Movie Review: The Necessity of Cliché in “Stranger Than Fiction”

Upon viewing the movie “Stranger Than Fiction,” I had no choice but to begin to do what I always do when a movie doesn’t work for me.  I begin to become aware that I am sitting watching a movie rather than being taken in by the images on the screen.  I become anxious and think about leaving the theatre or hitting stop on my remote.   Despite my initial inclination with this film, I decided to give it a chance, and, gratefully, (in retrospect) watched the entire thing. 

From the very start, we are given cliché, almost too much in the image of the writer (Emma Thompson):  i.e.:  chain-smoker, anxious, reclusive.  Adding to this was some weak dialogue; improbable lines presented in a rough sketch of clichéd ideas about writers, specifically, in this case, writers of tragedy, and what kind of impact (both scholarly and commercially) such a piece of writing might have on the world of literary fiction. 

As the story line unfolds, issues of time and death and significance offer themselves up for a weighty grasp of the existential.  There is both the discussion of life and its personal and social value, the distinctive moral load set against our own mortality and an attempt to deliver some sort of twist in irony, redemptive folly, of clever pun regarding such.  Wrist watches and time, death knells and Shakespeare’s “time’s up, you’re ripe”, “saved in the nick of time” – given, almost, as a comic mystery novel’s clues (even the literal pun made with the presented novel’s fictional character (Will Ferrell) and the author’s real life aim in meeting the publisher’s deadline with “dead line” – the line that ends the novel) all offer some nice directions to go in.  But, without reason, or, maybe because I was uncomfortable with the weight of subject matter set within such playfulness of script, (and, at this point, without the nod to irony) I began creating my own depth.

I had John Berger’s viewing of Van Gogh’s crows in that so significant wheat field.  I had the philosophical argument of art’s value in the vast scheme of humankind in relation to the significance of the sacrificing of one human life (grasped in the film “Bullets Over Broadway”).   I had Antoine de St. Exupery’s “Night Flight” in this ……. I mean, I was, in truth, doing back-flips in my head trying to reach conclusions with concepts about writing and art and truth and life and meaning which were [being] done here, yes, were given as substantive angles, but only mechanically, as mechanically as the fiction itself, and, then, only on the surface and finally, to no avail.

I then began to see the writing itself as the tragedy; the presented image of the writer as protagonist playing key role in the downfall of literature, of good writing, of uniqueness in creativity and promise in the world of contemporary fiction; the latest hero in a field of writing where bad receives as much an accepting readership as good [possibly more?]; where literature has somehow been reduced to formulaic approach and cliché; where the ending of a character’s life becomes as arbitrary in its choosing as does the color necktie one wears to work.  Death is presented here as something understood by taking a glance at a dead body.  Really? 

Then, it all began to take shape.  It finally hit me.  Maybe the author presented here is supposed to be the complete and perfect mirror of the character she’s created?  This is how it usually works anyway. Could the writer be more unknowing than the projected hero of her story?  Is this not the real tragedy?  A writer who has not lived, has not known love, death, or sorrow (nor, even, the eating of a chocolate chip cookie in one’s youth?) attempts to write about all three as if it were possible, as if to succeed in this should only require the inclusion of a gimmick, an arbitrary plot-mover, a contrivance or gratuitous formulaic ending?  Might the resorting to and then accepting of this approach to writing be, instead, the highest form of literary suicide if taken, rather than allowing it to read as ultimate salvation?

Isn’t this film, then, in its perfect Postmodernist angle mirroring exactly where we are regarding surface and depth?  Could this be in its own clever and very deliberate way a conveyance of the democratization of literature in contemporary society via an example of it presented through this movie’s very script?  Is this more of a statement about how we have come to accept surface analysis and cliché as viable forms of communication?  Is this film trying to have us consider, to ask ourselves:  are we as Forrest Gumpish as we were with our philosophical evaluation of life being compared to a box of indiscernible-from-the-outside chocolates?  Could we be any more surface?  Have we reduced writing to fashion?  Is arbitrariness something we now settle for in our attempts to convey truths? 

It is of uncanny interest, also, that the character of the scholar, conveyed to us in the body of a still-virile-looking Dustin Hoffman, is presented to us as comic element.  Hoffman provides the best lines, the richest character, and, the most enjoyment.  But, as sacrifice, we must accept that even his world of Academic Study has become light.   Simplistic plot devices and synopses are presented as pillars of great fiction writing by him, a leading figure in Literature and the Arts.  The closest we get to dissecting this work of fiction being presented to us comes in the form of a Professor of Literature who must while away precious hours of study at the campus pool watching for swim-lane violations amongst his various and buoyant colleagues.  

The film eventually wins me over; doing so, with its ending.  As presented to us, the only way the author’s book can meet greatness is to have the hero die.  Only death, according to this writer’s work, [and, the scholarly critique of it] can save it from mediocrity and move it to gravity and depth.  Therefore, it is most fitting that the ending give us not a plummeting-to-one’s-death jump from a tall building, [which would make this book an instant classic in literature, a masterpiece, and thereby furthering the plummet of distinction in what we consider to be great writing] but, rather, an airy plunge from an indoor pool chair. 

The script writers give us a nice splash ending:  a lightweight jump into a swimming pool.  No death, no depth, and, therefore, according to the film’s premise, no further harm to Literature. Our scholar jumps into a pool of water, touching upon the depths he knows to exist somewhere beneath, somewhere far beyond the surface splash.  We are then to assume that our scholar rises, [for he is our symbol of bobbing hope] returning to the place where the splash occurs, and where the audience and film have been floating all along – right up at the surface.  Hoffman’s pool-side plunge is perfect.  

March 2007

Made in America: Gratefully, another Coen Brothers movie

[Leave it to the Coen Bros. to give us a search for human redemption by posing it in the light of Corporate Production Image-Making Hollywood and extolling [its] sincerest virtues while admitting its ultimate power over us.]

 

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We may not make things anymore in America — but there is one group that still does –  artists.  Artists are the ones still making things.

And, what is it that makes [something] art?  Mix irony with a reflection of the times, reference the past while pushing a progression of form and ….hold the mirror …..steadily.  Cervantes accomplishes this with “Don Quixote” and the Coen Brothers with their latest film “Hail, Caesar!”

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The film has irony play lead – it’s all over the place, and, so too, is the very fabric of our American culture.  The film’s subtitle (A Tale of the Christ) alludes to every other Hollywood production regarding the story of Christ and the lasting power of its image-making.  To depict Christ through a Hollywood lens is the ironic task which is, in itself, impossible, unless we allow the Coen Bros. to give it a try.  From George Clooney’s  Caesar-like Roman centurion to Scarlett Johansson’s Mary Magdalene to Channing Tatum’s Judas Iscariot, the Coen Bros. end up presenting us a full cast of redemptive characters.  Alluding to the power and production of Hollywood filmmaking and flipping everything on its head, the film ends up portraying not only the perfect Christ figure in the lead role played by Josh Brolin, but the glorious high craft to be found in a Hollywood production itself, [capitalist money-making machine and all] – in the most wonderful (so-grateful-for) movie-making light.
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As for the film’s topical stance, free-market capitalism has been second-guessed lately in our politics, and, religion, as always, is in constant battle to maintain a palatable image in spite of itself.  We have a more socialist agenda offered our political conversation, an ongoing iconoclasm with religious ideology and an ever-growing understanding of differing faiths due to such media depictions, and, the current economic crisis of inequality and whisperings of a re-distribution of wealth.  Socio-economics, politics of religion, and the power of Hollywood image-making (our American culture) all end up as grist for the film’s mirror-holding mill.

“Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke: 20:24

As history admits, there are no things of Caesar apart from God –; it is always economics that determines the path taken, and, this film unfolds as giant parable with Clooney (as film star Baird Whitlock) giving us both a Roman officer with heartfelt compassion for the dying Christ and an unlikely prospect for preaching Marxist theory.

Allusions and irony continue with Josh Brolin as our Christ figure, taking the lead role not by faith alone, but by deed. Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, in his search for his own redemption – ends up revealing that he is our true redeemer, all in the sacrifice of self [missing hours of sleep, spending time with his wife, watching his son play ball], and the saving (actor’s job, star’s reputation) of others.  It is the action taken (the deed so often left out in the practicing Christian; we love to quote the New Testament but we rarely follow in deed) and not simply the words “in the script” given us that matters.  (Only when Clooney acts on the lines given him do we become moved, awed, and rendered [as with all great art] speechless.)

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And the Coen Brothers don’t miss anything with their N. T. allusions: Mannix’s 40 days in the wilderness temptation played out in a Chinese restaurant with the devil as Lockheed representative waving an employment contract; (a Scriptural three times) – ( the choice to create or destroy mankind – yet another layer of irony with the Hollywood film industry always taking a hit for “destroying culture” by its making); his agony in Gethsemane unfolding in the confessional – unveiling doubts and seeking help from the Father.  And, Mannix , (again, our Christ) calling in a board of experts from all religious angles to see if his depiction will stand up to the pillars of all the faiths.   And what do the Coen Bros. give us when asked if there is any problem with the film’s portrayal of Christ?  Orthodox Christianity ends up questioning the technical magic of the editing in the film’s chariot scene in asking “how can he jump from one to the other so quickly?” — [and, this, from one who believes that Jesus walked on water?] and, our  Hebrew scholar, after countering with his own belief structure ends up with the apt and comically delivered “I’ve no opinion”.

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“Hail, Caesar!” is a brilliant work of art – for it does what all art is capable of doing – allowing us to see ourselves in it, in the sharpest light, with irony as one of its strongest tools.

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As with all of the Coen Brothers’s films, the angles used to approach are always comic-tragic.  In “H., C.!” the dark passage in our history of the blacklisting of Hollywood writers is, too, twisted sharply : – an injustice shown not with due sympathy, but rather, in double-edged irony with a roomful of bickering self-interested writers [standing in for the pillars of Marxist –Socialist ideal] extolling communism’s virtues of brotherhood and looking out for the little guy while seemingly not even able to tolerate each other in the same room.  At the same time, such socialist virtues of camaraderie and loyalty are shown to us in the character of the Hollywood Industry instead.  “I’ll do whatever it takes to say that line right, Mr. Lau-rentz” – says Hobey Doyle. “I want to do it for the picture.” The picture is what matters. We’re all in this together.

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Our human flaws, failed theories, all our faults lie not in the stars, but in our inability to see them in ourselves.

Nothing is ever clear-cut, black and white –no theory good on paper (just the lines written on a page (script or Scripture) can do much until it is put into practice — until acted upon – in deed.  Then we can see if the picture works, the words come alive, the economic theory applies, the illusion succeeds.

And, as for artists being the only ones making things these days while our economic portrait gets painted elsewhere, “Hail, Caesar!” pays homage not only to our Hollywood Pictures, but ensures us that any other country taking on the once-Made-in-the-USA manufacturing of goods will not be able to make for us our creative culture.  We’re stuck with it –our Hollywood, and according to the lens the Coen Bros. give us, it’s not a bad deal:  the art that we get in return is more than worth it.

Feb. 8, 2016