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Atonement rant herein

braider said:

I liked Atonement largely for the sex scene; out of curiosity, if you can do so, can you provide a bulleted list of the 5-10 top issues you have with the story? (Note that I've only seen the movie, never read the book.)

I had no issues with most of the movie, for what it's worth.

No, let me rephrase that. I had severe issues with the way it was marketed as "the most romantic movie of the year", but I didn't fall for that because with a title like Atonement, no one expects a happy ending of the general hollywood romantic variety.

I will agree with you: there was something about the way that sex scene was filmed that was astonishing to me -- because in general, I squirm my way in embarrassment through most sex scenes in any movie I can think of off the top of my head. What was interesting to me, in interviews around the movie's release, was the fact that the director choreographed everything in that scene, according to both actors (MacAvoy really appreciated this). He knew what he wanted it to feel like, and it worked.

He was also the director of the Knightly Pride and Prejudice, and that's literally the only version of P&P where, during the argument/proposal sequence, I suddenly realized that they were incredibly attracted to each other. I've never felt that before.

Oops, that was a digression.

I thought Keira Knightly and Ken MacAvoy were really, really powerful as a couple. I thought the story was a train wreck, because you could see it all coming in a sort of terrible greek tragedy way: the self-absorbed and crushing younger sister, the wrong letter, the different class backgrounds--everything.

I could accept the horror of the younger sister's youthful jealousy, and combined with her lack of experience and lack of understanding of the full costs her lie would incur, it was human, and painful. Did I like the younger sister? Well, no. But I believed her, and even though her lie destroyed two lives, I couldn't hate her because it was so clear she was young in that stupid and thoughtless way the young can often be. It was in all ways a tragedy.

I thought the single shot film of the beach scene was stunning. I thought most of the film was stunning. I knew, when Robbie was wondering around in a delirium and he stumbled across his mother that he was already all but dead, and it was painful. Believable. True.

So I didn't believe it was all going to end well; everything about it was structurally wrong for that. I was prepared for everything to end the way it essentially did.

The sister does grow up. The sister does gain an understanding of the horror into which her actions sent Robbie; the sister does begin to understand how horrifically wrong she was. There were good scenes there. But.

Imagine my profound relief when the younger sister, now a woman, goes to attempt to make amends with her older sister and Robbie? Robbie who I was certain certain certain was dead? Imagine my slow sense of allowing myself to be happy or hopeful about the future they just might be able to build for themselves given the horrors of the past few years and the time they lost because of a young girl's very ugly lie?

Imagine that.

Because honestly, I let myself believe what was on the screen; I wanted to believe it. I really did.

I was therefore unprepared for the story's "gotcha". I did believe and allow myself some hope for their happiness, and only then is it made clear that that hope and that possibility is all a big lie--that it's the younger sister's swan song. Robbie did, as it was perfectly obvious he must, die. I wasn't expecting Ceci's death as well; that was less obviously telecast, at least to me.

It was…it was the type of very calculated gotcha that immediately sent me sky high because it seemed designed to heighten only misery and pain, and for no point. It was already painful. What, you needed to give me some sense of hope or peace so you could laugh in my face when you pulled it out from under me?

Add to that that the sister has written about the truth for the first time in her life because she is dying and that she feels that writing this happy ending somehow gives them the happy ending in perpetuity. That somehow, this -- her writing -- makes up for their deaths which, imho, she unarguably, if unintentionally caused, is a profound criticism of the solipsism of writers and their attachment to their creative process.

She felt that because she had written a happy ending for them, she had atoned. In a way, this makes it clear that they were never real for her. That she never cared for them as people (although he certainly was emotionally invested in both).

I couldn't believe it.

So the movie went from being a tragedy, with which in the end I would have been fine, to a mean-spirited act of emotional cruelty and a mockery of what the word atonement actually means.

Comments

( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
braider
Jul. 20th, 2010 09:06 pm (UTC)
I agree with almost all of this. I saw the last bit as her feeble attempt for atonement. She knew she *could not* properly make atonement, but was doing the best she could in the only way she knew how, having already nursed the soldiers to the best of her ability, which was part of the atonement.

Interesting that you saw it as an act of solipsism and pandering to her creative process; I saw it as the only thing she felt she could do to try to make things right.

Would be interesting to hear the author's goals.
msagara
Jul. 20th, 2010 09:50 pm (UTC)
I agree with almost all of this. I saw the last bit as her feeble attempt for atonement. She knew she *could not* properly make atonement, but was doing the best she could in the only way she knew how, having already nursed the soldiers to the best of her ability, which was part of the atonement.

Interesting that you saw it as an act of solipsism and pandering to her creative process; I saw it as the only thing she felt she could do to try to make things right.

Would be interesting to hear the author's goals.


I would accept this without reservation if not for her own words at the end. There is no responsible away to equate actual, living happiness with the fictionalized daydream elements of her novel -- and by saying that these were equivalent, or even in some ways better, she lost the sense of the attempt in the ... smugness of the statement.

For me.

If she had said: Look, I killed them. I regret it. This is my dream of what they might have had were it not for me, I would have been far, far less outraged.

But the equation of her fiction with their reality... not so much.
braider
Jul. 20th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
Ah. I did not at all remember her manner of stating it. I'll have to borrow it from the library and watch it again at some point.
msagara
Jul. 20th, 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
Hmm. To add a bit more:

If the best you can do by way of atonement is to tell yourself that they are happy because you've written them a happy ending, the person you are likely to satisfy is, well, yourself.

You are unlikely to satisfy me -- and I'm your audience in this case -- because while I understand that this type of guilt is something hideous to have to shoulder, especially when you made the error in a malice that is ignorant and youthful, you are implying that you have somehow done something good.

Was it the only thing she could have done for her own sake? Yes, probably. But given the structure of the movie and the story it is *very* hard for me to care for her as much as she does.

I don't see this as an atonement. And I'm singularly underimpressed with the deathbed confessional nature of it, as well -- she could have told the truth when it might have meant something: if not to her own parents, then at least to his. She kept it all hidden until she was dying - as if somehow, in dying, she comes face to face with the need to convert so as to not die forever.

I think it was well done, fwiw. I have no objections to the movie qua movie; we're arguing about character and motivation and we're not saying she was unbelievable or poorly written or etc.

But I loathed the experience of watching it. One shouldn't feel stupid for wanting a little light at the end of a long dark tunnel, and the movie certainly goes out of its way to make one feel stupid for hope.
braider
Jul. 20th, 2010 10:52 pm (UTC)
It was a bit of a crusher, yes.

You're right in that I never actually cared for the character of the girl, and the ending ... left one deflated.

Interesting parallel you drew with regards to conversion on the deathbed. I hadn't thought of it that way, but I think you've really hit something there.
rowyn
Jul. 23rd, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
Ewwwww. Just ewwwww. I'm glad I haven't seen it and never will.
mtlawson
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC)
::scratches Atonement off of list of movies to watch::

What is it about some movie/tv show creators who want to make sure your experience is a universal downer? I can turn on the local news if I want a depressing experience.
braider
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:54 pm (UTC)
If you can see it on a big screen, DO. Visually, it is an amazing movie. There are some wonderful, horrifying, and chilling moments. (Most chilling was the look on Other Girl's face during the wedding. SHE KNEW. And never said anything, either.
_ocelott_
Jul. 20th, 2010 11:32 pm (UTC)
Yes, yes, yes! This is very much how I felt about Atonement. I was certain Robbie was dead, and then when he clearly wasn't, I got excited and hopeful. Right up until that ending... which I have, for the sake of my own brain, edited out of existence. The gotcha moment? Didn't happen. Just a bad dream.
(Deleted comment)
msagara
Jul. 21st, 2010 05:53 am (UTC)
There are certain books about how writers are terrible people -- in the way we are, in the way that something awful will happen and we will think "So that's how it feels, I can use that!" That's what MacEwan was writing about, and he did make it work.

I wish they wouldn't make films of books.


I'm going to have to read this book. I thought, oddly enough, that it might work if it were about the girl herself -- but that's very hard to capture in a meaningful way in the film. On the other hand, when speaking to people who had read the book, the movie was very much what they felt the book was -- meaning they were just as angry at end of the novel as I was at the end of the movie, and for similar reasons.
msagara
Jul. 21st, 2010 05:54 am (UTC)
I should add that they weren't writers.
willietheshakes
Jul. 21st, 2010 06:41 am (UTC)
This.

I actually interviewed MacEwan when he had just finished writing Atonement -- and before he had started doing publicity for it -- and for him (take it with whatever grain of authorial intent you like), the novel was about the impossibility of atonement as a writer, because as a writer, even ostensibly chronicling the events, one holds all the cards, and has the lives in question under ones control from the beginning.
msagara
Jul. 22nd, 2010 03:13 am (UTC)
I actually interviewed MacEwan when he had just finished writing Atonement -- and before he had started doing publicity for it -- and for him (take it with whatever grain of authorial intent you like), the novel was about the impossibility of atonement as a writer, because as a writer, even ostensibly chronicling the events, one holds all the cards, and has the lives in question under ones control from the beginning.

Given that, I think the movie does exactly that. You can't atone by writing. But.

To me, that's not unlike saying "water is wet". It seems so obvious, to me, but maybe I'm doing it wrong.
msagara
Jul. 22nd, 2010 03:15 am (UTC)
And then let me add: how much different would the texture of the whole had been had not the writer herself realized, accepted, and actually vocalized this? Instead of being delusional vis a vis atonement in a very unfortunate way?
willietheshakes
Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:03 am (UTC)
Sure, it seems obvious. But does the fact that you can boil Romeo & Juliet down to "man, teenagers go off the deep end" detract from the tragedy? :)
msagara
Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:32 am (UTC)
Sure, it seems obvious. But does the fact that you can boil Romeo & Juliet down to "man, teenagers go off the deep end" detract from the tragedy? :)

Maybe the problem -- for me, and with the execution of the movie -- is it is NOT clear that she is attempting to atone by writing. As I mentioned in my first rant, she has the peculiar entitlement of a writer's solipsistic view of the universe.

Is this tragic? No. Does it have tragic consequences? Yes. But arguably at their worse for those who are unfortunate enough to be in her conscious view.

I think there's a difference between the tragedy you endure and the tragedy you cause in your wilful and selfish ignorance, which is why the themes here are perhaps not as strong for me as they might be for others. I did not dislike her in her youth or in her growth, but she was attached to the tragic only through the malice of her actions -- and while this is probably realistic, it takes an enormous narrative and character drive to make me sympathize with it.

The shock and contempt I felt at her equation of her writing with the happiness of two people she destroyed... was not it.

I understand why writing is an obsession. I understand the uneasy "please die I said so I can write about" that writers always have. I understand the ways in which the universes are ours before we release them into the wild.

But I don't privilege it in a way that would make the exploration of this particular personality work -- for me for the reasons stated above re: tragedy.
willietheshakes
Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:36 am (UTC)
Not having seen the movie, I can't comment on the execution of the idea, or whether that was even in the minds of the filmmakers; I was just going by what MacEwan said of his intentions, which I thought he met admirably and compellingly in the book.

Oddly (okay, not oddly), I have very little interest in seeing the film -- I have too much fondness for the book to sacrifice it upon the screen.
msagara
Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:50 am (UTC)
Oddly (okay, not oddly), I have very little interest in seeing the film -- I have too much fondness for the book to sacrifice it upon the screen.

And we are, of course, therefore talking about two different entities. I don't think I said anything about the book in my original rant, though -- I try to separate books from the movies that are made ostensibly using said books as their source. I'm not always successful, especially if I have a strong attachment to book (she says, looking at The Two Towers). I clearly can't judge the book, although after I saw the movie, I tried to think of ways in which a book would not be so strongly and instantly repellant as compared to the movie.

But the non-writer friends -- which I think might be key here -- who had read the book found that they were, well, strongly repelled, so I didn't seek it out. And I will now, because now I do want to read it, regardless, and largely because of your & papersky's comments.
willietheshakes
Jul. 22nd, 2010 04:56 am (UTC)
"And we are, of course, therefore talking about two different entities."

Yup, and that was the distinction I wanted to clarify - you said nothing about the book, and my response to papersky's comment about the book was strictly limited to the novel itself.

The book is definitely worth reading. Right now, in fact, it's seeming worth re-reading.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )