In Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, on an overcast but warm March morning, three Jeffs sat down at Miro Tea to discuss and debate the first of three recent films they had seen, and to sip their favorite special brews — a Hibiscus Mint Julep, a Fireside Hot Chocolate, and a Hemingway.
– Jeff Bay is a casual moviegoer. He’s mostly interested in accessible American entertainment, and often has scheduling difficulties when he’s invited to any film that qualifies as foreign, independent, or arthouse. He tends to refer characters by the names of the actors who played them.
– Jeff Bergman is a film studies instructor who is interested in cinema as an art form, and who struggles to find time enough for exploring film history while also staying abreast of what’s opening internationally.
– Jeff Babbett is an assistant pastor who is interested in getting to what works of art are really about and what they mean.
They agreed to contribute to Looking Closer even though they do not get along very well. They will argue. They will high five. They will demonstrate their mysterious power for hyperlinking things they say out loud. But will they get to the Truth?
Here is a transcript of their discussion on the first of the three titles: …
Looking Closer: So, Three Jeffs… let’s talk about Foxcatcher. When this played festivals, it looked like a surefire Oscar contender. Bennett Miller won Best Director at Cannes for it. But even though Carell and Ruffalo both got Oscar nominations, and Miller got a director nomination, it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture.
It follows the true story of Olympic gold medal winners David and Mark Schultz, and how Mark ended up, in 1986, leading a wrestling team under the supervision of John DuPont of the famous DuPont family. DuPont was a troubled man whose motivations for recruiting wrestlers and wanting to build a wrestling team at his estate were strange, not to mention his leadership tactics. The more the Schultz brothers became involved with him, the more it became clear that something was wrong, that this was not going to end well at all.
How did the movie strike you?
Bay: The wrestling in this movie was so… what’s the word…
Bay: Visceral. Thanks, Jeff. Channing Tatum and that Hulk guy were both amazing. I completely believed they were Olympic-quality wrestlers. If the movie had focused more on their characters — David and Mark Schultz — and their quest for gold, it would have been much more exciting. And Steve Carell… he wasn’t funny. Not at all. His character was so creepy that I just wanted him to go away.
Bergman: Well, what you’re telling me, Jeff, is that this movie worked just like it was supposed to work: Excitement wasn’t the movie’s goal.
Bay: Then it succeeded. I was not excited. It kept making me more and more uncomfortable.
Bergman: It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable so that you’ll have to think about familiar things in a new way.
Babett: I agree. Sports movies usually focus on a very narrow storyline about overcoming odds and winning. They often cloak themselves in patriotism, and we assume that winning a gold medal or a trophy has something to do with making America proud. But what does a wrestling competition have to do with being an American? These persistent storylines, when they go unquestioned or unexamined, can condition us to accept dangerous ideas.
And what’s more — there is a lot more to an athlete’s life than training, the games, the championship, and the trophy ceremony. The audience gets to cheer and then walk away, but the athletes — they have to figure out what comes next. What does their life mean after they’ve won a gold medal? Championships may be the end of one journey, but they’re the beginning of another, and that journey is often far more challenging. What do these national heroes do after they’ve succeeded — or failed?
Foxcatcher makes us think about that, and a whole lot more.
Bay: Well, I liked this director’s last movie — Moneyball — a lot. It was much more entertaining. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill were great. There was a lot of suspense. You really cared about the game. This movie doesn’t seem particularly interested in the game.
Bergman: That’s because the subject is not the game. The subject is a relationship — a relationship between a rich, lonely, alienated man and the lonely, alienated man he “buys” and exploits. This director, Bennett Miller, also made Capote — another very unsettling story about America, about crime, and about men who feel alienated and misunderstood. Miller seems particularly interested in zooming in and trying to understand his strange, sad central characters — and this time, that goes for both the wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, and the rich wrestling enthusiast and self-proclaimed “coach” John DuPont, played by Steve Carell.
I’m glad to hear that you found DuPont “creepy.” If you didn’t, I’d be worried about you. He’s supposed to make us uncomfortable.
Babett: DuPont made me uncomfortable, but more than that he made me sad.
DuPont is so interesting: He seems to have everything a man could want: Incredible wealth, beautiful property, a powerful American family, and the ability to assemble the best wrestlers in the country and appoint himself as their coach. But in spite of all of that, his life is a black hole. His mother treats him like a child. The only way he knows to pursue what he wants is to buy it… and we know how that turns out.
It’s clear that his money, his privilege, and his exceptional family history separate him from “normal people” — or any people, really. The money may as well have moved him to another planet, where he has become a kind of alien. Perhaps that’s what draws him to wrestling: It bring him into actual physical relationship with other bodies.He says he values American ideals, but he seems to value them only insofar as they reinforce this myth of the greatness of his family. He wants other people to bring their expertise and talent to his property in order that their actual, substantive quality and integrity will bring a new sense of authenticity and relevance to his fading family legacy, and a new sense of identity to himself. But he has no integrity, no expertise, no eloquence — just a void, an appetite, and, because he has grown up without any apparent love or care or friendship, he has never learned how to love.
Bay: I couldn’t bring myself to take him seriously because the makeup job on Steve Carell just made him look ridiculous. And when I looked up the real John DuPont, well… the makeup doesn’t make him look any more like the real guy then he would without it.
Bergman: I do agree with you there. The makeup made him look like Dracula. There’s a lot of Nosferatu in his performance, and in the American Transylvania of his haunted house. Which makes me wonder why Werner Herzog didn’t jump on this subject matter before Miller did; it’s his kind of story about a mad and obsessive loner.
Babett: Dracula isn’t a bad comparison. DuPont-ula. He’s living off of the blood of others, definitely. His family is, of course, the famous DuPont chemical company family. So you could speculate about how chemicals quietly play a part in all of this. Chemicals and illegal substances, like DuPont’s cocaine habit: Powers that help us construct false realities, illusions, delusions…. It’s a convenient metaphor for the way that voters can be enchanted by patriotic speech and then convinced to support people and agendas that are run contrary to democracy.
Bay: Yeah, DuPont goes on and on America — about men who gave their lives for freedom. But how is he any kind of patriot? He talks the talk, praising basic goodness. But behind the scenes he’s a drug addict, he’s buying heavy artillery for which he has no good use, and he’s obsessed with proving that he’s on a winning team even though he has no credibility. I half-expected to find the “Mission Accomplished” banner from the Iraq war hanging like another trophy somewhere in his house.
Babbett: There are so many rich possibilities of interpretation here.
Is Foxcatcher a film about America’s increasingly desperate appeals to past glories (glories that are increasingly mythologized, at that) in order to make itself feel good about itself? Are we obsessed with the past because we realize that our compromises have caught up with us, that we’ve sold much of our freedom and dignity to a greedy, self-interested minority (like the DuPont family)? Yes, this film is about that.
Is it a film about how madmen attract lonely, alienated youth and turn them into minions who are willing to fight for them? Yes.
Is it a film about the insufficient or harmful father figures we embrace when our real fathers do not provide the love, faithfulness, and inspiration we need? Yes.
Is it a film about money and its dehumanizing effect? Definitely.
Bergman: That’s all true, but when I think of this movie, I won’t think about the obvious lessons about America, money, and abuses of power. I actually felt that the film seemed to reach the limit of those ideas about halfway through, and then all that was left was for the inevitable tragedy to play itself out.
What kept me watching was Bennett’s visual composition and sound design: the tension in his images, the long silences, his embrace of ambiguity, his enthusiasm for the diegetic music of wrestling mats and shoes and colliding bodies.
The most powerful and lingering impression of the film for me has less to do with the tragedy and more to do with quiet visual expressions of alienation and isolation — of Mark Schultz’s hulking body in a workout-ready uniform standing alone, uncomprehending, in an extravagantly furnished room full of portraits of historic American figures, breathing like a bull that has wandered into a museum and does not understand where it is or why, his brow furrowed in a way that makes clear he has been denied what he has a right to expect. It’s like Schultz has never been taught the language necessary to ask for what he needs.
Bay: I keep thinking about poor Sienna Miller. I mean, I just saw American Sniper, and now I’m wondering, is she only applying for the roles of American wives whose physically aggressive but good-hearted husbands are doomed?
Looking Closer: So, how do you rate Foxcatcher?
Babett: It’s a haunting, mesmerizing film about America’s increasing identity crisis. It’s about how money and privilege can distance a nation’s leaders from the people and from what that nation’s citizens know to be “reality.” I’d give it a 7/10.
Bergman: I don’t rate films. My opinions change from viewing to viewing, and what does a scale represent anyway? Art is too subjective. I’d recommend it to some people, not to others. But it’s very well made, and I think it’s much stronger than several of the films that were nominated for Best Picture… including the movie that won.
Bay: Thumb’s up, but just barely. I wanted more wrestling.
Looking Closer: And by the way, how was your tea?
Babett: My Hemingway iced tea was excellent. A strong, sharp, bitter tang of grapefruit, sweet strawberries, and refreshing mint. Strange enough to be very interesting. And healthy.
Bergman: This Hibiscus Mint Julep would have been better if the mint were actual mint leaves, and it was a little too sweet for my taste.
Bay: I’m on my second cup of Fireside Hot Chocolate and I’m not sold on it. It’s spicy and kind of strange.
Bergman: But… it’s a chocolate tea drink. It’s made with chai. It’s healthy. It’s not, you know… Hershey’s.
Bay: Yeah. Not my thing.