Manchester by the Sea
Kenneth Lonergan (USA 2016) Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle
Tyneside Cinema 23 Jan 2017; ticket £9.25
half man half music video
Sometimes when viewing Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea (MBS)I was put in mind of the very fine set of films made by Bob Rafelson in the 1970’s, King of Marven Gardens and Five Easy Pieces. Also in watching Lonergan’s movie it was a relief to view a Hollywood movie whose voicing and dialogue wasn’t characterised by turgid gaseous delusional philosophy.
MBS is grounded in relations between people as were Rafelson’s two films. As far as that goes, the film is dynamic in its observation and depiction of the difficulties of close relations; communication between generations and between men and women are brought into relief in Lonergan’s script.
Although the script centres on the generational boy- father/man nexus it is the dysfunctional response of women partners that shapes the situations that are picked up in the script and it is the female influence (often in absentia) that shapes the development of the scenario. MBS’s scenario rather than being a narrative, drives through strips of life, cutting between a time past and an ongoing present as the established situation evolves and develops through character rather than plot mechanisms. These are not totally absent, but do not in themselves define Lonergan’s film.
The problem with MBS is that it feels ungrounded, both in the local environment and in environmental nexus in which the script is located. There are very few connecting ties between the close intimate circle which is the prime concern of MUS, and the wider social. The film’s material is focused almost entirely in the personal milieu. As if personal relations in a small town such as Manchester could be completely disconnected from the wider community with its social political and economic considerations.
One scene in particular in MBS, Joe’s funeral service, exemplifies this disconnection and also strikes an inauthentic note that jars the credibility of the film. It seems inauthentic that a popular well liked man, as Joe is depicted, and a fisherman to boot, should attract such a low attendance at his funeral service. In small fishing towns, funerals are large as they are both a mark of respect and a social event. Lonergan’s failure to depict the communal marking of Joe’s death, seems symptomatic of his failure to depict how small towns and tight groups of people such as fishermen function.
Rafelson’s King of Marvin Gardens was not only an acidic observation of the destructive relationship between the two brothers; also by setting the film in Atlantic City, Rafelson located the film in a failing America, an America coming apart at the seam of its dream. Lonergan’s MBS in contrast might as well be set on a Facebook page. The intensity of human intercourse is there, but without context with no real setting. Manchester, its people, its connection to the sea are photo-shopped backgrounds, pictures whose purpose is to decorate not to authenticate or substantiate. In Joe’s character and the legacy of his existence left to his son Patrick, there is no feeling for the work that Joe does. But people who live by toil in the sea are marked by it to the core of their being. You are a fisherman, it is not something you do. From the script it was not possible to understand if Joe was an actual fisherman, had been a fisherman and then became just a boat captain taking people out for line and rod fishing trips.Something core to Joe’s identity is uncoupled by the script. Likewise Manchester, a New England sea town with a long history, becomes an abstract entity, a vacuous continuation of the suburban sprawl that characterises American towns.
It’s possible that this is the truth that Lonergan wanted to express: Americans live in the world of disconnect, where people have lost all their ties with externalities and that all that is left is an intensification of personal relations, Facebook, twitter You Tube. Possible, but in terms of the way MUS is shot this is not convincing argument for Lonergan’s production.
It is interesting that whereas Joe, whom the viewer might expect to be connected with externalities, the sea, other fishermen, business etc is bereft of these types of liaisons. But Lee his brother, is given a lot of script time to establish his janitorial credentials. This is of course to set up Lee both as a certain type of failed flawed individual and his relation with Patrick as his guardian. It is Affleck’s assimilation into this dual role that pivots the film, and where MBS is most compelling. By contrast, the characterisation of Joe is a comparitive failure.
I don’t know if Lonergan has previous as a music video producer or if he is touting for work in this area. Whichever, but at key moments the transforming of MBS into a music video to solve expressive problems is an intrusive trick. It demeans and undervalues the rest of the film. In particular the use the the Albinoni Adagio to wallpaper the scene in which Lee watches his house burn down. The Albinoni has been used in something like 70 movies (including Last Year in Marienbad) and its employment here seems like the imposition of the most clichéd of solutions to ‘finding’ this scene, rendering the images inflated overlong pompous and emotionally superficial. Lonergan undermines MUS because he has set it up as a film in which the viewers can observe the action and are allowed the space to come to their own understanding of what is happening. By switching over into music video territory Lonergan betrays his audience and their intelligence by imposing a crude manipulative device over the visual material. Lonergan makes the demand for the audience to understand what they were seeing on his terms: not their own. And of course the house burning scene did not need this type of interpretative jacket. The film has an internal integrity: in its acting, in its script, in the way it is filmed (favouring wide shots) and in its finely tuned editing. All of which allow its audience ‘to see’. The forces set in play by Lonergan in MBS are powerful to carry viewers with it, without the musical exercise. To adopt a music video form as an expressive tool to overwhelm his audience, betokens a lack of confidence by Lonergan both in himself and his movie. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org