Film Essay

03/10/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Elephant (2003)

Elephant (2003)
Director: Gus Van Sant
Writer: Gus Van Sant
Stars: Elias McConnell, Alex Frost, Eric Deulen


“Why would two seemingly normal teenage boys load themselves up with assault rifles, walk into their own high school in broad daylight and pick off classmates as if they were ducks in a shooting gallery? If that could be answered in a sentence, a film like Elephant wouldn’t need to be made.”

Elephant attempts to delve beneath the surface of an evil happening, an event so close to the tragedy that happened in Columbine that it touches off a familiar dread and far enough removed that it sets off profound questions about what could possibly account for such bizarre behavior. Although the murderous acts committed by two teenage boys at Columbine may have stemmed from a deep emotional disturbance, random killing has become too commonplace for insanity to be its only explanation. Elephant invites a systemic look at the problem, taking an activist stance and demanding social responsibility.

One of the most provocative aspects of Elephant is its portrayal of abnormal as completely normal. The teenage killers in Elephant seem like normal boys, at least as normal as other students in their high school.

Elephant opens with a teen taking over the wheel of the family car because his dad is too drunk to drive properly – at 11 am! The son treats the whole thing like it’s par for the course; he’s obviously used to taking over his father’s responsibilities and covering up for his father’s failings. He does it with a straight, quiet face. That’s how the film gets its name. When there’s an alcoholic in a family and everyone covers it up, AA calls it ‘the elephant in the room’ syndrome. Everyone looks with a blank face. Harboring an alcoholic family member distorts how everyone thinks, feels and behaves but the source is a secret. Such a protected secret is like an invisible elephant, trampling childhoods, families and communities with an insidious mind-bending effect that flattens feelings.

Elephant points its finger at a couple hidden elephants as it probes for the source of a deadly teenage shooting spree. Elephant points first in the direction of teenage alienation, a state of quiet insecurity marked by sarcasm, scapegoating and an air of indifference. Gus Van Sant creates the presence of this elephant of estrangement by following teens around, mostly from the back, as if they were avatars in a computer game. After they’re made familiar, their first names come up on the screen. Only their first names. They are anonymous in their familiarity. The elephant stalks teens hanging out in the halls of a high school campus draining feeling from their personal interactions. Not even the most popular teen feels secure. Each exists more or less in their own bubble, feeling alone and worrying that they aren’t measuring up.

There’s the shy boy who uses photography to get people to pay attention to him. He shoots photos of a symbiotically dressed Goth couple who think he’s a bit of a freak but lets him take their picture anyway. His favorite photo of them is an anti-romantic shot of them looking completely away from one another. Then there’s the frumpy overweight girl who’s too embarrassed to put on shorts for gym class and never takes showers. There’s the stereotypic popular couple; the guy who wants to impress his guy friends by being with the cutest girl in the school and his girlfriend who is so jealous that she’s ready to beat up any other girl who even looks at her guy. And there’s the hot girl clique in tight jeans and mini-tees, longing to replace the popular guy’s girlfriend; they all keep their tiny figures tiny by throwing up after they eat lunch. To complete this picture, there’s a hanger-on girl who wants to be in but she’s out. So, when a boy who plays classical piano is visited by a friend who plays endless computer games while he practices, who’s thinking “this doesn’t seem very normal”? All these teens have problems and it all seems pretty normal — just the ordinary, everyday wallpaper of modern adolescence. Then, the friend boots up his computer to a website that sells military guns and everything changes.

Two teenage boys order assault rifles over the Internet with the ease of ordering a pizza. One minute the guns are on the computer screen, the next they’re in a cardboard box at their door. The boys sign for them, try them out on a wood pile in their garage and, dressed in combat black with the guns stashed in duffel bags, head out to school. They park. They walk across the school’s front yard at lunchtime. No one notices. Well, not quite. The first teen, the one with the alcoholic dad notices. One of them is a friend of his and he asks him, “what’s happening”. He’s told to get out here, some weird stuff is going to be happening. The two boys walk into the school, wait for some pre-planted bombs to explode and when they don’t, one guy says to the other, “Whatever you do, dude, be sure to have fun”. As if they’re walking through a computer game, they proceed to shoot those rapid-fire rifles and wipe out a myriad of students and teachers. It all happens so fast that one even calls 911. One student even looks for them, searching the halls, as if he might be able to just walk up and talk them out of it. He gets shot dead without a thought. Unreality is reality.

The alienation that many, many teens feel, bear in their everyday lives as they drive to school, take classes, pursue their hobbies and navigate the social pressures of judgement may seem normal – but it’s not. ‘Cool’ is no longer ‘cool’. Cool covers up a desperate anxiety about keeping up, keeping on top and keeping on going that – like the young man’s face in the opening scenes of Elephant – is a complete faade. The world is large now, overwhelming and certainly over the heads of many who have only been on this earth a bare few teen years. Parents as well their children often withdraw from the challenge, leaving teens even more vulnerable to a pressing anxiety – angst. A parent acting ‘cool’ often simply doesn’t have the answers, the skills or the strength to take on the job. They yield to their adolescent’s withdrawal with their own, doing the best they can but leaving the elephant loose in the house, the streets and the school.

The other hidden secret lumbering in plain view through Gus Van Sant’sElephant is a culture that idealizes macho images of gun-toting soldiers and action-adventure actors as real men. For teenage boys struggling with hormonal confusion and failing fathers, these role models not only distort, they torture. Any desires for touch or comfort or sympathy may be a sign of being soft, worse – gay. The culture dismisses gay as inferior and an embarrassment, certainly not acceptable as a real man nor indicative of what it’s going to take to be successful. Unfortunately, idealizing macho and demonizing gay elevates the threat of violence from boys. With guns so easily available, the war on terror billed as a patriotic act and boys eager to be men, picking up a gun can seem like an easy solution to sexual certainty. And safety from humiliation.

The gay issue is such a known issue now that efforts are made to address it. Students at the high school in Elephant meet to discuss whether you can tell just by looking at someone whether they’re gay. That’s the concern. Not what gay is but whether you can tell. What abnormality may be lurking beneath a ‘cool’ exterior that sets a guy apart, makes him weird and unacceptable. No matter how bright, how nice, how talented or how good-looking a guy may be, being thought to be ‘gay’ is high on the stigma list for derision and exclusion. All teens struggle with wanting to fit in. The two boys who became killers had fooled around with each other sexually and, presumably, chafing under the weight of their secret, felt in danger on their own turf — their home and their school. They anticipated being ostracized, for sure, and could be hurt physically, maybe even killed. Identifying with the military, men at war against a legitimate enemy, double solves their problem. They are identified with ‘real’ men and they’re on the right side. The fact that they could end up dead is all part of a game they don’t think they can win.

It would be easy to accuse computer games, computer access to guns and computer anonymity as engendering a teen’s alienated sensibility. But computer games are not the culprit. They’re the symptom. And symptoms are clues. They can lead to the source of the dis-ease in our society that makes killing seem like a solution to an adolescent challenge, the one of becoming a man in today’s society. Helping to free boys from the narrow and harmful constraints that traditional expectations of masculinity impose on them is critical. The film doesn’t give guidelines, leaving the quandary to its audience — what “elephant” of artificial normalcy were two teen-age boys seeking to overcome, shoot dead in the broad daylight of an ordinary afternoon at their high school?

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15/05/03 Film Essay # , ,

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Directors: Andy WachowskiLana Wachowski
Writers: Andy WachowskiLana Wachowski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss


Is it a bird, is it a plane — is it Superman?  No.  It’s Matrix Reloaded.  Not quite machine, not quite human, not quite movie, not quite video game, Reloaded is so much faster than a speeding bullet that the comic book transmogrification to big screen makes leaping tall buildings at a single leap seem like child’s play.  Matrix Reloaded is no Matrix, but for the kid in all of us, heroes who can counteract the modern madness of terror are welcome.  Too bad it’s just a movie.”

Caught up – as I was – by the extraordinary ability of the first Matrix to reach beyond the common place, turning Hollywood’s familiar simplistic and dualistic resolutions of the never-ending fight between good and evil into an inspirational Zen koan, I naturally anticipated something less from its sequel, Matrix Reloaded.  Matrix had spun the complex, elusive psychological concepts of personal integration and transformation into a world class film.  It aroused hearts and turned minds toward a hopeful vision — an ordinary human being could overcome the enemy within, fighting back against war in the world by means within personal grasp.

Very satisfying.  And not, in my opinion, needy of a sequel.

But I’d heard that Matrix Reloaded redefined the meaning of space and time in movies and so, if for no other reason than curiosity, I bought a ticket.  I wanted to see how close the Wachowskis could come to spinning the straw of their mind’s eye into the gold of cyberspace.  Sure enough, they did just that.

They don’t beat the Matrix.  They don’t tell a better story, embellishing poorly on the old one with a nod to the triumph of love over death that fails to create anything more than old-fashioned romantic chemistry. They reload the issue of mind over matter but create more laughter than thoughtfulness.  The idea of imagining reality into existence, a mystery of Aborigine origin touched upon in the first Matrix becomes, as I said, like leaping tall buildings in Matrix Reloaded.  Funny book time, not timelessness.  Special effects take over, delighting the eye with tricks that require no explanation and make no demand. Updated, with an invisible someone pushing the red and blue buttons of choice on the controller.

Matrix Reloaded is open to so much criticism of character, plot and meaning that the only way to engage is not to.  If you can, don’t think of it as a sequel.  Reloaded actually unloads what was significant in Matrix.  In Matrix, Neo integrated Agent Smith, bearer of an evil machine reality that stole the human soul, but now Smith returns with the human ability to clone himself without restraint.  This guts the original Matrix promise that evil can be integrated and transformed by an enlightened consciousness.  You could identify with an underlying scheme of truth and possibility in Matrix, make it your own.  The characters felt both real and not.  The plot seemed plausible and not.  The significance held true, entertaining the adolescent and affirming the adult.  But in Reloaded, heroic feats are so far beyond human accomplishment that they deny personal identification.

The point of invisible marionette’s strings is to stimulate a participatory emotion, creating an empathic connection between audience and puppet.  Reloaded goes the other way, separating observer and actor by making it impossible for viewer to identify with character.  Stereotyped to the max, love and affection as well as lust and thrust are flattened, stripped of messy feelings that could get out of control.  A mob scene with no heat?  A love scene on a concrete pedestal?  And the high jinks on the freeway are beyond anyone, suitable only to a super computerized action figure.  No real person could ever catch himself by the toes of his shoes on the back end of a truck roof traveling seventy miles an hour on a freeway.  Yet for the kid in all of us who loves a game where no one stays dead for very long, no high speed chase scene could go on for too long because there’s always the next wild, way out, over-the-top, gravity defying feat coming up.

Funnily enough, Reloaded gives away the secret of what keeps a kid (and lots of adults) sitting for hours playing video games.  It’s a form of soft core gambling!  Repetitive, newfound chances to win against all odds keep popping up, leaving the player swimming hopefully upstream against a powerful downward spiraling current of adversity.  Magical forces and splendiferous entities morph into different concoctions of good and evil to pit their wits against one another, momentarily claim power and then lose it.  The good guys fight against despotic rules and regulations for the sake of freedom and love.  The bad guys bear down like evil weevils, attempting to suck the life out of the good guys’ core of motivation and determination.  That’s the spin.  And the reloaded truth, “Some things never change, and some things do.”

Not without redeeming features; Matrix Reloaded jams from beginning to end with life-saving conquests, overlapping realities and doors of perception.  It leaves a few questions hanging in the air for now and future consideration.  When is a dream not a dream?  Who’s really in control? What’s the role of belief, purpose and prophesy? What’s choice got to do with it?

The Wachowskis reliably bend time and space into a thrilling, never-seen-before action event that, most likely, will change the way we see things in film for a long time to come.

And it’s not too much of a stretch to see Lois Lane morphed into Trinity; she still needs to be rescued by a super man.

Take your earplugs.  Be prepared to laugh.  It’s no sequel.

“Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound —

‘Look, up in the sky,’ ‘It’s a bird,’ ‘It’s a plane,’

‘It’s Superman….’ ”  Reloaded.

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28/03/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)
Director: Rebecca Miller
Writer: Rebecca Miller
Stars: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk


“Fate may deal girls a hard hand at birth, endowing them with a sexual allure that will bring out the best and the worst in their fathers, husbands and the odd assortment of boys and men to come across their path. However, Personal Velocity turns fate around, spot lighting the nature of a woman’s nature as a powerful card of her own design not to be underestimated when it’s in play.”

Sexuality determined Mary Lou’s path from the time she was born. She’s the baby in the ‘Blue Jeans’ song that drives men wild. “She can’t help it”; she just turns ’em on. She’s beautiful and powerful, destined to light a man’s fire and rouse his rage because she represents what he can’t have – control. Oh, not just control of her. Not even just control of her body or her feelings. She reminds him that he can’t have control period and, for that, he hates her. Mary Lou’s husband loves and hates her. He’s wild about her and, sometimes, he’s so wild that he hits her. Somehow, he thought if he had her all to himself, he would feel – and stay – on top of the world. But instead, she – and it is her all the way – lets him down. He can fall low down on a simple word from her, reduced to what he is without the illusion of dominance – just a man, not a god nor superman. Personal Velocity captures the moment when he falls, she shatters and life smatters, taking three kids along for the ride. It’s not pretty but the resilience of Mary Lou is awesome and, somehow, she lands on her feet.

For Gretchen, it was different. She was beautiful from birth but it was the brains inside her beauty that drove her powerful, famous lawyer father wild. He didn’t lift a hand against her; he simply withheld the loving hand of approval. She grew up shining back his light. Her frail mother, loveliness incarnate, faded as time passed and died at an early age after her husband humiliated her with an affair with his young legal associate. Oedipus on his head; the father kills the mother to have the daughter. The daughter picks a man far from her father’s kingdom, hoping to elude her mother’s fate. But, alas, Gretchen leapfrogs through corporate America, becoming so successful that an unexpected lust strikes her heart and lights up other men – yep, you guessed it, men just like dear old dad. As sweet and accepting as her husband is, she can no longer see herself with him forever. His sweetness reeks of loss, too close to the failure of her mother to keep her father’s devotion and too close to the fear of following her mother’s footsteps to an early death. Gretchen surprises herself and her father with her success, upsetting her rebellion against him and sending her on a road less traveled pleasing herself.

Paula is a runaway girl, having left a mom who married yet another abusive man once she divorced Paula’s abusive father. On the street, homeless in New York City, she is befriended by a large Haitian man who gives her one of those pears from the Partridge tree, loving her beyond her body to her soul. She radiates to his warmth, curling white inside black until she’s pregnant. Then she bolts; her odyssey toward emotional freedom deepens. She is drawn completely to the light, captivated by easy conversation with a blonde Norwegian who picks her up in a bar. Laughing, walking and talking like teens on an early Bob Dylan album cover, the Norwegian gets hit by a car that whips only him off the sidewalk to his death. Paula bolts again, driving all night to see a mother who doesn’t exist. She needs a sign, something to tell her what direction she’s going. As with the other young women, parental guidance is nowhere in sight while fate deals cards too fast.

The bizarre accident of the Norwegian’s death has played in the background on tv and radio in the previous two episodes with Mary Lou and Gretchen, obviously suggesting each young woman walks close to death and, not so obviously, suggesting the ante of the game is raised as she makes choices about the man she walks with. Paula must decipher her true path by an occurrence of random events that change in size and shape as quickly as if she were Alice in Wonderland. All three women feel lost, racing along a dangerous road of conflicting, switch back emotions. Their sexuality acts as a beacon of light in the dark, leading them toward an unknown destination being made up as they go along. When Paula calls her Haitian lover to ask for help, she breaks through the isolation each young woman suffers. When she gets an answer, one from him and one from deep inside her psyche where inner and outer worlds merge, she skips across the road to the other side.

The unique sexual nature of each one of the women featured in Personal Velocity drives her story. Mary Lou who is not terribly bright nor very clever has little but her exceptional sexuality going for her. And while she may have enjoyed having the upper hand with boys during high school, she falls prey to a husband who beats her to keep her down. When she can’t stand seeing her three children cowering in pain any longer, she gathers up the last shreds of her once reliable spirit and leaves him. Gretchen, by contrast, has brains, beauty and class going for her. But she tucks her sexuality under a cloak of poor self-esteem, marrying a man as far down the ladder from her powerful father as she can. When success as a book editor catapults her to fame and fortune, she finds herself highly sexualized and struggling with fidelity. She loves the sweet man she married but she’s drawn like a moth to flame to the fascinating men that were previously out of her league. Gretchen — her father’s daughter after all. And then there’s Paula, the drop out beauty with the soul of a saint who is rescued off the streets of New York by a black Haitian. They live happily ever after in poor but secure circumstances until Paula discovers she’s pregnant. Somehow, this breaks the spell and she bar hops, meeting a fun white guy but barely escaping being hit by a car that jumps the sidewalk, kills the guy but miraculously leaves her standing, intact. Desperate, she heads for a home that doesn’t exist. Along the way she picks up a boy hitchhiker who has been severely beaten, possibly tortured. In her attempt to rescue this boy that has come as accidentally across her path as the Haitian who is her lover and the Norwegian taken from her side, she discovers a secret that puts a smile on her face.

To put the secret in big terms, Paula discovers the mysterious core of female sexuality — the energizing source of regeneration that lies within a woman’s body that may, sometimes, have to do with having babies but always has to do with giving birth to herself. The sexual awakening for all three women stories is unmistakably complex, leaving the viewer of Personal Velocitysitting in wonder before the beauty of a woman.

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28/03/03 Film Essay # , , ,

Basic (2003)

Basic (2003)
Director: John McTiernan
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Stars: John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Connie Nielsen


“Longing for certainty in an uncertain world?  Who isn’t?  Basic imbeds a zen lesson for the seeker within its skillful execution of a whodunit quest for truth.  Certainty follows uncertainty as surely as uncertainty follows certainty –– honest.”

Basic opens with a large ocean liner cruising through the Panama Canal while a voice over reminds us that France tried and failed where America prevailed, at the cost of thousands of lives to malaria.  Unbeknownst to most, the corpses helped finance the canal.  They were shipped out in barrels of vinegar for medical research all around the globe that the canal would come to serve.  Death in Panama isn’t buried; it’s exported.  And therein lies a tale worthy of a round table of olde.

Basic follows the twists and turns of a military investigation into what happened on a special training mission when too many deaths occurred for it to have been an accident.  But the ‘other’ story lies in the method of storytelling.  Probing for truth in Rashomon fashion where each encounter reveals facts that upset previous conclusions digs deep beneath the serenity of large, grand ships moving through an elegant canal arrogantly built, connecting two oceans. The implication is that American achievement comes with a human price tag — disappeared deaths, clandestinely exported.  It’s not the facts but relentless revelation that leads to the truth in Basic. The more revealed, the less certain the facts.  Examination changes what is being examined until a return to basics occurs.

In many ways, Basic is a good Hollywood story, an investigation that, like The Sting or The Crying Game, keeps its secrets under wraps for even sophisticated viewers.  From the stencil lettering of its title — Basic announces itself to be a military film.  A bizarre accident where six out of eight men on a special training mission were killed requires an official investigation.  The Colonel in charge (Bill Styles) calls upon ex-Army Ranger (John Travolta), a DEA agent under suspension for suspected bribery who is an outside expert in interrogation to find out what happened to a revered but hated Sargent (Samuel L. Jackson) and his six men on a Special Forces training exercise, assign blame and move on.  Basic.  Basic training.  Basic procedures.  Basic military outcome.  Death happens.  Reports are made.  Move on.  But, by way of its Rashomon storytelling technique, Basic goes beyond the military and returns to a basic not found stenciled on boxes.

Each turn in the investigation reveals a piece of the puzzle that jogs the certainty that has just been established.  Uncertainty follows each corner of certainty.  And something begins to be revealed that is more basic than the fundamentals of a military search for culpability. Basic looks so intensely for honesty that facts shift as they are examined.  Integrity, which also means cohesiveness, holds the center together when all else feels flung far apart.  Basic continually moves past conclusions of certainty that would satisfy a court of law.  It persists in the pursuit of what lies beneath easy conclusions.   And that’s what makes Basic special.  It induces a ride toward a basic truth of living.  Just about the time we’re sure we’ve got life buttoned up, we don’t.  And it’s not uncertainty but the movement between the two opposites that holds the center, assuring us the certainty we seek.

John Travolta’s elegant strides through previous films provide a critical background to the credibility of his uncanny surefooted moves of investigation in Basic.  As he intensifies the focus on who killed who in the jungle, he subtly shifts attention to another question. How and why did two guys out of a squad of six survive an incident that should’ve killed them all?  Travolta walks and talks with confidence.  And that posturing of certainty almost gets him killed.  It’s a message. The connection between certainty and uncertainty can be very, very slim – like a canal between oceans, perhaps.  Travolta’s life is narrowly saved by the suspicious nature of his superior, an ever-ready Captain (Julia Osborne) who lacks both expertise and panache but has plenty of spark.  She, who bullies him with her rank, idealism and (amped up, for effect?) brute strength, covers his back at a key moment – with a gun.  She’s tough, uncertainty to Travolta’s certainty, but her puppy dog bravado with teeth makes her more foil than blade.  Fortunately, when the last Rashomon tale comes forth, lady in waiting is beknighted by truth.

Enjoying the feel of anticipation, letting unsettling events flow and not minding a very loud grenade being blown up too many times by THX sound turns certainty to uncertainty, uncertainty to certainty in Basic until ships crossing from one side of the world to the other becomes the way of things.  The uncertainty principle at work after all, setting the table and making nice with a couple of beers.

Just so.

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15/02/03 Film Essay # , ,

Adaptation (2002)

Adaptation (2002)
Director: Spike Jonze
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Susan Orlean (book)
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper


So, if you were to set out to make a movie about a woman seeking her soul’s desire in the form of a rare white orchid, how would you do it?

Would you begin with a blank screen and a man lying in darkness bemoaning his poor fat stupid body?

Would you pit a woman’s search for passion against a man’s search for the end of his screenplay?

And would you miss your metaphor, skipping past the inspirational glory of insect to flower insemination, soul mating in nature’s garden with uncanny instinct of matched forms to land on an idea that sounds good as long as you don’t say it out loud — “It’s what you love, not what loves you” that matters.

But then there could be a method in your madness. Missing the metaphor of the first two-thirds of Adaptation may indeed be the point after all. It’s hard to imagine that Hollywood has an ending for a film about the pursuit of spirit here on earth. And maybe that’s it. ‘Without a clue, go to the obvious.’ The ending for Adaptation is so familiar that any film buff in the audience could’ve written it themselves.

So there you are, with your audience in full swing believing they are on the verge of discovering the Holy Grail, and, suddenly, you tack on the expected ending of sex, violence and drugs?

There is an alternative but that would not be an Adaptation to the modern world of film making. For a moment, think of what would’ve happened if Meryl Streep’s character had been told by the ever-lovin’ screenwriters how they found her in the swamp. Suppose they revealed that her passion loving guru had posted her on his porn site. She would’ve marched them all into the swamp, taken their boots and let the alligators have lunch. She, meanwhile, would’ve gone back to her well-paying job, sweet husband and rare beyond rare New York apartment on the upper east side — and lived happily ever after as a feminine hero who had found the secret, resisted it being tarnished by commercialism and taken it home.

I can’t be the only viewer who balked at the nonsensical, hackneyed Hollywood ‘boy geek gets dream girl’ ending that sells movies these days. Who believes that a mature, accomplished and beautiful woman would give up her life to be the druggie lover of a guy living in the swamps? For that matter, who believes a man who had spent his life passionately seeking his heart’s desire would throw it away to be a porn site businessman warehousing sacred substances for grade school children. Nope, I just can’t be the only one.

Well, that’s show business — surely it’s not the secret of evolution. But hey, tacking on happy endings is good for laughs. And, when you think about it, the ending is pretty provocative about what Adaptation really means. Beware of what you match with, for it will have its consequences.

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14/02/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

The Hours (2002)

The Hours (2002)
Director: Stephen Daldry
Writers: David Hare (screenplay), Michael Cunningham (novel)
Stars: Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore


“The quest to live an authentic life may not be exclusive to women. But The Hours captures a desperation felt deeply in the hearts of 20th century women who have struggled to keep their heads above water while feeling pulled under by idealistic cultural demands that they be confections of perfection.”

Virginia Woolf’s famous book, Mrs. Dalloway flayed open and laid bare the vapid life of a woman focusing solely on the idealized beauty of domesticity. It was not only Virginia’s envy of her sister who seemed to have it all – artist, children, husband and home – that led to the inflammatory vision of her now famous female protagonist who doted on the small things of everyday life. Storybook pictures of perfection were the envy and the pride of American man, woman and child after the Depression and two World Wars. They sought lives where clothes were always clean, the house neat and dinner separated on the plate – meat, potatoes and vegetable all in their places, not touching one another.

Virginia Woolf put her talented fingers to the job of revealing that sterilized images of home and hearth were also what society considered feminine. Her insight comforted women playing keeper of the fantasy who felt its emotional emptiness. The Hours, based on Michael Cunningham’s exquisite book, does what film does best. It brings alive the devastating tension of women trapped inside conventions that define her.

Absence of feeling was exactly the point. In The Hours, Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), as the imaginary lady of her husband’s house, never cleavered steak for stew nor cried over an onion much less swabbed a toilet. She was separated from the preparations and the clean up, left to wander and wonder and wait The Hours in between events. Whether she did this in rounds of meaningless walking or in an all-absorbing madness flirting with suicide, house and town carried on around her without regard for her thoughts, needs or desires. It was the deadly emptiness of this idealized vision of femininity that Virginia Woolf pierced with the now famous phrase she created for her protagonist, Clarissa Dalloway. Foretelling a century in which women began to insist on a party of their own making, the book began “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

And what a party it would be. Women sought a party against convention. They still envisioned a pretty picture but one where a place of honor was set for the silent companion of despair lurking beneath the table. The sought after party would celebrate an awareness of a woman’s spirit left unlived, fledgling female talents not fulfilled and private feminine desires set aside. In The Hours, Virginia’s sister left before dinner got on the table, before the ice cream and ginger ever got served — before the sisters who knew but could not speak of their differences ever sat down together. The fateful truth that not all women fit neatly into an idealized version of femininity was duly noted between sisters who met, kissed and fled from the chasm they felt between them.

By mid-century, parties hosting the uninvited guest of a woman’s despair were happening. Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), a fifties woman, became indelibly sketched in American memory by early TV shows (in reverence by “Leave It To Beaver” and irreverently by “I Love Lucy”). Seemingly in no need of a personal identity, she was the apple of her husband’s eye and the fascinating center of her children’s day. The first cake Mrs. Brown makes for her husband’s family birthday dinner is a flop, blatant but forbidden evidence of something only she knows — she has no feeling for being a wife or mother. She sleep walks in full view of her husband and son; even pregnant, no vitality stirs in her body.

And then, a neighborhood friend visits, spilling her fears to Laura of a uterine probe that she can’t risk telling her husband because it is likely to reveal that she cannot conceive. Both women stand polite within the circle of fear created by their failure to fit a vision of motherhood as the ultimate revered, redemptive divinity for a woman.

Just as Virginia in the early half of the century envied the compliance of her sister’s acquiescence to domesticity knowing it could never to be hers, Laura admires the silent resolve of her neighbor. She, like Virginia, knows it cannot be her solution. She already moves within her home as if in a glass coffin, looking beautiful but feeling dead inside. Now, death tugs at her skirt, a threat not fully hidden under the table of superficial conversation between friends. Laura listens to her neighbor, comforting her with an impulsive kiss that kills any chance of them being the confections of perfection they’re meant to be. In an act of unspeakable empathy mixed with desire, they become momentary lovers. Their emotional display erases the kind of separation that keeps meat from potatoes on a plate and they feel, each in their own way, mortified by a transgression they don’t understand. They are women loving women, sad beyond sad for feelings they cannot show without breaking the mask.

Laura knows what she must do. She dumps the failed cake in the garbage, baking another that will shield her husband from ever guessing her betrayal. Her neighbor’s visit has stirred up feelings of love that his idealized vision of her has not. Then she yields to her instincts, diving down to a destiny beyond her control. She lets her unconscious lead the way to exploration of desires not possible in the look-alike houses of a sunny California suburb where husbands buy the flowers for the party. Laura’s drowning in expectations, hosting a party she’s not creating. She wants to buy the flowers herself. For her own party, Laura had to walk away from the guaranteed benefits of housewife. Desperate to feel authentic, she was willing to take the risk. It was a courageous move. Laura Brown is as good a portrayal as any of the woman determined to dive beneath surface appearances, reinventing herself in her own image.

Laura’s quiet, vigilant, sensitive son watches her go. He sees her slip away while she is still there baking the cake, knowing more about her despair than he can articulate. That son, Richard (Ed Harris) grows up to be an acclaimed writer who captures the profundity of emotional loss in a woman’s adherence to pretty images. Presumably, Richard challenges society’s suffocating grip on gender in his ‘Pulitzer-equivalent’ Carruthers award-winning book. He fictionalizes his best friend, Clarissa Vaughn (Meryl Streep), creating a unflattering portrayal of her as a woman who seemingly puts others first but abandons them by not being fully herself. He resists attending the party Clarissa is making for him. In anger, he accuses her of using him to avoid the emptiness of her own life. “What will you do when I am gone?” He rips the blinds from the windows to let in the light and then, like Virginia and his mother before him, drops out of sight. As the male child of a woman who succumbed to a judgment that she wasn’t fit to be a guardian of children because she loved women, Richard insists Clarissa start celebrating herself. He may have hated his mother for disqualifying herself as a mother but he also hated the idealism of domesticity that ran her off.

Clarissa 2000 is openly lesbian, gave birth to a daughter without the need of a husband and succeeds, handily, in a difficult career as a major editor for a New York City magazine. But she’s separated neatly from the pleasure of her own accomplishments by an idealization of a life not lived as Richard’s wife. Settling for being his closest friend, she chooses to see herself lessened, falling under the shadow of his greatness — for better and for worse. A modern woman boxed in by domesticity may no longer spur a Virginia Woolf madness or a fifties disappearing act but she still feels sad, struggling with feelings of being trivial. Clarissa’s personal accomplishments are upstaged in her own mind by her admiration of Richard. It’s the longing for a life not lived that dampens her joy.

As Virginia Woolf deliberated whether it was her female protagonist or someone else in her book who must die, she asked a question that goes beyond whether domesticity kills creativity. Must the idealization of the exceptional die? Must the deeply ingrained cultural mythos of the artist who escapes into madness, poverty and exile to follow his or her bliss die to make room for a more pressing one? Must the fabled Richard die to make way for a fabled Clarissa?

Virginia Woolf’s book, Mrs. Dalloway, may have asked a question critical to creativity at the beginning of the century but Michael Cunningham’s book-to-film, The Hours, raises questions relevant to its end. Can creativity survive the hype? Will the idealization of appearances insist on a future where ordinary happiness is devalued for a flashing instant of fame? Perhaps it took a man to tell it like it is. Of course, it’s a woman’s story. A chick flick for men as well as women. Perhaps it’s the idealization of a perfection that disqualifies the happiness of small moments that must die?

Everyday domesticity has its poetry. In the final scene, Clarissa’s daughter opens a door to a woman who has come before her, offering her a cup of tea. She invites her to the only table she’s ever known — one set for women of all kinds. Her mother’s parties lacked exclusionary protocols about gender, false ideals of conventional proprieties and fabulous lies about femininity that cause death before dying.

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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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24/01/03 Film Essay # ,

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Director: George Clooney
Writers: Charlie Kaufman (screenplay), Chuck Barris (book)
Stars: Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, George Clooney


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, brilliant or bizzare, suggests that a man who discovers that the most despicable ideas in his mind make incredibly popular TV shows is a man who wrestles with an enemy of the people within his own psyche. Killing an audience, killing a supposed enemy and killing the soul merge into a deadly game of intrigue and entertainment.”

Snuggling up close to a concept made popular in the Oscar award winning film, A Beautiful Mind, this film — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind — creates a Chuck Barris alter-ego (George Clooney) who cannot be pinned down as fact or fiction. And then it goes one further. It shows the wreckage of madness as nothing special — just ordinary, everyday workaday interactions around the office that can’t be sorted out as fact or fiction. Barris (Sam Rockwell) writes, pitches and hosts without detection. His girlfriend, Penny (Drew Barrymore) comes and goes, proposes and disappears, discovers his infidelities and comes to his rescue. And, not unlike Beautiful, it’s the love of a very special woman who provides him with a safe haven. The saintly character of Penny (Drew Barrymore) may be believable only as a creation of a man’s mind. But Penny is all the more remarkable for projecting a vision of a woman who lives her own life fully while Barris, her true love, flip flops on the margin.

Confessions delves deep into the darkness of a tortured mind while standing aside and taking the worst of truth with a grain of salt. Taken as brilliant,Confessions addresses the question of what passes for sanity in an insane world and gives fair warning that there is no such thing as ‘playing make believe’ when it comes to dancing on the edge. Taken as bizarre, Confessions suggests that madness and sanity dance together without a definitive line and anyone can get away with almost anything.

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13/12/02 Film Essay # , , , ,

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
Director: Stephen Frears
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Audrey Tautou, Sophie Okonedo


“Once in awhile, there’s a special movie. If Dirty Pretty Things were a poem, you’d want to tuck it in your handbag, briefcase or backpack. When you had a break or a breakdown in your busy day, you’d reach for its inspiration.”

The movie opens with a handsome black African, Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor), hustling a fare for his gypsy cab at Heathrow, explaining, “I rescue those let down by the system”. With these casual words, Okwe announces that he’s about to play a role much larger than a taxi cab driver who gives people rides from Heathrow to London. Okwe is headed directly into a confrontation with the system that exploits the poor and rewards the rich without mercy. His determination to skirt the system begins to crumble when the young Turkish woman, Senay (Audrey Tautou), who has rented him her couch for sleeping gets routed by the immigration police for giving him, an illegal alien, refuge. He worsens her already poor status, lowers her from a decent job as hotel maid to a sweatshop seamstress where her boss demands oral sex during work breaks and endangers her sanity. She goes to their hotel boss, Sneaky (Sergei Lopez) for help, desperate for a passport to America and willing to do anything. As if things weren’t bad enough already, Sneaky makes her a victim in a deadly game from which only Okwe, breaking out of his safe haven of anonymity and acting as a doctor, can save her. Not just dangerous to his being found out and exported for mysterious criminal acts in Nigeria, rescuing Senay will make him part of the system he abhors — the one that “lets people down”, denigrating human value and exploiting desperation.

Almost a fable, Dirty Pretty Things is about a man in exile. Although Okwe has a country and a religion, he is no one no where. He lives, as we find him, as an illegal immigrant in London. He earns just enough as a cab driver by day and a hotel clerk by night to rent the couch of young Turkish woman, herself a marginal immigrant. He comes from Nigeria. He’s been trained as a doctor but through circumstances beyond his control, he cannot practice nor can he go home. Okwe may rest but he never sleeps. He is a man who must stay awake to survive. Awake, on his toes and ready for just about anything.

It is the feeling of Okwe being singularly alone, self-contained without reference, that lifts his story above the norm. With an intuitive knowing that this will be no ordinary David and Goliath computerized concoction of evil bearing down on good, we watch Okwe’s every move, wondering what will become of him – and us, as a consequence of our identification with his choices. We may feel vulnerable but we’re fascinated.

Okwe is the orphan left on the rock to survive, in the bull rushes or the wilderness at the mercy of strangers, animals and invisible spirits. The story is set for disaster. It is only in Okwe’s choices that hope resides, not just for himself but for those around him. We wince a bit at Okwe’s strict unwillingness to be corrupted by a system promising to line his pockets with gold. He won’t take a tip from his boss to be quiet about suspicious events but he’ll steal drugs from a state run hospital to relieve fellow taxi drivers from the clap. Real lives hang in the balance as Okwe drives a cab through empty days, slides through his nights as a desk clerk in a hotel where no one is who they seem to be.

Stripped of material goods, serious work and the comfort of family, Okwe carries his loneliness as a spiritual aloneness. He doesn’t whine. He observes. And, while an outraged sadness may fill our eyes with tears as we accompany him into the underbelly truths of people who have no means, we like watching Okwe. Like a modern day Siddartha, Okwe puts his faith in his ability to think, wait and fast as he, a man without place or identity, seeks to solve the mystery of a human heart stuffed down a toilet.

Come on. That metaphor can’t be missed. A man living by the seat of his pants midst big city squalor finds a heart – cut from some anonymous someone somewhere – in the toilet? His, ours, theirs — right? Quite a cast of strangers. It’s the Turkish girl’s heart, the taxi driver’s who hails from all over the world, the greedy doorman’s, the sleazy hotel boss’s, the legendary prostitute’s and all the lost people who come and go through a hotel’s revolving door. That heart stuck in the toilet is the heart of the matter for the disenfranchised. And this is a story about the matter of choice when there is no choice, a choice made against all odds.

Dirty Pretty Things delves into the act of personal choice, asking hard questions. Once the human heart has been trashed, sacrificed, bought and sold in a parking lot somewhere, can it be preserved, somehow, by small acts? Do small, everyday choices make a difference? When ethics, integrity and compassion are on their way to a sewer in a compromised society, can they be resurrected, made more than a source of pride, solace for lost souls walking into dead ends? Is there just some chance that choices made from the heart could be useful, even effective in places of great adversity and times of great danger? They’re worthy questions, begging for better answers than bombs. And it’s more than nice to see Stephen Frears throw his beautiful idea up on the big screen for our contemplation. It’s special.

And then there’s that other metaphor, the chess game where planning ahead, anticipating your opponent’s next move makes or breaks the outcome. Okwe’s a master chess player, moving in seconds while his opponent and good friend, Guo Yi (Benedict Won), moves at double slow speed. Guo Yi ekes out his subsistence in the basement of a hospital as a porter in the morgue. Lest we miss his significance as a prophet ferrying the dead, Guo Yi sews the suit pockets of an anonymous dead Chinese man shut so he can’t take bad luck with him to the hereafter. In a small, unnecessary act of kindness, Guo Yi bestows eternal happiness with a needle and thread.

Settle in. Slow down. You are entering a magical place where dead men and women get a second chance. Follow Okwe’s moves as he shows how an invisible man navigates the darkness of a system that cannot be fixed. To put Senay in safety, Okwe takes her to his friend’s basement refuge. But she cannot live among the dead and soon finds herself in even greater danger. Of course, Guo Yi sees instantly that Senay and Okwe love one another and that Okwe will do whatever he can to find a way out for her. True to his nature as philosopher ferryman, Guo Yi gladly assists Okwe in a deadly game of chess that could, if played well, set Senay free. If played well and flawlessly, Okwe might escape as well. But ready yourself for a surprise because this chess game is being played in the bowels of the earth where morphing is commonplace. By mythical account, the underground is where personal identity can dead-end into a brand new beginning.

And then, to keep Dirty Pretty Things pretty funny, there’s that spunky prostitute, Juliette (Sophie Okonedo), who put the whole tale in motion by telling Okwe where he could find the heart. Then, there she is, sitting on the side of the tub with Senay at the eleventh hour and joking, “Ah, so here we are. The virgin and the whore”. As the caper comes to a close, it’s Juliette who raises a finger, identifying herself as the carrier of an everlasting truth blowing in the wind of an underground parking lot. Invisibility is in the eyes of the beholder.

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27/11/02 Film Essay # , , , , ,

Solaris (2002)

Solaris (2002)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Steven Soderbergh (screenplay), Stanislaw Lem (novel)
Stars: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Ulrich Tukur


“If you’ve ever felt the daze of inconsolable despair after the loss of a loved one, go see Solaris. Solaris makes the invisible world of emotional pain visible. And while science fiction buffs may object, it may only be in the imaginary realm of outer space that a vision for resolving maddening grief and guilt can be explored.”

Linearity be damned in the realm of a man’s emotions after he loses his wife to suicide. Even, or perhaps especially when that man, Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is a psychologist who depends on putting feelings in perspective and can’t. Initially, Kelvin avoids thoughts and feelings about his wife’s suicide, going about the business of his practice as usual. In particular, he avoids reflecting on his own responsibility in what happened. But the simplest of self-inflicted wounds, cutting himself with a knife while making a salad, happens just as a phone call to make a visit to a space station orbiting a planet called Solaris comes in.

Emotionally, Kelvin had left his wife, Rhyea (Natascha McElhone) before she died. Once he had felt great ecstatic joy with her but as she began to display erratic moods, he let her slip away. Her suicide provokes a longing to restore what was lost, a return to what he once felt. Now an agony of depression more kaleidoscope than any story can contain flips through his unconscious. Memory of the past merges with visions of a future lost that cannot be held to earthly standards, seeming to have a self-consciousness of its own that is impossible but, nevertheless, true.

Kelvin gets a call to solve a mysterious problem occurring at a space station rotating around a far star, Solaris, where strange things are happening. Presumably, since a psychologist can make sense of things in the inner realm of the psyche where events slip between time zones and ordinary boundaries with ease, he could do so in outer space. It’s a small leap to the realization that Kelvin has never left his own psyche. After slicing his finger making a salad, he receives the ‘mythic call’, pulling him away from ordinary life to a quest for peace of mind. Kelvin’s conflict between despair and denial is not easily resolved because it arouses an implacable guilt. When guilt is not a feeling but a fact, it cannot be erased. It can only be transformed.

Once upon a time, the Greeks imagined descents into the underground to look at transcendental issues of life and death. Today, we visualize going into outer space to examine projections of life after life. Solaris is reminiscent of the brave descent of Orpheus into the underground to rescue his beloved Euridyce. In effect, Kelvin pursues Rheya after death in a realm known as Solaris. There, like Orpheus and Euridyce in the underground, Kelvin and Rheya experience an impossible reunion. And Kelvin, like Orpheus, seems to be given a choice to accept her death as final or to take her back with him. This is not a choice of the upper world of everyday matters but of the inner, limitless and merged world of the psyche.

Being drawn into an exploration of life after death, Kelvin goes to Solaris

where overlapping realms of inner and outer space are the norm. Seeking respite from guilt as well as longing for an impossible restoration of life with his beloved, Orpheus attempted to bring Euridyce back to the upper world. Similarly, Kelvin attempts to regain happiness with Rheya. The death of love often feels like the death of a loved one. In Solaris, the two are overlapped. When the ‘in love’ feeling disappeared, Kelvin withdrew from Rheya as if a death had occurred. His rejection shattered her, turning an emotional event into a real one. Kelvin needed something more than therapy to make this right within himself; he needed a spiritual revelation.

Science fiction or emotional healing? That is the question and not all viewers want their science fiction mixed with psychology — or vice versa. But Solaris is a rare gift to the viewer who wants a peek at the mysteries of the human psyche where time and space let go, suggesting possibilities far beyond logic.

In the beginning of Kelvin’s journey, as he arrives at the Solaris space station, he encounters the contents of his own mind’s eye as if they were as real as any ordinary reality. He is offered his dream come true. But the possibility of a full reunion with a Rheya who is alive but knows she’s dead is a form too terrifying, too threatening to the very structure of his sanity. He leaps back into the defense of denial and rejects her. Quite fantastically, he traps his image of Rheya into a space station transport pod and ejects her as a confection of his mind into outer space.

Of course, Rheya comes back. She’s already been coming back in his dreams and now she’s returning in what are often considered lucid dreams. Lucid dreaming can feel make people seem more real as an image than they are in real life. They take on special qualities not actual but virtual and, as such, virtually wish-fulfilling.

The events of Solaris begin to mirror the events on earth that Kelvin has not been able to face. For instance, his ejection of Rheya in the pod replicates his rejection of her on earth that led to their estrangement from one another in marriage and contributed to her death. She frightened him on earth after they married when she turned out not to be more than the stunning dreamgirl he married. Beneath the surface, Rheya was a woman with disturbing, disruptive emotions. The relationship died, their unborn child died and she died. Only after her death, Kelvin realizes that it was not his wife who fell from grace but his own idealism that betrayed him. Though it appears that he turns outward to Solaris, he actually turns inward for wisdom and healing.

At his wits end, Kelvin returns from Solaris, leaving Rheya to be an imaginary figure dwelling in another world. Deadened by irreparable loss, Kelvin is saved by a child reaching out to him symbolizing the miracle of healing that is the province of children. The mentality, vitality and enthusiasm of a child who faces a world unknown without even an slight understanding of courage provides a critical bridge for Kelvin to a connection with his wife not broken by time and place.

The connection with the child – finger to finger like the great painting of Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel – reinstates innocence, not as a solution but as a reminder of continuity that exists beyond physical form. Kelvin searches for a time that lies beyond rational. If this is too fantastical, there is the cucumber. Kelvin cuts himself slicing a cucumber for a salad. A physical wound heals, leaving scant evidence of it ever happening. What accounts for such a disappearance? It hints at a human healing without limits and without edges, dimensions beyond science suggested by a visionary reality explored in Solaris. “Any death shall have no dominion”, a quote from a Dylan Thomas’ poem used in the film, holds the Solaris promise. The poem is printed in full below, well deserving of a reading to feel the truth of Solaris.

On Orpheus’ ascent back to ordinary life with Euridyce following behind him, Orpheus succumbs to a feeling of elation — or insecurity. He looks back just once to be sure Euridyce is there, violating the one rule that assures her loss forever. And that is where ancient mythology left off; a projection of death as a final ending, a separation of one from another beyond repair.

In Solaris Kelvin steps forward into a world of possibility where the human form is mutable. His route may be no less painful than being bound to an understanding solely of the objective mind. His destination may be as unknown, suggested only by a faraway galaxy imagined as Solaris where realities merge and continuity reigns.

And Death Shall Have No Dominion – Dylan Thomas

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,

They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
Under the windings of the sea
They lying long shall not die windily;
Twisting on racks when sinews give way,
Strapped to a wheel, yet they shall not break;
Faith in their hands shall snap in two,
And the unicorn evils run them through;
Split all ends up they shan’t crack;
And death shall have no dominion.

And death shall have no dominion.
No more may gulls cry at their ears
Or waves break loud on the seashores;
Where blew a flower may a flower no more
Lift its head to the blows of the rain;
Though they be mad and dead as nails,
Heads of the characters hammer through daisies;
Break in the sun till the sun breaks down,
And death shall have no dominion.

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