Monday, November 18, 2013

On lyricism and the poetic simpleton

A friend of mine who shall remain nameless (he'll probably call himself out in the comments section anyway) gave me a sort of challenge when he learned that I was finally going to see Ain't Them Bodies Saints, which he'd recommended to me several months ago.

(In my defense, the movie only came out in Australia this past Thursday.)

"So tomorrow we find out if it's lyrical filmmaking or Malick you object to," he wrote in an email to me.

He actually wrote "languid filmmaking" rather than "lyrical filmmaking," but I remembered it as "lyrical" in my head as I was watching the movie.

He's right to characterize my tastes that way, but I guess I took some umbrage at the fairly neutral and thoroughly accurate comment. I have objected to some of Terrence Malick's films, in some cases vociferously (The Thin Red Line) and in some cases bemusedly with moderate affection (The Tree of Life). I'm not a Malick champion, that's for sure.

Yet I do feel like it's not just a personal preference thing, like there's something lacking in me that makes me like Malickian movies less than most people -- most discerning people, who are the only ones I really care about when comparing my movie tastes to theirs. Why don't I like Malick's brand of visual poetry a little more than I do?

Ain't Them Bodies Saints was possibly going to provide some kind of answer to this, though I didn't even know that it warranted the comparison to Malick until my friend wrote the email in question.

Of course, I should have known. The title is like something William Faulkner might have come up with, establishing it pretty well as Southern Gothic. And most Southern Gothic is lyrical or languid or whatever term you might use.

Then there's the fact that Casey Affleck spends the trailer talking just above a whisper about his vows to find his love (Rooney Mara) again. It's actually his regular speaking voice, but the "just above a whisper" comment is meant to make the comparison to the work of Malick, whose everpresent voiceovers are marked by their whispery quality.

It's Affleck's work that made me realize what it is I don't really care for in movies like this:

Uneducated low-level criminals from the South who speak in a string of childlike platitudes about love and destiny, whose simplistic construction gives them a wisdom and authenticity that could never be managed by a skilled wordsmith.

Since you might guess from the previous sentence that I am, or consider myself to be, such a wordsmith, you might not be surprised that I find myself in opposition to such characters.

So it's not the lyrical, languid world of a Terrence Malick film that really bothers me. It's the characters who populate it.

Since some plot description of David Lowery's acclaimed new(ish) film is probably now warranted, I'll tell you that it's set a bit in the Bonnie & Clyde world of Malick's masterpiece Badlands. (See, I do think some Malick films are masterpieces.) Affleck and Mara are young lovers or spouses (it's not quite clear) who have just discovered they're expecting a child. They're trying to make a life for themselves and their child through armed robbery, but that career is cut abruptly short during a shootout with police where their accomplice is killed and an officer is wounded. Although Mara's Ruth took the shot that wounded the officer, Affleck's Bob claims responsibility and is sent away for a long prison sentence. It's at this point when he starts doing VO of the letters he writes to Ruth, promising such things as "Each day I will awaken thinking it's the day I will see you again, and one day that will be true."


Okay, it's a nice thought. I wish I'd come up with it. But the thing is, I can't come up with a thought like that because I'm an Ivy League graduate who would write it and re-write it until all its enviable sense of spontaneity was gone. I'd obsess over it until I killed it.

Not Bob Muldoon. Because Bob is an uneducated low-level criminal from the South (Texas in this case), his emotions are simple and pure and vivid. When adults try to draw children's drawings, they can't make it look right. But Bob's heart and his words of love for Ruth are a child's drawing that comes naturally to him, because he's at that state of emotional evolution.

I'm not picking on Ain't Them Bodies Saints in particular. I'm only picking on it because we've seen this so many times before. The first few times, it felt sort of fresh. This tragic fellow has a quick temper and he hurts people accidentally and he does the wrong things, but his quivering words of love are as pure as a baby's tears. He loves his girl and would do anything to be with her, and that's all there is to that. But by time number, I don't know, 47, I felt I'd seen this story before.

I could never be such a romantic hero in such a Faulknerian, Malickian story. As me, Vance, I'd be overthinking everything, so I'd never have the quick temper, nor hurt people accidentally, nor do the wrong things to begin with. (Oh, I'd do wrong things, but it'd be like plagiarizing a paper in school, not robbing a liquor store.) The romance of the situation is dependent on how little is calculated and calibrated about the thoughts and speech. Everything is "from the heart," not "from the brain."

It occurs to me that these sentiments are similar to some I expressed when I was struggling with why I didn't connect with Drive the way some people do/did. Here's a link to that piece if you want to read it. In that case it was more the strong silent type than the child-poet, but in both cases, it's characters who are essentially different than I am.

I wonder why we, as an audience, get so much more out of love stories between simple folk than love stories between university professors. At this point, we don't even get the opportunity to see love stories between university professors, so uninteresting is their love. Those eggheads aren't spontaneous or reckless or dangerous. Therefore, they're not romantic.

There must also be some kind of sense of superiority going on here. I think we need to look down on Bob and Ruth as children, of a sort -- our intellectual inferiors. We can examine their love as though it were the love of two lemurs in a zoo. There's something feral and elemental and basic about it. Advanced love is too hard for us to process in a pastime designed as escapism, since most likely we're dealing with some fucked up version of advanced love in our own lives, where people give each other the silent treatment for reasons they don't even remember, and no one gets involved in shootouts.

But back to this issue of the lyrical or languid style of filmmaking that Malick and David Lowery have in common. (You'd say Lowery is ripping Malick off, except that it's too well-made to really deliver that kind of indictment.) Another 2013 film disabused me of the notion that I couldn't wholeheartedly endorse the style of filmmaking Malick has made his calling card at least since The Thin Red Line. It has the photographic beauty of a Malick film, and if anything, it makes even less sense.

That film is Upstream Color, and I've already seen it twice.

I wasn't a fan of Shane Carruth's debut feature, Primer, but I ate up his sophomore film with a big spoon. Even though most of the time I had to rely on flimsy half theories of what was even going on.

Could it be a coincidence that these characters are modern, intellectual northerners?

I mean, we're not talking about brainiacs or anything, but Kris and Jeff are both denizens of a large, bustling city. No one talks about how close they are to seeing or touching each other. If they talk about anything at all, it's weird conspiracy theory shit that doesn't even make sense to them.

And I discovered while watching Upstream Color that I didn't need to know what was going on at all, as long as I felt like I dug how it was going on. In fact, I simply luxuriated in being immersed in an experience that was unlike any I had ever had.

Unlike in Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a tale as old as William Faulkner.

I can't leave this topic behind without acknowledging a certain hypocrisy in what I've just written. I say that these characters ring a little false to me, but the fact of the matter is, one of my very favorite movies of all time features a tragic relationship between two poetic simpletons. That movie is Raising Arizona, and Nicolas Cage's voiceover is just about the shining example of everything I'm railing against here.

But that just adds strength to my claim that it's all about the timing. That was 1987, when I hadn't already seen these characters so many times before. And, that was a comedy, in addition to the tragic romance. There was barely any languidness or lyricism to be seen.

So I can answer my friend as follows: It's not languid filmmaking, nor lyrical filmmaking, nor Terrence Malick I object to.

I object to these characters who can't find the words, who always find the perfect words. 


Don Handsome said...

Perhaps you are unable to forgive a film for engaging in a heightened reality?

I think what you are saying makes perfect sense to me IF the conceit of the film is realism. But I think the point of the Malickian lyrical film (after reading your post, I realize I used the wrong term when I wrote "languid") is to send you to an unreal place rooted in realism.

Films like these are tackling real subject matter, but are doing so in an unreal manner. They live in the hushed whispers that only underscore real life and they dwell on the beautiful minutia that we don't typically have time for. These films transport us to the unreal places - sometimes those places are within our mind, and sometimes they are in another place that we are just trespassing in (I would argue that Aint Them Bodies Saints and Badlands are trespassing films, while Tree of Life is an inner looking film, but that's clearly debatable). And while this is typically a visual transportation, I tend to think that this heightened reality welcomes and thrives on wordsmithery that matches the visuals.

In my dreams we all speak with the precision and eloquence of Shakespeare - even the garbage men and stick-up artists - and I'm totally OK with that.

Vancetastic said...

I buy that. I don't think I'm exactly looking for realism here, but I am kind of looking for an emotional realism that ATBS just didn't quite give me. My problem is that little enough time is spent on giving us why Bob and Ruth are such soul mates that the proof of their bond has to be told to us, not shown to us. Yeah, you don't want a cheesy montage of images that proves their love, or you don't want to wait until 30 minutes in to have the shootout. But the fact of the matter was, the only evidence I had of the tragic, doomed romance the movie wanted me to feel in my bones was Bob's letters stating how he felt about Ruth. And these were just the simpleton platitudes that kind of bother me, since they are a stand-in for the real narrative work that would get us emotionally invested in them.

Nick Prigge said...

Even as someone who considers "Aint Them Bodies Saints" his favorite film thus far in 2013, I must say I enjoyed the hell out of this piece. This was wonderful. And this: "Oh, I'd do wrong things, but it'd be like plagiarizing a paper in school, not robbing a liquor store." This had me laughing out loud at my work desk.

As for a defense of said film.....what drew me most to the film wasn't so much Casey Affleck getting back to his one true love as the Rooney Mara character having to struggle with the idea that even though she is his true love - and he hers - that her responsibility to the child likely outweighs one true love. At least, it should. But she doesn't know if she can bring herself to accept that truth. And what happens when he gets there? Does she give into it? Ignore it? That's where I found the emotion and suspense.

But, when I was trying to explain this movie to a friend I made sure to explain that it was TOTALLY a film that was made for me. And maybe that's because in the face of my constant over-thinking of real life romantic entanglements, on the screen I just want it to be simple. Maybe.

Vancetastic said...

I don't know that it would have changed anything I wrote, Nick, but I didn't know you held Ain't Them Bodies Saints in such high regard. I've since read the review on your own site (will comment there in a bit).

I think you make a valuable point about Ruth's parental duties vs. her duties to herself as a person with the capacity to love. Her crucial realization regarding Ben Foster and his ability to protect her family, if not connect to her on the same level as Bob, is perhaps the moment she truly becomes an adult. There's something of the feral child about Mara, and I suspect there will be even when she's in her 30s. That makes the theme of maturing into a responsible parent all the more resonant.

Also, glad you liked the line! I never know what will make people laugh, and don't consciously try to write to make people laugh, so I'm glad it sometimes happens.