February 24, 2013
"Make Me Feel Safe: The Loneliest Planet and Unspoken Vulnerability" by Jackie Clark
The Loneliest Planet is not your traditional chick flick. While the subjects of the movie are the soon to be married Alex and Nica, there is no meet-cute, no plucky bridesmaids, and no real resolution—the penultimate scene of the movie is Nica puking by flashlight. That said, this movie suggests a lot of things about the relationships of young women of a certain demographic. And being, I suppose, a woman who can relate to said demographic, The Loneliest Planet gave me pause, if only because I have struggled to understand what it means to have seen these character traits in myself and in my own relationships.
The demographic is this: young-ish (age 30 at the least), white woman, more than moderately educated, not necessarily from privilege per se but a woman who has had the privilege of “exploring her interests” (i.e. Nica not only has the leisure to travel the Caucasus Mountains in Georgia on a pre-wedding jaunt, but has also traveled the world extensively as we learn through a guessing game Nica plays with their Georgian tour guide); who has a youthful and playful spirit, not adhering to the boring conventions of adulthood despite that fact that she is pretty much an adult (i.e. We see Nica counting the length of her headstand at the foot of the mountain with a playful "one chimpanzee, two chimpanzee, three chimpanzee" and using her body to roll down grass hills with Alex); who possesses fierce and unwavering confidence, intelligence, and independence; but who is ultimately preparing to “settle down” but only in a way in which she will remain true to her spirit. While confidence and independence are good things, we come to see how content Nica is in her independence. Before they embark on their journey Nica and Alex visit a local watering hole and are sitting together having a beer. Another patron dances up to the table where Nica and Alex are sitting and you can tell the patron wants Nica to get up and dance with him. You can see at first that the experience is a little weird for Nica but since Alex submits to the offer Nica rallies to the occasion and gets up to dance with the stranger, proving her self-possession and her ability to stand alone.
Nica is totally adept at travel and is unfazed by the lacking amenities. In the first scene of the movie a naked and wet Nica is jumping up and down to stay warm while Alex is getting hot water to rinse the soapy water off of her. She is all smiles and laughter, all affection for Alex. Later after they begin their backpacking journey, she shucks help offered to her by her guide to get across a rope bridge (seriously a piece of rope to stand on and a piece of rope to balance your hands on) only to trip up while on it. But she doesn’t fall. And instead of then taking the guide’s second offer of help, she laughs at herself and insists over and over that she was fine. She knew what she was doing all along and was unfazed by the slip up. She can totally handle it.
And where is Alex? Well, he’s just waiting for Nica to cross the rope bridge before he does. The hand that stretches out to help her after she almost falls is the guide’s, not her fiancé’s. While Alex has the same youthful and playful spirit as Nica, there is something about Alex’s demeanor that suggests he is following Nica’s lead. Aside from the sexy times in the movie (and there are a couple of steamy scenes toward the beginning) the only real prolonged engagements between Alex and Nica occur when Alex feeds Nica verbs to conjugate in Spanish. You get the sense that it is a sort of a long running and intimate game that they play. But even then, whose idea was it to play this game? This game appears to be invented by Nica to engage interest in her partner. Even though Alex actually knows Spanish, the game is a way for Nica to show off how clever she is. It is for her amusement. The game puts her in the dominant role even if it doesn’t at first appear that way. This verb play comes back again toward the end of the movie but its meaning and its gesture are completely flipped as you’ll see in a bit.
It’s also important to keep in mind that all of this, the sum of Alex and Nica’s relationship exists in a vast nothing of undisturbed beauty. There are no distractions. No iPhones, no iPods, no one else to really talk to except the guide. And it’s quiet. All the more easy to hear these characters think. There are long, beautiful, distant shots of these three figures moving along the foot of a mountain. Their tiny figures enter from one side of the screen and the shot lasts for as long as it takes for them to walk that distance. Sometimes it even takes a few seconds to locate these tiny travelers on the screen. You know they are going to be there but you just can’t see them yet.
So the thing with this movie, which you can learn just from reading the film’s page on IFC, is that something HAPPENS about half way through the film that upsets the landscape of Nica and Alex’s relationship. Here is where I am going to tell you what the THING is, so in case you are the type of person who doesn’t want something spoiled for them there is still time to get away before the spoiling commences. Now, when I tell you what the big thing is I want you to keep in mind the type of character I have described Nica to be. Okay? Okay. So after an indeterminate amount of time hiking in the mountains (maybe two days), and after the couple has been having a pleasant time and has created a little universe (or planet maybe?) from where they interact with the landscape and space and time and the tour guide who is pretty much up until this point the third wheel; they come upon three men. The trio had not encountered anyone else so far on their hike. Everyone stops. Their tour guide speaks to the men. Of the three one of them is carrying a gun on his back. They speak in another language, one presumes Georgian, but there are no sub-titles so the viewer is just as clueless as Alex and Nica as to what is transpiring. After the brief dialogue the man with the gun takes it off his back and points it in Alex and Nica’s general direction. Now, get ready—in the face of this Alex stands first next to and then BEHIND Nica, for a second, I mean really, a split second, then gets his bearings and cautiously repositions himself to be in front of her. No one moves for a while. No one says anything. Not even the guide moves. The guy with the gun doesn’t move. Alex and Nica don’t move. Then there is dialogue again. Again there are no sub-titles. Then the man with the gun lowers his weapon. He gives Alex a reassuring pat on the chest. He takes off his watch and gives it to Alex. And then just as soon as they met, they are gone. Our three, Nica, Alex, and the guide, say nothing for a while. They don’t move. And then, just like that, Nica goes and walks over to her backpack, puts it on her back, and begins walking away. The guide begins to follow her shortly after. And there is Alex, left standing there alone.
Now, this is pretty horrifying. I mean, a strange man just had a gun to your face, was saying something in a language you couldn’t understand and for all you know was about to shoot you in the head. It would stand to reason that one would want to talk about what-the-fuck-just-happened. But there is no talking. None. The movie is already a very quiet piece with a very small vocabulary. But nothing. And here’s the thing, without the coldness and distance Nica initiates and inserts between herself and Alex after this event, Alex most likely would have tried to talk about it with both Nica and the guide, who we presume understood what the man with the gun said. But Nica’s body language and lack of eye contact after the event suggest that talking is not acceptable at the moment, or maybe ever again. And this is a real bad place for a relationship to wind up. Nica is a real self-satisfied lady, one who doesn’t NEED anyone to do things for her, or so she thinks. And it’s that way of thinking about herself that is the foundation her relationship with Alex. Either Alex knowingly let’s her parade around in her arrogant glory all the time or he really isn’t quite up to snuff partner-wise, only a cute face that will follow Nica’s direction. I admit that I don’t know the answer to this and can’t piece it out, perhaps because of my own arrogance. Someone should write an essay about Alex’s character because of course there are always two sides to every story, how did he know that he would react in that way in a high stakes and dangerous situation, but I digress. All the while Nica thought that what she wanted was to be the strong one, to be the one who is unfazed, not needing or wanting a man to take care of her, but when Alex hid behind her in the face of the gun perhaps she realized just how alone she was in caring for herself. So much more than she had originally budgeted for and the feeling that I can’t shake is that maybe it’s her fault.
What follows is a terrible cold shoulder. What follows is Nica talking, and talking, and talking to the tour guide who is not so fluent in English instead of talking to Alex. What follows is a stone cold and stoned–face young woman who is completely and utterly hurting her fiancé’s feelings and punishing him through passivity and nonplussed affection. She just acts like nothing happened. They continue to walk on.
At one point Nica gets a rock in her shoe and has to stop to untie her boot to get her boot off and shake the rock out. Alex comes to her assistance and offers to steady her balance while she is dancing around on one foot and she physically turns her body away from him. While on one foot. She refuses his help. And just from this, you can tell she will continue to refuse his help. And as with all people who try to right a wrong to only be ignored, Alex stops trying to help. He stops trying to walk near her. He stops trying to make conversation. He just turns off. But then they come to another river that needs to be crossed. You get the impression that it’s sort of a big deal by the way the guide prepares them, loosening their backpacks and telling them to unclip their waistbands. The guide goes across first, hopping from exposed rock to exposed rock. Next Alex motions for Nica to go. And Nica, stubborn as ever, insists that Alex goes before her and that she would be fine. So he does. He is barely across himself when he hears Nica scream and sees that she has fallen in and is floating down stream. And guess who jumps in to get her? That’s right, the guide. Alex is relegated to retrieving the backpack from down stream. The guide carries Nica in from the freezing water. Not Alex. Nica is (understandably?) once again very upset.
I realize this is a lot of detail. But what I’m trying to get at is: what is the dynamic between Alex and Nica? Or more succinctly, what does this woman want? She wants to be the strong one, the one in charge, the curious and interesting one, the one who knows best, and yet when her soon to be husband takes this at face value in the face of an extreme situation, it seems like this isn’t at all what she wanted. But how is Alex to know? How is anyone to know what anyone wants if it isn’t explicitly said? I guess what I mean is that it is unfair. It is unfair of Nica to expect Alex to know without letting on at all that she is actually VULNERABLE.
That said, the second half of the movie I kept thinking to myself: Man, Alex, you really botched that one up. Isn’t it, I dare say, obvious that Nica should want Alex should be her protector? Despite all of Nica’s independence and arrogance, the traditional gender roles are still very much at play in this relationship, albeit unbeknownst beforehand. Nica learns that she expects Alex to take care of her the way “men” are supposed to take care of their “women.” How is one supposed to rectify these two forces, which are generally understood as being oppositional: fierce female independence and the desired to be sheltered and protected. Which leads to an even further inquiry: should these forces even be rectified? Do they have to be in order for both of them to exist? Perhaps the problem for Nica (and for me) is that she is trying to make something that is every shade of grey black and white.
After they get a little further away from the event Nica is now feeling rotten for being so cold to Alex instead of experiencing the previous satisfaction it was bringing her. During a rain storm that temporarily delays their walking, Alex goes off to take a piss and Nica yells after him to take a poncho and then eventually goes out in search for him, getting soaked herself. After the rain passes and they are walking again Nica saddles up next to Alex and asks him to give her a verb to conjugate. Remember the game? She is now holding the game out like a tiny, little olive branch. She gestures that she does need him. Is it sort of pathetic? Yes. But it’s all the power she can cede to him without betraying the person she believes herself (or expects herself) to be.
There’s other stuff that happens after Nica falls in the river—between Nica and the guide, which maybe you could have intuited—but I’ll let that to the movie. I guess what I really wanted to say by writing about this movie is that it is confusing to be a woman. It is confusing to spend one’s time trying to be (and acting like) this all around success who doesn’t need anyone to take care of her and yet who still ends up relying or hoping to rely on some man somewhere to make her feel safe, despite herself.
Jackie Clark is a poet living in Jersey City. She is the series editor of "Poets off Poetry" and "Song of the Week" for Coldfront Magazine and is the recipient of a 2012 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her first book of poems, Aphoria, will be published by Brooklyn Arts Press in March. She can be found online at nohelpforthat.com.