Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Kenneth Lonergan | Manchester by the Sea

melancholia for an american life
by Douglas Messerli

Kenneth Lonergan (writer and director) Manchester by the Sea / 2016

Just as many journalists and film critics have touted, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is a painfully moving and yet somehow uplifting story of personal guilt and the loss of the central character’s ability to emotionally feel and express himself—except perhaps through anger and self-hatred.

Lee Chandler (brilliantly performed, despite the fact that he has very few verbally communicative moments, by Casey Affleck) has moved away from the small Manchester-by-the-sea, Massachusetts community where he has lived most of his life; now working as a handyman-janitor, he willfully does the dirty jobs the people of his buildings require: everyday plumbing, unplugging backed-up toilets, fixing up chandeliers, and clearing the heavy Boston snow away from doors and sidewalks—all the while working for minimum wage. The handsome young man appears to be the model of decorum, although one day he does lash out at overbearing apartment dweller, and later, as two men seemingly stare at him in a local bar, he reacts suddenly quite violently, slugging them both in the face. The men, well-groomed and handsomely dressed, are probably gay, and are looking at him simply in admiration, so his sudden burst of violence might seem to suggest that Lee is simply a homophobe.
     What we don’t know about him yet is that he has often been stared at and pointed out many a time back in Manchester after a tragic fire has destroyed his house, killing his three children. More pointedly, he has been partly responsible for their deaths, starting up the fireplace after a long evening of drinking and smoking cocaine with male friends, leaving the home to pick up a final pack of beer. In his dazed state, he has forgotten to return the fireplace screen. Reporting this to the police, he expects to be taken into custody, but is simply let go; as he turns to leave he grabs a policeman’s gun, attempting to commit suicide.
     All of these events are gradually revealed in a series of scenes that toggle between the past and present, somewhat confusing to the viewer because of their changes in the characters’ ages and appearances; but that’s obviously part of Lonergan’s intentions, showing in great detail, how the past cannot truly be separated—at least for Lee—from the present.
      Eventually, after he is called back to Manchester upon the death of his brother, the story basically moves forward, revealing that his brother has made him the guardian of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), an almost impossible request given Lee’s mental condition and the impossibility of his remaining in a town where he is often shunned. What we discover, of course, is that those who shun him or even vocally castigate him for the past events, are, like him, basically good people with open flaws.
     Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol), now about to be married to an evangelical Christian (played convincingly in a short role by Matthew Broderick), has been a drug-addict and alcoholic, who has eventually simply disappeared from her family. Only Patrick appears to know of her current whereabouts.
      Lee’s former wife, Randi, who has remarried and is about to have a baby, publically abused Lee and divorced him after the fire, certainly contributing to the general hostility of many community members. Even the wife of one of Lee’s and his brother’s closest friends, George, tells her working associate that she doesn’t want to see Lee working near the shipyards.
      Although he is a highly affable 16-year old, even Patrick has problems, breaking out occasionally in violent moments while playing hockey (to be fair, Lee’s sudden appearance at Patrick’s hockey practice surely signifies to him that his father has died); he is having sex with two of fellow schoolgirls, and insists his uncle lie about their visits to each other’s homes; and, when—after the mortuary has reported that the frozen ground cannot permit his father’s burial until Spring, forcing them to keep the body in cold storage—Patrick has a sort of psychological break-down by simply opening the refrigerator freezer, after frozen chickens and other meals spill out unto the kitchen floor. Like many a teenager, Patrick is also somewhat selfish and insensitive, demanding they keep a boat that needs a new, unaffordable, engine, and insisting that he will not return to Boston with his uncle. But then all of his friends and life are in Manchester, and Lee has nothing much in the way to offer him in terms of normal readjustment into life.
       Lee, nonetheless, slowly begins to care for his young charge, and one mother of Patrick’s girlfriends even takes a liking to Lee, insisting he come over for dinner. His painful incommunicativeness, however, creates comic results.
     Randi, encountering her former husband on the street, attempts to ask his forgiveness for her previous behavior and suggests a new possibility of friendship. Yet Lee can only run from these offers of reconciliation, mutely pointing the place where he seems to declare he no longer has any heart. Another violent episode in a Manchester bar, results in his emotional breakdown.
       The only solution, it is apparent, is for him to return to Boston, where at least can find a job and escape the everyday blaming by some who seem unable to forget.
       Sadly, he gives up his guardianship, as the Chandler’s family friends, George and his wife, agree to adopt Patrick, and take him into their home.
       Yet, even now this broken man holds out a promise of hope, telling Patrick that this time he has rented two rooms, so that the boy might occasionally visit or live with him if he finds a Boston-area college to attend. Patrick’s answer, “I’m not going to college,” cuts through the heart like a knife.
     For all of its dramatic power and moving expressions of human frailty, in the end Longeran’s film is just too busy with realist details at times to fully project any potential answers to the despair these characters often face. One might not describe this film as a tragedy but rather as a melancholic fable that reveres its own sensibility a bit too much.
     Perhaps it’s just the times—after a year of a messy presidential campaigning and the shocking and potentially terrifying election results—but several of the films this year have portrayed the same sense of melancholy, wherein things do not quite end the way they should, and characters are forced to make-do with the few consolations they can find. Strangely, both Woody Allen’s golden-framed Café Society and Damien Chazelle’s superficially playful and joyful La La Land both end similarly, as does Barry Jenkins Moonlight, along with Giogos Lanthinos’ The Lobster and even Marcin Wrona’s Demon (the latter two foreign films released this year in the US); Jackie’s subject is nearly all about a funeral. All speak of wrong choices made and the difficulties or even impossibilities of healing. If nothing else, it’s clear that the cheerful myths of American directors such as Frank Capra and Preston Sturges no longer resonate with our society, and that for many of us The American Dream has long-ago died.

Los Angeles, December 27, 2016

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