I needed a good laugh this morning and fortunately, quite by accident, I found "The Hours" on TV. I had never seen this film, which has a marvelous cast and won many awards. It is a dense, multi-layered drama about depression and suicide and art, and I couldn't stop laughing as I watched it. The characters are hilarious. Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf, who never lifts her chin from her chest and never smiles, speaks in a whispered monotone throughout the entire film. Indeed, I started humming along with her lines - duh, duh, duh - always the same note but with slightly varied cadence. At one point she actually says: If I have to choose between Richmond and death, I choose death. Now that is a funny line. And what is in Richmond? A beautiful house, where she feels a prisoner, with servants whom she fears, a husband who adjusts his entire life for her sake, total freedom to work, and a writer's study which I would give worlds to have. Virginia, it seems, is a deeply troubled novelist who is married to a saint, but appears to be in love with her best friend, whom she kisses on the mouth with great passion.
John C. Riley's husband to Julianne Moore's character is simply too good to be true. The only insight we get into his imperturbable character is that he is a World War II veteran who, reading between the handful of lines in which he tell us this, had a rather bad time of it among the atolls and Japs. And so at every moment I expected him to go nuts, screaming at his chronically depressed wife to snap out of it. But he doesn't. And why? Because he is so utterly clueless. He's a like a character in a cereal commercial, cheerful, sincere, and reflexively devoted to his family. No wonder his wife is a lump of depression - no one could match such witless happiness. She has a son, and another on the way, and all she can do is think about her deeply suppressed lust for her female friend, whom she kisses on the mouth with great passion, when she is not planning to kill herself. What is her problem? Is it the drear of suburban 50s life, the utter predictability of it, the soul-stomping conformity? No. She's reading Virginia Woolf, which would be enough to send any blue hausfrau over the edge. And so she zombie-walks through her life, like Virginia herself, unsmiling, monotone-voiced, and so utterly self-absorbed that it is an act of bravery for her to bake a cake with her five-year-old.
Now we come to Ed Harris' character, The Poet. I capitalize it because he is supposed to be what everyone imagines a poet to be. Except he is dying of AIDS, lives in a graffiti-crusted loft in Manhattan, and has just won The Carruthers. The Carruthers? What is that? A poetry prize. And that's the problem - it sounds like a poetry prize. If he had won the Schmelman Prize I might have believed any of this, but he didn't. In this movie, nobody does anything that a human being might actually think, feel or do. It is all so contrived - so much about what wealthy, elitist film-makers think such people ought to be like, that none of it is believable. Instead, it is laughable.
The Poet's first line in the movie was my tip-off. The Meryl Streep character goes to see him in his scabrous loft to tell him she's taking him to the award ceremony and giving him a party. She sees he has been troubled by unreal visitations. "Were your friends here?" she asks, and when he says they were, she wants to know what they were like. "They were like black fire," replies The Poet. OK, that was when they truly lost me. No poet talks like this. Not only is that a cliché, boring metaphor, it is the way that the writer and all the other elitists who made this film think a poet should talk.
It is writing about character types in the way the film-making elite think they should talk and act, presumably because they think the public thinks they should be this way, that so turns me off in what passes for serious drama these days. I remember, in the awful film, "Contact," by Zemekis (whose recent film "Flight" also turned me off) the philosopher, played by Matthew McConaughey, talks in a contrived, stilted and pretentious manner for the sole reason that this is the way the film-makers think really intelligent people are supposed to talk.
And then there is Meryl Streep's character. She is an editor who lives in a Manhattan apartment that could exist only in the imagination of a Hollywood art director and could scarcely be afforded by the Sultan of Brunei, in contrast to The Poet's filthy loft, reachable only by the seediest elevator in New York. Note the implied class distinction: The Poet, who pours his blood into his work, lives in sunless squalor while the editor, who merely corrects the grammar of what poets write, lives in high-rise luxury. Is it possible that an accomplished poet cannot afford a decent apartment? I mean, he did win The Carruthers after all. And when he topples himself out the window to his death (I say "topples" because he does not merely fall and is too ill to throw himself), we are left to wonder whether he has finally found life unbearable, or he just cannot face another trip in that repulsive elevator.
Now don't get me wrong here... I think that Meryl Streep is one of the truly great actors of our time. But in this film, in this role, she is off her game. Her normally fluid and spontaneous seeming gestures here are forced, the timing is off, and some even seem inappropriate to the moment. In short, she is bad in this movie, and as a friend of mine says, it takes a lot of work to make a great actor bad. Ed Harris, too, is bad in this movie - the only time I have ever found his work unconvincing. And Nicole Kidman, while the best performance - and the best nose - of the lot, is given so little of light and self-revelation to work with, she, too, is below par. Why? Because there is nothing at all authentic about the characters in this film, or the way they act, or the way in which they express themselves. This is pretentious pseudo-drama of the worst sort - made by elitists to condescend to the general public while impressing the members of their pretentious clique. Pretension - that is the word that kept running through my mind. "The Hours" is, ultimately and implicitly, about pretentious, self-absorbed people who merely got older without ever growing up.
Julianne Moore's character attempts to make a cake for her genial husband's birthday. It is a centerpiece of her role in the film, for she has to do it with her little boy. They struggle through a dreadful looking blue and brown concoction only to have her throw it in the trash, drive her son to an obese nightmare of a sitter, check in to a hotel where she finishes reading Virginia Woolf... and decides not to kill herself and her unborn baby. In a scene that comes from nowhere in this film, at the critical moment, the room floods with water, nearly flushing her off the bed. Now, just yesterday I had to have the drainpipe outside my house replaced since the toilets and showers clogged irreparably, and all I could think was, not that this benighted woman has reached the end of a meaningless existence, but that the hotel needs a good plumber.
The point here, which no one connected with the making of this film understands, is that the cake is the meaning. Making a birthday cake for daddy with your five-year-old is what life is about. But not for the penthouse-dwelling artistic elite who made "The Hours." The baking of that cake with that child for that reason gives life meaning. But they can't see that because they can't talk about such things at their parties and in their interviews. Let me be clear: I think that life, essentially, is meaningless. But it can, as no less a pessimist than Samuel Beckett has said, possess a meaning with which we have to power to invest it. None of these characters has that power, because they are all so pretentious and self-absorbed. And we are supposed to take them seriously and become absorbed in their drama. Not me, sorry; all I could do was laugh.
Meryl Streep's character, who lives with her female lover (whom she does not kiss on the mouth with great passion, presumably because they have been together ten years), is The Poet's one-time lover and now his only remaining friend. This is so because, as a poet, he of course drives everybody crazy, never bathes, and lives in a filthy loft reachable only by a grimy elevator in a graffiti palace on the Lower East Side. (Though he does have the most truthful line in the film: They only gave me the prize because I have AIDS!) Nonetheless, he has won The Carruthers and must be fêted despite himself, which the Meryl Streep character is determined to do, because, if she fails to give a good party, her life will be without significance. ("You give parties to hide The Silence," The Poet says, and we all cringe.)
I won't spoil the endings for you (there are several, cascading on one another with relentless gloom, and culminating in Virginia Woolf doing a bad impression of Ophelia). However, I will say that the Julianne Moore character, who, it turns out, is The Poet's mother, comes back for his funeral, leaving one to wonder, not why she did not kill herself, but how the hapless husband managed with two kids on his own. Not very well, one supposes, since his older child contracted a fatal disease and toppled himself out the window of a filthy loft. (Though what, I can't help but ask, happened to the other one who was nearly flushed down the hotel toilet?) But you may ask: What does all this have to do with the NFL?
During the commercial breaks in the movie, when I was being induced to buy pizza rolls and an Accura, I switched to the playoff game between New England and Houston. (The game is still on, though the Patriots seem to have things under control ((Houston's quarterback, Schaub, is one of the worst I have ever seen))). As I watched the game, in contrast to "The Hours," I could not help but notice that the NFL players, all vigorous, healthy young men, work so well together, clearly like one another very much, and, given the amount of hugging and butt slapping, seem, indeed, to be in love. And so the following occurred to me:
"The Hours," I was beginning to think, was the best argument I have yet heard against gay adoption, a question on which I am undecided. None of these women seem to care much for their children, indeed, are prepared to abandon and even to kill them or themselves. But then I reflected that the NFL players appear to have a healthy, productive attitude toward life. They work brilliantly and easily together, support each other, and appear to care a great deal for one another (though they do not kiss on the mouth with great passion, at least not on camera). And so my conclusion could not help but be that gay men should be allowed to adopt, but gay women should not.
So there you have it: another cultural dilemma resolved by a casual confluence of elitist drama and professional sports. Now that that is off my chest, I shall toast a pizza roll and go find out who made it to the AFC championship.