ventured into a video store the other evening and rented Under
The Tuscan Sun (dir. Audrey Wells). This bold act was prompted
by my significant other, who had a hankering for a little Italian
landscape. I told her that I heard the movie was supposed to be
bad; I wasn't quite sure where I had heard that, but I had read
it somewhere. Probably the Washington Post – Stephen
Hunter or somebody. Or maybe A.O. Scott of the New
York Times. At any rate, I suggested we rent Pirates of
the Caribbean, since I wanted to see why Johnny Depp's performance
had gotten so much attention. I asked the manager of the store what
she thought -- she definitely advised we should pass on Tuscan
Sun and go for Pirates. She went on to say that Depp
had based his performance on Keith Richards (the rock band Rolling
Stone's Keith Richards, I assumed), and I joked: "I hope
he doesn't look as wrinkled as Keith Richards." Neither the
manager (probably in her 40's), nor the cashier (probably in hear
late teens or early 20's) laughed at the joke. I wound up renting
at home, instinct told me to put on Tuscan Sun. Maybe it's
my rebellious nature. I live in a kind of suburban la la
land, not quite what I'm used to, since I just spent a lengthy stint
in downtown New York, wearing black and going to a lot of art house
films. Now I go to a Cineplex and the closest thing to an art film
in the area we're likely to see is LadyKillers -- which
I'd really call a kind of art house cartoon. But more on that later.
any rate, Tuscan Sun wound up being one of the sweetest
films I've seen in a long time. And its sheer sweetness prompted
me to ponder: what the hell was it about this sweet little film
that made the manager at the video store frown like as if to watch
it would be painful, much too painful for me to bear, and that we
should opt instead for Johnny Depp? What are people trying to protect
me from? Terrorists? Anarchy? Or is it something much simpler: pain?
That's what Tuscan Sun was about, in a nutshell. Pain and
how someone deals with it. It was a somewhat serious, somewhat human,
somewhat get under your skin kind of film that you can (if you've
gone through a very painful experience) relate to. Tuscan Sun
was about pain and how one woman learns from it. The performances
were simple and direct. Diane Lane was quirky and charming and a
lot of fun to watch.
this series of events led me to some pondering, and a subsequent
conclusion about U.S. culture I thought worthy to share with SolPix
readers. Much like the U.S. is becoming divided (at least that's
what they want us to believe) into Blue and Red states, we are also
becoming divided into human beings and something else. I'm not sure
what that something else is, but it doesn't seem to be human because
it isn't interested in stories that relate to anything resembling
human beings. The stories this new breed or species like have to
do with super things that can leap over buildings and devastate
entire towns in video games. This new species seems to like destruction
-- the more of it the better -- and revels in "squashing"
the bugs, even if those bugs happen to be other human beings (such
as in Iraq).
this new species doesn't like is pain. That is, pain that they could
possibly suffer. They do, however, like the (cartoonish) physical
pain of others, inflicted with relish via digital effects, a kind
of "gotcha" pain that says "I hurt you first."
They like pre-emptive pain, such as
inflicted on Iraqui war prisoners. This same spirit also shows up
in films. Whether that be in commercial movies like Pirates
or “art” films like LadyKillers and
Kill Bill or “spiritual” films like The Passion.
Give me that pre-emptive, Looney-Tunes pain. It's appropriate for
kids, little kids that can be easily led around by the nose by aggressive,
confident politicians, defense secretaries and media parents –-
sorry, I mean pundits. Yeah, that kind of pain.
pain of a Cartoon Nation.
real, personal pain -- emotional pain, adult, human pain. That's
considered whimpy pain. That kind of pain must be buffed
out, censored, eliminated, digitally enhanced, and/or relegated
like the coffins from Iraq to the "inappropriate." Emotional
pain is what sex used to be (i.e., swept under the carpet), while
nowadays painless, commitmentless, aggressive sex is all over the
media, like Cheerios and Wheaties once were. I sound nostalgic,
don't I? Or maybe reactionary, conservative? But am I, or do I just
long for a basic humanity our daily discourse, a humanity that often
seems drowned out as the next news caster cheerfully announces another
10 war dead in Iraq, followed quickly by images of Spring Break
revelers in South Beach getting it on in bathrooms? And it was a
good thing too, because I wasn't sure what values we're defending.
have, in America, become parodies of the commodities we consume.
We are so categorized, polled, discussed, pandered to, at once homogenized
and demographically sliced and diced that we actually think of ourselves
as products rather than humans. We are "Red" and "Blue"
state people that are pro this or anti that. We are the fiction
of Reality TV, where people are so out of touch with their own emotions
that all they can feel is the falseness of a performance reality
that they somehow believe is more real than direct emotions garnered
from unmediated (innocent?) experience. We are the numbingly same
teenage accent and slang spoken by adults and kids alike. We are
the college students who march to the “rebelliousness”
of Spring Break with a conformity not seem since Hitler Youth. We
are the blockbuster sequels that deal in re-tread themes based on
re-tread characters and types that are themselves based on a distorted
facsimiles of reality once or twice removed from the original. And
film reviewers speak of these contrivances as if they somehow contribute
to culture in a positive way. And we all march in lockstep to the
sham, munching on the popcorn and hoping our next distraction will
not remind us of anything hinting at truth.
a cartoon, we have our own internal logic, reality be damned.
that sounded good! Considering the fact that I'll probably rent
Pirates of the Carribean next weekend, I better watch myself.
Truth may be there too. Embedded, maybe, like a journalist in Iraq.
blockbuster films. Many film reviewers, understanding they don't
write to a human audience anymore, don’t think about these
films in terms of their impact on society, but how the particular
star will use that film in a particular way to forward their career
in a particular fashion. These films are seen in the context of
an overall marketing or demographic plan, a plan that at its heart
has the overarching morality of our nation: to make money, lots
of it, and the quicker the better. I mean, there is an urgency to
cashing out, since Jesus is coming soon. Or is it the terrorists?
Either way, I feel manipulated into believing it. Anyway, back to
the point. Reviewers in general support blockbuster films because,
after all, there's so much goddamn money at stake.
Our values. What we fight for. That's of course why we need to see
the coffins of the Americans killed in Iraq (which are themselves
emblems of our Cartoon Nation, sanitized and neat, like rows of
Post-it notes on a computer screen). Leave
it to America, when we deal with soldier consumption -- sorry, death
-- we will be organized. However, having just lost my father,
I know that the grief of those who lost family in the war is not
so much organized as it is chaotic. Grief comes over you in waves
and is indiscriminate, like a carpet bomb. It seems to take a life
of its own, until it is done with you, leaves you a spent husk,
and moves on to the next in line.
to the "Reds" and the "Blues." The Washington
Post recently profiled a "Red State" person in a
very in-depth article. In one telling section, this man read the
Melitta coffee filter packaging as he prepared his morning brew,
and noted that the company "plants four trees for every one
that it cuts down for its products." This Red State guy said:
"What do I care?" Exactly.
new species, be they a Rush Limbaugh Red or an Al Franken Blue,
does not care because they don't want to hassle the messiness of
feeling. They want to go through a series of actions, predefined
by others, a Kodak Moment, mapped out kind of life that makes it
easy. And this just doesn’t apply to America. The new species
is in fact globalized, whether they be Blue, Red, American, Christian,
Arab, Jew, college kid or teenager -- they seem to tend toward a
simplistic, commodified, fundamentalist attitude that life comes
down to the sqasher and the squashee, and better to be the sqasher
then the squashed. The problem is, all this pain avoidance or reactionary
lashing out to get the other guy first won't ever lead to something
that is required for global evolution: maturity. A maturity garnered
through life experience and seen in films like Tuscan Sun
that evoke a little known emotion seen today: empathy.
is a maturity, an empathy, apparently found more often on Melitta
coffee filter packages than in government policies. In other words,
maybe we should educate four (or maybe 4 million) poor children
for each one killed by war. Why? Because we empathize with
their plight. And maybe "I don't care" isn't the best
response. But no... we only really care about our little neighborhoods,
our little SugarLand Texas (the subject of the recent Washington
Post article about the "Red" state that I mentioned),
our neat little houses that look just like those neat little flags
on those neat little coffins coming from Iraq.
the way, a recent study stated that for the cost of maintaining
our soldiers one month in Iraq, we could provide minimal education
to all of the children in the developing world (U.S. $5 billion).
But then, aren’t we generous enough? After all, the U.S. gave
a whopping $100 thousand to North Korea for its recent train catastrophe
-- that’s about what Donald Rumsfeld spends on one plane ride
to Iraq, I’m sure.
back to Tuscan Sun. The humor evident in Tuscan Sun
was much like my dry, pretty silly joke relayed in the video store,
which told me why that manager and cashier didn’t laugh when
I told it, as if we all lived in parallel realities, and mine wasn’t
I sync with theirs. It was a kind of humor reminiscent of two other
human-laced, woman directed films: Sophia Copolla’s Lost
In Translation and Nancy Meyer’s Something’s
Gotta Give. So maybe I’m becoming a little too feminine
in my humor. A little too whimpy. Maybe I’m starting to sound
like a Woody Allen movie, whose sense of humor is a little dated,
a little too adult, for most under 40. Since I am over 40, I guess
that explains it. I'm just trying to stay human, but might be waging
a losing battle to the adolescents, be they in gross out comedies
or the White House. We'll have to see. They may make a cartoon out
of me yet. Until then, I feel like I’m Bill Murray in Tokyo,
not wanting to come back to the U.S. until the adults take over
Thompson is a filmmaker/producer and co-founder of SolPix. You can
find out more about Don by going to the website for his production
You can also email him at email@example.com
Copyright Web del Sol, 2004