Crises of Conversation and Faith in THIS IS MARTIN BONNER (2013)

December 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Independent cinema most often works with a different set of tools to create conflict than studio releases. When filmmakers can’t count on the interesting locations, stunts, expressive lighting, or other effects that higher-budgeted features take for granted, their narratives naturally turn toward the minute and observed, rather than the outwardly dramatic. So a picture like This Is Martin Bonner feels like a mission statement for a certain mode of filmmaking, in which there are no central conflicts, and all its characters mean well. They are trying only to make the lives of others better and work on themselves at the same time.

One scene perhaps typical of an independent drama set in Reno, Nevada sees ex-convict Travis encountering a confident young prostitute on his way to the bus stop. There are no hints throughout the film that Travis seeks romantic companionship, or that sex is on his mind at all. Yet the woman works her way into his hotel room, and his wallet, with a few choice phrases suited to the film’s mode of pleasantries. “You’re not going to leave me out in the cold, are you?” is the operative question, Travis demurring at first before riding back with her on the bus and paying her fifty dollars almost out of sheer politeness. He seems to sleep with her only because to refuse her offer would be rude.

Travis is the story’s secondary protagonist, who finds himself midway through the film at the home of Steve, his sponsor in a program for paroled prisoners. The man is warm and honest, his marriage happy, his life full and rich. There are no moments of awkwardness in their conversation, no long pauses that suggest the lingering presence of hostility or judgement beneath the currents of their dialogue. Yet the camera lingers on Travis as the dinner winds to a close, his face suggesting a deep sadness. He has no reason to dislike Steve or his wife, but the life before him is closed off somehow. There is no space for him in it.

People who grow up within religious communities or belong to social circles including the churchgoing rather inevitably have experiences like the one Travis undergoes in this scene, which falls outside the category of dinner scene cliches in which his hosts might react at a loss after some social gap between them has been uncovered, or failing to realize the gravity of his crime (which is manslaughter while drunk driving, and proves only incidental to the picture’s real concerns). During a subsequent scene with Martin, Travis acknowledges that he believes in God, but can’t bring himself to either commit entirely to this sort of religiously motivated existence or to reject it totally. There’s no comedy of manners in Travis’s displacement at that dinner, only a sense that his own simple existence is inferior to theirs, simple but infused with an inaccessible meaning.

My own crisis of faith a few years ago involved a similar sort of disconnect. Cliques inevitably form around the faithful in college, who tend to structure regular social meetings as a way not only of keeping up with requirements like attendance at Sunday Mass but to provide a stabilizing constant. I understood the scene at the home of Travis’s sponsor because I had sat in so many of those dinners myself, wondering why my faith wasn’t as consuming as my peers’, or how it is that someone else’s involvement in a religion I myself believed in could be so alienating.

But surely our appreciation of film, particularly independent ones that rely so much on the dynamics of conversation and the structuring of dialogue-based scenes, has to involve more determined criteria than simply recognizing something of our own lives in a scene. I can assume, and probably with some accuracy, that I am not the only person to go through a period of social alienation around good people with whom I had a lot in common, and others who have might be similarly affected by This Is Martin Bonner. But how to describe its merits to those who haven’t had the same experiences?

I can think of at least one scene that demonstrates how Martin Bonner not only illustrates interior moments but expands on their meaning and gives us a new angle from which to reflect on the sensation. As Travis stands outside a Catholic church after Mass and greets parishioners alongside Steve, a rare moment of intrusive editing slows down the action and overlays an ambient music cue. At this point, before the dinner scene, we can sense vaguely that Travis is having some difficult adjusting but are not entirely sure of his thoughts. The music cue carries over as the film cuts to a long shot inside a museum, where the recently-divorced Martin, also alone in Reno, wanders in to look at a couple of paintings; the music abruptly cuts off as he stops to examine one.

In just this brief transition we get a match between the feelings of these two characters, an enigmatic moment that attains greater clarity in the subsequent dinner scenes at his sponsor’s home and later, when Travis admits his frustrations to Martin. Just as Travis feels separated from the unity and purpose of the religious community, Martin is trying to fill his own life with meaning by seeking out high culture. His own isolation is deepened by two subsequent revelations; first, when he receives a phone call from his daughter in which the audience learns that Martin is newly single and is reluctant to participate in a dating service; second, at his meeting with Travis, when he explains that his sudden crisis of faith led to both the dissolution of his marriage and subsequently being fired from his job as a business manager for his church.

I think that Martin leaves the chronology of his crisis of faith, divorce, and termination deliberately vague, in a way that makes the causal chain I’ve sketched out above more a guess than a recap of the plot. But since Martin’s own past life never really intrudes on the picture’s minimal plot, the most important takeaway here is that he equates his sudden loss of faith (“I woke up one morning and I didn’t want to go to church any more”) with the disruption of his home life and financial stability. He says that he took on the job with the rehabilitation program because at his age, he wasn’t qualified for anything else.

The film’s one incident in which someone actually causes harm to someone else is again, in a minor key, with only a seemingly small sense of hurt inflicted. Travis tells Martin a white lie about his daughter Diana wanting to meet him that brings the three of them together for lunch, a meeting that constitutes the father’s first meetings with his daughter in years. Martin reacts with quiet, if dignified anger when it quickly becomes apparent that the young woman has no idea who he is, and he was deceived into being Travis’s anchor at this meeting. It’s the sort of social dynamic that, again, a lesser comedy might play for awkward laughs, mining out the tension for a confrontation down the line. But this film has made it so clear that both Martin and Travis are struggling desperately for normalcy that when Martin walks out after only a minute and Travis follows him to the parking lot, Martin’s hurt and frustration ring true. Things are hard enough without being dragged one more place where he doesn’t fit in.

And the lunch that unfolds is one of the year’s very best scenes, as Travis tries to re-establish a connection with his daughter that he can only try to reconstruct through small details that have no meaning to her – a childhood playmate he thought was her boyfriend, an incident in which he cooked her reheated french toast from Denny’s – in other words, the sort of pleasantries that everyone in his new community tends to speak in. But they can’t cover the distance between the two, and things crumble quickly before Martin returns for “just a coffee” in a perfectly timed entrance that not only releases the intense pain of the deteriorating conversation but miraculously turns the tide of the meeting.

Note the dynamics at play: Travis and his daughter have been caught in a very private moment by Martin, and out of politeness pretend that nothing is wrong, while Martin’s inscrutable exterior of wisdom and authority in conjunction with his perfectly timed entrance make it apparent that he knows exactly the impact his presence has had on the meeting. Instead of putting all parties at social disadvantages based on their knowledge, or lack thereof, of the situation, the script allows Martin to use the awkward three-way dynamic as a tool to smooth things over. As he orders his coffee and begins to fill the silence with friendly chatter, he begins to extract small details about Diana’s life from her, which with Martin’s mitigating presence allow Travis to reconnect honestly with his daughter as they eventually share old pictures from before his imprisonment. The pleasantries and amiability that were so distancing in Steve’s home become, through Martin’s gesture of goodwill, an avenue which Travis can take to find new meaning in his relationship with Diana.

I consider This Is Martin Bonner an exemplary independent film not only for the tools it uses to construct and resolve its minor conflicts, and how skillfully it imagines the disconnect between the words exchanged in conversation and their reflection of the speakers’ actual feelings, but for the stakes it establishes in the lives of its characters. Although the two main characters’ crises of faith are central to their isolation in Nevada, the film’s resolution offers no hints that either will come to terms with their religion any time soon. Travis expresses confidence that Martin has given him an ideal to work toward, while Martin himself seems in the final shots to have reached some small satisfaction with his lonely life.

But what it does best is to demonstrate how really deeply dramatic and painful it can be just to referee a soccer game in a new town where you don’t know any of the parents and your children are not among the players, or to have coffee with a friend, or to go to a speed dating service where you probably won’t see any of the other participants again. This Is Martin Bonner understands that pleasant, well-meaning neighbors and good friends don’t always fill you up, and how even when you’ve got it comparatively easy, life can be so very hard. – Brendan

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