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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Metaphorical Ripley

I wrote up a review of one of my favorite movies, The Talented Mr. Ripley over at amazon.com. I have reproduced it here:

The movie is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel by the same name. The story line follows Highsmith, but there are notable departures. I find the movie adaptation to be brilliant. It is a psychologically complex movie that continues to probe deeper and deeper into issues of identity and moral conscience right up until the closing scene. Seeing the movie for the first time one might have the feel that director/writer Anthony Minghella is walking one through a tour of a grand old castle where rooms and corridors upon up into more rooms and corridors even more intriguing than the first.

The film seems to divide into two movements. The first is the "age of innocence" for Tom Ripley. He is a boy with an opportunity and a hope for a better life: to escape his boring life of normalcy in New York for a life of beauty and taste. Where else, but Italy!??!

While in Italy he is charged with bringing playboy Dickie Greenleaf back home to his wealthy father in the States. Dickie, however, has no interest, and Tom quickly realizes this and chooses to cast in his lot with Dickie and become fast friends. But Dickie is too fickle for the "brotherhood" that Tom craves. Hence the tension leads up to a moment of dramatic tragedy that forever changes the course of Ripley's life and ushers in the second movement of the film.

There is now a turn towards suspense and intrigue as Tom uses his "talents" to gain a life of privilege and beauty. The narrative unfolds the suspense of Ripley trying to maintain multiple "worlds" and "realities" of deceit that Minghella describes as a myriad of "spinning plates," and Matt Damon creates a character who skillfully holds all of these false realities together in a grand score that somehow makes sense to all the players despite the glaring inconsistencies that the audience can see.

Holding this labyrinth of duplicity together would not have been possible without an absolutely incredible cast of actors and characters who come in and out of Ripley's life at every turn. The classical scenery also provides a setting where Damon can create his character of complexity.

Ripley is desperate to escape the social and aesthetic "basement" of life, and for a while he seems to have succeeded. Yet despite his achievement he is left wondering whether he has not simply constructed another basement of moral and spiritual darkness. This is a character who begins a journey of discovering identity and finds himself trying to attain a new life through any means possible. But the events of Ripley's life play out like a tragedy and the grip of irony becomes tighter and tighter for Ripley as the road to his self discovery leads, as Minghella says, to "the annihilation of self."

I find it ironic as I watch this movie that often times the things we pursue the most wind up out of our reach because of the means by which we pursue them....or sometimes we fail to achieve what we desire simply because we desire it so much. It is this type of irony that I see in Qohelet (crf. the book of Ecclesiastes): Life is a "chasing after of the wind." The metaphor of pursuing what ultimately cannot be caught. And yet this is the metaphor used to describe life, leading Qohelet to conclude in chapter 8 that anyone who is able to appreciate one's position and status in life that this is commendable. After all, life is complex and no one can claim to understand all that God has done!

1-For various muddleheaded interpretations of the film/book please see Ktismatics and his dialogue with Parody.
2-If you compare the translations of 8:17 you will notice the NIV adds the word "meaning", as in "no one can discover its meaning." This is a terrible move, and one of many translation/interpretive moves made by the NIV that have enormous and in my opinion devastating philosophical/theological consequences for the book. It provides the setting for theologians to transform Qohelet from someone standing in awe at the mystery and irony of life into a Modern apologetics evangelist preaching about how having God in your life can make it more meaningful. Tragic!)


ktismatics said...

I think you're a romantic.

Have you seen Match Point by Woody Allen? The main male character in that story is a lot like Tom Ripley. I didn't much care for Match Point -- I actually liked your Ripley movie (despite its mishandling of the book *smiles and winks*).

Since you've read the rest of the Ripley corpus you'll probably want to see Ripley's Game, with John Malkovich as Ripley. I haven't seen it but I'd like to. Here's part of a review from Rolling Stone:

Malkovich oils himself around the plot -- icy cool one moment, blazingly violent the next -- with a master's finesse... other actors have played the part, most recently and most blandly Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. But Malkovich owns the role. He plays it for keeps.

Roger Ebert also liked The Talented Mr. Ripley, but he thought Ripley's Game was better:

Tom Ripley is fascinating in the sense that a snake is fascinating. He can kill you, but he will not take it personally and neither should you. He is well-educated, has good taste, is a connoisseur of art, music, food, wine and architecture, can give a woman good reason to love him, and commits crimes and gets away with them. "I don't worry about being caught," he says, "because I don't believe anyone is watching." By "anyone," he means cops, witnesses, God, whoever...

John Malkovich is precisely the Tom Ripley I imagine when I read the novels. Malkovich is skilled at depicting the private amusement of sordid characters, but there is no amusement in his Ripley, nor should there be; Ripley has a psychopath's detachment from ordinary human values. Malkovich (and Highsmith) allow him one humanizing touch, a curiosity about why people behave as they do. At the end of the film, when a man saves his life, Ripley can think of only one thing to say to him: "Why did you do that?"

Jonathan Erdman said...

I think you're a romantic.

Have you seen Match Point by Woody Allen? The main male character in that story is a lot like Tom Ripley. I didn't much care for Match Point -- I actually liked your Ripley movie (despite its mishandling of the book *smiles and winks*).

Well, I may be a romantic, but I'll be darned if you are the one who keeps winking and smiling at me....

Seriously, though, all romance to the side I was wondering what your thoughts were on the Cain/Able motif - it's strong in the book, but all the more so in the movie. (As we probably agree, the movie is an exaggeration of nearly all elements of the novel.) How would a Doylean analyze the psychology of brotherly un/love? Is there overlap between love/hate in the brother relationship? Are there desired objects that simultaneously need to be destroyed? Competition for the affections of the mother and approval of the father?

Ktismatics: Since you've read the rest of the Ripley corpus you'll probably want to see Ripley's Game, with John Malkovich as Ripley. I haven't seen it but I'd like to.

Yes, I really want to see that moive...in fact, I'd kill to see it....wait, forget that last part...I said forget it! Forget it, I say, or I shall kill you!

ktismatics said...

So the Tom and Dickie were competitors for the same thing, which was the pleasure of God bestowed via the good life? And Tom saw himself scorned by God because of his poverty, even though he was every bit the equal of Dickie? And then after Tom killed Dickie, Tom fell under God's protection?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Ever seen the movie Rope?

Jimmy Stewart plays a college professor who advocates some so-called Nietzschean perspectives on murder: That if you are smart/elite enough to get away with it then it is not wrong.

So, some of his former pupils try it out. Unfortunately for them they get caught and as such they fail to live up to their own ideas of moral superiority.

Something like that is going on in Ripley. A "beyond good and evil" theme.

Melody said...

Jimmy Stewart plays some creepy people.

I haven't seen The Talented Mr. Ripley, now I'm going to have to make my friends watch it with me because I'm curious.

The relationship sounds a very little like Gene & Phineas in A Seperate Peace as far as envy goes. But Gene, like the reader, is in denial about the murder bit, where as it sounds like this character embraces it.
I hate that book. I'll probably hate Mr. Ripley...but now I'm curious.