Saturday, June 6, 2009

The enigma of others

Last night, Rhian and I watched a really excellent movie--the new Jonathan Demme picture, Rachel Getting Married. The film is a domestic drama starring Anne Hathaway as Kym, a drug addict returning home from rehab to attend her sister Rachel's wedding. The scenes that follow sketch out the family's eccentricities and dysfunctions, including a terrible tragedy in the past, for which Kym is responsible, and which has torn the family apart.

In conception, the movie is fairly conservative--this is the stuff of conventional drama, and the kind of thing actors like to enjoy surpassing with their performances. But Rachel Getting Married isn't a normal movie at all--it is, in fact, a literary work, more literary in ambition than most of the literary novels I've read in the past year.

What do I mean by this? I mean that what the movie is really about is, as Rhian put it afterward, the Mystery of Other People. It is concerned very little with plot, save for the open secret that drives it; rather, it is interested in what people are like and, more importantly, how much of what they say and do is against their nature. Rachel, the sister (played by Rosemarie DeWitt), is a wonderful character, by turns sweet and loving, and embittered and immature, and just when you think you know how she's going to react to something, she does something different. All the characters are like this, in fact, confounding our expectations, yet gradually adding to the picture of whom they really are, until what we end up with is a complex, interlocking plot strands, tiny mysteries, that we come to understand make up the fabric of life.

There are ways in which the movie is highly implausible, filled as it is with interracial harmony and unexplained affluence and good health, and yet it feels realer than anything I've seen lately. That's because it leaves everything unexplained. All the characters remain enigmatic; even the most pointed plot question--was Kym entirely to blame, or not?--remains unanswered.

This is what I like a book to do: make sense by not entirely making sense. Too many stories force characters to stay in character, to be what the writers have declared them to be, right up to the bitter end. Real personality, on the other hand, is elusive, protean. You can never really know anyone, and that is why they are so interesting, because you convince yourself over and over that they are knowable, that even you are knowable to yourself. And yet there are always, always surprises.

17 comments:

Aos said...

I never mind when other people appreciate movies I don't but that doesn't mean I don't feel compelled to say something anyway.

Johnathan Demme has always been a favourite of mine, as well as a few of the actors in this films but I have to admit, that after being drawn to the film by the many accolades that, to use a comment a friend applied to another film "it made me want to drive daggers into my eyes" or in this case, my ears.

My favourite moment in the film was when someone finally asks those musicians to stop their interminable noodling.

And, though I generally like Altmanesque films, and this was certainly that, rather than enigmatic or ambiguous, it seemed to me simply badly directed.

It seemed a mundane melodrama, a film and characters self absorbed and divorced (as you point out) from real world concerns. Only the well heeled could think that these issues constitute a tragedy.

Let's just say it was one of those films that my partner and I sat through only because we thought the other one might be enjoying it.

Jay Livingston said...

I agree with jr for the most part,and I thought it was a good film and blogged it back in February when I first saw it. But: "even the most pointed plot question--was Kym entirely to blame, or not?--remains unanswered." I thought it was pretty clear that the film mostly blamed Mom (Debra Winger).

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I do think that was the intent--it was as much Mom's fault as Kym's, and the family was already doomed before the accident. But I think most films would have addressed this directly.

Aos, my larger point is only that people are much, much more complicated than they are usually portrayed in stories, and a good story should have that kind of reach. I certainly don't mind your disagreeing with me on the movie, but your "only the well-heeled could think that these issues constitute a tragedy" comment is wrong, and I don't think you believe it either. The death of a child isn't tragic when it happens to the rich? You cannot possibly mean that.

Matt said...

This was a surprising film. At first I thought: "This will be a well-acted yet thoroughly predictable Oscar-bait of a film.". And, bit by bit, thanks by and large to Demme, I was disarmed by how good this was.

Similar to Rhian's comment about it being about the Mystery of Other People, it's about the wonder of the world when we aren't hyper-focusing on our own lives: selflessness, which is part of getting married in the first place. As a film, it manages to be both (sometimes uncomfortably) realistic and yet also dream-like. Any film with Robyn Hitchcock as a wedding guest is dream-like.

In many ways, "Rachel Getting Married" is the antithesis of Thomas Vinterberg's chilling Dogme film, "The Celebration".

Aos said...

Perhaps I was a little over the top in my disparagement and yes, JR, the death of a child would cross any class barrier but quite honestly I had forgotten about that entirely.

I offer three reasons in my defense 1. if the soundtrack is not only omnipresent but abhorrent to me as this one was I can hardly think straight (same thing happened in Once, which I found to be a wonderful movie in every way except the songs) and 2. overall the emotional tone of this movie was so histrionic that I really could not take the motivations seriously and 3. the deterioration of memory over 6 months when you are actively trying to forget something.

I have often reevaluated movies on later viewings (so I will certainly admit that I could be wrong about some things) but I just don't have the fortitude to re engage this one. And, were this a smaller or less-hyped movie, I would not have bothered saying anything at all; its just that I am a little mystified at the plaudits from so many.

jrlennon said...

You don't need to like it, Aos, or even try to--I'm just trying to use it to talk about something. I dislike all kinds of things other people love, so I am not on your case for that. I just took issue with the comment about the well-heeled.

As for Matt, I agree that it's very unlike "The Celebration," but of course that's the first movie I thought of! They're like anti-twins or something.

Also thought of Mrs. Dalloway, "death at my party!"

rmellis said...

I think I liked the movie because it captured *so perfectly* the horror of weddings. The scene where they drive up and everyone's preparing tables out on the lawn.... CHILLS!

Anonymous said...

I must see the film now.

On the vagaries of character which you raised so clearly:

I was transfixed by some crime news several years back: a granny-type woman in England was traveling the countryside using fake visas, etc. The police could not seem to catch the old woman. She was a kind of category mistake. She stepped out of all our expectations of what we would have imagined her to be like. Even her neighbours tried to hunt her down.

Which leads into Rhian's wonderful remark about weddings: they are often disturbing because they are meant to be pleasant & celebratory, but in truth,
hostile family members are often thrown together...

and I hate wedding dresses !!

- Nancy ( an old lady )

jon said...

I loved Rachel Getting Married. The food and music and the opulence seemed like fantasy, of course, but it was a fantasy rooted in a part of American culture you never see in movies. There was something incredibly real about that family, reinforced by the seemingly relaxed structure. You only learn what you need to know about any character to keep the scene going. There is that great extended sequence where toasts are given at the rehearsal dinner and Kim is unbearable. It continues in the kitchen when Rachel steals Kim's narcissistic scene making by announcing she's pregnant. At that point I just couldn't stand Rachel, she was so like so many junkies i've known. Then, the next scene she narrates the tragedy at her NA meeting and the juxtaposition could not be more stark.The film was by turns cruel and empathetic and there was an emotional complexity wholly absent from most Hollywood films. And it takes the idea of extended family, of art and culture, seriously. We live in an age when these things are mercilessly mocked and demonized.

jrlennon said...

You mean you couldn't stand Kym, right? I agree though, she is utterly insufferable yet utterly sympathetic. That toast scene is just HORRIBLE, my god!! I was cringing the whole time.

But that's kind of what I'm getting at...Kym's total lack of appeal as a protagonist is unusual in stories...the movie asks you to be on the side of an abject loser...it asks you to let the loser in youself empathize with her. And I think more books and films should demand this of their readers. And I'm not talking about the kind of bad-guy character whom we side with because the terrorists have kidnapped his daughter or something. I mean the kind of people who are just deeply flawed and helpless and yet compelling.

You have to really love people in all their ugly glory to write characters like this that actually work. It is very hard to do. (And in the case of that movie, I'd imagine very hard to act, as well.)

jon said...

yeah, exactly what I meant. In one scene I cringed and hated Kim, or Kym, and then a moment later felt the deepest sympathy, that she had this overwhelming pain for which she was responsible, and yet as the story unfolds it becomes more and more complex and resonant. Hard to do, especially in a medium that requires simplicity bordering on stupidity. and wasn't the actor who played the father amazing? he is a famous clown.

Russell said...

Please correct "whom" to "who" (3rd paragraph). As for the movie, it is probably excellent, but the multiculturalism seemed staged in a way that was designed to delight both moviegoer and moviemaker. That may have been unintentional, and I wish I hadn't seen it that way. Because once I did, the lack of any deep knowledge of all but Kym made the supporting cast all seem like made-to-order fantasy figures. The groom's ever-present glasses, for instance: why the huge frames with no apparent corrective power? Was this meant to portray deep intellect and a loyalty so strong that he's purchased bifocal-ready glasses before he needs them? Or did it have something to do with a filmmaker's deep-seated but idle need to apply his corrective lens to our preconceived notions of relationships? If I have a point, it is only that I think I picked up on something that Aos might have tapped into. Something glib and inconsequential and over-the-top, fabulously wealthy about all of it. The father acted like a man who'd simply purchased everybody in the movie aside from the daughter he almost lost and the life of the son he did. (Perhaps that was the point.) Nonetheless, the comments about realism are intriguing. I will have to give this movie another look, years from now, after the cultural moment has passed . . .

Paul said...

Just to run off on another tangent as mentioned by Russell "it is probably excellent" how that at times we can appreciate works of art that we don't like or are uncertain about. Or judge them as better than we can think. Its quite remarkable really that we even bother.

On one hand it might be a sign of aesthetic sensitivity and yet when you are faced with extremely niche products like later Joyce which confound many good readers, could not that confounding be a fault of the work?

And though rejection is often a limitation in the viewer, sometimes I think we need more of it, sometimes I think it is an act of courage, of meeting the work head on.

I find that too much contemporary writing about popular film (unlike the discussion here) lacks this courage. Unlike most other cultural production, mainstream film is consistently undercritiqued while the more vulnerable independent films have to withstand all sorts of weather.

rmellis said...

I wonder how the movie would be different if the family was working class. Would the message be different? Would the family be victims of society, in some way? How much of the movie actually relied on the visual appeal of the grand house and obviously expensive wedding performers?

I liked the movie a lot, because of the characters... but I can see why someone would hate it, actually. One thing that bugged me was use of a child death to add emotional resonance. It was done well, but sheesh, I hate that. It's manipulative. And I can't help but suspect the choice of an African American spouse was designed to obscure the Waspiness of the story... or maybe I'm cynical.

Jay Livingston said...

And I can't help but suspect the choice of an African American spouse was designed to obscure the Waspiness of the story.

Lumet chose to make the spouse African American probably because she was writing what she knows,and she herself is the daughter of an interracial marriage (her mother is the daughter of Lena Horne). The choice also places the family in social space -- wealthy, Eastern, liberals who accept interracial marriages as not such big deal (or at least try to give that impression).

rmellis said...

Well, that's a better explanation than my cynical musings. It explains the insularity of the script, actually -- the unquestioning wealth stuff.

I read somewhere the original title was something like Dancing with Diva -- I don't understand the reference, or the saris...

Paul said...

So in that case, we have not so much a movie but a home movie. Just like those old slide shows at family gatherings, these are so interesting (as they should be) to those who are part of the family but not so much to outsiders.