“The movie Infinitely Polar Bear is a script-rewrite of the past with acts of emancipation!” – Sarah West, review
I’m writing in my underwear drawer. What once was my underwear drawer. Its one of those old dressers with a first drawer that is not a drawer but whose face unhinges laying flat to provide a writing desk. It has cubbyholes I imagine for tiny letters, stamps, petite envelops and type A, blank cards for the very well organized and for one who has not much to do otherwise. Can you imagine? A desk covering all your needs that has a depth just over that of your laptop and cubbies for everything available from the 19th century? No space for 12 external hard drives. No card readers. No myriad USB cables…
But I digress.
I am here to talk about a movie.
I just saw Infinitely Polar Bear – I must admit, the title captured me. I have a thing for Polar Bears – no need to go into it now – well, just a hint: I like white a lot and I LOVE animals. Its about a “bi-polar”/depressed/manic polar bear. Well, actually, its about a man, Cam, played by Mark Ruffalo, who calls himself a polar bear to his kids. That’s how Cam names his mental illness. Infinitely Polar Bear is a great storyline, brilliant concept, in fact – on the lines of Running With Scissors, I’d say. Running is utterly riveting and compact with ripe emotional and genius psychological content, Polar Bear not so much. I’m reminded of Michael Keaten’s Birdman but Ruffalo carries none of the striking conviction and weighty understanding that Keaten unequivocally carries in his Oscar winning, emotionally captivating and transformative, transcendent film.
Something’s redeeming about Polar Bear, though, and here’s why:
Its the 70’s and mental illness was as common as in any era and still misunderstood – like now – and, the main character, Cam, is a classic white, “blue-blood”, Harvard-expelled husband to a beautiful black wife played by the exquisite Zoe Saldana. The only thing is, the best actors, for the most part, are their two beautiful children in the film. They are as natural as natural can be. Potent in the right moments and easy to forget you’re watching a movie in others. Graceful and unaffected. The two leads on the other hand… I’ll pick up that theme in a bit.
Mental illness is a complicated thing and living with a mentally ill person is just as complicated. In this production, all the elements are there for a great movie except the element of emotional torment.
You see the time-stamp of 60’s and 70’s style 8mm scratchy, orange-hued film interspersed for character and a jumpy style camera capturing the era’s vibe. Unforgettable is the finest in vintage cars including a just gorgeous china blue Bentley from some bygone era gifted to the male lead from his certifiably looney grand-mah whose illness includes stereotypical blue-blood, tight-wadding turned control freak psychopath. You just get a taste of her enough to clearly spell out the source of things or at least that long line of cogs in a discrepant wheel, that distorted bead on the chain of fore-bearering tyrannical / victim swingers.
Mental illness is hereditary and denial of love is more the cause, in truth, but the psychiatrists have never been great lovers, perhaps, and that’s why they write all the books on the matter and name all the illnesses and never find a cure to boot leaving the “cure” to megalomaniacal pharmaceutical oligarchs.
For me, the movie fails in so many ways but then wins in the end. Can i say my ending review at the beginning – I’ve added to this so we’re maybe in the middle? I feel a little jumpy in the head and insecure. Not that I already wasn’t to some degree, after watching an actor attempt to be bi-polar, I’m enjoying acting out, too. Hopefully, I’ll have something worthy of your time and energy even in my state of slight taking-on-of-the-protagonist along with my lack of an editor – my grammar not so perfect. I do like typing though.
Living with some level of mentally ill family members and the coping mechanisms that all develop in order to survive is something a high percentage of people have in common though many never talk about – “high” is just a guess, an assumption, an experiential, scientific observation. I wear the glasses I put on, ay?
The level of mental illness here in this movie is, I’d say, on the medium level (whatever that means. I’m only trying to clarify the content not be an “expert”. Working with my clumsy access to words). He’s not violent to the degree of actually hurting them. Cam just acts out a certain level of severity with disjointed emotions, words, screaming, doing destructive things, etc. – if you look at just story-line – just the script so to speak – and, compare it to the experience of the movie, of the action, the emotional content isn’t there, its in the story-line and the visuals but not embodied in the acting. This is what I miss.
Such serious manifestations such as in this movie, really, would incite terror, deep grief, profound confusion, outright unhealthy detachment to life itself, and others, and a pressure-cooker rage all utterly untouched in this film by, especially, the main two actors, Saldana and Ruffalo.
The beginning of the film’s scenes are filled with explicitly distraught scenes but the actors barely scratch the surface of the fear and rage and sheer hopelessness that these would incite. Zoe’s character, the mom (I can’t remember her name – Maggie. I looked it up), is trying to get away from Cam to keep her and two young children, about 8 and 12, because he’s expressing a frightening episode. They’re in the car rushing to drive away. You think she wants to get away for good. As they’re about to back out out of the driveway, Cam comes running from behind them dressed only in the reddest of tighty-whities or cheapest of Speedo knock-off’s, screaming not to go and promising he’ll get better. As she puts the car in reverse, he grips the hood forcing it open and smashes about with his bare hands in the engine compartment to pull out anything that will come with his force (think The Hulk. I know, but I couldn’t help it), closing off their escape hatch, he brings his arm out in defiance and victory showing her his miniature, medusa’s head of mangled, tangled engine hoses and wires.
She’s frozen. Then, we see her in the back seat with her kids just holding on, trusting the locked doors hoping they’ll survive his insane possession. Now, this is just the opening scene. You’d think you’d be gripped with terror. I wasn’t. I should have been. All I did was let my mind wander to when my own brothers did similar things – different but similar, some much scarier. There was no emotional charge in witnessing this scene. Either I’ve been healed by some miraculous therapy and detached from the insanity of humanity and can observe now without emotion or, the actors failed to feel. The fourth wall was broken throughout the film. The realm of being lost in the movie took more than half-way through to get me there. It was a lonnnng and superficial foreplay.
As great as Ruffalo is hailed to be, he failed in this one, pretty much for the whole movie. He’s a cute drunk and quirky quack who rages at times but my skin never bristles. Not even once! when he raises his voice as he hits his emotional wall. This should be an emotional roller-coaster ride for everybody who’s in their seats and on the screen in the scene! But, its not. Its flat. Even keeled, almost, with plenty of color and that scratchy vintage film surface to convince you where they want you to be.
All the set decorations are there. The scenes with the crazy rearranging of furniture, of anything and everything for that matter. His disrobing the 1970’s dial telephone for no apparent reason except being compelled to unravel things. Unscrew every box, detach every wire in the phone ‘till its a-jumble, again, like the neurons in his head. He wants the world to mimic his chaotic mind, his lost synaptic groove. He’s more comfortable in disorder. Like attracts like. He’s ungrounded, untethered and unspoken interspersed by seemingly perfect, content moments of domestic cooking-bliss except for the clean-up.
The family lineage of pain wreaks havoc and he’s the bearer of the good / bad news: The final expose of truth, hidden no longer. This should be astounding to witness – a revelation as we go along about humanity’s fragility in the face of cold, fierce, manipulative uncaring witches and warlords to say the least. In his continuation of episodic fits into the middle of the movie, we go deeper. He returns to dismantling everything he can get his hands on: the bicycle comes apart even the spokes of the wheels are splayed in a frenzy worthy of high art Duchamp would most certainly appreciate and both he and Warhol would put a high price on.
At different moments, you see the hoarding factor of his illness. Boxes upon boxes frantically piled up filled with discombobulated items mirroring more of his mania for mangling. Electronics of all sorts packed like sardines anywhere and everywhere. Unlivable disorder. Keeping the crazy going: projects he can toy with, tinker with. Fix. Unfix. Maybe one day he can sort out all these things and he’ll sort out all the craziness of his family-upbringing along with it.
He is good at fixing things on the flip side. He can flip. He can bring order. He can be mechanically inclined not just to leave something unusable and whacked. He can cook, too. That’s his main gift. Back to fixing the mechanicals, for instance, he puts a solid dead-bolt lock on the apartment door to keep his kids safe while he goes out on one of his rampages leaving them terrified and alone. The thin, gold colored sliding chain just doesn’t cut it when he arrives home one night from an binger, alcoholic and all, to find himself locked out, again, by his own kids too scared to let dad in in that state. Rightly so. The first time he came home like that he was kind about asking them to open the sliding latch manipulating them with apparent kindness. The next time not so nice destroying the chain’s existence with one heavy shoulder shove into the door.
He’s sorry as many times as he’s episodic. An addict is an addict is an addict. Though the kind of mental illnesses many suffer from from, most addicts can recover with an intervention and perpetual persistence. This level of mental illness is mostly a mystery to this day (I have my suggestions. Stay tuned and see my website: SarahWest.com) and often is left untreated to the core and simply masked by something to be addicted to – some medications quell the seemingly untamable fierce dragon. At one point Cam is asked by his wife if he’s been taking his meds. He replies, paraphrasing, ‘You know, Lithium has not been confirmed to work,’ gazing into the 3 quite large, translucent capsules he’s poured from the large, bulky bottle he keeps in the medicine cabinet.
Are the size of those tablets and bottle a metaphor for something? They both just looked monstrously large to me – Just saying.
“What works?” we might ask ourselves in the quiet of the night when we have time to ponder the things in the day – and the night that haunt us. What does work? Certainly not this movie. Till the very end. The culmination leaves you feeling complete, resolved, happy even. That’s quite a pill after all I’ve said. Quite an accomplishment. Some kind of healing happened here. Through a perseverance shown but not felt in the movie till the very, very end.
This movie is disney-fied version of something very deep and a story so needed to be told and felt in our era – in every era. Its definitely worth-while and for some, possibly quite satiating, I think, if you’ve never lived through it and know better.
We need to see the roots of insanity and we need to see those who survive and how. I say roots because even these children raised by the insane will have something to tackle. As healthy as they are portrayed in this movie, I’d say it would be a rare child not scared out of their wits and retreating to the closet, under the bed and anywhere else for that matter by this whole scenario or, the opposite of acting out through violence and dominance to compensate for the uncontrolable by trying to control the situation, themselves and outsiders. Though the eldest girl (I can’t remember her name, either, or, the other one for that matter. It just didn’t stick. I don’t even recall hearing it. What does that say? Names aren’t important anyway) is shown with her hair moving toward a fine, respectable bird’s nest, there’s no emotional equivalent in her character for this physical manifestation of distortion / suffering at the hand of a somewhat severely unstable father and often absent mother.
She, actually, is the most confident and outspoken and sane one of the bunch, well, the younger girl is very confident as well and equally sane though more quiet. No child would have this kind of confidence growing up in this environment. I get it that confidence can be a coping mechanism masking the fear of vulnerability and the need to organize the unorganized. Parent the parent which is what they are doing – something of which I know all too well. But, still, there is no real tugging hint of either child’s severe pain only mild annoyances to barely bared frustrations.
The thing they did, the writer’s, is trace a potent, authentic story-line and add a visual which cues in all the depth and on top, light it with strings of resolutions and stances of power that we all wish we had the state-of-mind to say way back when when we were in these hell-filled, demonic scenarios.
The film is really a healing in that way and that’s why it resolves neatly. Finally, someone, everyone, a few, speak up. Stand their ground. Say their truth – even with their fear nipping quite strongly at more than their toes.
Mental illness is rampant, takes many insidious forms and infects our lives on a daily basis. Maybe its our boss. Maybe its our co-worker. Maybe its our underling. Maybe its ourselves. Maybe its all of us. Or, some of us. Politics. Racism. Rape. Pedophilia. Slavery. Trafficking. Poverty. Starvation. War. All the variations on the insanity theme often condoned by the dominant force.
I’ve heard of those who tell tale of their beautiful lives, their happy, unscathed childhoods filled with happy birthdays, meaningful “I love you’s” and supportive words who’s energy would fuel New York City. But, for the rest of us, we are remnants, shards of our real selves and we have to re-collect ourselves back into a semblance of wholeness that will never look like those that were never torn in the first place. We’re patchwork Sally’s and coat-of-many colored Bob’s at best, and worn eyeless, nose-buttonedless, unstuffed animals left by children who are left themselves. We pick ourselves up and sew ourselves back together with a thread and needle in one crippled hand, maybe even a sewing machine with a peddle to boot, if we’re lucky and uber blessed, and weave our tapestry back together better, richer than before, we hope, we pray, we do.
That’s what this screenwriter does. She wove a true tale back into life. Retelling the horrors of her family’s upbringing while she sprinkled it with liberating, healing counter offers. Ones she never could say when she was young. But, hey, we create our reality, right? And, we embody what we obsess over so why not recreate the past? Use our obsessiveness to unshackle ourselves? Polar Bear is a reenactment, a script-rewrite of the past with acts of emancipation!
I guess he’s not that severe. He’s not that severely ill. All his acting-out seems pretty crazy-making but, again, there’s so much niceness, sweetness, happy-go-lucky, candy feeling to this whole film coating the set-dressing of the crazy-lives-here house that I just don’t get it. I’m confused but decide to go along with the disney-esqueness and just be happy. The foreplay was long and oddly shallow and though the finale was short, it still feels good.
© 2015 Sarah West • 2015-08-01