Manchester by the Sea

My friend is going to see Manchester by the Sea with her husband tomorrow and wants to know what I thought of it.

To echo Casey Affleck on Saturday Night Live recently, it is very sad. Very, very sad.

And I would add that there is no coming back from it.

What is this? A movie coming out at the holidays is supposed to entertain: and that usually means cute cartoon characters saying outrageous things to make us laugh, buildings, cities, countries, heck, whole worlds being blown up only to be saved by the superhuman hero or heroine.

So what is this movie? On the surface, it is as cold as Manchester looks in the winter shots. On the surface, it’s got nothing to feel good about, except that we get to see relationships working out the way they do in real life, without the neat tie-up of a happy ending, where the main character finds the path to true happiness. This guy Lee, played impeccably by Casey Affleck, can no longer even suspect that there is anything like happiness to be had and maybe that is how it needs to be for him.

I wondered what I would say to my friend. I know she could appreciate the artistry in this movie, but I don’t think she would appreciate that feeling good about what it is to be human, sometimes means confronting the truth about our lives, and that doesn’t feel good at all, except at an elemental level.

I also wondered when I would stop thinking about this movie. About how slow it went, about how devastating Affleck’s performance was, only to be stopped cold by a scene with Michelle Williams, who topped Lee’s devastation with her character’s own. The movie is worth seeing for that scene alone.

But would my friend and her husband like the slowness and the time it takes unfolding, detail by detail, details brought to enrich the movie by the director, Kenneth Lonergan? It looks and feels beautiful and mesmerizing and devastating. I thought about it a lot, far into the night so that I’m not sure what was dreaming and what was thinking.

Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? Did I even like it? That seems beside the point. It is its own world, its own art. It just is and it is an experience all to itself. When I woke up for real and had a cup of coffee, still thinking about it, I realized what was happening. It was something I read about, the collective unconscious from Jung. We unconsciously share in the human experience and we inherit those experiences unconsciously. It’s why we seem to be born, not cavemen any longer, but with more refined sensibilities brought about by generations of shared experiences. There is something elemental about what we see and feel in this movie, something that goes deeper the lighthearted feel-good stuff as in It’s a Wonderful Life. There is plenty that we can feel – if not good feelings that everything will be okay, then at least the reassurance that there is a resilience to the human experience that is passed down. We get Lee because he is a refinement of past human wreckage and desolation that we all have inherited.

I’m going to tell my friend, “If you need to see the usual lighthearted, feel-good holiday movie, don’t see Manchester by the Sea. It will haunt you.”

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