Film Essay

15/10/12 Film Essay # , ,

The Master (2012)

The Master (2012)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams

 

At first, I thought The Master was going to be a story about a man returned from war who, drowning in the terror of his own soul, becomes thwarted in his search for solace at the bottom of a bottle.   I thought this in spite of an opening aerial shot straight down into glistening blue water, white foam ruffled by a ship’s wake, set to crescendos of stabbing orchestral music. I missed what I should’ve known: director Paul Thomas Anderson’s intention to fling his viewers out upon the sea of life, at least for a few hours.

Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix) embodies the wasted life, the one soaked in booze from morning to night. He is budded from an alcoholic father and a psychotic mother whom we never see, walking crooked and thinking even less straight, never finding rest. Freddie crashes from job to job and, hopefully, doesn’t take too many others with him into the depths of despair where he resides. He’s a hare-lip, a marked man who’s an over-sexed illusionist living in a dream world and waiting for the rejection that will prove he’s everyone’s worst nightmare. Freddie’s bungling and treacherous in his search for a place to rest his weary, wretched soul. We will come to know him as a paradox of misery to be neither embraced nor denied.

It is the Master himself (a jovial, virulent Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who literally wrote the book on the fulfilled life — and whose name we will not learn until he’s arrested by the Philadelphia police for fraud — who enters the scene with promises of rejuvenation to those in need such as Freddie. He’s a 1950’s American phenomenon; a healer evangelist who bases his techniques in a science of evolution yet proves their effectiveness by sheer force of personality. As surely as the harelip repulses people, the healer draws them in. People fete him and follow him. He’s a family man with a capital F, a character that alludes to an underbelly of sexualized impulses that go unnamed and unexplained. When Freddie climbs impulsively over the side of a brightly lit yacht on a dark night after escaping from yet another fight, it’s the Master who welcomes him aboard.

What’s the bond between these two men? The spirits Freddie concocts and carries in a flask wherever he goes. The Master and Freddie share a passion for homemade moonshine, the kind that eats the gut and sends the mind into the stratosphere.

As long as a match isn’t lit, the symbiotic pair step-stitch an emblematic, universal balance of good and evil in search of freedom. Their idea of freedom exists in the elusive space of a spiral where up turns down, right slips into wrong and coming reverses into going. The Master insists the past can be revisited and left behind, and Freddie defies him. Freddie’s feet are rooted in the concrete of his heritage and yet never touch the ground he walks on. He’s an absurdity of spirit, living in spite of the toxicity of the drink he consumes but lacking a life worth staying alive for. By contrast, the Master infuses his followers with energy, lives his impulses lavishly and moves forward without doubt.

Even when Master’s fraud and Freddie’s assault on the police land them behind bars, they’re hooked into one another.  In jail, side by side in two wire mesh cages, Freddie smashes his bed, his porcelain toilet and himself to smithereens, while the Master speaks words of salvation, a hand on his hip: “I’m the only person who likes you.” Freddie’s failures pump the Master’s bottomless physical energy and stimulate his mind. He languished in boredom before Freddie showed up. Freddie may be a madman, raging against the slightest iota of confinement, but he’s essential to the confabulist healer who does his best work in the realm of extreme make-believe.

It would be possible to speculate on repressed homosexuality as a driving force in The Master, but the sweeping embrace of the question of freedom proves more compelling. The original image of rolling foam patterned in a wake’s surf repeats at critical moments in the film. When the foam breaks and flies away from the crest, the unruliness of freedom in nature is sighted. So Freddie and the Master merge and break, embedded in a magnetic flow, searching for their moment. These two men hug and release until one disappears in the sand of a desert far from the ocean whence he came.

As the film comes to an end, Paul Thomas Anderson’s dream of mankind goes on. Freddie inspires the Master’s second book, where the teachings have been altered from ‘recalling’ to ‘imagining.’ Together, they usher in a new era — the 1970’s — and leave the next century to us.

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15/09/12 Film Essay # , , ,

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Writer: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Behzad Dorani, Noghre Asadi, Roushan Karam Elmi

 

Truly one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Despite taking place in a barren area of Iran, the gorgeous cinematography of The Wind Will Carry Ustransforms its audience from simple movie viewers to privileged beholders of earth’s great splendor.  The film’s palpable sensation of a vast arid desert stimulates the imagination as only a master filmmaker can.  Before hints of a plot begin, before any human speaks intention, the visual grandeur of nature stirs the soul.

In the film’s opening scenes, our viewpoint rises from firm ground to open air looking out over an old SUV spiraling down a dirt road with rolling hills of golden grain spilling toward the horizon.  A patter of talk rises from the car.  The men inside debate whether they’re going in the right direction to a small town they’re seeking.  A tree standing alone in an empty wheat field serves as their only landmark.  For a moment, I turn off the subtitles to feel the effect of entering a foreign country with men conversing in a foreign tongue.

Images of Brecht’s play, Waiting for Godot, pass through my mind.  In particular, I recall two men on a park bench with a lone tree on an empty stage reflecting the deep inner waiting that is life apart from its events.  I turn the subtitles back on.  “We’re headed nowhere.”, I read one of the men saying.  I smile as I slide into a land where all transpires on a symbolic plane, only to be understood in reflection.

A young boy greets the men as they near the village, a village built into the side of a hill much like the ones built by Anasazi Indians, but smoothed and rounded.  Homes are shaped by hand out of the earth, connected and knit together by clay paths kept immaculately clean. The purpose of the men’s visit remains obscure.  The boy seems to know why they’ve come, but the men quickly swear him to secrecy.  One man emerges as prominent; his assistants will always be nearly invisible.   With a bit of a smile, he tells the boy, “If anyone asks you why we’re here, tell them we’re looking for buried treasure.”

The main man, dubbed the Engineer by villagers, asks the boy to show them where an old woman is dying.   And then he never visits her.  He asks others how she’s doing but he occupies himself with shaving, finding food and answering calls on his cell phone from a woman who also wants to know how the old woman is doing.  Every time the cell phone rings, he leaps in his SUV and races to the top of a hill for reception.

At the top of the hill, a villager digs a well in a cemetery. The Engineer often sits and watches him dig while he talks on the phone.  He tells the caller he has to wait for the old woman to die but offers no explanation about why.  While the woman is very old and not eating, the days until her end are in question because she rallies off and on.  To an unheard question, he answers it’s not a waste of his time. Death is clearly not a predictable event but one that must be waited for.  The calls lend insight into his presence in the village.  He’s on a deathwatch.

The Engineer seems certain he’s doing the right thing.  He will not interfere with the course of events.  He waits with patience and impatience.  Of course, while I wait, I begin to wonder who he really is and since I don’t know who he is, I begin to wonder who a man called the Engineer might represent?  Since the story gives no clue of his relationship to the woman, the villagers or the caller on his cell, I’m left to my imagination and I do begin to imagine.  The teleological argument for the existence of God proposes a designer – an engineer, perhaps – who directs natural things to their end (St. Thomas Acquinas).

While the Engineer waits and walks through the village and its surrounding countryside, he passes fields and valleys toward and through mountains alive with color and texture.  As he walks, we flow through stands of trees turned chartreuse green by glistening sunlight.  Is the Engineer acting as imago guide in the wilderness of life’s existential waiting?

He befriends the boy who, as he passes him, is always busy taking exams.  The boy’s schooling is central, his main pursuit.  He loves to study, to learn and take exams.  When the boy turns down a ride with the Engineer, he gets a lesson.

Engineer: Hurry up get in.
Farzad: I can’t come now.
Engineer: Why?
Farzad: I need one more answer for the exam.
Engineer: What is it?
Farzad: The fourth question.
Engineer: You don’t know the answer?
Farzad: No.
Engineer: Why?
Farzad: Because I don’t.
Engineer: What was it?
Farzad: “What happens to the Good and Evil on Judgment day? “
Engineer: That’s obvious. The Good go to hell and the Evil to heaven. Is that right?
Farzad: Yes.
Engineer: No. the Good go to heaven, the Evil go to hell. Hurry in and write that, then come back.

Is he every child?

A young woman who lives across from where the Engineer is staying gives birth to her ninth child.  One day she’s pregnant and stringing yarn on her balcony; the next she’s slim, no longer pregnant and back hanging yarn.  She’s given birth with the predictability of harvesting a field of grain in summer.

Is she every mother?

The man digging the well falls in and is almost buried alive while the Engineer is nearby receiving one of his calls.  He rushes the news of the accident to the villagers, saving the man’s life.  He’s rescued.  Not his time to die.

Is he every man?

As the Engineer watches a young woman dressed in red milking a cow for him, he recites poetry to her that elevates her task to a maid reflecting cycles of the moon.  She lives in two worlds.

Is she every woman?

The maid gives him milk as a gift.  The Engineer is recognized as an honored guest of the village though he does nothing substantial.  Somehow, everyone knows and accepts his presence.

But the hovering and wandering of the film prompt us to ask “Why is he here?”  We wonder what vision is being opened up for us. The Wind Will Carry Us leaves us to guess.

Perhaps we are following the angel of death, the one who engineers the cycle from beginning to end?

Perhaps we live amongst earth’s great beauty and do not see it as vividly as we could?

Perhaps we’re being urged by the film’s great beauty to see earth’s bountiful renewal, the way waiting for death is part of our learning and part of our knowledge?

Perhaps we scurry about, studying and working on the one hand while on the other, we move slowly, birthing, tending and dying?

Perhaps all is being overseen by the Engineer who is as ordinary as we are?

Perhaps The Wind Will Carry Us is making a call, a message of urgency requiring a race to the top of a hill repeatedly until time releases us?

The Wind Will Carry Us serves as a reminder, an assertion that we are critical observers of the earth’s grand mystery of regeneration so no one slips into forgetfulness.

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15/08/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Director: Benh Zeitlin
Writers: Benh ZeitlinLucy Alibar 
Stars: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry, Levy Easterly

 

In a hidden-in-full-view delta community called the Bathtub separated from civilization by a levee somewhere in the South, a six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy scrambles through swampland and piles of junk in pink underpants and white rubber boots where she lives with her father.  Oblivious to danger and endowed with an extraordinary imagination, Hushpuppy talks to her drawings and shares her thoughts about a balance of nature within which she believes she lives.  A fierce storm – no doubt inspired by Katrina – drastically changes her reality.  Her father refuses to leave the shack he calls home in spite of catastrophic damage in the delta and a personal affliction that promises to kill him. Prehistoric beasts rampage Hushpuppy’s fantasies. Faced with inner and outer forces beyond her control, she attempts to repair the loss of balance in the universe by pitting her spirit against the elements.

I found Beasts of the Southern Wild simultaneously engaging and incredulous.  If I let myself, I could put myself in place of this child making her way through a world of disasters as if it were normal.  That is, I could remember when, as a child, I accepted the world in which I grew up as normal and did the best I could with it. There was, of course, lots in my life that wasn’t ‘normal’ and the fear that I lived with as a child did escalate into a fear that often made situations more threatening than they were.  As Samuel Clemens said, “I dealt with more crises than actually existed.”  So when six-year-old Hushpuppy’s fears grow into a nightmare of prehistoric beasts pounding through her psyche, I understood.  But when I stepped back I couldn’t believe this child’s survival depended on her overcoming her own fears.

Faced with a storm the likes of Katrina flooding her homeland below the levy, killing food sources and contaminating more than she could grasp, she blamed herself for her world falling apart and made efforts to repair it.  I have to believe that true, real and elemental threatening forces are, most likely, going to take her life before she has much time to live it.  She’s only six and already her mother’s disappeared.  Adults in her world can barely care for themselves much less a child.  Angry with her beloved father who disappears without warning and returns without apology, she nearly blows herself up.  When she gets cut by a bottom-feeding catfish while trying to bludgeon it to death to eat for food, no mention is made of antiseptic.  Life threatening dangers are an every day occurrence for Hushpuppy.  Her one source of protection – her alcoholic, hard-headed ignorant father — is dying and does die before the film ends leaving her singularly on her own.  No one steps forward to offer an arm. For sure, no one offers safe passage.  I couldn’t imagine one even though at the end she walks toward us, away from the dead end of a pier surrounded by flood waters.

I felt Hushpuppy was an apt name for a wild child likely to be consumed before fulfilling the promise of the filmmakers’ imagination to become a ‘heroine’ putting the world back together for herself and the rest of us.  I walked out of the theater shaking my head, admiring the filmmakers for taking on the story of a child up against elemental forces and inviting us to hope we’re not leaving our children a world beyond their means to survive.  However, in spite of Hushpuppy’s abiding optimism, the filmmakers’ courage to challenge the dregs of Katrina’s wake with a hopeful vision — as well as my own enthusiasm for girls as new heroes for a new age — left me feeling bleak.  I cannot, in good faith, regard this child’s survival with joy when I think we, as viewers of her life, should despair that a child in our country is growing up as she has — and presumably is.

That said, I did get an unexpected insight into the motivation behind the ancient cave paintings I’ve viewed in Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain.  Everyone is enthralled by these paintings.  They exhibit sophisticated drawing skill, three-dimensional perspective and creative interpretation of animals and events that tell much about humankind living 40,000 years ago.  But everyone wonders why the animals were painted.  What motivated men to go deep into caves and lie on their backs for hours drawing bulls, horses and other animals by torchlight?Beasts provides a possible answer.  The painters may have been trying to take the power of these animals into themselves, to transform their fear of the beasts they had to kill and eat to survive by drawing them, bringing them to life within themselves.  By capturing their images, they could make their fear work for them.  The cave drawings suggest a connection between the feeling the beast aroused and the power of the beast itself.  Man and beast integrally connected by an imaginative act of creation.  The drawn animal was not symbolic, not a representation but an actual embodiment of a felt fusion of strength.

James Hillman, an eminent archetypal psychologist, believed that dreaming an animal was more than symbolic.  He believed a dream animal must be taken as real, as real as any animal existing in the outside world. To dream an animal is to encounter its characteristics as part of one’s own psyche.  To describe, draw and capture an animal in detail would be to enliven elemental forces and connect with an animal’s being as part of one’s own being.   When Hushpuppy scratches charcoal creatures on the inside of a cardboard box, there’s a likeness to the cave dwellers.  Perhaps she’s literally merging with the primordial beast’s fierce anger and drawing forth survival instincts. Her drawing a face above a cherished tee shirt saved from her mother and talking to it as a parental force, alive in the waters of the Bathtub in which she lives, is one of the most touching scenes in the film.

To be sure, the film’s young protagonist, who survives within the natural ebb and flow of environmental elements, stretched my imagination.  Hushpuppy fused the storm with her fantasies of the beasts.  She fused the catfish with her father; she thought she’d killed her father when she pounded his chest as she had the catfish.  She fused the waters of the delta with the waters where her mother resided.  Her fusion of the realities of everyday life, the realities of her emotions and the realities of the larger natural elements imbue her with a special sense of power that works for her.  And it may well have worked for cave dwellers 40,000 years ago. Unbelievable as real, Beasts of the Southern Wildstands proud and profound as a dream of imaginative achievement that furthers mankind.

We’re all still here, aren’t we?

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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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15/05/12 Film Essay # , , ,

Chimpanzee (2011)

Chimpanzee (2011)
Director: Alastair Fothergill, Mark Linfield
Writers: Mark LinfieldAlastair FothergillDon Hahn
Stars: Tim Allen

 

From deep in the dense rain forest of Africa’s Ivory Coast comes a new hero brought to a theater near you by way of Disneynature’s “Planet Earth” state of the art documentary filmmaking. If you like a surprising turn of events to be a real surprise then see Chimpanzee first and read my essay about the film second. That’s my spoiler alert. On the other hand, if early disclosure that Chimpanzee contains an emerging archetype in our society makes you more eager to see the film, read on.

Disney would like us to focus on Oscar, the abandoned and adorable chimp who, like so many heroes before him, loses his mother and – somehow – survives to bring us a new day. But I’m wagering the hero who’s going to capture your attention and bring the vision for a new day is Freddy, the lead alpha male chimpanzee. As we dig for the values and fearless will to meet unprecedented global challenges, we can look to Freddy who, in his prime and at the height of his power, cracks the hero world wide open. In Chimpanzee Freddy successfully leads, provides and protects successfully by wits and strength of masculinity as startling as the times we face. He’s sending us all a fresh superhero imago tied securely to the force of our planet’s evolving nature.

Chimpanzee treats its audience to more wonders of a rain forest than its chimp inhabitants. The rain forest is illuminated as an ever-moving symbol of transformation by stunning time-lapse photography that brings the entire terrain alive. Vines climb trees as eagerly as monkeys. Drops of rain explode tiny fungi. Furled leaves open driven by unseen forces. As close as the camera zooms in to capture fingernails grooming and clawed ants scrambling over one another, it goes panoramic. We hang high in the sky mid-air over treetops rendered into an undulating carpet of green as far as the eye can see. And now and then, hinting at sacred places beyond reach, the highflying camera penetrates the canopy to reveal cascading waterfalls. For nature lovers, the wildly lush cinematography of Chimpanzee might just be enough adventure.

Even the close encounters with chimpanzee life in the jungle could be enough. Chimps are fascinating. Natural born actors, the camera loves them and gives their every gesture extra cinematic oomph. I watched a chimp methodically crack a tough nut with a stone and then felt myself waiting to watch it all over again. The next time, I watched more closely, noticing the dip in the log where the chimp placed the nut and seeing how a rock works as a hammer and a wooden log doesn’t. But both logs and rocks break, get stolen by other chimps and still the pounding goes on. To eat hundreds of nuts a day takes a lot of skill and a lot of determination. Whether the chimps are making a bed of branches in a tree, stuffing their mouths with figs, berries and fruit or ambushing a monkey for lunch, we’re watching the strategic mind of apes at work. Are they planning?

But just in case awe inspiring images of nature and close encounters with chimps isn’t enough, Chimpanzee lifts a conflict between one tribe of apes and another to the level of human drama. Freddy’s tribe occupies a sweet spot in the forest where a stand of coula nut trees keep them healthy and well nourished. But, not far away by chimp miles, another tribe hovers in a nearby valley, positing an ever-looming threat to Freddy’s peace. They’re a large strong band of apes led by a leader named Scar for an eye that’s been semi-blinded in battle. Even watching these big guys push through the brush in front of the camera lens is a little too close for comfort. Larger, hungrier, and more aggressive, they raid Freddy’s camp on occasion for food and attempt territory take-over. And, on one occasion, Oscar’s mother is wounded and disappears. And while Oscar does seem like a special chimp, always a little more acrobatic and insistent, he’s barely three years old, not old enough to survive on his own.

But we get to watch him try. Oscar hunts everywhere for his mother. He tries going it alone. He tries another mother and gets a big toothy snarl for his effort. His friends shun him. He’s getting very skinny because he can’t crack a nut, can’t share in honey finds or get the ants out of their hole. And so he tries something very brave. He follows Freddy around and eats whatever drops from Freddy’s paw. He mimics Freddy. There’s an unmistakable bonding moment during which Oscar ‘apes’ eating a fruit just like Freddy does, pushing a huge glob back out of his mouth on cue in an equally disgusting manner. And for whatever unfathomable reason, Freddy yields to Oscar’s appeal, allowing Oscar to pad around after him. Then Freddy lets Oscar get closer. He teaches him things. He shows Oscar how to break a nut and how to eat ants on a stick. Then, wonders of all wonders, Freddy gives Oscar the first nut he breaks and lets him take a chewed bean from his own mouth – just like a mother would. And then, in a highly atypical accommodation for a male ape, Freddy allows Oscar to hitch a ride on his back as only a mother would allow.

I have to admit. This highly unusual sight of a baby chimp cuddled up in the arms of a hulking adult male chimpanzee who loosely resembles the film legend, King Kong, raised my suspicion of its verite. But I had been inspired to see Chimpanzee by Jane Goodall who appeared on the Daily Show to promote the film. She explained that the camera crew had come to the Ivory Coast for other documentary film reasons and then, by chance, caught the story of Freddy adopting Oscar. Goodall’s interview made it legit. It was real footage, not staged or photo-shopped.

Once Freddy tends to Oscar, it’s clear that the little guy will survive but will the tribe? Freddy has neglected his duties as sentinel and leader of his pack to tend to Oscar. Scar’s tribe circles for an attack, sizing up the relaxed guard. Then, as if receiving an invisible – or mythic – call to action, Freddy turns away from Oscar and returns to a key act of his leadership. Grooming. He grooms – literally, symbolically and actually – his male mates for battle. Scar and his mob attack Freddy’s tribe in full force and we get to watch! It is truly something to see these huge figures battling while swinging and climbing with an agility of flight through thick trees and brush. Next, with full confidence, Freddy takes the lead and goes head-to-head with Scar for dominance. Whether the younger male apes of his tribe wonder or not, we wonder. Has the emergence of a maternal side diminished Freddy’s skill and superiority?

But we have little to worry about. Freddy might as well have ripped open his shirt and donned a cape. He’s already a hero who possesses the strength of character of a leader, upholds positive values in his community and exhibits a fierce determination to protect those values. Now, his tribe depends on his innovative spirit and good judgment to be more than ordinary, to be extraordinary. Without hesitation he leaps into battle. And Freddy’s relationship-building abilities pay off. His team backs him up. As he runs Scar into the bush, he thumps a tree like a drum, loudly sending the winning signal and settling the dispute about territory between these two tribes for some time to come.

And so I ask. When the dust settles…or the rain falls…what must we conclude? How has Freddy’s feeding, nurturing and mentoring of Oscar added to our cultural notion of the hero? We know hero imagery is always on the change depending on the imagination we need to face the enemy. Can we add nurturing qualities to the realm of fantastic powers that will enhance our abilities to protect ourselves against future threats? We do have some tough nuts to crack on the horizon.

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17/04/12 Film Essay # , , , ,

Theater of War (2008)

Theater of War (2008)
Director: John W. Walter
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Tony Kushner

 

An odd, but ‘must see’ film, Theater of War is a work of art about the staging of an extraordinary work of art, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children, and the amazing odyssey of the man who created it. The woman, Mother Courage, in Brecht’s play, is both prophetic character and mythic symbol of a detached determination to overcome fear in wartime that ignores deadly consequences. In Walter’s cinematic documentary, the play becomes a character in its own right, immersing its viewers in the magical transport of theater. We watch Brecht’s play turn war into a timeless event that one must resist, to which one must never capitulate.

I read that Brecht went to great trouble to develop techniques of staging to minimize audience emotional identification in order to maximize intellectual condemnation of war. He failed. I, as his many audiences since 1939, was swept into identifying with Mother Courage. He also prevailed. No one can walk away from this film justifying war. As fertile ground as war proves to be for making money, it’s never just another way of doing business. Brecht makes the cost explicit. We lose our children. And so I recommend you take a couple hours, rent Theater of War and see Tony Kushner stage the production of Brecht’s play for The Public Theater in New York City, 2006, with notables, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.

But, be prepared for odd. Odd because there are so many elements spliced in with so many other elements without labels for clarification that time, place and character are elusive. This documentary covers a lot of ground, putting up scenes from Brecht’s play and filming backstage preparations as well as exhibiting historical war photos and mapping Brecht’s exile. In the midst of portraying the captivating work of actors – in particular, Streep immersing herself in the characterization of Mother Courage and attempting to avoid being her very entertaining self when she sings – rather dull professorial classroom lectures appear. In recurrent classes, the eyes of students are struck with black rectangles to prevent recognition as if they might be accused of participation in an illicit activity. Brecht’s life after leaving Germany did go around the world to Los Angeles and into HUAC hearings where he was questioned about being a communist but, as students, identification wouldn’t make them associated with Brecht’s life’s complications. However, Theater of War never strays from its purpose to look closely, not away from the message in Brecht’s play about adverse consequences of profits tied to war.

Therefore, ‘must see’. Where you will be drawn in, I can’t say. For me, it was Mother Courage. Personally and archetypally, I identified with the courage that Mother Courage – a tinker by trade – musters to protect her children in hostile circumstances only to discover that succeeding at business diverts her attention from her children and leaves them vulnerable. In other words, even the highly applauded, deeply held virtue of courage blinds its possessor when taken to an extreme. Not bravery, nor honesty, nor kindness averts harm. Looking at the fate of Mother Courage’s children, it isn’t difficult to reflect on a woman’s fear that a son will grow up to be a hero only to – or way too easily – fall victim to sweeping powers beyond his control. Mother Courage’s daughter gives up her own life to save other children. Another son, named Swiss Cheese as if to symbolize holes in his wits, throws away the cash box that would save him. Not all children have what it takes to survive in a world that survives by war.

Brecht’s messages are strong, important to our times when the future of children is much at stake. I’m in favor of emotional identification. It makes choice personal. It brings the large down to small where I can use Brecht to validate my own decision to work part-time while my children were growing up. At a time when money and time were ridiculously at odds, I often felt like a fool. I am one of many welcome benefactors of Brecht’s resistance, avoiding conscription into the army, escaping Germany while Nazi terror increased and writing for his life…and mine. His work reaffirms my belief that even a virtue taken to an extreme wreaks havoc, brings down its possessor and necessitates opposition. I especially like Brecht’s cautionary dramatization of the importance of reflection on virtue, his provocation to examine anything we label ‘good, great, wonderful’ because it requires being contrary to convention. To see hope in opposition is as important as the courage it takes but I believe, in moderation, we must. Real wisdom embraces uncertainty.

And Theater of War is a good ‘look see’ — well done, entertaining and engaging.

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14/03/12 Film Essay # , , ,

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)
Director: Terrence Malick
Writer: Terrence Malick
Stars: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain

 

In Tree of Life, the story of a post-WWII fifties family is interspersed with cataclysmic images of our planet being created, sun, moon and earth rolling through eras of stark change and life evolving through the dinosaur age. Breaking up a story of a family with lengthy visuals of stars in the making, shifting shapes of galaxies and flights through space may turn us on, may turn us off but either way, we’re left with the question, why? Malick’s known to be a filmmaker with purpose. (Reference Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.) If he’s paralleling a family raising sons with births and deaths in the universe, I believe he’s raising a question that’s meant to include human beings. What does nature have to say about evolution?

The family story begins with the death of a grown son, presumably the oldest of three brothers who’ve been raised in one of those tree-lined fantasy neighborhoods that I, as a seventy-something, can still remember. Then the film backtracks over the early years of the family and the boys’ childhood. Father, an iconic hardworking returned vet determined to do right by his family, finds it increasingly difficult to cope economically and takes out rising frustrations on his wife and children. Mostly he clamps down, restrains and controls himself but sometimes he raises an iron hand, mindful – perhaps – of an old testament God. Mother, a lovely iconic silent wife and a loving mother, looks on helplessly as her sons irritate their father and plays like a child herself when he’s not there. The three sons, iconic “boys will be boys” brothers, unsupervised and with plenty of free time on their hands, find ways to test each other’s trust, tumble a little too dangerously and amuse themselves with just the world around them. But they never really feel out of the sight of Father’s dark disciplinarian eye. A tense upper lip of love accompanies every fatherly hug and a fierce emotional straitjacket constrains family events.

When one of the boy’s buddies drowns in the local swimming quarry, the weight of consequence for invisible transgressions is palpably shared amongst family, friends and community. To link morality to rebellious desires is a human act, not from nature itself, felt by attendees of the funeral. As the oldest son goes through the changes of adolescence, he becomes more secretive arousing dread for the outcome we already know is in the works.

But Tree of Life is not a narrative about a family’s lost son. It’s not a story about a father abusing his sons, arguing with his wife or wrestling with adversity. It’s not a story about a wife infantilized as a housewife. It’s not about three brothers who raise each other. It’s not a story about a father’s lost dream, a wife’s lost identity or the lost childhoods of three boys. Well, yes, it is all those but, more to the point, it’s a story that begs us from the beginning of the film to ask “Why?” Why pose such a small intimate personal family story within such a large cosmic context?

I believe Tree of Life takes on an ambitious objective. Aspiring to be a masterpiece casting human life within the context of evolution, it wishes to put us in touch with how we might be experiencing evolution in our own, specific lives. In the end, it turns our eyes back on ourselves, asking us to look at what doesn’t make sense as being something that might be part of evolving. Instead of taking our small point of view of personal failure – a father working his ass off and still losing his job, a wife giving over her life to pleasing her family only to feel alienation in her bones, children wanting love only to be met with rejection, rage and confusion – Tree of Life begs us to ask why. Could there be a larger way to see what’s happening?

And now let’s make the leap provoked by the film’s juxtaposition of the personal within the cosmic. When parents raise children for a world that they believe is the world their children will grow up into, they can be dead wrong. And it’s possible that the child knows, intuits or feels within the roots of his being, that he is headed into a world that his parents cannot fathom because he’s fresh to realize that something new is coming. The world as he’s growing into it does not yet exist. The breakdown between parent and child, the ripping of bonds we label as adolescent rebellion or the ravages we call mental illness, may be dislocations of evolution. Tree of Life makes it abundantly clear that evolution is not a smooth handing of the wand from one marathon runner to the next. Some are spared. A dinosaur steps over a wounded animal. Thousands perish in a flood. Some quickly perish, leaving only fossils. Not unlike the young boy who drowned in the quarry.

If we were to imagine we are part of evolution, we might translate the events of family life – much like Terence Malik – into ones that speak of our own family disruptions as expected in furthering evolution. As much as we strive for order, human nature slips its yoke. Children experiment, provoke and promote chaos against their better judgment. We watch a scene at the dinner table, Child defying Father, and recoil, asking why they would do such a thing when they know the consequences. There’s that ‘Why?” again. Could there be useful end to a collision of forces, an ineffable effort to adapt to an unseen vibration of emerging circumstances beyond our simple horizon of the human life span?

We are, each in our own way, contributing to a much longer life on the planet than we’ll live. However much pollution we see in the air, it’s also invading the oceans and seas of the world. What kind of being will it take to live a generation from now, a thousand or a million years from now? If we consider failures of orderly succession as reflections of evolution, we open a new perspective. We meet our failures – and those of our children — with new respect. We feel ourselves a part of nature, not apart from it.

If a vision of interconnectedness between the inner nature of humankind and outer nature of the universe is what Tree of Life is about, Malick may indeed be ambitious. Yet the film certainly gives us a larger context for understanding our disappointments, our limitations and our grief. Cast as part of an energetic exchange, nature is not a backdrop and we’re not without resources to see our own contradictions as furthering life on earth. We are large, very very large.

As I finished this essay review of Tree of Life, I felt the heavy emotional weight of my investigation and, perhaps to balance myself, levity sprang to my rescue. I recite what I heard in my mind’s ear, present it as a quote: “Shake your head, shake your booty, shakin’ may be quakin’ when it comes to figuring out what perpetuates and what situates.” I said 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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14/12/11 Film Essay # , , ,

Catfish (2010)

Catfish (2010)
Directors: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Stars: Yaniv Schulman, Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost

 

IF you’re nervous about the future of internet relationships

SEE Catfish for a romp with creative minds at work

BECAUSE fake takes on new meaning when multiples become norm

Three young men – two filmmakers and a photographer – catch the progression of an internet exchange en vivo, live on film beginning when the photographer receives an email from an eight-year-girl who asks his permission to send him a painting she’s made of one of his photographs that appeared in her local newspaper. The photographer, that would be Nev. The girl, Abby. The painting was quite good. It captured his curiosity and he agreed to friend her on Facebook.

The tale is a plot worth following but a more fascinating aspect is the way the film opens up a world where reality is caught and lost numerous times, challenging the characters and viewers to keep up with the truth. When the three men sense a cyberspace ruse being perpetrated on Nev, they opt to document it with ‘catch and release’ filming. They film a piece and throw it back to see what happens next. They know they’re not dealing with the truth but the truth they think they’re dealing with turns out not to be true either.

Just how many truths are there? On the other end of Nev’s line – be it online, cell phone line or a line of b.s. – is a storyteller with a fifth dimension. That would be the eight-year-old’s mother, Angela. Angela is a middle-aged wife and mother who lives in a remote region of northern Michigan with an atypical, albeit good-guy husband, two severely handicapped step-sons, their eight- year-old daughter and a computer. Master manipulator of cyberspace, Angela emotionally entangles Nev by turning her eight-year-old daughter into a believable child prodigy who sells her paintings for thousands of dollars and invents, out of whole cloth, a beautiful, flirty nineteen-year-old daughter of many talents who falls in love with Nev as only a smitten teen can.

At first, Nev goes a little weak in the brain from the idea that such a beauty would want him. He falls in love. As he takes the bait, the camera catches him enthralled and then sobered as he realizes she is – in fact – too good to be true. After Nev and his filmmaking buddies discover he’s being had, they agree to a ‘nothing like getting even’ plan. The young men set off in a car for Michigan to embarrass the nineteen-year-old who could not possibly be the beauty, the singer or the seductress she makes herself out to be. But the expose turns out to be a soulful look behind the curtain of Oz.

There’s no there there. Just a small house in the middle of nowhere with a family making do. Angela lives firmly in two worlds, fact and fantasy, making the best of one and creating stunning performance art out of the other. Cover blown, she slowly emerges from her lies as a hardworking woman with a deep heart, an unstoppable imagination and quite a gift with a paintbrush. As the three young men grapple with Angela’s unraveling story, their revenge fades and their hearts open. What they discover behind their expectations sets them back on their heels and we see a breadth and warmth of character in these three young men that is inspirational in our times.

No one gets hurt. But which is more real – fact or fantasy? Whichever we choose, this film makes the point that our reality is constantly shifting, morphing before our eyes with no bottom line and more characters active in every exchange than meets the eye. No wonder the reaching out, the suspension of disbelief. Beneath all the deception lies a buried truth, a deep desire to feel connected.

Why Catfish as a title? Might a catfish have anything to do with determining what reality we’re swimming in? At the end of the documentary, the good-guy husband of the storyteller adds a helpful two cents:

“They used to tank cod from Alaska all the way to China. They’d keep them in vats in the ship. By the time the codfish reached China, the flesh was mush and tasteless. So this guy came up with the idea that if you put these cods in these big vats, put some catfish in with them and the catfish will keep the cod agile. And there are those people who are catfish in life. And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank god for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.”

In other words, Nev ‘nipped the fins’ of Angela, a highly creative woman hiding out in an upstairs bedroom across a sea of wireless space into public view as a rarely seen and even more rarely appreciated ‘everywoman’ wife and mother devoted to her family.

The identity of the storyteller – itself, herself, himself – still isn’t completely known at the end of the film. Could Nev and his two buddies have made the whole thing up?

As the film ends we nip at Catfish, question its veracity. And if we turn the Catfish quest for truth on ourselves, we’ll keep “guessing and thinking” about the line between truth and fantasy. A teenage girl once said to me, “I think I’m getting this life thing. You just make it up as you go along.” What else could I say but “Uh huh” with an empathetic, quizzical smile and wonder how many identities she was going to explore in the next fifty years.

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