Sunday, May 22, 2016

Real emotions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in April 2003)

A few weeks ago I wrote about Irreversible and Fat Girl, two movies that epitomize the concept of “not for all tastes.” In case you might think I spend all my time amid the perverse and the troubling, this week is all about nice movies.

The day before I saw Irreversible, I went to see Bend it like Beckham, the feel-good British hit about a soccer-crazed Indian girl who dreams only of the game despite her parents’ opposition. The movie happily embraces the genre formula – once the set-up is in place, I doubt whether it contains a single significantly new idea. I thought it was on the thin side, although immeasurably helped by its buoyant actors. It builds, of course, to an apparently hopeless dilemma – and then, out of nowhere, a happy resolution! The movie’s home stretch is a pure joy. I won’t deny it, I had tears in my eyes. The corniest of tears for sure, which is why I feel I’m going out on a limb even mentioning them.

Bend it like Beckham

After a century of cinema, the power of this kind of identification is undiminished. Professional filmmakers wield its elements like a military strike – the plot of frustrated desire suddenly vindicated, the yielding hero or heroine, the insinuating music. And maybe most of all – the editing. Is there a more powerful cinematic device than the simple cut from the hero’s face, as his eyes mist up and his mouth starts to tremble, to that of his beloved, looking back at him, reciprocating the emotions, sharing the symptoms? The mechanism is as simple as a trap – we find ourselves implicated so directly in their interlocking feelings that passive detachment is almost impossible.

It got me again a week after Beckham, when I watched last year’s film The Rookie on cable. This is about a high school teacher who never achieved his boyhood of making it in the major baseball leagues, but gets another chance. Baseball isn’t my cup of tea at all (although The Rookie intermittently conveys its essential appeal more skillfully than Beckham does for soccer) and this film, set mostly in Texas, has a homespun, laconic, small-town thing about it that set my teeth on edge. But at the end when he attains the dream, and the whole home town population’s there for him afterwards, cheering and milling around him as if he’d been to the moon, I gave in without much of a fight.

But the predictability of such responses makes them valueless. Although we generally disdain overt melodrama – there’s nothing very respectable about an unrequited weepie – a dose of notionally restrained tear jerking often seems like a mark of extra class. It’s as if we prize our tears so greatly, and part with them so sparingly, that we think a film could only coax them from us through rare skill and virtue. But I doubt that’s the case. Someone kicks you in the stomach – you double up in pain. The route to our tear ducts is almost as direct.

Satyajit Ray

Around the same time, I watched a series of films at the Cinematheque by the Indian director Satyajit Ray. Ray is regarded as one of the cinema’s great humanists – the Cinematheque’s brochure quotes Akira Kurosawa as follows: “Not to have seen the films of Ray would mean existing in a world without the sun or the moon.” And Pauline Kael as follows: “Ray’s films can give rise to a more complex feeling of happiness in me than the work of any other director.” That complexity, one expects, would have consisted of more than a blissfully goofy smile and misty eyed contentment.

A movie like The World of Apu, for example, leads the viewer through a remarkable range of emotional states, a map of the human condition. The film travels from youthful idealism, through stunned comedy as the hero marries a woman he doesn’t even know, through tenderness and delight as he actually falls in love with her, then tragedy when she suddenly dies in childbirth, through loss and aimlessness to a final form of renewal. All this in a 100-minute film that never seems rushed or contrived. But also one, I would think, that’s far less likely than The Rookie to get the tear ducts moving.

Which is to say that Ray never succumbs to simple shot-making or emotional situation building. Maybe it could be expressed as the difference between identification and empathy. Identification is an essentially simplistic process – a means of guiding and conditioning our responses. With a film of greater restraint and objectivity, we lose the very direct emotional affect of the Hollywood trap, but the overall experience gains in depth. In The World of Apu, for example, we’re better placed to assess the character’s basic self-indulgence, and to reflect on what he tells us of India. As a matter of personal taste, Ray’s films don’t resonate with me as much as those of some other directors, but they’re models of refined intelligence.

All the Real Girls

David Gordon Green’s All the Real Girls aspires to a similar condition. It’s the story of a love affair between two young people in a small dingy town (similar to the town Green depicted with such elan in his first movie, George Washington). Green seeks here to capture the maximum feeling of unforced reality. In practice, this consists of directing the actors (Paul Schneider and Zooey Deschanel) to ensure that no line is ever delivered in a straightforward way; every moment is marked by an ultra “realistic” assemblage of tics and stammers and incoherent utterances. This all supports the basic theory – that these two people in love (perhaps like all people in love) create their own terms of reference, their own normality. But the movie quickly ends up seeming extremely forced and gauche.

The relationship remains unconsummated long beyond what initially seems possible, and this provides what seems to me Green’s most effective insight – how in such a tightly-wound relationship, sex can be an unpredictable, even tragic weapon. The movie’s later stages contain several conversations in which the two talk at each other, each unable to make the other understand, despite their underlying affinity: they can’t see each other for the words. At times it’s intoxicating, but most of the time it’s too stylized to connect.

Green shows genuine ambition in eschewing the predictable mechanisms I talked about. Actually, I think maybe he eschews them too much. For all his pains, his contemporary kids seem less familiar than the 1958 Apu, and less heartrending.

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