Saturday, April 24, 2010

Hi Mom!

I was going to write about the South Korean film Mother, which may be the most generally praised of the films currently playing. But you know, now I approach the task, I don’t really have enough to say about it. I enjoyed watching it, and it’s full of fine moments, so, uh, there you are. Want me to elaborate? Well all right, since you twist my arm, I liked the bit where the mother (amateur sleuthing to prove her son didn’t commit the murder he’s being held for) has to hide in a closet while a couple make love; when they fall asleep afterwards, she tiptoes out, holding what she thinks is an incriminating blood-spattered golf club (which later turns out to be lipstick), and on her way to the door knocks over a bottle of water…we see the water spread slowly toward the man’s fingers, and then actually onto his fingers…


…and then there’s a cut to the outside, where we see her emerge with relief, shortly thereafter scurrying away as she hears the man getting up and coming to the door as well. What I like is the choice of where to cut. The more conventional approach would be to stay inside the room, showing us exactly how the mother’s escape synchronizes with his waking up. But who needs that? The scene’s not going to get any better, and the edit brings it a surprising, quirky energy. The film is full of things like this.

But they never amount to much more than the sum of their parts. Ultimately the narrative only adds another exhibit to the long line of movie mothers whose faith in their sons drives them into irrationality. It engineers some good twists, but in today’s cinema, it would be rarer to encounter a movie without a good twist. And I’m tired of the whole meta-reality thing. At one key point the son probes his buried memories of the night of the murder and recalls a previously overlooked witness, whom he unconsciously registered out of the corner of his eye in the darkness, and goes on to identify from a selection of photographs. I don’t know of any occasion when my memory or anyone else’s has ever operated with such Google Maps functionality, allowing you to rotate prior experiences through 360 degrees and extract previously unnoticed details, but that’s how it works in movies. The closing scene blends ambiguity, denial and release as we view her in silhouette, swaying to the music among other aging mothers on some kind of appreciation bus tour; being a mother, you feel, remains transcendently self-defining, even if one’s own children are almost inevitably disappointing; indeed the more disappointing they are, the more tenaciously one defines oneself as a mother, in all its abstract glory. Again, it’s certainly not an off the shelf ending, but I mostly found myself shrugging.

The Blind Side

It’s not so much of a leap (not if you need a segue anyway) to The Blind Side, one of last year’s Oscar-nominated best movies, and of course the winner for Sandra Bullock as best actress. I never had much desire to see it in theatres, but caught up with it recently on the pay for view. It’s another story (this one taken from real life) about a determined mother, but in this case the focus isn’t on her own two kids (who don’t seem to have a problem or a hang-up in the world) but rather on the big sad black kid she takes under her wing, all but single-handedly manoeuvring him from academic hopelessness to respectability, and to football stardom.

The film is smooth and entertaining, but I don’t know if it has a single moment, a single hint, of the kind of idiosyncrasy or eccentricity I was talking about. It’s so focused on getting from A to Z (admittedly not a short distance) that it often feels like a prototype, lacking a layer or two of ornamentation. This might reflect the presumably deliberate decision to go for a PG rating, no doubt a factor in its great popular success, but also a guarantee of blandness. Stray remarks and incidents inform us we’re in a rigidly Republican, church-going milieu, apparently still with a 50’s-era level of effective segregation, but nothing in the movie communicates this viscerally: its dominant tone flows from the generous spaces and plush furnishings of the family residence.

Against this backdrop, it sometimes feels we’re barely removed from the heyday of Sidney Poitier, when seeing a black man string two articulate sentences together was a novelty, and tailor-made for a middlebrow audience to congratulate itself on its liberalism (actually, it’s not even that advanced - the kid in The Blind Side never does string two articulate sentences together). Anyway, it’s Bullock’s movie, and Tim McGraw as her husband has little to do beyond gaze submissively in her direction and deliver variations on: “Here she goes again.” She’s pleasant to watch, although nothing about the performance seems like a stretch. But maybe lifting such an innocuous piece of material to near-blockbuster status is indeed, if not great acting in the classic sense, at least the most tangible achievement of any Hollywood actress last year.

Which might only be a bit like voting for the world’s most nutritious Twinkie bar. With the choices offered by new technologies and viewing platforms and modes of access, it’s never been as easy to see good films. But ironically, most of what dominates the cultural conversation has never been so flimsy and disposable. It’s as if, in an ocean of exotic and nutritious fish, we all just swim toward the big plastic shark with the goofy painted-on smile.


Anyway, a year or so ago, some groups were up in arms about the movie Orphan, fearing it would damage the image of adoption. What crap, I thought at the time. Having now seen Orphan, I’m thinking they were basically right – no one who sees this depiction of a well-meaning family torn to bits by an adoptee from hell will ever let any child through the doors again – even on a visit, let alone to stay. Now I should acknowledge, the way the movie presents things, adopting an orphan involves somewhat less checking and paperwork than buying a watering can. But why take chances? Now that Obama’s passed his health care bill, I wonder if we’re any closer to being able to grow humans in test tubes and incubate them to adulthood in laboratories. Sure, such an upbringing might deprive them of social skills. But I expect their taste in movies would turn out much the same.

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