Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Doing it in the Streets

Derek Cianfrance's latest film, The Place Beyond the Pines, is an interesting addition to the canon of American Catholic cinema. A triptych, it concerns the trinity of a father, a son, and the strange ways of the spirit. Ryan Gosling plays Luke, a fairground stunt motorcyclist with dodgy tattoos. He is an absent father and existential loner, whose eventual desire to provide for his son (the J boy) threatens the holy family (he beats up Joseph) and leads to his own death after one too many bank heists. Bradley Cooper plays an older Jesus, rather portentously named Avery Cross. He's a trained lawyer, the son of a judge, who decides to pursue his ministry on the streets as a rookie cop. He kills Luke during the last, botched getaway, perhaps unjustifiably. He is privately gnawed by guilt at leaving a boy fatherless, while publicly celebrated as a hero. He is twice tempted by the Devil (first corruption and then ambition) and succumbs the second time.

In part three, the two mens' sons, Jason and AJ (Avery Junior), meet and form a combustible teen friendship centred on drugs and father issues. AJ cannot connect with his dad, who has sublimated his guilt beneath political ambition and keeps the boy at arms-length, while Jason initially knows nothing of his. Their anger and sense of loss leads (somewhat implausibly) to a mutual breakdown of trust and bloody assault. When Jason finally finds out that Avery Senior killed Luke, he threatens him with a gun. Cross shows remorse and asks for forgiveness. The burden of guilt lifted, we see AJ at his father's election victory rally having an epiphany of love for his dear old dad (either that or he's still high). In contrast, Jason buys a second-hand motorbike. The seller asks if he knows how to handle it. Jason says nothing but shows his competence by revving the engine, echoing a scene in part one where Luke has scared the baby Jesus, sorry Jason, by revving his bike. Jason rides off, perhaps to join the circus. The film title is a rough translation of the name of Schenectady, the upstate New York town where the action takes place, though the frequent use of long shots of the verdant surrounding hills, often bathed in late afternoon sunlight, suggests the place may be somewhere else.

Cianfrance is on record as a Catholic boy who lost his faith but remains drawn to holy stories. His previous film, the breakthrough Blue Valentine, starred Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple who marry when they find she is pregnant, though both suspect that he isn't the father. The film then charts this holy family's gradual loss of faith. The mixing of the sacred and profane is a classic trope in American Catholic cinema, which is best thought of as films that explore Catholic themes, particularly forgiveness and grace, rather than films that feature nuns. In other words, Mean Streets rather than Sister Act. Coincidentally, Scorsese's classic was on the telly the other week, which perhaps tuned me up for Cianfrance's film. The core of the earlier work is the frustrated attempt of Charlie, played by Harvey Keitel, to steer between church and family while trying to save Robert De Niro's Johnny Boy from his own stupidity.

Another happy coincidence was seeing the current exhibition of the work of George Bellows, Modern American Life, at the Royal Academy. Bellows was a Methodist from Ohio, but he made his name as a New York artist and member of the Ashcan school of painting. His short career (he died at 42) lasted only a couple of decades spanning the First World War. He is most famous for his boxing scenes, notably A Stag at Sharkey's (above), though he was equally accomplished in gritty cityscapes, rhapsodic landscapes and sombre, anxious portraits that show the influence of Goya and Velasquez. Scorsese's Raging Bull shows the influence of his boxing pictures, but it was fascinating to see the extent to which Bellows also employed traditional Catholic motifs, perhaps influenced by the religious street theatre of the Lower East Side as much as old Spanish masters. A painting that owes nothing to the boxing ring is Fisherman's Family, an obvious Holy Family posed by the artist, his wife and child.

Bellows' external scenes are usually lit from above with a heavenly light, partly obscured by clouds or falling between intermittent storms, such as in An Island in the Sea. While this is conventional enough for the great outdoors, it's a more deliberate ploy in the bustle and grime of New York where it appears to alight like grace on fallen humanity. In one scene, Excavation at Night, centring on a vast pit being dug for Penn Station, the light from the workmen's brazier down below echoes the light of the streetlamps up above. This fondness for images of the fallen and of blessing is repeated explicitly in Benediction in Georgia, a prison scene where light coming through the barred window is echoed by the prisoners hooped uniforms, but is also implicit in Out for the Count, where the referee raises two fingers to heaven with one hand while reaching to gently touch the head of the stricken boxer with the other.

Bellows' boxing scenes are intensely physical and meaty, the fighters looking like faceless carcasses in an abattoir, but they're also staged like devotional groups. Dempsey And Firpo (below) is clearly the descent from the cross, while the various ring scenes are centred by light falling on the dynamic turmoil of flesh, surrounded by a sea of obscure faces. His boxers are Christ-like figures. Together with the dramatic dynamism of his drawings, which were published in the magazine The Masses, there is a stylistic influence that can be traced to the later generation of commercial artists who would develop the superhero comic in the 1930s, such as Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, also raised in Ohio, the creators of Superman (absent father, world saviour etc). Adding yet more coincidence, the trailers ahead of The Place Beyond the Pines included one for Man of Steel, the latest Superman reboot (rather than a biopic of Stalin).

There is no particular moral here, just interest in the stylistic thread that runs from Bellows, through Shuster and Siegel, to Scorsese and Cianfrance: the Holy Family, the struggling Christ, the benediction of light. If there is a common political or philosophical thread, it is the belief that we are compelled to action in the world. As Charlie says in Mean Streets: "You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it".

1 comment:

  1. "You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it".

    Which is (almost) orthodox Catholic doctrine.

    "If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 9).

    Good works are required, not just faith.