Film views: addiction flicks in the age of recovery

Film views: addiction flicks in the age of recovery

By Uma Anyar

IF MOVIES about alcohol and drug addiction are hard to watch, why do we do it? The answer is personal and varied for each of us. Perhaps there is common ground in the human desire to better understand our fellow beings and ourselves. Interestingly, several psychological studies of empathy development have found that people who read novels behave more compassionately and feel less lonely than people who only read nonfiction.

This empathetic expansion from the realm of make-believe into the real world is attributed to the fact that readers who had engaged emotionally in the fictional character’s inner psyche are better able to put themselves in another’s shoes. Movies are a contemporary progression of storytelling and are effective agents in forming sentiments in an involved audience. Being safely scared, or even horrified, for a few hours in the darkened room is stirring and entertaining, even if it is not exactly fun. We are curious beings and yearn to experience more than our limited individual lives can encompass. The writer, Joan Didion, made an astute observation when she wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” But don’t we need other’s stories in order to live broader, deeper and more varied lives?

Embracing Addiction

Nicolas Cage garnered a best actor Oscar for his performance as an alcoholic hell-bent on destroying himself in the 1995 film, “ Leaving Las Vegas” At the start of the film, Ben Sanderson (Cage), a failed Hollywood agent, is fired from his job but given a generous severance check. As we watch Ben dance down the aisle of a mega liquor store loading his cart with bottles of booze, it becomes both sad and humorously evident that he is a man getting ready for a date with a death, a fate he has decided to embrace. The movie offers no miserable childhood backstory as explanation for his alcoholism.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

On the first viewing this film nearly 18 years ago, I was angry with Ben for giving up on his life and embracing addiction. Recently, I watched it again and realized that his determination to drink himself to death was the one thing about him that was repugnantly heroic. In fact, it is what makes Leaving Las Vegas such a disturbingly compelling story. Ben is not interested in recovery.

In Las Vegas Ben meets Sara, a lonely prostitute with a heart of gold. Elisabeth Shue, who plays Sarah, was also nominated for an Oscar for her remarkable performance where she shattered that cliché to smithereens. When Sara and Ben begin their relationship, Ben, who is incapable of an erection, sets their boundaries by firmly stating, “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking. Do you understand?” Sara replies, “I do. I really do.” He realizes she truly understands when she gives him a silver hip flash as a gift,. Ben calls Sara his “angel” and, when he isn’t passed out, treats her kindheartedly, something she has never known. Leaving Las Vegas is an unlikely love story between a modern day Adam and Eve, and Las Vegas is a dystopic paradise for addicts of all kinds.

The movie offers no uplifting ending in the usual sense but it is not merely bleak either. Even if Sara’s love cannot save Ben from self-destruction, the story is not without hope as she discovers her capacity for unconditional love him. Implicitly the film posses the question–what is unconditional love? The eternal battle between Thanotos (Death) and Eros (sex/life) are played out through Ben Sanderson. Thanatos wins but there is a tender holiness to Ben’s last moments when miraculously he is able to make love to Sara before he dies. His last word is a gentle “wow.” The New York Times film critic, Janet Maslin, has written that Leaving Las Vegas “ has the daring to suspend judgment about Ben’s downward spiral. This film simply works as a character study, pitilessly well observed and intimately familiar with its terrain.”

“Write what you know” has long been the dictum for creative writing. Director/screenwriter Mike Figgis’ choice to stick close to John O’Brian’s semi biographical novel may well be the reason for the movie’s unsettling veracity. O’Brian knew the alcoholic terrain all too well. He shot himself in the head two weeks before his novel was to be made into a movie. O’Brian’s father felt the book was his son’s suicide note. Figgis said the book inspired him as he had long wanted to do a film about manic depression. Often inter twined with addiction, and a condition he thinks is more prevalent in highly creative people. He was nominated for best director and best screenwriter. In preparation for the role, Cage spent two weeks binge drinking in Dublin while being videotaped by a friend so he could later study his impaired speech patterns and drunken body gestures. For her demanding role, Shue interviewed Las Vegas prostitutes.

After watching this classic addiction genre film, I recalled Leo McGarry, the alcoholic Chief of Staff on The West Wing, poignantly wondering why addiction is part of the genetic makeup of people in the first place. Why do the demons of addiction imprison some of us in our own craving bodies, making us our own worst enemy, while leaving others content to sip just a glass of wine with dinner?

 Recovery

“Rachel Getting Married” (2008) is a movie about the rickety road to recovery. Rachel (Rosemary De Witt) may be getting married but the movie is about Kym ( Anne Hathaway), the difficult and rather off–the-wall sister who is given a furlough from a rehab clinic for the wedding weekend. Kym is both a junkie and an alcoholic but the movie does not wallow in used needles or empty bottles. Instead, it focuses on the complex relationships in families, especially the bonds between siblings. Director Jonathan Demme treads an experimental but restrained line, which keeps the movie from slipping into melodrama. Occasionally, it felt like a home movie in which a few well-known actors move among ordinary people who go about their celebration in a large old family house.

There is a transparent yet rosy vale of optimism floating over this interracial, multicultural wedding, where the bride and her maids wear Indian saris instead of traditional white wedding dresses and Rachel’s intended husband, Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe), an African American classical musician, sings his vows to Rachel. World music and jazz weave throughout the nuptial celebration, but there is no atmospheric soundtrack. Viewers hear only the music the characters hear. Demme’s event-specific audio approach coupled with his home filming style made me feel like a wedding guest. Rachel Getting Married has utopic undertones as the movie presents a multicultural vision of harmony in diversity along with Kym’s recovery story. When a snarly and defensive Kym arrives at the family house I feared the movie would slip into melodrama and she would ruin Rachel’s wedding. But it doesn’t and she doesn’t. Kym goes to AA meetings, and crashes a car but pulls it together to show up bruised and humble as maid of honor and a member of the family. My favorite scene takes place during the rehearsal dinner when Kym gives an over-extended AA style apology speech as a toast to Rachel that is embarrassingly self-centered, and inappropriate yet cringingly fascinating to watch.

Gradually family guilt and buried secrets emerge. Kym’s accidental killing of her younger brother while driving high on drugs is a story you pray never crosses your doorstep. Secret accusations about who is responsible for the tragedy tumble out during a family quarrel. Yet, the film focuses on the power of family love and the necessity of accepting your own as well as each other’s foibles. In the end, ‘Rachel Getting Married’ is soberly uplifting

 

Uma Anyar is the pen name of Tamarra Kaida, a photographer who has published, Ogoh-Ogoh: Balinese Monsters in 2011 with Sarita Newson and Tremors from the Faultline in 1989. Tamarra collaborated with Pulitzer Prize poet Rita Dove on The Other Side of the House in 1988, a poetry and collotype photography book. She has participated in more than 100 photography exhibitions. Her photographs are in the collections of The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The George Eastman House Museum in Rochester NY., Center for Creative Photography Tucson, Az., The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and The State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia among others.

She was a professor of art photography in The School of Art at Arizona State University, in Tempe, Arizona, USA from 1979-2004. Tamarra retired from university teaching in 2004 and moved to Ubud, Bali in order to live a more balanced, slower paced lifestyle and spend more time with her husband, Paul.

She took the name Uma Anyar (means ‘new rice field and new beginnings in Balinese) as her pen name and wrote short stories and worked on a novel. In 2009, Asia Literary Review published the short story Angry Ghosts. Uma Anyar has been writing book reviews for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival column in The Bali Advertiser since 2005. She started writing film reviews for Inspired Bali in 2013. She loves movies, books, photographs and creating beautiful, unique environments.

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