Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Re-Writing the Death of Jesus: Beginners

Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer), Arthur the dog, Oliver (Ewan McGregor). Arthur plays an important role in the film, because Oliver has a conversation with Arthur about who Arthur's "author" is, John Russell the breeder who created the breed for courage and stamina to hunt foxes but not to "be human." The idea of God's authorship of us as individuals is prevalent throughout the film in big and small ways, and in "re-writing Jesus' death," in taking away the violence from what Jesus willingly underwent, not only is undoing what Jesus did for Hal, but making the same authorship mistakes everyone is accusing everyone else of in the film.
HAL: Eventually, Jesus grew old. He could no longer walk far and he could no longer preach in a loud voice. One day he announced to his apostles that he was departing. The three disciples prayed with him, gave him water, bathed and fed him. After gasping for breath for several days, one morning, just as dawn came, Jesus passed away.
OLIVER: You re-wrote Jesus' death?
HAL: It was far too violent. We need new stories.

Hal Fields (Christopher Plummer) is a seventy-five year-old man who was married for 44 years, had his son Oliver (Ewan McGregor) and, after his wife's death, told his son that he was gay, that he didn't want to be "theoretically gay," that he wanted to "explore that side of himself" and do something about it. Then he gets terminal cancer and is dying. The "essay on religion" above is part of what Hal does before he dies and is based on the real life experience recorded in Mike Mills' Beginners. Why does Hal write this "essay on religion" and what does it mean?
Hal "found an out gay priest to guide him spiritually," but Hal still re-writes the death of Jesus; for Christians, the violence of Christ's death means his Love for us, and because he loves us so much, we are bound to love ourselves properly, which means wanting what is genuinely best for ourselves and that means doing what must be done to gain eternal salvation. When Hal rewrites Jesus' death, two things happens: first, he takes away the violence, which means he takes away Christ's love for him so Hal is no longer obligated by love to do what Christ wants him to do (and denying the Resurrection of Christ, that Jesus passed away just as dawn was coming instead of Jesus being raised from the dead at dawn, denies Jesus as God and the glory of the Resurrection, so Jesus and God exist as nothing but words to take in vain) and secondly, Hal--by taking the true death away from Jesus--takes away Jesus' true identity (because our death is part of our identity and who we are).
Hal with his boyfriend Andy (Goran Visnjic). Andy's constant insecurity over being gay translates to the film's insecurity with gays; not homophobia, but a sense that, if it's not being justified and validated every single second, someone is going to assume that it is wrong and Andy's feelings are going to be hurt. That insecurity is something not frequently discussed in films, either.
What's so interesting about Beginners, is that it doesn't really seem supportive of the gay movement; I will be the first to admit that it is an ambiguous film, but given this obvious reference to Hal having to rewrite Christianity so that he can still be actively gay and feel that he can die with the blessing of Christianity is something that most gay supporters do not mention or touch upon. There are really some fabulous, well-crafted stream of conscious scenes done in the film, and it's very well put together, and very aware of itself structurally and socially. That's why this film, surprisingly, doesn't seem to be supporting the gay lifestyle. Additionally, Oliver, because of his mother being half-Jewish, and finding a girlfriend who is Jewish and telling her that he is a quarter Jewish, seems to intentionally not be following in his father's footsteps. BUT THE FILM IS AMBIGUOUS, and I know my religious beliefs will cause me to read one thing instead of another.
Arthur is his father's dog, so after Hal dies, Arthur comes to live with Oliver and Oliver takes Arthur to a dog park to be with his own kind, but Arthur stays on the bench with Oliver. Oliver tries to explain to Arthur that his personality was created by someone else, but it doesn't seem to help either Oliver or Arthur. This rather corresponds to a party that Oliver attends dressed as Sigmund Freud the psychoanalyst who listens to people's problems and one guy tells him that he didn't choose his eyes, his color, his nose, his life or face, that who would? We have seen, numerous times this year, a destabilization of identity, but Beginners seems to give us a renunciation of identity, only to embrace it once again. Oliver graffitis, "You make me laugh but it's not funny," and this statement illustrates for us the contradiction of being in a state of laughter over something that is not funny, although that is what laughter is, the recognition of something funny. The whole film is really about this state of living that isn't living.
I would like to say something about a regrettable trend I am seeing.
In accordance with the US Bishop's Conference position on homosexuality, whether it is a naturally occurring or a socially adjusted behavior, homosexuals, like heterosexual singles (including myself), are called to maintain a state of celibacy and chastity. Having said that, there seems to be a trend in Hollywood that if a film wants to be controversial or an actor/actress wants to win an Oscar, all that have to do is play a bi-homosexual role and they get considered for an award (Brokeback Mountain, Boys Don't Cry, Milk, Gods and Monsters, The Black Swan, J. Edgar and Beginners). I worry that homosexuals are being exploited by Hollywood and greedy actors who want awards and companies that want the publicity of controversy, rather than a genuine concern for people in that state of existence. Christopher Plummer is a fine actor, extremely respected and accomplished in his craft, but I honestly can't see why he would have been nominated and is winning awards for playing Hal Fields except because he kisses another man in the film, and that is exploitative. 
That dis-in-genuine attitude seems to be in the film, though.
When Hal "comes out," Oliver rambles off all the things he did: joined gay pride, got a boyfriend, started going to gay bars, movie night (gay films) writing congressional letters, to the point that Oliver asks him, "Is the chair gay," and Hal says, "No the chair is not gay, obviously." But Hal seems to be going through a series of steps to assure himself that he is gay and that it is okay to be gay, that there is a gay type he wants to fit into. Beginners seems to almost be mocking him and gays. 
Beginners is a very serious film about a number of serious topics; while it remains ambiguous, I do feel that (not only it's fluid and organic structure and thought process) it addresses important topics in a way that many gay films have not. Anything I would say as a Catholic heterosexual will probably be considered shallow and offensive to a homosexual, but the film makes a serious attempt at showing inner-emotional and psychological problems not only within humans but the history of the U.S. as well and, with its use of art and clever dialogue construction, I just feel that, if it were going to be awarded honors, it should have been for something genuine, not just because Christopher Plummer kissed a younger man.