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 He is withdrawn, his face shows resignation and melancholy.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