Archive for April, 2008

Polidori’s Shop

April 22, 2008

Polidori operated a shop from his house. The only outside entrance was on the second floor, at the top of a treacherously rickety winding staircase that looked like it could not be strong enough to support the weight of a person climbing it. There was no sign on the door and no bright light in the window to draw the eyes of passersby; but he had a steady trickle of regular clients nonetheless.

He worked as a carpenter during the day, and only opened the shop after he came home and ate a late dinner. He had built all of the furniture in the shop himself: the desk; the two chairs behind and in front of it; the triangular four-tiered shelf in the corner, on which he kept his emergency hammers and chisels; the elaborate coatrack at the entrance; and the spice rack on the wall behind the desk. His clients never complained about the unusual hours.

There were no reserved appointments at Polidori’s shop. All of his business was generated by word-of-mouth recommendations, and his clients were careful to coordinate their visits amongst themselves so they did not attract unwanted attention, either to themselves or the shop. Polidori’s driveway was only large enough for one automobile–his–to park in it at a time, but none of his clients drove to the shop, so this was not a problem.

One of Polidori’s oldest clients was Elizabeth Bathory, a wealthy, dark-complexioned immigrant from Eastern Europe. Elizabeth’s husband had died many years ago, before she left her homeland, and she now spent her time educating curious young women about her lifestyle. Any girl who encountered Elizabeth was never the same afterward.

She opened the door to the shop late one night and sat in the chair opposite Polidori. She had forgotten to hang her cloak at the entrance, and Polidori could tell she was agitated. As he always did when a client came to him in such a state, he took the precaution of sliding his chair back so the spice rack was within reach before he spoke.

“Good night, Elizabeth,” he said. “What would you like me to do for you?”

“Just tell me what you see. Please, just tell me how I look, and be honest.”

“You have a freckle next your left eye. It is reddish-brown, only a few shades darker than your skin color. Your eyebrows have become thicker since the last time I saw you, and they are starting to grow in towards one another; you should have them plucked sometime soon. Your eyes look haunted and thirsty. Your eyelashes are good, though; they are delicate and strong, like a kitten’s whiskers cut short and dyed black. There’s a smudge on your top canine teeth. It’s a lighter shade of red, so I think it’s from your lipstick. Your bottom teeth are clean, though. You have some lines forming around the ends of your lips, but they don’t look bad on you, except that they show you’ve been frowning too much. Have you been upset, Elizabeth?”

“Just keep going, please. Tell me about my hair next.”

“Your hair is just as red as it has always been, but I think you have some split ends, especially behind your ears. I know I’ve told you this before, but you would be able to see that for yourself if you grew your hair out and wore it longer.”

“I like it short. It gets in the way when it’s longer.”

“Could you turn to your left, Elizabeth? I see you have some scratches on your neck. They look like they’re healing, but they’re pretty deep, so you should get some medicine and a bandage on them so they don’t leave scars.

“Smile for me, please. Now raise your eyebrows, like you’re surprised. I really think you look better when you change your expression, Elizabeth. It’s as if your face gets stagnant when you don’t laugh or smile.”

“I know, but it’s hard for me to have a real reaction. Nothing surprises me anymore.”

“But at least you know what surprise looks like. You still see it on the faces of your girls, right?”

Elizabeth smiled spontaneously. “Yes, I suppose I do. I’ll try to practice more often.”

“Is there anything else you want to know?”

“No, that’s good for tonight. Thank you, John. It’s just that it’s been a while since I’ve found a new girl, and I’m getting restless. But listening to you always helps. I’m sorry I don’t have any new stories for you, though.”

“I understand how it is, Elizabeth. I hope you find someone soon. You’re starting to look a little pale.”

Soon after Elizabeth left, a German man named Max Schreck landed on the porch rail and went inside Polidori’s shop. He had a narrow, rat-like face, and fingers so long and slender they resembled a spider’s crawling legs. He was an actor.

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Lars and the Real Girl

April 19, 2008

In the most heartbreakingly awkward scene since Adam Sandler called a phone sex number because he just wanted someone to talk to in Punch-Drunk Love, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling, rapidly becoming my favorite actor) introduces his brother Guy and sister-in-law Karin (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) to his new girlfriend: a life-sized sex doll named Bianca. Lars purchased her online and has already given her a backstory: Her parents died soon after she was born, and the “half Brazilian, half Danish” Bianca was raised by nuns and grew up to be a missionary. She is also confined to a wheelchair and still isn’t very comfortable with English, so she doesn’t talk much.

Lars and the Real Girl takes a premise that easily (if not inevitably) could have degenerated into the worst kind of mean-spirited comedy, and transforms it into an amazingly sweet, gentle, and compassionate story. That’s not to say I didn’t laugh, though. Just the simple reaction shots of the cast when they are first introduced to Bianca are some of the funniest moments I have seen in a long time.

The day after Guy and Karin are introduced to Bianca, they bring Lars to the local doctor/psychologist (Patricia Clarkson) and ask her what’s wrong with Lars and what she can do to fix it. Instead of prescribing pills or encouraging them to institutionalize Lars, however, she tells them to play along with his delusion. There must be some reason Lars created Bianca, she tells them, and when that has been resolved, the Bianca delusion should fade away.

Since they are both quite religious, Lars asks Gus and Karin if Bianca can sleep at their house, instead of in the garage with him. Though they are reluctant to indulge him initially, their love for Lars compels them to accommodate his request. They also agree to feed, clothe, and even bathe Bianca.

As good as Gosling has been in past roles (particularly his drug-addicted junior-high teacher in Half Nelson, for which he received an Oscar nomination), he delivers his best performance yet as Lars. He is essentially responsible for the audience’s emotional connection with the story’s two lead characters, and nearly every scene he inhabits could have fallen into parody and farce, but he manages to keep the right balance throughout.

Lars is soon so infatuated with his doll that he tells his coworkers about her, takes her to parties, and even brings her to church with him. Earlier, when Gus and Karin asked the church for their advice on what to do with Lars, they decided to treat Bianca as if she were a real person. What it really comes down to, the pastor reminds them with an unbelievable lack of irony, is “What would Jesus do?”

Seeing this kind of a church in a movie, one that accepts and loves people no matter how eccentric and damaged they are, is almost as disconcerting as watching the development of Lars’s relationship with Bianca. As Jack Lucas came to understand in The Fisher King, Lars’s church knows that redemption comes by entering into a journey (or a quest), and not by purchasing a quick solution.

I veered between laughing and crying for the whole movie. Those of you who know me should not be surprised to read that I identified a lot with Lars. Interestingly, though, that identification was a source of smiles as much as sniffles. My deeper emotional reaction, though, was stirred by the way Lars’s friends and neighbors treat him and the concern they show for him, particularly his sister-in-law Karin (Mortimer).

Before I go any farther, you might as well know that I wish Emily Mortimer was my big sister. The sight of her face wrinkling with concern and affection is extremely comforting to me. But her concern is not merely passive. In one of the film’s turning points (and best scenes), she confronts Lars and explodes his notion that no one cares about him. Everything they’ve done for Bianca, she tells him, is because they care about him.

One of my unhealthier emotional bents is to wonder–and obsess–over whether cares or even thinks about me. My usual conclusion is “No,” which drives me deeper into myself and farther away from any help that might be out there. While I was watching the Lars, I kept wondering if I’m just too obsessed with my own dolls and my imaginary relationship to see the real caring people around me.

The final act of Lars organizes itself as a eucatastrophe (a word coined by Tolkien to express a good result arising out of a seemingly bad and hopeless situation): Lars begins to feel frustrated with his “relationship” with Bianca and the way she never says anything to him. Intellectually, we know this is a good development because it shows that Lars is moving away from his delusion, but it feels sad at the same time, because we too have grown attached to Bianca and the safe comfort she provides. But as Gus tells Lars in another one of the movie’s best moments, becoming a real man is about moving out of comfort and toward the (often uncomfortable) truth.

 

There Will Be Blood and Good Country People

April 11, 2008

*Not so much a review of the movie as an exploration of one of its main themes*

WARNING: There Will Be Spoilers

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Good Country People,” Manley Pointer first appears to be a harmless Bible salesman. In reality, however, he is ruthless, grotesque, and deceptive. He feigns interest in the ugly and disabled Hulga not because is infatuated with her, but rather because he has something of a fetish for other people’s personal belongings. Far from being “good country people,” Manley’s false and even evil nature enables him to identify the pretense and hypocrisy the individuals he meets hide behind.

A similar ability lives in Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), the protagonist of Paul Thomas Anderson’s film “There Will Be Blood.” Plainview is an oilman who knows how to sweet-talk and grandstand his way to the most profitable deal (for him). Any enemies he makes or accidents that occur in his pursuit of profit are eliminated or ignored.

And yet, Plainview has an immovable moral compass, although it never points back at him.

The only character for whom Daniel seems to have any genuine affection is his son H.W. (Dillon Freasier, in his film debut). When the boy is injured in a drilling accident, though, Daniel leaves him behind to tend to his well. H.W. loses his hearing in the accident, and rather than adapting to living with a disabled boy, Daniel sends him away to live at a school for the deaf. Actually, as is revealed late in the film, Daniel’s motivation for leaving H.W. behind is financial more than anything else.

When a man claiming to be his long-lost half brother Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) shows up asking to work with him, Daniel takes the man on, even briefly treating him as a partner in the oil company. When Daniel discovers the man is an impostor, though, he shoots and kills him with hardly a second thought.

More than anyone else, though, Daniel sees hypocrisy in Eli Sunday (Paul Dano). Eli preaches at the Church of the Third Revelation, a small congregation in the vicinity of one of Daniel’s wells. Daniel does not believe that Eli has been touched by God and called to be his prophet, as the young man claims; he thinks Eli is a con man, manipulating the emotions of his congregation for his own gain. (This is exactly what Daniel does when he convinces families and towns to let him buy their land and drill on it, but he either cannot see the similarity or simply does not want to.)

In a scene set more than a decade after the primary action of the film, Eli comes to visit Daniel–who now lives in a mansion paid for by his oil dealings–and asks him for money. He tells Daniel that the one landowner who refused to sell to Daniel earlier has died, and that with his help, Daniel can now acquire the land. Plainview sees and opportunity to finally expose the fiery preacher: He tells Eli that if he will admit, “I am a false prophet; religion is a superstition,” he will give him the money he needs.

Sensing that it is his only chance to get the money, Eli reluctantly obliges the request. Afterward, though, Daniel explains to Eli that the land is already dry because its oil has drained into the adjacent fields, which he already owns. Daniel then chases him around his bowling alley and bludgeons him to death with a bowling pin. With Eli’s blood flowing on the floor beneath him, Daniel exclaims, “It’s finished!”

Though he could be referring to the film’s close, I think that, in this climactic line, Anderson is alerting the audience to another aspect of Plainview’s character: He is (perhaps unconsciously) a corrupt, vengeful prophet of justice bent on exposing and destroying greed and deception wherever he comes across it. And like O’Connor’s character Manley Pointer, it is his intimate knowledge of greed and deception that enables him to find it so readily in the people he meets.

O’Connor once wrote that in evaluating the morality depicted in a story, a character making the “right choice” need not necessarily be present to show the reader how they should act; the reader’s own moral sensibility can sufficient to prove that there is a “right choice.” Having said that, however, are there any “good” characters in There Will Be Blood?

(For another example of this phenomenon, watch the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men, in which chance appears to be the only determining factor between right and wrong.)

Just before the final scene between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday, Daniel has a different sort of confrontation, this time with his estranged son. H.W. Plainview tells his father that he plans to move to Mexico and start a drilling company there; that is, he is going to be an oil man too. Details in this conversation, however, reveal just how different Daniel and his son are. While Daniel lied about having a family–H.W. was a foundling whom he took along because the boy’s innocent face would help him close deals–H.W. is married to a girl he loves and has known since childhood. Daniel offers H.W. a stake in his own company if he will stay, but H.W.’s primary motivation is not becoming rich; though he will make less money in Mexico, H.W. nevertheless wants to go there because it will get him as far away from his father as he can get. Even H.W.’s deafness and reliance on an interpreter denotes the difference between him and his smooth-talking father.

Thus, it is in H.W. Plainview, the boy who grew up seeing all of his father’s corruption but never became dissipated by it himself, that There Will Be Blood finds a moral hero.