Hey 2022 Film Year, What’s Up With All the Death: Some Pre Oscar Reflections

One of the final films to release wide and cap off the 2022 calendar year was Noah Baumbach’s ambitious and divisive adaptation of the sprawling and seemingly unadaptable novel, White Noise. Much digital ink has been spilled debating its merits and its failures outside of this space, and there’s no need to rehash that conversation here. What I did want to comment on though is this: the films depiction of people all facing immanent death with varied responses and approaches proved a fitting bookend to a cinematic year that was seemingly obsessed with such ruminations on our mortality. The critical darling topping many best of lists (my number 2 of the year), Charlotte Wells’ Afterson, remains a poignant reflection on the relationship between grief and memory. My number one of the year, Kogonada’s After Yang, weaves a similar reflection on memory and grief into an exploration of what it means to be human in light of our mortality. Even one of the most uplifting films of 2022, Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, masquerades as a subtle reflection on matters of living and dying, fitting well alongside the other stop motion feature nominated for best animated feature, Del Toro’s Pinocchio, which inadvertently takes his penchant for writing about the idea of resurrection and plays it into a sharp humanist reflection on mortality and nihilism. Not to be outdone, the crowd pleasing Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a late game and largely successful addition to the animated feature category, tells a clear minded story about living a life amidst the reality that this is the only life we have to live before it all just fades away. From ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Which all begs the necessary question- what was up with all the obsession with death, 2022.

One could surmise that we are, now being three years removed from the start of a global pandemic, seeing the fruits of that collective experience. Such events can certainly inspire such reflections and themes. Given the fact that many of these projects tend to be in the works for a much longer period of time than 2 plus years suggests that this might have been more prophetic or coincidental than causation. In any case, the most interesting thing to me has been pondering, along with White Noise, the different kinds of responses evident in what were very different kinds of films. Look no further than the recent Oscar nominations for a prime example. If the large cast of characters in White Noise all respond differently to the same impending reality, Oscar pundits seem to be grappling with two very different films in what was largely considered to be a two horse race quickly turning into one, Martin McDonaghs quiet, studied and insightful The Banshees of Inisherin and the Daniel’s populist, bombastic and creativity drawn take on the superhero genre, Everything Everywhere All At Once. The latter now being assumed the run away winner.

Banshee’s draws its story from a simple friendship between two aged men who’s lives have been shaped by closely wrought connections forged from the soil of an isolated Irish village. One of the the two men finds himself attempting to reconcile the waning years of the second half of life with the reality that he will eventually be forgotten. He becomes obsessed with this notion of leaving a legacy that can outlast the mundanuty of his existence. He finds this legacy in the idea of music, and thus he wakes up one day deciding to trade his life long friendships for a chance to devote his time to something more important- writing a song.

The other man finds himself unable to comprehend how someone can throw away that which matters most in the present- friendship- in order to chase this notion of a legacy. To him what is eternal is kindness, those basic elements of being a good person. Embedded within this ideological claim are true, human emotions- fear, uncertainty, anger, expectation. Two people realizing the inevitability of their mortality responding in two very different ways. The film never reconciles this tension, rather it allows it to bring the honesty of the questions to the surface. If the reality of things is made apparent then, so are the lingering notes of hope that seem to fester in the shadows of such uncertainty. Standing on the shores of this isolated Irish village is where the cast of characters turns their gaze to the seeming possibility of something more, something larger than themselves, no matter how much this repeated refrain remains undefined. The purest definition comes, perhaps, in the honest expressions of their struggles, their grappling with fear and loneliness and restlessness. Struggles that only make sense in relationship or the lack there of. Struggles that come to bear through very real matters of life and death over the course of the film.

In contrast, Everything Everywhere All At Once sees the reality of our existence and its inevitable struggles through a very different lens. The struggles it highlights, namely an astute and deeply felt wrestling with loneliness and depression and the sheer force of accompanying nihilistic thoughts, infuses its idea of existence with a real sense of needing to find meaning and purpose in order to properly live. The focus is on the parallel stories of mother and daughter growing up in a world where their gender limits their worth and confines their identity to these culturally constructed limitations. From this the Directors tumble us into a variable montage of sequences and arcs that feel torn straight from the pages of Ecclesiastes- all is meaningless. So where do we go from here.

This feeling that all is meaningless plays into the idea that they see themselves as worthless, and in a very real sense the story strives to find a way to reconcile this struggle by presenting the working tension of kindness and love as momentary measures of real and tangible joy in an otherwise dark and pointless life. The film plays this out in clever ways using the multi-verse as a story and plot device, allowing this to uncover the feeling of a life plagued by what-ifs and wrong choices. Of all the versions of the mother that exist, the one we are following is established as the one who has failed, seemingly, to live up to her potential in every concievable way. She is deemed a categorical failure of a life, a feeling she has buried by projecting her struggles on to her daughter in told and unspoken expectations. In the daughters case, she is driven by a longing for reconciliation, of reconciling her own feelings of isolation and rejection both in concert and in tension with her mother. The mothers past trauma, being as she was rejected and abandoned by her father, forms the tension apparent in this relationship between mother and daughter, while the concert comes through their mutual and shared need for relationship. At the heart is this message that speaks to the idea of knowing that we are not alone as having power to counteract the tensions of our existence, something we all need in our own way. Which is where the larger subtext of its superhero premise leads to a greater moral- learning to fight with kindness and love can help to reveal for all of us the true enemy- nihilism marked by the inevitable reality of death and suffering,

This is then, I think, a story shaped by unspoken conflict- conflict between father and mother, wife and husband, mother and daughter, success and failures, business and tax collector, meaningfulness and meaninglessness, family and indvidual. This conflict gets a broader metaphorical treatment in the multi-verse by way of this growing and universal existential threat plaguing humanity at large, giving the real world conflicts a nearly spiritual and cosmic presence. I think this part is really well thought out and established and a beautiful expression of the films cultural presence. But its within these conflicts that I found myself left trying to make sense of seemingly opposing thematic ideas. For example, there is a temptation to read into this story a nihilistic take on the “everything is meaningless” phrase. There is a reading of this film that goes “everything is meaningless, therefore anything is possible”, meaning that there is no reason to get bogged down by failures and the could have-would have-should haves of lifes seemingly endless possibilities. Possibility means that we can find the good in anything and that we can let go not of one another but of our expectations of what must define worth and meaning. We create worth and meaning, and just as easily erase it depending on how we love. And when afforded a nihilistic assumption (that being this notion that the starting point of life is that all is meaningless) the film ends up betraying the honesty of its questions by simply sweeping the problem of death and suffering under the rug. Out of sight, out of mind, therefore just be kind and loving and it will all be good in an otherwise meaningless existence. I think the film fails to address the concerns it tables of both mother and daughter when it comes to the grander conflict of this worlds persistent struggle between what is and what we hope and long for things to be, and takes the easy road out by romanticizing the nihilistic foundation using easy and highly irrational appeals to manipulative emotions that, when examined prove incapable of actually addressing the problem of death and suffering.

As I ponder these two approaches, I find my mind returning to After Yang, and to one scene in particular. Thematically, the film draws out with a sure hand this delicate balance between the particular (the question of what it means to be Asian) and the universal (what it means to be human). This is captured in a memorable sequence where one of the characters is dialoging with the artificial life (Yang), who sits at the heart of the story, about whether there is more to this world than what we see on the surface, namely evoking this notion of God and the hope of there being something after death (bringing to the surface the emphasis of the films title). Here we can see the film’s intimate humanist concern, but it also transcends this as a way of pushing us into the questions that being human in relationship to a reality bigger than ourselves necessarily evokes. For artificial life to wonder whether it is programmed to believe in something more (God) leads to wondering whether humans are programmed to believe in something more. And if we are programmed in one way or another, what then is the purpose of this longing? Is it meant to reveal truth we otherwise couldn’t see (in terms of being programmed to believe). Is it meant to protect us against untruth (in terms of being programmed towards unbelief)? Is it to allow us to cope? To function? To survive an otherwise meaningless material existence? And what of emotion? Is it better to be okay with nothing being “after” or is not being okay with such a notion that makes us human?

However it is that we wrestle with this question, what seems pertinent to me is that to make sense of a reality where death and suffering exist means to find ways to afford such realities a redemptive quality, even where it seems unreasonable to do so. Perhaps this is the reason death played so prominently in 2022- affording the past few years a redemptive quality. In any case, it does seem fitting that this year’s Oscar’s will land squarely in Lent, bringing with it the prominence of its focus on suffering and death and our ability to afford it a redemptive quality. If Lent has anything to say it’s that sweeping the plain realities of this existence under the rug will not do. To this end I think Banshees proves to be far more honest and aware in its exploration of such matters. The cross was the reality. If Easter Sunday has anything to say, it’s that the foundation for this reality is not ashes to ashes, dust to dust, all is meaningless, but rather the creation-new creation story. In Jesus the kingdom has broken in, reframing and reorienting reality in the light of its redemptive force. We do not create meaning and worth in this sense, rather we locate it in the person and work of Jesus. Without such hope we are left with the dire honesty of Banshees or the illusionary notes of Everything Everywhere, both of which ultimately leave us somewhat stuck in this moment with no real way to reconcile the reality of death and suffering with a life lived in its shadows. The best we can do is allow it to turn us into cynics or simply ignore its truth in favor of irrational appeals to the power of individual circumstance and ability.

Lest we find ourselves simply stuck in this moment, let us imagine something more hopeful by seeding the power of true redemptive trajectory deep into the soil of these present moments of 2023.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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