Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Why Should I Care?

Over the weekend, MB and I watched "We Don't Live Here Anymore," a film that was featured at Sundance last year. Or sometime. Anyway, it is based on two short stories by Andre Dubus. I bought his selected short stories awhile ago, but I have to admit that it has been slow going. Reading a bunch of his stories in a row is like walking over cut glass in bare feet. I might have to do it in order to get across the street, but do I want to do it? Would I choose to do it? Why would I do it?
The movie was a depressing assortment of characters without motivations or qualms or guilt. Only Terry (Laura Dern) was at all sympathetic, because she didn't want to have an affair, she just wanted to have sex. I love Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause, but by the end of the movie I just wanted them both to shut up. If I were married to one of them, I'd stick his jeans in the washer with all his underwear, and then I'd leave him. These men were pathetic. Did I mention they were both college professors?
In any case, it made me think again about Dubus's short stories. They contain characters who are so depressed and down trodden and without hope. What's the point? I found myself wanting there to be a big train wreck so the movie would be over. Then I went back and started reading "Adultery" one of the stories the movie was based on. It was totally different of course, but it had the same thematic concerns.
My question is: Why should I care? It's probaby sacrilege to say, but Dubus seems to fetishize the dark aspects of his characters. Unlike Carver, who I think is sympathetic to his characters and more often than not gave them some kind of hope, even if it was only the alcoholic kind, Dubus seems to be making a negative statement about the human condition.
It reminded me of a workshop I took. We had to read "Long Days Journey into Night." At some point I said, "What's the problem? They're all addicts." The teacher made the case that it was more complex than that, that the play was about the intertwining needs of the characters.
Sometimes, I think, it really is simple. The characters are alcoholics. So what? Why should I care? I think it's the job of the movie director or the short story writer to make me care. And if I don't care by the time it's over, has the artist done his job?


Lisa B. said...

I happen to like Dubus, but I do see your point. I remember doing a big literary ladies group--they were so deluxe that they met at the Alta Club and hired professors to instruct them. I had chosen a host of my favorite contemporary American writing, including my all-time favorite novel, Underworld. They HATED it, and their basic complaint was that the characters weren't sympathetic. While I disagree with them, I do also finally agree with the meta-point, which is that you have to find some connection with the reader, or it's no soap. Did you read House of Sand and Fog? It had that same, Jude the Obscure hopelessness, yet I responded. I think I was in the mood for a hopeless tragedy. Of course, I was sitting on a bench at Lagoon while children screamed with joy around me. That might have had something to do with it.

Sleepy E said...

I don't even think the characters have to be sympathetic. They just have to be somewhat interesting. Some of my favorite film characters of all time are entirely despicable (David Thewlis in Mike Leigh's "Naked," Jason Patric in Neil LaBute's "Your Friends and Neighbors," Matt Damon in "The Talented Mr. Ripley") and yet I was rooting for them as I was hating them. These are cases of the artist doing his job and way more; anyone can get the audience to sympathize w/ the poor kid on crutches overcoming all odds to succeed. How many writers/directors can make Jason Patric's evil character compelling?

Paulk said...

My biggest problem with this film (and I had many) was the tendency of the writers to make the characters articulate everything. I think this was partially why the characters themselves were so uninteresting as well as unappealing. We knew everything about them, and they were shallow.

I kept thinking "just shut up" because I wanted them to let something meaningful happen outside of their dialogue. I wanted what they did say to mean something more than an expression of a shallow thought. I don't know if this is a problem with Dubus in this case, but I've also never read in large clumps and can imagine it being painful.

I like a lot of stories with "complex" and morally challenged characters who simply make bad choices. This one definitely wasn't one of those.

Counterintuitive said...

I'm with you on Long day's journey into night. I read and then watched it in undergrad work. Love Katherine Hepburn but at some point it's merely about crazy addicts: intertwining needs my ass.