Friday, August 13, 2010

Say Goodbye

I watched The Blind Side last night on pay-per-view. It's one of those movies I wanted to see just because of its zeitgeist purity, but also dreaded seeing because of the zeitgeist subject matter: Southern upper-middle-class white family "saves" a homeless African American high school football player from the ghetto. Based on a true story no less.

But The Blind Side blindsided me. It has a big-hearted tenacity to it, and while it is completely sentimental, the sentimentality is rooted in the excitement caused by being a do-gooder even when no one asks you to. In fact, it's the last thing most people want you to do. This seems to be the drug Bullock's Leigh Anne Tuohy is on: she really digs doing the right thing especially when it mystifies and even pisses off her family and friends. Her altruism has a shock value she enjoys, and Bullock allows that renegade spirit to shine through the right-wing polish and make-up.

Bullock's stubbornness gives The Blind Side its grit. But Quinton Aaron's performance as Big Mike gives the movie its gravity. He emboldens the orphaned left-tackle with a spirit that flickers with tenderness and fury. He is comically scary at times in the movie -- pushing little girls in their swings on the Christian school playground kind of like Frankenstein -- but then there's the scene where he washes his t-shirt out in a laundromat sink and then sticks it in a dryer and sits, contemplating the quiet and the loneliness, but also somehow savoring it all too. Aaron's triumph is that he suffuses each of his scenes with that quiet, self-taught fierceness, and he produces not just a pathetic sweet figure, but a true hero.

The movie coalesces around what "heroism" is actually: Leigh Anne Tuohy's stubborn allegiance to her true feelings of generosity and kindness, and Michael Ohler's stubborn resourcefulness and intense need to succeed, even though he does not know exactly what that "success" means. Both characters' heroic natures come from their "outsiderness." That's the movie's structure: Big Mike, the ultimate outsider, in taken into the fold, but in the process Leigh Anne Tuohy begins to understand what it means to be "outside" of her own privilege and class. The journey she's taking is pretty cushy of course, and it pales in comparison to the strife and struggle involved in Big Mike's transformation from homeless orphan to college student to pro-football recruit, but still the plot of The Blind Side pivots on the connection the two of them make, and the benefits of being outside of what's normal in order to eventually find a way to be sane.

This narrative of the insider becoming the outsider in order to allow the outsider in is a direct descendant of the plot to a movie that came down the pike in 1994. Also based on a true story, and a play before it was turned into a film by Fred Schepisi and playwright John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation stars Stockard Channing as Louisa Kittregde, a Manhattan socialite who is conned by Will Smith's Paul, an African American homeless gay man who craves insider status so bad he feigns injury and risks everything to become a part of Louisa's elegant, elite universe.

Will Smith's performance in Six Degrees is both vulnerable and vengeful; a beautiful blend of resentment, envy and love registers in just about every move he makes, and those moves in turn are watched by Louisa with an intense interest and yearning. Stockard Channing's Louisa, like Bullock's Leigh Anne, is a stylish, head-strong dame who stumbles upon a new identity, and new meaning, by empathizing with someone totally outside of her realm. It's an act of imagination really, a creative exercise in which Louisa re-creates herself by finding Paul's desire within herself.

The denouement of Six Degrees occurs when Paul finally pulls one con too many and becomes a criminal outcast sought by the cops. Louisa still cannot give up on him. Like Leigh Anne Tuohy's desire to adopt Michael, Louisa must save Paul; unlike Leigh Anne she can't because the stakes are too high, and Paul is too much of an outsider to pull into her world in one piece. This creates a tragic but cathartic ending, in which Louisa is at a luncheon with her high-society tribe, and everyone is asking her to "tell the story about that boy," that really entertaining anecdote about how she and her husband almost had their throats slashed, etc. Everyone at the luncheon table stares at Louisa, wanting all the juicy details without any of the reality or meaning or cost.

Finally Louisa breaks down and turns into a prophet, wondering outloud if Paul, who was taken into custody weeks before and absorbed into the system, has killed himself, and if "the anecdote" they all want will be the only thing left of him. She lets them know how "paltry" all their lives are, and yet that was all Paul yearned for: to be like them, to live like them. At the very end of the movie she can no longer stand her own superficiality. She breaks away both from her society and her husband. She is an outsider walking the city streets.

"Outsiderness" is a concept that gets overused. You know it has become a cliche, of course, when Sarah Palin rallies the troops around it. In the world of art and art-making, it has become an even bigger cliche, a way to type and often disregard artists who don't have a pedigree or a status significant enough to allow them in. What both these movies tell us about "outsiderness" is that the outsider truly is not the main entity that needs to be "helped." Both Leigh Anne Tuohy and Louisa Kittredge are upper-class ladies who have to realize how meaningless their lives are in order to live the lives they need to. Michael and Paul, the outsiders they come across who cause their epiphanies, are survivors; they need a roof over their heads and they need someone to stick up for them, but it is obvious they have strength far beyond their predicaments. Louisa and Leigh Anne need to connect with that strength in order to shake themselves out of their complacency.

So "outsiderness" is not about the outsider. It's about the insider mainly, and how that status must always be questioned and reinvented. The grandaddy of the concept of "outsider art," Jean Dubuffet writes, "Unless one says goodbye to what one loves, and unless one travels to completely new territories, one can expect merely a long wearing away of oneself and an eventual extinction.”

"Outsider art" as a concept often ossifies into a trope: untrained people making untrained art. Isn't that nice? But in actuality "outsider art" and the idea of "outsiderness" is about how training and tradition and insularity often lead to extinction. An infusion of what is uncomfortable, what is true, always has to make an appearance.

In The Blind Side there's a wonderful moment when the Tuohy's are having their Christmas card picture taken. Leigh Anne asks Michael to join the photo session. His presence in the family portrait is both jarring and sincere. Leigh Anne is "outing" the whole family as a group of people unsatisfied with who they are, and willing to let the stranger share center-stage. That strangeness becomes the way out of themselves.