Round Five / Bennett – getting in on the act in The Land Of The
Long White Cloud
A read of the précis of Michael Bennett’s Matariki (2010) makes it patently clear: set over five days and nights, a story of many lives brought into collision by one event. In Auckland a rugby league star driving past a deserted car park late at night sees a fight. He intervenes but is brutally bashed. In the meantime a young thief steals the man’s vehicle, unwittingly sparking a chain of events that will change his life and the lives of others forever.
Film-makers from the antipodes had not been left behind when it came to the production of films built on narratives riddled with coincidence and chance. Sobering to think also of chance’s power to change lives ‘forever’. An in-depth look at the plot of Matariki will prove instructive.
The film begins with Aleki breaking into Spit’s bedroom and being caught in the act. Undaunted, he makes off with her necklace. Shortly after that, while he is stealing an apparently abandoned car, she catches up with him and literally goes along for the ride.
Russ, a drug dealer, heavies Gunge, one of his clients and a man devoted to his dog. Russ is beating Gunge when Tama, driving by in his car, sees what is happening and rushes to Gunge’s aid. But he is savagely assaulted and left for dead. It is his vehicle that Aleki and Spit steal.
We are also introduced to pregnant Lisa. Picking up her boyfriend Jermaine on his release from jail, she runs into him in her car. Meanwhile, Ricky, Tama’s brother, picks up his boyfriend, the effeminate Tyrone. While they are driving around town, they almost collide with Lisa and Jermaine, bringing about the first ‘meeting’ of Tyrone and Lisa.
The police come to question Aleki about Tama’s car, since discovered abandoned, though they do not seriously consider him a suspect in the bashing. He then has a fight with his irate father, who threatens to send him back to the islands unless he straightens up his act.
Tama is on life support. His wife Megan, a police officer, is reluctant to permit her spouse’s indigenous family to mourn his imminent loss according to their customs. By the same token, Ricky’s and Tyrone’s uneasy relationship is further strained. Ricky is hesitant about allowing Tyrone to share in the distress of his lover and his family. Ricky’s family do not even know Tyrone.
At a local market, Lisa steals a necklace from Tyrone’s stall. He recognises her as the girl he and Ricky almost ran into. Elsewhere, a car strikes Gunge’s dog. The animal wanders off, badly injured. Tyrone goes to Lisa and Jermaine’s place determined to retrieve the pilfered necklace. While he is there, she breaks water. He accompanies the couple to hospital. Jermaine, unable to cope with the impending responsibility of a child, promptly departs. Tyrone, simply because he is around and left alone with Lisa, is handed the baby when it is born. Lisa herself demonstrates little or no maternal instinct toward the child.
Spit and Aleki continue their round of breaking and entering and stealing. Forcing their way into a house, they discover a skeleton. They are at odds regarding what to do with it. Aleki wants to bury it. Spit insists they put it inside the house, lay it on a bed and venerate it, as her Vietnamese ancestors might have done.
Gunge, worried about his missing dog and convinced that Russ has harmed it, arms himself and is about to shoot Russ when a little boy, who witnessed what happened, tells him the dog is alive. Gunge rescues the animal and takes it home.
Lisa is close to dumping her baby in a refuse bin when Tyrone, passing by, intervenes, rescuing the young life about to be abandoned. Stuck with the child, he presents it to Ricky and his family, leading to a kind of reconciliation between the estranged partners. In the broader scheme of things, it is apparent that the end of one life is balanced by the beginning of another. The Matariki constellation is in the sky that night and this is what Tama’s family decide to call the orphan child.
Lisa returns to the place where she lives with her dreamer drug addict boyfriend Jermaine and tells him their baby died. He thinks this is for the best, not least because he will be free to continue imagining a wonderful future as a successful musician. In one of the final scenes of the movie, she leaves him and embraces her freedom.
Spit and Aleki bury the old lady’s skeleton. Gunge buries his dog. Megan, at long last, lets Tama’s family farewell him according to the mores of the Maori people. Aleki reconciles himself to going back to the islands; the idea has grown on him. Will Spit visit him? She makes a gift / peace offering of the necklace that he took from her, but that she retrieved after his bungled robbery.
The ‘echoes’ are many. They encompass everything from stolen jewellery to different ways of mourning and dispensing with an abandoned body cage after death. Ricky’s reluctance to let the ‘outsider’ Tyrone share his family’s grief is paralleled by Megan’s distance with the dying man’s near and dear.
Tama’s ultimately fatal intervention contrasts with Tyrone’s lifesaving one as he, too, passes by at a crucial moment. Lisa’s drastic action at the death represents her resolve to rid her life of all traces of Jermaine. Even if this extends to indirectly killing their child, this is a price she is evidently willing to pay to snare her freedom.
This particular character arc is, alas, hard to wear, for the simple reason that so little that has come before has geared us for it. In her way, Lisa seems highly suited to the inept Jermaine. Another actress might have lent the role a shade enhancing the credibility or believability of her final, conclusive action. Where does Lisa intend to go when she packs and walks out the door?
It is not just in the vehicles (both those in motion and stationary), the hits and near hits and the by no means inconsequential presence of Gunge’s dog that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu lurks over this film. The unpredictable, ‘My God, what could possibly happen next?’, instances of havoc put us in mind of him as well.
For all the cleverness of its layering, Matariki comes across as a highly prefabricated film. That layering is unlikely to have stemmed from a team of writers sympathetic to the idea of letting their characters develop as those characters see fit. How many drafts of the screenplay did they write? How many meetings did they have to thrash it out before they deemed their script ready? A few? That may be understating it.
Six characters in search of an author is the name of one of Luigi Pirandello’s most famous plays. That searching on the part of the half dozen comes with a given: their wish to discover an author who will allow them to express themselves in all their challenging complexity without unnecessary authorial intervention. Pirandello’s six – indeed any ‘true’ characters – are classical in the sense that they are the opposite of ‘types’. Their tendency is to ‘take over’ their authors.
The characters in ‘coincidental / contrived’ narratives might be better described as being searched for (by their authors). Their authors contrive them for their own ends in the stories they want to tell. Frequently, they appear heavily ‘one-track’ or ‘one-note’ (remember Perelman’s House of Sand and Fog?) Essentially, they are types as opposed to flesh and blood human beings. They are designed to fit the plot. They are unable to drive their own stories. To do so, their authors would have to give them space to evolve as they need to – a relinquishing of control not in their creators’ mandates.
Ninety minutes, give or take a handful, is usually about all that a feature film director has to play with. Faced with a few impasses and with time running short, Michael Bennett must stage a resolution quick. Some may find what he opts for sweet, but again much of it comes about because ‘she happens to be doing this at the very moment he happens to be be passing by’. Still, the fact should not really surprise, a great deal of the film having been structured in this manner. But the truth, again, is underlined: we are left with little say in the matter.
Blind chance on a roll! Four to one.
Round Six / Lawrence – malevolent weeds in Sydney or hard man cop learns to blubber
Across the Tasman. Lantana (2001) commences with an air of mystery. The camera picks out – almost caressing – sections of the body of a clothed woman prone in bushes. Naturally, we have no idea who she is or how she happens to have gotten there. And as we are not allowed a glimpse of her face her age is indeterminate. We can tell she is not elderly, but we are unable to say with certainty whether this is a young woman or one in her middle years.
In any case we quickly forget about her and her relevance to the story when we cut to a sex scene. The protagonists are Leon, a married police officer, and his lover Jane, a woman estranged from her own husband Pete. This affair has been going on a while, the pair having become acquainted at a salsa dance class Leon lackadaisically attends with his wife Sonja.
Sonja is presently receiving counselling. Presumably, some residual concern about the state of her marriage is one of the reasons she has taken this step. Whatever spark the relationship once had has evidently become lost amid staid routine. But this is an honest, dogged wife motivated to do what she can to bring the ship back on an even keel, with or without her husband’s direct involvement. Leon himself knows nothing about these sessions.
Valerie, the counselling doctor, has her own challenges. The tragic loss of their daughter has put enormous strain on her marriage to John, an academic played by a tired looking Geoffrey Rush. The worn-out air is appropriate; most of the cast of this film present much the same.
At the same time that Valerie is dealing with this lovelessness, one of her patients, a homosexual man by the name of Patrick, is pushing her buttons. Indirectly, and at times calculatedly, his aggressiveness during their consultations is throwing her off balance and leaving her more and more uncertain about the validity of her marriage.
Patrick’s conundrum is his ‘going nowhere in particular’ affair with a married man. He would like his lover to leave his wife but assumes this will probably never happen. The doctor even begins entertaining the thought that it is John who may be the unfaithful married lover in question. Or if not, could John be having an affair with someone else?
Another couple focussed on in the film is Nik and Paula, the young married neighbours of Jane. Their unconcealed, carefree, committed love for each other is much envied by the lost soul who is Jane, a woman who has gone from the arms of one unsuitable man to those of someone equally wrong.
The enigmatic air with which Lantana begins resurfaces approximately midway through the film. Driven to the edge with doubt, Valerie disappears. Leon is called in to investigate and for a while the weight of suspicion – the assumption being foul play – falls on John in collusion with Patrick.
This, however, proves to be a red herring. Patrick’s lover is another entity altogether and John can explain his wanderings about the city as well as some other things puzzling to the policeman. Lingering grief with respect to his daughter and the virtual maintaining of a memorial at the site of her slaying are an integral part of it. As for the loveless state of his marriage, was that so difficult to understand in the circumstances, he asks Leon.
Earlier, not knowing each other from a bar of soap, Leon and Pete have met in a pub and shared empathy over a drink. This scene comes directly after a chance encounter between Valerie and Pete. They too have never laid eyes on each other, but she (already teetering on the brink) gives him an earful for speaking to her out of turn – words she imagines. You never know who you might be yelling at is the lesson. For a city that looks suspiciously like Sydney, this is a remarkably claustrophobic world.
Pete speaks about the incident to Leon over their drink. Leon, also in a voluble mood, expresses intrigue that grown men can burst into tears, as he witnessed when involved in a nasty head clash with another man while rounding a sharp bend on a jog. The man he collided with, Leon explains, unashamedly wept. One will, later in the film, recognise the distraught one as frustrated Patrick’s lover. Still, we can applaud the artists for not resorting to a car crash!
The duo of chance confidants stumble upon each other again while Pete is visiting Jane. Leon’s relations with her have by now cooled to the extent that he could be considered another ex. Leon has come knocking in response to her call to the police stating that she witnessed Nik surreptitiously toss something into nearby bush. She searches off her own bat and unearths a woman’s shoe. Civic duty on her part or representative of a mean streak in her nature, a subconscious attempt to derail Nik (with whom she has been flirty) and Paula’s love?
Nik is complicit but only in the sense that he gave the out of sorts Valerie a late night ride after her own car broke down. The indirect cause of her literal flight into the bushes, he had his own reasons for discarding the evidence – the errant high heel – and not uttering a word about the incident to anyone. The only ‘foul play’ Valerie has met with is indirect and not indictable.
Sonja has learnt of Leon’s infidelity and made her feelings plain. He, snooping around the ‘missing’ Valerie’s office, has discovered the doctor’s taped sessions, including some with his wife. The act of listening to the playback of one induces him to cry and understand (unluckily, too late) what a gallant woman he had as a life companion.
In her willingness to accept the passage of time and what comes with it, she may be the most spirited character on offer. ‘I like these lines,’ she tells Valerie early in the film, referring to the creases on her face. She is also astute enough to see that she will achieve nothing if she is unfaithful herself, backing out of a quick romp with a young opportunist, much to his annoyance. Her loyalty to Leon is not returned in kind.
For all the promise of change, all the storm and strife, nothing changes for John, Patrick, Jane or Pete, the man she cast off so as to live a sad, lonely existence always chasing a love that ultimately disappoints. A montage near the end indicates that they will go on much as before. Perhaps Ray Lawrence could have spared us these visuals, which tell us nothing we have not suspected.
Having said that, not closing in this fashion would have entailed his not dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s, contrary to the mainstream cinema artist’s habit. The majority of film-makers do exactly the same, as if convinced the audience needs spoon-feeding not just to the bitter end but beyond. Matariki reflects the same tendency in its ‘everybody in’ conclusion.
Sort of back together, or on the cusp, Leon and Sonja dance in the last scene of Lantana. This reluctant salsa dancer has loosened up sufficiently to be willing to slow dance his cuckolded mate. And this vintage hard as nails cop has learnt to cry. We can say that much for him and maybe that will have to suffice.
‘I don’t want to lose you,’ he assures Sonja. That is all very well. But what does he want? What is he prepared to stake his life on? We would prefer to know what he wants to gain, not what he does not want to lose. But this is not a film informed with the likes of such urgency throughout.
Nik and Paula will go on happily. They are stronger for the scare they endure. The best of luck to them. It is impossible to view the ‘reconciliation’ of Leon and Sonja with the same confidence. The evident fatigue of so many of Lawrence’s characters is understandable. Those who drift along in life – even for no longer than nigh on two hours – are bound to be afflicted by it sooner or later.
Blind chance victorious! Five to one.
Round Seven / Bergman – focussed visions of yore (1)
Forever is a very long time. Beware the publicity blurbs that seek to entice viewers with pronouncements to the effect that here is a tale about lives changing forever! Characters – people – can change forever, but monumental shifts of the order that forever implies are generally going to require more than momentary or arbitrary catalysts.
Without an urgent will to change and commensurate, day by day, resolve and effort to bring that about, often over a period of years, can change ever be more than window dressing? As indicated earlier, films – the novellas of the visual arts – do not usually deal with lengthy periods of the lives of their characters. Limited in time and space as they are, substantial change is not really their province.
Hence, blurb positing ‘change forever’ can sound absurd and overblown. Worse still if the force for that alleged change is a ‘plane dropping out of the sky’ event. Then it can come across as unconvincing in the extreme. It might be cushy were this not the case, tremendous hard work might be spared, but change does not come about so easily.
Before continuing, it is worth remarking on three feature films that depict fundamental, far-reaching change well. At the start of The Godfather Part One (1972), Michael Corleone is a cherub. He wants nothing to do with his family’s criminal, often murderous, ways. That’s my family, he assures his girlfriend Kay, not me.
In time he becomes as ruthless and cold-blooded as the worst of them. He changes convincingly and perhaps for all time. The vast distance he travels is poignantly drawn in the last scene of The Godfather Part Two (1974), when the pariah he has evolved into recalls a scene from his days of innocence.
Another character brought to life around the same time who also undergoes a profound sea change is Jan Rosenberg in Ingmar Bergman’s Shame (1968). Jan and his wife Eva are musicians whose ordered lives are unable to be sustained when a civil war throws them into disarray.
The shattering of their idyll transforms Jan from a coward into a callous brute. It is a startling but perfectly believable metamorphosis. Has he changed forever? As with Michael Corleone, we cannot know for certain. Both Bergman’s and Coppola’s films end media res with respect to the lives of these characters. But the signs in both cases are that they have.
A literal messenger, an arm-flapping postman, heralds the arrival of a stranger – Terence Stamp’s handsome, virile young man – destined to disturb the natural order of things, in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s fable-like Teorema (1968). But this story turns out vastly different to a classic hero’s adventure tale, one in which a problem or challenge is presented, assumed and eventually overcome against considerable odds, resulting in the restoration of the threatened natural order.
Pasolini was a far more radical artist than that. The natural order in his filmic universes was often decidedly ‘unnatural’, an order that needed shaking up until something truer was unearthed. The factory owner, his family and their maid in Teorema have suppressed much in their carefully culled existences. When, with the help of the young man, they remove the constraints under which they have thus far lived they reveal themselves to be profoundly different, vastly more alive and sentient, human beings.
These are not characters whose enlightenment just happens to happen. If ever a group was ready for change, and needed urgently to find their genuine selves, it is they. The closing scenes in this film suggest there is no way back for any of them now that they have realised their individual potential. But in achieving their naturalness they also partake of breathtaking change.
In that he never made films about characters who happen to meet by chance, Bergman might be considered irrelevant to a treatise that has concentrated on narratives of this kind. But, in working otherwise, both he and other directors offer a contrast that will illuminate much about character freedom and life possibilities.
Bergman went into self-imposed exile in Germany for several years beginning in the mid to late seventies, incensed at his treatment by the tax authorities in his native Sweden. The title of one of the films he made abroad is rendered in English From the Life of the Marionettes (1980). Bergman often alluded to the fact that it was his fascination with puppet theatre as a young boy that set him on the way to an artistic career.
Coming from the Swede, however, a title such as the above is somewhat ironical. As puppet-like in their predictability as the actions of the characters in that film may appear, Bergman as a director showed much less inclination to control the strings of his characters than many directors who began their careers around the time he was winding his down.
Change of the ‘forever’ variety is hardly ever his concern or a goal he would have aspired to, despite the fact that he achieves something close in the figure of Jan Rosenberg. Also notable in this regard is Alma in Persona (1966), the nurse who cracks under the strain of the silence brought to bear on her by her temporary charge, the voluntarily mute actress Elisabeth Vogler. Elisabeth returns to the stage. Alma will continue in her profession, but her illusions have been shattered irrevocably. No one could dispute that she will never be quite the same.
Bergman was a past master at putting his characters through the wringer. The married couple in Scenes from a Marriage (1973), the priest and his painfully loyal mistress in Winter Light (1963), the gathered sisters in Cries and Whispers (1972), the professor in Wild Strawberries (1957), the sisters in The Silence (1963), the renowned artist / mother in Autumn Sonata (1978), Jenny in Face to Face (1976), the writer and his long-neglected children in Through a Glass Darkly (1961) …
In facing up to the reality of who they really are, they endure incredible torment. No more impetus is required than the understanding that they cannot go on living as they have done, lives couched in untruth. Such a stripping bare can be hard for an audience to sit through, but victory, of a sort, is theirs in the end. We are with them and can hope for their futures. And, by extension, our futures.
Minus, the gawky, mixed-up son of David, the writer, in Through a Glass Darkly turns to the camera at the end of the film and declares, ‘Father spoke to me.’ Is this such a big deal? Of course not. But in the context of the film, the scene of David – a man concerned with nothing if not his literary career – taking the time to speak to his son and the latter tearfully delighting in the fact is empowering. We hope David’s will to change is so strong that he makes comforting and encouraging his son a habit, not just a one-off in a time of family crisis.
What this signifies, what Bergman was really about, is wisdom or character growth / development. Jan Rosenberg’s (or Michael Corleone’s) might not augur well, but generally the growth achieved by Bergman’s characters is a step in the right direction. Battered in the gaining of it though they often are, the wisdom acquired makes the hard yards worthwhile. Who wants to live in perpetual delusion? Masks sit heavy after a certain amount of time and demand removal. The light might startle the ‘true face’ at first, but once it arrives it will be as if the darkness has never been.
Transcendence might be an apt synonym for growth here. Bergman usually tries to evoke this in stillness. Think of the endings not only of Through a Glass Darkly but also Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers. Isak Borg in the former and Agnes in the latter go through the Bergman grinder in relentless fashion, Borg emotionally, Agnes physically and emotionally.
But what awaits both for their gameness and travail is peace, or a modicum of that. Stillness, as Charles Baxter points out in one of his essays in Burning Down The House, is notoriously difficult to portray in the cinema, where fast, abrupt edits and action are often the favoured approach. Nevertheless, Bergman did his darndest to approximate it. Forever change? Not necessarily. Growth? Without doubt. We might as well state it without equivocation: growth, a stepping stone on the way to core, decisive change, is the more likely scenario in cinema narratives.
Liberty gets one back! Five to two.