Tuesday, July 28, 2009


I've been putting off writing about Exotica, I think partially because I like it so much, and partially because I think it is a difficult movie to write about for an audience who hasn't seen it. To some extent this is a function of how thriller-like the plot is. The end of the film has that kind of "ah ha" feeling that typically one only finds in a well done murder mystery, and while there is a murder in Exotica it is not solved and the resolution to the film has little to do with it.

I was thinking a bit about why Exotica is such a compelling film to me. I think there are a few elements it brings together in a pretty unique way. The first I think is the humanity and complexity of the characters. Some of my favorite movies (Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game) are my favorites because the characters defy typical characterization and stereotyping and reveal their humanity and complexity. While in any other war film Von Rauffenstein might be portrayed as the cruel german officer, in Grand Illusion the reality of his character and the sacrifices he has made out of a sense of duty to a no longer existing world evokes our sympathy. Exotica is full of those kinds of characters -- people who when we first see them we think "Oh I understand this person," but as we see more of them and the true complexity of their lives becomes apparent we are forced to re-evaluate them and their relationships.

There is a tendency in film and in life for us to immediately categorize people based on our first impressions and minor easily seen elements of who they are. Film makers often successfully use this as a tool -- we don't need to know the details of Han Solo's life preceeding the Star Wars, because the moment he swaggers onto the screen we know exactly the kind of person he is. (Maybe that's why people were so enraged by the "Han shot first" change because that action defines the character so much.) It is not that quick characterization by impression/stereotype is a bad thing, but I think it is a tool and it tends to be over-used. Characters who are -- like those in Exotica or Grand Illusion -- compelling, complex, and expectation defying, end up being much more human.

A few years ago I was at an airport awaiting someone. I passed the time standing near the sliding doors watching my fellow waiters. There was a man in a suit who particularly caught my eye. For whatever reason I looked at him with disdain and engaged in the typical stereotyping and assumptions about the wormy looking guy in the suit. I wouldn't remember this at all if it hadn't been that the person he was meeting arrived before mine. She was a woman in her early 20s, maybe his daughter maybe his niece, who knows. She walked through the doors and saw him and burst into tears -- in that kind of way that makes everyone around shrink with embarassment. The man I had so recently been mentally writing off (probably to feel better about myself) stepped toward her as everyone was stepping away, hugged her, and held her bawling onto his shoulder, with a look of incredible sympathy and love -- while embarassed Minnesotans stepped past staring disapprovingly. The feeling that I had in that moment of seeing my assumptions challenged and shown to be petty, unfair, and false -- that is the kind of experience that Exotica and its characters offer -- the reminder we need of the complexity and humanity of those around us.

It is frustrating to write so generically about the experience of seeing a movie, but the puzzle-like nature of the film demands it. To discuss how our thoughts on the individual characters change is to give too much away, but I think that is another aspect of the film that I find so compelling. I have a tendency to really enjoy fiction and film with a game or puzzle-like structure: Twin Peaks or Lost or The Book of the New Sun. Exotica is pretty unique at least to me in that it combines that kind of structure, mystery, and an "answer" with a film that is about suffering, relationships, and human nature rather than about aliens or monsters or the end of the world. It is not often that on second watching a drama you find yourself hoping to find clues. The film which off the top of my head is most similar is probably Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but with Exotica the mystery is not one of puzzling out an event: "what happened?", but rather one of character -- of trying to understand the characters: "who are they?"

Maybe it's the bringing together of those two things that I really love in film that made Exotica so suddenly a candidate for my list of favorite movies. It happens to combine a way of humanizing characters that tends to exist in sprawling unfocused character studies, with a tightness of plot, and puzzle-like nature which tends to exist in movies that involve cardbord characters uncovering clues to some artificial mystery.

There are a lot of other things to love about the film. Visually it's incredibly beautiful and full of little details. It's funny how some movies that are really focused and well structured tend to be focused on their subject matter to the exclusion of anything else. Exotica is not one of those movies -- the re-occuring and subtle presence of the "exotic" whether in the shape of lovers, culture, pets (parrots both real or fake), or race provides rich and complex fodder for thought. The visual symbolism of mirrors, both normal and one-way is thoroughly explored, as is the interactions between money and relationships. Beyond the characters we come to intimately know there are those who remain opaque and yet just as interesting. Harold in particular stands out in my mind as a fascinating and important character despite his 5 minutes on screen. Everything from his clothing and the place where he lives to other character's conversations about him ("I don’t think that I like my dad when he’s around you." "Your dad doesn’t like himself when he’s around me. But that’s okay. That’s part of what friends do to each other.") suggests a complicated and important character. He may not be one of the characters whose depths we are plumbing, but the film makes it clear that those depths are still there. The complexity, sadness, and messy solutions to the tragedies of life are not limited to the characters the film is focused upon.

I could go on and on, but it remains a difficult film to talk about without ruining it for those who haven't seen it. See it, and let me know what you think. Ultimately the lesson that stands out in my mind is one of the complexity of humans We are surrounded by others whom we write off constantly and arbitrarily in our everyday lives, but the reality is that we are all humans, flawed,damaged, and lonely; constructing relationships and rituals -- often beautiful, disturbing, strange, or all three -- to deal with our pain.