Size Matters

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It’s one of those small, personal films…..

The audience is VERY limited…..

People in major metropolitan areas will be go for it, but…I mean…

Why would anyone want to see this?…

BO-RING!!!…………

BRILLIANT!!!

There seems to be two types of movies nowadays – the BIG and the SMALL.

The BIG ones are entertaining and appeal to many people. Even when they’re dramatic they have lots of ACTION and are not full of MANY LEVELS of meaning. They’re LOUD and they’re fun. They can also be funny, with recognizable characters that you’d like to hang out with or hate. When they work they’re like great fast food or stylish mass-market clothing lines. You indulge in them because they deliver on what they promise.

Of course, this description is a little ridiculous. But that’s fine because we’re not talking about the BIG here. They get enough attention as it is.

That leaves – The SMALL. And the PERSONAL.

This variety is just that: intimate, multi-layered and often not very obvious. They are not fun in a ha-ha sort of way and many times they are just plain upsetting or confusing. Their pace is A LOT SLOWER (more, ahem, leisurely) and in too many moments you care to admit they can make you wonder why you would choose to spend what precious little spare time you have watching another person’s therapy session. Still, they give you something that you can’t get most anywhere else – an intimate, almost forbidden look into the psyche of someone else. At their best they can be moving, thought-provoking and, as a side benefit, can make you feel personally less crazy about your own mind and life.

Join the club!

Join the club!

Certainly, this description is biased and overly general. But no less false or true than the one used to describe BIG.   If it also seems a bit snobby, like I’m preferring this to the former, then so be it. Remember, we’re talking about what the general public considers SMALL. It needs all the help that it can get.

This being a lazy weekend where I’ve been under the weather after finishing up months of work on two different jobs, I was up for the small in the last few days.

You’d think it would be the opposite, right? Well, you wouldn’t be alone. My parents never understood why I preferred to write heart-breaking poetry at the age of 12 instead of playing baseball outside. Or why I worried so much about the destruction of the world, my own death and other existential questions of life.

What can I say, some of us were just born this way.

So to satisfy all of these urges– and yes, to RELAX ME – I popped in three different DVDs from my holiday pile courtesy of the usually ungenerous film studios. They are all what are considered SMALL movies. And they ALL had their moments – which you can take any way you want.

Other than being tossed by the general SHOW BIZ public into the dreaded SMALL and PERSONAL category, they have absolutely nothing else in common. Which is why they’re worth examining individually before they entirely disappear from the motion picture zeitgeist – and perhaps seeing if what I (or THEY) say about small is true.

BY THE SEA 

Directed, written and starring Angelina Jolie-Pitt

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It’s difficult to imagine ANYTHING starring Mr. and Mrs. Brad Pitt as small or personal, right? After all, is anything they do either of those things for very long? Certainly, it’s never SMALL. Except this film.

No – it’s nowhere near as BAD as you might have read it is. Nor is not a two-hour plus perfume commercial, the ultimate vanity project or the thinly veiled semi-autobiographical tale of Ms. Jolie-Pitt’s deceased mother.

By The Sea is actually a strangely watchable and often infuriatingly flawed tale of a an early 1970s it couple in marital crisis done in the style of a late 1960s French film where shots linger, meanings are implied and the scenery, clothes and sunsets are all breathtakingly beautiful. All done to the tune of what seems like a mash-up of the ambient theme music of every film ever directed by Jean Renoir, Roger Vadim and Claude Chabrol, not to mention a few others.

and then pipe in some Burton-Taylor 1970s glamour

and then pipe in some Burton-Taylor 1970s glamour

If you’re looking for faults you’ll find them. It’s thoroughly dumb-founding why Ms. Jolie-Pitt spends the majority of her screen time miserably unhappy and girding towards a breakdown. And when the truth is finally revealed (Note: yes, hang in there, she finally will let you know) it has nowhere near the impact it might have had it been doled out to us in even semi-coherent bits and pieces all along. True, this is screenwriting 101 but, I mean, are you going to be the one to give the Pitts notes when they’ve signed on to star in a new movie they want you to make?

This being the case, let’s focus on the positives. This is a filmmaker-movie star that understands exactly who she is and what the public thinks of her. So what she chooses to do here is indulge us with it – meaning her – until we can’t see straight and then subvert our expectations of who we think she is. Or, well, who her character is. Not that there’s a difference. Or, is there?

Oh Angie... you clever girl.

Oh Angie… you clever girl.

See, that’s the point. Ms. Jolie-Pitt plays an impossibly beautiful, glamorous former-dancer from New York married to Mr. Pitt, an impossibly handsome famous novelist of the time. They live in New York but are vacationing in a gem of a small hotel on the water in the south of France where they drive a spiffy sports car and seem to have unlimited clothes, style and funds to stay as long as they choose. They are so breathtakingly watchable and enviable that you hate them – then hate them for being as miserable as they both are. Until you also can’t help but be intrigued by one question: how can this possibly be??????

And that’s the crux of the film and what makes it more often than not watchable. Which is not to say I give it a hearty recommendation. But by the end, you marvel at how skillfully Ms. Jolie Pitt was able to undermine our expectations of just who she and her husband are vs. what they seem to be. And if you want to know if I’m talking about the real couple or the characters they play I have no idea. Which is, again, the entire point, and what makes the movie an unusual experience you don’t get much of anymore on the BIG (or even small) screen.

ROOM

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson; Written by Emma Donoghue (based on her novel)

Every year it seems there’s room for ONE small, personal, INDIE film on the Hollywood must-see A list. Last year it was Whiplash, and deservedly so. This year it’s Room, a movie that is equally deserving.

It’s difficult to predict why one very intimate, low-budget SMALL story will work so well while others falter. The strength of Room is its unrelenting oppressive intimacy and suppressed emotions. Which is not say it’s without its fair share of hysteria. But there’s an astonishing lack of bells and whistles here – whether due to budget, design, style or all three – and it all works pretty seamlessly.

There will be no spoilers except to say Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, who play a mother and her five-year old son stuck in a small room – a premise novelist/ screenwriter Donoghue was inspired to create after she read about an even more harrowing real-life story. People often think writers can only tell personal stories they’ve experienced or seen happen to their family and friends. This is shortsighted and denies the very craft of writing itself. If you do your homework and are open to your own emotions you can become part of each character’s story and wind up telling a tale about your own life – at least by extension.

Move over J. Law, Brie's Hollywood's newest It Girl

Move over J. Law, Brie’s Hollywood’s newest It Girl

For whatever reason, that seems to have happened here with Ms. Donoghue, the director and the actors. Ms. Larson is astonishing, as she was in the similar-in scope Short Term 12 several years ago. Her co-star, the now 8-year-old Jacob Tremblay gives one of those child performances that will go down next to Hayley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Abigail Breslin in Little Miss Sunshine. You just find yourself wondering – how can this be? How does a kid DO this? And…could I even put two thoughts together when I was his age???

There’s a lot more to Room than any of this but since I managed to see it with little or no information beforehand I’ll do you the same favor here. But you should see it. It shows that you can still aspire to tell any sort of subject matter onscreen and, with enough time and effort, do it every bit as well or better than any one of the BIG guys (or gals, for that matter).

INFINITELY POLAR BEAR

Directed and written by Maya Forbes

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This movie is an admittedly semi-fictionalized account of the writer-director’s own childhood as the young daughter of her bipolar, blue-blood father who tries to be a full-time parent to her and her sister when their African American mother decides to go to grad school in order to be able to earn enough money to support the family.

Its strength is that it embraces mental illness as both a serious medical condition AND entertainingly over-the-top oddity. Too often this type of character becomes merely charmingly strange or sadly pathetic – either whitewashed into a sideshow freak or held up as a sadly melodramatic life-wrecking nut job. Mark Ruffalo’s performance manages to convey equal parts of both and it imbues the film with just the right kind of narrative drive to sustain a fairly episodic story. Just as you think it’s all getting a bit ridiculous, he anchors you back to a believable reality. But when the film veers into Lifetime TV melodrama (Note: That is if Lifetime TV did more films with male leads – but that would then make it a TNT or Nat Geo movie where he’d have to be a crazy cowboy in the Wild West), he comes up with an odd bit or reaction that makes you smile but won’t send your face into snide eye-roll mode.

Just want to remind everyone that this was a real Lifetime movie in 2015.

Just want to remind everyone that this was a real Lifetime movie in 2015.

One wishes the story offered something a little bit…newer on the subject. Or perhaps that by looking at his predicament through the 2015 lens of what we know about mental illness makes everything about what’s presented seem a bit dated. One can’t help but feel like we’ve seen it before, or read about it or watched too many cable and now even network series on the subject with more than our fair share of QUIRK.

There are also moments in the movie where we can’t help but feel as if we’re watching Ms. Forbes’ comic recreations of a childhood that she has recreated for many others through the years. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that on its own. Almost every artist does it with their stories and experiences in some form or another before offering it up for general digestion (NOTE: Guilty as charged). The trick is for it not to seem as if this is material that has had previous out-of-town runs. You don’t want the sense that the daughters’ embarrassments are too planned or the wife’s exasperations too rehearsed – which is how it too often seemed. But like he does in so many roles, it’s Mr. Ruffalo who seems to know just how to calibrate it all. It’s why he’s the go-to character guy of his age group – a guy who knows how to make the small seem something better than big – REAL.

Grief Counseling

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Mourning is very personal, yet it is unflaggingly universal.  Not how we mourn but the fact that we do.  How we choose to do it is a whole different story.  Well, actually, many different stories.

The HBO broadcast of The Normal Heart, coupled with the death of Maya Angelou and our seemingly bi-monthly mass murdering spree by a mentally ill young man with gargantuan firepower, made this past week feel like it was all about death.  Which meant it was really all about life.  Or, to be more accurate – how we all really feel about our own lives.  

No, this is not a greeting card homily because Hallmark, American Greetings and the like do not specialize in those kinds of phrases or in short, tightly written sermons that speak to our true thoughts and issues.  Can you imagine that?

 Too bad they’re gone but you got to admit, someone like you was lucky that they even talked to you.

 If they were so great – how come they’re dead and you’re not?  Hmm, maybe you are better than you think

OR my favorite —

Live it up because if someone as fantastic as her or him died, you clearly will not be living forever.  In fact, obviously you are already dead – inside.

I could go on but I won’t.  Or maybe you want to make up one of your own?

___________(fill in the blank)___________

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

Or you can always count on someecards for something wildly inappropriate.

As playwright Marsha Norman confided to me decades ago when I was working on the film version of her Pulitzer-Prize winning drama about suicide, night, Mother, there is nothing wrong with gallows humor when you spend day after day around death.  In fact, it’s necessary.

Still, it’s easy to feel as if all of this stuff is happening just to you, isn’t it? Or at least more deeply to you.  For instance, aside from all of the above indignities in the past week I also heard about the passing of a lovely young woman in her twenties who was the wife of one of my former students, the brain cancer diagnosis of an old friend, and various other serious illnesses involving both my parents. Add to this all the dredged up memories I have of all of the young men my age in the 1980s who literally disintegrated before my eyes from complications of AIDS that were, ironically, brought to life so accurately in The Normal Heart, and you could say I was leaning heavily in that direction and starting to lose it.  In fact I did lose it – meaning broke down and cried from the grief – for about 10 minutes – out of the blue – the following afternoon. (Note:  Don’t fret.  I felt a lot better afterwards).

The Normal Heart hits close to home

The Normal Heart hits close to home

Oddly, it was another death – that of the writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou several days later – that really brought me out of this.  It’s something different for all of us, right?  The only thing you know for sure is that if you are really participating in life, something will indeed not only come to rip you back into the only rat race that we have but to make you feel inordinately lucky to once again retain your rodent status.

I was 14 years old the first time I saw and heard Maya Angelou speak and it was on The Mike Douglas Show, a nationally syndicated talk show out of Philadelphia that I promise you no other 14 year old boy in my neighborhood was watching at 3:00 on a weekday afternoon.  Still, that’s what made Ms. Angelou so riveting to me – she was different. All 6 feet of her, dressed in some colorfully patterned dress from head to toe – her voice booming in full articulate sentences as she spoke about her loneliness as a child and the brutality she endured and held in – until she finally found her voice.  She then read a passage from her book, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings and all I remember thinking is, Wow – she wrote about her life and all the secrets she had that made her feel alone?  Hmmm, maybe one day if I get up the nerve, which I probably never will, I can write about what’s happened to me and feel better about things and, well, get recognized too- or at least feel less alone.

Phenomenal Woman

Phenomenal Woman

Oh, of course all writers want attention and to get recognized.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  And no – I am not comparing my life to a woman as accomplished as Dr. Angelou, who was raped at the age of 7 by her mother’s boyfriend and who then did not speak for six years because she felt responsible for his murder by other family members who had found out from her what he had done.  Or, perhaps, in some small way – I am.

What I began to realize – decades later – (and still have to remind myself of) is that this is, indeed, what life, and death, are all about.  That small connection.  Maybe only a tiny similarity but a connection nonetheless. It’s also what the creative arts – both great and small (Note: is there small?) is about.

You never, ever know who you will reach with your little story, do you?  Yes, that means you.  No doubt Dr. Angelou did not write Why The Caged Bird Sings thinking that some young, Jewish gay boy in Queens would be helped by it.  Or perhaps she did.

Who are you reaching today?

Who are you reaching today?

Well, none of that really matters, does it?  What’s important when we think of people like Dr. Angelou is not if they intended to speak to us but how they spoke to us – in what way – and what they left behind that to us makes the greatest sense This is also the case for our friends and loved ones.  It’s how they live on and how we manage to go on.

How did they touch you?  Help you to understand life?  What did they inform you of?  Enlighten you on?  Entertain you with?  Were they honest?  Did they tell the truth in life and in art – or both?  Or neither?  Do you?

And finally, when all is said and done – what one thing did they leave behind with you?  Not with the world but for you – yes you.  For as lofty as it might sound, you are the world they leave behind.

If I learned early on about the power of speaking the truth from Dr. Angelou, I was taught the real value (actually, necessity) of speaking your own truth from the deaths of so many young, dear friends and colleagues I lost from AIDS in the period depicted during The Normal Heart.

And —

that I would gladly agree to spend the rest of my days never speaking one ounce of my truth in return for being able to bring them all back and to have had that period of history erased is, of course, the ultimate paradox of life.

Alas, it's not that easy

Alas, it’s not that easy

So here we all are – faced with a world where everyone’s actions and deeds and truth speaking do matter.  Never has this been more clearly seen than in the recent events at the University of Santa Barbara, or at the Boston Marathon, or in Sandy Hook Elementary School – or at countless American locales each year before them.

One cannot pretend to have known what was truly in the heart of our most recent mass murderer in Santa Barbara  – 22 year-old Elliot Rodger – despite the vast human wreckage, extensive written manifesto and plentiful You Tube postings he left behind.  Perhaps that truth was a mystery even to him and is the very fact at the heart of his actions.  On the other hand, it might be much more simple – something that brings to mind one of the most memorable quotes I can recall from Dr. Angelou:

When people show you who they are, believe them; the first time.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

Be ready for the mask to come off.

If nothing else, this brings to mind the imperative of really listening.  Not only to the people we care about or are paid to listen to but to each person with whom we come into contact.  I usually learn the most from moments with people from whom I don’t anticipate learning anything at all.  Just as I have often been hurt the most by those from whom I never would have expected such behavior.

Yet every so often you meet a person you adore and you get to spend time with them – and even love them for a period of time.  Sometimes it’s a short time and sometimes it’s a lifetime.  It can also be from afar, or even up-close but not personal enough.  And then, suddenly, they’re gone.

No matter how many greeting cards you get, tears you shed or words of wisdom you read or hear from concerned relatives, friends or anonymous bloggers — It’s hard not to miss that.  Or them.

Eating pizza helps.  Though certainly ice cream or cookies are a good temporary fix, too.  You do what you can.  And then try to have some fun again.