Manchester By the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) “A Simphony.”

 

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 He is withdrawn, his face shows resignation and melancholy.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.

 

 

Vigorous line:

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.

 

References:

Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, W.W. Norton & Company, London, 1998

Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) “Reliving the Memory”

Alfred Hitchock’s desire was to make movies in which dream and reality are indistinguishable. In his Vertigo, he creates a nightmarish world in which Scottie (James Stewart) draws the female progatonist into a surreal ordeal, or it is the other way around; at certain moments we cannot really tell. The film is centered around several themes and reccurent motifs:

  1. The impact of psychological trauma on a person
  2. The necessity to preserve (relive) the memory
  3. Erotic obsesssion (amour fou – mad love)

The film opens with a tragic death of a police officer who was trying to save Scottie, and that very experience shook him and had a severe impact on him, although this is not mentioned in the film; he suffers from acrophobia, a fear of heights, after that event. Psychological trauma he experiences later in the film is the perceived death of a loved person and a feeling of guilt because he did not prevent it because of his own incapability.

The scene in the courtroom after “Madelaine’s” death is surreal in its structure and it can mirror Scottie’s psychological state; the judge blaming him for her death because of his “weakness” seems to personify his conscience. In the hospital, Mozart’s music is played to Scottie while he is suffering from melancholia; his friend says that it won’t really help and it would be a wonder if it could; it amounts to playing cheerful folk music at a funeral.

Vertigo

The scene by the sea, when “Madelaine” and Scottie kiss each other, has the quality of a memory, of something that longs to be preserved. The whole set-up Scottie got into is imbued with the reliving of memories and pyschological traumas, a suicide, to be more precise, because a mother lost a child. Scottie becomes obsessed with Madelaine and her death; after meeting Judy his obsession can be materialized into another “object” of passionate love. Georges Bataille once wrote: “Eroticism is assenting to life even in death.” This quote can be compared to Scottie’s desires toward Madelaine and Judy.

In Scottie’s dream, we can see flowers disintegrating, him falling from the roof (the guilt complex) and looking into a tomb. The woman in the painting, who was presented as a great-grand mother of Madealine, appears as well. The colours change forming an esoteric nightmare of utter terror to the dreamer. Life and death, his own fears and sufferings, all merge into a singular uncanny experience.

Scottie is caught in a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling; this type of love deranges the senses and is essentialy an obsession, amour fou, as it came to be called by the surrealists. In other words, love is a type of madness. His need to relive the memories he experienced with Madelaine compels him to turn Judy into his doll, resembling Madelaine down to the most precise details. It is the same person, but at the same time it is not. It seems that in Vertigo Hitchock captures the spirit of erotic feelings in their fullest force. The title of the film does not allude only to Scottie’s fears, but to his desires as well.

 

Vigorous line:

It is as though I were walking down a long corridor that once was mirrored, and fragments of that mirror still hang there. And when I come to the end of the corridor, there is nothing but darkness.

Madelaine

Broken Mirror

“Fragments of the mirror” may represent memories, what was once a whole, a life experience  now shattered into fragments of dispersed memories. Vertigo’s life force relies on memories, on the past and on the days long by, which need to be relived again. The darkness which represents death needs to be overcome so life can take its place. In Hitchock’s artistic world this is an illusion. Scottie’s sin is not his “weakness” and fear, it is his hubris, a belief that he can enjoy days that have passed.

 Memories cannot be relived again, and the very attempt to do this is a starting point for a nigthmare, more darkness and thus death. This may be the moral of Vertigo, told in a surrealist fashion which traps the characters into a corridor through which they walk, observing fragments, memories, trying to reshape them into life, but in the end they fail – tragedy is inevitable.

Hrvoje Galić