IN Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag reconsidered her earlier critique of the art of photography. She was no longer certain, she wrote, that images of others in pain “shrivel sympathy.” She found no evidence that “our culture of spectatorship neutralizes the moral force of photographs of atrocities.” Sontag was referring primarily to the surfeit of harrowing images of horror from war zones and other arenas of cruelty. Even if it was difficult to know “what to do with such knowledge as photographs bring of faraway suffering,” she considered images of others’ suffering to be “an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.”
As difficult as it is to know how to respond to images of distant suffering, it is often equally as difficult, as Sontag acknowledged, to know how to respond to the suffering of those close to us. We may turn away from a loved one’s pain not out of indifference but out of fear or impotence. And perhaps not only turn away but even refuse to see. Bereft of a human connection that can salve anxiety or grief, we exist on an island of loneliness in a sea of feigned intimacy.
In his extraordinary film The Grief of Others, independent filmmaker Patrick Wang invites us to pay attention to the suffering of others by taking us into the lives of a family that has experienced a grievous loss — the death of a child after only a few days of life — but has found no way to express their grief or to mourn. After the death, Ricky and John Ryries busy themselves with their usual routines, as if pretending that their marriage and family have been unaltered by the loss will make the illusion become a reality. Their two children, Biscuit and Paul, seem more in touch with the fact that nothing is normal anymore, signaling alarm by acting out or retreating, but they are unable to engage their parents in addressing the situation. The arrival of pregnant Jess, John’s daughter from a previous marriage, both amplifies Ricky and John’s grief and provides a catalyst for the family’s healing.
Adapted from Leah Hager Cohen’s critically acclaimed novel of the same title, Wang’s quietly haunting film is a testament to the power of adaptation. The transposition of a story from one medium to another can bring into sharpened relief what Wang calls “the emotional shape of discovery.” “I’ve always been fascinated by the translation process,” he told me when we discussed his filmmaking methods a few days before Grief opened in New York and Los Angeles in early November. Wang’s work was getting double exposure; his newest film, A Bread Factory, opened the same week as Grief, which was initially released in 2015, playing that year briefly in New York and, more extensively, in France. (Reflecting Wang’s growing reputation within the independent filmmaking community, A Bread Factory has just been nominated for two Spirit Awards, including the John Cassavetes Award for best feature made under $500,000.)
I asked Wang about the surprising trajectory of his career. How did he move from studying economics at MIT to making art? “It was less a move from one to the other,” he said, “than the fact that art started creeping into my life.” He was an exchange student in Argentina during high school, and his host “was one of these phenomenal women who did everything. She was a sculptor, painter, historian, poet, was leading protests in the streets. She thought all of these things should be in everyone’s life.” He started volunteering at small theaters in the Boston area and, after college, established his own theater company. “My work in film still thinks about the theater,” he said, “and thinks about translating those values into this new form. I’ve always wondered about translating literary values into film form.” At the same, he said, economics continues to inform and affect his perspective and the approach he takes to art:
Strangely enough, too, when your life is not a straight line and you find yourself in something and then realize that thing looks so different, it can actually help you in unexpected ways. In economics, we learn to observe indirectly — and draw conclusions indirectly — from the information we do get. In my filmmaking, I’m saying less about my characters than watching what they reveal to me.
Wang’s curiosity about translation and his understanding of character were driving forces behind making The Grief of Others. But the strongest force, Wang said, was reading Cohen’s novel and “feeling like it taught me quite a bit. Things that were helpful in my life, for my life. And it did it through a dramatic form. I thought I could see that, in a film form, it would reach a different set of people with this same sort of experience.” Wang’s friendship with Cohen was another factor in his decision to make the film. “Leah and I have been friends since she wrote a book about the small theater I was involved with in Boston. I realized there might be a special opportunity to work with a good friend and a writer I admired so much. Those opportunities don’t come along too frequently.”
The most important aspect of his collaboration with Cohen, he said, was “feeling encouraged and supported” in the process of translation. Because a film script “is a lighter version of a much longer novel, you lose a lot of detail, a lot of explicit history.” Cohen read the script and was initially puzzled. (You can see why if you explore the excerpts of the script incorporated into the digital book Wang and his co-author, David Chien, produced about the making of the movie.) As he explained:
Leah had the first question anyone would have when she read the script, which is, will people understand this, given that we get this very thin slice of life relative to the novel. […] Will people understand this? And when I answered her, oftentimes I didn’t know. But I could give her an answer like this, one artist to another, and she would light up and get excited to see if this was successful or not, and I think that’s just a rare thing.
The collaborative process Wang described is replicated in the relationship Grief establishes between film and viewer, a relationship more than a little like one between a book and its reader. As Wang put it, “books assume they need you to complete them.” Wang’s construction of space and time through medium shots, long takes, and superimpositions draws the viewer deeply into the characters’ lives, encourages the viewer to linger inside rooms, and invites meditation about what happened (and about characters’ memories of what happened), as opposed to simply being told what to think. In Wang’s words:
I like to be in the two-shot or medium shot. It feels participatory. A lot of the shots of our memories, our interactions with people, are in that size. We can observe body movements very well in a size like that. We can observe body language between people very well in a shot like that. I think that, by letting the actors do their work, giving them enough room, you end up creating those spaces where the audience can do some work and focus on what they want to see. There’s not one single stream of information. It comes in all these cues, and you can decide, like in life, what you’re focusing on.
Deciding what to focus on — or not — forms a major subtext of this film, reflected in the different ways Ricky and John, as well as the other characters, experience or remember a traumatic event. How time is lived and remembered, and how memory is sometimes deliberately distorted, become part of the film’s story about grief. In a way that might initially appear confusing but should become familiar, film expresses the human experience of how we discover people. “It’s very akin to how we experience our lives,” Wang said.
We don’t meet people in order, we meet them in the present, whenever they come into our lives, and then we’ll learn some fact from their past and then another one out of order, and yet we’re experts at piecing all this together. We live through our lives where we have the forces of the moment acting on us, and then we also have those moments when someone mentions something and, for just a moment, we’ll depart the conversation as that triggers a moment or a memory that overlaps. So, it’s recognizably human.
What is so resonantly human about this film, besides its representation of memory, is the story it tells about what happens to us when we don’t attend to grief, others’ and our own. We can sink into a well of loneliness when we lose connection, or continue to spin in our own individual circles without ever bothering to talk to one another — in Wang’s words, “thinking we’re doing people a favor by not bothering to express our pain.” But letting people reach out and help us is part of
the underlying material of our bonds to others. I thought that was a really beautiful insight of the novel. You talk about loneliness. […] It’s just as amazing, the stories of people ready to do away with that loneliness. When Ricky finally opens up a little and lets her kids do something together, they’re ready. They jump at the chance to share something like that with her. There is that loneliness, but there are also all these potential wells of healing there and ready.
Wang’s filmic retelling of Cohen’s story about grief is an invitation and a reminder — an invitation to learn about how we can rationalize away or deny suffering, and a reminder of how much we actually need to enter each other’s lives instead of staying inside our solipsistic bubbles, how we must reach across the real or imagined barriers dividing us. Whether we accept the invitation — and how we respond to the reminder — is up to us.