Of course, summer movies are supposed to be like "Gone": Long before the real dog days appear, they arrive to quiet thought with technological gimmickery and a haze of fake smoke, while good storytelling is sacrificed on the altar of box office, or what in another context D.H. Lawrence called the "bitch goddess Success." Maybe Hollywood is emboldened by the presence of DVDs and VHS, knowing moviegoers searching for substance can retreat to Blockbuster to recycle spiritually challenging films banished there after short runs.
"Rosetta." A certain antidote to the summer-movie blahs is a good French flick. Most of the soulless product on the big screens presumes that just the right group of friends, or a romance with just the right person, will cure all. The French have never been shy about graphically presenting the boredom and the despair that are the fabric of our daily lives--and of some wonderful moviemaking.
Jean-Pierre Dardenne's movie, winner of the Palm d'or at Cannes last year, follows the days and nights of a teenage girl as she searches for the meaning of her life and for her own self-identity. The film opens on Rosetta's being fired from her job, and as the claustrophobic camera follows her on a desperate run through the streets of Paris, we feel both her physical and mental anguish. When she makes her way home to a caravan, where she lives with her alcoholic mother, who prostitutes herself to men to buy her booze, we discover how truly alone Rosetta is.
Rosetta, at 16, has a sense of her role as provider, but she lacks the sense of self for which she is desperately searching. At the movie's climax, she repeats to herself: "Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta. You have a friend. I have a friend. You have a job. I have a job. You have a normal life. I have a normal life. You won't fall into a rut. I won't fall into a rut."
Her hope is short-lived, but by the end of the movie, when the camera peers into her face reminiscent of Truffaut's closing scene in "400 Blows," we realize that like all of us, Rosetta's sense of self can be formed only by staring back into the bleakness of life and the betrayal she has faced is the ground of our lives.
"The Straight Story." Just as bleak but more life-affirming in its quirky way is David Lynch's Palme d'Or nominated film that also earned its star, Richard Farnsworth, his second Oscar nomination. Based on a true story that made the newspapers in 1994, the film captures the journey of 73-year-old Alvin Straight, who rode his lawn mower from Laurens, Iowa, to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin, to reunite with his estranged brother, who was laid low by a stroke.
Along the way, Alvin rides into the lives of some of Lynch's patented weird characters, to whom he dispenses his wisdom. Early in his ride, he meets a young girl who is running away from home because of her pregnancy. In his quiet way, he tells her his own experience of the value of family. In all of these encounters, all of the strangers that Alvin meets are changed by his presence. Although the film is typical Lynch--with comic intercutting between Alvin's lawnmower and the combines harvesting wheat in the fields--the story itself offers important lessons on the nature of relationships and the significance of finding solutions, so simple we overlook them, to problems that seem hopelessly complicated.
"Limbo." John Sayles' masterful film convincingly contends that relationships with others are no refuge from one's own problems. In the Alaska wilderness, three characters--all of whom lead either disordered lives or who are trying to cope with past failures--are thrown together on a remote island. The challenges there are more than any producer of "reality" shows like "Survivor" could ever dream of. Under other circumstances, Joe (David Strathairn), Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and Noelle (Vanessa Martinez) might have evolved slowly into a family unit. On the island, where they do not know whether they will survive every day, they experience a range of emotions--anger, hatred, selfishness--that threatens to tear them apart.
Will they survive the harshness of the island and each other? Even as they slowly form the tenacious bonds of humanity required by such circumstances, will those bonds hold strong once back on the mainland? Will they make it back to the mainland? Sayles' ending leaves the viewers in as much limbo as the characters.
As long as adultery, car chases, storm-tossed ships, and evil spirits dominate the multiplex screens, moviegoers can take comfort in knowing that on video they still can find some films that ask enduring questions about the nature of life, the possibility of love, and the stubbornness of the human spirit. (And it's cheaper, too.)