Friday, August 1, 2014

Walking the Right of Way

A number of weeks ago, our table flooded with red wine and remnants of local meat, some friends of mine and I discussed the vehement trend in contemporary independent films: reaching so hard for subdued, quiet moments with emotionally violent characters where nothing is at stake. These films reek in their efforts for subtlety, for sympathy, for connectivity, for that actually quite challenging balance of celebration of the banal and the unique but universal feeling of daily human interaction. We laughed and joked, disinterested with the romantic entanglements and affairs of the bored housewife, the pathetic attempts of the dead-beat father to reach his angst-fueled son. Many of these films are attempting to penetrate a realm where some of my favorite and most beloved literature holds reign: the short fiction of Raymond Carver, John Cheever, Lydia Davis. Precise and concise, with purposeful and profound small moments, magnificent in the way they touch you, course through like a sharp synapse. 

Weary from an exhausting day of cubicle-languishing and computer screen glare, the other evening I relaxed with The Station Agent, about a decade old but recently lauded by friends and family. A beautiful story softly unfurls, three unlikely strangers, each with diverse burdens to bear and accompanying defense mechanisms to cope, forge a compelling and believable friendship. The protagonist, Fin, a dwarf, dons a misanthropic cloak, a hardened shell he thinks will protect him from what he perceives to be the innate cruelty. He seeks solitude in an abandoned train station property inherited from his sole friend, who dies within the first minutes of the film, proclaims himself a pariah, and greets those around him with a brusque demeanor  and incredulity. His becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy: he expects meanness, acts mean to others, and so many people often reciprocate. That being said, he is not completely foolish and unjustified in his expectations; scenes of mild humiliation, from the obvious long stare of a passerby to the snap of a photograph by a store proprietor, to scenes of greater tumbles with flagrant ignorant threats and stupidity serve as a foundation and a reminder to the viewer that despite the displays of kindness and of generosity by some, Fin's life is one fettered with prejudice and adversity. These moments are not bombastic or overly wrought, and as they are interspersed with times when Fin meets others with insensitivities, they are realistic in their portrayal. Olivia, the second in the trio of misfits, is a middle-aged woman, separated from her typically bland wealthy husband, and is equally cloaked in an intense grief over the sudden death of her young son. Similar to Fin, Olivia seeks solitude in her empty and impressive vacation home in this remote rural town, paints large canvases, avoids telephone calls and visitors. Joe, the gregarious son of local coffee and food truck vendor, tempers the group and the tone of the film, but is not without his own struggles; his father, local celebrity who we never meet, is ill and he has abandoned his busy urban life to care for him. In a way, the lack of background for Joe, the sense that coming to this small town was obligation, rather than choice as it was for Fin and Olivia, earn his character a similar sense of pathos; he, too, exhibits emotional fortitude in the face of mountainous problems, but in choosing to do so with a grin and a healthy dose of confidence, he helps save the film from the realm of doldrums, steers the film away from trite. 

Despite their occasionally successful efforts to alienate the others, Fin, Olivia, and Joe connect, surprise themselves even at how easy it can be, despite ostensible differences, to laugh with one another, to get drunk with one another, to speak about life, or not speak about life, until late in the night with one another. Fin's passion for and knowledge of trains, an interest that has escalated to obsession and a mechanism for alienation, infects both Olivia and Joe. As they accompany Fin on his excursions walking the right of way, the train fascination framework fades, is a device that becomes less important, merely a vehicle for their growing bonds. An interest in bird watching, or old model cars, or baking, or ceramics, all also activities fit for those with a proclivity for solace, could have been substituted. For each, in their own way grappling with grief, wanting to sink into a familiar sludge of loneliness and self-pity, life unveils wonder again, adventure again, as they trudge along the train tracks, passing bucolic views, abandoned stations. Thankfully, this is all accomplished with a delicate directorial hand, astute writing, and beautiful acting. I truly believed in this troupe, in their genuine affections and respect for one another.

In some ways, Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Bobby Cannavale play familiar variations of other characters they have played before or since, familiar tropes: the sage misanthrope who is misunderstood and also gets trapped by his own myopic views, the grieving mother who can barely survive after the death of her child and marriage, the buffon who offers comedic relief but wants also to be heard and taken seriously. Each actor is magnificent, well directed, and avoids maneuvering into a realm of caricature. 

While this is certainly a film on friendship, on unlikely meetings and surprise relationships despite the best attempts at misanthropy, romantic tension, a sense of yearning is inherent to these relationships, among Fin, Olivia, and Joe, as well as some of the other side characters. I am sure for many, the flirtatious back and forth, the sort of tenuous attraction, between Fin and local librarian, Emily, is a central point of interest in the trajectory of the film. I was ensnared by more subdued, and I think poignant moments: the interactions between Fin and a chubby, African-American grade school girl, Cleo. She is naturally curious about Fin, about his love for trains, his life in the old abandoned station, and he, failing to see the innocence of her curiosity, is frustrated and wary, spurning her friendly advances, her earnest questions. Throughout the course of the story, Cleo adamant in her decision to cultivate an interest in trains as well, Fin eventually comes to realize that she, as a fat girl with darker skin than most of her peers, may be subject to similar stares, similar ostracism. With her persistent attempts to befriend him, to show she cares, through exploring old rail cars, walking the tracks, and, ultimately, inviting Fin to speak about trains to her class, Cleo coaxes Fin out of his proverbial pity shell.

"Walking the right of way" has its colloquial grounding in the times of governmental imminent domain during the epoch of burgeoning industries; as the railroads were built, for transport and commerce, private property was seized. The rails had the right of way, to build bridges between cities, across the land. As the characters trek along the tracks, walking the right of way reveals itself as a grander metaphor: moving forward through life, persevering, thriving, even against some inexplicable power of fate, some authority. There is challenge we can alter, change, and challenge that we cannot, but with the solace of others, we can endure.

(image taken from Superior Pics)    

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