Monday, 8 February 2010

On gentleness (David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls, 2003)

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread upon my dreams.
W. B. Yeats

I must admit, I had huge dilemmas about what to choose as the topic for my first post. News? Not revealing enough – how could anyone tell what this blog is to be about, if all it gave to its first readers was a bunch of info they could read anywhere? Best-of lists? Yeah, those seem to be rather popular recently, with everyone seemingly believing that 2010 actually IS the first year of a new decade. But unfortunately, I don’t like lists much – I get so much competition and need to order things by preference in real life that I am trying my best to avoid it when it comes to all things I find beautiful. For rankings, in short, I don’t really care much. But what do I care for?


There are two things I find beautiful about art. One, it is a way of constantly pushing intellectual limits, re-questioning ideas, thoughts, even ideologies; of permanently asking new questions, reflecting on events, offering new stances on old dilemmas. Two, and often completely different, art is a way of channelling emotions. Sadness, happiness, loneliness, love, confusion...and cinema in particular is perfect for this – some of the best movies I’ve seen are built on the idea of depicting layers and layers of complex human emotions (from the Dardenne brothers to the amazing poetry of Carlos Reygadas’ Japon, the list is endless...), and making us, the viewers, feel what the characters are feeling and understand their dilemmas, choices and regrets. And what emotion is there that is more beautiful – and at the same time more complex to depict, to understand - than love?

I love love :) as much as everyone does. And I love its various depictions and captures in cinema. But there might be a ‘thing’, a line of character, a mysterious ‘virtue’ of a kind, that I am even more addicted to – gentleness. I love all things gentle, but it is the gentleness in people that fascinates me, fills me up with a combination of sadness and adoration, mesmerizing me completely. Yet sometimes it seems that gentleness in cinema is somewhat rare. There are ‘gentle’ directors – ones treating their characters with a lot of warmth and sympathy, no matter who they are and what they are like. Indeed, who could say that Linklater (think ‘Slacker’ or ‘Before Sunrise/Sunset’), Van Sant (‘Gerry’, ‘Idaho’...) or Wong Kar Wai (‘In the Mood for Love’) are not of the kind? And there are gentle characters, from Emily Watson’s unforgettable, heroic Bess (‘Breaking the Waves’), over Mikkelsen’s soft-spoken, kind, almost unnoticeable Lenny (‘Bleeder’) to Ribisi’s fragile, child-like Filippo (‘Heaven’). But when I think of films that would deserve the attribute of gentle – ones which speak of their gentle characters in a poetic manner - not many come to mind.

I have recently seen an amazing attempt of cinematic gentleness all the way – ‘Alle Anderen’, a film by a young German director Maren Ade. Yet as beautiful as her story is (and it is indeed one of the most honest, authentic and warm stories about how hard it is to be honest to yourself and your ‘beloved other’), there was something about it that made it feel one-sided, biased, very ‘feminine’. In Ade’s world, it is the male character, Chris, who is the gentle, idealistic counterpart to his stronger partner. But Chris is also the one who is the cheater, the betrayer, and the ‘conformist’ of the two – and it is the partner’s, Gitti’s, broken heart-perspective that we as audience take upon when looking at him. We sense his awkwardness and insecurity, but we feel her pain. Yet, ‘Alle Anderen’ brought to mind another piece of cinematic poetry, in which the roles are completely reverse – David Gordon Green’s ‘All the Real Girls’.

Green’s film is not so new – it was made in 2003, as a follow-up to his mildly successful, but beautifully poetic ‘George Washington’. It stars Zooey Deschanel, the princess of American indie cinema, as Noel, a teenager who comes back to her small hometown after spending her youth in a boarding school; Noel falls in love for the first time with Paul (Paul Schneider), the town’s young womanizer. Their sweet, somewhat naive relationship is not without problems, as Noel is not only the ‘girl of the moment’ in the small town where nothing ever changes, thus attracting the attention and courtship of all the guys around (including Paul’s close friend, Bust-Ass), but also the little sister of Paul’s best friend, Tip, who is not overly thrilled with his sister dating a known heartbreaker. Yet somehow they manage to make it work, at least until the point where one of them experiences the infidelity of the other...

If it sounds like a cliché love story, don’t be fooled – Green’s amazing film is anything but. In fact, it is not really a love/relationships film at all – but a tender, wonderfully nuanced story about one’s ability to feel, and to change. Furthermore, while Deschanel is the biggest-sounding name involved, it is Schneider’s Paul who is the real star of the film – it is his process of self-understanding and change the director is actually interested in. And – what makes the film the most special for me – unlike ‘Alle Anderen’, ‘Girls’ is a strangely ‘male’ film: other than Noel and Paul’s mother, there are no relevant female characters in it; the script was written by Green and Schneider (and a lot of the character of Paul is based on Schneider’s own experience), and thus the perspective should be definable as a ‘male’ one. Yet, it is so unbelievably delicate it becomes hard to watch sometimes.

Paul is an amazing personality indeed. We learn from the characters’ conversations, random chats and his encounters with previous lovers that he’s had pretty much every woman in town, and he’s left most, if not all of them heartbroken. He has not, in his past, been one of the romantic characters, and it is doubtful whether he ever really loved any of the women he’s been with; and his background, his job, his friends, even his language should all be a way to signalize to the viewer that Paul ain’t a particularly poetic character either. Yet there is something about Noel that seems to make him change his ways: with her, he becomes the most attentive listener, the most caring friend, and the most patient, gentle – even shy – lover. But while it seems that it is her purity and sensitivity to things that triggers the change in him, it is actually not so – it is he who is the more delicate, attentive and kind-hearted part of the couple. While Noel is endearing and craving for warmth, she is also very childish, and incapable of grasping her newfound emotions. In a way, the emotions are the same for both – neither of them have previously been in love; yet while for her the game of seduction, attraction and discovery is in a way indeed that – a game – for him it becomes a path of self-discovery, of understanding his previous actions and re-thinking them in the light of a newly found purity that’s his to hold and keep. What used to seem as games, now seem as human experiences; what used to seem like ‘trophies’ now became human beings, souls; and what used to be something to brag about, now became a source of shame, of embarrassment.

The most difficult way of learning is by experiencing on your skin the things you are capable of doing to others, but are not capable of grasping in their damage potential. Yet what is wonderful about Paul is that he doesn’t need to get his heart broken to completely understand what breaking someone’s heart means. He is so moved by the idea of possession, belonging with Noel, that it somehow all begins to make sense to him. Yet, once he naively begins to believe that he actually can change because he has found someone who ‘makes him decent’, she will pull the same kind of cruel trick on him that he has pulled on many before her. While the scene of Noel’s ‘confession’ is probably not the saddest one of the film (I am still unable to decide whether the ultimate sadness is condensed in Paul’s ‘coming to the door’, captured in the notorious bar scene, or stretched in the beautifully poetic long collage of people, landscape and music that closes the film, followed by one of the most touching fails at simple life philosophy ever seen on film), it is the most terrifying: her immaturity and guilt reflect in her attempt to proclaim love, which she is completely unable to grasp and is thus confusing it with possession, while his question – What is wrong with you? – comes off as a desperate cry of a person who’s done nothing wrong this time, but is at the same time aware of all his previous wrongdoings of the exactly same kind, which he tried fixing for once, but has not managed to avoid the ‘punishment of destiny’ for what was ‘wrong’ with him all along, but of what he’s never been aware of until now.

There’s tremendous beauty to Paul – the way he talks, acts, thinks comes off as much different than the behaviour of his friends (and the physical appearance of Schneider – who manages to radiate tremendous fragility in both his walk and facial expression – helps in making him believable as such). Yet, the power of Green’s storytelling is in the fact that he, slowly but surely, manages to show all of his characters as much more sensible then they would ever be willing to admit. And as gentle as his story and characters are, he wraps it all up in a visual style just as gentle and poetic. He is ‘at home’ with the film’s dreamy landscapes, and sketches the slowness, sadness and simplicity of the small town impeccably to underline the slow lives of the characters.

The magnificent camerawork and the usage of landscape to underline emotions has often earned Green comparisons to the early works of Terence Malick; yet his gorgeous little film somehow feels a lot less epic than any of Malick's masterpieces, and a lot more like a story that could be found in well-hidden memory boxes of each one of its viewers. And the fact that he is not afraid to underline the gentleness and vulnerability of his protagonists only makes his message come across more strongly - and convincingly. 'All the Real Girls' is a shameless film in its depiction of human emotionality, craving for warmth and occasional weakness. But while weaknesses are something we reveal only to those 'chosen ones' we find worthy of our trust, the beauty of Green's (and particularly Schneider's) work should be visible to anyone who's ever suffered from a broken heart.

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