By Ian Tingen
Last week, I went to this cool little theater called the Art Theatre of Long Beach. Built in 1924, its whitewashed art-deco architecture is an interesting contrast to the piles of pretentious hipsters you can find at the wine bar next door. I gladly paid 11 dollars (support local businesses!) for a ticket to see Nicolas Refn’s latest film, Only God Forgives. (If you saw Drive, you’re familiar with Refn’s work. If you haven’t seen Drive, go to Netflix and rectify what is likely the biggest travesty in your life.) Though I loved OGF I am apparently in the minority, at least according to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s a trailer for it:
If you’re wondering why I’m talking about movie ranking sites on my blog, go read the negative reviews.
We exist in a world saturated with highly-customizable on-demand input; I am not immune to the allure of this low-hanging fruit. In fact, as someone with ADHD, I really appreciate the rapid-fire customizability of my media feeds. Despite this, perhaps as a side effect of trying to find non-pharmaceutical interventions for my hyperactive brain, I’ve come to find beauty in simplicity. Forcing myself to try to focus for therapeutic reasons opened my mind to the wonder in the mundane.
I’m a huge fan of Harvey Pekar , author of comic-cum-graphic-novel American Splendor. Splendor’s stories were never about anything more than living life: buying records, talking with ex-wives, dealing with cancer. The stories were pure magic, though: Pekar had a flair for describing the day-to-day quite engagingly. Despite the rather mundane nature of his work, the stories often had layers of meaning buried within the panels – a great illustration that ordinary life can be pretty complex stuff. Refn plies the same angle in Only God Forgives, albeit with a bit of cinematic flair.
I think that’s what bugged me the most about one of the main critiques of the movie: “there’s no development of the characters”. That is absolutely not the case. Even if you missed all the allegorical storytelling and growth, the fact of the matter is that real people develop in much the same way that Refn’s characters do: driven by immediate circumstance and carrying baggage from previous interactions.
When we start expecting and over-relying on (clear-cut) tropes about human behavior and growth, we rob ourselves of the patience necessary to understand the human condition in all of its’ marvelous complexity. Sure, good-versus-evil can make for great entertainment (hello, Avengers!) but if that’s all we consume in our mental diet, we are gorging ourselves on the interactional equivalent of junk food. Real people can’t always be so cut-and-dried, real relationships rarely conform to the fairy tale versions of love and revenge we’ve come to expect – life is not always bold, but often muted.
Give me a stories of bad vs. evil (Only God Forgives). Give me stories with selfish protagonists (The Last of Us). I’ve been waiting too long for stories in entertainment to evolve beyond idealistic tropes that sell easily. Take a chance, and show me how gorgeous the mundane can really be.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a book to re-read.