Is this a film about race: This past Thursday night, Anderson Cooper aired two worthwhile segments about white working-class Trump voters.
During the 8 o'clock hour, Martin Savidge reported from West Virginia coal country. During the 9 o'clock hour, Van Jones was back in Trumbull County, Ohio, exploring the view from the Rust Belt.
We thought those reports were valuable. Over here in our own liberal bubble, we're so eager to display our lack of racial bias that we sometimes race to display our class bias.
We offer sweeping generalizations about the (bad) motives of Those People in the white working class. Intellectually and politically, this is a dumb way to roll.
That said, we've spent a good chunk of the week thinking about a movie we saw last Sunday. The movie is Manchester by the Sea, which we largely found groan-inducing.
Many others have liked it a lot; reactions to films are like that. For ourselves, we bring some history to the film, and to the review of the film by the New York Times' A. O. Scott.
We're so old that we can remember when Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts went by a humbler name—plain old Manchester, Mass. In 1989, the name of the town was officially changed, first in a town meeting vote, then in an act by the Massachusetts legislature.
Way back when, we would go Manchester's famous Singing Sand Beach, whose actual name, we now learn, seems to be Singing Beach. Whatever! The widely-praised movie is named for this town, in which it was filmed.
Let's start with a point which either is or isn't irrelevant.
In real life, Manchester-by-the-Sea isn't a "working class fishing village," as the fictional town has been described in quite a few reviews. In real life, Manchester-by-the-Sea is an upscale North Shore community with a median family income of $143,750 (2010 census).
The real-life town is small and upscale. But to tell you the truth, that's pretty much the way the fictional town looks in the film. In the film, the town doesn't look like a fishing village, and it doesn't look working-class. That hasn't stopped reviewers from copying text from the film's press releases—from doing what they're told.
In the film, the town doesn't look working-class, but its characters act like they're working class, at least in Hollywood terms. That is to say, they shower one another with F-bombs as they live in their large, middle-class looking homes and prepare their middle-class looking children for college.
They also seem to punch other people whenever they enter a bar. No one seems to mind them doing this, and no one gets arrested. That seemed slightly odd to us.
Back on November 17, A. O. Scott reviewed the film for the New York Times. He gave it what seemed like a glowing review, but he didn't make it a "Critic's Pick." Also, his review may have ended slightly strangely.
In the last seven grafs of his lengthy review, Scott offered an analysis which gave some readers pause. He also said something with which we may not completely disagree. He seemed to say that the film is ripped from today's headlines, race and gender wise:
SCOTT (11/17/16): But "Manchester by the Sea" is not only about Lee and his family, and not only about their houses and boats and drinking habits and marriages. It is also about what all those things mean, and what kinds of sentimental and ideological value are attached to them. The movie takes up, indirectly and perhaps inadvertently but powerfully and unmistakably, a subject that has lately reinserted itself dramatically into American political discourse. It's a movie, that is, about the sorrows of white men.Scott continued from there. "Maybe its sounds like I'm over-reading, or making an accusation," he eventually said. "But to deny that 'Manchester by the Sea' has a racial dimension is to underestimate its honesty and overlook its difficult relevance."
Does Manchester by the Sea "have a racial dimension?" Truth to tell, we're not entirely sure what Scott meant by that.
Scott went on for seven grafs exploring the film in terms of "the prerogatives of whiteness" and the nation's "myths of post-ethnic -class white identity." (That's the way that second phrase was punctuated, perhaps by a puzzled Times editor.)
To us, it isn't clear what point Scott was making. And uh-oh! As sometimes happens when we try too hard, he was soon saying this:
SCOTT: Cast out of this working man's paradise, [the Casey Affleck character] is also exiled from the prerogatives of whiteness. He lives in a basement room, earning minimum wage, answering to an African-American boss and accepting a tip from a black tenant whose toilet he has cleaned and repaired. He doesn't complain, but it is also clear that he has chosen these conditions as a form of self-abasement, as punishment for his sins.Does the Affleck character see "answering to an African-American boss" as "a form of self-abasement?"
We saw no sign of that in the film. At least one commenter was unpleasant enough to wonder if that perspective had perhaps emanated from Scott's own racist head!
Is this film a study of race in some way? We'd have to say that Scott was stretching a bit. We don't think he established or even defined his point.
That said, we think this film could be said to "be about" class in more obvious ways. Let's start with a comment by a reader who, like us, didn't like this film much at all.
We didn't like Manchester by the Sea. We were surprised by how poor it seemed. We found it groan-inducing.
In part, that may be because we've seen lesser versions of the film's dysfunctions played out in real life, in those same accents no less. We don't think such turmoil is humorous, though this is alleged to be one of the film's many gifts.
An observer in Hollywood was underwhelmed too. We'll highlight one remark:
COMMENTER FROM HOLLYWOOD: You need to go into this movie with full foreknowledge of what happened in the past, the circumstances of the family, and the reasons for its dysfunction, no problem it seems for Mr. Scott. There's no love, or if there is, it must be in code. No setup, but lots of jumping-around-in-time confusion. How am I supposed to care about the one-expression anti-hero as victim, who seems to create his own "mistakes" leading to incredible misfortunes? The writer/director needs to sit down with a book about story story story, how to fuel ideas, and how to order scenes. The editor could have been a little more helpful in that regard. I did not believe a word of what I watched. I tried hard. Every sentence is uttered with a sprinkling of the f-word, even between family members, parents, children and friends. And btw, if that's how some parts of Boston society works, it's no wonder we're lost..."I did not believe a word of what I watched?" We basically felt that way too.
More specifically, we didn't believe that that's the way families talk to each other. Let's narrow that down even further—we didn't believe the film's widely praised, interruption-based conversations came from lived experience.
It seemed to us that those conversations came out of somebody's head. It seemed to us that that's the way a writer believed that people in working-class villages talk.
As Scott whimsically notes, this widely praised film "is a product of the Damon-Affleck industrial complex." In films which emerge from that complex, Hollywood actors tend to fashion themselves as members of Boston's white working class.
We get our F-bombs; we see bar fights. We get to hear those accents. Hollywood actors' effete public images get toughened a bit in the balance. Is it possible that we're also getting sold a bill of goods—and perhaps a soupcon of class bias?
Like that commenter, we didn't believe what we saw in this film. We didn't believe that it came from real life. It seemed to us that it came out of Kenneth Lonergan's upscale Manhattan-based head.
Beyond that, it didn't seem to us that Lonergan actually cares about the people we saw in the film. Consider what Scott said on the Diane Rehm Show, explaining why he didn't pick Manchester by the Sea as one of the year's top ten.
Scott said he "has problems with the story." We'll guess we know what he meant:
SCOTT (12/12/16): I'm not quite as in love with "Manchester By the Sea" as a lot of other critics. I mean, I think that the—the writing is superb, the acting is superb. I have some problems with the story, actually. I mean, I think that there is a kind of melodramatic inflation of emotion. There's something that happens that I won't say, or that is revealed to have happened, that explains the state that the Casey Affleck character is in that—What is Scott criticizing here? We're willing to guess it's this:
I couldn't write about this in my review because it would be a spoiler but that I objected to, and tend to object to, when things like this happen in a story. So it was flawed for me...
Midway through this film, the story turns on a major catastrophe. This catastrophe "explains the state that the Casey Affleck character is in."
This is a major catastrophe. We'll guess that Scott is objecting to the cheap-but-easy practice of building a story around such a gigantic event. Beyond that, though, we'll also say this:
The film ignores the catastrophes which are already happening, in two different families, before this operatic catastrophe occurs. In that sense, the film is built on an easy narrative hook, but it ignores the life which is on display before that hook appears.
Shortly before that catastrophe, we see another catastrophe even as it is occurring. Three children are sleeping in their rooms, or perhaps they're trying to sleep, as their mother and father loudly empty their bank of F-bombs on each other. Quite a few "A-holes" fly around too, delivered in Boston accents.
In another home, we see a child ushered upstairs as his mother lies half-naked and unconscious on the living room sofa. Kenneth Lonergan shows no sign of caring about these gruesome events, or about these children, with which and with whom he entertains us.
Who are the people in this film? Does the writer care? We were struck by the basic facts we never learned about these two families in the working class fishing village which looks like nothing of the sort:
What did the Affleck character do for a living before he became a janitor? What did his brother do for a living?
Were they commercial fishermen? Is this fact ever made clear?
To whom did that fishing boat belong? Was it used for commercial fishing, or was it just used for pleasure? Who exactly was that other guy? Little of this is made clear.
We also learn nothing about the women in this film. Why was the half-naked woman unconscious? Why was the other woman showering her husband with loud F-bombs with her children right upstairs?
Later in the film, we're rewarded with an excursion to the new home of the half-naked woman. She is now a stereotypical crackpot Christian, with a new husband who seems to be fashioned on the cruel, second-husband pastor in Fanny and Alexander, a film which does care about the children named in its title.
These crackpot Christians today! From the Little Boxes exterior of this couple's home to the ridiculous end of the portrait, we're treated to the standard put-down of the religious right. This is what lives inside Lonergan's head. The world would perhaps be a better place had he just left it there.
Catastrophes are being played out before the catastrophe occurs. Lonergan doesn't seem to care about the children involved, or about the women. Or even about the men!
That said, many people love Manchester by the Sea. In the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday ended her review like this:
HORNADAY (11/25/16): In case the point isn’t obvious by now, “Manchester by the Sea” is a tear-jerker, made all the more so by Lonergan’s steadfast unwillingness to indulge in tidy reversals of heart or convenient happy endings. In that way, this might be the most joy-inspiring movie of the year, proving that there’s still space in the cinematic universe for genuine compassion rather than cheesy uplift; rigorous honesty rather than pandering manipulation. “Manchester by the Sea” is a film of surpassing beauty and heart. Even at its most melancholy depths, it brims with candid, earnest, indefatigable life.We know Hornaday a tiny tad. We've loved her work ever since her glowing review of Blue Crush.
Still, we're puzzled by that reaction (which many people share). We don't have the slightest idea where the "joy" is by the end of this film. To our eye, another young person—he's now 16—is getting remarkably little help from the adults around him.
He deserves a lot more help, but he still seems to be surrounded by a lack of emotional "life." Along the way, though, we've seen a film which brims with F-bombs and bar brawls and truly awful dysfunction.
In our view, Scott was stretching when he tried to see this as a film about race. In the end, we wouldn't say that this is a film "about class."
That said, we liberals swim in a sea of class derision which we aren't inclined to challenge and aren't real skilled at seeing. In this film, the naked lady ends up a prude. We're invited to chortle.
F-bombs fly all around in the night as Daddy acts out in the basement. Why wasn't that a sufficient problem in this film-by-the-sea?