Wednesday, November 21, 2012

This Must Be The Place [2012]

MPAA (R)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

The first thing that I would ask viewers, both American and non, of This Must be the Place (directed and cowritten by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino along with Umberto Contarello) is whether they buy the film's premise.  The film, the director's first written and performed in English, which was released in Europe 6 months ago (in time for this year's Cannes Film Festival) and has received wide critical acclaim over there, will probably initially surprise many American viewers.

The film is about a 40-50 something year-old 70s-80s era American rock-star named Cheyenne (played by Sean Penn) who made a career of writing/performing really soul-searching/depressing songs (others have noted that the character appears to be principally inspired by Robert Smith of The Cure) now living in retirement (arguably in suspended animation) in a palatial estate at the outskirts of Dublin, Ireland.   Cheyenne's wildly rich, but it's clear as day that the money didn't exactly bring him happiness in any conventional sense.  His circle of friends include simply his wife of 35 years Jane (played by Frances McDormand) who he clearly loves and loves him (and was perhaps "the one groupie who actually understood him"), a 20 something neighbor named Mary (played by Eve Hewson) and a nameless coffee shop waiter that Cheyenne keeps trying to set Mary up with (who she, of course, finds boring...).

Now a question could be asked here: Should one really be surprised at Cheyenne's style of life?  In the United States we often imagine the lifestyles of the "rich and famous" to be necessarily exotic.  It's perhaps difficult for us to imagine the lifestyle of a "rich and famous" artist to be ... poor.   Yet, if we are able to scratch below the surface it should become clear that this need not be case.

Perhaps when we Americans see a big-haired male musician with makeup we see a "rich man who's made it" and "can do whatever he wants to."  A European, like this film's director Sorrentino, coming from a culture that has had centuries of experience with gifted (and troubled...) writers, artists and musicians may look on the same person and see someone very different instead: Someone like Milos Forman's Amadeus [1984] (Mozart), Franz Kafka, Vincent Van Gogh or even Michelangelo.  And Cheyenne's big hair, loud dress and makeup need not be understood as a sign of "Godlike independence / sovereignty" but rather as a "cover," as an attempt "to hide."

Hide from what?   Well that's the rest of the movie ... And I do believe that Sorentino is on to something and it makes sense.  Without giving much away here, I simply remember that two of the musicians that I most admired when I was in my late teens / twenties were Pete Townsend of The Who and Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.  BOTH lost fathers as children during World War II and both devoted entire albums, Tommy and The Wall, to the experience.  It turns out that Cheyenne's childhood is linked to that experience, if also differently, as well.

It all makes for a fascinating movie and touches on two insights that I've had in my pastoral work over the years, and that I've written about here before:

(1) When someone looks or acts "strange" there's generally a story behind it.  It's an easy temptation to simply dismiss someone or insult someone as being "stupid," "crazy" etc.  But after lazily putting down the person, then what?  Even if one's right, the far more challenging part is discerning why, and when reaches the end of the process, one almost always feels really, really sorry for having initially put that person down.  A great film that I've previously reviewed here that hits on exactly this theme is Rid of Me [2011] about a young woman who goes through a really really dark period after having been abandoned by her husband.  To onlookers, she would have looked "really, really dark/strange," but if they knew the story, and ...

(2) One of the true horrors of "macro tragedies" like wars is that these tragedies just add another layer of hardship/difficulty to already difficult lives.  One would have imagined that Cheyenne would have had a tough time of it with life even if he didn't have to at least partially carry the burdens added by his father's tragedies.  An excellent film that touched on this theme of how "macro difficulties" just add more layers to already individually difficult lives was the Spanish film Biutiful [2010] in which the principal protagonist was not merely living in the shadows of society as an undocumented alien in Spain but also found himself dying of cancer and worrying about how his troubled wife was going to be able to take care of their kids after he dies ... The having terminal cancer and wondering how his young family was going to deal with his departure would have seemed difficult enough.  To have to worry about all this while living at the shadows of society to begin with made the situation all the worse.

So one looks at someone like Cheyenne with his aging sad face, big hair and make-up and perhaps ... after seeing a film like this ... begins to understand.  So a great job there on the part of the (Italian) director and (largely American) cast.

However, having written what I have above about the film (and largely positively) I go back to my initial question: Do you (do I) completely buy it?  Is the best way to understand the stories/excesses of the "Rock Gods" of the 60s-90s through the lens of a character like Cheyenne (or real rockers Townsend or Waters mentioned above or even Kurt Cobain of Nirvana)? Or were the vast majority of these "Rock Gods" still basically whiny, arrogant, narcissistic and ultimately hedonistic jerks ...?  And to be honest, I'm _not_ sure.  In any case, it makes for a great discussion piece for those of the "Rock Genenation(s)."

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