Finally the big mainstream movies of 2006 are coming out on DVD, so I get to see them at last. I rationalize my movie mania by telling myself it’s important to know the popular culture of my time, and I need to understand the metaphors my students relate to, but the truth is I’m just a shameless movie-hound. I’m most likely to watch movies (and blog about them) when I’m avoiding something I should be doing, and this weekend I have two sets of papers to grade, so here I am. And lo, I have enjoyed two movies I expected to hate, The Departed and The Pursuit of Happyness; and although I was prepared for the economic and political vision of Blood Diamond , and I knew it would be drenched in blood and horror because the diamond trade is, I didn’t expect it to have an intelligently written sub-plot that explores questions I am still asking myself, especially about Africa.
The blood and gore in The Departed is so far over-the-top that it made me laugh, which I think is what Scorsese was going for. Not since since El Topo in the 70s have I seen so many exploding bodies, fountains of blood, and smoking guns. But here, as in El Topo the violence is all metaphor. We aren’t supposed to believe people are really being shot or stabbed. It’s a movie! The Departed constantly reminds us that it’s a movie; it even makes jokes about bad cop-shows on TV. It’s an action-thriller, a guy-flick, a shoot-em-up. But it’s also a movie about a very public, very American hunger for someone in authority who isn’t a liar, for someone who isn’t screwing everybody on the planet for more money and power. Here, instead of good cop/bad cop, we have bad cop/worse cop, and everybody’s the bad guys, except for the good guys who are pretending to be bad guys–who are actually worse guys because they’re being manipulated by the worst guys who are really on the payroll of the FBI…and the pileup of bodies and the pools of blood are just meant–how else can I say this–to crack us up. Ordinarily I would say all the usual things about gratuitous violence and desensitization, but this time, somehow, I just couldn’t stop laughing. The only part of the production that troubled me was the casting. I’m challenged when it comes to young white male film stars: they all look the same to me. So I spent the first hour anxiously trying to distinguish between Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio (because in this movie, it’s important to know who is which); finally I figured out that DiCaprio has eyes that are slantier and closer together than Damon’s, and once I got that pegged, I was set.
I almost didn’t even look at The Pursuit of Happyness. I got it because I thought it might do for a mother/daughter night; but I told Manko, “I’m probably going to hate this. It’s probably the same story hundreds of thousands of single moms live through, and just because it’s about a single dad, it’s high drama. Like Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s probably going to piss me off.” Certain aspects of it do piss me off. But it hooks me, too, because it reflects some of the realities of life I seldom see represented in film. It treats homelessness with a modicum of respect; it goes inside a shelter, and even though it suggests that the protagonist and his child are not like the other people in the shelter, still, how many mainstream movies ever even admit that there are people in the USA who are not defective but can’t make ends meet? What moves me is all the running the main character does. He’s always running: running from home to the daycare center to work, running to catch a bus, running to reclaim his stuff, running to the childcare center after work, running to get to the shelter for the night. I really relate to all that running, and to the bags and boxes and heavy loads he carries as he runs (often dragging his kid with him, sometimes losing patience, not always being a perfect parent), to the long rides on public transport, the moonlighting to scrape together enough to pay the rent, the heavy weight of the responsibility of caring for a child or children every day of every week for years and years and years–the relentlessness of it. Most of us who live that running life are women; most of us will never see an Oprah-ending in which our financial problems become a thing of the past. The politics of the film are Disney’s politics, the politics of The Three Little Pigs: success is measured in dollars; anybody can make their dream come true; hard work and individual will is all it takes to “make it.” I hate all that. But it hooks me: when Will Smith’s character spends the night with his kid in a public toilet, I see all of us who have fried our last nerves trying to take care of ourselves and our kids, people for whom “abundance” just never quite shows up, no matter how vividly we may affirm or visualize it (pardon my contempt for that whole load of new age crap). The movie hooks me because it shows how hard it is, and we don’t often get to see that. (Nevermind the Hollywood touches–Will Smith’s character never needs a bath, never smells–after all that running; his clothes never look funky; his shirts are always clean and pressed; when he loses a shoe he shows up with a new pair of shoes the next day; and he always has money for food and bus fare.) The predictable, unrealistic happy ending (yeah, I know, it’s “inspired by a true story,” and that kind of anecdotal history is what keeps the Disney myth alive) is less satisfying than all those running scenes. I love those running scenes. That’s my life, and so many other people’s lives, mostly women but some men too.
I can’t believe I’m saying this: I like the bloody action thriller because it’s unrealistic and I agree with its politics; and I like the sentimental feel-good movie, even though I deplore its politics, because it offers glimpses of reality. It’s as though I’m reading both films against their surfaces.
Finally, a few words about Blood Diamond.
This is an update April 6th, some days after I posted this blog entry: one friend in southern Africa says Leonardo DiCaprio’s accent is terrible. So much for my ability to hear it! Another friend who worked in the diamond industry tells me the information in the film is Hollywood fiction, not reliable reportage, and that while the film may be engaging as fiction, we should not imagine that it is accurate. Perhaps it is not so important as I imagined. However I still stand by my respect for the dialogue between the sub-plot characters. All that said, here is my (now red-faced) response to the film:
Djiman Hounsou’s acting (for which he got an Academy Award nomination) is sheer vibrating genius. Leonardo DiCaprio (in a completely different role from the one he played in The Departed) does a very impressive job with a Zimbabwean accent. I only lived in that region for six years, so there may be nuances of the accent I didn’t learn to recognize, but it’s a very complex and difficult accent to hear and reproduce, and DiCaprio sounds right-on to me! Still, the biggest surprise for me is the intelligent dialogue between the practical Zimbabwean diamond-smuggling soldier of fortune and the idealistic but anti-romantic American woman journalist. Their relationship reminds me of the couple in Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller: they ask if it’s possible to relieve other people’s suffering and where to set the boundaries; they argue about one person’s ability to make a difference; they examine the ways they each exploit other people; they admit they thrive on crisis; he exposes her inconsistency and she exposes his sentiment; and although they provide the obligatory Hollywood love interest, they also engage the audience in a discussion about ethics, politics, compassion, and survival–a discussion I continue to have with myself.
Tags: Books and Movies