It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The second time I saw “The Designated Mourner,” I kept my eyes mostly closed, and that was a useful approach. This is not a film so much as a filmed record of an audio performance; the words and the voices carry what is important, and when you open your eyes to look occasionally at the readers, it is like breaking the illusion.
Three people sit behind a table furnished with papers, pencils, cups of water, books. They talk, sometimes to us, rarely to one another, mostly to themselves (or “for the record”). Most of the talking is done by Jack (Mike Nichols), a loquacious journalist who was once married to Judy (Miranda Richardson), the daughter of an intellectual named Howard (David de Keyser). In the unspecified country where they live, a totalitarian regime swept away those who thought too much, finding such people dangerous, and Judy and Howard were among the victims. (This is not the sort of film where it matters that I reveal such details.) Jack is left behind, the “designated mourner for a very special way of life that died.” The film is based on a play by Wallace Shawn, whose works like the screenplay for “My Dinner with Andre” and the play “Aunt Dan and Lemon” pile up monologues from characters who are looking for something to hang onto. In “The Designated Mourner,” his narrator is an engaging philistine who once agreed with his father-in-law, Howard, that the intellectual life was important--that to understand the poems of John Donne was a valuable achievement. But Jack lost that faith, came to see Howard as an empty vessel, and now seeks to clear his mind of its incessant chatter of secondhand notions, received ideas and buzzwords. At the end of the play he evokes the ideal of sitting at a cafe table feeling a gentle evening breeze on his face, and thinking of almost nothing.
Well, is it important to understand the poems of John Donne? I write the question knowing that most people will not be familiar with his poems (although the words “No man is an island” may toll a distant bell). Last night at dinner I found myself next to a woman who talked about the novels of Henry James, which filled me with gratitude, and then about Cynthia Ozick's essays about James, which filled me with amazement--because unless you are lucky enough to live on a university campus, you are likely to do most of your serious reading in solitude.
I feel, stubbornly, that it is important to read Donne and the other masters because they have thought and written at the highest level about what it means to be alive, to be conscious of choices, to consider the approach of death, and to turn those subjects into meditations that are sometimes true, false, cheerful, sad, ironic, bitter or hopeful. A great writer engages you in a conversation that you are not likely to be able to have with anyone you know.