11 November 2013

#2LR: Nihilism, starring Grave of the Fireflies (among others)

When autumn begins, late September, it's still warm but getting a bit cooler... and it's nice to get that cool after the heat of August.  October brings a bit cooler weather, but here in the northern Midwest, we are treated to one of Nature's greatest exhibitions -- the trees putting on a show of color change, all putting on costumes just like the children do for Halloween.

For me though, there's two times of year that are the most depressing.  Late February, just because winter always seems to take forever and I'm more than done with it at that point.  And... now, mid- to late-November, most of the way through autumn.  Each nice day is thought to be the last nice day for months... today, 10 November, was mild in the sun and refreshing in the breeze.  Half of the yard was raked in the twenty minutes or so that I had free (from preparing dinner).

The next two days are scheduled to be below freezing.  And oh yeah, did I neglect to mention last year's completely unnecessary unemployment adventure?  There's definitely that too, memories of Novembers past that have sucked the bag.

So, how do I celebrate this time of year, when the outside is getting ready to get buried under a blanket of solid water in the form of snow, ice, and sleet for three months and the bad feelings start taking hold?  By watching depressing movies, of course!

Saturday night was the first level of depressing, watching the Will Smith vehicle Seven Pounds.  It is the SPOILER SPACE story of a man who texts while driving, causing an accident that takes the lives of seven people, including his fiancee.  This leads to Will Smith killing himself so that he can serve as a one-stop organ bank for seven other people while he kills himself to atone for what he's done.  There's not a whole lot else to say about the movie, except for the fact that the Will Smith character had a small chance to turn back... he ended up getting involved with one of the seven people, a woman with congenital heart disease.  Even this is not enough for the Will Smith character to rethink his plan to die, and the movie ends with Katniss' mentor getting his eyes back.  Sorry, Woody Harrelson, you're even LESS believable as a dramatic actor... and you're standing next to the friggin' Fresh Prince of Bel-Air!  I don't know who's lost worse... Woody, or the American Public.  SPOILER SPACE OVER

So!  I knew enough to only pay a half-eye's worth of attention to the movie, especially after reading the Wikipedia entry for it and realizing that what little I was watching was even more unbelievable than the plot synopsis made it out to be.  That truly pales in comparison to the star of the weekend, the incredibly depressing Grave of the Fireflies

In this, SPOILER SPACE, Japan is in the last throes of war.  Seita, a ~14 or so year old boy and his ~4 or so year old sister Setsuko find themselves orphaned towards the end of World War II in one of the firebombings carried out by American bombers.  They attempt to live with the one family member they know of, their auntie in the country.  After bringing luxury foods to the aunt's house, the aunt and Seita sorta-kinda fight over food, with the aunt constantly getting in passive-aggressive digs at the fact that Seita's not helping (despite the fact that Seita's dad is serving aboard a likely-already-sunk Japanese cruiser).

Seita and Setsuko decide to take off on their own, and find an old abandoned cement structure to call home.  Seita has to resort to stealing, first taking a few crops from local farmers, and then looting houses during air raids in order to get enough money for food.  Setsuko waits behind, but the lack of food makes her weaker and weaker.  Eventually, the war ends... Seita has pulled what little money remains from his parents' accounts, but it's too little too late for Setsuko, who has had to endure months of living effectively outside while dealing with what looked like a massive case of eczema, impetigo, or some other skin disease.  Setsuko passes, leaving Seita behind... and that pretty much snuffs out the last of Seita's flame for life.

By the way, we see Seita die in the first scene of the movie.  So it's not like we don't know where this is going... it's almost as if the artists responsible are taunting their audience.  "This movie WILL END BADLY.  And there's nothing you can do about it."


Feel spoiled yet?  Feel... well, numb inside, to some extent?  I'm not sure I've watched two such movies in quick succession like this before.  It's sobering, emotional, maddening, all sorts of things.  It reminds me of human imperfection.  The movies show me that there's a world outside mine, where I'm just complaining about the weather up above but someone somewhere really is not able to eat their fill... or has caused accidents and is living with the survivor's guilt eating them up inside.  I wish that I could fix the world.......


but then, one of the messages that I feel from these movies is that the world is to some extent unfixable.  We humans are an imperfect species... causing grief to each other even though our actions weren't meant to cause grief, fighting each other, getting lost in the minutae of our situations without really being able to see past our noses.  My tween daughter, all of eleven years on the planet, proclaimed Grave of the Fireflies to be one of the worst movies that she's ever seen, if not the worst.  I explained to her that there was a time that I hated nihilistic literature too... being forced to read John Steinbeck's The Pearl while in high school.  Man, I hated that book... in some regards though, it's a very depressing book for high school students especially.  After all, the protagonist in the book stumbles across something that should make his life better, and finds out that it actually makes his life worse... just the thing to give high-schoolers that are trying to figure out how to make their lives better.  Failure in The Pearl ends in death for multiple characters.  (At this point, eff the Spoiler Space warnings, and you can direct all hate mail for this topic to my email box.)

So, these two movies were the emotional equivalent of getting caught in the proverbial late-autumn cold-front rainstorm.  There's no escaping this rainstorm with a cup of hot chocolate and a fuzzy blanket, though.  Towards the end of Grave of the Fireflies, we find out the family that owns the land that the two children were squatting on... were really well-off.  There were multiple young women entering the house at the end and finding that their "phonograph still works!" while playing a tune.  Contrasting that with the scene of devastation only a couple hundred feet from their front door.... it's powerful, emotional, and even though the movie is trending towards fifteen years old, it's still effective in getting a reaction from its viewers.

Watching these types of movies or reading these types of books I feel is a challenge to your ability to be human.  Realizing that not every ending is a happy one is a hard realization for someone like me, who would far rather stay with humor.  It's hard for a child to think about these things too, as my tween reminded me.  Myself, my wife, and our tween daughter discussed both films after the final images of Grave of the Fireflies twinkled off of our screen.  There were so many things that could have been changed in both stories... characters that seemed to be on self-destructive paths, or could have made better decisions.  Could they have been fixed?  Should they have been fixed?  Would they have been any different had the characters known the depth of their situation going in, or does Fate really hold the wheel while we go along for the ride?

All stories are about conflict.  It just so happens that these two stories are about conflicts where the main character(s) are found to be on the losing side, and as above major consequences follow.  They're both fiction, so liberties will be taken with their conflicts as well as their resolutions... but it's not so difficult to imagine yourself or someone you love up on that screen, dealing with these challenges at the same time.

You may think that I would give both movies high grades.  To be honest, I don't think that they fit within the scale... or at least one doesn't.  Seven Pounds, you are the weakest link here.  Will Smith... I don't know, you feel insufferable at this point, and I'm not sure that I can really take you seriously in much right now.  I'm barely even sure I could laugh at you in a comedy really.  Seven Pounds, for the ridiculous situations, bad acting, and all around 'bleh'-ness, I'm giving you a well-deserved 0.6.  If I watch you again even once the rest of my life, it'll be once too much.  You felt contrived, forced, almost as if you're trying to wring my tears from my eyes by squeezing my brain in painful ways.

Grave of the Fireflies, however, feels different.  The problem is that I would have to be in a very specific mood to watch this movie once again, and my scale is reposted below for reminder's sake:

1.I wouldn't watch it even if it was halfway through on TV.
2.I would watch it if it was on, but not intentionally cue it up.
3.I would get the tape and watch it occasionally
4.I would get the tape and watch it often.

Here's the problem.  I like the movie.  I think it is a strong, powerful movie about people fighting the odds... and in this situation, the odds end up fighting back.  For me, it is a textbook definition of both a 1 and a 3.  I would definitely not watch it if it was halfway through on television, nor would I watch it even if I managed to catch it as it was starting on television.  I can certainly see a situation where I would get a copy of it and watch it occasionally though.  I suppose that the rating won't be a 0-4 star situation, so I'll give it a C.  Not as in average, but as in challenging.  C as in conflict.  C as in watch it once and C how you feel afterward.  C as in cinema, check out this movie if you want something that will not unnecessarily press your "feels" buttons but at least makes you think, tries to lift you to a higher plane of contemplation, and hopefully allows you to C your own situation in a new light.  This movie will stick in your mind, for better or for worse.

Mindless action is back on tap through the week, as Netflix will take away Grave of the Fireflies and return with the first two movies of the recent Sherlock Holmes reboot.  I could use some escapism, to escape from the bad moments of my present life and the worse moments that I watched a couple short hours before.

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