March 23, 2009

The Year of Living Desperately

Wendy, after finally working up the nerve to open her most recent 401K statement...

Funny how the writing was on the wall throughout all of 2008, wasn't it? Movie after movie brought us stories of people living on the edge, scraping to get by against the rushing tide of hard luck. People going to the theater to escape from their troubles were met with cinematic realities that uncomfortably mirrored their own lives, but it wasn't until December that we finally accepted that we'd had been in a recession for the last 12 months. It was The Year of Living Desperately - but was art imitating life or was life imitating art?

You could argue it was neither, since many independent films are in the can for well over a year before they find distribution. But the fact is that these films all found their way to us within months of each other, progressively getting more gloomy as the economy sank lower and lower. The characters struggled through a multitude of problems: poverty, homelessness, family rejection or abandonment, unemployment, the death of relatives, poor health, and more. Ironically, none of them were trapped by drugs or alcohol - as if these recreational hazards are problems of the past, more representative of the relatively prosperous 90's and early 00's (Leaving Las Vegas, Love Liza, Requiem for a Dream). But in these lean times no one is living it up, and these characters from The Year of Living Desperately weren't suffering the consequences of their extravagant sins, then, so much as they were facing a tidal wave of social and economic troubles crashing down all around them.

Take Wendy and Lucy, the new film by Kelly Reichardt (whose Old Joy went sadly unnoticed in 2006) that tops off a healthy scoop of rugged survival with a dollop of tragic sacrifice and -

I wrote all of that on February 8, the original date of the draft of this post. Though I've been meaning to finish it for the last six weeks, it's been stuck in in the busy muck of life with everything else. Wasn't it a surprise, then, when I opened up my Sunday New York Times yesterday and found that A.O. Scott essentially finished this essay for me. Did he steal the idea from me? Of course not. As I mentioned in my review of Medicine of Melancholy last week, the new neorealism trend (I blandly and meaninglessly called it the American Independent New Wave) has been fairly prevalent for about the last 18 months. It's hard to pinpoint when it really started, though Scott hints at Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart.

So since I'm still not flush with time to finish the post, and since A.O. Scott is both a professional film critic and somebody who has seen thousands more movies than I have, I'm going to give up the rest of it to him. The blogger handing over to the professional; my ideas, his words.

Scott, on Wendy and Lucy: "It's a modest, quiet, 80-minute study in loneliness and desperation...not so much a premonition of hard times ahead as a confirmation that they had arrived." Later, "a handful of small movies from relatively young directors are setting out to expand, modestly but with notable seriousness, the scope of American filmmaking."

Scott, on Sugar and Goodbye Solo (both of which will screen in Minneapolis in the next two weeks): "The lives they illuminate, of fictional characters most often played by nonactors from similar backgrounds, are not commonly depicted on screen...but these people and their situations are nonetheless recognizable, familiar on a basic human level even if their particular predicaments are not."

Me: How many times have I written that sentence over the last year?!

Scott: "And if the kind of movie they inhabit is not entirely new — the common ancestor that established their species identity is a well-known Italian bicycle thief — their unassuming arrival on a few screens nonetheless seems vital, urgent and timely."

Me: I'm sure "Italian neorealism" is part of any film studies class, but seeing as how this blog is the only film class I've ever taken, let's just say I have a lot of homework to catch up on. No, I unfortunately have not seen The Bicycle Thief and most of the other films Scott cites here.

Scott: "What kind of movies do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape."

Me: Paul Blart: Mall Cop, anyone? That's $140 million of escapism and counting.

Scott: "Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism."

Me: "An escape from escapism" - great line. Could be a great title for a blog...

Scott, in conclusion: "Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up."

Me: There are a lot of fascinating ideas to consider here, and I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts on how they related to the characters in these movies...

Do you go to the movies to escape from the problems around us right now, hoping they'll be gone by the time the movie is over and you walk back out into the world?

Or do you go to instead "plug in" to the reality of movies, and if so, do you actually find any comfort in the struggles and successes of these characters?

I'm much more inclined to seek out the reality in these films (which should come as no surprise considering the tagline of my blog), even if my own situation doesn't necessarily mirror those of the characters. But I still believe I learned a lot from the movies in The Year of Living Desperately (pictured in this post: Wendy and Lucy, Chop Shop, Ballast, The Pool, The Wrestler, Frozen River, and Slumdog Millionaire). Maybe they made me more compassionate to people in these situations, and maybe they made me realize how quickly things can deteriorate and to what lengths people have to go to survive. Whatever the case with each particular movie, I'd say it was money and time well spent. But that's just me.

What about you?

[Read A.O. Scott's full essay, "Neo-Neo Realism - American Directors Make Clear-Eyed Movies for Hard Times" in the NYT Sunday Magazine from 3/22/09, available in its entirety here.]


  1. Don't miss the NYC film critic ego clash with Richard Brody on the article here. And A.O. Scott's response here. It is interesting at the very least.

  2. Thanks for that, Kathie! Nothing like a bare-knuckle brawl between people with too much to say.

    I read half of what Brody was saying with a blank stare, which means I was either writing him off from the beginning or I really know that little about film history. I'm sure it's the latter.

    And Scott's response is defensive, to be sure, but he delivers a knockout punch with this ending:

    "a certain glibness [on the part of Brody] - in the assumption, for example, that while war is everybody’s problem, unemployment, exploitation and poverty somehow are not. The problem of how and in what circumstances someone else’s problems become one’s own is, as it happens, central to “Wendy and Lucy,” “Ballast,” “Goodbye Solo” and a good many other neorealist films, past and present.

    What do we mean to one another? What are the limits of compassion and solidarity in a world defined by individualism and organized around acquisition and consumption? I’m interested in movies that raise these questions with clarity, nuance and feeling, even if the questions themselves ultimately belong not to cinema but to the murkier realms of ethics, politics and religion."

    Bam. I couldn't have said it better myself.

  3. Yes, indeed. I think Scott is right about the bee in Brody's bonnet - it's obviously been there before the article was even pitched. Interesting reading, nonetheless. Yours included!

  4. I think it is great that so many people are talking about these films and ideas. I agree with you and with A.O. Scott that this is the cinematic movement of our generation. I know my classmates are all thinking about these films. I have seen a lot of these films. There were some people before Bahrani's Man Push Cart (he mentions David Green's George Washington and McKay's Our Song) in recent years, but I think Scott put Bahrnai at the center because his films are not only excellent but also because he has made the most of any of the others. All of these films help me understand reality more. I don't go to escape. Do you?

  5. Thanks, Kathy. I originally meant to write more about the economic relevancy of last year's movies, but Scott kind of touched on it with the neorealism thing so I just let it transition to that discussion.

    Thanks, marc, for visiting and commenting. Sounds like you share many similar thoughts as I do about movies, so I hope you check out some other posts and offer your thoughts on those (especially since your education on the subject automatically gives you an advantageous perspective).

    I don't go to escape, but quite the opposite. So much so, actually, that I started this blog to keep the conversation going and find out if writing my thoughts down about films and discussing them with others would help me understand the movies and relate them to my daily life. Something like Man Push Cart, for example - I've never looked at those cart vendors the same way since, and that it's technically a fictional story doesn't really matter. There's enough truth in it to help me understand someone who's really living that life, and there's no way (or rather, there are significantly fewer ways) I would otherwise be able to gain that perspective.

    It might not seem like understanding the life of a push cart vendor is important, but apply the same process to every film (from the life of a mall cop to the life of slum children in India to the life of cantankerous Korean war vet) and all of a sudden you have completely different worldview.


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