(October 2021) – By Jada Sirkin
SPOILER ALERT: this article gives information on the films "Vera Drake" and "High hopes" (both by Mike Leigh), "Beeswax" (by Andrew Bujalsky) and the series "Big little lies" (by David E. Kelley) and "Easy" (by Joe Swanberg).
Let us start from this basis: the human being is a fictitious animal. Not because it is false or unreal, but because it perceives and organizes experience through that specific language we call fiction. Fiction, before being an art, is a perceptive mode. Yuval Noah Harari, in his book "From Animals to Gods", speaks of the "cognitive revolution", which began some 70,000 years ago, as the leap that homo sapiens took by developing fictional thinking, a tool that allowed him to create large-scale collaborative networks and survive. Fiction unites us, but, in order to unite us, it separates us. The tribe is woven and sustained by the stories of what is not part of the tribe. To create nest, one must exclude. That is the price to pay for the sophisticated technology of fiction.
Fiction is the fixation of perceptions into structures of meaning that we can call stories. Stories are generalizing abstractions that give a simplifying order to the complexity of the world. Stories are what allow us to agree, to create companies, nations and personalities. Personality (the individual and also the collective) is an organization (or weaving) of stories that prescribe what is valid and what is not, what is possible and what is impossible, what nourishes and what harms, what is included and what is excluded, what is good and what is bad. Just as humanity had to invent fictions in order to survive, every human individual has to do so as well. In the first years of life, complexly and secretly, we assemble that which we call personality —we can call it identity, ego, even character.
The character (the persona) is what allowed us to survive and it is also what makes us suffer. The unnecessary fixation to judgments that in the past could have served us, but that have not been updated, is what makes us suffer and prevents us from creating. That is why, in circles linked to therapy, philosophy and mysticism, people talk about "suspending judgment". By suspending judgment, we cannot be referring to the possibility of eliminating it. The personality cannot avoid the mechanism of judging —because the personality is, by nature, or by definition, a judgmental system. Can we get rid of our personality? Do we want to? Do we judge our character (ego)? What is judging?
In legal terms, to judge is to define whether someone is guilty or innocent of something —of something specific. To judge is to sentence, to set a moral order. Movies about lawyers and litigation overuse the tension generated by the crossroads. So does human life. We don't know whether he/she (we) will be found guilty or innocent, and the tension generated by that not-knowing feeds our dramatic way of life. Life is, to a large extent, like a lawyer's movie. What will happen? If the narrative suspendsthe judgment (the veredict), rather than to perceive the complexity of the situations, it usually does so to generate suspense. It is not so much the epoché of the old Greek skeptics, but rather the mercantile exchange of emotional technologies —which matches, it is true, our way of living: the ego (the personality, let's say) lives in crossroads mode, always waiting for (or generating) some sentence; always comparing situations in relation to its manual of goods and evils.
Not that evil is wrong, but morality is addictive. What we are calling morality here is that rulebook —the fixation of formal patterns (maps) of the past. Let's say that our personalities (our characters) are largely addicted to the past. Only the character, insofar as he or she already knows what is right and what is wrong, can experience that suspense. Suspense sells because it entertains us, it keeps us in-between, suspended between two points (the beginning and the end, the question and the answer), as in a limbo —let's call it: narrative purgatory. Wanting to know, and at the same time not being able to know, produces a kind of excitement (adrenaline, drama) that we find addictive.
Suspense also sells because it confirms the perceptual paradigm within which we have no choice but to believe that one possibility is, in and of itself, better than another. If it were all the same to us, there would be no suspense. Suspense is a symptom of our preferences. Suspense works because, when the protagonist (our hole of identifications) goes through the drawers, and, "in parallel", we see how the antagonist (who in those drawers keeps some secret) approaches, we do not want the former to be discovered by the latter. Suspense works because we have identified ourselves (by means of a narrative mechanism) with a subjective position in the complex (in reality, multi-subjective) fabric of experience. Suspense works because we have decided (or, usually, they have decided for us) that something specific is important —and only in one way. Suspense works because a good has been defined and a bad has been defined. The system of good and evil is always in relation to a specific subjectivity; that is why the narrative needs us to identify with a unique position in the system. To see things from a single point of view is to simplify. Sometimes we need to do it; many times, we do it for convenience.
Of course, we have personal preferences: no one will, I suppose, want Vera Drake to go to prison —not if the film is called Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004), that is, not if Vera is our protagonist. The question is to what extent those preferences filter (or inhibit) our (ultimately inevitable) encounter with destiny. When I speak of destiny, I speak of the (shall we say, intelligent) unfolding of life, which, even if we don't like it, does what it does —always. Faced with the relentlessness of the facts, who can say for sure that it would have been better otherwise? In order to narrate (at least, to narrate in this simplifying way), we need to deny the intelligence of destiny. By destiny, again, we are referring to the inevitability of life's unfolding —the way things are. In some sense, to narrate is, in itself, to struggle against what is —to narrate is to struggle against destiny, to try to sustain personal preferences (the psychic structures with which we made identity) beyond the fact that life (what concretely happens) invites us and even forces us to vary.
The mechanism of identification is effective. Who wants Nicole Kidman to lose the tenancy of her children in season 2 of Big little lies (David E. Kelley, 2019)? As much as Meryl Streep seems like a good actress to you (and no one can say for sure that she is), you sure wouldn't want her to win custody. And you won't want it for the simple fact that the narrative is set up so that you can't want it. That is, you could; but, even knowing that the very same fiction can be read in any number of ways (you could even want the kids to kill the mother, you could want the kids to commit suicide by jumping off the Monterey cliffs, etc.), my hypothesis here is that the narrative of the series is structured in such a way that it is clear to us (well clear!) what would be a happy ending and what would be a miserable one for the trial situation in which Meryl and Nicole are battling. Have a good one, we say, as if we know what it's all about.
In the end, we never quite know what it's all about. What seems like good news can turn into misfortune —the famous lottery curse. And what seems like bad news can turn out to be pure bliss —the inevitable, overlooked blessing behind the tragedies. Nicole wins the bet and we are reassured, but no one says that, the following week, seized by the memory of what happened with her husband, she won't get drunk and throw the kids off the cliff (finally!). Judgments (sentences, endings) reassure us because they give us the comfort of knowing, with an apparent certainty, what is right and what is wrong. We don't know what Nicole will do with those children next week, but, for now, it serves us well to think that this is right. Luckily, the series ends and we are left happy —a happy ending is a safe, stable ending.
Judgment is a necessity for survival. We need to judge to survive. We need to do so even beyond the content of our judgments —often, what is important is not so much what is judged, but the very fact of judging: judging (defining fixed positions, sentencing) gives us a sense of security, it guarantees us stability. Thus, to judge is to decide for the shortcut. It is not that shortcuts are bad in themselves. At the social level, they seem necessary —at least for now. Faced with the dilemma, the judge (the politician) must decide. We do not know how to live in the limbo of indecision. Even if it is an invention, we prefer to be sold a statement that reassures us —that reassures us NOW. We cannot imagine a president saying: I don't know. It is intolerable. When in doubt, one takes sides —and this is so because politics functions (like our everyday sensitivity) in urgency-mode. Urgency makes politics work in parted mode - there is no time to listen to all parts (parties), someone must be sacrificed. Thus, each party designs its model of solution, because there is no time to agree. Common sense would say that the best thing would always be to wait for consensus, but that idea is problematic: listening takes time. And we do not have time. We are an animal driven by an ancient need to survive.
When the judicial process becomes imminent, when Meryl takes her first steps, and even more when Nicole decides not to negotiate and prefers to go to war (to trial), my wish, as a spectator, was to tell them: don't do it, stop everything, sit down to talk, as many hours as necessary. Don't simplify it (don't rush it) with a battle of lawyers! Please, listen to each other! The point is, for those two souls to listen to each other, the series would have to last, perhaps, a few dozen hours. The characters would have to go through (and survive) numerous bursts of reactivity and disable, very slowly, complex and intricate security systems. Listening, as the characters do in Joe Swanberg's best scenes, takes time. And duration doesn't sell.
There is a clear relationship between the needs of the marketplace and our possibilities for psychic and relational openness. War, the shortcut of fighting, sells. But if war sells, it is because it implies less risk than listening. We buy security, we buy war —because the search for security is itself a war. To a large extent, we would rather die than be transformed. We would rather die than lose honor and identity. We wage war to defend our identity. Not wanting to change (not wanting to embrace the shameful mistake of trying to sustain fixations) is insensitivity. We do business with our insensitivity. If to fight is to simplify, to listen is always to go towards complexity. To listen is to celebrate complexity. Judgments serve us not to listen (not to listen to everything), that is, to simplify. There are times when it seems that simplifying is the best (or the only) thing we can do. It is, once again, about survival. Life and death situations. We simplify (judge) to survive, but what is interesting (what makes us grow) are the complexities —the complexification. Complexity is always appreciated. After hearing the verdict, Nicole (the winner) tells the children to go hug their grandmother (the loser). Meryl, defeated, has room to receive that hug —it is the children's bodies that hug her, but also, through them, and she knows it, it is Nicole who hugs her. Sometimes more commercial narratives also indulge in such subtleties, and it's appreciated.
Less commercial narratives are not so pressured by the supposed need to entertain and sell supposedly important experiences. The film Beeswax (2009, Andrew Bujalski) is an interesting example. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is the boss of a clothing store and her business partner Amanda (Anne Dodge) indirectly threatens to sue her. It's hard to describe (or understand) how the film manages not to generate suspense. Until the last scene we don't know whether Amanda will sue Jeannie or not, but, curiously, we don't move through the narrative with the tension we move through narratives like Big Little Lies. Here, the importance seems to be placed elsewhere. In fact, we couldn't even say that the film is about that situation. Thanks to that situation, Jeannie is reunited with her ex-boyfriend Merrill (Alex Karpovsky), a law student, who advises and accompanies Jeannie in a rather light-hearted manner. Neither trivializing nor parodying nor pretending to be beyond everything, the characters live this difficult situation with an important level of playfulness. The situation, in itself socially dramatic, is not dramatized —let's say, it is not solemnized; neither, as it would be easy and gimmicky, is it de-dramatized: the characters do not pretend a de-affectation: instead, they seem to understand, even without naming it, that life is something more than their situations. After they have already gone around several times, Jeannie visits Amanda and the two chat outside the house: the scene is uneasy, tender, awkward, difficult, beautiful. Although it seems to be too late, although the relationship seems to have passed a pitiful point of no return, they try to listen to each other. Of course, the situation is not comparable to Nicole's, it is obviously much less serious; but the very decision to narrate a less serious situation, not so intense, has in itself its importance —aesthetic, political. Why do we like such dramatic dramas so much? Could it be that, on some level, they are more comfortable for us? Why do we like sugar so much? Could it have to do with the simplicity and speed with which it "feeds" us?
In episode 6 of the third season of the series Easy (2019, Joe Swanberg), Jacob (Marc Maron) learns that his former student Beth (Melanie Lynskey), with whom he had an affair 15 years earlier, has described him negatively in the graphic novel she is about to publish; because of that, Jacob gets a presentation cancelled and his life gets complicated. Somewhat desperate, he calls Beth and asks for a chat. They meet in a café. At first they are reactive, very defensive. They get through those first moments and manage to unfold a decent and fairly mature conversation. They recap to understand what happened: he was her art teacher and promised her to open up career and creative paths for her. She fell in love with him, but, after making love he, let's say, disappeared. She was hurt and creatively blocked. Why did he make those promises and then leave? Jacob apologizes to her and, most interestingly, Beth can hear him. True, the situation is not that extreme —he did not verbally or physically abuse her. Yes there could have been (and in fact is mentioned) abuse of power —because of his role and hierarchy and the possibility of interpreting all those promises as a strategy to get her into bed. At the very least, there was some lack of empathy —of listening. After a few turns in the conversation, Jacob comes to terms with it and confesses that he was scared at the time and that, even today, he still has a hard time relating emotionally to people. I find it remarkable here the decision to touch on the subject of abuse through a situation subtle enough so that the characters can have space to listen to each other. The decision to narrate this kind of not so intense, not so dramatic situations seems important to me. Not because the more intense situations (like those in Big little lies) shouldn't be played as well. What I am saying is that, if there are situations with which for now we cannot dialogue, if there are situations in which the only way out is to go to trial, or to war, it is interesting, in the meantime, to also practice listening in situations for which we do have, today, enough sensitivity not to fight. I guess I never thought about the other side," says Jacob, acknowledging his difficulty in listening. There are situations so difficult that listening to the other side becomes impossible. When situations put us on the line, but not at such an intense level that they trigger intolerable reactivities, we do have room to listen and perceive the subtlety —that is, the complexity. In non-life and death situations, we have space to listen to other points of view. That is getting more complex.
What is interesting, again, is the complexity. It's interesting that Vera (Imelda Staunton), even with her mission to help poor girls, is not portrayed as a saint. As Ray Carney says in his book The films of Mike Leigh (embracing the world), Leigh is especially good at making easy judgments about his characters difficult. It's true that we don't want Vera arrested, but it's also true that a girl almost died because of her intervention —the narrative makes a point of showing us that other side as well: Vera is helping people, but it's not just that: a girl almost died because of that help! The film takes the time to take us into the other side of the situation and, thanks to that dedication, defending Vera unconditionally becomes impossible. Another complexity: the cops are curiously loving. Even the sentencing judge, though strict in his decision, is particularly understanding. When has authority ever been so affectionate? All these narrative, and aesthetic, profoundly vital, I would say political, decisions allow the perceptual experience of fiction to be unable to accommodate itself to such simplifying and moralistic schemes —good and evil are blurred, mixed, questioned. The chief cop, though he does what he has to do, does not get it for free, as if he understands the complexity of what is going on. He suffers, on a personal level, from having to do what he does. Rarely seen! Rarely do we take the time (rarely do films take the time) to present the different levels and the different subjectivities that constitute the unclassifiable complexity of any experience. The easiest thing to do is to decide on a protagonist (a hole of identifications) and go on to see and understand everything from that reduct. We could just be on Vera's side, but we are not. Leigh avoids the simplification of the central character: his most interesting films (almost all of them) are organized as a network of characters in which, as Carney says, none of them becomes the star.
In order not to simplify, simplifications must be integrated. I wake up one day with that synthetic line. It is that line that triggers these reflections. Spiritual or mystical narratives tell us, sometimes in a simplifying way, that it is good not to judge. The idea is already contradictory: not judging is good. Isn't that idea in itself a judgment? With a certain naivety, and in order to (perhaps necessarily) polarize a social and ancient tendency to live enclosed in the fabric of our personal judgments, we try to eliminate from the map of our lives any kind of affirmative opinion. Judge not or you will be judged. But then again, what is judging?
Is judging an opinion about something or someone, or is it, rather, making decisions based on those opinions? Is judging thinking or is it believing? The difference between thinking and believing is important. The brain inevitably produces thoughts. According to those who study the human nervous system (such as David del Rosario), the function of our higher organ is to generate (sensation of) stability in the system; for that, it proposes maps, mental images, affirmations with which we narratively organize the perception of experience. Thinking is inevitable, the brain proposes. And the proposals are coherent with the structure of the personality —that of the individual and that of the collective of which that individual (that brain) is a part. The brain proposes thoughts to organize experience —the thoughts it proposes correspond to the value systems and perceptual possibilities of the identity. But thinking is one thing and believing is another. To think is to make proposals, to believe is to hold the proposals. To believe is to repeat (loop) thoughts. Personality is defined by the thoughts that the system had to repeat in order to survive. Personality is a map of beliefs. And a map is a system of shortcuts —a fiction made of urgencies. Personality is a fiction —in that sense is that we use the concept character: identity is a fiction/fixation of neural proposals whose main function is to guarantee the survival of the singular form. Thus, personality is a (perhaps necessary) addiction to certain belief maps. Meryl chooses to judge (more or less calculatedly, it doesn't matter) because she cannot but see things from her biased point of view. The narrative, at this point, takes care to explain to us that the character's bias is related to the trauma generated in the past by the accidental death of her own son. The character thinks and acts from this need to correct a supposed error in her own history. In order to go to trial it is not enough to think, it is necessary to believe. And to believe is to forget that thought is only a proposal. Meryl deeply believes (that is, she doesn't realize that what she believes is only a hypothesis) that by obtaining custody of her grandchildren she will correct the mistake that killed her son.
To judge is not to think but to believe. Reacting is inevitable because we hold beliefs. To react is to make rushed decisions. To react is to respond without listening. As human beings, we cannot not react. Because to react is to defend a judgment and, as characters, we are judgment. To react is to respond to a new situation based on parameters and mappings that were functional to past situations, and have become unconscious —that is, faster than our ability to pay attention. To create an identity is to organize defense systems so that, when faced with the perception of danger, they trigger themselves. The soldiers are already posted on the city wall. The system does not need to give a conscious order for them to fire on the enemy. When our character perceives danger, the soldiers attack. That is reacting. To say that reacting is wrong (to believe that judging is wrong) is to deny human psychic nature. It would be too simplistic to judge Meryl's character as a harpy; the truth is that the narrative doesn't let us take refuge in that label, because it takes the time to explain to us that the character's decisions arise from her pain. She is not a harpy, she is doing what she can, with all her ignorance, with all her addictive simplification.
The character is a tissue of simplifications. It cannot not be. Reaction is an inevitable product of simplification; because to react is to defend a system of simplifications —to react is to defend a map of the world. A character is a map of the world. As long as we have (are) characters, we cannot not fight. We cannot not judge, we cannot not react, we cannot not defend ourselves. We need to survive and what we don't have in smell we have in personality. We humans don't smell land, we smell maps. The question we can ask ourselves is about the levels at which the personality circuits twist in on themselves. Do we know that what we smell are the maps or do we smell them believing they are the ground? What is the level of our addiction to those maps? If we recognize how we close ourselves off in our automated ways of seeing the world, we can also ask ourselves about the possibilities we have to open ourselves. To recognize that mental images are mental images (tissues), to recognize that maps are maps, is already to smell the world. Because maps are part, the ego is part.
But we do not like it, we would love to eliminate the ego. We are repulsed by its stubborn way of rejecting everything. Reacting to the reaction is not being able to accept that the reaction is a reaction. To repress anger, for example, is a way of not investigating what produces it. To accept that the reaction is a reaction is to accept the fictional nature of our identity construction —because every reaction arises from a fiction, from the need to defend a map. Rejecting rejection is one way in which the form (the personality) manages to avoid recognizing what it thinks it needs to do to sustain itself. Ray Carney highlights how certain characters in Leigh's films (especially in High hopes and Life is sweet) have the perceptive and sensitive capacity to play with what happens to them. Shirley and Cyrill, in High hopes (1988), do feel rejection by the other characters (they do have opinions about them, they do make fun of them, they do not agree with them), but what is interesting is that they do not use these differences to distance themselves and install themselves in a superior, comfortable and judicious position, but to learn and grow. In truth, he does want to distance himself (not to see his mother, for example) and she invites him to investigate why. Cyrill (Phillip Davis) has resistance, is more reactive and grumpy; he is an idealist and his own ideals make it difficult for him to accept the limitations of the world and those close to him. Shirley (Ruth Sheen), with her presence alone, with her body, with her gaze, with her sense of humor, with her tenderness, accompanies him in a subtle process of disarticulation. Shirley and Cyrill are among the most mature characters I have ever encountered in cinema. Above all, Shirley, with that impressive capacity to play and lighten up.
What do I mean by mature characters? I propose that a mature character is one who can recognize, at least to some extent, how his or her suffering depends on the narratives (the judgments, the sentences) with which his or her identity is constructed and sustained; a mature character is one who recognizes his or her immaturities; a mature character is one who recognizes that maturing is a process; a mature character is a character who plays with his immaturity, one who knows that a character, as long as he is a character, never fully matures; a mature character is one who knows (intuits) that maturity includes immaturities —let us say, that complexity includes simplifications.
We can naively believe that to mature is to stop fighting, to stop judging, to stop simplifying, to stop.... We literally love the idea of dropping. The notion of dropping is another one with which the spiritual narrative tempts us to fall into the simplifying trap of the rejection of rejection —the war against war, which is a profound misunderstanding of what war is. We would love to leave things behind, as if to grow up is to go discarding. Not that building a fire and "burning fears" cannot give good results, the question is to what extent, and in what ways, we try and dream of get getting rid of our personality. Our personality is, itself, a system of refusals, a code for the unfolding of life that in order to flourish needs to love (allow) its own needs of saying no. We are no.
The fiction of identity is structured as a fabric of judgments sustained in time. Time is the unfolding of the petals of the flower of judgment. To mature, Nietzsche said, is to recover the seriousness with which we played when we were children. To play seriously is not to solemnize (to fix importances), but, on the contrary, to recognize that the fixation of importances is a fiction —a decision with a certain degree of arbitrariness, a necessity in movement. To play seriously is to love the character. To play seriously is to love the rejections of form. To play seriously is to respect and honor the reactive structure of the personality. To respect and honor the reactive structure of personality is already to be with one foot on and one foot off the stage of the world —the boards where the scenes of the characters' destiny unfold. Destiny is the gradual revelation of the singular form's possibilities for play. To play is to recognize that we judge.
Destiny (or fate, the narrative) brings Cyril the situations that lead almost imperceptibly to the last scenes, where something inside him finds the capacity to soften. Fate is the way in which life unfolds its playing field. The line that destiny keeps repeating to us, like a daily whisper, is: you can play here too. To play is only to recognize dynamics of fixation and movement. If Cyril was fixated on the refusal to spend time with his mother and to have children, let's say that, by the end of the film, he at least recognizes a desire to spend more time with mom, and, even if jokingly, asks Shirley if she prefers a boy or a girl.
Alan Watts said that we have no obligation to the person we were five minutes ago. Playing the human game seriously involves both acknowledging that truth (at some level, yes, we are new every instant) and loving (recognizing, respecting) the fact that we forget it (and that, at some level, we need to forget it to sustain the form of what we still need to be). Our character is itself the temporary allegiance to a psychic structure. Character is itself an obligation to itself. We are, and at the same time we are not, new at every instant. We judge and we play. To play seriously is to assume this paradox —judgment and play, fixation and movement. We are and at the same time we are not that character. Which is to say that the character is nothing but a fiction in becoming —a flower that unfolds, unstoppable, beyond the attempts of attention to fix its structures. Cinema (artistic fiction), even if it does not practice it so much, can be a laboratory, or dance floor, where to investigate and explore that dynamic, so human, of closing and opening, of fixing and moving, of judging and playing.