Stories of Love and Loss
I have been thinking of what has really stricken a chord with me in the last few weeks and I am still not sure why these three different movies have felt so overwhelming.
The first movie is definitely the most light hearted one despite the shocking late December deaths, one day apart, of its two subjects. A friend of mine recommended it a few months ago and I did not make much of it, I just did not expect to be so touched by this famous mother-famous daughter story. Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were two women who reached a state of balance thanks to an almost aggressive honesty. Their lives were on display anyway ,“We are always on a red carpet,” Fisher tells reporter who asks what they do when they aren’t on a red carpet.
Debbie Reynolds allegedly retired, lived in golden-hued glamour down the hill from her daughter, Carrie Fisher’s Pee-wee’s shovelling kitsch pavilion, a perfect embodiment of her quick wit and survivor’s sarcasm. The plot of Bright Lights is almost in reality television territory. Basically, we’re privy to various “days in the life”. We watch the preparation for one of Reynolds’ Vegas nightclub acts, and travelling with Fisher to a Star Wars-related “lap dance session” – what she calls the quick autograph/photo op cash transactions that bring in a nice revenue stream.
Luckily, there is an inherent gravitas at play, and not only because of the recent tragedy. These women meant a lot to their respective fans, and the footage wisely includes a good deal of directorial stylised outside the lines. Among the best sequences is a fairly standard interview interrupted by an errant burglar alarm. Reynolds and Fisher lightly zinging one another as they blaze through the newest obstacle of the day has shades of the great American documentary Grey Gardens, but its melancholy doesn’t share the same decay or underachievement. Fisher is shown getting begrudgingly in shape for a return to Star Wars, and the ailing Reynolds does well accepting a lifetime Screen Actors Guild award, even if, during the limo ride, it seems like she won’t be able to string two sentences together.
Reynolds was well aware of her place in the Hollywood pantheon, and maintained a rich appreciation for collecting memorabilia. I kind of found it strange and funny that she owns a piece of furniture that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor – the woman who notoriously “stole” Reynolds’ true love, Fisher’s father, Eddie. Similarly, there is no mention that one of Fisher’s remaining vices is a ubiquitous can of Coca-Cola, for which her late father was a famous pitchman.
There is an uncomfortable sequence in the film, shot in 2010, in which Fisher visits her quite ill father, who was absent during most of her childhood, and just lays it out: “I was funny because I thought you’d want to be around me.” It’s a heavy scene, and old home movie footage is dripping in heartache and loss. Clips from Postcards From the Edge, the Mike Nichols film based on Fisher’s quasi-memoirs, written when she was “very angry”, loom like the memories of a bad fight to remind us of less harmonious times
But Fisher, her mind forever twelve steps ahead, always snaps it back with a joke, and the spine of Bright Lights is a strong two-hander comedy between veteran show-folk. Self-deprecating bon mots, wordplay, song lyrics and perfectly timed occasional moans are what elevate this beyond simple “Keeping Up With” material. The highlight, old film of Reynolds decked out in Bob Fosse-style spangles introducing pre-Princess Leia Fisher to sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, proves that they really don’t make stars like they used to.
There’s a double-shot of horror and colouring despair in the outrageously gripping and absorbing meta mystery-thriller from director Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals. It is a movie with a double-stranded narrative – a story about a fictional story which runs alongside – and it pulls off the considerable trick of making you care about both equally. In Nocturnal Animals, these levels are equally powerful, and have an intriguingly queasy and potent interrelation.
Ford has definitely raised his game from his faintly wan and over-stylised drama, A Single Man from 2009, a movie I really disliked at the time. There is something much more uninhibited and even raucous about this picture, which combines melodrama with a kind of teasing sophistication.
The scene is Los Angeles where Susan played by Amy Adams is a successful gallery owner who appears to stylised in shocking and provocative conceptual pieces. She is successful, but her personal wealth derives chiefly from the business activities of her smoothie husband, Walker, with whom she is deeply unhappy. Then she is astonished to receive, out of the blue, the manuscript of an unpublished novel from her first husband, Tony played brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal, a sweet, sensitive boy and wannabe writer from her Texas hometown whose heart she broke twice over: by leaving him for Walker, and by declaring he didn’t have the right stuff to be an author – that he was insecure and weak. There is also another terrible issue in their pasts.
While Walker is out of town for the weekend, Susan begins to read and Ford colouring the novel in front of us. The clash between supercool LA and this couldn’t be more jarring. Because this is no feathery literary confection: it is a brutal west Texas crime thriller about a married man – Susan imagines Tony, that is, Jake Gyllenhaal in the role, who takes his wife Laura played by Isla Fisher and his daughter Helen on a road trip on vacation across the remote desert, where they are terrorised by a wild gang of good ol’ boys led by the brutish Ray, with a terrific performance by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. It is a horrifying situation, which is to lead to a confrontation with a classic, laconic, Stetson-wearing Texas lawman, terrifically played by Michael Shannon.
Susan is horrified – and we feel her personal, extra-textual horror. Where is this coming from? I kept remembering Straw Dogs, in which “the weak husband” is played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman, a movie that has haunted me ever since I watched it. Of course, the theme of revenge begins, inexorably, to emerge. The book is entitled Nocturnal Animals, which is what these psychopathic criminals are, but it is also a queasy perversion or deliberate betrayal of an affectionate nickname he once gave Susan, a restless night-owl when they were together. Here is what happens when the weak guy decides to get tough. The book is about revenge and it is revenge – a cherry bomb of rage and malice lobbed into Susan’s perfect little life.
But there is more even than this. It is about the revenge of the past on the present and the present on the past. The older person avenges the slights and reversals of struggling youth by getting rich and successful. The younger person, reaching out maliciously from the past, mocks this bland victory by with memories of the idealism you have abandoned, the youthful beauty and hope you have lost and the sickening inevitability of becoming like the older generation you once despised.
There are tremendous flashbacks, triggered incongruously by the grisly crime-genre shocks, which carry Susan back to the decisions she made and unmade in her youth. And there is a glorious scene with Susan and her reactionary, Martini-sipping mamma, wonderfully played by Laura Linney.
As I say: some of the scenes in the LA art world are a bit broad. But this is a terrifically absorbing thriller with that vodka-kick of pure malice. Again I did not expect to feel so much pleasure and queasiness, watching this beautiful and sad horror movie
This last movie was probably the most painful to watch and I could say, for one scene I considered this film a true masterpiece.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan specializes in studies of grief, guilt, and bewilderment. In Manchester by the Sea, he provides again very closely focused anatomies of characters who’ve suffered extreme emotional trauma. The film could easily have seemed grim and foreboding in the extreme – a story of a father and husband who inadvertently caused a tragedy in his own family and is full both of self-loathing and of hostility towards the world. That Manchester By The Sea is so absorbing is down to Lonergan’s painstaking directorial style and to a superb Method-style performance from the lead actor, Casey Affleck
As Lee, Affleck doesn’t get many great soliloquies in which to express his feelings. Much of his time on screen is spent terrorised snow, fixing blocked drains or sitting in offices, listening to doctors, bosses or policemen, all invariably telling him the worst. Affleck plays Lee with a pained, bewildered look in his eyes. There is a very telling moment early on in which a customer berates him and he swears at her “I don’t give a f*ck what you do, Mrs. Olsen.” For all his seeming aggression, his manner is fatalistic. He goes about his tasks in an efficient but robotic way, shunning all human contact, but we can sense his pain. There is nothing remotely charming about him. His idea of recreation is propping up a bar, drinking as much beer as he can and then slugging anyone who has the temerity to look at him.
The film is set in the dead of winter. It is freezing, too cold even for the undertakers to dig into the ground to bury a body, so the corpses are left in the freezer. The classical music on the soundtrack adds to the elegiac feel. The director makes as few concessions to the audience as the janitor does to his customers. If Lee receives a call, he’ll be shown listening. If he is in a car, he is filmed driving, staring blankly ahead.
The film is very matter of fact, and morbidly comic, about the whole business of dying. When Lee is called back home, to Manchester-By-The-Sea, because his brother is dangerously ill, the doctors and nurses take him through a routine that is clearly very long rehearsed. You’re allowed a moment with the body. If there are tears, someone will get the Kleenex. There are forms to fill in, funeral arrangements to be made. Affleck’s face, throughout this entire rigmarole, is a landscape of suffering and plaintive, barely suppressed rage.
Flashbacks are thrown into the film very briefly. Suddenly, as we see Lee as the devoted dad with his beloved wife Randi played by the beautiful Michelle Williams and kids, colour and energy will flood into the frame. Lee will be shown goofing around.
Lonergan’s screenplay is deceptively intricate. Lee wants to be on his own but the moment he is back in his home town, it becomes apparent that he is caught up in a complicated web of different relationships: with his brother’s flaky, alcoholic wife, an enjoyably neurotic cameo from Gretchen Mol; with old friends and, most importantly, with his brother’s teenage son, Patrick. The biggest conflict for Lee comes when he learns his brother has appointed him as Patrick’s guardian. Taking on such a role will force him to come out of his self-protective shell.
Patrick is the opposite of Lee, a fiery, impulsive teenager who plays in a band and is one of the stars of the high school hockey team. While he is busy looking for new experiences and embracing life, Lee is the Scrooge-like figure, saying no and trying to keep the outside world at bay. For a few moments, as the focus shifts onto Patrick’s life, the film begins to resemble one of those John Hughes Brat Pack movies.
There are very funny interludes in which Patrick and his girlfriend are shown pretending to do their homework in an upstairs room when they are really trying to have sex. Patrick deals with his grief in an entirely different way to his uncle. He looks outward. He is as gregarious as Lee is solitary.
It’s typical of Lonergan’s approach that the most intense moment in the movie – the chance encounter between Lee and his now-remarried ex-wife – is so inconclusive. I think for this scene only, I just love this movie. It is not that often that you experience a scene such as this one in a movie. Earlier in the movie, after the accident, which has ruined their lives, she is shown recoiling at his slightest touch. It’s a testament to Michelle Williams’ ability that she’s able to bring such complexity to her role as Randi even though she’s only on screen for a few minutes.
Somehow, over a couple of minutes, standing on a street behind a park, she manages us to show us her character’s humour, fieriness, her sense of yearning and heartbreak, her vengeful feelings and her pity for Lee.
“Look, Lee, you made a horrible mistake like a million other people did last night. We’re not going to crucify you,” a friendly cop tells the suicidal Lee after the accident which devastates his family. It’s a throwaway line but sums up perfectly one of the main themes of the movie – namely that “sh*t happens” and that when it does, the worst punishment is always likely to be self-inflicted. I think this movie will stay with me forever.
After watching Manchester by the Sea, I could not speak, I could not think, I could not move, I could not sleep.