I watched Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson again last night. It was for the nth time, yet I continue to be moved by the subtle beauty of the film. It was quiet, still, uneventful, with a minimal plot, but not boring. There was no shouting, no spectacular confrontations, no grand battles (except for those underneath that were already lost), yet the story moved. The jokes proffered by the characters were lame, but the context in which they were said, the light they shed on the characters, made them funny. The story was realistic, mundane, following the depressed life of an inner city high school teacher, showcasing his everyday, the routines and repetitions, the returns and replacements, the habits and the turning points, yet it wasn’t the everyday of the romantic comedy that makes you feel good about yourself, confirming the dull, predictable, conformist, colorless life that is ours and how lucky we are (thanks to personal achievements and our superior modern way of life) to be living it. The film wasn’t colorless at all. The backdrop was the margins of the inner city, with its dirt, dark, dilapidation, and dreariness, yet the lighting, from outside, from the windows, the dance between shadow and lights, formed beautiful, figureless colors, that, combined with the idiosyncratic actors, produced paintings juxtaposed with each other in the form of the consecutive scenes.
There were no explosions in the film. And in the sole fight scene (between the white teacher and his black drug supplier), there were no punches. Just a few words that weren’t even loud or particularly hurtful, or violent. Like the many other conflicts in the film (as that between the idealistic teacher and his disillusioned father), the fight was subdued, happening somewhere else, underneath, erupting only at certain very brief moments that are extinguished as briefly. The sound effects are by a Canadian indie rock band, which is hardly rock. It’s the kind of music that, when you’re doing something, and something arises—a memory of something you’ve lost, an encounter with someone you haven’t seen for a long time, or deep engagement with what you’re doing, losing yourself in it, and realizing, no matter what you do, what a lost cause it is—quietly, almost mutely, plays in your head. So it’s not contrived at all, the music as sound effect (especially since it’s music that’s not popular, music that you don’t know). It seems right that it should emerge at precisely those moments.
It’s the quiet kind of music, this that the particular band plays. But it’s not the contrived, sentimental kind of quiet music that hijacks and plays with your emotions, if not stimulating fake, manufactured ones. No, no, not fake emotions, those that a typical drama series on TV manufactures in its audience all the time: Put a little bit of sad here, make sure that the audience can identify by personalizing the context and the character while staying general enough so that many can relate by virtue of the small similarities that one’s boring life comforts him/her to take so as to feel somewhat important or them having known someone who is somewhat they think is like that . . . fabricate little suspenses in the trivial details, and then end it sad by killing off someone other than the characters you can still use next time or whose contract with the show hasn’t yet expired.
The music is quiet, like I said. It doesn’t need to shout to be heard. Like the movie, it doesn’t need to hype itself up for its beauty to unfold itself. There’s not one of those songs that need to be sung by someone skimpily dressed who blatantly—shamelessly—supplements her voice with teasing, enticing bodily movements, as she herself is backuped by less perfect copies behind, with manufactured wind blowing through her hair, as she sings—shouts, really—ever so loudly so that everyone would hear, so wanting of attention, this singer, because that really is the only way she can give life to what is essentially dead, to what is tired, hackneyed, and ugly, to what has no substance but its compliance to a set formula whose only variations, like a sex object, are the people playing the role who supposedly are of (slightly) different flavors. No, this movie is not like that. It does not need shocking colors covering over its substance (which is not an essence) like a gift-wrap, because it is substantive in itself. Hence there’s no deception. Hence its beauty, a quiet (but not silent) one, is really its own.
The movie does not divert me. It’s not distracting. It doesn’t make me forget. It is politically engaged. Even though appearing only as a subtext, underneath, the unspoken (or spoken only at “intermissions”)—hence hardly “appearing” at all—the political suffuses the film. It reminds me of the fights that have been and must still be fought and opens me up to new ones, or at least gives me more tools. Yet the movie is not about the political issues. It’s about the teacher, the person, or rather, the many persons that is him—shaped as he was by the political. Which is how it works. Which does not mean that I, or everyone, will be like him.
I am focused on the film, I concentrate, yet it doesn’t make me turn away from everything else. Rather, it makes me more vividly and, albeit painfully, beautifully aware of what’s happening around me. It’s not an escape. It’s not the Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday . . .) games. Those massive, large-scale, passion-stirring, identity-inciting phenomena commercialized wherever possible: advertisements in between key acts of the game, advertisements at key places on the stadium, the players, and the TV screen, advertisements subtly and shamelessly inserted in the conversation by the sportscasters, advertisements after the game when the fan goes to the mall to buy something to put on himself that announces the team to which he thinks he belongs, of which he thinks he is a part, which is referred to as “ours” (our game plan, our strengths and weaknesses, how we are faring, the troubles our team has suffered, how nonetheless it is ours, and how we will rise again in the end, you’ll see) with the name of the player tattooed, as it were, on him, playing some kind of identity (or identity wish) game, with the identity of course of an impressive, heroic figure (as compared to his own life), literally wearing it/him whenever, suffusing his daily life, letting it that close to his skin—passion-stirring (the likes of This is my team and that, the other, the enemy, is not as good) and identity-inciting (I am the good team) advertisements all the time and everywhere. That is the identification, of course. And those are the fights fought. Massive, heroic, exciting, stimulating, entertaining fights. Not the fights that demand oh so much—boring historical details, awareness of one’s rights and obligations as a free citizen, constant public engagement, reading the dull and depressing news from around the world . . . Not the messy, dirty political battles where the fights are always lost. No, no, leave that to those experts, those crooks . . . and then just skeptically blame them—and disparage the political—for everything that goes wrong.
But doesn’t the movie play on identification too? You like it just because you can relate to it, it adopts your own political point of view, you think you are like him, the teacher, who, don’t you, like the team fans, also secretly admire—which is to say, you admire yourself—as someone somehow heroic, fighting the good fight, the pertinent fights? Isn’t that why the sound effects that play at certain moments in the film, you sometimes hear in your head, in your own life? But I already was like that even before I saw the film. And we’re not completely the same. In this case, who’s copying whom? Still, beware of romantic identification.
Certain scenes in the movie make me aware of political battles, some of which I, like the teacher, am also passionate about. But, like I said, the movie is not about the political issues. Rather, they simply emerge in certain moments (as in short lectures by the teacher, brief remarks to strangers, observation of surroundings), and not even fully. At the same time, then, that the political appears, it also disappears, concealing itself. Or, more precisely, the political appears as it conceals itself, in the dis-closure that Heidegger observes genuine works of art do.
There is a reason why this is, why the movie is about the teacher and not the political issues. The political has shaped the teacher. It has taught him. It is one of the things that push him towards drugs, perpetuating his addiction. Part of the reason that he is a junkie is because (as intimated to a strange lady by his outburst on WMDs and Al Qaeda) he knows that it is lost. He is, after all, as he says, only one man. He—and his cause—is a loser in the political.
That’s why it’s hidden. The teacher is, in many ways, no longer fighting. Or he is—to no avail—he knows to no avail. The political is thus no longer a dynamic field in which he actively participates, in which case the political issues would play a more conspicuous role. But it does not, it is able to conceal itself so much (and reveals itself in that way), because even as the teacher still fights in it, in many ways the political has already become unconscious. It affects him, shapes him, gives him some of the personalities that he has—precisely because he can no longer do anything about it, he can no longer change it. As the repressed, it plays him.