Certainly one doesn’t need a particular organization of the planets to get into an existential mood, but it’s midsummer, and we here at Feminéma like to mark big seasonal events with some pondering. (Lord, what fools these mortals be!) And if there’s one thing film can help us do, it’s to ponder the big questions. My own star-gazing has been assisted this weekend with two big releases in my teeny home-away-from-home in Central Jersey: Mike Mills’ Beginners (you’ll remember how much I loved Thumbsucker, his first feature) and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I’ll write about tomorrow if possible. Beginners may flirt with the twee — there are some incredibly cute montages of great dates between Ewan McGregor and Mélanie Laurent in which they rollerskate down a hotel’s hallways or hike in the Hollywood hills; but it’s no rom-com. It’s a serious, ultimately hopeful film with a perfect cast that keep you riveted in every scene.

The specific nexus of problems addressed by Oliver (McGregor) involves love, one’s parents, and death. In a series of vignettes ricocheting back and forth between Oliver’s present and his past, the film is oriented around Oliver’s reconsideration of his parents’ unhappy marriage, his father Hal (Christopher Plummer)’s announcement after his wife’s death that he’s gay, and Hal’s relationship with a lovely, gangly, and hopelessly transparent man named Andy (Goran Visnjic, whom I barely recognized in a floppy haircut and unflattering clothes). Most important, it treats Hal’s illness and death, during which Oliver cared for his father through some wholly realistic and intimate ups and downs. Don’t all of us wrestle with our parents’ relationships when we think about our own? That’s Oliver’s problem; his parents’ unhappiness haunts him such that he can’t keep a girlfriend.

Oliver works as a graphic artist, though he’s suffering some serious blocks following Hal’s death: it seems he cannot help but create a cartoon History of Sadness in panels rather than the cd-cover art he’s been assigned. (Ahem, Mr. Mills: please publish that History, as I found it delightfully perverse.) The art is a neat mirror onto his thoughts. He often says things to himself, which I appreciate: the act of list-making as a bulwark against interior chaos. When he says to himself, “Sex. Life. Healing. Nature. Magic,” he’s reprising something he hears from the beautiful Anna (Laurent), whom he meets-cute at a costume party: “People like us, half of them believe things will never work out. The other half believe in magic.” She says it in a way that reveals more than a little disdain for that latter group; she and Oliver are, decidedly, members of the former who — despite themselves — long, desperately, for magic.

Is it his nature or the specific circumstances of mourning his father that makes Oliver so skittish about relationships? At first it appears that he has simply rejected the kind of marriage his parents endured: not loveless but perpetually dissatisfied, a quality he perceived in them even as a child. (His childhood closeness to his eccentric mother [Mary Page Keller] is displayed beautifully; I wished there had been more.) But the more we plumb his depths, the more we see that he’s managed to repeat his parents’ relationship mistakes, even if he’s avoided a marriage that looks like their relationship on the surface.

In fact, Oliver seems to wonder whether Hal’s late-in-life embrace of his sexual orientation, as well as his eagerness to engage with gay rights movements and communities, indicates that he possessed a capacity for self-understanding that still evades Oliver. In teeny, tiny moments — when the two men bicker over whether “everyone” knows that a rainbow flag indicates gay rights, or whether Hal should tell his lover Andy about the cancer — we see that there are no clear answers to Oliver’s soul-searching and his attempts to understand his father.

Walking out of the theater, my partner nailed it best: as he put it, Beginners is a film that might have failed in someone else’s hands. But between Mills’ gentle and serious vision, a terrific editing job, and the perfect and subtle acting of every single member of the cast — and here let me beg the heavens: please let me go through my next existential crisis in bed with Mélanie Laurent and Ewan McGregor — the film balances light and dark, whimsical and heartbreaking, and the interaction between repression and self-revelation. It’s elegantly done. Even the scenes with the needy little Jack Russell terrier, which could have plummeted into the depths of hopeless cuteness, always appealed to me as just delightful enough without a sugar rush.

I didn’t love it as much as I loved Thumbsucker, I think because I found the sets and locations distractingly posh. It’s almost Woody Allen-like — the extraordinarily well-appointed Los Angeles hillside homes, the great art on the walls, the way that Laurent’s hair is always so perfectly unbrushed. In contrast, I found the Oregon drabness of Thumbsucker and its subtle family resemblances between the actors Tilda Swinton and Lou Pucci so exquisitely wrought, right down to their hopeful, needy unloveliness; I longed, in this film, for a bit more of that realism rather than a rarefied LA world.

But oh, what Mike Mills can do with great actors — and oh, his gift for getting them into his films! Beginners is compelling in every scene due to McGregor’s and Plummer’s acting, their handsomeness, their appreciation for their lovers. If this film answers its questions with “the eternal Yes” of love, as Mr. Emerson puts it in Room with a View (1985), it doesn’t do so cheaply, or easily. See it, and enjoy your midsummer questions about life and existence — till anon, when I think on the screen about Tree of Life.

End-of-semester blues

14 December 2010

Early in the film A Room With a View (1985), Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter) sits in the parlor of her Florence pensione playing a sonata on the piano, to the delight of Rev. Beebe, an old family friend.  “Mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven,” she explains to him when she finishes it, an inexplicable look on her face.  “She says I’m always peevish afterwards.”  I love that line; and I’m reminded of it every single time I finish a great movie or a great book because it so aptly captures that sense of dissatisfaction once you’re finished with a piece of art so magnificent and moving.  I finished Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog last night, for example, and have felt peevish ever since.  But if peevish captures that feeling so neatly, how to describe this feeling us teachers experience at the end of every semester, these end-of-semester blues that hit us every time?

My neighbor, a grammar-school teacher, calls it post-traumatic stress syndrome.  It’s hard to capture in words, but surely it’s a close relation of depression.  I’ve found myself irritable, weepy, paralyzed with ennui, and/or outright pissed off, even during those semesters when I haven’t done an onerous amount of grading or had to wrangle a difficult student.  There’s a profound sense of failure no matter how well one’s classes went.  During semesters when I knew I had to spend the winter break finishing a piece of writing, I often found it impossible to do anything besides lie on the sofa for a week feeling like a professional failure as well as a lousy teacher.  I think perhaps it comes at least in part from the enormous emotional outlay required by these long semesters — giving advice and one’s time generously to students — all of which becomes perverted by the end, as we pour over grade sheets and try to determine whether Johnny deserves a B or can be bumped up to a B+, while Katie failed so miserably on the final that we can’t possibly give her the same gift.  We spend so much time thinking about students’ needs and merits that by the end we have nothing left to give ourselves.

I’ve turned in all my grades … and now I dread the inevitable email from students complaining about them.  Bereft of Muriel Barbery, I scan the shelves looking for something to replace her as bedtime reading.  I disgruntledly rearranged my Netflix queue tonight and complained about the fact that none of the celebrated Oscar-worthy movies are in the theaters yet.

So here’s a thought:  find the email address of a teacher you remember and send her/him a note.  Explain that it may have been a while, but that class meant something to you and you’ve always remembered it.  Tell the teacher what you’re doing now.  And end your note by saying, “I know you’re busy and might not have a chance to respond, but I wanted you to know that you had a big effect on my life and thinking, and I still remember it.”

Sense and nonsense

4 April 2010

When Liz Lemon decides to adopt a child in “30 Rock,” she radically cleans up her apartment to impress the adoption people — even to the point of getting “rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they consider them erotica,” as she tells Jack Donaghy.  (Jack nods knowingly, “That man can wear a sweater.”)

Erotica indeed.  There are few guiltier girlie pleasures than a great kiss in a great love story.  The kiss in the first “Twilight” film has been viewed millions of times on YouTube; even semi-cult favorites like the end of BBC’s “North and South” have hundreds of thousands of hits.  One can find dreamy montage videos of love scenes posted by fans of virtually any show — from “True Blood” to “Queer as Folk,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and virtually anything with George Clooney.

But to be provocative, I’m willing to argue that 1) George Clooney has a long career of making films in which the attraction between characters doesn’t quite make sense, and 2) fans have a long history of accepting slightly nonsensical love stories because the kisses are so good, the stars are so pretty to look at, and because we want to believe that love and passion are somehow nonsensical.  I think we should pause to fully appreciate those love stories that make sense.

Take, for example, one of the best Clooney films: “Out of Sight,” with the oh-so-perfect Jennifer Lopez (oh Jen, how far you’ve fallen since 1998).  Stuffed together into the trunk of her car as Clooney escapes from prison and J-Lo waits for a chance to arrest him, they have an improbable conversation about movies: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network.”  Most of this scene permits Clooney to demonstrate his skills in hamming it up.  But there’s suddenly a moment when she takes the conversation seriously as they talk about Redford and Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”  “I never thought it made sense,” Lopez says, turning to Clooney. “You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.”  (Ahem: she’s right.)  It’s brilliant:  that very line is the shortcut that allows “Out of Sight” to get Clooney and Lopez together far more quickly than makes any kind of sense.  It jump-starts their mutual attraction; they’re both so gorgeous that dream sequences must suffice till we see their characters finally undress for real.

The movies are full of love stories that simply pair up our beautiful leading men and women as speedily as possible.  But c’mon, people, we can do better.  Taking a quick look at great kissing scenes in the history of film, we quickly see that it doesn’t make sense that Greta Garbo falls in love with ridiculous Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka,” Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” or Helena Bonham Carter with Julian Sands in “Room With a View.”  Pleasurable, yes; but baffling in the light of day.  So here’s my list-in-progress of love stories that are so gratifying because they make sense:

  1. Pride and Prejudice.  Apologies for the obvious, but Colin Firth has a full six hours to cease being horrible, pine gratifyingly for Jennifer Ehle, and prove he’s worthy of her; Ehle learns some humility and that you can’t always tell a book by its cover.  Accept no lame Keira Knightley substitutes.
  2. Before Sunset — and considering my distaste for Ethan Hawke, this love story’s got to be good.  If the talkiness and the awkwardness of “Before Sunrise” somehow managed to work on you ten years earlier, it’s downright magical with the wary older versions of Hawke and Julie Delpy.
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine and Joel, perfectly flawed characters whose imperfect brains are bound up with each other despite those last few months (and brainwashing).
  4. LA Confidential.  Russell Crowe’s Bud White wears his heart on his sleeve such that Kim Basinger sets aside her Veronica Lake persona to show him the real Lynn Bracken.
  5. Brokeback Mountain.  Again, apologies for the cliché, but the lovely contrast of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager personability with Heath Ledger’s tragic, laconic Ennis del Mar has to be one of the only opposites-attract stories that makes sense to me. 

There’s got to be more. Tell me.