Issue December 22, 2009

O come, all ye faithful

Last weekend, I engaged a clever bit of counter-programming.

I took my son to see Wes Anderson’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” instead of James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster “Avatar.” We were among approximately 15 people in the theater. There was no line for tickets. There was no crowd. It was a pleasant and laid-back experience, a rarity in the last week before Christmas. Best of all, the movie was a hoot.

Based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, “Mr. Fox” is the story of an irresponsible/irrepressible father engaging in dangerous activities. A journalist by trade, Mr. Fox dabbles in chicken thievery at night, and these illegal activities put his home and family at risk. However, Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, is delightfully upbeat, even when he is facing almost certain death in order to spare the lives of his loved ones. With a playful whistle and pantomimed tip of the hat, he leaps forth into each new terrifying danger with enthusiasm and aplomb. Yes, his attitude was perhaps a bit delusional, and, as a fictional character, he had the benefit of a clever screenwriter giving him some spectacular close calls and amazing experiences. But his charisma was infectious, even intoxicating.

Meanwhile, this trip to the theater marked a first for my son and me: It was the first time we had gone to see a movie based on a book that he had read but I had not. We had an interesting conversation about the various elements of the movie that were not in the book.

That night, my friend and I stayed home and watched “Tender Mercies,” an old favorite I hadn’t seen in years. An episodic character study of down-and-out country singer Mac Sledge, played by Robert Duvall, this one begins with our hero waking up flat broke in a hotel room after sleeping for two days straight. To his credit, he offers to work off what he owes and quits drinking for the privilege. Thereafter, he finds love and works toward a more grounded life than what he had known previously.

There are anxious moments and tragic events, but Mac faces most of them with a peaceful stoicism that conjures admiration from the viewer. In his final speech, he wonders about the various circumstances that have led him to this place and time, how he survived an automobile accident when he was young only to lose loved ones to other such accidents. He insists that he does not trust happiness, but in the final scene, he is playfully throwing a ball with his stepson. Many years after seeing this one for the first time, I couldn’t keep my eyes from misting.

The next night, I ended my movie bender with another recent release, the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man.” Here, Larry Gopnik (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), a responsible father and a respectable Jew, has had the calm of his suburban life upset by an avalanche of misfortune and happenstance, beginning with an awkward situation involving one of his students and followed by the revelation that his wife wants a divorce. Gopnik’s circumstances are deliciously dark and ordinarily absurd. Fans of the Coens’ “Barton Fink” will probably enjoy many similarities in the tone and approach; the mix of mundane meaninglessness and near-satisfying significances is frustratingly brilliant, but it isn’t an ordinarily rewarding film experience. Gopnik is desperate, but he finds no real solace or assistance anywhere he looks. He ultimately manages to find some small comfort in his son’s bar mitzvah and a reluctant compromise at school. Still, it seems there is a storm coming, and Larry isn’t particularly prepared to handle additional trauma.

I have often felt that my life is like a movie. Who hasn’t? It seems like a modern American affliction. Nobody wants to live an ordinary, simple and productive life anymore, or maybe that kind of life is no longer possible. Worse, it seems like we have all wandered into one of the more bizarre titles in the cult section. Still, if I take anything away from the collection of real movies I saw this weekend, it seems like the best approach to troubling times involves holding true to our principles, responding to difficult people with compassion, and presenting an attitude that engenders confidence and enthusiasm among those around us (even if it is just a bunch of puffing). We can do this.

For further study: Take a deep breath. Repeat as needed.