Friday, November 14, 2008

Rachel Getting Married, Masked (live theater)

Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008) (Oxford) Not really an inspiring title, is it? I mean, what are we talking about here? My Best Friend's Wedding? Runaway Bride? The Wedding Planner?

Now I don't mean to suggest that there are no good wedding movies out there, as a situation so rife with emotion and potential conflicts/resolutions is surely prime fodder for film making - think Muriel's Wedding or even Four Weddings and a Funeral - but all the same, the prospect of a wedding movie does not generally whet my appetite...

The Critics Speak
But Rachel Getting Married..well, I don't even know where to start. Metacritic, a site that compiles Internet movie reviews and assigns an aggregate score based on those critiques is not a bad place. Besides the professional critics referenced for RGM, which gave the movie an average score of 82%, there are 49 "user opinions" listed with an average score of 5.1/10.

What I mean to suggest by this is that while the critics have pretty universally praised RGM, the film has polarized viewers - at least five rated the movie a "0" and at least two rated it a "10." Let's look at a few samples:

"0" : "One of the most boring movies I have ever seen. The characters were all unlikable. Too much talk and not enough action. Awful!"

"0" : "I was about to throw up at the bridal dinner when guest after guest made stupid toasts. This movie meandered along at a snails pace. After an hour I had had enough and walked out. I could care less about any of the characters."

"9" : "If you like your films realistic, this is the one for you. It doesn't serve the lowest common denominator by explaining everyone's history and intentions. Instead it respects the viewer (or observer as the case seems to be). And the pacing and subtlety are perfect."

"10" : "It speaks beautifully to how life-changing tragic events are never fully processed or "moved past" by those immediately affected or possibly causal toward same. The film tackles this subject matter relentlessly, and successfully. A masterpiece of compassion."

The Blogger Speaks
Well I think that this polarization is a good thing - and I was immensely impressed with RGM.

No, there are no explosions or car chases or sex scenes to distract you from the often unpleasant emotions and ideas that are being raised. You are forced to squirm in your seat through Kim's brutally uncomfortable wedding toast, you are supposed to notice the repetitive nature of the complaints aired - because these characters have been making these complaints for years, and we are meant to be as sick of hearing them as everyone in the movie is.

And no, these are no particularly likable characters, but they are strong characters that do not pull their punches (literally at times) or try to placate each other. They are so unvarnished and blunt that I can understand that it is uncomfortable for viewers more accustomed to post-processed cookie-cutter film making (a la Runaway Bride or The Wedding Planner) - it feels almost indecent to be a voyeur in some of these scenes.

After all is said and done, this is a character movie with no princess to save, no jealous rival to thwart, no potty humor to elicit guffaws, and no triumph just in time for a tearfully joyful conclusion at 110 minutes or so. The characters elicit emotions in the viewer that are not pleasant to experience - love, compassion, loneliness, fear, helplessness - but are testaments to the power of film making. Demme reaches into your heart and mind and prods and pushes at your most secret fears and doubts and hopes and dreams and demands that you pay them heed.

And I applaud him for this - because this is what I feel that all great filmmakers are striving for, and I don't believe that they should limit this effort only to sweetness and light. The comparison that popped into my head during the movie was the level of insecurity and anxiety elicited by Ang Lee's 1997 masterpiece of modern cinema, The Ice Storm, or even Deepa Mehta's Heaven on Earth (reviewed earlier on this site).

Sometimes movies are escapism and distraction, and that is great, as I love to disappear into another world and forget my troubles. But sometimes films can edify us on a deeply personal level, uncovering and allowing us to examine pieces of ourselves that we've never seen - or never admitted to. Rachel Getting Married is such a film.

Patience Running Thin
More than a week ago CTV ran a review of movies currently at, or soon to play in, local theaters, implying in the process that Kristin Scott Thomas' French-language film I Have Loved You for So Long was waiting in the wings. However, it has yet to appear in Halifax, and I am beginning to fear that it will pass us by...I'll keep you updated!

Masked (Neptune Theater)
I also wanted to comment briefly on a play that I saw last night at Halifax's Neptune Theater. My friend Theo did a fantastic job portraying one of three Palestinian brothers who are watching their childhood bond deteriorate even as society crumbles around them under the weight of the occupation.

The play deals with heavy themes, focusing on the inevitable reality of collaboration with an occupying authority, and how this degrades and demoralizes all that are affected by it.

Much like Rachel Getting Married, this is a character study where extreme personalities are clashing in circumstances that bring powerful emotions into play. Also like RGM, there is no slow build-up - in this case the play is unrelenting from its opening moment, with scenes cut in a choppy fashion that is accentuated by loud, hard music and the theater being plunged into sudden darkness.

Another interesting facet of Masked is that it is an exercise in limited location, which film buffs will be familiar with from classics such as Hitchcock's Lifeboat. In this case I think that the use of limited location is a powerful way of evoking the situation of the Palestinian people in the play's physical set. The entire play occurs in one room in the back of a butcher shop, where the brothers blow off their anger and fear and frustration as if they were in a high-pressure canister - much as the Palestinian people are every day locked into the crowded occupied territories and inevitably end up clashing with each other.

My main reason for bringing this play up, however, is to share the pure joy of watching live theater and to urge readers to patronize a local show. It is beautiful to watch the actors: at the beginning of the stage they are naturally slightly stiff and a little self-conscious, but in a matter of minutes we see them begin to soften, settle in and feel comfortable in their character's skin.

This transformation is something we lose in films, and is the essence of the actor's craft. While loving the perfect finish of a well-made movie at the multiplex, let's not forget the opportunity to see the basic genius of the actor's craft at the local playhouse :)

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