Friday, August 26, 2011

A Meander Through Summer Viewing

I’ve seen a ton of excellent movies this summer, many new releases, but also some films I’ve missed over the years too. There are three in particular that affected me in such a way that I felt I was a slightly different person having seen them.

It all started with the first, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which has Owen Wilson about to get married to a mundane, superficial woman when he more or less finds a portal to the past, a place rife with passion for art and architecture and literature. When I left the theatre, the street looked different to me. The film reminded me to notice little things: how some old chairs were arranged on a porch, the slant of a roofline, initials scrawled on the corner of a brick. It reminded me of the importance of paying attention to aesthetics in our everyday life (further emphasized by this article yesterday). It also reiterates that we should never settle when it comes to marriage.

Barney’s Version had a similar theme for me. In many reviews the movie appears to be about a lovable cad, but I think it’s about a jerk, who’s tolerated because he’s smart and sometimes charming, and his doormat wife. He brings her flowers and dotes on her, but then refuses to celebrate her successes. He’ll only love her on his terms, and she’s fine with that. Why she settled for him for so many years is beyond me. The film annoyed me because I couldn’t find anything likable in the characters, but I loved the very real depiction of alzheimers.

And I thought about Montaigne and his wife and that he had a separate tower all to himself. He didn’t have to see his family for weeks at a time. And it was no great challenge to find a wife. Back in the day, people didn’t agonize over choices of mates. The real love affair in his life was with his friend. His wife was mainly there to give him children. Now we put an insane burden on that one romantic relationship to be a catch-all for our needs when all we really need is a buddy or two.

I especially loved Adrian Brody’s depiction of Dali in Midnight in Paris, and Wilson was a delight, so I went back to watch a Wes Anderson film I had previously taken a pass on: The Darjeeling Limited, the second perspective-shifting film. After their father’s death, three brothers make a trip to India to find their mother. Random weird things happen along the way, and, like all Anderson movies, the characters acknowledge one another’s annoying idiosyncrasies and choose to accept family and friends anyway. It’s the moments of warmth between the detached brothers that most affect me. The film makes me want to like people just a little more.

It had a loose similarity to another movie I love, The Station Agent, about the relationship between a trio of characters who take some time dancing around how to care for one another. It features Patricia Clarkson, who’s in a few of Allen’s films, and in another favourite, Lars and the Real Girl with Ryan Gosling who was also in Crazy, Stupid Love. A sub-plot of that movie was reminiscent of Rushmore, which brings me back to Anderson (and Schwartzman). What I love about Anderson’s films and the like is how characters develop the courage to be profoundly kind to one another: a genuine compliment, a bunch of flowers on the porch, a dance at the prom, an offer of coffee, an envelop of nude shots. We all beautifully flawed, but we’re all we’ve got. Good to be reminded.

Loving a Woody Allen film again, after being so disappointed by Whatever Works, sent me back to check out a few. Match Point is a good little thriller, although I think Allen is too taken with Scarlett Johansson’s beauty to notice when her lines fall flat. But I quite liked the comedy/tragedy exploration in Melinda and Melinda, and I was surprised that I liked Amanda Peet in it. So I looked her up and watched Please Give, which also features Catherine Keener, whom I’ve always loved. She’s my role model for aging well.

So I finally buckled down to watch another Keener film that I had been avoiding: Synecdoche, New York. This is the third film that just won’t leave me. What a treat! I didn’t like Philip Seymore Hoffman until I watched Pirate Radio. Then I loved him. He IS this movie.

Like most Charlie Kaufman films, this one is way out there. The movie is about Hoffman as a director with enough money to make the best, truest film ever. It takes a huge cast and decades of rehearsals as Hoffman furthers his quest for authenticity and connection. Kaufman uses a few devices to move things along that I loved: a self-writing diary and a directing earpiece were particularly clever. I love that Hazel, the assistant, moves into an apartment that’s on fire. She’s worried about being engulfed in flames, but it’s such a great location that she can’t pass it up. How often do we overlook huge problems in order to satisfy our craving for convenience?

We need to feel connected, but we’re all necessarily imperfect and can’t ever be truly understood by another, and, “Everyone is disappointing the more you know them.” And we’re all “hurtling towards death,” but, hey, we’re still here right now.

As I watch most movies, there’s a part of my brain scanning them for useful bits to show in class. I sometimes use Being John Malcovich to talk about free will, and a few scenes from Adaptation to talk about love. Students are mixed on those. But they all love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
When I teach existentialism, I often show Hannah and Her Sisters or I (Heart) Huckabees to generate discussion. Students are generally evenly split between loving and hating both of them. If I showed this movie, I don’t think I’d get more than a couple of students engaged right to the very end. And even then, I’m afraid they’d get the wrong idea. They’d think it’s sad and depressing. And it is. But it’s also very hopeful. We can’t be perfect, and since we know that, we can relax and stop trying to be. And life will end soon, but right now we’re alive which is something to celebrate every day!

As Allen says, “What if there is no God and you only go around once and that's it. Well, ya know, don't you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell it's not all a drag. And I'm thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.” Hoffman’s project wasn’t a waste of time; it was a life, and he was the lead.

Beyond the connections of the big three, I also checked out another Adrian Brody film, The Pianist, which was stunning. It always takes me a long time to see a movie about genocide. I saw Schindler’s List and Hotel Rwanda several years after they were first released even though many people urged me to watch them. The Pianist didn’t have any scenes that I had to watch between spread fingers, but it was no less stressful. It follows one man who survives the holocaust, and we watch how he manages to live and cope with the events around him. It was a nice contrast to Synocdoche. One man obsesses over rashes and spots, and the other evades the gas chambers. Both always felt they were just about to die and had to cope with that reality.

And finally, I watched a few more films featuring Paris. Micmacs is a delightful film about a group of characters who devise a plan to destroy some two weapons manufacturers. And I watched Dreamers. I avoided this one despite liking Michael Pitt ever since seeing Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It looked like an artsy porn flick. But it’s really a film about loving films and about escapism as the characters, insulated from the real world, barely notice the riots going on in the streets that all started with university student disgruntled over the narrow rule-based focus of their studies and the lack of passion in their instructors.

And then I laughed my head off at Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses and Death at a Funeral. Now back to work.

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