On Ryan Gosling; Or, Where Metaphysics and Smoking Collide

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On accident, I revealed my status as a smoker to my students not long ago. I was leaving school early. Like, at the same time the students get out of there. I drove past the bus stop, took a drag of my cigarette, and looked over to see three of my students fervently waving in attempt to get my attention. I waved with the offending hand and then panicked. I then clumsily switched my cigarette to my right (non-smoking) hand and hid the cigarette beneath their sight-line, which of course by then was useless. Where there’s smoke, there’s a cigarette, and they already knew it.

So then comes the next school day. I’d forgotten about it. But the news had been spread to other students, who that day were all “smoking” their pens. After several minutes of this behavior, which was annoying but definitely not as disruptive as some of the other shit they pull, I finally paused the lesson and asked, “What are you all doing? Take your pens out of your mouths, and put them to your paper!” Gregg, who is never afraid to give his unreserved opinion, offered, “But Ms. Piontek, we’re just worried for your health. You shouldn’t smoke. It’s bad for you!”

Mind you, I teach at a high school in Chicago Public Schools. Students should probably be smoking by now, and thinking it’s cool, and hiding it from their parents. But instead, they’re lecturing their teacher about the perils of smoking.

So, you know, it appears times have changed.

That’s a good thing and all. I’m not arguing anything to the contrary. It’s good that I’ve been shamed and excluded from smoking in most places in society, because lord knows I’d be even more hooked than I am now.

Besides me, there’s another guy who’s keeping smoking alive. His name is Ryan Gosling, and he likes to smoke.

Over the weekend, I watched the I-can’t-believe-no-one-edited-this-absurdly-long-movie “The Place Beyond the Pines.” Don’t get me wrong; this movie had moments of absolute transcendence. Beautiful tracking shots, thrilling motorcycle rides, a coupla key acting performances. Etc. I don’t want to write about the whole thing. As a woman, and as a smoker, it read to me like a really long movie about masculinity and also smoking.

Ryan Gosling dangles a cigarette out of his mouth while he acts really hard at actually not conveying any emotion. Not since Clint Eastwood, or fuck, since Brando or James Dean, has anyone so determinedly tried to get the kids smoking again.

Some of the allure of the smoke is mitigated by the fact that Gosling has bleached 90’s hair, and wears some of the worst clothes one could ever see in a movie.

While sometimes his performances in the two Cianfrance movies (Pines and “Blue Valentine”) seems a bit tone deaf–too tough guy to make any sense in the contemporary or almost contemporary world he lives in–he still nails something I actually think of as a sorta Brechtian skill. He’s an old archetype floating around on screen–not a modern character who makes us privy to his feelings. Everyone else is moving and breathing and emoting and not smoking, and there’s Gosling, presenting more as a physical and sexual force than as a thinking or feeling one. His performances are so calibratedly understated.

Watching him in “Pines” and also in “Drive” conjures the same mystery I also feel when interacting with my special students way out on the spectrum. I am not only unsure of what they’re feeling, I am unsure if they’re aware of themselves in the world at all. There’s a box to check on my kiddos official documents that asks if the student seems “disoriented in time”. When I first saw this option, I thought this seemed rather too metaphysical of language to appear in a legal state document describing a student’s learning abilities. But it’s one of those things where ya know it when you see it. I’ve checked “disoriented in time” for a couple of kids with autism.

I also check “disoriented in time” for Ryan Gosling as a smoking tough guy–one gets the impression his mama smoked too many cigs while his characters were still in the womb. And the result is absolutely fantastic, full of grit and guts and opaqueness and juice. We’re not meant to know everything, and directors and actors who try hard to let us in are making the mistake of elucidating what should sometimes remain a question in our minds. I think that here, cigarettes had something to do with it.

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Choose Your Own TO THE WONDER

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“lead me to the bison”

My buddy Lucas once declared Terrence Malick a “post-modern romantic,” and I wish I’d been the one to call him that first, because it’s so dead-on. As a romantic, Malick has a meticulous attentiveness to the rhythms of nature. He is fascinated by it, and his characters are always returning to it, finding their truest selves within it, rejecting modernity for it. As for post-modernism, that beast, one of the only things we can agree post-modernism includes is a collapse of forms. Malick shows routine disregard for linear narrative, most recently splicing cosmic birth with his characters’ present day, personal histories with imagined heavens in “The Tree of Life”. Dreams and memories and reality and dinosaurs all converge as a spectacular specific/universal tone-poem in “Tree,” and yet the movie still tells a story. It’s a feat!

Whatever interest in plot and narrative Terry may have once had, though, has basically fallen away in “To the Wonder”. I kept wondering wtf “To the Wonder” was about, but about half-way through & after my second bathroom break (I drank a lot of water yesterday), I decided to relax and not think so hard about what it was about. I also stopped reading the subtitles. (Oh yeah, it’s an American movie, but most of the talking–in the form of voice-over narration–is in French, a lil bit of Russian, and Spanish.) I just, ahem, experienced.

The film opens to two lovers (Ms. Olga–a ravishing, spritely, broad-faced beauty–& Ben Affleck, strong and thankfully silent) nuzzling one another under the Pantheon, smiling broadly on the canal in the summer, twirling around statues in the Tuileries in winter. They visit an abbey, and walk on rippled clay on some northern sea shore. They play in the water. They don’t talk. Olga’s kid can’t even understand Ben’s shitty French accent. Talking isn’t part of their love.

This is a movie about sensation, not communication; the feeling of winter sunlight on a skin; the prickles of prairie grass when you slide its berries from the reed; the suck of a boot sole against clay-like mud; the thrill of sliding a finger across the taught abdomen of a lover. You get the idea.

This is also a movie about lack of sensation: where is God? I can’t feel him! is a thought that hovers over this movie. Father Javier Bardem is pastor to an ill-attended Catholic church in SmallTown, OK. It’s no wonder he is questioning his faith when apparently his only acquaintances are a rather Diane Arbus-like freakshow cast of poor meth addicts, an eccentric wizard of a janitor, prisoners, and cognitively-impaired people. I suppose these people are supposed to stand out as aberrations of nature, as ugliness, which is sort of appalling. Structurally, though, I think that’s what Malick was going for: that God’s absence is felt when nature is not right. Father Bardem is not surrounded by beauty, but by dereliction and degraded people.

I’m hesitant to draw too many deep conclusions from any structures that pop up. But it’s clear that Malick is obsessed with the order of nature, and returns over and over again to shots of rippling seas, roaring dams, peaceful pools, bubbling brooklets–you fucking name it. (It’s almost as if he can’t help himself–he too feels oppressed by the orderly subdivisions and wide open asphalt spaces of Oklahama that he chose to film.) Then he has the aberrations (the Diane Arbus cast). And then he has the corruption of mother earth. Ben’s character has a job where he goes around measuring toxic chemicals in the earth near oil extraction sites. He climbs piles of rubble & dust, and wades into toxic ponds in rubber boots. He talks to poor people about tar seeping into their yards. I’m tempted to say Ben’s dealings with corrupt earth are connected to his passivity in love–but I don’t actually know if these dichotomies I’m setting up matter. I think this movie is actually a series of impressions, and that together and separate, they are fine and beautiful and resist hard interpretation.

Which is not to say the film says nothing or is empty. Cerebrally, it does not offer much. But Terry isn’t an intellectual filmmaker in the sense that he cares about controlling the wheels of your mind while you watch his films. He is an emotional filmmaker, toggling with your heart, appealing to your soul. “To the Wonder” offers emptiness in the forms of lots of wide-open space–like the Oklahoma sky, amirite?–and the space is there for you to fill it up with your impressions and memories. In its undulating waves of brown grassy hills, empty parking lots, panoramic waters, and elevated views of Paris’ Hausmannian orderliness–it weaves the viewer into itself, allowing you to graft your experience onto it. As far as a trip to the movies go, that’s about as deep as it’s gon get.