Betty Duffy

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Pick and a Pan

“Your hyperbole is not helping anything, in fact, quite the opposite.”—so sayeth my husband. A symptom of my dramatic temperament, perhaps exacerbated by marriage to a phlegmatic, is that I’ll do just about anything to get a reaction. And the more difficult the reactions are to attain, the more flamboyant are my provocations. Hand gestures, the quivering voice, exaggerated exploration of the consequences of being ignored (“I might die!”), and perhaps even a feigned collapse—all just tools of the trade. I have found my soul mate in the character of the Countess from the movie, "The Last Station." This might be my new favorite movie.

I am a huge fan of Tolstoy, in spite of his kooky, late in life, religious heresies. "The Last Station" is about the last days of Leo Tolstoy, and how his disciples, who founded the “Tolstoyan Movement” based on his philosophical writings, inserted themselves between the author and his wife in order to make the rights to his writings the property of the Russian people. In the most simple terms, however, the movie is about marriage and what happens when interlopers insert themselves into the relationship between husband and wife, and when the public life takes precedence over the private one.

In response to Tolstoy's decision to change his will, the Countess stages public rages, wild dramas, and makes threats on her own life and the lives of others. In her defense, she has no opportunity for private rages and dramas because her home is always filled with sycophants waiting with pen and paper to write down anything Tolstoy says. The two have been married for forty-eight years: “You are my life’s endeavor, and I am yours,” the Countess says. But Tolstoy, considering the work his life’s endeavor, puts aside the bride of his youth in order to spend his last days in peace. And instead of asking for her counsel regarding their financial affairs, he follows that of his disciples and advisors.

What a challenge to be married to a public man, to be the wife of a president or ideologue—to constantly have my needs displaced by the "greater good," our private confidences and covenants betrayed by people who consider those covenants malleable when they are an inconvenience. A wife wants to be chosen and preferred by her husband, cherished and considered, over some vague public notions, or even an occasional game of golf. Choose me! Ask me! Spend your time with me!

And if not, well, look out for flying hyperbole.

The beauty of this movie, aside from the perfect casting (Helen Mirren as the Countess, Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, and James McAvoy—aka “Sexy Tumnus” as Tolstoy’s secretary) is the quiet triumph of the union of two. Tolstoy and the Countess loved each other. And in the end, it was only his bride that Tolstoy wanted to see at his bedside.

Gosh, I want to watch it again tonight.

I will not, however, be screening an encore presentation of "Greenberg," which stars Ben Stiller as a neurotic forty-year-old whose life, after early potential for stardom, has amounted to very little. In his twenties, Greenberg played in a rock and roll band, but when he threw over a recording offer and his band broke up, he proceeded along a path of arrested development climaxing in a mental breakdown.

Until…he falls in love…with an unambitious girl who works for his brother. These two characters have little to recommend them, and their vacuous dialogue made me want to blow my nose on their behalf to get rid of whatever is blocking their brain cells from making contact with their mouths. Where Tolstoy and the Countess each hold such strong, yet conflicting, beliefs that they would sacrifice their marriage for their ideals, the characters in Greenberg believe in nothing, and waft in and out of each other’s lives long enough to brush genitals and then retract back into their narcissistic bubbles.

I cannot express how much I hated this movie, which I guess was written by Noah Baumbach.

In one scene, the heroine, whose name is Florence should you care to know, who has recently gone from being in a relationship, “to just having sex, to just having sex, to just having sex” must get an abortion, naturally. Her decision is a given, and is made as easily as she falls into bed with strangers.

I can understand how a woman comes to this place, where emotion has been compartmentalized from the body and so each of these tragedies—the varied lovers, the death of a child—have become trivialities. The annoying part of this scene is how the men in the movie, Greenberg and his friend, Ivan, patronize Florence, driving her to the clinic, wishing her well before she goes back for her procedure, then debating how to greet her post-op (with flowers or a hamburger?). Why are these men such pussies? Why are they trying to sweeten up the tragedy that Florence clearly does not consider a tragedy? And if they care—WHY DON’T THEY STOP HER? Why don’t they offer even one word in contradiction of her decision?

This ridiculous flub-dubbery! Ridiculous men are not cute. They are not endearing, not sweet. Feminized, incompetent men make me want to roll out the meat-grinder, or yank my teeth out one by one, or jump into a riptide (would this be hyperbole?).

One final word: What happened to funny Ben Stiller? Adam Sandler did this sensitive buffoon thing too, right before his career imploded.

Anyway, see The Last Station. Skip Greenberg. But be advised, Gentle Viewer, that both movies contain unscrupulous sex scenes. Yeeha!


Emily J. said...

The Last Station has been on my "to see" list since it came out in theaters, but now that I know Sexy Tumnus has a role, I'm renewing my netflix account and ordering it up pronto!

jannie_b said...

Watched The Last Station on a flight to Europe last month and totally surprised myself by weeping at the end. My poor husband peered over at the screen to see what I was watching and it was all these peasants standing around at the station.

Great film.

Betty Beguiles said...

We tried to watch Greenberg last night. I couldn't make it past the drive to the abortion clinic. (I was also mildly horrified by the surprise appearance of Ben Stiller's buttocks. That was unfortunate.)

Oh, and I'm not sure what's wrong with Joe Morgenstern of the WSJ, but something must be as his review (boldly highlighted on the outside of the box), claiming that "The wonder of the film is how good it makes us feel..." may be the most off-base review of a movie I've ever read.

Can you tell I'm still bitter? ;)

Peter and Nancy said...

Thanks for the recommendation!

Jus said...

LOVED Last Station - watched on one of the many long haul flights in the last couple of months and remembered being REALLY bummed when the 2 year old woke up and I have to pause it for an hour ;)

Jus said...

oh and Sexy Tumnus is a HUGE crush of mine.

wifemotherexpletive said...

i'm just thrilled silly that there was a single person in the world who felt all tingly for tumnus. i had no idea how normal i was... oh, joys are so abundant...

BettyDuffy said...

Betty B, I, too, was offput by Stiller's rearend. That whole scene was so awkward and not sensual, I almost didn't catch the fact that it was a sex scene, though Stiller's butt sort of gave it away.

Of course, I probably should have turned it off there...but...I don't know, I kept hoping these people would wake up. And then they didn't and I was mad I put myself through the whole thing. Not a feel-good movie at all.

A.O. Scott also had a blurb on the cover, which makes me think there's been some weird kool-aid passed out at the preview screenings.

Enbrethiliel said...


I read The Last Station a few months ago, but have not seen the movie. The book has a more abstract approach: it is not about a marriage so much as it is about writing; and it asks the question of who has the right to tell Tolstoy's story in the end. By his use of different narrators (all of whom kept detailed memoirs of their time with Tolstoy), author Jay Parini seems to be saying that they are all necessary for the complete picture. But what a political mess they made while they were all still living and writing together! Parini deserves a medal just for going through their collected writings.

But I find the movie's moral, as you describe it, much more tender and moving. I really should watch it soon.

Margie said...

Is that true about Greenberg? Joking about an abortion? I know so little these days about what's in theaters, but that just breaks my heart. Because you never know who's watching, and what choices a movie like that might induce one to make.