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Missives From the Substitute World

Missives From the Substitute World

“Everything has been figured out, except how to live.” — Jean-Paul Sartre
“The cinema gives us a substitute world which fits our desires.” — André Bazin

Whether or not it was coincidental that French Existentialism and André Bazin’s theories on cinema and realism took off at the same time, the two have been linked ever since. The lasting impact of Bazin’s writing helped propel cinema firmly into the category of “art,” and with art comes the search for answers on life and how to live it that the existentialists debated. Simply in depicting a scenario and presenting characters with whom we sympathize (or don’t), the film is making a value judgment about their lifestyle — or inviting us to do so. At the New York Film Festival those judgments were present in everything from Hollywood stories of perseverance to Chinese family dramas. 

The boldest and most explicit example was perhaps Sally Potter’s “Ginger and Rosa.” It has been repeatedly labeled as a coming-of-age drama, but to put “Ginger and Rosa” in a box is to ignore its very deliberate and thoughtful existential themes. The film takes place in the United Kingdom circa 1962, at a time when the fear of nuclear holocaust looms close to the heart and heads of the titular best friends. The girls were born in adjacent hospital beds as, thousands of miles away, an atomic bomb decimated Hiroshima. Even before the Cold War, life in the Nuclear Age had cemented itself as a part of their lives. The girls become lifelong friends, unable to shake off their nuclear birth, always wondering how long that life is going to last. Mostly they take part in teenage rituals: shrinking their jeans, comparing their fashions, staying out late, meeting boys. But they also find time to attend activist meetings, discuss religion, and reflect on the domestic lives of their mothers.

Quietly, the girls grow up. More loudly, they take radically different routes into adulthood. Constantly fearing a nuclear end, Rosa (Alice Englert) finds religion and looks for love. That she even turns to Roland, Ginger’s father (Alessandro Nivola), is a comment primarily on her refusal to take her life into her own hands and also to serve as a foil to Ginger (Elle Fanning). In contrast, Ginger becomes an activist but is most interested in poetry. Rosa is happy ignoring the world, but Ginger wants to take it head-on.

Echoes of Rosa’s lifestyle are scattered throughout the New York Film Festival, albeit portrayed with varying degrees of condemnation. Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” is, in its own way, a coming-of-age story; the narrative unfolds in flashback, and we see how Pi’s (Suraj Sharma) youth and disaster have led to his religious epiphany. The narration and occasional jump back to the present emphasize the idea that Pi’s entire life has been a part of his spiritual journey — like Rosa’s, a passive one — and for the first time, he seems truly content. Lee’s precise cinematography and beautiful landscape glorify the faith-based lifestyle. With no political backdrop, Lee portrays this attitude as a fulfilling one, giving Pi both a reason to continue fighting and justification for all he has suffered through. Sally Potter, conversely, uses a nuclear subtext to condemn Rosa’s similarly principled lifestyle as lazy and irresponsible. When you have control, as Rosa does and Pi does not, giving up that control is the biggest sin.

Elsewhere, “Memories Look At Me,” the directorial debut of Song Fang (co-star of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s “Flight of the Red Balloon”), portrays a fictionalized version of the director taking care of her parents, flashing back to wistful and happier memories of the past. Nearly every shot is static, taking place within the apartment of Song and her family (also fictionalized, but portrayed by their real-life counterparts). The minimalism reflects the unadventurous and uninspired nature of their lives; the characters refuse to grab the moment, but Song never comes down too strongly for or against the nostalgic lifestyle.

Potter, however, advocates a life rooted firmly in the present. With Rosa’s carelessness condemned and Ginger invisibly positioned among her father, her best friend, and her mother (Christina Hendricks), Ginger’s carpe diem attitude is lauded. After early discussion about the prison created by domesticity, Ginger’s mother begins painting, as she did before her marriage. Similarly, Ginger focuses extensively on poetry, trying to make sense of the world around her and the actions of others that she sees as irresponsible in a time of imminent danger. That Ginger’s mother has begun painting again instead of merely wishing she still could is a rejection of the nostalgic lifestyle depicted in “Memories Look At Me.” Similarly, the climax of the film firmly dismisses the lifestyle of Rosa and Roland, emphasizing their powerlessness and giving the power to resolve conflict to Ginger, the most motivated character in the story. Contrasting settings prevent Potter’s depiction from dismissing what Lee’s character embraces, but she nonetheless leaves the existential Ginger with the most optimistic ending.

It takes a film like “Ginger and Rosa” to get to the core of the cinema. It’s a relatable coming-of-age story that depicts several aspects of adolescent lives, and while the dysfunction of Ginger’s family and friends is specific, the sentiments they reveal are not. Instead, the film creates a feeling of alienation, and the nuclear backdrop serves less as a period detail than a marker of the importance of finding a solution. It takes ideas present in cinema all around the world and puts them in dialogue before arriving at an agreeable conclusion. What’s a person to do when your whole life seems to be on the brink of disaster? To put it simply, “don’t wait, don’t look back, just live.” If you want something a bit more profound, “Ginger and Rosa” can say it far better than I.

Forrest Cardamenis is a Cinema Studies undergraduate at NYU and aspiring film journalist. You can read his blog here or follow him on Twitter at @FCardamenis. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.

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