22 June 2009

Redemption Songs

Four Movies Screening

In the past two weeks I’ve screened four films, three via Netflix DVD and one at an actual movie theater. To my thinking, these films bear close resemblance, and I have spent some effort and time thinking about what these films for me have in common, and how they suggest something about the zeitgeist, the present sense of things in the contemporary United States. Recognizing of course, that my response says more about own present state of mind than about this zeitgeist or the current state of things to which I refer.

Wendy and Lucy (Kelly Reichart, director) depicts the wanderings of a young woman, Wendy, (I suspect she is supposed to be in her early 20’s) and her dog, Lucy, a Golden Labrador retriever. Lucy is traveling towards Alaska, but apparently is running away from what appears to be (at least for her) some family conflict, and a complexity of existence that has overwhelmed her. She exhibits the greatest happiness when she is walking about with Lucy, tossing a stick for her to retrieve, and then grappling playfully with the dog for the stick.

Traveling from Indiana to Alaska to escape from unspecified life’s complexities, Lucy sleeps mostly in her car, apparently living on a slim budget and not having prepared to live by camping. She is not without money—she possesses a little over $500.00—but she is loathe to spend it. When her car breaks down in a small town in Oregon, where life is portrayed as solitary and alienated, she must leave the car at a mechanic for some repair, and rather than purchase some meager supplies, she shoplifts food from a local grocery store and is caught, arrested and jailed. Her night in jail costs her a greater amount than the food would have had she chosen to merely pay for it.

And while Wendy spends the night in jail, Lucy, whom she has tied up outside the store while Wendy forages for food in the store disappears, and Wendy wanders over town looking for her dog, befriended only by an older man who serves as a security guard outside a local chair drug store (like Walgreens) for seemingly endless, solitary hours six days a week. He stands alone, action-less and seemingly useless, all day. Other than Wendy and the man’s girlfriend, no other person is ever seen at the store. Indeed, other than this man and the woman at the dog pound, Lucy talks to no one. She wanders. She is lost.

Finally, she learns that her car not be repaired, and though she discovers Lucy has been taken in to a foster home and she can retrieve her, Wendy elects to leave Lucy in the lovely green yard. The last scene shows Wendy hopping a freight train heading North.

No redemption here, no hope.

The Wrestler (Darren Arnofsky, director) concerns Randy “The Ram,” an aging wrestler who can’t quite give up the ring, who lives in a run-down trailer he can’t really afford (when the film opens Randy is locked out of the trailer by the landlord), and supports himself with a part time job at a local grocery store. “The Ram” may have been a hero in the wrestling world, but that world is now populated by much younger and stronger contestants, filled with violence, replete with unimaginable sado-masochistic behaviors; during one match Randy is shot repeatedly with a loaded staple gun! Randy might love the ring, but it is no place for a man who requires reading glasses and a hearing aid; actually, wrestling is killing him, and following a heart attack after a particularly vicious match, he enters retirement, assuming a full time job at a deli counter in the local grocery store. (Interesting to consider now that Wendy, in Wendy and Lucy, is finally trapped by a grocery store as well).

Randy has a relationship with a stripper who performs lap dances for him for a cool $60.00, but with whom he tries to establish a more permanent relationship. And Randy also has a daughter whom he has apparently abandoned, and with whom (inspired by the encouragement of the stripper) he tries to reestablish some relationship. Indeed, upon his retirement, all seems headed for some happier ending.

But finally, Randy can’t really change, and the redemption towards which he would head fails miserably. For a match celebrating the 20th anniversary of a title fight, Randy reenters the ring which was killing him, and alone an defeated in life, he returns to the only element of his life in which experienced success. But the film’s end implies that Randy does not survive the film, and though the black-out at the end does not show us his death—the final image shows Randy standing atop the ropes about to drop winningly on his rehearsed opponent.

No redemption here, no hope.

Away We Go (Sam Mendes, in the theaters now) portrays the wanderings of the pregnant Verona and Burt as they travel the country searching for some clue where to raise, and how to be a family. Both in their mid-thirties, he would marry, but she inexplicably refuses, arguing at least that she does not need the legal sanction of marriage to remain committed. Her parents had inexplicably both died when she was in her early twenties, and this event seems to have affected her in ways only suggested at by her fear of family attachment. Burt’s parents are so selfish that they are clearly unavailable for any support or example. Along the way they go, Burt and Verona visit friends and family in search of a comfortable locus for famial life, but each of place and family models only a different form of dysfunctionality. They begin to despair. Finally, Burt and Verona return to her family home in Virginia—a broken down structure but set beautifully and secludedly by a peaceful lake. Here they recognize somehow a home at last.

Redemption and hope conclude the film.

Finally, in Last Chance Harvey (Joel Hopkins, director), Dustin Hoffman portrays a man in his later fifties or early sixties. He writes jingles for a living, but this gig seems at an unwelcome end; he will say somewhere in the film that he always wanted to be a jazz pianist, but admits that he was never that good. This judgment encapsulates his life: he has failed as a husband, a father, as well as a musician. Now, he has been invited to his daughter’s wedding, but discovers how alienated he has become from this daughter and the whole family experience. His sense of loneliness, isolation and finally despair oppresses him. He apologetically announces to his daughter that he will miss her wedding reception because he must return to the United States, but he does not admit that his return is an attempt to salvage his job. And at this point in the film, his daughter heart-breakingly tells Harvey that, in fact, she has asked her step father to give her away during the ceremony.

But Harvey misses his flight home, and he ends up stuck in London. Retreating to a bar where he bemoans his life while quickly downing three neat scotches, he runs across another person who experiences a great sense of failure and loneliness—Kate, herself sitting alone at lunch, defeated and solitarily reading the book she carries throughout the film and which I think she wishes she had herself written. Over the course of the film, the Harvey and Kate establish a tender and expectant relationship, insisted upon mostly by Harvey and resisted mostly by Kate. Finally, at the film’s end, the two walk off (Hoffman much shorter than Emma who takes off her high heels (I thought) to make Harvey feel taller!.

Redemption and hope conclude the film.

And so I am wondering what there is about our times that produces these remarkably thematically similar films, all issued in such short order, addressing the availability of redemption. All four films are somewhat popular and have been well-reviewed, and so they have been seen by a considerable audience. Are we concerned again and still about redemption? The economic crisis couldn't account for the appearance of these films.

13 June 2009

Dance recital

Gee, I know it is a serious cliché, (and what exactly is the cliche I wonder now? ) but I spent the afternoon at a dance recital for school-age children. My child was one of the performers. The performance began at 1:30p (a half-hour late) and we left at 4:30p with still some dances yet to be performed—at least 1/3 of the show, with the permission and in the accompaniment of our daughter. It was the first Spring-like day here in weeks.

The cliché concerns mostly the younger dancers, those say, from four to seven years old. Oh, they appear on stage in their costumes and incredible smiles—forced embarrased—and I cannot help but smile. And they flutter about the stage (one choreographed arrangement was entitled “Butterfly) flapping their arms and turning about awkwardly and stumblingly in only half-remembered steps. Its almost painful, but I think the pain is all in the adult who knows that most of the movement is hardly part of the routine. The music ends and each child bows proudly. And the adults applaud in pride and in boredom. Everyone looks at the program: 22 more to go!

The older children (ah, my daughter) look heading toward grace. As far as I now understand it, dance is all about movement of the body—movement of the body with and in grace—and even as this performance, there were moments of real beauty as the body moved gracefully and in grace. And this form of grace in my daughter is not familiar to me, and I felt wonderment and pride at her movements. It’s like when she plays for the violin recitals: I recognize the flat notes, but I don’t hear them.

I think those of us in the audience are uplifted more by the effort than by the product. About the product, we mostly couldn’t care; I don’t think I expect to be transformed by the art, but it is possible that our children’s effort changes us.

Maybe schools should follow this model.

12 June 2009

Missa Solemnis

I attended a performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis last evening at Orchestra Hall. This was the season finale of the 106th year of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the final concert for Jorja Fleezanis, the concert mistress of the orchestra for the past 20 years. It was a big night, I think.

I’ve never heard a mass before, though I’ve seen snippets in various movies in Catholic settings. Not being Catholic—not even Christian—I really lacked the fundamental notions of what the Mass was all about, in fact. I know a Mass is celebrated, and from the translation I read in the program, the Mass celebrates the basic tenets and mystery of the Christian faith. The Mass, according to Wikipedia (my first stop usually) , was established by the Council of Trent (16th Century Ecumenical Council) as “the same Sacrifice of Calvary offered in an unbloody manner.” There are other aspects of the Mass which are important to Catholic practice and belief, and I suspect Beethoven knew about them. But for my sense right now, I want to talk about my response.

Michael Steinberg’s program notes are lovely, but they don’t help me at all. For example, he says, “The second movement (Gloria) begins with a might uprush symbolic of the celebrant’s raising his arms in joy.” What? He says, The first chord of the Credo is mighty indeed, although it seems muted in color and harmony after the Gloria’s final D-Major conflagration." What? I suspect that I could learn over time to what Steinberg refers, but frankly, as I said, this was my first Mass. And I am hardly a musical scholar, though I know what I like, as they like to say.

And so, unlike at a Beethoven symphony, I sat clueless. But, when it was all over, I felt spiritually uplifted. Now, of course, a month agao when I attended a performance of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony I was spiritually uplifted as well, but last evening, I also felt holy. Which is perhaps the purpose of the celebration of a Mass, but I do not think it was the liturgy alone that inspired me; rather, it was the music, and ethereal voices of the Minnesota Chorale singing the liturgy to Beethoven’s music. At the end, I thought applause inappropriate.

A wonderful end to my season with the Orchestra, to my year with Beethoven, and to Fleezanis’ tenure with the Minnesota orchestra.

04 June 2009

Not a Burden At All

Dylan says somewhere “Its life, and life only.” There is a defiance and a resignation in these words. On the one hand, despite the obstacles and obstructions, despite the idiots and their deceiving, self-serving games, “its alright, ma, I can make it . . . But its life and life only.” I mean, its only life and I will make it. But on the other hand, there is the sense that the difficulties we face are life, and we can’t expect any relief ever.

There is an ideology in these lines that I would now like to refute. Life might be tough—it seems always to be in Dylan (“Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear!”)—and perhaps the ‘sometimes’ is my clue. Because sometimes isn’t always, and the other times, though life is not not burden free, they are bearable. I’m thinking now that without burdens we would float away. Our burdens ground us. Maybe that is partly the story of The Brothers Karamazov, though I am only one quarter into the book. The brothers and father are immersed in the world to differing degrees, and their movement through world often is response to the people’s games they have to dodge. And sometimes, these games are too serious and hardly playful. Alyosha seems to be learning his engagement in the world—in contradistinction to the elder, Zosima or Ferapont. The former, Alyosha’s teacher, counsels him to enter the world, to marry and raise a family, and the latter wholly withdraws from the world and lives as an ascetic.

Could we be grounded by joys? Without burdens, how would we know the joys?

Life is not necessarily an obstacle to my actions; life doesn’t get in my way. Life is my way and my movement can be defined by the burdens I bear. I’m lucky that I can choose my burdens and that I can bear them. And perhaps what I desire to end one set and pick up another.