18 Sep 2011

A little closer to the truth

That art will take on new meanings every time you re-visit it has always seemed a given. What I hadn't perhaps realized was that just how different your interpretations are of a beloved work of art four years since you last devoured it body and soul may well be the easiest gauge of how much you've changed as a person. Today, I re-watched one of my favorite movies, Closer (2004), after several years of deliberately not doing so, in fear and awe of of the melancholic depths such cinematic excursions have pulled me under on previous occasions. 

As always, it struck me deeply and left me with an all-too-familiar ache and emptiness, but what stood out most was how differently it affected me the first and most recent times. Closer of course was never going to pass for a love story, dark and blunt and visceral as it is. Popular culture at least, attests to love as a concept that is virtuous and nonjudgmental and somehow more innocent than the bloodshed and violence and self-denial that were considered the epitomes of it's expression until a few centuries ago. 

This is a line of thought I have personally been struggling to come to terms with recently: love as a service Vs. love as a primal, carnal need. If love were as altruistic and cerebral as the former would suggest, surely it  disqualifies a large majority of people from being capable of it? I have not studied the great works but it seems to me that somewhere down the line, the intellectuals have made their own an emotion that on the surface seems most basic to all humankind. And if that is the case, then Closer convincingly brings down the walls of such pretensions to where mortals roam, and love, and fight for love. 

It is this re-proletarianism of love that I failed to imbibe on my previous viewings of the movie. Perhaps, it had something to do with my own environment at the time. I was in university, studying Development Economics (the worst kind - at least finance or investment don't aspire to nomenclatural sainthood!) and interacting daily with a community that was both select -in that they had won many intellectual battles to be where they were- and accomplished, in the conviction that they would one day save the world from all it's miseries by virtue of a piece of paper that pronounced them more educated and enlightened than the masses. It was this feeling of belonging to an exclusive higher ground perhaps that led me to identify more with Jude Law's character, Dan at the time. 

Dan is an aspiring writer, a soft-spoken, articulate, sensitive man who falls for Julia Roberts's independent, sophisticated Anna, an American photographer living in London. We know of course that this will hurt Alice, his girlfriend, played wonderfully by Natalie Portman. Alice, who used to be a stripper, is beautifully scarred and fragile and we wish desperately for her happiness, but we also know that Dan and Anna belong together. They are both ethereal and substantial, they are light-skinned and blonde and tall, they read and critique and enjoy the opera and belong to a world far removed from that inhabited by Alice and her waitressing job and her quirky ways. Larry on the other hand, who is Anna's dermatologist husband, is brash and full of bravado and working class guilt about his good fortune, and -we think- more suitable a match for poor, broken Alice. 

That was my enduring impression at any rate. The movie confounded us romantics then by breaking all the established norms, and leaving Dan confused and alone at the end. Anna goes back to Dan, and Alice who is also American returns to her country, albeit only after both sets of men and women -in turns- indulge one another physically and emotionally. This apparent failure too only served to make Dan more endearing at the time. There was a certain romanticism to the plight of the tormented genius, destined to live a life of solitude surrounded by people who did not understand him.

This is not at all how the movie spoke to me this time. If anything, Larry -steely, vulgar, rugged Larry- is closer to what I aspire to, today. He flaunts his desires and inhibitions with the confidence of a man who will fight to the end, stand up for what he believes in. (I can only attribute this to my own journey from the idyllic confines of a class-neutral, socialistic academic setting to the real world where one lives by the sweat of his brow and no amount of scholarly pretensions will pay your rent.) Needy, wounded Alice on the other hand seems far more desirable than cold and in-control Anna. That may sound patronizing but I really would prefer to rescue somebody than be rescued, which was not the case a few years ago. What I realized is that that 'desire to be rescued' -for the right woman to come along and nurture and fertilize me- was borne out of a false sense of entitlement, a misplaced faith in my own ability to be loved. What these last few years -and heartbreak and letting people down and breaking hearts- have taught me is that love is a privilege, something I can only hope to deserve through effort and will and most importantly, courage. 

The bigger surprise was how distinctly the movie -or my understanding of it- has changed, thematically. I remember laughing a little louder than the situation warranted on my first viewing at Dan asking Anna if she found his book to be a little vulgar. Anna replies that she didn't, because it spoke the truth about sex. Cue more laughter for the benefit of Others. Looking back, I feel more than a little ashamed. Closer runs the gamut from cyber sex to strip clubs to clinical comparisons of smell and feel and taste ("like you, only sweeter") and may well be considered vulgar by some. But it also speaks the truth about sex - how it hurts, causes jealousy, how it can be the most satisfying revenge, how possessive we are of a loved one's body, how it is so integral to the expression of affection. Both Dan and Anna may as well have been talking about the movie. So I reveled in my cleverness, made sure everybody knew there was a joke within the joke, that I was in on it.

But Closer -despite the physical intimation of its title- is not about sex. Closer is a movie about the politics of truth. Truth and kindness. But truth is boring, truth is sexless. As Alice says, in a subversion of that famous line from Annie Hall (1977), "lying is the most fun a girl can have without taking her clothes off." Truth is boring because it is so functional. It is truth (or lack thereof) that brings people closer, and truth that drives them apart. Everything in between, all the good bits about being in a relationship -as anyone who has ever lost or left a lover will testify- is a lie. It maybe difficult to admit, but all relationships fail at the same point in time - the moment of truth. That truth may be something you refused to acknowledge till then, or something that has suddenly come to light - but it's always truth that renders a person unlovable just as it is the perceived truth that pulled you to him or her in the first place. How long you stay together, how long you enjoy staying together, depends solely on how long you can keep the lie going.

In the manner of all quests for truth, Closer offers more questions than answers. In the movie, Larry, ruffian that he is, actively seeks the truth, thrives on the hurt the bitter truth will cause him. Dan would prefer not to know, or to know a version that suits him or one he is familiar with. Alice on the other hand understands the necessity of tempering truth with kindness, of protecting the truth with half-truths and lies, as does Anna in her own reserved way.

This then would appear to be an exclusively female attribute. At the risk of being labelled a misogynist, men -in my experience- place too much emphasis on knowing and consequently hurting, while women realize that not knowing is just as important, that not telling is just as virtuous. Is all intellectual curiosity necessarily fated to culminate in disillusionment and despair? Are the hearts and actions of men -and women- truths so dark that any great knowledge of them will result in ruin? This would in turn suggest that the cultural intellectualization of love was essentially an act of charity and not snobbery, an attempt to save the less well-informed from the misery of knowing. And if that be true, are women the true intellectuals, the ones who protect the rest of us from Truth?

Closer (Movie, 2004) was based on the play of the same name, also scripted by Patrick Marber (Premiere : Royal National Theatre's Cottesloe Theatre, 1997).

                   The blower's daughter (OST)- Damien Rice 

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