Lost in the Movies: Affliction



1998 was a good year for movies. True, Affliction's official year of release was 1997, when it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, and I didn't see it until 1999, when it finally opened in wide release across the U.S. But I'll always associate it with the year between these two, a year that feels now like the final hurrah of 20th century cinema. When works like Fight Club, The Matrix, Three Kings and Being John Malkovich were released the following year, giving an early kickstart to 21st century filmmaking, '98 began to seem like the swan song of classicism. These newer works were often dark, hip, witty in one way or another, and highly self-conscious in their play with structure and expectation. Call them "surface" works, expressed through a slick style which often bypassed the human element en route to big themes and grand ideas. These films weren't especially my cup of tea and still aren't, though their influence is stronger than ever.

Saving Private Ryan, Gods and Monsters, The Thin Red Line, the often-maligned Life is Beautiful, even Rushmore, the breakthrough work of the becoming-unfashionable hipster godhead Wes Anderson, were films that had people at their center. Even Babe: Pig in the City, Gene Siskel's final pick for best-of-the-year, and a film staffed by animals, had a warm, human heart. Of course, to a certain extent, my memory is arbitrary and selective. To be fair, '98 wasn't and still isn't generally seen as a high-water mark for either classicism or humanism in film. The classical era had supposedly been over for something like thirty years, and critics were already - indeed, had long been - decrying trends towards special effects and away from character. But can we really doubt that a great change occurred around this time, setting the tone for our current epoch? Not that many of these new films aren't good. Indeed, formally, they are often an improvement on well-intentioned but aesthetically unadventurous dramas. Yet something has been critically wounded in our transition into a faster-paced, slicker, more cerebral and clever art cinema...and the end product, even at its best, can seem to lack a soul.

The inspiration for this possibly over-romantic bout of bittersweet nostalgia is, on the surface, a cold, dark, depressing film. Certainly its setting, snowbound northern New Hampshire, is as wintry as it gets. Its protagonist is a loser, a divorcee whose daughter loathes spending time with him, a disrespected police officer who ends up drinking and smoking pot before the night's over. Things are pretty grim but they will get much worse as the movie progresses. This man has been scarred in his youth by an abusive father, an alcoholic (like him) who tormented his children and did not provide them with any sense of love or warmth. The younger boy, Rolfe Whitehouse (played by Willem Dafoe), has left town to become a teacher in Boston. The other, Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte), is the aforementioned loser. The latter is the central figure, seldom offscreen, and inarguably the main character. But it is the former who narrates.

The story of the film, adapted from a Russell Banks novel and directed by Paul Schrader, piles crisis after crisis on poor Wade's back. The accumulated weight will finally break him, but in the process he is also awakened from his spiritual slumber and aroused to action, against his father, against himself, against his conditions. A toothache nags him throughout until finally, at one of his lowest moments, he rips it out of his own mouth with pliers. Like Travis Bickle, another Schrader protagonist, Wade is consumed by a cleansing violence, but here it is not directed against society but at himself (if not exclusively).

The movie does have a plot, a thriller device which is left open. A rich man has been killed in a supposed hunting accident, and Wade, encouraged by his brother Rolfe's somewhat detached curiosity, suspects foul play. The plot thickens but it's never entirely clear if the conspiracy is a fabrication of Wade's growing paranoia or if it actually exists. No matter... the important thing is the effect it has on Wade's consciousness. One night he stares at himself in the mirror and later tells his brother over the phone that he saw his face for the first time.

I was a teenager when Affliction came out and in some ways, it was the film I had been waiting for all year: an ostensible thriller which used the mystery as a device to examine the dark memories and anxieties of its characters, manifesting their spiritual crisis in the beautiful but desolate landscape around them. I wouldn't have necessarily put it in those words, it was more a feeling than a concept, but Affliction nailed it after a series of disappointments (among others, I remember that Snake Eyes was an all-out failure and that A Simple Plan turned disappointingly conventional by its end). I think it's the way the film's bruised heart seems to be deflected from the characters into the landscape, buried none-too-deeply in the snowbanks and scattered in the frosty air. It's a beautiful displacement.

This is where the humanism and the spirituality of Affliction comes into play. There's one contemporary review of Affliction that comes to mind though I cannot place its source (apologies to the bibliographical police). Something to the effect of "Schrader once wrote a book celebrating the transcendental style of cinema, which is ironic, given that his own work lacks any hint of transcendence." Actually, Affliction is more transcendental than the supposed transcendentalist Ozu, who is all about resignation. Wade Whitehouse may suffer, and suffer, and suffer, but he finally achieves a kind of heroic status, refusing to bend and break as he has all his life. His decisions are written off by the narrator, his brother, which throws that character into an interesting light.

As Dafoe plays him, Rolfe is the quintessential observer, the writer fascinated by his unruly characters but too detached and cowardly to suffer as they do. Rolfe flirts with, and even encourages, Wade's conspiracy theories, just as when they were boys he would watch with fascinated fear as Wade stuck up for their mother and took a whipping from Dad. In a way, he is responsible for his brother's destruction and though his voice introduces and concludes the film, it is clear that his paltry intellectual conclusions are insufficient and that Wade's inarticulate rage speaks so much louder. This is not to say his actions are justified, or his conclusions correct, but at least they are human. In the hollowed-out space of his bedroom, barely insulated from the deep freeze outside, Wade stares into his face and sees it as it really is. Rolfe (and though I'd have to read the book to confirm my suspicions, he seems to be the manifestation of every writer's self-loathing) is drawn to but ultimately scorns, dismisses, and tries to forget the transcendence Wade achieves. Luckily the film is not his to control, and the film remains human and deeply resonant. In this sense, Affliction is a sort of last stand for humanism, so perhaps my nostalgia is not so inappropriate after all.

Incidentally, I haven't even mentioned James Coburn's Oscar-winning performance. Playing the father, cruel and fearsome even in his decrepit old age, Pop is not a figure of complexity and torment like Wade, but an elemental force of nature, the human manifestation of the craggy, overbearing, harsh landscape surrounding the town. Coburn gives a vivid portrayal, fully deserving of the honors bestowed upon it, and one could say the muscle of the picture, its rough texture, belongs to him, while the intellect belongs to Rolfe. But the heart and soul belongs to Wade, which is as it should be.

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