The Biutiful Occupation

It’s been a while since I’ve had to literally recover from a movie. As I write this, I haven’t yet recovered. It might take some time. It might be never. It’s like I have been inhabited by it; it’s inside of me, and I can’t tell where I end and the memory of the movie begins. When I was drinking, the alcohol would extend this effect, and I would stagger around the Upper West Side in the movie in my mind. But I’m stone cold sober now, and I can’t shake it. It’s partly because of Javier Bardem. But mostly because of Alejandro González Iñárritu. The movie is Biutiful.

I can’t tell you about it. Anything I write about here in an attempt to be descriptive will render it trite, because the themes of the movie are heroic and desperate. Think Victor Hugo. Think Theodore Dreiser. The performances are so heartbreaking and real it’s hard to watch. And the artistry of the filmmaking is overwhelming. Think Garcia-Marquez.So you’ll just have to see it yourself. And I will shift gears, and jump into a topic which has been calling to me for a while, and which the movie describes in brutal colors: how money can turn people into things. Because of all the aspects of Bardem’s extraordinary performance, the one which is haunting me still is his insatiable reverence for life, and his relentless humanity in the midst of a world made wasteland.

He lives in a slum, and he makes money on the black market. We see him do this in two ways: by operating a small-time network of African street vendors pedaling faux handbags and the like, and – more disturbingly – by acting as a middleman between corrupt construction managers and the underworld of human traffickers, in this case, cheap Chinese labor. He does all this in a desperate attempt to support his two children, to make enough money to get by. And that’s what’s sticking in my craw now: the many shots of Bardem’s dirty hands gripping wads of bills, exchanged for either pirated DVDs, or for human beings.

Sometimes the same issue greets you from a variety of directions in a different costume each time. Or perhaps the issue is in your own mind, and so you project it onto everything you see. The issue I am grappling with now is capitalism. In one of the many provocative signs I have seen from the many Occupations going on now was this one: “Capitalism Is The Problem”. It’s an astonishing sentiment to give voice to here in America, where the dollar is king. But I find myself in sympathy with it. I find a critique of capitalism in Iñárritu’s movie, in the ruin of our electoral process by private money, in the spoiling of our natural resources, and, in the mission of White Pines Productions. I feel like a lot of us are beginning to have a cold, hard look at the way money is controlling our lives, our communities and our government . . . and we don’t like what we see.

Of the many reasons to have hope, this one speaks most clearly to me: the 99% movement is saying we are more valuable than how much money we make. In a culture which equates success and power with your net income, this is a revolutionary position. It is also a version of the White Pines position about art and artists: that we cannot be measured or evaluated meaningfully through commercial means. The market is good in some ways and destructive in others. A lawyer I met with recently said, “The great thing about money is, it has no heart, no mind, no blood.” He was trying to make positive statement about the way money can be reduced to some numbers which will define a situation usefully. But the only useful thing that happened to me when he said that was that I felt my own blood run cold, and began counting the seconds until I could get the hell out of his office. And yet, this lawyer, he spoke the truth.

So did Bill Frezza recently on “Morning Edition“. Frezza works for a conservative think-tank, and he was on the air complaining that Obama’s notion that small businesses will create jobs is mis-guided. He pointed out that in strictly capitalist terms, the opposite is true. Businesses want fewer employees, not more. That way they make more money, which is the only goal of a business. This is why business can continue to increase profits while the unemployment numbers stay bad. The recession allowed businesses to shed workers to save money, and now, they are increasing production, but not adding back workers. Why would they? They make more money this way.

On that same radio program, there was also a story about the Nobel Prize for physics, awarded to someone who figured out that the universe is expanding and accelerating at the same time. This has given rise to the notion of “dark energy” – some unseen and unknown force which pushes things apart. In Biutiful, Bardem fights a desperate battle against dark energy, an energy he – like all of us – is a part of; an energy that he – like all of us – must bear some responsibility for. I cried as I watched the way he tried to put people back together, people in pieces from their own disease, families rended apart by dark energy, the people he loved, who were hanging on to him for dear, dear life.

What are the ways we counteract the dark energy? One of the most powerful and time-tested is simply this: we gather together. We gather together around dinner tables. We gather together in public parks in front of institutions of power. We gather together in theaters, to share in a communion.

We are at a crossroads in our country. On one extreme, we have “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours, and that is that”. On the other, we have “my self-interest is served by your well-being”. The same lawyer who told me about the visceral qualities of currency also said, “You know what money is? Money is freedom.” He meant freedom as in, you can do what you want. But I also heard freedom as in, all on your own. Because the shadow of freedom is isolation, and its cultural cousin, narcissism. Perhaps then, the bright light of “poverty” is community. In the absence of money, we must gather together. We recognize our inter-dependance, as Bardem does in Biutiful,  just at his 11th hour. The absence of money leads, perhaps, to an exchange of gifts, and a life lived in the awkward and transforming encounters we have with each other.