If you know where to look, art can bring you to other people with breathtaking beauty. Make like Bill Nye and “consider the following”:
If we are, indeed, an isolated people in a social media world, if it is at all true that Generation Z is more lonely and less empathetic than their parents, if we are losing the ability to make genuine connections with each other, it’s not for a lack of humanity. Humanity in the literal sense, as we can see a greater number and variety of people than ever before, either (for some of us) in person or (for most of us) through various periscopes (or, you know, Periscope). A scroll through one of these lenses brings us into contact with a dizzying montage of people, cats, dogs, and chicken sandwiches, all cast into a great range of activities and evoking a spectrum of emotional responses.
How we engage with this access to people and the things they do often leads to divergent types of responses: jump in and dance at the frenetic pace at which media is generated and consumed, keeping up to date with what people are doing and how that should make us feel; disconnect, withdraw, and seek a life of simplicity with fewer human connections. Both responses are problematic though not inherently bad, but they are linked by a common avoidance of compassion. Society isn’t bifurcated into dancers and hermits, but it is driven by the subconscious desire to avoid the hardest parts about living in the endless tide of human substance and ephemera. Milan Kundera writes that “there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes,” and in order to avoid carrying that weight we so often turn away or move on. We’re not a society of sociopaths, but at the very least one of the most recent human adaptations is a penchant for turning down the volume.
As it pertains to art, a dearth of compassion can be made manifest many different ways. There’s the hundreds of TV shows that are a lot like the other ones, movies focused on event and spectacle, and books driven primarily by finding out what happens next. There’s nothing “wrong” with a big dumb movie or a murder mystery romance or yet another legal drama, but each allows the consumer to look at people without really seeing them. They may tend towards superficiality or sentimentality. Lack of compassion can also lead to takes on humanity that are cynical, satirical, and deconstructed to extreme degrees. To look at human beings and think about them long enough, to really consider what we are capable of doing to one another, to ponder the immense absurdity of life on Earth, can be a terribly weighty thing, engendering apathy and a lack of sincerity. Worldviews colored this way have produced plenty of art – some of it very good – but while this art grapples with what it means to be human, it ultimately does so without compassion.
But there are some artists who look – really look – at people, and while recognizing their flaws and their hurts, while grappling with the ways individuals fail and the way the system fails them, they still manage to look at them with profound compassion. It’s these artists who show us what it is to be human, not because we don’t know, but because we stop looking, stop thinking, and stop feeling, and need an unflinching but caring reminder.
This post is, at its heart, my way of proselytizing for the Norwegian novelist Per Petterson and the Japanese film auteur Hirokazu Kore-eda. I must be one of a very small number of people to name these two men in a personal top-five, and while sometimes we prefer to keep these sorts of fan clubs exclusive, this is one of those cases where I just want everyone I know to discover them too. But there is more reason for me to pair them in a blog post than the mere fact that I love their work, as they have a number of compelling things in common, including this attribute of compassion. By putting them in conversation, I hope to make a case for why you should look them up, and why their style of art is something capable of moving us towards a compassionate experience which so much other entertainment lacks.
One doesn’t need look half-way around the world to engage with art that instills compassion and empathy, but it doesn’t hurt. Art has the remarkable ability to help us see how we are like the characters, and therefore like other readers and viewers, and this effect multiplies when the others we encounter are separated from us geographically and culturally. Petterson and Kore-eda bring American audiences to a setting outside their own, as both create work with a distinct sense of the places they’re from. For Petterson, this is Norway, ranging from World War II to the 21st Century, from the idyllic countryside to working-class towns. One might have a general idea of what this is supposed to feel like, but Petterson’s perspective delivers enough difference to the reader to keep it fresh, such as the attitudes of Norway’s urban working class. All of Kore-eda’s films (until his upcoming release The Truth) take place in contemporary Japan, and so each film presents an encounter with newness and opportunities to see and learn about a different way of life well beyond the more well-known aspects of Japanese culture.
The difference confronting audiences is tempered by familiar through lines from work to work. Each artist would work well for a starter-pack meme: Petterson’s novels are filled with cold, snowy winters, cigarette smoking, painful memories, strained family relationships, father-son conflicts, childhood traumas, keeping warm under the duvet, eating waffles, references to socialism/communism, and a few of the novels use the same stand-in for Petterson named Arvid; Kore-eda’s films are marked by family drama, questions of parenthood, preparing and eating meals, people taking baths, at-risk children, prayers at family shrines, and recurring cast members like Kirin Kiki and Lily Franky. There is also consistency in style, tone, and aesthetics. However, the familiarity does not result in a paint by numbers feel, or even the sort of self-referentiality that other creatives with a distinct style can fall into. Rather, I find that it helps bring me into the right mindset, to feel the rhythm, and to be paying attention to the subtleties. It also builds a relationship and a rapport with the author, or, in order to avoid an unnecessary discussion of Roland Barthes, at least a relationship with the type of work.
And what do I find when I follow Per Petterson to a cigarette in the snow with grieving Arvid, or as I watch another one of Kore-eda’s tense family dinners around a chabudai?
I find people. People I cannot turn away from, whose spirit is so familiar even in foreign circumstances, whose pain and whose hope becomes my own. Each artist has mastered the craft of bringing me into a world where my heart and mind are ready to encounter someone else and respond with compassion and empathy.
I find myself waking up with Trond, the point of view character in Out Stealing Horses, as the prospects of growing old alone wash over him while he lays in bed. I breathe the cold and refreshing winter air as he walks his dog, and I grow in understanding of him as the narrative shifts between his present day and memories of his formative summers in the countryside with his father. I find myself gripped by the emotional breakdowns which come for Tommy and Jim, the central figures in I Refuse, as a chance encounter after thirty years reminds them of their shared history and how their lives became devoid of love.
There isn’t much in the way of conventional plot in Petterson’s novels. Instead, he introduces characters with complex family issues and various traumas, and through events that are often unremarkable, he builds our understanding of their world and what they’re facing. Arvid faces his impending divorce and his mother’s cancer diagnosis in I Curse the River of Time, and he spends a couple days with her when she returns to her native Denmark. That’s about all that “happens” in the novel. But Petterson turns reflections over the sound of a coffeemaker into compelling moments of drama. And, throughout his work, Petterson writes in beautiful, simple prose, and while his particular choices make it best to read it in Norwegian, the style comes through even in translation. In I Curse the River of Time, he uses some of his most tender writing to describe Arvid’s memory of a retreat to a cabin with his future wife, only to shatter the fragility of that memory: “The water around the boat fell silent, and silently the cabin was floating up above the rocks and the smoke rose softly from the chimney, and how impossible it was to grasp that in the end something as fine as this moment could be ground into dust.” It’s a devastating, perfect turn.
The initial circumstances of a Kore-eda film are often simple to explain, even if the premises range from a simple family visit in Still Walking to the impossible situation facing two families who find out their sons were switched at birth in Like Father, Like Son. However, each film becomes an intricate study of human interaction which unfolds scene by scene, and the final act is always an emotionally-devastating pay-off of the themes established earlier and a series of call-backs to what might have seemed like minor details. Shoplifters introduces us to a family unit, but spends the rest of the film revealing the true composition of that family and, in doing so, poses the question of what actually counts as a family.
Just as Petterson gently ushers readers into the anguished psyche of his characters, Kore-eda deftly places the viewer inside the homes of his families. The set design, acting, and dialogue are all works of genius that dissolve the space between screen and audience. Every single time a character performs an action or uses a prop, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. You know how sometimes it seems like a character in a movie sits down or picks something up while giving a speech just to have something to do? Never happens in Kore-eda’s films. The characters become impossible to look away from in their humanity, and that humanity includes heartache and longing of a profound nature.
Both artists examine their characters with sincere compassion and empathy (and encourage the audience to do so too) even as their characters have serious shortcomings. Many of Petterson’s protagonists self-medicate with sex and alcohol while being predisposed to violence and general apathy. Petterson doesn’t judge them, and while he explores societal conditions, he doesn’t excuse them. Rather, he tries to help us understand them. The protagonists and sympathetic characters in Kore-eda’s films often have less than admirable qualities and make bad decisions, but the audience is invited to understand and empathize and question their assumptions, suspending judgement long enough to see them as complex humans in this impossibly complex life.
They’re not entirely the same, of course. Petterson’s spare style results in a dream-like haze, while Kore-eda’s minimalism focuses attention on the details of chopping vegetables and the regular hum of a conversation. Even when the premise or circumstance of Petterson’s work revolves around a great event like World War II or the Scandinavian Star ferry disaster, the story remains less-plotted than Kore-eda’s narrative. Petterson engages with social issues, though not as overtly as Kore-eda. But the differences the two men exhibit in their craft makes their similarities that much more compelling. A Norwegian novelist and a Japanese filmmaker have each developed a unique and brilliant style of storytelling, and in doing so they have demonstrated a keen eye and caring heart even while looking directly at the painful complications of being a person, and they have managed – time and again – to deliver these compassionate and empathetic looks at humanity to readers and viewers in compelling works of art. That compassion, that aching co-existence with broken people, is as much a part of their style as melodic prose and contemplative pacing, as natural a presence as heart-shaped waffles or fried tempura.
Thankfully, both Kore-eda and Petterson are continuing to produce new works. Kore-eda is 57 and releasing a new film at a rate of about one per year, with The Truth arriving in October. Petterson is 67 with a new novel about every three years, publishing Menn i min situasjon last October, which will be released in English as Men in My Situation sometime in the next year or two. Though not household names, they are experienced, established, internationally-recognized artists who still have something to say, and each has shown the ability to try new things while remaining true to what makes them great.
Now I hope that you will see for yourself.
Please read Out Stealing Horses. It’s a beautiful, contemplative look into the quiet life an old man and the riveting moments which have stayed with him, dramatic and subtle alike. It’s probably Petterson’s best, but the rest of his bibliography will not disappoint. It’s a short, accessible book that will move and provoke, a page-turner that demands a reread.
Please see Shoplifters. It is one of the most emotionally-affecting, thought-provoking films in my recent memory. Kore-eda is at the top of his game, and the performances are absolutely astonishing. You have to see this film. If it’s the only one of his film’s you see, it will be worth it, but don’t be surprised if you begin to explore the rest of his phenomenal filmography.
I don’t want to judge what you read and watch or how you spend your leisure time (that’s not to say I don’t do it). But I sincerely hope that you will consider whether or not you are really seeing the people you’re looking at. What do the images of humanity you see every day demand from you? And how will you respond?
Your public library is freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
~click the number to return to the text~
1 It’s a little fraught to quote Kundera in a post about compassion and the value of empathy when The Unbearable Lightness of Being grapples in such complicated ways with Nietzsche’s philosophy. Oh hey Fred btw God is still alive.
2 I don’t watch enough foreign films to be that guy, but in my opinion two of the three best films from last year were foreign (Roma and Kore-eda’s Shoplifters), and Burning and Cold War were also really, really excellent. I would like to see the Academy and American audiences give great foreign films more recognition, and it’s looking like many of the best films of 2019 will end up being foreign projects. Hopefully they’ll get their due.
3 Bath culture is one of the things I’ve learned about Japan by watching Kore-eda. I was like why are they all so intent on taking a bath at night and then it kept happening and I was like oh this must be a thing and turns out it is. Something like this wouldn’t occur to me otherwise, and these small exposures to cultural difference have value when interacting with art from other countries.
4 One of my other most favorite filmmakers is Wes Anderson, and while I think some people are overly critical of his signature style, I do acknowledge that, to some extent, each successive film parodies what has come before.