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.


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