Say you shave your legs. That razor burn around your pubic area is like Young Adult. It’s pretty ugly and painful, right? I mean, muff-burn is fundamentally unattractive: red, pimply, polka-dotted with in-grown or -growing stubble—there is no section of my corporeal sack I am less pleased with, and yet I cannot stay away. I keep shaving it. It seems worse—to my person, to the world—to not shave, though it be vexatious, though I grimace at the razor’s swipe. Going to see Young Adult is painful in the way shaving, or not shaving, or shaving when your groin’s not really ready to be shaved again, is: unpleasant, compulsive, and, if you think about it too much, pretty self-indicting. But then again—not too self-indicting, since Young Adult, like the decision to shave your legs or not, and how far up to go, and whether shaving cream or just soap, and bar soap or Dr. Bronner’s, and which kind of razor, isn’t something that actually warrants much consideration in 2011, almost 12. I mean, Young Adult’s themes, topi, and attitudes feel similarly sophomoric; its points about culture, narcissism, females, ennui, nostalgia—the large existential points it strenuously tries to make—the stuff of college personal essays. High school sucks. Pretty girls in high school suck. Life after high school also sucks. Everything is kind of sad.
Believe it or not, these are actually realizations I will pay money to see unfold onscreen again and again. But Young Adult manages to stall its own gold mine as soon as the awesomely accurate opening sequence is over. Super hot-shit only a few years ago, Diablo Cody, like a box of Stoned Wheat Thins, has gone stale almost immediately upon opening. Young Adult actually includes chunks of dialogue that go something like: Patton Oswalt: “You’re a piece of work.” Charlize Theron: “You’re a piece of shit.” The movie can’t graduate to real analysis because Cody keeps her characters ensconced in a Big Food caf in which such ice cream scoop-shaped slop is slung. Left to wander the towns & parking lots that bloat and line America’s highways like neon whales, YA’s camera says its thousand words; Theron’s alabaster scowl, picking at her scalp and lining the golden hairs up one by one in a Hampton Inn while the TV spits out reality TV hysterics, its ten thousand more. This movie is disagreeable, which I don’t take issue with. But it’s also not challenging in any real way to watch Theron’s character stumble and embarrass herself—she is so broadly bitchified, so lacking in nuance save for the occasional whiffs of social commentary Cody’s screenplay emits like flatulence, that I only felt: gloatful. As though my own 16 year old self had finally delivered some comeuppance she’d totally forgotten she ever wanted. Which she hadn’t, and she didn’t. Go see this movie if you “hated high school” lol.
Hugo brought lots of other movies to mind—Amelie, Ratatouille, Kontrol… I mean, upon exiting Hugo with the rest of the unwitting Thanksgiving-weekend throng, I wished to see another movie immediately so that I might wipe the dull taste of Hugo from the mouth of my poor movie brain, Hugo being like a chocolate-flavored rice cake: containing a necessary trace of hydrogenated vegetable oil, a kind of passable color-flavor combination, but underneath pure tasteless healthy.
The other movies it brought to mind—two set in the same accordion-soaked Paris as Hugo; one in a similar train-station conceit—were far superior if only because their directors showed a defter hand than old Scorsese with the construction of world—construction of viable, idiosyncratic worlds being the only thing any movie, nay work of art, is responsible for—Ratatouille was good because that little rat knew his way around the kitchen in explicitly unknowable ways, his rat-ness driving both story and scenery; Hugo, alas, is neither animated nor particular savvy about its ostensible locale: the eponymous child actor seems barely able to navigate the obvious back-lot he’s found himself on—at one point hiding from the station inspector by crouching in front of some stacked-up chairs.
I mean come on! He’s supposed to live in the station! Know all the crannies! Take us on a mind-whizzing tour—in Kontrol, the main character knew his labyrinth so well he could even sleep there, avoiding the security camera’s gaze, and didn’t Amelie understand the sightlines in her little apartment complex well enough to set up some seriously adorable hi-jinx?
Yet there are so many things wrong with Hugo, it seems unfair to linger on just that one: besides its sins of worldlessness, Hugo falls flat in an NPR-kind of way. The New Yorker, mine old frenemy, declares, “Hugo is superbly playful,” and yet the kind of blitheness Hugo achieves is distinctly pat, almost platitudinous: art is the arena in which the most trivial kinds of redemption are looped in endless reels of feel good puffery. Everyone ends up smug and satiated in Hugo,including Sasha Baron Cohen’s maimed Station Inspector, who seems to have wandered in from the set of a much funnier, more interesting movie. Had Hugo simply played the old movies it tries to celebrate, with some Ali G commentary to boot, I would have been totally and completely satisfied, my movie mouth full of cavities like it should be.
What a gift life is. What a gentle wind it is. What a strange radiation it gives off. What a feat of engineering it is. What a cypress it is. What a lovely, ruffled farce it is. What frigid heat it has. What faces. What invisible languages. How slowly fast. How it rolls over every morning. How it offices. How it houses. How much like a branch anchored to the molecules of air by its leaves it behaves. How little like itself it sounds. How steep its walls. What fights its boats put up against its awesome squalls. How beautiful are the consonant masts and the vowelled sails. What a mess it is. What teeth it has. What sleek sleep it seeks. The bizarre and pointless gardens it extends and tends. What rains are nourished in reverse by its great versed vegetables. What weird, coiled weeds. What cheap cameras and expensive expertises. What belltowers it raises like flowers of sound to the eary sky. How sad it is it has to die. What finality. What a face. What a can of dreams. What a cavern of a movie. Echoing happiness. All good art begins pretending to be about art and ends up being about love.
What an actress Juliette Binoche is. What ample, living gnocchi. What intimacy Abbas Kiarostami knits with his direction. What forgotten nuances of human love nest just around the corner in the novel placement of a camera. A placement that articulates not only the point of view of the character on the screen, but of the unseen character’s perception of the psychology of the seen, tiptoeing up a twizzled stairway, stomping out of a church. What sweet originality burgeons in the careful observation of the fringes of an omnipotent genre. Who let the dogs of a dialogue about art and perception twist into a bleakly beautiful duet about love out? Kiarostrami’s magnanimous eye. How lovely realism is. How honeycombed and bee-protected are its sticky mysteries. How forever I want to live. Film! Bright dungeon! Spring! Drown me in your ocean of Binochean dreams. If I were a quiet, green hill barely visible in the distance from the balcony of her Italian villa, from which she sipped a cappuccino and stared out at the sun painting the morning, and her brown eyes briefly fell on me, I would be weightless in their grace.
David Berman, a poet of negligible academic value who nonetheless remains popular among the aging hipsters now clawing their way into positions of authority within the rotting carapace of the academy, has a line, “All my favorite singers couldn’t sing.” Voice, then, is a function of confidence, not talent. Poetry, then, is a function of faith, not intellect. The singer who believes against all countermanding evidence in his own truth, and who projects it most ferociously into the echo chamber of public discourse, tasseled in seeming unconcern for its critical reception, is heard for longer and listened to more fully than the smoothest nightingale. House limps. McNulty drinks. Whitman sheaths his penis in the anuses of boys. Christ bleeds. Tony Soprano feels. Obama is black. Palin is female. I am a sexually frustrated megalomaniac. Aragorn, son of Arathorn, is so burdened by honor he rides horses through Rohan while tumorous Gondor metastasizes into political cannibalism. The othering power of perceived defect is the bedrock upon which empire heteronormativity erects its omnipotent steeple. This is the paradox of the West, and the mystery warms the core of our every art form, personal relationship, and social endeavor. The song of singers who aren’t meant to sing is the only music or literature that matters, or will ever.
The King’s Speech hits every note in this symphony so effortlessly that even the most cynical elitist will find it at least periodically rousing, for cynicism itself is aaa critical stutter. Hate Hitler? The most talented singer of German of all? Then it’s hard not to root for his stammering Limey foil. Especially when everyone around Colin Firth is becoming a douchebag right when England needs a hero. I didn’t watch the Academy Awards. It’s everything horrible about poetry multiplied by money, fame, and the most corrupting influence of all, an actual audience—so I don’t know who or what movies won for what things, but after watching The King’s Speech, I bet it won for best adapted screenplay, direction, and picture. I also bet Colin Firth won best lead actor. Geoffrey Rush probably didn’t beat out Christian Bale’s virtuosic crackhead in The Fighter, but that’s not to say Rush doesn’t still soar in The King’s, racking up what must be a world record for tender, knowing twinkles-in-the-eye per scene. As Hannah found in January1, the lessons re: finding one’s voice that effloresce across the consciousness after even cursorily reflecting upon Speech are so large and obvious that for a poet to illustrate them would be counter-poetically tedious and self-serving. But fuck it. We must stop trying to sound so much like each other. A good poem should make half of us hate you and half of us adore you, not all of us like you. Light dies without an anchoring darkness to break through. Voice is an iceberg of which technique is but tip; courage the voluminous, submerged most. Your nations need you. In a form unrecognizable now as then, the spirit of Hitler, of Voldemort, of Black Swan, of AWP is always calling the weak, increasing its flock, hissing across the world like wind between buildings. Who but a poet will reach inside, wrest the ember of their own weakness out with bare hands, let it burn through their fingers, and hammer it into a sword in the forge of creative writing workshops? Who will give neutral onlookers cause to open their mouths and whisper to no one, “Sweet, fancy Moses…” Who will give their voice to the voiceless.
I had menstrual cramps during Another Year. And popcorn-for-dinner made them worse. I was really stressed out on account of having all these student essays to grade, and feeling like I couldn’t write a poem if my life depended on it right now, and too why should I worry about writing poems anyway, is there a more useless and banal activity out there for a woman of my age and class and ethnicity to be doing; I ended up buying Mark both a drink before and a ticket to the movie because I suddenly felt awkward while he was in the restroom and solved that awkwardness, as I am wont to do, by purchasing something; I also drove him home despite my cramps, and the popcorn, and the stress about all the stuff I have to do and am not doing; and then I thought about writing this review and how I would have to adopt the goddamned “we” again and turn whatever dumb argument I had been losing with him in the car about character and realism, and how the movie failed to convince me of the “realness” of its characters because it hewed too closely to the codes by which we all understand ourselves to be “real,” following, in fact, the conventions of “realism” into the deep morass of its inevitable anti-category, “dullness,” into something profound and how I am stupidly sensible, and conventional in my aesthetics, and have become the “straight man” by tacit consensus; and then I went home and took a shower and washed my hair which I have started to hate doing because it is long and becoming pelt-like and like a pelt sheds everywhere—just today I lent someone my pen, only to notice with horror a clump of strands wrapped around its cap—
and then I got up early and wrote some biographies and graded some essays and gave a presentation on “clear classroom instruction” to my fellow TAs that probably made me look super-lame and prepared; then I came home and started trying to think about what I will say in seminar tomorrow, but then remembered I had this review to write and wrote my two paragraphs in which I said things like, “There can be no such thing as a “real character”—really. There can be degrees of realness, approximations in fiction to life, but no exact equivalence. We like ‘characters’ because, unlike ourselves or our friends, they are discrete” and “It asks us to see its characters as just as infinite and complex and ‘real’ as we ourselves actually are, and in doing so it cedes its claim to our attention and becomes a product of its excellent craft—‘art,’” before I grew so disgusted with it, and bored with it, and almost angry with myself, and the ways in which I feint and hide and puff myself and my opinions up with plural singulars, and large words, and knowing attitudes when really I know nothing at all, that I started writing this, looking out the window and thinking I am just so tired of winter and now terribly frightened at what I am writing, and what Mark might post, and if you have ever felt the terror of starting something and not knowing will you be able to stop it, you know what I am feeling, and you are alive and exist, and should probably go see Another Year because I’ve written myself into a change of opinion and now I kind of like it (though I still think the main character’s “unlikeability” could have been more attractively fulfilled).
In each scene of Another Year, the camera finds each character’s most subtle reactions. That the faces are older than the usual youthful Hollywood fare deepens director Mike Leigh’s exploration of how much more expressive those timeworn surfaces can be by virtue of restraint. Age, in a large sense, is the process of learning to express more with less. Poetry is not glowing language, but the voice of context coalescing around it; through the cracks between the lines it speaks; a jiggle of the jowl, the color of crooked teeth; the way we clutch a cigarette, how our eyes keep trying to sing a song our wrinkles and slouches unsing—and how these forms agree and disagree with one another—Leigh knows how to let the camera let them speak. Then zooming out one level from scene—sequence—a chain of these scenes—as if the architecture of the story were a camera of cameras; Leigh points it as sharply. In the outermost valences of narrative, electrons are bent to shed light on a nucleus, which we see fresh, bent itself to point at subatomic particles, which are bent to point at interior strings, dark matter, etc. Until we glimpse the inner, churning and mysterious thing which Hopkins named inscape and Merton equated to sanctity. That being said, I understand how some might dismiss the movie as being “only” about one, stationary atom.
Perhaps that metaphor got beyond me; thankfully Shakespeare proved the path to greatness is paved with metaphorical excess. Like a great poet himself, Mike Leigh takes the most seemingly lifeless materials—old people who don’t change; the two main characters remain as boringly virtuous as their friends remain doomed—and by attention to detail, which is a less bombastic synonym for formal virtuosity, we see the life, the change, the seven levels of pride and shame and oceans of delusion and ice-thin epiphanies that flutter through our eyes when we feel our own dreams were broken long ago on the sharp rocks of youth and we try as hard as we can not to know it—not yet—because we’re still alive. Leslie Manville’s portrayal of Mary, a hapless alcoholic speeding past her prime in a spree of pathetic desperation, makes Melissa Leo’s best supporting actress Oscar for The Fighter look like an attendance certificate. Wrapped around Manville’s wiles, Leigh’s wise silence resounds—the boringness of happiness, the sniping judgments of piety, the abyss of self-absorption, the resignation love demands, the arrogance of our spurning of it, the indifference of death, the tragedy of self-awareness that blooms too late, the slightly comic tragedy of self-awareness that blooms at all, beauty’s hatred of that blooming, the gravitational gales familial expectations exert upon the starships of our egos—if not real enough, or too real, Leigh shows it is possible to make art reverent in life’s direction.
Remember the old days when movies about Europe were elegant, attractive, generally beguiling affairs? Someone rode a bicycle down a lane framed with trees, or sat in a sun-lit café sipping espresso. A short but handsome man gesticulated with abandon as a thin woman looked on in a beautiful pout; deep kisses were both given and received on street corners, under caryatids beaming with benevolence. That Europe was like last Friday—when we jumped puddles and drank deep of the grape in a vernal dusk. Then we went to see Biutiful and then we went to see Unknown. And we realized two things: Europe is no longer viable as the charming reservoir from which a million ex-pats fish their hazy projections, catching dreams of improbable glamor; also, it’s not spring yet. How can we even begin to connect these two movies—the unrelenting importance of stunning Javier Bardem facing down death in Buitiful’s grungy Barcelona to the equally yet inversely unrelenting inconsequence of Liam Neeson searching, with his usual arthritic-histrionic version of “acting,” for his identity in the snowy streets of Unknown’s Berlin? As with doing a lot of anything (reading poetry, or solving complex math problems, or attending church), going to see all these movies all the time has made us aware of certain relations, or trends, or even patterns—not so much in the movies themselves, but in what we look for as we watch them. What we notice. What we decide is important to notice.
Unknown is thoroughly dull except for two things: it has a great car chase scene in which the inherently balletic nature of the form is realized in glorious bumper-nudging detail, and enough scenes of the “new Europe”—a continent of demoralized and marginalized immigrants, surveillance, and brutality—to allow us to connect it to Biutiful, which we saw the night before. Biutiful is not dull, but while it’s beautifully shot and acted, lovingly-drawn, and thoroughly sad, it still drags, stretching its runs of horrifically bad luck to marathon mileage. By the movie’s end, when the compromised Chinese factory boss has had to murder his gay lover and poor Javier Bardem pee blood for the camera a second time, we were antsy for something, even a little something, good to happen. Unknown left us antsy in a different way, its tedium borne of near-constant exposition of events we had just witnessed, and the stiff avuncularity Liam Neeson always acts with—though he was outshone in this regard by the icily vapid January Jones. Though as far apart in terms of purpose, audience, and form as movies might go, both B and U ask us to rest our interest on middle-aged men as they search frantically for meaning; both also pretend to flash us scenes of secret underbellies, exposing Europe as the tawdry, crumbling, self-destroying mosaic it is. There are only a handful of stories to tell; the thoughts are few, the forms many, Emerson says. Hard lessons we learned this weekend: go see at least one movie where the actors can act. Don’t go to Europe. Don’t be an immigrant. Everything is relateable through the prism of self. It’s a winter’s winter.