How to do so is a question that haunts the characters of "The Hours." the film made from the book by Michael Cunningham and now nominated for Best Picture. In this modern examination of Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway," two modern women and Woolf herself try to transcend the mundane while grappling with suicidal despair. We discussed the movie with Moore as the final segment of this week's Oscar series.
How did you like the movie?
I liked it very much. I haven't enjoyed a film as much since "Eyes Wide Shut." I especially enjoyed the performances, especially that of Nicole Kidman. I could have watched her as Virginia Woolf for hours. I'm not a fan of Philip Glass's music, and I found the music distracting. I thought it dominated the action and didn't enhance it.
Meryl Streep's character says at one point, "Why is everything wrong?" Did the movie explain well what is wrong?
Fortunately, it doesn't give simplistic explanations from the character's personal past. Instead, it shows how any of us can be deeply shaken by mysterious developments, how these disturbances lead to thoughts and even acts of suicide, and how other people are affected and involved.
These issues are often obscured in more amateur attempts to interpret anxiety. As they ar portrayed in this film, these three lives help us meditate on anxiety and deep disturbance as a human experience, beyond time and place. This is how I like to consider the troubles we get into--as archetypal, basically human conundrums that will never be fully explained and only occasionally "cured."
The closest we get to naming what's wrong is when Ed Harris suggests Meryl Streep needs busyness-caring for him included--to "have a life." It's a question of meaning, to which the answer seems to be death.
Few films I can think of focus on death the way "The Hours" does. It begins with Virginia Woolf walking into the river with stones to weigh her down. The direction in this film is down, as in falling from a window. Two commit suicide, one tries, and another is looking for life.
Julianne Moore's character, Laura Brown, looks at her home--too clean, uninteresting, and predictable--and has to leave it. Years later, she explains that to her, that place was death. Remember how the birthday party scene was so lifeless. It took place in a morgue of a home.
As a therapist, I've always felt that the thing people really fear is life's vitality. You don't know where it will take you if you surrender to it, so you opt out in a life full of symptomatic, symbolic death. You get a job you don't love, you stay in a marriage for all the wrong reasons, you force your children to give up their natural wildness through school and lessons and babysitters. You eat food that is fast and dead. You buy machines that simulate life, or present it to you on a variety of screens. So I don't think this film is as much about meaning as it is about life and death.
What I liked about "The Hours" is that each of the main characters does what he or she has to do--none of them chooses a conventional solution. In fact, none of them finds a solution. The point is, life doesn't have a solution because it isn't a problem in the first place. It's full of challenges and empty spaces, meaning and meaninglessness, hope and despair.
There is no cure for life, and there is no way to do it right. I think this film is quite successful in appreciating this very unmodern and unAmerican truth. It doesn't have the usual arc of challenge and resolution. It's more like life itself, not an arc at all but a day-to-day melange of people and incidents that serve either life or death, and often one is really the other in disguise.
What you say about people choosing a symbolic death strikes a chord. Ed Harris's suicide almost seems like an admirable choice.
I saw Ed Harris's suicide as neither positive nor negative. I expected it all along, but I also identified with Clarissa's efforts to keep him in life right up to the end. His suicide seemed to come out of a deep, dark night of the soul. In that understandable darkness, he thought his life was over, or maybe he just didn't want to be in that condition any longer. You hear that often from people lying on a hospital bed.
Perhaps his suicide represented both his and his friends' failure to stay within the tragedy of his fate. Clarissa kept trying to urge him out of it, and he simply identified with it. Freud says that identification is a form of defense.
I'm not saying that people didn't act correctly. We do what we can do. But, as someone who has sat for many hours with another's depression, I believe that it is possible to go deeper into it, to a place where you don't have to act it out in suicide but can experience it less literally.
I had more trouble with Virginia Woolf's suicide. The last we see of her, she's demanding more life-to get out of the suburbs and return to London.
The deep despair that leads to suicide is not a developmental thing. For many years now, I have been thinking about the poet Anne Sexton's suicide. When you read her letters, you see it was a presence in her for many years. She might pull out of it for a while, then return to what had not disappeared, but had simply passed out of view temporarily.
As the film so beautifully shows, Virginia Woolf entered deep into the river, the stream of life which was also the cause of her death. That's the point. Life and death are closely connected. If you avoid death, you avoid life. All of these people and characters we are considering loved life even as they found their way out of it.
There are two things many people seem passionate about that have never interested me much--truth and happiness. Truth is the passing sensation of having glimpsed some telling, revealing aspect of life and the world. Once you objectify truth, you lose it. Once you think you have grasped it, it leaves you.
It's the same with happiness. It is a passing sensation that can make a day worth living. But if you pursue happiness as a continuous state or an objective quality, you will overlook the richness of life in front of you, which is never fully happy but always a mixture of many emotions. I couldn't live my life in pursuit of happiness. I can only look back and see that there were moments when I could say I was especially happy, and it is satisfying to recall them. For the present, however, I will simply live, facing the challenges of the day and taking the opportunities for bliss that come along.
I was raised a Catholic. I believe in grace. Happiness is a gift, a grace that I can't demand or expect. I don't think it's a continuous state, but rather an ephemeral sensation. I'm happy to say that depression is also a passing sensation for me.
I like the title "The Hours" because it evokes the sense of ordinary time. The beauty of this film is that it is not moralistic or therapeutic. It doesn't set out to condemn incorrect living or propose a way to be healthy. It shows how ordinary days can be painful and rich at the same time. It corrects the modern American ideal of having a healthy and fully successful life at all costs. We have made life meaning into a commodity. Thankfully, this film restores an appreciation for humanity as such. Dare I say, it is a film about a soulful way of getting along.
You said in another interview that people's souls aren't perfect. I thought of that when Ed Harris says, "We want it all, don't we?" We want perfection, and never thought it was all going to turn out like this. Do we all suffer from this disconnect?
Whether the soul is imperfect is a difficult question. When you live a soulful life, things are never perfect; that much I know. The most soulful people I've known or have read about had rampant imperfection in their lives and personalities. Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, Alan Watts. There seems, in fact, to be a direction proportion between imperfection and soulfulness--I guess because the soulful person really lives and makes many mistakes. They don't try to be balanced and healthy about everything. Balance and health are not my ideals.
Yet the culture tells us to be perfect, without, of course, using that word. We should look a certain way, eat smartly, and be informed. When people look at their lives and see imperfection and mistakes and illness and emotional turmoil, some feel discouraged. Add to their troubles the idea that they shouldn't have troubles. I think this is a major mistake in our time.
My ideal is ordinariness, the usual problems in life of love and failure, along with the deep satisfaction of friends, family, and creative work. "The Hours," to some extent, shows us the terrible weight of perfection and people trying to get out from under it. Virginia Woolf seemed to do all right with her difficulties. She wrote from a place above and beneath them, and in that sense, she is the angel of the film.