Whether or not I intended it, two movies that both featured Gerard Depardieu followed each other in my Netflix queue : “The Loving Father” acting with his own son, who died of pneumonia last month; and “Changing Times” with Catherine Deneuve. Both movies were about looking back over life -- the regrets and the cherished but possibly imagined love. I don’t think Depardieu will be re-watching the one with his son any time soon -- it might break his heart.
I do not know the real story of Depardieu’s relationship with Guillame, his son, who looks very much -- as one of the imdb.com commenters noticed -- like Julian Sands, the free spirit in the first version of “A Room with a View.” This story, “The Loving Father,” is represented as being created by John Berger’s son as a kind of exorcism of his father’s failure to love him, but the echo I kept getting was Ingmar Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” which is also about the trip of a famous man to Stockholm to receive a Nobel prize. In that classic movie the cold-hearted achiever is accompanied by his daughter-in-law, but he also is taken on a trip of memories that leaves him somewhat redeemed by the transcendent vision of his parents on a picnic, waving from across a stream of water. In this bitter French version the two grown children go overboard from the ferry and in a startling underwater moment, the brother saves the sister. So water is still symbolic of life. The burned-out father is left to go on with a pretense of death which will preserve his reputation. He’s in the far north (the water is frozen?) and the child who comes to his door, as his son once did, is evidently Inuit. What does it mean? Who knows? There’s no table of symbols for reference.
The reviewers split down the middle on both of these films. I think part of the problem is that young viewers are simply impatient with Depardieu’s ox-like massiveness and Deneuve’s grimacing plumped-up mouth. They do not recognize experience. But the older viewers see -- themselves. (If they are so lucky!) In fact, most of us have memories of these two actors as they were in the photo that gets burned in “Changing Times.” The youngsters wanted to see more about the young man with his two lovers, one a woman with a child and the other a young man like himself.
One could simply watch in order to enjoy the scenery. The Cinematheque boys would say that no “Yanks” could understand this movie anyway. We’ll accept Deneuve as a perfume representative but Depardieu? There are few equivalents in the Hollywood star system, though Karl Malden’s nose always comes to my mind. Aron, of Cinematheque, says, “People want TV. Frozen pizza. Just give it to me. Make it what I already know. It can't be different from what I already know . . . It has to be like in a magazine. It has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. All clean and neat. It can't be too creative.” I think Aron is right. This is what American commodified culture is like, whether it’s clothes or movies or food.
This is what our standard American education system rewards: compliance, schedules, curricula, tests. “No child left behind” actually means “no child going his own way.” The threat is that if the child doesn’t conform, there will be no success. So here we are back at the Fifties, except setting up group rendezvous by cell phone. (These two movies show few computers or Internet moments, but the cell phones are everywhere, little buzzing bugs in pockets.) What can be next but the new Sixties?
As usual, the wealthy and connected are able to bail out of this system with all its valuing of adversarial sports and all its de-valuing of the humanities: art, music, dance, literature, by sending their children to private lessons. But the poor and ghettoized are not able to compensate this way. This is fortunate, because they invent their own ways of finding those same disciplines. They paint graffiti on rail cars, make music by pounding on garbage cans, break-dance on sheets of cardboard, and pretty soon what emerges is hip-hop culture that is then made popular by the people who are bored with conformity.
This counter-intuitive cycle is humanly inevitable because it is based on brain-wiring, hearts and community. It cannot be managed. By the time the dance studios on the Montana High-Line are teaching hip-hop steps, the style is dead. Basquiat as a phenomenon of high art instead of a back alley tagger was soon destroyed, cut off from the energy that inspired him. And now formally choreographed garbage-can symphonies tour the country. Oh, those Yanks! Always ready to exploit something.
Actually, “Yanks” as a synonym for Americans doesn’t quite work because the New England sailing ship traders were sharp dealers out for a buck in a way that people in other areas of this association of states were not, notably the indigenous population that was already here when the traders came. There is a US culture, invented by the media, but then there are counter-cultures, sub-cultures, alternative-cultures, under-cultures -- often with their own media and networks. Some are gangs in LA and some are Montessori networks, each evolving along its own path through the labyrinth.
Sitting here at my desk next to a window, I can see past this fat snoring cat to a grove of trees several blocks away that is being whipped hard by wind, making the limbs thrash against the sky. But in my own yard all is still. Both of these Depardieu films have moments of poetry, existential (they are French movies) images of the cosmos that question the whole nature and value of human lives in the most elegant of language. Do Nobel prizes really matter? Are the affairs we have in youth really the incredibly life-affirming events we think they are? Are high achievement and dramatic intimacy -- narcissistic enterprises that they are -- likely to rob our own children of their lives? Or should they stop whining and get on with it?
It appears that this Solstice season will be a “seven plague” event with temps down to thirty below, record high winds, expensive fuel (only gasoline has come down), deep snow, world economic depression, mounting cholera and starvation deaths, and political corruption. What I have learned is that truly facing existential truths like this, “emptying” in the spiritual practice of Kenosis, can be in the end a life-affirming practice. It can sweep away the TV, frozen pizza, glossy magazine stuff that Aron despises, and force us to new terms for creativity, a new transcendent vision.