Thursday, October 11, 2012

True Blood: Margaret & The Experience of Violence

Anna Paquin as Lisa, in Margaret

"I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them – murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn't write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen – it may turn out to be a powerful thing!"

– "A Conversation on Film With Leo Tolstoy" quoted in the appendix of film historian Jay Leyda's Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film (Princeton University Press,1960); and later reprinted in Roger Ebert's Book of Film (W.W. Norton, 1997).

In September 2001, it was my twentieth year as a film critic covering the Toronto International Film Festival. It was also the year of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Before the carnage took place, I'd already been seeing a number of pictures that dealt with the subject of violence. But my response to the violence was as varied as the films themselves. South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's drama Address Unknown, for instance, attempted to tackle the cultural stigma of Korean women who had had children out of wedlock with American USO soldiers stationed in Seoul. But the director quickly lost sight of the more ambiguous ramifications of the story. Kim's unbridled rage instead got the better of him. There were so many florid scenes of mutilation and brutality that it overshadowed any compassion we might have had for the characters. 

Then there was Patricio Guzman's documentary El Caso Pinochet (The Pinochet Case). The director meticulously put together a stinging indictment of the former Chilean dictator, who was arrested in 1998 and extradited for trial to England on charges of torture and murder. Guzman, a former Chilean exile, had been adamantly chronicling his country's turbulent history for over three decades. Ever since he filmed the coup of General Pinochet, which toppled the socialist Salvador Allende government in 1973, in his stunning epic 3-part documentary, The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979), Guzman had been making himself the caretaker of his homeland's national memory. While it lacked the accumulative power of The Battle of Chile, where we witnessed with horror as a cameraman captured his own death, The Pinochet Case was still a vividly personal and painful examination of the fallout from a nation's descent into totalitarian horror.

All through the press screenings, from all different countries, the scent of blood was in the air. The Austrian director, Ulrich Seidl, in his first dramatic feature, Dogdays, had just captured the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival with a soporific and toxic attack on suburban bourgeois living. Seidl's celebrated debut, an exercise in degradation so enervating that it made similar studies in suburban ennui (Welcome to the Dollhouse, American Beauty) appear seeped in empathy, set out to cruelly punish people for their moral turpitude. (I recall in particular one scene where a sexually starved middle-aged woman, who passively harbours a sadistic boyfriend, getting her head flushed in a toilet for her troubles.) Seidl didn't express much sympathy for the victims, or even provide much in the way of an examination of the motives of the perpetrators. (Dramatic motivation isn't a calling card for directors like Seidl.) By the time one character remarked that "people can be cruel," which came right after the individual discovers a poisoned animal, cruelty seemed a better epigram for the director. The violence in Dogdays also didn't shock you, or even disturb you, because the director's indifference to human suffering cancelled out the horror. Revulsion was perhaps the more appropriate response.  

Fred Schepisi's Last Orders

The night before the planes tore into the World Trade Centre, I had been at a screening of Fred Schepisi's adaptation of English novelist Graham Swift's Last Orders. While not filled with the "terrible and bloody themes" that preoccupied Tolstoy shortly before his death, the sting of mortality was sharper here than in some of the more explicit bloodshed I'd been encountering elsewhere. Last Orders didn't have any moments of true violence, except for a brief fistfight during the journey, but the picture still had an unnerving impact that couldn't be talked away, or shaken off. When one of a circle of long-time buddies, Jack (Michael Caine), dies of cancer, the remaining friends and relatives (played by Bob Hoskins, Tom CourtenayDavid Hemmings and Ray Winstone) carry out one of his "last orders": to take his ashes and scatter them off the pier at the British seaside town of Margate. As the group makes the trip, they take stock of their friend's death. But rather than provide nostalgic relief, or till the ground with sentimental remembrances, the journey uncovers unresolved wounds, lost opportunities, and once buried secrets. But could the tumultuous experience of that film possibly be sustained after the horrors the next day on September 11th? For the remainder of the Festival, I sat through film after film – good and bad – numb to their effect because the violence I had just witnessed in America had eclipsed any ability for drama to help me come to terms with true blood. And by the time I began writing my reviews, later in the week, I was on autopilot finishing a job, trying to connect to what I liked, what I didn't enjoy, yet not able to capture the experience of the movie itself because I couldn't feel anything. At that moment, I was truly terrified. I didn't know whether a movie could ever reach me again, or perhaps ever begin to matter as it once did.

The conclusion of Bonnie and Clyde
When JFK was assassinated in 1963, which was an earlier seismic occurrence in the culture, many of the films that followed actually tried to come to terms with the impact of that event. The murder of Kennedy itself was experienced as if it were an act of parricide, a family crime where guilt was as much present as shock, and the movies of the next couple of decades were often expressions of both sentiments. Which is why, sitting in the theatre for the opening night of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, barely into my teenage years, I felt a new relationship developing between the violence on the screen and the audience's relationship to it, one I'll never forget. Rather than denying the power of violence and our capacity for it, the picture built our identification with the romantic outlaws. But we weren't given the satisfaction of watching the bad guys get it, as we so often were in the past, even at many gangster films. We were instead implicated in their crimes. The ultimate demise of Bonnie and Clyde didn't take the pain of death away; it heightened it. The concluding slow motion barrage of gunfire, a twisting ballet of bullets and bodies, seemed to tear the screen apart even as it shredded their bodies. The effect left us feeling emotionally strafed rather than numb and indifferent.

Whether the movies themselves were good or bad, the violence in those post-assassination years wasn't inconsequential. But by the time 9/11 happened, screen violence had become, generally speaking, just another special effect, a new drug to get high on. If Kennedy's death served to influence the style and content of the many American films that followed, the events of 9/11 seemed to come out of contemporary American movies themselves. How often did you hear someone describe what they saw that day as looking like any number of action spectacles, either Die Hard, or maybe The Siege, or perhaps True Lies? The only difference was that there was no Bruce Willis to save lives and defeat the terrorists; no Arnold Schwartznegger to terminate anybody. In post-9/11, the notion of dramatic violence fulfilling Tolstoy's notion of it being a powerful dramatic and cathartic tool instead became an expression of impotence. We may have more explicit violence in the movies now, even more than what Sam Peckinpah would be criticized for in The Wild Bunch, but rather than put us in touch with what Pauline Kael once called "the sting of death," the brutality now seemed to be about creating a denial of death.

The Hunger Games

Even though, this past summer, The Dark Knight Rises initially inspired some of its fans to send death threats to film critics who panned it, the ultimate irony would be the horrifying massacre that took place inside a movie theatre where people were watching it. But for all the film's violence, its dealing with mortality, or its claims to be socially relevant in dealing with the financial crisis and reflecting the Occupy movement, The Dark Knight Rises went limp as quickly as it dominated the theatre screens. The Hunger Games also came earlier in the spring with all this buzz from fans of the best-selling novel, a book which many insisted said something profound about our fascination with death and spectacle. But rather than confront its own subject, it backed away and became a spectacle itself (and a lame one at that). The female hero is even denied an id – she's not tempted by the violence of the very pageantry she's taking part in. The only violence gets committed against either those we're supposed to like (those who we will later see avenged), or against those we don't like, so we are spared having to identify with those who actually become addicted to the Hunger Games. Even at the end, when sacrificial death seems inevitable, even as a form of protest against the inhumanity of the games, the audience is let off the hook so we can swoon at the two love-bird heroes whose mutual admiration comes at the expense of all the corpses piled up during the movie. For all the violence in both of these pictures, the propagation of bloodshed did little in making us come to terms with it.

But ironically, if there was one film this year that could wake us up to the true experience of violence, where it even became incumbent on us to respond, it came from a movie most people didn't see and many don't know exists. Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret (which arrived a few months ago unheralded on DVD) seems in many ways like a throwback to an earlier era when a picture could feel its way through a subject and find its meaning through understatement rather than trying to make a statement. Margaret, which started filming in 2005, didn't even reach movie theatres until six years later and then not at its original length, and in barely enough theatres for people to take notice. The long tale of Margaret's painful evolution is maybe best explained elsewhere, but the film itself is a marvel of dramatic invention and catharsis. The basic story involves Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a fervent 17-year-old New Yorker, who unwittingly participates in the accidental death of a pedestrian (Allison Janney) when she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who ends up running a red light. At first, she decides to protect the driver from criminal charges when giving her statement to the police, but she also holds herself partly responsible for the pedestrian's death. (She also felt a personal connection, too, having held her hand and comforted her until she passed away.) So Lisa ultimately decides to refute her statement and tell the truth. As she becomes more adamant about being responsible, about taking responsibility, a decision that moves her painfully out of adolescence and into adulthood, Lisa's coming-of-age incites a growing resentment towards her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron). Joan is at a different stage in her life than her daughter. She's a stage actress bitterly divorced from her husband (played by Kenneth Lonergan) and has long lost touch with the pangs of newly felt experience that is burning her daughter up. So Lisa finds a kindred soul in Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the dear friend of the deceased, and they both try to launch a lawsuit to achieve some justice, as well as get the driver (who has had other driving offences) fired. The lawsuit, of course, doesn't go as planned, but Lisa comes to understand how in growing older the world continues to test our very perception of it.    

Margaret director Kenneth Lonergan

Margaret is essentially about coming out of innocence (its title comes from the Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "Spring and Fall to a Young Girl," where he writes, "Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?/Leaves, like the things of man, you/With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?"), but the deeper themes examined here touch on the same post-9/11 numbness that followed the attacks. In many ways, Margaret mirrors this spiritual malaise as well as the emotionally detached culture that has produced movies which cheapen death and violence. Lonergan makes the consequences of that kind of detachment the very subject of his picture. Throughout the director's cut of the movie (only available in the U.S.), there are continuous cutaway shots of planes cutting through the New York skies which seem as divorced from the city as the people are from themselves. But Margaret is about the necessity to make sense of experience and to claim its power to transform you. Kenneth Lonergan had already touched on this subject in his 2000 debut, You Can Count On Me, where a brother (Mark Ruffalo) and sister (Laura Linney), whose lives are torn apart as kids when their parents are killed in a car accident, have to come to terms with the legacy it leaves on their adult lives. Margaret is far more ambitious, though, a flawed, sprawling canvas of unresolved plots, undeveloped characters and loose ends.Yet its messiness still adds up to something extraordinary – an epiphany. The structure itself is operatic, with a soundtrack that (in the director's cut) samples Wagner's Tristan and Isolde and Bellini's Norma. Those operatic motifs not only illustrate how Lisa dramatizes her troubles, but also reminds us of how operatic plots become inconsequential to the strong emotions stirred by the music within them.

J. Smith-Cameron & Anna Paquin
The cast is almost uniformly perfect. Anna Paquin's Lisa is a tremulous current, a prickly presence, whose emotional daring continually sparks reactions from those around her. She can be almost cruel in her honesty to Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.), a sensitive young man who worships her, when she rejects him. She can also be as reckless in her pursuit of truth as she is in her desperation to lose her virginity (in a scene with Kieran Culkin that's as comical as it is discomfiting). But Lisa is also, like the film, trying to cut through the emotional stasis that surrounds her – particularly in her attempt to get through to Joan, who no longer trusts either her instincts (perhaps blunted by her failed marriage) and her stage career (which she feels is on autopilot). J. Smith-Cameron provides remarkable contrast to Anna Paquin. If Paquin's desperate intensity is all on the surface of her skin, Smith-Cameron's desperation runs so deep under her skin that it tightens around her like a strait-jacket hugging her bones. Some of the other actors though are less lucky. Matt Damon, as Lisa's teacher, who has no sense of boundaries and acquiesces passively to her sexual advances, is quite good playing a boy in a man's body. But the role seems sketched rather than developed. (Matthew Broderick, on the other hand, works small wonders with his brief role as an English teacher who's grown too comfortable and set in his ways.) Mark Ruffalo also doesn't get to fully develop the part of the bus driver which appears underwritten. Jean Reno, as Ramon, a patron of the theatre who falls for Joan, initially brings a tentative sweetness to the part, but he never appears fully comfortable with the role. (He seems to be figuring it out as he plays it.) But the one other performance that equals Anna Paquin's, for its sheer force and skill, is Jeannie Berlin's as Emily. If Lisa's mother has lost the capacity to feel genuine emotions, Berlin's Emily is all too aware of the ways getting older can blunt your ability to respond with fresh eyes to matters of life and death. She fully recognizes that age has a way of making tragedy seem less dramatic because you have likely faced more of it than you did as a teenager. Emily's criticism of Lisa for turning her life into "an opera" is also her own rage towards a lost innocence in herself.

Jeannie Berlin & Anna Paquin

Unlike The Sweet Hereafter (1997), which was also about a tragic bus accident and its impact on families, Margaret is about facing up to the truth of our worst experiences in order to act with integrity. (The Sweet Hereafter, by contrast, chooses to cop out by taking the side of the young witness who dishonestly implicates the innocent bus driver in the accident. Her accusation vanquishes all hopes in the town of holding the bus company liable along with the huge financial settlement to come purely as a means to punish her sexually abusive father.) Margaret is hardly a perfect movie, but its imperfections seem to make it matter more. Like the messiness in life, the unresolved, sometimes unexplainable episodes that make up our narratives, Margaret does full justice to the power of art to help us discover the kind of connections that make life bearable and also fulfilling.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John CorcelliCourrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney. 

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