Sunday, February 26, 2012

American trauma

As mainstream cinema becomes ever more of an industry (and even though the trend’s been escalating for several decades now, it still manages to push further each year), the experience of going to movies across the globe also becomes depressingly uniform. When I was in the UK last summer, the line-up at the local multiplex (and that’s the first point right there, that there even is a local multiplex) was barely distinguishable from what you would have found at the downtown Scotiabank at the same time, and the general ambiance of the place hurt your eyes and ears in much the same way too. In 1974, the four nominees for the BAFTA best film award, Britain’s general equivalent to the Oscar, were Day for Night, The Day of the Jackal, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Don’t Look Now, not one of which was nominated for the best film Oscar; none of the four BAFTA winners for acting received Oscars that year, and only one was even nominated (lasting tribute to British quirkiness – Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick and Pete ‘n’ Tillie beat Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris!), But in recent years, the BAFTAs deviate only incidentally from the Oscars, indicating either a woeful standardization of taste, or an equally woeful lack of courage in homegrown instincts. Maybe it’s a symbol for the whole country, how Britishness defines itself increasingly by holding on to trivia, while yielding on all the big stuff (shouldn’t have let that empire slip away I guess).

We Need to Talk about Kevin

The main difference this year is Drive, which fell short at the Oscars but did well at the BAFTAs, a case it seems where the British are more likely to see the substance beneath the style (that’s why they like that other kind of football). Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy also did a bit better there, with an obvious advantage in local resonance, and so did Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, nominated by the BAFTAs for best actress and director. The film was highly praised in the UK; when the British magazine Sight and Sound polled critics on their best films of the year, it ended up in the top ten. But the reaction on this side of the Atlantic was much more mixed, often unenthusiastic beyond offering general praise for the performances.

Based on the book by Lionel Shriver, the film’s protagonist is Eva (Tilda Swinton), now reviled in her community and trudging alone through a miserable life. Operating through a complex structure of flashbacks, it contrasts this early on with her past professional and personal success, married with an angelic young daughter, blighted only by her exceptionally challenging son Kevin, who (back in the present) she now visits in prison. There’s never any doubt Kevin has caused pain and disruption almost beyond processing, even if we don’t find out the details until the end of the movie.

Horror story?

Liam Lacey in The Globe and Mail summed this up as “an ambitious miscalculation, artful to a fault, with a jigsaw puzzle of flashbacks with conspicuous colour design in the service of an overwrought psychological horror story.” That’s a much more prosaic judgment than Sight and Sound’s, which described it as an “exercise in disassembly, suggesting of a catastrophe so explosive it has splintered time…removing control so thoroughly from its main character that she can’t even marshal her own flashbacks – they happen to her out of the blue. Or out of the red.” Meaning the film is suffused in that colour, from strawberry jam to paint to, of course, blood. Lacey appears to regard this as little more than an affectation; Sight and Sound concedes it’s an “intentionally excessive motif” but says “it works precisely as a kind of insult – it’s a colour that won’t leave Eva in peace.”

I think Lacey makes an error in viewing the film as a psychological horror story, overwrought or not. Summing it up that way slots it in with a genre piece like Orphan, where you just wait for the superficially angelic kid to turn into a monster, but Ramsay totally rejects the stale narrative conventions attaching to such items: she never attempts to tease us by positing Kevin as a good boy, nor to allow us the easy refuge of blaming Eva as a flamboyantly bad mother. And the term “psychological” is wrong too, because Kevin represents a wound beyond all analysis and understanding. It’s not just that he’s unruly or scheming; he seems possessed by a contempt and alienation that can never be reconciled. Lacey asks “Can you really be a bad mother to the devil?” but if Kevin were the devil, you’d at least have some reference points in what to do about it. The real horror of We Need to Talk about Kevin is that there are none, there’s only pain and incomprehension.

A British perspective

It must be relevant I think that the film is British, but doesn’t look like it (the same goes for Steve McQueen’s Shame, also on the whole more highly praised over there than it was here); it’s an outsider’s perspective on an American tragedy. Ramsay’s jigsaw encompasses any number of contributory factors: the dehumanizing monstrosity of the picture-perfect big house (which Eva never likes); the masculine idiocy that has Kevin’s father buying him heavy-duty archery equipment for Christmas; the internet, of course; the inadequacies of its popular culture (mainly represented here through soundtrack song selections that might have slotted into O Brother Where Are Thou?). Even the community’s treatment of Eva in the present day, although driven by loss and despair, is marked by continual nastiness and pettiness, showing no sign of the Christian values that supposedly forge its small towns (that’s just me saying that - Ramsay doesn’t extend her canvas to include the church).

Of course, the picture depicts such an extreme situation that you might think it disqualifies itself as a serious evocation of anything. But you can hardly name a recently praised American film that isn’t just as extreme in different ways. It’s fine to praise The Descendants for its attention to character for example, but how about the fact that the characters are fabulously wealthy Hawaiian landowners? It’s fine to say rich people have problems too, but you could see the film’s success as another symptom of the great American con whereby the elite furthers its agenda by insisting it’s the same agenda as everyone else’s. American (and Canadian) culture are pretty good at overlooking how much of the fabric of life as it’s lived is woven out of grief and loss and deprivation. We Need to Talk about Kevin’s depiction of an American trauma may not be subtle, but then not much about the country is, except its illusions. So no wonder the British liked it more…

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