Left Over

Every once and awhile, you encounter a piece of culture which comes to feel to you like a beloved person.  These works are precious to us: they help us understand ourselves and the world.  They move us the way only people move us, normally – we care about them and they become part of the architecture of our lives.

For me, these adored and integral works are almost always books.  I love some music, am transfixed by a few pieces of visual art, and enjoy movies, but my whole self is built of books, and no other medium has ever moved me the way the written word has.

I especially disdain T.V. and film.  I consider these, categorically, lesser arts than the written word.  Yes, I recognize that this is ignorance and rank prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion, but I don’t really care.  I believe that written language is humankind’s paramount achievement; movies I consider mere entertainment.

Which is why it is emotionally confusing for me on the extremely rare occasions when I love a film or T.V. show with the same strength and admiration I feel for books.

And when I lose one of these movies or shows, I am as bereaved as I am when I finish a great book: lost and bewildered, thrown back into my real life but now without the benefit of a companion I had cherished.

The leftoversThis past week, I lost the best television show that I have perhaps ever seen, certainly the one which has moved me the most, with the airing on HBO, after three short seasons, of the finale of ‘The Leftovers’.

Critical opinion is, I gather, sort of split about ‘The Leftovers’: half of people feel as rapturous as I do, and half seem to have been left completely cold.  Or, as an acquaintance of mine put it, “I can tell that it’s very good, but I can’t watch more than about 30 minutes at a time – it’s too weird and too stressful.”

‘The Leftovers’ is about a world exactly like ours where, one day, 2% of the population, a seemingly random 2%, suddenly vanish out of thin air, never to return.  It’s about the people left, how they cope, how they understand, how they fall apart.

leftovers 3It’s difficult to find the language to describe how I feel about this show.  Or, rather, it isn’t difficult , but I am reluctant to use it, because it is so global and so far-ranging, and I’m worried that it will make me seem soft-headed.  But there is no point in writing about something you love if you aren’t going to tell the truth, so I suppose I might as well.

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This is exactly what the show feels like.

‘The Leftovers’ is the best depiction I have ever seen of grief on a screen.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of people grappling frantically with the need to create meaning in their lives.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the quiet, desperate madness which descends on you when you learn that something which you believed impossible is actually quite possible.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the fact that we both need each other but cannot change to keep each other.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of faith as a crutch, of faith as a lifesaver, and of the fact that faith can be both to the same person.

It’s hard not to admire a show that has the discipline to stop when it’s done, even if it’s only three seasons long, but I will confess: I’m crushed that ‘The Leftovers’ is over.  When you encounter that clear and confident a vision, you’re not quite content with seeing only what they want to show you.  You want to see more and more of the world through their eyes.  You feel like they have more to tell you.

leftovers 2I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: I’m not done with the world ‘The Leftovers’ showed me.  I watched the finale – I recognize that it is a complete vision, but I’m not finished.  They might be done, but I’m not done with them.  I have more to learn, about grief and rage and love.  I think that they had more to show me, but I’m grateful for what I saw.

Here Endeth the Lesson

When I was very young, about eight or nine, my parents made a disastrous error of judgement.

In my house, we were absolutely not allowed to watch movies before the Motion Picture Association of America thought we should – if a movie was rated PG-13, then we would wait until the stroke of midnight on our thirteenth birthday to watch it.

There was only one exception to this rule: we could plead historical relevance.  This was my father’s particular weakness, and it could be relied upon: if a movie took as its subject a historical event in which we had expressed an interest, then we could almost always convince him to rent it, no matter the rating.

Which is how we ended up watching ‘The Untouchables’ one Friday night.  To this day, I wonder how he got that past my mother, who was of less amenable mind.  But no matter – by the time everyone figured out that it was an enormous mistake, the damage was done.

‘The Untouchables’ was written by David Mamet, directed by Brian De Palma, and stars Kevin Costner and Robert DeNiro. It tells the story of Eliot Ness’ investigation of Al Capone in Chicago in the later 1920s, which culminated in Capone’s conviction for tax evasion in 1931.  The title of the film refers to the team of men Ness built for that investigation, which includes, in the movie, a gruff old Irish police officer named Jimmy Malone.  Malone’s character is based on a man named Marty Lahart, and is played by Sean Connery.

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Jimmy Malone – adorable.

Of course, ‘gruff but lovable’ describes pretty much every character Sean Connery has ever played, but I was too young to realize that, and I fell completely for Jimmy Malone.  It is safe to say that, after about ten minutes of screen exposure, I loved and trusted him.

So, when he was gunned down, when he dragged himself bloody and dying through his apartment to write the name of his killer in his own blood on the floor, I was frightened and inconsolable.  My parents had to stop the movie; I lay my head down on the sofa cushions and sobbed for an hour.

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Creepy Guy Jimmy Malone’s death, achieved by this creepy dude.

I thought about that this week, as I binge-watched Marvel’s ‘Daredevil’.

As has been noted by all and sundry, ‘Daredevil’ is pretty violent.  And I’m fine with it.  Actually, I kind of appreciate it: the Marvel universe was getting way too cute.  I would rather unrelenting violence than unrelenting self-referential smugness.

And I like violent movies, at least some of the time.  But violence in movies is like horror in movies: it’s supposed to have an effect.  But this week, as I was watching Vincent D’Onofrio beat a guy to death in a car door, just slamming him over and over until the car door decapitated him, all I thought was, ‘That interior is gonna be impossible to get clean.’

I love action movies, and horror movies, fighting movies, gory movies, and I hope I always will.  I don’t ever want to be one of those flinching people who wring their hands about violence in movies, or video games, or AC/DC lyrics – I don’t care if teenagers play Grand Theft Auto, and I’ve never seen persuasive evidence that exposure to representational violence creates or encourages violent behavior in audiences.

But just because exposure to representational violence does not cause violence in life doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have any adverse effect, and it seems to me that I have changed a great deal since I lay down on the couch and wept about Sean Connery.  Some of that change is doubtless due to growing up, and some due to better reality testing.  But I don’t remember being confused about reality back then – I didn’t think that Sean Connery was really dead, and I wasn’t confused about the fact that he was an actor.  I was shocked by the violence, and I knew that the ‘The Untouchables’ was based on a true story, and I was crushed, absolutely crushed, by the visceral realization that good people die horrible deaths.

And that is how violence probably should feel; at least, we should be able to feel that way.  I’m not comfortable with my own lack of reaction now, which is a sort of a wimpy meta-concern, I know.  I mean, I am human: I cried at the ‘Jurassic Bark’ episode of Futurama – if ‘Daredevil’ didn’t ruin my evening, that isn’t the end of the world.

But ultimately, this isn’t about ‘Daredevil’ – this is about me.  I don’t want to become blasé about violence.  I am not over-endowed with empathy to begin with, and I don’t want to lose what little I have.  Maybe it’s too late, or maybe it’s just part of being an adult.  But if I can’t still be that humane, it’s important that I at least remember the time when I was.