Archive for July 2012

On July 20th, an armed man walked into a midnight screening of the just released The Dark Knight Rises, and opened fire into the crowded theater, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. In the wake of the massacre, the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, expressed “sorrow at the senseless tragedy,” adding: “I believe movies are one of the great American art forms and the shared experience of watching a story unfold on screen is an important and joyful pastime. The movie theatre is my home, and the idea that someone would violate that innocent and hopeful place in such an unbearably savage way is devastating to me.” That someone turned out to be named James Holmes. While his identity is now known to the world, his motive remains a mystery. (And it is likely to remain so, even after many “experts” inevitably begin to pronounce themselves on the matter with apparent finality.) So, why would anyone commit such a vicious act against fellow humans? In The Dark Knight (2008), Alfred educates his master: “Some men just want to see the world burn.” Should that be the case, this is hardly a reassuring thought.

As Nolan implies in his statement, Holmes has infringed upon our sense of safety. By turning a movie theater—a place where we usually feel secure—into a death trap, he has reminded us we are never really totally out of harm’s way. In the cruelest way possible, he has reminded us of our inherent vulnerability. Through his senseless deed, perhaps Holmes has achieved something even more deplorable. Faced with actions such as those committed by men like him, we begin to question the current state of our society. We wonder: Is the world going to shit? In this way, Holmes has caused us to lose not only perspective, but also pride in ourselves and faith in our ongoing achievements. While we cannot reclaim the lives of those fellow humans Holmes stole from us, we still have the power to reclaim from him our self-image. We must contemplate with awe (and even respect) the destructive power of Homo sapiens, our ability to wreak so much havoc and pain. Still, we must never forget: since our humble beginnings as prehistoric cavemen, we have, from century to century, managed to slowly strip violence away from the fabric of our lives. When we decide to destroy, we can be darn good at it. Still, growing up as a species, we have been resisting this “talent” of ours more and more.

The fact of the matter is: while there certainly remains ample room for improvement, we live in the least violent century since man first became man. For a timely and ultimately comforting argument that supports this conclusion, see psychologist Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). It is, of course, impossible to predict whether this downward trend in violence will continue to progress. If our past is any indication, however, our future looks rather promising. At 696 pages, Pinker’s book is a voluminous document amounting to a lengthy read. To restore your faith in humanity in a fraction of the time it would take to make your way through Better Angels, however, you cannot do better than watching director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre, an endearing film about good people doing good things. I do not mean to be dismissive here: Le Havre is not a run-of-the-mill feel-good movie. There is absolutely nothing trite or corny about it, and I mean absolutely nothing at all. Le Havre does not revel in the goodness of humans, at least in a sickly sweet sort of way: it merely seeks to showcase it, for our benefit, and, in light of current events, our reassurance.

Le Havre is a modern-day fairy-tale. Our hero is Marcel Marx (André Wilms), an old bohemian who wanders the streets of the titular city, offering his services as a shoe-shiner. His wife, Arletty (Kati Outinen), tends to their home while he is away during the day, until she falls deathly ill and must be hospitalized for intensive treatment. On one fateful day, Marcel meets Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), a young illegal immigrant from Gabon, on the run from authorities seeking to deport him. With the help of his devoted neighbors, Marcel attempts to help Idrissa make his way to London, where his family waits for him.

Stylistically, Le Havre resembles the films of Wes Anderson, in that most of its characters display little affect. Anderson’s films, however, can be alienating: not only do his characters act as if little is happening inside of them, it is rarely clear whether something is actually happening inside of them. As a result, it is hard to feel connected to his characters. Marcel and company, on the other hand, are fully engaging. Under the sentimentally flat surface of Le Havre writhes a wellspring of tender emotion: its principle characters, while not emotionally demonstrative, are men and women of palpable integrity who evidently love and respect each other, as demonstrated by their willingness to stand together in the face of social adversity. And because each character in Le Havre feels they are undeserving of the affection they have been graced with, their lives seem to burn with good fortune. While the visual content of each frame may feature little warmth, these frames manage to soothe and replenish the heart. Indeed, there is something undeniably invigorating about Le Havre: I felt intoxicated after watching it, as if fully enveloped by a warm, pulsating glow.

As humans, we are sensitive to facial expressions, since they carry so much meaningful information. Typically, when watching a film, a significant portion of our attention is allocated to interpreting characters’ faces. This process often results in an emotional reaction in the audience that is either in line or discordant with an emoting character’s inner experience. In fact, to facilitate this reaction, directors often resort to close-ups, which invite us to inspect faces with greater precision. Le Havre allows us to deduce its characters’ psychical experiences in other ways, almost exclusively through easily interpretable words and gestures. By flattening characters’ affect, the film also allows us to deviate some of the attention we usually allocate to the interpretation of faces toward how these words and gestures are making us feel, thereby amplifying the feeling (that of being touched) in the process.

Le Havre will almost surely nurse your faith in humanity back to health, or at the very least give it a small, meaningful boost. Such faith, however, is not blind. It is based on an empirically demonstrable reality: under the right circumstances, humans can be a kind and gentle species. In fact, as we are carried forward in time, and conditions become more and more conducive to the development of our moral character, we appear to take the bait and grow even kinder and gentler. In these concerning times, when ruinous human action brings us to doubt and question our own value, without actual cause, we should all be thankful for and seek out films like Kaurismäki’s Le Havre: watching them allows us to escape and free ourselves, at least only for a moment, from the rapacious tyranny of unwarranted moral self-castigation.