Four Films

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Thomas Jefferson famously said of fiction that it is “a mass of trash” and avowed, “A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels” (letter to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818). He did allow, however, that some fiction “is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives . . . on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality.”

The older generation has long been suspicious of popular culture. I suspect that if Jefferson were alive today, he would abhor the film industry. Indeed, much of it is a “mass of trash.” (Don’t expect an account of Fifty Shades of Grey from this reviewer.) However, I disagree with the premise that fiction is “dangerous” or a waste of time. Fiction takes us to other worlds and other cultures. It challenges us to consider other value systems and allows us to encounter vicariously other trials, triumphs, and obstacles than our own.

This is particularly true of several of the films nominated for the major awards this year, including Best Picture and best leading and supporting actors and actresses. Most of the films nominated in these categories have already been reviewed for Liberty:

In this article I will review four more Oscar-nominated films that take us into worlds we might not have experienced for ourselves and ask us to consider how we might have reacted.

Three of these films focus on women who face profound loss, including the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, and the loss of a sense of self.

* * *

Wild is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who hiked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California to Oregon, after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Strayed selected her surname after her divorce, and it fits her wandering personality. She has strayed far from the normal path to happiness, and she knows it. She is trying to get back on track.

She begins her journey in the way I probably would: she purchases the best supplies and equipment, carefully folds and organizes everything she will need for the journey, and arranges it all neatly and tightly in her backpack. Then she fills her cloth containers with water and straps herself in. But she can’t stand up. She doesn’t have the strength to lift the enormous weight. Undaunted, she rolls onto her knees, her backpack resembling the shell of a turtle, and slowly pulls herself upright. When I saw that,I laughed ruefully, knowing I would probably have done the same thing.

This girl might not be prepared physically, but she is determined not to give up. She tells herself, “You can quit,” with every arduous step she takes, but that freedom of choice seems to drive her forward. No one is making her do this, and because of that she keeps going.

Along the way she has plenty of time to think and grow strong. “I’m an experimentalist,” she says; “I’m the girl who says ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” But “yes” often comes with unintended consequences, and the wanton consequences of her often reckless and destructive choices flash onto the screen unbidden and unwanted, the way painful memories often flash unexpectedly into our consciousness. We turn away from the images on the screen, as a person turns away from difficult or painful images in the mind. “Problems don’t stay problems — they turn into something else,” Cheryl tells another hiker whom she meets on the trail. Facing these experiences and turning them into something else is the purpose of her journey.

Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

The editing of the flashbacks within the story of her trek is highly effective throughout the film, particularly the flashbacks to memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern, also nominated for an Oscar), who has recently died of cancer. Cheryl has conflicted memories of her mother. She is angry at her for choosing an abusive alcoholic as a husband and a father of her children. At the same time, she admires her mother’s courage in leaving that abusive marriage and returning to college to become a teacher. She chastises her mother for taking time away from her studies to fix dinner for her brother and his friend; “He’s 18! You don’t have to do everything for him. You have a paper to write.” Mostly she misses her mother’s radiant glow and love for life and everything in it. These memories are intertwined and nonlinear, as deeply conflicted emotions usually are. She doesn’t come to a chronological realization that she loved her mother. It’s always there, along with the anger.

Bobbi’s reaction to Cheryl’s “you don’t have to do everything” gets at the heart of this film and made me love her too. “But I want to do everything!” she exclaims, as though the thought should be apparent. And “everything” includes cooking for her family, playing with her children and telling them stories when they are young, loving them and nurturing them. Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

In the end, through this 1,000-mile trek, Bobbi teaches Cheryl how to live without regret. “Is it possible to be sorry for something you’ve done, yet not want to change anything, because it brought you here?” Cheryl muses. Being able to answer that question with a joyful “Yes” makes a journey like hers worth every blistered, bloody step.

* * *

Jennifer Aniston was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Cake, but many critics thought she should have been, and she was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for their top award, so we are including her performance in this review.

First you notice the scars. They feather in soft white lines across her cheek, under her chin, into her open neckline. Next you notice the way she moves — gingerly and cautiously, with deliberate care. Her head doesn’t turn on her neck; instead, she moves her whole body from the waist to address a person standing next to her. She doesn’t look up, but tips backward to see into the person’s face. In her eyes we see not only the pain of sorrow but also the pain of physical agony.

As Cake opens, Claire (Aniston) is attending a support group for people with chronic pain. The facilitator is encouraging members to express their feelings about the recent suicide of one of their group, Nina (Anna Kendrick). Claire becomes fascinated by Nina’s choice to end her life and begins to dream and hallucinate about Nina, eventually contacting Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington). Gradually we learn what has happened to Claire, and it is indeed horrific.

There are certain agonies no one can understand except a person who has experienced them firsthand. This is one of them, so I have no vantage point from which to judge the way Aniston plays this role. I haven’t the right to judge how a person facing her particular grief reacts. I can’t say, “This is how she should play the part.”

Having said that, I still want something different from this character. I want her to be more like me, or more like I think I would be if I experienced the same thing — though how can I know, since I never have (and hope I never will) had the experience myself? It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage. I want to say to her, “Choose life, or choose death, but don’t choose this!” If one purpose of fiction is to allow us to consider how we would react if we were in the protagonist’s shoes, I want to believe that I would be stronger and more courageous than this.

I’m reminded of the husband in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” who tries to empathize with his wife’s inconsolable sorrow after the death of their toddler: “Let me into your grief,” he begs. “Give me my chance.” But then he adds, rather insensitively, “I do think, though, you overdo it a little . . . in the face of love.” And there you have it. People grieve differently. Some need to be utterly alone in their grief, while others crave the company and support of others. Neither is wrong, because we are entitled to grieve in our own way. But it is painfully more difficult to survive tragedy when one personality type is married to the other.

It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage.

Similar to the wife in this poem, Aniston’s character does “overdo it a little” — yet she underdoes it at the same time. Claire is consumed by pain, both physical and emotional. She is incapable of connecting with people, even those who love her and want to help. But while Claire overdoes it, Aniston underdoes it. To a certain extent she is still Rachel Green of Friends, mooning over her on-again, off-again romance with Ross and fretting over the petty concerns of her coffee-shop life. Claire has Rachel’s perfect hair, framing her perfect oval head and her perfect rosebud lips. Miraculously the scars have avoided marring her nose, her eyes, and her mouth — and she speaks almost the way Rachel does in the episode where she trips and bites her lip (please don’t ask why I know this).

Sometimes Aniston also forgets her character’s limitations. For example, while she does move cautiously from the waist to talk to a person next to her, she is unaccountably able to lower herself to poolside for a water therapy session in one smooth, agile gesture, without reaching out to balance herself or hold her weight up gingerly from her damaged legs. These jarring moments cause me to think that the Academy got it right in overlooking Aniston for the Oscar nomination. And it isn’t a very good movie, either.

* * *

The loss of a parent, a child, or a close friend (Wild, Cake, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, The Judge, etc.) is understandably devastating. The loss of physical ability caused by illness or injury can be just as traumatic (The Theory of Everything, Cake, etc.) The loss of mental capacity through the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease is explored in Still Alice, a filmabout Columbia professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50, at the height of her career as a teacher, writer, and lecturer in, ironically, linguistics — the study of language.

Any film about senility, Alzheimer’s, or mental decline runs the risk of becoming slow, maudlin, and depressing; witness Amour, the 2012 Oscar nominee about an octogenarian couple struggling with the wife’s mental and physical decline after she has a stroke — a movie that was, by all accounts, slow, maudlin, and depressing. (Even the film’s own IMDB page acknowledged that it leaves audiences in a “pensive, quiet, — even downcast — mood.”)

That Still Alice avoids this inherent problem is due entirely to its casting of Julianne Moore in the title role. Most films of this type tell the story through the eyes and experience of the family watching the slow disintegration, but writer-director Richard Glatzer had the courage to tell this story from the point of view of the person who has the disease herself. This format invites the audience to experience along with her the gradual loss of cognitive recognition and the determination to hold on to her sense of self for as long as possible.

It’s ironic that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things.

Glatzer uses the camera’s focus to demonstrate both the fog of Alice’s forgetfulness and the sharpness of her intellect. In one moment we are running with her through Central Park on a perfect, crisp fall day; in the next moment we are surrounded by blurred buildings and the confusion of wondering where we are. The technique is used effectively throughout the film to demonstrate how her memory comes and goes as the disease progresses. The story focuses on the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when she knows what is happening and remains engaged in the fight against it, while preparing for the inevitability. She pores over photo albums, watches home movies, writes notes to herself, plans family trips and “one last times” as she struggles to stay connected to who she once was. It is sad, yes, but also heroic and admirable. She will neither give up nor give in.

Alice’s husband and children react in different ways. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) tries to be sympathetic, but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t want to discuss it, as though discussion means acceptance. He grows impatient and often leans away from her when they sit side by side. I don’t fault him in this. It’s tough to watch the person you love and respect for her charm and intellect turn into someone entirely different. But it’s even tougher to see the person you love and rely on pull away from you in the hour of your greatest need.

Ironically, it is Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who gives her the most support. Ironically, because before the onset, Lydia was the rebel who fought against her mother. Ironically, because Lydia is an actress whose craft relies on memorizing lines. Ironically, because Lydia gains understanding for her roles and a deepening of her talent through observing the suffering — no, through the struggling, Alice would say — of her mother. And ironically, because Kristen Stewart has never been a particularly good actress, but in this role she is at her very best.

It’s ironic, too, that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating experiences — that is, memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things. As she describes what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s, Alice says, “All my life I've accumulated memories — they've become, in a way, my most precious possessions. The night I met my husband, the first time I held my textbook in my hands. Having children, making friends, traveling the world. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I've worked so hard for — now all that is being ripped away.” This realization, spoken with such eloquence and dignity, rips at our hearts. Still Alice is a film that brings many tears to the audience, but it is not maudlin or depressing. It is a celebration of the indomitable spirit that leads us to keep hanging on until the last light goes out.

* * *

Selma is an Oscar nominee that also takes us to another world and challenges us to consider how we might have reacted to the values of another time and culture. The film focuses on Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the historic 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights for African-Americans.

As most students of American history will recall, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had established the right for all American males over the age of 21 to vote, but enforcement of those amendments had often been left up to the individual counties in each state; and in the South, it was almost impossible for new voters to register. Among other requirements designed as barriers to registration, first-time registrants had to pass a literacy test made of difficult civics questions; pay a poll tax; and provide a voucher from a registered voter who would “vouch” for them as residents of the county — and few white voters were willing to risk the ire of their neighbors by vouching for a black voter. White voters could circumvent these barriers through “grandfather laws” stating that if their fathers or grandfathers had voted prior to 1867, they were allowed to vote without passing the tests — and no Southern blacks could vote prior to 1866 or 1867.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue.

The film demonstrates the unwarranted violence and outright brutality that was perpetrated against African-Americans at this time: churches blown up, citizens chased down and beaten with billy clubs, unarmed activists shot and killed by police officers. FBI agents tapped Dr. King’s phones, watched his house, and recorded his movements. Yet King also had the ear of the White House and met frequently with President Johnson. It was an era of ambiguity as government scrambled to keep up with changing public opinion.

King knew that a change this significant could not be accomplished through black activism alone. “I want to raise white consciousness, and that requires drama,he says in the film.I want to be in their papers in the morning and on their TVs at night.” President Johnson might not have liked it, but he could not ignore it.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue. Those are police officers wielding clubs and blocking the road; FBI agents tapping phones and spying on the activists’ movements; government officials creating onerous rules to hinder voting registration. Democratically elected government is by its very nature conservative, with a strong instinct for self-survival. Government tends to maintain the status quo until enough pressure is brought from the people to enact a change. By the same token, laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

Despite its significance in dramatizing a turning point in history, Selma is strangely uncompelling. It has moments of intensity when these acts of violence occur, but Oyelowo simply does not possess the charisma to portray King convincingly. His oratory is not fiery and his ability to inspire is lacking. This might be partly because of the fact that King’s own words could not be used in the film due to copyright restrictions, so director Ada DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb had to paraphrase his speeches. Moreover, the film barely skims the surface of controversy surrounding his personal life. And then there’s Oprah Winfrey, inserting herself into the center of nearly every scene where violence occurs — even in the closing credits, there she is in the center of the photograph.Winfrey is far too well known as a TV personality to be convincing as an actor any longer, and her presence breaks the fictional barrier necessary for a film to be believable.

Laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

The best part of this film occurs at the very end, when footage from the actual march is included.There are Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Lena Horne. More importantly, there are hundreds of ordinary people who marched for a cause they believed was just — and a third of the marchers were white. King was right — they needed to raise white consciousness in order to effect a lasting change. The ending credits are powerful too, as we realize how many future leaders participated in the march — men such as future Alabama congressman John Lewis, future mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, and minister-activist Ralph Abernathy (King’s right-hand man, who has been all but exorcised from civil rights history for having had the audacity to write about King’s extramarital affair the night before his death).

Selma asks us to consider on which side of the bridge we would have stood that day, and by association, on which side of “justice for all” we stand today. It’s good, but with a better script and a better actor, it could have been great.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wild," directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Fox Searchlight, 2014, 115 minutes; "Cake," directed by Daniel Barnz. Cinelou, 2014, 102 minutes; "Still Alice," directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Sony Pictures Classics, 2014, 101 minutes; and "Selma," directed by Ava DuVernay. Cloud Eight Productions, 2014, 128 minutes.



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