Friday, October 7, 2011

the ending of drive and the connective power of alienation


Drive is, to me, almost a perfect film. Every shot is expertly framed, the acting is beautifully restrained, and the music…Badalamenti, neo-new wave, so great. It ranks up there with No Country For Old Men as one of the great existentialist crime films, and I will probably watch it twenty times. I went to Jim Emerson’s “Scanners” blog to read his thoughts on it, as he had several brilliant insights into NCFOM upon its release. While Emerson didn’t care for Drive, he went about his critiques in a generally inoffensive and thoughtful way. What bugged me, in the comments sections, were the assertions that, at almost the very end of the film (which I won’t spoil), the protagonist acts in a “stupid” way which does not jive with his character as we’ve known him to that point, and therefore the film has broken the spell and become a disappointment.


The University of Oklahoma recently had a gathering of international authors come to campus for a week to do internationally-famous-author type things, amongst them a reading which I attended. I enjoyed a couple of the readers (including a massively powerful poetry reading by Ilya Kominksy) but found most of them to be lost somewhere up their own assholes. Their poetry and writings were self-absorbed, conveyed in voices that somehow managed to be weighty and breathy at the same time. If it sounds like I’m shitting all over them, I have to clarify that I don’t mean to be disrespectful. These are massively accomplished writers who have spent years honing their craft. I’m the one who thinks they suck. I’m also the one spilling muffin crumbs on my pants. So it’s my problem.
Whenever we find that people are taking themselves too seriously, what we’re saying is that something in their writing failed to reach us. There is such a thing as bad writing, don’t get me wrong. On a technical level, it exists. But when we’re all on this (sort of) equal playing field, where we’re all at the very least competent, “bad” becomes, more honestly, “unrelatable”. There was a great post from Conley Wouters over at McSweeney’s when DFW died, that went “A good writer makes the reader feel less lonely. A good writer makes the reader believe in her own feelings—he assures her (through fiction, no less) that whatever it is she’s feeling is True, and not a psychic symptom of being alone.”
Different readers attach this relatability, and the subsequent less-loneliness in different ways. There are some, like probably most of the people on the Neustadt panel, who feel most connected to a piece when it traverses, via what I’m assuming are incredibly well-sharpened literary tools, relatively familiar terrain. The “coming of age story” and the like. We will follow our hero as he relates to his (surely oddball) family, the pangs of growing up, first loves, embarrassments, angers, comedy, tragedy, and depression. Having felt these things ourselves at one point or another, we will certainly see ourselves in this other’s story, and perhaps, like DFW wanted, feel less lonely.
But what if what you feel like an alien?
What if your most pervasive feeling is a fascination with and fear of all the ways in which we as tiny parts of big things are so different?
While I would be lying if I said I haven’t connected with a book based on the standards of the former, I feel the most connected to a book when the author presents a situation that seems to baffle her just as much as it does me, and we can kind of share that moment of bewilderment, so that I’m not connecting to abstract, thinly veiled events from her past, but with her actual, present-tense, as-she’s-writing-it fear and alienation.


People find characters like Anton Chigurh or The Driver fascinating because they are sociopathic blank slates. They are enigmatic. A small facial tic could mean everything, or nothing. Some folks argue that this kind of quiet, strange man is interesting because we are allowed to project what we’re thinking onto them, and that just like a hidden shark is scarier than a shark with an oxygen tank in its mouth, our own stand in thoughts are worse than anything a screenwriter could come up with. But that’s not it for me: the blank slate is so compelling because it’s so weird and distant. The way the camera nonchalantly ogles these men without giving us even a hint is the cinematic equivalent of how I feel every day, watching all you weird fuckers. And what these films do, is to say that the feeling of not understanding and that everything is weird, is okay. That’s when I feel the most community with my fellow man, when they admit to me, through some badass prose or mise en scene, that they’re just as freaked out by this thing that I am.


It doesn’t matter if The Driver’s actions don’t make sense. All characters exist, in some sense, in the world they were created in. They made their decisions, we figure out what they mean, or don’t. Something might not speak to you, but everything shouldn’t make sense. Life is weird and lonely. Existentialism is mostly about how lonely and weird life is. Drive’s ending works, in that respect.

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