Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Meal Beyond the Pines


Jeff, thanks for getting the Pines talk rolling. Here's my contribution.

It was good to get out to the movies with Ben last week.

The best part of the night was probably eating a tasty sandwich at Panera while Ben distractedly stared at the actress from Compliance (or some girl who looked like her; I'm not sure) while we chatted.

I followed Ben's lead and tried the Mediterranean Veggie sandwich (I think that's what it was called) The sandwich was both light and satisfying, everything I'd hoped it to be. I got chips and a pickle on the side and a glass of teamonade (not an Arnie).

I was still hungry for something more once we had arrived at AMC. I ordered a medium popcorn which I ate throughout Pines' runtime.

The Place Beyond the Pines ended up being a lot like my evening's meal, satisfying at first, but ending on a false note of overindulgence that almost, but not quite, ruined the whole thing.

Like my eating that night, Pines is divided into three acts.

ACT I: Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich

Pines opens with a long over-the-shoulder handheld tracking shot that had me rolling my eyes and wanting to leave. The shot's payoff, though, as the camera hovers outside of the motorcycle cage, is quite nice. The entire shot does effectively communicate Luke's swagger and confidence, his caged emotions, and his reckless courting of danger. The next shot of Luke with the children opens up his character as a warm and likable rogue who could potentially enjoy domestication. Eva Mendes enters the shot and all we, the audience, want at that moment is for these two to spend the rest of their lives together.

Cianfrance is at his best when he is exploring the emotional space between people (often mirrored and modeled in the physical space). Like I told Brandon, Blue Valentine was good enough that Pines became a no-brainer to see without hesitation. Cianfrance (and his camera) poke and prod at Luke and Romina, almost dancelike as the two circle around and in and out and other characters come in between the two. The setup is tragic. It's hard not to care for Luke as he asserts his rights as a father and attempts to provide for "his" girl and his son. At the same time, it's hard to ignore that he is the rotten foreign element who has left without a word while another, better man stood up to care for a woman pregnant with another man's baby. There's no way this is going to end happily for all involved no matter how things shake out.

Blue Valentine had already established Cianfrance as someone who could handle intimate moments. The revelation of Pines is that Cianfrance is a very good action director. During the robbery scenes, my breathing tightened and I felt the thrill. The action is wild and unpredictable and just a little bit crazy. And fast. This is a credit to both the writing and the staging/cinematography.

Act 1, like that veggie sandwich, was delicious and satisfying, pretty much everything that I was hoping for from the film. It hit the spot. I probably could have stopped eating/watching right there and I would have been extremely satisfied. I would have been left wanting more in a good way, with the experience of something good lingering on in my senses, hungry for more, but content instead to reflect on what I had just had instead of moving on.

ACT II: Chips and a Pickle

Afraid that the sandwich couldn't stand alone, I complemented it with chips and a pickle. Cianfrance does the same with his movie. After a sprightly feast, Cianfrance gives us a side order or something much more mundane, a tired cop corruption story. The reason that this segment works at all is the same reason that the chips and pickle worked with the sandwich. I still had some sandwich left and the chips and pickle provided nice counter-flavors that played with the sandwich taste and reinforced the goodness of the sandwich. Act II plays with the same themes of Act I and develops them in parallel ways, drawing out what was implicit in Act I and allowing us to enjoy it all again as seen in a new light. Little pieces of Act 1 weave in and out of Act II and Act II only stands at all in its relation to Act I. On its own, it's really not satisfying at all. This would be a bad taste to end with. Instead of the taste of delicious sandwich, now I've got bits of greasy chips stuck between my teeth. I'm hungry for something else.

ACT III: Movie Theater Popcorn

I love popcorn. I eat it often. Real kernels air-popped, then drizzled with real butter and sprinkled with sea salt. It's one of my favorite things. Movie theater popcorn always sounds good, but it's a poor substitute for the real thing. Oil-popped and cooked with fake seasonings/flavors. A third act of Pines likewise seemed like a good idea, tying together the themes of the previous two acts in an examination of intergenerational transmission of privileges and pains. What seemed like a good idea plays out like fake popcorn, leaving one with nothing more than regrets and a light stomachache. All of the real flavors that have been built up previously (no matter how imperfectly in the second act) are now drowned out in one large monotonous bag o' corn. And Pines, at its worst, isn't just a mess. It's downright corny in its old-fashioned insistence on contrived connections and forced themes. Surprisingly, this is the film's strength at the end. It has gone this far. No going back. Since it's already gone so far, it finishes fully committed to itself and what it is and what it has become in 140 minutes. If it's not this year's indie darling, it just might be the best bloated Hollywood film we get this year. Folks, that's entertainment!

The best thing that I can say of the film is that I was fully engaged throughout it's long running time. Pines is a solid piece of entertainment. If, by the end, I had lost some of that blazing emotional connection established early on, I at least was still comforted by the embers that remained.

(How the heck did I get from a stupid, unwieldy food metaphor to a fire metaphor like this and where do I go from here? I think it's time to ride off into the sunset.)

The coda at the end in which the son rides free (I had a hard time imagining that he wasn't riding straight to the DMV and then to a garage for an inspection, but whatever) is as worn-out and cliched as many of the previous moments, but, like I said, Cianfrance is committed to the material, and I was more than happy to ride along.

In the end, movie theater popcorn is still popcorn and, what can I say? I like popcorn. If, at the end of the night, I was thinking more of that sandwich from earlier in the night and I had largely forgotten the chips and pickle, well, the popcorn hadn't ruined the memory of the sandwich at all and I'm having a hard time mustering up too many complaints about popcorn.

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