“Three Billboards” is a game, too – a cinematic game in which the writer and director, Martin McDonagh, feigns empathy with a magician’s sleight of hand. His characters’ ordeals, demands, sacrifices, and redemptions fit together like, well, a jigsaw puzzle, and he retrofits their traits and experiences to fit. In “Three Billboards,” I have the sense that, despite the fulsome emotional displays, McDonagh is far more interested in his narrative contraptions and contrivances than in his characters, who exist solely to play their part in the plot. His characters are robotic silhouettes spouting gaudily profane wisdom that is dispensed two hundred and eighty characters at a time; his excellent actors have to sweat every line, weigh every gesture, and pose every gaze, pouring every ounce of their skill into humanizing the flimsy simulacra that are written for them. (McDormand’s controlled fury, more than any other factor, keeps the film unified and dramatically engaging even when little else does.) McDonagh also scatters progressive political crumbs throughout the film, and his obscene trivialization of their substance is displayed in the cavalier casualness with which a black woman’s arrest and imprisonment on trumped-up charges drops in as a plot point and out with a smile.
As for violence and gore, McDonagh seems more turned on by it than the Spierigs are. Though I’m squeamish, I found the scenes of grotesquely and meticulously imagined torture in “Jigsaw” to reflect a degree of restraint, bordering on aversion – which suggests that the filmmakers’ actual interests lie elsewhere. McDonagh’s theme of expiation by violence plays a repellent double game; even as his plot pivots on the acknowledgment of misdirected anger and the emotional effort to overcome it, the movie reflects an almost erotically tantalizing excitement at the prospect of showing the gory impact of that warped rage. McDonagh seems excited by it, and he displays it with a blend of suspense-building anticipation and blatant enthusiasm that reflects his own arousal and is meant to arouse viewers as well.
Massive Spoiler Alert!
I really did not enjoy Blade Runner 2049. Yes, it is visually stunning, but it’s all style and no substance, it felt like a series of set-pieces, just showing off the special effects rather than telling a meaningful story.
In spite of the stunning visuals, it’s very dull; I saw it last Saturday and wrote a first draft of this post the next day, and I can honestly say that in the intervening week, none of the imagery has ‘haunted’ me in anyway. At three hours including all the trailers, it is physically arduous to sit through.
It is sleazy and gratuitously violent. Yes, the original Blade Runner is also sleazy and violent, and it is set in a dystopian world, but there is a difference between creating a film about a violent and misogynist future and using images of violence and misogyny to titillate the audience; why did I have to watch a scene of a naked women being stabbed in the abdomen by Jared Leto’s character, just to prove how crazy and evil he was?
There is another scene where an AI’s female avatar syncs with a replicant ‘pleasure model’ (a euphemism for a sex slave) to sexually service K, 2049’s blade runner (his identity as a replicant is made clear from the start of the film). If this is moving at all it is only because it is pathetic, the AI is programmed to please its owner, and both replicants are conditioned to not feel emotions; if it is not pathetic it is just more titillation.
The story itself is also disappointing; while the original Blade Runner asks interesting questions about memory and identity and self, Blade Runner 2049 instead goes with cod mysticism, and the questions it raises about the nature of the replicants just show how nonsensical it all is to begin with, enough to spoil the original film as well.
At this point I am going to put this rest of the review under the fold, because I am going to be spoiling a lot of the plot.
This film was such a disappointment! I had high hopes for it, the trailer was gorgeous, and it had Studio Ghibli attached – so what could go wrong?
I should say, first, that the art work is lovely throughout; the detail and realism of the island backgrounds and wildlife are worthy of Studio Ghibli, or other Japanese animation like the films of Mamoru Hosoda. The human characters bear no resemblance to saucer-eyed anime characters, and did seem more ‘French’ to me, reminding me of artists like Moebius (I may simply have been pre-biased by knowing it was a French co-production, or this may just be due to the fact that it does not look like anime or Disney). The sound effects of the natural world, as well as the soundtrack, are also superb.
The story is of a shipwrecked man stranded on a deserted island. After exploring the island, he builds a raft from bamboo and attempts an escape. Some invisible force destroys the raft a short distance from the island, and the same thing happens when he builds a second, bigger raft. A third, still bigger raft is also destroyed, but this time the giant red turtle of the title is there, and the man assumes it is her attacking him and his raft, although she leaves him alone when he is in the water.
After the third attempt, the man sees the red turtle coming up onto the beach. In a fit of rage, he smashes her over the head with a bamboo pole, turns her onto her back, jumps on her, then leaves her to die in the sun.
Later, feeling guilty, he tries to revive her by pouring seawater over her head, and also tries and fails to right her. It doesn’t work and she appears to die, her shell splitting open.
Then, she turns into a woman, unconscious, and still lying inside the split shell. The man feeds her fresh water, and builds a shelter over her. After a brief rain storm she becomes conscious, and runs into the shallow water near the beach.
The man leaves her his shirt and walks away into the bamboo forest, when he returns to the beach, he sees the woman in the water, walking away from the beach, pushing the floating turtle shell in front of her. When she reaches deeper water, she pushes the shell off out to sea and returns to the beach.
The man responds by doing the same with the forth raft he had started to build. Then they sit on a sand bank, and the woman starts breaking open mussel shells, feeding them both. The man has a flashback to smashing her over the head and shudders, the women now appears unafraid of the man.
Then they walk from the beach into a meadow on the island, and both float up into the air together – a PG metaphor for sex, as we then skip to years later, when they have a toddler son.
The rest of the story covers the boy’s growth into manhood; he swims out to sea with other giant turtles (they are all green, but he has red hair like his mother), and eventually swims off with them for good. There is also a tsunami that devastates the island before he leaves.
After the son leaves, the man and women stay on the island together until they are old and grey, then the man dies in his sleep, and the woman turns back into a turtle and heads back out to sea.
The problem I had with the film while watching it, is that it looks like the man is rewarded for his act of cruel violence by being given a compliant, silent, wife. I kept giving it the benefit of the doubt while watching, hoping there would be something later in the story to mitigate it, but I don’t think there was.
There is no talking in the film, and we never see the story from the woman’s perspective (we see the man’s dreams and hallucinations while he is alone on the island, as well as his flashback). There are lots of fairy tales where people are released from an enchantment trapping them in animal form, or stories like The Little Mermaid, where a magical/mythical creature chooses to be transformed into human form (and these transformations are often violent, or come at a cost), but it is never clear which is the case for The Red Turtle, and there is no way the man knew in advance that this is what would happen, it is obviously a complete surprise to him.
It is not clear what force is keeping the man on the island – is the red turtle supposed to represent the spirit of the island itself? But the island, when it is devastated by the tsunami, is shown to be a normal island, at the mercy of the elements. Was she in love with him from the start? But we only see them ‘meet’ right before he attacks her, they build no relationship with her as the turtle – the brief moment when they first see each other is actually quite moving, it feels like two sentient creatures making first contact, but that is then spoilt by the later violence.
I can see what the story is trying to do, it is aiming for mythic resonance, but I don’t think it achieves it. As a whole, the story itself is best at the beginning, when the man is first washed up on the island, as he explores his new environment (and as an aside, ‘mild peril’ my arse! The moment when he is trapped in a deep-sided pool and forced to swim underwater through a very narrow tunnel to escape terrified me!). The details of this first half build the character of the man, he dreams of a bamboo bridge out to sea that he flies along, and hallucinates a chamber orchestra. There is humour to his Sisyphean raft building, and there are cute crabs for comic relief.
The rest of the story, covering decades, feels sparse by comparison, and the woman never really has a character at all. We only see her swimming once as a human, she doesn’t even go into the sea when her toddler son falls into the same pool that his father fell into before. There is one moment, when the man draws pictures in the sand to show the son that there is a whole world beyond the island, and she adds a drawing of a turtle, but it is not clear if this means she misses her people, or if she is just telling her son that there is that option for him as well.
So, I was disappointed, because the need for the violence of the transformation is never explained, and there is not enough character development to see why the woman wants to stay with him anyway. I worry about the message it portrays, that (male) violence (against a woman) is an acceptable prelude to romantic love and devotion.
Hollywood likes to insist that by meeting one special person, be it lover, alien, or friend, you can heal and be healed in turn. Lonergan tends to the wounds that never close, and although “Manchester by the Sea” concludes in peace, it’s the peace of compromise and exhaustion, as if family existence were a type of civil war.
Popular culture is popular for a reason; even the most forgettable and disposable works touch on matters of authentic psychological urgency, despite distorting and falsifying and debasing them. That’s why the good ones – the ones that pull more than a few threads from the underlying tangle and let them show through the shiny surface of simplification – take hold of the imagination in ways that defy their modest artistic merits.
Last month I went to see Manchester by the Sea, and re-read Geoff Ryman’s Was.
Manchester by the Sea was funnier, and not as unrelentingly grim, as I had been expecting (and fearing) from the reviews I read beforehand. It tells the story of Lee, a man to whom something terrible happens (I won’t spoil what exactly), something that changes his life, and his family’s lives completely, that affects his entire community. Years later, he has to go back home after his brother dies, and his now teenaged nephew needs a guardian.
The thing that makes this such a good film is that there is no clear-cut redemption, there is no feel-good happy ending; Lee’s life changes, but he isn’t ‘fixed’, he’s never going to be ok, ever, but his life still goes on, still damaged. It’s a good film because it handle’s this with respect, it never feels voyeuristic (even though we have to wait to see exactly what happened that caused Lee to leave town), it never feels like the character is being tortured to death by the story for the sake of it (or for the sake of ‘proving’ some bizarre ideological point); it shows that life doesn’t have any larger purpose, or higher meaning, terrible things happen, but people still carry on, scraping something together for themselves.
Was, published in 1992, combines the stories of Judy Garland, the filming of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, an actor dying of AIDS in the 1980’s, Frank Baum, and the ‘real’ Dorothy Gael who inspired him.
Geoff Ryman is one of the most compassionate and humanist writers I have read (ages ago, I found a description of literary humanism I really like, in this review of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: “authentic humanism, meaning a consideration (both celebratory and cautionary) of human doings and undoings”); he is an author whose works I return to again and again – I have lost count of how many times I have read Was, and I would also particularly recommend his books Lust and Air, and his short-story collection Paradise Tales (if the story in that collection about the Angel of the North doesn’t move you, nothing will).
Was also covers difficult subjects, death and loneliness and the abuse (emotional and physical and sexual) of children, and describes people continually striving to live meaningful lives; but, as with Manchester by the Sea, it is never there to shock or titillate. Ryman shows compassion for all his characters, even the bad ones, without ever making excuses for them.
Ryman also does his research! He travelled and read and researched what Kansas was like in the late 19th Century, and the real-life accounts he discovered expanded and enriched his own story telling.
In his afterword, Ryman says: “I am a fantasy writer who fell in love with realism. Because I am a fantasy writer, I am particularly aware that every work of fiction, however realistic, is a fantasy. It happens in a world that is an alternative to this one.” He later adds:
I fell in love with realism because it deflated the myths, the unexamined ideas of fantasy. It confronts them with forgotten facts. It uses past truth – history.
I love fantasy because it reminds us how far short our lives fall from their full potential. Fantasy reminds us how wonderful the world is. In fantasy, we can imagine a better life, a better future. In fantasy, we can free ourselves from history and outworn realism.
Oz is, after all, only a place with flowers and birds and rivers and hills. Everything is alive there, as it is here if we care to see it. Tomorrow, we could all decide to live in a place not much different from Oz. We don’t. We continue to make the world an ugly, even murderous place, for reasons we do not understand.
Those reasons lie in both fantasy and history. Where we are gripped by history – our own personal history, our country’s history. Where we are deluded by fantasy – our own fantasy, our country’s fantasy. It is necessary to distinguish between history and fantasy wherever possible.
And use them against each other.