Saturday, 1 March 2014

Presenting "Motifs in Cinema: 2013" (COMPLETED)

That's what friends are for....

Friendship occupies an unusual place in the list of 13 motifs we’ve been using across this blog-a-thon to remember 2013 in films. Unlike an intangible motif like “appreciation of life” or “disillusionment” where we need to consider whether the film, or its characters, have ideologies which represent them; friendship seems generally straightforward. What movies have characters with friends in them? – and the battle seems half-done. But, that’s the illusion of it. It’s not until you actually put pen to paper and begin considering just what the endless number of 2013 films featuring friendships have to say about it that you realise the presence doesn’t quite suggest the filmmaker has anything say about friendships as a cinematic motif. And, then the realisation of the peculiar way that friendships exist in movies becomes something to think on.

Choose a movie, any random movies from any year; it is almost impossible that some instance of friendship does not make an appearance. But, think of a film that really has something significant to say about friendship – the choices whittle down. This is purely unscientific projection, but I wonder if the constant appearance but the rare examination of friendship in modern cinema has anything to do with real world existences of friendships – that something always seen, but rarely examined.

It’s why in pondering which film to consider first I found myself drawn not to the films with superficial presence of friends but the films that highlighted their absence. I’m breaking my own rule here because really Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis, two flms with two of the loneliest people in movies last year, had little to actively about friendships. Yet I was immediately intrigued at the idea of casting my discussion of the motif from that perspective. It could be because in all their faults and human inclinations for nastiness I found the two to be the characters from 2013 I felt for most. Both Jasmine and Llewyn are taking lonely journeys, and both of them are surrounded by people in the present and the past that they seem friendly towards but both their lives are marked by such a state of marked loneliness it’s difficult to imagine them with real friends. Llewyn is mourning, desperately, for his music-partner Mike – anyone’s guess if it was a true friendship but the way the cyclical nature of the film seems to be a way of dealing with loss makes me think, yes. Jasmine's loss is less philosophical, but in losing her life of high society she has lost all her possessions, friends included. When she angrily tells Ginger of the horror of retail she speaks of having to serve in a store with a former friend who pretend not to see her. “I saw you Erica!” It’s the closest Blue Jasmine comes to examining the role of friends in Jasmine’s life and it’s a terribly bleak scenario. If loss of assets means loss of friendship, and for Llewyn the loss of a single friend means t what does that say about it in our world? What is a true friend?

What is a friend for?

I think the confusion which comes with determining what exactly a friend is accounts for the way filmmakers seem so reticent to actually examine it. Romantic love, for example, has its tropes which are easily identifiable. Family trials are marked by a specific sort of drama, but how to pitch a film where friendship is the focus? What is friendship, even? There are meet-cutes to identify the moment where two kindred spirits vow to be friends forever, it is rare for friendships to be the focus, it’s even rarer for a film to trace the development of two people from acquaintances to friendship.

Enter Gatsby. Ever since I read The Great Gatsby, too young for all of its intricacies, at 14 I’ve never read it again even though its memory has been seared in my brain. As much as the Daisy/Gatsby dynamic endures as one of those poles of romantic love in literature I’ve always been similarly, sometimes more, intrigued by the dynamic of Gatsby and Nick. I suppose it’s that yearning for a full, total examination of something as innocuous as mere friendship that’s made me consistently resist the projection of Gatsby and Nick as a tale of unfulfilled homosexual yearning. The hero-worship aspect of their relationship does have insidious undertones when one wonders if that makes for a healthy friendship but even with its faults I give credit to Baz for making me believe that, yes, this Nick Carraway could have been as misguidedly infatuated with Gatsby to turn up as the only mourner at his funeral. I vacillate on whether I believe the hook of pitching the film as Nick’s memories in a mental institution and the way that Gatsby seems to so profoundly affect and effect change in his life points more to the trope of unrequited love than just friendship. But it is just a manifestation of the eternal question of what a friend is.
How deep should love between friends exit? The prototypical idea of the platonic love of friendship being benign in its goodness is, I think just an illusion.

If there’s one film in 2013 that completely gets friendship so much that all of its main aspects emanate from it, it would be The World’s End.

We’re not your friends, we’re just your fucking enablers.

What Andy doesn’t get at that moment is that they could very well be both. With its ostensible interest in a perverse comedic romp The World’s End ends up pulling the rug out from under us when we realise how dark and desolate its ideology is. There is no Nick Carraway obsessive devotion in the friendships here but they seem darker and even more misguided. When, against their better judgement, Gary King’s friends decide to stand up to their alien visitors in their defence on the surface we’re all shouting, “For friendship!” until Wright so expertly makes us question our own inclinations. There is little remotely healthy about the dynamic between these people. As unexciting as the snatches of them we get at the beginning, when separated are, the film’s ultimate thrust about the sheer folly which comes with human existence casts such a perverse light on this aspect of friendship I find myself justifying Llewyn’s aggressive, deliberate isolation. It reminds me of one of the most evocative lines on friendship (in a movie not about friendship) recently when in Weekend Russell moaned, “They never allow you to be any version of yourself except an old version or the version that they want you to be.” The rejoinder could be “true friends” don’t, but what’s a true friend in any case. The case of true friends, like true love, seems to be a sort of illusory concept of idealism which some might never be lucky to get. So we make do with those around us calling them friends, even if the moniker seems unlikely.

The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort might be as lonely around other people as Llewyn Davis is but unlike Llewyn’s he’s successful in his field so people are drawn to him. His friends are as much his enablers as they are his minions. Not true friends, maybe, but they’ll suffice, with them. The closest thing to an act of goodly pitched friendship might be Jordan’s foolish decision not to turn in his friend Donnie Azoff to the police, an act I’m not sure he deserves. When I think of the way Jordan relates to the people around him, his friends, I remember that scene where he almost resigns from his job only to be met with thundureous applause when he says, you know fuck it, I’m staying here. His closest friends are leading the rally of applause ignoring how detrimental to him. That’s friendship for you, a group of people determined to pull you back into the mud every chance you try to drag yourself out.

Old friends tend to become old habits.

It’s why The Bling Ring and The Kings of Summer – two tales of teenagers trying to create worlds of their own – with the help of their friends end up being the ones I close on. The latter’s ruminations on friendships are more positive but the entire concept of The Bling Ring is nothing without the sort of deference borne out of an off friendship which Marc pays to Rebecca. That teenage desire to impress your friends, prove your worth to them, is responsible for so much imprudent acts in literature from Tom Sawyer all the way to Oliver Twist and it’s what The Bling Ring is built on. The fact that it ends on a note where the ring of friendship is destroyed and no one seems to be reaching out to the other seems to be the death knell in the case of 2013 films' requiem for friendship. Were the relationships in The Bling Ring ever sincere to begin with? It’s one of the reasons maybe why I clung so desperately to The Kings of Summer, a film I always wonder if I’m being too easy on until I watch a part of it again and realise how much it moves me. The Patrick/Joe dynamic in the movie is not completely removed from insidious dynamics like in Gatsby, or The World’s End or even The Bling Ring. The way the friendship exists, with Joe as the mastermind and Patrick as the brawn seems to mirror that inclination for concrete dynamics which old friends seem reluctant to let you grow out of. But, the two seem comfortable in it, and even with the addition of a third member to the party their relationship seems assured. But teenaged friendships are such a weird thing to watch which might be why we are more likely to trace teen friendships in art than adult ones.Because artists know that the nature of friendship is one where as we stand on that brink teetering between child and adult we realise that things cannot remain the same, and nothing makes art as good as loss.

Nothing lasts, people change

The Kings of Summer in a familiar way uses the appearance of young love to threaten to the dynamic between Patrick and Joe. Any childhood tale of friendship necessitates the way our friends help us deal with things like family and love, except here Joe’s infatuation with a girl who prefers Patrick seems too obvious. Except it’s just an incidental tool for the film to point out just how the summer escapade can’t sustain forever. There’s something especially plaintive after that fight where Patrick tries to convince Joe that this friendship is more important than a romance could be and the film and as the film heads into the last few minutes its outlook on friendship seems as dismal as all that’s gone before. Friendships cannot be sustained everyone seems to be telling us. Like Jasmine and Llewyn we will end up alone, alone. Until the final moment of the film, evinced by an admittedly amusing deus ex machina of a snake bite, sees the two meet at a hospital with a terse nod. Later in the car ride home, Joe looks across to the other car to meet Patrick’s eye and they perform one of those banal boyish signs of friendship and the moment makes me relieved that, yes, their relationship has not been destroyed. But there's an underlying there of sadness because, it can't be the same now. As far as friendship goes all has not been lost but just as significant is the certainty that things will not remain the same as they grow old. Not even this friendship.

And, what is friendship? There still seems no real answer. Is the arbitrary teaming up of John Reid and Tonto a case of workplace allies or a case of friendship? When American Hustle seems to cast too much focus on the friendship between Irving and Mayor Carmine I was annoyed at the way Russell never really qualified the relationship. How could they ignore any true focus on the friendship but then turn it into something to mourn for? It wasn’t until later I wondered maybe that was a fair assessment of 2013, though. Maybe that was the way 2013 films existed. Who knows what true friendship is? We saw so many characters clinging to the people around us to qualify our beliefs of our own selves – Carmine to convince himself of his benevolence, Nick hoping to become cooler by proximity to Gatsby, Marc hoping to belong by performing crime. But with friendships formed as a patch to actual human issues there’s no way that they’ll ever manage to truly last. They will become casualties of change, and even if they don’t leave you alone they leave you lonely.

Surrounded by acquaintances, but hardly any true friendships. What a world.

And, onwards to the fine writers and their thoughts on the other 12 motifs in 2013 cinema.

Motifs in Cinema 2013: Themes
  1. Appreciation of Life --- Tim (ANTAGONY AND ECSTASY); Shane (FILM ACTUALLY)
  2. Coming of Age --- Nikhat (BEING NORMA JEANE); Joanna (FOR CINEPHILES BY A CINEFILLE)
  3. Crime and Punishment --- Amir (AMIRESQUE)
  4. Disillusionment --- Jose (POP MATTERS, etc)
  5. Economics and Money --- Courtney (CINEMA AXIS); Stevee (CINEMATIC PARADOX)
  6. Failure --- Nick (CINEMA ROMANTICO)
  7. Family Relationships --- Candice (REEL TALK)
  8. Friendship --- see above
  9. Loneliness and Isolation --- Alex (AND SO IT BEGINS...)
  10. Love and Marriage --- Jessica (THE VELVET CAFE)
  11. Man against society --- Andrew (THE FILM EMPORIUM) Sati (CINEMATIC CORNER)
  12. Reality vs Fantasy --- Maxwell (CINEMAXWELL); Brittani (RAMBLING FILM)
  13. Work and the Workplace --- Paolo (OKINAWA ASSAULT INCIDENT)
Background on the project HERE.


Candice Frederick said...

this was fun! so many great essays!

Brittani Burnham said...

Thanks for putting this together again this year. I love reading them all!

Nick Prigge said...

I had a friend (hey!) who once told me that he rarely saw convincing friendships portrayed in film because Hollywood seemed so much more concerned with romantic relationships.

For as much as I adored "American Hustle", I will grant you that its primary weakness - as I saw it - was that payoff between Irving & Carmine failing to land with any emotional weight. But then, it's all so much about being make-believe, that it doesn't deliver when it gets real seems apropos.

I was not a huge fan of "Gatsby" but seeing it on screen really seems to underscore how much more central the Nick/Gatsby relationship is to that story than Daisy/Gatsby. The latter always lingered in my memory more upon reading the book however long ago. I wonder why that is? Because we all have our Daisy?

An man, I need to see Kings of Summer.