Three August Movies

Definitely, Maybe (2008) written and directed by Adam Brooks is a movie I have seen a couple of times now and throughly enjoyed on each occasion. Unfortunately, also on each occasion I have watched the film in the middle of a depressive episode, and am therefore unable to write about it as much as it warrants.This is a film which deserves to be better known. I suspect that part of the problem is a matter of genre. This is not really a rom-com, which seems to be the only kind of romance with which Hollywood is happy nowadays. That is not to say that it does not have its comic moments, as it does, but at its heart it is a straight love-story (or three love stories). The movie is distinguished by a very clever structure. I quote from imdb (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0832266/synopsis) who describe this much better than I could….

Will Hayes (Ryan Reynolds) is a 38-year-old father who is in the midst of a divorce. His 10-year-old daughter Maya (Abigail Breslin) lives with her mother but is with him twice a week. On one of these occasions she questions him about his life before marriage. After her first sex-ed class, Maya first asks and then insists on hearing the story of how her parents met and decided to get married. Will gives in, but decides to change the names and some facts, thereby creating a love mystery, with Maya guessing which of the women will be her mom. The story he tells Maya is depicted in long flashbacks. From time to time the film switches back to the present, where Maya comments and asks questions.

Will first comes to New York, at the beginning of his story, to work on the 1992 Clinton campaign and the film’s narrative arc follows his gradual disillusion with politics through the medium of Clinton’s exposure (there are damning scenes portraying the way in which Clinton loyalists spoke of the women whom Clinton used), so it is very specifically set in certain period. The great thing about this structure is that we the audience, just like Maya, are unable to tell which of the three women is in fact Maya’s mother and Will’s wife. And on top of that there is a false ending. I don’t want to give too much away about this as it would spoil the pleasure for anyone who has not seen the film. But the movie is very well-plotted – like a good mystery really! It shows how effective a traditional mystery plot can be in another setting – this is a whowedhim rather than a whodunit! The final ending though is genuinely moving and I have cried both times I watched it. I am not claiming that this is a film of any great profundity and it is certainly not visually distinguished. However it is thoughtful, excellently constructed, literate (a rare edition of Jane Eyre plays a key role), intelligent, well-acted, entertaining and moving. Those are qualities which seem rare enough in today’s Hollywood so this film is to be throughly commended. And I would not mind watching it a third time which is praise indeed!

On the other hand I thoroughly disliked An Education (2009) Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Lynn Barber’s autobiographical memoir, about her experience of a teenage love affair, directed by Lone Scherfig (in which Jane Eyre crops up once again!). I think I should say right away that this is one of those fairly rare occasions when my assessment is completely opposite to that of my friend Ellen Moody : her thoughtful and positive review of the film can be found at http://misssylviadrake.livejournal.com/15023.html. I should also say that I approached the film in a slightly prejudiced state of mind having never been a fan of Barber’s confrontational and sarcastic interviewing style. My dislike of the film is based around two things, its malice and its dishonesty. In terms of malice this emerges mainly in Barber’s portrait of her parents and especially her father. As far as one is able to tell they were good, honest people trying to do the best for a daughter whom they clearly loved. If one is lucky enough to be granted such parents it should be a cause for rejoicing and not for sniping at them for limited intelligence or a stunted world-view. Yes I can see that Barber is satirising the English middle-class (and they are very definitely middle not working class) of the late 1950’s, but she could have chosen a different way of doing this. I felt very uncomfortable whenever this aspect of the film presented itself. In terms of dishonesty, although we are shown and told of the malpractices of the pair of young villains (one of them our heroine’s seducer) we are not shown the effects of their crimes on the old women whom they target, steal from, drive from their homes. There is a reference to them meeting Rachman but I am not sure that the full meaning of this is available to either an overseas, or perhaps a younger British audience (Rachman was a slum landlord of such unpleasant practises that his name entered the language when the practises of  bad landlordism came to be described as Rachmanism). These young men are very unpleasant indeed. Then there are films very odd lacunae. The climactic example of these is when Jenny, the heroine, has to tell her parents that David (the villain) has been deceiving her and them – we do not see this scene at all! Now whether this is because her parents reacted well and this would not fit the tenor of their presentation I cannot tell, but it is certainly very unsatisfying in a dramatic sense. In its favour the film is well-enough mounted and capably acted (Emma Thompson is brilliant as a headmistress – here Barber is once again taking her revenge, but one feels no compunction at laughing at a figure who misused power), although I was not as struck by Carey Mulligan’s performance (in the role of Jenny) as some have been – competent enough but not in my view extraordinary.  There are virtually no positive characters other than the heroine (who is in reality something of a spoilt brat) and her English teacher (in which role Olivia Williams almost steals the movie). I wondered in the light of Ellen’s comments whether reactions to the film are gendered but Chris shared exactly my reaction to Barber’s treatment of her parents and we commented on it at the same time. Still it may be there is something in this if the movie is seen as a female coming of age movie.But for me this was a film characterised by a certain meanness of spirit, a lack of genrosity.

At the cinema we saw the new Doors/Jim Morrison documentary When You’re Strange directed by Tom DiCillo. Now straight off I have to admit to a very embarrassing misconception I was under about this film. It opens and is interspersed with footage which shows Morrison as a hitch-hiker in the desert, later driving a car, filling up with petrol and so on: I thought that this was filmed by DiCillo using a lookalike – in fact it is footage from Morrison’s own film HWY:An American Pastoral (of which I had never heard), and it is not a lookalike but Morrison himself! So the film is either documentary footage or taken from HWY and The Doors own concert film of 1968 Feast Of Friends. Having said all that and admitted my shameful ignorance, I still don’t think the footage from HWY added anything (the only insight was that Morrison was a pretty rubbish film director! No wonder he flunked film at UCLA) to the film. This was a very straight-up documentary. It just told the story, making no attempt at all at any psychological insights and stressing the role which the rest of the band played in The Doors’ sound and success (it is no wonder that Densmore, Krieger and Manzarek prefer it to Stone’s 1991 movie): even Johnny Depp’s narration is absolutely straight. Some efforts are made to indicate the political, cultural and social background out of which the music sprang, but these are kept at a fairly superficial level.

The truth about this film is that I really enjoyed it while watching it because of hearing the music and seeing Morrison perform. But the more I think about it the less I rate it. I can understand and appreciate why no attempt was made to psychoanalyse Morrison and think this restraint was laudable in a way. I can see why it was important to bring out what Densmore (jazz influences), Krieger (flamenco) and Manzarek (bass piano) brought to the band and its distinctive sound. But I think if you are going to try to explain the phenomena, then you have to at least make an attempt at explaining Morrison’s extraordinary charisma and attraction – why is it that his grave in Paris….

 

is still a shrine, why does he remain a heroic and iconic figure to so many? It might be argued that the film did this by simply showing clips of him performing (though these were often cut short), and it is true that watching him in his pomp is still electrifying. But there is more to it than that. That extraordinary voice for starters; that doomed angel beauty; I think that however inadequate their words – as I am sure mine would be – it would be good to have heard from some true devotees as to why he is so important to them. Of course it was important to chronicle the bad behaviour, the drinking and womanising, and also to acknowledge the contribution which the other band members made. But, when all is said and done, The Doors are important and have endured because of Jim Morrison. In avoiding any explanations at all the movie ultimately left me feeling short-changed. And the only thing I really learnt (apart from the fact that Morrison made a very bad short movie) is that ‘Mr Mojo Risin’ (from L.A. Woman) is an anagram of Jim Morrison – which is why he was insistent on repeating the phrase. But really one is so much better off with the music.

2 thoughts on “Three August Movies

  1. ellenandjim

    I’ve written a number of blogs on films this summer. We saw some wonderful ones: just click on films on Ellen and Jim when you have the time: Winter’s Bone, Please Give, Agora, Joan Rivers, and on Reveries I wrote about The City of your Final Destination — and an older Wendy Wasserstein, The Object of Your Affections. A number of these are woman’s films. I read your reaction to An Education — which I wrote about on my Reveries blog. Despite Chris having a reaction like yours, this too I think comes from a faultline that is part gender, part class. Yes Carey Mulligan was simply good enough but I identified. Education was a way out for me (I am working and lower middle class US and there was no expectation whatsoever I would go to college) and however well-meaning my parents might have been, beneath that are other layers — I wouldn’t feel gratitude if the goals of my parents were such that these tore down my dreams and they might have had I needed money from them. I needed but $25 a term: part of my repeating this is that I was free of whatever my parents thought. I felt the guy as utterly treacherous and felt that the independence and peace we were to see the Latin teacher as having were rightly unadorned. The scene with the wife moved me because I felt this man’s utter disregard for the lives of these women. The father was fooled by his own vicarious delusions, and her mother complicit. Yes I wish We had seen the old ladies he and his friend bullied. And Emma Thompson was inimitable in her mercilessness.

    Ellen

  2. nick2209

    Many thanks for your comments Ellen.

    I am sure you are right there is an element of gender/class in our reactions to it. And especially the former. In fact I think probably I should have said more about the latter, because I think it is also to do with UK/US differences and the fact that the film did not clearly explain certain things (this might be part of what I call its dishonesty – though this is very probably unfair in this case: I think that this is a film which is fundamentally aimed at a British audience and therefore a number of references are not fully drawn out – the Rachman one to which I refer in the main article is an example).

    The school which Jenny was attending was a private one – fee-paying – which would have been an enormous drain on her parent’s resources (still would – probably even more so now actually) ; we were never shown/told what her father actually did, but I imagine it was some kind of fairly mind-numbing white collar job. You see for me the parents were the tragic figures of the film, because they had been conned and fooled by the English class system into thinking in certain ways about success and failure, and they wanted success for their daughter. They deferred to the bad man because they believed him to be of a better class and success for them equated with moving up the class ladder. They were waiting to be conned; willing victims almost. I think I would have been much more interested in a film about them, and in fact it was they who were my own hero and heroine in the movie because they are so tragic in their way.

    In a way this a film about conmen and they way in which they operate and their victims. Jenny and her parents are all victims of the conman. Well this is what I would have liked the film to be about! But I don’t think it does see Jenny and her parents as equal victims ; she is priveleged where they are not. But they have been much more throughly conned, because they are victims not merely of a ruthless individual but of a system of social lies.

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