Kenneth Lonergan is not the most prolific of directors, but when he makes a film it tends to have an impact. So it was with his 2000 classic, You Can Count On Me (reviewed by me here) as well as his recent dramatic effort, Manchester By The Sea.

On one level, Manchester is a story about time. Time overlaps, fuses, and conjoins in interesting ways, due to the non-linear way that Lonergan chose to tell his story. Not only does time overlap, but dialog does as well (overlapping dialog apparently being a favorite technique of Lonergan’s). The weaving of non-linear time and very focused, human, simple and in-the-moment scenes, along with overlaying classical music onto the scenes and transitions (extending Lesley Barber’s original score), gives the film a feeling of both the natural chaos of life and, ironically, of refinement. It is the tension between the two – the sublime and the tragically simple and human – that becomes the almost Zen-like framework through which Lonergan tells his story. This particular film probably could have been edited a dozen different ways, even though the outcome could have been essentially the same.  As Lonergan said in an interview, the only way he could perceive the story being told was ‘all at once’.

This was absolutely by design; Manchester likely evolved into a final film in the editing room in a very real way, with substantial shifts and changes occurring at that stage. manchester-coreyLonergan may have even shot the different aspects of the story without being 100 percent sure of how he would ultimately weave them together. He apparently went through several drafts in writing the script, throwing out many scenes, rewriting others, then starting the process again. The result can be at times confusing, but ultimately satisfying as Lonergan and team meld together various threads of a the tragic tale of handyman Lee Chandler (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) as a pivotal error in his life caused him to lose literally everything, most importantly his two children. The film explores the consequences of that event.

While the story Mr. Lonergan tells is non-linear, the themes are timeless, as is the sea that surrounds the small fishing community where the events take place. The fundamental theme behind the story is one of redemption: how does one redeem oneself after a tragic mistake? Moreover, the film, it seems to me, focuses on the idea of how a person – a man – redeems himself in such a situation through what are essentially very simple actions.

Why would the story necessarily be different for a man than a woman?  I will argue that this story is primarily about the responsibilities that men will often assume, mainly, fixing things in the way that the handyman Lee does. Moreover, the story evokes the necessity an ambiguity of accepting responsibility even where there is no clear ‘blame’ to be had. In the case of Lee, whose error was a simple and yet profound mistake, the question becomes one of context. The context of the mistake is that the character lives in a community that both created the framework of ‘stupid men doing stupid things’ to occur, and then makes it impossible for Lee to rejoin the community and accept their forgiveness – perhaps because there was a collective guilt associated with the deaths of Lee’s children because the tragedy took place as a direct result of a ‘boy’s night of fun’ that took place at Lee’s house, in the basement, where the children slept. His daughter’s deaths were, therefore, a communal responsibility.

That said, there is no real indication that, for the most part, the punishment for Lee’s error came from anywhere else than inside his own head. His wife Randi (played poignantly by Michelle Williams) did ultimately leave him, remarry and have another child. While Lee had a similar manchesterbythesea_traileropportunity for another relationship, he didn’t take it. His choice was not to forgive himself and not really to move on, at least not until the end, where he allows another human being into his life – his nephew who experiences his own personal tragedy.

Within the context of a fairly tolerant society (Lee was not accused of manslaughter) Lee slowly finds redemption through the de facto adoption of his brother’s son Patrick (played effectively by Lucas Hedges) after Patrick’s father’s death (Lee’s brother Joe, played stoically by Kyle Chandler) – even though here Lee is also unable to take on full responsibility for that task and does so in a very cautious, meandering way.

In a world defined by competence, Lee’s error was one of fundamental lapse in his generally competent self as evident in a stupid error. So it could be said of mankind in general, for the problems of the world are very much the problems created by men and their activities – with the efforts at ‘fixing’ things creating more problems than the problems themselves. That men have, for the most part, shaped the modern world, Manchester By The Sea suggests that perhaps is their special place to accept responsibility for making it right. The film also suggests this may be no easy task.

An alternative to a male-dominated world is never really explored, but we are left with a gaping hole in the film, the ‘need’ for someone to step in and take control when nobody really wants to. As with You Can Count On Me, there is an palpable absence in the film that can be, on a simplistic level, defined as God. Or perhaps it is, in this city of fisherman, the Jesus who never shows up, referring to the biblical Jesus who chose to recruit his disciples from among fisherman. On another level, this absence can be defined as the loss of love, or the ability to love one’s self, and to treat one’s self and others with respect.

The self-hatred evident with Lee would, in another era, be fodder for the redemptive role of religion. In this film, the cross is taken on by the individual, who must in a sense take on the role of the Christ in order to find redemption; there is, apparently, no other way for a modern man do so, or so it would seem.  The film lacks any sense of a communal or individual spirituality, outside of an off-the-cuff (and humorous) allusion to Catholicism and the non-consequential appearance of a lone character randomly on the street (played in a cameo by Lonergan himself) who appears briefly (similar to Lonergan’s role as the priest in You Can Count On Me) to chide Lee about his lack of parenting skills.  As with You Can Count On Me, such advice becomes almost comic relief.

Thus suffering, in Lonergan’s tale, is so deep and pervasive that the superficial balm of religion and/or of God can do little to provide comfort. Lee’s mistake, taken as a metaphor for the modern human, puts the only hope for salvation clearly in the hands of mankind itself, and perhaps even more specifically with men themselves, loath as they are nowadays to accept that there may be a sort of universal male attitude problem and inability to mature, particularly in the US, the country that has spread its influence quite effectively in the world, and where the fruits of that influence are a mixed bag, to say the least.

As for the story of Manchester By The Sea, the most moving moment is where Randi forgives Lee. It is in Randi’s forgiveness that the film ultimately speaks to reconciliation and the kind of catharsis that makes for great drama, although again Lee is unable to accept MBTS_3869.CR2Randi’s forgiveness as he can apparently not forgive himself.

At the end of the day, perhaps Manchester By The Sea seems to strike a chord with audiences because it portrays the perceived impossibility of our current world situation, where human beings have created their own hell through their own numerous errors in judgment, and have to somehow either fix it or sink with their own doomed ship.  With the (male defined) world order clearly at risk, and the rise of scapegoating populism, it seems that the forgiveness displayed by Lee’s wife Randi is the only real hope for humanity.

Is this the ‘prescription’ given by Lonergan and Manchester By The Sea? Probably not, as I’m sure Mr. Lonergan would deny the film is in any way prescriptive in nature or perhaps not even recognize some of the comments that I’ve made about his film as being part of his intended result. But still, this is my takeaway and my advice from viewing Manchester By The Sea. For without forgiveness and love – and quietly accepting individual responsibility for our behavior without complaint or expectation of reward – without these qualities, there is only a never ending cycle of hatred and blame.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Don Thompson’s ‘The God of This World’ is recognized by Indie Theater Now as one of the most “interesting, innovative, challenging and pertinent” plays of the past year — one of 12 new plays included in ITN’s ‘Plays and Playwrights 2017’ anthology. gotw-poster-vimeo

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In light of the recent election, I thought this blog might be worth another look…

SolPix Blog

Note: This article was updated in November, 2016 and was originally published in 2010.

When starting nextPix in 2000 one of my personal goals was to form a company that produced and promoted ‘humanistic media.’ Exactly what that means has been a work in progress, as the term humanism itself can take on a variety of meanings depending on who is defining the term.

Humanists, in the traditional sense, are secular in their outlook. They believe that ‘people are the center of all things’ and that scientific rationality, not religion, superstition or spirituality, offer the best answers for humanity’s ills. What I have proposed as defining ‘humanistic media’ is different from the purely secular in that it can and should include what might be called a spiritual or New Humanism as laid out by the late Mario Rodriquez Cobos or the ‘common human values‘ supported by the Dalai Lama in laying the groundwork for World Peace.  Moreover…

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Warning: there are potential spoilers in this review.

We’re living in a transitional time, as evident in the upheaval of Presidential Politics in 2016. To a great extent, Hell or High Water, directed by Scottish director David Mackensie, reflects current trends that can trace themselves back most recently to the financial crisis of 2008, but even further to the Iraq War and further still to the dawn of Reaganomics in the early 80’s.

That the American Dream is not working out for everyone has always been the case, particularly for minorities. It seems, however, that this reality has reached an amplified level of desperation for non-minorities as well – specifically the working white poor – and thus is finding its way more actively into our films and our politics. Hell or High Water, with its desperate White Male protagonist Toby hohw2Howard (played with rugged sensitivity by Chris Pine) who tries to outsmart a Banking system that seems intent on manipulating, cheating and throwing him under the proverbial bus (all legally) becomes the perfect anti-hero for today’s political and social realities. Toby, along with his self-destructive and yet self-sacrificing brother Tanner (played ferociously by Ben Foster), paint a pure picture of the moral morass the United States currently finds itself in.

With this particular drama (and this film certainly rises to the level of drama), there is an attempt to explore not only conflict but also what the ancient Greeks would label stasis, or civil strife. This in turn evokes homeostasis – or the tendency to seek balance and stability. We find that balance here in the Texas Ranger Hamilton, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, as he attempts both to jbfind justice, remind us that we are a nation and community of laws, but in the end tries to empathize and understand what motivated Toby and his brother to rob a string of banks when apparently they (or so he thought) didn’t really need the money.

We see in Ranger Hamilton an essentially fair-minded individual that gives us hope that stability and the rule of law will indeed prevail, even while the clever are allowed to profit. The clever being seen in both the Banking system and in Toby, who out-wits everyone, and in effect uses his own brother as fodder for the system, even as Toby sacrifices himself for his own (seemingly unappreciative) family.

His brother Tanner was the primordial warrior, needing essentially an enemy to fight in order to give him purpose. While unstated, his brother could have easily been a suicidal Iraq war veteran, although the writer (Black List winner Taylor Sheridan) sought not to expand his themes into that territory. One can only ponder the level of social commentary the film could have leveled on US society should Sheridan have taken that path.

Warriors often wreak damage on the innocent, and Tanner is no exception, made painfully evident to Ranger Hamilton when Tanner kills his partner, mixed Native American officer Ranger Alberto tannergunParker (played humbly by Gil Birmingham).  Hamilton’s response becomes a tete-a-tete of revenge-based politics and war, with one side aiming to get revenge on the other in (what seems to many) an endless series of escalations. In the case of Tanner, the war fortunately ends with his death. In real life, such deaths are usually only the catalyst for more atrocities.

That a Native American descendant would be Tanner’s central victim is no small matter, and also prescient, given the current situation with Native Americans and the Dakota Access pipeline. As Tanner exclaimed , he was a ‘The King of the Plains’ and felt he ‘was a Comanche’ (as told nativechildat the Casino to a Native American customer whom threatened him). As such, Tanner too is a sacrificial warrior, with Hamilton (same last name as a US Founding Father!) doing the deed.

It is no small coincidence for this film that among the primary ideas that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the ten dollar bill) sought to defend were private property and the need for Central Banking. It is this property and land, says Ranger Alberto in the best speech in the film, that the White Man is inevitably bound to lose to the Bankers, just as did the Native Americans did to their conquerors. It was apt then, that Ranger Hamilton be the Banker’s defender in this film.

That civilization uses its warriors as sacrificial lambs in order to maintain social stability is a repeated theme in war films, or films of warriors fighting for some sort of local or community justice, and seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Interestingly, the The Magnificent Seven (based on the Seven Samurai) is also having a remake finding itself to the screen. These morally ambiguous stories, where the anti-heroes find themselves fighting ssamuaricorruption for a seemingly unappreciative and/or apathetic society, seem to making their way back to theaters.

Another example of such a film (there are many) that comes to mind would be Michael Mann’s Thief, starring James Caan, where the thief desperately seeks normalcy, only to find that normalcy is an impossibility and a pipe dream. So it is for Toby’s brother Tanner who displays the same kind of self-destructive criminality as found in James Caan’s character in Thief.

As for Hell or High Water, this moral ambiguity is shown as the anti-hero brothers fight against a corrupt system because the brothers did in fact need the money, and the whole scheme was a way to turn the tables on the unfair (either corrupt or borderline corrupt) dealings of their local bank.  Specifically, corruption in the guise of unfair reverse mortgage on their property, a property that Toby had been deeded to by his recently deceased mother and that Toby had found out was sitting on top of a lucrative oil patch.

Hell or High Water also echoes back to a film franchise set during prior transitional political times. During the 70’s, just before Reagan, we had another series of films that one might call reactionary and emblematic of the politics of the time: the Dirty Harry series. Here the steely eyed San Francisco Cop (played iconically by Clint Eastwood) was going to lay the law down on the various threats to the White Man’s dominance of the United States: people of color, immigrants, and other assorted misfits and low lifes.

We can watch closely for a Dirty Harry re-do, with perhaps Donald Trump being the producer.  It may have a limited audience, as Clint Eastwood recently dubbed the millennial generation ‘the Pussy Generation’.

On television, the 70’s had All In The Family (starring Carroll O’Connor), which made fun of conservative politics, but in an oblique way that allowed conservatives themselves to join in on the fun. Hell or High Water, with its social justice meme combined with essentially conservative, libertarian sentiments, uses a similar methodology – allowing the left and right to come together under the same entertainment roof.

Reactionary sensibilities aside, some potentially worthwhile and quintessentially American values are on display in Hell or High Water: those of property ownership, essential fairness and decency, having our children do better than us, financial independence, and rugged individualism are all on display in Hell or High Water.

The film, while on one level a tale of a revolutionary sticking it to the Man, is on the other hand a revelation of human folly. For at the end of the day, the oil that is pumped out of the ground on Toby’s land (now deeded to his Children) may lead to the death of his children’s hope for a future. In clinging to the illusions of past fossil-fuel driven prosperity, Toby may not allow his children the freedom to explore alternatives. This is perhaps the real, off-screen tragedy of Hell or High Water. But then, according to some, we can continue to pump that oil forever, and with no consequence.

But back to Dirty Harry. My sense is that demographics and the preferences of young people have so shifted since the times of Dirty Harry that we will not find a shift in politics to a modern-era Reagan – or certainly not under Donald Trump, who at least for now is trailing at the polls. In today’s harry_callahanworld, the desperate, angry White Male may  have indeed found his match with immigrants, minorities, Soccer Moms and Hillary Clinton, and the resulting resolution may indeed need to be one of peaceful co-existence, or else all these angry White Men can only hope to go down in flames in a sort of nation-wide Waco, Texas confrontation (which occurred under Bill Clinton’s tenure). Let’s hope that’s not the case.

As an interesting side note, Hillary Clinton is the first woman mentioned in this essay.

Don Thompson is an essayist, producer and playwright.

(IndieWire) Summer is chugging along at the specialty box office.

Another acclaimed Sundance 2016 entry, Ira Sachs’ “Little Men” (Magnolia), showed a credible opening in New York and Los Angeles, as two of last week’s Park City 2016 premieres, “Indignation” (Roadside Attractions) and “Gleason” (Open Road), expanded this weekend to varying results.

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(IndieWire) Ted Hope used to talk a lot. In the ’90s, Hope and business partner James Schamus’ Good Machine produced major films from indie stalwarts such as Ang Lee (“The Ice Storm”) and Todd Solondz (“Happiness”).

In the digital age, Hope became a proselytizer for DIY filmmaking, even when he moved away from producing himself. He briefly ran the San Francisco Film Society in 2012 before taking on a job as CEO of streaming site Fandor.

Variety's Massive: The Entertainment Marketing Summit, Los Angeles, America - 10 Mar 2016

Ted Hope – Photo by Rob Latour

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I work with a lot of story tellers, and constantly receive requests for me to help people tell their story. This begs the question: what makes for a good story? How can you, as an individual, tell your story most effectively, whether that be to a client, an audience, a constituency, or a group of friends?

Story telling is very primal to the human experience. Human beings, being social animals, want to gather around the proverbial fire and hear the story shaman spin their magic. The campfiremagic they spin are the myths that explain the values within which we live.

The modern story shaman does something similar, but uses different mediums: sometimes the written word, sometime a moving image, sometimes the spoken word. He or she wants to draw an audience into an experience, to make them forget about themselves for a moment, to transcend themselves and connect with something meaningful.

A common thread among most stories is that they involve conflict. Conflict creates tension and tension creates interest. Conflict often requires a villain. And villains need to be overcome through a process often called ‘the hero’s journey’.

What I’d like to discuss here are methods that can complement and perhaps, in some cases, even move beyond conflict as the focal story telling device. These methods include humor, insight, and empathy. I’ll finish up with a note about being cliché.

Humor is probably the best way to open people up to you as a communicator. Most every good speaker we know of has used humor effectively. You probably remember Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show. Well if you think Johnny Carson was funny you should have heard his sidekick Ed McMahon ‘warm an audience up’ prior to Johnny – all occurring before Johnny’s famous monologue. Once Johnny was on stage, then Ed took a back seat. But Ed himself was an absolutely hilarious speaker. Humor can be key to getting an audience on your side so that you can deliver your message effectively.

Insight is also key. What is insight? Insight is the ability to cut to the core of a problem or insightquestion and distill the fundamental message that invokes the proverbial ‘ah hah’ moment. We all know what those moments are. The best story tellers provide insight and give an audience something to take home. Something to learn, you might say – but that isn’t always just a practical tip or idea. It could be an insight that actually changes an audience’s perspective on things, opens their mind up to see life in a different way. Insight can be transformative.

Empathy is perhaps the most important trait of a good story teller. Empathy allows the story teller to paint a meaningful picture and connect to their audience on a personal, often emotional level.

One documentary filmmaker we worked with told the bitter story of how indigenous people in Colombia were caught between the communist rebel guerrillas and the existing government. The women of the towns began to rise up non-violently and protest the situation. One indigenous woman had trumped up charges brought against her and was taken away from her child and to prison, and all of this after the guerrillas had assassinated her husband.

Her little boy was filmed with a beautiful, missing baby teeth smile on his face because he was, at heart, a happy child with a beautiful mother. During the interview, the child broke into tears at the fact he could not see his mother while she was in prison.

The empathy and compassion the audience feels for the child is palpable, and delivers the message of the story completely and without ambiguity. Such moments of empathy, as long as they avoid the sentimental, can be powerful methods to connect with an audience and tell a story.

Today, most people are somewhat cynical about the story telling tropes rolled out via re-tread story lines. On that note I would provide one last bit of advice that was given to me by a colleague who has worked with hundreds of writers and helps them hone their pitches to agents and publishers.

Avoid the cliché like the plague. Before you’re ready to tell your story, line up your clichés in a sort of firing squad and mow them down like a gun-slinging final tête–à–tête in a Quentin Tarantino movie. Do not be empathetic with clichés. Seek and destroy with relish. Your story will be better as a result.

These few brief tips are my take on what makes a good story. On analysis, you’ll find many of these traits exist not only in good stories, but in great speakers and classic films you enjoy. In other words, they are funny in some way (at least providing comic relief), they give some insight into the state of humanity, and they are empathetic toward their subject and/or characters. While not all modern stories, speakers and films could be said to adhere to these suggestions, the ones that last, are remembered, and loved most often do.

And it seems to me that’s good company to be in.

Don Thompson is a producer and playwright.

Spoiler Alert: some story elements are revealed in this essay.

The word revenant means ‘one who has returned from the dead or from a long absence’.  In the case of Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and written by Iñárritu with Mark Smith, it is DiCaprio’s true-to-history character of Hugh Glass that returns in order to take therevenatrevenge on the man who killed his son. So the story of The Revenant is one of nature and revenge, and nothing more.

That’s the simple part.

The not so simple part is actually analyzing this multi-layered film as a drama that transcends the revenge label to unveil a meditation on the relative nature of good and evil. As such The Revenant speaks to a modern audience who has in many ways lost the meaning of the word drama. The Revenant reintroduces film-goers to this recently problematic word as it explores the primal meaning of the human experience and attempts to strip bare civilized man (I say man because it is a film very much about men) to reveal what lies beneath.

Dramatists, artists and mystics, for the most part, seek to have us question the idea of absolute good and evil and hint at a common humanity that transcends our differences. The alternative is not really drama but more aptly labeled melodrama – what we are typically given in the name of drama.

This Trojan Horse agenda of the dramatist, artist and mystic – this request for us to question our simple and absolute morality – is at the heart of The Revenant. Yet, at the same time, the film portrays the tendency to seek absolutes in a relative world to be at the heart of the human experience, rising from the tendency to hate what brings us pain and to love what brings us pleasure. However, this film reveals, like any good drama will, that this primal human motive in no way shape or form delineates absolute good and evil, which is shown to be a chimera, changeable, relative, and completely dependent on your point of view.

To the Arikara tribe, the Americans are the enemy. To the Pawnee tribe, the French are the enemy.  To the lone Pawnee, the American Hugh Glass is a friend. To Hugh Glass, Fitzgerald is an enemy. To Fitzgerald, Hugh Glass who betrayed his deal with him is the enemy. To the Europeans, the lone Pawnee is an enemy. To the Americans, the Indians in general are the enemy. To the daughter of the Arikara leader, the character of Glass is a hero. To the American Captain, the child-man Bridger is revealed as a hero.  To the Grizzly Bear protecting her cubs and almost killing Hugh Glass, Glass himself is the enemy – and she is in many ways, in her primal protective mode, creating the entire dramatic context of the story.

Who then is the enemy, what then is this evil? Is it really mankind, imposing its will on pristine nature?

‘I leave the revenge to the Creator’, advises the lone Pawnee man to Glass, and Glass echoes this to Fitzgerald later in the story. The film, in conclusion, indicates it is better for human beings not to judge. This, indicates The Revenant, is the wiser path. That said, nature may not be without her own form of judgement.

As I watched The Revenant two other filmmakers came to my mind: Terrence Malick and P.T. Anderson, and more specifically Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Reviews written by myself for Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood can be found here and here.

Misha Petrick has also compared Andrei Tarkovsky‘s visual style to The Revenant in a split screen video here, and Iñárritu himself suggested that Tarkovsky has had a deep influence on him. I have not seen all of Tarkovsky’s films but found the visual comparison compelling. In interviews, Iñárritu also mentions Herzog, Kurosawa, and others as influences on The Revenant.

That said, Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World also seem to me to be visual predecessors to The Revenant. Tree of Life and The New World, like Revenant, had a love affair between nature and the camera (in the case of The Revenant, an entirely new camera technology used to brilliant effect by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The Tree of Life). Regardless, the result is art: the stillness of nature and its pristine framework forms the backdrop for men’s selfish machinations.

Nature, and particularly water, factor heavily in The Revenant as forces of both destruction and renewal. Many of the scenes of Revenant are directly or indirectly associated with streams or rivers. The dual nature of water, as both a destructive and redemptive force, are key to the evolution of the story.  So too in Tree of Life did the river become a redemptive force as the young boy Jack seeks to wash his sins away with the nightgown scene. The water cleanses, renews, and washes away the old in favor of the new.

As in The Tree of LifeThe Revenant shows that humankind’s social reality exists only within the context of a wider nature that is in many ways cold and without mercy. If mercy exists anywhere, The Revenant  shows it to be in the small, individual human gesture, such as when Bridger offers food to the Indian woman or leaves the canteen with Glass with the labyrinth-like design etched on it. The key difference between The Tree of Life and The Revenant is that while the former posits that compassionate choice may exist outside of the individual human and arise out of nature itself, The Revenant  more closely associates any potential compassion with the human realm; thus Tree of Life more directly supports the view that there is some sort of proto-rational, pre-human intelligence that leads us to choose compassion. For The Revenant, the creator God is reflected as a cold and judgmental nature, a nature that is essentially detached unless that detachment is altered by human will.

Tree of Life also suggests a detached universe reflected in the primordial expression of space and time that ultimately seeks a compassionate viewpoint when individual sentience (even animal sentience) arises. To Malick, as expressed in Tree of Life, this detachment could come in the way of an errant asteroid, also hinted at in The Revenant as the meteor flies overhead and lands somewhere in the distance. Both films posit that humanity lives within a certain folly in its obsession with the petty concerns of profit and loss, of pleasure and pain. That is, unless you’re a human being, in which case these petty human considerations are of life and death importance, and the meteor passing overhead is only a brief reminder of potential destruction and judgement from above, quickly forgotten as the next distraction takes hold of one’s consciousness and edges a person such as Fitzgerald in The Revenant to salvage the pelts, get the money, and pave one’s proverbial path to Texas.

It is in the mud that humanity must apparently sludge through in order to find redemption, and receive a glimpse of love and happiness.

What then is this love? Where shall it be found? Does love really present itself only when the proper choices are made, and when mankind turns away from hatred and realizes that nature (or God?) does not really judge us at all, that this too is a concept laid upon a pristine reality by the human mind?

These thoughts and questions meander through my own mind when reflecting back on The Revenant.

As for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood I am reminded that blood, like water, is a primal force as it is in The Revenant. Blood is, it seems, the sacrifice required for growth in this world. So is Hugh Glass ‘reborn’ from the blood and guts from the ‘womb’ of the Horse, just as much as he is almost killed by the bloody attack from the Bear. Nature both gives and takes life, and blood and violence is required. The ‘fall’ into the womb of the horse therevenant3(like a lower realm of hell in Dante’s Inferno) also rebirths Glass into the more hate-filled and obsessive purpose of revenge, whereas prior he had primarily been motivated by the desire to live and breath. It is only the mercy of women, along with restraint in judging Fitzgerald, that eventually leads Glass back to human love.

For P.T. Anderson, violence is also justified, for it makes way for the new. In There Will Be Blood Anderson seems to promote the necessary bloodletting of the weak by the powerful, as the weak would have humanity forever acquiescing and accepting ‘the will of God/Nature’ and suffer needlessly as a result. This luddite thinking must be removed for progress to occur, or so goes the modern myth. Nature and others must be sacrificed, often violently, in the name of human progress, even if that progress ultimately destroys what it sought to merely dominate.

To D.D Lewis’s character Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, those that seek a bloodless world are naïve and stripping mankind of the very force that gives it life and propels humanity forward. Thus Heaven or ‘spirit’, should they exist, are simply bloodless realities that the weak perennially and naively seek in order to escape what cannot be escaped from, the primal force of cold nature that doesn’t give a damn about them.

To the materialist, the ‘spiritual’ scenes in The Revenant of Glass vis-à-vis his wife are but mirages, hallucinations and mad meanderings. To the spiritual, they are visions of a greater, alternative world that transcends the perennial, bloody savagery of human life – no matter how hidden, sublimated, air brushed and ‘oh my goshed’ out of existence it is in our modern era – a savagery that buttresses the material world in its quest for food and shelter. The spiritual person replies that even if such realities are created by a hallucinatory mind, what makes them any less real than the hallucinations therevenant2of money and profit, of the shimmering hope of getting some land in Texas to settle down, as was the hope of the materialist Fitzgerald, a man who mocked God? His hope too, ultimately, was a chimera, a mirage, and a pipe dream. So too might be the very notion of human progress.

Whether ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ (with human beings the two often meld) it seems that human beings need a purpose.

It seems to me that human beings need a purpose in order to keep moving forward materially, artistically, or even spiritually. Without a purpose, whether that be revenge or love, heaven or hell, family or friends, profit or art, people cannot be adequately called human. Perhaps the problem with most of us is that we tend to let others define our purpose, rather than choose it for ourselves.

For the character of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he very much chose his purpose by reacting to circumstances in a certain way.

For 20th Century Fox, an American Studio that put their stamp on an epic, big budget dramatic feature telling a human story that is not a super-hero movie or cartoonish blockbuster – and not gone to their ‘independent’ subsidiary to do so – perhaps that is another return from a long absence, another revenant of sorts. Time will tell.

**
Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist.

 

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