Monday, April 14, 2008

[Xanga] Little Miss Sunshine

So, I watched Little Miss Sunshine last night at a friend's room, and I came away with mixed feelings. Best foot forward: it was rather well-shot, and the characters were interesting. I particularly thought Steve Carell was an intriguing casting choice, setting off the rest of the ensemble in a rather fine way.

However, I found the movie overall depressing. Not necessarily in a bad way (in the sense that it made for rather "good art"), but in the sense that the philosophy behind the movie was very empty. In the crucial finale scene (complete with choreographed/spontaneous dancing, the music of the late Rick James, and family bonding), characters found new self-awareness and even a measure of happiness, but with no foundation or grounds for the guarantee of its future continuance. Of course, this may just be a reflection of my general pessimism regarding human nature, but I felt as though the characters, though individually interesting, grew very little with regards to themselves. Charmingly two-dimensional they may have been, but two-dimensional they remained. Though less explicitly authorial, I was left with the same feeling made explicit at the end of The Graduate: the characters ride away, quaintly melancholic music swells, and their futures are left to the imagination of the viewer. In the latter movie, this is made obvious by a director's trick: rather than calling "cut!" at the end of the taping, he left cameras rolling, taping several seconds of awkward smiles and sighs which remain uncut in the final footage. But in LMS, that feeling is subtle, infusing the entire movie: it is an aftertaste, sitting on the palate but somehow still unexpected. Not that I'm saying the director didn't intend for us to have such a feeling; simply that he communicated it carefully and even, perhaps, subliminally.

And this feeling of irresolution, of oscillating expectations, confounds me. Not that I don't understand it; no, I understand it all-too-well. Rather, it denies my definition and expectations of art. This is more or less an obvious outgrowth of my Christian beliefs, but the fact of the matter is that I desire - and believe to have found - a firm hope for the future, in salvation granted in Christ. This transforms my life from one which is lived in uncertainty, to one which is lived certainly and with security. I understand how a desolate future suits itself better to the expectations of this world. My disconnect with the filmmakers' intent comes at a fundamental level, at the level of my not having any expectations of or in this world, but yet every positive expectation of the future. My future well-being is assured; to grant a movie's characters any less than this is not only contextually disheartening, but rings false to me, or at-least incomplete.

In general, this is my gripe with recent movies such as Napoleon Dynamite, Punch-Drunk Love (which I actually do rather enjoy), Garden State, Eternal Sunshine..., and the like. Mainstream indie movies (can such an oxymoronic creature even exist?), where soft twee-pop and ostentatiously independent music skitters and crawls around the edges of the viewer's frame of reference, where characters come to a Kierkegaardian revelation of existential angst and boredom... and continue on in the manner in which they came. Speak all you want of cinema verite and its ramifications, but I see no joy in this.

When experiencing art, I find the highest and keenest thrills to be communicated through a careful mixture of the real and ideal. I want to be connected to the art, to experience it not as an outside observer, but as a participant. Realism in art grants this: Tolkien's lengthy descriptions and pages-long histories immerse (to a level that Robert Jordan strives in vain to reach), rather than confound. Middle-Earth is fantastical, but its inhabitants, its geography, its specifics, are familiar.
The ideal plays as much a critical role, though, in my enjoyment of art. Merely representing life on the silver screen is not sufficient to enthrall: depicting a world, no matter how fantastical or improbable, devoid of the ideal, is mere documentarianism. Art requires more: We hope to reach beyond, to see things hinted-at in the world of experience. Art is the Platonic fire, the illumination in the cave of experience that grants us our only knowledge of the Forms. By reducing art to a verisimilitude, we willingly restrict ourselves.

My qualms with LMS, ultimately, reduce to a theological concern. Art must reflect God, and not man, or else we are merely representing to ourselves a facsimile of the already "dim mirror" of earthly experience. Our lives are imbued with hope and power, not because we are human, but precisely because we are not. The verisimilitude that movies such as LMS offers us grant us a fine portrayal of human nature, but they do no more; they are like a half-silvered mirror, reflecting our human qualities and letting loose that divine quality, that "image of God," that gives us the desire to see our lives from an external perspective. Making utterly realistic movies, devoid of idealism, is flat narcissism; making purely ideal movies, on the other hand, is disjunct from our experiences of that which is. In order to satisfy our soul's contrary desire of realistic hope, we must look through the lens of real experience at the glimmer of yet-unexperienced truth.

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