1sense: 3 : conscious awareness or rationality 6 a : capacity for effective application of the powers of the mind as a basis for action or response
sentiment: 1 a : an attitude, thought, or judgment prompted by feeling 3 a : an idea colored by emotion
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I’ve made it a point not to write about anything on this blog from a stance of pure distaste or disdain—and I intend to keep it as such. Life’s too short to piss and moan, for the sheer sake of pissing and moaning. With that in mind, it’s been a challenge (at best) to maintain this dedicated perspective in the midst of an increasingly heated socio-cultural clash taking place in the public arena this year. I’ve been haunted by the suspicion that it is unethical to remain completely silent in this time of turbulence and hysteria; at the same time, one must choose one’s words wisely if one is to break the silence. One must balance sense with sentiment, and forever keep in mind that this, too, shall pass—and que sera, sera.
I’ve recently been inspired to explore some of my on-going concerns about the so-called “state of things,” as I happen to have had the most peculiar combination of movie-viewing experiences today. This afternoon, I had the (unique and unforgettable) pleasure of screening a film I’ve been yearning to watch with the displaced youth I work with at a non-profit agency in the mid-west: the film was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—which was miraculously shot over the course of 12 consecutive years with the same cast of characters. Perhaps the most miraculous thing about this movie was the manner in which it so carefully balanced the dual axes of sense and sentiment; how it was able to provoke such a strong emotional response in its audience, while bypassing every conspicuous opportunity for cinematic mawkishness. Take, for instance, the passage of the film (and I use “passage” in both the literal and the literary sense of the word) when our young protagonist’s mother undergoes her second divorce from an alcoholic husband. This tumultuous life event is barely referred to by the mother; in a stroke of storytelling genius, Patricia Arquette’s character clarifies her recent separation by simply mentioning her desire to sell the now-over-sized house they reside in. Linklater reveals himself, throughout the course of this master class in film-making, to harbor adequate love and respect for his audience (and, ergo, for the audience’s cognitive and emotional faculties) not to indulge the impulse to drain this event of all its sensationalistic potential. Whereas Robert Benton constructed a feature-length film of the subject with Kramer Vs. Kramer, and the LifeTime channel has crafted an entire niche out of exploitative family drama, Boyhood achieved the desired effect (I might add, far more successfully than Benton, Hoffman, and Streep managed to in Kramer) by barely referring to the event in question. Good sense and good sentiment, indeed.
Take another scene from Linklater’s film—the one where Mason’s high school teacher congratulates him on his success during a student photography contest, then counsels him on how special the college experience is in comparison to the more scripted grade school content. Her closing comment, delivered as she walks out of frame: “don’t forget to floss.” While devoid of explicit sentiment, the scene never fails to provoke an emotional response from this viewer; it’s not the content of the teacher’s expression—it’s the expression itself that reminds us, the viewer, of the mentors we’ve all (I hope) had throughout our lives, and the spirit of passing wisdom onto others, however minute it may be. There’s also that brief, familiar shot of a young Mason squirting mustard and ketchup from a concession stand at a baseball arena. Or that scene where his father, as played by Ethan Hawke, passionately (and accurately) explains the significance of the Beatles as a band by compiling a collection of post-Beatles solo work, using the song sequence to highlight how their combined sensibilities “elevate” their individual merits. Or the opening shot of a young kid gazing up at a cloudy sky, visibly thinking (that’s right: you can actually watch a child thinking) all those things that kids think—before they’re taught not to.
I could go on and on about the many wonders of this special film experience, but it would be preferable for the reader to run out and experience the film on his/her own, if the reader has not had the chance to do so already. Instead, as a counter-point, I would like to make mention of the other film experience I had today, which was rather less rewarding. The film: a piece of soapy mouthwash titled Little Boy (named, we later discover, after a combination of the diminutive protagonist, and the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima—which, in a moment of extraordinary senselessness, are conflated as two synonymous beings during one particularly harsh scene). It would be prudent for me to preface the following comments with some wise words penned by the indomitable David Mamet:
“…the newspaper, whatever its flag of convenience, exists to sell sex, gore, and outrage. Much like the movies. In each, the moralistic tone is very much likely to enfold, and, indeed, to allow the sale of that denied to the high-minded. Most antiwar films succeed through the power of this engine. We viewers are titillated by images we are assured we have come to decry… The Green Mile, while purporting to be an indictment of capital punishment, was a pictorial, inventive, extensive, and very graphic description of the same.”
And on the matter of “religious films” (essentially, films that proselytize, whatever the cause may be):
“The power of iconography is such that it can endorse, and in fact exult, psychotic savagery (Triumph of the Will) or, devoid of content, convince an audience into thinking they have actually seen a film about something (Forrest Gump).”
I invoke these statements as a palate cleanser for the descriptions to follow, which are hysterical at best—and disturbing at worst. Alejandro Monteverde’s Little Boy, which was recommended to my father by a coworker of his (using the ostensible criteria of a “family movie”) and was subsequently experienced by our family as a unit, is one of the most unsettling films I’ve seen in some time. The story follows a sort of American Oskar Matzerath (the protagonist of Gunther Grass’s antiwar best-seller Tin Drum), but with a twist: instead of choosing not to grow up as an act of protest to the war raging outside his bedroom, Little Boy’s Pepper Busbee is born with some sort of congenital illness that inhibits physical growth (to further compound the inscrutable premise, it is never made clear what Pepper’s age actually is). Since Pepper’s older brother, London, is deemed unfit for military service in WWII, Pepper’s father (who also happens to be his best friend) enlists on the family’s behalf, and is sent off to fight in the Philippines. Following a lengthy prologue of emotional torture scenes—boy gets picked on by all his peers; boy buys boots for dad, only to have them thrown about and damaged by an older bully; boy is taunted by a circle of bullies who proceed to pour a soda on his head and then throw him in a dumpster (all in slow motion, if I recall correctly)—relief comes in the form of a magician named Ben Eagle, who convinces the boy he has magical powers by engaging him as an audience participant during an act of illusion. The boy, convinced of his superiority, proceeds to torment an elder Japanese emigre (all the while using the derogatory term, “Jap,” in what must be a record number of slurs for a child actor on film) into having to “hang out” with him. It’s a Catholic penance assignment handed down by Tom Wilkinson (in one of those “what the hell are you doing in this piece of tripe?” cameo appearances), which also includes knitting and letting their developmentally challenged mechanic wear his brother’s pajamas, and it’s pretty much all downhill from there.
The following hour is devoted to equal portions of: 1) close-ups of our young protagonist crying and/or screaming to have his way, and 2) more people being tortured, in scenes that seem inordinately macabre for a “family movie” (or is this the new norm?). What I found most unsettling about the entire ordeal, although this is a tough call to make, is the eerie parallel with one of our nation’s current front-runners for president: a child—with small hands, I might add—who, for no apparent reason, is exempted from growing up into an adult, gets by in life moaning and whining for the things he wants, and proceeds to assault a classmate with a metal lunchbox in the second act. (Our “little boy” appears to have conveniently forgotten an early admonishment from priest Wilkinson: “this won’t be over until I can no longer see the hate in your eyes.” Or maybe that was just foreshadowing for the seeming interminability of the film itself). As is the case with many reactionary voters, zealots, and politicians, this level of hysterical infantilism can only be achieved by deliberately foregoing a realistic awareness of one’s nuanced surroundings in favor of pure, plotted escapism (magicians, superheroes, deities, etc…). In a world populated by heroes and villains, there will always be some justification for assaulting someone else with a metal lunchbox.
But is this the brand of “family values” that is being perpetrated by the moral majority these days? If so, where could this all possibly be headed? Is the first (of many) ending(s) in Little Boy a portent—the child wishes so relentlessly for his father to return home, that his resolution lies in the unleashing of an atomic bomb on more than 100,000 civilians in a foreign country, followed by that surely-this-can’t-be-happening tracking shot of the child running through the streets with a huge grin on his face while bombastic music rises in the background? Fortunately for this writer, my mother spoke up at this moment in the film (I was too busy digging my fingernails into the arm of the sofa) and questioned the motives of the filmmakers: “did they really name the kid’s character after a bomb? I’m not so sure that’s a good thing…” Yes, mom; I do believe you’re onto something there.
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Throughout this viewing experience, I was continually reminded of David Mamet’s writings on aesthetic distance—specifically, his astute observation about Frank Darabont’s much-beloved adaption of Stephen King’s serial The Green Mile, which never quite sat well with this viewer. To repeat Mamet’s stance: “We viewers are titillated by images we are assured we have come to decry.” With Little Boy, it almost feels as though the scales have tilted so far in the sensational direction, I’m not so sure the filmmakers expect or want the viewers to decry the onslaught of emotional, physical, and psychological torture. As with many present-day political agendas, the fear tactic appears to stem less from a “these are the unfortunate realities of the world we live in” standpoint, and more from a “let’s face it, we never really liked [insert minority group or foreign entity of current relevance] anyway” perspective. Which begs the question: when framed through the lens of family values, what “values” does this perspective uphold? And if they cannot be identified as values, than what are they?
There was something else persistently bothersome to me about watching this film with my family (truth be told, there were far too many bothersome things in the film to keep track of), and that was the recollection of supporting actor Emily Watson’s previous turn as the martyred wife of an absent husband in Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Long after the credits had mercifully rolled over the final frames of Little Boy, I pondered the mechanics of Von Trier’s somewhat sensational film-making and held them up against those of Alejandro Monteverde. I wondered to myself: is there really much of a difference between the manner in which Von Trier subjects his viewers to the tortured experience of female characters, and the manner in which Monteverde and Darabont subject viewers to the tortured experience of, well, just about every character on screen? After all, I rather appreciate what Von Trier has accomplished as an agent provocateur throughout his career, but I cannot deny that he’s had quite the knack for subjecting viewers to “images we are assured we have come to decry.” Perhaps I could just chalk it up to his Danish origin, and the fact that Europeans tend to handle despair and agony with greater tact and respectability than their American counterparts.
Upon further reflection, it dawned on me that the true difference lay somewhere between poetry and propaganda: between Von Trier’s ability to make viewers first, and foremost, care about his characters as human beings—with complex desires and motives—before subverting our hopes and expectations with taboo-shattering plot devices; and Monteverde/Darabont’s sledgehammer approach to forcing us into an acceptance of filmed torture as an end in itself, while thinly veiling their sadism with the means of character and plot (so thinly, in the case of Little Boy, that there is not a single character development scene to be found in the entire picture: the ultimate fascist fantasy, this movie exists as a mechanical sequence of hysterical moments, designed to provoke a sustained mood of heightened emotions with no actual reason for us to be caring about any of these people in the first place. These characters never have to grow up: they’re too busy feeling. Call it emotional pornography—or, to steal a page from Mamet’s book: “[to] convince an audience into thinking they have actually seen a film about something”). Then again, isn’t one person’s poetry always bound to be another’s stifled yawn?
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As stated previously, I refuse to linger too long on those things for which I can propose no immediate solution. I long ago decided that, if pressed to choose between the child who moans and whines to have his way—believing his magical super-powers will one day wipe away all those who do harm to his self-esteem—and the child lying on the grass in that opening scene of Boyhood (gazing up at the sky with wonderment, respect for the unknown, and a drive for knowledge), the superior ideal is clear. I was rewarded, at the end of this screening for the youth at my job, with the knowledge that young people are still capable of recognizing the advantage of this perspective. And I still wonder where it all went so terribly wrong.