I'm sick of writing eulogies. Seems these days every time I finish one another person I was close to in some way, even if just as a fan, passes away. Today I lost a dear friend. Lilla Smerkanich. She was the mother of Nick Smerkanich, one of my closest friends since 8th grade, and Lauren Smerkanich, a strong, talented and wonderful person who I've known even longer. From Lilla they got their warmth, their sense of humour, their charm, those big, beautiful smiles, their lust for life (Matthew, their terrific father, gave them strength, character and good sense; made them shrewder, made them survivors). I spent so much of high school and after with Nick and everytime I picked him up at his house I counted myself lucky to spend a little time with Lilla. She taught English as a second language classes at our high school so I saw her a fair amount there, which was always a pleasure. I'd see her across campus in her sunglasses, looking like a movie star, someone glamourous who had given up a life of riches to help people. She did help people and it brought her joy. You could just tell. She taught classes out of her home, too, trying to help the world around her become well-rounded and better able to understand itself. The more people who could speak other languages, the more people might travel, see the world, put themselves in the shoes of strangers.
She was a saint. She donated her time, gave everything of herself, ensured her children had everything they could ever hope for. She made everyone's life a little richer just by spending time near them. She frequently made me feel like I was part of her family, just in the way she looked at me, talked with me, clearly and truly cared about how I was spending time. Her laugh was infectious and she was very funny, herself. I remember she drove me home from school one day after an exam I'd just taken and we were stuck behind an old car, something like a restored Model-T ford and she said "We'd be moving a little faster if we weren't stuck behind this Sunday driver." That was the funniest thing I'd ever heard at that moment. It's an antiquated expression, but this fellow was plainly an actual example of a sunday driver. He'd gotten his driving gloves and goggles and taken the oldest car in the county out for a spin. She sort of saw the elemental nature of things and could spin an old-fashioned, simple and perfectly logical humour from any set of circumstances. The world was changing all around her, but she saw that our attitudes were at heart, the same as they'd been for hundreds of years. Maybe it was her connection to an older way of life via her birth place. Her musical Italian accent always ensured that you could hear her in a room, and it always put one at ease knowing she was there. She was the most open and loving person, and if she was nearby, you were about to feel better about the world.
Growing up you get used to seeing the parents of close friends all the time, but not everyone of them seems happy to see you. She was always welcoming to me and always communicated so much in her tone. She seemed glad that her children had friends with the same interests, and also in her quiet way, made sure to let me know that I'd better take care of them in the short time I spent with them. She worked hard making them the bright, amazing people they'd become. Nick, Lauren and I did theatre together (Nick has been in what feels like a half-dozen of my feature films since those days), and we frequently shared car rides or sat next to each other at functions. Lilla was always easy and, more importantly, fun to talk to. She respected people and she loved people and everyone loved her. She was the kindest woman and I felt I knew her all my life.
I'm so tired of saying goodbye to good people while the world gets worse every day. When I was younger I used to take solace in art, but these days I'm not so sure anything could make me feel better. I don't have the long bus rides I did in high school that I'd use to listen to music and stare at the grey, green landscape on the way to school and just feel everything in my dumb heart all at once. Music brought out some primal force inside me, some feeling that made me feel like these people, throwing their emotions into these songs, clearly had suffered just the way I had, and had lived to make art about it. Made me feel like I could get through those cold, lonely days.
When I was young, I fell for a girl who was on a lot of medication for depression. The only time we ever really connected, it was when she was off her meds. For a few short days, it felt like we made sense. She was back on them before long, and gave me no indication that she quite remembered connecting the way I did. When I realized this I was in my car, and the radio was on. I turned it up as loud as it could go to drown out my thoughts. The song was “Dancing In The Dark” by Bruce Springsteen, an artist I hated at the time. But I suddenly got him in that moment. His songs celebrated the sadness of Americans, the stuff we can't change. We're up fuckin' against it, and he and his band brought us all out of it for the few minutes they play each song. They bring us to catharsis. They get the suffering working class to celebrate being alive, because life ain't ever gonna get easier. We could use just a little help.
On July 13th, 2013, I watched Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond The Pine, a film I was against before it started. I had hated Cianfrance’s first film, Blue Valentine, and felt he was too comfortable filming performances he himself hadn't done anything to earn. He coated his film in too much music rather than generating the atmosphere and emotional resonance honestly. I felt the performances were unchecked, the compositions were DOA, the story cliched. Naturally I was less than thrilled about The Place Beyond The Pines, even more so because it meant acknowledging that I had a serious bias going into it. Even as it began I was aware that I'd be judging it harshly every second. Sure enough when the first shot faded into the second I was already tearing it to shreds. Cianfrance was making the same mistakes he'd made on Blue Valentine, but this time I was looking for them. I booed and hissed until midway through the second act, when I calmed down and started just letting the action transpire. By act three I was prepared to be in the film's corner. I liked the performances by Dane Dehaan and Emory Cohen as a pair of teens whose fates seemed preordained. Perhaps aware that this was the part of the film most people took against I started easing my grip a little. I liked the ending, which made me forgive some of the sins of the first act, but mostly I felt unchanged, having successfully escaped without feeling much in the way of big emotions or catharsis. I turned on the first half hour of a Michael Powell film, then went to my job at a record store.
All night I couldn't get something out of my head. Towards the end of the first act of Place Beyond The Pines, Ryan Gosling and Ben Mendelsohn celebrate the completion of a heist by drinking and partying to Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark." I hadn't really heard the song until that night in the car, and suddenly I couldn't get the chorus out of my head. All night I kept singing the lines to myself in lieu of hearing it: "This gun's for hire, even if we're just dancing in the dark." Then I went to a computer to find the song and hear it all the way through. Waiting for me on the homepage was the George Zimmerman verdict. Not guilty of having murdered Trayvon Martin. Exonerated by the Stand Your Ground laws. I forgot about the song. I was angry, sad, confused, frustrated. How could this have happened? It seemed a plain enough decision to me. He followed Trayvon Martin for several blocks then shot him dead. I'm a quaker, albeit not a very good one, and I don't think that violence is the solution to anything, let alone one man's groundless, bigoted suspicion. I don't believe in the death penalty, but I was trying to imagine what his parents must be feeling knowing that the man who shot their son in cold blood was going to be at home with his guns tomorrow. I think it's fair to ask someone to sit for a long time and think about what they've done in situations like this. Melissa Anderson was handed a twenty year jail sentence that same day because she tried to stop her husband from abusing her by firing a warning shot. How was any of this fair or just? I tried distracting myself and once again the refrain from "Dancing In The Dark" came back to me, then slowly Place Beyond The Pines played back in the little screening room in my head. The problems I'd had with its craft faded, the performances didn't seem so misjudged, the wall-to-wall music wasn't a problem anymore. This was just a film trying to say something basic about violence that had the patience to follow through on its thesis; to show the reverberations of one gunshot. It earned its conclusion by letting us live with the consequences of one violent act for as long as necessary. It struck me that watching the film as a continuation of my grievances concerning Blue Valentine was shortsighted. I wasn't affected by bias, I was just reacting to it, rather than judging the film on its own merit.
Admitting that bias got in the way of my appreciating, or even being fair to, Place Beyond The Pines also means admitting that I wouldn't have given the movie a second thought if a kid hadn't been shot in cold blood in Florida. Is that fair or right? Is this just the nature of the game? Should I always see every angle of a work of art? I don't think we can be expected to, but I do think we have every right to change so long as we can just as honest about it. This happened to me in the hardest way possible in June of that same year. I was living with my mom and had DVR'd a film on TCM called Between Two Worlds by Edward A. Blatt.
The names John Garfield and Sydney Greenstreet in the cast intrigued me, but five minutes in I decided it wasn't for me and deleted it. I was above a film this obvious, this moralistic. But about a month later I decided to give it a second chance. I hadn't even made it to Sydney Greenstreet, after all, and I regretted being so hasty. So I recorded it again on a Monday, with plans to watch it in the future.
Tuesday morning I got a call saying that a friend had died. Ben Nangeroni, a boy I'd known since the first grade, was gone. Only 24 years old. I loved Ben like a brother. I saw him everyday at elementary school for six years. When I had my first serious crush on a girl in third grade, he was the first person I told. We went to different high schools but for most of that time we saw each other on nights and weekends. We had crushes on the same girls, and used to wait until our other friends had drifted off at sleepovers to talk about our feelings. We understood that some of our mutual friends wouldn’t want to be serious about our feelings, so we always waited and had those conversations alone. A bunch of us would raise polite enough hell in our town. My first band was with Ben and another boy named Ken Krell. Ben would tell me his troubles, I'd tell him mine. We never judged each other. We saw too many films together for me to remember them all. In August of 2012 he helped produce one of my films and came by for a cameo role. That was the last time I saw him face to face and I'll never regret anything as much as I do not seeing him again after that day. If I tried I could never forget the sound of him cracking him up in the middle of a sentence or quoting The Simpsons to me during class in the 4th grade. If life's a movie, then even as ugly and unfair as it is, Ben would have saved it for me. He was smart, he was kind, he was gentle, and losing him threw me off more than any other loss I'd ever experienced.
The night after it happened I knew exactly what I wanted to do: drink and be angry by myself. Alone, soused and angry, I put Between Two Worlds on, mostly just to cover the embarrassing sounds of my crying and talking to myself. Then I started paying attention to the film because I didn’t want to think about my problems anymore. A whole host of people, including Paul Henreid and John Garfield are in purgatory after being killed one way or another, during the blitz. Once they figure out that the boat they're on is taking them to either heaven or hell, the passengers begin to act differently. Henreid panics. He killed himself and his girlfriend Eleanor Parker, and thinks that surely he'll be condemned and she saved. Sydney Greenstreet shows up as The Examiner, the one who figures out who goes to heaven. Greedy profiteer George Colouris goes straight to hell, lonely sailor George Tobias looks like he's going to be saved. Garfield tries tricking Greenstreet into letting him upstairs through a rigged card game, but of course the fix is in long before the game starts and anyway it's out of his hands. What saves him is his mother, played by the aptly named Sara Allgood, who sacrifices prime real estate in the clouds to be with her son for a second go-round. This leaves Henreid and Parker. Greenstreet is a sly fellow, but his judgements have been crowd-pleasers so far; he won't separate these two, will he? He couldn't!
And it was around this time I started realizing my opinion of the film had changed completely. This wasn't cheap wartime melodrama, this was a beautiful, easy look at the inevitable. If I was facing an uncertain future, I'd want a god as benevolent and cynical as Sydney Greenstreet sizing me up. He saw through everyone on the ship, saw what they needed, the good they were trying to cover up through modesty, whether they deserved a second shot. Remember that quaker upbringing I mentioned? It may have had an impact on the way I think about violence, but it'd take more than that to convince me of the existence of a creator. Yet, for the hour and change I watched Between Two Worlds I wasn't thinking about me, I was thinking about Trayvon Martin. I was thinking about Ben Nangeroni. I'd want him watched over by Sydney Greenstreet. He was the nicest kid I've ever known. If even a heathen like me could look at Ben and see nothing but love inside him, then surely anyone else would. I may not believe in god, but I believe in film. After losing my friend I needed the comfort that only Between Two Worlds could have given me. In the end Henreid and Parker wake up from their suicide attempt, one last gift from Greenstreet, and get to keep living with a renewed appreciation for what it means to be alive. I can only do the same. I can try to be as nice as Ben and Lilla. As warm, as open, as fun-loving, as cheerful, as genuinely good as they were. I can turn off my biases a little at a time and try to see the world as it is, not how I expect it to be. You never know what will end up drawing your attention to something you missed the first time. We're just people, after all. We make mistakes, we survive, we change, we accept who we are, we watch the film a second time. Maybe we think about it differently now. Maybe we all might change. I don't want to write eulogies anymore. I want my friends back, but I'll have to settle for being as like them as I can.