Sunday, November 16, 2008

In America

I somehow missed In America when it originally came out in theaters. Shocking, as it touches upon all of my favorite things: New York, art, and love. My friend Katie brought it to me as a gift tonight, in a 'how I fell in love with New York' birthday package. (Also included were Working Girl and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, both of which I am greedily awaiting to bite into.) These are the ways that Katie fell in love with this city before her arrival and now she is giving them to me. Lovely, right? Katie, Kate, and I watched it last night with generous glasses of Cabernet and tears in our throats.

In America opens with a young Irish immigrant family reacting to seeing Manhattan, their new home, for the first time. Its the same feeling that we all had in varying degrees as we first entered-- promise. New York City: Where All Your Dreams Come True. It's New York's oldest and dearest story and is told once again through the eyes of two young girls, their dreamer father, and their mother Sarah's strong Irish blood.

The tale mirrors both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Glass Castle, two of my favorite books. Not only is it told through the voice of a young girl, but its told without pity, complaint, or sorrow. The father is named Johnny, the same as in Betty Smith's tale, and is just as big of dreamer. He is more grounded than the former Johnny, but equally Irish, equally poor. Its a bittersweet telling, because even the good and happy parts are tainted with a sadness of not quite being okay. Not yet. The little things seem better and the family is stronger under the lens of poverty and struggle.

The family befriends Mateo, a tall, strong, African painter living in their dilapidated building. He is a stunning artist who feels his anger with paint and gesture. He is HIV positive, we quickly learn, and displaces his rage and anger with a deep love toward Johnny and Sarah's family. Are you in love with Sarah? Johnny asks in fear. Mateo's answer is one of the most poignant and loving voices I've heard coming out of an illness that will surely kill him.

No... he answers, I'm in love with you. And I'm in love with your beautiful woman. And I'm in love with your kids. And I'm even in love with your unborn child. I'm even in love with your anger! I'm in love with anything that lives!

We feel grace and love and pain in the deepest sense as we watch the Johnny struggle, Mateo die, and a new baby fight for her new life in America. We hold our breaths and wince as we watch a father prove his love for his daughter through a carnival game and an E.T. doll. We scream with Sarah as she makes up for a lost child with the desperate hope of a new one.

It is Sarah, after all, who is the stronghold of this family. Sarah as Gaia, the earth goddess, with her feet firmly planted in this New World, with vines and fruit wrapping and stabilizing a family that is a mere floating orb held together by love. But it is also Sarah, the strong, who is set on fire with anger and passion and fear and want. She believes in Johnny because she loves him, not because she wants to. Its a love story that will never end, one that cannot be torn by the petty struggles of those with plenty. One that exists as two people steering a ship together toward the same shore. Its hearty and real and lasting. Even though it is hard. So hard.

The young girls in this film are extraordinary. Christie and Ariel exist as Smith's Francie and Neeley: the protector and the innocent. Christie's brow is furrowed in worry and her eyes are constantly scanning for what could go wrong and how she can soften it. In contrast, Ariel sees America as a constant adventure. She is Alice chasing white rabbits as Christie furiously paints the white flowers red. Its Christie, in the end, who heals the family. She takes the dreamer, the earth goddess, and the adventurer and snaps them into a place where they can move on together, a forward chasing vector, toward a real future in America. Not just a spinning dream anymore.

In America reminded me once more of why New York is great and why it is essential. Its a hope and a promise. A place for dreamers and for workers, for lovers and for fighters. Katie, Kate, and I-- all new New Yorkers who moved here not long ago with dreams and hopes and wishes bigger than ourselves-- fell for this city all over again with tears our eyes. The three of us are struggling too, it seems, but thank goodness-and-mercy that we can struggle here, in a city strong enough to carry us through.

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