Isn’t There a Little Bit More to Life?
Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers Jacques Audiard’s The Beat That My Heart Skipped
Aristotle famously argues that you do not really know something unless you know its four causes. The four causes are: the material (the component matter of a thing), the form (something is what it is because it shares in a universal form), the efficient (the thing that creates another thing, for example, your parents created you), and lastly the telos (the end or function that the thing was created to fulfill). It seems to me that not enough attention has been paid to the telos or function of the work of art. The very idea that art has a function which serves humanity was attacked nearly forty years ago by Susan Sontag, in Against Interpretation. Once you assume art has a function, you are forced to interpret it and are ignoring its inherent qualities. After all, art just is. Since then we have seemingly moved from the Sontagian critique of artistic function to a general indifference on the subject. As good Aristotelians (and bad Sontagians), let’s return to the idea that art has an end and the cliché ideal that the end of art is to offer insight into our lives and world; to reinvigorate our understanding of and feeling for humanity. How much of current cinema is in agreement with the idea that art means something? Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers is chock full of humanity. Don Johnston (Bill Murray) receives an unsigned pink letter from an ex-girlfriend informing him that she gave birth to his son twenty years ago, soon after the couple split up. A veteran Don Juan, Johnston has trouble determining which of his many flings might have been the, shall we say, efficient cause. Coaxed by his mystery-enthusiast neighbor, Winston (Jeffrey Wright), Johnston reluctantly sets out on a journey to meet four ex-girlfriends and find out which one mothered his son.
Broken Flowers is beautiful to watch. There is no questioning the fact that Jarmusch is about as sensitive and masterful a filmmaker as they come. His blending of cinematographic techniques is astounding. His intimate understanding of both narrative and experimental film technique is wonderfully displayed and accentuates the film’s delicate humor. Through each of Johnston’s exes, Jarmusch pokes fun at the archetypical lifestyles of American culture.
At its core Broken Flowers is about the search for humanity. The film opens with Johnston being left by his most recent girlfriend. As she leaves, she asks him if he cares about anything; it’s clear that he does not. Although Johnston remains a withdrawn and indifferent personality throughout the film, two scenes reveal a bit of emotion. After visiting the four exes, Johnston visits a fifth ex-girlfriend’s funeral plot and mourns her death. At the very end of the film, he runs into a young man who may or may not be the son in question. Through this interaction, the audience realizes that, if only for an instant, this search did mean something to Johnston. Through this realization the protagonist experiences a little slice of human feeling that was unknown to him before.
Jacques Audiard’s remake of Fingers, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, is also about a protagonist, Thomas (Romain Duris), searching for a bit of humanity. In contrast to the indifferent and apathetic middle-aged Don Johnston, Thomas is a young hoodlum who is part of a trio of real estate agents specializing in illegal deals. He learned his trade from his father, but was taught to play the piano by his now deceased concert pianist mother. One evening, Thomas runs into his mother’s former agent who encourages Thomas to audition for representation by his agency. In the midst of unsavory acts committed by his colleagues, an affair with a partner’s wife, and his father’s dealings with a deadly Russian mobster, Thomas furiously practices for his audition under the tutelage of a Chinese pianist, who does not speak French.
As Thomas embraces the piano, he is transformed by it. His criminal activities matter less and less to him. The piano humanizes him; the aesthetic experience humanizes him. When his father is murdered by the Russian gangster and years later Thomas runs into the gangster on the street, he cannot kill the man. He is no longer the same man that he was. He walks away and goes to his wife’s (now married to his Chinese piano teacher) concert.
The Beat That My Heard Skipped is basically a gangster film, but a gangster film reminiscent of a great American depression-era film like Angels with Dirty Faces. At the end of that film, the public enemy, Rocky Sullivan (James Cagney), is able to transcend the material world and realize a higher human nature, an ethical imperative. Sullivan sheds the tough-guy image and begs for mercy as he’s taken to the electric chair. He plays chicken, so that he would not be remembered as a role-model by the impoverished youngsters who admired his criminal acts. Audiard’s Thomas drops the tough guy image and transcends the material world, finding his humanity through art. The Beat That My Heart Skipped lacks the sophistication of Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. It is neither as beautiful nor as delicately constructed, but it is a much more profound work of art.
Neither story is particularly new. In fact, Bill Murray has already played the role of the embittered middle-aged man twice before in Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zisou. In addition, the general theme of searching for one’s own humanity, which Broken Flowers and The Beat That My Heart Skipped share, is at least as old as the idea that we are alienated from some essential aspect of our being. Nevertheless, Jarmusch’s take on the theme is cynical and clichéd. All that Johnston has really learned is what he tells the young man he meets at the end of the film: that “The past is gone. The future isn’t here yet. All there is is the present.” Johnston makes a fair statement, but certainly not a profound one. Jarmusch’s intense nihilism forces his protagonist to deal with human feeling through philosophical platitudes whereas Audiard’s Thomas is transformed in a material way. Audiard has created a work of art that simultaneously offers greater insights into human experience and explicitly declares that art has a function in transforming our lives. Art becomes one of many means of salvation from alienated existence.
Jarmusch’s story resigns itself to the idea that the best one can hope for is a brief instant of human feeling. He ignores the once prominent idea that our humanity can be actualized through an engagement with the external material world, art being a part of that world. In that regard, Broken Flowers is symptomatic of a general malaise that all being human is about is having a little human feeling and not how that feeling interacts with anything external to itself. No wonder the subject of art’s function is taboo. How can art have a function that serves humanity if all being human means is ultimately about realizing some emotion for an instant and moving on? Audiard and Aristotle are much more provocative than that. Are you still Against Interpretation?