“Bright Star” was the poem that hooked me on John Keats. It’s one of his best known, of course, but when you fall in love with a work of art, it always seems made for you. I was a sophomore in college, interested in the Romantics, pouring over their work. Here was a poem that captured my interests, my view of the world, my dreams both good and bad, in 100 words. When you’re 19, the world seems open and ready for you to take. And everything that seems to grand about it can be dwarfed by a single moment of feeling. It can be love. It can be despair. Your sense of scope is constantly in flux.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red is among the films I love most of all. I like to say to my friends that I don’t have a favorite movies list. Differentiating and ranking them is too painful. Instead, I have a pyramid. The very top level of the pyramid is where my favorite films reside. Princess Mononoke. Children of Men. The Godfather. A Streetcar Named Desire. It is here that I keep Red.
Red states its thesis in its first moments. This is a poetic film that doesn’t want to be difficult to decipher, because solving it isn’t the point. The magnificent opening shot of telephone cables snaking underground, underwater, across Europe, has the same effect at ground level as the shots of the cosmos in The Tree of Life: We’re all part of this canvas. We’re all connected. Let’s talk.
The film proceeds to be about people who have trouble with talking. We follow them as they run into each other, miss each other, circle each other, and occasionally learn to talk, to communicate, to empathize. The common thread that binds them all? They all dream. And they’re all terrified that their dreams have long faded.
The protagonist is a model named Valentine. On the surface, she is doing well. She has been chosen to model for a bubble gum company’s billboard. Her face towers over the streets of Geneva. She calls her boyfriend in London. Just from the phone calls, we can tell he’s possessive and distant. She reads the paper and sees her brother’s name. That’s never good news. She has a full schedule, but she’s unhappy.
A typical story would have her find someone to fall in love with, and all her problems would magically be solved. Kieślowski is far more interested in poetry than that.
Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,–
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
I was panicked the spring when my sister graduated from college. I was a freshman the same year she transferred to my school. Having been homeschooled through high school, I wasn’t exactly well versed in walking up to and befriending strangers. Thankfully, my sister was. And in the vast swath of friends she made in her time in school, I was all too happy to let her be my comfort zone. I made a lot of friends through her. But they all graduated when she did. I was facing three more years of school and everyone I knew and liked was graduating.
It ended up being the best thing that happened to me. I’m a deeply anxious person, but sometimes living within one of your most anxiety-inducing situations can be a great way of learning to solve them. I took a deep breath and plunged in. Many of my closest friends to this day are people I met in the two ensuing Septembers.
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul.
The Judge is a strange, bitter man. The particular events of his life seem not to matter so much as their sum. He has no one. His last connection to humanity is his habit of listening in to his neighbors’ phone calls. Kieślowski asks us to believe that Valentine would befriend this troubled old man. Somehow, we do. She may not be a happy person, but she has not yet abandoned all hope of real connection to humanity. For the Judge, happiness and sadness are beside the point; he’s not depressed so much as he is drifting blindly. By choosing to insert herself into his life, Valentine hopes to provide mooring. He becomes part of canvas again.
At some point this year (right around when I wrote my article about Blue Ruin) I fell into one of the worst emotional ruts of my life. I’ll spare you the precise details, but perhaps the one thing that was keeping me going as a freelance- my belief in my ability to write- fell apart. For a few weeks, I was listless and distraught. I had put so much into writing, and I felt as if it had slipped away, permanently. I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was floating through each day aimlessly. I had spent years trying to improve my writing, going to journalism school, loving movies and writing about them, and for a few weeks it all felt pointless. I was 28 years old and drifting, having wasted all my time. I thought my dreams had passed me by. I was ready to give it up. For the first time, I felt completely unmoored.
What got me out of it? Well, I realized I was still very much part of a canvas. I, who had once worried that I was incapable of connecting with people, found myself being pulled back into reality by my friends. One of my grad school teachers reached out to me, talked to some people, gave me some great contacts. My future as a freelancer is suddenly quite promising. The friends I made in those Septembers that I’d once dreaded as a socially anxious 19 year old have been my rocks. My family; so persistently there for me that I can make the mistake of taking them for granted; re-bolstered their support for me. I pulled myself back into humanity, and my dreams came back into focus, back within the scope of reality.
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
-“Ode on a Grecian Urn”
Every English major thinks they know what this ending means. I think falling in love with Keats involves letting trying to solve this line go. The approach I take now would have infuriated college-me: how does it make you feel?
Well, for me, this line completely humanizes a young man who died at 25, 194 years ago, leaving behind only letters and poetry. It tells me he looked at an ancient object and saw it rife with stories that would never be told. It tells me that he never, never stopped looking for the beauty in all things, whether he was writing about joy, about depression, about death, about love. Keats bled into everything he wrote. He is on the same canvas as I am. I sometimes feel like I owe it to him to keep writing. I will never write as well as him, but he inspired me to write, so I continue to do so.
In college, I remember having a brief debate in a film class about which of the Three Colors films was the best: Blue, White, or Red? My professor was adamant that it was Blue, a deeply moving and sad story of a woman coping with the loss of her husband and child. But it’s always Red for me. Its greatest stroke of genius is its ending, which doesn’t just call back to Blue and White: it pulls them into its canvas and includes them as part of its emotional coda. The characters from all three films appear on screen and we see the judge smile. At the beginning of the film, the sight of them wouldn’t have affected him in the slightest. But by the end of the film, he is not just in Valentine’s orbit; everyone, in all three films, and perhaps the world, is a possibility. It’s never too late to be part of the canvas. You probably never left in the first place.
Setsuko Hara, the splendid actress whose collaborations with Yasujiro Ozu are so essential to both film history and to me personally, has passed away. She died in September, but the news was withheld for several weeks at her request.
I don’t have too much to express that others haven’t already, other than my own sadness at the passing of a wonderful artist whose work is so important to me. For those who aren’t familiar with her work and her significance in cinema history, Ronald Bergan wrote a lovely obituary for The Guardian.
For my own thoughts, I’ll refer you to my post “Anxiety/Ozu“, which touches on why I love her films with Ozu (two of which are featured prominently in the post) so much.
If you’re not familiar with the films Ozu or Hara, start with their “Noriko Trilogy” of Late Spring, Early Summer, and Tokyo Story. These are movies that nurture the soul. You won’t regret it.
RIP Setsuko. Your films have gotten me through some of my most trying times.
The most harrowing passage of Room is also its most lovely. A young boy, attempting to escape a lifetime of captivity sees the full, unobscured sky for the first time. The shot holds for a long time. The boy’s face is expression is something beyond awe and disbelief. It is said that medieval mapmakers would draw dragons to represent locations yet unexplored. For 5-year-old Jake (Jacob Tremblay), the protagonist of Room, everything outside the tiny shed in which he has lived his whole life is dragons.
Room was directed by Lenny Abrahamson. Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel. They have created a story of remarkable focus and empathy. It opens with Jake’s mother, Joy (Brie Larson), going through their morning routine on his fifth birthday. She wakes him up. They exercise within their tiny space. They bathe together, and assemble a meager breakfast. Their groceries, we learn, are provided by someone named Old Nick. We quickly understand the situation without it being spelled out. They are being imprisoned by Old Nick. And given that Jack believes he dropped into this place he calls Room from outer space, and has no concept of the outside world, we can quickly put together the sinister reality of his conception.
Abrahamson’s commitment to Jake’s point of view almost never wavers. It allows us, people from Outside, to figure out a lot of expository detail. The toilet tank has no cover. They eat with spoons. The one knife they use to prepare food is blunted. This isn’t just a setup; the visual detail tells the story of years of failed attempts by Joy to escape, of Old Nick’s relentless covering of his bases in keeping she and Jake captive.
Larson and Tremblay don’t simply carry this movie; they uplift it to greatness. In the film’s first act, Tremblay is an innocent and Larson a focused survivor, a woman with her focus drilled to two objectives: raise her son, and when he gets old enough, escape with him. There’s an astonishing scene where she, all at once, tries to explain the outside world to him. Her frustration at his disbelief is heartbreaking. Think of a screwball set piece of maddening misunderstanding with all the humor replaced with desperation, grief, and hopelessness.
After escaping Room, Joy and Jake find themselves in a world that is permanently changed for her, and unbelievable for him. The second act, which takes place outside Room, is where Tremblay delivers one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a child actor. Cynical critics often dismiss child actors as simply being themselves. I can’t fathom Tremblay simply doing that as he begins to explore a world that consists entirely of new things. His performance is physically and emotionally convincing, as he tries to figure out stairs, Lego, and dogs. He never falters even as he is asked to play a character like none I’ve seen before.
Room is not a film that one enjoys. It is at times unrelentingly tense, or overwhelmingly sad. But a week after seeing it I haven’t been able to shake it its power. Its characters go through horrors all too real, all too within comprehension. They emerge together. They are shaken. They are frightened. But they emerge. That in itself is more affirming and affecting than a more sentimental approach could achieve. Jake’s narration imparts no cloying wisdom. He describes things as he sees them. At the end of the film, I was happy simply that he had more to see.