and sometimes poetry

Barney’s Version (2010) | Review by Hannah Brooks-Motl

Perhaps the occasional surprise is the best life has to offer—the milder, the better. For having one’s expectations gently overturned whilst simultaneously being thrust upward is surely the closest we humans actually ever come to anything like divinity. We provide ourselves with the tiniest of tinseled miracles; and the fact that they tarnish easily, smudge and vanish as quickly as chalk in rain, only allows for their quiet reoccurrence to press that much more insistently into the blinding momentary flash in which we only ever consciously live. To think things will go the way you think they will, and to be positive in your thinking so, to clutch your certitude sweatily in the palm of your point of view, and then to find—suddenly and almost inexplicably in the midst of the experience itself—that in truth the thing is going much better, that you are enjoying yourself much more, and in fact surprising yourself with the level of enjoyment you are experiencing—for you had quite forgotten that you were a person capable of unfettered enjoyment, of unconscious experiential glee—is to ride the random, miniscule rollercoaster of the critical act.

And so we found ourselves last night at the 9:45 showing of Barney’s Version, a movie at whose preview we had harrumphed so frequently, and with such vehemence, that it had gradually gained syntax, and vocabulary—curdling like Bailey’s in Jameson in Guinness into a diatribe against Paul Giamatti, narratives featuring middle-aged men and their sexual peccadilloes, mid-century American novels, and baby-boomer aesthetics as a whole. “Who wants to watch another unappealing bourgeoisie male sleep with a slew of beautiful women, mess up, be forgiven, crack some semi-entertaining jokes, and die?” we’d ask whoever would listen, stage-whispering in agitation, the tips of our braids flicking popcorn from the top of the bag with every emphatic jerk of our head. “This movie looks hideous.” Not for the first time, we confront the mystery of expectation. Had we believed the opposite, that BV was going to initiate our personal constellation of 2011’s poignant character-studies, to be the first disarming and honest cinematic daffodil to sprout in the humus of early spring, we probably would have been profoundly disappointed. There are some dull moments in this movie, as there probably were in the Mordecai Richler novel from which BV was unmistakably yanked: the amount of whiskey, and cigars, and bad behavior on display is yawningly retro. But overall we were charmed. We were pulled in. There were moments of actual tension we squirmed through, remembering with horror similar scenes in which we had unluckily been participants. For the chance to revisit your own disgraces through the aestheticized prism of art, to view what you once endured, is another instance where we are granted god-likeness. As it must be for god, watching our own dilemmas of soul re-cast and externalized is at once heightening and nullifying. It’s also the only occasional surprise we ask of art. Go see this movie if you used to have time to read books.

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