I’M FLOATING IN A MOST PECULIAR WAY.
by Andrew Root
When I was six years old, my grade one teacher sat the class down in a circle and told us about outer space. It was March of 1989, and the Discovery space shuttle had just been launched, three years after the disaster of the Challenger. We had a lot of questions.
“Why are they going to outer space?”
“How fast does the rocket go?”
“What do the astronauts eat?”
Caught up in the enthusiasm of this brave new frontier, I threw my hand up in the air and asked “What’s it like in space?” The circle fell silent, and we all leaned forward, waiting to hear what my teacher would reveal.
“Well,” she said, looking around the circle, “in outer space, it’s very cold.” She looked to a new face. “In outer space, there’s no water or plants.” She looked to me. “In outer space, there’s no air.”
“No air?” I asked. How could there be no air? Air was everywhere, duh.
“That’s right,” she continued, “and because there’s no air in space, the astronauts have to wear special suits with the air caught inside of them.”
“What happens if they take the suits off?”
“Oh,” said my teacher, furrowing her brow, and leaning forward to underline the seriousness of what she was about to say. “They can’t do that. If they take off their suits, all of the air gets sucked out. If you were in outer space and your glove fell off… you would die.”
The only other thing I remember from that day is standing outside at recess, short of breath, desperately trying not to look at my gloves. It was winter. My gloves fell off all the time. Was life really that fragile? I didn’t understand a thing about death. My family’s beagle had died two years previous, and all that meant to me was that she wasn’t there any more. Death was not being—the bright, cold winter sunlight, gone. The clouds of warm breath coming through my scarf, gone. The sounds of my classmates playing tag, the loud school bell, lining up to go back inside—gone, all gone, and there was nothing I could do about it because my glove fell off and I was gone too.
My hands are shaking right now. My neck is tight and I keep forgetting to breathe. Between the last two paragraphs I had to walk away from the computer for an hour because I couldn’t calm down. I think it was an anxiety attack.
When I bought my ticket for Gravity, I felt a low-level prickling of the skin on my back. In the first ten minutes, as George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floated around the screen—and partially into the audience, thanks to the 3D effects—I was calm but wary. The enormity of the planet loomed quietly above them as Clooney’s Matt Kowalski flitted this way and that on a pneumatic jet pack, and Bullock’s Ryan Stone worked carefully on a piece of machinery, her voice thick with tension, her clear discomfort a dark mirror of Kowalski’s serene nature. I identified closely with Ryan—a relationship I would regret as the film progressed. Rogue satellite debris tears across their orbit, destroying the space station and cutting Ryan’s tether, setting her hopelessly adrift into the blackness of the yawning void. Spinning dizzily, her frantic breath quickly depleting her oxygen, she carries us with her as the Earth whips in and out of frame. Then, in a moment that realizes a deep and terrible fear, the camera detaches and we watch her momentum carry her into the blackness.
I’ve experienced blind panic—the kind that seizes your entire system—only once before. I was exploring a national park near my town called Warsaw Caves. As the name would suggest, there are a series of subterranean structures that hikers are free to explore, extending as deep at 40 feet below the surface. I was following my brother down a crevasse when we came to a tiny opening that we had to crawl under. My brother, the slimmer half of the spelunking duo, slipped through with relative ease, and so I followed… and got stuck. It quickly became dark in the cave, the only source of light shrinking away as though being pulled through a huge tunnel. The rock ceiling dug into my back and my chest was pressed to the ground. I couldn’t breathe deeply, and my arm was caught beneath me. Couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back. Trapped. My breathing turned into ragged hacks that couldn’t carry oxygen into my lungs, and sweat burst out of every pore of my flailing body. It took intense mental effort to form the word “help.” I couldn’t see anyone.
No one was there to help me.
Panic is different from fear. Panic speaks to a sudden loss of control (ironically exacerbated by wild attempts to regain that control), while fear stews itself in dread and is often accompanied by an unacknowledged reverence. The panic I felt as a child was triggered by an entrance into something unknown. When my grade one teacher told me how easy it was for life to slip from my fingers, she revealed the universe’s vast indifference toward me—toward human life in general. When I was trapped in cave at ten years old, I panicked because I was being hurtled into that great indifference and there was nothing I could do about it. Panic is the agent, fear is the consequence.
Gravity provoked in me the strongest sensation of panic that I’ve felt in twenty years.
Ryan Stone fears death in all its forms. Her daughter died by complete happenstance, tripping and hitting her head during a game of tag. “Stupidest thing,” she intones, being towed behind Kowalski, helpless even when rescued. She has fled literally as far as she can to avoid fully confronting her fears, living a shell of a life in which she wakes up, goes to work, drives her car until she can’t stay awake any longer, and goes to sleep. While she fears death, she might fear life even more. The chaos of the universe took her daughter away so dispassionately that she has a victim’s mentality: keep your head down. Don’t let them see you sweat. You’ll be okay if you can only avoid eye contact. Throw yourself into work, a project, something, just don’t ever, ever, ever, let them know that you’re weak. That you’re hurting. That you suffer.
Life in this idiom is not life at all; it’s surviving—and life has to be about more than just survival. Director Alfonso Cuarón (who also wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas) has crafted a story that charts the process of recovery, from denial to confrontation to acceptance. The chilling use of 3D to create an infinite depth of space—and to allow debris to cut right in front of your face—accentuates our protagonist’s sudden confrontation with the deep, dark fears that haunt her; just as she can’t fathom the tranquility that her co-astronaut displays with his penchant for twangy country music and flirty conversation, she also can’t fathom herself ever being comfortable with her seemingly infinite emotional shit. The only solution is just to keep moving away from it all. But as she travels from set piece to set piece, Ryan undergoes a process of rebirth; from a peaceful—though temporary—incubation aboard the International Space Station, to a painful process of pushing through the atmosphere, to the first shaky steps on uncertain legs into a strange new world, Ryan comes to terms with living. She’ll either make it through and have one hell of a story to tell, or she won’t—and that’s ok. The important thing is to seize control when you’re able to and live life unafraid.
I forced myself to go and see Gravity twice in the theatre. Each time, the scenes of the debris attacking the space shuttle and Ryan’s subsequent careening through space made me grip the armrest so tightly that I nearly ripped it off. As soon as I’d heard about the film, I knew I was going to attend—I knew it would provoke a deep-seated anxiety, but I went to see it anyway. I don’t hold myself in esteem because I went to see a movie, but I do feel some small sense of pride that I confronted something that I’m deeply afraid of, in however removed a capacity. Admittedly, I feel a chill when I watch Chris Hadfield covering David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” in zero gravity, but I still make myself watch it. I’m slowly chipping away at age-old fears, and every time I do, I open myself up to wonders I can’t even imagine. It’s okay to be helpless sometimes. Planet Earth is blue, and there’s nothing I can do. But it’s a beautiful shade of blue, isn’t it?
(This essay initially appeared in the December issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine. To read the rest of Issue #7, and receive access to all previous issues and content, subscribe to Bright Wall/Dark Room magazine today for just $1.99 per month.)
You Are How You Eat: A Collected Analysis of Bill Murray’s Eating Habits On Screen
by Andrew Root
“You know what I like about restaurants?” asks mob boss Frank Costello in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. “You can learn a lot, watching things eat,” he seethes, licking a freshly smashed fly off his hand. I never knew what to make of that line. It seemed like a needlessly intense button on an already terminally intense scene; another excuse for the virtuosic Jack Nicholson to really show us what he could do, but I’ve recently come to agree with him – in one particular instance: Bill Murray. You can, in fact, learn a lot, watching Bill Murray eat.
Watching Bill Murray eat on film is a strangely heightened experience; every motion seems over-the-top and not quite real. Admittedly, it’s difficult to do something commonplace when you know you’re being watched intently—not only by the cast and crew, but by the future viewers—and maybe he was cracking under the pressure. At one point, my working theory was that he simply didn’t know how to eat properly. Such a theory was too absurd to hold up under scrutiny, and further research indicates that Bill Murray knows exactly what he’s doing when he eats (on film), and in fact, matches his culinary performance to reveal subtle details about character and scene and to supplement the film as a whole. Sound crazy? Let’s take a look.
Broken Flowers (2006) – Carrots
Murray’s Don Johnston is on a reluctant quest to find the mother of his son, a son he didn’t know he had until an anonymous letter from a former lover dropped through his mail slot. Sent on his way by his overly-enthusiastic neighbour, Don sets out to track down the five women he dated around the time of the alleged son’s conception. The second woman on his list is Dora (Frances Conroy), a quiet, precise woman who believes in the future of the bottled water industry. Over an unbearably perfect meal consisting of a square of grilled fish, a collection of perfectly sliced carrots, and a circle of rice topped with a cherry tomato slice and a sprig of parsley, Don, Dora, and Dora’s husband Ron (Christopher McDonald) share an intensely awkward conversation fraught with barely concealed subtext and more than a few unanswered questions. Murray fastidiously spears five carrot slices, leans down and puts the entire forkful into his mouth, sets down the fork, and nods in the barest hint of approval. In these methodically awkward movements, Murray sums up the entirety of the scene; Ron’s barely concealed resentment (he shows Don a photograph of a younger, freer Dora – a photograph that Don himself took - then remarks pleasantly that it’s funny how people’s lives change), Dora’s pleading looks (“I don’t know that I would have had the time and patience to be a good mother to Ron’s children”), and the heavy, heavy silences that punctuate every question and remark. Murray, his black suit a sharp contrast to the clean whites and soft pastels of Dora’s prefab home, eats the impossibly perfect carrots with resigned awkwardness and nods, tacitly acknowledging that is it funny how people’s lives change. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but funny.
What About Bob? – Corn on the Cob
No one has ever enjoyed a cob of corn as much as Bill Murray’s Bob Wiley. The scene around the dinner table is seen primarily through the eyes of Dr. Leo Marvin (Richard Dreyfus), who stews in frustration as Bob masticates the corn, murmuring fervently, asking if it’s been “hand-shucked.” The scene takes on strangely sexual overtones as Bob – in a display that would set Dr. Freud’s pen to scribbling – wraps his lips around the end of the cob, raises his eyebrows provocatively at Fay - Leo’s wife - and when offered more chicken, asks Leo innocently “do you want the breast?” This dichotomy of innocence and explicitness is what so infuriates Leo – the idea that despite all his flakiness, Bob knows exactly what he’s doing. Leo is a man who expects boundaries to be respected, and to find Bob at his vacation home, cozily seated at his table, taking the choicest bits of the meal, and warmly endearing himself to Leo’s family through what Leo would term grossly inappropriate displays is more than he can bear. Murray knows how to toe quietly across the lines of good taste, all the while with a “how did that happen?” look on his face. I first saw this movie when I was ten years old, and I always thought Dr. Leo was nasty, short-tempered and genuinely unlikeable. Yet – however unsympathetic the character – I have to feel for the guy who Bill Murray cuckolds by slyly complimenting the quality of his wife’s biscuits.
When the flimsy premise you’ve come up with to talk to the girl you like runs out, you have a few options: Some people tell bad jokes in an attempt to stay in the conversation. Some abandon their attempt at charm, lapse into an awkward silence, make excuses, and beat a hasty retreat. Bill Murray’s Herman Blume eats a carrot. While I am thoroughly acquainted with the first two strategies, I can’t say I’ve ever tried the third. Herman and Rosemary (Olivia Williams), brought together by their mutual friend, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), have begun stealing sidelong glances at one another. And while they may not be giving each other hand jobs in the swimming pool, their attraction to one another is taking on a palpable tension. Herman knocks on her door, then walks back down the steps, turning to face her at a safe distance – a distance which communicates all the reasons they shouldn’t be speaking; Blume is a married man. Max would be (and ultimately is) crushed by a relationship between his two closest friends. But Herman’s need for escape from his dreary loneliness and his pull towards Rosemary compel him to remain in her orbit. When the conversation lapses and she offers him a carrot from her small, ornately decorated plate, he takes it, returning to his safe distance to chew things over. Realizing that things have gone as far as they can without a clear signal, he starts to leave, pausing to clear a few bits of vegetable from his teeth. His eyes drift back and forth, looking here and there until Rosemary suggests that they go for a walk together. The look in Herman’s eyes in this moment convey a desperate longing, which, supported by his unusual handling of the carrot, reveal a man clutching at straws. Swallowing the crutch he’d been leaning on, Herman climbs the stairs and gives himself over to Rosemary.
Ed Wood – A Hot Dog
Bunny Breckinridge has a secret that he can’t wait to tell you. While attending a wrestling match with Johnny Depp’s Ed Wood and Sarah Jessica Parker’s Dolores Fuller, Bunny peers through opera glasses, coyly inviting guesses as to where he’s going (Mexico, pronounced “Meh-he-co”), and what he’s going to do once he gets there (have his first series of hormone injections, thus beginning a long-awaited sexual reassignment surgery – not lie on a beach, thankyouverymuch). Bunny punctuates his declaration by taking a chomp out of a perfectly phallic hot dog, but this punch line and subsequent chomp - hilarious, perfectly timed, and delivered with deadpan panache – is only the first part of the story. Murray continues the scene, chewing fastidiously, counting the proper number of macerations required before he could share the second part of his secret; that he and his love, Jean-Claude, will be married; Bunny will be a June bride. This attention to protocol and propriety is paramount to Bunny’s character; his crisp suits, dignified, stoic demeanor, his respect (if thinly veiled) for everyone. This may well be one of the most important and self-revelatory announcements of his life, but one simply does not make such an announcement with hot dog bun stuck in one’s teeth.
The Royal Tenenbaums – A Cookie (Almost)
Murray’s ability to find humour in Wes Anderson’s melancholy scripts is unparalleled. Lines as bleak as “I hope the roof gets blown off and I get sucked up into space. You’ll be better off without me” from Moonrise Kingdom, or “I hate fathers, and I never wanted to be one” from The Life Aquatic take on a sparkling quality in Murray’s hands, showing that he completely gets it: the joke is the absurdity at the heart of these characters – that someone would get to a point where they would actually say something like this. As Raleigh St. Clair, the cuckolded husband to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot Tenenbaum, Murray delivers his finest eating performance by not actually eating anything at all. Margot, prone to lengthy lock-ins in their shared bathroom, jumps at the opportunity to return to her family home. Leaving Raleigh very abruptly, she intones that she does still love him, if only kind of. Time passes, and husband seeks out wife for tea and a weighty talk. When Margot tells him that she might not ever be coming home, he shakes his head and reaches for a cookie. “Well,” he says, “I want to die.” He raises the cookie to his lips and – in a coup de gras for Murray – cannot find the strength to take a bite. This, to me, is the quintessential Anderson/Murray collaborative moment; Deep emotional turmoil lit by a keen, knowing sense of humour. Of course Raleigh reaches for the cookie. It’s a comfort, but it also runs counter to his exhausted, impotent salvo. He doesn’t want the cookie, he wants his wife. He wants her sweet and happy and light, but he can’t make her that way. And so he puts the cookie down. It could be the heaviest of moments, but the childlike absurdity of seeing Murray hold that cookie is far too funny to tip the scene into maudlin territory. It’s cute, and sad, and poignant, and perfectly Anderson-ian.
Andrew Root had dinner with Bill Murray once, but no one will believe him.
NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T ACT LIKE THIS!
by Andrew Root
I’ve never seen Grease. I’ve only made it through one Clint Eastwood western (Paint Your Wagon - yup). It was only last year that I learned where “I am Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” came from. I don’t generally flock to movies that, as a self-described film buff, I probably should have seen. The word “should” conjures up memories of a nasty seventh grade teacher who calls home unnecessarily—and all the guilt that goes along with unmet expectations.
When I went to rent Goodfellas so I could write this piece, I noticed that there was no description of the film’s plot on the back of the box. Words sometimes speak louder in omission—I was essentially being told that I should already know what this movie is about. More importantly, the plot-less cover expected me to quote the movie for days after watching it, to talk about the fast paced fluidity of the story, the brilliance of Joe Pesci’s virtuoso performance, and the ringing truthfulness of Martin Scorsese’s unbelievable look at 30 years in the life of the mob. Even the phrase “Joe Pesci’s virtuoso performance” is a clunky cliché which inelegantly tries to make the reader feel bad for having not already experienced it. There are only a few films that attain the kind of status where the question is not why you should watch them, but why you haven’t already. And with those films comes a very distinct set of fans, appreciations, expectations, and pressures.
There are generally three reactions when you tell someone that you’ve never seen a film in this category. The first and most extreme involves Clockwork Orange-like restraints and inquiries regarding your basic mental functions. The second calls into question the mass culture that has embraced this overrated piece of garbage and asserts itself as being part of the cultural elite. The third (and most rational) generally involves a shrug and a “Well, you don’t need to see it.” Well, guilt worked well for my seventh grade teacher (until she got fired, the horrible woman), so I’m going to take her lead and say that you NEED to see Goodfellas.
"YOU’RE GONNA LIKE THIS GUY. HE’S ALRIGHT. HE’S A GOOD FELLA."
The film is said to track the rise and fall of an American gangster (Ray Liotta’s Henry Hill), from his early days parking cars for wise guys to the drug-fueled paranoia that wracks his tenure, making him fear FBI helicopters and burnt pasta sauce with equal fervour. I feel that this description is inaccurate. We are certainly shown the humble beginnings, with Henry taking crap for wrapping a bleeding man’s hand in too many aprons, and getting his postman’s head shoved in an oven for delivering school notices about Henry’s excessive absences. We are treated to the glory days, resplendent as they are with fat stacks of cash, lush nightlife, weddings and mistresses. What we never really get is a clear picture of what causes the downfall of our protagonist. It’s true that when he begins to dabble in drugs, Henry’s life faces a new set of challenges, but the drugs are way less horrific in comparison to some of the shit that goes down in the first two acts. I think a much more representative description would be that this film showcases the typical life cycle of a gangster. Much like a nature documentary, Scorsese’s camera captures the magnificently plumed animal as he is born, flourishes, and then is brought to an ignominious end for little apparent reason. These men are out to live. Anything else is of no concern to them.
"YOU GAVE THEM TWENTY DOLLARS EACH."
This film has the unmistakable smack of youth to it. This entire first act could be titled “Doing Whatever the Fuck We Want To.” What exactly is it that Paulie’s various rackets do? There’s talk of “numbers” and “unions” and making “deliveries,” and apparently they steal a lot of stuff from the airport, but how does that give them the unlimited power we see on display? The mob is an amorphous organization that exists for a purpose, though I’ll be damned if I can figure out exactly what it is. When Scorsese first leads us through the Bamboo Lounge and we’re personally greeted by this cast of cartoon characters (The guy with glasses is called Nicky Eyes? There’s a guy who says everything twice? That guy is seriously called “Pete the Killer?”) we’re entering into a world in which people are at their jobs 24 hours a day. At any moment, events could either turn in their favour or go horribly wrong. The stakes are so high that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that Ray Liotta’s character is only 21 years old when he takes his date through the kitchen at the Copacobana (not only because Liotta was 36 at the time of filming). In the film’s world of extremes, time passes so quickly. All of a sudden there’s three kids and a dog, a new restaurant, and a new set of problems. Throughout these rapid changes, the characters remain (with a few variations) in their basic streams: Robert DeNiro’s Jimmy the Gent is a cool-headed organizer; Paul Sorvino’s Paulie Cicero is a stoic giant; and Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito is a volatile dwarf, Pesci being the prime example of the man-child caught in arrested development.
"HOW THE FUCK AM I FUNNY?"
The most telling line that Pesci delivers is not during the infamous fake-out that he heaps on an unsuspecting Henry, but much later in the narrative after he shoots a bartender in the foot for not bringing him a drink (and the bartender apologizes, no less). When he is told off by the other characters, he bats away the blame, muttering that they’re “trying to make [him] think about what [he’s] doing.” It’s a chilling moment of near self-reflection. Tommy knows enough to know that he doesn’t want to be thinking about they way he behaves, the way he treats other people. In the same way that it’s more emotional to see someone almost cry on screen, to see someone almost come to terms with their own behaviour is a scary thing. It’s enough to make you feel ill at ease for having watched the scene (doubly so after witnessing the eventual fate of that same bartender). This is a major coup for Scorsese; he’s made a film that implicates its viewers. Why is it that the “How am I funny?” scene gets so much attention, but shooting the bartender does not? Because in that first scene, it’s just a bunch of young guys fuckin’ around. In the second, they’re adults who should know better.
Similarly, after young Henry gets arrested, but manages to avoid anything resembling a conviction, Jimmy meets him in the courtroom and tells him he’s proud of him for not giving anyone up to the police. When he says “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut,” - god, I felt so included in that moment. It only got better as the doors opened and there was the whole gang waiting to congratulate him. The mob has such a connection, such a strong network of support, that even if you came from the most wonderful family ever you still want to be in Henry’s shoes at that moment. By the time Henry’s hiding guns in garbage cans and his wife and mistress are at each other’s throats, I was scrabbling to find some way to identify with his fractured set of priorities. I was hooked so deeply by the first act of the film that I was willing to conveniently forget that Henry cheated on his wife, abandoned his children for many years, and sold out his closest friends just to save his own neck.
"I GOTTA ADMIT THE TRUTH. IT TURNED ME ON."
Credit must also be given to Lorraine Bracco, who portrays Henry’s long-suffering wife, Karen. She too is implicated in Henry’s world, introduced to the same larger-than-life personalities, and in many ways her experience with the mob mirrors the viewer’s. She doesn’t completely understand what it is that her husband and his friends are doing, but she goes along with it… at first. Eventually she reacts simply because she has to react. She climbs atop a sleeping Henry with a loaded gun and demands some answers. The close-ups of the gun are so slick and eroticized that the scene pulses with desperate sexuality. When Henry eventually pulls her off of him, I should have been sympathetic towards her, but all I could think was “Man, those are some killer legs.”
Another understated gem of Scorsese’s is encapsulated in a single reaction shot when Henry is told that he will be going to jail. Much earlier in the film, Karen is frantic about a friend of theirs going to jail. Henry shrugs it off and tells Karen that goodfellas only go to jail when they want to, and it’s usually to escape a nagging wife. When Henry is sentenced and we see Karen’s face, we truly appreciate the weight of that throwaway comment. Scorsese doesn’t create throwaway moments. Lesson learned.
"AS FAR BACK AS I CAN REMEMBER, I WANTED TO BE A GANGSTER."
It’s kind of nutty to think that this film came out in 1990. In mid-September, this film will be 23 years old. It feels like it should be much older. It feels specifically like a film that has always been made. I just can’t imagine a world in which Goodfellas doesn’t exist, much in the same way that I can’t imagine a world in which Star Wars or Citizen Kane don’t exist. I had an English teacher in high school who said that if we didn’t read George Orwell’s 1984 and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we simply wouldn’t be able to understand modern society. He said that there’s no final overall exam for high school, but if there was, it would have been on 1984 and Hamlet. The same is true of this film. I’m not going to threaten to tie you to a chair. I’m not telling you that this is the one movie which transcends the hype created by mainstream culture. I’m not trying to persuade you of anything, because I’m simply stating a fact. If you want to understand modern Western society, you have to see Goodfellas.
Andrew Root is a BW/DR staff writer living in Peterborough, Ontario. To read more of his work, check out the site archives.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
by Andrew Root
“At least it’ll give us something to complain about.”
I have a coffee mug without a handle. Granted, it’s difficult to drink anything hot out of it without constantly shifting the cup from hand to hand, or sipping quickly then setting it back down. It’s a warm shade of brown with an intricate mosaic pattern on it, and the interior is a deep aqua. What a thing of beauty! What a pain in the ass to drink from! It never gets offered to guests, and more than a few have wondered aloud why I keep it around. Disappointment over the lost appendage was eventually overshadowed by my fondness for the object as a whole, and I just can’t bring myself to throw it away. The mug still performs its essential functions admirably, and while it’s not perfect, I now have something to say about the thing. A flaw can make a thing precious to some, defective to others — or both simultaneously. And if there’s one thing my generation enjoys, it’s complaining lovingly. We’re drenched in irony, and that means that we’re able to acknowledge that something both sucks and rocks at the exact same time.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World falls into the category of the great, flawed film, and it has excellent company. Scorsese’s Gangs of New York spends hours setting up a brutal landscape peopled by the indelible likes of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, only to have his grudge match with Amsterdam Vallen (Leonardo DiCaprio) fall into anticlimax. Love, Actually may be one of the best romantic comedies ever put to film, but it can’t be ignored that the entire Keira Knightley subplot centres around a man who (though he claims to be “without hope or agenda”) actively attempts to undermine his best friend’s marriage. Michael Haneke’s Cache is thrilling and richly orchestrated, but only if you have the patience of a saint. A fair share of Christopher Nolan’s films fall apart under close scrutiny. These—and many more like them—are the “above average” movies; classics in their own right that have unmistakable, though not unforgivable, blemishes.
This film, based on a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O’Malley, has more than its fair share of elements working in its favour. Director Edgar Wright was fresh off his one-two punch of the rom-zom-com Shaun of the Dead and the meta-cop-actioner Hot Fuzz; Arrested Development’s Michael Cera leads a cast that includes the most recent incarnation of Superman (Brandon Routh), the future Captain America (Chris Evans), Academy Award nominee Anna Kendrick, and Tarantino-tested heroine (not to mention possessor of the most dreamy doe eyes in Hollywood) Mary Elizabeth Winstead. The original score was composed by Radiohead super-producer Nigel Godrich, and the soundtrack features new songs from indie-rock royalty and contributions by everyone from The Rolling Stones to Frank Black of The Pixies. Scott Pilgrim boasts energetic and creative fight scenes. It blends comic books, video games, and rock n’ roll seamlessly. It’s a coming of age story, a musical, a romantic comedy, and it features Jason Schwartzman. This movie is fucking cool. So what’s the problem?
“Is the news that we suck, because I really don’t think I can take it.”
Scott Pilgrim (the character) is largely a slacker. His friends talk to him in exclusively acrimonious tones. He plays bass for the mediocre band, Sex Bob-Omb, and at 22 years of age, he’s dating a 17-year-old. His younger sister Stacey, on the other hand, has a job at a coffee shop, is decisive, offers sage advice, maintains close ties with a varied group of friends, and can offer such pithy introductions as “please forgive my brother, he is chronically enfeebled.” When Stacey refers to Scott as her “little brother,” it flips a trope on its ear, upending the well-trodden character definition that age equals wisdom; older siblings must watch out for their younger counterparts. The viewer with insight into the emotional maturity levels of these two characters can fully appreciate that Stacey is the older sister in every aspect save age. Or, y’know, they can smirk because it’s kind of a funny moment.
The quick pacing of this moment is not anomalous, nor is the opportunity for ambivalent audience response. The film takes the seemingly paradoxical stance of embracing up-to-the-minute trends and using them to tell an age-old story of a man fighting to keep the woman he loves. Scott Pilgrim might earn extra lives for vanquishing his enemies in a cloud of coins, but he is essentially caught in a series of duels for the hand of his dream girl, Ramona Flowers. Sadly, these juxtapositions work both for and against the film. It’s difficult to reconcile such an arcane story in an ultra-modern setting (a setting ironically made ultra-modern by the retro gaming and comic book motifs it employs), and with Wright’s high-energy persona in the director’s chair, the viewer can be carried along by the rushing current, the finer points of story and character becoming a blur. There’s little incentive to pause and reflect on the structure of the film, or the subtleties of character when the film bulls on relentlessly. It’s like taking a train past a managed forest: At first glance, it’s an indistinct blur of trunks and leaves; nothing remarkable. But if you keep watching, you can see the trees begin to form patterns and rows. The rider of this train might start to wonder about the intent behind planting that many trees in that distinct a pattern, or whether there was a pattern at all – perhaps it was all in their minds? But the train does not slow, and soon the forest is quickly behind. Maybe the rider will return to the forest at some point to study it more carefully. Maybe not. Who’s got the time to invest in such a fleeting moment? Is it worth it?
“I’m in lesbians with you.”
I once endured a 40 minute lecture on the first two lines of Shakespeare’s Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York”). The professor waxed poetic on the dual meanings of the “son of York,” and displayed several graphs which broke down syllable distribution and the symbolic flow of enjambment. We talked about the difference between an iamb and a trochee for ten full minutes. As he wrapped up his talk, the roomful of exasperated undergrads clamoured to know exactly what the point of all that had been. He summed it up by saying that analyzing the quotation in that much detail reveals that the major themes of the play had been summed up in just the first two lines. As we groaned and half-heartedly scrawled a few notes, clearly underwhelmed, the professor asked “Isn’t that cool?” He was like a cat, dropping off a half-dead bird on the living room carpet. We preferred the moving, living thing that flowed past – brilliant for a second, gone just as quickly. In dissecting the thing ad infinitum, the professor had seemed to rob it of its essence. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “if you try to take apart a bird to see how it works, the first thing you have is a non-working bird.”
“If your life had a face, I would punch it.”
I’ve come to feel that I was wrong about that lecture. In the years that have passed, I’m more attuned to the idea that if you can analyze a quotation in seemingly endless detail, there must be a good deal of worth to be found. For me, the same holds true for films. I’m a big believer that “not getting” a film is a bogus statement. It usually says more about the viewer than the film itself; users of that phrase frequently can’t seem to articulate why they were confused by (or just didn’t like) a movie, only that they closed themselves off to it at some point. I recently watched Room 237, which is an inquiry into The Shining and all its complexities and subliminal messages. There’s a fascinating section of the documentary which examines the impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel, how windows exist where no windows should be, and lush hotel suites are found within empty walls. I mentioned this to a friend, and he replied “Oh, so they made a mistake when they were making the movie?” NO. Stanley Kubrick - a man with a 200-point IQ - is more than capable of recognizing a simple mistake in a floor plan and correcting it before shooting one of the many, many takes he is famed for. This deliberate “mistake” instead requires some effort — and trust — from the viewer. I trust that I should seek out the deeper truth in Kubrick’s work, rather than write him off as incomprehensible. This doesn’t mean that the analysis is always an enjoyable experience. The fact that a documentary like Room 237 even exists is testament to the levels of obsession to which film geeks can - and have - driven themselves. What’s the point? Where’s the enjoyment? I don’t know if I have an answer for that. Maybe we don’t do these things because we want to, but because we feel compelled to.
Edgar Wright is one of the most energetic, driven, detail-oriented directors working today, and because I have unquestioning faith in his abilities (and his vision of a paradoxical central character driven to obscene levels of self-confidence by the devastation of a broken heart), I’m willing to dive head-first into what may be the shallow end of this pool. Fact of the matter is you can find a lot of stuff in this pool if you look for it.
“Believe it or not, I used to date Scott in high school… He’s an idiot.”
I’ve written thousands of words and talked to anyone who will listen about the issues with this film, from my preference for the original ending (in which Scott and Ramona – two inherently incompatible characters – don’t end up together), to the unfair treatment of Ramona (why is her deliberately shadowy past constantly being thrust into the spotlight by the men she dates? How about some respect?). I’ve also delved into how important it is to know that the script for the film was finished before the source comic books, thus creating a dilemma for Wright when fans of the books didn’t care for his diversions from the still-unwritten material. I’ve also talked about how basically everything Brandon Routh says or does is a stitch, from declaring smoothly that he “doesn’t know the meaning of the word” when his girlfriend calls him incorrigible (he really doesn’t) to his diatribe on the work schedule of cleaning ladies (she has the weekend off, so she won’t be around to clean up the dust he’s going to pummel you into until Monday), to the hilarious send-up of vegan culture (“Being vegan just makes you better than most people”). The film’s visual effects are clever and in many cases absolutely stunning (deservedly nominated for an Oscar). Cinematographer Bill Pope (who famously filmed The Matrix and its sequels, and brings some serious action movie cred to this film) gives beautiful depth to the scenes – I’ve scarcely had such a notion of space in a film that wasn’t in 3D. This is a film that deserves study, and is also incredibly enjoyable. I feel like an apologist for complex filmmaking when I ask you to give Scott Pilgrim a second watch, but perhaps I shouldn’t. This is a film that was made for people like me. I’ll watch it at least once or twice a year for the rest of my life, discovering additional nuance, angrily protesting the changes made to the original story, devouring the disc of special features. This film is an entire emotional and intellectual experience, which speaks to both its artistic strength and its commercial weakness. I mean, who would want to put their full mental energy into analyzing the cultural subtexts of a movie that was - by all accounts - a flop?
Who would want to drink out of a mug with no handle?
“Bye, and stuff.”
Andrew Root is a writer living in Peterborough, Ontario.
Life of Pi (2012)
by Andrew Root
“Animals have souls. I have seen it in their eyes.”
I’m a dog person, generally speaking. My dog, a mutt named Nora, was rescued from a canvas bag in a coffee shop parking lot when she was six weeks old. She’s now eight, and she’s been with me nearly every day of those eight years. One of Nora’s defining characteristics is that she always makes eye contact when you speak to her. It gives the very distinct impression that she’s hanging on your every word, and has endeared myself and many others to her. I’ve held a theory from a young age that all dogs share the same pair of eyes, just looking out from many different bodies, a theory born from the many dogs I had growing up, and the near-instant love I feel whenever I pass a dog on the street. I can read their body language, looking for a wagging tail, a bowed head, or a lifted paw to let me know how approachable they are, but where you really get to know a dog is their eyes.
The father of the title character in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi holds a different opinion. When young Pi Patel attempts to make friends with a Bengal tiger, his father tells him that what he is seeing in the tiger’s eyes is his own emotions reflected back at him. Pi—a curious, compassionate, spiritual boy—is supposedly projecting his own persona onto the orange and black stripes of Richard Parker, the tiger in question. Pi apologizes for his folly, but it is superficial; he refuses to concede that Richard Parker—and animals in general—lack a personality, emotions, and a soul.
Pi’s belief in the divine nature of animals is put to the test when his father sells the zoo and transports the inhabitants on a cargo ship bound for Canada. The ship sinks (in a cinematic display that is so haunting I believe I’ll remember it forever) and Pi is the sole survivor, floating on a lifeboat in the company of a zebra, a hyena, and Richard Parker. They are joined shortly thereafter by Orange Juice, a mother orangutan who floats to the lifeboat on a bundle of bananas. The hyena is a brute, crashing around the lifeboat with no regard for the other inhabitants, vomiting violently on the floor, chuckling manically to itself as it tries on shaky legs to attack our protagonist; the zebra, whose leg has been broken in the jump to the boat can only huddle in the prow, bleating sorrowfully as predators close in; when Orange Juice pulls herself aboard, Pi does what any sixteen-year-old might do when encountering a monkey; he throws her a banana. Just take a moment and picture yourself sitting on a park bench. You are eating a banana. A monkey swings down from a nearby tree and sits next to you. The temptation to give that banana to that monkey must be as irresistible as answering a plastic phone handed to you by a two-year old. But animals feel pain and loss; animals can be traumatized, just as humans can. The banana caroms off Orange Juice’s arm and she fixes Pi with a look of utter exasperation. He asks where her boy has gone, and the orangutan can only look off to the painfully empty horizon. And Richard Parker, well… What would you do if you were a tiger in a lifeboat full of prey?
Animals are true to themselves in ways that humans often find surprising. In addition to a dog, I also have a cat named Zorro, whom I would be quicker to love if he didn’t insist on waking me up at 5:30am whether or not his food dish is full. Nora and Zorro were introduced to each other about a year ago, and much of their initial difficulties came from an inability to play with one another. Their styles just didn’t mix. A pounce or a prod from one would be misconstrued as a power play, and the other would slink off feeling defeated. After a year though, they’ve learned a great deal about one another. The other night, I was a dummy and put Nora outside while I tended to a cup of tea, completely forgetting about her. Fifteen minutes later, Zorro was wailing from the front hall, perched on a windowsill, looking at Nora waiting patiently by the front door. He Lassie’d for her, something I found mind-boggling, until I remembered that they’re friends. Age-old adages about the incompatibility of cats and dogs mean nothing compared to the admiration I felt seeing one animal looking out for another.
Pi and Richard Parker must also come to an interspecies understanding, once they’re left to their own devices. Pi’s first attempt at eking out some meagre territory for himself is hilariously defeated by the sheer will of the tiger (and a brilliant use of the 3D medium), but the attempt was disingenuous. Pi simply wanted some form of control—control which, up to that point, he had desired more than needed. However, afterhis supplies are capsized by an overenthusiastic whale, Pi feels the sting of true need. Animals—particularly undomesticated ones—are driven by need, which is what makes them so sincere. “Hunger will make you doubt everything you thought you knew about yourself,” Pi intones before he challenges Richard Parker’s dominance over a fish. The honesty of Pi’s need is what sways the tiger, as wild animals have no use for petty games. Pi then embarks on a serious training regimen, using potent eye contact and a genuine need for cooperation in place of silly tricks. The team of computer warlocks that gave birth to the CGI Richard Parker (apart from a few scenes in which the tiger is swimming, Riahard Parker is almost entirely a CGI performance, and perhaps the cinematic achievement of 2012) must have done some deep research to capture a million little unexpected moments. That tiger has serious range, and was the subject of more than a few sympathetic outbursts from the audience in the theatre. The two come to a truce and eventually a friendship, and their friendship becomes what keeps them alive.
Reminiscing about his parting from Richard Parker, the adult Pi (Irrfan Kahn, who, with his beautifully expressive eyes and sly, kind smile, could read from the phone book and be captivating) says that he knows the tiger is an animal, but he has to believe there’s something more to their relationship. He felt it, even if he can’t prove it. That, in a nutshell, is the definition of faith: the choice to believe in the absence of proof. I can’t prove that Zorro was meowing because he was concerned for his friend’s welfare. It’s impossible. Perhaps Nora is just a vessel into which I’ve poured my own emotions, but, like Pi, I have to believe there’s something more. The choice to believe that humans and animals are somehow of different castes strikes me as a very sad choice. Who would choose to believe in the existence of fewer souls in the world?
Here, Life of Pi takes a much deeper look into the existence of souls—and of religion and spiritulality as a whole. Yann Martel, whose 2001 novel is represented here on screen, uses animals metaphorically; soon after Pi washes ashore, he is confronted by a pair of vultures from an insurance company who demand to hear his account of the sinking of their ship. Pi tells them of his time spent with Richard Parker, but they don’t believe him. They require a “more realistic” story for their report, so Pi tells them a different story; one in which the various animals on the lifeboat are replaced with humans; the zebra is a sailor with a broken leg, the mother orangutan is his own mother, the boorish hyena is the boorish ship’s cook, and Richard Parker comes to represent the wildness inside Pi himself. The version of the story populated by humans is much more upsetting and speaks to some uncomfortable aspects of human nature, and it is generally decided that the version with the tiger is a much better story. If both stories accomplish the same thing, wouldn’t you want to believe the better of the two?
Life of Pi is a beautifully told story, the most visually creative film of 2012. Ang Lee takes the restrictions of the material and sees opportunities to shoot metaphorical shots in place of literal ones (see, for example, the lifeboat floating in the centre of a perfect mirror of sea and sky, or Richard Parker gazing into the depths of the ocean and seeing all the creatures he is more familiar with). Lee takes unexpected perspectives, and uses his 3D cameras to create incredible depth in the frame, making the Pacific Ocean stretch out to meet the horizon, or the stars seem infinitely distant. The characters in Life of Pi claim that Pi’s story will make the listener believe in God (not just one god, seemingly, as Pi is a member of three different religions, describing faith as a house with many rooms – including room for doubt on every floor), and Lee’s direction makes that story vibrant, approachable—and, ultimately, believable. Perhaps it won’t convince you to go to church on Sundays, but a story like this one has the power to make you look at an animal and wonder if there’s something more than just a collection of cells and impulses.
When it comes to love, I’d like to venture that the ends justify the means. I’ve long ago decided that my dog and cat have personalities of their own. They make decisions or follow their instincts, and respond to particular pleasures or react to specific fears, just as I’ve seen humans do. And, in that way, they have souls. And if they do, then I suppose I do as well. And if I do, then I suppose you do, too. And while I don’t know what means in the long term, I know that it makes me feel tremendous love for every person and every animal and every plant in the world (in a very Tree of Life kind of way). I don’t care if it makes me seem silly to talk to my pets like they’re people. It helps me feel more comfortable being kind and gentle and forgiving to the people I see walking down the street. The love I see in animals reminds me that love is always possible, even when I feel frustrated or upset or just mystified by the darkness that sometimes descends on the world. I could either believe that petting my dog releases endorphins in my brain that stimulate pleasure centres and that particular chemical reaction causes me to smile more on a particular day, or I could believe that I saw love coming from my dog and it felt so wonderful that I decided to share it with others. In both stories I’m smiling more, and it hurts no one for me to believe the latter. I choose love. I choose engagement to my life and my soul over cellular structures and chemical reactions. I choose the Indian boy in the lifeboat with the Bengal tiger.
Andrew Root perhaps gave away too much in his description of Irrfan Khan, but oh well. He tumbls here.
Body Swap Week: 13 Going on 30 (2004)
I WANT TO BE THIRTY AND FLIRTY AND THRIVING!
by Andrew Root
In a few weeks, I’ll be turning 30 years old. I can say things like “it’s been seventeen years since I last took a piano lesson.” I’m sure this signifies something.
I was recently asked to take a small, non-singing part in a college musical in which I play a WASPy Harvard University admissions officer who is befuddled – utterly befuddled! – by a young lady who dresses all in pink and, in lieu of a personal essay, applies to the prestigious learning institute via a headshot (can you guess?). The director of the play, a sprightly 23-year-old, said that the part needed a more mature element, and since it didn’t involve singing (actually, it involves looking about bewilderedly, wondering why on earth everyone else is singing), I agreed. At the first read-through of the script, I met the rest of the cast; first year sociology majors arrived in their pyjamas cooing eagerly over how coffee is just the best, while their elders—the wizened third and fourth years—ate apples and bananas and talked about which teacher’s college they were going to apply to. I was asked what my major was, what year I was in. Someone I didn’t know gave me a hug when we were introduced. I began to tilt my head to the side as one might if interacting with an adorable baby goat, and say things like “Oh honey, no. I’m old. I don’t have a major.”
I’m starting to feel my age.
Some of these people were 13 years old only five years ago. Where were they then? At 13 years old, I was most likely devouring Smashing Pumpkins’ Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness in the bedroom that my non-identical twin brother had just vacated, ending our lifetime status as roommates. There was a baseball border running around the ceiling and red, yellow, and blue sponge painting on the walls that my mother refused to let me paint over because she had put so much work into it just three years previous. I was a year away from my first kiss with a girl named “Mickey” who I’d never met before and haven’t seen since. I played baseball twice a week in a church league, and I’d discovered that masturbation was amazing. I’d given up piano lessons and I got straight A’s in school. I would be awarded the “citizenship award” at my grade 8 graduation (though I’m still not quite sure what I did to achieve such a title). I was a good kid, by all accounts.
Around the time you turn 13, you find that you can earn friends by either being nice to certain people or being mean to other people. I chose the former, my brother the latter—and I was his target. He was the picture of a cool kid: tall, athletic, confident with a rebellious streak that got him noticed by all the girls in the class. I was shorter, my hair was fluffy and unruly, and I still wore whatever clothes were bought for me, usually from Zellers. Though I was a natural target, I was strangely removed from the politics of being liked. I had a group of similarly picked-on friends, and who needed everyone else? I realize that this is not the case for everyone.
Jenna Rink, the awkwardly earnest protagonist of 13 Going On 30, wants desperately to be part of the popular clique, and aims to get there via a system of stuffing her bra, dressing in neon, and shunning her Talking Heads-loving best friend, Matt. She’s fully embroiled in the politics of adolescence, all with the goal of being liked in mind. At her 13th birthday party, Jenna is tricked by the improbably named “Tom-Tom”, leader of the “Six Chicks Clique”, into waiting blindfolded in the closet for Chris (the magnificently-coiffed object of her desires). In a total dick move, everyone sneaks out. When Matt appears in the closet instead of her expected beau, Jenna is devastated and curses her one true friend.
Here’s where it gets strange. The magical body change of this movie comes via a conveniently placed cloud of “wishing dust” that falls about Jenna as she brokenheartedly repeats her magazine-inspired manta: “I want to be thirty and flirty and thriving.” In a “presto chango!” that fast forwards her life by seventeen years, the gawky teenager is transformed into Jennifer Garner, and is magically spirited away from her embarrassing suburban house into a sleek Manhattan apartment, complete with a job at a fashion magazine and a hunky professional hockey player for a boyfriend. Even the 30 year-old Tom-Tom (Judy Greer) has become her best friend! Jenna jumps along the timeline from 1987 to 2004, clearing the bog of adolescence and all its trials and embarrassments, and when she comes to, she’s shocked to find what her life has become. You know what they say about being careful what you wish for…
Why 30? Because at 30, you’re supposed to have everything figured out. You’re supposed to have a home and a family and a career. You’re supposed to be set up for the rest of your life. Just writing that sentence made a wave of anxiety wash over me. At thirty, my brother and two older sisters were married, houses and careers secured, little ones either on the way or already arrived. I rent. I have no kids and no plans for kids in the near future. I have two degrees, but have recently made the decision to abandon my career path in favour of I don’t know what. At 30, I’m starting all over again.
Did I do something wrong? Am I a failure? By a lot of people’s standards, yes. Without the traditional benchmarks of success, I wear a target on my back for well-meaning, back-handed comments. When I landed a job working with at-risk teens (a job I am both good at and find incredibly rewarding), the news was superseded by the fact that it only offers part-time hours. “Well, it’s something,” the well-wishers say, with a tight-lipped smile and a hand on my shoulder like I’m a diamond miner who found coal instead. I recently skipped my 10-year high school reunion, in large part because I didn’t want to spend the evening explaining myself and the reasons why things aren’t exactly where I thought they might be.
Like any good Faustian parable, Jenna gets what she wants at the expense of her soul. As the newly-transformed Jenna acclimatizes herself to her new lifestyle, new body, new personal dynamics (just why is everyone afraid of her?), she comes to realize that during that seventeen year lapse, she became kind of a bad person. She’s selling out her coworkers to a rival magazine; she cruelly ditched Matt at that party and never spoke to him again, favouring a Machiavellian rise through the ranks of her high school’s social network; she never sees her family; her boyfriend is a douche. Thirteen-year-old Jenna can’t imagine how she got to this place. By all appearances, she’s everything she wanted to be as a grown-up, but after one week of critical insight into how she got there, the whole thing comes crashing down. Jenna realizes that her rejection of Matt dramatically fractured her one real friendship—and that she’s unable to get him back. Seventeen years of bad blood and hurt feelings have led him into the arms of another woman, and it’s simply too late for her to make sufficient amends. Our hero is long past the time when dancing solves problems.
Jenna, or course, gets to go back. Just when she’s at her lowest, that darn cloud of wishing dust swirls around her and she wakes to find herself back in the closet of her parent’s basement—13 again, with all her choices and mistakes ahead of her. A quick transition to a wedding and a candy-floss pink dream house speak to her better choices the second time around. The film resolves with her on the lawn of her new home, with her old friend/new husband, happy, and very much in love (and by the looks of the house’s size, pretty successful to boot).
And there’s the fiction of it all. I can’t clap my hands and take a year off before going to university to find out what I really want to study instead of just majoring in whichever subject I got the highest marks. I can’t take back those two separate occasions on which I cranked up massive amounts of debt to travel across the Atlantic for two different girls. I should have done more research into just how oversaturated the job market was before I dedicated two years to pursuing a career that maybe I wasn’t very passionate about in the first place. But I can’t do that. And why would I want to?
I like my life. I’ve got good friends, a wonderful family, a caring and supportive partner, and limitless potential. I don’t anticipate having anything figured out as I traverse my thirties, and who’s to say I should? There is no benchmark number. There is no age at which you are supposed to be any one particular thing. I can see the comfort in that way of doing things, but nothing exciting happens when you’re comfortable. That isn’t to say that you should buck tradition for the sake of it. Just know that it’s okay to not have it figured out. You’ve got a friend in me.
But Hollywood gives us happy endings for a reason, and it’s important to keep dreaming. And so, with the help of some conveniently-placed wishing dust, here are a few wishes for my dream life at 30:
- A publishing deal for that children’s book I started writing about the charming neighbours and their whimsical adventures.
- A theatre that could financially support all the theatrical people in my town who have professional-level talent, but not professional-level opportunities.
- The discovery that my dog no longer turns nasty when I try to trim her nails.
- A real New Penzance Island (from Moonrise Kingdom), where I would live in a replica of Suzy Bishop’s house.
- Woodworking skills.
- A local cinema that regularly holds Terrence Malick retrospectives alongside Jim Henson tribute nights.
- Wisdom, satisfaction, a sense of adventure.
Andrew Root wants it known that this is the first movie that Andy Serkis chose to do after Lord of the Rings. He tumbls here.
Reader’s Request Week: Fight Club (1999)
AN (UNPOPULAR) OPINION PIECE.
by Andrew Root
I hate Fight Club.
I realize that I’m in the minority here. The movie stands at a score of 8.9/10 on IMDb (landing it at #11 on their list of the Top 250 films, sandwiched between The Empire Strikes Back and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), 81% on Rottentomatoes.com (with an audience score of 95%), and the Facebook page is steadily closing in on 9 million likes. By way of context, the Facebook page for “Love” only has 7.7 million likes. More people like Fight Club than love.
I hate Fight Club.
I’ve yet to meet someone who dislikes the film with the same intensity that I do. I’ve endured many a lecture on why I should like it (or worse, how I’m “not watching it right” – more on that later), but I’ve decided not to be an apologist. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I’m pretty sure my opinions on the film are as valid as any fan’s.
I hate Fight Club, and here’s why.
1. The film is disgusting to look at.
The aesthetic of Fight Club makes my skin crawl. Every surface, every item, every character is covered in a layer of grime, sweat, and filth. They look like they’ve been incredibly unhealthy for a very long time. I know I’m getting into dangerous territory here, but Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla looks disgusting. Her hair is a rat’s nest. Her skin is sallow. She looks diseased. Ditto for Edward Norton’s Narrator, whose eye bags could carry a month’s worth of luggage. Recast Tyler Durden with anyone other than Brad Pitt (and his 100% certified hunky body), and it’d be hard to ignore the fact that he’s largely unwashed. After watching just ten minutes of the movie, I start to suspect microbes of hiding in my food and under my furniture. Watching this movie, I experience physical repulsion. David Fincher took pains to ensure that I experienced said repulsion by tinkering with the aesthetic style (in his choices of lenses, film stock, and post production) but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it. Watching this film and knowing that the characters are going to be brushing their teeth with brown water is an exercise in holding your lunch down.
I know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover (or a movie by its production design), so let’s go deeper.
2. The message surrounding violence.
Every so often a movie (or a video game or a song) comes along and family groups cry foul. The film is accused of causing violence—a dubious but frequently lobbed grenade—which usually does not destroy the intended target, but only stirs up an oft-repeated debate on whether or not a work of fiction can actually cause violence. Does Fight Club cause violence? No. Nowhere does the film explicitly advocate starting your own pugilistic endeavour (although many did, anyway). Personal responsibility has to enter into the equation. David Fincher, in the act of making this film, didn’t twist your arm and force you to fight other repressed dudes in a filthy basement. A person who sees Fight Club and then starts a fight was just looking for an excuse to follow through on a dormant impulse. Sack up and just admit that you’re an asshole who gets off on causing other people pain, you jackaninny. Fight Club, like all art, is inert until it comes into contact with a someone who does something with it.
So no, Fight Club doesn’t cause violence, but violence does find glorification within the film. The story is of a bored, unhappy man who finds that he feels “comfortable” and “enlightened” in a world dominated by brutal violence. In exploring that violence, he recruits an army of similarly disillusioned, angry men who form a community out of acts of destruction. They are “set free” through fighting, a damningly cavalier use of vocabulary for men who are eschewing personal safety and individuality in the name of … what, exactly? Erasing credit card debt? Maybe the concept hasn’t aged well, but the idea of resetting people’s credit history to zero and thus “leveling the playing field” seems laughable, especially since the plan to do so involves blowing up a few buildings. Because that information wouldn’t be backed up and re-indexed elsewhere, right?
The problem I have with Tyler/Narrator’s journey is that it’s held up as an example by the other characters. Take Tyler’s stomach churning attack on the owner of the bar where the first Fight Club takes place; Tyler allows himself to be pummeled by the bar’s owner, only to spray his own blood into the face of his opponent, gleefully shrieking “You don’t know where I’ve been!” While a momentary look of disgust might pass from face to face of the men in the basement, they ultimately lift Tyler up, viewing what he’s done as a necessary step towards their autonomy, and eagerly adopting the next phase of his plot. The problem is this: We as an audience might start to question Tyler’s method/madness at this point. We might see him as a grotesque mockery of a human being. We might begin to think that this whole “Fight Club” thing is not all its cracked up to be. We might think that, but the characters don’t. Everyone in the film is on board with Tyler. Whether or not we are meant to be repulsed by the character, it’s a mixed message. The violence is shown to be ugly, but necessary. It’s oh so tempting to get on board with the characters. Poor Bob. He’s so sweet. How could we not be on his side? And Brad Pitt is magnetic. It’s hard to not love him. Why would we abandon these people now? It’s so easy to be swept away on a wave of charisma and completely ignore the muddy riverbed directly under your feet, with its blood and teeth and hair, and its plans for all of us.
At one point, Tyler holds a convenience store employee at gunpoint, demanding to know the man’s goals and dreams. Under duress, the man admits that he wanted to be a veterinarian but didn’t pursue it because there was too much school involved. Tyler takes his ID and tells the man that if within six weeks he’s not on his way to being a vet, he will be dead. The man is sent running into the night, as Tyler ruminates that tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of the man’s life. At this point, I might have woken the neighbours with my cries of bullshit. That kind of violence doesn’t set people free. It imprisons them inside walls of anxiety and distrust. Not to mention the reality that working at a convenience store isn’t likely to cover the tuition of a veterinarian. It’s sickening how confident Tyler is of his own ideas. Can you help people fulfill themselves by assaulting them? When has that ever worked? But at this point in the film, we love Tyler. He’s shaking things up! He’s freeing the Narrator’s spirit! He’s destroying preconceived perceptions and cradling us when we accept that we were (and are) leading meaningless lives. He rewards us when we take his point of view or he moves on without us. He’s so fucking cool! And if he’s that cool, there must be a nugget of truth in his message somewhere, right? We should follow our dreams no matter what, shouldn’t we? Do the ends justify the means? I can just hear my mother sighing as she intones the old saying, “Just because someone is cool, it doesn’t mean they’re your friend.”
The characters and many of the fans of Fight Club seem to take the view that humanity not only needs, but wants a hearty chop on the jaw. They take the view that violence will set people free — and who wouldn’t want to help set people free? Satire or no, I have a wealth of anecdotal evidence that gives me a hard time believing that people are taking away the right message (which would ultimately mean that the film was unsuccessful as a “message” piece). But then, I’m not even sure what the message is supposed to be.
3. I’m not finding what everyone else seems to be finding.
“The things you own end up owning you,” quips Tyler Durden, with a certainty that invites confidence. He can’t possibly be wrong, can he? And yet, this quoted little nugget is exactly the glib attitude that the film takes towards its supposed thematic material.
If one more person says “Fight Club isn’t really about fighting. It’s a critique of consumerism,” lord help me, they will hear my shrieks in China. Perhaps appropriately, I don’t buy this theory. Early in the film, Edward Norton’s Narrator flips through IKEA catalogues and muses on corporate sponsorship of interplanetary travel. Is this the scathing critique, or does that part come later when the human fat soap is sold to the high end boutiques? Thing is, I’m not convinced. Apparently the case against consumerism is made much clearer in the book (I haven’t read it), but this isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey in which novel and film were meant to be companion pieces. In the film, the critique is fleeting and wispy. Norton’s sleepy, grating delivery and his previous musings on insomnia point more towards a person who is bored or ill than someone who (for all their protestations) has bought in to corporate slavery. There is no direct link between his catalogue lifestyle and his dissatisfaction/dehumanization except that Tyler will eventually spraypaint one in dripping, blood-red hue, then jump up and down, pointing to it like a deranged monkey.
If it’s a critique of consumerism, it’s quickly abandoned in favour of an angry, nihilistic agenda against “the system,” whatever that means. “We are not special,” Tyler intones. “We are the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world.” The more I think about that phrase, the more exasperating it becomes. Explain it to yourself. Take a moment to unpack that phrase. Do you feel demoralized? Just hearing those words does more to drain my soul than any IKEA duvet cover. Tyler recruits an army with the sole purpose of causing mayhem and destruction, preaching from a platform of cynical distrust of the way things are. In doing so, he himself becomes deified. The members of Project Mayhem refer to him as “Sir,” and his word is law, even if his word means self-mutilation. If Tyler says “jump,” they say “How high?” The Man tells people that they are special, so Tyler tells people that they are not special. They continue to toil in labour, only to a different idol. Tyler sets himself up in opposition to everything “acceptable” in society’s view, so much so that it’s assumed that what he does is in diametric opposition to what society wants. That’s dangerous territory. Just because Tyler does something, doesn’t mean that it’s “anti-“ anything. He has no rules to follow. He’s a zephyr of mayhem, so it’s frustrating when people pin adulations to him. I get that he’s contrarian, but much of his business is pointless and indulgent. He splices porn into kids movies. Why? He pees in expensive soup. Why?
At this point, I usually hear that I’m not “getting” the black comedy (even though I’m pretty sure I am). Maybe because it’s not all that funny. There’s no punch line, only premise, and the premise is underexplained. The concept of a rich, greedy businessman getting his comeuppance in the form of a watery, nitrate-tinged bisque can be funny, but it’s not presented this way in the film. So much of the action of peeing in the soup is left unsaid. Tyler just does it. No mention of why “the rich” deserve it. As much as you could argue that Tyler does these things to upset the apple cart, I could argue that he’s just an asshole.
Also, can’t we discount any good points made by Tyler/Narrator because they’re dangerously unbalanced? At what point do they lose credibility? A man firing a rifle into the sky because the Goodyear blimp is trying to brainwash him isn’t a visionary. He needs to be put in a padded cell, not onto a cultural pedestal. It’s the “dudes” who can’t get enough of Tyler Durden and his “sweet counter-culture message” (actual quote from an actual fan) who seem to have missed the point.
4. Don’t tell me I “should” like the movie.
I will admit that the film itself has merits. I laughed out loud at the “flashback humour” joke. Brad Pitt nails the character. The camera work is fearless. But the culture surrounding the film depresses me. I have been told on several occasions that I was not allowed to not like Fight Club. Nobody defends There Will Be Blood with this much vigour. Fans have assumed that I can’t handle the violence, or that it’s “too real” for me, but really I just don’t enjoy it. It’s not fun or interesting for me to watch, and it’s certainly not fun to discuss (because it’s never really a discussion, is it?).
Arguments about this film exhaust me. They leave me with the empty-tank feeling of too much coffee and not enough nourishment. At this point, I’m quite satisfied with my opinions on Fight Club. I don’t like the movie, and I’m not likely to. But every so often, someone feels it is their duty to educate me on why I’m wrong about it; why it’s an exceptional counter-culture commentary; why it speaks to the new lost generation; why it’s beyond reproach. Well, it is reproachable. I reproach it! I’ll reproach the goddamn Mona Lisa if I feel like it! Don’t tell me what to do! If I’m being honest, the pushy nature of Fight Club fans is the biggest reason I don’t like the movie (the other [not trifling] reasons being that I dislike the story,the characters, Edward Norton, and the look of the film). As a central theme of the film is to approach casual apathy with roaring disdain, I guess it makes sense. But come on. Let’s not fight.
Andrew Root just bought a futon cover at IKEA, and being clever is working out very well for him. He tumbls here.