The Past

Apparently there was an article by A. O. Scott in the New York Times Magazine not too long ago about "the Death of Adulthood in the American Culture". Although I have enjoyed some of the rebuttals that article inspired I have not read Scott's essay. In general I'm not a fan of "[x] is dead" articles, which are almost uniformly uninformative, but this one in particular seems worth staying away from.

My primary reason for objecting to the basic idea of that article is that I have been frustrated lately with how not-optional adulthood is. There are a great many ways to define maturity, but for me it is dealing with things that are annoying or unpleasant and which cannot be ignored, and as someone who has been stuck taking care of a fair amount of nasty business lately I'm ready to take a bit of a break. But of course there is no taking a break from adulthood; it's the train's last stop before it arrives in death station.

Now, the title of Scott's article is not "The Death of Adulthood", it's "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture." But it seems to me that if adulthood is an inescapable fact of life, then it will be an inescapable fact of art, too, since there is always going to be art that mirrors what happens in life. I recognize that bringing up The Past into this conversation is perhaps unfair because it isn't an American movie - it's a French film, directed by an Iranian - but I want to bring it into this discussion for two reasons: 1. that article was very much on my mind when I watched The Past and it helped to color how I felt about the movie and 2. I don't actually think that nationality matters very much for my overall point, which is that adulthood is stressful and unavoidable, and since art is always going to be drawn towards examining the stressful and the unavoidable, "maturity in cinema" will never die.

The Past is a movie that is very much about the side of adulthood we all wish we could avoid. All of the problems that it's characters face are not fixable, but they have to be addressed just the same. It starts with a man arriving at an airport so he can officially sign his divorce papers, and thus it begins with the sort of emotional hassles that strained relationships always entail. He has to try to be nice to his ex-wife even though it is obvious why they are divorcing; he has to try to be kind to her children, even though some of them are acting out; and then there's the tricky business of establishing a relationship with her new boyfriend even though neither of the men wants to know the other. Being calm and rational in frustrating circumstances because screaming and throwing a fit won't help is some real grown-up shit, but it is not easy for them to do or for us to watch.

As the movie progresses, those problems seem like child's play, because it's at least possible for them to have a pleasant outcome. The Past reveals it's backstory deliberately, and as the viewer slowly finds out what has happened in the years that the ex-husband has been abroad, the more obvious it becomes that all of the heartbreaks these people are wrestling with are unfixable. The oldest daughter has been traumatized for life because of some unforeseen consequences of something she did; a woman is stuck in a hospital bed possibly for the rest of her life because of a choice that she made; a child has been conceived but no one knows what kind of family it will be born into. The deeper we go the more the weight of the responsibilities grows until it is almost unbearable; but of course it has to be borne. There is no other way.

The Past is a very good film, one that is realistic about how complications work in life - mistakes compound when messy emotions get involved, and what's been done cannot be undone - so it's continual descent into sorrow does not feel like emotional manipulation. If I had to sum it up in a word I would say that it is unrelenting, which is a bit of a backhanded compliment for a film about people's personal problems; a little bit of relenting would go a long way here. This is the sort of movie that you might be very impressed by - but you probably wouldn't say you "enjoyed it". In that, it joins a long list of classic movies about compromised choices and unwinnable battles that you'll hear that you should watch but which you probably won't ever find the time for.

If we assume, then, that adulthood is the process of dealing with what cannot be undone, then you see why I would think that an essay called "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture" is so annoying. It would be great if adulthood was mortal, if there was some way to avoid the messy realities that The Past is all about, but that's a pipe dream. People might put off starting their family as much as they can, and they might not be the most mature parents imaginable, but people are always going to have messy families, and people are always going to want to tell the story of their messy families. We might wish that we didn't have to deal with grown up shit, but it's a law of the world The Past always has to be reckoned with.

Winner: Me

The Past on IMDB