When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings. Music works in the same fashion; I would say that there is no art form that has so much in common with film as music. Both affect our emotions directly, not via the intellect. And film is mainly rhythm; it is inhalation and exhalation in continuous sequence.
These words from one of the greatest directors seem to beautifully capture the nature of film and its relationship to other arts, namely music. Music and drama were present in unison, in a grand manner, in the music of Richard Wagner. Toward the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche proclaimed his split with Wagner precisely for the reason because Wagner was too much of a dramatist, and not a musician. This verdict seems unjustified taking into account Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, one of the greatest musical pieces in the history of music. Nietzsche was, of course, aware of that and an ardent admirer of that piece. He refers mostly to the Nibelung and Parsifal, and this can be debated.
The important element of this relationship is the joining of music and drama into one art form. This leads us to the term which defines Wagner’s musical dramas (not operas) – Gesamtkunstwerk, which means “total artwork”. Film is precisely that; it combines all art forms into one. The problem with which Bergman deals in aforementioned words is not film’s incorporation of music into its form (Lars von Trier uses the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan in his Melancholia, which is magnificently combined with images which leave us breathless), but the way in which music is akin to film.
In Bergman’s words, music reaches directly to us, and Arthur Schopenhauer believed the same thing: music affects us directly. He says: “Music … stands quite apart from all the [other arts]… It is such a great and exceedingly fine art, its effect on man’s innermost nature is so powerful, and it is so completely and profoundly understood by him in his innermost being as an entirely universal language, whose distinctness surpasses even that of the world of perception itself.” In other words: “Music is as immediate an objectification and copy of the whole will as the world itself is”. For Schopenhauer, there is no intermediary between music and the will, music is its direct expression and articulation. We can say, together with Bergman, that film affects us so profoundly and directly, that it is akin to music as Schopenhauer understood it. While we watch a film, we lose ourselves in the the poetry of words and images.
Only the greatest directors manage to achieve this kind of sensation, and along with Bergman, Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog are among them. To Herzog music is of immense importance and we can say that the greatest directors have a strong touch for the musical erotic, as Søren Kierkegaard understands it. Sensuality is for Kierkegaard the main force behind music, and we can say behind film as well. He argues that with Christianity sensuality is posited: it negates sensuality and in the same time introduces it into history of ideas.
For Kierkegaard, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is the highest expression of the musical erotic, and in the writer’s own opinion, it has its highest expression in Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Aguirre’s pleonaxia, the desire for limitless conquest posits the erotic in its zenithal form, the posession of everything imaginable. At the same moment this driving force is self-negating, since the limitless desire to possess can result only in its cancellation. In Aguirre film as an art form achieves its own climax; the musical erotic and poetic imagery merge into a complete art form.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s tour de force follows a fascist agent of the secret police whose assignment is to assassinate his former university professor. Set mostly in 1938., it doesn’t deal with broader societal aspects of the rulling regime, it is a study of a personality, Marcello’s, who willingly serves the fascist regime. When one of the fascists interviews him, he says that most people do it for money, some because of fear, and few out of conviction. What motivates Marcello to serve the fascist cause seems to be the main question which is a driving force of the film. Beautifully shot, famous for Bertolucci’s unique use of colors, for example the use of yellow in the scene on the train when his wife tells him of her former lover, symbolizing jealousy, is one of the obvious examples of Bertolucci’s delicate use of color, a stylistic feature shared with Jean-Luc Godard.
Bertolucci claimed: “The Conformist is a story about me and Godard. When I gave professor Quadri Godard’s telephone number and his adress (in the film), I was kidding. But later I said, ‘Well perhaps it has some meaning… I am Marcello and I make fascist films and I want to kill Godard who is a revolutionary, who makes revolutionary films and who was my teacher. This seems to evoke Sigmund Freud’s analysis of primitive cultures in his Totem and Taboo and the killing of the father which results in guilt and worship of he father (Freud sees the origin of religion in Oedipus complex). In other words, Bertolucci’s killing of his cinematic father in the film seems to be the result of an obsession with Godard and The Conformist is a totem dedicated to Godard himself. It is hard to believe that Bertolucci is serious when he says that he makes fascist films, but his obsession with Godard led him to “reject” him in the most radical manner; since Godard is a Maoist, he shall call himself fascist.
The word which is pronounced most frequently in the first part of the film is normalità, normalcy, Marcello strives for the complete normalization of his life. For Marcello, to be a normal man means to be a “true fascist”. He is engaged to a petty bourgeois woman, who is, in his words, good only for bed and kitchen, becomes an active member of the rulling party. Freudian interpretation of Marcello’s personality seems to be the most obvious approach, but considering the historical moment and Marcello’s commitment to fascism, a more interesting interpretative approach is to apply Theodor Adorno’s concept of “authoritarian personality” to Marcello.
Adorno designated nine traits of the authoritarian personality, and we will see that Marcello fits in with most of them, yet not all. The first is conventionalism, rigid adherence to conventional middle-class rules, which is present in Marcello’s personality, evident in the fact that he married a middle class woman who is “mediocre”, in his own words, in his acceptance to go to the confesssion although he is not religious etc.. The second is authoritarian submission, an uncritical attitude toward authority, which is evidently Marcello’s trait. He obeys the commands, even if they involve murder. The third is authoritarian aggression, for example an attitude: “Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.” This is vividly present in the words of Mangianello, Marcello’s accomplice: “Cowards, homosexuals, Jews – they’re all the same thing. If it were up to me, I’d stand them all against a wall!”
Anti-intraception is a trait which characterizes those who are antagonistic toward the subjective and imaginative, and in this respect Marcello is not authoritarian since he is educated in liberal arts, loves poetry and is well-versed in Latin; shows affinity to it. It seems that Marcello is not completely authoritarian and this may be the reason why his professor, when they meet, hopes that he will renounce fascism. Superstition and stereotypy is a trait which seems to fit Marcello’s personality due to his acceptance of fascist values. He says that “mumps, scarlet fever and German maesles” are “moral maladies”. All this shows that Bertolucci presents a highly complex character who is not like Mangianello, a fascist to the bone, but someone who will obey authority and strive to normalization, most likely due to his family background.
Power and toughness and the “preoccupation with dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension” is shown in Marcello’s character when he “wins” his former professor’s wife over, he does it by force. Destructiveness and cynicism, a view that war is a natural state of humanity is present in the fascist vocabulary which Marcello accepted, so it is safe to conclude that as a fascist, he shares this trait. Projectivity, “the projection outward of unconscious emotional impulses”, is particularly vivid at the end of the film, after the breakdown of the fascist regime, and the breakdown of Marcello’s psyche. He belives he murdered a young homosexual, with whom he had an encounter in his early youth. At the end of the film, after the collapse, he hears him speak of “Madame Butterfly”, the same words he heard him speaking earlier. He attacks him verbally and asks him where he was on the dates when the abuse and the violence ocurred and on the day when he murdered his professor in 1938. The two traumatic experiences are associated through the mechanism of transference.
Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan in his seminars speaks: “Transference is the enactment of the reality of the unconscious”. He projects the murder he committed on the homosexual who assaulted him and whom he tried to murder at young age. The whole scene has the quality of a dream and the ancient architecture amplifies the feeling of the unreal. The final trait Adorno emphasizes is the preoccupation with sex, which is shown when Marcello orders Manginaello to beat his mother’s lover; he seems to be disgusted with her lifestyle. The fact which makes Adorno’s F scale so valuable is its scope of application in the contemporary times. Its application to a fictional character can hopefully sharpen our senses to the signs of the rise of authoritarianism in our own surroundings. We can conclude that Marcello shows predisposition to the authoritarian mode of thinking and his obsession with normalcy and conformism made him an easy target for the fascist regime.
In all these years do you know what remains stamped on my memory? Your voice. ‘Imagine a large subterranean place, like a cavern. Inside are men who’ve lived there since childhood. All in chains and forced to look at the back of the cave. Behind them, in the distance, shines the light of a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners, imagine a low wall like the tiny stage of a puppet theatre.’ It was November 1928… Now try to imagine men walking past that low wall carrying statues of wood and of stone. The statues are higher than the wall… They see only the shadow fire projects on the cavern wall.
Shadows, the reflexions of things… as you experience in Italy today.
If those prisoners were free to speak might they not call their visions reality?
In these lines Marcello elaborates Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. They apply it to the condition in fascist Italy. After the scene, Marcello’s shadow on the wall is seen, and then it disappears; Bertolluci toys with the idea that since the shadow is gone, Marcello now sees reality as it is. Of course, it is an illusion. Mussolini’s subjects saw the shadows of reality as they were presented by fascist ideology. It dominates all aspects of life and doesn’t leave a place for authenticity, there is only conformity. This scene is particularly nuanced since Marcello tries to win the sympathy of his former professor, but at the same time, he presents himself openly as a fascist – he raises his hand in a fascist salute while explaining the argument.
Professor Quadri doubts Marcello’s allegiance to the cause, since he does not show anti-intraception which is common for a fascist, but shows capability for philosophical insight, a moral one. This relationship is all the more interesting since professor Quadri, a man who prides himself for living in a place where freedom of thought and action is possible [in France], is ready to show trust to the self-proclaimed fascist on the account of his excellence in liberal arts. This precipitates his downfall. When Marcello drives with Mangianello to assassinate professor Quadri, he tells him: “I’ve just had a fantastic dream… I was in Switzerland. And you were taking me for an operation in a hospital because I was blind… And professor Quadri did the operation. The operation was a success and I was leaving soon with the wife and the professor. And she loved me.”
This dream is a direct reference to the discussion about Plato’s allegory of the cave. Marcello dreamed that he was blind and professor Quadri did an operation on him and he could see again. He is no longer a slave to the fascist lies and blindness. They are in Switzerland, a safe, democratic and later neutral country, with a possibility for a better life. Professor Quadri is a father figure who has the capability to lead him to the path of rightousness, yet he assassinates him. In Bertolucci’s own words, the film is a reversed catharsis, in the place of a liberation, there is continued enslavenment and in the end, collapse of the life as he knows it. It is a tragedy without the hand of fate, unless it is his unconscious which led him to forsake his individuality and be a slave to the murderous regime.
Vera Dika, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003
Duckitt, J., 2015. Authoritarian Personality. In: James D. Wright (editor-in-chief), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Vol 2 Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 255–261
The bad education I received at school was rectified when I went to the cinema. My religion became the cinema. Of course one could create one’s own belief system, and anything that helps or supports you in life can be seen as covering the function of religion. In that sense you could consider cinema my religion, because it is one of my major stimuli that I have for living. Cinema has that aspect of devotion to saints and idolatry as well. In that sense it is entirely religious.
Almodóvar’s thoughts on cinema and religion are presented as an autobiographical account which can be vividly discerned in his 2004 film Bad Education. In this movie, two boys, who are homosexuals, as Almodóvar himself, go to the cinema and enjoy a place which is separated from the corrupt world of a religious school in Franco-era Spain. They see, as the director himself, cinema as a place of refuge, a sanctuary where they can experience emotions authentically, far beyond the grasp of a disciplinary institution, governed by priests. It is ironic that a place which is of secular nature is called a sanctuary of a kind, while the actual religious institution is associated with oppression and corruption. Churches, of course, can also be seen as sanctuaries, places of quiescent contemplation, separated from the corrupt world of modernity.
The other religious aspect of cinema which Almodóvar emphasizes is its power of healing, its therapeutic power. Cinema can be a support through the mechanism of identification with the protagonist, through acknowledgment of sufferings of the other: it can reduce our obsession with ourselves (and our own suffering), a phenomenon which the essayist Emile Cioran sees as particularly common in modern times. Jacques Lacan questioned the Aristotelian notion of catharsis, the purgation of emotions through drama, since the chorus in Greek tragedies does all the weeping and we watch the play rather disinterestedly.
An analogy can be drawn between watching a film at the theatre and hearing the collective weeping during a particularly emotional scene. Someone, in fact, the collective, does the weeping for us. Nevertheless, the notion of catharsis cannot be fully dismissed, since the pity we feel for the characters is indeed purfifying (watching Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark for example). Watching a film in the theatre can be seen akin to a religious experience since it is a congregation which appears in that very theatre and drama is collectively experienced. Instead of chanting and praying, there is laughter and tears.
To conclude, cinema does not only have its saints, the directors who belong to the pantheon of cinema, e.g. Jean Renoir, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, Stanley Kubrick and so on, but also has its angels; at the end of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire we can see his dedication to the angels of cinema, Andrei [Tarkovsky], François [Truffaut] and Yasujirō [Ozu].
We question a country’s self-mythology. Perfect town and perfect family are – like Westerners – part of America’s mythology, involving notions of past innocence and naïveté. But is it possible for innocence to exist while something heinous transpires elsewhere?
In David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence something heinous transpires underneath the presentation of mythological innocence. The film starts with two gangsters who are on a venture across America; we see two bodies in a pool of blood in a convenience store and a child is being murderered. The scene is abruptly cut to the one showing a girl screaming in her bed, because of the monsters in the closet. Her father, Tom Stall, says to her that there are no such things as monsters. And yet, we have just witnessed the scene with monsters which are not imagined but live among ordinary citizens.
The other important motif is the monsters in the closet. They are concelead, hiding, waiting to come out, perhaps not wanting to. Tom Stall is a family man, living in a nice town, with nice people, as the sheriff says later in the film. He runs a small business, a diner, has a beautiful wife and two children. William S. Borroughs once wrote: “America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil. Before the settlers, before the Indians… the evil was there… waiting.” There is a myth of an idyllic family life in America, but there is also evil, waiting to come to the surface.
The other important motif appears when Tom’s colleague at the diner says that he had a girlfriend who thought he was a “murderer” and stabbed him with a fork. Later, he married her. This detail foreshadows the doubt in one’s partner, in this case irrational, and the possibility that beneath the appereance there is something sinister, murderous. Two men come into the diner, trying to rob it and Tom kills both of them with the efficiency of a skilled murderer. The news present him as an American hero, since, as we know it, the Americans love heroes. Tom’s son Jack is bullied at school, and before the killlings, he says that the threat of violence directed toward him is “cruel and pointless.”
When the bully says that his father is “a tough guy” and starts harassing him, Jack beats the bully. Violence which his father commits, although in self-defense, provokes an ethical shift in his son and he reacts with violence. When his father says that in their family they do not beat people up, Jack responds: “No we shoot them!”. The film is called A History of Violence, and the title suggests that the film presents one history of violence among many, but it also presents that violence in itself has its own history, which starts with mankind itself and it evolves from one generation to the other, it is a neverending circle which begins with the sins of the father.
Soon, two men come into the diner, one with a severely damaged eye, calling Tom “Joey Cusack” and that he comes from Philadelphia. Tom denies it, and when he sees the black car in which the man was driving, he becomes paranoid and runs toward his house, for fear that his family will be assaulted. No one came to the house and Tom says that he fears that he is losing his mind. With the attitude of a trained killer, he says to his son that if someone comes, they will deal with it. The man with the damaged eye encounters Tom’s wife Edie in the shopping mall and says to her that her husband is Joey Cusack and that he damaged his eye with a barbed wire.
This happens precisely in the middle of the film, and in this moment, Edie starts to seriously doubt her husband’s identity. This anticipates the revelation that her husband is indeed Joey, wich happens when her husband, with the skills of a killer literally breaks the face of a man who tried to take him with them. As Tom/Joey’s personality is split into two, so is the film. When Carl Fogarty, the man with the damaged eye, tells Joey to drop down the gun, he complies and symbolically assumes his abandoned role as Joey Cusack. Fogarty is murdered at the hands of his son. The sins and the violence of the father are now a part of his son as well.
I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes. I saw a killer… the one Fogarty warned me about. You did kill men back in Philly, didn’t you? Did you do it for money, or did you do it because you enjoyed it?
Joey did, both. I didn’t… Tom Stall didn’t.
David Cronenberg once said: “When we talk about violence, we’re talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don’t lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you are photographing is people, bodies.” In this scene, when Tom/Joey says that Joey did the killings and Tom Stall didn’t, he is filmed in a close-up and the only part of the body we can see is dressed in a patient’s gown. In other words, the character which the camera films is disembodied. In his book The Divided Self R.D. Laing writes that “in the schizoid condition… there is a persistent scission between the self and the body. What the individual regards as his true self is experienced as more or less disembodied, and bodily experience and actions are in turn felt to be the part of the false-self system.”
If Cronenberg’s films are primarily body-oriented and in the central part of the film Viggo Mortensen’s character’s body is not shown or is clothed in a gown, we can say that in this manner Cronenberg portrays a schizoid personality, which is characterized by a split between the identities. Edie asks if Joey is dead and Tom/Joey replies: “I thought he was. I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I went out to the desert, and I killed him… I spent 3 years trying to become Tom Stall.” Edie asks him if he is a “multiple personality schizoid” and is it “like flipping a switch back and forth for him.” It seems that there is certainly a schizm in Tom/Joey’s personality, but that there is also an approaching awareness regarding his identity.
This schizm is not permanent, and the reappropriation of the former identity takes place soon enough. When they come home, sheriff asks them if Tom is in fact Joey and Edie starts crying, denying it. The officer leaves their home and she says to him “Fuck you Joey”. Now, he assumes his former identity and his body is filmed as they have sex, which starts with violence on both sides. Cronenberg films Joey’s body during a sex act, we can now be certain that Tom Stall is no more and he is again Joey. He seems to be fully aware of his body, and camera is not afraid to show it.
His brother Richie calls him, who ranks high in the mob hierarchy back in Philadelphia, and a clash between two brothers commences when Joey comes to Richie’s mansion. This is an “Adam and Cain” encounter and both brothers are Adams, and Cains as well. Richie tries to kill Joey and in the end, Joey manages to murder him. He washes his hands in the water, as if purifying himself, and comes home to his family, now as another man. In a memorable scene, his daughter takes the plates and puts them on the table for him, and his son hands him the food. American dream is shattered for them, in a most violent manner, and they reluctantly decide to live on.
R.D. Laing, The Divided Self: An Existential Study In Sanity and Madness, Penguin Books, New York, 1990
To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
We might add that this applies to the filmmakers like Paolo Sorrentino as well. Sorretino portrays the holiness of days passing and the divine in men with particular visual and stylistic eloquence in his La giovinezza (Youth). Sorrentino can be rightfully called Fellini’s heir, just like Kore-eda in Japan can be called Ozu’s heir. Being a “cinematic heir” does not mean that the following director is an emulator. It can be stated that the director manages to use central themes and cinematic style of his predecessor in an authentic manner, and develop them even further. Perhaps he never accomplishes the grandeur of his predecessor, yet he manages to evolve and adapt to the radically new environment and create admirable pieces of art.
For Fellini, life is akin to circus, it is a feast for the senses, and Sorrentino seems to take this basic assumption and develop it in a manner which is distinctly his own. For example, Fellini’s stance about Catholicism is less ambivalent than Sorrentino’s is. The celebration of the carnal and divine merge into one in Sorrentino’s La giovinezza. The Buddhist monk and Miss Universe are both an integral part of the same cosmos which celebrates life and its gracefulness.
At the beginning we see the composer Fred Ballinger (Michel Caine) browsing the magazine and pausing at the image of Miss Universe. She appears three times later in the film, symbolizing the eroticism and the voluptuousness of youth. She represents carnal Aphrodite for the aged composer and filmmaker Mick (Harvey Keitel). The Queen’s emissary comes to the hotel in the Alps in Switzerland where they reside, and asks Fred to conduct his Simple Songs for Prince Phillip’s birthday.
Fred says that he finds monarchy endearing “because it’s so vulnerable. You eliminate one person and all of a sudden… The whole world changes. Like in a marriage”. He dreams that he is surrounded with wondrous buildings with arches on the first floor (presumably of a hotel) which give light to the water around him; it is night and it imbues the water with blackness. A narrow path is in the middle of the water, functioning as a bridge. As Fred walks across it, Miss Universe crosses paths with him and her breast touches his body as he moves by. The black water, similar to a melancholic lake, rises and he is drowned; he wakes up with a gasp.
The major part of the film takes place in the Swiss Alps, in a resort similar to the one from Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain. Mann’s novel takes place in a tuberculosis sanatorium where the cultural elite comes to in the hope of recovery. Death plays a prominent part in Mann’s novel, it is concerned with time, the nature of its passing, the narration of time itself. In The Magic Mountain, young Hans Castorp is influenced by Settembrini, who advocates democratic republicanism and Naphta who is a romantic, conservative revolutionary. Sorrentino’s La giovinezza deals less with illness, and more with the joy of life and sensuality of youth. If it deals with time, it is concerned with the shifting of perspectives of the young and of the old, the time which has already passed, with the solidness of time.
The old are confronted with the irrefutable fact that the time has passed: “It’s too late”, Fred says a few times. Sorrentino is less concerned with the passing of time in the Alps; they are a place where the time which has passed is contemplated. The film is mostly apolitical, save for the fact that the overweight Diego Maradona has a huge tatoo of Karl Marx on his back. It seems that Sorrentino jokes about the Marxists in the film, just like he does in his La grande bellezza when he puts the words communismo puro in the mouth of a middle class woman. On the other hand, we can see that in La giovinezza the residents of the resort are an elite, actors, composers, filmmakers, the rich, and Karl Marx’s tatoo seems to be a form of self-irony on the part of Sorrentino.
In a distinctively Bergmanesque scene on the massage table, Fred’s daughter Lena, while her father is next to her, tells about her and her mother’s suffering regarding Fred’s behaviour throughout life. The camera is fixed on her face in a close-up and the scene strongly resembles the scenes from Bergman’s films, Autumn Sonata for example, in which a character shares his or her suffering with a family member. Her face is calm, without expression, yet her pain can be discerned throughout the shot. Fred cared only about music, and showed little affection toward his daughter, and had “a stream of women”, hurting her mother in the process. We find out that Fred’s wife was in Venice, paralyzed, and Fred hadn’t visited her for years.
He says to her later: “Music is all I understand. Do you know why? Because you do not need words, only experience to understand it. It just is.” Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote: “The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.” When compared to Schopenhuer’s understanding of music, we can understand Fred’s relationship with music, which “just is” and is remote from the pains of reality. The music in the film gives the scenes a drop of the divine celebrating life’s youthful passion.
[Mick asks the Girl screenwriter if she sees the mountain across them. She replies affirmatively and says that it looks “really close”]
This is what you see when you are young. Everything seems really close. And that’s the future. And now. And that’s what you see when you’re old. Everything seems really far away. That’s the past.
In showing his screenwriter the mountain and telling how it looks really close, and comparing it to the young age, Mick points to the change in optics when you are older, when everything seems far away. This change of view is symbolically enhanced through a spyglass. La giovenezza is not only a film about youth and old age, it is also a film about time, although not in the same way The Magic Mountain is a novel about time. This change in optics is conditioned by the passing of time, when the past seems to be far away. It is also a change in perception; the film’s title La giovenezza points to the fact that Mick and Fred are constantly trying to perceive youth, their own youth in the past. They are surrounded with young men and women; Mick has young screenwriters working for him and Fred befriends the actor Jimmy, played by Paul Dano, who was possibly casted, among other reasons, because he looks younger than his age.
The interesting thing is that the passing of time is associated with seeing. It is not the question about “feeling” young or old, it is the question of perceiving through the eye, the distance of the past and the closeness of the future (when one is young). This change of perspective is also qualitative; not only does one see less when he is older, but the view is also distorted, when the close objects are shown through a spyglass. Nevertheless, the closeness of things in youth is also an illusion, since the mountain is only perceived to be close, but in reality it is not. In La giovenezza, youth is celebrated precisely for that reason, because it can easily come to terms with illusion, while contemplation of the past is left to the older generation. In the final scene, the music brings the two worlds together, with an aesthetic tour de force.
Manchester By the Sea is a masterpiece of modern American cinema. A cynic would say that a razor blade should distributed alongside the DVD version of the film, just like one music critic suggested regarding Leonard Cohen’s album Songs of Love and Hate. In that kind of reasoning there is a misunderstanding of the power of the melancholic experience when it is shown in art. Just the opposite, the melancholy as it is presented could be soothing to the viewer who experiences the feelings of sadness or loss. This film has the quality of a novel, although of a novel that works better on screen. Kenneth Lonergan uses the means of cinematic language, primarily montage, in an admiring manner; Jennifer Lame, the film editor deserves the praise.
The film draws its strength from the power of association, Lee’s (Casey Affleck) recollections are juxtaposed to the ongoing narrative. The memories and the present form a line of intimate connection, at times blending together and resulting in an emotional outburst. Film theorist André Bazin would call this kind of montage “expressionist”, not in terms of an artistic movement, but the expressive impact this kind of juxtaposition creates on the viewer, and in terms of the cinematic language. The juxtapositions between shots of falling snow and gray sea which is at the same time calming and treacherous. It is indicative that the film starts with a recollection, or rather, with a scene from the past. A joyous fishing trip on a boat, during which Lee, Joe and the latter’s young son Patrick joke about sharks in the sea.
This happy memory is followed by the scenes from Lee’s everyday life. He works as a janitor, does the plumming and engages in bar fights. He is withdrawn, his face shows resignation and melancholy. His brother Joe dies because of heart problems and the scene in the hospital is another example of Lee’s anger-in-sorrow and a recollection involving a caring and humorus doctor and Patrick’s mother is shown. There is a certain antithesis between the surrounding people who show care and patience, and on the other side, Lee’s behaviour and Patrick’s mother’s state of mind. Lee shows care as well, but as the movie focuses mostly on him, we see the “insides” of someone in great grief and filled with anger, in contrast to the others’ external image which seems harmonious. Lee seems to be a pariah of a kind, since the hockey coach speaks of “the story about him” and when Lee asks his acquintance about a job, the man’s wife says that “he will not come here anymore”. Lee does not seem to care about the external image he projects on people, which is something most people do almost instinctively.
The matter of guardianship over Patrick is posed when Joe’s will is read, and as we find out, Joe appointed Lee to be the guardian and made the necessary financial arrangements. Lee reluctantly accepts it and in one of the most powerful scenes of modern American cinema, the recollections involving the death of Lee’s daughters are shown. After partying with his friends in the basement, he watched TV and realized that there are no beers left. So he put some logs into the fire and went to the store to buy beer. Halfway to the store, he wondered if he closed the door of the fireplace, but continued walking nevertheless. He did not, and when he returned, the house was on fire, the children were left inside, and his wife Randi was found and saved by the firemen. The power of this scene rests in the meticulous editing, the associative power of his brother’s wish to take care of his son, and Lee’s guilt and sense of incapacity since his neglect caused the death of his children. The baroque composition Adagio per Archi E Organo In Sol minore, composed by Albinoni, plays throughout the scene creating a powerful impact of majestic, tragic sadness. The music, in its grandeur, almost absorbs the scene, yet the scene’s emotional impact is even stronger.
Patrick does not want his father to be “in the freezer”, since he cannot be buried immediately due to nature of the ground in winter. He has a panic attack when he sees frozen food in the refrigerator. Patrick’s relationship with Lee is interesting since they have a strong bond, but due to the tragic circumstances they are both withdrawn and a lot is left unsaid. They argue over everyday life of a teenager, but beneath all their arguments there is unspoken grief. It seems that they have made a pact involving dealing with grief privately, without depending on each other.
The everyday life Patrick and Lee experience together shows the tensions, the struggles and gives the events which unfold in the film a sense of everydayness which is constantly interrupted by feelings that dwell inside them. When the guardianship comes to a close after Joe’s friend decides to adopt Patrick, the latter decides to eat an ice cream, which symbolically conveys his acceptance of his father’s death. Lee wanting to leave Manchester for Boston as soon as possible, shows that he feels suffocated in the place where his children died, and the culmination of that occurs when he meets his ex-wife. They both burst in tears, unable to speak, their words overlap and they stutter in pain.
Can’t you see we are burning?
Lee’s daughter [in a dream]
In the scene we are about to analyze briefly we see Lee pouring the sauce in a pan while the basketball game is on TV. He falls asleep, hears his daughter calling him “Daddy” and telling him “Can’t you see we are burning?”. He replies: “No honey. You are not burning.” He wakes up and the room is in smoke, the sauce in the pan is burning. This brief scene is abundant in symbolism. Earlier in the film, as we see one of Lee’s memories, he jokingly says to his baby daughter that if he didn’t marry his wife, his kids wouldn’t exist and he could watch the game “in peace”. In the light of what happened, this came true, and his earlier words have an ominous quality. In the end, he is watching the game alone, but not in peace.
Sigmund Freud opens the last chapter of his Interpretation of Dreams with a “dream suspended around the most anguishing mystery”, as Jacques Lacan says. The mistery links the father to his dead son nearby. “As he is falling asleep, the father sees rise up before him the image of his son, who says to him, Father, can’t you see I’m burning?. In fact, the son really is burning, in the next room.” Lacan writes the following about this dream: “it is precisely reality which, incompletely transferred seems here to be shaking the dreamer from his sleep”. According to Lacan, father’s son is burning with “the weight of the sins of his father” and he connects it to the myth of Hamlet and the ghost of his father. “Where does Hamlet’s ghost emerge from, if not from the place from which he denounces his brother for suprising him and cutting him off in the full flower of his sins. And far from providing Hamlet with the prohibitions of the Law that would allow his desire to survive, this too ideal father is constantly being doubted.”
The similarity betwee Lee’s daughter’s words in his dream, and the son’s words in the dream Freud writes about is striking. The only difference is that Lee’s daughter talks in plural and is of the opposite sex. It is possible that Lonergan’s inspiration for this scene comes from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, but the obvious and important difference must be taken into account. Lee has this dream months after his daughters have died, yet the similar structure of a dream can be discerned. “The weight of the sin” of her father is why Lee’s daughter is burning in Lee’s dream and it must be noted that her statement is posed as a question: “Father, can’t you see…”.
Lee’s daughter’s words in the dream can be understood as a constant doubt of “this too ideal father”. This structure of the unconscious (understood by Lacan as fundamentally associated with language) continues to live in Lee and his sin continues to be a burden to him as well. In the dream he hears his daugther’s doubt and the legacy he left to his daughter. His sin was, to put it bluntly, not caring enough. He could have returned after pondering if he had left the door of the fireplace opened or closed, but he kept walking to the store. This drunken decision at the crossroads had tragic consequences and left him scarred for life. The brilliance of Manchester By the Sea is turning the image of the scar into blossom of art.
Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton & Company, London, 1998
What need is there to weep over parts of life? The whole of it calls to tears.
Seneca, To Marcia On Consolation
The veracity of Seneca’s words can be debated upon, but they seem to fit to describe the Coen brothers character Larry’s fortune in the film. Yet, A Serious Man is a comedy. We laugh as Larry goes from a bad situation to a worse one. Coen brothers stated: “The fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture Larry.” It seems that the directors were on a ‘sadistic streak’ involving their character, but to what purpose, one may ask. Aside from their iconic black humor, Coen brothers’ films are an inquiry into human condition, either in the specific historical situation, as in Hail Caesar! or the eternal questions of human existence, like in No Country for Old Men. A Serious Man falls in the latter category; it is a film which deals with the mundane and the man’s relationship to divinity and fate (or fortune, one may say). In this film, Judaism is more present than in any other Coen brothers’ piece of work.
The film opens with a folk story in which a man comes to the house where a man and a wife live, and the wife claims that the man died a few years ago and he is a dybbuk, a malevolent spirit. She stabs him in the chest with a knife, and shortly after, he starts bleeding. Whether he is a dybbuk or not, we do not know. The Coen brothers stated that this scene does not mean much, that it just sets the tone for the film. The scene sets the tone in terms of atmosphere, but also thematically. The man who lives in the house says that he is a “rational person” and does not believe that man is a dybbuk, while his wife behavior may be termed as superstitious, although her vocabulary has religious overtones. The relationship between rationality and the irrational forces in life seems to be an important element in the film. The other imporant motif is that the folk story’s ending opens up two possibilites and we cannot be certain which one is true.
This kind of reasoning is crucial for the understanding of the film, since there is an uncertainty which permeates the film’s main character Larry. He comes home from work to his family, (he works as a physics professor at the university) and we can hear peaceful music, he watches his neighbour mowing the lawn and the setting of a typical American family is portrayed. The illusion of a perfect life is instantly crushed since his wife condescendigly tells him that she has someone else and wants a divorce. She tells him that she wants a ritual divorce, so she can marry another man and that he should “act like an adult” about it. His wife’s lover Sy patronizingly hugs him and tells him everything will be all right; Larry is forced to move to the cheap motel nearby. Forced may be a strong adjective to use, it would be more accurate to say that he complies with it.
He comes to see three Rabbis and engages with three lawyers; the rabbis represent the spiritual sphere and the lawyers the civic one. The first Rabbi is young and seems like a rather ignorant example of an ecstatic mystic. He tells him that he should change his perception and see God in things, in the parking lot for example. The second Rabbi tells him a rather long story about a dentist who found inscriptions in Yiddish on a patient’s teeth and asked for an explanation for it, the way to understand it as a sign from God. The conclusion of the second Rabbi is that one should be a good man and says that God “doesn’t owe us an answer. He doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” Larry’s confusion about the “first principles” that should guide his life’s path is equivalent to his lack of trust in everything that surrounds him.
His son gets involved in a Columbia record scam, and his real-estate lawyer dies of heart attack when he needs to give legal advice about Larry’s home. The first lawyer Larry goes to becomes a sort of analyst who listens to his problems. The third lawyer sends him a bill for 3000$. Sy dies and Larry “has” to pay for his funeral. In short, Larry’s life gets worse and worse as “Uncle Arthur” gets involved with the police over gambling. His nightmares mirror his state of mind as he sees himself having sex with his married neighbour and Sy harassing him, practically putting a coffin on him. He dreams of himself writing formulas on the huge board and says: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.”
In the multiplicity of life’s misfortunes, he loses his sense of self and the way to encounter life with Lebowskian Taoist simplicity. This is simply not an option for him. The only moment when he relaxes is when he smokes marijuana with his neighbour but God (or Coen brothers in this case – it is sometimes hard to discern the two when this film is in question) does not leave the act unpunished. In the end, after he realizes that he can keep his job, although Sy was sending letters stating Larry is immoral to the university, the doctor calls him and implies that he has lung cancer.
The title card at the beginning of the film says: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” – Rashi. This may be an advice from Coens to their character: to stop searching for answers in the moments of misery, to reduce the complexity of chaotic life circumstences to an attitude of simplicity and renounce the need to establish divine order of things in a world, which is in itself chaotic. One should receive their misfortunes with a simplicity, like the character from a Wong Kar-wai film who compares the end of romantic relationship to the changing color of one’s hair. Or, it can be a rather cruel joke from Coens, since tortured Larry doesn’t seem to find the answer in a simple change of perception, in line with the advice from the first, young Rabbi.
I haven’t done anything…
Doing nothing is not bad. Ipso facto.
Professor at the University
The conversation in the context of Larry’s tenure on the university seems to be a key to understanding Larry’s character and his actions. In one way, he can be compared to the Old Testament figure of Job, who is tested by God by being afflicted various misfortunes, which makes Job lose his faith. On the other hand, he is not like Job, whose family is killed, who is assailed by deseases and ends up in the belly of a whale. Job simply cannot answer this misfortunes with actions, they are of such gravity that only passive acceptance is the way of dealing with them. Larry, on other hand, could rise up to his misfortunes and stand up for himself. He does not. His character in some ways echoes the nihilists in The Big Lebowski, who lie in the pool dressed in black and do nothing for days. In other words, in A Serious Man a Coen brothers’ vindication of passive nihilism is vivid.
The scale of Larry’s compliance to the actions of others which bring him misfortunes is admirable. He does next to nothing when confronted with the agents of his misfortunes. The philosophical or religious doctrines that preach detachment from the world, passive stance, renunciation of passions and desire, as Emil Cioran’s thought or Buddhism do, may be admirable worldviews. Yet, even Buddha had to distance himself from the position of a prince to start teaching and practicing his ideas. If one is entangled in numerous social obligations, the stance of passivity may very well be one’s downfall. Larry may had been born under an unlucky star, as the Ancients would understand it, but the degree of his suffering could have been different if he took a different stance. Nevertheless, as we learn that Larry has cancer, his fate seems to be more similar to that of Job. The engineers of his doom are, on the other hand, Coens themselves.
Seneca, Moral Essays Vol. 2, Harvard University Press, London, 1990