The Lobster: Is it Brilliant or a Mess?

THE LOBSTER (2016 US Release)
Directed by Yorgos Lanithimos
A24, 119 minutes, R [Sexuality, language, animal cruelty]
* * *

I often leave the cinema without a completely formed opinion about the movie I've just seen. Sometimes a provocative film needs 24-48 hours to marinate before I fully appreciate its nuances and complexities. It’s rare, though, that more than a week later I’m still not sure if I actually liked a movie. You can toss The Lobster into that sparsely populated tank. It might be brilliant. It might be rotted seafood disguised in a visually appealing casserole. I suspect it’s actually just a middling film—hence my rating—but I could be talked into a higher or lower rating. The only thing of which I am 100% certain is that if you are the sort of person who gets deeply disturbed by cruelty to animals and images thereof, you should give The Lobster a wide berth.

This film stars Colin Farrell as you’ve never seen him before: pot-bellied, laconic, and passive. It is set in a future dystopia. Or is it a perverse nuclear family utopia? Society requires adults to live as couples, with the added proviso that the couples must have aligning characteristics. John C. Reilly, for instance plays the role of Lisping Man (no one except Farrell has a name) and must find a soul-mate who shares that impediment. What about those without partners? That’s the dystopian angle and the dilemma facing David (Farrell). He is unexpectedly single because his wife left him for another man. By law, single people must check into a sanitarium-like facility, where they have 45 days to find a new partner or they are surgically transformed into an animal of their choice. David arrives with a dog in tow that is actually his brother Roger. Should David fail to find a near-sighted person such as himself, we will become a lobster!

Okay, that’s deliciously weird and surreal, as are some of the rituals of the hotel. Residents must sit through insipid skits purporting to show the virtues of couples and the dangers of being alone that, I suspect, are intended as barbed commentary on the banality of the Religious Right. Even weirder, the facility forbids masturbation, but requires males to be sexually stimulated by a maid, but not to orgasm. The place is crawling with desperate people like Limping Man (Ben Wishaw) and Nose-Bleed Woman (Jessica Barden). David finds himself stalked by the frumpy Biscuit Woman (Ashley Jensen), but he’s so hollowed out from being cuckolded that he gravitates toward Heartless Woman (Angelika Papoulia).

The film never fully explains how society came to be this way or who is in charge, but, as convention dictates, an authoritarian state begets an underground resistance movement. In this case, it is the Loners, a loose band living in the woods that swings entirely the other direction by demanding solitude, and forbidding any sort of intimacy or coupling. Léa Seydoux is the Loner Leader—a droll oxymoron—and she plays the part with icy intensity and a detached willingness to impose barbaric penalties for those who break the band's code. David escapes to join the Loners, but how will he respond when he meets Short-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz)? The film ends on a Lovecraft-like note that is terrifying in its ambiguity.

Sounds intriguing, yes? And so it is, though whether this is a great film is less certain. This is the first English-language project for Greek director Yorgos Lanithimos, who has done a decent job, though I constantly wondered what Joel and Ethan Coen would have done with the same material. (I also thought of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose Delicatessen is a spiritual cousin.) The Lobster is an Irish, English, Greek, French, Dutch joint venture–ironic in that some of my reservations lay with the manner in which the film flirts with several moods/genres without being fully any of them: black comedy, surrealism, social commentary, romance, tragedy. I admired its ambitiousness, its ambiguities, and its artistry, but I remain uncertain as to whether it’s a brilliant pastiche or a failed synthesis. I highly suspect the latter but, like I said, I could be persuaded otherwise.

Rob Weir

Postscript: The British Academy honored Olivia Coleman with a Best Supporting Actress prize for her role as the sanitarium manager. This is puzzling, as her role was relatively minor and Seydoux, Papoulia, and Jensen are each more deserving.


Avenue of Mysteries Elides Past and Present

By John Irving
Simon & Schuster, 440 pages
* * * *

In Slaughterhouse-Five Kurt Vonnegut wrote the memorable line, "Billy Pilgrim became unstuck in time." That's also the fate of Juan Diego Guerrero in John Irving's latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries. He's a 54-year-old famous novelist winging his way to the Philippines, but his past and present have become so intertwined that he's not entirely certain about the latter and neither should you, the reader, necessarily hew to literal readings of the here and now. The past appears in sharper detail, but it too skirts the borders between the real, surreal, miraculous, and imagined.

Forty years earlier, voracious reader Juan Diego was among los niños de la basura, a resident of Oaxaca's city dump. He is a club-footed fourteen when we meet him, and lives with his 13-year-old sister, Lupe, also prescient, though only Juan Diego can understand what she's saying. Their mother Esperanza, is a devout Catholic who also happens to be a prostitute. They sometimes live with Rivera, who is the boss of the dump, and perhaps the father of both children and their benefactor. Juan Diego's world is defined by priests, nuns, and street people; his daily routine by scavenging, hustling, hanging out with a drug-addled American hippie avoiding the Vietnam War, and rescuing discarded books about to be burned in the dump along with garbage, dead dogs, and the occasional corpse. Juan Diego reads everything–from discarded tomes of theology to pulp fiction­–and has become as proficient in English as he is in Spanish and whatever odd dialect Lupe speaks. Are both children milagros (miracles), as some local Jesuits suspect, or just precocious kids with poor life chances made worse when Esperanza dies dusting La Virgen de la Soledad?  

If you know anything about John Irving, you know he is a skilled plotsman and nothing is ever thrown away. Juan Diego is named for the Mexico City peasant boy to whom the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared in 1531. His sister is named for the Virgin of Guadalupe, the darker-skinned form Mary supposedly took in 1531. There's also another character named Soledad, and two others–  novitiate Edward "Eduardo" Bonshaw and novelist Clark French, Juan Diego's former protégé–that share a penchant for austere Catholicism (though Eduardo transforms and Clark never does). Juan Diego's journey toward world citizenship begins with the deaths of Esperanza and the American hippie, and his sister's insistence that their mother's demise was at the intervention of "Monster Mary," her name for Soledad. (Lupe is devoted to Guadalupe, and her revenge on Monster Mary is unique, to say the least.) Both children are sent off to the local circus, the best fate the Jesuits can imagine for dump kids. Lupe can read minds and interpret the past with great accuracy, though her predictive skills are less reliable. Since only Juan Diego can interpret what she says, he goes as well. So let's add some dwarfs, aerial artists, dog trainers, a transvestite, and a pedophile lion tamer to the mix, shall we? 

If it already sounds like too much, before we're through we'll also get an Iowa coming-of-age, gay parents, AIDS, novel plots within the novel, heart troubles, and that trip to the Philippines—made simply because of a promise 14-year-old Juan Diego made to the dying hippie. On the trip Juan Diego sleeps with Miriam and Dorothy, a mother-daughter combo. Or does he? Are they real? Succubi? Hallucinations from drug misuse?

It's important to remember that few authors this side of Dickens are such expert craftsmen. This is to say that most things will make some sort of sense if you stay with them. Avenue of Mysteries is sprawling and, at times a bit over the top. Irving certainly opens himself to charges of being a 74-year-old with the sensibilities of a horny adolescent, but I applaud him for trying something different. He's also vulnerable to the criticism of being another gringo aiming for magical realism and falling a bit short, but I'm seldom bothered by ambiguity and I think those critics miss the idea that his character, Juan Diego, wishes to dispel expectations of what a Mexican writer is like. In many ways, Avenue of Mysteries* is a musing on rationalism and faith, desire and duty, and body and spirit. I've yet to run across someone who has resolved these–and that includes the Catholic Church! I see this book as the successful realization of Irving's 1994 A Son of the Circus, which he thought brilliant and most of the reading public found a failed, unfathomable mess. Call this one a Mexican Junkyard Dog with more depth.

Rob Weir

*The title refers to a Mexico City street leading up to the Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Lupe venerates her, but is appalled by the commercialism, misguided faith, and hucksterism associated with the basilica. I've not been there, but this is exactly what I felt when visiting Fatima, Portugal—simply one of the least sacred places I've ever had the displeasure of seeing.


Your Guns Violate My Freedom

My wife was once pulled over for driving 38 in a 30 mph zone, despite the tailback of disgruntled drivers lusting to pass her. She contested the ticket and got off with a warning. Its gist was: we will waive the ticket this time, but you were in violation.

This isn't a piece about driving; it's about the (Ho hum!) latest bit of senseless American bloodshed: the massacre in Orlando. I'm sick of listening to excuses from gun advocates and the fascist NRA about why we can't limit gun access. Their arguments are as tiresome as the postmortem homilies, sprays of flowers, and on-site Teddy Bear dumps that occur every time a mass murder occurs. That's quite often, actually. In 2015, nearly 13,000 Americans were murdered and another 84,000 were shot but survived. Enough already! All the post-tragedy hoopla has become as boring—yes, I said boring–as the pathetic whining of Second Amendment Warriors (whom, I might add, are often the same crowd that disrespect everything else about the U.S. Constitution except the 10th Amendment.)

I've had it with your tiresome insistence upon your right to own an Uzi. It violates my right to have a safe community that's reasonably free of psychos with mail-order guns and large clips of ammo. And let's get it straight: you don't have the right to demand no gun control any more than I have to demand total gun control. The United States is founded upon three concepts and you don't get to choose just one. Liberty refers to certain political rights guaranteed to individuals akin to those in the First and Second Amendments. Freedom, however, is liberty's handmaiden, not its synonym. It does not refer to your rights, rather those to which all citizens collectively and communally are entitled. Freedom places restrictions upon liberty, which should more properly be viewed as the freedom to move within a framework of—breathe deeply—limits. Your First Amendment right to free speech is no defense for violating public safety laws, hate speech ordinances, or public order; neither will your freedom of religion right allow you to practice violent jihad, engage in "honor" killings, bomb an abortion clinic, or declare holy war against infidels.

Now it's time for liberals to breathe deeply: you cannot ban all guns unless the Second Amendment is repealed. A better tactic is to insist upon limits to the Second Amendment analogous to those placed upon the First.  It begins with calling out the tiresome rants of the NRA and their kneejerk groupies as violations of American freedom injurious to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Third concept: democracy, the direct action of the electorate in electing officials and influencing public policy. According to the New York Daily News—hardly a bastion of liberalism—80% of Americans favor tougher gun control. My reference to a fascist NRA is not overblown. It's a self-serving militaristic cadre holding the nation hostage to a rigid extremist ideology–defining characteristics of fascism.

Just stop with the trite stuff. No—you don't need automatic weapons to protect your family: a handgun will do the job. The most verifiable stats claim around 280 yearly home attacks thwarted by guns. Few of these potential attacks were random and most occurred in high-crime neighborhoods, but no matter—a fool using an automatic multi-round weapon in his own home is as likely to kill his family as the intruder. A handgun will suffice.

There is zero reason for an individual to have multi-clip, multi-round weapons. Let's cut the BS: the sole purpose of automatic and semi-automatic high-capacity weapons is to commit mass destruction. No one outside of the US military–not even cops–should have such weapons. If you've got a gun fetish, admit it, and let's do what is done in civilized nations: you can own the gun, but you can't buy ammo for it. When you want to fire it, you go to a licensed range where you are issued ammo and must account for each round. Put away that "What about hunters?" malarkey; using such a gun isn't sport, it's senseless slaughter.

There is also no reason to allow guns or ammo to be purchased by mail, over the Internet, at fly-by-night gun shows, or without thorough background checks. These blood-soaked businesses must be shut down. If you can't haul your sorry ass down to Walmart to buy ammo and undergo security checks, you can go without. And you only get one box at a time. No excuses. In a rational society, Omar Mateen isn't sold a gun under any circumstance.

But STFU about terrorists. The NRA is already playing the ISIS card to explain Orlando. Of course, it said nothing when a few months ago some guy blew away a few Muslims in California. But here's why you don't want to go that route. When 9/11 occurred, the response was to set up a national security state. Well we commit four plus 9/11s every year in gun homicides (and three per month if we include all victims), so how do you feel about a national gun control state? I doubt many are comfortable with the idea of America as one big airport in which there are security lines, metal detectors, body scanners, and pat downs everywhere.

Finally, how about a realistic national dialogue about the sort of country in which we want to live? The NRA insists there is "no evidence" that gun control works. Rubbish! It always dodges the simple fact that other democracies don't have comparable levels of violence. Or worse, it drags out examples of nations with higher murder rates. The USA is a mere 91st in the world in per capita murders, but just six nations match our sanguinary output (South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela, India, Russia). Percentage-wise, our homicide rate is 3.8 per 100,000. Which groups of peers would your prefer–places such as Congo, Nigeria, Guatemala, and Honduras; or low-homicide nations such as Canada (1.4), New Zealand (0.9), Germany (0.9), or Indonesia (0.5)? How do you feel about the fact that Syria, Libya, and Turkey are way safer than the USA? 

It's time to sacrifice liberty for the freedom to be safe. Of all the arguments against gun control, the ultimate lamest is: "I'm a responsible gun owner so why do I have to suffer because of criminals, thugs, and terrorists?" Here's why: for the same reason you can be pulled over for going 38 in a 30 mph zone. The purpose of law in a civil society is protecting the public from the irresponsible. It's why we have speed limits. Maybe you would drive responsibly without laws limiting your speed, but would you welcome the anarchy of roads without limits or traffic cops? How about eliminating stop-for-school bus laws? Stop on red? Civil society places limits on freedom to curtail our demons so that our better angels can be at liberty. It's high time to exorcise the fascist NRA demons holding angelic liberty hostage.


The Lady in the Van is Well-Written and Diverting

Directed by Nicholas Hynter
TriStar, 104 minutes, PG-13
* * *

If you're tired of seeing Maggie Smith as a dowager aristocrat, The Lady in the Van ought to do the trick. In this one Smith is a begrimed transient who reeks of excrement and is crazier than a Southern white boy in a Mexican restaurant. The film is a reprisal of a 1999 London theatre production of a play written by Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hynter for which Ms. Smith won an Olivier Award for Best Actress. It doesn't work as well on the screen, but it's a diverting way to wile away an evening.

The set up is quintessentially English on many levels. It takes place during the years 1974-1989, when playwright Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) lived in Camden, a London neighborhood caught between Thatcher-era gentrification and callousness and older laws that, among other things, did not allow toffs to exile transients legally parked in their leafy neighborhoods. Through a series of events, one of them­–Mary Shepherd/Fairchild (Smith)–ends up camped in Bennett's driveway for 15 years. The film is partly about Bennett's developing relationship with Mary, but it's also about a few things very British indeed: social class relations, surface niceness and inner hypocrisy, muddling through, duty versus desire, and never quite mustering the courage to say or do what one truly wishes. Bennett cleverly expresses the last of these by bifurcating himself; that is, we see two Bennetts–call them Id and Superego–debating each other over questions of the Alan Bennett public mask versus the inner repressed Bennett. The tip of the iceberg is that he's a closeted gay milquetoast writing mannered plays, but would like to be assertive, out of the closet, and tackling issues that he cares about.

Mary is a pungent, sharp-tongued, and earthy challenge to all things repressive–except her own guilt. It gives away nothing to say that she was once a piano prodigy, but some things went very wrong and diverted her path. (You'll learn this almost right away.) Mix an overdose of Catholic sin to British reserve and you've pretty much poisoned chances for a happy adulthood. But I shan't spoil the details.

As a film, this probably works better as the play it once was. The screen adds little except to heighten a sense of Mary's grossness.  That's not altogether a good thing as it occasionally makes it harder to see her humanity. Sometimes the most fun is picking out things in the background, like the fact that most of the original cast of Bennett's The History Boys appear in cameos, including Dominic Cooper, James Corden, and Frances de la Tour.  Roger Allam, Jim Broadbent and Deborah Findlay also appear in minor roles; hence, like nearly all English films, the acting is uniformly top drawer. But expect the pacing, dialogue, and mannered expressions of the stage. Not a lot actually happens, though much is revealed. Is this a great film? No; but it's Alan Bennett, so you know the script will be good.  And who can resist a stinky Maggie Smith?      Rob Weir