' Cinema Romantico: Motifs in Cinema 2011: Loneliness & Misanthropy

Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in Cinema 2011: Loneliness & Misanthropy

Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in a much different manner than literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example,Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea - Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists. - Andrew K., Encore Entertainment, Motifs in Cinema 2011 Blogathon Host

Loneliness & Misanthropy


Certain events that transpired recently, events involving a terribly unfortunate if terribly inevitable end of a fairly famous diva with a once-upon-a-time full throttle voice, made me think of the infinite "Melancholia" of Kirsten Dunst's Justine in Lars von Trier's latest bit of painterly nihilism. Not the operatic opening or the cataclysmic closing - no, I'm talking about the moment during the reception of the "happiest" night of Justine's life when she flees to be all on her lonesome by......soaking in the tub. One of the film's many iconic prelude stills is an ode to the painting of Shakespeare's Ophelia drowning, but this shot of her wasting soaking away on her own wedding night evokes that same sensation much less sensationally. But what pushed her away from the cake and champagne to this lukewarm water? Was it the idiocy of those surrounding her? The Sister who seems more insistent than even the Bride on making this night PERFECT? The Boss who uses the platform of matrimony as a harsh training ground to better her job skills? The scatterbrained Father? The rancorous Mother? The new Husband and his asinine apple orchard dreams? Or was it Justine's clinical and massive depression that skewered this whole ceremony to look like the prelude to the end of the world?  In other words, is it the world itself that pushes her to the point of unrelenting loneliness and misery in the second act? Or does she instigate this tailspin herself? Or is it both? Does the world so piss her off that she wills this other rogue world to life to cure her of her ails? And does she find a modicum of peace in that "magic cave" made of sticks because of the presence of her Sister and Nephew? Or has she already found it all on her own?


Not long after Oliver (Ewan McGregor) in "Beginners" has Met very, very Cute with Anna (Melanie Laurent), the kind-hearted if sad-eyed Arthur the Dog advises his new owner: "...the darkness is about to drown us unless something drastic happens right now." This might have been 2011's cinematic mantra. He is afraid the darkness is going to drown them both on account of Oliver's pop having just passed away from cancer. His mom is deceased too, and he's the kind of guy who even when both his parents were still around would be closed off and shut down and a cosmopolitan hermit, pushing away anyone who dared to try and enter his insulated world. His father, in the film’s intermittent flashback structure, tells him a parable about a giraffe and lion – “You've always dreamed of someday getting a lion. And you wait and you wait and the lion doesn't come. Then along comes a giraffe. You can be alone, or you can be with the giraffe.” Oliver explains he’d wait for the lion. This is meant, of course, to illustrate Oliver's philosophy when it comes to women - as in, he's not settling. Of course, when it comes to isolationists and introverts and misanthropes it's not necessarily that they (we?) are waiting for the lion, it's that the lion is a fine excuse to avoid having to deal with the giraffe because the giraffe is not to their (our?) tastes and/or the thought of the giraffe scares us out of our wits. (Or maybe it's that they - we? - just don't want the giraffe because we find giraffes ungainly and useless. Okay?! IS THAT SO WRONG?! LEAVE US ALONE, YOU DICTATORS! STOP PRESSURING US!)


Consider Mavis Gary, the Charlize Theron-played protagonist of "Young Adult" taking the matters of acute social withdrawal to new heights by simply making her high school ex (Patrick Wilson) who is now married with an infant daughter her lion in flannel shirts. Is the film as much writer Diablo Cody's reaction to her sudden and intense fame in the wake of her Oscar victory as it is, as has been noted and/or alluded to, a working out of her possible failure to grow up? As Cody herself said, "There’s probably no experience more alienating than fame." And thus she has her protagonist make her one shining beacon unattainable, thereby essentially damning herself to isolation. Of course, there can also be perverted pleasure in isolation, wrapping yourself up in a KFC and Kardashian cocoon.

A "Me Party" one might say, which is what Mary (Amy Adams) pledges as her personal anthem midway through when, sure enough, her Muppet-crazed ten year boyfriend Gary (Jason Segel) has gone and forgotten their anniversary dinner. Oh, this tale of the redemption of Jim Henson's much beloved age-old characters was ceaselessly championed for its optimism and gladness in the face of this present day misanthropic world but, hey, they all had to pull themselves up and out of some mighty epic depths. Heck, it's all right there in the supposedly joy-infused opening number when Gary and his Muppet brother Walter keep telling us over and over that life's a happy song when you've got someone by your side to sing along. But then midway through here comes Mary sounding awfully disconsolate as she sings "Everything's great, everything's grand, except Gary's always off with his friend." So, uh, everything's not great and everything's not grand. Right? Especially when she imagines him riding up on a steed to propose to her. Good grief. Once you start imagining your ten year boyfriend finally climbing off the easy chair and getting down on one knee, well, you know something's rotten in Smalltown. Is Mary too reliant on the relationship? Gary and Walter are certainly portrayed as being over-reliant on their relationship and only when they break apart, so to speak, does the story's arc reach its conclusion. Yes, Gary proposes to Mary, as he must, but despite its kid-friendly stylings "The Muppets", believe it or not, is emblematic over and over of how isolated a person can feel even when he or she is surrounded. 


Take Curtis, Samantha and Hannah, the father, mother and daughter of Jeff Nichols' truly for-our-times "Take Shelter" are in names only a typical small town Ohio family. In fact, Hannah is deaf and Curtis is suffering from disturbing and sometimes apocalyptic visions, which may or may not be the same product of his own mother's schizophrenia, and that ultimately threaten his steady paycheck and, in turn, his family's future, financial and emotional. And as his existence slowly unravels in the most ordinarily spectacular way imaginable, he and his wife and daughter find themselves alienated from the community, crystallized in an absurdly terrifying rant Curtis unleashes at a communal potluck. This leads to one of the strangest and most strangely affecting single shots of the year, a family gathered together in a bomb shelter, united by their gas masks. They may be alone, the darkness may be about to drown them, but at least they are together.

Then again, if there's a flip side to that coin (and there always is), it's my homegirl Alex King in "The Descendants." Her mom's in a coma, her dad's distant, her little sister can't always think quite right for herself, and, yes, I suppose she asks that kindly knucklehead Syd to tag along for their familial (mis)adventures. But she also knows, like Dunst's Justine, in one particular scene involving one particularly lovely, harpoon-to-the-heart shot also cast in the water, that sometimes - no matter what anyone says - it's just better to be alone.

11 comments:

Mette said...

I love the idea of this blogathon! Even though genres, just as in literature, are good to talk about etc., you're absolutely right that motifs are often ignored considering films... It's much more interesting to read about what has been going on in 2011 films, than to read how many romantic comedies etc. there have been. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for the other posts!

Nick Prigge said...

Andrew will have a post up later today with a link to all the posts. Make sure you check it out. It promises to be awesome.

Colin said...

Another brilliant article. I wish I had the talent to meld together themes like this, truly.
This site's fast becoming a must-read.

Colin @ picknmixflix

Nick Prigge said...

Dude, thank you. You are way, way too kind.

And I'm just glad Andrew came up with the idea for this event because otherwise I wouldn't have written it. Plus, he gave me a couple good ideas after my first draft to improve it.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

As a professional misanthrope, this speaks to me. I have to say I love the symmetry (look, you know how I love symmetry) of Justine and Alex and the water imagery both films evoke. It's like that quote, I'm alone...but not lonely. And Justine, for example, seems so uncomfortable when surrounded by friends but naked waiting for the rapture ALONE is so relaxed.

What's most interesting for me, here, though is how you point out that in Take Shelter they're so alone - but together, which is paradoxical but incredibly accurate. That reverberating image of the three clutching each other, away from the outside world has stuck with me.

Nick Prigge said...

"Justine, for example, seems so uncomfortable when surrounded by friends but naked waiting for the rapture ALONE is so relaxed." So true! SO TRUE! I keep talking about Melancholia - here, at the round table - but I think that's because I'm still working it out in my mind. And now my aversion to von Trier is slowly being overcome by my respect for Justine.

And that's why I think Take Shelter is that first movie that can genuinely take the mantra of being For Our Times. It captures the feeling so many have it in a very dramatic but realistic way.

Candice Frederick said...

what a wonderful piece! you even bring up amy adams' me party in the muppets! nice touch. you thought of GREAT examples, ones i didn't even think about until now. great job!

Jose Solís said...

Gotta love that you brought up The Muppets particularly because the entire movie seems determined to stop isolation, while everyone is obsessed with getting the group together, poor Mary best represents the real world and reminds us that after the curtain falls, we're left on our own.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, both.

So many people fail to realize the inevitability of Mary and Gary ending up in marriage counseling.

alleyesonscreen.com said...

I really enjoyed this post, Nick! I haven't seen all the films listed, so I can't quite comment on some of the scenes you listed, but I enjoyed your thoughts on The Muppets's Mary and Gary as well as Alex in The Descendants and Oliver in Beginners. A lot of great examples that study the idea of how familial relationships' distance/closeness influence a person's views on loneliness, and how he/she reacts and takes in being surrounded by people, whether he/she be intro/extroverted. I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you. You know, it's funny. I just got back from my second viewing of The Descendants and maybe it's just because this post was still fresh in my mind but it really brought out other things in that film I hadn't noticed before, particularly in the way their family as a whole plays into how they all feel so lonely. I've got another post to write!