Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Slacker liebestod

There is a time in most lives, between ages 12 and 15, when you become privy to, and fall in love with, the twin mysteries of life, sex and death.  They are both such intimate phenomena, embarrassing when they happen in public.  They are secrets kept away from us when we are very young.  Only those who have experienced them really know anything about them.  (You hear me, holy men and philosophers?)  They require their own special spaces.  They even become intermingled for a few of us during that tender period.  I can remember bonding with a girl in high school over the novel A Fine and Private Place, which takes place entirely in a cemetary, among the recently dead.  Not surprisingly, the novel was written by a 19-year-old.

This still nicely captures the pallette and tone of Restless
Death really, is the only truly satisfying conclusion to a love story.  The marriage altar, the traditional resolution, leads us into very unromantic territory, namely the hard work of daily living; living outside the bubble of the Romantic Swoon.  Romeo and Juliet teaches us everything -- that our parents hate our happiness, that we have to split from our gangs, and love is best when the end is certain.

Bleak?  Wouldn't have it any other way.

Restless (2011) clearly announces at the outset that it (a) it will be a morbid adolescent romantic fantasy (it begins at a funeral and early on announces the heroine's imminent death); and (b) it will only be judged by the rules of post-adolescent romantic fantasy, that the rules of real life are not to be applied.  For one thing,  Mia Wasikowska's character is clearly dying of the same kind of movie disease that carried off Ali McGraw in Love Story.  She never looks tired or drawn, her skin becomes more pink and glowing as the movie goes on and pain management for her growing tumor seems to be handled with an occasional brief visit to the oncologist.  (This is clearly not the cancer that our friends and relatives get, and we need to start a movement to allow middle class and poor people access to movie-character-cancer.)  No one is upset as to whether any of these characters are attending school, especially the not-dying boy and the woods of director Gus van Sant's North Portland are obviously hospitable to rambling teenagers at all times.

Know what?  It's okay.  It's that kind of movie and if you don't want to indulge in that kind of movie, then move along, there's nothing to see here.  Yes, it goes for all the cliches -- a bucket list (not identified as such), a lovers-doing-a-million-interesting-zany-things montage, it even has a passionate lover's farewell, but that last provides a key to the film's success, at least for its intended audience (i.e., 15-year-olds of all ages).   That farewell, which threatens to send the film into the goopy sentimentality it has side-stepped, is a fake-out, a goof, a rehearsal far preferable to the IV drip-droning-monitor death scene we know and love from television.

And on the plus side, the there is no phony will-she-or-won't-she live suspense to pull the story off-point.  It's not about cures, miraculous or otherwise.  The film has the courage to point out where it's going, like a narrator or a placard in a Brecht play and then...go there.  Itis not meant to inform us or give us insight into death.  Who has any insight into that undiscover'd country, from whose bourn no traveller returns?  Such stories are -- cliche alert -- always finally about the preciousness of life ("Emily: Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?--every, every minute? Stage Manager: No. Saints and poets, maybe--they do some." If you don't recognize that, Google it or ask your friendly neighborhood English teacher.)

But that is a topic with which the young had an ambivalent relationship.  On the one hand, they live intensely, passionately.  Each day is a month, each month is a decade, eons pass as they hurtle through different friends, enthusiasms, fashions and music.  So each moment is invested with incredible significance.  On the other hand, young people have a wobbly grasp of what a finite resource time is (who doesn't?), believe they will live forever and that there will always be time later for the difficult or the unpleasant things.  Maybe that is why they perversely enjoy rubbing their own noses in the unrelenting fact of death.

And if you want to enter Restless (a terrible title) in the proper spirit, you will have to be one of them, even if for only a brief return visit.

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