Friday, February 24, 2012

Motifs in Cinema: 11 for '11: Oh, Grow Up!

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

Oh, Grow Up!
Coming of Age in the Cinema of the Year of Our Lord 2011

11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 
1 Corinthians

"The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. 

Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. 

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things."

Narration from The Tree of Life*

Hondo: "I almost killed him a minute ago."
Vittorio: "He very young.  Will learn."
Hondo: "...if he lives..."
Hondo (and other John Wayne films)

In the long journey from childhood to adultitude, the toughest lesson to learn is that everything changes.  Playtime becomes work.  Freedom begats responsibility.  The more we gain, the more we lose.  And in the process (hopefully) we lose with grace and gain knowledge with maturity.  We let go of ignorance and innocence (or it is taken away) and embrace experience with dignity.

Childhood flickers like images across the silver screen and it seems like 2011 saw more of its share of "coming of age" moments, no matter the age of the characters of the age in which they lived; none were more connected than Hugo Cabret (in Martin Scorsese's Hugo) and Oskar Schell (in Stephen Daldry's  Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close)—two fatherless boys on journeys of discovery led by the divining rod of a key...with no accompanying lock.  Yes, they're metaphors for life's journey of the leaving behind for the search anew.  But, the process for both come to less than satisfying resolutions—neither find their answers at the end, so much as answers to questions unasked on the way.

But that's Hugo and Oskar.  The same journey is made by Jack (Sean Penn) in the contemplative The Tree of Life, as he examines his relationship with his brother, father and mother and the bound skeins of his family, however circumspectly Terrence Malick presents it.  Young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) of Super 8 finds his coming to grips with his mother's death on the same path as saving an alien's life.  Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) must let go of his own dreams of baseball glory to achieve them for his team in Moneyball.  Even Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) are brought out of their child-obsessions when, literally, the Universe and Responsibility are presented to them in Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger.**  The path from selfish insularity to becoming a part of something greater than oneself is a common theme of growing up.  Like the Joseph Campbell archetype, it is a process of opening up to "a larger world"...or merely the understanding more fully of the one in which one exists.

Of course, "Coming of Age" is not merely the domain of children (as we've noted with the mention of the arrestedly developed superheoes mentioned above).  2011 also had adults learning valuable bunches and packs as it turned out: The latest of the "switcheroo" comedies, where two adults trade roles and find that "having is not so pleasing a thing, after all, as wanting" (as the old line from "Star Trek" goes***), and the cluster of rom-coms, where, even "friends with benefits" find love, no matter how hard they try to avoid it.  Even genre pieces like Rise of the Planet of the Apes— where the ape Ceasar puts aside his upbringing by humans, to embrace his inner ape (even as he becomes ever more human, adapting their characteristics—"I am home" is his final words in the film) and leads his "people" against their oppressors—and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, where Harry ("The One Who Lived") faces the thing he's been avoiding, though it's been hanging over his head the whole series—his own demise—for the sake of his friends, personally taking on the sacrifice that so many of his family-members and mentors have shouldered for him on his way to maturity thoughout his schooling.  His death is his graduation—truly a "summa cum laude"—and his ultimate triumph.

"With highest honors"

 What inspires such acts?  What creates such sacrifice?  What emboldens empathy, takes one out of oneself to see the world afresh, see ourselves and others as kindred souls to bond and to champion?  What creates empathy, to recognize a relationship with others, if not that need to love others as we would love ourselves?

 1 If I speak in the tongues[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

The two films I see as this year's best are The Tree of Life and The Descendants: the former for its stream of cosmic consciousness (and unconsciousness), a rumination on the past, even to the cellular level, and speculation on what awaits us all when confronted with corporeal death; the latter, for its well-told tale of the way death makes us confront our past, and embrace an uncertain future.  Both protagonists, Jack and Matthew King (George Clooney), having gone about their lives oblivious to the relationships around them ("I've always been the backup parent," says Matt) reach a crisis point where they must consider the road travelled and the road untouched, and decide to walk the path they've avoided. 

Matt King confronts the death of his wife and the re-birth of his family, and despite living in Hawaii ("Let me tell you about Paradise.  Paradise can go fuck itself..."), learns that "no man is an island." ****

No one is. And part of "coming of age" is the dropping guard, the reaching, the forgiving and forgetting, the letting go, acts of sacrifice, empathy, and generosity—fueled by faith, hope, and love. 

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails.

And, of course, there are some translations of the Bible that makes that last "Love never dies."  Jack learns that.  So does Joe Lamb.  And Harry Potter.  And Hugo Cabret. 

And the King family.

The Conscience of the Kings

"You learn something new every day" goes the old adage.  Yeah, if you're doing it right.  We are in a never-ending process of learning, growing, coming of age, and becoming something new.  And if the movies of 2011 have taught us anything, it is that, however painful the process of growing, the gaining of wisdom brings us greater rewards.

Whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger.

If we live. 


* Okay, now take a moment after reading that narration and apply it to, say, X-Men: First Class.  Think of Magneto as Nature.  Think of Professor X as Grace.

** The "Super-hero" story is the story of "growing up" and dealing with the power of being an adult.  Think Superman.  Think Batman.  It's probably why they're having such difficulty coming up with a film for Wonder Woman--family doesn't really enter into it, so much as community, and there's no sacrifice that can generate an origin story. 

*** Spock says it in "Amok Time" for you non-trekkies.

**** There are quite enough quotations in this one, thank you, but the line comes from the very relevant, oft-quoted lines of John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; 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 a manor 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


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

This was the theme I'd thought the least of, so it didn't even occur to me that you'd have so many options to delve into. Proof that this is a good piece, even films I didn't care for much (like The Descendants) I'm encouraged to rethink my response to them in light of the themes it examines.

(Love the footnote on X-Men.)

Candice Frederick said...

i love this post, and all the examples you used! i have been saying forever how i think there are many adult films that i would call coming of age, and you did that so eloquently with the descendants.

Nick Prigge said...

This was just fantastic. Really enjoyed it. Thanks.