Difficult People, Divergent Values: Up in the Air, Bobby, Constellation, The Edge of Love, The Greatest, Greenberg, The Messenger, and Bella
To Be Free is to Make Distinct Choices
In times of financial distress and war, there is often doubt and terror and the desire for certainty and a return to seemingly simple values. Yet, just as an earthquake, flood, or hurricane does not touch every house, not everyone experiences trouble at the same time or responds in the same way. There is something to be said for the man who is amoral, intelligent, and pleasure-seeking, but well-intentioned, and, often, actor George Clooney is the man to say it, as in the film Up in the Air, in which he plays someone who works for a company that is hired to fire the employees of other companies. His character—a handsomely aging, but perceptibly aging, eloquent and slyly witty man—travels around the country to inform employees that they are being terminated, and it is a task that he handles with mastery. It is work that corresponds to his personal preferences: he likes to travel and he does not like complicated or deep relationships with other people. His life is one of freedom and solitude.
In Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009), George Clooney’s character knows how the world works, and has found a way to rise above it, spending much of his time in between places, soaring through the skies. One of his goals is to reach a certain number of miles traveled. The course of the film tracks several challenges to his existence: the company he works for hires a young woman who proposes that the firings be handled by computer teleconference; and he meets a woman traveler whose spirit he likes and he begins an affair. His sister, as well, is getting married and, though he is not close to his family, he, like others, is asked to take a travel photograph as a token for her. Can he adjust to change? Does he realize that in not recognizing the significant reality of other people, in not being there for them in any sustained way, that he will not be real to them? What happens if and when he wants and needs something from them? Insensitivity is not a crime, but it is a cruelty; and though manners and routine can obscure insensitivity, there are always times—usually when something vital happens or is required—when the fact of insensitivity is made plain, undeniable. That happens in Up in the Air, a pretty, quick-moving, and funny film that portrays the economic uncertainty of contemporary times. The film, which features interviews with the newly fired (who are angry and despairing), manages to suggest what is missing from the central character’s life without betraying who he is or what he thinks. Not everyone would choose his life; and most people seem not to make his choice. Of course, we all have our opinions, but such a person is the only one who can say whether the freedom and pleasures of his existence are more valuable than the isolation and unexpected vulnerability he might encounter.
Society—whether rich or poor, moral or immoral—requires a certain amount of conformity of values and behavior. That conformity makes possible collaboration and cooperation, and sometimes community. Some children, through good luck or bad, insight or incompetence, do not get the full indoctrination—through duty, pleasure, punishment, ritual, and teaching by family, church, school, and other institutions—intended for most children. Some get the indoctrination but reject it. There are adult individuals whose personality or power inclines them to defy the norms of society with ambition, anger, arrogance, brilliance, creativity, eccentricity, greed, hedonism, honesty, hunger, indifference, invention, laziness, mockery, moralism, prejudice, rudeness, sensitivity, stupidity, or treachery. They desire a unique experience, goal, or status. It is usually more interesting to see the depiction in films and books of those defiant individuals than it is to see the perpetuation of calm conformity. Difficult people with divergent values test a society, and expand the possibility of freedom for others; and they demonstrate the limits of freedom, its dangers.
Freedom can be emotional, intellectual, physical, political, or spiritual; and it is not always permanent or even pleasant. In Todd Field’s compelling, erotic, and expert Little Children (2006), a stay-home mother (Kate Winslet) of a young daughter and a would-be lawyer father (Patrick Wilson) with a young son, both married to other people, both with too much time on the their hands and frustration in their hearts, meet in a park and cultivate an infatuation, one not likely to last; meanwhile, a known child molester lurks in the neighborhood—and it is easy to believe that, in one way or another, all the characters are children, making mistakes they do not want to be held accountable for. A theater professor brother and his playwright sister are called to take care of their old, once neglectful father, who now has dementia in The Savages (2007), a film by Tamara Jenkins; and though the scars of their childhood damage can be seen in both adult children, and they can choose not to help their father, they do well by him—and themselves. In When Did You Last See Your Father? (2007), much of it set in the English countryside, the memoir of poet Blake Morrison’s relationship with his father is presented by director Anand Tucker; and though we see how challenging his father Arthur (Jim Broadbent) can be—Arthur is a clowning, flirtatious, presumptuous man—in the eyes of teenage Blake (Matthew Beard) and mature Blake (Colin Firth), whose literary interests free him from village life, it is always clear that the father loves his son. An independent and irascible man’s wife dies and, though prejudiced, he—once a soldier and automaker, now elderly and retired—finds himself drawn to the communal courtesy of his Asian (Hmong) neighbors in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino (2008), and he attempts to teach that neighboring family’s son something of what it means to be a man; and it is, surprisingly, a spiritual story, one of hard-won serenity and sacrifice. Martin Scorcese’s Shutter Island (2009), based on a book (as is Up in the Air and some of the strongest films), is a unique horror story—involving not only disappointment in the beloved, profound grief, and fear of the world, but also recoil from the self: following a man who seems to be chasing a criminal, the story asks, What are we capable of, and can we forgive ourselves? In Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart (2009), a country musician (the lauded Jeff Bridges) finds that age and a fickle public and his life of easy liquor and fast women have left him lonely and scrambling, as he performs a bunch of one-night music concerts, a talented artist insecure about the present and the future. Talent is not enough; and, even having proven one’s talent is not enough. Watching that film, and recognizing its truth, I was not sure, still, that it had the broadest implications or the most pressing relevance; whereas Bobby does.
Bobby, a year 2006 film written and directed by Emilio Estevez with natural atmosphere, an intelligent script, intense performances, good editing, and a well-chosen soundtrack, is set at the Ambassador Hotel, and about Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign for president, and the people whose lives he touched, and his assassination. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination followed that of other significant political men—including his brother John and Martin Luther King Jr.—in a decade of social turmoil when people needed—and knew they needed, a more rare thing—a unifying and visionary leader. In the film, sad-faced William H. Macy is the hotel manager, Sharon Stone his hairstylist-manicurist wife with blue eye-shadow, Heather Graham his phone operator mistress, Laurence Fishburne the wise hotel chef who recognizes the civility, intelligence, and decency of Freddy Rodriguez’s kitchen staffer, Demi Moore is the hotel’s entertainment, a drunken popular singer with a mean streak, and Joshua Jackson and Nick Cannon are two campaign workers. It is a large cast—that also features Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte, Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood—and everyone works well together. The hotel and the era are alive. It is an irony that a visionary man can be seen as an antagonist, inspiring the admiration and love of some and the destructive powers of others. Hope vanquished is poignant, and sometimes more stirring than hope gratified; forever inspiring the question, What if? 1968 was a lot like 2008, the year of Barack Obama’s election; and it’s possible, if not probable, that it is always 1968.
There is a southern-born painter who lives abroad and a successful photographer, two gifted and sensitive men of different generations, in Constellation (2007), a film by Jordan Walker-Pearlman, who directed The Visit (2001); and the unfortunate thing is that the two African-American men—a father and a prospective son-in-law—do not say much to each other. They meet in the American south after the death of the father’s sister, for a memorial gathering. The painter grew up and left home after his sister became involved with a white male, who left her; and though the painter has been involved with women and fathered children, his life is very much one of a vigilant solitude. One of the painter’s lovers wonders how he could be deep in his work and shallow in his life, and he says he is safe in his work.
In Constellation, the young photographer, who likes European classical music and jazz, tells his best male friend about being impressed by African men walking and holding each other’s hands. The photographer dated the painter’s daughter, but the couple broke up—and the photographer dated one of her female friends, a sore point—and the photographer is still attracted to the painter’s daughter. Billy Dee Williams plays the painter (he’s like a well-fed pasha, and a bit too listless for me, but not inaccurate); and Hill Harper plays the photographer, a man of taste, the kind of person who wants to approve the menu before he sits down in a restaurant. (Williams and Harper were in The Visit, with Rae Dawn Chong, who is also in Constellation as the mother of the painter’s daughter whom the photographer loves.) Both the painter and the photographer have the individuality and idiosyncrasy of their professions; and their arts have allowed them the possession of many qualities African-American men do not seem to have, a complex ambition and depth and genuine personal pride and wisdom that are rarely seen in cinema. The two men have a lot to say to each other, things that only the other might appreciate or understand—and it is sad they do not know it. Rather, the film follows one daughter’s warm remembrance of her deceased aunt’s living presence and bitter recall of her painter-father’s absence, and another daughter’s giddy attempts to reconcile with her painter-father and get her husband to accept the idea of having a baby. And, we see what happened to the father’s sister long ago, the abuse of the old south, the caste conflict and violence, and we hear the regrets of the young white male, now old, who was not strong enough to choose a life with her. (The southern white man complains about the state of the world; and the painter tells him that sometimes you have to create your own world.) The men—the painter and the photographer—who have chosen work that gives them independence and self-expression are the most important characters, suggesting as they do achievement and freedom.
When I first saw Constellation, I knew that there were things I liked in it, but I was not sure how good it was. Seeing it more than once, I appreciated the scene of the separated lovers—Hill Harper and Zoe Saldana—becoming reacquainted again, as it has the attraction, exasperation, friendship, and wary trepidation of mutual knowledge in it. The candor of Harper and Saldana is charming, captivating. As with other scenes—two sisters of different mothers discussing their father from contrasting perspectives (one forgiving, one condemning) before one sister casually misjudges and alienates another; and two former lovers, the father and one of his women, coming close to temptation but resisting—I realized that complexities were being created that were worth consideration. Scene by scene, image by image, conversation by conversation, a world is created of funny, hurting, sexy, smart, and exasperating individuals; and a film I first thought might be too plain then seemed beautiful. After all this time, there are not enough images of African-Americans, or people of color; and, often, one has to scrap trash from one’s eyes—the residue of cliché and rumor—to be able to see what is there, especially if one is dealing with an independent or small film. I do not yet think of Constellation with the kind of regard I have for films such as Sidewalk Stories, Chameleon Street, or Eve’s Bayou¬—or some of the movies in which Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Diana Ross, Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, and Don Cheadle have appeared. Yet, when affirmative, imaginative, and sensitive choices involving people of color are so few in the cinema or on television—when a viewer has to be grateful for Last Holiday, The Reading Room, Something the Lord Made, and Tennessee¬—it becomes imperative to look broadly and to see carefully.
It can be hard to avoid seeing famous people. Fame has an overwhelming quality, and it can make a celebrated person seem as natural, as ubiquitous as sunshine. The famous person becomes part of how a particular time is defined, experienced, remembered, and understood. Yet, often fame does not last long—sometimes it lasts a year, sometimes a decade, sometimes three decades. I think of this recalling that when I was very young, I would still hear or see references to the poet Dylan Thomas, but that, until I saw the film The Edge of Love it had been a long time since that happened. In John Maybury’s The Edge of Love (2007 UK; 2009 USA), taking place in London during the second world war of the twentieth century, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys plays Dylan Thomas as a boyish, charming, eccentric, and obsessive man, a bit derelict and self-indulgent, a poet who writes film commentary, and a man committed to his wife Caitlin (played by Sienna Miller, who is great here), and also infatuated with a childhood friend, Vera Phillips (Keira Knightley), a singer who becomes involved with a soldier (Cillian Murphy, of the delicate high cheekbones and reserved, thoughtful manner). The four find friendship and love, jealousy and vengeance, as Hitler’s bombs fall; and, at one point, take refuge in the Wales that is native to both Dylan and Vera.
The marriage of Dylan and Caitlin in The Edge of Love seems a match of spirits: she is beautiful, confident and wild (she is like the spirit that is beneath poetry before it is given order). I had seen Sienna Miller in other films, but I did not recognize her in this one, even after seeing the film twice. She, as Caitlin, is a transformed woman; her beauty and her talent have been freed and fulfilled. In the first scene she is on a train, traveling to meet Dylan and she has all the sensuality and mystery any woman could, and a young man sees this and follows her for a romantic tryst. In the last scene, she says goodbye to the woman who was Dylan’s friend but has since become hers, Vera, with a tear and wink, and it is easy to believe that Vera will miss Caitlin more than she will miss Dylan. What comes in between is Dylan’s flirtation with Vera, and his insistence that she remain his ideal, unchanged, untouched, a dangerous romanticism that forbids her a real life; and Vera has an affair with the soldier who will make her his wife and give her a baby before he goes off to the second world war. (I find Cillian Murphy a fascinating actor, but he, as the soldier, is a little too remote in this film for my taste.) Keira Knightley as Vera, a singer of delicacy and glamour, is her slender, elegant, pretty self. (Although Knightley does not closely resemble them, I do look at her and think of Audrey Hepburn, Diana Ross, and Juliet Roberts, three women whose slimness in film also endows them with qualities of abstraction and fragility—they seem ideal and vulnerable at the same time.) There is nothing wrong with Knightley’s performance (she was very moving in The Duchess, as a woman who makes a bad but wealthy marriage), but in The Edge of Love Knightley does not have the almost perverse power of Rhys or Miller. The film—full of visual references to cinema history, to Bergman, Tarkovsky, and old Hollywood and much else—is equal to the power of Rhys and Miller.
In Shana Feste’s The Greatest (2008) a young man and woman see each other, and become infatuated, but do not speak until the last week of school; and they have a brief, satisfying affair—and the foolish boy stops his car in the middle of the road to declare his love, and there is an accident and he is killed, leaving her pregnant. The girl moves in with his family, something his father welcomes and grief-stricken mother resents. First death and now this unexpected girl have come into this comfortable family’s life (it is a comfortable rather than a happy family: the father has had an affair, and the younger brother has had addiction problems). Carey Mulligan, who was in An Education and When Did You Last See Your Father?, is the lost, sweet girl, Pierce Brosnan the dashing, intellectual father, and Susan Sarandon the devoted and disturbed mother, and all are good in this good film; and it is a brave performance from Sarandon, whose hostility is lavish and penetrating. Often Sarandon is a figure of liberalism and warmth, but here her consistent cruelty is a revelation: that is the way people sometimes respond to their own deep wounds but, usually, do not want other people to know.
Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2009) presents a one-time musician who stifled a music deal when he was younger, not knowing that the opportunity his music band was offered would be their only opportunity; and he has since become a talented carpenter and an angry man, someone whose criticality and introspection incline him toward alienation, impatience, inattention, and insult. Ben Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, one of the most repellent of contemporary characters. The only justification for his presentation is that one senses something true in him: this is what happens when frustration, sensitivity, and talent get all tangled. We see Greenberg arrive in his brother’s large California house, where he will housesit and he meets the family’s sweet, self-abnegating personal assistant, to whom he is attracted, and he socializes with some of his old friends. The film’s scenes—backyard parties, dog walking, car rides, a bar-restaurant visit—are the kind that might occur in different kinds of films, European art films or Hollywood romantic comedies among them, but the singularity of the lead character gives Greenberg a peculiar integrity. I do not like that character or this film, but I respect it.
Ben Foster was an impudent gunslinger of style in 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe, and he is nothing like that in The Messenger, in which Foster is a stoic soldier recognized for bravery, but carrying guilt for the buddy he could not save. Ben Foster’s silent soldier is given the job of notifying families of the death of their loved ones in war, partnering with a commanding but earthy, fit and funny Woody Harrelson. War is said to be the ultimate test of men and women, although its existence is always proof of the failure of civilization: diplomacy has failed, reason has failed, and self-preservation instincts have failed. Death is the most logical result of war, and yet it surprises. The families getting the news cry and scream, push, shout, slap, and spit. The two military messengers played by Foster and Harrelson deliver news of fatality to Samantha Morton’s army wife, the mother of a young son; and the Harrelson character judges her negatively but Foster’s character is attracted, seeing something in the woman—possibly the combination of her cordiality and practicality—that touches his unspoken sensitivity, though the men are not supposed to become intimately involved with any of the families. The two men go boating together, and visit the wedding party of the younger soldier’s lost love. The film viewer watches the Ben Foster character expecting him to do something utterly destructive, but there is an element of hope in how Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2009) ends.
However, ever more hopeful is Alejandro Monteverde’s lovely, lovely film Bella (2006), a film focused on New York, family, work, and food, a film that is about second, third, and fourth chances, and which stars Eduardo Verastegui as a reckless, sensuous, and stylish soccer player, Jose, whose car accident precedes his life as a bearded, soulful uniformed chef for his stern restaurant-manager brother Manny (Manny Perez). Manny is devoted to the business, and his priorities are obedience and order. In the film, Manny fires a late-arriving and struggling waitress, Nina (Tammy Blanchard), a weary young woman, whom Jose befriends and takes to lunch, then to his loving Latino family’s home (where Nina meets Jose’s high-spirited youngest brother Eduardo, played by Ramon Rodriguez, and father, mother, and the brother’s girlfriend) and then to the beach, a day of friendship that positively affects both their lives. Here is what redemption looks like, and it is a timeless portrait.