A Mammoth Conversation

Mammoth

A number of us managed to see Lukas Moodysoon‘s global-intimate drama, Mammoth, on the festival and VOD circuit (the film was woefully neglected in Canada and the United States) and instead of posting reviews and hashing things out in the comments section amoungst ourselves, we tried the below experiment: Marina, Mike and Kurt simply had a lengthy email conversation on the film, thus allowing things to flow like a conversation and (bonus for you, the reader!) generating a transcript in ‘real-time.’ This is presented below. We assume those reading it have either seen Mammoth, or do not mind treading in *SPOILER* territory. Two of us, at least, feel quite passionate about the films timeliness and relevancy and believe Moodysson has a lot of things to say (with no small amount of eloquence and grace). We mine the movies themes and influences at length:

 
 

MIKE: To get the ball rolling, I thought we could talk first about our initial expectations for Mammoth, and put our biases on the table. I had never heard of the director, Lukas Moodysson, so it had nothing to live up to, in fact I knew nothing about the film other than that it stars Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams. Admittedly I adore Michelle Williams and that was the sole reason I wanted to see this film. When it started, immediately there was something ominous to it. This happy mother, father and child playing in their beautiful home, but the score right away takes on a kind of menace out of sync with what is onscreen. Right then I was hooked.

KURT: As a big fan of Fucking Amal (to the point where I suggested the fillm for our Movie Club Podcast) and Lilja-4-Ever, and considering the trailer, I went into Mammoth with expectations of intimacy and loud music melded gracefully into interesting drama. Moodysson has a unique way of approaching stories and music and despite going off into more art-film experimentation with Container and A Hole In My Heart, this looked like it would be a return to form to the dramas he was so effective with previously. The international cast and multi-storied structure looked like a change in pace for him, a much bigger canvas, even as it was clear that he was going to keep things intimate.

MARINA: Being less familiar with Moodysson’s previous work, I went in with little expectation. What caught my attention was the casting of Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams as a married couple instantly made this something to see. The casting of these two automatically suggested some look at race or life in different cultures. There was also the little factor of scheduling as I saw this in a festival scenario and it happened to “fit.”

KURT: Interesting point about the look at races and cultures, a key point in the film, not unlike Babel (the film that Mammoth has been constantly compared to) is viewing the culture of the Rich Americans in contrast to their poor servant or who they encounter while abroad. Except in this case, Gael Garcia Bernal, a Mexican, is in the more ‘typical’ ‘White Male Role’ (i.e. Brad Pitt in Babel). Also, the title itself is kind of interesting: Is it a description of the film? Namely the scope, or the canvas, or the range of both old and new ideas that it seems willing to tackle? I know it is somewhat explained later in the context of the extremely expensive and wasteful fountain pen, but the initial massive screen-filling text of the title makes a pretty, well, big promise.

MIKE: I love titles that you have to work for their meaning, I was almost disappointed when the Mammoth ivory pen was brought out mid-way, but then the motif of the Elephant, and like you say, the idea of obsolescence, and how culture can shit on what came before it, it serves as the perfect title, the perfect emblem of what is going on in this film. The film is very slick, but I could see an argument that perhaps the way they kind of push the elephant motif may be, a little strained? I assume you picked up on the fact that the prostitute Cookie believed she was reincarnated from an elephant also plays into the title?

KURT: Oh, I don’t know, this is the first screenplay of this type in some time that on one hand has all these signifiers and obvious points, yet on the other hand never feels like a Paul Haggis script. Nobody talks about how their dog died to explain their emotions or whatnot. The characters, their motiviations, actions and overall desires feel as real and fully realized as more intimate films. The characters never feel like ciphers or activist game-pieces. I liked the warmth and intimacy scattered amongst the ‘big wide implacable world’ aspects of the film.

MIKE: I agree, I am in awe of this script, I was trying feebly to understand maybe some of the issues Marina has with the film. Although, to protect my man, Haggis, as I am want to do, Mammoth and Crash are of two different universes, I believe, intentionally. But I have made my Crash defense already. I get what you are saying though, the connectors in this story are so well-hidden that the film flows. I equate it to the difference between literature and music, that literature can get bogged down with spelling things out, whereas with music you are not thinking so often of the connectors, you are hearing the music, and not surprisingly, this film is awash in sound, everything from whale songs to Radiohead to windchimes, to the ominous orchestral music it opens with.

MARINA: I have some serious problems with Crash and if I was going to compare Mammoth with any film, I’d compare it to Babel before Crash. What took me out of it was a combination of things perhaps the most notable of which is the fact that I couldn’t associate, at all, with this couple. William’s character, Ellen, a little less so because she felt so much more whole, even though we spend so little time with her. But Bernal’s character – he just seemed like a toned down boy child which seriously rubbed me the wrong way. And I disagree that the connections between these stories are “well-hidden.” I found them glaringly obvious and even predictable.

MIKE: I do want to get back to Babel because obviously it is the biggie for comparison. But first Marina, didn’t you expect something tragic to happen to the New York family, especially with the orchestral music opening?

MARINA: No I didn’t think anything tragic would ever happen to the New York family. Even after Leo returns there was never any doubt that they wouldn’t end up together and happy. I don’re recall the music specifically, it’s been a few months since I saw the film, but I can honestly say that the thought that it would end badly for them never crossed my mind.

MIKE: Some other examples of how the film defied my expectations: the virtuous nature of Leo made me convinced that nothing would happen between him and Cookie until fifteen seconds before it did, and one that surprised me a lot, the offscreen rape of Salvador. Now of course I knew, and the film wants you to know, that Salvador is thinking of sleeping with strangers for money while having ice cream with his grandmother (that sentence sounds odd out of context), but what that scene does is paint a picture of Salvador naively going into a bedroom with a man and the potential dramatic event of the realization that something more was about to happen than just sleep, but none of that happens, at least onscreen. Instead Salvador shows up in the seedy district and within seconds is assaulted and comforted and taken away. Its a subtle, and yes, sophisticated decision made in the story to do it that way I think, to bait and not so much switch, but alter. The first time Leo says yes to Cookie’s flirtation, is also another bait and alter, he ultimately does sleep with her but not there, and not until the time feels right. Also, maybe it is a man thing but I totally got Bernal’s character, he is a decent guy but immature and lost at the same time.

KURT: I think the ‘hard lesson’ with Grandma and Salvador is more an awkward hang-up. Grandma has gone a little too far in exposing Salvador to the evils of the world, she starts to back off, for fear of what roads of conversation she might go down with this 10 year old. I think she was completely unawares that she accidentally put him down that road by trying to prevent him in the first place. (The road to hell is paved with good intentions and so forth.) She thought the subject was closed with the lesson on the food and the garbage dump, but she far underestimated what Salvador would do to get his mother back. Of course so does Salvador, insofar as he doesn’t have a clue what he is getting into. It is that passion and naivete that in some way is actually echoed with Leo’s banal quest for more humble surroundings. Leo is just as much fumbling and searching without a clue, even less direction and focus than Salvatore, and Leo is supposed to be a grown man.

MARINA: Leo is kind and soft spoken and obviously very smart and handsome and it’s hard not to be drawn to his energy but something unconsciously pulled me away and I’m starting to realize it’s a combination of his inner struggle to find balance and the fact that it doesn’t really feel authentic to me. It’s like a person going on vacation and discovering that the world isn’t all happy-happy-joy-joy, attempting to exact some change upon their arrival and then forgetting about it in a few months time. I just never felt that the character ever really “got it.”

MIKE: But Leo never does ‘get it’. In the end they are still lost, the ellipse is to say nothing changed, we are back where we started. Leo is a flawed person I don’t think he is a flawed character.

KURT: Leo’s fling is more of a craving for the ‘Girlfriend Experience,’ and after a few days of honest-to-goodness fun and connection, the sex is less like adultery than the gallivanting around and intimate philosophical exchanges with Cookie. I guess to me watching the film, that felt more like a betrayal of Ellen’s trust than the sex. After all, they joke over the phone about an awkward exchange with one of the hotel girls when she offers a massage. She is secure the trust that Leo is no sex-tourist frat-boy type.

MIKE: Either way, sex or affection, Leo fucked up. And instead of the kind of ‘The Ice Storm’ emotional breakdown ending, once again this film defies expectation and takes it somewhere else, to a place of near normalcy, as if to say in this world bad deeds are not punished, things just go forward.

KURT: I think Leo’s character and circumstances are less interesting than the ladies in the film. It is almost as if Leo exists merely to bring another mom into the film, namely Cookie. In fact he ‘meets’ Cookie’s daughter’s room by accidentally finding it while looking for a washroom in the club, before he finds Cookie herself is almost telling. I was kind of surprised that the film gave him so much screen time.

MIKE: You have initial expectations of what characters are important and what may be marginal, but the movie continually makes every character dimensional, as if to subvert convention. So the prostitute hits on Leo, and you think that is the end of that story, but she comes back and plays a bigger role, and in fact is more than just a sex object, or love object, she is also, we find out, a mother with her own familial concerns. I loved how the film kept branching out like that.

MARINA: And I found the branching out excessive. “Another layer? When will it end?” That was my thought.

MIKE: Let me break out the Sartre. Sartre talked about ethics, about how we treat other people. The film shows us people as people not objects, not plot-movers. Characters that seem to be in service of one aspect of the story have, as you say Marina, another layer. Also these layers reflect one another, motherhood is a universal experience, whether you are prostitute, an immigrant nanny or a surgeon. The film has this cosmic sensitivity to it, it wants to show everyone as dimensional in this regard. Sartre said In order to be free ourselves, we must desire the freedom of other people. To treat another person merely as an object for my use is to make an object of myself. I would argue the characters in this film do not feel free, they are not seeing the whole picture like we are. We see them fumble for understanding, Ellen with Gloria for example, and it is interesting that the ones who are the most tolerant, that treat people as people, are the kids in the film. Perhaps Mammoth is making a judgment of the characters as well at how shortsighted they are, thinking of comfort and status and money, in the process missing that is great about the world and about the people around them.

KURT: I will again underscore the lack of growth on the New York family, the very last line of dialogue in the films is “I guess we will have to find another Nanny.” Ouch.

MARINA: I don’t disagree at all with your point if anything, I think Moodyson has achieved a film which makes some people think and really question the world around us but I can’t, for the life of me, say I took much from the way in which he chose to make his point. Yes, the film is beautiful and yes, it has some amazing moments but as a whole, I didn’t think his message was as eloquently put forth as you and Kurt do. We can analyze the minute details of the story and see another layer of the fabric he is weaving but the fact that he ends with this idea – Mike, you said it best with your comment that it is elliptical and Leo is still lost – seems, to me at least, a cop out. I say this because the people that will really take something from this story already feel that way and Moodyson only reiterates what we already know and feel rather than giving us something new to consider. I thought it was a truly wasted opportunity.

MIKE: I would say look at what is going on in Copenhagen, how everyone knows there is a serious climate problem and that it will cost a lost of money not to do anything and still nothing gets accomplished, nothing is learned, the ellipse continues again and again. We have bad karma, we are Leo and Ellen, until we get out of this vicious cycle, Mammoth is the best depiction of our global village, of what is happening right this second.

KURT: A film as timely as Up In The Air or Babel (if only because of the world-hopping story and Gael Garcia Bernal who is, more or less, in the Brad Pitt role), it may be even better than either of those two because of its quiet (distant) empathic confusion. While it eventually comes to a boil, for the most part, Mammoth is as ponderous and disconnected as the characters who, incidentally, feel startlingly real. The realistic nature of situations and characters, subtly underplayed drama (and if you will) little in the way of typical plot or melodrama is what lured me into Mammoth and allowed for all of its rich themes and facets to sink in.

MIKE: I thought of Up in the Air too, and Capitalism: A Love Story, and Collapse, and Lost in Translation, and Wendy and Lucy, even Funny People. There is like a Jungian cry out in cinema these days about the fact that commerce and the American Dream ain’t all its cracked up to be. Mammoth fits squarely among them. I like me some melodrama, and I like me some Iñárritu melodrama, but Babel took it too far, the nanny in the desert played like parody. Mammoth cuts that fat off and gives you the straight drama but layered beneath this incredible soundtrack and utterly convincing character development (not nudged forward by the almighty writer but get where they are getting through believable happenstance). Mammoth is not just about a couple characters, it is about an entire way of life, and that can all too easily become condescending or pretentious, its a high-wire act that fails more often than succeeds, so it is all the more surprising to me how well Moodysoon pulls it off. Babel gave me too much time to question why I was watching what I was watching. Pacing is a virtue and Mammoth is perfectly cut. Also, Mammoth is awash in sound, everything from whale songs to Radiohead to windchimes, to the ominous orchestral music it opens with.

KURT: The whale song scene has two things to offer. First, it echoes the cries of communication (and we live in a world rife with communication possibility, yet seem to not always make good connections). The Doctor who likes listening to the whale song while operating when asked what he thinks they (the whales) are saying, replies “Oh, the usual: Here I am. Where are you? I love you. I miss you.” The second is when Ellen (Michelle Williams) tries to use these sounds, it fails to work. We have the same communication and distance problems but we are not exactly whales. We share some of the basic needs and desires: Familial intimacy.

The use of sound is one of Moodysson’s signature styles. Instead of layering loud, often aggressive music (In this case that fabulous Ladytron song) over a typical montage sequence, he layers it often over nearly unbroken takes; a sonic underscore if you will. Nobody else uses music or score in quite that way. It is something that is probably familiar to fans of this particular director, and a style that keeps him popular and relevant on the festival circuit.

MIKE: And then of course there is the planetarium, and the, I think, ironic use of its narration of the cosmic events, one layer among many used in the choice of sound in this film. A lesser film would play that cosmic narration as significant whereas here it is used in situ of the story, but kind of winking at us too.

KURT: The double Planetarium scenes (one with each of Jackie’s “mothers”) goes in two directions: how important we have a connection in a ‘massive’ universe, and how fleeting it is at the same time. I guess both say to treasure things. Not toil until you are burned out.

Mike: But we are running on and haven’t yet dug into the themes of the movie. Clearly one of the ideas the film wants to drive home is that our culture, and by that I mean globalization, is entirely out of whack with the balance of nature. Leo trying to escape the excessive luxury of his life to find the real Thailand is a very common malaise of the rich and famous, now doing more than just resorting in such places but bringing home adopted babies as well. We are a sick culture, I feel it, I feel there is something absurd to working for the weekends, to consume, to not have a sense of direct relationship with the earth and your community, from the Walmart-ification of society to the shallowness of the “American Dream”. The characters of Mammoth are all feeling this con, like a sixth sense they know they are in a cosmic imbalance, even if they cannot articulate it.

KURT: But it extends beyond the so-called ‘first world.’ Gloria’s goal of building a home and a future for her children certainly backfires over the course of the film, she transfers her immediate maternal instincts onto Dr. Ellen’s daughter Jackie, but tells her own mother in the Philippines “God says this is not right!” Implying that a mother should be with her own children So is it culture, or the quest for money, or the quest for money as a means to some vaguely defined end? Plan for the future or live in the now. (As Lennon said, “life is what happens when you are making plans.”) There is very much a ‘grass is greener’ vibe throughout the film: Gloria aims for upward social mobility, Leo aims to downgrade the luxury in his surroundings, Ellen pines for the ability to cook a simple meal. But really, the projection is always on ‘the future’ a very ill defined thing, for which we (they) make a ton of sacrifices in the hopes that it will be what they imagine, where in fact we/they can often cut out the very basis of our/their reationships in the process. I think this is one of the most compelling elements of Mammoth. Something perhaps not tackled enough in drama, at least not in this sophisticated a manner.

MIKE: To insert my catch-phrase about this film, it’s not so much that there is an elephant in the room, the elephant IS the room. It suffocates especially Michelle Williams’ character, Ellen, who like you said, can’t even sleep (and that looks like a comfy bed!) I know there was another film that used the environment in such a way that its excess is almost like another character. Tangentially, I am reminded a bit of Todd Haynes’ Safe, with how on a micro-level Ellen is suffering from this manicured reality. I particularly love the idea that she is incapable of even making lunch, but goes so far as to carve oranges and apples so they can sit inside one another. Such specialized knowledge overtaking our basic survival skills.

KURT: Over specialization! Welcome to the modern world. I think you are dead-right with that point. Tangentially with the beds, I love the scene when Ellen lays down in her daughters bed, as if the proximity to her offspring, perhaps the scent, memory, (over a displaced timeframe) is the life-line to help her sleep.

MIKE: Gloria’s conversation with her mother is a pivotal scene I think because it best shows how we as a society are going against our best instincts, even our religious faith, to do things that are absurd and out of proportion with happiness. I don’t think it is explicit in the film, but this really is an indictment against the love of money. While the film is not condemning wealth distribution, I still believe it is condemning the base love of money most cultures are now built upon. Its not that capitalism, or socialism, are right or wrong, its not a film about class surprisingly, its about something larger, the root cause: money, and how it upsets whatever balance there once was.

KURT: I also like the various ironies with material goods over the course of the film. The two watches: The real Rolex set to New York time – Leo’s family), the identical Rolex knock-off set to Thai time. I liked that Gloria buys a basketball for her son in the Philippines to help ease his missing her (and her own guilt perhaps), and on the ball it says “Made in The Philippines.” Or that Ellen tries to spend some quality time with Jackie by making a pizza with all these expensive ingredients and when Jackie wants the companionship and simple food of Gloria’s Filipino church group instead (it is after all, Jackie’s routine in Ellen’s absence). In the end, Ellen lets her daughter do what she wants and ends up ORDERING A PIZZA. These should be showy script moments, but they are quite organic and well separated.

MIKE: There are very visible depictions class distinctions in the film, the Soho apartment versus the Filipino dumpsite, but I don’t think it is merely the class system on trial here, but rather the root cause, money, and the unhealthy preoccupation our culture has on it, to the point that we equate happiness with income. there are absurd excesses displayed in the film, obviously the Mammoth pen, also the two watches that are identical but priced vastly differently. It is about this paradigm as one of an undeveloped stage in our maturity, the characters are like children sleepwalking through a world that has not made it easy for them to evolve, to sleep well, to find happiness, calm, peace. The balance this paradigm sorely lacks is the elephant in the room, the Mammoth, which like you said, can also be thought of as something historical too, a lost golden age that we have tarnished.

KURT: There is definitely a disconnect between the material and the intimate. Globalism in the 21st century is certainly struggling to find that key balance between the two things. I’m not sure if it is there in the Philippines segment, it certainly is not in the Thai segment, although Leo finally just tells his man to forget about the extra three million dollars, the difference they are in Bangkok negotiating for, he will take the deal and get it done as at this point, the money difference is arbitrary. So it is not only about the most money. That being said, the final scene of the film has both Leo and Ellen talking about going back to work, having not learned the same critical lesson as Gloria and Salvador have. I somewhat equate this with the lesson learned by Jules and ignored by Vincent in Pulp Fiction. If Mammoth had an extra chapter, I wonder if Moodyson would have seen fit to punish Leo, Ellen, Jackie, not for their wealth, but for their lack of learning, much as Tarantino does in Pulp.

MIKE: Maybe I am too lenient, but I do not blame the characters in this film, its the world that is fucked. Leo has got to be the most sympathetic adulterer I can think of seeing onscreen before, and that is a credit to the performances, the direction, the script; I bought it all. I would have probably succumbed to Cookie if in that situation. I never noticed that in the last scene that are essentially just reverting back to their old cycle, I think I was too overwhelmed by that point at how successfully that film has played that ellipse, opening with in seeming in context and then playing it again with the baggage: Pure awesome.

While still on the subject of the themes of Mammoth, along with its indictment of globalization (which is NOT didactic but dramatized) is like you said before, this relationship between the old and the new, and what I got was this strong sense that nothing was sacred anymore. Ultimately family is to be the source of sanctity From the Mammoth pen to the dead monk wearing sunglasses I just got the sense that nothing is sacred in this world of ours, and good people have no recourse but to wade through it.

KURT: I must say that the dessicated monk in Raybans is one of those great globalism images, and it takes a history/time element into it that echos the Mammoth pen. But shifting gears, (if I dare to tread the waters of political correctness) I found it interesting that the power-couple were multi-racial. It’s not Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, it is Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal. So yea, it is not condemning wealth, but equalizing class around finding healthy relationships and ‘quality time.’ Something that is an issue for a rich doctor and entrepreneur to a poor prostitute to yea, a Nanny working half a world away from her children. However the one time that Michelle Williams character is condemned by the movie is when she tries to apologize to the nanny (while said nanny is elbow deep in cleaning the toilet!) and our hardworking doctor goes on in this speech about how difficult it is to spend time with her children. Ellen, as empathic and good as she is, should damn well know that Gloria only sees her kids once or twice A YEAR! That makes Ellen (who is a tad spacey when not at the operating table) more than a little insensitive.

MIKE: I am stuck on the ending of the film now. I wonder, is there a reincarnation angle to the story, with the ellipse, and the not learning a lesson by the family returning to their habits. Isn’t that part of the belief system in reincarnation, you cannot progress until you learn your lesson? Reincarnation is brought up by Cookie also.

KURT: You are on to something in that Leo just absorbs the experience, and it never really enters into direct conflict with his wife.

MIKE: The reincarnation interpretation plays out in the ellipse, the opening sequence has Jackie running around on all fours like an elephant perhaps, which by the second time you see it has a different resonance.

KURT: Good spot on that. There is so much visible information in this movie, you can go down the rabbit hole into obsession. Is it reincarnation or fade out like the Mammoths? Perhaps the movie is also sayiing that western society is not the apex of global culture, but a dead end. Perhaps second world countries (with all their faults) have a better chance on moving on than the spoiled multi-million dollar social-network (and video games) entrepreneurs. While on the subject of Leo’s game business, it is also worth talking about Tom (Leo’s business partner.) Do you think half of the stalled negotiations were exaggerated so he (Tom) could get his rocks off in the Bangkok nightlife on Leo’s dime? (After all, he bought himself a second $3000 Mammoth pen just for the hell of it.) He seemed to be the most shallow character in the picture – almost closest to a villain in the film – yet he is tangential to nearly all the stories. (On a side note, it is hard to believe it is the same actor playing John Cusack’s replacement boyfriend to Amanda Peet in Roland Emmerich’s 2012)

MIKE: Huh, never noticed him in 2012, I figured he was the reporter in the last season of The Wire.

KURT: Exactly, and there is a completely different breed of asshole. Tom Hollander is a good actor, I hope he gets more work. In fact both Marife Necesito and Natthamonkarn Srinikornchot are both great, equal to Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal, making Mammoth one of the better ensemble films of 2009.

MIKE: Best ensemble, absolutely. Best movie, best music, best dialogue. I rarely feel this complete satisfaction watching films, I had it watching Rachel Getting Married, I had it watching Little Children, but it is so rare I think for a film to work in every regard and to take me places I cannot see coming.

KURT: Agreed, and I’ve had this sort of feeling with most of Moodysson’s films (at least Lilya-4-Ever and Fucking Amal), even kind of knowing what to expect took me by surprise how solid of piece of work this is. Especially considering the massive increase in scope compared to his other films. It is kind of baffling why this film was utterly ignored in 2009 outside of Sweden. It is the rare Oscar bait film that is legitimately great (yes, Little Children also for sure).

MIKE: Shall we end this wankfest, seeing as the only contrary opinion has left the building?

KURT: Agreed.

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rot
Guest

Old news but I am stunned that this was booed at Berlinale last year, did they even see the same film I did? When the hell is this coming out anyways?

http://www.indiewire.com/article/moodyssons_lates

Marina Antunes
Guest

At least I know I'm not alone in my dislike.

rot
Guest

usually I can see the other side enough to say okay, not everybody's cup of tea, but I really find it hard to see how anybody could boo this film. This is up there with the notion that when Bottle Rocket first came out test audiences hated it.