Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day is one of those films you watch strictly by reputation, because it has actors you love (Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson) and you keep hearing about it in places and wondering whether you missed something. Certainly there is nothing flashy in the premise: a lifelong butler dedicates himself to the service of his lord, only to realize eventually that his loyalties were misguided. No dramatic clashes occur. No witty dialog, no dramatic speeches. Everything is smooth, quiet, and impeccably, insufferably British. In fact, I suspect the trailer for the movie must have been heavily voice-overed, because almost nothing distinct happens in the movie at all.

In fact, this is the consummate anti carpe diem movie. Some movies have the patience to show you a character, put you in their world, and then rachet up the tension to bring you to moments of unexpected significance. The Remains of the Day does that; you come away with a sense of what it would be like to be "in service"; you marvel at the armies of servants, consider the oddity of mopping a floor in a three-piece suit, and respect James Stevens' passion for serving to the utmost. So we do come to identify with the bachelor butler, feel his ambiguity as his lord's Nazi sympathies start to manifest, and writhe in the romantic tension between Mr. Stevens and the housekeeper Ms. Kinton.

Most movies, however, rachet up that tension in order to ultimately release it in a dramatic moment. You expect the butler to have a Lord Kent moment, where he rises up against the foolishness of his beloved Lear. You expect the leading lady to leap from the bus, run into the hero's arms, cast away all reserve and embrace what is true and right. But not here. You see these people -- lord, butler, and housekeeper -- face these moments of significance, and let it slip away, again and again. They decend into lives of quiet desperation, and . . . well, that's it.

So why should you watch it? It's a tribute to the actors that you actually can stay interested in two hours of almost nothing happening. Like Bill Murray in Broken Flowers, Anthony Hopkins displays his virtuosity by making internal struggles palpable with the most reserved of performances. It's so subtle that you don't even know, consciously, how he does it. As for unhappy, undramatic endings . . .well, that's life. Sometimes people marry the wrong people, pursue wrong-headed goals for the right reasons, and otherwise waste their lives. But how often do we feel the enormous tragedy of that, in a mere two hours?



Post a Comment

<< Home