3-D is the current big thing in the multiplex. Last year people paid record amounts to see Alien Blue People in 3-D, this year people flocked to see Wonderland, Greek Gods and Dragons leap off the screen; with Living Toys, Piranha and Witches yet to come. People have always gone to the movies for spectacle.
Historical and Biblical epics brought people into worlds beyond their imagination. Science fiction, fantasy and horror films are like shared dreams on the screen. Comedies delight with outlandish situations that could never happen in real life. And, perhaps, Hollywood’s greatest special effect has always been supernaturally beautiful people in love.
Yet there has always been another side to cinema: simple tales of ordinary people. Rarely have such films been the blockbusters. War, monsters, epic disasters…that is the stuff of blockbusters. But some have always been interested in the amazing opportunity to observe other people living, talking, brooding, celebrating…just living.
One of the most acclaimed films of this kind is Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981). That’s pretty much what the film was: two friends eating dinner. But their conversation was lively and entertaining. Issues of philosophy and morality and meaning were the subjects of this conversation between two intelligent and interesting men. People through the years have enjoyed their company.
Not many people would seek out the company of the title character of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010). Ben Stiller plays a forty year old man recenty released from a mental institution. He once had a promising career as a musician but argued his way out of a record deal. So he went into carpentry, but his aptitude for that profession seems marginal at best. The film observes Greenberg as he dog-sits for his vacationing brother in a beautiful home in the Hollywood hills.
Greenberg is hostile, sarcastic and abrasive. His one hobby seems to be writing letters of complaint to newspapers, politicians and corporations that have offended him. He tries to reconnect with friends from his youth, but they have all taken on the responsibilities of families and jobs, leaving him behind. The one connection he is able to make is with his brother’s personal assistant, Florence, a charming but insecure woman in her twenties (a winning performance by Greta Gerwig.)
But Greenberg even sabotages his relationship with Florence, picking fights, criticizing her stories…just being a jerk. When someone quotes to Greenberg the old line, “Youth is wasted on the young”, Greenberg responds, “I’d take that one further, life is wasted on people.” We see Greenberg abuse alcohol and drugs, enter a casual and thoughtless sexual relationship with Florence, neglect his responsibility to Mahler the German Shepherd….There are a number of awkward scenes in the film that difficult to watch. People might reasonably ask, “I wouldn’t want to spend time with this person in real life, why would I want to pay money to spend time with him?”
It’s a good question. I appreciated the reminder that there are some wounded people in this world that need help. Those people are also difficult to help. As Florence says in the film, “Hurt people hurt people.”
Those hurt, despairing, abrasive people need Christ’s love.
I had a friend in youth ministry who loved Star Trek. He once told me that the reason he loved it was because he loved the idea of seeking out The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek IV). But one day, a counselor pointed out to him that the real adventure, the real undiscovered country, was to be found in getting to know another human heart and mind.