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Manchester by the Sea and the Decline of the Working Class

manchester by sea

If one is interested in a counterpoint to the received wisdom about the plight of the white working class, look no further than to Manchester by the Sea, the finest film I have seen this year.

The usual narrative is that the white working class is in decline because of economic stress.  But Manchester by the Sea focuses on its spiritual causes. It is a post-Christian film in two senses. Its structure returns to greatest pagan art form—Greek tragedy—and its content concerns the spiritual void left in places like New England by the decline of Christianity—a decline that also undermines one of the sources for self-discipline needed for flourishing in a republic.

The protagonist of the story, Lee Chandler, is pursued by furies—the Eumenides of Greek tragedy– because of a negligent act shown in a flashback by which he destroyed his young family. Chief among the furies was his now ex-wife who said terrible things about him in the aftermath. Many people in Manchester are furies as well: they don’t want him around and he has left his ancestral home to work in Boston. But the greatest furies are the demons within his own mind. Not only do others not forgive him, he cannot find forgiveness himself.

Like many great works of literature, the impetus for the story is a journey—an extended trip by Lee back to Manchester, because his brother has died and he has unexpectedly become the guardian of his nephew, Patrick. He tries to beat the demons and look after his nephew, but ultimately he cannot do so and has Patrick adopted by a friend of his brother.

Money is not the problem here. His brother is well enough off to make provision for his son and even for Lee’s transition to guardianship.   Despite the modesty of his job as a custodian even Lee never lacks money for the pleasures of life that no longer give him pleasure. But what is lacking is a framework for living and forgiving. The movie most powerfully captures this absence in the Catholic funeral for Joe. The service is shown almost entirely without sound, because for Lee and his family the voice of God is absent. The only break in the silence is Patrick’s cellphone ringing.

Patrick is moving toward the life of moral indiscipline that was his uncle’s tragic flaw.  He sleeps with a girl so psychologically immature that she is still emotionally attached to her dollhouse. He curses out his hockey coach. His difficulty with spirituality is revealed by his seemingly greatest concern about his dead father: that his body must remain in a freezer until the ground becomes warm enough to receive him.

The script doesn’t give much hope of a genuine religious revival providing a renewed framework and discipline. The one believing Christian portrayed is a caricature of one who has been born again. While he has helped Patrick’s mother sober up, he cuts her off from her son.

The film’s greater hope—in my view probably a vain one at least given our social welfare state—is that communities will find ways to coalesce around some of the values that Christianity has deposited in Western society in its long, withdrawing roar.  The most moving scene of the film is the one in which Lee’s ex-wife forgives him and begs his forgiveness for her treatment of him. And even though Lee abandons his guardianship, his new project is to try to get his quite bright if aimless nephew to go to college—the place where modern miracles of maturation are supposed to occur.

The critics’ reactions to the film are also striking.  Almost no one saw it in terms of the pressing debates about the white working class. The one who did, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, gratuitously trivialized this perspective by noting how much better off are the whites portrayed than African Americans in general.    But no major critic I have read even mentions religion.  Our elites are so secular that they now miss  obvious religious themes in works of art and cannot consider other than crassly material explanations for social problems.

Reader Discussion

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on May 25, 2017 at 10:29:02 am

A good review.
I thought the "key" line in the film was Chandler's response to the ex-wife in the scene to which you alluded:

"I feel nothing"

Pretty much the feeling i had watching this film.

Question: Is that what the filmmaker intended? Is that the vision we are expected to have? This quiet nothingness, without hope of a salve or, as McGinnis says, a *saving grace*?

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gabe
on May 25, 2017 at 12:55:59 pm

Haven't seen the movie; only read reviews--including McGinnis's and Scott's.

The critics’ reactions to the film are also striking. Almost no one saw it in terms of the pressing debates about the white working class. The one who did, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, gratuitously trivialized this perspective by noting how much better off are the whites portrayed than African Americans in general.

The review in question can be found here, but here's what Scott said about the film's racial dynamics:

"The movie takes up, indirectly and perhaps inadvertently but powerfully and unmistakably, a subject that has lately reinserted itself dramatically into American political discourse. It’s a movie, that is, about the sorrows of white men.

I’m not being dismissive. I’m being specific. Mr. Lonergan is too astute about the textures of American life to assume that the racial and class identities of his characters are incidental or without larger significance. That was true of the rich New York kids in Mr. Lonergan’s play “This Is Our Youth,” from 1996, and it’s no less true of the grown-up citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts here, even if they are too diffident or too busy for sociological self-consciousness.

In 21st-century American cinema — from “Mystic River” to “Gone Baby Gone,” from “The Fighter” to “The Departed” — the Bay State is where the myths of post-ethnic -class white identity have been forged. Nonwhite characters are as scarce as fully articulated r’s, and the uncomfortable racial history that has existed in reality (the Boston busing battles of the 1970s, for instance) is easily ignored. There is no legacy of slavery or Jim Crow, and therefore an aura of innocence can be maintained amid the dysfunction and sentimentality and clannishness.

“Manchester by the Sea,” partly because it is a product of the Damon-Affleck industrial complex, partakes of some of this myth-mongering, but it also resists the more tiresome clichés of the blue-collar Boston movie…. Mr. Lonergan is more interested in guilt than in criminality, and less concerned with nostalgia than with the psychology of loss.

This is not a pseudo-epic of redemption or revenge, with boxers and gangsters and their churchgoing moms and wives. It’s a masculine melodrama that doubles as a fable of social catastrophe. Lee, Joe and their friends would never define themselves as privileged. They have proletarian tastes and sensibilities. But they also have paid-up houses and boats, kids on track for college, decent medical care and an ironclad entitlement to the benefit of the doubt. (Observe what happens to Lee in the Manchester police station and you’ll see what I mean.) ….

Cast out of this working man’s paradise, Lee is also exiled from the prerogatives of whiteness. He lives in a basement room, earning minimum wage, answering to an African-American boss and accepting a tip from a black tenant whose toilet he has cleaned and repaired. He doesn’t complain, but it is also clear that he has chosen these conditions as a form of self-abasement, as punishment for his sins.

Maybe its sounds like I’m over-reading, or making an accusation. But to deny that “Manchester by the Sea” has a racial dimension is to underestimate its honesty and overlook its difficult relevance. Lee is guilty and angry, half-convinced that what happened was not his fault and half-certain that it was, unable to apologize or to accept apologies, paralyzed by grief and stung by a sense of grievance."

Scott mentions race in three contexts.

In one, Scott observes that the film focuses on how Manchester's "dysfunction and sentimentality and clannishness" affects Lee without acknowledging how harmful these dynamics would be for people of color. Here, I share McGinnis's view: This seems to boil down to noting how much better off are the whites than African Americans. This might be an accurate statement for Scott to make, but it seems pro-forma and untethered to the review's larger themes.

At another point, Scott reviews the benefits enjoyed by working-class men in Manchester, noting their "ironclad entitlement to the benefit of the doubt. (Observe what happens to Lee in the Manchester police station and you’ll see what I mean.)" I read this as hinting that blacks would not receive a similar benefit of a doubt--but it's a pretty subtle comparison.

But in a third context, Scott notes that while living in exile (in Quincy) Lee answers to a black boss, and receives tips from a black tenant. Far from noting how much better off are the whites portrayed than African Americans, Scott is doing the opposite: Noting Lee's subordinate status to his black boss and the tenant. In short, the director is appealing to the AUDIENCE'S race-consciousness to signal Lee's fallen status.

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nobody.really
on May 25, 2017 at 17:29:08 pm

" In short, the director is appealing to the AUDIENCE’S race-consciousness to signal Lee’s fallen status. "

Really (in this case YOU deserve to be called by your last name)?

I guess I, someone who actually watched the movie, must have missed the whole RACE thingy. why can not anything simply be about what it purports to be about - a rather sad, disaffected and remorseful soul confronting his failures.

Lee could have been white or black AND the message would have been the same - but NOOOOOO! - it must once again slight blacks because it does not include blacks in the movie.

Give me a #$%$#@ break! Or is asking for a break a sign of some racist privilege?

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gabe

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