Thursday, April 9, 2015

Death and lemonade: Leaves of Grass (2010)

As often with me, I have to start with an apology -- here goes - please do not think I have too high an opinion of myself. That I consider myself to be up there with highly talented, successful people. But whenever I see a Woody Allen movie, I feel that movie was something that I would write. Well, I thought the same thing when I saw "Leaves of Grass" by Tim Blake Nelson. He wrote and directed, and even acts in the movie. Why do I feel this? There is something familiar in the themes, in the way they unfold. You may say it is the universality of the themes, the characters, Maybe, but that would be enough to appreciate those movies. It is more than that in the sense that there is an underlying thread of exposing/teaching/information-dissemination in most of such movies. Just like I would do, like I have done in my novel. Detractors can call it preaching or propagandist. But such a movie, that with a message or messages, is an example for  another version of art for social change, according to me.

This is my perspective of Tim Blake Nelson's movie. When I watched it, at first I was tempted to dismiss it as superficially intellectual and artificially attractive or vice versa -- a phrase I remember from my past :) Look at the academic shenanigans at that Ivy League University on the East coast. One of the protagonists,  portrayed wonderfully by Edward Norton, is a teacher of Philosophy. Since it is not a philosophic treatise, but a movie about many other things too, it struck me as superficial, simplistic, shallow etc. Then there is that stock female character - intelligent, attractive, with a surprising quality, sometimes she appears as the prostitute with a heart of gold, but always as the one who has all the answers. (ya, right!) Here we have the village poet beauty who is an expert at "noodling" too! And she is like Socrates to our poor philosopher who by sheer grit and focus achieved his dream. Very mean of her, I thought. And I wished that he would influence her too - make it more of a mutual affair. Let's see if the sagely young woman will feel the same in say, 5 years! Will it be easy then to make that change, for this time, she won't be the same, and time will be against her. But then we all got through such choices, and ideas, and changes, and then we all die - that is life!

That takes me to my next change of mind, regarding the movie - superficial, artificial - that is what the academic world really is. After all those discussions about Foucault and Derrida and Lacan, (genuflect here- as an aside, we in India tend to look at any written word as sublime, and if especially it is by a foreigner, we treat it like the scriptures. Same with movie stars, rock stars, political/religious leaders, - we are in awe of them, guess we still haven't lost that naive wonder and admiration for success and fame -  here there is an irreverence, and more of an envy towards everyone and everything, except, maybe national security and full body scanners in airports) and aesthetics and politics, what did we achieve? What did I achieve? Other than long papers and dissertations that are buried under layers of dust in some corner of a room. Papers that are really papers on other papers. Mishmash, rehash, analyses that in the final analysis may be really splitting hairs- and that is how the other (anti)hero, who, fascinatingly, is the twin of our philosopher, also ably portrayed by Norton, describes it. But that description also is not new, but that doesn't make it any less real. He is the alter ego of the protagonist - literally, and figuratively.

So what does this movie teach? Philosophy, mainly. Practical philosophy. Philosophy democratized. Practical aesthetics. For instance, all those deaths in the end happen in the "idyllic" ambition-less countryside, where the characters seem to go with the flow of Nature, rather poetically. And there is ambition and dream here too - the brother wants to sell his scientifically advanced drug business in order to start a normal family life. So death - the deaths in the movie did not really make me sad. The build up of the story till then prepared me for it, thus reinforcing the inevitability of an end. It is as if I was ready to die, or to let them go! Not out of disappointment or depression, but after a sense of completion, satiety, catharsis.  And then that awareness of  the futility of it all. No matter what one's reality is, and here we have parallel realities of twin brothers - one whose life has the order and the beauty of a Zen garden, outwardly anyway, and the other, whose life looks like a riotous cottage garden filled with wild flowers and vines, with a rocky brook running alongside. Again, I am reminded of those stereotypes - say in a Hallmark movie- the busy city/career girl or man vs the free-flowing, nature-loving warm country girl/guy. They all always end up in the country. But here, the writer-director makes it more realistic -with  death - many deaths - in the country, and then with a pitcher of cool lemonade in the end. That is what happens in real life, isn't it? People die, we move on.  There are little cosy comforts at the end of a long, hot day. We just aren't aware of that fact of death all the time, that's all.

So - what else does the movie teach? We are aware of the writer-director's mind working  in many of the characters - we learn that a god-fearing Jew can be a drug dealer, that a pothead or a redneck can be smart, I liked it all, even as I felt they were contrived. Maybe I prefer it that way - the movie is a construct, after all. Just like the sublime brother-crude brother juxtaposition. I think I did not mind all that  in the end because we see that they are not all that different in the end. Those stereotypes are dismantled.  I have done all this in my writing - which doesn't make it right, but it is done with a purpose - to make the viewers/readers think, look at the world from a different angle. And that in my book is art for social change. And that is where all those seeming useless discussions in the field of Humanities are there for.

At the end of the movie, I was not judging one way of life against the other. I realize that they are all equally good or bad. The lives, the choices. But I wished that we all could live different lives at the same time! Not just one other life where someone from the past or the future comes and tells me my past or future, like, say, Dr Who. I don't mind it, but I want to be that person who can travel through time, live many lives, in many places.  Everyone has to be that person. Now that would be flowing, real freedom, or, total anarchy. Who knows! As it is we have a couple of choices - wine or beer? death or lemonade? Or both, and all.  :)