Thursday, January 23, 2014

Beyond the Boohoo

I am not the biggest fan of sad movies.  I have suffered enough heartache in my own life that I don't need to pay hard-earned coin to suffer heartache over the tragedies of movie characters.  This is probably the reason that I love comedy films more than dramatic films, which are so often about death and despair.  I don't want to see old-fashioned weepies like The Champ (1931), or Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), or Old Yeller (1957).  If I have had a hard week at work, I am not going to reach for a DVD of Sophie's Choice (1982) or Terms of Endearment (1983).

When I was eleven years old, I was seriously bummed out after seeing They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969).  I saw the film at the RKO Keith's Theater in Flushing.  I had to take the 28 bus down Northern Boulevard to get home to Bayside, but the film left me in despair about life and I was tempted to step in front of the bus as it angled towards the curb.  You want to really depress me?  Remind me that the once beautiful RKO Keith's Theatre now looks like this.

Last year, I had a big falling out with my son and we are now estranged.  It has been hard to deal with this situation.  The fact that I am living Stella Dallas makes me see no benefit in watching the actual Stella Dallas (1937).  Let me watch Buster Keaton's The Navigator (1924) instead.

I have never seen Johnny Got His Gun (1971) and I am sure that my life is better for it.  I will not shun a film just because the story includes a tragedy, but I will shun a film if it focuses entirely on tragedy and the characters who are involved are helpless to cope with their unfortunate circumstances.  Johnny Got His Gun, which centers on a soldier who was blown apart in an artillery blast and is missing his arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose and mouth, may present more hopelessness than any other film ever made.

Hope and fortitude separates the dispiriting film from the uplifting film.  Rabbit Hole (2010) shows a couple (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) working through seemingly insurmountable grief after the death of their young son.  It isn't easy for them, but they go deep within themselves to find the strength to survive.  In the end, the human spirit triumphs over tragedy.  What could more positive than that?

Filmmakers of the Twenty-first Century are obsessed with death and despair.  Their work stimulates an audience by emphasizing the sensational aspects of life's suckiness.  So many of their films are despair porn.  Some critics blame 9/11 for this gloomy trend, but the trend started earlier than that.  The year before 9/11, we had such gloom-fests as Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Dancer in the Dark (2000).  Both of these films were highly praised by film critics and were nominated for Oscars.  People more important than me obviously like death and despair.  Of course, many of those important people can take refuge in a nice home with a heated swimming pool.  

Recent films have delivered little joy and celebration.  David Denby recently wrote in The New Yorker, "America is in trouble (no kidding), and many of the best movies this year, intentionally or not, embodied the national unease, the sense that everyone is on his own, that communal bonds have disappeared in a war of all against all, or the indifference of all to all."  He pointed out that, in 2013, many notable films touched on loneliness.  The loneliness theme was especially obvious in Gravity, All is Lost and Her.

Films have long examined loneliness because, frankly, much of life is about loneliness.  The death of a loved one can bring loneliness.  A time of life, including the bewildering days of childhood and the distressing days of old age, can bring loneliness.  A person can feel lonely when they become isolated in a new community.  The world is filled with disturbed or anguished loners, who are represented in a wide variety of films.  It wouldn't seem that Taxi Driver (1976) and The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) have much in common, but both films have a central character who is a loner.  Roman Polanski's "Apartment Trilogy" (Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and The Tenant) shows the way that loneliness and isolation can lead to distress and madness.  Loneliness is a problem for a person stranded alone on an island (Castaway) or traveling alone in outer space (Solaris).  Two lonely people can find each other (Lost in Translation, Sleepless in Seattle, and many more).  Comedians are good at expressing loneliness.  Think of Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush (1925), or John Candy in Trains, Planes and Automobiles (1987), or Bill Murray in Broken Flowers (2005).

I always found A Christmas Carol (1951) to be a great film about loneliness.  But this film, as many other films about loneliness, has a happy ending.  Loneliness, though sad, does not reach the heights of tragedy.  It is just part of life.  We all have to deal with loneliness at one time or another and it is comforting to see a film character find a way to cope with these feelings.

This year, I was tricked into watching an achingly sad film.  The film was The Spectacular Now (2013).  As I sat through the first half hour of the film, I could have gone down my official list of good film elements and ticked off every last box.  I believed in the characters and I cared deeply about them.  But then, suddenly, this delightful teen romance introduced a plot twist that completely caught me off guard and radically changed my perspective of the film.  Spoiler alert!  I advise you to read no further if you plan to see the film.  Okay, I can now get to the twist.  Our charming, affectionate and wisecracking protagonist, high school senior Sutter Keely, turns out to be an alcoholic.  Miles Teller, who portrays Sutter, is a promising young talent.  He is a cross between a Say Anything-era John Cusack and a Swingers-era Vince Vaughn.  His love interest in the film is played by the marvelously gifted Shailene Woodley.  I am unmoved by most leading ladies today.  I much prefer watching a film with Barbara Stanwyck or Jean Arthur than watching a film with Rachel McAdams or Reese Witherspoon, but I found myself completely enchanted by Woodley.  Woodley is intensely moving in the role of Aimee Finecky, a smart and sweet-natured young woman who falls in love with Sutter.  You can feel the love that she has for this young man.  This makes it difficult when Sutter's problems with alcohol come to the fore.  Sutter breaks up with Amiee because he feels that he's not good for her, but the truth is that he doesn't love Amiee as much as he loves getting drunk and feeling numb.

The film is based on a novel by Tim Tharp.  The last scene in the book reveals Sutter getting drunk in a bar.  The bar scene is featured in the film, but the film continues for another ten minutes.  The writers in charge of the film adaptation, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, tried to tack on a more hopeful ending.  It makes sense as many of the people who read the book complained about the abrupt downer ending.  So, how does the film end?  Sutter is embraced by his mother when he breaks down crying.  His mother assures him that he is a good person.  Sutter becomes committed to giving up his drunken, hedonistic, live-for-today ways and making something of himself.  He applies for admission to college and he could not be more hopeful and confident when his application is accepted.  He drives to Pennsylvania to visit Amiee at her new school.  On campus, he sees Amiee coming out of a building.  She looks like a new person.  She is clearly centered and confident.  Sutter approaches her tentatively.  The final shot of the film focuses on Amiee's face, which expresses her mixed feelings about seeing Sutter again. 

I came away from the film feeling less than hopeful that Amiee would accept Sutter back into her life or that Sutter could control his personal demons.  The film made me feel so sad that I regretted having seen it.  Look, I admit it, I am a disgustingly sensitive guy.  You know, it has been almost forty years since I first saw Annie Hall (1977) and I am still sad about the ending.  I need to learn to let that go already.

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