Travels

Curriculum Vitae

About The Lookout

What follows is a lightly edited (and corrected) letter to a correspondent and friend who recommended that I rent and watch The Lookout, a picture that I don't even recall seeing advertized. Written and directed by Scott Frank, it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, and Jeff Daniels. Very roughly, it's about the difficulties that Mr Gordon-Levitt's character has in reconstructing his life after sustaining a head injury in an automobile crash for which he was irresponsibly responsible, Two of his friends were killed, another also severely wounded. The "problem" aspects of the plot, predictably, yield a certain "made for TV" quality that is not entirely overcome until the second half of the film.

We watched the movie on Saturday night. The first thing that I wanted to do on Sunday morning was to write a report to my friend, telling her no less about the circumstances in which I saw the video than about the kind of critical response that might show up in one of my "Friday Movies" pieces. I see the movies covered in "Friday movies" in theatres, and if nothing else my letter backs up my insistence that I can respond to a film far more intensely on the small screen at home than on the big screen in public. I don't seem to meld with audiences in the dark; the everyday detachment that gets me from my flat to the movie house follows me into the auditorium. At home, I am far more defenselessly at the mercy of what I'm watching.

The following rough synopsis ought to make my letter at least fairly comprehensible: a creep called Gary Spargo (Mr Goode) uses his girlfriend, Luvlee (Ms Fisher), as an enticement to engage Chris (Mr Gordon-Levitt) as a lookout in a robbery that Gary has planned for a bank where Chris works as a night janitor (despite his upper-middle class background), and where Mr Tuttle is the manager who won't give Chris a chance to step up to teller. That Gary's plans will miscarry is never in the slightest doubt, especially once we get to know a cop (Sergio di Zio) who likes to stop by the bank every night to share a box of doughnuts with Chris. Viewers familiar with Woody Allen's Match Point may have no trouble recognizing Mr Goode's face, but nothing else about him will be remotely familiar. Bone, Gary's shooter, is played by a nasty-looking Greg Dunham. Jeff Daniels plays Lewis, a blind man with whom the local social workers have hooked Chris up with as a flatmate.

Thanks for recommending The Lookout. I say that, having  barely got past the mid-section, when Gary was seducing Chris into participating in the bank robbery. I found this terribly upsetting. Kathleen, who enjoyed the film all the way through, suggested that I turn it off. I wasn't feeling well. I'd done too much housework - the first housework that I'd done in over a month (and, oh, the dust!) - and I'd hurt myself a little, not irreparably, I hope, reaching high over a bookcase to replace a boxed set of CDs. Ouch! My eyes were dry and I was very, very cold. The heat hadn't been turned on yet, but it couldn't have been just that, because Kathleen, who's the house lizard, was perfectly comfortable stretched out with her knitting and not so much as a small afghan on her legs. I was tired, and worried about coming down with a cold. I'd had a great day, if one of quiet satisfactions, and The Lookout, given this jumble of circumstances that I've tossed out in no particular order, was the wrong movie for me. If I had chosen it myself, curious, from the "new releases" shelf at the Video Room, I'd have turned it off with the idea of, maybe, seeing the rest today. But I didn't want to disappoint you. I can hear you crying "What? Disappoint me? I was just recommending a movie that my husband and I liked. You didn't have to!" But I can also hear a more internal whisper: he's right; I'd have been disappointed if he hadn't seen it all the way through.

What's curious to me is your calling it a "small film." I can see that it was made on a budget, with some totally television production values (especially in the outdoor audio), and there were a few glossy (= well-worn) plot points, such as the handling of Chris's parents, which ought to have included at least one frank scene in which these high-achievers sobbed over and acknowledged their inability to root for their son now that he was no longer on a fast track to anywhere. And the whole Mr Tuttle thing was extremely lazy. But The Lookout is a big film all the same - a big, scary film. Perhaps it's my (healing) broken neck. I, too, have had a head injury of sorts, and I feel strangely (newly) vulnerable. That I am about to turn sixty, and no longer much invested in proving my independence and masculinity, only intensifies the protectiveness that I felt toward Chris. If I'd been his dad, things would have been very different. I would have made sure that no Gary could come along with that siren call about money and power.

I don't know if you're familiar with the legal doctrine of felony murder, but I am, and I think that it's one of the most disgraceful injustices in American jurisprudence. In real life, Chris would have been put away for life as an accomplice to Bone, who shot and killed the cop. Guilt by association - the very thing that this country was, for the most part, designed to thwart. I was very glad that things worked out differently for Chris, but during the middle part of the picture I was simply sick with anxiety because I knew that the cop would be killed in the course of the robbery. (Everything about his role signaled this, but nothing more fatally than his expectant fatherhood.) Poor Chris, in over his head, "disinhibited" about sex and disabled at "sequencing," would lose what little he had left of his life to a legal system that would unjustly but inexorably hold him to an unrealistic standard of responsibility. I kept pausing the DVD for bathroom breaks.

The possibility that Chris would use his disorder, or at least the things that he had learned about coping with it, to vanquish Gary and his gang didn't occur to me until it became explicit, with Lewis's voice saying "Begin at the end." How interesting! Chris might not be able to work out consequences, but he could deal with the sine qua non, which, until just now, I'd never realized is just the opposite of a consequence. "If you do this, then that will happen." Chris couldn't handle that. But "If you want that to happen, you have to do this" presented no difficulty at all. I don't know if this is psychologically plausible, but I suspect that it is, since, as we're learning more and more about the brain, our ideas about how we think bear little relation to reality. Tasks are parceled out in odd, counterintuitive ways. It didn't matter in the end, because the dénouement was so dramatically satisfying. Chris worked out all the details, right down to presenting himself to Gary as a hopeless moron who wouldn't forget where he buried the money because there would be only one place that he could be sure of remembering. Watching Chris "play" Gary naturally repolarized the film; what had been sickening was now exultant.

If I hadn't felt lousy, I wouldn't have been of "so little faith." But if I hadn't wanted not to disappoint you, I'd have turned off the movie and climbed into bed, very disturbed. I was still pretty disturbed as it was. I have, in case you haven't noticed, a deep dread of the American heartland, and the farther I get from large bodies of water the more uncomfortable I am. The more uncomfortable and the more depressed. I could never survive at Notre Dame now, for example, even though I'm convinced that I received one of the best possible educations there. There is, to me, something drained about Midwestern life. I don't belabor the point, because every other nice guy whom I seem to meet here in Manhattan through blogging turns out to be a refugee from Ohio - and Ohio is at least near a Great Lake. Jonathan Franzen may still be a neighbor - he addressed me as a "fellow Yorkvillian" in our one exchange of letters - or he may be giving California another chance, but he is almost certainly not trying to find happiness in his native St Louis. I may look like a Northeastern snob because I was actually born on this island and raised sixteen miles from Times Square, but that really just makes me a little more thoughtless and carefree about where I live than the thousands of people who have left families - often loving families - and familiar landscapes behind, not because they need the excitement of city life but because New York is the only escape from America that doesn't require a new passport.

The Lookout, in short, is to me an ultra-American movie. The idea of driving along country roads with the headlights off, the better to delight in swarms of lightning bugs - it's so entitled, as that word is pejoratively thrown around these days.

I crawled into bed and Kathleen talked to me and told me to take deep breaths, which, together with a tab of Rozerem and perhaps the help of a cup of rather chemical-tasting Ghirardelli hot cocoa, did put me to sleep. But I had a hard time shaking the feeling that, instead of being at home, I was in a motel room in the middle of Kansas, wishing that I could get warmer under the thin blankets. (It was very odd to wake up at six and find that I hadn't thrown off the fleece blanket atop the very heavy afghan - I call it "my mink" - that Kathleen knitted for me a few years ago; I may indeed be coming down with something.) I hope that you understand, my friend, that I'm telling you all of this not to complain about your recommendation but to thank you with a full report of the effect that The Lookout had on me. If I haven't said a word about the actors, all of whom were very good at least (although I sensed something slightly phoned-in about Jeff Daniels's performance), it's because the movie hit me too hard as a movie - there were no "actors." I'm ordinarily able to watch films from several levels of detachment even when I'm completely hooked on the story, but The Lookout overwhelmed that capacity. For all its limitations, it went straight to the heart of a troubled part of me. I may never watch it again, but I'll never ever forget it.

"Small," you say? "Small"? You've got to be kidding.

Kathleen, as I say, liked The Lookout very much, if in a less complicated way, and she wanted me to thank you for the recommendation. As, of course, do I.

(October 2007)

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