Swiss Army Man

Swiss Army Man has got to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It is a monumental tribute to friendship…life-sustaining, life-giving friendship, and what the directors did in making this movie is also a monumental tribute …to undiluted creativity, absurdity, and how we give life to one another.

The movie is about the meeting and subsequent friendship of Hank and Manny. Hank is stranded on an island and seeing no way out, decides to hang himself. Just as he is about to hang himself, he spots a body on the shore- the corpse of Manny.
Seeing Manny gives Hank a will to live and for the rest of the movie, Manny is a constant source of life-sustainment for Hank. Manny gives Hank company, gives him the task of educating and story telling…asking him about the world and the life he doesn’t remember. He questions so many of the social norms that Hank tries to explain, and we see how the social norms that stifled Hank into running away to an island in the first place slowly disintegrate throughout the movie and give him the freedom to create a life for himself. Of course, Manny, as a corpse, also depends on Hank to move him…giving Hank responsibility and the experience of being depended on. Sometimes, what sustains us can be the idea that we are useful.
Hank literally gives Manny life because by dragging him around everywhere and using him for any/everything as a “Swiss Army Man”…(his spit as a water supply etc.) he slowly brings him back to some kind of half-life. This movie accepts that people inevitably use each other…and it does so, unlike so many other movies and media, without any cynicism in the notion. It’s rare to see a true symbiotic relationship portrayed today, where a strong love and friendship is built between two characters who both need each other to survive.

Jet ski farts, boner compass, and many other absurd, totally nuts, and hilarious things comprise Manny’s special powers. Once you get over the hilarity and the grossness of his superpowers, it is so moving to realize that all the things that make him special are the most human things. The things we try to conceal from one another, the things that society teaches us are not appropriate, the things we are embarrassed by like our bodies and our beliefs. Farts, boners, awkwardness, and constant weird questions…unwavering curiosity. What a powerful statement that is- what makes us capable, what makes us special is our humanity, no matter how primitive or base that may be.

Besides all the ways (many of which I’m sure I haven’t picked up on!) this movie is thoughtful, thought-provoking, and moving, it is just so fun. I was so moved I cried for half the movie. The other half, I was crying from laughing. This was the first time I worried I was being disruptive in a theater! The acting is phenomenal…Paul Dano as Hank acts with such palpable joy, desperation, and humanity..the joy of discovering he’s not alone, the joy of finding cheese puffs, the desperation of wanting to be understood when explaining difficult things to Manny etc.. And Daniel Radcliffe as Manny the corpse is a marvel, hilarious as the straight (literally rigor mortis) man, acting with so little of the expression and emotion Paul Dano does; it was incredible to see an actor …people who practice and train to react, to not be reactive at all. The commitment with which they played the opposite spectrums of humanity was awe-inspiring.

Watching this movie, I’m reminded of a famous John Donne poem, especially on my mind these days with such tragedies as Orlando and Turkey-

“No man is an island entire; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

“No man is an island” but sometimes we feel that way…we are all lost and stranded sometimes with no way out and we need others. In a way, it’s a story we’ve all heard…about two people who save each other with their friendship…but the potent imagination and the unwavering commitment with which this movie is rendered make it an unmissable experience.

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The End of the Tour: Movie Review

To watch or not to watch…that is the deep burning moral question I, and I’m sure, many others had about The End of the Tour.
The movie is based on the true story behind the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace published by David Lipsky in 2010, two years after David Foster Wallace’s death.

The film starts with David Lipsky hearing about the suicide of David Foster Wallace and continues with his subsequent remembrance of a five-day long road trip in which he interviewed DFW for a (never published) piece in Rolling Stone.

In the movie, you see two men (circumstantially similar but existentially different) on opposite sides of fame. A David who has fame and another who desperately wants it. It’s hard not to watch the movie without realizing that the one who wanted it is getting it now, with this movie…has been getting it since 2010 when he wrote a memoir about five days with Foster Wallace. Though Lipsky was acknowledged as a great author on his own merits, he was relatively unknown and seems to have made a career most recently, like many others, out of attaching himself to DFW. It’s a very smart career move; because Foster Wallace is so deeply missed, even by strangers because of the intimate bond he makes with readers …everyone feels a personal claim to him. Therefore, any book, any movie, anything at all claiming to have first-hand knowledge of him is bait to us.
So it seems a little convenient or advantageous for Lipsky…but countless people benefit from honest endeavors, things they love…this wouldn’t be enough to make me reconsider seeing a movie I’m interested in seeing. What is unforgivable to me is that the movie was made without the blessing of the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust. The Trust is comprised essentially of his wife, sister, family, publishers and the like…people who knew him and were close to him. People who grieved for him then and grieve for him still. Part of losing someone to suicide is to realize how little control we have over others, even ones we love, who love us. The making of this movie further emphasizes the lack of control we have concerning our loved ones by showing us how little control we have in how our loved ones are remembered. These people closest to him who oppose the film and the many other reductive ideas and labels people have slapped onto DFW not only grieve the death of someone they know and love, but grieve the birth of a collective memory of that person in which they have no part in shaping.
The following statement from them:
“That article was never published and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie. The trust was given no advance notice that this production was underway and, in fact, first heard of it when it was publicly announced. For the avoidance of doubt, there is no circumstance under which the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust would have consented to the adaptation of this interview into a motion picture, and we do not consider it an homage. Individuals and companies involved with the film were made keenly aware of the reasons for their objections to the adaptation, yet persisted in capitalizing upon a situation that leaves those closest to David unable to prevent the production.”

You can read the original article here: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/22/david-foster-wallace-family-object-biopic-end-of-the-tour

And yet, everyone who sees this film is going to be someone who can’t help themselves. Who miss him. Who want to know more about this warm, complicated, and insightful genius. In a way, we can rest knowing that everything happened and all the words are his…(though the transcripts are “repurposed” and most likely, because it is a movie, things are dramatized, idealized, and contextually inaccurate) We want a true experience of him, after all…but the truest experience of him the way he would have wanted was…most likely, nothing like this. By all accounts, DFW did not want fame- even in the movie, he struggles intensely with the idea of fame. So of course, his family, friends, his loved ones, feel his rights being violated. This isn’t a movie, a thing to catch on the weekend, or an Oscar-buzz generator… this is an impostor, an invasion.

The thing both sides, those making and those opposing the film seem to share for DFW, however, is a love for him. A reverence for him which is felt through the film, reverence the character of David Lipsky (played brilliantly by Jesse Eisenberg) has and one the camera shares and imparts to us. From the writers to the actors, there doesn’t seem to be one person involved in this movie who does not love DFW, whose initial interest wasn’t guaranteed by the subject of the movie.
And, everything else said, it was a great movie.
Jesse Einsenberg as Lipsky was so believably vulnerable, so relentlessly unlikeable when necessary, and so nuanced in a portrayal that could have easily seemed parodic. He shifted between jealousy, different kinds of insecurity, anger, adulation, and epiphany easily, transmitting those emotions to us.
Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace has been highly praised, some going as far as calling him a “revelation.” The New York Times wrote an article on Jason Segel which revealed his process for the role:
“To prepare for the role, Mr. Segel listened to Mr. Lipsky’s recordings exhaustively, watched clip after clip of Wallace online, formed a small book club with friends to go over the 1,079-page “Infinite Jest” in 100-page chunks, and rented a cabin by himself in the California boonies to read undistracted. To play Wallace, he said he worked to strip away any vanity or hint of pretense or self-satisfaction, and strived, moment by moment, to be as honest and empathetic as he could be.”

His process worked. The words so often ascribed to DFW- charming, likable, generous, guarded are all there, as well as many more. There have been those who were close to DFW who absolutely abhor Segel’s performance and have spoken out against it…and of course, they knew the man, every small difference will be noticed, noted, and felt. It’s hard for obvious reasons to try being anyone else, but to be someone as beloved as Foster Wallace, you will be penalized by those who knew and loved him for simply not being him.

The music by Danny Elfman was like the character of DFW as presented in the movie, spare and luminous, and the filming emulated the way Lipsky seemed to be starstruck with DFW. There were no glamorous locations or situations in the film- but many shots throughout their trip of the brightly lit hotel rooms and other banal and ordinary places were caught in otherworldly lights, captured at transcendental times. The camera would often follow Jesse as Lipsky into a space of DFW’s with a reverence, a slowness and these moments seemed overexposed…not just in their washed-out light-rinsed filter, but also because it was most often a stolen glimpse into Wallace’s private spaces. The camera-work makes something sacred out of the mundane, which is, of course, how Lipsky and so many others view DFW…as an ordinary man who is a god because he’s so much an ordinary man.

And in the end, for me, it wasn’t so much a movie about DFW…it was more a movie about what it’s like to be granted a short span of time with someone you intensely admire, someone who brings out your deepest insecurities and anxieties…who lays bare each of your shortcomings and it’s also about the growth that comes from that kind of confusing condensed experience.

So obviously, I watched the movie. I pushed the moral dilemmas aside, because I didn’t believe I could rightfully have one without experiencing the movie and trying to understand what the movie was hoping to offer, even at the possible expense of what DFW would have wanted.
In an article (http://www.avclub.com/article/james-ponsoldt-david-foster-wallace-and-objections-223241), the director James Ponsoldt discusses what he hoped to offer with the movie:
“When people that aren’t Wallace fans, or just aren’t familiar, see it, I hope that it maybe inspires them to seek out his writing, to buy his books. That’s my real hope.”
Another quote from the DFW Trust says,
“Most importantly, The David Foster Wallace Literary Trust and David’s family prefer that David be remembered for his extraordinary writing.”

Both sides want the same thing, to perpetuate the work of someone they believe is singularly great. And maybe it isn’t enough anymore for authors to self-perpetuate with their writing…maybe they need the help of indie movies and not-quite-biopics to garner attention, to be more widely read, but I find it uncomfortable that even the best authors have little control in how they are remembered.
And memory is at the heart of this conflict- the many differences in how we remember and how we grieve, because to remember anything, is in a way, to grieve it’s passing. For some, like Lipsky, trying to touch, grasp, and constantly remember is a way to be closer. For others, keeping away from the man, preserving the author as he intended is the way to grieve and grieve respectfully.

I don’t know if I will ever forget the last scene of this movie. Right before Lipsky has to head home, DFW receives a call from someone and Lipsky finds out that it’s about a dance because DFW loves dancing and goes to a baptist church to do it. And the movie ends with him at this baptist church dancing with everyone around him. It’s a beautiful moment, and whether or not it’s true… whether or not he goes to dance or he goes to a recovery meeting, it’s surprising. Movies about people inherently and necessarily summarize or reduce them, but at the end of this one, Foster Wallace remains complex and elusive. And because the movie ends with a surprise, it offers a way for him to keep living beyond the movie, for him to keep existing and to keep surprising. We get the sense that there is so much more to know, so much left undiscovered. Even in their decision to make the film, the makers of the movie, in a sense painfully keep him alive to those who love him because part of being alive is ceding control…the unfortunate truth may be that we have no say in how we are remembered, how our loved ones are remembered.

but we can read and choose to remember him on his terms,
this man who, despite his suffering, wrote as “a way out of loneliness” for us as much as for him.
Who used his brilliance and genius to write about that shared marvel and ailment of being human.
Ling Ling

fate and free will in upstream color

I love the movie Upstream Color and for months, I’ve been watching it whenever I can. This is less a movie and more a fractured rabbit hole of orchids, scopolamine, pigs, and love. Using these motifs, Shane Carruth constructs a meditation on identity; it’s a movie about free will within fate, consciousness out of general unconsciousnesses, and it is an exploration of the relationship between human experiences and routine.

Before we see anything, we hear a warm thick chord in D Major. The movie opens and we see a man taking out trash. This opening already shows two aspects of routine- spirituality from the near-religious tone of the music and the daily taking out of trash. Carruth’s style has been compared to Malick, and there is a certain spiritual element, but there also seems to be something more clinical, almost aseptic in the sparseness (even the chords in the music have large ranges, adding to the sparseness) and subject matter Carruth chooses. While the music continues, we see a myriad of images… scenes of people doing repetitive everyday things like running and children playing games that involve rote calisthenics are interlaced with scenes of the complex process by which the scopolamine-esque drug gets made. Eventually, the drug finds its way to one of the main characters Kris (acted incomparably by Amy Seimetz.)

We watch first as Kris is tasered, kidnapped, and drugged with scopolamine, which causes users to become highly susceptible to manipulation, losing their free will and memory. We then watch as everything she does is dictated by the man who tasered, kidnapped, and drugged her. I was struck with the language the kidnapper used with her. Instead of ordering her around, or speaking down to someone completely under his control, he spoke eloquently and beautifully. He tells her that he has been born with a disfigurement, that his head is made of the same material as the sun and so she cannot look directly at him. It would have been so easy for him to say “do not look at me.” And she would have obeyed, but he chose to say it beautifully. In a strange, way, it seems like respect, or at least, reminds us that though something is beautiful, beautifully said, or a good story, does not necessarily make it true. His language use is also fascinating in another way…some other things he says are, “Water has lost its appeal… There are two approaching armies… The floor will support your weight now… The weather is beautiful, you feel like walking… The wall has crumbled, fallen down…” He always refers to circumstances as fateful or outside of anyone’s control (his head being born like the sun) or as changing/having changed (the floor will support your weight/water has lost its’ appeal). Occasionally, he makes it seem like it is she who has changed or he tells her a feeling or choice to have of her own (the weather is beautiful, you feel like walking.) Similar to real life, it is often true that the things we most likely obey are the things that seem logical…we are told things lose their appeal and then they do. We are told we feel like doing something or should do something, walking, etc. and so we do. We find things can support us or they can’t, and we accept all of these circumstances as truths, limitations and mostly in this movie, things that expect a certain response from us.

Over the course of the next few days, the kidnapper gives Kris many mundane tasks. She has been told that water is the only thing she needs, but that each drink of water or controlled amount of water must be earned. This prompts the question for us, when did we first learn the concept of earning, of rewards? Is this something inherent to humanity or something we’ve learned to teach one another, something to maintain at least a ruse of control? The precision and care which she dedicates to these tasks is frightening. We see her struggling to do the most mundane things on no sleep, no food, only water, which she has been told is the only thing she wants and needs…he has her writing out Thoreau’s Walden on little scraps of paper to link together. At one point while she is gluing a part of the paper chain together, she says out loud, “crown me”, which was the most frightening part because it indicated that she developed something close to enjoyment for these tasks…
At another point, the kidnapper gives her a bowl of ice and puts her in front of a painting with a horse. It is as if she is watching television as she is captivated by and intermittently bursts out in laughter at the painting.. At this point, we wonder, why does he give her variety… ice instead of water? Many things in life parade as variety and are not; many things parade as our choices but they are not. And what is the value in giving her entertainment? Though she is under the influence of a drug, her laughter and complete amusement from a static object is not that different from some of the worse reality tv we watch.

Eventually, the kidnapper has drained her life savings, bank accounts, assets and releases his compulsion on her. She immediately eats and goes to sleep. While she is sleeping, the worms that carry the drug start to surface just beneath her skin. Even the stretches and small repeated motions she makes while asleep are not her choices, but directed by the motion of the roundworms. The use of parasites is interesting because like many of our compulsions and beliefs, we may not be aware of them but they can grow to hideous sizes and manipulate us neurologically, emotionally, and behaviorally. She eventually gets them out of her body and we watch as she tries to regain normalcy. She loses her job and her funds are depleted, but the biggest loss may be her sense of identity. She seems to move with a sense of wariness and distrust now, for others and for herself. She gets a job as a copier of some kind where she does mundane and menial tasks (not unlike things she did while drugged,) and she tells another character at one point, “I’m lucky to have this job.” She meets Jeff (acted by Shane Carruth) a year later on a bus and they are drawn to each other. When we first meet Jeff, he seems to be a normal man attracted to a woman he meets on the bus. Only later do we find out that he has been drugged as well, and is also trying to return to some semblance of his old life. We see him blindly knotting straws alone in a scene after having our initial introduction to him and it is so jarring to see someone who has been presented with a degree of normalcy having hidden impulses. I appreciated their being compelled to do these mundane tasks (instead of anything more explicitly defined) because you can easily substitute any ideology or substance for these tasks.

While we are slowly watching Kris and Jeff develop a relationship, we also see montages of other relationships (where we can assume at least one person has been drugged) having versions of the same arguments and the same fights. The couples fight with such anger, love, and unhappiness; in some way, all emotions can become routine responses, and it’s terrifying to watch that happen in these scenes. This makes us ask…what is the relation between love and rote? Do we continue to love because it is routine, do they become interchangeable… is love rote, as it seems to be in some of these couples?

Or could it be possible (as it seems to be for Kris and Jeff) that love is an antidote of some kind? At first, Kris and Jeff go through the motions of any beginning relationship…in a way, their love is like tasks and routines dictated by the ways we are taught in society to pursue each other, and then they give into the more primitive automatic desires of their bodies. (In a way, it is a relief to have the automatic of the bodies and society dictate their relationship at first because they are both so fragile; this point of the movie almost seems to argue for routine- the importance of knowing what to do or giving in helps them regain a sense of normalcy.) It isn’t until the morning after they have spent their first night together that we see a first choice or conscious decision being made. Before they kiss for the first time, before going inside her house, Kris in a moment of vulnerability says, “It’s not my fault when it goes wrong.” She takes ownership of the fact that she has lost ownership before and isn’t sure she has any currently. Jeff responds, “Yes. It is.” I believe that this is the line that gives her agency again, reminds her of a world where she can mess up, and it can at least be good because it is her mess. Because of this newfound agency, she is able to make the first conscious choice the morning after. Kris, while cooking eggs looks at Jeff and kisses him. This kiss, for me, was everything. He was eating her cereal and she just kissed him fiercely at this insertion of himself into her world. It was, I believe the first, and one of the only spontaneous actions of any of the characters in the movie where they are fully in control. In a movie about compulsion, spontaneity is defiance. This small act of love, and perhaps love itself, is a defiance to our everyday. Their relationship continues to grow and it becomes clear that though they have a shared experience of losing so much from this drug, they both have a resistance to being victimized. They never talk about the things that have made them the way they are; in truth, both seem to accept responsibility for the way they are. I was amazed by the resignation of these people who had to accept things they never wanted which afflicted their lives and identities. Their voices, conversations, and eventual homemaking all seem like a resilience to damage and it’s surprising how normal they sound, knowing what they have been through.
They build a life together that seems almost normal, but they have retained some forms of the compulsions from their time of drug use. Kris swims laps and picks rocks from the bottom of the pool to bring back, all the while reciting Walden. Jeff seems to be involved somehow, observant at least of her continued habits; we are all complicit and unconscious in each others captivities and in our own. They get confused often about their stories; they keep telling each other childhood stories that belong to the other…this part of the movie was an interesting take on how we stitch together shared identities and stories because our own our broken. It is easy to forget ourselves in relationships.
Their “normal” life is interrupted when they have a collective breakdown. She breaks a glass window, and he gets into a fight; they are incredibly afraid and start to act in ways that don’t make sense to us, but make sense to one another. Similarly, we accept irrational behavior from others and ask people to understand it of us when we are afraid. At the end of this breakdown, we find them huddled together in a bathtub (after fulfilling an elaborate plan they made to get there) crowded around with supplies and things to protect them. Theirs is an extreme example, but we just as easily crowd our minds and hearts with things to protect us from outside circumstances.

I appreciated the end of the movie. There is a sense of justice when Kris gets “revenge” on one of the people who was involved in their drugging, and a sense of renewal as we see Kris and Jeff with the pigs that are now linked to them through the drug (still can’t really explain how thaaat happens…) but there is no sense of real closure and no denial of the traumas that have occurred and the new reality of their lives.

What they end up doing with their lives after the drug is not so different from what they do when they are under the control of the drug/someone else…and maybe that is what Carruth is getting at…he’s trying to tell us to wake up from this mundane existence. To be wary of the things that behave as authority in our lives. To realize that some of what we do is as futile as writing books out that have already been written, putting things together that don’t need to be together just to take them apart. Maybe that’s why that kiss meant so much to me…the defiance of it, the free will of it. This movie did not function under a supposed duality of free will vs. fate (as many do), but rather, the characters found a way to enact free will within fate. This movie gave me a great tenderness for humanity, it looks at all the things we worship and all the things we do routinely and of course, I can’t help but relate it to politics, religion, all the things we build our lives around- which control us similarly to this drug, but it doesn’t observe cynically or pass judgement. Rather, this is a part of humanity, we are part of a pattern, we look for patterns, and it is safe to remain in these parts of the pattern, to be sure of the threads of our existence. But eventually, you can make the pattern. This movie was also for me, a meditation on film-making, related to the way the characters in it observe and participate in each other’s lives. At a point in the movie, as well as making the movie, watching, passivity, and observing becomes the active process of participating…making decisions, producing, and capturing.

How do you assemble existence?
Ling Ling

I’m Here: Movie Review

I’m Here is a short Spike Jonze film from 2010 about a love story in LA between two robots. It starts with the introduction of Sheldon, an isolated male robot who rides the bus to and from the library for work everyday before going home and recharging. A female robot is introduced, one who drives (despite a ban on robots driving), dreams (which is surprising to Sheldon who wasn’t aware robots could dream), and lives life with abandon. She shows him a way of life, which, while risky, is really living as opposed to Sheldon’s previous life as a series of compulsory habits.
This is the first movie I have seen which portrays robots or any kind of technology as being emotionally capable of vulnerability. The female keeps doing reckless things which cause her to lose limbs and body parts and Sheldon either fixes her with his toolkit or gives her his body parts (first an arm and eventually his entire body.) This isn’t unlike people you find in real life, who mean well and try to live well, but get into situations which require rescue and the emotional or temporal sacrifices of those around them. The fragility of technological parts prove a good metaphor for the fragility of our psychological parts. Though this short film can be seen as a sweet and simple romance about an ideal man (perhaps only a robot could be ideal) who gives everything up for the woman he loves, I think of this short film as more of a cautionary tale about the dangers of love and makes you question the notions you may have about relationships and the ideal. I was frustrated for much of the movie because their whole relationship, he was giving up so much of himself to her. First an arm, then a leg, (the fact that they were robots and the interchangeability of robot parts was also a fascinating equalizer of gender) and eventually, like any relationship, he entrusted all of himself to her…in this case literally…and at least Sheldon was lucky enough to keep his head, as not all of us can do that. I was not happy at the end once Sheldon had given up his entire body to the female robot. The preservation of individual identity is something I care about in my own friendships and relationships, so this very physical showing of the ways we graft ourselves onto each other was terrifying. It took me some time after watching to realize that an equal (or somewhat close) exchange had been made on her part. Though it was clear the whole time what Sheldon was giving up for the relationship, Francesca was giving up much of her identity as well. Because it becomes difficult for Sheldon to ride the bus to and from the library once he starts giving Francesca limbs, he becomes dependent on her for transportation as well as care. Though it was painful to see his growing dependence on her, it was good to see that she began to take form as someone who was dependable. Before this relationship, it didn’t seem like she was responsible for herself or anyone around her and she only starts to become a cohesive individual in the film when she gives up some of her independence/non-commitment. So in a way, this was a short film about one of my worst fears, how a degree of lacking independence and a willingness to be dependent may be necessary for relationships.

…,
Ling Ling

Intersection Love Duet: Movie Clip Review

Last night upon finding I had an extra hour from the Daylight Savings fairy, I decided to rewatch one of my favorite movies, Pina, the Wim Wenders documentary about the choreographer Pina Bausch. I first watched this in theaters when it rolled into Cleveland’s Cinemateque and was so struck by its visual beauty and charged emotion that I watched it again every day it was offered at the theater.
The documentary was a collaboration with Pina but she died prior to its finish and though Wenders wanted to cancel the production, her dance company convinced him to continue and it became a tribute to some of her best known works as well as being more showing, or in this case, dancing, then telling.
Being a musician, I am always looking to other art forms to see how they deal with the same problem and advantage of not having a concrete meaning or message conveyed with words. Watching this documentary, I felt the emotional power that can come from physicality without words, and not only did I not need words to feel every scene deeply, I also was at a loss for words in a way that was gain. Finally, to stop editing feelings by pushing them into words or sentence structure, and to just feel completely.
Pina’s works often express loneliness, our need for each other, our dependencies on each other, positive or negative patterns we establish in our lives, and explore gender relationships.
And sometimes, it’s just expressing love…like in the clip I’m blogging about today. It’s only a minute and a half but I’m going to break it down in an attempt to better understand how another art form expresses without words in the hopes that it will help me express better without words.
This is the Intersection Love Duet from Pina- I would recommend watching first, and then reading. (Or just watching.)

The scene opens on a woman sitting in the grass. She turns on the radio in front of her and settles in. Her body language to me is resolute…the way in which she is turned away from us seems purposeful and meant to exclude. She seems like she will be patiently waiting a long time. Just then a man walks up to her and picks up her left hand and puts it to the the area between his nose and his mouth. Using this area, he spins her around and we see her for the first time full-on. Though her body is largely unresponsive besides being permissive to his actions, we see that her face is full of emotion. There is so much about this simple sequence of gestures that is moving to me- this is love. The submission on her part, allowing him to touch and move her. The stoop in his back he has to adopt to put her wrist between his nose and mouth suggest his submission in approaching and moving her. He also puts such an intimate place of hers in such an intimate place of his, there is no room in my mind for any interpretation of power or manipulation, only the equal footing of two individuals. The act of his revealing her to us or us to her…can speak to any number of things about how love opens us up to the world around us, liberates us not only from our physically being alone (for there he is! and here, we, the audience are!) but gives us an outlet to stop being immobile, to stop patiently waiting and to start being moved by the emotions of (and in our society, behind) our faces.
We see his face as he turns her, catching a glimpse of him with his eyes closed, face relaxed, trusting her. And we see her with her eyes wide open, perplexed, as if just awakened. As if he closed his eyes in a transference so she could see. He completes one full spin of her and he rolls his head, looking away from her and you think maybe he is detaching but it is just to facilitate his arm reach to pick her up from her seated position. As he picks her up, she unfurls, stiffly at first, but at the last second when her back is still arched, she makes her first independent movement. She then turns herself around, as does he, gazing at the world around them. And we too, really notice the world around them as the cinematography pans out (the intersection busy with buses, rails, and cars)…as if just seeing an act of love is a participation in a greater worldview.
He comes to rest his head above hers. While he is taller and it could seem like this is an act of power over her, the way he fully forms his head to fit with hers sets them again on an equal footing. In this video, it always seems to be their equal submissions to one another that keeps them individual. I never thought about how you have to keep making choices as an individual to submit to another.
He lowers his head, which is a gesture of sadness or need to my interpretation, and he does so by sinking his head weight onto hers. She sinks too, under head weight, affected by his heaviness, physical or emotional. But she pushes him (them) up, and together they circle their heads around each other, revelling in individual togetherness.
He puts the same intimate area between the nose and the mouth on another intimate place, her neck, and she reciprocates fully, wrapping both hands and arms around his neck. She rolls her arms around his neck luxuriously and slowly folds to his side.
After this full commitment from her, he sweeps her off her feet (literally) and you see their bodies clenched in this sudden movement, so passionate and different from the gentleness we’ve thus far seen.
As she is clenched at his side, trying not to fall, he seems unable or unwilling to carry her (the physical weight here perhaps being a metaphor for emotional weight) lets her down gently into the grass again and runs off into the street. At the moment of letting go, she tries to hold on to him but is unable. She settles in again. Waiting. Her back to us once more, and even farther than before.

I don’t actually know what this duet is about. It could be a parody on short-lived relationships with mail-order brides for all I know. Who knows where he goes at the end? Another woman? Man? Death? Or why he goes? I can also imagine things interpreted very differently- the lowering of his head and her pushing back, for example, as a way of expressing how couples can nip at each other in challenge and oppression. I’m assuming love because that is what appeals to me right now as a mid-twenties girl. And I love how magical this love manages to be at an intersection, quite literally a point at which people meet. Maybe this is all love is, intersections between two people and sometimes you’re lucky to find a road junction in another person instead of something more temporary.
What is heat, urban grittiness, and traffic in the face of love?

I’m in a phase of life where I don’t think it’s necessarily less magical to know how something works…in fact, it could even be more magical…people we love for instance, are complex, and trying to understand their motivations doesn’t mean they won’t surprise or move you. And how magical it is when they break out of your understanding of them! So perhaps, being in this phase of life has led me to be too clinical about this clip. Perhaps, I’ve put too many words on the thing…but I’m not worried because after this documentary, I know how much our bodies and movements can express and reveal beyond our words.

How much our bodies can betray us.
Ling Ling

The Way Way Back: Movie Review

I watched The Way Way Back tonight and it took my breath away. It reminded me that little more is needed for a great movie than good writing and genuine characters brought to life by courageously nuanced acting.
The Way Way Back is a movie about a boy positioned at the pivotal moment between boyhood and adulthood and his complicated surroundings during a summer. It could easily be shoved in a drawer with all the other “coming-of-age” stories, and it’s true, he does find his footing and grow up a little, but I would just as easily categorize this as a failed-to-come-of-age story. This movie is full of disgusting adult behavior. Completely inept parenting and a disregard for decisions having consequences, particularly involving impressionable minors. The adult-types presented negatively in the movie can be categorized broadly into:
a) The kind of adult who projects his own insecurities and failings onto others around him, particularly the boy.
b) The kind of adult who is so scared of losing the new prospects in her life she is unwilling to see or react accordingly to the truth, putting the adolescent boy in a helpless situation of seeing everything and being able to do nothing.
c) The kind of adult who because of past experiences is just out to get what they can when they can without caring about how their decisions will affect others. This kind of behavior is especially dangerous because it can become the damaging past experience for someone else which could then beget the same pain repeatedly.
d) The kind of adult who is so negligent they are barely in the movie.
Of the above categories, the ones which seemed most alarming to me are a combination of b and c. I’m in my early twenties and most of my friends are the same age. We’re all looking for love or success (but who am I kidding, mostly love), and we understand looking for love as a priority in the lives of others around us. We put less value on being a good friend to each other by sticking with our pre-made plans together and more value on being a good friend by letting them go out and have their chance of love. This may be fine in our twenties, but by watching this movie, I see how toxic this mindset can be if you are eventually a recently separated, divorced, single, what-have-you, with kids. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m sure that I would have difficulty putting anything before my own desperation. I particularly felt a connection to Toni Colette in her portrayal of a recently divorced and vulnerable woman infatuated with her new boyfriend. Through this movie, I lived through her decisions and hopefully, if ever faced with similar ones in real life, I will be able to recognize a chance to make different ones. From my writing so far, it probably seems like the movie was a downer, or at least more intensely psychological than it is. In fact, I found it a beautifully balanced movie. There was a deft hand used in alternating quickly between humor and sadness and beautifully lazy camera-work lingering on all the things that can, in detail, make the mundane in summer magical. Liam James who played the boy Duncan was especially impressive in an all-around amazing cast. Though a young actor, he is completely comfortable being quiet and doing nothing onscreen and seems completely unconscious to being filmed. This is so rare in an increasingly self-conscious generation obsessed with watching and being watched. The parents and adults acted wonderfully with their complicated roles and Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph provided comedic relief but had their own complexities. I left this movie feeling uplifted. I was moved to see that these young kids in the movie could go out and search for surrogate families, that they could become families for each other and be resilient to the ways we damage them. I was moved to see the way communities and strangers who have their own complications in life can find it in them to be what someone else needs should they be in the position to do so. So love your kids, your friends, your families a lot. And if you don’t do it well, show it enough, or mess up from time to time, it’s ok.

Because it might just be that you aren’t that powerful and they will pull through,
Ling Ling

To the Wonder: Movie Review

A few weeks ago, a friend and I went to see To the Wonder, Terrence Malick’s latest. After the movie, we were less than enthused. For me, the movie posed aesthetic questions….is beauty enough to save an otherwise plotless movie? For beautiful is the only thing the movie undeniably is…the scenes are beautiful. The actresses are beautiful and everything is staged, it seems, to be beautiful. It was at least enjoyable to look at if not meaningful- we were in New York at the time and amidst the people and deliciously chaotic fervor, 2 hours of carefully curated images was something if not desired, at least appreciated.
But as time elapses between the viewing of the movie and now, the images have begun to unravel in my mind.
It was a struggle throughout the movie not to give up on it. Since American Beauty, the American Dream’s suburban sickness and sprawl has been done, and never in my opinion, as well. In fact, not only did I find the story of Wonder cliche, but even the images were sometimes so representative of the Ideal in Love, America, Etc. they didn’t seem beautiful or new. Even so, there were many other images which were beautiful and evoked feelings I will remember a long time so it is a credit to Malick (for me) that this movie is largely wordless. Only without a traditional narrative can he take us into the reality of a more stream of consciousness love story. If anything, I have come to think of this movie as a kind of anti-love story. Or maybe one of the only true love stories I’ve seen on film. I can’t decide because this movie made me question the whole genre of love story movies.
Like the movie, there isn’t always connective tissue or reasoning in all relationships…there aren’t exchanges of words and dialogues the way most books and movies tell us there are because they are only there for an audience to follow. A real love story won’t make sense to someone watching in the same ways it won’t make sense when you’re living it. Like the movie, you won’t necessarily know all the time what they’re thinking or what you’re thinking. But we follow these progressions we see onscreen and let them dictate how we behave in real life…you know…first we meet cute and talk and follow a natural (so we think) advance of speech and actions expected by either of us from what we know relationships to be from movies and books and relationships of other people we know (who may possibly also be doing things based on movies and books and other art forms.) Of course there are exceptions and of course there is incredible and singular variety in these love stories. But I admired the bravery of Malick in taking the risks he did which would only seem like risks in the most platitudinal world he could create. In this way, I felt called upon to participate in a real relationship instead of watching one happen. There was a twist, however, but no spoilers of uh…”plot?” here.
Instead of connective tissue or natural progressions what Malick does so beautifully is capture and transition madly between the tiny moments of love’s reassurance and its unsettling isolation. In fact, he is a master of showing us how alone we are. Alone in nature, alone in the suburbs, alone in marriage. But he captures the most important parts of vulnerability and madness and our desperate need for others resulting in a constant dissatisfaction with bleak aloneness even in togetherness. And many parts of the movie are just as frustrating as relationships. Moods are fickle and they don’t understand you and you don’t understand you and what is coming out of my mouth right now and why aren’t we getting along all of a sudden? We have no idea why things are amiss in the movie sometimes which happens so often in real life relationships and communication. Malick captures illogical incompatibility and the mental illnesses encapsulated in every partnership so well. It was an Anna Karenina with deterioration of the mind. He gives us the greatest and the worst in relationships and in our being made privy, we feel terribly alone….the same kind of alone his characters feel. But knowing that others go through the same, knowing these horrifying rifts occur to others and that we are all alone in many ways makes us

alone together,
Ling Ling