Friday, January 13, 2006

The United States of Jake: Revisiting Leland

A while back I recommended The United States of Leland to everyone who would listen, as well as writing a piece on it for last-minute inclusion in my book, Dogville Vs Hollywood, which just came out.

I particularly urged my mother to see it, as we share a lot of favorites and because I was sure she would be deeply moved by it. She finally saw it, and a few days ago she wrote to me, rather rattled, saying it had depressed her, that the director was “no Dostoevsky,” and that for her, the film failed. As far as she could see, she wrote, all the main character did was cause a lot of people to suffer needlessly. Annoyed and disappointed, I wrote an email to her, then deliberately held off sending it knowing that it would upset her. The next day, I softened the tone some and sent it. This is what I wrote:

"It’s a little bit sad to me is that you would have had such a conventional response to the film, basically the same as all those critics who completely missed the meaning. Maybe I am wrong but I think the failure is less in the movie than in yourself.

"Perhaps the characters in the film NEEDED to suffer, in order to feel anything at all, to break through the petty surface of their shallow lives and get to something REAL? And isn’t is possible — probable even — that the retard boy was calling out to be set free of the prison of his existence, and that Leland was only responding, unconsciously, to a cry for help from a fellow damned soul? That they were complicit in the terrible act?

"The film dared to see things from a soul perspective, rather than from a world of egos. Your response, however, was all-too-human.

Why is people’s compassion always for the “victim” and never for the perpetrator?
That is what I find depressing. Leland was one of a handful of movies with the courage to address that question. That most people missed this entirely only confirmed that I have nothing in common with most people. It is as if I came from another planet. (The United Kingdom of Jake?)

"It makes me a little sad that this distance between myself and others seems to be growing, rather than reducing, but there is nothing I can do about it. For better or worse, I am with the Lelands of this world.

The prodigal son"

She wrote back:

"Maybe the boy was some sort of a visionary, but I doubt it, and even if he was he had no right to play God. No, he was just as bewildered as all of us; what made him endearing and lovable was his huge compassion and an empathy he couldn't cope with; his bewilderment in a world seemingly, to him, full of robots. His character was also made more sympathetic by the fact of his physical beauty. I found myself appalled by the whole tragedy and yet I loved him. Also, the painful poignancy of the murdered boy, who was extremely pretty. I could not relate to the brilliance of the film because I could not detach myself from how I would feel if either of those boys had been mine.

"In spite of moments of beauty, I found it very brutal and, as I said,
only Dostoyevsky could convince me through the sheer power of his writing.

"Do you know the novel of Faulkner (whom I do not like), cant remember
the title - it may be "Sound and Fury" - where the black nanny murders the child (whom she loves) of her employers in order to shake them up and show them how awful their lives are?"

I replied:

"I admit that I don’t know in the end how realistic the character and crime of Leland was. That’s one possible criticism of the film, and it would be interesting to hear a criminologist’s or psychologist’s take on it. Of course he wasn’t playing God. He wasn’t a psychopath. And it’s true he didn’t “know” what he was doing, since he didn’t remember it afterwards. But if there are cases of demonic possession, perhaps something similar, though not the same, happens when a person, extremely sensitive but at the same time lost, one who is unable to take responsibility for what he is feeling, gets taken over by the unconscious desires (demons) of another person, in this case, the retarded boy?

"All I know is that I did not feel sorry for that boy, or rather that he had been killed. On the contrary, I felt Leland’s great sadness and pity for him while he was alive, and I understood why Leland would feel such an irresistible urge to end that poor boy’s suffering (or if not suffering, his complete oblivion). That doesn’t make him a saint, but it certainly doesn’t make him a monster. Just one more lost soul helplessly railing against a world filled with seemingly senseless pain.

"I think that the film was realistic, in that truly sensitive, empathic souls in today’s horrendous world are perhaps as likely to commit unspeakable acts of “evil” as ones of apparent goodness. Because they are like mirrors reflecting our world back at us.

"You say that 'those people will not have learnt a thing from their suffering, simply because the act was not possible to understand.'
"But everything is possible to understand. It’s not necessary to understand why something occurs, either, and why we are being made to suffer, in order to learn from it. On the contrary, it is suffering itself that forces us to learn, about ourselves, and only then leads us to an understanding of “why” whatever it was happened. No one but Leland can know why he did what he did, but the people close to the murdered boy are FORCED to understand what THEY did, to bring about such an awful event, and to let such suffering into their lives.

"All are responsible for all. The murderer (like Hitler) is simply the one who acts out the unconscious fears and needs of the rest of us. But all are equally involved. All are responsible for all.

"I got annoyed not because I thought you weren’t clever enough to understand the movie, but because I felt personally alienated by your response (your finding the film “depressing”), and because, knowing you, I suspected that it was a defense mechanism. I think the movie might have upset you at a much deeper level if you’d been willing to take on board what it was offering. And to say it was depressing, or that it failed, was just your way of dismissing its truth before it went too deep. That’s what I thought, and since you admit that you loved the boy Leland, then I must have been right; because if you loved that boy, even despite what he did, then the film didn’t fail.

"There is so much in that film it boggles my mind. My wife and I talked over it for a couple of days (or rather, I talked, she listened), and I wanted to write a lot more, but only took down a few notes. It covers the whole gamut of human fallibility and weakness, in dramatic, symbolic form. To me, it is on par with Shakespeare. Add to that the fact that critics slated it, and yes, it has become my very personal cause protégé."

Jake Horsley

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