Tuesday, 23 February 2016

True Tales

“Joy” and “Spotlight”

In 1991 Joy Mangano sold her first commercial design, the Miracle Mop, through infomercials on the home shopping network QVC. In 1994 David O. Russell released his first commercial feature film, Spanking the Monkey. The initial experience of a work is hardly ever meant to be an allegorical reading – even Orwell intended for readers to enjoy Animal Farm first as a story about talking barnyard creatures, and only afterwards as an allegory for Stalinist Russia – but after seeing (and, one hopes, immensely enjoying) Joy, the new film by Russell based on the life of Mangano, viewers can very easily fill in for themselves the connections and parallels between the life and experiences of Mangano that Russell depicts, and the ones he himself underwent around the same time. And it works only to make the entire endeavour even more rewarding.

Joy stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy Mangano, and though I have no idea whether she fits the bills of appearance and manner for the real-life woman, such considerations are secondary to the exhilarating dramatic and emotional intensity that she imparts in the role. It seems to be the performance that Lawrence has unintentionally been training for, for years. She arrives in the film bearing the tenacity and self-reliance of Katniss Everdeen, the emotional precariousness (such as she then could muster) of Tiffany Maxwell, the unfuckwithable-ness of Rosalyn Rosenfeld, and the slight air of a superior and detached shape-shifting mutant. She adds to this everything else she’s learned, both in her private and her public life, inside and out of fictional roles, and is guided by Russell towards the most full-bodied, challenging, and exultant work she’s ever given. But, after all, she’s playing the character which, I suspect, lies closest to her writer-director’s heart.

Joy is introduced to us as a single mother struggling financially and emotionally, and whose very identity, as a result, has been damagingly suppressed. She is a born inventor, a creator of ingenious devices and designs intended to solve direct and practical problems. Joy’s grandmother’s voiceover narration informs us that she’s always been skilled with her hands, and she easily crafts small figures and their houses out of paper in a childhood flashback. Russell also successfully evokes the glowing yet baffled imaginative energy and determination in the early scenes, when Joy is faced with, and must quickly handle, a number of problems in the house that accommodates her and her family – her mother, Terri (Virginia Madsen), who spends her days in bed watching garish soap operas; her grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), Joy’s benevolent spark of encouragement and support; her ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez), who, though she divorced him two years before, still lives in Joy’s basement; and her two children. Her best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco) drops by and offers a few moments of leisure, and her half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), frequently shows up and disparages Joy in front of her children. Their father, Rudy (Robert DeNiro), also moves into the basement after his third wife leaves him, and his continual clashes with Tony add to Joy’s rising burdens. In short, her home is far less than a hearth of comfort and cheer, and these troubles manage to beat down the creative impulse Joy exhibited as a child – but only for a while.

When an afternoon of hard cleaning work impels her to design and invent a special, “self-wringing” mop, Joy must throw everything she has into the production and sale of her product. The obvious reason is to save herself and her family from the dire financial difficulties in which they find themselves, but what Russell makes equally clear is that Joy is striving for her very identity. Her small manufacturing firm that she sets up with an investment of capital by her father’s new girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini) is beset with problems that will, apparently, never cease. The executive at QVC who handles her initial sale (Bradley Cooper) makes a seemingly fatal blunder, which threatens to leave Joy worse off than she ever was before. Mysterious businessmen from arbitrary corners of the country and the planet proclaim that her product borders on intellectual property theft. Joy fights every obstacle, railing and sneering and hissing and declaiming at the unsuspecting men and women who obstruct her path. She blows through factory floors and conference rooms with a pitch that quite perceptibly has her very soul attached to it. Joy grapples the world for the chance to turn loose on it her inventions, because she knows it’s a real opportunity to deliver her family from a wary life, and because she knows the alternative is to decline and peter out, set for an obscured existence of dwindling towards oblivion. Joy fights to assert her being, her essence upon her world, and to leave her mark, as any young determined creator must – as the young Russell must have, to have arrived here.

Some real-life stories are so engrossing, they absorb their audience no matter who tells them and how. Granted, the knowledge that the events took place and the characters existed in the real world is a significant part of what confers them with this pull, but that can hardly count against them. One such story is the one we’re told in Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s cinematic account of the Boston Globe’s expose of the Boston Roman Catholic Archdiocese, which harboured child-raping clergymen and covered up their crimes for decades. The story is now well known to most educated people around the world: a considerable portion of priests and brothers (about 6%, according to the film’s script) raped the children in their care; if ever a victim did decide to speak up about it, the story would be suppressed and the case would be settled directly between the victim and the Church, who offered a small sum of money to each victim for their silence, and completely avoided any state or legal intervention. Offending clergymen were then transferred to another parish, under anodyne pretenses such as poor health; and entire communities, who can hardly have been totally unsuspecting, nevertheless kept quiet on the matter and continued, faithfully and dutifully, to attend Mass and trust in their clergy.

This, however, is only background to the film, which recounts the efforts of the Globe’s investigative team – for which the film is named – to uncover the story, ably carrying us through their questioning, probing, reading, leafing, yawning, gasping, eye-widening, and ultimate (though inhibited and modest) back-patting and mournful head-nodding. The script, written by McCarthy together with Josh Singer, is remarkably streamlined, dispensing the facts of the story in quick details, and conveying the audience neatly from beginning to end with no mystery and no confusion about what’s gone on. In short, the story (as you can read in any review of any newspaper that troubles to mention the film) is flung to centre stage, cast in a pool of light, and skillfully wrought to get the message across.

But story should never be more than a secondary consideration in cinema (nor in literature, for that matter). The story is a mere vehicle, a means to an end, where the end is the expression of the filmmakers’ ideas and visions. The story of this film is, as I offhandedly demonstrated above, far more easily laid out in print, and also more easily taken in that way. An accomplished magazine writer could flesh out the story of Spotlight, with even more detail and a higher propensity for sympathy from the audience, and that version would take less time for an interested reader to take in as well. The question to which each film must provide an answer is why viewers should come to see its rendering of a story – as opposed to reading about it, hearing about it from a friend, or just staying at home and missing it entirely.

Unfortunately, it’s a question that Spotlight comes up short in answering. What cinema and literature possess that journalism doesn’t (and the film is nothing if not a paean to journalism) is an evocation of experiences and worldviews, the capacity for profound and surprising emotional insight by way of language itself in literature, and images themselves in cinema. Unlike David O. Russell’s surprisingly beautiful artistic method of sketching in the broad and deep experiences of his main character in Joy with his camera, McCarthy uses his images for nothing of the sort. The human elements of the investigation – journalists’ inhibitions, hesitations, intellectual and emotional conflicts, sense of bafflement, of being overwhelmed, decisions made against personal interests – are entirely omitted. Even the actors’ performances, competent and professional as those actors are, eliminate any elements of personality and distinctiveness. Their efforts, too, are subordinated to fact and chronology, and work alternately to fill in the plot and to lifelessly replicate the details of actual events (Mark Ruffalo’s fidgeting and slouching, for example, are not subtle and inflected gestures of personality, but faithful imitations of the quirks of the real-life character he plays).

Spotlight applauds those who condemned and exposed a prominent and particularly revolting case of modern day cruelty and suppression. It therefore does not exactly stick its neck out in some bold, last-ditch moral stand, and nor do those who praise it for doing so. Alas, it’s aesthetic standing is in the same constrained, restricted region, and yet the self-righteousness of the loud, blunt yelpers for justice (who really have no place in the discussion of the arts) have enveloped it in a shroud of piety and smugness. Of such things, too, can Oscar buzz be made.

Image: www.foxmovies.com
Image: www.openroadfilms.com

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