Monday, March 24, 2008

Coming Home: The Mind at War

I've decided this years ago: I never want to be a soldier in a war... ever. The only time I'll ever fight is when my life truly depends on it; other than that, war can't do anything but warp my already fragile mind. More than any psychotic R-rated film ever will. But this isn't just me, war affects the core of any being who fights in one or is close to one who has fought in a war. These two films help clarify that belief.

(A Solemn Moment: Charlize Theron & Tommy Lee Jones in "In the Valley of Elah")

Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" tells the story of Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones; in a brilliant performance) who goes to look for his son, Mike, after he has returned home from Iraq. Mike is classified as AWOL to Hank, so Hank decides to go down to the base to find him. A few days later, Mike's body is found in a field, cut up and charred to the bone. When Hank isn't convinced of the explanation given to him about Mike's death, he begins his own investigation into the death; inlisting the help of Det. Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron; in another brilliant performance).

Slowly, he begins to see a darker side to his son. See, before he left, Mike was a proud soldier, ready, as one character puts it, "to get the bad guys." As he begins to ask around about the events of the night of Mike's murder, a changed picture begins to emerge. He is described by strangers as a drunk, rude harasser who fought his fellow soldiers in a parking lot outside the club that had thrown Mike and his fellow men out. Through the videos left by Mike on his cell phone, it also shows that he willingly tortured a blindfolded and wounded Jihad posing as a doctor. Thus, how he got his nickname, "Doc."

Learning all this information increases a torturous apprehension in Hank. A former Vietnam vet himself, a feeling grows that he pushed his sons into being this way. Hank had already lost his oldest son in a helicopter crash while in the air infantry, and his youngest, Mike, is shown as a monster. The mother of the two, Joan (Susan Sarandon), screams in pain to Hank, "Couldn't you have left me one?" Eventually, the truth of Mike is fully revealed and his killers are found, but not without the fact that his emotional soul was destroyed during the war. You don't know how he would have lived after what he's done to himself. What saddens you the most is that some of the actions that led to his eventual mental demise could have been avoided had he kept his humanity in check.

I admire Paul Haggis in the way he understands human pain and restlessness as he's explored in his other films which includes Best Picture winner "Crash" and his penned screenplays "Million Dollar Baby," "Flags of Our Fathers" and co-story writing "Letters from Iwo Jima." But I feel the final frame of the film sends the wrong message about the future of our vets. There has got to be a better one...

---(Together Again: (l-r) Harold Russell, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy, Hoagy Carmichael, Fredric March in "The Best Years of Our Lives")

William Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" may be the most important film about veterans ever made. It tells the story of three WWII veterans (Fredric March, Dana Andrews & Harold Russell) returning to their home town of Boone City. As they attempt to readjust to their lives, it slowly dawns on each of them that their lives will never return to the "normal" each of them had envisioned.

Al Stephenson (Fredric March) returns to his wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), and two children, Peggy & Rob (Teresa Wright & Michael Hall). But what he finds is that his children have essentially grown up without him. They've become mature and self-reliant with Rob still in school and Peggy a graduate in domestic science. Al returns to his promoted job as the vice-president of small loans to former GIs, but his bosses feel he might be risking too much by approving loans to those who have no collateral. Al makes a personal decision, which is headlined in a great monologue delivered at a work banquet, held in honor of the bank and of him, that the bank can't afford to be stingy about giving loans to downtrodden veterans. For they themselves are the future of the country.

Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) returns to find that his wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), had moved out of his parent's home to an apartment and had gotten a job as a night club waitress. As he spends the rest of the day searching for Marie, he meets up with the two fellow acquaintances at Butch's Place (a place mentioned earlier by Harold Russell's character) and spends a tortured and hungover night at the Stephensons. Fred finds Marie the next day and proceeds to try getting a job, but due to his lack of educational training, he essentially has to return to his pre-war job as a soda jerk with a manager title at the drugstore. Through this, Marie starts becoming despondent and loses faith that her husband could be anything than a "drugstore cowboy," while Fred himself is beginning to fall in love with Peggy. An intelligent move of this story is how it shows how lovers will truly act when things are in a bind. What happens... well... like I'm gonna tell you!

Homer Parrish (Harold Russell) returns to his family and his girl-next-door sweetheart, but has the most difficulty of all three of the veterans to readjustment. See, his hands are gone. Gone. Like, they got charred off gone. He now has hooks instead. Although he has been trained throughly as to how to use the hooks, he's treated differently. He notes to his uncle Butch (Hoagy Carmichael) that his father looked guilty for cleaning his pipes with his hands, even though he's seen him do it many times before. He even gets angry at his younger sister and her friends for looking at him through the window as he's practicing shooting. All of this makes him distant from truly expressing his sadness, but everything's not lost. There's an awesome scene between him and Butch where they play a piano side to side and act like they've been doing it forever.

Though the most affecting scene in the entire film is between Homer and his sweetheart Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell). She's encouraged by her family to go live with her relatives to get her mind off Homer, but decides to ask him straight about how he feels. It is then he decides to show her how he lives with his newfound disability. After he finishes, he says with finality, "I'm as dependent as a baby that doesn't know how to get anything except to cry for it... I guess you don't know what to say." All with the notion that she will go away in shock and silence. But something beautiful happens: her commitment to him becomes stronger when she says, "I know what to say, Homer. I love you and I'm never going to leave you... never." When the scene ended, I said to myself, "The most beautiful people in the world are those who accept and love unconditionally."

I would also like to mention how Harold Russell performance was a major factor in a newfound acceptance of disability in Hollywood with his performance, earning him two Academy Awards (supporting actor and an honorary Oscar.) With this benchmark, you could potray disability without being melodramatic or insincere. This led to more examinations in the next 60 years of physical, neurological, mental or emotional disability; which allowed brilliant performances and more exposure to those who live valiantly with the scars.

At the final scene where everyone attends Homer and Wilma's wedding, you don't know what's going to happen to these people. But you leave with a sense of hope, that things might end up OK. Something that "In the Valley of Elah" doesn't achieve.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part II: In Praise of Eureka

Concurrent with watching "Wings of Desire," I was viewing the fine anime series, "Eureka Seven." Through that, I've developed a special bond with one of the characters. Her name is Eureka.

Eureka is the female protagonist of the show who is not who she seems. Watching the show you learn she is a humanoid Coralian sent by the Scub Coral (sentient alien beings who became based in the land of the Earth) as a tabula rasa (blank slate); to learn about humans and give info to the Scubs as to whether they could coexist with humans. She does not, however, know the purpose given to her. Although the concept of alternative humanoid beings learning what it means to be human have been explored before (notably on "Star Trek: The Next Generation" with Data), what separates Eureka from the others in my mind is her innocence.

When you first meet her, she seems very enigmatic and distant with a belief in very few things. That's when she meets the male protagonist, young and willing Renton Thurston, who develops a deep and pure attraction to Eureka. Through their growing relationship to each other, Eureka begins to explore who she is and what she means to others.

Slowly she reveals that she has the heart of a child. This was first indicated in her relationship to the Nirvash (the mecha she pilots); she treats Nirvash not as a machine but as a spirit with thoughts and feelings. She approaches human emotions and concepts with awe, fascination, fright or any combination of the three. From the deep guilt she feels for being a member of the SOF, with which she participated in killing the parents of her adopted children (Maurice, Maeter & Linck); to the overwhelming rapture she feels when Renton continues to love her through everything that changes about her and what he learns about her. Part of the success of conveying this character's beautiful nature lies within the brilliant performance of the magnificent Stephanie Sheh. Through her voice, she brings a certain type of openness and separation from life that I relate to perfectly.

The difficulty I had when I was growing up was not only relating to who I was but how I related to myself through the prism of autism. Growing up for anyone is always tough, that much I know, but coming from such a mild background of autism I could simultaneously see both sides of the spectrum at once. What I see in Eureka is another standing on that same line where I stood. I wanted to understand the world and live joyously in it, but I was also scared to death of the world I longed for.

The fear mostly came out of wondering if I would be truly accepted as myself. I've discovered, the hard way, when you get older, your world becomes a smaller place in the world's eyes. This was trouble for me because my world was continually at the forefront of my mind. So, with baby steps, I had to adapt a compromise between myself and the world... a gray area. It was never easy and at several points I wanted to give up in the worst possible way. Eventually, I emerged from that difficult chrysalis to being an autistic adult (though mind you, I'm still learning).

When I watch Eureka, I see that part of me. Struggling to accept who she is while trying to adapt herself into the world she longs to be in with Renton and the kids. Sometimes art has the startling ability to adapt a piece of your soul so fully without even asking. In that sense, I see Eureka as an angel; stemming from a still wounded place in me to give me comfort as I do the same for her.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

On the Wings of Angels, Part I: "Wings of Desire" and the Holy Moment

(Bruno Ganz in "Wings of Desire")

Wim Wenders' 1987 film, "Wings of Desire" is quickly ascending on my list of favorite films of all time. Not necessarily because the movie is beautiful, which it truly is. My estimation of it grows with how much the film assisted me in my quest to understand myself.

It tells the story of Damiel (Bruno Ganz), an unseen angel who silently observes the hearts and minds of the people in West Berlin. He spends his days giving comfort to those whose are in pain and making notes on the beauty of normal human nature, which he discusses with his spiritual brother, Cassiel (Otto Sander). Damiel is completely fascinated by humanity but knows he can't become a human himself without taking away his immortality. Then he quietly and serendipitously meets a lonely and despondent trapeze artist named Marion (the beautiful and dearly departed Solveig Dommartin) whom he falls in love with. With that, he begins to ruminate whether or not to take the plunge and become human to meet her and hopefully, be with her.

The true facet of this movie that continually runs in my brain is how the angels view humanity from the outside in. They've lived an eternal life watching people and seeing their actions. They know what people are doing, but don't understand why they do it. After the movie, it was pointed out to me that I behave in a similar way. As an autistic, I describe seeing life as through a prism. Normality is difficult to comprehend. When you live in a world of your own (as I do), understanding other peoples' worlds is difficult.

(David Jewell & Caveh Zahedi in "Waking Life")

Another element of "Wings of Desire" that helped me with my theory of the "Holy Moment." This concept comes from the movie "Waking Life" in a scene between director Caveh Zahedi and writer David Jewell. In Caveh's reading of critic André Bazin's book "What is Cinema?" he comes to the notion of how great film is born out of moments that are pure and open -- a "Holy Moment."

Ever since that scene, I've been searching to expand on what that entails, but some of that answer was found in "Wings of Desire." The angels cannot interfere with the actions that humans may take, but they do give a feeling of someone there when there is no one to be found. With films, we the viewers, can only stand by watching a scene (like the angels); there is no interference. And yet at times, the barrier between film and viewer is removed and we become part of it. I purposefully go to a different space and time -- it becomes vital to me. There are scenes in some films that make me feel that I'm just as much a part of the film as what I'm watching, even if I'm only listening intently in silence (again, like the angels). I become part of what I'm seeing. Art is something that keeps me alive. I participate in the "life" of a film (particularly when there is a "Holy Moment"); when in reality, "real life" is something that overwhelms and frightens me.