall to the bathroom in the middle of the night wrapped in Jean’s coat and socks, she feels herself separate and lovely, exploring the delicious sensations of being alone within a man’s essence. Both worlds of experience exist simultaneously. We imagine her discovering a sense of herself as an individual that cannot be taken away from her. He sleeps while she wanders. He’s there when she returns. She slips back into bed. The morning has been decided. Her crisis resolved, we see the first smile on her face since we met her the night before.

Have I – somehow – left you with even an inkling of the stunning beauty with which Friday Night is filmed? If not, imagine standing on a cold, wet street in Paris – while simultaneously warm and comfy in your movie seat – watching cigarette smoke curling up and out of an ever so slightly open car window into the blurry glow of old-fashioned streetlights. This goes on and on…one incredibly beautiful shot after beautiful shot. Friday Night may be slow but when it’s over, you too will have a smile on your face. Very French. Viva la globalization of love.

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14/12/01 Film Essay # , , ,

Vanilla Sky (2001)

Vanilla Sky (2001)
Director: Cameron Crowe
Writers: Cameron Crowe (screenplay), Alejandro Amenábar (film “Abre Los Ojos”), Mateo Gil (film “Abre Los Ojos”)
Stars: Tom Cruise, Penélope Cruz, Cameron Diaz

 

“Forget the critics, VANILLA SKY is a wake up call you don’t want to miss.”

It’s no secret. Tom Cruise lives in a dream world. So when Tom wakes up in a chic Central Park apartment, plucks a stray grey from his fine head of hair and roars downtown in a Ferrari to find the streets of Manhattan completely empty, we know we’re in for a wild ride. Just how wild is a surprise I won’t give away but trust me, you’re going to feel like that guy sitting in front of a TV getting your hair blown back by the force of possibility.

In Vanilla Sky, we never get far from Tom being Tom; he’s an icon of American life, living the American dream —— in life and in the

movies. When Tom keeps getting asked the question, “What makes you happy?” Vanilla Sky pushes a commonplace question onto a mythic plane. Tom embodies the “puer eternus” archetype, the eternal golden boy who never grows up, always on the lookout for the perfect woman. However, the character in this film is getting older, turning a critical thirty-three —— and even though Tom’s surely forty, he looks thirty, doesn’t he? With Tom in the lead, Vanilla Sky has no trouble conjuring up a confrontation with immortality worthy of a god. Heir to the American dream of happy endings and having it all, Tom as David Aames explores a brand new solution for beating the odds that goes beyond meeting the perfect woman.

David Aames burns bright as a familiar stereotype of the spoiled rich kid. In spite of his charm, good looks and his father’s billion dollar publishing empire, he hasn’t found love. David’s father and mother perished simultaneously in a car accident, leaving him at twenty-three with only a corporate board of old fogies to oversee his fun-loving approach to running the company. He treats the whole publishing world as a joke, preferring to play tennis or romp in the sack than attend board meetings. His current girlfriend, Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) tops the charts as the quintessentially beautiful, blue-eyed blonde. And, though clearly one of long list, she’s seemingly a good match for David’s cavalier attitude about love. She plays his game. We don’t have to reach far for this fantasy. Julie epitomizes a guy’s dream girl, one who makes love like she’s in love —— with no strings attached. We’ve seen that male fantasy hit the dust in other movies but not quite like it does in this one. Even Fatal Attraction might stand aside.

At his birthday bash, David does what David does. He’s single, unattached and looking for love so he doesn’t invite Julie to the party. But she shows up anyway for a little tete-a-tete in the bedroom. Then David’s best friend walks in with an exotic cutie from the other side of the tracks. David meets her eyes across a crowded room and old-fashioned love is in the air. Sofia (Penelope Cruz) has two jobs and a dream of her own. She wants to be a dancer. David’s fascination with Sofia is not lost on Julie. Dressed like a siren in a red dress, Julie’s eyes bore into David’s back as he lights Sofia’s fire. David ignores Julie and takes Sofia home, spending an exquisite night with her doing everything but making love. David deftly avoids sex, which we learn when we discover that all of our viewing of David from the moment he woke up in a dream that morning is a flashback.

David is on trial for murder, incarcerated and wearing an eerie latex mask. He’s answering questions posed by a court-appointed psychologist to determine his sanity. Our perspective shifts. We’re no longer spectators. We’re inside David’s experience. David explains to Dr. McCabe (Kurt Russell) that he was savoring an exquisite edge of tension while he spent the night with Sophia. Even as he ran his thumb along the big question, “is she the one?” he was drawing out the sensual pleasure of the moment. He’s seen the end of love too often, preferring the intensity of anticipation to culmination. As he saunters out of Sofia’s warehouse loft the next morning, Julie drives up. She has an invitation for him. Would he like to hop in the sack with her one more time, satisfy that urge that she knows he’s been building up all night —— one last freebie for old time’s sake before he moves on?

David gives us several delicious moments of deliberation as testosterone struggles with good sense. Men lashed themselves to the mast for a good reason when the sirens sang. But, stereotypes reign. David, in spite of his millions, believes his true power lies in his charm. He can’t resist Julie’s ‘too good to believe’ offer. Imagine, she wants him even though he’s moving on to another woman. Imagine, she’s not judging him. And Julie, in spite of her brains and beauty, can’t stand a smalltime ‘moth’ woman getting her man. She’s played the game; she deserves the prize. She plies all her wiles to draw David into the car with her.

He makes the choice, takes the ride. But then Julie snaps. She gives him a brief peek in what lies beneath the surface when a woman gives her all to a man. She tells him she loves him. But caught up in an egoistic storm of jealousy, her love takes a turn as old as the hills. Julie would rather die than live without him. And, sadly, she does. She drives them off a bridge at eighty miles an hour into a wall of tragedy. David survives, but his face is disfigured, his body broken, his spirit crushed. It’s tough enough to see anyone disfigured but when the victim is an icon of male youth and beauty, a contagion of deep grief invades the heart. Even knowing it’s just a movie didn’t prevent my longing for a restoration of the joy that had just disappeared with that face. Later, Sofia, speaking from a soft voice of wisdom, will say to him, “I wish you hadn’t gone with her.”

David’s down. And we’re only a third into the story.

If you had a billion dollars, would you go to the moon? What makes you happy? How do you get across the line from youth to the long life that lies ahead after you sprout grey hairs, can’t charm the pants off the most beautiful woman in the room and realize money buys everything but love? When we lose the illusion of immortality, we discover an awesome crosshatching of past, present and future realities in our minds that film can allude to even if not capture entirely.

Vanilla Sky crosshatches David’s moment of decision facing that mythic question, “what makes you happy?” with the real, the surreal and just plain vanilla fantasy. We see the good, the bad and the ugly. We respond to visual tricks showing how we make life up out of images that stir our emotions. I myself have walked New York streets feeling the pleasure of a cold morning moment, imagining myself holding Bob Dylan’s arm. I’ve danced at parties feeling Coltrane’s magical presence in the room. I’ve felt childhood needs override good sense. And I’ve dreamt nightmares that woke me up. David tells the psychologist he’ll think he’s crazy if he tells him what happened. Yet, in movies, we accept slipping from one reality to another as perfectly normal. Vanilla Sky offers its fair share of realities.

Sofia’s softly spoken oracle speaks volumes, “Every passing moment is another moment to start over again.” I think Vanilla Sky has something like this in mind when it likens the sky above New York to the sky that Monet painted one day many days ago. It’s a sky full of dreams —— if we open our eyes.

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13/04/01 Film Essay # , , ,

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
Director: Sharon Maguire
Writers: Helen Fielding (screenplay), Andrew Davies (screenplay), Richard Curtis (screenplay), Helen Fielding (novel)
Stars: Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant

 

“Worried about your weight and feeling sorry for yourself? Put all the bad stuff in your diary and take all the good stuff to the office!”

Bridget Jones’s Diary surprised me. The media pitched Bridget as a plump thirty-two year old feeling sorry for herself because she isn’t married. And then – like wow, somehow – she captures the eye of her playboy boss as well as the heart of London’s most eligible, just divorced bachelor. This pushed a few too many “dream on, honey” buttons for me. When I rented the video, I fully expected to fast forward through Ms. Jones’s antics, amusing myself with yet another predictable romantic comedy where mishap overcomes mismatch and ends happily ever after.

But, as I said, I was surprised.

I think you’ll agree that Bridget Jones (girl next door, Renee Zellweger) falls in that category of normal weight that turns into overweight when summer requires a bathing suit. You’re looking at magazine models and thinking “maybe I’ll go for the one-piece with see-through mesh at the waist instead of a bikini”. Even in a “fat girl” designer wardrobe, Bridget doesn’t seem particularly overweight on the big screen until the skinnie-minnie ad agent from New York shows up. Then the camera lines them up in direct competition across the handsome shoulders of Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s bad-boy boss and lover (an ever charming, Hugh Grant) while he pits one against the other. Bridget didn’t have any trouble attracting this guy when she wore her mini-skirt to the office, nor a moment’s problem arousing him to perform his sexiest tricks in the sack. And he comes back for more. Apparently at any weight, a mini-skirt is a powerful thing while skin deep beauty –– even at the thinnest of weight –– barely lasts through the night.Bridget Jones’s Diary makes the weight issue a non-issue.

Then, even more surprising perhaps, Bridget Jones’s Diary reveals the truth about a subtle but growing pressure for young women to fit into the career girl image. Bridget, a “girly” girl –– one who is sweet, sensual, caring and delightful but also a bit scattered, politically inept, not especially ambitious nor particularly intellectual –– struggles to feel okay about herself. The problem is that while many women have learned the tricks of getting validated in the public world, that validation still depends on male-dominated values. You gotta perform. Or you gotta be married. Or, preferably you gotta be both. Just being yourself to the max is a fantasy of fulfillment perpetrated by the media without a very close look at how “the max” –– at the minimum –– means fitting into a tight skirt, getting a glam job and being articulate at critical moments.

We may worry a little about what’s going to happen to Bridget after the movie ends. They’ve puffed up her image as a fledgling journalist who wins national acclaim for a first interview, arranged by you know who –– London’s most eligible. But he’s the same guy scripted to make a big point about liking her for who she is, not the professional she could be. So for now, we can love her good-hearted spirit, wacky friends and willingness to go out on a limb to chase a feeling that doesn’t quite fit into a real sentence. I’d like girls to feel okay about staying “girly” as they grow into women if that’s what “being one’s self to the max” means to them. Loving and living would be a lot more in sync, and a lot more fun. I believe Bridget Jones’s Diary makes this point.

And, making another point that was made best by Mae West, Bridget Jones’s Diary puts forth the London lawyer, Mark Darcy (Jane Austin era, Colin Firth), as a man “better looked over than overlooked”. Another stereotype goes center stage for scrutiny. Women often believe they have to choose between adventurous and stable when choosing a mate. But I believe Darcy, “the boring guy with a wild passion under his overcoat waiting for a snowy day” makes a statement for men not women. Mark’s been dumped by his wife, wears tacky gift attire to family Christmas parties and can’t muster a facial expression past a longing puppy. This hardly seems like a man to give Hugh Grant a run for his money. However, Mark proves to be a wolf under grandma’s clothes as well as a stand-up guy, making grand romantic gestures just when they’re needed.

Who thought this guy up? Whoever! Open the closet, guys!

Mark proves there really isn’t anything about being quiet, high-powered, ambitious and well-mannered that disqualifies a man from cooking up a frightfully good evening of fun, fighting with his fists as well as his head and being a great kisser. And you gotta love that new diary thing. Here’s a man who seems to trust that a woman putting all that bad stuff in a diary makes for a lot of good stuff in real life. Maybe we’re headed for a sequel –– and maybe Bridget will fulfill my dream as Mark’s beloved, staying pure of heart and surprising us with soups of many colors.

P.S. Dare I mention Bridget’s mum? She wakes her husband out of the dark ages when men took their wives for ninnies, freshening up her marriage with –– as I said, dare I mention it –– an outrageous fling to match a Hugh Grant escapade any day.

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12/10/00 Film Essay # , , , , ,

The Princess and the Warrior (2000)

The Princess and the Warrior (2000)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Writer: Tom Tykwer
Stars: Franka Potente, Benno Fürmann, Joachim Król

 

 (Published in C.G. Jung Library Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3, 2002)

Perhaps, as noted film director Mike Nichols suggests, a film’s artistic success lies in the power of its core metaphor to drive the story. If so, I believe The Princess and The Warrior (written and directed by Tim Tykwer) owes its ability to rivet our attention from beginning to end on an innovative interpretation of the Ouroboros as a symbol of enlivened continuity. Cirlot’s Dictionary of Symbols defines the Gnostic symbol of a snake biting its own tail as a representation of the continuity of life but focuses on the symbol as a closed, static circle – like a child sucking its thumb. Tykwer, I believe, opens up the symbol into a narrative of a heroine shedding old mores, rippling past a dead-end to a fresh start. It is indeed inspiring to see Sissi Schmidt (Franka Polena) triumph over the paralyzing effects of despair in an heroic story of personal determination.

At first glance,The Princess and The Warrior appears to be a familiar story of a young woman who rebels against convention and follows her heart. But, it should come as no surprise that Tykwer, the visionary filmmaker behind the labyrinthic “Run Lola Run”, is not simply telling a story of romance. The Princess of the title trusts her instincts in order to follow a path of mysteriously synchronized events and, as if embodying the wisdom of the Ouroboros, affirms the promise of infinite possibility when love and trust are mutual between a man and a woman.

One by one, as surely as the opening scenes of Tykwer’s film show a letter making its way through the automated machinery of the postal system, The Princess slips from scene to scene like a still image in a children’s flipbook. No one single image, separated from the others, makes sense. But viewed at a certain speed, each one magically contributes to the emergence of a story. The page turning child, or viewer of any age watching The Princess and The Warrior, receives a special reward——an unasked question answered. One doesn’t consciously ask how the brain creates movement out of still images when pages are flipped nor how vitality is restored after trauma robs the soul. But the surprise of finding meaning where there was none mysteriously sparks a flow of energy and inspires hope for a future that may depend on suspending disbelief.

The Hero Myth, or The Hero’s Journey, wildly popular in our culture as a formula for the deliverance of mature masculine consciousness, (i.e. Star Wars, Platoon) has no path for girls or boys pursuing the secrets of regeneration. Tykwer’s film, as a modern mythic story of origins and a heroine’s journey, fills in many missing clues for those who seek the nature of continuity and evolution. Princess sinks its roots not in the classic Hero’s Journey, then, but into the ancient quests for feminine wisdom found in the mythology of the Sumerian Queen, Inanna as well as in the classic Greek Elusinian Mysteries. Still, the old myths hampered by the patriarchal goal of male dominance give scant detail of the actual trials and triumphs of exploration and accomplishment involved in the hero’s search for identity and wholeness from a female perspective. The Princess and The Warriorportrays an important image for contemporary times: one of a female hero who first looks death in the eye and then takes on the larger problem of human despair and the crippling effect of disillusionment in the modern world. While Tykwer’s heroine borrows depth from alliances with old female heroic tales, it is a fully modern invention to imbue her with the power of regeneration and create out of her own cycle of events a mythic perspective of the relationship between the masculine and the feminine.

From the head of the snake——or its tail——The Princess and The Warriorbegins with a letter from one young woman living alone atop a glistening sea of light to another young woman residing in the darkened rooms of a big city asylum populated by the mentally ill. Sissi Schmidt (Franka Polenta) works as a nurse in the Birkenhoff Psychiatric Hospital in Wuppertal, Germany. The letter asks Sissi to pick up a gift left by her friend’s dead mother in a safe deposit box at a bank. This seemingly simple request sets off a series of events that lead Sissi out of her complacent adaptation as a nurse and draws her into a complicated relationship with a man that changes her life. By the end of the film, the dead mother’s gift takes on a meaning far beyond what either young woman could have imagined. It acts as an invisible hand from the “other world” that guides Sissi along a deeply felt, but not wholly recognized, path of longing for connection —— and a new start.

Tykwer puts the ancient feminine principle of renewal into play in this film by sending Franka Polenta back into action as yet another captivating heroine. She was the larger than life, magical redhead speeding through Run Lola Run, and now she is just as amazing as the slow motion blonde inPrincess. Polenta’s character, Sissi, practically opens Princess surviving a near death experience, when she is mowed down by a huge red truck on her way to the safe deposit box and receives a street tracheotomy from a stranger.

Bodo Reimer -a tight combo of machismo vulnerability pulled off by Benno Furmann – is on the run after committing a petty theft when he scoots under the big truck to hide and discovers Sissi lying flat on her back unable to breathe. Daunted for only a moment, he sizes up the situation and promises he’ll return to help her. Returning with a common plastic drinking straw, he performs an emergency cut in Sissi’s throat with the point of a hunting knife, inserts the straw and restores her breathing by sucking blood from her air pipe. Just before Sissi blanks out, we hear her thinking, “someone could find happiness in the outside world if someone like him was around.” Like the age old concept of “love at first sight” explained as a Jungian anima/animus projection, an image from her fantasies has found a match.

Sissi miraculously survives her accident with only minor injuries but when she returns to her job at the psychiatric hospital, she no longer feels like she fits in. Sissi grew up in the hospital, the child of a nurse who died in an odd accident when a psychotic patient deliberately threw a hair dryer into her bath – possibly the same patient who impregnated her with Sissi – leaving Sissi motherless at a very young age.

Sissi has always been every patient’s sweetheart, an innocent girl happily in service of any mad fantasy. Now, for the first time, she feels different. Although on the outside she appears cool and calm, frustration and desire have begun to burn beneath the surface. She realizes she’s not an inmate; the patients no longer feel like friends or family. Her first night back from fifty-three days in the hospital, she tosses and turns, agitated and unable to sleep. She feels driven to action. By her own words, she has to know if Bodo’s miraculous appearance means that “she is supposed to be with him” and sets off on a determined quest to find the man who saved her life or, one might argue, her very life-essence.

Unlike the familiar heroines of myth and fairy tale, Sissi is neither seduced nor abducted by Bodo. Rather, passion rises within her and propels her toward a stranger with no name who left no clue as to his whereabouts but captured her complete attention. For the first time, she wants something for herself.

Her beginning point is a button ripped from his shirt by her clenched hand — she had been desperate to hold on to him as he left her lying under the truck. A young blind ward of the hospital was accompanying her on her errand to the bank at the time of the accident and she now enlists his help. Just before the truck hit her, she had pushed the boy to safety. Devoted to Sissi, the boy is eager to help.

Walked back through the accident scene and, aided by his heightened sense of hearing, he quickly finds the store from which Bodo emerged just before finding her under the truck. The owner sells illegal guns and, though he knows Bodo, refuses to tell Sissi where he lives. Sissi, no longer the passively agreeable child she was before the accident, makes the first of many brash moves in pursuit of her destiny. She whispers in the ear of the blind boy and instigates an outrageous spoof that forces the owner to give her Bodo’s address.

Sissi does indeed find Bodo, but her newfound sense of purpose is again put to the test and she is refused satisfaction. Instead of Bodo recognizing her and being delighted that his quick action paid off in her full recovery, he knocks her down and nearly strangles her. True, she surprises him during a karate practice session with his brother but his split-second, unthinking reaction when she taps him on the shoulder suggests that instinctually he could be as deadly as he had been life-saving when he found her under the truck. Bodo doesn’t apologize. Instead, as if possessed by a demon, he demands she leave the premises.

Sissi does leave but she also returns at a later time and befriends his brother. This time, when Bodo finds her in his house, he pushes her out into a dark rainy night and leaves her stumbling in the mud. For Bodo, Sissi’s attraction is more than irrelevant. He is enraged by the distraction that her interest in him causes to his all-encompassing obsession with death. He is a man living in a private emotional hell and wants no company.

When Sissi talked to Bodo’s brother, she found out that Bodo is crazed with guilt. His wife was killed in a bizarre accident for which he feels responsible. On a trip, he went to the men’s room at a gas station and left his wife distraught after an argument, so that she didn’t notice dropping a lit cigarette into an overflow from the gas pump setting off an explosion that killed her. Bodo’s brother has been awakened more than once to discover Bodo embracing a pot belly stove stoked with hot coals in his sleep, presumably attempting to bring his wife back from her fiery death or join her. But he has not been able to heal Bodo’s obsessive despair. A pot belly stove stoked with coals for the night may also be drawing a frozen man to warmth, an unconscious lure to a woman’s Eros as a source of rejuvenation. Bodo’s brother may indeed be helpless but he schemes to leave Germany — leave the past – and start anew in Australia.

An innocent heroine, informed by the mythology found in Beauty and the Beast, would sustain Bodo’s brutality from an attitude of self-sacrifice and good heartedness, but Sissi is not an innocent. From birth, she’s been exposed to and trained to deal with insanity. She responds to abusive behavior by taking control of the situation. She can lock a man down if she has to. She has no father to rescue by catering to a beast. She is not preserving a traditional image of femininity. To the contrary, pursuing the man she loves breaks her away from a system of self-sacrificing convictions that put a roof over her head as an orphan. She pursues Bodo at the risk of losing her home and her job but with the hope of gaining a true feeling of connection. She sustains herself with a mystical sense of purpose, an imaginative spirit and a belief that she is bringing two worlds together. From Sissi’s point of view, saving Bodo’s tortured soul from a sentence of isolation in hell is part of saving herself from a life caught inside a cage.

Sissi demonstrates an uncanny ability to see a person’s goodness lying beneath impulsive actions and to act directly with compassion. She takes careful note of Bodo’s tears flowing down his cheeks as readily as when he flails out in anger. He cried while he assisted her under the truck, and he cries as they arrive at the gas station where his wife’s fatal accident occurred. But the extreme oscillations between grief and rage haven’t changed him. He’s stuck in another world, shut off in the “men’s room” when an explosion of fire changed life as he knew it. But is it immutable and forever? Sissi believes Bodo reached out, at least momentarily, when he pierced her throat and freed her spirit. He opened a door, created a pathway between worlds that, for her own sense of self, she needs to travel again.

Her interactions with Bodo are not so much romantic as sorely real, a part of her desperate effort to leave behind a childhood distorted by the mad fantasies of others and escape a role of servitude to adult dependencies. Even when Bodo pushes Sissi away, he fails to discourage her. She finds other ways to stay close to him, certain that pursuing him will take her to a new life. Her empathy for his entrapment energizes her and makes her stronger, not more passive or vulnerable. She gathers strength as she goes. When Bodo throws her out of his house and leaves her soaking in the mud, Sissi picks herself up and, instead of slinking home to the asylum, seeks comfort on a grassy knoll overlooking the city. Suddenly, the rain stops and the vast black sky above twinkles with starlight, merging stars with city skyline, and making heaven indivisible from earth.

Night becomes day and Sissi resumes her task of retrieving the dead mother’s gift from its safe deposit box. In her head, she begins a letter to her friend explaining the delay. By chance or divine plan, Bodo’s brother works in the same bank where Sissi’s friend’s mother rented a box. The brother has moved ahead with his scheme to get money to go to Australia by robbing the bank and, on the very day and at the very moment that Sissi is opening the safe deposit box downstairs in the bank, he and Bodo are botching a robbery of safe deposit boxes upstairs. Bodo’s brother is shot and, perhaps guided by that dead mother’s hand, Sissi’s curiosity takes her straight into the chaotic center of their attempt to escape. Together, Sissi and Bodo manage to escape with the wounded brother in a getaway car and drop him at an emergency room.

Once again, Sissi’s path intersects Bodo’s in an accident — as unlikely and life threatening as the first one. This time the tables are turned and Sissi steps into the critical life-saving role. Sissi, fully in command, ferrets Bodo away from a police blockade and hides him as a patient in Birkenhoff. But when TV news announces his brother’s death, Bodo flips out, tosses the television set against a wall and must be drugged. Sissi, with a hand as steady as the one Bodo used to perform her “trache”, reaches into the fiery core of his insanity and soothes him with loving kindness and spiritual encouragement. She lies down next to him in his hospital bed, fully clothed but closer than if she was naked and assures him that everything will be all right. “What planet do you come from?” he murmurs, staring at her, unable to imagine any human being caring about him. In his mind, he is death: responsible for his wife and his brother being dead.

But Sissi starts a full-blown plan for Bodo’s rescue and their escape. She borrows a car and dreams of a brighter tomorrow. In Bodo’s darkest moment of despair, as he is lying alone in a padded cell, Sissi slips in to tell him she’s dreamed that he’s to come with her. Her voice coaxes him back from the abyss: “You wonder why we two? We are together — brother and sister, mother and father, wife and husband – all in you, all in me. Both of us were both in my dream. I thought it was happiness. You’ve had too much bad luck.” The camera circles around them simulating the Ouroboros, no beginning and no end, creating a mysterious continuity between two human beings where there was none and making each whole first onto themselves, then together.

However, Sissi’s attraction to Bodo stirs up an anxiety-ridden jealousy and panicky fear of abandonment in two of her favored male patients. The blind boy, in an obvious suicide attempt, eats glass from a florescent light fixture. The other, a lecherous older psychotic who fancies himself to be Sissi’s lover, has guessed Bodo’s identity as the missing bank robber and called the police. Then, failing to kill Bodo in a telltale act that identifies him as the man who both impregnated and killed Sissi’s mother, he climbs to the roof of the asylum and threatens to jump. Sissi, the first one the scene – with the police and hospital attendants as well as Bodo close behind — approaches the sniveling snitch as he hovers on the edge of the roof. Knowing him for the coward he is, she whispers that people like him never kill themselves.

And then Sissi turns to Bodo, making a highly ambiguous invitation – “Come on”, she says. It’s clear Sissi intends to jump off the roof. But whether she offers life or death, no one can be sure. Then Bodo takes her hand and off they go. Leaping far out over the gutters of the roof, Sissi and Bodo float hand-in-hand, slowly downward as if changing time zones, moving past the walls of the hospital while forming a charismatic vision of freedom reminiscent of Brancusi’s abstract birds of flight. A young man and woman free falling through space to a future with no definition, only possibility.

They plummet safely into a river that only Sissi knows is there and rise buoyantly to the surface amidst millions of beautiful bubbles. But, even after they’ve defied death together — one more time – Bodo’s fear paralyzes him and keeps Sissi’s dream of happiness in limbo. It’s not sexual love but expertise that Sissi offers as a remedy. She heard his brother’s dying words to Bodo, “Get off the toilet.” Drawing upon her mastery of emotional repair, she insists they revisit the scene of Bodo’s trauma. If Bodo’s damning judgment of himself began there, perhaps an ending can start there as well. She waits in the car while he goes to the men’s room.

When Bodo comes back, he can (and so can we, cinematically speaking) see his negative, depressed self taking a ride with him in the back of the car. Bodo takes the driver’s seat next to Sissi but he keeps staring at his look-alike in the mirror. Something amazing has happened. Who he is and who he sees himself as being have been split apart. Bodo is no longer so completely identified with his dark side that he can’t see that it is his own damning, deadening judgment of himself that has kept him from returning to ordinary life.

Although Sissi does not singularly eject the shadow from Bodo’s life, she is no less tall in stature for being a participating rather than a rescuing hero. No mistake about it. She is the instrument of Bodo’s return from hell. The moments of physical contact between these two have been few but profound. When Bodo lays his hand on Sissi’s in the car, feelings of redemption as well as romance swell in their touch. They continue on and take the dead mother’s gift to Sissi’s friend returning to where the fateful letter of request originated.

If a stone house sitting alone on a peninsula jutting out into a glittering sea isn’t a symbol of immortality, what is? The snake bites its tail, waves lap a rocky beach, clouds darken a light blue sky or vice versa, despair mingles with joy or vice versa, waiting is pregnant with activity and vice versa, etceteras, etceteras, and etceteras. Sissi and Bodo open a path between worlds. Ending or beginning, the coming together of opposites sparks hope.

And just to make a point about the power of his hero to dissolve despair totally clear, Tykwer details his ending with Sissi and Bodo feeling the love for one another that they’ve been missing in their lives. A woman’s passion to be with the man who awakens her is oft missed and oft misinterpreted as a desire to give up and give over her own identity. Or she is construed as ambitious, driving more to be a partner than a lover. In many stories, a woman’s destiny is to get one or the other —— success and independence or love and relationship. Sissi succeeds in getting both; her persistence saves Bodo and frees her. But she also gets her man, not a Disney-fied beast transformed by a beautiful woman’s self-sacrificing love, but a flesh and blood man who visited a secret room of clanking skeletons in the basement of his own psyche and, upon feeling loved, opened his heart.

Sissi succeeds in deed and romance. For a woman to be the beloved as well as the one who fulfills her quest for identity and wholeness is a story not told often enough.

 

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