Written by Patrick Pilkington.
When I first saw St. Vincent, the film it reminded me of most was the classic It's A Wonderful Life (1946, Dir: Frank Capra). Several things prompted this - for a start, although not strictly a Christmas film, it was released in the UK in December of 2014, and played with the festive season's association with heart-warming entertainment in its marketing ("This Xmas Meet St. Vincent" ran one tagline, the title festooned, deliberately haphazardly, in tinsel). The film also shares with Capra's classic a religious inflection that is far from common in the contemporary Hollywood cinema, as it relates the tenets of sainthood to the everyday struggle of the 21st Century Westerner. But more than anything else, St. Vincent reminded me of the earlier film in its attempts to reconcile an awareness of life's less 'wonderful' elements with the utopian sensibility Richard Dyer sees as characteristic of screen entertainment. The film's utopian strategies of containment and recuperation result in a happy ending somewhat at odds with the prior depiction of unremitting pressures within its social world. I would like to explore the film's initial depiction of an unsatisfactory world, its utopian strategies for dealing with this world, and the nuances embedded in both of these aspects that few of the film's reviews seem to have engaged with.
As mentioned in my introduction, this reading of St. Vincent draws upon Richard Dyer's text 'Entertainment and Utopia'. Dyer explores entertainment's utopian sensibility, which he locates in its provision of answers within the diegesis to 'social tensions, inadequacies, and absences' that exist in the world off-screen. The five main problem/solution dialectical pairings he discusses are scarcity/abundance, exhaustion/energy, dreariness/intensity, manipulation/transparency, and fragmentation/community. Dyer's project involves balancing a consideration of both the representational and non-representational signs that make up these utopian images. The former embodied in the dominant structures of film narrative and audience expectation - "stars are nicer than we are, characters [are] more straightforward than people we know, situations more soluble than those we encounter" - and the latter present on the level of "colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, camerawork", etc. I intend to focus predominantly on the representational in St. Vincent, although there is undoubtedly plenty to say about the film's mise-en-scène, its visual depiction of New York, and its uses of music, amongst other non-representational elements.
The aspect of Dyer's argument most relevant to my discussion is his awareness of the utopians emergence as a response to the problems of our everyday social world(s) and its implications. Dyer states:
“To be effective, the utopian sensibility has to take off from the real experiences of the audience. Yet to do this, to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is, ideologically speaking, playing with fire [Films must] work through these contradictions at all levels in such a way as to 'manage' them, to make them seem to disappear. They don't always succeed. ”
Yet part of the film's utopian impulse involves absorbing this awareness of human fallibility into a larger project, using an awareness of the unattainability of individual perfection to reconfigure what we think of as the saintly and affirm the decency inherent to the human struggle. The film's refusal to demonise any of its characters leads to more interesting and less predictable avenues of narrative resolution and development than many of the film's reviews have given it credit for. The subplot involving Oliver's interaction with a school bully, Ocinski (Dario Barosso), does not end with the former's physical triumph over the latter in the sports hall, but extends to the subsequent development of a close friendship between the two. Zucko (Terrence Howard), the intimidating gambling profiteer owed money from Vincent, is allowed partly through the film's proliferation and distribution of individual problems, to be humanised. In this world, even the bad guy clearly works out of desperation. In a key late moment, Maggie is made by Oliver to acknowledge that the ex-husband whom she has only referenced negatively up to this point is probably not so bad after all. This moment most likely functions to anticipate the climactic reclamation of another problematic father figure (Vincent himself), but nevertheless speaks also to a refusal to villainise or downplay individual struggle.
The apotheosis of the film's utopianism however, and I think one of its clearest parallels to It's A Wonderful Life, occurs in the preceding scene, however with the canonisation of Vincent at Oliver's school. Earlier in the film, Oliver's teacher Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd) sets an assignment for his students to appoint a living saint and give a presentation on why they have chosen their particular individual. Oliver chooses an unsuspecting Vincent, who is falsely lured to the ceremony by Daka and watches a testimony to his life and character unfold before him. Part of the 'what can be' that the utopian sensibility can bring into being, as it does here and in It's A Wonderful Life, is the idea of not only being recognised but valorised for one's achievements, through a precarious combination of universality (if Vincent can be considered a saint, we all can be too) and exceptionalism (only Vincent is sainted, raising ideological implications surrounding the affirmation of the broken father figure and the side-lining of the mother). The notion of saints as individuals, humans, and of this particular individual sufficiently exhibiting the 'courage, sacrifice, compassion, humanity' necessary for sainthood, parallels It's A Wonderful Life's affirmation of the everyday person in its famous motto "No man's a failure who has friends." Similarly to the entire community of Bedford Falls rallying to George Bailey's house at the finale of It's A Wonderful Life, reaction shots of numerous minor characters from earlier in the film, shown to be present during Oliver's speech, attests to the idea of any life that touches others as a special one. Despite Vincent's flaws, his demeanour belies a genuine involvement in the lives of others that the film affirms and asks us to consider in relation to our own relationships.
Gilberto Perez, writing on the conclusion of It's A Wonderful Life, states that the happy ending contains "the kind of improbability that could have easily been smoothed over but is instead made difficult [...] for us not to recognise as such. But [the ending is] not exactly ironic either. Things would not happen this way in real life, we know, and yet we smile in tense and wishful suspension of disbelief." This is exactly the response the final scenes of St. Vincent inspired in me, and, I would maintain, many others who have seen the film. Both films present a considerable amount of their running times depicting the absences and inadequacies that dog the lives of many individuals, and both films rectify this with a climactic outpouring of utopianism that affects us emotionally even as we recognise its implausibility. Vincent's canonisation moves from something we can laugh at the notion of - the title takes on an oxymoronic quality as soon as we are introduced to the titular 'saint' - to something we wholeheartedly embrace by the final scenes; an image of 'what can be' that is all the more effective for being rooted in the struggles and inadequacies of 'what is'.
This Alternate Take was published on March 31, 2015.
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