On realism and the dark material of our lives.
The world is full of evil, but if we hold onto each other, it will go away.
Theo, The Hunt (2012)
And when you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
Happiness warms the tips of the fingers as they grope through the air, trying to strangle it, to cop a feel on a reality painted in the thought that rises to the surface when we do not allow ourselves to think, to feel what really is there. And what is it that we want? A sense of the world where things are other than they are.
Realism has been on my mind lately. I recently offended a friend in suggesting that a movie she likes was, and I quote, “absolute traif,” the suggestion being that the movie was too tritely sentimental to be worth the time it took to indulge. I said that it was a fun movie, for sure, but too convenient, that everything worked out perfectly for everyone to get what they wanted, to find love, inspired fulfillment, happiness – against all likeliness. If I were to clarify (or rather, correct myself), I would say that movies based upon romanticized ideals, when they’re not merely ingested like drugs, do have a place in the reflection of our souls – that good things do happen, and often when they are good, they are very good – but the rest of this post will be in some part an apologia for my clutching to realism and dark material. And Vinterberg’s film The Hunt is motivating my thoughts today.
The events in our lives, even the quality of our daily moments, gather together in a terrible and beautiful conglomeration all the heights, middlings, and depths of human experience. We are humans, and nothing human is alien to us; therefore, that which can be felt, will be felt, and will when we do not ask for it, do not want it, cannot stomach it. I can’t say what you are looking for when you turn on Netflix, or pop in a DVD, or read a story – what sort of gratification you want to get out of it. I have only my own motivations simmering around vaguely in my skin. There are times when I seek some affirmation of however I am feeling – a sad movie for a bummer day, a rom-com for the blissful – and other times, I don’t know what I want. Those days, as today, I turn on a movie for no given reason but because it’s there, and the wonder comes in when the movie turns out to be all that I could have asked for but would not have wished to.
We look for representation of ourselves, our lives, our sentiments, in our films. We will find them either in the positive – yes, that is exactly what I was thinking – or in the negative – no, that is the opposite of what I was thinking, and yet, I see it now, feel it now, as though it were my own. And we can talk all day about how pop and genre films distill reality into something recognizable in a place and cast we have never known, a sort of action which could not occur. But there is a special gift in realism, as when everything which could have, without question, happened is refracted back to us in the light of our own recognition – without distortion, but in such a way that we can recognize the thing in a deep, true sense without having ever lived the details involved. It is a constructed mirror.
We can take a film like The Hunt as a point of contact for such a conception of realism, but it is by no means a lone example. This film tells the story of a kindergarten teacher, Lucas, played by Mads Mikkelsen, who is wrongfully accused by a tragically naïve and ill-spoken little girl of molesting her. It takes place in a relatively small Danish town where everyone is friends with everyone, where the father of the girl, Theo, is also the best friend of Lucas, the man accused. The film gives us the narrative of the fallout from a child’s lies; since everyone will believe a child on such matters, and since so much is at stake, Lucas’s life is ruined, even after he is acquitted in court.
I can only suggest (or plead) that you watch the film in order to understand just how neither understated nor overstated it is. The film is filled with a restraint which is true to life; I cannot remember Mikkelsen releasing tears until only one climactic moment in the movie, towards the end, though it could have fittingly happened a hundred times prior. Theo’s internal conflict, his failure to trust his friend amid the weight of moral imperative to protect his daughter, could not have been expressed more accurately than it was. At least, it seemed so utterly accurate to me, though I have no experience of any of the situations which the expressions inscribe.
Realist stories are often dark, often very painful, expressive of despair and anguish. The Hunt is a realist film which includes all such emotions, but without a sudden death or suicide, and without any unhuman threat. All the pain here is utterly human, utterly plausible, and staring into such pain for two hours leaves a body more haunted than after viewing a horror flick with spirits or witches. In this case, I felt haunted by my own humanity. Inside me are a thousand ghosts of all the pain I have encountered, the hurt people I have known, the hurt I have enacted, the fears hovering in my shaded corners. With any other type of movie, I could have passed these off as conjured only by artifice, and therefore unable to be trusted – merely an autonomic response to an aesthetic form. But with a story like this, accomplished with such true-to-life restraint, all this darkness becomes irrefutably present to me.
Who among us has not known real anguish in some form? Who has not known the sort of fear that comes merely with being human – with the necessity of living in a world we cannot possibly comprehend, stepping into a future we cannot know or even choose, thinking about all the ineffable forever which encroaches nearer every day? It is no surprise that our impulse reaction would be to ignore it all, to act as though life is only roses, and to fill our senses with an artifice that confirms our blissful self-deception. Theo even does this in the film: after bearing all the pain and betrayal throughout the story, and then after realizing horribly that his friend was true and that this absurd lie had served to destroy him, he sits by his daughter’s side and weeps. Her hand in his, he says, “The world is full of evil, but if we hold onto each other, it will go away.”
Such a heart-rending sentiment, especially because it is entirely false. Love may cover over a multitude of sins, but they are ever present in the scars and open wounds which remain. We, like Theo, choose the illusion over the reality when the reality becomes unbearable. But it only takes one sharp moment to remind us that we have been kidding ourselves; and this is, in fact, a reminder, nothing new – we have known it all along that life is not only pleasure and joy but also heartache, shame, violation, and fear. Life is all of this together. To reduce it is to deceive.
So what if we choose instead to recognize the dark material of our lives? Realist art may help with this, but we can also get there with a mere honest thought, a mere honest conversation. To recognize that the darkness is not simply shadow – the absence of some light we feel we are owed – but that the darkness must also be understood as substance. This hurt, this fear, is real. It is present, and it is not going to vanish just because we have said it does not exist. It does not disappear in the false light of our own abnegation. However, the option yet faces us to no longer avoid ourselves and this world, but to enter into it with full awareness, to wake up clear-eyed to the texture and the colors, the cancer and the despair. To say at last to ourselves that what we have is what we have been given, what we have given to ourselves. Here and today – only these – are yours.