Monday, August 30, 2010

More Thoughts on "Uplifting" Messages

Life during Wartime, the new movie by Todd Solondz, opens with an absurd scene worthy of Ionesco or Beckett, a sparse dialogue told in close-ups between the inappropriately named Joy (Scottish actress Shirley Henderson), and Allen (Michael K. Williams), her husband. They are "celebrating" their anniversary at a restaurant—a bad idea that ends with Allen being called a pervert and spat on by the waitress, and Joy in full tears.
 Later, we learn that Joy works with ex-convicts and that by marrying Allen she has brought her work home—so to speak. Allen was incarcerated for an unnamed "perversion", but not all perversions remain unnamed in Solondz's film, as the pedophilia of Bill (played with his usual understated dignity by Ciaran Hinds) is the centerpiece of the movie—or so it would appear.
In another scene, Trish (the wonderful yet woefully underrated Allison Janney), Bill's ex-wife, tries to explain to Timmy, the younger of her two sons, why she has lied to him about his father being dead (he was in jail instead). Unbeknownst to her, Bill has been released from prison and is on his way from New Jersey to Florida, where his wife has relocated with their three kids. For a while, Bill hides, spying on his former family, and finally appears only to his eldest son, Billy, for a very brief meeting. 

As was the case with Solondz's previous movie, "Happiness", where the characters of the Jordan sisters Joy, Trish and Helen first appeared (played by different actresses), many will find the director's inclination to make pedophiles into sympathetic characters disturbing. 
But only a superficial reading would infer that Solondz condones pedophilia: instead, what he finds really disturbing is the unquestioning conflation of pedophilia with homosexuality (despite the fact that this has been proven flawed by statistics). 
This is shown in the attitude of Trish, who allows her son to become obsessed with "faggots" as potential rapists; and even Bill, in his brief encounter with his son, seems to worry that his son might have inherited his pedophilia if he is by any chance gay: when Billy tells him how he is majoring in anthropology and writing a paper on homosexuality in  the animal kingdom, Bill harshly enquires "Are you gay? No? You like women? Are you sure?"
Even the "perverts", it seems, hanker after an illusory ideal of "normality"; and indeed this wonderful apple pie normality is the attribute that Trish finds most endearing about her new suitor, Harvey.

Solondz masterly exploits all the clich├ęs and stereotypes that pervade American culture, and explodes the American obsession for drawing impossibly neat lines down the middle of what are perceived as opposing discourses, thus creating abstract dichotomies of "good" and "evil"; the director's leanings are obviously to the left, yet he does not shy away from poking bitter fun at abstract liberal guilt about the war in the character of Helen (played with neurotic relish by Ally Sheedy), who used to be a poet but has found success in writing scripts for commercial Hollywood movies and sleeps with "Keanu" (!).
Solondz's aim is to show the stupidity of any black-and-white thought about "good" and "evil", whereby societal trends dictate what the scapegoat of choice will be: once it was "Japs" or Nazis; today it is immigrants, terrorists and child molesters; thus, pedophiles are often referred to in the movie as "terrorists". The title says it all: life during wartime is pretty much like life as usual—just worse.

At the end of the movie, a traumatized and neurotic Timmy, who's been frantically searching for answers he cannot find, blurts out "I don't care about freedom and democracy. I want my father!"
Yes, the father in a real and symbolic sense is what has been missing from American society—the real fathers are too busy earning enough money so that they can afford family health insurance, or have gone off to fight a useless war that will not protect anybody from "evil"; the metaphorical fathers, be they the founding ones or the "commanders in chief", have abdicated their responsibility to the people. And the mothers are left, as usual, to mop and pick up the pieces—but these are no Rosie the Riveter characters, these are women whose PTSD is no less acute than those of the men who fought the real war; and who medicate their pain with sleeping pills and sugarcoated pills of empty reassurance that "everything will be allright"

There are many things to savor in this elegant and understated movie, not least the fact that even in dealing with strong and unsavory subject matter the movie remains indeed elegant and understated. One must also laude the film's brevity: even though the pace of many scenes is quite slow, the movie itself goes by quickly and stops at the absolutely right moment—an ability, this, not always possessed by artists in our self-indulgent times.

What does all this have to do with writing? Nothing and everything. It ties in with my previous musings about "happy endings" and "uplifting messages". 
The message in Solondz's movie is not at all uplifting, and his moral is a bitter one to swallow, but his vision is not clouded by a one-sided, facile version of "the truth"—and that is the mark of a true artist.
I leave you with a comment by the director himself:

"If you want sympathetic characters it's easy enough to do, you just give someone cancer and of course we'll all feel horribly sad and sorry. You make anyone a victim and people feel that way. But that's not of interest to me as a filmmaker or as a writer. I may be accused of a certain kind of misanthropy but I think I could argue the opposite. I think that it's only by acknowledging the flaws, the foibles, the failings and so forth of who we are that we can in fact fully embrace the all of who we are. People say I'm cruel or that the film's cruel, but I think rather it exposes the cruelty and I think that certainly the capacity for cruelty is the most difficult, the most painful thing for any of us to acknowledge. That we are at all capable. And yet I think that it exists as much as the capacity for kindness and it's only the best of us that are able to suppress, sublimate, re-channel and so forth these baser instincts, but I see them to some degree at play as a regular part of life in very subtle ways and not so subtle ways."

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