Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Film: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

With Renee Fleming’s homage to Angela on the soundtrack, the opening of the film is of tattered billboards on a road that seems to lead to nowhere; One is of a baby like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. This immensely entertaining film directed by Martin McDonagh [In Bruges] is written for our times, an allegory of the road America is on, and like the billboards, on a road “nobody ever goes down… unless [they are] lost or retards.”  And ‘retard’ is not the only politically incorrect utterance in this film. From “midget” to “Mexican,” Three Billboards conjures them all [emboldened much like our country has been by its current president].

Three Billboards has the ability to surprise, followed immediately by the satisfying feeling of  ‘of course!’  Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, is, as always, a woman of substance; Hayes lives out loud in her courageous determination to light a fire [literally, it turns out] under the law to [let’s say] ‘encourage’ Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) to solve the rape and murder of her daughter Angela. In her grief and anger Hayes poses a solution: “pull blood from every man in town over eight,” every male child born, for a database of DNA, and, if it matches the crime, “kill him.” [Whether assaults on journalists, actors, Air Force Academy cadets, or a teenage girl walking home because her mother wouldn’t lend her the car, this solution is an understandable, though untenable, fantasy of survivors and their families.] [Hayes rebukes the Church, as well, for its sexual assaults against boys.] The Me,Too movement, and perhaps all women, will feel a bit of impolitic vindication, evident in something as simple as the change in singer of Buckskin Stallion Blues from male (Townes Van Zandt) early in the film to female (Amy Annelle) much later, or the he-said, she-said of the dentist and Hayes. The idyllic mountain lake scene of two female children on a blanket with fishing poles can not obliterate the uneasiness about what can happen to girls. Most disturbing is that their suspect does not have to be the perp, reminding us that rape and murder can happen anywhere, whether Ebbing or Afghanistan.

Every detail of this film is redolent: the name Angela; the later burned out building bringing to mind Angela Hayes’ earlier charred body; Red Welby reading Flannery O’Connor; Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) may not be wearing mirrored sunglasses but his persona is every bit as ominous as the officer in Psycho -- but he reads comic books [Dixon lives with his mom just as the police who beat and sodomized Abner Louima -- in real life -- did]; and especially Carter Burwell’s exquisite 
soundtrack. Wistful, melancholic, original music accompanies Willoughby [bearing no resemblance to Sense & Sensibility’s Willoughby] and we soon discover why -- It is not just because he is singled out by Hayes to solve this cold case. Renee Fleming sings Thomas Moore’s poem The Last Rose of Summer [for Hayes' daughter Angela]; the Four Tops’ Walk Away Renee begins “When I see the sign[s]” [for the billboards? have to smile.]

I have not yet seen the other films nominated for Golden Globe’s Best Drama, but watching Three Billboards, I had the same thrilling sensation as I did watching American Beauty, Crash, and No Country for Old Men, all Best Picture Oscar winners. As in the 2005 Crash, characters inThree Billboards are made up of multiple selves; villains can also be heroes. Willoughby guides the heretofore abhorrent Dixon in that direction via a posthumous letter when he writes: “What you need to become a detective is love” because love leads to calm and calm, to thought [reminding me a little of the psychotherapist’s mission, with her welcoming attitude and the regulation of right brain affects allowing in left brain thinking]. The final scene -- a road trip with two who have reached across an horrendous rupture, about life and life’s choices, “I guess we can decide on the way” -- my companion thought a too abrupt ending, but I thought it left open the possibility of a return to sanity, rationality and redemption.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Baldwin and Race Relations in America

The American writer, poet  and civil rights activist James Baldwin (Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni’s Room} died thirty years ago today, and what he said about race relations in the USA is, hauntingly, still true today. In the PBS Newshour replay (on Feb 2, 2017) of a 1963 interview with him, Baldwin notes “I’m terrified at the moral apathy ---of the death of the heart--- which is happening in my country. These [white] people have deluded themselves for so long, they really don’t think I’m human.” 
Dissociated from our ‘not-me’ parts, projecting unwanted parts onto the Other, we view the Other as less than human (e.g. the historical, economic motivation to hold black slaves and to count black men as 3/5ths of a person; women were not counted). I imagine that these parts of self that later must be disavowed were originally unwelcomed by caregivers, such that we became ashamed. Treated by parental figures as less than fully human subjects with agency seems more likely to cause us to dehumanize others in turn. Baldwin had eight younger half-siblings and was treated harshly by his stepfather, and outside his impoverished home, he felt the crush of a racist society.

In the documentary “I Am Not Your Negro” -- directed by Raoul Peck about Baldwin, based on his writings, Baldwin notes  “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. ‘Cause I am not a nigger. I am a man.”