Saturday, October 8, 2011

Inner Adjustments

For most of the time I’ve been writing this column, I was averaging two or three trips a week to the movie theater, sometimes even more, driven by the notion that if a new film had any virtue at all, then I needed to scoop it up now. This affliction – and that’s really the word for it – mysteriously cleared up last year, and now I only go once a week at the most (it’s only a relative cleansing – I still average a film a day at home). If a movie’s merely entertaining, or proficient, or “good of its type,” then it can wait for next year’s cable (assuming it retains any residual appeal by then). Sure, it’s probably superior to see a film on the big screen, but then it’s also probably superior to eat all your meals at Canoe. In a life that demands compromise, it’s not hard to sacrifice the purist viewing experience for the sake of avoiding the demands of getting there and back, and possibly of up with annoying people, and of course of spending a lot more money.

Movie of the week

In simple terms, the test for the weekly movie selection is two-fold: will it give my wife and me something interesting to discuss over dinner afterwards, and does it stimulate me enough that I can write 1,100 words or so about it. More broadly, will it give me something I can use in life – an insight, a perspective, an understanding, a sense of joy? Bad movies sometimes meet this test as effectively as good ones – it can be very informative and constructive to mull over why something ambitious and intelligent didn’t work – and in the past I carried low expectations into many movies, but now I feel I was mostly a tool of the marketing machine there. I don’t want to be giving any more just-about-what-I-expected shrugs on the way out. From here on, if it’s a disappointment, it’s going to hurt a little.

The last three weeks, I saw Contagion and Drive and Moneyball, all of which easily met the test. Drive is the most provocative as an aesthetic object; Contagion provides the best rocket fuel for riffing on aspects of the real world. Moneyball is the least of them – it’s the one where I was straining the most to fill up the space here (without resorting to the obvious fillers of reviewing Brad Pitt’s career and suchlike) – but it doesn’t have a dull or overly dumb moment, so no problem there either. This past week, I saw Poetry, which makes me realize that in going to see the likes of Contagion and Drive and Moneyball, I’ve merely redefined the nature of my submissiveness rather than eradicating it. Maybe, in saying that, I’m exhibiting a propensity to undervalue the familiar and privilege the relatively exotic, for Poetry (playing at the Bell Lightbox) is a film from South Korea: it would be easy to buy into some unformed notion of Asian refinement and mysticism, contrasted with inherent American crassness. That wouldn’t be well-founded, but the three movies – however respectful of creative sensibilities – are big investments, with big stars and big expectations; the circumstances of their production demand that they conquer a big chunk of the public’s awareness (Drive seems to have failed at this).


But our lives are generally small, for lack of a better word; the difference between happiness and misery, or virtue and depravity, or whatever set of oppositions you want to use, often lies in the faintest of nuances, in adjustments you might not register even as they act to change your course. Illuminating these is awfully difficult – perhaps the height of achievement in the cinema – because the attempt can so easily become crass or reductive, as in the endless contrivances about the “triumph of the human spirit.” And besides, there’s no law that dictates the best practitioners of cinematic technique are the smartest commentators about the human condition (Contagion’s Steven Soderbergh seems unusually frank about acknowledging this in interviews). But then, the audiences don’t care anyway. Nothing about our society encourages reflecting on such things, or indeed on anything at all. Our economy, or what’s left of it, depends on collective dumbness (in fulfilling our role as “confident” debt-ridden consumers, for instance), and on a fearful, chronic lack of empathy and of feeling for complexity (it will always be to the shame of our city that Rob Ford was able to get elected).

Poetry, directed by Chang-dong Lee, is entirely aware of the limitations – and occasional outright repulsiveness - of normal life, and without being at all idealistic or fanciful, it reflects on the practicalities of one old woman’s transcendence. At its centre is the brave and challenging idea that escalating Alzheimer’s, although undoubtedly a sentence, may contain some element of liberation, a final opportunity for clarity. The woman, Mija, raises her teenage grandson, managing to appear perpetually “chic” on a low budget. After her doctor detects her condition, she impulsively registers in a poetry class, but she struggles to fulfill her assignment to write a poem. Then she discovers that her grandson and his friends collectively raped, repeatedly, a girl in their school, and the girl killed herself because of it. The school collaborates with the other boys’ parents in suppressing this, trying to buy the silence of the girl’s family. Mija’s horror at the boy’s actions coupled with his apparent complete lack of remorse for or even acknowledgment of their consequences, and her initially barren attempts to feel her way into the poetic truth of things, eventually coalesce into personally meaningful action, although the film doesn’t tell us everything about the form it takes, or where it leaves her afterwards.

Practical beauty

Notwithstanding the title, the film is told in prose, not poetry – it’s a careful, attentive character study. Despite Mija’s frequent comments about her love of flowers and suchlike, the film is pretty tough-minded, depicting a great deal of naked self-interest, particularly in the way the reaction to the crime becomes entirely a matter of defensive logistics. Mija initially seems largely incapable of engaging with the world as it is (much about her suggests a profound lifelong desire to differentiate herself from her surroundings, but without ever figuring out how to implement that), at one point chiding a man whose bawdy humour she considers a form of crime against the essence of poetry, but she ultimately learns beauty and redemption must be practical commodities, with a traceable impact.

Or at least, for her they must be – the film doesn’t moralize or generalize. No two of us follow the same path; we all seek a slightly different synthesis of our inner and outer worlds. Assuming, that is, we realize such a synthesis is even attainable (or that we even perceive we have an inner world). Through its brilliant attentiveness to possibilities, Poetry surely holds the capacity of changing lives.

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