Sunday, April 14, 2013

The movies aren't the same

Even allowing for the natural tendency toward excess in commemorating the recently departed, I found something rather offensive in Barack Obama’s remarks that “for a generation of Americans - and especially Chicagoans – Roger (Ebert) was the movies…The movies won't be the same without Roger.” It rankles in part because Obama plainly doesn’t believe it – insofar as the remarks make any sense, it’s certainly not true that Obama’s own experience of cinema, or anyone else’s, has been entirely filtered through or shaped by what Ebert had to say about it. And Ebert almost certainly wouldn’t have wanted it to be true – I’m sure he had a healthy ego, but not to the point of desiring to be an all-defining gatekeeper, rather than say a constructive facilitator or reference point. I know I may be making too much of this, but Obama’s remarks tap into the same vein of lazy supplication to institutional power that contributes to America’s endless problems.

Roger Ebert

Of course, Ebert’s death was poignant in several ways. I doubt anyone could have remained unmoved by his response to his physical challenges. His final blog post, released the day before he died, overflowed with unfulfilled plans and ambitions, including the comment that: “I'll be able at last to do what I've always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” This surely conveys something about the clouds within every silver lining – if someone as powerful and rich and esteemed as Ebert couldn’t have achieved such a modest fantasy years ago, then what hope for the rest of us? In this regard, it’s also rather sad that his last review to be published before he died was a forgettable bread-and-butter write-up of the (presumably forgettable bread-and-butter) movie The Host. If Ebert was indeed the movies for one or more American generations, it would be at least partly because of how, even by his own account, he couldn’t help putting commercial interests ahead of his own, thus symbolizing the audience’s perpetual surrender.

As far as I can tell, Ebert didn’t review Romanian director Cristian Mongiu’s film Beyond the Hills (playing at the Bell Lightbox as I write, and no doubt available soon in other formats). It would have been a much worthier deployment of his stature and talents – this is the kind of film that needs, well, any kind of attention at all, but in particular of a kind that encourages patient, constructive engagement. Something other, that is, than the first line of Rick Groen’s Globe and Mail review:If you long for the bleak intelligence of an Ingmar Bergman film, where humankind is deeply flawed and God is indifferently silent and the landscape is cloaked in perpetual winter, then Beyond the Hills promises to be your cup of despair.” It’s accomplished phrase-making, but of course the number of readers who long for such an experience is basically zero. Although it appears that Groen intends for the review as a whole to be positive, he’s already closed the gate.

Cup of despair

It’s especially regrettable because in interviews, Mongiu emphasizes the openness of his process, how as a director “sometimes you don’t have a clue…(and) you think you control it all, but actually you don’t.” Intertwined with his emphasis on simplicity – using only one shot per scene, no music, no “funny angles” – and on promoting engaged viewership, on giving “people all the detail and information they need to form their own opinion,” this creates a remarkably engrossing, multi-faceted film, likely to be one of the year’s most satisfying. And one in no way reducible to a “cup of despair.”

It’s set in more or less the present day (based on real-life case from 2005), in a small Orthodox convent set above a small rural town, where a young woman, Alina,  comes to visit one of the nuns, Voichita, with whom she more or less grew up in an orphanage (and with whom she may have had a sexual relationship, although this is one of the many points on which we must form our own opinion, or better, accept our inability to do so). Alina wants Voichita to come away with her to Germany; when Voichita refuses, unwilling to leave a structure in which she feels secure and fulfilled, Alina’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, leading to her hospitalization after something resembling an epileptic fit. After the hospital, itself a strained institution, discharges her, the nuns and the overseeing priest attempt to provide care, but the situation worsens, causing them to believe she’s possessed, and to take the steps they think that indicates.

Extending his first sentence, Groen reads the film as denoting that “everyone is implicated, which makes guilt easy to assign but very hard to define – it’s just our natural state.” But this grim metaphysical fatalism seems directly contrary to Mongiu’s intentions, or to a fair reading of the resulting work. If everyone is “implicated”, it’s only because everyone is connected: Mongiu goes out of his way to show how the convent – notwithstanding the very specific governing doctrines – has strong secular ties to the community. One of the nuns is married and may go back to her husband, and for orphanage girls, there may be no other option other than homelessness (or worse, hinted at through brief references to a sexual abuser at the orphanage, and via uncertainty over how Alina might be earning money in Germany or previously); there’s a regular flow of commerce, donations and services between the settlement and the town.

Warning signs

 Mongiu reinforces this through very tangible attention to detail. When the nuns use ropes to tie Alina down, they’re the same ropes they use to draw water from the well, and they have to ensure to retrieve them from the hospital. Later on, the chains used to tie up the dog are similarly reused; likewise, we understand the provenance of towels and sheets and planks. Lives and actions are constant negotiations with what’s physically present and available, and because that’s very little, the gaps in the world are achingly wide. They may be filled by religion, or by the human structures that keep us going regardless of whether we know why, or by what’s sometimes called hysteria (which, we shouldn’t forget, has always been a convenient label to stick on non-conforming women). In the film’s closing scenes, there is indeed much talk about guilt, but Mongiu masterfully places it among the mundane, transient preoccupations of the modern world. Perhaps justice will be done, as that’s defined, but whether that bears any correlation with truth or progress is unknowable.

Beyond the Hills doesn’t seem to me remotely difficult to watch, nor unduly filled with despair, but of course, Mongiu’s guiding principles are far removed from those of the mainstream, and so his film must either be ignored or else smothered in warning signs. For a whole generation, or several, of Americans and Canadians, that’s the movies.

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