Friday, February 29, 2008

The March, by E. L. Doctorow

In The March (2005), E. L. Doctorow follows the 1864 movement of Northern troops commanded by William Tecumseh Sherman from just north of Milledgeville, Georgia, down through Savannah, and up through Columbia, South Carolina, into North Carolina. Since many tend to think of Sherman's march in terms of the city of Atlanta, Doctorow's approach covers less familiar territory. Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and of the Pen/Faulkner Award for 2007, The March is beautifully written, always interesting, and somewhat pointless—though pointlessness is not necessarily a defect.

The narrative method in The March is reminiscent to that in Ragtime. Using what appears to be meticulous historical research and a narrative method that interweaves without unifying the lives of various individuals involved, Doctorow creates a panoramic sense of the march and of what the times must have been like as Sherman's forces passed through Georgia and South Carolina and North Carolina.

A number of characters emerge as important: the slave girl Pearl who follow the Northern troops as they leave Macon; Emily Thompson, the young daughter of a Southern patriarch who dies as the Northern soldiers occupy his house; a Northern officer; Dr. Sartorius, a brilliant field surgeon devoid of feeling, a British reporter, a photographer, two no-count Confederate soldiers who change allegiance from North to South and back depending on the needs of the moment. And of course there is Sherman himself. Some of these characters we follow from beginning to end. Others enter for a time and are killed or simply fall out of view. All engage in a continual process of personal redefinition—as their circumstances change, especially as the war brings about such change. For the Southern characters this may mean adjustment to the dissolution of their familiar world—they often become entirely different people, engaging in behaviors they would never have considered prior to Sherman's arrival. To the Northern characters this may mean confronting personal successes and failures, the disappointment of personal ambitions, as the war progresses. The two Confederate soldiers Arly and Will, constantly changing their allegiances and, essentially, shifting their shapes in response to the demands of a particular moment, are good examples of this forced redefinition.

Doctorow portrays the march as loosely organized anarchy. Sherman has some control over the direction in which his troops move, but little if any control over their individual behavior (especially evident when they violate his orders and run amok in Columbia, burning the city). He is an interesting character. He desires greatness, wants to be acknowledged for his military achievements, and feels overlooked, especially when he is blamed for a disastrous battle over which he had little control. Although I wish Doctorow had paid him more attention, to have done so would have violated the essential premise and structure of the novel, which gives none of its characters prominence over the others.

War is evil. It changes people's lives. It causes their deaths. It's a naturalistic force that destroys landscapes and nations. It roils on in chaos and disrepute, and people caught up in it, voluntarily or not, as in a landslide or avalanche, become part of its surging mass. This seems to be Doctorow's point. Although he occasionally acknowledges the political and historical causes of the war—such as slavery—more often than not he shows war as an event that has little linkage to historical causes and political movements.

It was interesting to read this novel shortly after reading Phil Williams' A Distant Flame, which concerns Sherman's march as it approaches Atlanta. The books are quite different from each other, yet also complementary. Williams writes more or less from a Southern viewpoint. Doctorow writes from a Northern viewpoint (though he pays attention to Southerners as well). Both novels offer graphic, powerful battle scenes. Williams seems more effective in his portrayal of battle, especially from the individual soldier's point of view, while Doctorow gives a deeper, broader sense of war as a movement and phenomenon.

A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, by Madeleine L’Engle

I somehow escaped reading Madeline L'Engle's Time Trilogy as my children were growing up. We certainly did read Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. This one escaped me, though one of my sons read it on his own and said he enjoyed doing so. Recently I read the Time Trilogy: A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), and A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978). These books concern the Murry family--four children and their scientist parents who live somewhere in the United States at the time of the Cold War. In each of the three books the family confronts some sort of crisis involving a threat to the earth.

A key figure in the novels is Meg Murry, who in the first book is a gangly 12-year-old girl self-conscious of her appearance and convinced that she isn't very good at anything. Also important is her 5-year-old brother Charles Wallace, who is exceedingly bright for his age and who seems to have psychic powers. In the second novel these two are two years older, while in the third one Meg is married and pregnant and Charles Wallace is fifteen.

In A Wrinkle in Time dark, evil cloud is enveloping the universe, sapping life and free will from all living things. The threat manifests itself in both a political and covertly theological. Characters travel through the universe by a process called "tesseracting," which seems more a matter of magic than of science, real or theoretical. In A Wind in the Door a dark force called the Ecthroi is consuming the universe and threatening to consume and nullify the earth. It has sickened small particles called "farondolae" that live in the mitochondria of every living being: and all life is threatened. Charles Wallace, who himself is ill from this threat. has to confront the forces that are causing the menace. And in the third novel Mad Dog Branzillo, the dictator of a small South American nation, is on the verge of starting a nuclear way. (Time travel plays a major role in this novel, as Charles Wallace and his sister try to avert the crisis by altering events over the course of human history).

All three novels have a strong Christian understructure, though the resulting allegory and symbolism is more fractured and arbitrary than in the C. S. Lewis books.

All sorts of mythic creatures appear in these novels—flying horses, angels, sentient snakes, witches (who are really ancient alien beings), and so on. Characters teleport and time travel all over the universe, face various threats and challenges, almost suffer defeat at the hands of a dark enemy, and ultimately prevail. In the first novel, Meg manages to defeat the enemy by repeatedly professing her love for Charles Wallace. I could almost hear the Beatles singing their song.

At the same time, in all three novels science and cosmology play a significant role. This is often more evident as an awareness of science and cosmology than as a real use of science. These books may acknowledge and pay homage to science, but they are basically about the struggle of good against evil. For all their high reputation, these novels are really children's books, and not especially good ones. The writing is dull and the narrative is crudely rendered. Characters are basically flat, and the only really interesting one is Charles Wallace, whose special nature and abilities are never really explained. Events sometimes happen almost by caprice. The symbolism and allegorical elements are contrived, forced, and arbitrary. L'Engle seems to feel free to manipulate the laws of the world she writes about to suit her needs. Compared to Tolkien, Lewis (whom I do not like), or Phillip Pullman, Madeline L'Engle seems to be in a different and less distinguished league.

There are actually two additional books about the Murrys, and the Trilogy is actually a Quintet, but the books my children owned were in a slip case labeled the Time Trilogy. The remaining two Murry books are focused on other members of the family.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Cousin Vinny

The opening moments of My Cousin Vinny make clear that the film is taking place in the deep American South. Seeming to echo (unintentionally) the opening images of Huston's Wise Blood, this film shows us scene after scene of Southern imagery: a roadside hubcaps stand, a roadside fruit stand, a hand-lettered sign advertising "Dirt for Sale," another sign offering "Free Cow Manure," a columned mansion, a barking dog, a unpainted wooden store with a Confederate flag, and a rundown convenience store called "Sac-o-suds." The result is that the setting is established as a stereotypical South. What's more, two teenagers from the North are driving towards Florida and, shortly after entering Alabama, are arrested, by mistake, for robbing a roadside store and killing its owner. The local law enforcement officials are convinced they have the right suspects because, in part, they are Northerners, Yankees. The judge and the prosecutor assume the case is a no-brainer, that no one will question the evidence, and, believing the boys guilty, do not bother to look past the obvious facts of the case. Corruption and ineptitude are also stereotypical traits ascribed to Southern policemen and judicial systems.

Unlike other films which use similar scenarios, My Cousin Vinny makes the use of stereotypes a two-sided affair. When Vinny, the second cousin of one of the arrested boys, shows up to defend them, he is the incarnation of a Brooklyn character—heavy accent, swagger, garish leather boots, and a purse-laden and loudly dressed girlfriend who has probably never been outside the borders of New York City in her life. At first it appears that Vinny's appearance is not going to serve the interests of the two arrested boys. Eventually, he proves his mettle.

Undermining stereotypes, using them for the sake of humor, is the point of My Cousin Vinny, an amusing film. Vinny proves he can be a good lawyer. His girlfriend proves she is intelligent. The Southern prosecutor and judge prove they are human beings after all. Once all these characters break through the obscuring façade of their outer stereotypical surfaces, all is peace and light.


The animation in Persepolis (2007) is basically black and white, two-dimensional and high contrast—few shades of gray. Even so, the stylized figures are well rendered, and as we watch the main character Marjane Satrapi grow from early childhood to adulthood, she seems as real and fully realized as any character played by a live actor.

The film is autobiographical, based on the graphic novel of the film's co-writer and director Marjane Satrapi. We follow her from the last days of the Shah in 1977 to the late 1980s. The film is told retrospectively, from the viewpoint of Marjanne sitting in an airport lobby in the late 1990s, contemplating what appears to be her decision not to return to Tehran.

As much as this is a film about the life of Marjane, Persepolis is also about the changing political and cultural climate of Iran after the Shah's death and the advent of an Islamic republic. Marjane's family goes from a state of wealth and affluence, where people can complain with some freedom about their dislike of the Shah, to a state of repression and persecution, where freedom of expression is basically impossible, where women must wear the veil, where dissenters are carted off and imprisoned or worse. In short, Persepolis is about living in a repressive, totalitarian regime. Its ancestors include 1984, Darkness at Noon, Cancer Ward, and other works about individuals repressed by an authoritarian government.

Marjane is an outspoken and intelligent young woman who shows her nonconformist personality in early childhood. When her parents begin to fear this personality will get her in trouble, they send her to private school in Vienna. At first she is happy there, but eventually, after bad landlords and errant love affairs, things go wrong. Marjane spends months living on the streets before she calls her parents and asks to return home. In Vienna she is free to be herself, but she struggles with her Iranian identity, sometimes pretending to be French, sometimes repressing her Iranian origins because she fears the reactions of people around her. But when she returns to Tehran she finds that she is not at home there anymore either , is not free to speak her mind, in one way or other is under constant government scrutiny, and she becomes depressed.

The film is full of satirical jabs at the Islamic republic. In an art history class, Marjane listens to a lecture about Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." The professor uses an image of the painting to illustrate his lecture—all vestiges of nudity in the painting have been blotted out. In a painting class devoted to the human form, the female model is clothed in heavy black clothing—there is nothing to paint. Marjane is the film's symbol of individualism, of free expression. She blazes brightly, and as a result the republic threatens to obliterate her. When we first see her in the film, she is a tired, worn older woman, clearly showing the strain of the life she has lived. The film does not offer a happy outcome.

Persepolis was made in France, and the dialogue is in French. The film drags a bit after Marjane's return to Tehran from Vienna, but all in all it is a compelling and distressing document.

Friday, February 01, 2008

La Vie en Rose

La Vie en Rose (2007) totally ignores the German occupation of France and the accusations that Edith Piaf somehow collaborated with the Nazis. There are different explanations for her behavior during these years, and they may or may not be persuasive, but the film makes no attempt to reach a judgment and simply ignores the period entirely.

La Vie en Rose is no white wash of its subject, however. It is critical in many ways of Piaf's lifestyle, personality, and personal relationships. She could be difficult and unpleasant, an egotistical, misbehaving diva, and the film shows a real discrepancy between the sometimes sordid details of her life and the beautiful voice when she begins to sing.

The film tells the story of Piaf's life by switching back and forth between the latter days of her life, as she collapses on stage, later as she seems to wither away in a nursing facility, and her early days, beginning in early childhood and gradually moving forward through her life and career. The back and forth narrative structure can be jarring, discordant, and it prevents too much emotional involvement by the viewer—that is, as soon as we may be swept away by a scene of Piaf's singing, we are moved to a wholly different scene in which an ill and much older Piaf sits suffering in a wheelchair.

Piaf's life was one of suffering, heartbreak, and tragedy, punctuated with numerous moments of triumph. The film chronicles myriad scenes of misery: abandoned first by her drunken mother and then her father, left to be raised by prostitutes, then taken away to live and work on the streets with her father, working as a street singer and maybe a prostitute during her late teenage years, the mother of a child who dies of meningitis at two, befriended by a gangster and accused of corruption after he is gunned down, permanently injured in a car wreck and suffering from pain for the rest of her life (she limps, walks with a decided stoop, is addicted to alcohol and painkillers as a partial result), falls in love with a prizefighter who dies in a plane crash, a long and painful decline, dying at the age of 47. In ways the film seems more concerned with Piaf's miserable existence than with her seemingly miraculous talent as a singer.

It's clear that Piaf lived a difficult life. What isn't so clear in this film is the relationship of that life to her singing. There's a kind of disjuncture between the two that the film never manages to bridge. There's also a mystery in how the French idolized Piaf as a distinctly nationalistic phenomenon. Not that she didn't merit it, not that it wasn't genuine, just that the film never quite fully explains it. Obviously the stories about Piaf's hard early days--growing up on the streets, abandoned by her parents, discovered singing on a street curb--play into the legend on which that idolatry grew.

Marion Cotillard is excellent as Piaf. She seems to inhabit the role fully—one of those rare instances in film when the actor seems to merge with the character portrayed, when you forget that you're watching someone act and are convinced that you're watching the historical person. The question of whether Cotillard's portrayal of Piaf is historically accurate seems immaterial. Her acting in the film is quite an achievement.

Piaf was probably easier to like on stage, especially when she was singing, than as a person, a human being. The film certainly portrays her this way. And whatever failures La Vie en Rose may be blamed for in its ignoring of the German occupation and its inability to make the life and the art connect, it's a fine film that brings deserved attention to one of the great popular culture figures of the twentieth century.


Stardust (2007), based on the illustrated novel of the same title by Neil Gaiman, is an adult fantasy in the vein of The
Princess Bride (1987), though less witty and wry and a bit more earnest. One key to the success of the film and the novel is that they create and play by their own rules. The world of Stardust is clearly and indisputably not ours. Stars that fall to earth and become beautiful young women, teleportation by wishing on magic candles, evil witches, evil princes, long lost mothers, missing sisters, virtuous but simple young heroes—this movie has all of these and more. Stardust relies on modest visual effects and strong acting and characterizations. Robert DeNiro is especially memorable as an in-the-closet Captain Shakespeare whose sky ship captures and sells the electric charges of lightning bolts. Claire Danes as the fallen star Yvaine mainly has only to stand around and look heavenly--she succeeds. The relatively unknown Charlie Cox serves admirably in the main male character's role of Tristan. This entertaining film may lack much in substance but offers much in fantasy and romance.

No Country for Old Men

No Country for Old Men (2007), scripted and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, is not a line-by-line adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel. Many if not most of the events in the novel are there, though some significant ones are not. The important characters and conflicts are present, and in general the main thrust and vision of the novel are preserved. But the film, as we should expect, is a different work than the novel. In the novel the tone and mood are a product of McCarthy's prose style, and that prose style is not present in the film, except in a few voice-over moments spoken by the sheriff. The film compensates for the lack of McCarthy's language through pacing, cinematography, and characterization. Landscape cinematography in particular can serve as a partial substitute for McCarthy's prose. Mood is an important element in McCarthy's work. Any film based on his novels must face this challenge of transforming the world created by McCarthy's prose into the language of cinema: adaptations of The Road and of Blood Meridian (Ridley Scott directing) are now in the works.

Three central characters in the film are Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the murderer Anton Chigur (Javier Bardem), and Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Moss accidentally stumbles across a murder scene in the desert where a drug deal has gone wrong and finds a satchel containing two million dollars). He takes it. Chigur is asked by the men responsible for the drug deal to find the money and the man who took it. He agrees but immediately kills them. Chigur's characteristic method of death is an air-powered piston that punches a hole in the skull, exactly the kind of device used to kill cattle in a slaughterhouse. To Chigur, there's not much difference between cattle and humans. Chigur is highly intelligent and crafty and gradually comes to identify the man who stole the money. Moss is intelligent as well, but not intelligent enough. A cat and mouse game ensues.

Sheriff Bell becomes aware of these events and because Llewellyn is from his own town takes an interest in saving his life and stopping Chigur. Bell is the moral center and point of view in the film (as he was in the novel). He often expresses disgust with the state of the modern world, with how brutally murders are committed, without compunction or hesitation. The drug murders in the desert and Chigur himself are a confirmation of what he contends the modern world has become. Tommy Lee Jones is not an actor I would have chosen to portray Sheriff Bell, but he is excellent in the role. Within a certain range, there is no better actor. His beaten pockmarked face, his deep appearance of fatigue, serves him well. He acts mainly with his eyes and his voice. Late in the film, a retired lawman, played by Barry Corbin, reminds Bell that times were as deadly and brutal in the old days as in the current ones. It's not clear how Bell reacts to this pronouncement, but in the final scene of the film he seems to have retired. Perhaps it's not modern times that Bell has tired of, perhaps it's just human kind in general, to which his job as a sheriff has given him more than ample exposure.

The Coen brothers have always excelled in lampooning particular types of human characters, especially character marked by geographical place. We saw this especially in Fargo and in O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Coens also have a dark, relentless sense of sardonic, satiric humor. There is no open humor in No Country for Old Men. The Coens use their talent for representing place-marked characters in their portrayals of numerous minor figures in the film—Chigur's victims, law enforcement officers, others. One of the best examples is a scene early in the film where Chigur, who has already killed a deputy and a man whose car has broken down on the side of the road, stops to buy gas at an isolated gas station in the desert. The middle-aged man who runs the store speaks kindly to Chigur, who asks the man to call the coin he is about the toss—heads or tail. The store manager knows he is up against something dangerous and threatening, and he is clearly frightened, but he doesn't know how to act. Chigur, on the other hand, is self-contained and calm. The man calls the coin toss correctly (Chigur tells him that it is the most important call he has ever made), and his life is saved. This is a disturbing and frightening scene not only because of Chigur's demeanor but also because of the store manager's fear and confusion. He works in an isolated little store and gas station. He's never had to face danger of any sort. He's not especially intelligent or experienced in the ways of the larger world. With Chigur, he confronts something otherworldly, something beyond his understanding.

Among the dominating elements in this film were Chigur's single-minded pursuit of Llewellyn and his impersonal, clinical murder of one person after another. Llewellyn's attempt to outwit and elude Chigur is also a focus. As determined and resolute as he is, as we move through the film his efforts seem increasingly pointless and he seems increasingly vulnerable and doomed. Sheriff Bell's meditations and despair over the state of the modern world finally become irrelevant. The modern world is the way it is. He's an archaism, and is out of place, and he recognizes the fact.

Some criticize McCarthy for his portrayal of a male-dominated world in which women have only subsidiary roles. This is the world McCarthy writes about—a world that exists—not a world in which woman have overturned gender-based hierarchies. There are strong women characters in this film, especially the wives of Bell and Llewellyn (played respectively by Tess Harper and Kelly McDonald), but they do have secondary roles. It is Llewellyn's mother-in-law who gives out the fatal information about his whereabouts. Thus the woman who dislikes him, and whom he dislikes, brings him down.

Woody Harrelson has a minor role as a man hired by one of the drug lords to hunt Chigur down and eliminate him—everyone recognizes that he has run out of their control. Harrelson's character explains to the man who hires him that he has a kind of admiration for Chigur, who actually operates according to a peculiar kind of principle. Yet admiration does not save him. When Moss' wife returns home from his funeral, she finds Chigur waiting for her. As he prepares to kill her, she tells him that there is no reason to do so, and he tells her that because her husband has broken an agreement with Chigur, she must die. When she persists, he offers to let her call a coin toss and let the outcome govern her fate: "That's the best I can do," he tells her. But she declines to call the toss. We never actually see her murdered; we only see Chigur inspecting the soles of his boots as he leaves her house, making sure they are not marked with her blood.

Some may find McCarthy's novel or the Coen's film cruel and inhumanly brutal. But it is Chigur who is cruel and brutal, and even more so the world that produced him.

Is this film a masterpiece? Some have said so. Others have found it lacking. The more I consider the question, the more convinced I am that No Country for Old Men is the Coen's best work.

I’m Not There

I'm Not There (2007) is a film about perspective—Bob Dylan's perspective on himself, director Todd Haynes' perspective, the pop culture perspective, the audience perspective. It's also a film about representation—how Dylan has chosen to represent himself, how we have chosen to represent and fabricate and mold him in our own minds and imaginations. Finally, this film envisions Dylan's life through the metaphoric lens of his songs.

I'm Not There is rarely linear and never literal in its narration of Dylan's life. Dylan himself is never named, but people with other names associated with his life and music appear, each representing a particular phase of his life. Although there is a generally forward-moving progression from his early years to his marriage and divorce and his conversion to Christianity and even up to the Never-Ending Tour, the film moves back and forth among different periods of his career. Certain periods receive more attention than others—for instance, the 1965-1966 years as brilliantly portrayed in the figure of Jude Quinn by Cate Blanchett. Certain periods prove more interesting than others—for instance, the sections dealing with Dylan's marriage and family life are the least interesting, while in many ways the greatest excitement comes in the portrayal of a young Dylan by a 12-year old black boy (Marcus Carl Franklin) who calls himself Woody Guthrie and who carries a guitar in a case labeled "This Machine Kills Fascists," just as Guthrie did.

Later in the film the Dylan character, especially as portrayed by Heath Ledger (as film actor Robbie Clark), is not particularly likable. Overcome by fame or ego or ennui, he tells his wife and friends that a woman could never be a songwriter. Away on tour, he never manages to call home often enough, and there is the sense that he is caught up in his own image as an actor, an image separate from the one he fills at home. Also later in the film, the character Billy the Kid, portrayed by Richard Gere, seems lost and out of touch with the world and inhabits what appears to be a make-believe old frontier town full of circus characters named after songs and characters from The Basement Tapes. The citizens of the town are upset that a super-highway is slated to pass through the middle of town, forcing them all to move away. Here it is as if Dylan has sought shelter from the demands of the real world in a fantasy land that makes its own claims on him. The modern world in the form of a super highway threatens to wipe out the American folk tradition, as represented by the town and its people as well as by the songs of The Basement Tapes on which the town is based). As Billy the Kid, we see a Dylan character in middle age, wondering where his career and life have gone, looking for ways to bring them back to life.

The film gives us seven different versions of Dylan, portrayed by six actors (Marcus Carl Franklin, Heath Ledger, Cate Blanchett, Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Ben Whishaw). None of the "Dylan" characters is named Bob Dylan. Instead they have names associated with his songs, interests, or periods of his life. One, Robbie Clark, is a film actor in the style of James Dean—not a song writer. Cate Blanchett (who brilliantly dominates the film) portrays Jude Quinn in imitation (or emulation) of scenes from the Don't Look Back period of Dylan's life. Jude is an allusion to the Judas insult hurled at Dylan during the Royal Albert Hall concert, for playing electric music instead of acoustic folk. "Quinn" comes from Dylan's song "The Mighty Quinn." Blanchett doesn't so much imitate Dylan as she riffs on him, her own version of the singer, a brilliant rendition. Ben Whishaw portrays a character named Arthur Rimbaud, named for the 19th-century French poet whom Dylan admires and was influenced by, especially in the songs from Blood on the Tracks. Marcus Carl Franklin is great as Dylan during his Woody Guthrie years—when he was first learning folk music and capturing attention. He rides the rails, plays for hoboes, and embodies the vision that Dylan imagined and invented for himself as a young man—the Woody Guthrie avatar, taking into himself and trying to encompass the entire American folk and blues tradition. In an early wonderful scene, "Woody" plays "Tombstone Blues" with two black men sitting on the front porch of an old shack. One of the men is Ritchie Havens. In another, he is befriended by a wealthy white woman who invites her friends over to hear Woody play. It's clear she sees in him the unformed and primal genius of folk music—she sees in him a particular image, one she believes she has discovered and therefore holds claim over, already an image that he will have to resist and struggle against, that she and others like her will urge him to fill long after he has moved elsewhere.

Director Todd Haynes focuses on image and representation throughout the film. Not only does he do this in the way he structures the film, and in his choice of metaphoric rather than literal characters who stand for various periods of Dylan's life, but also through his portrayal of the Dylan figures' struggle with what fans and patrons and other admirers wish him to be, with his own continuing sense of entrapment in one persona after the other, his constant desire for renewal and rebirth.

The Dylan that Haynes gives us is a chimerical genius. This Dylan too is a representation, Haynes' version of the real man. Even if this film can't literally explain the real man—the chimerical genius song writer—it intensively evokes his brilliance and makes beautiful use of his words and images and characters.

Much of the joy of the film comes from Dylan's music itself, whether in Dylan's own performances or those of others. The film opens with "Stuck Inside a Mobile (with the Memphis Blues Again)." Late in the film we hear songs from his most recent album Modern Times. The film never wavers from this focus on Dylan's music, which form the heart and mind of the film.

There is no such thing as a human life that can be easily or clearly portrayed. Who says what we are? What do our acts and words and relationships have to do with the identity we claim for ourselves? How do the ways other people see us constitute a life any less important that what we think ourselves to be? Haynes rejects linear, monovalent biographical identity and instead gives us a multivalent self—the self that we want to see, the self that invents itself, the self that hides, the self that speaks through art.