February 7, 2003

Real reality

By: Raul Damas

Raul DamasMr. Damas said he would watch “The Hours” himself.

Fortunately, I was able to go under cover of female accompaniment, but I would have ended up seeing it anyway. I view all the Oscar-nominated. Indeed, “The Hours” will take the Academy’s highest honors if one employs the predictive model of Golden Globes results.

“The Hours” is a cinematic adaptation of the same-titled novel by Michael Cunningham. Both works interlace the stories of three women, one of whom is Virginia Woolf, struggling with…well, everything. But more on that later.

While I haven’t read the book, I can say the film was superbly acted, nicely scored and beautifully shot. In fact, it’s difficult to find much to gripe about while watching the film. Even Phillip Glass’ normally overbearing tones couldn’t spoil the experience.

When I walked out of the theater, however, and began speaking with the films’ fans–apparently legion–I became troubled by the film.

Often times the craftsmanship of filmmaking is so expert as to allow one to lose focus of what is actually being said. This was the case with “The Hours”–to the filmmakers’ credit. Unfortunately beneath the marvelous acting and cinematography lie what I can only describe as a two really annoying Hollywood trends in “serious film.”

To begin with, the women of “The Hours” confront madness, lesbianism, isolation, AIDS and suicide. In effect, the audience earns a Women’s Studies degree. This celebration of suffering has been lauded by almost every major critic, invariably describing the film as an “unflinching portrayal” of [INSERT SOCIAL MALADY HERE].

But suicide takes center stage in this film and what actually ends up being “unflinchingly” insinuated is that suicide is nothing more than a lifestyle choice. Kind of like smoking, but with less risk of lung cancer.

Of course, everyone with whom I discuss this point responds like a Xerox machine, spitting out the same exact response: “That’s reality. That’s what happens every day in real life.”


Watching “The Hours” one would think everyone is about a $100 parking ticket away from sucking on a gas main.

Here I should disclose that my brother committed suicide three years ago in a rather “real” way. As a result, I have much less romantic notions of the act so artistically depicted in “The Hours.” Still, I try to keep a sense of humor about the whole thing and, as such, am always amused by people’s spoken desire for “reality.” Personally, I’ve had more than enough of that kind of reality to last me a life time.

I find that in terms of art, “reality” is usually code for pain and suffering, which, by itself, is supposed to deliver more existential bang for the buck than pleasure and happiness.

I’m reminded of a Capitol Hill neighbors’ backyard party during which a mother next door was verbally and physically laying into her child, loud enough for all of us to hear. The host had heard all this several times before, and began joking about it. At that moment, Naomi Wolf, Al Gore’s fashion consultant and a fellow partygoer, shushed him, “Be quiet! That’s real.”

Her claims were, no doubt, bolstered by the fact that we were a mostly white gathering and the shrieking mother and child were African-American. Clearly, our pleasant gathering failed to compare, reality-wise, with minority shouting. Oddly enough, Ms. Wolf felt no desire to put down her drink so that she could more closely observe, perchance participate, in said “reality.” And in the film version, the mother next door would be portrayed by Halle Berry, who’s juuust black enough.

It appears that “reality,” especially in art, is determined as much by politics as anything else. Hollywood’s politics dictate that “serious film” often revolves around the basest actions, like suicide and child abandonment, masquerading as empowerment.

The second Hollywood trend in “serious film” is the characterization of famous persons. In the case of “The Hours,” Virginia Woolf. Indeed, it is a charicaturization.

No doubt after watching this film, as after reading the book, millions of Americans will feel as though they can now check-off the “Virginia Woolf” and “Modernism” boxes on their intellectual to-do lists.

The argument against this edification by osmosis was expertly crafted by Woolf scholar Roberta Rubenstein in The Washington Post (12/26/03), so I won’t rehash her work. Suffice to say I agree with her that by “selectively appropriating and…falsifying certain details of [Woolf’s] life… [using] fabrications to titillate the audience…is…to manipulate Woolf’s life in an unacceptable way.”

Furthermore, reducing all that is Woolf to 40 minutes of Nicole Kidman staring vacantly into space, albeit expertly, does nobody any good.

Nevertheless, you can expect more of this from Hollywood.

Last year’s winner of the Academy’s Best Picture award was “A Beautiful Mind,” which portrayed another genius struggling with madness. In this case, the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash manages, somehow, to win the Nobel Prize for Economics in between hallucinating non-existent persons and receiving insulin shock therapy.

Then at least some critics had the good sense to do their jobs and actually criticize the filmmaker’s complete disregard for facts, such as Nash’s homosexuality. Although I have yet to read any complaint that Nash’s wife was in reality a Salvadoran immigrant, unlikely to look like Jennifer Connelly. I guess Salma Hayek was busy.

To top it all off, I still can’t tell you what Nash did to win the Nobel Prize. (And don’t e-mail me saying it was for “game theory.” Find me something that couldn’t be described as “game theory.”)

So, for those keeping score at home, madness and suicide are “reality;” non-British foreign-born actors and actual achievements are not.