Sunday, August 7, 2016

Captain Fantastic

CAPTAIN FANTASTIC         C+                
USA  (118 mi)  2016  ‘Scope  d:  Matt Ross              Official site

You never change things by fighting the existing reality.  To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.
—Buckminster Fuller

Welcome to the 60’s counterculture, or at least the leftover remnants of what was once a thriving cultural phenomena, an anti-establishment movement of young idealists that thought they could change the world by making better decisions in their generation by challenging existing norms, broadening their base to include women and minorities, reestablishing new priorities that included ending the war in Vietnam and breaking the stranglehold on power that led to an elite and privileged white class that made all the important decisions of the country.  People actually thought education would be the key, as given a differing set of narratives, stay the course or embark anew, it would be in everyone’s best interest to establish a new criteria of success, where the societal divisions that wealth and privilege produced were no longer the desired dream, but personal happiness, which would include holding the nation to higher standards.  To that end, there was an extreme amount of social progress made in that decade and beyond, but rather than continue on an agenda of social change, the country instead skidded to an abrupt stop with the accumulated effects of the assassinations of notable leaders that included President Kennedy, followed in short order by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy, the last of which led to the bloodied demonstrators at the hands of the Chicago police during the 1968 Democratic Convention, which ultimately split the party and doomed their chances, leading to the election of Richard Nixon, the law and order, status quo candidate who all but guaranteed an end to any hope of progress.  All that was half a century ago and is considered yesterday’s dreams.  New generations have come and gone, while the real splash in generating societal changes has been the advent of the computer and the Internet, where in the palm of your hand you now have 24-hour instant access to just about anything you can think of, where all you have to do is click on a few links and you’re free to pursue any interest under the sun.  While it’s still questionable whether this has actually increased personal happiness or made people’s lives better, there is no question that being connected is more convenient, as it has certainly made people’s lives easier.  Perhaps the bigger question is whether it has added to the overall tension and anxiety that exists in the world, which certainly appears more divided than ever before, less tolerant, less open to discussion, where the Internet seems to have contributed to the formation of communities of like-minded followers, “where a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”  Rather than bring people together, the lines of division have never been stronger.  To that end, this film is not likely to open anyone’s minds to the ideas being offered, as most of it is lost in a satirical attempt to poke fun at the participants.  Those that dare to be different are, in fact, mocked in this film, where there’s not much sympathy when there’s so little effort to actually understand what they’re trying to do, instead it’s easy to exclude those that were always outsiders anyway, which is a troubling aspect of the film, as if these kids deserve to be scorned because they are obviously different, labeled freaks or outcasts, where to many the word “cult” might come to mind, sending a resoundingly negative message about those who are different, so by the end it all feels so mournfully short-sighted, like the empty feeling that develops in the pit of your stomach following a funeral.    

The film surprisingly won the Best Directing prize of Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2016, probably thinking it had more to say about addressing superficialities in American culture, chosen by a largely European jury headed by Swiss actress Marthe Keller, but also including Swedish director Ruben Östlund, French actress Céline Sallette, Austrian director Jessica Hausner, and Mexican actor Diego Luna.  Set in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, Viggo Mortensen as Ben Cash is the Dad and spiritual leader of his family of six kids ranging from 8 to 18, each one smart, athletic, and highly individualistic, while encouraged to be so.  The mom has been away at a hospital for several months, yet life goes on without her, as Ben rallies the troops each and every day, waking them to a reveille by bagpipes before leading them in group activities that includes calisthenics, running up mountain trails, performing vigorous outdoor activities like rock or mountain climbing, while also including moments of serenity, like yoga exercises overlooking a mountain overlook.  The family is also involved in hunting their own food, including killing animals by bow and arrow or a sharp knife, and then skinning them, while also preparing daily meals, much of which is organically home grown.  Each one is challenged to read and think critically, facing a series of probing questions about how it makes them feel and what they find most significant.  While they enjoy playing musical instruments and singing songs together, there seems to be a balance of group time and individual time, existing in the wild without technology, making the most of their primitive situation of communing with nature.  While Ben makes occasional trips to town to restock necessary items, where the kids are more starstruck than engaged with the regular population, their social skills may resemble that of the Amish, as they’ve remained isolated and kept away from towns by choice, where the kid’s interactions that take place are like visitors from another planet, often generating plenty of stares by other kids in town.  The kid’s personalities, however, once you spend time with them, couldn’t be more charming and adorable, as their unique views and activities include Black Panther slogans from the 60’s, like “Stick it to the man” or “Power to the people.”  The juxtaposition of their innocence with some radical ideology feels hilarious, like the scenes in ANNIE HALL (1977) where kids are staring at the camera while telling the audience what they become when they grow up, Alvey's School Days and Ours .. - YouTube (1:36), as there’s something totally incongruous about their ages and the subject matter.  One of the most effective concerns the youngest child of eight, Charlie Shotwell as Nai, either seen wearing a lynx fur over his head or a gas mask, who has created his own private space in a treehouse, including photos of Cambodian mass murderer Pol Pot along with an assemblage of animal skulls and skins, a dire warning of the coming apocalypse.  It’s all played for laughs, including the celebration of Noam Chomsky Day instead of Christmas, where there’s a leftist slant to the ideology the children have been taught.  When they learn their mother died, and more significantly that she took her own life, suffering from a mental disorder that included bipolar mood swings, Ben doesn’t sugar coat what happened to the children, explaining honestly and openly, where the family apparently holds no secrets, which includes a warning from her father to stay away from the funeral, as he’ll have Ben arrested on sight.   

Death doesn’t take a holiday in this film, as the spirit is prominently featured throughout, where the dilemma becomes what to do about seeing their mother one last time and giving her a proper farewell.  Their ideas about what to do includes singing and a life celebration, where she expressly wished to be cremated in accordance with her Buddhist philosophy, while the rest of the family prefers a church service followed by a burial in a casket.  While their initial inclination was that power prevails, as that’s the message in a capitalistic society, and “you just have to accept it,” or, on second thought, “Stick it to the man,” their rallying cry where they are hellbent to see their mother.  Driving halfway across the country in an old school bus, the film resorts to sight gags and pop references to make light of their situation, stopping at a diner were they’ve never seen any of the items on the menu before, with Dad describing coca cola as “poison water” before raiding a grocery store with Dad feigning a heart attack as a diversion while the kids steal the store blind with needed provisions.  While it’s easy to make light of this, as if it’s all in good fun, it’s clear humor takes precedence over any of the actual ideas, which is the prevailing message throughout.  While there are solemn moments, or sequences of seriously staged drama, none of this has anything to do with living off the land, as most of it is all window dressing for the comedy, turning this more into a lighthearted romp than a film that expounds profound ideas.  Of course there is a culture shock when this unorthodox family intrudes into a suburban Arizona neighborhood to mingle with a sister-in-law (Kathryn Hahn) and her husband (Steve Zahn), where the meeting of the minds is a disaster, as child-rearing practices are decidedly different.  Of course, the same thing occurs when they march into the funeral services, late, making something of a spectacle of themselves in the entrance before Ben tries unsuccessfully to take over the service but makes such a fuss that he’s kicked out of the church, banned by his wife’s staunchly conservative father Jack (Frank Langella) who threatens to have him arrested.  “Grandpa can’t oppress us!” Nai exclaims, but they don’t want to lose their father so soon after losing their mother.  What follows is a mutiny by one of the children, Nicholas Hamilton as Rellian, joining forces with the dark side, confessing all to his grandfather about his supposed continual mistreatment at the hands of his father.  Calls for abuse and neglect charges greet Ben as he’s being shown the door, without his kids, reduced in a heap of utter exasperation, feeling for the first time that perhaps he’s failed as a father, getting a real comeuppance in this film, where many, depending on which side of the political spectrum you come from, will believe he fully deserves it.  For a while, Ben believes it, leaving his brood behind in the hands of his arch nemesis, driving away as a solitary figure in an empty bus where the world has lost all meaning.  The director is not afraid of emotional manipulation or overkill, where scenes are intentionally designed for tears, yet there’s an unmistaken understanding that no one loves these kids more than their father, who is forced to compromise his principles and acknowledge perhaps he overdid it.  It’s an unfortunate turn, as some good ideas get lost in the debacle, where all parents wonder if they’re doing the right thing, making this much less interesting than it could have been.          

Reviving the 60’s concept of getting “back to the garden,” a return-to-nature mantra expressed in the Joni Mitchell counterculture anthem “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell ~ Woodstock - YouTube (4:35), many took this philosophy to heart and literally dropped out of society, where it’s particularly prevalent on the West Coast, but also Vermont, where in 1970 hippies constituted one-third of the entire state population, where there were as many as 75 communes thriving just in that one state alone.  Many still thrive decades later, rejecting the consumer-oriented, traditional way of life that measures success by material wealth, yet at the time, with Whole Earth Catalogs and Mother Earth News magazines in hand, it was an opportunity for hundreds of thousands of young idealists to change the American Dream and leave the congestion of the urban areas and live a more peaceful and harmonious life co-existing with nature.  In many respects, this led to the birth of the organic farming movement, as there was a progressive movement that turned away from a reliance on industrial farming and processed foods, railing against toxic pesticide use and the growing disconnect between Americans and their food supply.  Others headed into the forests and countrysides of Northern California to become marijuana growers, developing unique horticultural techniques that produced the most potent cannabis in the country, aided by an American government decision in the late 70’s to spray toxic chemicals on the Mexican marijuana crops which at the time accounted for 90 percent of the marijuana smoked in the United States.  This provided an opening for a home-grown product that was actually superior in every respect, as the trick was to remove male plants before pollination, producing seedless female flowers known as sinsemilla that produce much more resin, a sticky substance known for enhancing the potency, where now Humboldt County in California has become America’s marijuana capital.  But let’s not be naïve, as the Mexican narco traffickers have also moved into similar regions, where marijuana patches guarded by men with Uzis have also sprung up in the national parks and forests, often viewed as trigger-happy competitors, where farming pot in the U.S. is much more profitable than smuggling it across the border.  Their methods are more toxic, however, growing plants laced with illegal pesticides, leaving behind dead animals, loads of trash, while polluting the natural water supplies, making the narco traffickers the very antithesis of Thoreau’s utopian vision of Walden, which is largely seen as a quest for spiritual transcendence through self-reliance.  It’s curious that both sides cohabitate the same space, as their aims are diametrically opposed to one another.  This is similar, however, to the political divisions of the 60’s, where there were radical elements that resorted to violence and others that were strictly peace abiding.  Both shared similar ideals but veered dramatically in different directions when it came to achieving those goals.  This film attempts to raise similar questions about unorthodox methods used to raise children, including home-schooling methods that often include strict religious or philosophical principles whose pre-determined dogmatic adherence resembles parental brainwashing, suggesting it’s impossible to provide a perfect childhood upbringing by overcontrolling their environment, that it’s more about unconditional love and instilling moral values.   

This is where Hollywood goes wrong, however, as even though this is a smaller indie format with good intentions, claiming to be made in the same likeable spirit as LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (2006), a darling of independent film festivals that comically straddled the line between the grotesque, the tasteless, and the hilarious, they still fuck up the neighborhood, as despite a cast of Viggo Mortensen surrounded by six adorable children, like the von Trapp family living off the grid somewhere out in the middle of the Pacific Northwest woods, the film takes great pains to show the rigor and discipline of their subsistence living lifestyle, as they have a daily exercise regimen while learning survival skills, with each child seriously brain-challenged by a dedicated home-schooling program, where these kids are sharp as a tack.  And that is where this film falls off the rails, as Hollywood stereotypes always depict outsider groups as having to be smarter than the norm, like Stanley Kramer’s unintentionally offensive GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (1967), where Sidney Poitier as a black man had to be universally recognized as having the same brains and moral values as whites, but in the movies, it’s always exaggerated so they are also the smartest person in the room, leaving no doubt, or so the film suggests, that blacks share the same humanity as whites.  Of course, in making this message, they dumb down the message so that “all whites” will sympathize, so while supposedly promoting racial equality, blacks actually have to be “superior” to whites, so their humanity credentials simply can’t be questioned.  However, in promoting a liberal cause, they actually made it harder for ordinary blacks to succeed in similar situations as whites, as Hollywood rarely focuses on real personal struggles, but instead promoted blacks as “supermen.”  Another example is the huge success of the documentary MARCH OF THE PENGUINS (2005), making penguins cute and cuddly, giving them human characteristics of being “lovable,” where the adoration of this film only made it that much harder for other serious documentaries to offer a complex message, as in order to succeed, or so the thinking goes in Hollywood, the product has to be wrapped in cute and cuddly to succeed.  Count the animated penguin movies that have followed, starting with MADAGASCAR (2005) and the many follow-ups, or cute ocean critters in FINDING NEMO (2003) and now FINDING DORY (2016), or going back as far as the ICE AGE (2002), with its many sequels, as theaters have been playing to this formula ever since, as it sends customers through the turnstyles.  The same thing happens here in this movie, where if you see something that’s too good to be true, it’s likely not real.  As much as people like this movie, and it’s perfectly enjoyable on the surface, there’s little doubt that it follows the same business model for success.  Why does Hollywood always have to mythologize humanity in order to tell their stories, exaggerating beauty or intelligence in order to make characters more interesting?  Because that’s the crowd pleasing business template for selling a Hollywood product, where one need look no further than any decent commercial advertisement that wants you to willingly buy their product.  So do not be fooled, as this is sheer fabrication, a glossy surface covering up damaged goods. 

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