On Spielbergian loneliness, the tricky balance of episodic narratives, and The BFG
The BFG Walt Disney Studios
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl
Starring: Ruby Barnhill, Mark Rylance, Jemaine Clement, Penelope Wilton, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall and Bill Hader
Rated PG / 1 hour, 57 minutes / 2.35:1
July 1, 2016
(out of four)
The most important moment of Steven Spielberg's The BFG - or at least the most meaningful - is basically an afterthought. The titular giant, whose giant ears can hear all the secret whisperings of the world, tells his new friend - 10-year-old orphan Sophie - that if and when she ever feels lonely, she can talk to him, no matter the distance, and he'll hear her. On its own, it's a touching summation of their kinship; but for the characters themselves, it's more than that. It's the big victory, the moment when all other obstacles cease to matter, frivolous by comparison.
The affirmation that there is someone - at least that one someone - who cares or understands you is enough to make the threat of any hostile, slovenly, hungry giants, or the anxiety of any encounters with royalty, dissolve away. That it only takes one underscores both its significance for these two people - the giant lonely amongst a horde of bigger, nastier giants; the young girl lonely amongst scores of unseen, anonymous children - and the painful fragility of needing so little to feel whole. In spite of Spielberg's tendency toward crowd-pleasing adventure, he has also made some of the loneliest films I've ever seen. It's not a loneliness that's often purely despairing - couched as it is in the awe and fantasy of his spectacle - but it's a sincere and deep-seated one. It's intrinsic to the central dichotomy of A.I., in which an artificially intelligent being is imbued with genuine (and wholly un-self-conscious) emotional attachment - creating conditions in which he almost can't be anything but lonely. Befriended only by two characters similarly robotic but fully aware of their own artificiality, and abandoned in the woods by the mother he loves - and who wants to, but maybe can't entirely, love him the same - the boy sets out on a journey with the solitary goal of simply being loved. Of belonging. It's such a lonesome objective, its optimism so desperate and nearly tragic, that the boy submerges himself at the bottom of the sea for thousands of years, just wishing for it, ostensibly content to remain there for thousands more just for any pale hope that his wish might finally be granted.
Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can transforms from a freewheeling comedy into the saddest Christmas story in the world, its charming con-artist hero reduced to calling his pursuer late at night just for some semblance of a human connection. His scene of capture, all alone in that French printing press - alone, yet unwittingly surrounded - is sad enough; the end of his road during his subsequent escape, pressed against the window looking in at his mother's new family, virtually invisible, is as individually devastating an image as Spielberg has ever given us.
Other efforts like Always or The Terminal or Munich (among others) have loneliness built into the plot, each in its own way. With E.T., he and screenwriter Melissa Mathison decided that the yearning for connection was so deep it had to be psychic - had to be inescapable, had to have the most profound of physical consequences. And here in The BFG, Spielberg's reunion with the late Mathison (who died during post-production), the two tackle loneliness together one last time. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that their most potent scene this time around is one expressly concerned with the flourishing of a much-needed friendship, as the BFG (voiced and motion-captured by Mark Rylance) and Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) spend an evening in Dream Country, capturing subconscious impressions like fireflies in the backyard. This is the BFG's vocation - he collects, and jars, dreams and nightmares - and for the first time he's brought along someone else to share the experience with him. Set against a glowing night sky of blues and greens, with a gigantic, sprawling oak as its centerpiece - its thick branches reaching out in all directions as if to cast the surrounding dreams (small, glowing orbs of neon light darting and flashing by) into the night - the Dream Country sequence is a stunner. It's like that childhood moment when you share a secret - a hideout, a refuge - with your best (or, in this case, only) friend. That idea seems right at home with the giant, who in his broken language, meek demeanor and innocence is childlike in a lot of ways, especially in comparison to the bigger, nastier giants that roam Giant Country alongside him like barbaric older brothers.
But as quintessential a Spielberg moment as that Dream Country scene is, it - and the film's preoccupation with the unspoken loneliness that binds these two characters together - possibly stands out even more because so many of the director's typical strengths are oddly out of step this time around. He's arguably the premier pure storyteller of his generation, and yet the story beats and plotting in The BFG are conspicuously erratic. It may simply be that he's less comfortable with an inherently looser, more episodic form than what he usually works with; there's no real full-bodied narrative arc to drive things forward. Instead there are pieces of narrative strewn about, and the film gets to choose if and when to pick them up.
The rival giants (who, the BFG warns, are prone to eating human children) are the closest thing we have to a plot obstacle, and it eventually leads to a sharp left turn in which the movie becomes a broad British comedy of (bad) manners (read: bad manners = farts) right in the middle of Buckingham Palace. But it feels like the movie never knows what to do with the giants, or how to interpret their presence. There's a key scene halfway through that exemplifies the disconnect. The other giants invade BFG's home looking for the human they've sniffed out, the human they just know is hiding in there somewhere. They proceed to ransack the place, knocking over every shelf, smashing countless bottled dreams to bits. In their hunt for this "human bean," they are essentially destroying the BFG's life's work. And yet ... the music interprets this scene as a jovial frolic; it playfully dances to the action, ignoring the emotional stakes and narrowing its effect almost entirely to Sophie's attempt to remain out of sight. It's ostensibly a scary and heartbreaking sequence, but Spielberg and composer John Williams seem to be insisting it's all just an innocent game of hide and go seek.
The fact that those mean, nasty giants never really make an impact proves troublesome for the film's larger narrative arc, which distracts itself with matters of insignificant importance. Until, to bring it full circle, that quietly powerful climactic affirmation spoken - assured - from one new friend to another.
I've never liked the word "escapist," at least the way it's most commonly applied to movies. But it's a word that takes on different meaning in much of Spielberg's work. It applies to the experience of the characters rather than to our experience of (or purpose in) watching it. The escape is hope, and belonging - whether embodied by a homesick alien or a blue fairy or a big, friendly giant - and the intrinsic painfulness of not having it makes that escapism a necessity rather than a luxury. For all of The BFG's other shortcomings - its waxy CGI characters, its surprisingly ineffectual score, virtually everything narrative-specific - it still manages to arrive at that inalienable Spielbergian truth.