Rich, poor, deadly, or pure: Who deserves to be the subject of a movie?
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On consecutive days at the Toronto International Film Festival, I saw two movies about unemployed women in their mid-20s: Eat Sleep Die, a Swedish film starring Nermina Lukač as an undereducated factory worker who gets laid off and can’t find another job because of family troubles, and Frances Ha, starring Greta Gerwig as a homeless New York dancer who couch-surfs while waiting to see if she’s going to get a full-time position in her company. Both are excellent films—two of the best at an unusually strong TIFF—with Frances Ha holding a slight edge for being very funny, and Eat Sleep Die stealing some of that edge back for having the most exhilarating final scene of any film I’ve seen this year. Yet now, away from the bustle of the festival, I’m starting to feel a little sheepish about even recommending Frances Ha, while simultaneously feeling that Eat Sleep Die is the more “important” film.
Partly that’s because Frances Ha is covering such well-trod ground, in this age of Girls and mumblecore. (Someday when cultural historians look back at this era, they’ll wonder why we so obsessively documented the lives of college-educated city-dwelling Americans between the ages of 22 and 28.) Granted, it’s not like there’s never been a gritty, vérité-style European movie about poor people before. But Frances Ha is about a woman who has some control over her situation—inasmuch as she could get a decent job and a place to stay if she compromised her dreams a little—while Eat Sleep Die is about a woman who’s penned in by circumstance. And even though the kind of people who’d see both Frances Ha and Eat Sleep Die would be more likely to identify with the former than the latter, they’ve also been conditioned to think of stories about the well-off—even the slumming well-off—as fundamentally frivolous.
This bias kept popping into my head throughout this year’s TIFF, even during some of the fest’s mediocrities. At Any Price and Arthur Newman, for example, are both bland indie melodramas, but because Arthur Newman is about a FedEx middle-manager (played by Colin Firth) who buys a new identity and fakes his own death, while At Any Price is about a farmer (played by Dennis Quaid) who worries that he’s going to lose his family legacy, At Any Price seems more “relevant.” Which is strange, because the protagonist of At Any Price is fairly sleazy; he cheats on his wife, makes under-the-table deals, and is driven more by a hunger for success than by a need to survive. Still, the farm story feels earthy and vital—pulled from the modern reality of the American Midwest—while Arthur Newman’s story feels like another drippy saga of one uptight man’s vague sense of dissatisfaction.
Is it fair to dismiss Arthur Newman on those grounds? Because, again, a “vague sense of dissatisfaction” probably describes the lives of most moviegoers more than “pushed to bend the law to save the family farm.” So why do so many cinephiles resist the Arthur Newman kind of stories, and champion films about poverty and desperation?
Here’s another example from Toronto: The Impossible, J.A. Bayona’s film about a family who was separated from one another other in Thailand during the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It’s a harrowing film, hampered a little by its corniness, so the complaints I read after the first press screening about the creaky script didn’t surprise me. What I found strange were the gripes about The Impossible’s main characters, which were along the lines of, “Why make a movie about a disaster in Thailand and focus on the troubles of five white people?” To which I would answer: because the movie’s based on a true story, and is about what happened to these particular people, not about the disaster per se. A better question might be, “Why make the family British, not Spanish, as they were in real life?” But the answer to that is fairly obvious too: Bayona probably couldn’t get The Impossible made on a big enough scale with Spanish stars, and given that the story is really about the family’s search for one another, it doesn’t really matter what their nationality is. Nevertheless, it’s easier in some ways to defend director Barry Levinson’s inventive found-footage horror film The Bay—a less-accomplished tale of natural disaster that also screened at TIFF—because in its emphasis on ordinary Americans getting screwed by corporate largesse and government laziness, it at least it seems to be about the “right” people.
The question of who deserves to be the subject of a movie gets muddled further when the story’s about stone bastards. One of the most controversial documentaries in Toronto this year was The Act Of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s film about the now-aged men who led death squads in Indonesia in the ’60s, and who suffered little to no lingering public backlash because of it. Oppenheimer gets these killers to re-enact their crimes on film, with their fellow citizens as “extras,” intending for them to confront through art what they’ve never really dealt with in their real lives. It’s a powerful film, but some critics and audience members at TIFF were bothered that the filmmaker appeared to be so casually chummy with his subjects, which may have humanized them more than Oppenheimer intended. (I find these guys’ humanity all the more horrifying, though I see the naysayers’ point.) No wonder then that so many of the more successful movies about murderers at TIFF took the post-modern and/or ironic route: such as Martin McDonagh’s riotous Seven Psychopaths, about a screenwriter writing about crazed killers; and Brian De Palma’s Passion, a corporate-intrigue thriller that goes wildly over-the-top in its second half.
Those kind of storytelling and stylistic flourishes go a long way toward overcoming resistance to the subject matter, in the same way that Gerwig’s and Noah Baumbach’s script for Frances Ha is funny enough to make up for the self-defeating self-centeredness of its heroine. Even the literary adaptations at this year’s Toronto festival came with a spin: Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina is overtly theatrical, with much of the action playing out on a literal stage, as scenery flies in and out as needed; and Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing gathers many of the TV auteur’s repertory company for a casual, modern-dress romp through Shakespeare that emphasizes The Bard’s affection for pretense. And then there were the more experimental bio-docs, like the 3-D animated A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story Of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman, which tells the late comedian’s story through audio clips and cartoony sketches; and Stories We Tell, in which actress/filmmaker Sarah Polley’s tangled family history is revealed via sometimes-contradictory interviews. The implication of these films’ approaches—the adaptations and the documentaries alike—is that “straight” won’t suit these subjects, perhaps because people won’t sit still for a non-kinky take on aristocracy or celebrity. (And perhaps they’re right; certainly the conventional docudrama Underground, about the early years of WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, suffers from its cautious approach to a volatile subject.)
That’s what makes the issue of a subject’s suitability for cinema so complicated: It doesn’t just have to do with whether we should be more interested in movies about rich people or poor people, but also whether those people are properly represented. I know one critic friend of mine who didn’t care for Eat Sleep Die because Lukač’s character is too plucky and upbeat, which is one of the main reasons I liked the movie: The heroine isn’t the uncommunicative mope that typically populates these kinds of films. But that’s not an uncommon point-of-view, to scrutinize a movie to make sure that the poor are suffering enough (and nobly enough), and that the villainous types are properly villainized. It goes back to what I wrote a few months back about critics looking for a righteous reason to dislike a film; for some, the people that a movie is about and/or how it’s about those people can be an automatic knock against it. And that mentality can become pervasive, until any defender of that movie has to begin the discussion with a list of excuses and stipulations. (“Yes, it’s about a rich white male hitman, but hear me out…”)
One solution: obliqueness, which was just as much of a recurring theme at this year’s Toronto film festival as post-modern tomfoolery and wild theatricality. It was evident in big-budget awards-bait like Cloud Atlas, which tells more than a half-dozen stories from different timelines simultaneously, cutting quickly between them in what amounts to a two-and-a-half hour montage; and it was evident in small-budget exercises like Berberian Sound Studio, which starts as the story of a stressed-out sound-effects engineer on a ’70s horror movie and then takes a turn for the surreal. And two of the most talked-about (and disagreed-about) movies at TIFF were Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder, which eschew conventional narrative techniques to varying degrees while trying to get at something deeper about the human experience. At the moment, no one’s really taking any of these four films to task for who their main characters are, because there’s just too much else going on.
That may be why one of the most universally praised films at this year’s fest—including by me—was Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s avant-garde documentary Leviathan, which tracks life on a commercial fishing boat without the aid of voiceovers, interviews, or on-screen titles. Instead it’s an immersive experience, designed to plunge the viewer into darkness, chaos, and a rush of color and movement, via cameras that have been strapped all over the ship and on some of the crew, all depicting an average workday as a noisy, roiling thing. Leviathan doesn’t push the viewer to have any particular attitude toward the environmental impact of fishing—it’s just a thrillingly unnerving “you are there.”
And that Leviathan’s sole humans are rugged working-class folks, just trying to make it through another shift? Well, put it this way: In some critical quarters, that sure doesn’t hurt.