Dec 28 2016

Manchester by the Sea: muddling through tragedy

maureen

I don’t usually recommend tear-jerkers because there is enough tragedy to deal with in real life, but Manchester By the Sea is so honest, so real, and so captivating that I think it’s worth the vicarious pain. The performances alone are worth seeing. It’s depiction of grief is profoundly genuine. And it considers three really important questions: Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? Is not moving on from our heartbreaks selfish? Are there wounds that just won’t heal?

Lee Chandler must confront all his ghosts when he returns home to deal with his older brother’s death and make provisions for his nephew. Lee is a withdrawn janitor with painful past while his nephew Patrick is a self-centered teen hockey player with two girlfriends and a terrible rock band. The back and forth between Lee and his nephew offers moments of dark humor that pain frequently creates. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges give fantastic, truthful performances. Really, everyone playing the main characters gave spot on performances that made the film feel so real.

Lee’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and conversations with people from his small Massachusetts hometown. Most of them either can’t understand how he hasn’t moved on from the past or can’t stop judging him for what happened in the past. We’ve all known people who seem to take a long time to recover from grief and/or guilt, and some that never seem to. I don’t want to give this movie away, so, even with the spoiler alert, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Manchester By the Sea is full of real people muddling through life’s hard experiences. The story builds to that expected character arc and abruptly ends mid-muddle. Because that’s the way real-life stories are. We don’t all resolve at the same time. Not every experience comes with closure. This story isn’t about closure, it’s about love. In spite of their imperfect processing of devastating events, these characters love each other.

Back to the questions. Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? I was personally affected by this movie because I think I rush this process. This movie made me pause and ask whether people like Lee hide from people like me. I realized that I can’t possible know what it takes to get over something I haven’t experienced. Nor can I know what it’s like to be someone other than myself getting over something I have experienced. So, thanks, author and director Kenneth Lonergan, for the instructive parable. I might never tell anyone to “get over it” again. At least about anything important.

Is refusing to move on selfish? Lee’s pain isolates him from people who care about him. Lee’s pain prevents him from having the relationship with his nephew that his nephew needs from him. Lee knows this but, I think for him, moving on feels selfish. For Lee to move on minimizes the loss he’s experienced and the guilt he feels he owes. Holding onto it makes it remain important. Lee doesn’t know how to process the importance of what happened in the past without allowing it to define him in the present and future.

Are there wounds that just won’t heal? Well, Frodo had to leave Middle Earth to get relief. Maybe Lee can’t survive in Manchester, at least as he is now. The film seems to build a false expectation that all this misery might be be miraculously lifted by letting go, opening up, changing attitudes, or doing something else. But the ending suggests that resolution is not that simple.

One would hope that our relationships with God define us more than the core memories and climactic experiences in our life stories. Nevertheless we all walk around with unresolved pieces of our stories. Faith is not an instant cure for heartbreak or recovery. Forgiveness does not always result in an instant lifting of guilt feelings. God applies His healing balm to our open wounds, over time, often through relationships with others, and later, to our scars. But sometimes our wounds close very slowly, and trying to put a timeline on closure only pours salt on the wound. Manchester By the Sea reminded me that love is patient and kind. We contribute to healing not by trying to “fix” each other or to rush whatever we are processing to resolution, but by loving each other in the unresolved middle of our muddles.


Sep 7 2015

Elliot and Angela’s identity crises in Mr. Robot

maureen

Mr. RobotMr. Robot offers about as unreliable a narrator as you can find. Early in the season Elliot seems part Robin Hood hero, part tech wizard on a mission to take down EvilCorp as a member of F Society. His occasional departures from reality seem attributable to his drug habit. But as the season progresses it becomes clear that Elliot is suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Dissociative identity disorder, aka multiple personalities, according to the show’s creator, Sam Esmail.  

Late in the season the audience discovers that Mr. Robot isn’t real. Whatever happened in Elliot’s childhood to trigger this disorder, he doesn’t feel like himself and can’t fulfill his role as avenging hero, the purpose that defines him, unless he is able to interact with this other ego. 

Throughout the course of the season Elliot alternately rejects and searches for Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot tells him “You’re losing it kid. I’m only supposed to be your prophet. You’re supposed to be my god.” Elliot is too confused and damaged to be able to assume control of his own identity all the time.

Early in he season Elliot argues with Mr. Robot when Elliot refuses to participate in something that will result in deaths, and Mr. Robot tells him that “This is war. People will die.” There are some things Elliot can’t see himself doing but believes need to be done, so Elliot needs Mr. Robot in order to carry them out. Elliot doesn’t want to be god of his own identity. When he awakens to street celebrations after three days in Tyrell’s SUV Elliot is unable to remember “saving the world” from Evil Corp. And so he finds them. Not only Mr. Robot, but his mother, and his younger self who tells him that he will never be free of them, and at this point Elliot seems resigned to that.

Most of the story takes place from Elliot’s perspective, and the audience eventually realizes that his perspective is not reality. At about this point some story lines diverge so that we see Angela’s viewpoint, and the point of view here does not seem clouded by the unreliable narrator, but in a more traditional sense Angela seems uncertain of who she is as well. She waffles a lot. She doesn’t seem to be able to fully commit to a course of action or position. Initially Angela struggles between her desire for EvilCorp to pay for her mother’s death and her own climb up the corporate ladder at AllSafe. Her resolve against EvilCorp grows until she understands the effect going after EvilCorp will have on AllSafe. Then she decides to confront EvilCorp exec Colby, who she holds responsible for her mother’s death. He ends up hiring her to work in the very corporation she tried to take down.

After Colby’s suicide and F Society’s hack, Price’s blatant hubris seems to appall Angela, but then she does exactly what Price tells her to do. Angela needs money so she may simply be accepting the defeated view that personal survival is steeped in moral compromise and necessary alliances with evil. But there is a suggestion at the end of the last show that another Angela is emerging. Perhaps she is experiencing something akin to a spiritual or moral rather than a mental break. At the very least she seems to feel the temptation to draw her identity from this more aggressive, hard-edged Angela.

The people who seem to know who they are and what they are about are Elliot’s sister Darlene and Phillip Price, the head of EvilCorp. While F Society’s attack wreaks havoc on the average technology-dependent business and its own executive commits suicide, EvilCorp’s head honcho Phillip Price throws a party and declares EvilCorp untouchable. He is utterly convinced of his own power. He seems to interpret the reluctance in others to take charge or declare certainty as his right to dominate them. And on top of all that, we discover that Whiterose, leader of the Dark Army, who seemed to be an F Society ally, and Price are collaborators, implying that the same people who always make the rules are still making them in spite of F Society’s attempted financial revolution.

Darlene knows what she wants to do and why. She has a plan and a goal.  The hack takes down the financial conglomerate. After using an animal shelter incinerator to burn evidence, F Society releases the dogs scheduled to be destroyed and turns them out in to the street to fend for themselves. What will those dancing in the street do tomorrow? With her goal realized Darlene seems to feel anticlimactic emptiness. A big question this season leaves hanging is what will people do with freedom, and who is really free?