Posted by: Robin | February 24, 2008

Rigorous Realism

I love movies. As long as I can remember I’ve loved movies. The Oscars has been an annual rite since Bob Hope was the perennial host. This is the first year watching it will be merely ritual. Ironically it is also the year I had the opportunity to see more of the films and acting performances than any previous year. But it was a commitment of opportunity rather than a pleasure. I can’t decide if it is a matter of taste or getting old, but is humanity in all its dark, bleak spaces the only true medium for art? That’s the message I got.

The virtuosity of Daniel Day Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood was astonishing. His intense, ruthless commitment and surrender to his character, an oil speculator, was both breathtaking and exhausting to watch. He fully wrought every nuance of the choices made over years that shrink a man from one merely ambitious to one whose soul is so shrunken and collapsed into itself that his final choices are inevitable and irredeemable. But I walked away with nothing but admiration for one our most remarkable living actors.

Just seeing Javier Bardem in the trailers for No Country for Old Men scared me, so I had knots in my stomach as I watched. It turned out not as bad in context, but that says more about my imagination than the film. Tommy Lee Jones opening narrative anchored a tale of prodigious, thorough violence in the only sane response to it–bewilderment. Bardem’s performance was unwavering in its integrity to the inflexible intent of a man deeply committed to a radically different internal truth–one diametrically opposed to the one most of us inhabit. The ending leaves both ‘good’ and ‘evil’ surviving; good is in retirement, and evil is wounded but persistent thanks to the kindness of strangers. If one doesn’t think past the ending that’s not so bad, but the message is that ‘evil’ will rebound, and if good is still retired, who will meet it? (Two boys on bikes?)

Michael Clayton and Atonement one may argue are more humane and less gritty in their realism. But Tilda Swinton’s performance in Michael Clayton is as scary as Bardem’s, and her unraveling as subtly wrought as Lewis’. And in Atonement a precocious, naive child ruins the life of two innocent people and redeems her mistake a lifetime later when it costs her next to nothing, and it has cost them everything. If this is atonement it is a thing wrung of most of its value.

Juno is the only gracenote of the five Best Picture nominees. It proves the lie of the common wisdom that only dark characters are interesting and complex. Yes, these rigorously realistic films of the darkside of the human soul and man’s inhumanity to man portray the authentic experience of the suffering and randomness that is daily life for far too many human beings on this planet. Yes, I am a fan of happy endings. No, that’s not quite true. I am a fan of films like Crash, In America and Brokeback Mountain that take their characters and their audience on a journey that illumines even the darkest places and allows that light is as persistent as life and can grow in the darkest places.



  1. I grow more disenchanted with movies (and TV) as a medium. I used to think that they could and would enhance our expeience of life but the older I get the more I feel they remove us from life by investing in characters rather than real human beings. It’s so safe to meet the messy lives of people in a movie and adds next to nothing in helping us deal with the people we encounter in real life. Escapism has it’s place but I’m not sure where this type of escapism fits for me right now.

  2. Maybe there is No Country of Old Women.

    Kidding, sort of, I think there is something generational about your reaction. I don’ t know if it is chronologically generational, or consistant with the generational gap that has existed through history. I feel like young people battle so hard to find their place in the world that they don’t recognize the carnage until maybe when they look back on it, so dark movies feel familiar and true. As to the above point, you might be right that it does not help redeem this reality.

    I agree with your prefered aesthetic.

  3. Love the play on words. I’m with Jon Stewart. Hollywood needs a hug (and to hire a few more American actors).

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