Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Economy, Empty Malls & Revolutionary Road

We have returned from a much-needed but also thoroughly exhausting trip to New York. The flight seems to get more draining every time, and going from warm weather to frigid cold is a real shock to the system.

Due to the wintry conditions and a bout with a nasty cold, So Jene and I didn't get to do as much as we would have liked. But call us doe-eyed losers, just being in the city reinvigorates us somehow. The cliche about distance allowing for clearer vision and truer appreciation applies in our case. NY is absolutely the most diverse city in the world with the most energetic and edgy people.

Seeing DEFIANCE at the Ziegfeld was a treat, not so much for the movie but the Ziegfeld itself, which seems ever more special as large single-screen theaters all but disappear from nearly much of the industrialized world. We also caught an Indonesian film called THE PHOTOGRAPH at the MoMA, which is a great place to see films. It was the first movie from Indonesia I've ever seen.

The general feeling from seeing friends and our brief stay seems to be the same as what must be in other financial capitals. People are anxious about the economy, many people have lost jobs, and there's less foot traffic in stores. But cities are, by definition, crowded places, so the impact of a recession may not be as obvious.

This was far from the case in a small town about 2 hours north of NYC. We went to a small mall just to walk around. Granted this mall was always a small one and never drew huge crowds, but it seemed to have less shoppers than stores at 11AM on a Sunday morning. We wandered into a rather large OLD NAVY and found just 2 other shoppers. This emptiness actually spooked us a bit and spoke volumes about the current recession.

The downturn in the economy impacts everybody, and we've definitely been affected. Fortunately, we have long lived beneath our means, and I rarely buy things. I'm just not as hung up on things as the average person. I'm not into gadgets at all. I honestly couldn't care less what our furniture looks like, what car we drive, etc. And on those rare occasions when I do go to malls or stores, I'm never gripped by an intense desire to buy anything.

So what?
The last thing I want to do is preach to anyone about the evils of materialism or tell them what to do with their money---I'm just a schmuck with a typewriter, after all, and the only money advice I have for anyone is for them to give their money to me.

So what's the point of all this? Simple. Sam Mendes' REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, which I also saw during the trip, is a piece of crap.

Sure Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor, and ditto for Kate Winslet. I've long been a fan, and they have plenty of other movies, in which they show off their acting chops. But they stink in this movie because the movie tells a story that's without substance.

Winslet's character gave up acting to be a housewife. DiCaprio's character works as a marketing guy for the same company his old man worked for and hates it. After some domestic disputes fueled by resentment and dissatisfaction with their dull middle-class existence in 1950s suburbia, Leo and Kate decide they will leave their familiar life in the 'burbs behind and go live in Paris, where they can be true to themselves. They vow to pursue passion & whim, and escape the drudgery of middle-class suffocation & convention. This plan seems so perfect, however social pressure and lack of courage ultimately derail it. They never get to live in Paris. The wife is devastated. Husband is also sad.

I'm sure plenty of people found the picture to be poignant. God knows there are more than enough people who hate their jobs and being in the rat race. Still, I found the film to be cloying, irritating, and disingenuous. Here are three reasons why:

First, its structure is as follows: Characters are miserable, miserable, miserable, miserable, and then they die.

Second, its central conflict is hinged on pseudo-angst.

What do I mean by that? This is all a bit difficult to describe clearly, so I'll use an analogy. This film is like people who say that they would have been 'artists' but were dissuaded by their parents from pursuing their dream, and thus were forced to settle for a more stable and secure profession.

Both the film and such people cling to reasoning that is, at a certain level, disingenous.

The truth is, no person can dissuade or persuade anyone else to go into or out of the arts (that is unless they hold a gun to the other person's head). People become artists because they simply do (for a million+ reasons). It's not because someone persuaded or dissuaded them.

Likewise, if a person really wants to move to Paris, he or she will do so. (This is especially so for bourgeois Americans at a time when the dollar was so much stronger than the franc.) And if a person really doesn't want to, he or she won't. That's all fine. But it becomes annoying when the person, and a rather privileged one at that, doesn't, and then the blame is placed on 'society'.

Third, the film makes its rather obvious point in a clumsy manner.

It actually takes itself so damn seriously and thinks its message is so damn profound and above the audience's head that it uses a supporting character, a neighbor's grown-son recently released from a stint at a mental hospital, to spell out over and over (profundity apparently needs to be translated for mass consumption) the ennui the couple is going through. He declares, "You two are being stifled by this empty existence..."

The scene that follows is even more inane and has the couple reflect on their encounter with this clear-seeing madman. They tell each other: "He is the only one who sees things as we do. The madman is the only one who understands us..."

Some of this clumsy storytelling has to do with adapting a book, but this truth-seeing madman character could have been dropped, or at the least, the ensuing scene (described above) should have been cut.

Having trashed this movie thus, I'll add that for whatever it's worth, all this is not to discount stifling conformity of 1950s life and real social pressure. Peer pressure and conformity are real and powerful social forces. No one questions this. Conformity was stifling in 1950s American suburbs for many people who were really creative on the inside and is still resonant today. We get it.

Just don't try to pass off a nothing-of-a-movie that's mostly about bourgeois whining as if it's saying something new, poignant, or... (sorry, can't help myself here)...revolutionary.


Joyce said...

That's too bad. I've loved Kate Winslet since "Heavenly Creatures." (If you want real drama, make a movie about teenage lesbian murderesses.)
I hear you about all this bourgeois crap. People (bored expat housewives in HK in particular) are always coming up to me and whinging, "Oh, I wish I could be a writer. I'd love to be a writer. I really feel I have it in me, but with moving / job / husband / kids, meh meh meh, I can't. Do you have any advice?"
My first question is always, "What have you written recently?" And they usually say, "Oh, nothing," followed by a litany of excuses -- laptop's broken, have to plan next holiday, amah's off, etc.
I lose all sympathy. Like you say, it's not like their husbands / kids / bosses hold a gun to their heads and ban them from writing. It's just laziness.

Winifred said...

I remember that Buchi Emecheta in her autobiography, "Head above Water" wrote that being a divorced mother of 5 made her become a writer - that it helped her to focus. I think she wrote for two hours a day (from 4:30 to 6:30 am) every day, before she rousted the kids and got them going and got on with the rest of her day.

It takes discipline & a certain degree of self-belief/selfishness to keep at it, day after day.

mao365 said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Winifred...