Pursuit of Happiness

Pursuit of Happiness

Christopher Nolan’s Inception; Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime; Samuel Maoz’s Lebanon


From Leonardo DiCaprio, speaking in the respectable blockbuster of summer 2010, we learn that no virus multiplies more explosively than an idea; in which case, I’d like to know why the Centers for Disease Control allowed all those people to watch Inception. Lax government supervision of Christopher Nolan, whose credit will hereafter be changed in my book from "writer-director" to "primary vector," has allowed a fresh strain of twisted ideational RNA to burrow into the nervous systems of tens of millions of Americans, when they’d already been infected with that characteristic disorder of our time, Wachowski Syndrome.

It was, of course, through the authors of The Matrix that the virus became pandemic: the notion that you, hero, should feel free to use the snazziest conceivable arsenal to kill as many people as you like, because they’re not real. Those human-shaped objects are just shades of an illusory world to which you owe not the slightest responsibility. In The Matrix, this dreamland was controlled by monsters from outer space, from whom Earth had to be liberated. In Inception, it is not quite controlled by corporate spies, and the liberation (for DiCaprio) requires the snapping of tentacles that are emotional rather than ickily extraterrestrial. And yet, in either case, the activity within the fantasy realm is exclusively a matter of bang! bang! kaboom!

What is the point of having an imagination, I ask you, if the only thing that can be imagined is mayhem, perpetrated without regard for even the appearance of human life? All that cleverness in Inception, with its four parallel lines of narrative that proceed at different but interlocking speeds—like a counterpoint in The Art of Fugue! Like the Carter Double Concerto! No, actually. Like Hans Zimmer’s deeply mediocre score, whose leaden motoric thunks betray the sameness of all the Nolan dreamlands. On every level of Inception, they infect us with the identical idea: "Shoot, and never mind what happens to the target."

Our brains seethe with poison worms. Who will cure us?

I nominate Todd Solondz. He does not intend to be therapeutic, God knows (to mention a pervasively absent character in his new film), nor does he deserve to be elevated only at another writer-director’s expense. (If I were to get invidious, the proper foil wouldn’t be named Nolan, anyway, but Coen.) Yet I was so moved by Solondz’s Life During Wartime—knocked back into my seat by his characters’ pain and foolishness, then carried halfway into the screen by their innocence, their striving, their desire not just to feel better but to be better—that I, too, have tumbled into a hapless fantasy. Wouldn’t the world be wonderful if Inception were the film left to straggle through a two-week run in the art houses, and Life During Wartime got to be the blockbuster?

Moviegoers who are familiar with Solondz’s 1998 Happiness will immediately recognize the characters and situations in this new film—though I rush to say that prior knowledge is not necessary, and will serve (for those who have it) mostly to confirm that Solondz, grown middle-aged, is no longer tempted to disfigure his work with a too gleeful cruelty. His three incompatible sisters from Happiness—one housewifely, one timidly artistic, one consumed by her worldly success—have now left New Jersey for sites of forgetting, in Florida’s Jewish belt and the hills above Los Angeles: places where you don’t see much that looks like it has a past, and the light and color (in Ed Lachman’s cinematography) have the suspect sweetness of a gumdrop. The past lurks anyway, returning in the form of schoolyard rumors, wheedling phantoms and a man who was said to be dead and acts like it.

This latter figure is Bill (Ciáran Hinds): once a practicing psychiatrist and paterfamilias and now a slablike ex-convict, whose crime was to have raped a young boy. As he lumbers from the penitentiary toward Florida, unannounced and heavily quiet (he seldom speaks, and the scenes around him are filled with silence), his sister-in-law Joy (Shirley Henderson) is making the same journey south, to take temporary refuge with the remnants of Bill’s family. Young Timmy (the freckled and prodigious-eared Dylan Riley Snyder) is preparing for his bar mitzvah, where he will speak of the example set for him by his father. (He’s been told that Dad died in combat, defending us from the terrorists.) Bill’s former wife, Trish (Allison Janney)—designated as the normal member of Joy’s family, and well medicated to maintain that status—is aflutter with the surprise of new love. She has met a divorced man of mature years (Michael Lerner), himself recently arrived in Florida; and though he’s thick-bodied, Punchinello-faced and half a head shorter than her, he seems to her a decent man and a real man, whose slightest touch gets her babbling like a brook. As for Joy—piping, frizzy, high-strung and hopelessly misnamed—she would like to start a new life (having fled from her own version of the impossible husband) but is constantly being accosted by the ghosts of the old.

It’s the third sister in the family (Ally Sheedy), self-advertised conqueror of LA, who supplies the title for the film, asking if the little people around her (like Joy) don’t know there’s a war going on. But it’s Joy, with her wan but persistent desire to make the world better somehow, who aligns the film’s themes, as a magnetized needle will align iron filings. What if a stricken conscience isn’t enough to make someone stop doing terrible things? What if people simply can’t change what they are—even after they’ve turned into Joy’s ghosts? Yes, there’s a war going on, unseen by these characters (though often worried about), and it colors everything; but the real struggles of Life During Wartime are happening within, and they’re lost, over and over.

Which isn’t to say that Life During Wartime is a grim movie. It’s by Solondz; he knows how to make you laugh, if only by reflex, as when you’re goosed in the solar plexus. But beneath the deadpan outrageousness there’s outrage, and beneath that there’s a profound sorrow, which is now more empathic than in any of his past films. You feel it running through all the performances, but most of all in the fierce ones: by Hinds and the remarkable young Snyder and (in a brief but stunning turn that has to be mentioned) Charlotte Rampling. Here, I think, is where a comparison to Inception isn’t misguided. Nolan is the kind of filmmaker who figures out his framing and editing and then lets the actors use what time and space he’s allotted them; but Solondz starts from the pace and tone he sets with the actors and builds the framing and editing around that.

This used to be called humanistic filmmaking—though given Solondz’s views on what humans are, that might not sound very appealing. So let’s name this method the Chase: the real chase, not the one that the Nolans cut to. Let’s hear it for that damned pursuit of Happiness.

After the Israeli tank gunner blasts her apartment, annihilating her husband, her daughter and all that she owns (except for a painting of the Virgin and Child, miraculously left intact on a shattered wall), the Lebanese woman stumbles out of the remains of her building, into the flaming rubble on the street, and begins searching, at once numbly and frantically, for a child she assumes must still exist. The audience watching this scene knows better; and so, too, does the tank gunner, whose telescopic sight provides the only view of the world outside that writer-director Samuel Maoz permits in Lebanon. Throughout the course of his film you see either the tank’s soldiers, shown in side-lighted close-ups within the murk, or else a variety of strangely depthless images of slaughter, contained within a truncated circle in the center of an otherwise black screen.

These contrasting optics come into confrontation shortly after the desperate mother’s dress catches fire. As the scene grinds on horrifically, this woman who already has nothing is stripped bare, left to wander naked and then tossed a blanket to throw over herself. Still, she won’t follow the orders of Israeli footsoldiers to stay on the ground. She rises and staggers straight toward the tank, staring directly into its telescopic sight—and this accusatory gaze, encircled in the center of the screen, is intercut with an extreme close-up of the gunner’s eye as he watches what you are watching, seeing but not being seen.

From this sample description of Lebanon, I hope it will be evident that Maoz’s film had both emotional and formal power on its side when it won the top prize at last year’s Venice festival. Whether this power is adequate to the subject seems to me a question worth asking, now that Lebanon is going into US theatrical release.

To be precise, this is really two questions—one political and the other aesthetic. The first concerns the limitations and biases that one or another viewer might detect in this drama about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, as experienced by a handful of Israeli soldiers over the course of a little more than twenty-four hours. The second question might seem to be less pressing, being merely artistic; but to my mind it takes precedence, since it asks why a movie would be worth mulling over in the first place.

When I say that Lebanon has formal power, I mean that it conforms to a classical model of moviemaking, and of interpreting movies, that is exemplified in the works of Alfred Hitchcock and that was codified by his commentators. Set aside, if you can, the statements that Maoz has given about Lebanon‘s being his own story, wrenched out therapeutically after almost thirty years of suffering. Maybe so; but the fact remains, his cure has been effected through emulations of Lifeboat and Rear Window.

In Lebanon, as in those pictures, certain basic conditions of moviemaking—such as the constraint of the set or the voyeuristic complicity of the director and audience—no longer function unseen and unremarked in the background but are pushed forward into the plot. Nervous excitement over the events on screen becomes entangled with a potentially critical awareness of one’s relationship to the spectacle. To Hitchcock’s admirers, and to two or three generations of moviegoers who have absorbed their way of thinking (sometimes without knowing it), this production of a dual consciousness is the sign of intellectual and moral seriousness in a movie.

But why would Lebanon need such a sign? This is not a yarn about a snoopy, crotchety Jimmy Stewart who thinks he’s discovered a crime. It’s a semi-autobiographical portrayal of war. As other Israeli writer-directors have shown, it’s possible to make such a film with more than therapeutic intent but without recourse to this particular formalism. In Kippur, Amos Gitai used an observational, long-take approach that heightened the reality effect of the film by stretching your sense of time and deliberately draining away momentum. In Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman mongrelized animation and documentary, first-person and third-person narration, to produce a consciousness that wasn’t so much dual as fractured and kaleidoscopic. But Maoz, relying on an older and more widely accepted model, has sought to guarantee the probity of his movie by bringing out its movieness. He even adds extra layers of cinematic allusion, sometimes shooting the tank’s interior as if it were the slimed-up spaceship in an alien horror movie.

So when the political question gets pushed to the front—does Maoz go too easy on the Israelis, too hard or just hard enough?—the answer ultimately doesn’t depend on the information in Lebanon that’s included or omitted, emphasized or glossed over. You can argue about that for as long as op-eds are written. The Hitchcockian form answers the question by sealing your complicity with the semi-autobiographical gunner. Lebanon moves you, over the course of ninety-four minutes, from utter shock at the devastation you see through the gunsight to complete identification with, and pity for, the man who was pulling the trigger.

It’s a strong film, complex in many ways, and seems to me to come from a genuinely stricken conscience. But in its formal probity, Lebanon turns into a moral dodge.

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