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.

Moby Dick

And some certain significance lurks in all things

I recently had a chance to visit Herman Melville’s Arrowhead in Pittsfield, MA, where Melville lived for a good portion of his life and also where he wrote Moby-Dick (or The Whale), a novel central to the American canon and which few modern readers seem to be able to plow through.  During the tour of Arrowhead, our group was allowed entry into Melville’s study, which gazes out upon the whalelike Mount Greylock and wherein rest plenty of items from his novelist days, including his impossibly tiny bifocals and the chair he sat in while writing Moby-Dick.  As the hammy, college-aged tour guide sifted through his required talking points, I shut my eyes and tried to absorb everything in the room, the essence of Melville himself, even imagining a conversation between myself and the author.  I cannot remember exactly what we chatted about.

The newest attempt to capture the novel in film form is the non-hyphenated Moby Dick, a film split into two parts as a television miniseries.  The screenplay is adapted by English playwright Nigel Williams, who was Emmy-nominated for his similar treatment of Elizabeth I.  The film stars Charlie Cox (of Stardust and Boardwalk Empire fame) as Ishmael, the protagonist and narrator, who in the novel is a social outcast, former schoolteacher, and something of a philosopher, who goes to sea due to an unbearable feeling of alienation from human society.  Williams’ screenplay portrays Ishmael as an idealistic adventurer whose past is never really explored, and seeks employment on a whaling ship for the sake of seeing the world.  Ahab, an unplayable role as Herman Melville originally wrote it (and mistakenly billed as the “lead” in every film version), is taken up here by William Hurt, who portrays the monomaniacal captain in the way we might think of crazy people today, not so much in the 1840’s (and Ahab was anything but a typical “crazy person”).  Ethan Hawke, who has plenty of experience with period pieces, plays Starbuck, the Pequod’s first mate, for all intents and purposes the deuteragonist of the story, and the only crew member who stands against Ahab’s vengeful pursuit of the White Whale from the very beginning (and who also happened to have an overpriced coffee chain/hipster hangout inexplicably named after him).  Eddie Marsan appears as Stubb, the second mate, whose patter-like, Shakespearean passages decorate the novel, but who appears as something of a generic, brutish sailor in the film; his happy-go-lucky personality is nowhere to be seen.  Raoul Trujillo fills out the main cast as Queequeg, a cannibal from the fictional South Seas island of Kokovoko, who becomes Ishmael’s best friend early in the story.  The iconic scene in which Ishmael watches Queequeg’s religious ritual from under the covers of the hotel bed is preserved in this film, albeit a bit rushed.

The story, of course, follows Ishmael as he ships onboard the Pequod (out of Nantucket) in order to learn the honorable whaling trade while simultaneously escaping the pressures of his shore life.  The journey is to last three years, and after he befriends Queequeg at a New Bedford inn, the duo board the vessel together.  As they make their way to the ship and sign their names on the roster, they are repeatedly hassled by a beggar named Elijah (played in the film by Billy Boyd), who hints at difficult times to come on the Pequod.  After Ishmael relates the terms of his contract, Elijah asks, “Anything down there about your souls?…Oh, perhaps you hav’n’t got any…No matter though, I know many chaps that hav’n’t got any — good luck to ’em; and they are all the better off for it. A soul’s a sort of a fifth wheel to a wagon.”  Once onboard, Ishmael meets the crew, including Starbuck, Stubb, and third mate Flask (Matthew Lemche), along with the other harpooneers, Daggoo (Onyekachi Ejim), a towering African man, and Tashtego (Billy Merasty), a Wampanoag tribesman from Massachusetts.  Queequeg serves as the harpooneer on Starbuck’s boat (changed to Stubb’s in the film) while Ishmael serves as an oarsman for the same (in the film, he doubles as watch onboard the ship).  When Captain Ahab finally shows himself, he reveals his true purpose: not simply to hunt whales for oil and profit, but to hunt down Moby Dick, a nearly pure white sperm whale, who took Ahab’s leg during his most recent voyage.  Ahab is bent on revenge on the animal, which he anthropomorphizes as being ruthless and evil, and nails a gold doubloon (a Spanish sixteen-dollar piece) to one of the ship’s masts as incentive to any sailor who can “raise” Moby Dick.  Everyone onboard is taken by Ahab’s charisma and desire for the doubloon, and much of the novel explores human nature through individual characters’ ruminations on the doubloon, on Ahab’s madness, and on Moby Dick himself: what he ultimately symbolizes (whiteness, fate, the ocean, nature, God, the universe) remains utterly inscrutable even in the end, and lengthy chapters are devoted to Ishmael’s (and others’) philosophical musings.

The film, though, while focusing more on the human drama than the action, takes a decidedly realistic approach and does away with most of the mysticism (which, while providing an emotional experience with well-performed characters, does not tell the same story).  The most jarring changes occur near the beginning: the opening of the film features Ishmael rescuing Pip (Daniel Gordon), a young black boy, from a beating, and taking him along to Nantucket to find his own way.  In the novel, Ishmael does not meet Pip until encountering him as the cabin boy onboard the Pequod (and Pip’s later experience stranded in the ocean before Ishmael rescues him is vital to the story’s careful foreshadowing, and even Ishmael realizes this in the text).  The rescue scene works for the drama the film seeks to employ, simultaneously providing action and characterization (Ishmael’s compulsion to save a complete stranger indicates a strong moral compass) and also earns the line “Call me Ishmael,” the book’s opening line and one of the most recognized openings in Western literature.  Second, a new character is added: Elizabeth (Gillian Anderson), the wife of Ahab, who worries about her husband’s quest (though she doesn’t seem to know his ulterior motives) and entrusts Starbuck to protect him.  Additionally, while speaking to Elijah, she receives a much more pointed prophecy than Ishmael ever did: “[Ahab] will die, and he knows it.”  This reminds me of the 1956 Gregory Peck version, in which Elijah related that everyone on the voyage would die save one sailor.  Do modern filmmakers understand the difference between foreshadowing and simply telling the audience what’s going to happen?

In the novel, Ahab’s wife is only briefly mentioned near the end of the book (called a “girl-wife,” much younger than Ahab) when he acknowledges that he has not been a satisfactory husband to her, even going as far as calling her a widow, as he spends all of his time at sea.  The third major alteration is the omission of the character Fedallah – in the original story, Fedallah is a Persian harpooneer who is smuggled onboard the Pequod in Ahab’s personal cabin along with a Persian boat crew and assigned to Ahab’s boat.  As hinted by Ishmael seeing “dark figures” sneaking onto the ship in Nantucket, as well as the crew’s thoughts about Fedallah’s sinister influence upon Ahab, it is hinted that Fedallah may be the devil in disguise (this is very likely just the crew’s superstition, however).  Fedallah tells Ahab he can only die once he sees a hearse made of American wood floating in the sea, a prophecy given by Boyd’s Elijah in the film.  I understand the omission for the sake of time as well as the current Western stigma about “people in turbans,” but I think it’s worth noting that another scene is added, during which Steelkilt (James Gilbert) refuses to climb the mast with a black man (Daggoo), and Stubb reprimands him for being so weak-minded.  This scene, which seems straight out of a Mark Twain novel (and leads to a contrived side-conflict between the two white sailors), illustrates how comfy we are with portrayals of white-on-black racism in films meant to portray Old Times.  “How quaint,” we seem to think, but racist attitudes are still largely present the media, and a big part of the reason is that we just won’t stop talking about it.

To the film’s detriment is the overuse of low-quality CG.  Moby Dick himself only appears at the very end of the novel (in three short chapters), and in the film we get the sense that he’s nearby the Pequod throughout the entire film, almost stalking the crew in a way, while the novel makes a very large point of driving in the fact (especially at the end) that Moby Dick is only a whale, a dumb animal who, while aggressive and dangerous, does not purposefully hunt humans; he actually runs away when the Pequod attacks, and destroys so many whaling vessels and sailors only because they’re trying to kill him.  Recall Starbuck’s famous line:

“Moby Dick seeks thee not!  It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” (Melville, ch. 135)

The film explores these ideas, but due to the constant appearances of the Whale and some choices during the climactic battle, director Mike Barker’s intentions are not quite clear.  This presents a bit of a problem: who is right, Ahab or Starbuck?  We get the sense that Ahab is still insane and the lesson (at least the one about anthropomorphism) still applies here.  Consider the following passage from the novel, in which Ishmael delves beautifully into what he thinks Ahab’s reasons might be for his relentless pursuit of Moby Dick, and then tell me whether you think this translates onto William Hurt’s somewhat dubious portrayal of the mad sea captain:

“The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” (Melville, ch. 41)

The filmmakers do a nice job of inserting Ishmael into the action.  In the novel, he serves largely as a narrator and not much of a participant after he boards the Pequod, but as a character in a movie, he gets himself into plenty of trouble.  The screenwriters choose to have Ahab take Ishmael under his wing as a protege’, and his role in the action, particularly in the second half of the miniseries, takes precedent over his relationships with Pip and Queequeg (though the story of Queequeg’s illness and the building of the coffin/life-buoy is wonderfully done).

This film feels good.  It’s an epic adventure in the tradition of older movies, and staging a three-hour production almost entirely onboard the same ship is a monstrous task, which the entire production team handles very well here (and on a comparatively modest budget).  The sailors even sing real-life chantey songs while carrying out the ship’s brutal work.  I think, though, that there must be another Moby Dick adaptation in the future, one that attempts to capture not only the characters and story, but the all-but-extinct metaphoric narrative that Melville so masterfully crafted.

Moby Dick (2011); written by Nigel Williams; adapted from the novel by Herman Melville; directed by Mike Barker; starring Charlie Cox, William Hurt, and Ethan Hawke.

Robin Hood (2010)

A pox on the phony King of England

Yes, it’s been a long time since the Disney version of Robin Hood, which I still maintain to be one of the best adaptations.  It had all that clever and witty fun that has come to be associated with folk tales of the type, and most of all, it was okay for the little ones.  No deaths, no innuendo (just mild talk about “kissing”), etc.  Then we had Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a brilliantly farcical satire on the story (“Locksley and Bagel: can’t miss!”).  Not quite as innocent, but all sorts of fun just the same.

Ridley Scott’s new film, originally titled Nottingham, has got to be the best “serious” adaptation of Robin Hood since Errol Flynn first drew the bow.  It’s mature and gritty, but retains that wit and charm we’ve all come to associate with the story.  It’s also the most violent of the lot – the MPAA’s rating is PG-13, but I suspect that someone got fooled at the last second.  People get shot through the neck, stabbed in the back, drowned, crushed between the bows of French sailing ships, and dragged through the woods by horses.  There isn’t excessive bloodspray, but I’d probably have the old “movies aren’t real” chat with the kids if all they’ve seen is the Disney version and they’re begging you to see this one.

The story is a re-imagining, much like the earlier discussed Alice in Wonderland.  This is intended to be a prequel of sorts to what becomes the Robin Hood legend.  We see how he meets Marian (according to Ridley Scott, anyway) and how he comes to be such good pals with his merry men, as well as the solidification of his outlaw status – I’m sure everyone has seen the epic wailing of Oscar Isaac in the trailer by now.  If not, I commend you for how little television you watch.

The film itself is something to behold.  The set-pieces are incredible, and the wide shots really illustrate the work that went into recreating 12th century England.  From the nighttime scuffles in Sherwood forest to the legions of loyal Englishmen percolating out from the high bluffs as King Philip looks on in terror, it’s all real when you’re in the theater.  Never did I once scoff at the CG; if there is heavy use of computer imagery in this film, I was too immersed to notice.

The cast is an excellent ensemble.  Oscar Isaac dominates his scenes as the bratty (yet knowledgeable and calculating) King John.  Mark Strong plays the main villain for the third time in a row as the treasonous Sir Godfrey, a character completely made up for the film, and he does it with complete professionalism.  Though most of his dialogue is standard “villain” and we never get to know Godfrey as a person, Strong avoids playing it “arch,” which is refreshing.  He got to do more in films like Guy Ritchie’s fantastic RocknRolla, last year’s Body of Lies and the recent Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps this film will bring him to a wider audience.  Also in this film is the amazing Cate Blanchett, who plays Marian as a down-to-earth widow rather than a lovestruck girl, and she surely doesn’t need any compliments from me that haven’t already been said.  Kevin Durand plays Little John, the first good-guy role I can recall him ever playing, and he does it with style.  This is his second film with Russell Crowe, the first being the remake of 3:10 To Yuma in which he had a bit part, and in this one he actually gets to spend a good amount of time acting with Crowe.  I hope this role helps break him out of being typecast as a bad guy, which after his definitive evil role as Martin Keamy on ABC’s Lost (which will almost inevitably be the “Mr. Blonde” of Durand’s career) makes this seem like an impossibility. Friar Tuck: Why do they call you Little John? Little John: What exactly are ye gettin’ at? The film also features Alan Doyle, frontman of Celtic band Great Big Sea, in the role of minstrel Allan O’Dayle.  Another truly inspired piece of casting on Scott/Crowe’s part, and it’s magic to see such talented people working together.  A bearded and scruffy-haired William Hurt also makes an appearance in a very nice role as William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Penbroke, who battles with words, and his scenes with Isaac and Strong are terrific.  Matt Macfayden appears as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns out to be the comic relief of the film, which is an interesting twist (and a more accurate one – sorry Kevin Costner).  The immortal Max von Sydow also appears, this time as the blind Walter Locksley, who becomes something like a father to Robin as the story goes on and makes you want to give him a big hug every time he’s on screen.

Crowe himself plays Robin as what I like to call the “boring hero.”  That is to say, a protagonist whose only aim is to advance the plot.  Despite being surrounded by wonderful characters, the boring hero has to do what the screenplay decrees.  To his credit, Crowe does his best to break his character out of this mold, although there are scenes where his eyes seem to glaze over and he just says “Fine, I’ll do it, even though it defies all logic.”  For examples of the boring hero, see any movie Sam Worthington has ever starred in, or any American film with Jason Statham.

Scott makes great use of his characters.  No one seems to just be added for the hell of it.  Everyone you see has something to do that couldn’t have happened without them.  Even King John’s trophy wife, Isabella (played by the gorgeous Léa Seydoux) has something to do besides sit next to Isaac and look nice.  She is charged with informing John that his best friend is a traitor: one of the most important moves anyone makes in the film, and the resulting scene between them burns with passion and skill.

The film contains a lot of Russell Crowe gliding past the camera on horseback, whether in slow motion or otherwise, with his mouth hanging open.  I lost count around ten.  It’s always good to see, as Crowe is incredible and Scott knows his massive battle pieces, though I wonder if Scott thought, “How many angles can I shoot this from?”  The film also contains several bald villains, including Strong, who seems to collect head injuries as the film goes on.  Why do the bald have to be portrayed as such slimeballs?  I wonder if there is some sort of statistic about this.

Robin Hood (2010); written by Brian Helgeland; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac.