Why we love Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place
“Why we love This Must Be the Place” is a pretty good title for our discussion of Paolo Sorrentino’s 2011 film. I’m glad you floated it. Trying to articulate why we love a particular book or poem or movie is often what we, as academics, are doing when we “do” cultural criticism, but it’s an aim rarely stated or acknowledged as such. Or perhaps it’s not done often enough. It’s certainly not a very fancy way of describing a methodology. In any case, I find it one of the hardest things to do. Maybe for these same reasons, I like the idea of introducing love as a potentially enabling part of our critical vocabulary.
But explaining “why we love This Must Be the Place” is also just a succinct and fair way of introducing what we’re trying to accomplish here, which is something more like appreciation than film criticism. Furthermore, I can’t not hear this proposed title as a riposte to the couple of reviews I cursorily read before we went to the see the movie together. The reviews were tepid, and amounted to something like: the film has potential and some very fine moments but it ambles and wanders and, in the end, doesn’t hang together, isn’t very “satisfying” – a word with much less critical traction than love, incidentally, but more commonly used.
That said: “What’s not to love about This Must Be the Place?” is probably a better way to describe the way we felt going into the theatre and what brought us there in the first place. So the film may not be a well-wrought urn, not a cinematic tour de force, but come on: David Byrne and “Native Melody”; Sean Penn – and Sean Penn in drag as Robert Smith (The Cure!); Frances McDormand, Goddess… I mean, what’s not to love? I remember we had this attitude, like, however piece-y or inconclusive the film might be, we would not be disappointed.
Do you think maybe we feel a bit defensive or apologetic – ashamed? – about loving the film?
I agree that before watching it we had been seduced. The trailer sets up the bizarre patchwork plot – an aging Gothic rock star is going on a solo road trip across the US to hunt for Aloise Lange (Heinz Lieven), the SS officer who tormented and obsessed his late father – and also conveys really well the overall perspective: that of a recovered addict too exhausted to keep people at a distance. Everything is slowed down and burned out, yet unusually open and warm.
I didn’t want to read reviews, but watching the film, especially the second and third times, I could see how its many unlikely – almost textbook quirky – combinations could turn some people off: that this Robert Smith-like character, Cheyenne (whose name refers to a Native American group and alludes to The Cure’s new wave forerunners, Siouxsie and the Banshees) is also the child of a Jewish Holocaust survivor; that he has been happily married for thirty-five years to a female firefighter (McDormand); that the film brings together elements of the road trip, coming of age, suspense thriller, and Gothic genres. And that tokens of real life are inserted into this otherwise fictional space, including not only Talking Heads concert footage and a heart-to-heart conversation with David Byrne,“the true artist” to Cheyenne’s pop star (who cannot, however, list acting among his many talents), but also – weirdly, without comment – documentary photographs of Auschwitz. I could imagine the slow pace of the whole thing and occasional unevenness in the writing and performances were off-putting to some too. But I like all of this quirkery and mash up that lets the seams show. And I think Sorrentino is largely in control of it: there’s a coherent – more than that – a charming and humane vision holding it together.
One part of this vision has to do with seeking to acknowledge and understand positive interpersonal attachments. On this front, I’ve been thinking about Cheyenne’s phrase, “It’s not true, but it’s nice of you to say” as a kind of motto for the film. It should be a meaningless cliché: “nice” words are pretty much by definition polite but trivial. But in the film the phrase gets at the potential impact of small gestures of concern.
Cheyenne says it twice – first to his wife Jane when, just before he sets off for America, she says, “You come back to me soon. You know I can’t live without you.” The other time is after the Nazi hunter, Mordecai Midler (Judd Hirsch), tells him, “Your father loved you, you know.” Having finally tracked down his father’s camp guard, Cheyenne and Midler are sitting together at the airport, and know they won’t see each another again. This coarsened old man has entered Cheyenne’s life – helping not just with the practical problem of his father’s unfinished business, which is easy for him to do, but also, somewhat improbably, with the emotional scars – the baggage and shame – that come with being the child of a survivor. At the moment that he gives the account of Cheyenne’s father’s feelings, he becomes a pretty good daddy substitute himself. He feels that his father was too damaged and obsessive to give him the love he needed, and there’s little in the movie to suggest otherwise, but the white lie – the fantasy of being beloved – is good to hear.
The fact that words can generate or reinforce a good feeling between people even when not strictly true is also significant in the film. I’m less clear on this part though: I’m not yet sure what form of truth is being rejected. Rigid versions of historical truth? Rigid divisions between history and fiction? Personal truth, in the sense of a fixed self or a single rightful path through one’s life? Certainly the traditional idea that inherited identity determines one’s place in the world is questioned. It’s not that blood ties are irrelevant: it turns out Cheyenne’s Jewishness continues to haunt him decades after it has become an unconscious factor in his life. (I kept wondering if all the shots of Sean Penn’s magnicent schoz were meant to hint – in a rather politically incorrect fashion, it must be said – at the inescapability of his genetic inheritance. The actor is himself half-Jewish, according to his Wikipedia entry. Who knew?) Ultimately, though, family of origin is not nearly as influential or important as the relationships one chooses or randomly falls into. For instance, we learn that Cheyenne’s motivation for moving to Ireland is not just the low taxes for artists but a sense of responsibility for two young Dubliners – brothers – who attributed their suicide to his music and whose graves he visits regularly. Suspended in their adolescence, these boys are reflections of Cheyenne’s own suspension. The now mutual bond between the three is a testament to the unpredictability of our identifications, and the lasting impact they can have on our lives. When the parents find Cheyenne visiting their sons’ gravesite, again, they’re offended by his mere presence: it’s a heartbreaking instance of the contest of given and chosen identifications.
What then to make of the finale of this otherwise anti-essentialist story? Why does the film end with Cheyenne appearing as the (ultra-straight) boy-next-door, with his makeup off and his hair cut. I want the movie to be – and feel sure it is – unconventional; that it rejects normative models of truth, masculinity, and so on. But then how does this fit in?
I know, I’m still somewhat bothered by this scene too. As you say, it’s hard to reconcile this final image of the ultra-straight (no need for your remark to be parenthetical) boy-next-door with the rest of the film. Up until this point, everything about Cheyenne – from his Goth pallor to his high-pitched titter – has satirized heteronormative values of health, family, maturity and virility. Now, it’s as if these values are reasserted, as glaring as his signature red lipstick used to be.
Put another way, it’s difficult to reconcile “Cheyenne” with the ultra-masculine figure of “Sean Penn.” At this moment, in the end, Sean Penn is so obviously himself that it’s not so much the actor behind the mask that is revealed, as the role he plays within the narrow ambit of American pop/fan culture. It’s as if we’re being invited to Meet “Sean Penn,” Hollywood’s politically outspoken bad-boy! But this moment also reveals just how hard it is to recognize one another – or even to recognize ourselves – outside of the roles we’ve been assigned. Whether or not these roles suit us, they’re how we get identified.
This tentative response leaves a lot out, and I want to come back to a couple of points you raised. Your description of Cheyenne as “too exhausted to keep people at a distance” is wonderful. It’s an accurate description of the character, sure, but I’ve never thought of exhaustion in this way. In my head, exhaustion is always a consequence of enforced sociability and affective excess, to which the automatic response would be retreat. You’re suggesting that it leaves one vulnerably open to others, collapsing rather than creating distances.
I think it’s definitely this – your – version of exhaustion the film plays out, as Cheyenne moves, however erratically and uncertainly, from the obscenely “general” knowledge (as he calls it) about the Holocaust that is taught in high school to a face-to-face encounter with the Nazi war criminal who humiliated his father. Further, this encounter also imparts painfully specific knowledge about the obscene intimacy of humiliation. And, conversely, about the small humiliations of intimacy. It stings to learn of his father’s ambivalent feelings for him and the unlikely affinity between them. Can one, can he, sincerely be appreciative of such difficult knowledge? What could it mean to say, in this context, “it’s nice of you to say”?
The hazy territory between the general and the particular might be another way of thinking about those chosen or random relationships, which, as you say, turn out to be the most important relationships. I agree, provided that what’s most important is not necessarily the same thing as what is most influential. To pick up on your description of Cheyenne’s situation, shame seems to attach specifically and exclusively to the filial relationship. Given its immense weight, shame threatens to make his chosen relationships seem relatively inconsequential, even lite.
I think this suggests a further reason why Cheyenne’s otherwise banal response to kind words is so resonant. As you say, if he doesn’t really believe the “revelation” that his father loved him after all – if he doubts both its truth and the sincerity of this revelation – it is nevertheless ddesperately longed for. A similar ambivalence or hesitancy marks his relationship to Jane, too. About to set out on his quest, he hears his wife’s very tender farewell as kindly meant but rejects it as untrue: “…I can’t live without you.” Despite the knowledge and unstinting acceptance they clearly share, Cheyenne’s characteristic reply seems almost mean here. He has no reason to think Jane speaks facetiously, but it’s as if he has heard these words so often that they’ve become, to him, merely formal gestures. The ritual repetition of certain phrases can convey tremendous tenderness but that’s something he does not or maybe cannot hear. Obviously, he is not very good at accepting compliments, but his reply is not just self-effacing; it is also insensitive. Is it the powerful shame he carries that makes him doubt or even actively reject Jane’s own vulnerability? She is a fireman, after all, and he’s a burn-out.
“Nice” is a tricky word. That’s true.
To return to the ending, I don’t think facing his father’s unfinished business, or the unfinished between them, helps him let go entirely of his baggage and shame, or that this is what Sorrentino wants us to conclude. The discoveries usually supposed to accompany “coming of age” – like accepting where you come from and deciding where you’ll go – have been withheld or displaced. We don’t see Cheyenne come into his own; instead, we see a very recognizable Sean Penn, and from a specific vantage too. Yes: Cheyenne’s been dragging his shit all over the U.S.A. with him, but I don’t get the sense at the end of the film, when he appears literally without baggage, that he’s been completely disburdened.
Can I just take a moment to kvell about the baggage motif – visual and aural – in the film? Whenever we see Cheyenne walking, which we often do, he’s always dragging something behind him, and there’s the hum – always baggage with wheels. Sorrentino registers the intuitive brilliance of this surprisingly recent invention. In the delightful scene in the Utah diner where Harry Dean Stanton plays Robert Plath, yet another kind and passionate stranger. We’ve actually been taking it in over and over again from the beginning of the movie. Adding wheels to bags makes schlepping one’s shit around so much easier, yet it also has the effect of making us cling to it: when you know you don’t have to lift the bag, you tend to bring more than you need. That’s definitely a central point of the film: the way we stagnate if our gestures and costumes and accessories and scripts become, as you say, too general, too habitual or mechanical.
I remember you suggested to me that the film quite enjoys this mechanical quality too. For example, the way Cheyenne walks – part Zadie, part zombie – or the way he dances alone in his hotel room: he probably crafted these awkward pokes and thrusts of his limbs at fifteen and has moved like this ten thousand times since then but nevertheless it’s joyful and good to behold. There’s no competition between the mechanical and the natural here. A world devoid of mechanical objects and gestures would be greatly impoverished. Sorrentino’s way of making everyday objects, like luggage, into evocative symbols is also a huge part of the film’s charm for me.
Anyway, while I like that you don’t see the end of the film as redemptive, I don’t yet follow the logic. Perhaps this is because I’m a bit of a literalist and I’m stuck on the fact that Cheyenne has no baggage in the final scene. That seems to me a clear signal that we are meant to see him as liberated of his adolescent shame…
Oh yes, the hum! All those barely perceptible sounds of things dragged across various surfaces. The delicate, unhurried sound of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel (1978) is also a key feature of the film’s soundscape. I wanted to mention Pärt because – maybe just because I love Part and the piece is gorgeous:
In any case: I think it is precisely because of how consciously and effectively the movie has emphasized the symbolic work performed by everyday objects that the final “redemptive” scene strains credibility, even as it presents something warm and (I love this phrase of yours) “good to behold.” Cheyenne’s suitcase is gone, and so is his habitual cover (big hair, red lips, black clothes). However, as he returns home, isn’t he still (again) the designated mourner for something irrecoverable? There is definitely no competition between the mechanical and natural at work in Sorrentino’s aesthetic. I’d go even further and note that the “natural” is remarkably absent from the film as a whole. In place of a lake there’s a pool; for the nurture of a kitchen, we get a neon sign – CUISINE – and a frozen pizza. And a plastic pistachio, let’s not forget: it’s The World’s Largest Plastic Pistachio on record to date. (Where to find the world’s smallest pistachio remains a mystery, but that is the errand of another quest). Archness and sincerity are, as you suggest, wonderfully compatible here. The film doesn’t avail itself of such lumpy distinctions and instead makes room for stories hidden inside the story and unusual sorts of affective engagements.
For Cheyenne, “CUISINE” is ostentatiously self-referential, so arch that it is merely silly and we chuckle at that. The swimming pool is no less “unnatural” – it’s garishly perched on the dry, flat, windswept land surrounding it – and yet something can still be recovered there, maybe. The final image of a stripped down, unburdened and, apparently, recovered Cheyenne is as symbolically loaded as any other of the movie’s images. It’s too easy to say that ultimately the film politely discourages us from settling it as either arch or sincere. But I’m going to say it anyway.
I don’t know. I’m still trying to think this through… Let me back up a bit and look at how Cheyenne approaches others’ emotional burdens throughout the film. With the exception of that uncharacteristically cruel moment when he turns his back on the stranded Goth girl who clearly feels a kinship with him, he is all along open to – if not deeply interested in – other people’s baggage.
Rachel’s baggage, for instance. (Her husband has recently been killed in Iraq, though this is only alluded to, never spoken of). Cheyenne has tracked down Aloise Lange’s granddaughter (Kerry Condon) in New Mexico from information scouted at her grandmother’s house. When she serves him at the diner, we again see the kindness of strangers, but later in the parking lot, it’s awkward. Rachel, a young, attractive single mother, is clearly used to guys trying to pick her up. When it becomes clear that Cheyenne has no common designs on her, she invites him into her home, and, there, there is a lovely intimacy between them that almost makes me forget that Cheyenne is there as a spy. He doesn’t take on her baggage (how could he?), but he does lighten it. This is emblematized when he buys the swimming pool. It is a thoughtful gesture – now the chubby son needn’t be self-conscious in front of the beautiful boys at the lake – but the important point is that this is one of the film’s few moments of grace. And it comes right in the middle of the film, briefly arresting the progressive momentum of the traditional coming-of-age plot.
“It’s not true, but it’s nice of you to say”: if Cheyenne is not looking for sincerity and recognition, then what is he looking for? Yes, there is something mechanical about the whole quest, just as his mode of speech and dancing are mechanical. Of course, in some sense, the object of his quest is Nazi/Daddy. But the tattoo artist he meets in an empty bar, his world-weary teenage side-kick Mary (Eve Hewson); Rachel’s son (Grant Goodman), who sings (he thinks) an original Arcade Fire song; even Dorothy Shore (Joyce Van Patten), the Nazi’s wife and teacher of “general” history, in her sickening passivity: these characters, their feelings of shame, loss, resentment and desire – their bags, I suppose – weigh more in his estimation than his own.
So I don’t believe Cheyenne is finally moved or motivated or transformed to the extent that a standard coming-of-age script would require because, on the one hand, he’s not doing too badly to begin with and, on the other, the film has such a generous attitude toward its cast of soulful, broken people. There is a certain irony to my defending the film as “generous” given the word’s etymological ties to stock, race, and blood relations, but the term is apt.
OK – I see what you mean. It may be a mistake to put too much emphasis on the last moment. It’s the journey not the return that matters.
And I was interested in your earlier suggestion that Cheyenne’s final appearance is a sort of meta-theatrical unveiling: if the character turns back into the actor before the film is over, this requires us to see some of Cheyenne’s issues in relation to Penn’s own situation. For better or for worse, all aspects of a celebrity’s life and being become fodder for fans’ fantasies and projections, and it’s hard not to become mired in them. I think you’re also proposing that the distance between Penn’s and Cheyenne’s masculinity is part of the pleasure of watching the performance and that Sorrentino is commenting “Hey, hasn’t this been fun?” It is worth noting, however, that Penn has already done the queer thing on film, very prominently, in the biopic about Harvey Milk, the first out San Francisco politician, for which he won an Oscar and gave a rousing speech congratulating all the “commie homo-loving sons of guns” who supported the film and him.
PENN’S SPEECH AT 6.10:
Ultimately, though, I do think the film’s coming-of-age strand is complete and successful, and meant sincerely. That is, I think we are asked to believe in Cheyenne’s redemption at the end – and in fact I do believe in it and feel lightened by it, I realize now. I’m getting clearer on how this works… Sorrentino is definitely playful with the conventions of the coming of age story. To begin with: the very fact that the protagonist-in-progress is in his fifties. Then fun details like how Cheyenne’s budding maturity is signaled by his taking his first ever cigarette outside the airport following his confrontation with Lange. “I don’t know why of all the vices I’ve indulged in my life, smoking isn’t one of them,” Cheyenne has said, when visiting Mary’s mother (Olwen Fouéré) whose son has mysteriously disappeared six months before. She replies: “You never took up smoking because you remained a child. Children are the only ones that never get the urge to smoke.” Now that Cheyenne has faced his ghosts, he fears neither flying nor smoking. The cigarette is a particularly witty – pointedly retro – symbol that he is ready to move on.
If we also attend to the film’s profound investment in style – trends in fashion, music, make-up, and everyday objects like cigarettes and suitcases and pools – then that final scene seems much less problematic and less essentialist than we both initially feared, but also more earnest than you’ve suggested. Sorrentino has shown all along that the choices we make about how to decorate ourselves and our environments are also ethical decisions. The film is itself very stylish. It’s often beautiful, with lots of memorable visuals: Mary skateboarding past the curving glass of Aviva Stadium, the huge yak staring into Lange’s moonlit log cabin in Utah, that CUISINE sign, to mention just a few. Even the climactic meeting with the ancient Nazi invites an aesthetic orientation that is registered by Cheyenne’s decision first to shoot him with his camera rather than the gun he has acquired for this purpose: poetic justice. When the old man then stands naked in the snow we are presented with a strangely appealing tableau. The movie celebrates style as something substantial, central to everything we do and are…
I have to disagree. This is not an “appealing tableau.” It is devastatingly stripped down. Its sublimity is repelling and compelling in equal measure and it is, therefore, disorienting, anaesthetic. Somewhat like Sorrentino’s use of documentary footage, and unlike every other scene in the film, it is utterly inassimilable. The absence of any cultural, aesthetic or affective signs that might help us to read it is palpable. It says nothing about justice, poetic or otherwise; nothing about surface and depth, nor then of style, ethical or otherwise; it shows us just skin and bone.
How this helps us read the final scene, I don’t know.
Well, look, it’s a brilliantly sunny day; the naked wrinkled old man is turned into himself, almost childlike – vulnerable certainly, but not abject; the trailer is pale yellow; the truck waiting for Cheyenne is red; the snow is a vast clean blanket. Everything is shining. Maybe how you see it depends in part on whether you believe Cheyenne is leaving him there to die? The old man is blind but I think he could eventually make his way back inside if he wanted.
Moreover, this is the right payback for his father precisely because it’s a psychological rather than a physical assault. Cheyenne has learned that questions of style or tone – a related concept that also has to do with the outward expression of an attitude – had been at the core of his father’s unresolved pain and humiliation. He had been shocked by a dog running at him at Auschwitz and the Nazi guard had laughed at his primal embodied response to that fear. It’s this cruel laugh that stays with Cheyenne’s father all those years. The laughter does not stand in for Nazi ideologies, institutions, infrastructures – or anything. In this context the laugh in itself is dehumanizing. Cheyenne gets the last laugh. It’s a pretty complicated laugh, I’ll admit. On the one hand, it is ridiculous that his father should have sacrificed all his happiness and his capacity to love to the desire to avenge this particular moment. On the other, who is Cheyenne – who are we – to judge his response?
I think Cheyenne’s newfound appreciation of the effects of style and tone is the key to the last scene, to return to it one final time. The person walking down the street here is not “Sean Penn,” but rather some devamped and revamped version of Cheyenne. He has found out the hard way that clinging to a fixed attitude – always to make oneself up in the same way, never to smoke, never to fly, to arrange one’s life around the memory of a difficult moment – is to risk shutting out the present. When he appears, freshly scrubbed, out of drag, at the end, it’s not that there he is a proper man finally, ready to ride his wife off into the sunset. Rather he’s indicating a willingness to experiment again. A blank state, able to play new roles and receive new impressions – a return to innocence, something like that, but where innocence is a way of holding your head, smiling, dressing, that will inevitably change as he interacts with others.
The even richer interactions open to the grown-up Cheyenne are immediately signaled in the silent exchange with Mary’s grieving mother, from whose perspective we view him here. When she catches sight of him, she smiles. At first she’s confused him for her son – his more generic appearance makes this confusion possible – but then she looks again and we know she’s seen Cheyenne, and connected with him, this specific person.
Yes. Or maybe this specificity just isn’t as important as it once was? That’s what I take you to be saying here, really. There may be less stricken, more inventive, ways of occupying the roles that can make us more recognizable (or less, if desired) to others.
You called the film “charming”. To me that word is as resonant as the seemingly guileless word “nice.” Does it name some objective but elusive quality? An affective state? How does it function as an aesthetic term? It conveys the film’s levity, flippancy, its flirtation with twee – or what you referred to as “textbook quirky.” But there are darker, older resonances, where to be “charmed” by something is to be under its spell: taken over, say, by a dangerously charismatic figure.
The grieving mother, though; somehow her role manages to be both foreign and familiar in equal measure, close and fraught, but charming too. Cheyenne’s “return” to her reminds me of the lyrics from “Naïve Melody”:
I came home she lifted up her wings
Guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from the other
Did I find you, or you find me?
So I am again reminded of The Talking Heads and David Byrne more specifically. He has become a remarkably enduring symbol of cool for the initiated; his style – his stylishness – has outlived its mid-80s inception, but still fits. Through that title and Byrne’s presence, this very cool film does indeed seem invested in retrieving some form of innocence: a naivety that is both forward and backward looking – at least as warmly melodic as coolly ironic.
“There was a time before we were born. If someone asks, this is where I’ll be…” Do you think the grieving mother also serves as a figure, however weary, of “home,” and of the elusiveness of home more specifically? Or is she something more like a reality principle, placed – like the Wizard of Oz looking out from his peep-hole – to divest us of the illusion of home. As in: I brought you here; I saw you go; there’s no such place but here; have a cigarette.