February 21, 2011

Three Treatises On Nothingness

I beg you to forgive the filmic turn of late, but occasionally one taps a vein and finds that all the blood is running in the same direction. Hollywood has always been the purveyor of emptiness, but recently its hotshot female directors have been selling us some pretty, powerful critiques of our own meaningless existences. Hollywood created us, they say, and now we are as meaningless as it is. If we subscribe to these critiques – if we see in them the image of our own existence – then something profound and terrible has happened. All substance is gone, and all men are mere bodies, taking up space.

The Kids Are All Right (2010) is a manless movie in the extreme. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko follows the bland domesticity of a lesbian couple whose kids secretly seek, and find, their sperm donor father. The overachiever and underachiever lesbian pair make for a drab existence who have drab sex and argue about alcohol consumption. Their suburban comfort has bred suburban, two-dimensional children, who seek not their father but “their moms’ donor.” This man, who has been reduced to his seminal fluid, transpires to be little more than that when encountered in the flesh. He’s a drop out, a womaniser, a grower of organic vegetables, and to all intents and purposes a loser. He sleeps with one of the moms, who has found herself dissatisfied with being a non-person. Of course, that just makes her an unfaithful non-person and serves to relegate the “donor” back to his position of obscurity. Mom and mom make it up and send their daughter off to college. The daughter seizes her independence, better for the failure of her one shot at garnering a male role model. The son does not know where to turn to find out how to become a man. There are glimmers of hope in the “donor,” but we are far from convinced that this man knows anything about being a man himself, let alone about being a father. On the point of self-realisation, he his thrust back into his trite life with a new found and heavy disappointment.

Somewhere (2010) is the latest film from Sofia Coppola, and looks like an indictment on her childhood. While daddy was busy crafting a masterpiece, his daughter was observing the reality behind the make believe. The idea of story telling is almost lost in Hollywood. Re-makes stand in for original ideas, and where original ideas do emerge they are entirely self-referential. We may have already been under the impression that behind all the LA glam there was nothing but grim vacuity. Ms. Coppola shows it to us in all its dull monotony. Stephen Dorff plays a famous actor. We do not know if he is talented, or if he is simply a celebrity. It makes no odds. His life is sedated, pointless, humdrum, seen blearily through a self-medicated haze. The only glimmer of hope is the 11-year old daughter of a broken marriage, whose notion of life has not yet been fully corrupted by the sleazy meaninglessness of showbiz. All the trappings of masculinity, defined in the American macho sense, are here: twin pole dancers, fast cars, groupies, booze. None of it raises our hero’s pulse above the barely alive, and ultimately he realises he is nothing. He is nothing and it is impossible for him to be something. He drives out into the desert and ditches his car, wandering off in search of revelation. But we shall be fools if we think Coppola intends him to find it. Ain’t nothing out there but heatstroke and rattle snakes.

If Stephen Dorff’s future is bleak, the possibilities for the rest of us, who do not even have the interference of the paparazzi to look forward to, is put forward with absurd candour in Miranda July’s The Future (2011). Preying on our irredeemable sentimentality, we are compelled to hate the protagonists by the first-person narrative of a stray cat, due to be adopted, but never in fact collected. The cat, whose wildness is masked only by the most tenuous veil of domesticity, represents the nature of the heroine (Miranda July, who also supplies the voice for the cat). The man of the film, meanwhile, is an anonymous home-working tech-support provider. Beyond their own four walls, nobody seems to recognise that they are alive, and in their meagre domestic life they are perpetually hypnotised by Facebook and Youtube. A crisis is brought about by the thought of owning a cat. They are thirty-five. By the time the stray dies they will be forty. Forty is practically fifty, and the rest, our hero reflects, is just “loose change.” In their last-ditch efforts to do something meaningful with their lives – her to dance, him to save the environment – they both realise that they are hopeless cases. She is a useless dancer (the acting here is magical. It takes a great dancer to be that bad). The planet is already doomed. She strikes up an affair with an older man, for fuck’s sake. It is dangerous and she can’t handle it. Our hero’s world comes to a standstill when he learns of the affair. His emptiness is thrown into relief. Both hero and heroine forget to pick up the cat, who is euthanized. The heroine returns. The hero offers her nothing. She says “okay”: “okay to nothing.” The visions of their future, which have haunted them throughout this movie, are accepted with fatalistic resignation. We’re all just strays, thinking we’re something, wanting to be loved, waiting to be put out of our misery.

There is no redemption in any of these movies; nor do any of the characters, especially not the men, deserve any. Are we supposed to see our own nothingness in these scripts? Are we meant to check ourselves in the mirror and say to ourselves, seriously, “who are we kidding?” We have no talent, no substance, no future? It’s all surface, and sham, and bodily fluids? Maybe some people could do with the wake-up call, but they won’t see these movies. As for the rest of us, it’s one long chapter of insults. Don’t watch these movies if you want inspiration, or if you crave a modern, or post-modern hero. But if you want to be stirred into action through indignity and defiance, these movies receive my seal of approval.


  1. I actually attempt (by research) to watch films of a more positive up-lifting nature, or with some historical relevance often with some fun thrown in as our own lives (spouse/ self) are complicated enough.
    I watched "The Kids Are Alright" and immediately wanted my two hours of lost life back. It, as a script, seemed all over the place the first 1.5 hours, and then turned into a sappy cry fest in the last 30 minutes. There are so many good, no, Great older films available that one needs not watch the new genres of Emo sit around moping then slit-my wrists, or the "What was that drivel I just watched that was poorly acted, poor written, poorly directed, poorly scored, etc...?"
    Dig into that huge back-lot vault of french new wave, film noir, foreign true art-house, or old-school comedies/westerns and be simply better entertained. Hell, just watch anything Criterion has released.

  2. Oh dear Lord, I salute you for actually sitting all the way through "Somewhere". Dear Sophia really should take up a day job. This was sheer crapola. The movie that made her famous and for which she (wrongly, IMO), received an Oscar, Lost in Translation, was equally dire, with such a sterotypical depiction of Japan/the Japanese that was typically insulting.


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