The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

Hi.

eleanorHere in upstate New York, where the lack of “art-house” cinemas is as apparent as the onset of global warming, only one theatre (Spectrum 8, the solar-powered gem of Albany’s crown) is showing The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and even then, only Them, which essentially amounts to one gigantic fused sentence, considering that the film is a combined edit of two separate films – Her and Him – in which Jessica Chastain separately plays the title character and the same character through the eyes of her estranged husband, Connor (James McAvoy).  Scripter/director Ned Benson and editor Kristina Boden had something of an uphill march here: reconciling these two versions of the same character and story, all the while keeping an unspoken conflict at the center of a slow-burning drama.

The film pulls a Hills Like White Elephants early.  The opening scenes depict the young Eleanor and Connor performing vintage Carefree Young Couple Antics, such as escaping an expensive restaurant without paying, and having sex on the reclined passenger seat of their car whilst lovingly joking around.  This scene is juxtaposed with one from the present, several years into their marriage, whereupon a green-faced Eleanor bikes along one of those unidentifiable-to-me NYC bridges and then throws herself over the side.  A rescue crew saves her, but we soon see her move back into her parents’ house in suburban Connecticut with a near-catatonic personality.  None of her family members – sister Katy (Jess Weixler), mother Mary (Isabelle Huppert), and father Julian (William Hurt) – know how to address her, or even what to talk to her about.  Connor is not involved.  We do not know what happened to make Eleanor try to end her own life, nor what has separated the couple.  The film goes to great lengths to hide this information, going so far as to have Eleanor pause as she spots a certain photo (unseen by us) on the wall leading up to her old bedroom, which is then frantically torn down and hidden by Mary and Katy.  Fortunately, the narrative up to this point seems deliberate enough that the picture becomes a sort of Chekhov’s Photograph (i.e. there’s no worry that we won’t get to see what it is eventually).

Lost for something fulfilling to do, Eleanor decides to take some classes, having never finished her college degree.  In the meantime, Connor, who runs his own tiny dive bar, is having trouble paying the rent for the couple’s joint apartment by himself, and is forced to move back in with his father (Ciarán Hinds), with whom he has an oil-and-water relationship due to the latter not being much of a parent.  When he’s not either quibbling with his father or lamenting the state of things with archetypal buddy character Stuart (Bill Hader), Connor clandestinely follows Eleanor around after spotting her on the street.  Why can’t he talk to her?  We don’t know.  One day, he follows her to a class taught by Professor Lillian Friedman (Viola Davis) – an icy, no-bullshit educator whose class Eleanor talks her way into by evoking the unrealistic Student-Outsmarts-Professor-with-Clever-Comment-and-Instantly-Achieves-Peer-Status trope – and passes her a note, as if he’s trying to meet her for the first time.  She wants nothing to do with him.

Eventually, the source of the conflict is implicitly revealed in a conversation between Eleanor and Julian: Eleanor and Connor had a baby, Cody, who died at some point in his infancy.  Connor tried to put this behind them and move on as a couple as soon as possible, whereas Eleanor could not, and moreover, could not deal with Connor’s way of handling it (apparently, he threw the baby’s things into a closet, then ordered Chinese food ten minutes later).  The problem with withholding the conflict until later (and still never revealing what actually happened to the baby) and still expecting an audience to stick with the characters is not the technique per se; the problem is that Benson so obviously decided to do this before writing the script, not allowing (as Eleanor herself even mentions in the movie) the story to develop naturally.  This is similar to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, the minimalist idea that a story’s conflict, themes, and “true meaning” should not be evident from anything explicitly stated in the text, and that the story itself should focus on the surface elements.  That, and let’s face it, Hemingway couldn’t say that a story written in 1927 was about an abortion.  The Hemingway influence in Eleanor Rigby shines through even more when considering that it’s also a story about a deceased infant (although Eleanor’s was actually born, and Jig’s was not).  Sadly, it’s technique for the sake of technique.  The idea is that since none of the characters are “allowed” to discuss it, the audience is not allowed to hear about it, but no dramatic impact would be lost if the baby’s fate were revealed from the start, and in fact, wondering what’s going on is a bit distracting when trying to find meaning in the terrifically acted scenes between the opening and the eventual revelation.

Much of the film is spent trying to either bring the couple back together or allow them to go their separate ways.  They reunite after Eleanor impulsively decides to visit Connor’s restaurant, but Connor clumsily reveals that he recently slept with a friend, Alexis (Nina Arianda), which leads Eleanor to disappear again.  Connor prepares to move out of their shared apartment permanently, considering an offer to take over his father’s successful restaurant, and slowly removes all of the baby’s things from the closet – a nice, long shot that allows Connor to face what he’s been hiding from without actually saying anything.  Eleanor, with peripheral help from her family, decides to move back to New York City, finish the thesis she originally worked on as a student (before becoming pregnant), and study abroad in Paris.  Before she does, she visits Connor, and they finally, heartbreakingly, discuss the baby.  Eleanor tells Connor she loves him and apologizes for disappearing, and then disappears again.  So many of these shots could and should be the final shot of the film.  There are only two ways for this story to end: either they get back together and move on, or they don’t.  The back-and-forth for years is simply not plausible.  But the film opts for one more artistic flourish, fast-forwarding to a future wherein Connor runs his dad’s restaurant, and as he takes a walk before the “rush” (just to let us know the restaurant is doing well), we see Eleanor following him at a distance just as he stalked her earlier.  He takes the left path through a park, and just when she should take the opposite path, revealing the final irreconcilability of the whole situation, she follows him.  What are we meant to believe?  That a return to school and a trip to Paris made everything better for her?  If Benson was going for a happy ending, why not end right after the couple’s ultimate confrontation with the problem they’ve been avoiding this whole time?  I did tear up at the end, and there’s something to be said for that, but it’s from a combination of Jessica Chastain’s acting, the beautiful un-music of Son Lux, the adept cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt, and the pure, raw sadness of the situation itself. The tears would have been more worth it after two hours if a little more clarity had been allowed – films rarely, if ever, earn ambiguous endings.

Them is a powerful film in many ways, despite the fact that the filmmaker may have been too close to it, and in its minimalism we find yet another true performance by Jessica Chastain, who even brings back “Chastaining” (see the Glossary).  The sadness that undercuts every scene is profound and complete.  The issues lie mostly in the characterization of Connor – instead of a unique character, he generally amounts to a typical early-thirties single guy, who wrestles his buddies, sleeps with attractive acquaintances, and struggles to heroically run a business by himself (the type of guy who could lead any rom-com).  He’ll do anything to get Eleanor back, and thus, he will do anything the script calls for, rendering him a plot device.  I don’t know how it is in the 89-minute Him version, but here, where Eleanor is the lead, Connor’s lone scenes are almost unneeded.

It’s great to see Jessica Chastain back on the screen, and even better that she can find such layers in any character she’s given.  The most difficult part of a film like Rigby is that Jessica is often cast as a younger character (here, at least ten years younger).  But she doesn’t seem like a person in her mid-twenties, and the film never throws hard numbers out there, so we are left to puzzle out why this mature, intelligent woman is so hung up on grubby James McAvoy and worried about finishing a college degree.  Perhaps it’s time to craft characters just for her.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014); written and directed by Ned Benson; starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy.

The Lie

It’s a soul-crusher

I once gave a lecture on T.C. Boyle’s selected work, noticing various patterns in sentence structures and descriptions – namely that Boyle employs techniques intended to dazzle or surprise the reader.  One of his newest short stories, “The Lie,” goes against the grain and harkens back to stories such as “Without A Hero,” in which an unsympathetic (if not altogether loathsome) male protagonist wallows in his failures and allows them to color everything in his life, most notably his personal relationships; these stories, when compared to spectacles such as “The Human Fly” (in which a Hungarian daredevil straps himself to the wing of an airplane) or “Big Game” (wherein an anthropomorphic elephant battles yuppies in an African game ranch located in Bakersfield, California), seem almost underwritten, and their character/dialogue-centric narratives lend themselves well to something we can’t seem to get enough of – movies based on books.  Director Joshua Leonard seems to agree, having adapted “The Lie” into a recent feature film, an official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Setting aside my feelings about literature being watered down to passive media, I am expressly skeptical about films adapted from short stories.  How do you remain “faithful” to a text that can be read multiple times in a half hour while converting it into a ninety-minute visual experience?  My favorite example is 1987’s The Living Daylights, one of the better James Bond films, adapted from an Ian Fleming story in which Bond decides against executing a spy because he develops a soft spot for her.  The film version covers these events in about fifteen minutes, then launches into an action film: three major villains emerge, there’s a KGB conspiracy, and Bond cultivates a romance with the woman (played by Maryam d’Abo).  When my mother called and told me, “The program guide says there’s a new movie based on a T.C. Boyle story,” the very thought prompted a familiar tang of the heartbreak Timothy Dalton induced in me all those years ago.

Boyle’s story is narrated by Lonnie, a married twenty-six year-old father with a dead-end video editing job.  One day, he wakes up and decides, after watching his wife, Clover, a law student, complete her morning routine in an old Cramps t-shirt for the thousandth day in a row, that he will take the day off.  Radko, Lonnie’s tyrannical Slavic boss, knows what’s coming.  “Let me guess?  You’re sick?”  Having a bad reputation for taking time off and no sick days left, Lonnie claims that his baby has a terrible fever and that the family is at the hospital.  After enjoying the day, which most notably includes a homemade dinner and quality time with Clover, Lonnie repeats this process the following morning, except this time he panics and says the baby has died.  Clover, thinking of changing her name, in part because she isn’t “who she used to be” and partly to push Lonnie to the edge, knows nothing about the lie.  Lonnie accomplishes shockingly little during his days off, but when he returns to work, his coworkers have put together some money for his family.  Once Clover discovers his deception and the money, she confronts Lonnie, who decides to walk out the door rather than explain himself.

Joshua Leonard’s film version stars himself as Lonnie, along with Jess Weixler (of Teeth fame) as Clover, who has a much larger and more sympathetic role to play in the film.  Where Boyle’s Clover appears as a sort of mannequin with no described features and an inexplicable habit of instigating fights, Weixler’s Clover is on her husband’s side, loves him, and is understandably stressed about juggling work, school, and motherhood.  The couple is portrayed as nature-friendly, laid back, and a bit hippie-ish, whereas the text only hints at their pasts (Lonnie was once in a band and loved to snowboard, and Clover’s parents were hippies).  Here, their personalities are on the table, we can see the view from both sides, and Lonnie’s lie is fueled by far more than laziness – his extra time with Clover is an opportunity to, as he says, “press the reset button.”

Even in the film’s early scenes, it’s evident that the filmmakers have closely read the source material.  Even Clover’s punk-rock t-shirt is preserved (although in the film it’s changed to Crass, another punk diamond from the 70s; Cramps tees are likely in short supply).  Ancillary characters and background details are occasionally shifted and used to further the story in interesting ways.  Tank, a loser friend mentioned in the story, has a larger role in the film.  He’s still in a band with Lonnie and is starting his own line of organic edible face moisturizers, which he calls Face Food (something you’d think Boyle would have come up with if you hadn’t read the story).  Played by Mark Webber, Tank is bit of an enigma.  He lives in a Winnebago on the beach.  A VW bus is often parked near him, and when Lonnie and Clover ask on separate occasions who has been visiting, he says, “Some things are better left unspoken.”  He also acts as the movie’s ironic voice of reason, often spouting sagely advice to Lonnie.  On Lonnie’s first day off, the duo record a song together for the first time in years.

Lonnie: “I wish I could do that every day.”

Tank:  “Lonnie, I wanna tell you a story.  There’s a young man walking across a field and he runs into an old man who’s planting an apricot seedling.  He asks the old man, ‘Why are you planting such a new tree?’  The old man says, ‘Because I live each day as though I will never die.’  Then the young man says, ‘Well, that’s funny, because I live each day as though I will die tomorrow.  Which one of us is right?'”

Lonnie: “What does that mean?”

Tank: “Think about it, bro.”

The song they record is a transcription of Lonnie’s feelings on his trapping life, and this is obvious to everyone but Lonnie himself (he simply thinks it’s catchy): “It’s a soul-crusher, crushin’ my soul/it’s a soul-crusher, baby/waking up every day and playing this role/you love the soul-crusher, but it crushes your soul/you hate the soul crusher ’cause it kills your goals.”  Forget lyrical adroitness; this song has been extruded directly from Lonnie’s heart.  In a fantastic scene that shows almost nothing but Clover’s face for over a minute straight, Lonnie plays the rough track for her, and the fluctuations in her expressions (specifically when she knows Lonnie is watching her reactions) showcase her steadfast support of her husband even when she knows his creative work is a bit corny and probably not going anywhere.  It’s interesting to note that the phrase “soul-crushing” appears in Boyle’s original story, which may have inspired the jam.

Two important women aside from Clover appear in the film: Tipper Newton plays Jeannie, a secretary who is initially nitpicky about Lonnie’s work, but after news of the baby’s (fake) death spreads around the workplace, she becomes dejected and sallow.  Her inner tumult is evident, but she and Lonnie’s other coworkers must keep themselves composed, and Jeannie’s way of coping is to bring Lonnie lattes and cannoli; she even delivers a homemade quiche to Lonnie’s home. Eventually, she brings herself to call the house, and when Clover answers the phone, the lie is outed.  Alia Shawkat appears as Seven, Tank’s phantom girlfriend, who doesn’t show up until the second-to-last scene.  She relates a story of her own to Lonnie; the scene is shot with nearly the exact angles of the scene featuring Tank’s story, but Seven’s tale isn’t a shopworn parable; it is something that actually happened to her, and although the “meaning” of the scene is nebulous, it weighs much more heavily than Tank’s attempt to be insightful.  It’s a beautiful piece of reel.

Seven: “I love Portland.  I met an owl there once that really showed me where to go.  You know?”

Lonnie: “You met an owl?”

Seven: “Yeah.  Or it met me.”

Lonnie: “Right on.”

Lonnie’s other coworkers from the story also make effective appearances in the film: Radko (Gerry Bednob) is appropriately irascible, shouting over Lonnie’s every word.  Joel, played by Kirk Baltz (who famously had his ear sliced off in Reservoir Dogs), is more warmhearted, upset at having to take heat for Lonnie’s shortcomings at work, but who gladly covers for him after the supposed tragedy takes place.  There is a wonderful scene in which Joel seems much more grieved about the baby’s death than Lonnie (and understandably, considering that the former thinks it’s real), and seeing Joel’s sadness, we wish Lonnie had never told the lie.  This scene, along with another in which Joel and Radko present Lonnie with the collected donation money, provide a revelation that we hope Lonnie absorbs: these coworkers, people he imagines punching in the face every day, are actually quite giving and sympathetic, and consider him not only a part of their work family, but a dear friend.  Lonnie eats the cannoli, sure, but does he care that they care?

The film’s ending is heavily revised.  The original text of “The Lie” is cut off as soon as Lonnie’s deception is unearthed, preventing any real conversation or drama – how will the family move on from such a debacle?  I’m a big fan of anticlimax, but I needed another scene, and I do wonder if Boyle had anything to do with the film’s denouement: after the argument, Lonnie tearfully explains that he’s unhappy, that he’s stuck, that he wants more than anything to take care of Clover and the baby but has no idea how to do so with an unrewarding job and dead dreams.  “My music sucks,” he admits.  What follows is what he needed all along (and something we do not receive in the original): Clover’s feelings.  “What I’m doing sucks pretty bad too,” she says.  She’s not unhappily married, she’s not considering running away, but she’s buried beneath books, diapers, and the demands of her work, just like Lonnie.  The film is capped with a wonderfully organic “riding into the sunset” sequence, gentle, but assured.

I love titles like The Lie, titles that attempt definition, focus, and identification of a keystone.  In the film, it’s still pretty clear what the titular Lie is, but other lies are sprinkled amongst it: Lonnie’s career as a video editor; his hopes of making it as a musician (does he really believe he can go on tour at this stage of his life?); the couple’s “friendships” with wealthy pre-baby acquaintances; the thought that indie-rocker/hippie Clover’s true calling is law school and pantsuits.  Weixler’s performance stands out, and she radiates multitudes during a scene in which she gives Lonnie a look that, as Boyle writes, “spare[s] nothing.”  The filmmakers, using Boyle’s text as a storytelling springboard rather than copying it event-for-event, nicely round out their rendition of the story, and whether or not it represents Boyle’s vision, we must, as always, see the book version and film version as incomparable mediums.  Fading out on a stuttering blue landscape and seating us in Lonnie’s decrepit station wagon, The Lie spares nothing.

The Lie (2011); written and directed by Joshua Leonard; based on the story by T.C. Boyle; starring Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, and Mark Webber.