Suffer the little children

I missed Monster’s Ball when it was on at the cinema, and I never really went out of my way to see it on TV. There’s no particular reason for this – except, perhaps, that there seemed to be more talk about the fairly explicit sex scene between Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton than about anything else. Okay, a good sex scene can make a film better (Don’t Look Now, I’m ogling you!), but there’d better be something beyond copulatory goodness.

Marc Forster, the director of Monster’s Ball, is one of the few Swiss people who’ve made it big in Hollywood – so big in fact that he’s now doing the new James Bond movie. He seems to be comfortable in many different genres and he gets in the good actors.

Stranger than Fiction

And yet. I wasn’t too keen on Stranger than Fiction, a film that desperately wanted to be more clever than it really was. True, Will Ferrell put in a fairly poignant performance, and I always enjoy watching Maggie Gyllenhaal, but all in all the movie felt like Charlie Kaufman Light, turning its metafictional veneer to the service of an essentially trite Carpe Diem story. And what was worse (at least for me): the book that the critically acclaimed author played by Emma Thompson was writing was drivel of the worst sort. It wasn’t even a parody of literary fiction – it was the sort of thing that a decidedly mediocre first-term creative writing student might cobble together, feeling awfully proud of himself.

Last week we watched Finding Neverland. Again, Forster’s assembled a lovely cast of actors: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman. The film is well crafted, obviously. But the story and dialogues render their work disappointingly toothless. Most of the performances are adequate, but let’s face it: it doesn’t take much to get an adequate performance from these actors. It’s more difficult to get a bad performance from them. But what can they do, when their characters can all be summarised in two sentences without being reductive?

Finding Neverland

There are small joys in both films. Dustin Hoffman is understated but great fun, both as the theatre impressario and as Stranger than Fiction’s literary critic. (I just wish he’d say what is so blatantly obvious – that the book Will Ferrell’s character is in is badly written rubbish.) And Freddy Highmore (who went on to play with Johnny Depp yet again in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is great. Not only is his acting subtle and moving, his character is probably the only one in the film who is ambivalent, who has depth, who doesn’t fit comfortably into a well-worn cliché.

Talking of children: perhaps the strangest, sweetest sight in any Deadwood episode is that of the school children lined up behind Joanie Stubbs and Calamity Jane holding hands, walking down the thoroughfare to their new school. For a few moments, the scheming and bloodshed comes to a complete halt as the inhabitants of Deadwood come out to watch the children. I have a feeling, though, that “Amateur Night” will be the last episode of the season (and, sadly, series) that will allow for such peace and quiet. Something is going to happen, and it’s going to happen sooner rather than later. I’ve rarely seen a series that managed as well to ratch up the tension. Somehow I have the distinct impression that the title of a recent P.T. Anderson film will describe the last three episodes of the series quite accurately.

And no, I don’t mean Punch Drunk Love.

You can’t take a picture of this – it’s already gone

For all of those who thought that after weeks and months of me going on about Six Feet Under you were finally rid of wafflings about the Fisher family, I’m afraid you were popping the champagne corks too early.

So, what brings on this bout of raising the dead? Frankly, I’m not quite sure. I’ve been in a strange mood all day, and the last few minutes of “Everyone Waits”, the final episode of Six Feet Under, kept coming to my mind. Mostly in fragments: a bit of Late Nate Jr. singing “I Just Wanna Celebrate (Another Day of Life)” against a blinding white background, a bit of Sia’s “Breathe Me”. But mostly one short scene: as Claire says farewell to her family, she takes out her camera to take a picture. As she looks at them through the viewfinder, Nate stands behind her, telling her “You can’t take a picture of this; it’s already gone.”

You can’t take a picture of this - it’s already gone.

And it’s this line that’s been running around in my head. Taken out of context – by which I mean the whole scene, the episode and indeed the entire series – it’s nothingy. It even seems trite at first, like a slightly reformulated Seize the Day-type motto. But there’s more to it. The context adds layers. Is it about Claire’s constant attempts, as an artist, to capture something; call it the truth, the spirit of the moment, or just pretentious twaddle? Is he telling her not to hold on to moments, because those moments become the past immediately, and while you’re busy trying to hold on to it, you miss out on life? Is he telling her that life is fleeting? We all could drop dead from a brain aneurysm, be shot, die in a car accident, or have our heads crushed by blue ice falling from a plane passing overhead?

Probably there’s something of all of these in Nate’s cryptic sentence, but what kept coming back to me isn’t just what he says or how he says it. It’s the fact that Claire, after Nate has said his bit, takes the photo anyway.

What is it about this moment that keeps coming back to me? On the one hand it’s the sentence itself, and if I try to reformulate what it means to me, it just becomes trite. On the other hand, it’s Claire’s defiance: yes, the moment is fleeting, yes, tomorrow we shall die, yes, sooner or later we will lose everything we have to time (there I go, getting all trite, even though I said I wouldn’t…) – but she takes the photo anyway. Against hope, against reality, against her better knowledge, she tries to hold on to the moment. A lesser series would have had her take the photo, and only then Nate tells her that what she just did was futile. So much of Six Feet Under was about defying that futility – to hold on to what we have already lost, and to honour it in everything we do in the present. It’s already gone – and personally I dread the moment we accept that and move on without looking back. I hope with all my heart to know fully well that I can’t hold on to the present moment, and nevertheless to do so.

P.S.: Next time, more HBO – and Peter Pan, by way of overrated Swiss directors. At least that’s what I’ve got planned. Yes, I actually plan these things in advance. Sad, isn’t it?