MAY 18, 2012 8:23PM

Take the kids to "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

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Alison Willmore, in her  review of "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," argues that the film "is a precision instrument aimed directly at the heart of its intended underserved older audience," and one wonders if even if its intention was to serve only them, if the reality is that it could and should serve a swath more.  The film, like the Harry Potter series, features both young and old, with key storylines for both, only with "Hotel" the focus is on the latter rather than the former.  But one could never say of "Harry Potter" that it's principally for the young, that it serves its intended audience well -- and only them -- without expecting reproach for this being obvious nonsense, that "Harry" is, rather, clearly universal, with appeal to anyone who hasn't lost all touch with life.  In fact, if you were to say that the films / books were only for the 7 to 12 set (or, as they move along, the adolescent), and that adults enjoying them probably are still in contact with their youth but only in a pathetic, sad way, as A.S. Byatt did ... well, take care, for here very swiftly follows the torrent to bash gravities of humiliation against your small dribble of bile.  But as swift as so many are to defend books and films thought by some only for children, do we doubt how few would throw any disconcert Willmore's way for presiding "Hotel" as "for the aged only"? 

What, though, is a 12 year old to make of adults, not in their last years acting like infants, but maturely trying to square their desire for renewal, for new life, new adventures, with their understanding that they are besot with already established life courses, by ruts of routine responses and resurfacing old tricks, worsening in their ability to catch some good game?  It sure doesn't look much like a ride to entice fresh crowds into Disneyland.  Yet in this age where we've gotten used to books and films being targeted to the emotional and intellectual capabilities of differing children's age groups, to their set-determined particular interests, there's still the reminder of lasting books written just a generation or two ago by the likes of Roald Dahl, Richard Adams, Ursula LeGuin, Madeleine l'Engle, E.B. White, and Salinger, that don't sit so well with the idea that there isn't somehow something adult, already fathomed in the childish mind.  Personally, I've never thought enough thought has gone into how it is an older writer is able to write for children at all; instead thinking the proofs on how anyone cannot but offer, regardless of whom they're intending to write for, mostly unabashed contact with their 30 -, 40-, 50, 60-ish or on writer selves.  And if children go for it, it has to be that they're very fond of the adult in these writers, even as they still very much do appreciate the various considerations allotted them, the faeries, farm animals, and guardian wizards that assure them this is a world they can handle. 

Even with "Harry Potter" we're already a bit keen to this possibility.  As the series progressed there are encounters simply between adults that could challenge you to wonder, if all collected and left by themselves, how bogus it'd be to label them anything short of literature.  I'm thinking in particular of Snape and Dumbledore, of Snape and Voldemort; with the challenge, subsequent Snape's reveal, being to determine if the Snape we've long known without fully knowing his past is fair measure of the key early experiences we are told have determined him.  Yes -- we have to conclude to be satisfied with the reveal, in a blink sifting through forty or so years of another's developing -- this product, out of an already complex early person, could be begot from this; it plausibly fits.  And if we're not similarly now boomer-aged, knowing ourselves how great spans of time's drift accord with great early pushes in a set direction, how on earth might we determine this?  And yet I think it's possible that we may.  Or if not, at least that we might sense that we've already experienced enough of life, of how things go, to make us one day feel capable of doing so.  "I don't quite just now understand you -- but I did catch sight of you; you're not alien, and feel I'll one day see you straight," we, the 7 t0 12-year-old kid, even, might well feel the urge to communicate.

Of course, to say that small parts in children's books and films perhaps thought mostly for the adults are actually as much still for children, isn't to say that if "Up" was entirely about the life story of a loving married couple, or if "Fellowship of the Ring" somehow mostly about past-prime Bilbo settling into his own exotic hinterlands, kids couldn't get enough of it.  As alluded to, no doubt not to feel overwhelmed or wretchedly bored it's got to feel about them, not their grandparents.  But as true as this surely is, I'm tempted to argue the case anyway, perhaps through reminding people of just how literate people were a generation or two ago, of how many educators hoped to stuff as much classical literature into you, hoping you'll even oblige their skipping ahead past more-relatable "Romeo and Juliet" if "Hamlet" or "Lear" was judged the master work.  And of how this meant early encounters with works we'd introduce college kids to, presuming the opposite of child-obtuse pedagogy and rather Mozart-in-the-womb zeroing in on what kids actually need for life.  

Presuming something more, actually:  that what kids actually most want is not to be catered to but rather to be introduced to humanity's show, the best that human heritage has begotten -- the good stuff.  And they realize it not necessarily immediately, without, that is, some pushing, for garnering something from the great requires adjusting, at least temporary unsettlement and even repelling dis-ease; but rather sometime afterwards, after life has gone by some and the new and one-time perturbing has manifested more clearly as a facilitating component of you. 

There, I moved quickly from being tempted to make the case in favor of the difficult, the non-pleasing, to actually more-or-less making it; and I realize I did so because, despite believing that what kids can't help but love about the literature they read is their contact with adult minds, and that kids are more perspicacious than we often judge, capable of encounters with the adult before "this is for kids aged --" categories look to communicate, it's never the less true that if you take your kids to "Hotel" they may well hate you for it.  Unlike how the critic Stephanie Zacharek assessed another movie sure to be thought, as she puts it, "just a little nice movie for grannies and no one else" -- "Letters to Juliet" -- I cannot, that is, sincerely argue that kids will like it foremost for the youth they will find in these aging people.  In "Letters," Zacharek found the 73-year-old Vanessa Redgrave "living assurance that the young people we once were can stay alive is us, no matter how much we grow and change," proclaiming, when Claire finally meets her long-ago love, that "it takes zero imagination to see the face of the young Guenevere in this older one."  But though with Tom Wilkinson's plot-line in "Hotel" one can find the near equivalent of this particular moment, I declare "Hotel" worth a visit primarily because it makes you realize just how much better than you there is out there; it's appeal lies in its not being reassuring.  It teaches you that all that youthful energy you possess is not something you should so much be concerned not to lose, but be concerned to use, to acquire the depth fully available to you only in growing older.  

To be more fair to Zacharek's review, I'll note that though she singled out the moment of youthful presence in Claire as what in particular would reverberate with youth, it's clear she thinks they'll actually take to all they'll see of her.  She actually follows proclaiming the film not just for grandmas by drawing attention to Redgrave's adult substance, of how she "puts all she's got into something other actors might cast off," how "[s]he's present every moment," as much as her youthful vitality.  And she takes care to establish the moment immediately before Claire meets her long-ago love as a complex one, as something which to fully understand requires testing your acuity, some extension of yourself into behavior you may not quite be able to delineate for it possibly not yet being wholy part of your own resources.  This moment's all about adult considerations, about being aware that however much the 15 year old he fell in love with is gone (a cowing realization that has her shelter herself, not so much out of self-pity but "as if [. . .] trying to hide from herself"), "she's not."  

And -- now to be more fair to her as well -- Willmore's assessment of "Hotel" isn't just that it's pigeoned for old hearts not young ones, that it's simply "about growing old in a terribly British fashion," but about not-to-be-missed moments as well, presumably, with her herself being delighted by them, available to both young and old.  She highlights some of the ones I'd be inclined to; but rather than list them in the exact fashion she does -- "Billy Nighy joking with Judi Dench about his inability to fix a telephone, Maggie Smith forcing down local food in order to be polite, Tom Wilkinson joining in a game of pickup cricket and Penelope Wilton looking terrified during a tuk-tuk ride" -- I'd have been tempted to italicize the great actors' names as well:  for what we agree is so special is getting to see great living people interact smartly with one another, not our chance to see characters from a book so capably enfleshed.  Or do what Stephanie did with Vanessa Redgrave in "Letters," and involve myself more fully with why Penelope Wilton making clear with Nighy that it's over between them, or her thanking Wilkinson for sparing her further humiliation -- both moments of self-account that reminded you how much one must have to be able to convey so much self-possession after catastrophic revelations have deflated you to wondering if you're a fraud -- is so special.  

You get enough of great people here I'd be tempted to compare it to the Louvre, a storehouse one's never to early to start familiarizing oneself with; but to flatter it now surely a bit too unjustly, here you get the artist him/herself, as well as his/her oeuvre: a doubling down of greatness.  "Midnight in Paris" reminded Armond White of how far these actors were from the greats they portrayed; please don't underestimate who I wouldn't put these actors toe-to-toe with.  

So I think the kids should go to this "Hotel" for the elderly.  Don't be spooked by the specter of death; we're told it's of course going to lurk everywhere but it proves delineated and contained within a single source:  Tom, the only one not to be sparked to new purpose for his chasing down of an old one.  If kids never-the-less resist, I'll accord one legitimate reason why it might still be possible that if they flee your grasp and escape for, say, one more viewing of The Avengers, they might be wise to.  For this is a time when youth may be less about vitality than about constantly taking it -- the world does right now seem to have it out for them, with some now declaring it none other than a period of child / youth sacrifice, to beget a Generation Occupy.  They may, that is, simply have known just too much of it to garner treasures from a film where youth are shown denied yet once again.  They could be at the point of psychic toppling, with the trigger -- who knows exactly what?  And the key youth in the film, the young owner of the hotel, is here mostly denied.  Cover is of course provided, for no older person wants to think themselves intentionally presiding forever over the young; but there is a sense that the film is intentionally pitting aggressive youthfulness against elder wisdom/knowledge of people/canyness and patience, with the latter lot clearly triumphant.  The young owner ostensibly comes out with his dreams realized, his hotel afloat, and the resplendent wife he's fought for at his side; but the feel is mostly that he's gone from sole owner of a hotel to its bell hop, enthusiastically presenting himself to the ring of a bell.  This is good therapy for Maggie Smith's character, who's been head servant but never inexctricable to the family she served, but unfair to him. 

Still, the last time a generation turned whole-hog on a preceding generation it judged self-indulgent, the result was some vitality -- they felt they got their own era -- but, in my judgment, also a criminal curtailing of depth.  It was the '30s, with artists who thrived then sometimes being the ones unable to thrive in '20s Paris, for all the great but also incredibly daunting personalities they mixed with there; but were able to once self-sacrifice and common purpose, not self-indulgence and individual enrichment, became king.  Personally, I'd prefer not to think youth have had it so bad they'll take the barren ramshackle over the opulent for it at least being theirs, but the film does argue a case for this as well.  So, yes, at the finish, I'll admit there is still some valid last minute weighing to do ... but please do decide to take your kids to "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel."   

 

 

 

 

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