F-bombs and bar brawls by-the-sea!


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—

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...
What is Scott criticizing here? We're willing to guess it's this:

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?


  1. Does it matter what liberals think about the working class? How does that affect social programs which HELP the working class, which liberals think matters?

  2. Hi Guys, It's always been just 'Singing Beach'. There is about a half dozen lobster boats working out of the harbor. Those guys do quite well financially. Very well. Their children will go to Harvard, Brown, Wellesley, Radcliff, etc., and some will come back to lobster. I'm pretty sure the only working man's type of 'bar' closed some years back. There are small bar's at the two or three upscale restaurants in town. F'words are as unusual as a blue lobster and can't think of any bar fights in my lifetime. Lots of mansions on and near the water. Very upscale, quiet, off-the-path small ocean-front community as found through-out all of New England. We in Manchester and around the neighboring town's have no clue where the 'by the sea' thing came from but we really don't like it at all. Nobody can possibly confuse Manchester NH with Manchester Mass. It was a pain when they were here making the movie as we could not get into the West Beach parking lot for a bit. The nature of the film ensures I nor anybody I know would want to see it regardless of our beautiful scenery used as the background. This is a movie that should have been made in Gloucester with its working class water-front where there are F'bombs and bar fights, and beautiful scenery.

    1. When I taught at Salem State College, a large % (as much as 25%) of my students were on welfare because of the decline of the fishing industry. They were seeking skills to find jobs in different areas than had been traditional for their families up to that point (this was in the 1990s).

      Coming from an Irish-American family, we heard those F-bombs all the time around the house, especially at family gatherings (e.g., every weekend). Discourse was a lot like that depicted in the movie "The Commitments". Good natured verbal banter and lots of profanity. I also witnessed my relatives in fist-fights with each other, after much drinking. If it traumatized me, I got over it. I did need to relearn how to behave outside that culture.

      My point is that this may not have been Somerby's childhood experience, but saying that it is no one's is untrue. I didn't consider my home life pathological then and I don't now either. F-bombs as normal conversation lose their impact and just don't mean the same thing as in polite families where when they are used, they convey a lot of emotional impact.

      I haven't seen the film and don't intend to. I liked Casey Affleck in that movie about Jessie James. I think he doesn't get enough credit as an actor. Maybe that's why people are making a big fuss about this film. But calling the film unrealistic because you personally haven't lived that life seems wrong to me.

    2. Seems go silly calling it "Salem University" now doesn't it.

  3. "Their children will go to Harvard, Brown, Wellesley, Radcliff, etc....."

    If you say it, it must be true..........

    1. That is what children from wealthy families in the Boston area do. He left out Boston College. Less wealthy go to Boston University, Northeastern University and the UMass campuses. Why would you doubt him on this?

  4. Liberals are extremely emotional people, often emotionally disordered. That would explain why they would construe scene in a film in a particular way that will light up their emotional centers. An ordinary scene featuring a mixture of blacks and whites will be interpreted as racial, preferably offensively racial because that offers a rewarding opportunity to be publicly outraged, and writing about it in a column brings a bonus of self-righteousness. Identity politics provides more opportunities for emotional self-indulgence than other types of political thought.

    1. I agree but it's not just liberals and identity politics. If you listen you Hannity or read conservative blogs it is a non stop self-indulgent pity party of how they are being done wrong. They project that on libs but they eat at that table too. Like gluttons

    2. anon 6:08 - kind of a broad generalization that liberals are "emotionally disturbed." I don't know if I qualify as a liberal, but I don't know if I ever have voted for a Republican. A large proportion of that is antipathy toward most of the things that Republicans have always advocated, and they have been getting worse and worse. But, I think that my side's identity politics, and everything thru racial, sexual, lens is largely misdirected, inaccurate and self-defeating. Occasionally I check out a conservative site - and read the comments. I don't know if people who comment on those sites are representative of the other side but on the whole the commenters seems to be an agglomeration of vile lunatics - what's your response to that (though I doubt you will have one).

    3. AD/MC. Read all the comments you want. Man proposes and God disposes. So I think it's about time you got off your high horse. Liberals like you will sucking on it for years and years and years. Your pathetic lives are about the get much, much more so.

    4. 12:01, I don't know who your God is (the disposable one?), but do you think he's on board with your little hate fest?

    5. Oh, was he the one who said, "hate the sinner, not the sin."?

    6. anon 12:01, as could be predicted you're reply is incoherent and non-responsive. What is pathetic and deranged is the obsessive over the top liberal loathing exemplified by your posts. It would be beneficial to you if you came to realize that the miserable problems you seemingly face in your life are not the fault of liberals. As for our country's and the world's neverendingly intractable problems, liberals and progressives will never make them disappear, no one can, but the foolish election of Trump is likely to make things worse -- possibly not, we'll see.

    7. MF/DA I'd like to thank you for the wisdom you have handed down from the mountaintop and the ignorance and intellectual bovinity tabernacled within and also is like to ask you to please, please continue it as it only prolongs you and your ilk's long, long walk in the cold, dark woods. Keep doing what you're doing, hand in your pants as it has always been. Your dream is over. Read the New York Times. They will always steer you in the right direction, right? The world is about to change in ways you will never fathom. Real men have now taken control and the bedwetters like yourself have no say in the sacred covenant that had been established without you. Sleep tight.

    8. It's all been carefully calibrated to minimize your pain and embarrassment.

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  6. Total downer of a film. Terrible. Sad!

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