Sunday June 17th was the day I watched Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (let’s call it ELIC) for a second time. I’d seen it Friday night, and reviewed it. I remarked that for me its chief subject was not 9/11, but the issue of manhood as viewed through the lens of fathers and sons traumatized by loss.
By a curious coincidence Sunday was Father’s Day. Second time through –knowing the arc of the plot and its eventual destination—I was more fully ready for the mythic dimensions of this film. Friday’s review reflected my ambivalence. I loved parts, disliked some aspects, and wasn’t sure about it overall. Today I am much more certain, particularly the way this film fits into a recent pattern of dogmatic critics. I don’t care if I come across as Polyanna, in my dislike for negativity.
And pardon me if I am repeating myself, in mentioning these recent instances of daring or original productions rejected by some, yet embraced by others:
- Lepage’s Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera over the past couple of years: dissed thoroughly in the press & social media.
- The Canadian Opera Company’s Semele, a production that could be accused of disrespecting the original work
- Stewart Goodyear’s Beethoven Marathon. No critical response I saw denied that his playing was wonderful. Yet this achievement was little more than a blip on the radar when it could have been a paradigm-shifting moment comparable to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations.
Oh well. My enjoyment and/or confidence in the excellence of those projects wasn’t dampened by sourpuss critics.
In my review of a few days ago I mentioned a page listing the 9 Most Scathing Critical Responses to Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. In the spirit of Father’s Day I will respond to those nine commentaries.
9. “Despite its overweening literary pretensions, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about as artistically profound as those framed 3-D photos of the Twin Towers emblazoned with ‘Never Forget’ that are still for sale in Times Square a decade after 9/11. [...] It’s Oscar-mongering of the most blunt and reprehensible sort.” Lou Lumenick, NY Post
I understand how New Yorkers may need to own these events for a long time (how could they not?), resenting any attempt to tell this story in terms that don’t correspond to their version. As a foreigner my perspective will seem skewed. I also understand how film critics think they understand a film because they’re in this tunnel of celluloid, in a groove of watching a few movies every week and writing pithy reviews, deconstructing each pathetic attempt to scale the heights of excellence. But seeing too many movies can inure one to excellence, or blunt one’s ability to appreciate what’s actually there, due to a kind of cynicism that sets in, forgetting that artists are people and that many in the audience don’t have the same cynicism. That Lumenick compares this to “framed 3-D photos of the Twin Towers emblazoned with ‘Never Forget’” says more about Lumenick than about the film. Actually, ELIC works very hard at coming at the topic indirectly, perhaps the most oblique treatment one could imagine.
8. “Poor little Oskar! Such an adorable, pint-sized heap of neuroses. What better mouthpiece for an author, or a filmmaker, to use as a way of exploring the personal cost of a great communal tragedy. Do you get the idea that Oskar must emerge from his own teeny-tiny personal prison and, yes, embrace the world? Never has the tragedy of 9/11 been made so shrinky-dinked.” — Stephanie Zacharek, Movieline
But who said ELIC ever purported to be the last word about 9/11? As I said earlier, I think this film is about manhood (speaking of shrinky dinks), about fatherhood, about war. The characters suggest a sad series of parallels, an ongoing chain of bad karma:
- Boy who has lost his father (played by Tom Hanks)
- Father (Hanks) who himself had no father (grandfather was traumatized victim in the previous war)
- Grandfather (Max von Sydow) who is mute after the horrors of living through the Dresden bombing (both parents killed right in front of him)
But the characters are universal, rather than individualized in that karma. They’re not saying anything about the USA or New York; rather it’s about war, period.
7. “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close isn’t about Sept. 11. It’s about the impulse to drain that day of its specificity and turn it into yet another wellspring of generic emotions: sadness, loneliness, happiness. This is how kitsch works. It exploits familiar images, be they puppies or babies — or, as in the case of this movie, the twin towers — and tries to make us feel good, even virtuous, simply about feeling. And, yes, you may cry, but when tears are milked as they are here, the truer response should be rage.” — Manohla Dargis, NY Times
They’re right about one thing: that it’s not about Sept 11. This movie does not try to make anyone feel virtuous (and to suggest this after seeing this movie suggests a heart as cold as ice). The film is full of thorny and painful images. I came away from it the first time troubled and conflicted.
Notice that #7 is almost a perfect contradiction of #6
6. “Oskar is a nasty piece of work. On that dreadful day, Oskar comes home early from school. He hears his father’s voice messages. He hides them from his mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock). He denies her listening to Tom tell her he loves her. Oskar is selfish. He sneaks out and buys an identical answering machine, records the identical outgoing message, and keeps the old one for himself. He counts his lies. Oskar has ‘head-up-his-ass’ platitudes and has read too much Jean-Paul Sartre.” — Victoria Alexander, Film Festival Today
Yes indeed, this largely corresponds to what I felt first time through on Friday. Oskar is very creepy. That’s exactly the opposite of what you read in #7 (about kitsch). But again, they show that clearly the film is not really about Sept 11: not about that brooding need America still has to articulate its nameless rage and sorrow. When Oskar starts smashing things –and it happens more than once—he’s such an unattractive image, he can’t possibly be the epitome of American angst. Oh no. Instead make it be a buff ex-marine who’s able to shoot people or kill them with his karate reflexes.
Note to America: not everyone is good enough to be a Marine. There are some real geeks out there. Oskar speaks to the geek in me, I promise you, and I am not even American.
5. “Almost half a century after Dallas, I still have trouble watching film of President Kennedy’s assassination. Yet Stephen Daldry’s screen version of the Jonathan Safran Foer novel, adapted by Eric Roth, proves hard to handle for other reasons. The production’s penchant for contrivance is insufferable —- not a single spontaneous moment from start to finish -— and the boy is so precocious you want to strangle him.” — Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal
Very true. This isn’t a realistic film. It’s at least partly a symbolist film, with its multi-generational tale of fatherless boys. It’s challenging because one often doesn’t know which year one is watching.
Damn but isn’t that exactly how trauma works: that we always feel it in the here and now.
4. “Mixing the horror of 9/11 with a cutesy story about a boy’s unlikely quest just comes off as crass. Throwing a tragic old man on top — to no apparent purpose, really — cheapens things further. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the kind of movie you want to punch in the nose.” — Tom Long, The Detroit News
Tom, I congratulate you for being honest enough to admit you didn’t understand the symbolism of the old man. I suppose it never occurs to you that 9/11 is not the first time anyone was ever bombed or victimized. Believe it or not it’s happened before, often with Americans dropping the bombs. In Dresden btw there weren’t 3, or 4,000 dead, but 100,000.
3. “[I]t will always be ‘too soon’ for Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, which processes the immense grief of a city and a family through a conceit so nauseatingly precious that it’s somehow both too literary and too sentimental, cloying yet aestheticized within an inch of its life. It’s 9/11 through the eyes of a caffeinated 9-year-old Harper’s contributor. [...] GRADE: F” — Scott Tobias, AV Club
This critique came closest to my feelings on Friday, and is partly the reason for my headline. I believe the subject is still too raw for Americans: that it’s still too soon. But at the same time, I find the process of criticism almost evil in its tendency to project motives onto the process of artistic creation (ie when he says that the film “processes the immense grief of a city and a family through a conceit so nauseatingly precious…”etc). Actually the critic is projecting when he says that. There were thousands of different experiences, and no one person has any claim on being the epitome of grief.
2. “Thomas Horn is a terrible actor; I don’t want to call him annoying because that might be the way Oskar is written, but dammit, I wanted to throttle the twerp pretty much for the whole movie. [...] This film is so spectacularly bad that the bar for pretentious, deep-thoughts movies has been lowered roughly the length of my middle finger.” — Capone, Ain’t it Cool News
This one? Suggests very strongly that the film hit a nerve. Cheese whiz crisis, Capone, have you never seen a character in a film you wanted to throttle? I saw Untouchables last week btw, and yes, in that case his name is Capone (played by a certain Robert de Niro…?). You watch him and probably don’t like him nor his henchmen. That Horn made you hate him suggests he did a great job.
“Thus endeth the lesson,” …to coin a phrase.
1. “This is a film so thoroughly rotten to its smarmy and diseased little core that tearing into it here hardly seems an adequate method of dealing with it — going after the negative with battery acid and a sledgehammer might be closer to what it deserves. [...] This is a film that takes one of the most terrible tragedies in our history and reduces it to a level of kitsch that makes a painting of the burning World Trade Center done on black velvet with a sad clown on the side bearing witness seem dignified by comparison.” — Peter Sobczynski, eFilmCritic
Going anywhere near the subject seems to touch some very raw nerves. I suppose for some people, the topic requires a moratorium, perhaps for another decade or so. As we saw with Viet Nam, there are many ways to approach aspects of the subject. But no single film is really capable of telling the story of Viet Nam. And to go anywhere near the subject in the wrong way (or how someone still suffering might call the wrong way) seems like exploitation of the worst sort.
[And here I am responding to all nine]
The horror of this film, (backdrop for a tale of a family in pain) is the horror of the event, if not of all war. Oskar is the primal embodiment of America on 9/11. On the morning of that day, you were a spoiled, self-absorbed child, unaware that some envious bastards were about to give you a sucker punch. How could anyone be heroic in the face of such evil? The soft and deranged vulnerability of this child, disturbing as it is to see, is one possible mirror, but doesn’t purport to be the best or the most accurate reflection of that insane event.