Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Terrible Beauty of "Manchester By The Sea"

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
- 1 Corinthians 12: 12

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.

- Isaiah 53: 4-5

Christ of St. John of the Cross, by Salvador Dali

On Facebook, David Fitch posted the following as a commentary on “Manchester by the Sea,” for which Casey Afflek won best actor: “Go see 'Manchester by the Sea' and notice the scenes that take place around a table. They reveal what presence or lack thereof looks like.”

Now, background information. Fitch has recently written a book called Faithful Presence where he talks about the importance of the “fullness” of the presence and work of Christ that occurs as the people of God are shaped by seven practices. One of those is The Table, where we gather “around the table” in the presence of Christ who is at work to redeem, heal, and reconcile us to him and to each other. It’s a practice initiated by Christ from the very first Passover.

So, back to the film. It’s all about this presence. The whole direction of the film is ordered around presence. It's partially an extended meditation that requires and depicts presence to simple life scenes and events, though also organized around a story of a family broken by unspeakable tragedy. And, when I say “unspeakable,” I mean that quite actually as played out by the film. And, as Fitch notes, the film is full of moments that reveal how gathering around a table is meant to be about being present to each other, even if this is often revealed by its not happening.

Another dynamic of this revealing of presence or lack thereof, other than around the table, is where and when characters look into each other's eyes. It's rare. And, one of the only times it happens is the moment of truth, which Lee can't face. It also happens to be a moment when he's asked to be around a table!

Randi (ex wife, now re-married): Could we ever have lunch?
Lee (ex husband, dead man walking): You mean you and me? Us?
Randi: Yes. Cuz I uhh....*long, painful pause* I said a lot of terrible things to you.
Lee: *shaking head, holding back tears* No....
Randi: I know you never. *can't finish sentence; sniffle* Maybe you don't want to talk to me.
Lee: It's not that...
Randi: Wait, lemme finish...However. *tears* My heart was broken. Cuz it's always gonna be broken. And I know yours is broken, too.
Lee: *shaking head, in obvious pain*
Randi: But I don't have to carry it. I said things that...I should F*#@in' burn in hell for what I said to you
Lee: No. No.
Randi: It was just...
Lee: Randi, No, no, no-no-no....
Randi: I'm just sorry!
Lee: It...it...It's...I, I can't expl...I can't...
Randi: I love you!
Lee: *deep sigh, puts head down*
Randi: Maybe I shouldn't say that *in obvious pain, still in tears*
Lee: No, you can say that.
Randi: It's just...
Lee: I'm sorry; I've gotta go.
Randi: We couldn't have lunch? *trying to look longingly into Lee's eyes, which are turned to the ground as he starts to move away*
Lee: I'm really sorry; I don't think so. I thank you for saying everything, it's jus...
Randi: You can't just die...
Lee: I'm not. I'm not. I'm....*deep, sharp breath in* I'm. M'. An' I'm....
Randi: Honey...
Lee: I want you to be happy. An' I, I
Randi: Honey I see you walkin' around here, an' I just wanna tell you
Lee: I would wanna talk to you Randi. Please. *shaking head* I, I, I, I'm trying to....
Randi: You gotta...I don't know what...
Lee: No, this is not. You're not, you're not torturing me.
Randi: I just wanna tell you *pause, struggling to speak* that I was wrong
Lee: No. Nope. You understand, there's nothin'. There's nothin' there. *Lee FINALLY looks Randi directly in the eyes*
Randi: That's not true, that's not true! *seeks eye contact, Lee looks away*
Lee: You don't understand. I know you don't understand me *starts to cry* I, I, I've gotta go, I'm sorry. *walks away*
Randi: *Lee is already gone* I'm sorry *still crying, standing totally still, wiping away tears*

One person, whose opinion I tend to respect, was of the opinion that the film is “too contrived in much of its construction.” To help articulate what he meant, he provided THIS comedic critique from Seth Myers. I've always found Seth Myers to be, like Lee in “Manchester by the Sea,” unable to be present. Myers just covers over presence with (what I usually take to be bad and not very funny) comedy rather than with the distant stoicism combined with occasional violent outbursts of the protagonist in “Manchester.” I should say, I can kind of see the point there of Myers’ critique. I mean, every film is, to some degree or other, a construction that frames reality, and even in order to bring about (oftentimes particular) emotions in the audience - to some degree or another. But I think we should consider the source of the critique. He himself regularly makes the point being made by “Manchester By the Sea” about presence (not to mention about contrivance) every night on TV in our living rooms. Perhaps this just goes to show how pervasive the lack of presence is apparent in peoples; language and longings.

Another person noted that the film is “a very sad and strange eucatastrophe.” I think that takes a very optimistic outlook on the turning that occurs in the film’s climax and resolution.

Sad and strange, like the cross? Yes. Eucatastrophe? But compare the two fishing scenes. Beginning: smiling, having fun, enjoying themselves, laughing, catching fish. End: none of that, including no catching of fish.

Lee still never faced what he did. He still wasn't able to be present to himself and others. In his words, he wasn't "able to beat it." He was never able to come to terms with the tragedy, with the brokenness of himself and his people. Which, of course, is true. No one can.

Another person, I think to the point of the film’s supposed taking of a happier turn, said this:

“A pivotal scene for me was when Lee and Patrick were walking together near the end of the movie and Lee says that he is renting a two bedroom apt in a nearby town so that Patrick could visit. It was a short moment and small thing but it was Lee intentionally making space in his life for Patrick after believing he could never make space in his life for another person. The fishing scene then, for me, represented an effort to be present again by a simple act of the will with no promise of fruitfulness or a return to what was, just a willingness to enter relationship again.”

Yes. I felt the same way, to some degree. But if Lee saw Isaiah 53 in his life story – if he saw Jesus present in his midst bearing his griefs and sorrows and at work in the ministry of reconciliation and healing - he would have been able to stay in the house in Manchester with Patrick. And I suspect that last fishing scene would have been different, more like the beginning one. I took that walking scene to foreshadow when Lee later laid out to Patrick what he had planned - while sitting with Patrick around a table (to tell him the rest of the arrangements around his leaving), BTW! That was when he told Patrick "I can't beat it." So, I saw his making those plans, after the conversation with Randi and the fight, as his accepting that he "couldn't beat it" - whereas before that he was struggling and hoping to do so. In the midst of the struggle, he wasn’t able to relate to Patrick in any meaningful way whatsoever. He was struggling to make sense of who Patrick even was to him, because he had no sense of his very self.

It wasn’t until Lee’s final decision that he was given some sense of closure, but it still wasn't victory. More like acceptance of defeat (per what’s below), I think, which allowed him to not be wound so tight in the struggle, as he was before.

At this point, the previous commenter says this in response:

“Hmm...I may have to give it another viewing. I understood the struggle throughout the movie as how to reject the invitation to relationship without entering into any kind of relationship. That is how thoroughly he had accepted that he had been beaten. He didn't even want to be obligated to explain himself. He didn't want to be forgiven or shown grace or kindness. The ending was simple desire that maybe it could be different.”

I think it would be more accurate or ring more with truth to say that, up to the time of Lee’s brother's death, he was completely unable to confront the reality of the tragedy that tore him to shreds so thoroughly that the horizon by which he might orient himself became shadows and fog. To Randi, he couldn't even say, "It's not your fault but mine!" All he could manage to articulate was, "No...there's nothing there." I think he was so alienated from himself and reality after the failed suicide attempt and Randi's leaving him that he wouldn't even have been able to even begin to articulate language of victory or defeat. That's precisely why the news from the lawyer of how his brother had arranged everything was so disorienting and shocking!

He was forced to try to attain the victory that he knew he didn’t have the power to grasp so hadn’t begun to gaze towards.

At that very point in time, I think Patrick became a living sign of his struggle. That's why, when he heard from the lawyer how his brother had said everything up, he simply said, "I can't," and then simply stared away out the window for an uncomfortable period of time. As Fitch said, the film reveals both presence and the lack thereof.

After Lee’s final decision to leave Manchester, he could now, with some sense of resolution, hug Patrick – the walking sign of his sorrow. The struggle had ended. He had found himself. He had faced his greatest fears. Who he found was the realization that said fears could not be overcome. So, though he could hug Patrick, he still couldn't bear to stay in Manchester, in his hometown where the tragedy that broke his soul made him an eternal alien. Some level of resolution allowed for an equally proportional level of relationship with the sign of his struggle.

And more to the point of David Fitch’s posts and book - that's why the film is about presence. Lee was unable to be present to…anything or anyone, including his very self and home town. Scripture points to the present one, the one who is the reason presence is, like, a thing. Christ provides for us a language without which we have no PLACE, no home, no words...without which we are aliens and subject to death.

The ancient Jews, btw, associated death not just primarily with physical end of life but, rather, with alienation. In “Manchester by the Sea,” Lee is a dead man walking. The film presents us with the Cross. A beautifully painful picture of piercing truth that is difficult to face in the midst of extended life scenes of excruciatingly ordinary lack of the presence that means life. Christ makes Lee’s cry his own on the cross when he shouts: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!”

I think Paul’s articulation of our “groaning” is Lee’s struggle, over which he is, in the end, unable to find victory. But, as per Paul’s whole point in Romans 8, I don’t think Lee even realized it was a struggle until he was forced by his brother’s death and the ensuing duty to fulfill the arrangements made by said brother, to face said struggle. His brother’s death became a mirror into which Lee was never able to fully gaze.

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
- Romans 8: 20-23

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

- 1 Corinthians 12: 12

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