Grace, a gift the unworthy
From an unknown lover,
Bartering as young gods always do
For more than respect,
Rejecting the cordiality
Of statesmen and underpaid doormen.
Who is this gift-giver, this once bronze god
Fermented into an old man’s unsteadiness,
Weak ankles, aching knee-caps, a lazy mouth?
Generosity cannot shuttle out of the arms
Of aging gods smoking cigars, one unsteady hand
Guiding a wheeled walker through the halls
Of the soundless stalks of the unrepentant.
I used to believe that I was emotionally resilient. After experiencing Kenneth Lonergan’s film, “Manchester By The Sea,” I’m not so sure.
We first meet the central character, Lee Chandler, as a brooding, angry maintenance worker who manages to piss off or frustrate some of the tenants in one of the apartment buildings where he works. In the next scene, he starts a barroom brawl.
We don’t find out anything else about Lee’s life until one flashback reveals his alcoholic carelessness when he runs out of beer one night and walks to the store, forgetting to put the protective screen in front of the fire in the home fireplace. As he returns from the store, he hears fire sirens and runs up to see his home in flames and his distraught wife being gurneyed into the ambulance. His two children are lifted out of the rubble in black plastic bags.
From that traumatic moment, his psyche is frozen in emotional withdrawal and rage, two reactions he can little afford when he receives a phone call informing him that his brother has just died from a massive heart attack.
In a moment he is totally unprepared for, a lawyer informs him that his brother appointed him legal guardian of his teen-age nephew.
The rest of the film chronicles the uneven relationship with the nephew in moments of dark humor, raw honesty and the nephew’s casual and often comic sexual experiences.
One of the more poignant scenes happens when the nephew has a short-lived emotional break down when frozen meat keeps falling out of the freezer, reminding him that his father’s body has to stay in a morgue freezer because the cemetery ground in the winter is too hard to dig through for his father’s grave.
The nephew, the film is clear in telling us, is far more emotionally vulnerable and open than his uncle, who finally admits he can’t “beat” the darkness of his own personal trauma in being responsible for his children’s deaths. In addition to trying to adapt to his role as guardian, he makes at least one attempt at emotional expansiveness when he sells his brother’s guns to pay for a new motor for the nephew’s inherited boat.
Many of the town’s residents still hold him responsible for his family tragedy. His ex-wife is one of the exceptions when she makes a vain attempt to have him admit he still loves her, after she makes her own admission. In a typical dark Lonergan moment, she reveals her feelings even though she’s remarried and is out strolling her newly born infant when the chance meeting with Lee happens.
Lee is presented with a series of vulnerability and compassion moments from other people, cumulative examples that life still has worth—from the medical staff in the hospital where his brother dies to his nephew’s open moments of vulnerability to his own memories of his brother’s deep affection for him and his ex-wife’s fragile and risky admission that she still loves him.
In the final scene, Lee and his nephew are out on the family boat fishing. He has forfeited his guardianship and plans to return to Boston. He has chosen, in the end, not to move out of his soul’s bleak darkness. As the Romans would say, “Noli Me Tangere” (a loose translation—“let nothing touch me”)
“Moonlight,” won “best picture” award at this year’s Oscar’s after a traumatic envelope mixup. It is a one-of-a-kind film about a coming of age black young man who discovers, early in his fragile life, that he is gay.
As a pre-teenager, Chiron’s gay identity comes down on him like a falling meteor when his alcoholic-drug addicted mother, in a fit of self-loathing, screams “faggot” at him.
In high school, Chiron is bullied, taunted, and beaten but has a spontaneous, first-kiss and consummated sexual experience on the beach with one of his classmates.
Many years later, he ends up being a drug dealer mirroring the behavior of an older man who became a kind of surrogate father to the younger Chiron teaching him to swim and who, with his girlfriend, occasionally offered the young boy a place to hang out, eat, and escape from his cocaine-addicted mother.
Unexpectedly, Chiron receives a night phone call from his high school buddy with whom he had his first and only sexual experience. He eventually decides to take the road trip to make a surprise visit. After his friend makes him dinner, Chiron awkwardly admits he has never been touched by anyone else, as his friend cradles him in his arms in a final tender scene.
What I loved about this film is that it is not rushed. Each scene is given its moment, sometimes painfully, sometimes tenderly, without stealing or overshadowing the other. Although the central character’s life choice to sell drugs gives the film an ominous tone of fatalism, the restrained optimism of the narrative has more than its day in court—-Chiron eventually forgives his mother after she ends up in a rehab and at least two sets of characters are on Chiron’s side: the young couple who offer him refuge from his addicted mother and the high school friend who, even after his own marriage and separation, is still emotionally attached to Chiron.
Chiron’s character has heavy layers of loneliness, isolation, introversion, and painful shyness. But, in the end, the movie gives us an emphatic sense that he’s a survivor. And, viewers leave the film feeling Chiron has at least one moment of psychological relief in his friend’s obvious emotional and physical affection.
Toni Erdmann a German-Austrian production about a father and adult-daughter relationship. The father is a playful eccentric who loves to impersonate. The adult daughter is an up-tight, angst-driven corporate executive trying to succeed in a male dominated work environment.
Her father, impersonating an executive, uses the interventionist, in-your-face approach by invading her corporate world.
The psychological clash between the two of them vacillates between her rage and frustration with her father’s antics and an occasional surrender to the playful world and love of life he is trying to convince her has more intrinsic worth than all the compromises of self-worth she has to make in the corporate world.
Does the father succeed in winning her over to his side of life? Well, let me just say the movie’s ending gives you an ambiguous clue.
She was the object of somebody’s desire,
Like the faint shadow of a morning deer
Seen through the dead brush,
Fog lifting into its own absence,
Background to the primal hunt,
A new man frozen by impulse,
She, pretending confidence
In a shoulder’s shrug, brown focused eyes.
Directed by Raoul Peck, the documentary, I am Not Your Negro, is based on an unfinished book by James Baldwin about the three modern iconic black leaders who were assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X.
All three represented the three distinct movements in contemporary black history and culture: the NAACP, the peaceful resistance movement of MLK, and the more activist Nation of Islam Movement of Malcolm X.
The documentary, on so many levels, is almost impossible to take in in one sitting. Its sweep is large, including archival photos and footage of lynchings; some of the divisions among the black leadership; the civil rights era, including the school integration crisis in the south prompting visceral white reaction: the riots and the Black Panther confrontations with the police; footage of the trauma within the black community after the assassinations of Evers, King, and Malcolm X.
All of these historically momentous events became more compelling with the brilliant language of Baldwin’s text woven into the documentary and footage of Baldwin’s provocative speaking and debating skills (Baldwin had early training as a preacher).
Peck’s brilliant directing made use of images of the volatile civil rights era seamlessly blended in with the more contemporary images of Obama’s presidency, the Black-Lives-Matter protests and the photos of some of the young blacks killed by the police, prompting the protests.
Peck managed to brilliantly incorporate brief excerpts of classic films showing either how blacks had been demeaned and stereotyped as characters or how they began to be slowly given substantial character roles. He also included snippets of some classic white films with characters who were portrayed as western heroes or as romantically desirable, two characterizations denied blacks in the Hollywood film industry for decades.
Be prepared for an emotionally engaging film at the top of its game in presenting a comprehensive look at post-World War II black America under the exquisite direction of Raoul Peck and the literary brilliance of James Baldwin.
The Braggart, the Victim, the Innocent
It is not difficult to spot someone with a big ego. Aside from the fact that they are often hiding their insecurities, they tend to let you know, up front, that they are authorities about everything—-kids, relationships, mortgages, the best deals, doctors, schools, books, current events, relatives, religion, social media, even sex.
As an adult, however, I found that egotists come in many, many shades. Or they express their egos in different ways.
She was silent today, another dry event,
Trying to train herself into the habit
Of not thinking about him,
But feeling the cool memory
That lingered in between
The cars she passed on the Interstate,
Driving to the summer cottage
On a winter weekend,
To sit quietly inside his absence,
Opening empty cupboards,
Breaking frozen branches,
Scouring the floor with her iPhone light
To find the small notes he left her
During the week, his monk’s notices
Of celibate days not working for him
But promising to let go
If she would make her truce
To surrender quietly to his words
Until, according to the contract,
He would leave her small blank pages,
“My robin’s wounds,” he texted her.
He was blind, his eyes suffocated
In his grief, imagining,
His body’s stark opposition to
The innocent flow
Of children in bow ties
And full pink skirts,
Or an aging oak’s
Craggy shreds of skin
Once seen by the
Boy he used to be,
Eyes wide open,
An orgy of sun
His pupils knew
Could not absorb.
But now, in old age,
His eyes cannot remember
What they saw yesterday,
Austere, naked emptiness,
Burglarized by time,
Bargaining with his body
To hear more than
He could endure
As a classical recitalist, it is impossible to get through a Schubert song cycle without encountering the word “Sehnsucht,” (longing or desire).
Buddhism’s second Noble Truth tells us that “craving” is at the root of all “suffering,” which is the reality the First Noble Truth informs us is the malady every human will experience in life.
And desire certainly drives advertising in Western culture—in magazines, in newspapers, on cable tv, on billboards, on metro busses, on the radio. Even if we didn’t know we had the desire for that SUV, a tv ad will energize that desire into a purchase, for only $200 a month and $3,000 down.
In the alcohol and drug worlds, desire becomes a deeply entrenched craving, enhanced by a chemical dependency, that seeps into our bodies and minds, taking over our lives. That over-arching control of every aspect of our lives is certainly true for other addictions—food, sex, gambling, relationships, cars, shopping, among others
So, whether it’s romantic longing, an addiction, or an impulse to buy something we don’t need, the common denominator of desire, with all of its variations, is a part of our humanity, at least our modern humanity. And we can add to those modern forms of desire and cravings our finger-driven daily obsessions with Facebook and texting, not to mention the addictive need to scroll our way through our emails everyday.
Aside from addictions or the repetitive actions on our smartphones, both of which have multiple psychological and physical components, desire often arrives because something is missing in our lives.
That absence may be the lack of positive feedback at my job, of a positive image of myself that goes back to my childhood and adolescence. Or I may have had a week in which the second-floor toilet overflowed into the kitchen, my car’s muffler fell off in the Wegman’s parking lot, or one of my kids had a projectile vomit attack in the back seat of the family car in the middle of a traffic jam.
On my way home from work, do I want that new flat screen or smartphone, because my boss gave me a mediocre evaluation? Or just because I need to “come down” from all the craziness of my week.
Desire, I have found, often arrives as a form of emotional compensation. I may buy something because I think I need a pay-back from overwork. I rationalize the purchase saying to myself, “I deserve it; it’s been a rough week at work; the boss has been on my ass all week about my underperforming.”
Or my life sucks; I feel under-appreciated or left out; I can’t stop gaining weight; I fucked up another relationship; I offended somebody again.
Ordering a large pizza and streaming a favorite horror flick on Netflix can be just the right recipe to make us “feel good” in that escapist, prophylactic world where our bodies and minds just numb out the pain of feeling bad.
At the same time, the effect of acting on the desire makes us feel worse. That’s the second level of suffering.
The first level, of course, is that some painful experience enters our life (a shitty week with a boss, a client, a student, a relationship, at home), and we decide to binge.
The second level of suffering is a kind of buyer’s remorse, a regret, because now we’ve put on more weight, food binging. Or we have a huge credit-card bill after purchasing the entire series of “Six Feet Under,” “Breaking Bad,” and “Dexter.” Or we wake up with a person we’ve never seen before in our lives.
Just some thoughts in sobriety…..John