Issue #18: When Will the Lies End? 🤨
A New Leaf + The Farewell
Summer's over kiddos! Maybe not officially, but certainly in our hearts. We're out of the heatwave, we're eating the last of our ice cream cake, we're pulling out our light sweaters. All good things come to an end, and hopefully, bad things end eventually too.
Is that the whole truth? Maybe—for instance, 30 minutes after I wrote this intro I learned we're in for another heatwave tomorrow. The truth is rarely easily dilutable, as our films this week know. Sometimes lies contain more truth than the things that are factual and sometimes the truth is concrete and inflexible. Read on for Zosha on A New Leaf, and Cate on The Farewell, and our considerations of the half-truths and outright lies therein.
Zosha on A New Leaf
Written and directed by: Elaine May
Distributed by: Paramount Pictures
Elaine May is, among many, known first and foremost for her wickedness. I say this absolute reverence; see the story about her walking into her theater on a windy Chicago day and some man asked her “Hi, Elaine, did you bring your broomstick?” to which she immediately lobbed back “Why, do you want something up your ass?” Even as she shirked from the spotlight her wit was so tremendous that she was the uncredited script doctor on countless scripts throughout decades of Hollywood productions, and frightened Richard Burton, who wrote of her in his diary: “Elaine was too formidable…one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.” Honest to god how we should all aspire to live our lives.
These are important facets to keep in the back of your mind as you watch A New Leaf, which is about a decidedly, deeply unpleasant man. When we first meet Henry Graham (Walter Matthau) he is speaking of his beloved Ferrari with the same reverence one would normally reserve for a person (something May, of course, milks for all its worth in her opening shots). He cares not for other people, nor their thoughts, and certainly not for them impeding his lifestyle, of which he has recently been informed has taken all his money and then some. So he decides that within six weeks he will marry a rich woman and kill her so he can continue his life of affluent aloofness.
It is a setup that is both much crueler than it seems in May’s hands, and treated as deservedly corrupt. Her fast wit and penchant for physical and visual gags make the whole thing feel like a power walk, even as the movie moves at a languid place. It is methodical how she sets up Henry to be completely dislikable and yet pushes the bounds of the audience to identify with, support him. The film has an air of ice-cold goofiness, especially once Henrietta Lowell (May) shows up, all elbows and left feet.
As the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, we are left to ponder how exactly these arcs will finish the movie off—will Henry come around and wisen up to the cruelty of his plans? Henrietta must be aware of the contempt that her husband shows for her? Who in her circle can awaken her to the dangerous plot she finds herself within?
In a simpler film it would be one of these outcomes, and it would be far more traditional. Henry’s slowly dawning love would melt his icy heart, or else he’d realize that he is verging on (if not well within) the bounds of sociopathy. Henrietta would pull a Glenne Headly and reveal she’s known the whole time. But all of these forget that May is deliciously wicked.
Despite following traditional screenwriting rules (Henry gets his need, but not his want!), A New Leaf is deeply cynical about the state of this marriage. When Henry finally does find a way to kill Henrietta—by letting her drown on their camping trip after their canoe tips over—he gets distracted by the plant she discovered and named after him. We are not really privy to what ultimately sways him to go back in the water during this moment; it’s certainly not his wife’s incapacitation, which he ignores to a disturbingly strong degree. Once she’s out, she continues asking if he’d consider teaching history at the nearby university, and he shrugs and accepts.
A New Leaf is atonal strictly by the fact that these two protagonists are existing in different moves: May is pitch perfect as the clumsy, rumpled Henrietta, always with at least one head in the clouds. Matthau is brash and devious, game for whatever lengths May wants to push Henry to. She wants love that fully embraces her eccentricities. He wants her money. In the end, they both find what they want on that riverbank, and ultimately no one seems to be the wiser to the much darker ending she seemed destined towards. The magic of May’s wickedness is that despite Henry’s last-minute change of heart, we really do think that these two crazy kids are about to go find their way out of the woods, literally and metaphorically. Knowing what we know it is a near-bleak ending. In the hands of May, it’s just one more new leaf.
Cate on The Farewell
Written and directed by: Lulu Wang
Distributed by: A24
I really wanted to love this movie. The Farewell has been on my watchlist since it premiered at Sundance in 2019, and I’d heard nothing but wonderful things about the culturally specific Chinese-American story that director Lulu Want had created, using her own family as the conduit. I knew going in what the lie at the center of the film was, and I knew that the film was critically acclaimed. But I’m on record as having an extremely low tolerance for immorality in my fictional characters, and part of me thinks I avoided it for a year so that I’d never had to deal with the conflict of disliking its premise. But alas, here I am—a lover of Lulu Wang, who strongly disliked this film.
In The Farewell, Billi (Awkwafina) discovers that her beloved grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen) is dying of cancer. Not only had her entire extended family hidden this diagnosis from her, but they had also withheld it from Nai Nai herself. In order to say goodbye, the family is congregating in China for the first time in years under the pretense of a family wedding.
Part of the issue with this film is that it isn’t hypothetical. If it were merely a fictional story about an ethical dilemma at the meeting of two cultures, it would be much easier to digest in the abstract. The movie wants you to believe that there are no easy answers, and Billi’s struggle to keep the secret from her grandmother acts as the audience’s way into what is a fairly cut and dry situation from a Western perspective. As she notes in a scene late in the movie, her grandfather’s disappearance from her life as a young child had a profound effect on her. Not having the opportunity to mourn his loss robbed her of a healthy relationship to death.
But unfortunately, there are easy answers here, and The Farewell did not do a good enough job of convincing me that this lie was necessary or ethical. The closest it comes is in a conversation between Billi and her uncle Haibin (Jiang Yongbo). He tells her that the reason to tell the lie is to free Nai Nai of the burden of fearing death. As a collective community, the family bears that pain together so that she doesn’t have to. It’s a wonderful sentiment and it almost tracks. It is undoubtedly selfless and beautiful to come together to spare someone you love pain. But this Wang family’s lie feels infantilizing and unkind. Nai Nai is not a young woman. Whether by cancer or otherwise, she would always have been aware of the nature of her mortality.
I am lucky enough to have grown up with both of my grandmothers. They are incredible women and I have benefited greatly from having them in my life. But they are also old women. One has extensively planned her funeral and the other is constantly making casual comments about the fact that she will be dead soon. Neither is under any illusions that they are immortal. Knowing that this movie was made about Lulu Wang’s grandmother, without her permission and filmed in the very neighborhood where she currently lives—because miraculously, she is STILL ALIVE—gives the film a tinge of exploitation. It’s one thing to feel the need to purge the burden of this secret through film. It’s another thing to gaslight your own grandmother for several years so that you can make your name off private medical information that hasn’t been disclosed to her. It is abhorrent to me that Wang’s grandmother found out about her own cancer from the press coverage of a movie about her life. That no one in the family would decide that the film’s rising profile necessitated a hard conversation makes this unambiguous in its inappropriateness.
For a lot of the movie, I assumed that Nai Nai was in fact in on the lie. I thought that the final twist would be that she had known all along, and was cooperating with her family for the sake of their well-being. That choice would have given Nai Nai some agency in a film that is all about her intentional ignorance. But that didn’t turn out to be the case. By the end of the film, Billi has come to understand her family’s point of view and has dedicated herself to being complicit in their lie. It’s framed as a good choice, for the good of the family. But I can’t shake the feeling that denying someone autonomy over their own body is a moral failing of the highest order. As Billi initially protests, Nai Nai might have things she wants to get in order before she goes; relationships she wants to mend or instructions she wants to leave. Denying her that opportunity feels unkind in the worst way. But what doesn’t really get addressed is that the lie also prevents the family from properly mourning their matriarch. Instead, they spend the extent of the wedding trying to hold their grief and pain inside so as not to upset Nai Nai, who likely would have wanted to comfort and reassure them.
There’s that saying “once a man, twice a child” referring to the way old age once again makes us dependent on the help of others. But old or not, Nai Nai was not a child, and her mental faculties were fully available to her. She should have been given the choice to decide the circumstances of her death instead of having them dictated to her.
Ethical considerations aside, it’s also imperative to note that The Farewell is a gorgeous film, and your mileage may vary when it comes to the potency of an ethical dilemma. Though I disagree with both Billi and Lulu Wang’s choices, the film itself does take great pains to ruminate on grief and what it means to do something wrong for the right reasons. Awkwafina gives a stellar performance as the Wang family outsider, and she brings the burden of this lie to the forefront at all times. The film does understand the culture shock inherent in its premise. It’s what the story is about. But in the end, I felt like it came to the wrong conclusion, and that wrongness was exacerbated by the meta-contextual circumstances of the making of the film.
¡Viva la Revolución!
Some links of interest this week:
Help support farmworkers who are harvesting during a pandemic, and potentially with smoke-filled air!
The Trans Women of Color Collective is accepting donations
Protecting Alaskan wildlife from mining and oil companies. You can donate to the Alaskan Wildlife Alliance, or the United Tribes of Bristol Bay, or Trout Unlimited's efforts in Bristol Bay, or the Sitka Conservation Society, or the Tongass Defense Fund. You can also sign your name to the NRDC's petitions on the subject, or the Save Bristol Bay initiative's.
This Twitter thread has a good rundown on Black cancer research and fundraising you can support in honor of Chadwick Boseman.
Assorted Internet Detritus
Zosha: Loved reading this overview of how Hollywood's obsession with the multiplex has led to a decline in middle films and changed what we consider "success" for a film. Another reminder that "cancel culture" is a "political correctness" dog whistle by another name. Thinking about how we approach risks (and which risks we approach) under COVID. Also this very technical, in-the-weeds breakdown of how Watchmen pulled off ~that~ episode.
Cate: There's lots of fun pop culture stuff on the internet this week, including A History of Movie Costars Hating Each Other, Gabrielle Union on Bring It On 20 years later, good fans getting good and gay for Wynonna Earp and a look at how nice teen movies have gotten. And lastly, a resurfacing of Chadwick Boseman's New York Times profile, on the occasion of his untimely death.
And with that we're done. For Issue #19, we'll be talking about films that leave folks to their own devices...for good or for ill. So expect essays on Ex Machina and The Lodge in your inbox soon.
Speaking our truth and yelling about movies,
Zosha + Cate <3