Tragedy’s catharsis

Unhappy endings abound in pix dealing with grief

A young woman’s failure to hold onto her late father’s house collides head-on with an immigrant family’s forthright bid for a slice of the American dream, ending in murder and suicide.

A working-class Boston neighborhood is sucked into a vortex of murder, fear and street justice when an ex-con’s daughter is found murdered.

Two lonely Americans in Tokyo enjoy a brief encounter, but then must part, knowing they’ll never see each other again as they return to their uncertain lives.

The loss of three family members at the hand of a reckless driver sets off an abysmally failed mission of revenge.

A light-skinned African American literature professor, who has concealed his racial identity for years, falls in love with a poor woman whose jealous husband kills them both.

A brilliant young poet, consumed with language and melancholy in equal measure, commits suicide just before she becomes a literary superstar.

In the executive suites, where a one-sentence pitch sells or breaks a movie, those listed above are the kind that would toss the pitcher out of the suite without even a thank-you. Yet in the first two examples — “House of Sand and Fog” and “Mystic River”– studios (DreamWorks and Warners, respectively) not only listened but paid to have them made. These pics, combined with the remaining four — “Lost in Translation,” “21 Grams,” “The Human Stain” and “Sylvia” — hint that Hollywood may be open to the unhappy ending, to tales of failure, to the ecclesiastical notion of the “vexation of spirit.”

Even where the final outcome isn’t awful, as in “Cold Mountain,” the aura of a hopeless, even meaningless war that brings out the worst in everyone is unmistakable. Even where the denouement is triumphant, as in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” the trek to and up Mount Doom seems to offer a perfect metaphor for moviegoers’ current adventure.

This new wave of tragedies may be suggesting something more telling about the national culture: Finally, after two years of shock and grief and reflection, American movies could be responding to the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

On the other hand, this could all be no more than Oscar-season business as usual, with a quarter of seriousness sandwiched and squeezed by three-quarters of mindless escapism.

It’s fair to wonder, along with David Edelstein, film critic for online magazine Slate, “what the impulses were for making these films? I mean, was there a meeting called at the studios with the agenda to start making downbeat films?”

More unknowable (something even execs can’t be sure about) is whether the current stream of vexing cinema comes out of 9/11. Newsweek critic David Ansen notes, “Many of these films come from so many sources that precede 9/11, such as ‘House of Sand and Fog’ (based on Andre Dubus III’s 1999 bestseller), that it’s hard to know what came first — the idea to do these stories, or the catastrophe that spurred the idea to do them.

“It’s impossible to know if filmmakers are simply gravitating to these sources because of 9/11, and I’ll bet that the filmmakers don’t know themselves. The only one of these who may be (’21 Grams’ director) Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, because he’s filmed a direct response to 9/11 with his segment, the best one, in the film ’11’09″01 — September 11.’ There does seem to be some sort of zeitgeist that points to a shift in taste for something darker.”

But Ansen then stops himself short: “I’ve had to write this lead for too many years — ‘It’s such a glum Christmas.’ This actually happens year after year. Serious movies are often made as downbeat, and this is simply the time of year that serious American movies come out.”

Besides, argues Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader film critic and co-editor of the new book “Movie Mutations,” there are several reasons to hold firmly in check any sense that either genuine tragedy is what’s being expressed in the movies, or that the pics have any relation to 9/11.

“There are certain classic forms of tragedy,” he says, “but what I think we’re seeing with these new movies are mainly expressions of fatality and determinism, not tragedy. And the wallowing in watching a character’s downfall can be a masochistic fantasy at work — this is something that’s often fueled the cult of Sylvia Plath, for instance. See, determinism can be ideologically insidious, because it suggests that we’re helpless, or that we can do nothing to make things change, or that we have to depend on our leaders, which nicely fits the Bush administration’s agenda. Make the character a victim of doom, and it absolves them of responsibility.

“Beyond these problems,” Rosenbaum adds, “American filmmakers haven’t really made an honest film yet about 9/11. But for that matter, have we yet had an honest film about Vietnam? No, so this isn’t new. In a way, how could there have been such a film, because even to make a film about our ignorance would be a major step forward.”

As the author of the tragedy of “House of Sand and Fog,” Dubus considers it “a miracle” that a film of his novel was ever made by a Hollywood studio, “because Hollywood is designed to make money, and that’s it. So, does that say that there’s hope that the American public is ready to experience tragedy again?”

In part, Dubus is thinking about a Hollywood past — going strong from the 1950s until the mid-’70s — when movies that ended unhappily were part of the regular mix of releases. “Back then, major studios weren’t frightened of making dramas, which tend to take on the weightier issues of contemporary life,” he says. “One of my own theories about drama is that it explores a human situation, not to use it to deliver a message. When you do this — the way that ‘Lost in Translation’ does brilliantly, I think — you’ll come up with characters who aren’t black-and-white and good or bad, but gray, the way people actually are.”

For those, like Edelstein, who came of age in the ’70s, “I remember both the movies that rejected happy endings and heroes, and then the backlash to all of that, probably starting with ‘Rocky.’ By the ’80s, you couldn’t have an unhappy ending. Movies were even reshot to get a happy ending. So, for two decades, we’ve been living with what amounts to the tyranny of the happy ending. The climate we’ve been in can basically be summed up as, ‘Does Hamlet have to die?'”

“I recall talking to an audience in Toronto after a screening of ‘House of Sand and Fog,’ ” says Dubus, “and how this woman came up to us all confused, flustered and excited, saying, ‘I don’t know how I feel, I’m upset, and sad, but I’m feeling something deep down, and that feels good!’

“She was experiencing catharsis, which in Greek means ‘to purify.’ Tragedy at the spiritual level shakes us up and cleanses us. We’re then able to bring a clearer state of mind to our lives. We Americans need catharsis because we’re in a very protected state, but also in a state of inarticulate grief. If the studios stop patronizing the audience and not treat it like children, perhaps they’ll get back to making adult stories for adults, work that illuminates.”

Even, possibly, when it’s not Oscar season.

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