Fables and Nests
June 24, 2009 1 Comment
Your thoughts about names and the responsibility of labeling things correctly were quite lovely. I wonder if pen names can be considered honest at all, when they offer such a supreme cloak of distance. Somebody said, but I didn’t say. I could have said, but instead, Somebody said. And yet, anonymity also allows for increased honesty, increased exposure of the most vulnerable and wobbly parts of things (our opinions on what is cool, our hopes in love, the things that we do not want our parents to know we think). And what do we do here, my wonderful pen pal, if not fully wear the caftan of “us but not us” as we write under two of the best pen names a Millicent and a Carla Fran could have?
But your post also connects to some thoughts I had while watching Away We Go. I don’t think you have seen the film yet, and I encourage you to not read the rest of the post here until you have, because I am going to talk about it as if you have seen it: I am going to chat about plot points with little regard for spoil or alert. But, before that, let me go ahead and with all caps say SPOILER ALERT, which I just realized I would want on a t-shirt, especially if I was a psychic or prophet.
So, the good news is that the movie was in no way as irritating or quirky as reviews had led me to believe. In general, I found it to be round and authentic and apt. It took on a bit of the Apatow set design of real living, but with much less jizz humor, and it would be interesting to do a side by side comparison with Knocked Up. Both movies face the issue of how to prepare to be a parent, how to find your adult place in the world, and look at models of the possible miseries ahead. But Away We Go has a lot of love for both of its protagonists; neither of them are a plot device for the other’s growth. The couple is solid in a way that most films would rather not look at: there is no climactic fight and revelation, no betrayal, and no stutter step toward the commitment and the future. They are young and attractive, they aren’t ridiculously wealthy (for some reason, I adore that there wasn’t a quick assumption that they could afford all kinds of travel and self-finding), and they treat each other nicely without the standard treacle.
But, the movie doesn’t love all its characters equally. While Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character is a funny little dagger, it is ultimately a cruel one that is about as flat and over-the-top as they come. This great review from the New York Times suggested that Burt and Verona exist in a world where only they are sainted enough to be three dimensional and fair minded. In the world of the movie, yes, besides Verona’s sister and Burt’s brother, they are adrift in a sea of caricature. I almost don’t mind this because I think it connects to that important theme of carving out an adulthood. Perhaps the extreme amount of caricature is just trying to do clean work by emphasizing how much of the world doesn’t match one’s perspective, and how alienating other people can be. Who feels that they fully fit, that their parents’ worldviews are parallel to theirs, that the growned uppest friends are inspirations instead of terrors and cautionary tales?
Of course, in its press for clean lines, the movie skips an important part of this particular puzzle, and thus becomes more of a fable than a real take. For being two such charming people, Burt and Verona have no friends. Zero. The cast they visit throughout the movie is either family or distant acquaintance. There is not an email, phone call, or reference to a single person that they love outside of their little world. By including like minded friends, the premise of picking up and leaving would have been fuzzier, and Burt and Verona couldn’t stand in such full contrast to the world they are navigating. Plus, it is harder to land full and final judgment on friends, but it’s a quick guiltless leap for family and distant relations. This could also be a metaphor for family life, as it does seem that once people family up, they implode upon each other with less and less time for expanding friendships. The couple does feel sealed off from the world, but isn’t that what nesting is?
The end of the movie struck me for both its easy grace, which I almost mean as a compliment here, and for its ghost dance with the parent child continuum. The home they have been looking for ends up to be Verona’s empty childhood house. It has chandeliers, a breeze and a view, and a staircase just meant for children to run down. So that we understand the house isn’t ostentatious, it has chipping paint and a rusted tin shed out front. The movie starts in deep winter in New England, and ends with the more pregnant couple sweating in a deep southern breeze on the waterfront. Lovely. My question is, is perhaps the best home to raise a child the childhood that you have made peace with? In fact, by returning to her childhood home, to a childhood landscape that Verona mentions early on as ideal and unruly, isn’t she professing a supreme self love (child rearing is a bit of a narcissistic endeavor)? Child, grow up as I did, and in a way, be me again. This is possible in the movie because Verona’s beloved parents are both dead. By choosing this house, she can give her parents the supreme compliment of wishing for a repeat performance, of returning to them. By having children, we do become our parents, but I feel like the movie’s end takes the hard parts out of this, and makes it tender and scenic, again a fable.
They temper this by showing Verona’s emotional work of return, and the pain of her parent’s death, which I appreciate even if it was still a quick lob. The movie moves fast, makes some easy jumps and events pile up very helpfully for the narrative. But, I never once groaned out loud.
I also very much like the final presentation of parenthood and adulthood: an empty house, a familiar one, and a landscape that is settled, exotic, even lush, and waiting to grow around them. If it was a full on fable, vines would curl around their doorway and bloom as they sat, indeed sealing them off, but in the way that life does when there are are graces waiting for you, and perhaps elves and gnomes at the corner of the page.
A movie that did similar work, but with a more delicate and complex reach was the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It seems a true hurdle of adulthood (one I haven’t climbed–inflexible hamstrings) is making a world of your own without fear of what you have seen so far, and with the extra nut of not assuming that fearlessness equals protection.
I wonder if this movie will be dated in 5 years, or as Mr. Carla Fran guessed, 5 months. I wonder if 17-year-olds will see this and sigh, or if it is our generation’s turn at stories of early middle age.
Either way, I recommend the movie, though think it would make for an awkward second or third date.
* PS: As a final nitpick, the movie did a major disservice to doulas. Burt says something along the lines “only dads who don’t want to be involved or don’t know what they are doing need doulas,” after the terrifying mother superior (Maggie Gyllenhaal) asks who their doula is. I am constantly working against the stereotype that only mamas who use slings and have midwives use doulas. Doulas help dads help mama. They don’t get in the way. And unterrible people use doulas. Really.
*PPS: There looks like there is a slew of quirky down to earth romantic comedies coming out, including one charmer called Paper Heart. Maybe the bromance has led us to this, the real person anti-formula (always starring Michael Cera).
*PPPS: This post bumps my ode to my cat off our list of recent posts. This makes me sad, so I’m throwing a link to it here.