“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience treacherous, judgment difficult.”
–Hippocrates

Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!
Many a hopeless matter gods arrange.
What we expected never came to pass,
What we did not expect the gods brought to bear;
So have things gone, this whole experience through!
– Euripides, Medea

I suggest that the above words would be spoken by Hippocrates and Euripides were they, somehow mysteriously, to have seen Derek Cianfrance’s movie A Place Beyond the Pines (2013).

A Place Beyond the Pines

Ryan Gosling’s Luke Glanton burns intense like a Roman candle and then dies and disappears. Art here cannot keep life in one reality frame and so overspills into three. And it does so dangerously in this age of short bursts of tweets, quick flicks of a finger over Apps, and our cybertech “reform” of long, slowly developing fictional narrative. And like all calls for “reform” in our new Millennial world, this reform signals the death of something and the birth of a new awareness.

There is an old awareness in this movie: “opportunity fleeting.” Our new awareness has to do with willing your own opportunities. If they are fleeting, you fail to will strongly enough. But the old awareness persists: “experience treacherous”. New awareness: you choose whether you will be scrunched by your experiences or whether you will turn them into opportunities. And finally: “judgment difficult.” A very old awareness, hardly recognizable, hardly understood. Are we not the final arbiters of all that we survey? Will we wait for the law or history or a moral code spoken by dead voices to judge our lives?

There is a mystery to this movie which has much to do with this “old awareness” but nevertheless it is a compelling mystery. If it were not compelling, we would be witnessing a clamour of captious reviews that a mysterious opaqueness in a film usually incites. Once again, in a contemporary climate where meaning is yours to make, and when your understanding can only be overrun by what is itself incomprehensible, a film that yet runs ahead of you seems destined to have a repelling and not a compelling mystery to it.

That’s not the case with A Place Beyond the Pines, though the place here is beyond the place we now find ourselves in – our “new awareness.”

So now to the second quotation above, from Euripides, a very ancient, classical awareness. Medea is a barbarian brought to a place, Corinth, “where all Greeks hate the barbarian,” and the loss of Jason’s (this Jason is of the Argonauts) protection leads to the most tragic of all tragedies: Medea kills her own children to make Jason suffer. The chorus parses the play for meaning for us all: In many forms is life given to us providentially, including matters we cannot hope to disentangle, command or understand, our own will cannot bring to pass what we wish, what we never planned and never anticipated comes before us, and “so have things gone” from birth to death. Euripides reminds us that we are all inevitably like Medea in that what life is and what it means is foreign to us, that we are barbarians in a world strange to us. But it is not only Nature that remains strange to us and we foreign to it, no more than by our own consciousness of being apart from it.  Our own passage in life which, as the poet Ernest Dowson expresses it, is no more than “a misty dream” out of which “our path emerges for awhile then closes within a dream.”

We are now pitched against this old awareness, or, more precisely, we are pitching a new Millennial awareness to replace the old. Americans, of course, have been asserting an individual independence and self-reliance, an indomitable frontier spirit, since the War of Independence. Frontiers have now become unopened markets and rugged individualism has maxed, nurtured in cyberspace, at the level of total personal autonomy and self-design. Few are now ready to acquiesce to what the Medea chorus sings, or join in exhuming a way of life that is buried. The old awareness has been “creatively destroyed,” and was never more than a Losers’ chorus. We have multi-tasked and telecommunicated and digitalized beyond feeling that something outside ourselves can affect our lives. We hear the Loser’s fatalism in that classical chorus.

And yet all that the chorus tells us is played out in The Place Beyond the Pines.

Why we don’t mock or ignore or rail against such obsolescence, such interests retired long ago, is itself a testament to the film’s haunting mystery and the magnetism of what it shows us of life, life, for all our illusions and presumptions, we cannot command.

A Place Beyond the Pines

Luke Glanton haunts the movie, though he dies and leaves the stage early on. We continue to see his face in the face of his son, Jason (Dane DeHaan). The dead Luke comes between Bradley Cooper’s Avery Cross and Avery’s own son, A.J (Emery Cohen).  Avery is the living father but the father he has killed haunts him. His son is living but he is also the son who has no father. As such, A.J. becomes a reminder of what Avery is trying to put out of his mind. And so, this son who has a living father grows up as if he had no father and becomes a teen who has no compass to arrange his own life. To be without a father is to be rudderless, and this A.J. has no moral rudder but only a drive toward self-annihilation. On the way, drugs erase connections with the whole world. And why not when a son’s connection with a father is not there? So for both father and son what comes to bear in their lives is what they did not choose.

We did not expect – but because it is a movie and the anticipation has been created, we do expect – that Jason would discover who and what his father, Luke, was and how he died. But it comes to pass. In the absence of knowing anything, Jason could have designed a father of his choosing. Or, once he knew his father was a “Loser,” a thief shot to death by the police, Jason could have “un-fathered” him the way you “un-friend” on Facebook. This father is not what you want your father to be. But Jason cannot delete his ties to his father. We can see in the final scene as he buys a motorcycle and drives off without answering the question put to him – “Know how to handle one of these? – that he has not “un-fathered” his father, has not deleted his father’s legacy. He has become his father, a nomad, a loner fast speeding down a country road. It is his inheritance, in his blood, to know how to handle one of these. And that carnival act of his father – cycling at top speed with two other cyclists, spinning in a globe, dangerously, spinning lives on the face of this earth, is a cycle of destiny that is now Jason’s.

“Many a hopeless matter the gods arrange.” How to break the cycle of destiny, of generations, of legacies and histories and experiences, all that lead Jason to becoming Luke?

Consider the three other fathers in this movie: Kofi (Mahershala Ali), who is, as he tells Jason, Jason’s real father and not just a guy who had a baby; Judge Al Cross (Harris Yulin), Avery’s father; and Avery himself, A.J.’s father. Avery becomes a cop even though his wife and his father are not approving. He has a law degree; he’s passed the Bar exam; his father is a State supreme court justice, which means his family has influence. But Avery arranges his life in his own way. . . until he doesn’t. What he did not expect was shooting and killing Luke, his entanglement with his fellow cops who are crooked, and a threat to his own life for exposing these crooked cops. It is an overwhelmed, desperate, pathless Avery who rings his father’s door bell. Self-design has led him into treacherous woods. He bows to the existence of “shapings” not his own. He accepts the strategy for his life he had formerly rejected, the strategy for success that his father had always urged him to accept, the mantle he was born to wear. A hopeless matter has been arranged successfully. We do not have to invoke the gods to understand how this has been done.

A Place Beyond the Pines

Fifteen years later, as Avery makes a victory speech as attorney general, his son, A.J., stands among the supporters and applauds. The expression on his face slowly turns to a smile as he sees his own future displayed in his father’s victory. Just as Jason silently kick starts his bike and roars down the treacherous road his father has taken before him, A.J. stands applauding what he sees as a road of success ahead of him. This place of destined success is a place beyond what Luke, Jason, Kofi, Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), and Romina (Eva Mendes) can reach. What we see in Schenectady, a Mohawk word meaning “a place beyond the pines,” are experiences in widely separated places.

Jason’s mother, Romina, works as a waitress in a diner, her mother, is an illegal alien, and Kofi, the man she lives with, may have a job or may not but we know he is unable to buy a crib for the baby. The Kofi scenes are few. This is a man who has not chosen to be alone, a man who seeks a place. We see him drop Jason off at school and there is clearly something loving about that scene; on the day of baby Jason’s christening he asks Luke, who has intruded: “You really want to do this now?” It is Kofi who holds baby Jason’s head over the baptismal fount as Jason is now “enlightened by Christ.” “Is this what you want?” he asks Romina as Luke, who has invaded Kofi’s home, sets up the crib. It seems as if a bewildered Kofi is propelled into that violent scene which ends in a sucker punch from Luke who has something in his hand and Kofi is down, bleeding and unconscious. We see a victim in his own home as all his black ancestors have been victims in a place they have tried to make their own. “What we did not expect the gods brought to bear.”

Robin, the backwoods car mechanic who hires Luke and offers him a beat up trailer to live in, is on a Jerry Springer show stage. He has resorted to robbing banks four times just to make ends meet. Years later, when Jason tracks him down, Robin emerges from the dark and dilapidated interiors of his woodsy “digs” as oil smeared and luckless as fifteen years before. Quiet desperation. We know at once how things have gone in his life.  And yet there’s a resilience here, a spark and it ignites in his effort to give Jason something good and fitting for Jason to take with him as a memory of his father. “Manifold are thy shapings, Providence!”

Dominating this place of hopelessness and disappointment is Luke who is, upon first sight, a travelling carny performer walking away from us. This is a “masterless” man who has no residence. He’ll pass through this town again in a year. The gods cannot arrange for such a nomad a hopeless matter nor has this nomad any expectations to be thwarted. We see him signing autographs for young admirers. What do they admire? This is a free spirit, a man who has tattooed his distance from boring, adventureless life, a man more attached to a fast motorcycle than to people. Why wouldn’t this be awesome to the young? It’s as if these young know that what lies ahead for them is what lies ahead for all the adults around them – except Luke –victims of what lies beyond their control. Quiet desperation. But Luke does not escape what the gods arrange.  He cannot escape “the whole experience through” and so he stops walking away and walks into life. . . where the gods await him.

“Judgment difficult” Hippocrates reminds us.

So have things gone, this whole experience through!” Euripides tells us.

A Place Beyond the Pines

Judgment it seems remains difficult even though we believe we have advanced to a Millennial awareness which advocates a ruling personalized judgment. There is little hope of retreating to such rule in this film where clearly what is “brought to bear” and the way things have gone has little connection to personal choices and assertive will. This then is a bold, daring film that puts aside the Millennial awareness we come in with, slows us down to an old awareness of the nature of things and challenges the power of the 140 character tweet to do the same.  Slow and evolutional, the film opens the issue of “So have things gone” to the question “How do things go on now?” Our plot is not the plot of the Greek tragedy Medea; things go on now, come to pass and are arranged in manifold shapings but we have no need to point to the gods when explanations are closer to hand and amendable on a humble human scale.

That amending seems not to have taken place in any equitable fashion in our new Millennial world. This may be not because of what the gods or Providence arrange but rather what a certain entrenched economic and political calculus has arranged. The shapings arranged have the prosperous in a place that advances them as surely as compound interest advances an investment portfolio while the quietly desperate – and they remain quiet with only sporadic Luke-like explosions of violence – are in a place they cannot seem to work themselves out of, even if they take classes, as does Romina.

When judgment is left to the gods, judgment is not only difficult for humans to make but also not theirs to make. But we do not live in a world where the gods yet live. Judgments are possible and societies struggle to make them. However, what A Place Beyond the Pines shows us in a way that seems so old and linear is that we remain bewildered and mystified by the way things go on. The deep divide this film shows in the way two classes of people live tells us that the idea of “society,” of a social interdependence is non-existent. Judgment then is privatized and personalized. And in this sorry state we are now startled to learn that the whole experience of life conforms as little to personal will as it does to the shapings of the gods and Providence. Deep into the illusions of a grandiose online social networking, we yet remain bewildered by the lives of others. Deep within the illusions of personal autonomy, we are mystified by a world in which what we personally choose never comes to pass and what we did not expect is brought to bear in our lives.

We are therefore uneasy in this place beyond the pines, far older and yet far beyond our new Millennial awareness. The road to this place beyond the pines is a dark one, and like Avery Cross, we seem ready to turn back, though this film leaves us knowing that things will go on nonetheless, will go on in ways we ourselves would neither expect nor design.

About The Author

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the more recent of which are This is a Picture, and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (Suny Press, 2007), Memory’s Orbit: Film & Culture 1999-2000, (Suny Press, 2003) and Postmodernism: The Key Figures (eds. Hans Bertens & Joseph Natoli, Blackwell, 2002).