Ray Carney Moment of the Day #12

July 10, 2011

Ghost World

Why do you think there has been a trend of anti-sentimental films in recent years?

The epilogue to my Leigh book talks about this. It’s a way of bursting the bubble, of revealing that the empress is wearing a pushup bra. Black comedy surfaces when options for truth-telling are blocked or frustrated. Society always tries to paper over its imaginative San Andreas faults. One of the jobs of an artist is to reveal the gaps and inconsistencies in the cultural cover story. Artists have been doing this for centuries. In the expansionist, optimistic, go-go Elizabethan period – so much like our own Wall Street greed-crazed Reagan-Bush years – Kyd and Marlowe wrote these brilliant, dark, sardonic comedies – Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, The Spanish Tragedy. That was in 1590. At the height of the Eisenhower snooze-fest and the Kennedy-Camelot-preppie touch football game, Kubrick made Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove. In the peace-love-Woodstock era, Altman and Penn unleashed Mash and Bonnie and Clyde. Altman has been turning over Betsy Ross’s stitching and forcing us to look at the bad side for more than thirty years. Someone has to do that from time to time.

Todd Solondz, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sam Mendez, and Neil LaBute flourish because they tell us something we need to hear. America is a relentlessly upbeat, optimistic culture. A sentimental culture with an immature view of life. Look at how 9/11 affected us. That’s a sign of our immaturity. We see things in terms of black and white, good and evil, us versus them. These filmmakers correct our vision. They make the darkness visible.

They tell us that the dominant culture is screening out reality. They tell us that its mass-produced feel-good emotional costume jewelry is junk. That Hollywood is devoted to systematic, life-denying acts of repression. Magnolia, American Beauty, Your Friends and Neighbors, and Happiness are purgatives. Enemas to flush out the sentimental crap. Their causticness, irony, and satire are positive in this respect. They are the last refuge of the truth-telling, caring heart in hiding – forced underground by the happy-face fakery of American culture in the pre-9/11 decade.

But that doesn’t mean these films are great works of art. I wouldn’t say that of Marlowe’s or Kyd’s plays either. Shakespeare was the great artist of their era – because his art, like all great art, came out of love, trust, and sympathy, not sarcasm, illusion-shattering, and cynicism. The work of Altman, LaBute, Solondz, and the others is too purely negative. It isn’t enough to show what is wrong. You have to find a way to affirm what is right, without denying what is. A lot of their work is mean-spirited, ungenerous, spiritually stingy, and emotionally closed. They take cheap shots. In other words, they are afraid. Before they can be real artists they have to risk more by loving more, and daring to show us what they love. That’s dangerous for an artist. It’s always easier to mock and sneer, particularly if your audience is people in their late teens and early twenties because satire is what they are most comfortable with at that age.

Punch Drunk Love is the one exception to what I am saying. It’s Anderson’s attempt to do what I’m asking for; but he can’t pull it off. It’s revealing that his attempt at a positive vision can only be done as a fairy tale.

It may sound paradoxical, but the anti-Hollywood perspective of these directors is actually evidence of their still being trapped in the Hollywood view of life. The anti-romanticism, the anti-sentimentality of Magnolia, American Beauty, and Happiness actually represents a nostalgia for old-fashioned romanticism and sentimentality. These anti-sentimental movies are actually sentimental at heart.

I don’t see that. Can you explain what you mean?

The anti-sentimental filmmakers look at movies like Titanic and The Matrix and note that the romantic idealism of their characters and the melodramatic intensifications of their events are false to what life really is. In reaction, they focus on the absence of romance in their characters’ lives, the falsity of their idealistic understandings, and the fraudulence of their apparent virtue. Idealistic characters are shown to be deluded or revealed to be imposters. But to invert these values is really just to play the same game Hollywood plays, only upside down, inside out. Hollywood movies flatter us by telling us that we are visionary heroes; Solondz and LaBute and Paul Thomas Anderson reveal that we are frauds. Hollywood tells us we are angels; they tell us we are devils, cheats, scoundrels, or fools. But do you see what is going on? The anti-heroic stance of Boogie Nights and Magnolia and Happiness represents a perspective from within the heroic understanding of life. You haven’t left the heroic paradigm behind; you are still inside it.

I’m not just playing games with terminology. Magnolia is as cloyingly, syrupily sentimental as Titanic. The narrative strategy of the film is to present larger-than-life images and then cut them down to size. A viewer is supposed to be moved by the difference between the grandiose, poised, or confident public image the character projects and his or her actual state of loneliness, emptiness, despair, or deceit. Narratively it’s all a set-up. First you evoke the ideal and then you undermine it. The result is that you create this vague longing and nostalgia for the states of heroism and romantic connectedness even as you get credit for acknowledging their absence. But the romantic values you are undermining come from sentimental movies. They don’t exist in life.

Sentimentality is any time you ask the viewer to feel something without forcing him to learn something. It’s emotion without knowledge. Feeling without thinking. These movies are not about giving us new and complex understandings of their characters, but about making us feel sorry for them or, in a few cases, dislike them. That’s too easy. It just substitutes one emotional cliché for another. Another reason to call them sentimental is that, just like Hollywood, they flatter the viewer.

How do these films flatter the viewer?

Films like American Beauty, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Happiness, and Welcome to the Dollhouse plug into one of the main cultural archetypes of the MTV generation: a vision of young people as a group of walking-wounded betrayed by their parents, let down by their leaders, and damaged or broken by society, who either mope around feeling rejected, unwanted, lonely, and neglected – that’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s territory – or turn themselves into goof-ball nostalgics devoted to hanging-out together and recapturing the days of their youth in some kind of nonsexual family – that’s Wes Anderson’s.

This understanding of life is one of the recurring romantic myths – read early Byron, Eliot, or Truman Capote and you’ll find it there – and it continues to snake its mournful, elegiac, nostalgic path through the pop-culture, twenty-something world of today. It’s everywhere – in the music of Morrissey and Avril Lavigne, in the writing of Douglas Coupland, Nick Hornby, and Dave Eggers, and in these movies.

It’s comforting because it lets the younger generation off the hook. Collapsing into an adolescent wail of despair or trying to recapture a golden age of childhood that never existed in the first place is just another form of escapism, another way of avoiding and denying the claims and complexities of adult life, another way of refusing to grow up. The young people in these films and the young people watching them wash their hands of the problems of adult society and console themselves that they are the hapless victims of even more screwed-up parents. They can blame their father, mother, or other authority figure for their problems. It’s flattering because it allows young viewers or listeners to cast themselves as and to identify with all of the other damaged, weak, heartbroken misfits. In a word, it allows the viewer, listener, or reader to feel sorry for himself: “Oh, it’s so hard to be born into a world where there are no more heroes, where everyone is flawed, where eternal love is no longer possible. I’m so lonely I could cry. Woe is me. But it’s comforting to know I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

I know Aristotle said art was about pity, but he didn’t mean self-pity. Pity is not a viable artistic relation to your characters – just like it’s not a viable relation to real people in life or to yourself. It’s patronizing. Adolescent. Sentimental. Real art is never about pity – or self-pity.

LaBute is another story. At least Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Solondz seem sincere. LaBute is calculating, cynical, and manipulative. Think of Laclos’s Les Liasons Dangereuses or Da Ponte’s Cosi fan Tutte – without Mozart’s music, of course. Films like Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men rely on shock–tactics. They play with narrative expectations, reverse things, and trick the viewer. But you can’t create great art out of shock effects and surprises. Shock grabs your attention but doesn’t reward it. Narratively, LaBute is as cold-blooded and as out-of-touch with the complexities of actual lived experience as his main characters are.

In short, you haven’t really escaped something if you have to keep putting it down or regretting that things aren’t the way Hollywood movies say they are. The goal should be to break free of the stupidity of Hollywood ways of understanding, not keep being upset by the fact that life isn’t the way Hollywood movies say it is.

How does a filmmaker do that?

Grow up. Get over it. Leave the heroes and villains behind. Leave the romantic myths behind. Capture a reality that doesn’t have good or bad, angels or devils. Depict a world that isn’t organized around swoony-moony Hollywood love and heroism, but that does not leave you disillusioned and despairing by that fact. Move your work beyond both idealism and cynicism. That is the place of truth. The challenge of art is no different from the challenge of life: to embrace the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

How can that be done?

Look at Ghost World. It’s one of the best films of the last ten years. Terry Zwigoff not only creates a movie without Hollywood visionary depths and melodramatic intensities, but one that doesn’t nostalgically long for such things and regret their unavailability. He creates a world without spiritual peaks and valleys, without wild romantic passions, without sentimental mood music orchestrations or tight close-ups. But he doesn’t get into a funk about it. He accepts it. In effect, he says, that’s life. Deal with it. He and his characters accept what is and what isn’t and go on from there. His characters are flawed and flat and weak, but rather than condemning them for not being white horse heroes, the way Solondz or Paul Thomas Anderson would, Zwigoff appreciates them. What’s the Robert Frost line? He loves them for what they are. Ghost World leaves Hollywood behind without looking back. Zwigoff is not nostalgic for heroes and sentiment and ideals. He accepts and affirms rather than regrets and bemoans. The earth is as flat as a cartoon; but so what? Now that we know that, we can still go somewhere.

Caveh Zahedi does something just as interesting in A Little Stiff. He captures the clumsiness, the embarrassments, the disappointments of life. Zahedi is a little like Wes Anderson, but better than Anderson because he doesn’t take the easy way out and “play cute.” Andrew Bujalski does it in Mutual Appreciation. He creates a world as socially complex and emotionally layered as Renoir’s Rules of the Game, and as lacking in visionary releases and romantic expansions. The characters don’t have the option of imaginatively enlarging themselves in the Hollywood way. They have to just muddle through. David Barker creates a totally different but equally fascinating non-melodramatic world in Afraid of Everything. And Vince Gallo does something different from all of them and just as unsentimental in Buffalo 66. Up until the sentimental ending, at least.

Can you say more about Wes Anderson’s work?

I’ll give him his due. He lets his actors act. An actor’s performance can bring out a lot of complex feelings that the words in a script never get near. So the performance part of his work is a plus. So many other movies don’t have any acting in them at all to speak of. Just people playing scenes, reading lines.

But Anderson’s films are hobbled by two limitations. First, as I already said, they are suffused with nostalgia for some golden age when everybody lived in one big happy family. It’s an adolescent belief. There never was, there never could be, such a time. He and his characters are locked in states of arrested development. Like they never got over their pre-teen years. During Royal Tennenbaums, I wanted to yell at the screen: “Enough already about not being loved, Wes. Enough about dysfunctional families. Enough about how much fun it was when you and your friends could all hang out together. Let your characters grow up. Let them let go of the past. Let them get over their childhood lack of love. Or their parents’ divorce. There’s life after high school. Make a movie about that.”

Nostalgia for a past that never was is part of the romantic myth I already talked about. Nostalgia is a young person’s version of history. When you’re twenty, five or ten years ago seems like the middle ages. It’s a button you can push to get a guaranteed emotion from a person of a certain age, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s an avoidance of getting on with your life here and now. A thousand years from now, people will study these movies as pathology. They tell us a lot about the infantilization of our culture.

The second limitation of Anderson’s work is that he is afraid of upsetting his audience. He turns things into jokes too much. His sense of humor gets the better of him. It allows him to take the easy way out of difficult scenes. I heard him say in an interview that someday he’d like to make a movie that didn’t have a joke in it. Well so would I. I’d like to see him avoid using Owen Wilson’s goof-ball clowning-around or Bill Murray’s charming hamminess to get out of a sticky situation. Anderson lets his actors act, but he apparently doesn’t detect that they are using cuteness to avoid having actually to reveal anything. But again Anderson didn’t invent that problem either. Terminal cuteness is another curse of our culture. Look at how talents like Jack Nicholson, Nick Cage, Chris Walken, and Robert DeNiro have squandered enormous chunks of their careers by mugging their way through roles. Enough with “The Joker.”

But can I go back to the question of what can be done positively? Let me make clear that I don’t want young directors to go off and re-make Ghost World or A Little Stiff. You don’t have to do it those ways. Express your own vision. The world may be flat, and our personalities may be messed-up and confused, but every artist finds a new path through life’s disappointments and struggles. And there are a lot of them – and not only when you’re young!

Great art gives a jillion illustrations of how you can embrace realities – giving up what is not, while still being able to rejoice in what is. Listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Look at Rembrandt’s portraits. Read Chekhov’s plays or Alice Munro’s stories. In their different ways, they all tell us that the toughness of life, the disappointments, the weirdness is inseparable from its beauty. If you screen out the hard realities, you deny life. I saw a quote from Chekhov a couple weeks ago that sums it up. He said the most beautiful landscape has cow manure in it – and in fact was created by the cow manure – that bad, selfish, destructive emotions are as much a part of the meaning of life as noble, idealistic ones. To leave out the cow manure and the venality is to reject life. Chekhov doesn’t put pettiness and fear into his plays to do dirt on life, to undermine his characters in the LaBute way, but to tell the whole truth about experience – about how interesting, complex, mysterious it is. You have to find a way to love life without denying its imperfections. You have to find a way to love the imperfections! That’s what Frans Hals did. That’s what Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor and Bill Hicks did. That’s what Renoir and Cassavetes and May did, and what Kiarostami and Leigh and Von Trier still do. The important point is that the greatest works of art, like the greatest moments in our lives, are always acts of reverence and love and respect. They show the pettiness and flaws but still affirm the wonder. They don’t regret what isn’t; they celebrate what is. They bless rather than curse. And they don’t ask us to feel sorry for ourselves or retreat into some past that never was.

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