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Saturday, 26 December 2009

Scraps (The Messenger)


Film-Szenenbild zu The Messenger

Woody Harrelson in The Messenger (directed by Oren Moverman): production stills via Osclloscope Laboratories, 2009

I wanted to tell you about a film called The Messenger. You've probably missed it; almost everybody has. A couple of soldiers, veterans of the two Iraq wars, drive around unappealing residential communities in New Jersey delivering notifications of combat deaths to next of kin. They're not tasked with delivering compassion; they are not angels bearing consolation to the aggrieved; they wear crisply starched uniforms but display no flags; all they bring the desolated loved ones is the bitter scraps. It's a very, very bad job, consisting mostly of long periods of anxious dead time, pure terrible duration, waiting for the signal to gear up and head out to knock at that next unwelcoming door.

And it's a bleak, yet curiously believable film, picturing quite credibly an America that is pretty much all downside; that is, the depressed America of long meaningless losses in long meaningless wars; the America of this millennium. It contains few lies and a great deal of slow, stretched out time. What "happens" is the realistic representation of the experience of temporality under great stress, and not much else; moments of friendship, love, grief, anger, despair, loyalty, rage, sorrow, loss, guilt, confusion are among the scraps of feeling snatched from this pure experience of duration; the mix feels real, like a sample from life itself. The takes are long and tense with contained emotion which remains finally unexpressed, a genie of wish fulfillment that remains corked in a dark, dark bottle. The violence that we feel might explode at any time never arrives. The restraint of the acting performances, the austerity and minimalism of the camera style and sound track, the understated and careful writing, the subdued humor that punctuates the painful exploration of difficult subject matter with moments of grim comedy, all add up to a movie that has virtually no holiday box office potential whatsoever. Reviewers have been made uncomfortable, some have even claimed to be bored. To each her/his own. I thought it was terrific, maybe the best American movie I've seen since There Will Be Blood. Both these movies are about that miserable thing, the ultimate meagreness of the tragedy of the American dream. Oren Moverman and Paul Thomas Anderson have one thing in common. They are both brave enough (or audacious enough) to keep looking at a scene until it begins to hurt.


Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

Beautiful, Tom,

a fine and quite concise epiphany right out of the vest pockets of Joyce comes your film not-review — it is far better than any ol' review, it is an adjoining. You watch and become one with the film. The guy I will listen to.

But I beg to differ about this: "Oren Moverman and Paul Thomas Anderson have one thing in common. They are both brave enough (or audacious enough) to keep looking at a scene until it begins to hurt."

I don't believe it is "hurt" we feel on their courage and withstanding. We're already hurting — before we watch the film, before we sit down, as we sit down. That everlasting and no-pullaway-camera, and actors to reveal it to us, are showing us a likewise courage and actually: a love. We hurt by what we deny ourselves and what is being denied us. The actors, the story, and their characters are saying: yes, go for it.

TC said...


You've said this better than I could have.

I think there are probably cathartic nay even redemptive aspects to this story and certainly that is the way it appears to have been intended, as a call to understanding for the troubled souls of the soldiers.

But the way a work is meant and the way it means are two different things.

I felt the hurt, mostly. But you know me, Al.

Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

Dear Ring,

Yeah, I know're a lover.

(here from an ice house w/ 2 cutie-pies)


Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...

(coda, a little later in the day)

Tom, I would never want your feelings denied. I believe your feeling "hurt" is quite similar to my own. It is compassion.

There are others that hurt and so want to hurt others.

Here is what friend Federico once wrote:


I have shut my balcony
because I do not want to hear the weeping,
but from behind the grey walls
nothing else is heard but the weeping.

There are very few angels that sing,
there are very few dogs that bark,
a thousand violins fit into the palm of the hand;
but the weeping is an immense violin,
the tears muzzle the wind,
nothing else is heard but the weeping.

Lorca (trans. JL Gili & Stephen Spender)

And then he was murdered by those that hurt others.

Lally said...

Tom, I haven't seen this (haven't been able to get out to the movies yet) but I had intended to, now more than ever. You really made palpable what I was dreading, i.e. a story with no, or little, hope or joy. But after reading your post the joy I expect will be in the artistry and the hope in the reality that as Becket and O'Hara and others have said better, we can't go on and yet—we do.

TC said...

Bob, Michael,

"...but the weeping is an immense violin,
the tears muzzle the wind,
nothing else is heard but the weeping..."

No, it must be the seeping of the rain in the night through the rotting roof-eve tarpaulins...

Without a bit (a lot?) of denial, how could we... go on?

We can't go on. We'll go on.

Michael, a character playing the role of a man who has had part of his head blown off -- I can see all sorts of reasons, beyond the immediate practical ones, why you might want to wait a bit before checking it out.

When the season of your recovery is complete however you might, as an actor yourself, want to consider the work of Ben Foster in this film. An intense, powerful screen presence in much the same way as the young De Niro. Up to now he has been largely limited to secondary parts, typecast as weirdo/psycho (3:10 to Yuma, Alpha Dog); but here, given the opportunity (and responsibility) to do something more... a revelation. He carries the film to a place where I don't think it could otherwise have gone.

TC said...

...And speaking of rainy nights, danger, weirdness, psycho, America and Lorca...

Forty years later, I still haven't sorted this song out.

Then it sounded eerily "double" to me; Buckley's writing still reminds me now, a bit, of Jim Carroll's work of the same period... well, less hint of the street survivor fact definitely, as the record shows... but two sweet lyricists of the night infatuated maybe with the same dubious will o' the wisp promise of protection from the same fate notification messenger.

She's your home when no one wants you
She'll give you life when you're so tired
She'll ease your fears ah when you're a stranger...

If the Ben Foster character in The Messenger has his head screwed (well, sewn) back together possibly a little TOO tightly, at least he seems able to sort out that the "she" is a woman. Historical progress?

Rachel Loden said...

Tom, Buckley haunts me too. Think I saw him four times -- twice at the Warhol-owned Balloon Farm (with Zappa and the Mothers of Invention), once at the Folklore Center, and last (fairly close to his death) at Berkeley Community Theater.

At the Balloon Farm he was as astonishing as his first record, which had just come out; at the Folklore Center (not too much later) he appeared to be on the edge of fury with his eyes closed, refusing to acknowledge the tiny audience in any way. We didn't mind (or I didn't), but it seemed an index of the pressure he was under.

Have to admit he bored me musically at Berkeley Community -- maybe what he did was wonderful and I just didn't get it, but by my lights he had lost his way, or found his way to something much more workmanlike and uninspiring.

Talk about a figure for a time, though -- shooting star, shooting I guess all too literally.

TC said...


Strange fits of passion have I known, but few so pleasant as having a fellow Tim Buckley nut show up in the middle of the night on my lonesome little blog, once again showing her sparking nocturnal brilliance... and my age.

T.B., I'll have you know, has been the secret subtext of Beyond the Pale almost since its curious inception. A little noticed yet strong clue was this.

I've been keeping that candle in the window burning all along, oft unnoticeable, a cerebral ember, in the dim, cobwebbed chambers.

Ah the years...

Many the night in our little exposed glass box at the lip of Duxbury Reef I dawdled with the twelve string reverb effects in this.

The rage and tenderness and pain and equivocation of desire, all shifting within the words, nothing else like it then or now.

'Cause there's just a few things, honey
I'm not old enough to do for you
And they're the things, momma
You just never care to show me...

But now you're gonna go out
And get yourself
A reputation
But I'm gonna have to show you
Where to start
And then you're gonna bring back
Your little reputation
And prove to me
What I could not prove to you

'Cause I was just too young at heart...

So give it up, momma
It ain't gonna be no good
It keeps goin' 'round and 'round
You hurt me
Then I hurt you again
All that's left to do
Is give it up,
No, no, give it up
And surrender...

I still can't quite believe that an artist who was virtually a baby should have so well inkled the nuances and complications of intense emotional situations between alleged adults. In that respect I'd almost dare compare the Buckley song with a classic like this one.

TC said...

Well, "sparking" for "sparkling" will do well enough. (If the glass slipper fits...)

~otto~ said...

Added to Netflix

Rachel Loden said...

No, it's my own age I'm showing, Tom -- but then I've been shamelessly ancient for a long time.

T.B. as secret subtext makes perfect sense. He was in over his head, wasn't he? So were you and I.

So how did we manage to keep our footing at all in that moving stream?

Anyway, thanks for this -- I'll never listen to "Sweet Surrender" again in quite the same way.

TC said...


I believe you have retained and are holding up your own footing quite adequately. While gracefully growing younger by the year. (Actually "all kidding aside" I do know one blogger like that, a true genius, her profile age was 73 for a while, then 37, now 36...)

My feeling is that one would be lucky to gain and brave to keep one's footing at all, in any case.

I've always tried to stay in a sort of slipstream. "Drafting" I think is the word for it. But lately I feel myself being outdistanced a bit by the moving (living might be a better word) object whose velocity I am attempting to borrow. (This is kinda hard to explain, er... ) and thus dragged back into a slower ambient medium (mud perhaps). "This must be the end".

Rachel Loden said...

Tom, as it is said in the books of Bokonon (which is to say in Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which you may despise) we are some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. "What interesting other kinds of sitting-up mud I met! I loved everything I saw!"

But it's not time to say good night. How could either of us sit up with more attention, more ferocity, than we are right now?

TC said...


This thought is terrifying to consider.

I would like to think though that we were not so much all-out barking-mad ferocious (here I use the royal "we" of course) as, possibly, just sort of terrier-alert or cat-alert... old-Victrola-ear-cocked-alert.. at least not quite requiring the restraints just yet?

Rachel Loden said...

No restraints! Unless you're into that sort of thing.

Old-Victrola-ear-cocked-alert sounds more the speed I meant.

Scratch ferocious, then, -- fierce is closer to the bone. . .

Sorry to terrify,

love to A.

Rachel Loden said...

P.S. Truth is that I am sicker than I can ever remember being with what is probably still a cold, so some of the feverishness of the above can no doubt be written off to delirium. . .

TC said...


Sympathies from here.

I am, I am told, in a state of permanent delirium, yet remain apparently alert, like Old Nipper.

Rachel Loden said...

"Years were going by in the canyons of the two-second spaces between the beats of his heart."

Yes, here too. Thank you for putting words to it. Beautiful and terrifying post.

Alert, as well, if I dare say it. . .

TC said...

My dear Rachel,

Thank you very much, I needed that.

In my doggy delirium I am always attempting to learn some new tricks. Like disappearing.

Which is why I have woof'd out my response to your kind comment not here but here.