Monday, January 12, 2009
It's now been over a month since the last day of the Santa Fe Film Festival and its screening of Jan Troell's Everlasting Moments. I wish I'd found the time and mental endurance to write directly after seeing it; that piece would have been fiery as all hell if a little chaotic. I thought that, given a little time, I could articulate the ways this movie took me and shook me, but it's now clear I'll have to see the film two more times and live four, six, maybe ten more years in this mind and body to untangle and explain the kind of emotional assault this movie dished me. I've been a bit afraid to look this movie in the eye...or to look at this movie in my heart AND THEN ACTUALLY WRITE DOWN WHAT I SEE. (More Emotion? On the page? That sounds hard). But I'll cut myself a bit of a break; I've also been distracted what with moving out of the sweet, sweet nest of the Midwest--those Twin Cities--and into the deep, dark city of sin--New York. And so here I sit, now in New York but still dumbstruck and awkward with Everlasting Moments, though perhaps the wound (yes, wound! 'twas open and bleeding and breathing!) is a little less raw by now.
Ahh, a thing I can't escape: I don't know how to talk about this film with any kind of distance; it instantly became so much a part of me, working over the marrow and the muscle, shaping the neurons and their messages, bringing me closer to some things I know and pushing me toward the vision I want to have. So, I'll work to embrace the first-person and all the emotional language that's bound to come with it. A fair deal I'd say since, given the chance to see this movie (I can't figure out if there's a U.S. distribution deal!), you'll either have a similar relationship to it or else you'll need to understand how this film communicates with things past, things future, things hidden, and things elemental within a person like me.
I report with overwhelming gratitude that Everlasting Moments is a film about what it means to be a woman, what it means to produce images, and what it means to be a woman, wife, and mother who is pulled from her very heart center toward art, images, and a certain vision of the world. Let me quick tell you how it goes: Maria Larssen (Maria Heiskanan) won a Contessa camera in a lottery weeks before she was married to Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt). Years later when Sigge and the rest of the dockworkers go on strike, Maria tries to sell the camera to help support her four children. Shop owner Sebastian Pedersen (Jasper Christensen) "buys" it from her but lets her keep it, insisting she try it before she let such a prized possession go. And then we're off: Maria's relationship with the camera unfolds along side her relationships with Mr. Pedersen, her children, and her increasingly self-centered and terrifying husband. But of course, I wouldn't be here struggling through qualifying paragraphs if these bare narrative bones weren't wrapped in something special.
A female universe builds up from this simple story--'female' not just because the film is stocked with important women and girls but because it's concerned with (NOT "women's problems," but) problems women are often left to deal with. The film dares to work exclusively in the joys, terrors, and moments (everlasting and fleeting) that mostly ladies have the pleasure or burden of navigating. This is something I've barely seen and never seen done this well. Yes, perhaps above all it was a rare experience: to watch a movie and, without taking an uncomfortable series of mental leaps and bounds, see myself, my mother, my idols, and my girlfriends. I stared straight at certain steely-toothed traps of womanhood which I've been fighting to avoid and hoping spare me and in trying to explain how all of this felt (Words! They stack and collapse!), I see most clearly the challenge and thrill of film criticism, which, as a thought-full critic once whispered, is to find ways to bring others into one's personal associations with art.
On that note, there is this pigeon. We see it limp, having its feathers plucked by a young woman's hands, which, we can infer, are connected to a sniffling nose above. The camera pans up and we see oldest daughter Maja (Callin Ohrvall) with tears streaming down her face. She lifts her head as she continues to pluck, "They have such beautiful eyes, mama. It's staring at me!" she yells across the room to her unseen mother. The scene ends there, lasting (I think) only about 5 seconds and leaving me stranded in a memory of an 11 year old girl I once knew in Spain, who sobbed through the entirety of a three-hour televised parade...and then did the same the next day and then the next for the full seven days that the parade ran. I stared at her and she turned her head and lifted her eyes and said to me with tears all over, "It's just too beautiful." The anecdotes aren't the same at all; Maja doesn't really want to be plucking that pigeon while my friend in Spain was exercising an endearing will to stare straight at beauty so strong it made her cry. But, these little ladies spoke to each other through me in that moment and I felt caught in the emotional crossfire like never before.
Of course not every scene in the film had such specific lines of communication with off-screen lives, but every moment of the film did hold a terrifying sort of resonance. Yes, now I see this is a theme and it goes something like this: recognition via subconscious/sub-everything, catharsis, terror!) Resonance: that's what I'm talking about. Much of it unspecific. In fact, as vague and pregnant as a vibration.
Maja finally has her school teacher over for tea. The little girl's eyes reach out with excitement. She looks and reaches to this woman who takes her to new worlds and rewards her for no other reason than her smarts.
A drunk and a fool, Sigge takes his family for a ride in a loaned carriage but he brings the horses to a sprint and loses control of the reins. A hugely pregnant Maria sits patiently by until chaos strikes, at which point she grabs hold of the reins and brings the cart to a halt.
Maria and Sigge enter new ground in a fight but instead of killing her, Sigge just gets her pregnant again. She hears a rumor from a girlfriend about abortion and tries to solve her own problem by jumping off a table again and again.
Maja unblinkingly polishes silver and dusts vases as an old man makes suggestive comments to her. She waits until scary extremes to tell anyone about it.
A little girl named Ingaborg gives up and walks out into a white, shapeless expanse of snow and ice.
Pregnant and in the background, Maria watches as her husband dances with another woman.
Dinners, song and dance routines, and nearly perfect moments which Maria crafts for her family are interrupted by another's selfishness. Her sacrifices--framed by her own generous mind and heart as well-timed gifts--are brought into the shadow of immaturity and greed.
Maria's love persists. She makes things work. She makes do.
Troell saves his movie from the tedium of the list above by giving us complicated people who act from believable places. The film never boils down to just evil men and heroic women and is in fact beautifully (thankfully!) irreducible in that way. Sigge is a terrible husband who gently and tragically grows into that persona. He has the ability to feel things deeply and to sincerely care for others; he just gets so severely lost. In the same vein, Troell pushes his movie far beyond any sort of list of crimes against women, beyond even the realm of narrative, and into the domain of universe-construction. The film's tragic moments glean their power and their subtlety from their position within a rich fabric of glances between women, motherly gestures, clasped hands, secret kisses, and locks of hair. All of it together, this feminine universe resonates.
And then, to bring this thing even closer to something very real and very raw in a young lady like me, a camera enters the picture...as does Mr. Pedersen who handles things--lenses, human beings--so very gently. He has a wrinkly dog that howls its sorrowful howl to the pitch and pace of his violin. Pedersen tells Maria to take the Contessa home and give it a try and then he makes it logistically and emotionally possible for her to do that very thing for the next decade. He takes a lens and makes it shine a shadow (I know, it's possible though!) on Maria's hand. He says, You see a world to be explored, to preserve and describe and convinces her that this is seriously special. Pedersen, in so many ways, shows Maria how necessary it is for her to see the world through her eyes and record that vision. As a lady just learning to truly listen to the people who believe in me and as a lady who is therefore just opening up to the power of those instances of belief, well from here Pedersen seems exceptionally important. His affirmation is quiet but insistent and it forces the dormant vision inside of her to explode open and out and up. She can see; possibility abounds; beauty is here. Her babies' faces, an icicle dripping, a dead body--Maria sees these things as positively brimming and this excites her to no end. As with all my favorite films, among these brimming images and excitement, I was also learning to see. Along the way Maria's education became irrecoverably tangled with my own and Pedersen's gift to her aligned with Troell's gift to me.
Which made it incredibly difficult when Maria is punished, both inadvertently and explicitly, for her passion. Her family's needs infringe in seemingly unavoidable ways as her kids eat up time and accidentally knock over photo projects. Maria learns the process and creates a darkroom from a blanket; she persists in carving out space for this itching, aching, artful thing inside of her, but it's always tinged with guilt. She can never fully escape the feeling that she's being self-centered, indulgent, and a bad mother when taking time to make pictures. Largely due to Sigge's keen use of the camera as a threat and a weapon, photography is framed as irresponsible motherhood and female indulgence even when it's serving as a favor for a mourning family or a money-maker in hard times. And guess what, this too hit a familiar note--a note that was most recently brought into my ear by Who Does She Think She Is, a recent doc that nails these very issues. This balance between personal endeavor and family care-taking, it's a familiar story who's accompanying notions of the indulgent, self-serving woman haunt in strange ways.
All of this being said, one moment above all won the climax of my identification. Perhaps quite naturally, it was Maria's first visit to the movies. She dresses her brood and combs their hair and briefly shouts their plans to Sigge before taking off. She sits in a theater with all of her kids, some very big and some very small, and they watch moving pictures for the first time. Pedersen accompanies with his violin. You can see the light of the screen flicker on Maria's face. You can see film taking hold. And meanwhile, I'm sitting in a seat in a theater and Maria's light is also the light that's flickering on my face and I'm feeling what it's like to finally meet something that had always been inside me and I'm feeling the film take hold and the whole thing is very nearly too much. With Chaplin shining bright and tears running down my face, the tangling of our narratives found a perfect knot. Never has a film's self-referentiality proved so poignant for me and maybe this is because never have I actually felt like I was being addressed. Watching Maria take her female-universe to the movies was a more intimate experience for me than Cinema Paradiso's Toto or American Beauty's Ricky or even Marriage of the Blessed's Mehrí could ever provide. No, this was something new. Everlasting Moments spoke directly to me and my life's awesome cacophony of female voices. And then, with these conversations started and hanging in mid-air, Maria crafts a picture, works quietly in her darkroom, and goes to the movies.
So much resonance it took me a month to finally hear its tones.