Vito and Todd and Marcia photo by Clare Bokulich
“For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.” H. L. Mencken
Marcia and I recently watched Little Men, the 2016 movie written by Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, and directed by Ira Sachs, and for my taste it was the best American movie I’ve seen in a very long time. By Hollywood standards, Little Men would be called a European film made in America. Character-driven, subtle, no villains, no heroes, ultra-real, and entirely free of violence, the film is about essentially good people caught up in the cruel realities of economics in a capitalist society, and how those realities shape the courses of people’s lives and the lives of their children.
Because the story of Little Men focuses on the friendship of two thirteen-year-old boys, adolescence and emerging sexuality are also subjects of the movie, each handled with marvelous subtlety and sensitivity. I was so touched by the friendship depicted in this movie that for days after I was swamped with memories of my friendships in junior high school and high school, and the events that led to the demise of those friendships.
The movie is beautifully wrought, and Sachs uses exquisite imagery to tell parts of the tale, imagery without dialogue, so the viewer’s imagination and personal experience are invited to co-write the back-stories of the characters in the film. The acting is nuanced, the dialogue never predictable and always believable, and the sensibility of the film deeply compassionate.
In thinking about Little Men, I realize that most of the American films made available for viewing these last forty years do not honor the viewers’ imaginations or intelligence. I think this trend in movies began with the rise of television as a dominating fixture of our culture, and by the early 1980s Aim Low became the ironclad rule of commercial cinema. Now, of course, most movies are aimed at children or teenagers or young adults, a population that has no experience of great literature, and no experience of subtlety or nuance or complexity in writing or music or cinema.
When I was sixteen, in 1966, I saw Zorba the Greek, and I vividly recall how challenging and exciting it was to contemplate and try to accept such a complicated and changeable character as Zorba. Was he a hero or a villain? Both! Neither! Oh how I loved the widow portrayed by Irene Pappas, yet she was not saved by Zorba, but senselessly killed. Or was her killing senseless?
In that same year came the dangerous British movie If, and some of my classmates hated the film, and some loved If more than any movie they’d ever seen; and everyone who saw that movie believed the drama made the leap from reality to fantasy at a different point in the movie; and a few people thought the story was real from beginning to end.
Then for another decade, it seemed that every week another movie would come out that challenged us to think about life in a new way, to question the status quo, to feel the richness and positivity of originality and artistry, to give us the opportunity to revel in the unsolvable mysteries and beauties of life.
Eventually, with very few exceptions, only foreign films and a rare American anomaly provided those kinds of thrills of discovery and challenged us to think outside the narrow box of American culture. American movies devolved into the teen and kiddy junk, much of it ultra-violent, we have today. Now, every October and November, a few so-called serious films come out in time for the awards season, but these tend to be shallow and stereotypical and unwatchable for the likes of me.
I believe there is a direct connection between the devolution of our cinema and literature, and the ascendancy of those who now control the reins of power—for a culture that celebrates complexity and subtlety and a multitude of possible meanings and endings will not easily succumb to infantile simplicity.
How refreshing it was to see Little Men, a movie that made no attempt to wrap things up in a neat little happy ending, but said, as did Zorba the Greek, “Here is an artist examining a slice of life full of real people caught in real dilemmas. How exciting! See what you think and feel as you open to this artistry, this vision, this vivid real-seeming dream.”