I fell in love with the movies many years ago. Going to see a film – even a sad drama – somehow left me with a feeling of empathy or a shared moment of humanity. But a number of the art-house films of late 2016 with their emphasis on sadness and disillusionment simply leave me emotionally wrung out.
Several releases specifically deal with death. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and JACKIE are examples. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA tells the story of a man who is pressured into giving up his seemingly insignificant life as a janitor in order to become legal guardian to his teen-aged nephew. This film has fine acting, with Casey Affleck giving an award-caliber performance, and it tackles a very realistic situation. It’s a very fine film, but as Affleck himself recently stated on a late-night talk show, “But it’s sad. Really sad.”
JACKIE covers the days of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ life from the tragic moment of JFK’s assassination in Dallas to his funeral. This is a film about grief and anger. As she deals with everything from a widow’s loss to White House protocol, we, the audience, follow her through her own private trail of tears.
Disillusionment with life in general forms the underlying motif of MOONLIGHT and FENCES, and even the supposedly upbeat LA LA LAND and SULLY, the mainstream tribute to real-life hero Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. The stories of MOONLIGHT and FENCES, which are really beautifully crafted and enacted, stress how difficult it was, and is, to be an African-American in an urban American setting. You can have dreams, but there also will be heartbreak. FENCES is going to be a multi-award winner, and for my money, it’s the best film of 2016. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are extraordinary, and the screenplay is incredibly well adapted by its original playwright, August Wilson. The complexities of the storylines and the development of the main characters are features that are sorely missing from many recent film releases.
Even SULLY, the truth-based film about the pilot who safely landed his ruined plane on the Hudson River and thereby saved a full planeload of passengers from sure death, focuses on the people of the National Transportation Safety Board who investigate and second-guess Sully’s decision. Because Clint Eastwood directed, it is surprising how muddled and dull the first half of the film is. Tom Hanks plays Sully well, but the mean-spiritedness of the characters who hound Sully shortly after his heroic act is discomforting to sit through.
Who would have thought that LA LA LAND, Damion Chazelle’s stylish musical with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, would fall into the category of disillusionment? But, for me, it does! Granted, most people disagree, but I interpret the final scenes of this film as being a far cry from the happy endings of the classic screen musicals of MGM and RKO. Think about it. As SNL character Linda Richman used to say in the skits Coffee Talk with Linda Richman, “Discuss amongst yourselves.”
Yes, sadness and disillusionment dominated art-house screens in 2016, including films that end with optimism, such as A MAN CALLED OVE, LION, and even the mainstream FINDING DORY. I recently re-watched HARVEY, the wonderful 1950 film comedy with James Stewart. In this film, the amiable, truly happy character of Elwood P. Dowd has a friend that only he can see – a pooka, a rabbit that is over six-feet-tall. Because the other characters can’t see the pooka, they try to prove Elwood is certifiably nuts. They say he is pixilated and that is why he sees the world in so uniquely contented a way. Maybe if more of us were pixilated we would see the world in a more gentle, loving fashion.
Sure, society has ills, many many serious problems. Our minds are over-loaded with disturbing issues that throw us out of our comfort zones, but maybe we need to have a few filmmakers who are pixilated in order to paint more of the celluloid world with a kinder, gentler, more optimistic brush.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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