Sunday, October 6, 2013

Mysteries of Character

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in July 2005)

Three movies and the people in them:

Cinderella Man

Virtually every review of Cinderella Man, even the negative ones, cite the movie as the year’s first big Oscar contender. It’s a neat illustration of how the popular conception of quality has become a knee-jerk commodity. I find Jeffrey Wells’ review on his Hollywood Elsewhere website particularly entertaining in this regard. He leads off: “Cinderella Man isn't quite stupendous, but it's honest and earnest and has dignity and heart, and if you don't respond to it on some deep-down human level there's probably something you should have inside that's not there.”

It’s a statement of towering arrogance when you think about it – affirming capitulation to commercial calculation as a measure of personal decency. As always, this notion is tied in to the enduring myth of America’s transcendence. Wells goes on: “Every movie that connects with audiences (and believe me, this one will) says something that everyone including your grandfather recognizes as honest and true. The message of Cinderella Man, simply put, is that there's nothing like getting heavily and repeatedly kicked in the ass (like having to deal with hopelessness and soup kitchens and bread lines, having no job, being unable to pay the electricity bill, seeing your kids go hungry) to give your life a certain focus.”

Which is a convenient message indeed for an age when increasing numbers of people are getting heavily and repeatedly kicked in the ass, even if they don’t know it yet. Cinderella Man is the story of James J Braddock, a boxer who achieved success in the 1920’s, plummeted during the Depression, and then made a spectacular comeback in the mid-30s’. Russell Crowe plays Braddock, and Ron Howard directed the film: it’s their reunion after the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind (co-written by that film’s writer Akiva Goldsman). The film is indeed impeccable, beautifully crafted, blah blah blah. It’s also lacking the slightest iota of individuality or invention – even by prevailing standards, it’s monstrously conventional. Among its obvious flaws: the effect of the Depression is only superficially conveyed, the film doesn’t engage at all with the undercurrents of boxing, Crowe’s performance is a one-note portrayal of simpering quasi-idiocy, and it goes on.

And yes, the film is effective – I felt myself getting choked up on several occasions. But this only confirms how its turgid calculations feed into familiar scenarios of identification and emotional vulnerability without ever challenging them. The fact that Cinderella Man moves you only makes you doubt the integrity of your own responses. The fact that I enjoyed it makes me think there’s something I should have inside my head that’s not there.

The Holy Girl

Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga got good reviews a few years ago, but I found it very dense and sultry and I must confess I had trouble staying awake through it. Her second film The Holy Girl is quite a bit more accessible, while at the same time weaving a thematic web of often thrilling complexity. The film follows a teenage girl, living in a hotel with her mother. The hotel hosts a conference of physicians, one of whom molests the girl in a crowd one day. Her head is full of ideas from her religious instruction classes, and she fixes on herself as an instrument for the doctor’s redemption. But these impulses can hardly be distinguished from her sexual awakening, and her sense of mission renders her intensely dangerous.

The film imposes its mood with great authority – the mustiness of the hotel (a maid constantly spraying), creeping dilapidation, references to microbes and blood flow and the like; and the proximity of so many doctors only seems to emphasize the unhealthiness of it all. The film of course intertwines physical and spiritual health until any distinction appears impossible – in the opening scene, while the religious instructor conducts her class, the girls whisper that she’s been seen with a man, and speculate on his tongue sliding down her throat. Virtually all relationships in the film appear either transgressive or easily undermined, and although it’s not exactly a comedy, there’s a wryness in much of the plotting. The girl’s mother falls for the doctor too, so that when he comes to her to confess, she thinks his mind is on her, and subsumes his frail attempts to spit it out with a gushing admission that she feels the same way. But the film’s sticky atmosphere never slips, and we feel the pressure underlying any human interaction, however flawed. The film reaches an end point that’s highly conditional, establishing a form of closure for one character while verging on the edge of catastrophe for others. You get the feeling that within Martel’s universe it may always be this way.

I wouldn’t claim that I could summarize the film with great authority after a single viewing, and I feel rather guilty that I’m even trying to. Martel’s film doesn’t give us what we already know – and not just because it’s from Argentina. We all know the idiosyncrasy and murkiness of human motives, and we must surely know that much of our success as human beings lies in our ability to engage with that complexity (within ourselves and others), and yet we constantly look to simplicity, to a transparency that I’d call childlike, except that even children are more nuanced than many of the people we see in movies. The Holy Girl is stylized, but not at the cost of intense engagement with its superbly conceived people.


Susanne Bier’s Danish film Brothers lies somewhere between the two movies discussed above. It’s the story of a soldier who’s shot down and believed killed over Afghanistan; his wife tries to move on, growing closer to her wastrel brother in law. The soldier languishes in a camp, where he undergoes a terrible experience (in perhaps one of the year’s most wrenching scenes); when he’s finally liberated, the memory of what he’s seen and done mixes in with his suspicion of events in his absence, and he becomes frighteningly volatile.

Bier has a naturalistic quasi-Dogme style, and her movie is exceptionally watchable. The scenes at home in Denmark have an intimate rough and tumble style, while the scenes in Afghanistan have a more conventional dramatic edge. Truth be told, boiled down to its elements, much of the film is standard melodrama, and it’s not a particular step forward from Bier’s intriguing first film Open Hearts. On the other hand, the movie is ultimately intriguing for what it leaves out. It leaves the relationship between the brothers satisfyingly vague, defining them both almost as much in relation to the wife as to themselves, although her feelings are left consistently opaque. In the end Brothers seems like the product of a much simpler sensibility than The Holy Girl, but still, next to Cinderella Man’s anthill of human discovery it appears mountainous.

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