Sunday, July 12, 2015

The human spirit

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2002)

I was writing the other week about how director Jacques Rivette has challenged normal notions of how long a movie should be. Soon after that I went to the Cinematheque Ontario on a Sunday afternoon for a five-and-a-half hour screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s France Tour Detour Deux Enfants (actually a series of twelve half-hour TV programs, shown here in one block). I’m often surprised how few people seem aware of the Cinematheque – it really is one of Toronto’s artistic jewels. I go there maybe thirty or forty times a year, but it should be way more often (life involves tough choices). I get a bit irritated by fair-weather film festival attendees who make a big deal for that one week in September of avoiding the commercial and seeking out rare films, while ignoring the Cinematheque for the rest of the year.
Five and a half hours!

I envy anyone who can watch a five and a half hour movie with the same concentration I can apply for ninety minutes. I nodded off at least three times; I was almost as preoccupied with spacing out my candy as with the film itself. And of course, that big a chunk of time couldn’t help but screw up the other things you’d normally do with your day. Still, it was a sublime experience. The film itself is endlessly fascinating and provocative. Of course that’s partly a function of the possibilities allowed by so much time, but the length itself, quite separate from the content, forms an intertwined yet somehow distinct experience. Maybe it’s partly self-aggrandizement – you’re impressed at your own resolve and fortitude. But it’s also purer than that.

I’m usually skeptical about the common claim that a particular feel-good hit represents the “triumph of the human spirit.” Part of my skepticism is that for such movies (A Beautiful Mind is one of the most recent) the feel-good dosage goes down all too easily – the film itself involves little suffering or striving. The ultimate “triumph” of the human spirit usually seems muted to me because we were spared the pain or full complexity of the earlier obstacles. I doubt anyone’s ever reviewed a Godard movie in such terms, yet the “lighter” moments of France Tour Detour seem more liberating and more meaningful than any number of standard happy endings, because of the encyclopedic context from which they emerge.

Of course, I’m not saying a film’s value always increases in proportion to its length (at this point we can all insert our own bloated examples of why that wouldn’t work). And I’m not saying either that its emotional impact necessarily depends on how difficult it is. Without being particularly long or particularly difficult to watch, the current film Monster’s Ball seems to me to illustrate a triumph of the human spirit quite well. Again, I’m not sure anyone has described it in those terms. It’s certainly been praised though – Roger Ebert called it the best film of 2001. That’s going a little far, although not as far as his citations of Eve’s Bayou and Dark City in previous years. But it’s a moving, enveloping film that earns its happy ending in sweat and blood that you can smell and taste.
Monster’s Ball

It’s basically the story of an unlikely relationship between a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) and the widow (Halle Berry) of a man he escorted on death row; set in a small Southern town. These are small-scale lives, moving between home and work and the local diner; sons unthinkingly follow the career paths of their fathers (and, as shown in a witty juxtaposition, even adopt the same sexual position with the same local prostitute); casual racism’s still part of the fabric.

Like several recent movies, Monster’s Ball owes an awful lot to its actors. Halle Berry deserved the Oscar for Best Actress for this performance. The moment when she initiates sex with Thornton is shocking in the intensity of its emotion and in the completely unexpected way it tears open her grief and loneliness. And Thornton is almost as amazing. He starts out almost as a dead man walking, embodying racist attitudes and family hatred that he doesn’t really feel deeply, but doesn’t think of questioning. By the end of the movie, he’s worked his way to real tenderness. The characterizations are so good that they almost break loose from the rest of the movie, into some transcendent, psychologically acute bubble.

The film is distinctly marred though by excessive melodrama and schematicism in its plotting. In its first half, both characters are visited by Job-like misfortune; they both lose a son, she loses her husband, they both all but lose their souls. It’s too much, although I’m not suggesting this is unconscious. I suppose the film aims to place itself on the edge of Biblical tragedy, and then to claw back through the sensitivity and imagination of its artistry. Somewhat incredibly, it largely succeeds in this.

Judgments of racism

When the two get together, the film narrows its focus, allowing the numerous seeds sown in the first half to come to fruition. This allows the film’s essential softness to come to the fore, which is a mixed blessing – for example, Thornton’s developing friendship with a black man he scorned at the start seems too easy a symbol of his inner transformation. That friendship also strikes of calculation – as if the filmmakers were worried that the audience would suspect the motives of a white man who sleeps with a black woman, unless it were clear that he gets on with other black people as well.

It’s amazing to reflect how few films depict a sexual relationship between a white man and a black woman – so few that to some the images inherently convey paternalism and exploitation. Rick Groen in the Globe and Mail, for reasons I found a little bizarre, accused Monster’s Ball of coming close to racism. This judgment, as he frames it, seems to depend less on what’s in the film than on a preconceived opinion on what constitutes acceptable rules of engagement across colour lines. Monster’s Ball certainly supports a debate on that point, but I don’t think it’s diminished by it.

I can report that Monster’s Ball has a happy ending, something that seemed highly in question throughout the movie. It’s tinged by impermanence, but as the film ends, the characters have something workable in place. It definitely wouldn’t have been a surprise if the film had ended in gloom – the fact that it doesn’t is a relief, a minor joy, and seems frankly like a matter of optimism on the part of its makers. So there’s your triumph of the human spirit. Monster’s Ball is flawed for sure, but it’s one of the rare movies that scores the double – worthy of both the multiplex and the Cinematheque.

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