The Popcorn Reel Essay on Cinema

Now Playing in American Movie Theaters: Introspective Men, Living Out Their Last Days In The Flickering Twilight

Life as a blurry, tenuous existence: Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Michael Mann's 1995 film "Heat": One side of the same existential coin of mortality?  (Screen shot photo taken between frame changes by Omar P.L. Moore; scene via Warner Brothers)

By Omar P.L. Moore/

December 25, 2007


Michael Mann's epic cops and criminals drama "Heat", with the above scene of its two acting titans, may not be playing right now in American movie theaters -- it debuted on December 15, 1995 -- but from it is a line emblematic of an older man's angst and fear that is either prominent or subconscious in several films playing now in North America.  During their L.A. coffee shop sit-down Mr. Pacino and Mr. De Niro (who will appear onscreen together on the same side of the law as detectives next year in Jon Avnet's "Righteous Kill"), exchange stories about their dreams.  "I have one where I'm drowning," says Mr. De Niro.  "And I gotta wake myself up and start breathing or I'll die in my sleep."  Mr. Pacino inquires about the dream's meaning, to which De Niro's Neil McCauley replies, "Yeah.  Having enough time," with Mr. Pacino's Vincent Hanna character responding, "Enough time . . . to do what you wanna do?"

For older men on the big screen during these last days of December 2007 time has been of the utmost essence, as has introspection, as the more contemplative and emoting man comes alive in movies in America.  A little-seen mid-summer film this year written and directed by Sean Ellis called "Cashback" -- one of the most touching and sincere appraisals of the beauty of women from a male film director thus far in the new century -- references dialogue from "Heat" about a dead man on the other end of a telephone line.  Later, Ben, the film's main character played by Sean Biggerstaff, narrates a line that would be right at home in Hanna and McCauley's coffee conversation: "I often wonder what it would be like to spend the rest of my life with the world on pause.  To live out the rest of my life between two fractions of a second.  To die of old age and then have time continue.  The young me gone and a dead old man in my place."  To that end, the new film "Youth Without Youth" underlines the sentiments of Ben -- that he's named Ben, is from London and has an obsession with the ticking tock of time is not an accident -- though in Francis Ford Coppola's film Tim Roth's Dominic Matei character experiences a reversal of Ben's narrated line, becoming progressively younger as he grapples with issues of time, the meaning of his life and his present (or not-so present) existence.  Mr. Coppola's film opens with a multitude of ticking clocks flashing furiously in rhythm, ticking cacophonously, as if to announce or remind us of their omnipotence over mere mortals.

In "Youth", based on Mircea Eliade's novella, it appears that Dominic is young and old at the same time if not the same place as he journeys either through his mind, his subconscious, his dreams or his realities to and through at least four different countries over three decades, in the process literally getting into bed with the Nazis (or more precisely a mysterious woman who appears to be spying for them, if not part of their inner circle), precariously dodging his own mortality and engaging in a love affair with two different personas of the same woman.  "Youth Without Youth" allows Dominic plenty of time -- at least to indulge in conversations about metaphysics and wrestling with manifestations of himself.  Tim Roth's performance is jarring, and in a role that demands plenty of physicality he is just about equal to the weighty task.  In "Pulp Fiction" (1994), Mr. Roth has a different kind of philosophical conversation, this time as a petty thief who has come up against the hitman of hitmen in Samuel L. Jackson's Jules Whitfield.  In the same film Mr. Jackson tells John Travolta's Vincent Vega that he will hang up his boots as a hired gun and "walk the earth".  Mr. Roth seems to do precisely the same in "Youth Without Youth", only he wanders or floats through and around the earth.  Dominic regenerates himself, shedding teeth after which new ones instantaneously appear.  For a generation or more Dominic has vigorously rummaged through his mind, and not unlike Dave in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", has literally aged in the process -- but in the reverse direction.  In a sense, he lives his life without reacting to it, and in his closing days he has been thinking and meditating endlessly about it.  Dominic isn't sure whether he's at the end of his life or the beginning of it, or if he is experiencing the prologue to an eternal journey.

photo of Cashback,  Sean Biggerstaff
Sean Biggerstaff as Ben in "Cashback", directed by Sean Ellis; Tim Roth as Dominic in Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth"; and Max Von Sydow and Mathieu Almaric in "The Diving Bell And The Butterfly", directed by Julian Schnabel.  (Photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, Sony Pictures Classics and Miramax Films respectively)

In Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" the unbelievable true story of Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby is given refreshing vitality via the lens of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who replicates an almost heavenly blinking twilight of magic and fantasy through the left eye of Monsieur Bauby, who in the mid-1990's suffered a colossal stroke that left him paralyzed except for the left eye, which sees and experiences visions that Mr. Bauby probably had never seen in his life of fast-living, pre-paralysis state.  Mr. Bauby died ten days after his book La Scaphandre Et Le Papillon was complete, a remarkable years-long journey of painstaking construction of his memoir with his blinking eye.  In "Diving Bell", Mathieu Almaric plays Bauby and the audience feels his visions and his thoughts.  He doesn't know that he is close to the end of life, but his vivid memories and appreciation of life and of women -- an appreciation not unlike that shown in "Cashback" -- is expressed with such tenderness and a sensuality so strong that those who believe that there is an intense joy, happiness and life in a human being in the last moments before that person expires -- will surely believe that Mr. Bauby is holding on, or close to the end of a delicate waking dream. 

Less prominent in the film but more striking in Mr. Bauby's actual memoirs are the following written lines that bolster his phenomenally crystal clear visions and not surprisingly finds him in a more introspective mood: "swimming up in the midst of a coma, you never have the luxury of having your dreams evaporate", and, "had I been blind and deaf it wouldn't take the harsh light of disaster for me to find my true nature," and, "my life was a string of near misses, all the women I was unable to love, the moments of joy I let drift away, the race whose result I knew beforehand but failed to bet on the winner."  Even as Bauby's memoirs contain these sorrowful and beautiful lines, in Mr. Schnabel's film they are replaced with a florescence of vision and clarity that is stunning, moving and poignant.  Mr. Bauby is not at the end of life, for the lifetime of memories and living appears to last forever, but unlike Dominic Matei's metaphysical travels, his is a peaceful rather than frantic or busy journey.  In contrast, after all that has happened to him, Bauby has learned to appreciate life, even if he has snowboarded through it prior to his paralyzing stroke.  He has taken the latter stages of life and traveled on a road upon which few travel, and does so with a zeal and fervor that he never had as a fully able-bodied person.

Conversely, the journey through the twilight of life is littered with valleys and peaks for Oscar winners Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, who team up as a curmudgeonly odd couple in Rob Reiner's comedy-drama "The Bucket List", which opened today in New York and Los Angeles (the film will open in other U.S. and Canadian cities on January 11.)  Mr. Nicholson plays Edward Cole, a wealthy owner of a group of hospitals and Mr. Freeman plays Carter Chambers, a working class mechanic who has been married for at least 35 years.  The two are facing the last few years of their lives head on, and after some cajoling (at least for Carter) the two embark on their adventure to do all the things in life they've always wanted to do before kicking the proverbial "bucket".  Both Edward and Carter look at their lives not as failures but as incomplete achievements.  Both are terminally ill and forestall weighing the heavier aspects of their lives until they really have to, although Mr. Reiner offers us glimpses, some of them startling, to remind audiences that his is not a cookie-cutter movie, even if some may feel that the trailers for the film have portrayed it as such.  Rather than engage in detailed analysis of the past, Carter and Edward make the very best of their bad situations, and lessons are learned along the way.  Even though there are parts of the film that are weighty, there are far more laughs in "The Bucket List" than in any of the films (with the exception of "Cashback") discussed here.  

Each of these films, "Youth Without Youth", "The Diving Bell and The Butterfly" and "The Bucket List" are directed by filmmakers who have passed their fiftieth birthday and it is not surprising that even at that relatively young age they have given a lot of thought to the subjects of life and experience.  Mr. Coppola, who is in his late sixties, hadn't made a film in ten years until his new film, and Mr. Schnabel, who designs clothing and has been a world-reknowned painter for over two decades, hadn't directed for seven years.  Mr. Schnabel lost his own father a few years ago and a scene in his new film in which Max Von Sydow is the father to Mr. Almaric's Bauby, is essentially the director's personal salute to his dear departed. 

Of the three directors only Mr. Reiner had directed a film as recently as two years ago. 

Jamie Foxx steers Tom Cruise into an introspective canyon in "Collateral"; Morgan Freeman doesn't drive Miss Daisy in "The Bucket List", and Tommy Lee Jones doesn't want any part of a marauding younger criminal element in "No Country For Old Men".  (Photos courtesy of Dreamworks, Warner Brothers and Miramax Films respectively)

Introspection is something present in the men of these prior films and even in films like this year's heavily-touted "No Country For Old Men", Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) has seen it all, and while there is no indication that he is very close to the end of his life, he is at the end of his rope and apparently wants out after 25 years as a sheriff of a West Texas town.  He is so jaded that in most instances he doesn't carry a gun when on duty.  He is in his sixties and at the age of retirement, but what separates him from the Dominic Mateis and Jean-Dominique Baubys of the world is the fact that he just wants out of the culture of violence in America and specifically in his job, where he has witnessed too many unhappy endings.  Sheriff Bell doesn't philosophize about his own life or inevitable mortality as much as he does the way life is generally valued by others, a philosophy that by inference is meant as a referencing and contextualizing of his own life.  He reflects on time itself, how it has changed people and the landscape in which they operate.  The world-weary sheriff has hardly lost faith in himself as much as he has the decaying humanity around him, which in his mind is a much younger (and alien) species that has little sense of time, place or manner(s).  "No Country" ends in a way that leaves you thinking and it sticks with you, as does the statement that Edward Cole makes in "The Bucket List": "We live.  We die.  And the wheels on the bus go round and round."

For Mr. Mann, time in a man's life and what he does with it are huge factors in a number of his films, and introspection takes center stage in his male characters, including his 2004 film "Collateral", which takes place over roughly ten hours of a single day in Los Angeles, and although the film's comparatively younger characters Max and Vincent (played by Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise respectively) ruminate about life, they differ from some of the older male characters in the aforementioned films in that they have more insight about each other than about themselves.  In "Collateral" caustic observations by each are served to wound the psyche and ego of the other character in what is essentially a night-long conversation between a charming sociopath and a taxi driver much further away from realizing his dreams than he knows.  Conversely, in "Youth Without Youth" Dominic Matei faces his fears openly and makes himself vulnerable in the process.  He emotes and feels.  He wants to heal and fill in the gaps he believes his life has.  Dominic is a time traveler, even though time has got the jump on him (and all of us.)  For Jean-Dominique Bauby time is lived in a forward-thinking way and without regrets in Mr. Schnabel's film, and is done so with abundant joy and humor.  He looks back on the person he was but there's no sense that his life is over at all.  For him, the possibilities are only just beginning.  

In "Heat", Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley do what they do with obsession and relentless drive, as if their very own survival depended on it.  They need each other to exist, and only time or a slip in their precision will cost them dearly.  Their work is their existence, mismatched enemies on either side of the crime-line, well-dressed blue-collar guys with separate missions to accomplish.  "I do what I do best.  I take scores.  You do what you do best.  Try to stop guys like me," says McCauley to Hanna, who later responds that while he won't like what he does if he encounters McCauley again, there is a choice that he has clearly made.  "If it's between you and some poor bastard whose wife you're gonna turn into a widow, brother, you are going down."  (It is worth noting that Al Pacino plays a university professor and expert witness who is told he has 88 minutes to live in a film simply titled "88 Minutes", which will be released next year.  Some may remember that a few years ago Robert De Niro played a New York City police officer living on very borrowed time alongside Edward Burns in the film "15 Minutes".)  For Hanna and McCauley the bottom line is that time is everything, even if some of that time is spent alienating the women in their work-ruled lives.

So while many will opt for more uplifting fare at the movies in America over this holiday season, the message being sent in some of the recent holiday movies is that the fragility of existence, whether for young or old, male or female, is tenuous, and that men in particular have to take a look at what may or may not be ultimately around the corner.  More men, at least on the big screen these days, are doing so, if not as unsentimentally or as bluntly as Neil McCauley: "I know life is short.  Whatever time you got is luck."

Deep blue sea: Robert De Niro as the contemplative Neil McCauley in "Heat", directed by Michael Mann.  (Screen shot photo taken by Omar P.L. Moore; scene via Warner Brothers)

Now Playing in American Movie Theaters: Introspective Men, Living Out Their Last Days In The Flickering Twilight

Tags: Michael Mann Cashback Yourh Without Youth Julian Schnabel The Diving Bell And The Butterfly No Country For Old Men Tommy Lee Jones  Jamie Foxx Tom Cruise


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