Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Never Let Me Go

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

--Raymond Carver/Late Fragment

So. It has been a very long time since my last blog post. Between that last post and this one I have been busy, living. There have been a lot of ups, and a few downs to keep me honest, and humble. What is it that has awakened me from my blog-matic slumber? A movie. A story. A true story, I would say. Never Let Me Go.

The movie follows the brief lives of three characters, Ruth (Kierra Knightly), Kathy (Carey Mulligan) and Tommy (Andrew Garfield). It begins when the three are about twelve or thirteen and at Hailsham, a boarding school for “Donors.” Donors come into existence with one purpose, to donate their vital organs. I say come into existence because Donors are neither born nor conceived in the ordinary way. They are medically manufactured or made (cloned, apparently, from the expendables of society, the low-lifes) for the sole purpose of providing organs, presumably to the privileged. Donors are themselves dispensable, mere consumable goods. Literally.

Hailsham exists primarily to educate and shape the Donors’ view of reality, to inculcate in the Donors an acceptance of their “purpose” or “destiny” and to instill in them anticipation of and pride in how many donations they make as young adults before they “complete.” Which is to say, before they die.

This, to my mind, is all back-story. It is not what the film is about. Good films, I think, are like good poetry or a good metaphor. They’re not about some one thing. They don't try to “make a point.” Instead, they birth universes, open up to readers and viewers new ways of seeing or being in the world. They provoke, interrogate, unnerve, inspire, and cause us to reflect and to interpret ourselves to ourselves. Never Let Me Go does all of these things, without being pretentious and without being preachy.. It's a quiet film. It discloses quietly, provokes and interrogates gently, and from the muted gray colors of Hailsham’s school uniforms to the largely colorless, flat affects of the main characters, the film raises questions about what it means to be human.

For instance, artwork is collected from Donors throughout their lives and evaluated by the “guardians” of Hailsham. Why? Kathy, Tommy and Ruth come to believe that the purpose is to peer into the souls of Donors, to see if they love and how genuinely. If their love is deemed genuine, the three believe, then “guardians” will grant the lovers a short reprieve from donating in order to allow the lovers a little time to indulge and enjoy their love. Unfortunately, we find out toward the end of the movie that this a falsehood. There are no reprieves granted. The purpose of collecting their artwork was not to peer into their souls at all, but as one of the guardians puts it, it was “to see if you even have souls.” And by the film’s end, one cannot help but be struck with the realization that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are actually more human, more soulful, than the guardians themselves. For they know what it is to feel, despite their often flat exteriors, and to love, to forgive and to be forgiven. The fact that the guardians (like the Nazis and all perpetrators of holocausts) must refer to Donors with dehumanizing terms like Donors, that the guardians cannot even bring themselves to say that the Donors die, but say instead that they complete, suggests that it is in fact the guardians who lack souls and are less than human. And again, the film manages to communicate this subtly and without calling attention to itself.

Ostensibly, however, the film is about the relationship(s) between Tommy, Ruth and Kathy. From the earliest parts of the movie it is clear that there is a sweet connection between Kathy and Tommy. Kathy is quiet, and knowing. She seems to have a capacity for pain, her own and that of others, She knows and understands Tommy in a way that others don’t, including Ruth. Ruth, for her part, is the more assertive of the three. And it is she, not Kathy, who gives Tommy his first kiss, his first relationship and to whom Tommy loses his virginity. Tommy, for his part, is also quiet, a bit unsure and weak-willed, his muted affect, like Kathy’s, belied by an interior life full of pathos. He seems to realize that it is Kathy to whom his heart belongs, but he is too weak to break free of Ruth’s emotional clutches. In what I thought was an emotionally painful scene, Tommy is unable even to look at Ruth as she pleasures herself on top of him.

The life of these three, like that of all Donors, will terminate in their twenties. With that knowledge, like the knowledge they have of what they are and where they fit in the scheme of things (which seems only to become apparent to them when they are in their late teens), how shall they live out their days? What kind of meaning can they—mere donors and expendables—carve out of their brief, meager lives? As it turns out, I would suggest that it is a beautiful life that they manage to wring from their brief, broken and painful lives. Indeed, whether one’s life is all of nearly thirty years or eighty, the question is the same for all: how shall we live out our days? What kind of meaning can we carve out of our brief time on this little round planet?

Early on in the film, when the three are only 12 years old or so, we see Tommy rage at having become the brunt of some mean-spirited, schoolyard prank. The depth of his pain spills out in blood-curdling screams. After Ruth’s second “donation,” and the three have been separated for some ten years, and Ruth realizes her end is immanent, Kathy and Ruth meet and decide to pay Tommy a visit. The three take a car trip back to Hailsham, which is now closed. On the trip Ruth confesses to Kathy that she realizes, perhaps realized all along, that it was Tommy and Kathy who belonged together and she seeks Kathy’s forgiveness for keeping them apart. The scene is reminiscent in a way of the sex scene between Tommy and Ruth, where Tommy cannot bring himself to look at Ruth. For here, too, Kathy looks away from Ruth as Ruth confesses, the truth seemingly too painful for Kathy to face.

Two scenes stand out to me as the most central, and important. Both scenes take place toward the end of the film. In the one, Tommy and Kathy are driving back from having met with one of the guardians about getting a reprieve. They have just learned that there are no reprieves. There they are. Their love having only just begun to bloom and flower, and now to be told that the time for flowering will be cut tragically short is simply too much for Tommy. He asks Kathy to pull the car over and he gets out, lets loose the most agonizing, existentially gripping scream, and collapses in painful recognition of the truth of his existence. The scream is that of a creature who knows both that he has been beloved on the earth and knows also that his life is all too brief.

The other scene occurs just before the last one. In this scene, Kathy and Tommy are together for the first time in a decade. The recognition of love is written all over their faces and in their eyes. They kiss. And concentrated in that kiss are all those lost years, years that were filled for both with a longing and yearning.

Apparently, some who see the movie find it utterly depressing. They find it slow and dark. It is dark, I suppose. But I find the movie ultimately uplifting. For I can imagine the question being put to both Tommy and Kathy:

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

And I think I can hear them both answer:

I did.

And what did you want? (What do any of us want?)

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

It is perhaps a truism that the degree to which we ache and grieve over the loss of a beloved is exactly proportional to the degree to which we loved . He or she who loves deeply, grieves the loss of the beloved deeply. That, I think, is what Tommy’s scream communicates: love and loss.

Henry Miller once said, "The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware." This is the message I take away from the film. Our time upon this earth is brief. So live and love well. Be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware. And awareness, as anyone who lives it knows, opens one to both beauty and pain.


Jeffrey said...

Thanks for an intriguing review. This just went on my "must see" list!

Joseph Holbrook said...

damn. that was intense. Not sure I want to see it.