The Nature of Things: Two films explore fundamental questions

EntertainmentMoviesD.W. GriffithRick GomezVinessa ShawKu Klux KlanDavid Lynch

A brutal attack in the dead of night—the recurring nightmare of Henry (Rick Gomez), a successful novelist with a loving wife (Vinessa Shaw). After a farewell party thrown by his publisher (Bryan Cranston), Henry goes into isolation at his remote second home to try to turn his anxieties into fiction. Then a seemingly chance meeting with a mysterious drifter (Frank John Hughes) at a roadside restaurant offers a revelation that, if trusted, might be life-altering. But is the man who he claims to be?

Director Robert Celestino's Leave is a film that takes the audience into the mind of a man haunted by a recent traumatic experience, and with every frame the film keeps us guessing about the exact nature of Henry's affliction. Henry knows the attack is a dream, but is convinced the dream must mean something he needs to understand. Meanwhile, the world around him seems fraught with the very tensions he's experiencing. From the opening attack, the spectator is on edge, afraid what might wait around the bend, and what it might mean.

When Henry meets the man later identified as Chris, their dialogue is unusually searching, as Henry seems certain he's being threatened in some way. Even if the man is who he professes to be, can he be trusted?  And if he's not, what game is he playing?

In discussing the plot of the film, Celestino offers both of the above scenarios as a "win win": if the audience doesn't trust Chris, that's fine; if they believe Chris and want his story to be true, that's also good. What's at stake is, on one level, the nature of trust, and also of finding the one person who can listen when one is in doubts and difficulties. At the same time, since Henry is a novelist who we witness trying to turn events into fiction, there's the possibility that Henry is reading too much into things, half-creating the things he experiences. Chris, who presents himself as a fairly ascetic figure, seems to arrive as a voice from the past that might help Henry sort out his own head, but Celestino's direction makes subtle demands on the viewer, never letting us relax, focusing on hands, eyes, lights that seem to be watching, mirror images that gaze back, bits of memory or dream that play with our sense of what's really happening.

The twists in this carefully made and thoughtful film are dramatic but not unbelievable. What drew Celestino to the script is the sense that the conclusion is unpredictable but inevitable. What makes the conclusion so satisfying is that it's not after a simple "gotcha" moment, but is rather a powerful comment on the nature of life and death and choosing when to leave. As Chris says to Henry: "the more you attach, the more you suffer." As with many elements in Leave, the full meaning of such moments only become clear when the full picture emerges. To call Leave a wise, poetic thriller with a profound message is to suggest that it might be in a genre all its own. Like David Lynch, Celestino favors, as a director, deep focus and the use of subliminal sound, a visual and aural palette developed with his editor and sound designer Todd Sandler. Both Celestino and Shandler will be present for Q&A at the screening.

Showing as part of a series called "Race, Rage and Redemption," D.W. Griffith's landmark 1915 film, both celebrated and reviled, invites audiences to reflect upon the history of racism in America. A film that depicts blacks by using white actors in blackface may or may not be racist in its intentions, but such imagery placed at the service of Griffith's pro-South and pro-KKK views bespeaks the filmmaker's indifference to the dignity of blacks. In his effort to tell the story of the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, and the terms of the Reconstruction, Griffith, son of a Confederate colonel, ascribes to stereotypes and to assumptions that the war was fought to counter. Universally hailed as a major document in film history, the film is perhaps most suggestive today as an example of how deeply partisan a narrative of history can be. In our era of Red and Blue States, it's useful to reflect on the division between Slave and Non-Slave states as the basis for much of the conflict in our country over the role of government, conflicts that, as Griffith rightly sees, gave troubled birth to our nation.

 

Leave

Special preview screening at the Ridgefield Playhouse Film Society, 80 East Ridge Avenue, Ridgefield; Friday, March 30, 7:30; (203) 438-5795

The Birth of a NationSpecial screening at The Mark Twain House and Museum, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford; Wednesday, April 4, at 7 p.m.; (860) 247-0998, ext. 243.

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