Friday, April 08, 2011

Where Teardrops Fly

In my unending quest to revel in and understand the progression of the woman's picture, I watched one of the biggest hits of this century, in that regard, anyway - The Notebook. It had been in my Que for some time and I had flirted with the idea of torturing D with it, but last night, I found an opportunity to indulge.

Of course it would be moot to regale the film with its conservative trappings. It's a contemporary melodrama, and as Peter Brooks clearly states in The Melodramatic Imagination, melodrama is fundamentally conservative since it stages a returning-to of conventional or conservative values that have been marred or transgressed. It's still peculiar in certain aesthetic decisions how this conservativism is played out. The most surface qualm is the film's treatment of black figures. In the film's past (most of it takes place in the early 40s), the black maid adopts a mammy voice and countenance. There's a scene in which Ryan Gosling engages in a jig with a little poor black kid. This scene is obviously intended to indicate the abject poverty that Gosling maintains. You can placate yourself by reminding that, "this is the past and this is how they choose to represent it." But then when you flash forward to the nursing home, where our elderly couple (James Garner and Gena Rowlands) are looked after by an exclusively black staff, things become a tad less tidy.

Besides this blaring faux pas, there's little by way of conflict. The film struck me as decidedly post-modern in the way power roles are delineated. The adorable Ryan Gosling is cast merely to brood, a projection of some female fantasy in which boys gestate in abeyance for their lost ladies, ever hoping they'll return. He refurbishes this big, stately white mansion (see, it's ALL about reparation), to such a degree that he event claims at one point that his efforts borderline madness. And in his large white house he longs for Rachel McAdams.

There's lots of women's picture conventions being tossed about here - summer flings, wicked parents, stolen letters, pining. But it's odd that the ultimate weight of the film is carried by our elderly couple. Really, the historical story is about as milquetoast as its actors and, when they just sort of end up together for the rest of their lives with little fuss, you're like "Where's the story there?"

There isn't one. The story rests in their older incarnations who are fighting a failing heart (in the strong body of the man) and dementia (ah, the pathology of woman). She shouldn't come to at all, but every day he reads to her from this book of their life together. She wrote it before the onset so he could remind her. And, as if by miracle (a rather poorly rendered miracle by cinematic conventions, I must say), she returns to him for little stolen periods - five or so minutes at best. And let the teardrops fall.

Which they did. I'd be lying if I told you I didn't cry. But as I did, I posted on facebook something I said to myself, "Me, crying: And it wasn't even a compelling story!" There's a lot of theory about there about crying at movies - most of which I've read. What struck me as really bizarre here, and inept despite my waterworks, was how death or finality as this looming phobic enterprise is the impetus for all of this sobbing. This narrative of a couple who spend their entire lives together moaning because they must part. It's not a big stretch to feel not sorry for them. This is no Peter Ibbetson in which the dreamland and, ultimately, heaven is the only space in which they can be together. No, what is really the crux of all this drama is just finality and death. All things end. Which seems really moot and unimpressive on paper, but I suppose it still works. And here, it's spiritual moment of attainment is not even plausible. There's all this talk floating around about miracles, about how, when Rowlands recalls her life-long love in her breaks from dementia, it's "a miracle." While I'm sure it's really wonderful, these moments of reparation, director kin de Cassavetes embellishes these scenes with no pomp or flourish, so that they read on film more banal than divine. Cause without these elements, the film's close, where the couple lay side by side and decide that their love is strong enough to lead them off this mortal coil in unison, you just don't buy it. Nothing has prepared us for this rowing finale. Except, of course, our hope that even in death we are full of life.

As I type, across the street, a funeral procession is going with two white horses, like the scene from Imitation of Life. Initially I cynically wondered to myself whether the funeral directors didn't have an Annie package. But then I realized that this person, dying in 2011, could possibly have seen Annie's funeral and that this could be an approximation. Perhaps it's not. But it's a haunting idea considering the obsession/fear with and of death that The Notebook parades as the romantic comedy of the decade.


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