No heart is in the wrong place

Anyone well-versed in Wire-dom will want to check out Half Nelson for at least one reason: it prominently features Nathan Corbett, aka Donut. Pay close attention and you’ll also catch Tristan Wilds, better known as Young Michael, flicker across the background. Who knows what role this film played in Simon and Burns’s labyrinthine search for child actors (would link to the City Paper article, but I stopped reading it when I hit something spoiler-like); at very least, it’s a little coincidental that two kids with experience playing at-risk middle schoolers would end up, together, in a season exhaustively devoted to getting those parts right.

On the other hand, part of me felt like I was the victim of a savage joke, one prompted by my cry for reams of varied junkie experience. I don’t like to think that one creative work can invalidate another, but as someone utterly consumed by The Wire this thing seemed paper-thin. We see, unspectacularly, that aimless white upper middle-class literary aspirants might have drug problems, and that these can affect their personal and professional lives. What’s more, we’re reminded that might problematize their idealistic goals of helping those whose lives have been ravaged by the THE GAME. Ultimately, however, their habit can never totally overtake them, since they’ve got hopes, dreams, talents, goals, and support systems too substantive to be brushed aside. Right?

Half Nelson busies itself with this portrait of a man whose social relevance is at best incidental, and whose personal struggles could be easily summed up in a few scenes. Yet on the other side of this movie’s simplistic urban equation are the kids, in particular a girl called Dray. Granted, “non-professional” actress Sharika Epps does her stone-faced job admirably, softening her features at critical moments; ironically, near-extra Wilds has now proven himself a scene-stealer with it on The Wire. But as I’ve learned from this blog’s subject, the “street” side of things holds as much, if not more, richness in it that the rote story of a strung-out failed writer with a teaching gig.

Maybe I’m predisposed to have absolutely no fucking interest in seeing this type alternately indulged and deconstructed; there’s really no excuse, however, for doing a slapdash job with Dray’s experience. There’s a lot of brooding, and the emotional groundwork laid for the familiar overworked mother/absent father/incarcerated brother/bad male influence deluge. Without giving anything away, to me the movie’s grasp on the drug trade, and black culture in general, seemed based on rap radio circa 2001. I’m no expert on running an operation, but Half Nelson banks at least somewhat on some details that, to me, seemed a little ill-informed. There’s also, surprise surprise, precious little effort made to paint slangin’ pseudo-uncle Frank as capable of exerting an emotional pull through anything but blackmail and manipulation.

As my distinguished colleague has observed, there’s no reason that any work of art should reflexively depict the entire political economy of the situation. The Food Network should not necessarily feel bound to show people cleaning up the set, or accomplished chicken pluckers and grape pickers. Nor is it an indictment of something like Scenes from a Marriage that no one working class or of color even appears in the film; there, the focus is on the institution of bourgeois marriage.

In Half Nelson, though, we get a cursory treatment of class and race-laden issues when the narrative is largely preoccupied with the drive to address these concerns. Had the point of the film been simply to mock or question the protgaonist, the plot would not have hinged on the humanity of a poor, black person. That she was the only one who earns this distinction, and that the world she inhabits is scribbled in as an afterthought, seems to me a little bit irresponsible. As we’ve been reminded on here, time is always an issue. Yet it was nearly impossible for me to suffer through Half Nelson without wondering if its makers had the slighest idea of what they were really, truly fucking with. And if so, why on earth they had slanted their priorities the way they did.

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8 Comments on “No heart is in the wrong place”

  1. jhoshea Says:

    essentially a character study its only nods to metaness were a passing belief in basic human goodness and possibly something muddled about class – dude was a self-involved jerk hoarding a little charisma, girl was sweet and tough, pusher was bitter. loved it and i especially loved the flag lip-bandaid.

    always fun and even occasionally informative to interpret things through whatever lens – usually though, what we’re experiencing, while we’re being pulled by forces beyond our control, is just people passionately attempting to relate. teacher’s obsession with the bummer dialectics trope, i felt, was trying to illustrate this.

  2. Shoals Says:

    i just could care less about that character, esp. for more than ten minutes at a time. he was a “cog in the system,” a joke of an “individual,” but still stole the spotlight.

  3. jhoshea Says:

    oh and here’s some these people have no idea what they’re talking about amo 4 u – apparently the co-writer is from the same wealthy boston suburb as me, a friend of mine went to elementary school w/her. she didn’t grow up in the milieu depicted in the movie – what’s happened since then, don’t know. i’d guess the nyc teaching fellowship had a hand in it though. i’m sure some googling could solve the riddle.

  4. jhoshea Says:

    i liked the compassionate eye watching the tragic absurdity. people usually forget about the absurd part, which can be quite unbiased and liberating. and yeah i liked and cared about him – maybe because the movie took the time to investigate this sad douche with some measure of insight.

  5. Shoals Says:

    did i use the phrase “superfluous man” in my post? i meant to.

    all of what you’re detailing above could’ve been covered in far less time, and with far less rapt attention

  6. faux_rillz Says:

    I spent the final hour of this film wishing that the main character would OD already or otherwise bring it to a conclusion. An absolutely unbearable movie.

  7. Tom Says:

    Off-topic: the murder of the security guard in the last episode… I dunno about that. I thought Marlo’s crew is somewhat judicious about the bodies they stack? Bodie’s crew lives after Lex kills Fruit, but the security guard gets killed over next to nothing? That threw me a bit.

  8. jetsetjunta Says:

    I made some comments on that in my last post. I felt that it was a conscious way of displaying that, while Marlo and his crew would appear to operate in some kind of refined, super-capitalist mode where the only reason to kill is purely rational and economic and the way to kill is purely rational and secretive (thereby defending the ability to continue to earn money while remaining largely outside the scope of investigation), the crew is also severely detatched from reality. Marlo thinks he is some kind of prophet, some kind of superhero of the game that mere mortals cannot understand. His brutal quip to the security guard and the subsequent murder only add to the God-complex Marlo suffers from. His near inability to process being robbed by Omar spoke to that too, and as Shoals pointed out in his post on Omar-And-Marlo-Locked-In-Eternal-Battle, this seems to suggest that Marlo will have to come to grips with his fantasy and defend it or be consumed by it.

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