THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
Recently, I had the urge to write about the films I really love, the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that have changed my thinking about the world and made me into the person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them, explain how film as an art-form can hold a deeper meaning and how the art has the ability to get down into a person's soul and do something to them. I wanted to write about films I struggled with and returned to, the decisions I made in life and the ideas I have floating around in my brain that can be directly traced to movies. And not just my crippling fear that an ancient Aztec snake-God is living in the Chrysler building. The 6 films I am going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
<< part one: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE>>
mike leigh's NAKED
"What's it like... being you?"
It might have been the first time I ever went to New York City. It was certainly the first time I had ever been in the city at night. I moved around the country a great deal growing up: Virginia to Louisiana, Baton Rouge to Westchester Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania to Hendersonville Tennessee, Nashville suburb back to semi-rural Pennsylvania, Westchester to Westchester, Pennsylvania to New York; but I had never lived in a city. I had grown up in situations that ranged from the most suburban of suburban (Hendersonville, a land of strip-malls and car dealerships enveloping Nashville) to cows and corn (in Pennsylvania just south of Amish country.) So when I moved to just outside of New York City to attend college at nearby SUNY Purchase, I had almost no experience with cities, let alone the most formidable city in the world, a place 100% deserving of its reputation for breath-taking singularity and relentlessness. Purchase was about an hour from the city, all things considered: a fifteen minute ride on the #12 bus and then a forty minute ride on the Metro North express train down to Grand Central station. A tiny desolate all-brick campus (in honor of the wealthy brack magnate who donated the land on which it was built), Purchase practically insisted that you flee it for the city on a regular basis: on weekends in winter it felt like a freshly evacuated warzone; a harsh, treeless, empty plaza of lonely, angular, squat buildings where the howling wind was the most forceful presence. That you could easily escape the isolated campus for New York was explicitly one of its selling points.
When I got to Purchase to attend its selective film school (it only accepted about 20 students a year), I almost instantly feel in love with a girl. To write about Naked requires me to write about this girl and to write about being an 18-year old kid who instantly falls in love with a girl upon arriving at film school is a pretty humiliating thing to do. But I think that a lot of people, if they thought about it, would realize that some of their favorite pieces of art are tied to a specific relationship and maybe no film I love is so thoroughly tied to another person for me as Naked. There were a number of students who weren't in the film school who hung around the edges of it, getting as involved as they could without taking classes and then applying for the program next year - Anna was one of these students and I can't really remember how I met her other than in this capacity: she was one of those film students who wasn't. I guess for the sake of privacy, I won't talk too much about her in specific other than to say my ardor for Anna and my introduction to New York had a synergestic energy: she had grown up in New York and lived abroad in Europe and knew a ton (more than me, for sure) about art and literature and film and poetry and had natural cosmopolitan bearing that reflected and refracted off of the city. She was also deeply fucked up. NYC: art, poetry, cosmospolitan, deeply fucked up. The first time I ever ate sushi or used chopsticks for that matter or had Indian food was with Anna. I the first time I ever met a Hasidic Jew and bought a camera filter from him was with Anna. The first time I understood modern art (I had a little epiphany about Meret Oppenheim's Object, the fur-lined cup and saucer) was with Anna. The first time I ever met a girl with arms covered in tiny razor-blade scars was with Anna. And the first time I ever went to New York City was with Anna. Maybe.
It was certainly the first time I have ever been in the city at night. She couldn't believe I had never seen Mike Leigh's Naked and insisted we hop on a train right now and go down to the city to buy a video of it and watch it that evening. It's crazy for me to think about a time when I wasn't a gigantic fan of Mike Leigh, but in high school I had only seen Secrets and Lies and Career Girls. At the time, I thought Secrets and Lies was over-hyped because of a stupid gimmick twist and, well... even now I don't have anything good to say about Career Girls (although I do think its shittiness could be reduced by 20%-30% just by dropping Marianne Jean-Baptiste's awful lite-jazz score and replacing it with a more typical Andrew Dickson track.) I had definitely noticed Naked's video box at Video Paradiso on more than one occassion, but paired with the repulsive actors on the box, the title seemed like a threat. It was already night by the time we started down to the city and I wasn't used to having any place to go in the nighttime. In high school, I used to stay up until midnight driving around to nowhere endlessly criss-crossing Southern Chester County Pennsylvania's circuitous back-roads, talking about nothing with my best friend and having nothing to do to alleviate the boredom of being a teenager in the middle of nowhere. I would turn off my head-lights and drive by the moonlight because the roads were so empty. Even now, New York's nocturnal energy is to me one of the irreplacable aspects of the city* - that first night in the city, it overwhelmed me in the best way possible: the city felt like a bottomless reserve of intrigue and interest; cramped, colorful bodegas that stay open until 5:00 in the morning and sold candy bars from countries I barely knew existed; every manner of person out on the street from bums to fashion-forward yuppies to dirty bohemians to men joking with each other in languages I couldn't identify; taxis and movie theaters and shwarma joints and three-story video-and-cd shops so expansive and open so late that you could leave Westchester after nightfall and still be there in time to stroll in and buy a copy of Mike Leigh's cult classic.
By the time we got back to Purchase, we watched about 20 minutes of the movie and I promptly fell asleep.
It's way too fucking apt that my introduction to Naked was itself a nocturnal odyssey, although my adventure fortunately didn't entail a rape or getting brutalized by a gaggle of skin-heads. The skeletally structured, episodic film follows David Thewlis as a garrulous drifter as he flees Manchester to see his ex-girlfriend (Lesley Sharp) in London. After reuniting with her briefly and fumbling quickly in and out of an abortive romance with her roommate (Katrin Cartlidge), Thewlis grabs his bag and stumbles aimlessly out into the night. From there he wanders the streets and passes through the company of (among others) a lonely security guard, a lonely middle-aged drunken spinster, a lonely house-sitter, a lonely poster-plasterer and some violent thugs who don't seem very lonely. The driving force of the film is Thewlis' aggressive, hyper-articulate performance played as man who can't help by apply his restless imagination and withering, cruel insight to everyone and everything he encounters: it's a funny, charming, intelligent performance thoroughly undercut by the brutality, ache and cynicism of the character. There's no doubt that it's one of the all-time "holy shit!" real-deal turns by an actor, a pulverizing performance that constantly reels you back in with its humor and frailty. Thewlis' meanderings are intercut with the parallel story of a snot-nosed, hoity-toity jerk named Jeremy G. Smart (Greg Cruttwell.) Cruttwell's story is easy to downplay and rarely discussed by reviewers because A) the film is heavy unbalanced in screentime in favor of Thewlis and B) Crutwell's performance is one-note and kinda stupid. Jeremy's most prominent characteristic is a highly affected little laugh that he forces out through his nose - and he's more than a bit of a caricature of an unfeeling spoiled prat: he's prone to saying things like "I'm going to kill myself before I turn forty. Do you know why? I don't want to be old, do you?" And he says this to a woman he's date-raping, incidentally. Just so you know. But the two stories come together at the end with Thewlis staring into the distorted mirror that is Crutwell's amoral monster. It's irrefutable evidence as to just how good Thewlis is in the film that Naked can overcome the truly crappy parts focusing on Crutwell and his amorous adventures and still be something close to a masterpiece.**
Terrence Rafferty described Gary Oldman's character in an earlier Leigh film Meantime as having "a fierce intelligence with nothing to apply itself to," but I think that fits Thewlis in Naked even better: the vast majority of film is taken up with torrents of his verbal spewtum; he's a man of undeniable intellectual dexterity, but cursed to spin his mental wheels in place, totally unable to use his vast reservoir of thoughts and analysis and observation to any advantage. He's a guy who thinks, thinks, think and speaks, speaks, speaks but gets absolutely nowhere. I'm sure many arm-chair psychologists would argue that his monologues are just a method of concealing his emotional vulnerability, his frequently blunt and cutting insights a tool for severing relationships and smothering difficult emotions; I suppose that's true, but if so it's almost worse because Thewlis clearly intends to use his constant chatter as a way of connecting. In a scene where he tries to explain to Cartlidge that he think space travel is a waste of time because "what do they think they're going to find up there that they can't find down here?" she replies with the embarrassingly un-clever cliche of "Yeah, and what are spaceships anyway but big metal pricks?" He's trying to connect, but she doesn't get it - he almost instantly sours on her and it's hard to blame him: what's in it for him to talk with her? A bunch of tired banalities? His entire problem is that his attempts to see and understand the world are genuine. It's distinctly possible he would be better served by being a hypocrite who doesn't place any belief or importance in the words that come out of his mouth: the disconnect between Cartlidge and Thewlis in the scene is based on the fact that she simply intends to be clever - the real meaning of her quip is simply that it is a quip; the meaning is not really the idea behind it - while the truth of what he's saying really is what he's trying to communicate. The message is the message. The accusation that he's building walls around himself with his words rings true because of this, but I think it's slightly more complicated: he doesn't care about building a relationship the way regular humans do. A couple shared jokes and some physcial chemistry like he has with Cartlidge are more than what a lot of relationships are based on; but what Thewlis' desires most is someone who will join him on his existential search. It's probably not the most productive method to test if literally anyone will join him - he's only cruel to Cartlidge because he's so undiscerning about his audience.
* I would say "pervasive brunch culture" and "repertory movie theaters" rank just behind "nocturnal energy."
** The late-film appearance of the previously unseen room-mate Sandra is another terrible element the film manages to overcome. Claire Skinner's performance is actually the worst sort of failure produced by Mike Leigh's idiosyncratic style: she's a chirping, mannered caricature who feels like she doesn't belong in the movie. Or any movie.
(continued on page 2)
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