November 30, 2003
This week’s picks are horrifyingly sad movies that somehow didn’t make this depressive girl sad–whether it’s because her mood is improved or because the films are so subtle and complex that there’s more meat here to chew on than your typical depressing movie, I don’t know. But these films fall under a new category that I like to call The Aesthetic of Sadness.
I think I have found a kindred spirit in the filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, whose films all seem to concern neglected young children–an innocent wide-eyed take on hopelessness and misery, stringy-haired and dirty and lice-ridden, terribly sad but seen through the ever-innocent eyes of a child who loves the alcoholic dad because she knows nothing else, who makes play in piles of trash so rotten you can smell them through the screen. Ramsay gives you the complexity of growing up in such a state, the stark unrelenting ugliness of poverty and oppression and abuse and neglect streaked through with breaths of real life that keep the characters from becoming pitiful one-dimensional victims but also from being unrealistically noble savages. These people are in horrible situations, and they make the best of it, and sometimes make it worse, and sometimes limit themselves within their own limited existence, replicate their own exploitation. This, my friends, is the true aesthetic of neglect. As much as I loved Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, his characters are those that rise above their surroundings rather than replicate them–the dad does not hit the mom, they don’t drink or do drugs (they sip tea!) the kids play with refuse but not stinking rotting filth, and no one in the main family gets hurt or killed or abused (except the sheep). As neorealist as Killer of Sheep seems to be, its agenda is really to reveal/restore/affirm the dignity of the poor and oppressed, to place the blame for the family’s difficulties on society and on racism rather than on the family itself. There’s nothing wrong with that agenda, but it is a different agenda than Ratcatcher, which gets inside the idea that the poor internalize their environment of neglect and in some ways get in their own way, caught in a downward spiral. And this is personally what interests me more.
This film is gut-wrenching and I almost don’t know what to say about it other than “see it.” I saw it weeks ago and wrote here that it’s the kind of film you wince through and walk away feeling you’ve been kicked in in the stomach, but after that I just couldn’t find the words. Still can’t, really. But I do want to expand on my mention of it being the bravest film I’ve ever seen. The choice of setting it in the icky early 80s is at first amusing but once the film wears on it becomes clear that it’s actually a brilliant aesthetic choice–it replicates the film’s icky themes. These women are not attractive from any point of view, and their full-on 80s garb (not yet retro enough to be cool, despite current 80s nostalgia) accentuates that. If it had been set today, your opinion of them would perhaps be different, perhaps more sympathetic. But as is, everything about them is just…wrong. They look ridiculous from the first frame. It’s like a female version of Casino, or Goodfellas, where the slimy 70s garb and big honkin’ polyester pastel suits make the gangstas look completely sleazy and ridiculous–not romanticized. Likewise the female angst is here not romanticized. Their no-self-esteem stereotyping and self-defeating behavior is odious and appalling throughout, and make no mistake, this film offers no hope. It is unrelenting. But it’s the first film I’ve ever seen that has the bravery to do that. To go deep inside the ugliest behavior we women like to think we are above, or have left behind, or have been saved from. The stereotypical behavior we like to think we have exorcised, or the kind we think we are too feminist and liberated to possess. But in seeing Uma Thurman going there–going there full-on and not looking back–we see bits of ourselves and we are thankful to her for being so brave as to let it all hang out for us to see, because that’s the only way to defuse its power. Pretending that girl no longer exists only gives her power; seeing her in her horrific beauty helps us to mend her inside us.