Saturday, January 22, 2011

Saving The World

Writing on The New Republic’s website, David Thomson recently suggested “we are at a point in our history of wondering what the movies have become and what their place is in our world.” Musing on The Social Network, he said: “It is fascinating, informative, and it’s surely current. But it never rises above a pitiless display of unpleasant people profiting from minor cruelties and indifference…This may be an era when the movies have to decide whether their subject is self- loathing or human aspiration.” To which some of us might say, well, we can have both – that’s the exact mixture that defines my personality! And maybe Thomson is too much of a romantic to acknowledge this is what attainable human aspiration has mostly come to represent – forging minor, unheroic adjustments to the existing body of things and hoping they somehow tap a lucrative commercial vein (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg indeed being the ultimate practitioner).

Blue Valentine

Anyway, most human aspiration as depicted in movies is simply idealistic fluff, or at best hardly relevant to most of our lives. Thomson reveals the confusion of his thinking in the same article when he says “the deserved success of The King’s Speech testifies to our appetite for small human achievements in well-told stories.” I like The King’s Speech too, but any film focusing on, you know, the King of England by definition represents a pretty esoteric laboratory for depicting “small human achievements” (and in any event, citing a single film’s actually fairly modest box office achievements as testimony of anything seems like shaky rhetorical practice). Still, if Thomson’s specific argument makes little sense, we can probably sympathize with the fatigue behind it.

The new film Blue Valentine wouldn’t seem likely to fare well against his vague criteria: the people are at least occasionally unpleasant (just in the way we all are), cruel and indifferent, and if the film depicts any human achievements at all, they’re of the most mundane kind. Still, it illustrates something central to my own passion for cinema – its continuing capacity, in the right hands, to illuminate complexities and mysteries in even the most familiar human mechanisms and institutions. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a couple in their seventh year or so of marriage, with a daughter of that same age; she’s a nurse and he’s a housepainter. The initial playfulness and mutual delight (flashbacks show us how they met and married) has congealed, but they keep going, no better or worse off than many others. Until one day - not because of any great drama, just because this is the day it happened – they hit the wall.

Green Zone

The film maintains a narrow focus, relying heavily on the two actors, both of whom are just about perfect. Director Derek Cianfrance cites John Cassavetes as a key influence, but the film doesn’t feel like a Cassavetes picture – the protagonists are just too modest and humble. Like his films though, it easily elevates itself from the pack of small-scale, humanistic cinema, primarily I think for its success in subtly but unmistakably organizing itself around a rather chilling thesis: he always loved her more than she loved him, and only won her in the first place because of being in the right time at the right place; ultimately, she was always going to evolve beyond him. Without a hint of didacticism or over-elaboration, Cianfrance and his actors make the emotional terrain devastatingly clear and believable.

On a very different note, I caught up with Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone, which came and went quickly last year and is now playing on cable. Now here’s a study in human aspiration, of a particularly distorted and dastardly kind. Greengrass’ first professional life culminated in Bloody Sunday, a stunning recreation of the 1972 clash between Irish marchers and British police; in his much more visible second act, he’s used his enormous technical prowess to elevate the Jason Bourne movies (although opinions may differ on whether the material ultimately warrants the elevation). Green Zone feels like a Bourne film for much of the time, especially with Matt Damon again in the leading role, but returning to more explicitly charged political material – the Iraq war’s criminally murky foundations. As such it’s one of Greengrass’ most fascinating films, although it’s unclear whether the impact is quite as he intended.

Damon plays an army officer increasingly frustrated at finding rubble and pointless danger instead of WMD (it’s set in 2003); following a trail of instincts and tip-offs, he’s soon operating in quasi-renegade mode, contrasting in particular with the bureaucratic party line embodied (in a witty piece of casting) by Greg Kinnear. The narrative, once you look through Greengrass’ customary kineticism, is pretty straightforward, one thing uncovers another, until the corrupt heart of things just lies there bleeding in the open, for all to see (although the film ends without addressing how much the world cares about seeing). As such, the film made me think – to my own surprise – of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, as another piece of historical wish fulfillment. Tarantino, no doubt, rewrites history much more radically than Greengrass does. But Green Zone ends up seeming almost as transgressive, because it’s not as obviously stylized, and because it’s barely even history – the war continues (although you might often forget), and its legacy is still being written.

Rolling the Cigarettes

As I mentioned, Damon is frequently again in Bourne-like motion, whipping against the clock through a blur of landscapes, but this time his hyperactivity is much more metaphorically charged, reflecting how substance and culpability - even for the great consequential crimes of our time - so easily blurs into positioning and political momentum (the financial scandals provide another prime example). The best Iraq war films so far have illuminated military atrocities (Battle for Haditha) and the shameful exploitation of American soldiers (The Lucky Ones) but Green Zone arguably embodies something more existentially meaningful and horrifying – that such a cataclysm could matter so little. Damon’s final statement, about the need to get the story right this time, sounds superficially like a clarion call for truth, but the film actually embodies the opposite, endless malleability. If you see it as performance art, the commercial failure is the perfect final piece of the installation, confirming the public’s inattention and thus the ease of its bamboozling.

Still, that metaphor should convey a certain academic, transient quality to my liking for it. Many years ago, rhapsodizing about Howard Hawks, Thomson praised the veteran for pursuing a guiding principle that “men are more expressive rolling a cigarette than saving the world.” It’s as true as ever – we’d better find the truth of ourselves in those small things, because for most of us the truly big ones will remain beyond our grasp. Fear not, for as long as cinema generates films like Blue Valentine, prodding us again to examine how we roll those cigarettes and what it does to us and those we think we love, it will always have a place in our world.

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