Manchester by the Sea

About a week ago, I watched Kenny Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, a potential Oscar contender, which is–by a long shot–the saddest film I have ever watched. The story of Manchester is a beautifully constructed contemplation on the issues of guardianship, following an uncle and his nephew as the uncle decides, after his brother’s death, whether or not he is fit to raise his nephew.

Casey Affleck, the film’s star, has been slowly rising from the shadows, straying from his brother’s footsteps by taking roles in more independent films like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (a movie I highly recommend) and his own documentary, I’m Still HereManchester by the Sea, however, is arguably the best of his films thus far, and Affleck’s acting has much to do with that.

He perfectly embodies the quiet brooder whose mystique people are often drawn to understand; this is the personality of Lee Chandler, the film’s uncle, who struggles to decide what to do with his nephew. Overall, the film questions why this decision is such a struggle for Chandler as his nephew only has 2 more years before he turns 18. In perfectly timed and emotionally jarring flashbacks, the film answers this question, exploring the responsibilities and difficulties of parenting and how one decision can change the progression and choices of your future.

[MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD]

My favorite technique used in the film was the limiting of dialogue, which allowed for the incorporation of and emphasis on smaller sounds. It demonstrated the intensity noises, which you might give no attention to normally, can have in times of stress or intense emotional burden. In one scene, for example, Lee is in the kitchen on the phone with the funeral home when his nephew’s girlfriend comes in to make cereal. The sounds of the plastic cereal bag as she grabs it and the cereal pouring into her bowl begins to intrude on Lee’s conversation, which is particularly annoying to him and even more so to the viewer as their investment in the conversation is interrupted.

[END OF MINOR SPOILERS]

Through moments like this, Lonergan puts emphasis on the emotion of a moment–the small things that we would notice, that would bother us, if we were in Chandler’s position–and as a result of this, the audience begins to feel the weight of Chandler’s struggle as if they were experiencing the pain alongside him.

What exactly it is that Manchester by the Sea taught me, I cannot yet say. It’s possible that I have been given a heightened sense of emotional awareness, but possibly, more than that, I think it has opened my eyes to the complications of life and the necessity of sympathy when these complications get the best of those around us. It demonstrates the beauty of camaraderie–of true friends–but also the horror of not being able to escape a past you did not mean to create.

I wouldn’t suggest this film to everyone, though I think there is something for everyone to attain from it. The subject matter may be too heavy for some or brushed off by others; however, Manchester by the Sea will give you back all that you invest in it.

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La La Land: A Film About My Love/Hate Relationship with Los Angeles

Yesterday, my cousin and I went to watch the Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The theater allotted one of the larger auditoriums for the film, which I attribute to the media buzz that has been surrounding the film, but when we arrived, we found this unnecessary as there were only six other people in the theater, a strange turnout for a Saturday afternoon.

I preferred the empty theater; I’ve found it makes my laughs and tears more genuine when they’re not prompted by the responses. With this meager audience, it was all the more true. My cousin and I seemed to be the only ones that found parts of the movie funny, sad or upsetting. There was little more than silence from everyone else.

When Whiplash, Chazelle’s last film, was released in 2014, I couldn’t wait to watch it, and I can’t say my sentiments were the same when I first heard about La La Land. Despite its stress-inducing visuals, Whiplash seemed incredibly engaging from the release of its first trailer. I was surprised when I heard Chazelle’s next film would be a lighthearted L.A.-based musical and even more surprised with the first trailer. No amount of buzz got me to the point of obsession I reached leading up to Whiplash‘s release. However, now that I’ve seen it, I admit that La La Land was a surprisingly enjoyable experience.

As Crazy, Stupid Love taught us, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling make a great on-screen couple, and La La Land confirms this as the two sing and dance themselves into an uplifting relationship. Their banter, which continues into the film’s musical numbers, keeps the film moving forward and the film’s plot never stops to let its audience’s minds wander at any point. It’s a simple film telling a simple story, but despite its predictable end, it was, ultimately, refreshing to be shown the struggle of living the artist’s life in L.A. and told that, if you’re a certain kind of someone, it might even be worth it.

[Minor spoilers ahead]

My cousin and I were both overwhelmed by sadness as the credits rolled on screen–not only because the film was at an end but because the consequences of the characters’ decisions were not the fairy tale for which we had naively hoped. When the lights began to raise with the credits,  the film was nicely summarized by one of the older audience members as she rose from her seat. “That’s life,” she laughed to her friend, as they walked out of their aisle. And I would have to agree.

La La Land provides a vision of the life of dreamers in Los Angeles–a life, I’ve personally chosen not to live. But I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t, for a second, convince me to continue dreaming. The story is so uplifting that, until the end, dreams almost become more realistic than romantic, and reminds the retired dreamers in the audience that even when after choosing a stabler life, we never stop dreaming.

To Kill Those Who Kill: A Meditation on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood

When I was in early high school, I impulsively bought a DVD copy of the Bennett Miller film Capote from a Half Price Books store. Shortly after, I watched the film with my father, who found it beautiful and engaging; it was the first time I remember him complimenting a film I had chosen for its important moral and intellectual content.

I eventually returned the same store and bought the book on which the film was based, Capote’s In Cold Blood. Little did I know, it would be close to seven years before I actually read that book, and it wouldn’t even be the same copy. (I ended up lending the book to a friend, who never returned it.)

I finally committed to reading the book this semester. It took close to two months, as I had to force myself to read in the late hours after I had finished poorly composed counterpoint assignments from my music theory class and weekend filming for my senior documentary project, but it did not take long for the book to get me invested in its subject matter and prose.

I am honestly nervous to write about In Cold Blood. It’s already been written about in so many different ways. I’m sure just as many–if not more–conversations have been had about it that have said even more. A short while before I finished the book, I actually had a friend discuss it with me, saying he had read it for a class on crime & punishment (the acts of, not the novel) three years ago.

This essentially is what Capote was writing about. In an quasi-revolutionary way for the time in which the book was written, he humanized men that, in my opinion, we would still find difficult to sympathize with today, if we were as invested in the case as those in the story (and possibly, even if we were not). He questioned the death penalty and asked whether we could truly consider ourselves “the better people” for killing men who had killed.

In this age of social media, I imagine myself scrolling down my Facebook Newsfeed and happening upon a short video on the death of the Clutters. I’d watch it momentarily before thinking, How could anyone do such a thing? and continue down the feed, almost forgetting about it before someone else, who had seen the same video, would bring it up to me later that day. We’d talk about it and agree that These were horrible men, and maybe why do they still get to live when that poor family was dead. (Side note: I feel that I should say that I am–and always have been–against the death penalty.)

But from this video, I would have gained as little understanding of the defendants as many of the people who called for their deaths in Kansas. That is not to say anything they did was right, but what Capote wanted, I think, was not to absolve them of their guilt but, rather, to make their accusers understand, as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it many years before in The Great Gatsby:

‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one’… ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’

Despite their crimes, Perry Smith & Richard Hickock were still people. Both of them came from a life that none of the jurors–not even the judge–knew about. Whether or not this information would have made them more sympathetic, I do not know, but Capote argues that without it, they were not in a place to ‘criticize’ (read: ‘judge’) the defendants.

[SORT OF SPOILER ALERT] The part of the book that, in my opinion, most powerfully conveyed this, was the questioning of the psychiatrist Dr. Jones. Limited to answering each question with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ without elaboration, Jones was not allowed to share his more detailed findings, which may have gotten both men out of their death sentences on cases of mental instability. [END OF SPOILER]

I think Capote’s message is timeless. Whether it is deciding someone’s life during a trial or simply treating a person differently  because of your perception of who they might be, we all need to remember that there are facts we will always be missing about that person’s life and where they come from, so we must always question when and if ever it is our place to judge.