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The New Western (2): About Sunny (2011)

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To a certain extent, the West is a place that for some people just does not work. Horace Greeley, notwithstanding, there is no pressing need for anybody in their prime to go west. As much or more opportunity resides squeezed into Uptown, Midtown, and Downtown Manhattan. Seeing is believing: all the eye perceives from a myriad of perspectives in the true West is pure nothingness. No wonder there is no interest in going to the Moon. It is probably no different than Nevada and Utah. Still, not everyone wants to cram into New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. It is warmer in Las Vegas. It does not snow. It does not sleet. There are parking spaces. It is possible to drive, period -- not that Gotham's insane do not brainlessly motor about. Plus, Las Vegas is not all about gambling. It has high school basketball, too. There are many reasons why someone, such as a single mother, might find herself in America's foremost sin city. Her task might look small from a distant planet. But up close, it is enormous. She must make a life for herself and her daughter. It sounds simple, but it is hard. She is at it twenty-four-seven. It is only the weather that is warm, however, not the psycho-social environment. Instead of finding help, she runs into people who either exploit her misfortune or facilitate more of the same.

Years ago I wrote extensively on the subject of film noir. In film noir, things are bleak to begin with, then get bleaker still. But there was always an element of fantasy about these films, even though they blended in with real locations, groundbreaking for the time. They were more metaphorical and symbolic. They were never completely about themselves so much as what they might stand for, which had to be guessed at or speculated upon. Only in the New Western have I actually stumbled on a realistic correspondent. The West has qualities that are much harsher than the reputed mean streets of the Atlantic Seaboard or Midwest. In many situations, such as the one in About Sunny, there truly is no way out. It ends pretty much as it begins, very existential. Needless to say, Native Americans on the warpath are no longer the obstacle to overcome. But their lingering curses seem, in various circumstances, to have been effective.

Personally, I was glad I saw this film. It is far from a blockbuster, but competent enough and meaningful. It expressed something I could not have improved upon. I have a thing about places. I attach mystical significance to them. To me, probably only me, the lead character, Angela (Lauren Ambrose), will never find relief from substantial amounts of grief in her environs. Her surroundings are bad for her. It does not matter how many others have been through worse and emerged triumphant on the same pavement, in the same neighborhoods. Call it the NYC syndrome, or whatever. It has to do with people who are relatively well off, active, and happy, but cannot transfer any of this to somewhere else. As to where Angela needs to be -- that I would not be able to tell. Further, she is a fictional character defined by a situation I am unfamiliar with. Nevertheless, I can say with certitude that she is not being chased about by persecuting demons for smoking or fornicating.

I bring this up because I have myself encountered in the West a fierce degree of religiosity where once only lizards and snakes prospered. I am still a proponent of the teachings of Roger Williams. Freedom is first and foremost, as well as the State. Religion is a secondary matter of choice. If I were to dissect the West in an attempt to find out what is wrong with it, from my own prejudicial perspective, I am fairly certain I would find somewhere within this "organism" religious "growths" like tumorous cancers. None of this is in the film, however. I do not review or criticize films. I like them mainly because they provide lots to think about. I should also point out that the religious do not enter into the film in the form of either characters or institutions. There might be a glimmer of hope here both the chief character and myself are giving short shrift. All of this dribble, I might add in passing, is just a current hang-up of mine probably not even the least bit pertinent to the main subject.

That the West has changed is more to the case at hand. Those fiery bright signs, whether for casinos, motels, diners, or nude bars, have all faded. Listen to the dialogue. Nobody has anything much to say about anything. The Western mind is bankrupt. The Westerner is no longer a trailblazer. The tipped hat of courtesy and decency is seldom to be found. The stereotypically polite, self-effacing Westerner is obsolete. Big plans, big ideas, big doings -- they are also non-existent. No one stands tall for what's right. A petition is signed and that's that. Maybe a strip mine is scrapped. So, if a young woman strives to raise a vulnerable child in such a godforsaken milieu, all she can expect to come across are men and women asking, basically, what's in it for me?

Something about this movie made me look up Cesare Zavattini in IMDB. This is the screenwriter of Bicycle Thief, famous among cinephiles. I seem to recall that he once boasted he could write a story about almost anything. He definitely has a lengthy track record. But it is the simplicity of About Sunny that is really fetching. It has lots of complications. It has a smattering of political ramifications. It is basically an independent film. Still, all in all, it is not unlike what the Neorealists of the late 1940s, early 1950s might have latched onto. I call it a Western. I feel ready to defend this theoretical position, too, in any watering hole west of east and south of north.

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