Million Dollar Baby

Million Dollar BabyThis is an extract from the full piece.

Maggie idealized a family who really didn’t care about her. Hers was a family too self-centered to care for anyone or anything but themselves. Not wanting to see that painful reality, Maggie glorified both them and her past, denying reality as it is. The look of disbelief in her eyes and the sound in her voice when she finally sees her mother for who she is, saying, “What happened to you Mama?” struck like the silence after an argument. All the illusions of childhood and fairytale happy endings dissolved in that moment in a collective sigh of disbelief.

We all look through the world through rose-colored glasses and when we take them off, discover a world we’d rather not see or live in. Until it becomes apparent that seeing people and things for who they are, is much more satisfying then living in our fantasies. Sometimes it is scary to change old habits, but Maggie is up to the challenge.

In contrast, Frankie Dunn’s guilt and lack of self-forgiveness concerning his own daughter is what fosters the deepening of his relationship with the “surrogate” Maggie. Instead of letting this new relationship release him from his past, it only deepens his non-relationship with his real daughter. He keeps all of her returned letters in a box in his hall closet, perhaps under the illusion that some day (maybe at his funeral, or when she comes to sell his house), she will read them. It’s easier for Frankie to hang on to the belief that if he just did something different, he could change the past, rather than accept the present as it is, as Maggie does. By not forgiving himself or his daughter, he stays attached to the illusion that some day it will work out the way he wants. But we know, even if he doesn’t, that it never will. Denial is a powerful thing.

Addicted to his own defenses to avoid feeling pain, Frankie can’t forgive himself for anything he feels he has done (Morgan Freeman’s damaged eye) or for who he is (a man whose own daughter returns his letters). This is really the Eastman film that deserves the title Unforgiven. Ultimately, the only letter his daughter might read is the one Eddie Dupris writes to her throughout the film. And of course, that is the only one worth reading.

Gravity

GravityBeyond the breathtaking images and special effects, Gravity is a film about adversity and our fear of dying alone, set as a stripped down survival tale. Based on our fascination with stars, which began with Melies Trip to the Moon, what better setting for these weighty subjects than outer space, where there is no one to save you? The film is a metaphor for the adversities we all have in our lives and what makes us go on and keep trying when there seems no reason to do so. A part of life is always operating to keep us from going on, but here Ryan eventually chooses life, despite the inertia of where she is drifting.

Cuaron elegantly proposes these themes in a visual rather than rhetorical fashion, in some of the most beautiful and elegant filmmaking I’ve seen in a long time on the big screen. These fairly “grave” (derived from the root word in the film’s title: serious, the physical burial place, and weighty as opposed to weightless) themes are not typical Hollywood fare and it is to Curaron’s great credit that his focus is on storytelling and letting the technology serve his story, rather than the other way around as is so often the case in Hollywood.

The use of very long, fluid takes of 10-12 minutes (such as the filmmaker and his frequent cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki used in Children of Men) convey the experience of being without gravity in outer space, coupled with the construction of a light box for the actors who float on rigging. The fluidity of their movements matches the fluidity of the cinematography and the fluidity of the music, since in outer space everything is in constant motion and there is no real up or down. Just like a dance performance, where everything looks easy and effortless, there is no hint of the extensive training and work both Bullock and Clooney did to make their movements look so natural and painless.

For all the discussion about this film’s impressive technology, scale and vistas, this is more a film about interior feelings than exterior panoramas, and much is conveyed in the facial expressions and voice of Ryan. Some of the shots of Ryan’s face through her helmet visor evoke those in that ultimate silent film of emotional close ups, The Passion of Joan of Arc, by Carl Dreyer or for that matter, in The Tramp, by Charlie Chaplin. We seem to constantly shift point of view, from the third person watching Ryan and Kowalski struggling with their environment to slowly shift without realizing it to the first person as if we are inside Ryan’s helmet seeing outer space through her visor, looking out as she is, for something to relate to in this foreign environment. We see, feel and breathe through Ryan, for she is us.

Bullock’s performance packs the emotional wallop here, as she pulls us in physically while swimming through zero gravity and the primordial ooze of her emotional states, suggesting emotional states through gestures, whether it be the womblike image of her curled up in fetal regression or the way she twists and turns down the umbilical corridors of the spaceship to finally give birth on Earth as she crawls from the water like our ancestors did, gasping for air like a newborn, finally breathing on her own. Those first steps Ryan takes on earth give new meaning to the word “gravity”, this force on earth we take for granted until we no longer have it. Just as we take life for granted and only see it as precious when we are confronted with death.

Adversity gives us the opportunity either for rebirth or to die in some way by giving up. This film gives us the opportunity to stop for 91 minutes (and long after the movie is over) to think about those fears we keep ourselves so busy trying to forget.

Blue Jasmine

Blue JasminI loved this film, particularly the acting and especially Cate Blanchett, but then, I love Woody Allen. For me, I go to see his movies for the same reasons I used to see Jean Luc Godard’s films- even the bad ones give me food for thought. Here, I had a bountiful feast.

Cate Blanchett should get an Oscar, in particular for the last scene in the film. I can still see her sitting on that park bench, her surroundings as forlorn as the devastation on her face – riveting in the suppressed emotion and the silent hopelessness reflected in her empty gaze.

In much the same way as the illuminating performance of Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, where her face radiated the whole range of emotions that only silent era characters displayed (such as Charlie Chaplin in the last scene of the Tramp), Blanchet’s soul is laid bare in the devastation she experiences when the life she concocted from someplace other than reality falls apart. The crumbling of her story and her life is reflected in her face. Like Humpty Dumpty, as described in Lewis Caroll’s book, she would not be put back together again.

This scene leaves you haunted, shaken and questioning the stories you believe about your own life. Different only in degree from Blanchett, our lives also illustrate how much of what we think of ourselves is not a direct experience of reality and the world, but a mental broadcast made of roles, desires, hopes, fears, ideas, other people, memories and lusts.

This is what makes the last scene so effective–her personal experience becomes universal.

People compare Blue Jasmine to A streetcar Named Desire because of the plot, but I compare it to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, where the two women, Alma and Elizabeth, were unable to break through the reveries of their lives.

In Byron Katie’s 2002 groundbreaking book, Loving what is (Three Rivers Press, New York, 2002) she explores how believing your “story” leads to suffering. For her, we suffer when we believe a thought that argues with what is, because reality always rules.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine didn’t live in reality; she lived in her story and therefore suffered, much like Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia by Lars von Trier.

Most people I talk to, feel that this last scene is unbearably hopeless and sad, which goes to illustrate that once again, we all bring our own stuff to the movies. This scene to me is what makes Jasmine so similar to us – it pulls us in and asks us to free ourselves from our own stories (much like Byron Katie did) and not go down Jasmine’s path.

Breaking the Waves

Breaking the WavesSomewhere between a fable and a fairytale, this haunting melodrama lyrically dips into both your worst nightmare and your most sublime experience in a passionate tale where sexual love and religious fervor engage in a battle to the finish.

Set in an isolated, coastal Scottish village in the 1970′s, this is the story of shy and sheltered Bess’s (Emily Watson) transformation by love. Repressed by her family and Calvinist upbringing, after marrying Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), an outsider to her community, she literally blossoms into a surprisingly passionate wife, falling in love with quasi-religious intensity.

Unable to live without Jan once he returns to the oil rig, she prays fervently to God for his return. Proving that you need to be careful for what you pray, Jan indeed returns, but paralyzed from the neck down. Hysterical with guilt, Bess is convinced this is her fault, and resolves to do anything to save Jan’s life, even if it means destroying her own. The melodrama concludes, the nightmare begins.

Knowing that sex is no longer possible for the two of them, in a strange twist to this already strange story, Jan asks her to take a lover as a means of rekindling what they shared, in a Job-like test of her love. So pure and unconditional is her love that she agrees, firm in her belief that her sacrifice will heal Jan.

Under guise of a love story, this is really a film about faith. As she sets out for her hell on Earth, we too take that leap of faith, following down her path of martyrdom. This is not a whore, this is a saint. The bells in heaven confirm it, like the rays of sunlight that confirm Elizabeth Proctor’s (Joan Allen) goodness in another recent film about faith, The Crucible, where the good die for their faith, a theme rare in modern movies.

Really more akin to the 1928 film by another Dane, Carl Dreyer, where a young woman also battles a lot of scowling church elders, both The Passion of Joan of Arc and Breaking the Waves owe their success in treating such difficult subject matter to the illuminating performances of their main actresses.

Like Falconnetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Watson’s raw innocence, fervor and absolute belief in her character, have us on the edge, while her face radiates the whole range of emotions that only silent era characters displayed. Her soul is laid bare – reflected in her eyes, her quivering lips, her fearless trust, her innocence and the purity of her belief. This is genuine emotion, real passion. If cinema is emotion 24fps, Watson embodies this as she embodies Bess and makes her credible in this magical story that defies reality. She is the reason I take my leap of faith into believing this absolutely unbelievable story.

Realizing his risky venture in concocting a brew of sexual love, religious faith, martyrdom, insanity, lurid sex acts, true love and 70′s rock music; von Trier uses cinema verite style camerawork to enhance the intimacy and thus your involvement with the razor edged emotion he literally shoves against the lens, in a non-stop emotional roller coaster that is gratefully punctuated by eight musical landscape interludes. Used as chapter divisions, one needs them for emotional relief. Set to 70′s rock music, with psychedelic colors that look like they’re hand-painted but are actually digitally enhanced, these are landscapes like you’ve never seen – still at the same time that they move, surreal at the same time that they are real, they serve as a metaphor for the whole story.

The cinema verite footage pulls you in like a home movie, jumpcuts and all, concretizing and reinforcing the verisimilitude of this unbelievable tale, so that you too, believe as Bess does. With scenes that range from the sublime to the horrific, this film leaves you shaken, haunted and questioning at how von Trier pulled off such an unlikely modern fantasy. This is the real miracle in this film.

Although Breaking the Waves is bound to be criticized for, in von Trier’s words, “treading on the verge of kitsch”, falling off into the land of too much, it is his use of humor within this most unconventional melodrama that saves it. Even if days later, you question the credibility of the events in this narrative; if you’re a woman, you’ll remember Bess’s reaction to the first time Jan snores, if you’ve ever been in love, you’ll remember the scene at the movies when Jan expresses all of his without using a single word, you’ll remember the affectionate intimacy of the shower scene, as well as the strength of the supporting characters, especially the sister-in-law. If you still don’t believe in miracles by the end of this film, then you haven’t experienced as Jan has, that “love is a mighty power”.