' ' Cinema Romantico: Motifs in Cinema '13: Failure

Friday, February 28, 2014

Motifs in Cinema '13: Failure

"Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 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 death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists." - Andrew K.  

Be sure to check out all the other entries on the many more 2013 motifs at Andrew's site, Encore's World of Film & TV.
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Maybe it's because of the two ton of issues facing the nation where I make my home, the two ton of issues facing us on a global scale or merely the baggage I bring all on my own (which is considerable), but I have found myself pontificating the notion of failure - and its hair-trigger - a lot lately. A multitude of places in our world seem braced at national and social and economic tipping points, as if we are a geopolitical landmass, rumbling and ready to splinter and drift off to who-knows-where.


Llewyn Davis, an ungrateful folk-singing sourpuss, and the world he inhabits of Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s are at a tipping point he either does not recognize or will not admit to. His singing partner may have realized it or admitted to it, which may be why he threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, but then maybe he just suffered from depression. Maybe Llewyn suffers from depression, or maybe he’s just a dick, his surliness providing a perfect answer to the question Jack Black posed way back when in “High Fidelity”: “Is it better to burn out than to fade away?”

He mythologizes himself in his own mind, fancying himself as the ultimate starving artist rather than homeless, deriding his former girlfriend’s attempts at eking out an actual life beyond the stage as “a little careerist” which is, in turn, “a little square.” In the story as he might tell it, he’s the hero, holding out and not giving in, adhering to the purity of what he does, though at one point he dismisses his own music as his “job” which seems to betray what he really thinks. He seems to sense the world shifting beneath his feet and rather than readjusting, he lashes out, convinced his failure is fate’s ploy while all the signs of a new path go unheeded. And even when he finally does sort of acknowledge his failure and reluctantly determines to re-enlist as a merchant marine in the square quest for something new, he fails, failing to have his merchant license as required. Eventually he winds up tossed out in the alley, not so much surrendering to a brave new world as telling it “au revoir” as it passes him by in the night.


If Llewyn was an emblem of the radical shift between the fifties and sixties, his artistic wayfaring soul sister, Frances Halladay, is a emblematic of a different era. It’s not failure, per se, that Frances experiences as much as casual fuck-ups and reckless frivolity. She doesn’t really do what she does, as she puts it, and this led some critics to view the film as nothing much more than a series of scattershot vignettes. I saw it more as a series of wholly un-tactical withdrawals and spastic counterattacks. (She can’t afford to move to Tribeca with her friend. She retreats to crashing with friends in an effort to conserve funds. She counterattacks by booking a trip to Paris on a credit card.) Still, she seems so light on her black Converse-clad feet, dancing her way across New York City sidewalks, chatting in that extraordinary livewire Greta Gerwig-ese, that occasionally you might forget the fecklessness with which she approaches adulthood and that future failure is possible if she doesn’t find focus. A.O. Scott termed the film “a bedtime story”, which is spot-on, implying that as the economy burns and the job market ebbs and flows, the youth of America can tuck themselves in by watching “Frances Ha” and having pleasant dreams where ultimately the sweet smell of success is served by your friendly neighborhood barista.


Failure, though, which Frances doesn’t and can’t understand, at least not yet, is often not an all-at-once proposition. It’s a long fade-out, and Woodrow T. Grant’s fade-out is nearing its end. Bruce Dern’s performance in “Nebraska”, his face paralyzed throughout in a sort of weary perplexity, never makes it quite clear that the character is aware of its top billing in its own farcical tragedy. He is a Midwestern Ponce de Leon and a random sweepstakes notice which he misunderstands as having granted him a million dollars is his Fountain of Youth. It’s all a myth, of course, and Woody concluding his episodic journey by wearing a Prize Winner hat is the cruelest irony. Ultimately his good-willed son (Will Forte) makes a couple concessions to provide his father a moment in a version of the limelight. These concluding moments, however, strike a strange tone, precisely because they are, in a way, as false and unearned as the million dollars. If failures are meant to yield lessons, it's legitimate to wonder what Woody has learned. It's possible he has learned nothing.


These failures, however, are not just limited to America. They are global. “Captain Phillips” was heavily involved in telling the tale of the real-life man who gave the film its name, obviously, and it opens with a fairly obvious sequence of Phillips and his wife lamenting the economically unstable into which their children are venturing. But this instability pales compared to the instability facing the Somali pirate who hijacks Phillips’ ship, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), subtly wresting the film from its primary character. With success in his society almost exclusively reliant on violence with no fallback plan, his demeanor is as resigned as desperate. He knows that his wayward attempt to hold Phillips hostage and ask for ransom is likely to end in failure, but he also knows that failing to push forward in that attempt will result in failure too – failure in the form of death. The film’s claustrophobic third act might well be a demonstration of American military might, as has been claimed, but I read it much more as Muse’s out-of-options swan song. Abdi is so frighteningly relaxed in these late-film sequences, fully aware he was born under the sign of failure. All he’s doing is running himself into the ground.


Elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, “All Is Lost”, J.C. Chandor’s sterling cinematic experience of Robert Redford & The Sea, opens with a halting, pointed voiceover by its star. “I tried,” he says. “I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this. In each of your ways.” We don’t know who he’s talking to, of course, and we never find out, and that’s fine because the overriding point is clear – whomever he’s writing, he’s admitting he failed them. And that’s an interesting tack for the film to take – to place the failure front and center. The film is about a man braving the elements, to be sure, matter-of-factly facing each setback as it comes, but I saw it as so much more. Apologies for momentarily getting religulous but a Corinthians verse came to mind: “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” This is a man slowly, perhaps even unwittingly, casting off the failure of his old life bit by bit until, in a closing moment of arresting glow, the new has come.


Then again, most of us aren’t like Robert Redford. Most of us more like Gary King (Simon Pegg) of “The World’s End.” Not so much the obnoxiousness, lunacy and alcoholism, perhaps, as the lingering regret, the moment in our past we are so sure if we just got one chance to do over would make our lives everything we originally wanted them to be. In Gary’s case, he has fixated on The Golden Mile, an epic pub crawl he and his best friends never finished, and he will stop at nothing to reconvene them all in middle age to right this wrong and recalibrate his life. The others present themselves as having grown up and moved on and while this is true to a degree, their facades mask their own fears of failure, and their re-attempt at winning the Golden Mile will bring all those fears to a head as they find themselves face to face with failing themselves, the pub crawl and the world.

In its own hyperkinetic, Cornetto-inflicted way, “The World’s End” ultimately presents its heroes an opportunity to wash away their pasts (and their presents), for the old to pass away and the new – a warm, welcoming new – to come, for their failure to be rendered . Their reaction to this rare opportunity initially wreaks of liquid heroism, but there is something both deeper and simpler. Failure and Success, Success and Failure, this is what makes them (us) whole.

6 comments:

Shane Slater said...

Great post. I love what you said about Captain Phillips. Abdi (in tandem with a unassumingly sharp screenplay) really do sell this idea of this "out-of-options swan song". Well put.

Andrew K. said...

Putting Llewyn's life that way Jean's b assessment of him as an "asshole" seems accurate, accurate and yet I could hardly explain to you just how much I feel for him and of all the characters failing in 2013 films no one makes me as moved or sad. It's why FRANCES HA which I liked less but still fairly enough is such a nice counteract to it. Frances' failures are less deep, but in that way it's comforting to see her fail and yet not loos that (sometimes) misguided spirit of positivity she has.

(Considering how much you liked it, I was hoping you'd make mention of AMERICAN HUSTLE.)

Jose SolĂ­s said...

"The youth of America can tuck themselves in by watching “Frances Ha” and having pleasant dreams where ultimately the sweet smell of success is served by your friendly neighborhood barista."

Well said. With how often millennials are attacked by the internet, people often seem to forget that these people are the future, not some pariah to be judged and questioned. I often wonder if people dismiss this movie and shows like "Girls" because they are examples of how other generations failed to fulfill everything they said they'd give to the newest one.

Candice Frederick said...

i was pleasantly surprised by captain Phillips and i really liked your analysis of it. failure was something i didn't even consider a theme last year, but you spotlighted it quite well.

Nick Prigge said...

Shane: Thanks, man. I did like the screenplay went for duality as opposed to just being about the guy in the title.

Andrew: I love what you say about Frances the character. I think that's a big part of what draws me to that character. The positivity in the face of failure, which can sometimes be a detriment as much as an aid. There were a lot of others film I considered, including Hustle. I kind of just let the post write itself, though, and this was where it led. Besides, once I get Hustle on DVD in a couple weeks, I'll probably more to say.

Jose: Thanks. Millenials do seem to take a lot of crap, don't they? That's the sort of anger that gets directed, I think, not just at Frances Ha but those severe indies that Greta sort of came up through. Different generations figuring things out differently and those things can be reflected differently on camera.

Candice: I kind of wonder if I just went looking for failure in films. But then I also think that movies - the really good ones anyway - tend to touch on innumerable themes all at once. That's why I like seeing how so many of the same movies are turning up in others' posts.

Nikhat said...

I really loved all these films. I don't know what that says about me.

I like that we both have Frances Ha and The World's End in our lists, highlighting different motifs. Films can be so layered, which is one of the things that impressed me about The World's End so much.