Online Exclusive: World on a Wire
By Larry Gross
Searching for meaningful endings in three masterpieces, a fistful of end-times narratives, and The Descendants
There were three masterpieces released theatrically in New York City in 2011: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.
All three take the high European art cinema from the Fifties and Seventies as their aesthetic point of departure (Certified Copy explicitly referencing Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Poetry’s finale, a virtual homage to Antonioni’s L’Eclisse), but give off a peculiar, disenchanted, almost played-out sense that the grand aesthetic project is itself broken in some profound way.
Each of these works willfully focuses on marginal characters, whose capacity to live out a meaningful story has all but entirely been drained out of them: the central couple of Certified Copy playact a romantic conversation that questions the relevance of the distinction between fiction and reality and whether anything emotionally viable can ever happen to them. The aging heroine of Poetry pursues the writing of a poem while the moral callousness of her grandson and neighbors and the good-natured obtuseness of her fellow student-poets create profound doubts about whether poetry serves any sort of purpose. Uncle Boonmee uses its exquisite hallucinatory dream imagery and its wonderfully amorous play with light to depict a hero scarred by his participation in political atrocity, and whose chief characteristic is his bemused comedic passivity before his own disintegration. All three films are so elegantly, stoically disassociated from a sense of the possibility of moral or political agency of any kind that it would be profoundly misleading to call them pessimistic. That’s evidence of the distance they’ve traveled from their modernist forebears Rossellini, Antonioni, Buñuel. Buñuel insisted that his intent was to remind us that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds, but these three films pursue a very different, more bewildering agenda, asking whether it’s legitimate to say that we live in any real world at all.
We all silently accept global capitalism is here to stay. On the other hand, we are obsessed with cosmic catastrophes: the whole life on earth disintegrating, because of some virus, because of an asteroid hitting the earth, and so on. So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.
Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Night on Earth, both of which debuted at the New York Film Festival, and Jeff Nichols’s American indie Take Shelter, which premiered at Sundance but opened in New York in late September, all deal with the end of the world as a literal narrative event. They are all worthwhile, exceptionally well-made films that are differently inflected by this same sense of crisis I noted in the three films above, a sense of irrevocably wounded political and moral agency.
Take Shelter makes some interesting but half-hearted, ultimately unpersuasive attempts to link the fear of the end of the world to a range of lower-middle-class economic anxieties when it isn’t playing with familial-psychological explanations of its hero’s problems. In Melancholia’s brilliant first half, von Trier wittily demonstrates that the world is a terrible place that kind of deserves to come to an end, partly by setting the action in an atmosphere of ostentatious North American–European opulence and vindictiveness. That intriguingly, if vaguely, feels like social criticism, but then with characteristic inconsistency, von Trier opts out of this line of analysis and veers toward metaphysics. If you support the film’s heroine saying “the earth is evil” as von Trier seems to, you are buying into a Transcendent even Divine set of values, and Kirsten Dunst’s gradual increased poise as the action unfolds makes her (yet again!) von Trier’s attempt at Joan of Arc. Ferrara is the only director of the three who understands and accepts that this particular subject matter involves a complete concession to passivity and not just on the part of the characters.
The end of the world as a story beat means that nothing terribly interesting can or ought to happen narratively because the failure to prevent the catastrophe has already taken place. Thus, while never mentioning politics—except for a jokey reference to Al Gore—Ferrara’s sped-up Warholian depiction of people screwing, hanging out, and saying their goodbyes on Skype is the most successful of these films in conveying something salient about The Way We Live Now.
Another recently released American film that modestly works from a more “mainstream” set of assumptions than the films discussed above, depicts its central hero, a wealthy lawyer living by all odds a successful life, facing an unexpected calamity that he is powerless to avert.
The Descendants is easily writer-director Alexander Payne’s strongest and most fully realized work, featuring a career-best performance utterly devoid of movie-star mannerisms and self-regard by George Clooney. What makes The Descendants so convincing and exhilarating is that Payne’s protagonist, while completely disoriented by an emotional loss and successive, unexpected blows to his self-esteem, discovers credible—and credibly limited—resources within himself. That probably sounds like two hours of audience-pandering, feel-good Hollywood uplift, but that’s exactly what Payne manages not to give us.
There’s an incredibly astute balance of comedy and pain achieved here, created through Payne’s rhythmically assured intuition that each step in awareness the hero takes will always be tinged with panic, desperation, and loss of control. The important “political” and ethical decision Clooney’s character makes late in the film involving the selling of the family property is a beautifully unexpected but logical result of his exposure to various moral hazards and uncertainties that he has faced up until that moment. For once we see a constructive honorable act performed on screen that feels totally earned and lived-in, and we leave the theater persuaded that redemption is not necessarily a matter of filmmaker’s artificial sucking up to an audience craving denial or wish fulfillment but might actually be something that happens in real life.
The Descendants may not be as ambitious and radical as some of the other films discussed here, but Payne’s beautifully worked-out sense that moral agency is possible, is a rare and precious commodity and perhaps, these days, an indispensable one.