the better truth

the better truth

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
The Great White Dope

“Now that highway’s coming through… and you all gotta move… this bottom rung ain’t no fun at all” -  “See How We Are” by X

Captain James T. Kirk: Be Careful. 
Dr. McCoy: Why? She seems harmless enough.
Mr. Spock: The sand-bats of Manark IV appear to be inanimate rock crystal, Doctor, until they attack. 
-The Empath, 1968 Original Star Trek Series.

“It the ends don’t justify the means, then what does?
-Robert Moses

Being topical is a mixed blessing when it comes to movies. Writers and directors strive to stand apart from the times and render an objective truth… most often this leads to unintentionally confirming that they are as blind as everyone else.  The poster-child for being imprisoned in the zeitgeist would be “Pray for the Wildcats”. Only a PhD in sociology or a rabid connoisseur of kitsch would recall this 1974 TV “movie of the week” which paired Andy Griffith, a fierce California industrialist, with William Shatner, a local advertising executive, on a motorcycle trip through the wilds of Baja Mexico. This journey becomes a exploration of raging rift between corporate aggressiveness  vs. counter-culture harmony with the denouement being the protagonist driving of a cliff to his demise. This work was made at the tail end of the disastrous Vietnam war when hippies and construction workers were squaring off in the the streets and many took refuge in a “back to the earth” movement. The filmmakers made a statement… just not the one they intended. This is a monument to artistic overreach and gives new meaning to the phrase “drive off a cliff”. The writers and directors were, metaphorically,  the uneasy riders in the wake of the seminal “Easy Rider”.  In the age of Trump, where the economic divide is front and center, we have the spiritual descendant of this forgettable TV adventure.

 “Beatriz at Dinner” is more weighty than “Wildcats” but it ends with the protagonist… well there was no motorcycle but… This is another social commentary with, yet another, California mogul squaring off against a child of a ‘south-of-the-border’ Eden. Her name is Beatriz… probably after Beatrice, Dante’s chosen guide to heaven in the The Divine Comedy. Beatriz has a shaman-like presence that suggests she experienced a Christian “Beatific Vision”… a personal, individual encounter with God. In this film our hero meets God’s nemesis, who takes the form of successful real estate developer, Doug Strutt, played by John Lithgow.  The setting is a posh Orange County gated community where, Beatriz, a beloved Central American masseuse, unwittingly becomes a foil against a group of caucasian establishment figures. Beatriz is victorious; or more correctly, Beatriz is victorious? The ambiguity is the weakness of this set-piece drama. It is a polemic that is uncomfortable being… a polemic. It wants to be a larger philosophical meditation where people stumble upon larger questions over a meal. The Louis Malle's 1981 feature film, “My Dinner with Andre”, managed to successfully portray two friends weighing life's journey while dining.  “Beatriz at Dinner” is, at heart, a more conventional political commentary. One thinks this as an non-action extended exploration of characters in political soap operas such as "House of Cards" or "The West Wing".

Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White side with Beatriz, however, judging by the character portraits, they are more at home with the ruling class. The wealthy white people and their servants are pitch perfect. There is the preppy cook who is pleasant, professional and cold as ice. There is the older Latina maid who is expert at not being noticed. There is the rare moment when the domestic breaks “character” to reach out to Beatriz - only to find the heroine is NOT a fellow traveler. The menus and drink options are appropriate and highlight Beatriz’s isolation from the world of scotch drinkers and meat eaters. She is gracefully given her water and vegetarian entree.. but this kindness is tinged with difference. The conversation and greetings also highlight the class/culture divide. The caucasians are put off by Beatriz’s full body hug and her inability to play along with the gossip. Beatriz is serious when the moment demands levity and insulted by what passes for mere banter. What is the big deal about Strutt showing off his photos from a hunting safari? There is the quick bit of dialogue, “Everyone knows those animals wouldn’t exist without the hunting revenue?”. Beatriz disagrees with this and other passing quips.  It would be easy to fall into the trap of making the rich representatives of the evils of their class (e.g. the neighbors in Mike Leigh’s “High Hopes). This group of successful strivers have feelings. The spouse of the businessman throwing the party is sympathetic and empathetic. She genuinely cares about Beatriz and credits her with saving her child from the ravages of cancer. Unfortunately she is unable to escape her rich-lady cocoon of insensitivity.  It takes her far too long to register that Beatriz is at the breaking point well before her car broke down. The Lady of the house rises to the occasion and INSISTS Beatriz stay the night including attending a dinner with her husband’s best client.  Her husband, Grant, is skeptical. His attitude towards Beatriz is akin to Czar Nichols’ tolerating Rasputin as his spouse believes he is responsible for their son’s recovery from certain death. Like the last Russian Royal, Grant reluctantly acquiesces ending in complete disaster. Everyone was expecting a quiet self-congratulatory evening celebrating the closing of a large real-estate transaction. Dinner turns into Cortes savaging Montezuma. 

This battle of civilization rests on the question posed by the lyricist Hal David in the classic song “Alfie”, “Are we meant to take more than we give?”. Doug Strutt doesn’t really understand the premise as, in his mind, the point of living is to MAKE SURE you take more than you give. The dinner party shows the guest of honor’s bleak world view. There are his asides about crushing those in his way and skirting tiresome rules. His joking about “not knowing you” if you get caught is met with laughter… but one wonders what the other guest-couple is thinking. The husband is a political fixer, a master of the political sausage making process. If one of his unsavory tactics was exposed it is clear Strutt would throw him under the bus. The fixer’s spouse’s grimace seems to grow broader as the evening unfolds. She understands Strutt sees the world as a place to be developed. Every encounter is a transaction to be measured in this lens. Friends are people who help Strutt get paid… until they don’t… then they become enemies.  Everyone else is an other overt or covert enemy. His pleasures consist of having sycophants fawn on him (including his partner) and killing large game animals. Beatriz gets under his skin… literally. There is a moment when she spontaneously give him a back massage. Here power is revealed. The beast is, momentarily, at rest. Strutt realizes she is a force.  In a rare moment towards the end of the film he lets down his guard and speaks genuinely about his agenda. His view: the ship is sinking… why fret? Just get as much as you can FOR YOURSELF. He seems to admonish Beatriz to grow up and stop pretending everyone else isn’t thinking the same way. Beatriz is having none of it. Her displaced family and long lost friends chose to path of righteousness, only to lose all their wordy possessions. They are on the  God’s side and no amount of demagogy will sway her. She will retain her dignity… but pay the price. Unfortunately the result is not even a pyrrhic victory. But does the film show defeat? The problem in representing the essence of goodness is how to defend against the ravages of evil. As one young Buddhist remarked: “The Dalai Lama has got 12 bodyguards around him when he travels. What do you think would happen if some butthead pulled a gun on HIs Holiness? Do you think those bodyguards would practice non-violence? No way man. Some dweeb with a gun shows up , he’s gonna pop a cap in his ass”*. And so it is with Beatriz… as a disciple of Gaia, how do you stop the rapist of mother earth? The filmmakers are very good at drawing the devil but are less successful when rendering the forces of good. 

Is Beatriz an failed exorcist? A disenchanted savior? Has the Archangel Gabriel laid down his sword? The first, and most successful, portion of the film, shows her as awkward observer with the veneer of being “a part of the family”. The matriarch is sincere in her love of Beatriz but is unable to fathom the chasm between her and this group of ruling-class strivers.  As the guests arrive she stands at a distance as an observer. Her gait and manner are stilted. She frets over her dress in the mirror. Then Strutt throws down the gauntlet, in error, by mistaking her for a servant and asking her to fetch another drink. The patriarch correct’s the tycoon’s faux pas but Beatrix comes alive and asks the host for a re-fill. The alcohol fuels an honesty and boldness that Strutt correctly views as a frontal assault on everything he holds dear. This begins a strange journey into understanding Beatriz as a foil for good. The oddness rests in not fully grasping her character. She is an odd amalgamation of having tremendous worldly insight cloaked in utter cluelessness. She can hold her own in the world. She has, against all odds, landed a good job, good apartment, good connections… She knows how to navigate the internet. Yet she seems a babe in the woods during the dinner party. She drips with sincerity and is lost at the cruel humor and ass-kissing. Her revulsion towards Strutt seems oddly inappropriate. He is a horror but she would seem to possess a better understanding of the rules of the game. Is it the alcohol that blurs her judgement? After hurling Strutt’s smartphone at him for showing off his kill (literally a rhino) she retreats to the cancer stricken daughter’s room for a timeout. Our innocent then “googles” Strutt via the internet… His nasty track record includes the revelation that he might be the force behind the destruction of her Eden-like childhood village. Her backstory’s brutality extends to her own family. Her father has some Strutt-like qualities. There is an aside where she describes enduring her rough-neck fisherman father begin her to kill and torture a rare animal. Her life work seems an answer to his cruelty. She reaches out, via her smartphone, to a life-long friend. This soul-mate never returns the call. The inscrutability of her character leads to wondering about the existence of this person. Is this a metaphorical “reaching out” or does Bestriz have real friends? The filmmakers show her only true companion to be a dead white goat…This unfortunate animal shares the fate of the poor creature whom her father kicked do death on the fishing peer. The buck is murdered by a neighbor who complained about the noise. Is this goat’s death the source of Beatriz’s inability to contain her rage towards Strutt?…. or, once again, was it the wine.. or both, or neither. 

The last third of the film takes refuge in abstraction. Beatriz returns to serenade the offended guests with a beautiful ballad. Her voice matches her touch in having an unworldly ability to calm and heal. Despite the respite there is a sense that something is going to happen… and it does…. Beatriz has a strange communion with a dark patch on the ocean. There is the encounter with Strutt, where he bares his soul followed by a bifurcation of action. Note to artists: having two endings creates no ending rather than a better one. (e.g. Mark Romanek’s “One Hour Photo”).  “Beatriz at Dinner” gives us a violent dream sequence, where revenge is exacted… followed by an almost Antonioni-like disappearance into the surf. This crisp set-piece devolves into pop ambiguity of incomprehensible rock songs. To quote the Cars: “It doesn’t matter where you’ve been, as long as it was deep, yeah”. 

It’s difficult to shift from straightforward class commentary to abstract musings about the fate of Gaia’s disciple. Part of the problem was invoking the tension between Central America the the United States. This is a gruesome, complicated history that has no place in a compact meditation on Trumpism. Last week a tower of skulls was discovered in the heart of the Aztec empire. The structure was built from victims of ritual sacrifice including women, children in addition to warriors. ( ). Cortes’ men had described this terrifying building. For centuries it was thought to be merely a poetic flourish to highlight the brutishness of the supposed “heathens”. It turns out the imaginary prelapsarian native world was more Garden of Earthly Delights than Eden. This isn’t a justification for Cortes’ savagery but an illustration the difficulty shoe-horning Salma Hayek into being the beneficent magic negress. The incarnation of native righteousness might have sprung from life as another skull in the wall. Not exactly a comforting building block of paradise. Beatriz cannot be Dante’s tour guide of the heavens as she is NOT in a divine comedy. Her world is a solid, competently executed, well-made-play featuring contemporary political issues. Substituting divinity for partisanship is an attempt to place the artwork’s message is above the fray. Unfortunately the tree of knowledge isn’t planted in the well manicured lawns of Orange County… nor is it in  the amorphous haze of the pacific surf. 

The ambiguity of the ending covers a confusion about the weightiness of the drama. This is a set-piece which beautifully illustrates contemporary American political strife. The canonization of the Latina undercuts the power of the story. The terra-firma of direct action with a knife, one of the paths shown in the film, has clarity. This lies in contrast to the fog of imaginary friends in imaginary worlds communing with imaginary white goats. This film needed to stay the course of social commentary and concrete story-telling rather than attempt a universal truth. In short, Strutt needed to get his ass capped. Obviously the filmmakers were nervous about demonizing the heroin. This accounts for the artistic overreach. Ironically bestowing sainthood had the effect of distancing her from the audience. The nemesis, strangely, becomes dearer to our hearts by being real. John Lithgow is mesmerizing delivering his brief. Salma Hayek, with no makeup and ill fitting clothes, has never been more beautiful. It’s too bad the writer and director felt she needed a pedestal. They killed Beatriz thinking it would make her right, but it felt wrong. Ironically if Beatriz had killed Strutt, she would have been wrong, but the film would have felt right. We needed a murderer to argue about and they gave us a martyr… we need not pray to our lady of Beatriz. Her salvation would be in better art. Remember “Pray for the Wildcats” and the perils of going off the “cliff of deepness”. Knowing you’re mediocre is better than pretending you’re great. This is something people of all political stripes can rally around. One imagines Beatriz and Strutt in front of the TV. He has his scotch and she pets her goat. They are watching the opening of “Pray for the Wildcats”. She says this is ridiculous. He nods in agreement. Then they argue about what to watch. He kills her goat. She kills him. The cops are called and we all argue about who is right after seeing it on the evening news. 

Music Downtown: Writing from the Village Voice by Kyle Gann, page 277

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