movies


This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw The Disaster Artist, the movie about the making of The Room, one of the worst movies of all time. James Franco both directs and portrays Tommy Wiseau, the main force behind The Room. James’ brother Dave plays Greg Sestero, Tommy’s friend and collaborator.

Among other things, the film is about friendship, about the making of movies, about art, and what it’s like to live without self-awareness. Tommy’s inability to view himself accurately or imagine how others see him were major factors in his conceit that he could write, direct, and star in a major motion picture. Early in the film, he and Greg move to Hollywood to pursue acting careers, but he receives a uniformly negative response. In one scene, he accosts a famous director (I didn’t catch who it was) in a restaurant, bombarding him with lines from Shakespeare. When Tommy persists despite a polite rebuff, the director is unstinting: never in a million years could you become an actor. Slowed only a bit by this onslaught, Tommy pleadingly asks, “But after that?”

Through the second half of the film I kept wondering how someone so singularly incompetent and unqualified actually succeeded at making a movie that opened in a first-run movie theater. Why didn’t reality stop him early in the process? I don’t have the answer to that question, and I haven’t seen The Room, which might provide some insight. Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, though, I came up with three factors that may have played a role.

First of all, because Tommy couldn’t see himself through other’s eyes, he didn’t feel shame or embarrassment. Thus he is undaunted when doing things that make others quiver. Early in the film he and Greg are eating in a packed restaurant. Tommy insists that they perform a scene from a play right there, which they proceed to do at full volume. Greg is clearly uneasy, but not Tommy. The stares of others, their negative comments and thinly veiled derision have no effect on him. When I feel shame, I’m quite uncomfortable, and at times I wish I wouldn’t feel that emotion as easily as I do. Watching Tommy, though, I was thankful for the capacity to feel shame; it does provide information that sometimes steers me away from doing things that I would later regret.

Part of Tommy’s defense against shame is that he sees himself as an artist whose vision isn’t appreciated by others. This second reason for Tommy’s imperviousness to feedback comes up over and over again on the set of the movie, whenever anyone suggests a change to a scene. “You don’t understand my vision,” Tommy laments. The narrative of the misunderstood artist comes from Romanticism, one of the cultural metanarratives that affect how we see ourselves and live our lives. Unfortunately, not all artistic visions are of equal value, and probably none of them provide the kind of unerring guide to goodness and truth that the Romantics thought they would. For Tommy, the idea of artistic vision is a convenient way to deflect criticism and legitimize incompetence.

None of these factors would have been enough for him to complete the film, though, if Tommy hadn’t also been rich. He bankrolled the entire project; it’s estimated that he spent six million dollars making The Room. After several days of filming, we see script supervisor Sandy (Seth Rogan) trying to cash a check from Tommy. He is apprehensive, doubtful that the check will clear. The banker reassures Sandy that there are vast sums in Tommy’s account. Having learned this, throughout the filming Sandy tolerates Tommy’s rants and indulges his whims. The rich are treated more leniently than the rest of us. At the same time, they become blind to how others view them. As summarized in The Atlantic, several research studies have found that the powerful have more difficulty than the powerless in understanding what others are feeling. Money is a form of power, and can be expected to produce similarly diminished awareness of the reactions of others. There’s a wrenching scene near the end of the movie when Tommy learns how others view his movie; he squirms with discomfort. It might have been better for him had he been able to feel some of this uneasiness before spending a fortune.

Reflecting on The Disaster Artist, then, I’m grateful that I can feel shame, unpleasant as it is at the time. I’m glad, too, that I don’t lay claim to an artistic vision that elevates me above others. As a middle class American, I have enough wealth that I don’t empathize with the poor as well as I might. Still, I’m not flush enough that people cater to me–not as far as I can tell, at least. As confident as Tommy appeared, it must have been difficult to be him. I may have a more modest ego, but at least I feel comparatively little pain when it’s deflated.

I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“Whether or not what we experienced was an According to Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. As he tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman barely older than his 34-year-old daughter who becomes his love interest, as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. Still, he yearns for one more chance at success. In his dreams, he often finds himself back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though when he returns there he is an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to change. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.
Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future.

Here’s a conversation they have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?
Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.
Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is paralyzed by his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and the commitment to others required to develop and sustain relationships. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations to the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Besides coming from cancer and Charlotte, Lee’s invitation to the hero’s journey also comes from within himself. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it?

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. Lee may have accepted the call to heroism, but he hasn’t progressed very far in the journey.

I’ll close by describing the final scene in the film; this is something of a spoiler, so don’t read on if you would rather not know how it ends. Remember that in the first scene Lee was in a studio recording the soundtrack for a commercial. In the final scene, he is back in the same sound studio, recording a follow-up commercial for a new version of the same product. It seems that he has gotten exactly nowhere during the film. But is that so? In the opening scene, he appeared a little irritated having to repeat the same phrase over and over, a little contemptuous of what he was doing to earn a living. I may be reading too much into the final scene, but the irritation appears to be gone and he seems at peace even while doing something so prosaic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something ordinary or banal again and again, perhaps bemused that life had come to this but more than anything just glad to be alive? May we all achieve that measure of contentment.

I recently finished reading Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel about the near future. It took me nearly four months, and would have taken longer if I had not had extra time on my hands as I recovered from surgery. Reading the middle third of the book was like wandering through a wilderness; I kept going out of sheer determination, but it seemed like I was getting nowhere. There’s some satisfaction at having persevered to the end, but mainly there’s relief.

One of the reasons I initially decided to read the book was that I had seen the DFW interview movie The End of the Tour (2015) when it was first released, and that movie (which I discussed here) had made me curious about DFW’s analysis of the struggles those of us living in modern (or postmodern) USA have with living meaningful and genuine lives. As I read IJ, I paid attention to anything that shed light on this issue. There is of course much more to the novel than this, and I don’t want to suggest that DFW wrote primarily to offer advice about how to live with American entertainment, excess, and irony. I do want to focus on that issue in giving my thoughts about the book, though.

Just a couple of caveats before I begin. I have no particular expertise at literary analysis and only limited knowledge of DFW’s life and works, so readers are likely to find more astute information about IJ elsewhere. I’m merely sharing some of the thoughts the novel prompted in me. Also, I haven’t taken especial care to avoid spoilers, so if you’re reading IJ and don’t want to know what happens, it may be best to wait until you’re ready for such information before you read what I have to say.

To start, then, this post will focus on one feature that stood out as I read, namely that IJ portrays a world in which human desire is prevalent and problematic. Pretty much everyone is pursuing something they yearn for, usually something they hope will make them whole, or at least better. These desires aren’t a sufficient guide for life, though. In fact, they are likely to make life worse. In one of the two main settings for the novel, the Enfield Tennis Academy, the pre-adolescent and adolescent students all begin with a desire to make “The Show,” the professional tennis circuit. Not reaching this goal is problematic, but achieving it is even more fraught with danger:

“It’s possible that the only jr. tennis players who can win their way to the top and stay there without going bats are the ones who are already bats, or else who seem to be just grim machines….” (p. 437-8)

Thus Schtitt, the head coach of the academy, is as interested in helping his charges avoid the perils of success as he is in helping them succeed. As one of the staff explains,

“The point here for the best kids is to inculcate their sense that it’s never about being seen. It’s never. If they can get that inculcated, the Show won’t fuck them up, Schtitt thinks.” (p. 680)

In the other main setting, Ennet House–a halfway house for recovering drug addicts–the residents had desired what they thought drugs could provide, be that pleasure or escape or peace, but eventually they were always disappointed. More than this, they became trapped. For example, one of the residents, Joelle van Dyne, attempted to kill herself by overdose just because she had been imprisoned by her addiction. Here’s where she found herself:

“It is the cage that has entered her somehow. The ingenuity of the whole thing is beyond her. The Fun has long since dropped off the Too Much. She’s lost the ability to lie to herself about being able to quit, or even about enjoying it, still. It no longer delimits and fills the hole. It no longer delimits the hole.” (p. 222)

Desire is dangerous; it’s likely to become our master. DFW sounds almost as pessimistic as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer here, sharing with him the idea that what motivates human beings is primitive, illogical desires that can never be satisfied. Many of the characters in the book are caged in some way; typically this is the result of having pursued desires that seemed to offer bliss but end up causing harm.

Schopenhauer thought all we could do to mitigate the force of desire was to lead very constricted lives; fortunately, Wallace is more hopeful. I’ll discuss where he finds hope in a later post; let me close here by noting that for him at least one path to release could be found in addiction recovery organizations such as AA or NA. That this approach works is a surprise even for those in recovery. At one point, Don Gately, a staff member at Ennet House, reflects:

“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy, slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons…and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’s had and then lost, when you Came In.”  (p. 350)

We all could use a little help; the trick is to figure out what will genuinely provide assistance and what promises to do so but ends up harming us instead.

 

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

It’s never easy when someone you love stops communicating with you. A day of such silence can be hard to endure; weeks or months seem unbearable. What if the loved one who is silent despite your entreaties is God?

silence_2016_filmThat’s the situation in Martin Scorsese’s recent movie adaptation of Shusaku Endo’s 1968 novel Silence. Two 17th century Portuguese priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver) have volunteered to go to Japan to learn the fate of their mentor Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has not been heard of for years but is rumored to have apostatized under persecution. Upon their arrival, they quickly learn the dire condition of the country’s Catholics. All priests have been killed and the Christian faith is outlawed. Believers who refuse to renounce their faith are killed, often in the most gruesome manner possible. The suffering of believers tests the faith of Father Rodrigues, the film’s main protagonist. God’s silence in response to his prayers is perhaps a greater test.

We eavesdrop on Father Rodrigues’ thoughts via voiceovers, most purportedly from his written progress reports to his superior. Early on, he is confident that he is doing what God wants. “We asked for this mission, and he heard us,” he writes. The two priests hear confession, baptize, and offer the Eucharist to small groups of Christians they encounter. “I felt God himself was so near,” Rondrigues writes after a visit to one such congregation. Yet he wonders: “Why do they have to suffer so much? Why did God chose them to bear the burden?”

Rodrigues is consoled initially that his priestly ministrations were improving the lives of his charges. However, the forces of the inquisition soon become aware that there are priests in hiding, and consequently intensify efforts to get the villagers to apostatize. Rodrigues starts to doubt that his presence is beneficial. “I’m just a foreigner who brought persecution,” he writes at one point.

Rodrigues is eventually betrayed to the authorities. When initially imprisoned with a group of peasants who are Christians, he is distraught. “We’re all going to die,” he bellows. One of the other captives is puzzled. Their former priest taught them that upon death they would go to paradise, a better place. Is that not true? “Yes, it is true,” Rodrigues replies, but it’s evident who has the stronger faith. I’m reminded not to judge another’s faith by outward signs, especially by such insignificant indicators as nationality, race, or class.

The chief inquisitor, Inoue (Issei Ogata), explains to Rodrigues that the inquisition is not a matter of dislike or hate for Christians. Instead, Christianity must be eliminated because it is a danger to society. Besides, the Christian message doesn’t fit the realities of Japan and won’t grow on Japanese soil. Rodrigues mounts a defense. Christianity is the truth, he states, applicable everywhere. It grew well on Japanese soil until that soil was poisoned by persecution. A good theological argument does wonders at momentarily dispelling Rodrigues’ doubts. Those doubts still lurk beneath the surface, though. We Christians today may similarly be tempted to focus on intellectual arguments for faith as a way of evading our own spiritual struggles.

A competent inquisitor utilizes methods besides persuasive argument, and Inoue is certainly competent. Rodrigues is informed that the Christians being held captive will be tortured and killed unless he renounces his faith. What to do?. Rodrigues wants to be an example to the faithful, but at what cost to them? He is prepared to be a martyr, but not to have others martyred in his behalf. He prays fervently, but still hears nothing from God. He starts to wonder, “Am I just praying to nothing because you’re not there?” Rodrigues has gone from disappointment that God hasn’t spoke to doubt that God is there at all. He’s faced with a difficult dilemma, but I wonder whether part of Rodrigues’ problem is that he’s hemmed himself in by appointing himself as God’s defender. God is perfectly capable of defending himself. Sometimes my efforts seem like those of Rodrigues–I’m working much harder than God seems to be in order to bring about what I think he wants. When that happens, I’m probably not perceiving very accurately what he wants.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” prays Rodrigues at one point, in imitation of Christ’s prayer on the cross. How much like Christ is he, though? Another character points out that, whereas Rodrigues compares his suffering to Christ’s, the Japanese Christians, who are undergoing the bulk of the suffering, don’t compare themselves to Christ. Rodrigues’ sense of his own importance–the last priest representing God’s cause in Japan–is getting in his way. Perhaps, as a general rule, those who think they are Christ-like probably aren’t, and those undergoing hardship to whom that thought never occurs actually resemble him.

It may seem I’m rather hard on Rodrigues; I actually do admire his courage and passion. Some critics dislike the manner in which Rodrigues’ crisis of faith is resolved, but it did seem realistic to me. Scorsese reportedly had wanted to make this film ever since he read Endo’s book 30 years ago, and it’s easy to say why. Few films explore struggles of faith with such depth and nuance. I expect I will be thinking about this film for years to come, especially when my spiritual journey is at its darkest.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

manchester-by-the-sea-uk-poster

When we first meet Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck)  at the start of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Manchester by the Sea, it’s evident that something isn’t right with him. Lee, an apartment building janitor, goes about his work without complaint–shoveling snow, fixing faucets, and the like–but won’t supply even the slightest social lubricant to grease interactions with the residents he encounters. In fact, he seems to deliberately provoke one woman who is a bit obdurate about the matter of a leaky tub. He lives by himself in a basement room and spends his evening drinking by himself in a bar, where he ignores a flirting woman but takes offense when a couple of guys  look at him from across the room, picking a fight with them. Lee is troubled, but there is no indication of what might be troubling him. That makes him enigmatic. Ty Burr of the Boston Globe describes the movie as “a ghost story about a man who’s still alive,” and that’s about right.

In Lee’s case, it turns out that the ghost is himself haunted, as we learn from a series of flashbacks that are intercut with Lee’s response to a family crisis. He receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler)  is hospitalized. Joe dies while Lee is en route from South Boston to Manchester, on the North Shore. Joe’s will names Lee custodian of Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Joe’s spirited, temperamental teenage son. Joe’s plan was that Lee would move back to Manchester to care for Patrick, something Lee emphatically doesn’t want to do. About an hour into the film, we learn why: he had experienced a devastating tragedy when living there. It’s no wonder that he wants to be far away from reminders of what happened.

As a psychologist, I deal regularly with people who have suffered from trauma, usually either wartime combat or childhood abuse. Many of them are like Lee, trying to distract themselves from what happened but nonetheless pursued by it, easily swept into the maelstrom of memory. Scenes of past interactions between Lee and a younger Patrick show that Lee once had a playful, lighthearted side. As with some of my clients, that playful self has been lost. Like them, Lee’s interactions with others produce not joy but awkwardness, irritation, and withdrawal.

Lee tries to do the right thing. He delays his return to Boston and moves in with Patrick, driving his nephew to school and band practice, He doesn’t know quite what to do with a teenage boy: when Patrick indicates that he wants one of his two girlfriends to spend the night, a puzzled Lee asks, “Am I supposed to tell you to use a condom?” Sometimes he is arbitrary, as when he decides he doesn’t want Patrick’s other girlfriend to visit, announcing “I don’t like her. Sorry.” He is cross and uncommunicative, as might be expected of someone who is trying his best to suppress the feelings constantly churning within. Looking out over Manchester in one scene, he is suddenly moved to frenzy, putting his fist through a window. Later, Patrick notices his bandaged hand. Their exchange goes like this:

Patrick: What happened to your hand?
Lee: I hurt it.
Patrick: (Smiling) For a minute there I didn’t know what happened to it.

Patrick sees the ludicrous side to Lee’s strained reticence, but Lee is too caught up in his struggles to notice the humor.

We like our stories to be redemptive, for healing to occur and people to grow as a result of their tragedies. Movies often cater to such desires. There is such a thing as post-traumatic growth–positive psychological change resulting from negative experiences. The mistake we make is to think that good always comes from adversity. Manchester-by-the-Sea reminds us that not every calamity has a happy ending. Lee never recovers his playful, buoyant self; we see only a faint echo of that self at the very end.  When his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) attempts to reach out to him, he can’t connect meaningfully with her. He appears to be permanently impaired.

Sometimes, as with Lee, the best we can manage is to soldier on courageously, doing what we think is required of us without any hope of receiving any joy or comfort in return. Here’s to the thousands of those for whom pain has become a way of life but are still trying to do what’s right. May they find peace.

the big short

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

The Big Short, the movie about the housing bubble and subsequent financial crisis, is styled as a comedy, with flippant pop-cultural explanations of finance and humorous repartee between the characters. More than anything, though, it is an angry movie. Writer-director Adam McKay is clearly outraged at the deceit, the manipulation of markets, the collusion, and the fraud that occurred, not in just a few cases, but throughout the system. He’s angry, too, that ordinary workers and homeowners suffered the most, while the bankers who were responsible not only evaded prison but also received government bailouts to keep them from ruin.

The movie focuses not on the financial establishment but on the few investors who saw in advance that the mortgage securities market and derivative financial products were unsustainable–who knew that the system would crash. if you knew all that and could short–bet against–that market, you could make a lot of money. The movie tells the saga of these investors (the movie uses different names for most of the principals, but they are based on real-life counterparts) and how they won their bets.

On second thought, it doesn’t seem as if anyone really won. Of the main characters, only Jared Vennett (played by Ryan Gosling) seems to be unperturbed by the financial crisis and his role in it. Three characters in particular end up saddened or shaken by what happened. Their reactions are reminders that dealing in large sums of money isn’t a morally neutral activity. Someone is bound to become greedy, fearful, or envious; relationships will be destroyed; life will cease to be about human well-being and instead be about accumulating wealth.

The first character who is disturbed by what happens during the few years covered by the movie is Michael Burry (Christian Bale), a medical doctor and hedge fund manager who is socially inept. He functions in the world of numbers, apparently as compensation for his inability to function in the world of people. He is the first to bet against the mortgage market, to the tune of 1.3 billion dollars. His fund loses money as he waits for the collapse he’s sure is coming, and his investors get impatient. Their relationship progressively devolves into threats and lawsuits. Eventually, Michael confesses “Making money isn’t what I thought it would be. This business kills the part of us that is human.” He is eventually vindicated, but at tremendous emotional cost.

Another character markedly affected by the bubble and its aftermath is temperamental hedge-fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), based on the real-life figure Steve Eisman. Mark has undergone a recent family tragedy, and his personal sorrows and the nation’s sorrows eventually merge for him. He is uncertain about the scale of the crisis. When finally convinced after a conversation with a banker who unconcernedly reveals that the potential risk was much larger than he could have imagined, Mark instructs an underling to short “everything that guy has touched.” He walks off abruptly; when asked where he is going, he says, “I’m going to try to find moral redemption.” He is clearly shaken by the danger to the world economy and his role in bringing the crash closer. Soon afterwards, he confesses to his wife that the work he is in “changed me into a person who couldn’t reach out to someone.” He is probably referring to the family tragedy here, but also may be thinking of the fate of millions of innocent (or in some cases, foolhardy) investors, homeowners, and workers. The ill wind for others that blew money his way also blew melancholy over what had happened.

The third troubled figure, Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), is a legendary financial guru who is already so disillusioned that he has left the industry to hibernate in a rural retreat where he grows his own food. Two young traders (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) who recognize the bubble but need help getting access to financial markets convince him to lend them a hand. When at one point the young traders become elated about their prospects for success, Rickert calmly lays out what success would mean. Don’t they know, he asks, that they are making a bet against the US economy? If they are right, people will be losing jobs, homes, and pensions. Many will suffer, so those who profit should have their spirits saddened, not lifted.

So, the movie invites us to reflect on our reaction when we prosper while, or even because, others suffer. The world is set up so this situation happens often: for example, slavery benefits most of us. In the end, Ben goes back to his farm. That response reminds me of Candide, who witnessed the world’s suffering, then decided to tend his garden. Not much help, but at least it limits the harm the gardener will be doing going forward. Maybe sometimes that’s the best we can do.

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