Sunday, February 21, 2016

Meaning in life

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)

Have you ever tried to step outside your own life, and to speculate what kind of movie it might make? Reflexively, most people will reply it’d be the pits. I don’t suppose there are too many real-life James Bonds, for instance, reading this column. But there are plenty of smaller scale movies – ones where a plot summary amounts to very little, and where the wonder lies in the perception of the everyday.

Human identity

With an opening like that, you might be expecting me to write now about Adaptation, the current film sensation that famously mixes invention and self-reflection. But that’s not where I’m going. In passing, I’ll admit I was disappointed in the movie. After ten minutes, I’d already gotten as much out of it as I did out of the whole two hours. The film’s too self-conscious and abstract for you to surrender to it as entertainment, but too glib to be fully intellectually engaging.

Let me go in another direction. The other week I was watching Much Music – a show called Meet a Rock Star or something along those lines. This particular episode was about meeting Snoop Dogg, and the lucky winner was a white kid from what seemed to be an upscale British Columbia neighborhood. The kid seemed to be doing everything in his power to evoke his hero – speech patterns, posture, general approach to things – but the lack of authenticity, the sheer incongruity of a boy from this background behaving that way, was hard to get over. I’m not suggesting the kid is a fake. I’m sure that on some level this is currently his “natural” way of behaving – and who wants to be governed by a narrow, predetermined view of human behaviour anyway? But, to say the least, you got the feeling that he’ll be off on another thing a few years from now.

I can’t help thinking that when an upscale BC white kid decides to live his life to the beat of Snoop Dogg, he’s playing to an invisible camera. Surely many of us are; I know I am a lot of the time. The advertising industry depends on the premise that we think we’re being watched more than we actually are; that how we’re seen is inseparable from who we are. Of course, if we really are being watched that much, it’s by the prying network of hidden security cameras I keep reading about, rather than by a jury of style gurus. Still, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look our best.

Personal Velocity

But even if you just live a modest, insular life, there may be a movie in there. It wouldn’t necessarily take much. Reality TV shows like Survivor and The Osbornes represent staggering feats of editing – retaining just a few percent of the entire footage shot. Wouldn’t we all have grand drama lurking in our lives, if you removed 97% of the flab? I’m sure I would. If you took the splashier moments from my year and mixed them in with some of the more pensive ones, you might end up with a pretty good narrative on underlying alienation, or something like that. It’d probably be a complete fiction, but potentially a hell of a documentary.

Filmmakers have tried to resist that manipulation – a direction that generally leads toward minimal editing and extreme length. But no one cares to watch those movies. You can only possibly find an audience by finding moments that encapsulate the whole: a near contradiction in terms, if you view the essence of life as being in its very duration.

This is all a lead-in to Rebecca Miller’s film Personal Velocity, which is an almost exemplary example of how small things, seen on screen, may become profound. It’s based on her book of short stories, and consists of three separate half-hour segments; perhaps normal life yields up meaning (or the appearance of it) more readily when taken in small doses. Not that these stories seem “small,” certainly not if there’s something pejorative to that term.

All three episodes revolve around New York women, and the title alludes to their different growth modes – people make wrong turnings, or even if they make right ones, they may outgrow their destinations and need to choose again. The movie is optimistic enough to allow all three women a closing moment of revelation, but intimate ones – so intimate indeed that one could miss them. The difference between success and failure, as seen here, may be little more than a state of mind, a certain way of integrating things. All three women in Personal Velocity have rather unhappy pasts, and to the extent they triumph, it’s by learning to take what they need from those experiences.

The first sequence has Kyra Sedgwick as a battered wife who takes her children and flees from her husband, ending up in a tiny town where she takes a waitressing job. Sedgwick’s odd, worn sexiness is perfect here, and the episode builds to a conclusion that depends on her reclaiming her promiscuous youth. Like nearly all films that depict female sexuality, the movie carries a certain ambiguity: if it were directed by a man, you might suspect it of romanticizing sluttishness (Miller’s voice over for all three stories is spoken by a man, as if she were toying with our sense of who’s in control here).

Metaphysical dimensions

The third sequence has Fairuza Balk playing a pregnant woman, driving desperately away from the city after an incident that nearly killed her; she picks up a hitchhiker who’s been brutally beaten, and who ultimately leads her to a deeper acceptance of her own condition. If it’s the least successful, it’s because the metaphysical dimensions seem too strenuous – the artistic calculations are more visible than in the other two episodes.

But the middle story is superb, and stands as one of the best short films I’ve seen for a while. Parker Posey plays a book editor whose career takes off, causing her to question her happy marriage to a New Yorker fact checker. Although it’s set in a somewhat glitzier environment than the other two, there’s really nothing out of the ordinary about the raw material: people fall out of sync with each other all the time. But Miller expertly weaves in the woman’s problematic past, leading us off on tangents and bringing us back again, illustrating all aspects of the character with astonishing thoroughness. In a way, the story’s about a woman who suppresses her natural killer instinct, gets it back again, and decides to surrender to material values: there’s no pretense of nobility, and no false sentimentality either. The decision she makes is both mundane, because thousands like it get made every day, and astonishing, because it shows the extent of her capacity. The mundanity is inherent in the story, but it takes an artist to bring out the astonishment.

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