“You’ve come close to the 7 horses of the apocalypse” my friend told me yesterday when I confided how disappointed I was in myself for missing an opportunity. “These things can weigh on you emotionally,” another friend said, “where even a ‘little email’ is no longer so little.” My friends are kind. I am grateful for them, these faces over Skype and words in type traveling over time zones to be with me.
And so it is in Montecito, after the fire passed by and the mountain came down. It is in these moments of communal trauma that I begin to feel that I love this place and the people in it–it begins to feel like a community I might be able to belong to.
Tonight the Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicked off, so I and my 18 students (clutching packets of discounted student tickets) found ourselves at the grand Arlington Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara, under a ceiling of constellations traced out in lights. We were attending the premiere of Emilio Estevez’s film the public, in a moment when the “issue” of homelessness feels closer than ever. Hundreds of California homes have been destroyed over the past two months by fire and mud, and as a character in the film points out, homelessness is only a job-loss away.
Perhaps it is because the festival was beginning as the loss is still hanging in the air, as we are still navigating our ways around road blocks where streets were swept away, that the festival opener felt like church. The director of the film festival, Roger Durling, read out the names of those who died in the Montecito mudslides, like a liturgy:
Faviola Benitez, Jonathan Benitez, Kailly Benitez, Joseph Francis Bleckel, Martin Cabrera-Munoz, David Cantin, Morgan Christine Corey, Sawyer Corey, Peter Fleurat, Josephine Gower, John McManigal, Alice Mitchell, James Mitchell, Mark Montgomery, Caroline Montgomery, Marilyn Ramos, Rebecca Riskin, Roy Rohter, Peerawat Sutthithepa, Pinit Sutthithepa, Richard Taylor, and the two still missing Jack Cantin and little Lydia Sutthithepa.
And then, as if we were in church, he had us turn around and introduce ourselves to someone we did not know. After Emilio Estevez introduced the some of the cast members to the audience, Alec Baldwin, Michael K. Williams, Jena Malone, Jacob Vargas, he bid us watch the film with a “God bless you.”
Church did not end when the film began. There was a certain sweetness to the story, despite the street-smart mouthing of “mother-fuckas” and the reoccurring (humourous, male) nudity. the public feels old fashioned in a good way–a touch of Jimmy Stewart–a moral tale without smugness or self-righteous. Although the film is political, it is not cynical. When pastors appear, they are good people. You see the church, specifically the Black Church, making space for the homeless and defying the police to bring food and supplies into a stand-off where violent tension has escalated beyond all reason.
But if the film feels old fashioned in its unabashed ideals, it is also a film that speaks perfectly to the moment. This is the dark side of America, one of the wealthiest nations on earth, where hundreds of people freeze to death every winter. And then there the America where corrupt institutions and selfish individualism converge: the public prosecutor campaigning for mayor calls for law and order and then manufactures “fake news” to help his cause, heavy-handed police tactics turn a low-key protest into a life or death situation, and a TV reporter is so obsessed with her Twitter following that she gets the story completely wrong. While glued to her smart phone, she misses the opportunity for multiple scoops. In an era of climate change, there is even a polar bear looming over the library, perhaps as a warning that knowledge and institutions are fleeting in the face of a climate and a future we cannot control.
And indeed the climate and what it means for human survival is the driver of the conflict in the film. It is winter in Cincinatti, polar vortex cold, and the homeless people come in the library to get warm, to wash up in the bathrooms, to even try out the world of online dating from the library desktops.
The gatekeeper between the warmth of the library and the harsh cold of the outside is the “boring” white-guy librarian, Stuart, played by Emilio Estevez himself, whom acquaintances believe has a job where he gets to read all day. But–as we should keep in mind in this age of snap judgments–appearances are not always what they seem. He and his coworkers share a love for literature–John Steinbeck is a reoccurring motif–but their daily tasks have more in common with social workers. Stuart arrives at work to find his patrons impatiently waiting outside. As soon as the library is open “to the public,” they stream in.
He has a good rapport with the library’s patrons. He knows them all–at least the regulars–by name and has a certain intuition that enables him to stop fights before they happen, share their jokes and patiently endure their idiosyncrasies. (“Hail Caesar.”) As librarian, he has to enforce the rules–opening time, closing time, no nudity in the library. But when he arrives at work one day to see the body of a patron he knows well being hauled away in an ambulance–dead from cold–and when his own hard work is undermined by soulless library board members, he begins to question the rules. The homeless man he is closest to (played by Michael K. Williams) asks him why they have to leave the library when there are record cold temperatures outside and no more room in the homeless shelters.
The hard-nosed prosecutor running for mayor (played by a sharp-featured Christian Slater), of course, has all the answers. “Law and Order.” “We can’t set precedent.” “The library is not a homeless shelter.” We need to follow the protocol where the police can clear these people out within the hour. But, if the prosecutor represents all that is wrong with our current public discourse, the other characters increasingly question why they are upholding laws that are cruel: the head librarian (Jeffrey Wright) begins to lose his officiousness, the librarian (Jena Malone) who initially tries to sneak away ends up sticking around as a witness; even the police negotiator (Alec Baldwin), who is living with a loss that is eating him alive, finds himself struggling to do the job that is expected of him. Yet when our boring white protagonist does the right thing, the past he had worked so hard to escape comes looming up before him.
There is a danger in “issue” films in coming across heavy-handed, and occasionally, I did feel a certain self-awareness in the actors recitation of their lines. I grew frustrated with characters who refused to see the obvious (though this is a frustration that grows daily in the world we live in, as well). And the postcolonial critic in me also wonders why it’s always got to be the white guy who is the protagonist and the leader. That said, Estevez plays the role of the understated but passionate librarian brilliantly; the cast is wonderful and varied, with people of colour playing some of the most compelling roles: Jeffrey Wright as the head librarian who undergoes a moral crisis alongside his employee, the charming Jacob Vargas as a sympathetic security guard, Gabrielle Union as the self-obsessed TV reporter, and the two most well-developed homeless characters, Che “Rymefest” Smith who is obsessed with the belief that he has lasers in his eyes, and Michael K. Williams as the independent philosopher who instigates his homeless friends to protest and prods his librarian friend’s conscious.
Yet, although the film deals with heavy themes, it is not weighted down by them. There is a humour and affection and humanity here. The characters may be drunkards, drug addicts, and conspiracy theorists, and many of them may struggle with mental illness, yet they also are also readers and philosophers, veterans who fought for their country and former family men who paid their taxes before they lost it all. And while there are many moments of irony, as the police march into the library under the looming portrait of Frederick Douglass, or when our librarian reads out the opening paragraphs of The Grapes of Wrath to the social-media obsessed reporter who thinks he is raving mad, the irony is not so bitter that it turns rancid. There are cynical people here–the prosecutor is as cynical as they get–and bitter injustice exists at the heart of the city, but the film itself is not cynical. Instead it celebrates the goodness and beauty and ingenuity of its human characters.
There is no conventional beauty here, although there were some lyrical opening shots of people walking across urban spaces. Our librarian protagonist Stuart is small and mousy. His co-librarian has messy bangs and frumpy clothes and starts out judgy. The library where they work is functional but not an elegant space. It is filled with homeless people with wild hair and old clothes. Yet, the film takes the very ordinariness of the setting and transforms it. Small characters become big, those so often treated as throw-away people demonstrate courage and thoughtfulness. There is hardness here but there is also hope. “The public library is the last bastion of true democracy that we have in this country,” says the head librarian, and thus this library space, a source of knowledge and quite literally of life, becomes a symbolic setting for a drama in which democratic ideals are stretched and challenged and acted upon.
I like this film. I like it enough to sit down and blog about it right away until 3am instead of preparing my lesson plan for tomorrow.
I like that the public lets its morals show. I like the hints of church in it and the hints of sentimentality edged with steel. I like that it has complicated characters who nevertheless do the right thing. In this era of fake news and cruel policy and narcissistic self absorption, we do not need cynicism, we need uprightness, we need earnest truth-telling, and people who take a stand for right. Yet we also need the right amount of humor and self deprecation so that we don’t become judgy or smug. This is what The Public does. I hope it becomes more widely available soon.
Watch the trailer here.