Irreconcilable Differences

lionel barrymore, james stewart, jean arthur & edward arnold - you can't take it with you 1938

In Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Lionel Barrymore (left) and Edward Arnold (right) are brought together from opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, by the true love of their offspring. © 1938, Columbia Pictures.

If you’ve seen the wonderful, Frank Capra-directed film version of You Can’t Take It With You (1938—adapted from a 1936 play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart), chances are the last twenty minutes will stick out in your memory. As the compulsory happy ending unfolds, we find an unlikely merger taking place between the super-wealthy president of an arms manufacturer (played by Edward Arnold), and the self-employed, stamp-collecting patriarch (Lionel Barrymore) of a farcical, freewheeling family. They are brought together, of course, by the fateful romance that has blossomed between the son of the former, and the granddaughter of the latter; their union also stands out in explicit contrast to a merger that was meant to take place previously in the story—between Arnold’s parent company and a series of smaller arms manufacturers on the East coast. In this film, not only does love conquer all: it is seen as a force powerful enough to deflate the yearnings of profit-driven war-mongers, awaken the dormant humanity of a Scrooge-like millionaire, and yoke him with a ragtag family of American peasants (complete with a crow named “Jim,” in protest of long-standing segregation laws).

Released today, the film would be deemed a failure on any number of counts: its sentimental social commentary; its use of fable-like storytelling devices to convey the universal plight of humanity; its cartoon-ishly exaggerated sense of humor; its well-meaning, but nevertheless stereotype-laden approach to issues of race and ethnicity. Most notably, however, the film could not possibly resonate with an audience that would recognize the core premise to be wholly incompatible with the reality of 21st century America. To be sure, love still brings the families of disparate paramours together (in more or less equal proportion to the number of times it tears them apart); but the foremost conceit of the play’s narrative—that even the most wealthy and privileged weapons contractor can be brought to his senses, if confronted with the recognition of the human(e) experiences he is missing out on—is every bit as untenable today as it may well have seemed possible then (in a time before WWII, the atomic bomb, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War; 9/11 and 9/11 conspiracy theorists; climate change awareness and climate change deniers; InfoWars…).

So let’s fast-forward 80 years, to the age of 45. American film is no longer a matter of any real significance: the people have spoken, and moviegoers have—somewhere along the line—collectively chosen to settle for a never-ending trough of superhero blockbusters (most of them remakes or sequels; or sequels to sequels; or remakes of remakes), with a parallel diet of expensively produced television programs showcasing an increasing array of cinematic tropes (that way you don’t have to spend $10 to support the latest Paul Thomas Anderson opus: instead, you can stream Fincher’s House of Cards as part of your monthly Netflix package, and not risk the disappointment of having been challenged by an art-house movie that may provoke you to have a critical conversation with your fellow moviegoers). Of course, we still have the à la carte “independent” film menu, which is sure to sate the palate of viewers in need of a feel-good (or, as though determined by producer’s coin toss, a feel-bad) small-town story about two (or three) people from different worlds who are brought together by some unfortunate circumstance or other—a car accident or medical tragedy typically does the trick—and subsequently learn a valuable life lesson about themselves.

Forgive me if I come across sounding embittered; it’s just that it’s been almost a year since the last worthwhile American independent sensation (Moonlight) captured my attention, and I’m starting to feel that itch I’m increasingly prone to these days. It’s the itch that comes from loving movies (and the craft of movie-making), but finding oneself adrift in a sea of movies and moviegoers who, by and large, appear to lack any vested interest in an independent barometer for quality and content. One might frame it as a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: is it the movies that died on us first (through the de-creativizing process of “high concept” production strategies, a cult of personality culture, and an endless stream of unnecessary CGI conceptualization), or have moviegoers—true, dyed-in-the-wool moviegoers—simply become an endangered species? In a supply-and-demand economy, one might conceivably argue for either side of the equation.

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Mike White appears opposite Laura Dern in his self-penned, limited run HBO series Enlightened. The show was canceled after two seasons, due to a combination of factors (including low ratings); it thematically explored some of the motifs reprised in Beatriz (directed by Miguel Arteta, who also collaborated with White on Enlightened). © 2011-2013, HBO.

Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner (2017), written by Mike White (The Good Girl, HBO’s Enlightened) and starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow, could be presented as a sample of what’s wrong with independent film-making these days: over-wrought, wince-inducing, and capped off by one of the most dissatisfying endings in recent memory, I’m sure the film will be dismissed by many (if not most) critics and viewers as a quintessential slice of feel-bad art-house cinema. And while I might be inclined to nod in agreement with a selection of their critiques, I would have to interject that it could easily be—shortcomings and all—one of the only significant movies in theaters at the time of this writing. Because unlike the beautiful-to-look-at-but-hollow-on-the-inside, white girl power chic of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled (which is, shockingly, a step back from her problematic-but-entertainingly-relevant The Bling Ring), Arteta’s film offers us something, as opposed to simply being a film about something. (Though considering how Coppola’s masterclass in natural lighting didn’t even have that much going for it, I suppose I ought to reel in my expectations).

While I wouldn’t go so far as to call Beatriz the You Can’t Take It With You of its time, a comparison between both pictures—each reflecting the moods, attitudes, and beliefs of their respective eras—may serve to highlight the irreconcilable gap between where we were then, and where we are now. To begin with, the lines that were drawn in sand by Kaufman and Hart, have been painted onto concrete by White and Arteta. As appalled as the wealthy parents in You Can’t Take It With You are by their son’s selection of life partner, they readily accept the bride-to-be’s invitation to visit her family’s earthy home for a modest dinner party (just as, years later, the arch-conservative patriarch in La Cage Aux Folles eventually warms up to the flamboyancy of his son-in-law’s gay parents). In Beatriz at Dinner, there is no romantic involvement or parental approval to be sought, because there is—quite simply—no romance: there is only the romantic pessimism of White’s quasi-poetic screenwriting, as he endeavors to write himself out of the corner he’s placed himself in—vis-a-vis the film’s subject matter.

Beatriz at Dinner is the first (somewhat) mainstream motion picture to take the bull by the horns in addressing the great political divide of 2017. As the reader will realize by the conclusion of this essay (which will, out of sheer necessity, contain a spoiler or two—so be forewarned), White and Arteta eventually let us down by letting go of the horns in the film’s final act. But they give us plenty to consider before the shift to creative self-defeatism, and they deserve a pat on the back for even trying in the first place. Put simply, they’ve given us the film equivalent of a convenience store in a food desert: while it doesn’t carry the full range of ingredients the shopper might be hoping for, it at least provides some form of nourishment (as opposed to the now-year-round superhero movie buffet—serving the cinematic equivalent of artificially flavored chalk).

In short, Arteta’s film divides our present-day culture into two basic archetypes: on the left, we have Beatriz—the Mexican-emigrated healer who spreads her work between a cancer ward and a roster of private clients; on the right, there is Doug—the remorseless, passionless, ego-and-finance-driven CEO, who might easily stand in for any number of real-life figures in the one percent bracket (from the Koch brothers, to the president, to the president’s cabinet…). Although the script is structured in such a way that the viewer is encouraged to sympathize with Beatriz from the outset, White and Arteta (and Lithgow) have made a perceptible effort to paint Doug as a person: in keeping with the liberal penchant (or weakness?) for trying to understand the inner workings of any given character—no matter how overtly despicable—Doug comes across as the callow Republican asshole he is meant to represent, but is never caricatured to the point of becoming an easy prey. In fact, this arises as one of several primal dilemmas at the film’s core.

Beatriz at Dinner

John Lithgow represents a figurehead of unchecked capitalism in Beatriz at Dinner. © 2017, Killer Films.

For how is a film-maker (or any artist, for the matter) to depict a real-life villain as omnipresent and disgusting as 45, and not just write him out completely by the second act? Arteta and White appear to have tackled this quandary by book-ending their film with scenes exclusive to Beatriz’s point of view—with special emphasis placed on the opening sequences of Beatriz working with her patients in the cancer ward and making over her pets at home. They first present us with a close-up study of the protagonist’s idyll/ideal, so we might then gradually submerge ourselves in the murky waters of the villain’s hilltop lair.

While narratively appropriate (at least during the first part), this structural approach may age more effectively than it is likely to strike viewers living through the reign of 45; which is to say, it presents the fairly unrecognizable experience of waking up and not being confronted, straightaway, with some newly egregious atrocity perpetrated by the president, his minions, or his acolytes. The film shows us a world in which an adult woman could be so suddenly offended by the reality of oafish white men caring only about themselves and their wallets, she might be provoked to the brink of sudden madness and self-immolation. It’s a laughable notion, viewed from a distance, and it draws our attention to other missed opportunities throughout the film’s text—such as the half-formation of Beatriz’s (and Doug’s) character, or the repeated on-screen absence of her friends (one of whom she merely leaves a voice-mail for; the other we never see or hear). In hindsight, one will feel tempted to re-read the movie as a defense of Beatriz’s fateful action at the film’s close; if attempted, I can only hope the viewer will not be mollified by what they find herein.

Ultimately, the most compelling and timely dilemma explored by Beatriz is the irresoluble divergence between the two viewpoints embodied by its main characters. Namely: while both Beatriz and Doug share an awareness of the finite-ness of life and earthly resources, Beatriz has chosen to dedicate her life to making these resources last, and to helping others get by; Doug, on the other hand, has chosen a half-heartedly hedonistic form of nihilism—only finding pleasure in strippers, politics, profit margins, and the “hunt for big game.” Cognitively speaking, both characters share a realistic appreciation for the dire straits in which their planet now finds itself (due to man-made problems of pollution, carbon gas, waste disposal, etc.); but whereas Beatriz has jumped on the wagon of “let us all work together to make it a better place,” Doug has taken the less affable (but more lucrative) stance of “let me get the most out of this, while I’m still alive; planet be damned—it’s dying, anyway.”

Many editorial pieces have been written on the great divide in our country’s political landscape; counter-arguments are now emerging, even—such as a piece in the Miami Herald, asserting that folks ought to stop commenting on the divide itself, and should instead focus on how the GOP has completely lost command of its marbles. It is worth noting here, as far as party politics are concerned, that the lunacy of the Grand Old Party is no recent development; from this writer’s perspective on the subject, at least, commentary on such matters is on-point but asinine. For at least as far back as the “Party of Reagan,” Republican government entities have made a routine habit of foregoing any sense of decency (failing to even acknowledge the HIV/AIDS epidemic; insisting on the graphic examination of Clinton’s sex scandals, and conversely, offering a defense of sexual misconduct in the notorious Anita Bryant case), disregarding common sense (“trickle-down” economics; war for oil; the ignored memos detailing an imminent attack by Osama Bin Laden in 2001), and manipulating elected officials in office well after they’ve passed over to the side of clinically impaired cognition (as was the case during Reagan’s final years in office, which are now understood to have been lived under the shroud of Alzheimer’s). So whereas it may appear topical to comment on the increasingly overt insanity of present-day Republicans, it behooves one to keep in mind the reality that this is nothing new (for a genuinely new development, one can direct their attention to the smoky realm of “alternative facts,” and condoned acts of treason). Because, much like Doug Strutt, real-life Republicans and conservatives have a well-established tradition of ignoring issues of common interest in favor of advancing their personal needs and wants: carried to their natural conclusion, such patterns of self-serving “manifest destiny” invariably lead to a schizophrenic break with the rest of society—and the development of sociopathic tendencies as an intuitive defense mechanism.

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Beatriz raises a toast. © 2017, Killer Films.

Which brings us back to Beatriz, and the core dilemma therein: How does one attempt to improve, or to restore justice to a society that has—for decades—routinely rewarded sociopaths with hedge funds, and punished mindful citizens by dismissing them as “snowflakes?” Is it even possible, at this point, to incentivize the pursuits of social justice and ecological preservation—when one may more consistently be rewarded (in financial terms) by foregoing such pursuits? I’m reminded of an opinion piece a friend informed me about recently, in which the writer pointedly—albeit self-righteously—inquired of her GOP-sympathizing readers: “I don’t know how to tell you that you’re supposed to care about other people.” The predicament sounds insane; but that’s because it is. And this is the corner that Mike White has written himself into here (and from which he’s surmised a totally inadequate escape): for while having the protagonist respond to insanity with insanity effectively points out elements of futility in the matter at hand, it minimizes (or outright ignores) the reality sustained by millions of people who experience daily injustices within a sociopathically administered society. Just as the notion of a grown (Latina, nonetheless) woman being so shocked by the pathology of a xenophobic chauvinist that she decides suddenly to “end it all” is totally unconvincing, the emphasis placed on the triumph of conscience-free capitalism over our more egalitarian impulses may read like a slap-in-the-face to those who (like Beatriz) have dedicated their lives to addressing social issues and fighting for just causes. (To further compound the “unconvincing” factor, one is left scoffing at the notion that such an overtly humanitarian, animal-loving protagonist would commit the selfish act of leaving all of her remaining pets to fend for themselves.)

But Beatriz at Dinner should not be seen because it is a great movie (it isn’t): it should be seen because, in the vein of all zeitgeists, it represents a Rorscach test of our present reality—enabling each viewer to project their own anxieties and insights into the mix, and provoking necessary conversation. Hayek’s unbesmirchable performance fits the material so snugly, she carries the entire picture on her shoulders without drawing any undue attention to herself (not unlike Beatriz). Most notably, the film invests a refreshing amount of effort into representing the human characteristics of its elite characters, so that we are genuinely disappointed when they display their inherently despicable traits (because making them out to be champagne popsicle-licking monsters from the start, while totally defensible, would’ve seemed facile and ineffective). Beatriz’s employer, in particular (an affluent housewife, played impeccably by Connie Britton), comes across as a credible, conflicted individual—torn between the creature comforts of her mansion on the hill, and a developing awareness of the holistic impulses she is actively suppressing. Ironically, the characterizations populating this film are, by and large, less plastic and stereotype-laden than the characters in Frank Capra’s films—though the overarching narrative is less cohesive and convincing.

Viewers are left with a distinct impression of the disorienting despair that permeates our age—as we struggle to adapt from a world which deemed it possible for a corporate crook to reform himself into a decent human being, to a world in which men and women (but mostly men) perpetually commit themselves to a life of insatiable greed and bottomless corruption, without the remotest desire (or any consistent external motivation) to return to a state of relative modesty. Having cornered the market on popular appeal—by way of the Hiltons, the Kardashians, the Trumps, the “Real” Housewives, and other affluent personality cults-in-the-making—the grotesque idea of wealth-for-its-own-sake (and more distressingly, the concept of notoriety without any recognizable cause) is now one of the most ubiquitous signposts of 21st century America.

Jumping into the ocean to escape all of this is hardly a conducive form of retaliation, but I suppose the notion isn’t entirely without its charms.

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