A pile of beautiful sounds
There is a scene near the end of Living Out Loud where it becomes clear that Judith (played wonderfully by Holly Hunter) has finally, at last, forgiven herself. It's a late-night, dreamlike dénouement for a woman whose life hasn't even remotely turned out the way she might have wanted…but who has finally decided that she's going to take that life and make it her own.
After watching the movie last night, I turned off the TV and the lights with a low-key feeling of enjoyment and satisfaction. It took the hours of sleep for my brain to put the pieces together, to realize just how truly impressive this film was.Much of my frustration with modern film stems from the inability of writers, producers, and directors to understand the difference between Reality, as we live it, and Film Reality. Baz Luhrmann and Darren Aronofsky, for example, live squarely on the Upper East Side of Film Reality, in lovely 70th-floor condos. One of the reasons I appreciate them is because they appreciate—and respect—the difference between celluloid and reality.
I should be careful with my words here, because there are ways of deliberately crossing the boundary between celluloid and reality and making it into fascinating, compelling, eminently watchable movies. The frustration comes when a writer takes conventions, choices, and actions which are acceptable only in celluloid reality and attempts to pass them off as actual reality. The end result might or might not flow, but it's a subtle insult to the audience.
The best example of this is the manufactured happy ending: the most reliable part of most mainstream American comedies, and the part I detest the most. If you watch a standard Hollywood movie for fifteen minutes, you know who your protagonists are. After that, all you need is the movie's runtime. Subtract approximately five minutes from the runtime, and that's when your scheduled "Movie Happy Ending" will happen.
I fully expected this last night.
Within fifteen minutes of the opening sequence, the writer/director had finished what I like to call the "opening gambit"—the portion of the movie in which the main characters are introduced and described. In this case, there were only three characters, and it was immediately obvious who would be what: the lonely divorcée, the equally-lonely elevator man, and the friendly, sassy torch-singer friend.
In Hollywood, the torch-singer would become lifelong buddies with the divorcée, who would in turn fall madly in love with the flawed-but-caring elevator man. In real life, friends meet and then move on, and relationships don't work out, but those events are not mutually exclusive from a happy ending.
I sat down with my lunch this afternoon and put in the DVD again. I watched the last twenty minutes of the movie, and wanted to bounce up and down and cheer when Judith left the club alone, wrapped her shawl around herself, and kept walking.
Life is like that. (To paraphrase a critic whose writing I respect, life is like that in the same way that life is not like Jack Nicholson's character's complete transformation at the end of As Good As It Gets.)
There is a certain freedom in being able to warp and twist reality into your own exaggerated vision of the world. It allows a writer a freer, more liberal hand in the interpretation of events. An accurate, faithful representation of reality on film requires the writer to write not just the surface dialogue and actions that describe events, but to listen for the almost-silent tune that serves as the theme.
Writing it, playing it, shares much similarity with playing improvisational jazz. The individual notes can change, morph, be moved around; the important part is using the notes at your disposal to clarify the theme.
Most movies now sacrifice the theme for individual notes. In the end, you're left with a pile of beautiful sounds that ultimately have no meaning. But when I find one that sees the notes, the individual words and events, as means to a greater end, yes, I really do bounce up and down on my couch.
When Judith wrapped her shawl around her and kept walking, I wanted to hug the director. For trusting his audience to get his message. For trusting his actors to make their characters real. For taking the time to get it right.