The Stories We Tell Ourselves

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on September 1]

What if you could stand outside your life and look at it from a distance? That’s the premise of Wakefield, the recently released film starring Bryan Cranston and Jennifer Garner. A power outage and a raccoon bring Harold (Cranston) to the space above his garage, from where he can see his wife and two daughters preparing supper.

Of course, he’s not really looking at his life, but at the part of it that goes on without him. And from that point of observation, he sees things he couldn’t see while he was actually living in the middle of it. He sees his twin, teenage daughters, who suddenly (to him, at least) have become distant and treat him like an obstacle to be avoided. From the attic over the garage, he believes he can see them more truly as they are.

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Longing for Happiness

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 7.]

Sometimes you watch a bunch of movies in a row and the same actor appears in all of them (like that time I watched probably five movies in a row with Benicio del Toro (or the Puerto Rican Brad Pitt, as I like to think of him—or maybe Brad Pitt is the North American Benicio del Toro. Anyway.)

Other times, it’s not actors but themes that start to appear and coalesce from more than one movie. So I watched two movies in consecutive nights that deal with the relationships between parents and children. The first, with a father and a daughter, was Toni Erdmann, a nearly three-hour German comedy (yes, really, a funny German film). The second, with a mother and son, was 20th Century Women, a sort of inverted coming-of-age film that takes place in Southern California in 1979 (based semi-autobiographically on writer/director Mike Mills’ own childhood). If I were going to pick a favorite, it would be 20th Century Women, simply for the brilliance of Annette Bening—maybe just for the brilliance of her facial expression throughout the film.

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“Joy Is In the Gift of the Church”

I’d say: I can’t help wearing an outfit like an undertaker’s man.  After all, the Pope rigs himself up in white and the cardinals in red, so what’s the odds?  But I’d have the right to go around adorned like the Queen of Sheba because I’m bringing you joy.  I’ll give it to you for nothing, you have only to ask.  Joy is in the gift of the Church, whatever joy is possible for this sad world to share.  Whatever you did against the Church, has been done against joy.  I’m not stopping you from calculating the procession of the equinoxes or splitting the atom.  But what would it profit you even to create life itself, when you have lost all sense of what life really is?  Might as well blow your brains out among your test-tubes.  Manufacture “life” as much as you like, I say!  It’s the vision you give us of death that poisons the thoughts of poor devils bit by bit, that gradually clouds and dulls their last happiness.  You’ll be able to keep it up so long as your industries and capital permit you to turn the world into a fair-ground of mechanical roundabouts, twirling madly in a perpetual din of brass and crackling fireworks.  But just you wait.  Wait for the first quarter-of-an-hour’s silence.  Then the Word will be heard of men–not the voice they rejected, which spoke so quietly: “I am the way, the Resurrection and the Life”–but the voice from the depths: “I am the door for ever locked, the road which leads nowhere, the lie, the everlasting dark.”

He said these last words so gloomily that I must have grown paler–or rather yellower, which has been my way, alas, of turning pale during the last few months–for he poured me out a second glass of gin and we changed the subject.

[Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest, 16]