Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Goodbye Then and Hello

If I had had to list my favorite directors of films, I probably would not have put Anthony Minghella at the top of the list. I probably would have not even thought of him – he would have completely slipped my mind.

Having only done a handful of films, he hadn't a very distinctive style that you could necessarily recognize from a glance at the screen. Watch a film by Kubrick, Welles, Bergman, Mike Leigh – hell, even hacks like Spielberg – and there's a very definitive look and feel to the work. However, at least one of his films affected me rather deeply through a combination of a good story, casting, and all of those things, but for being the exact right film at the exact right time.

I have never gone back and watched The English Patient since my first viewing of it out in Boulder, Colorado. In between jobs, I had the day free and caught a matinee while everyone else I knew was at work. At possibly the lowest point in my life, I'd been battling a rather deep depression through the foolproof methods of social isolation and a punitive regimen of very, very excessive alcohol consumption.

Generally, I'd recommend against downer films about doomed romances when you're not particularly feeling chipper and when your chosen recreation activities involve blackouts, nausea, voluntary dementia, and further depression, but I hadn't any real idea of what the film was about going into it. I'd simply heard enormous Oscar buzz, critical acclaim, based on a well-respected literary novel, and a talented cast.

Armed with two pocket flasks of gin, I repaired to the local cineplex, settled myself in, got that eager, excited feeling I get when a film is about to start, and sometime, in the middle of the film, began a slow, methodical sobbing.

The film was in part responsible for this, an eruption of deep welled emotion that likely would have manifested itself in other, less healthy ways, no doubt. With its long, unwinding story of regret and failure, the film's sentiments, not its specifics, touched a raw, painful chord inside me. A writer tends to be a big sack full of crap, odd remnants of conversations, curious observations, a variably sized stockpile of recriminations and laments, and a fanciful bent toward imagining things differently from how they currently stand.

At that moment, things did not stand very well with me, and The English Patient resonated profoundly. Things had been much better at one point, things were nowhere near so bleak for me as for the characters, and, quite possibly, things would get better in time. Acting as a kind of emetic, Minghella's movie allowed me to experience a successful catharsis in a very raw form. I wept. I wept for the characters and I wept for myself. I wept for about an hour and a half in the theater, I slunk out the exit in the actual theater screening room weeping, drove home in a haze of tears, then sat in the backyard staring at the Flatiron Mountains through a continuing downpour of tears.

This was, however cleansing a moment, not the end of the depression, which would last a few more months, but a signal turning point that marked the slow process of throwing off this crippling despondency. Again, I haven't ever watched the film more than that one time, but something about it had that most salutatory of effects that art can have, that of throwing open the doors of your human empathy, making you feel for the plight of others, making you intensely feel the universality of human emotions and human desires. At its best, art of this kind fixes you at once in your unique individuality and your most banal similarities, doing a kind of double duty. You are Everyone and No One at one and the same time.

The effect is immensely disturbing in a very good way.

To repeat though, this isn't exactly a valid criticism of Minghella as a film maker. Cinematically, the period pieces tend toward the lush with excruciating attention to detail and a palette of warm, vivid colors and images. Elsewhere, he turns himself with decidedly less success to offbeat romantic comedies such as Truly Madly Deeply, the story of a love affair that goes on (and gets stranger) after death and Mr. Wonderful, about trying to find a perfect husband for your ex-wife. His strengths, though, did lie in these period piece adaptations.

I hadn't read any of Patricia Highsmith's work when The Wife and I sat down to watch Minghella's adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley but I didn't waste much time after finishing it before I was immersed in her writing.

What Minghella does with that translation to the screen is bring to a boiling point a latent homoeroticism from the novel as well as a lyrical melancholy. Highsmith's work is filled with a sinister element that turns the least thing into a threat, and Minghella manages to capture that sense of dread and suffuses his film with a similar anxiety. There is something highly unsettling about art that manages the above mentioned trick of fixing you in your place among humanity by making you sympathize with killers and the worst kind of criminals. In a different way, we are shown something true about ourselves that many of us shirk from realizing: we are but different circumstances away from murder ourselves.

Once more, the effect of such a realization is immensely disturbing. Perhaps decidedly less pleasantly so, but not a whit the less eye-opening.

I haven't seen any of Mr. Minghella's more recent output, but his recent death has made me mindful of the understated qualities of his craft and has decided me to become more intimate with it. What hidden treasures of realization lurk within only time will tell.

1 comment:

Alley Cat said...

Sounds like The English Patient came at the right time in your life. For someone who's been as far down in the bottle as you claim you were, you've done one heckuva job of turning your life around. Your reward is a lovely wife and probably (in your eyes) the sweetest, most intelligent, most precious little girl in the world. Good job, kiddo!