When I lived in Philly, I had a memorable conversation with a clerk at Beaux Arts Video about the Up documentaries (56 Up arrives at the MFA in Houston in two short months). The fellow- he and I were both somewhere in our twenties- had so far avoided seeing any of the series, in which a group of people have aged in real time in films that have been faithfully released every 7 years since the 1960s.
I thought this an injustice. I tried my best to convey to the clerk what a transformative experience these films can be- each is a masterpiece of editing that reaches back across time and jigsaws a story out of moments chosen carefully from every stage of the subjects' lives, unearthing truths about, among many other things, how we change, what shapes us in our journeys, and how we remain the same people we always were.
Yet the clerk was resolute. He explained that he was living his life as a young person and had no interest in coming to terms with whatever he might find in such a project. In fact, he admitted that he was afraid of the possibilities in such a film, how it might shake him, like getting bad news on a visit to the doctor.
I thought back to my own first encounter with the films- in college, I had watched them in a carrel at the library- and I realized I understood his point of view. In particular, the 28 Up and 35 Up films had profoundly shaken me, because these were the ages at which many of the subjects realized that doors seemed to closing, that life decisions needed to be made with finality, that the spinning cloud of possibilities and opportunities they'd been mesmerized by- or terrified by- through their young adulthood was starting to fade into a memory. They were saddled with mortgages, stepping into roles as mothers and fathers, and starting to consider the needs of their aging parents, and it was all happening, to my viewing eyes, much too rapidly.
Now that I am actually 35 and find myself living out all of these eventualities- albeit with an amazing wife by my side- I consider none of it to be the slightest bit depressing. And perhaps I won't ever truly comprehend my own mortality, but the fact that I can watch the Up films now without getting nearly as frightened as I first was- not to mention watch films like Biutiful and Amour, and read this (spectacular) article by Tim Kreider in the New York Times without getting terribly upset- must represent progress.
So now, I actually want to find more films to give me the kind of jolt that the Up films once did, because I'm starting to understand that of all the wonderful things cinema can do, the most impressive thing of all is how profoundly it can bring us in touch with life's coldest realities and actually help us face and accept them. I don't think I'd be going too far to say that Biutiful by Alejandro González Iñárritu and Amour by Michael Haneke, two tragic films Jamie and I have seen recently, each in their own way improved me as a person.
The world of Iñárritu's Biutiful might seem too tragic and a bit too romantic to be considered a confrontation of reality, but it has a powerful message and it succeeded in selling it to me: there is nothing in life that is wonderful that is not inextricably connected to difficulty, pain, sorrow, and/or destruction, and conversely, there is no misery that doesn't tow something beautiful in its wake. For example, Uxbal, the protagonist, has only one great romantic love in his life that we ever learn about, and they sway heartbreakingly from enemies to lovers and back; we see what they could be as a couple, but then we see the poison that will never let that happen.
For me, this film was the experience of drifting toward this realization about beauty, about simultaneously with the protagonist, Uxbal, who also drifts toward it, and reaches his greatest moment of understanding and acceptance in a strip club. And that is a mind-bending and gutsy scene; it happens right on the heels of a tragedy, and the proportions of that tragedy, and the evening activities Uxbal chases his feelings with, both fairly test the limberness of the audience's imagination. Or, perhaps, they test our understanding of the film's premise itself: that we can experience no joy in life, and no beauty, until we accept that we're just going to have to be miserable at the same time that we're happy.
But it really is a beautiful film- in the film's signature shot, captured in a still on the movie poster, Iñárritu's camera follows Uxbal (Javier Bardem) as he shambles through Barcelona traffic on foot, onto a bridge, and- in an undoubtedly unplanned moment- reacts poignantly to a flock of birds that wheel over his head. There is a passion here, a force compelling the tellers to tell this story and make us understand.
The same could perhaps be said about Michael Haneke's Amour, currently an awards-season sensation that has somehow earned less than $1 million in the United States. Yet beauty is hard to come by in the world of Amour. Come to think of it, I don't think the audience ever takes a step outside for the entire film- we mostly just shuffle around the apartment of the old Parisian couple, helpless, doomed to witness the misery of the wife's slow decline and what it is doing to the husband. Now this is sad, and it's about as tough to face as anything I've ever seen in a film. But even the grim assignment of watching Amour has made me a more complete human; I have not truly experienced the events in the film, but I am closer to understanding them than I ever could have been otherwise. Nothing other than a movie really works this way.