Of Choice and Other Human Predicaments
15.17 TO PARIS, THE POST, MOLLY’S GAME, THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, DOWNSIZING
15.17 TO PARIS
The precision indicated in the title is the structuring device of the film.
A thorough recording of the schedule of the three Americans up to the climactic moment of the attack
The same precision informs the first part of the movie devoted to the early years of the trio of heroes to be
A documentary quality, with the characters playing their own roles
Providing a sense of immediacy and authenticity
Eastwood anatomizes the notion of heroism
What makes a hero?
When/how were these heroes born?
Out of ordinariness can surge extraordinary deeds
The question of choice and what you do with your circumstances
The question of human agency in the face of fear and terror
The adversity created by prejudices and biases
The power of a life-giving faith, and love
The portrayal of their lives as teenagers shows their defeats, struggles and disappointments
Their early fascination with weapons and war
The male bonding over fighting for play
The call to ‘serve’ and ‘save lives’
Whereas society and its institutions make the feel like ‘losers’.
Their supportive mothers who continue to believe in them
And nurture their sense of purpose
Their loving mothers dismissed by some as ‘single mothers in the statistics’
One is denied further custody of her son.
The enduring friendship across racial lines
Their individual paths
Their respective resilience
Experiencing ‘real’ war/war for real
As a soldier fighting far away
In an uncanny land
Negotiating conflict and tension
Putting your life at risk
And the life of others too.
The European tour
Life propelling them forward
The call to do something
The recitation of Saint Francis’s prayer.
Discovering European greatness and awe-inspiring monuments
Its ruins and legacies of violence
And also decadence and excess.
The unlikely trip
The journey that almost did not happen
Going to Paris as if on a second thought
The last minute boarding
The change of cars in search of a better Wifi connection
Their sitting close to the restroom
Their undaunted readiness and unflagging willingness
Heroes in action.
The staging of the terrorist
On the move, like clockwork,
Filmed from the back, in a technique used by Gus Van Sant in Elephant.
His suitcases and confident walk
His boarding the train too.
Later, we get a glimpse of half of his face in the mirror
In the washroom, preparing himself for the assault,
And then a full view as he storms into the coach car
A killing machine on the go.
Three people at the right time and place
Against all odds
They rose to the occasion
The miracles that life provides.
The pace and commotion of journalism
The long discussions and squeaky denouements
The sense of drama
The loneliness of the individual decision that must be made
Its imperative and urgency.
The personal journey, the affirmation of agency
What are the real motivations for the work we do?
The collusion between the personal and the professional
The intoxication of power, the sense of secrecy.
Individual heroism: Daniel Ellsberg and Katharine Graham: two sides of the same coin?
The pressures: financial, personal, moral.
The risk-taking and the departure from previous patterns
“The choicefulness of life” in the words of Masha Gessen
Katharine chooses her loyalties:
The long-term friend who has betrayed her trust,
Or the commitment to her father and husband’s vision?
Performing or being?
The editing establishes the contrast between the world of the lavish parties and the beehive of the newsroom.
The pace of the movie also works on a counterpoint: the speed of the overall life in the newsroom, and the occasional pauses—dramatic moments when choices have to be made, when time swells and seems to come to a standstill.
The clockwork of human emotions at sync –or not—with the mechanics of the printing machine and the delivery process
Katharine visiting the printing room, observing the patient work of the type setter.
She has left the cocoon of her domestic life as the ‘daughter’ of, or the ‘wife’ of:
A declaration of Independence! A true daughter to the Founding Fathers.
There is always a certain quality of light to a Spielberg movie
A sort of chiaroscuro
A contrast of colors performing emotional conflicts and moral dilemmas.
Spielberg’s particular talent for using the concrete of realistic moments to endow them with symbolic overtones:
The dangerous crossing of the busy NY street by the delivery boy and the intern The sense of jeopardy and risk-taking
Accidents happen and threaten the course of things
Yet there is no avoiding going across roads and avenues.
The cultural work performed by Spielberg’s film
The tradition of the press as a form of counter power
In an era of post truth, how do we define it today?
And how does it get defined?
A Wolf of Wall Street quality
The microcosm of the poker world as illustrative of the mechanics and ways of the/a larger world
Like a theatrical stage
The individual’s reaction
A striking line from The Crucible hovering above Molly’s passionate plea about the “goodness of her name”: her name, the only thing she has left.
The world of cheating and fraud: another play by Arthur Miller comes to mind …
And Miller himself, who refused to give names and cooperate in the witch-hunt.
His filmic double, perhaps: the lawyer’s commitment to a higher goal
To a pawn on a board
A card to be played
In a deck of other cards
Whether it is the property of the FBI or of the Russian mafia makes little difference
In the end.
The father-daughter jigsaw puzzle
His guilt at being a fraud
His shame at her knowing it.
She is a reminder of the gaze that has seen too much.
Iron-clad will bent to shape by his harsh and demanding love.
Learning the hard way
The physical toll
And the emotional one.
Control over powerful men as a form of revenge?
A pattern that cannot be broken.
Yet, his sudden and unexpected sincerity commits her to his name—and hers.
The redemptive dimension of honesty
Becoming a role model to the little girl Stella
To hold your line
Not to give the information voluntarily
But instead preserve your self-worth and dignity.
Her getting up after the ski fall
From the snow-covered ground which had almost been her shroud
And the TV announcer’s oracle:
“We will see her again”
A book is now in the cards
Her game indeed
And for her to play (with).
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI
A multi-faceted reality:
The gothic script/the thriller
The psychological exploration
The sociocultural dimension of village life.
A movie structured like a short story
A series of little scenes, characters caught in medias res, an open-ended finale
The material of tragedy:
Mother and daughter
Mother and son
Guilt and anger.
To take matters into your own hands
To draw attention to the individual in a world that has lost compassion.
How we form judgments about others
Only to realize how wrong we are/were
The intruder in the shop trying to intimidate her?
An open question: is he the rapist/murderer?
Is someone covering up for him because he was involved in a dangerous (‘classified’) mission?
Old South/new South nemesis, and a history of racial/gender violence.
Resentment, retribution, revenge.
Hypocrisy, self-rigtheousness, fear.
The intertextuality with Flannery O’Connor’s collection of stories A Good Man is Hard to Find (and the eponymous story read by one of the characters)
Who is the Misfit in this story?
A gallery of grotesques
(F. O’Connor’s intuition that “to the hard of hearing you must shout, to the blind you must draw large and startling figures”—her short stories as billboards, perhaps…)
The ex-husband coming to terms with loss in his own way
The sheriff and his illness
Dixon and the loss of his father/taking care of his mother
The midget and his tragic loneliness
Mildred and her revengeful mourning
Her son and his unarticulated questions
The lost daughter Angela: guilt at having caused her death by not lending her the car and taunting her: “Yes, I wish you would get raped”.
How we utter words recklessly
Indifferent to their true meaning and resonance.
If only we could take them back
And shape them into something else…
The surrounding nature and its pristine beauty
The deer scene: Mildred projects some meaning on to the appearance of the deer
Yet the deer goes about its way.
The silent and aloof wilderness closing in on both of them.
The role of the media: one story one week, another story the following week.
The treadmill of ready-made scripts
Compassion and pity as commodities.
Willoughby delivering ultima verba to the world
Three letters, his own trio of billboards,
And postings of a different order:
To his wife—leaving her after a beautiful day of love and family bliss
To Mildred—paying for the billboards, a “chess move”
To Dixon—reestablishing his sense of worth, delivering him from the prison of anger.
“To be calm and love”: the only response not to be destructive to self and others.
The restaurant scene:
The midget holding a mirror to Mildred’s own flaws.
Later, Mildred’s peaceful offering to Charley and his girlfriend Penelope with words of kindness: “take good care of her”.
Coming to terms with jealousy.
Stepping out of the frame of the billboard.
Lines like operatic arias
‘Do you want to kill this guy?’
‘We will decide on the way’
Vigilante violence leads nowhere
But to more loss
Mildred may have realized that she is about to abandon her son the way she had let her daughter down.
The gothic dimension: the chase, the bullies and the female victim, the hermeneutic quest for knowledge, the moral questions, the haunted billboards (black lettering against the red color, like the scarlet letter, the branding of guilt and accusation).
And, as we hear it in the opening sequence of In the Electric Mist, “souls are wandering … the dead hover … their claims on the earth as tenacious as ours”…
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
A psychological inquiry, or as a supernatural story?
Terror masquerading as horror.
The opening scene: the flesh, the throbbing of life
The importance of the body, the sacrificial dimension of the flesh
The religious dimension suggested in the title: the ancient idea that a sacrifice could be offered to save the community.
The early discussion about the watch
The issue of time (see Faulkner’s use of it in The Sound and the Fury with the character Quentin)
Can the clock be reversed? Can we go back to the prelapsarian state of innocence before the medical malpractice?
The clock is ticking for the doctor and his family
Time as the pendulum of Poe’s story “The pit and the pendulum”: time catches up with him, his past comes back to destroy him.
The uncanny character of the boy who insinuates himself in the life of the family members
Moving from extreme kindness, shyness and withdrawal
To anger, violence and threat.
A gothic script with a bully and victims
And a chase—physical and psychological.
The lie, the cover-up: what the doctor did wrong in the past comes back to haunt him.
He has to face the consequences of his being a fraud
No deer but a killing
The father ready to sacrifice one of his children
The world of Greek tragedy
Cruel gods in the modern world of professional flaws.
Manipulation, retribution, and revenge
The children fall prey to the boy, and fulfil his dark prophecies.
Do they in fact somatise fear and anxiety?
The wife refuses to surrender to the bullying and foreboding
And is spared from the physical curse.
Do we need the supernatural to explain away the facts suggested by the film?
If we do, what does it signify?
Like the deer suggested in the title, the true meaning of the movie remains elusive.
SF with an agenda: cellular reduction
With a very real topic—the misuse and mishandling of science
The scientist is haunted by the way his discovery is instrumentalized by dictators to suppress radicalism, resistance and activism
Whereas he had introduced it to voice opposition to global economics and capitalism
To help the planet
Not add to its imperfections and lapses.
How to preserve the original vision?
How to retrieve the original impetus?
The fairy tale dimension and comic features
The moral issues
The literary reference to Swift and his world of Lilliputians.
The biblical motif of Noah’s Ark
|The idea seems so far fetched that at first we are tempted to dismiss the film as pure comedy
Yet gradually we understand the questions raised by the script—directly or not.
The environmental crisis
The urgency of operating a radical life change
The power of individual choices and actions.
The gated community reproduces on a mini scale all the evils and ills of the larger world
Paul realizes that behind the rosy picture there is enslaved labor
So the system in itself does not present heal or fix the world
But how you live it makes a difference
Paul and his gradual awareness
What can he do today to change his part of the world?
His radical decision to contribute to the collective good by catering to the needs of others, weaker and vulnerable, but no less human.
Compassion and mercy as the ultimate ego reduction.
A moral call to be attentive to one’s surrounding, be it natural or human.
In lieu of closure:
“Presently we are returning to the primordial community of the universe, the earth, and all living beings. Each has its own voice, its role, its power over the whole. But, most important, each has its special symbolism. The excitement of life is in the numinous experience wherein we are given to each other in that larger celebration of existence in which all things attain their highest expression, for the universe, by definition, is a single gorgeous celebratory event”.
Thomas Berry (Dream of the Earth 5)
“I wish I could finish on a hopeful note, by saying something like: If only we insist on making choices, we will succeed in keeping darkness at bay. I’m not convinced that that’s the case. But I do think that making choices and, more important, imagining other, better choices, will give us the best chance possible of coming out of the darkness better than we were when we went in. It’s a bit like emigrating that way: the choice we make rarely feels free, but choices we make about inhabiting new landscapes (or changed bodies) demand an imagination”. Masha Gessen (New York Review of Books, Feb. 8, 2018, p. 6)