The Rants, Raves, Gripes, and Prophecies of Paul R. Potts

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Wed, 11 Mar 1998 Good Will Hunting

This film fills the screen with chalk dust, tweed, unwashed dishes, rust, floor wax, broken concrete, cigarette ash, scars, and sweat. You can almost smell it. The palette is not beautiful, but extremely convincing. Extended use of location shots bring South Boston and M.I.T. to us. The realism of this presentation is necessary, because the story is extraordinary and without this rooting, would more easily begin to stretch our credibility.

Will Hunting is an orphan from a broken and abusive home, a survivor of foster care, torture, and numerous prosecutions for brawls. His friends are fringe working-class: temporary demolition jobs, beer-drinking, fist-fighting, deeply loyal, and profoundly bonded.

But Will's got a problem - he's actually a genius. In his spare time, he's apparently absorbed everything the Boston Public Library has to offer on American History and Jurisprudence, and also happened to pick up organic chemistry, psychology, and higher mathematics. A lot of higher mathematics.

Apparently algebraic topology* comes so easily to him that he not only has absorbed much of it virtually without effort, but has also indepently generated theorems he didn't know already had names, probably while showering or brushing his teeth.

He's an enigma. Because of his background, he's violently defensive of his working-poor friends. He can't keep himself from fistfights, heated arguments in bars, and partying with fearless abandon. There are many serious "buts" that tell us who Will really is. But, he likes being in the halls of academe - MIT. But, he cleans the floors. But, he can't keep his gift to himself, obviously: while running a buffer over a spotless floor, he notices a theorem left on a chalkboard to challenge students - a theorem that took the math faculty two years to work out. He pauses to dash off a few Dynkin diagrams. It's the right answer. But this time, he's caught.

An MIT mathematics professor "discovers" Will - and tries to assist. He talks a judge into letting Will out of jail, on the condition that he go into therapy and spend a little time doing math under the professor's tutelage. But Prof's argument, the one that bright people always hear - that you must live up to your potential - just triggers Will's bloodhound instincts to jump all over the hidden agenda, which is that he wants to play Hardy to Will's Ramanujan and publish the papers, because he himself has already made his one notable contribution and passed his peak doing it. Home-boy Will ain't gonna play that game.

While so defensive of his working-class background, Will has no compunctions whatsoever about using his scathing insight to attack anything he sees as hypocritical or self-serving. That is, pretty much everyone and everything he comes across. Will's job interview with the NSA is help-I-can't-breathe funny, but there's something not quite right - Will doesn't care about getting along with anyone and happily burns every bridge he crosses. He takes a little too much glee in showing his wit at everyone else's expense.*

The scenes of Will with his girlfriend are incredible. There's a love scene shot in such a muted and abstracted way that while hiding the bodies almost completely in the dark, we feel a fresh shock of voyeurism at the conversational intimacy the lovers display. It's directorial genius. The whole film has almost no scene shot in a way that is noticeably predictable, expected, or dull. The film deserves the wide praise it has gotten for its writing. The dialogue is stunning. Not a single word is cliche. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll wet yourself, and all that.

Robin Williams plays a tweedy psychoanalyst who refuses to take Will's crap and maintains a brutal insistence on helping him get over his defensive posture - which has kept him alive so far, but which isn't going to let him get along with anyone long enough to get to know them, including his girlfriend. Williams is excellent here as the bear-like father-Will-never-had.

This film is really about learning to pursue your own meaning. Will's genius is just a catalyst - it pisses everyone off, and they drag out their own petty insecurities and defenses in response. Will's inability to do anything with his life just make their own excuses seem that much weaker. They are unable to do the very things they are demanding of Will, so that they can smugly watch him fly from the safety of their own flimsy nests. He's not going to give them that satisfaction, and instead of fitting into their molds, they'll be forced to change forever.

(I think it is algebraic topology. From the little I know and the little I was able to look up, I believe the diagrams he draws to solve the professor's problems are Dynkin diagrams. At the moment, I can't really explain what these are or what they are used for*).

**(Although this film has helped inspire me to get back into reading and practicing mathematics; ask me in ten years, and maybe I'll be able to draw you some Dynkin diagrams and explain what they mean.)

*(Not that I'm defending the NSA...)

Sources for further reading:

Bamford, James. The Puzzle Palace. Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization.

Kanigel, Robert. The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan.

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The Sweet Hereafter

This film is a confusing one, but a fascinating one as well.

On the one hand, it seems designed to give the appearance of extreme depth. It must be the kind of film that you should be watching and talking about; after all, if everyone else is talking about it, it must be deep. I'm automatically distrustful of this in the same way that I tend not to believe that the most popular is also the best.

On the other hand, it isn't just appearance: the film does play with big ideas, is quite moving, and does bring forth truly beautiful performances.

If you like your narrative linear, this film will drive you crazy. You can't watch it while constantly asking yourself "What is happening now? Is this the future or the past? Exactly whom are these characters and what are they doing?" You do need to keep track of who everyone is and what they are doing, but you don't need to try to analyze it all and put it in order too early. Time moves back and forth in waves. Let it flow over you and you will begin to perceive the whole story.

The plot emerges eliptically, like the unfolding of a mystery story, through a slow accumulation of details. A school bus full of children has plunged through an icy lake, killing almost all the children of a small town. This scene has been toyed with so gracefully that by the time it happens, there is no drama in it at all, just a fascinating silence that settles over the scene and a real gut-wrenching sympathy with one isolated father, forced to stare in horror as his children die.

There's a big-city lawyer, on the trail of money, who seems both a perfectly hypocritical ambulance-chaser believing in nothing but money, while perfectly acting out the role of vengeful messiah, trying to establish someone to blame, and a desperately loving father driven to the breaking point by his money-wheedling, drug-addicted daughter.

There's the fable of the Pied Piper of Hamlin woven in, with clear metaphorical echoes across past and future events.

There's a survivor, a girl now wheelchair-bound, forced to abandon the few illusions she has remaining, and who learns how to go head-to- head in the lawyer's game of manipulation and deceit. There's her incestuous relationship with her father. We get to be bothered by this precisely because the film isn't; there are no clear consequences or lessons to be learned from this. We must get out of it what we bring to it.

There's the grief-wracked bus driver, whose fate seems to be that she must live with the overwhelming horror that she might have prevented the accident. A less interesting movie would have presented us with some kind of evidence of her guilt or innocence, but we're forced to suffer along with her and realize that our lives are about perception, not facts.

One of the film's big messages seems to be about the nature of time itself, and our perception of time. The lawyer describes a terrifying event in the life of his daughter as a very young child. He must race to the hospital with his daughter on his lap, a knife to her throat, poised to perform an emergency tracheotomy, as she stares up at him.

Seen in a linear narrative, this event would evoke one set of associations - about parental love, duty, responsibility, and fear. Re-imagined in retrospect, knowing the daughter's life and the lawyer's anguish, it evokes a drastically altered set, all about dominance and anger, retribution, and the threat and terror of death. Because of this creative rearrangement of time, everything is seen in a new light, and we come to understand better the lawyer's character and motivations.

Not one of the characters is cardboard; all are richly imagined and convincingly written. Not one of the scenes is a throwaway. The film has an odd power; the sluggish drift of time pulls you through it, and you're left a bit baffled by its unconventionality. Not all that much happens over the course of the film. People's lives continue, and they make small realizations and try to keep going after what will no doubt be the largest tragedy of their lives. Real life doesn't generally hold majestic speeches, car chases, shoot-outs. But the oddly-moving (and oddly moving) portrayal of this makes this film stick in the mind like few others I've seen.

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Sat, 14 Feb 1998 Oscar and Lucinda

This is a movie worth seeing twice. Set in Autralia, it is a historic romance of a sort, tracing the history of two misfits, a religious nut and a proto-feminist, both, oddly enough, who have developed addiction to gambling. Interestingly, the young Anglican priest's deeply conservative religious father's opinion makes his gambling almost as unacceptable as the young woman's. But clearly, Oscar has a special dispensation from the almightly - a combination of a charmed life and insistent innocence seem to lift his character out of every dismal scene fate puts him in just as it propels him onward.

There are some ancillary pseudo-love-triangle partners, but from the moment we meet Oscar and Lucinda there is not any doubt that they are meant only for each other. This illustrates the strength of the casting and the impressive extent to which the principals have become their roles.

The first hour of the film has a tendency to move a bit slowly. It accelerates when Oscar and Lucinda place their final bet: that Oscar can deliver an impractically lovely glass-and-iron church from Sydney to a mission in New South Wales. The scenes of Oscar fighting his phobia of water inside this lovely doomed structure are the most strangely beautiful thing I've seen happen on a raft since Aguirre, the Wrath of God. One realizes that the first half of the film exists entirely to make this implausible event not only imaginable, but inevitable.

The film has a high degree of heavily-clothed eroticism that I found fascinating. The cheaper side of life holds deep red visual fascination, while the life of the monied displays its stiffling repression in its upright palette of linens, blues, and golds. Glittering glass, shining water, and deeply textured costumes give this film a real tactile quality in addition to its broad palette.

The cinematography of the violent and erotic acts is surprisingly inventive, lingering on what you don't expect it to and passing over what you do. The unconventionality of the shots makes these events slip past the viewer's expectations and defenses and appear again fresh.

Oscar's appealing doomed oddball is a fascinating character; oddly effeminate, tending towards passivity, allowing the flip of a coin to choose his fate, and panicked around water, he pulls out some amazing fire when pushed to the breaking point. Lucinda's aggresive nonconformity and ability to make life-changing decisions instantly and never look back make her Oscar's perfect foil.

There are stunning examples of beautifully symbolist filmmaking. In one vivid sequence, Oscar, having just been caught in a largely unwitting but catastrophic sin, walks away from the camera with a woman in a scarlet dress, the camera aimed squarely at the sinfully decorative bow bobbing on her heavily skirted bottom. The sinking sun has made the world they walk into a sickly, grisly yellow.

In the next scene, Oscar walks down a dusty path, kicking along a black, twisted stick - a serpent - "you shall crush its head, and it will bite your heel." He retreats to his beautiful glass church to pray, but the camera lingers on a curvilinear crack reflecting rippling water - the serpent has caught up, and his tragically shattered character can't escape the wrought-irony that pulls him on to the movie's mysteriously redemptive and circular conclusion.

Wow, I can hardly believe I wrote that last sentence. Is that pompous or what? Anyway, it's a good movie, and the kind of independent that deserves more attention. Go see it.

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