Winter’s city side
Crystal bits of snowflakes
All around my head and in the wind.
— from the lyrics of Big in Japan by Alphaville, 1984
Lars and the real Everard
This review of the 2007 movie Lars and the Real Girl, starring Ryan Gosling as a fictional version of me, is not an ordinary review. It is more a comparison of the film with my own situation where I live on the south coast of England. It was filmed in Ontario, Canada.
The film, although contemporary of early 2000s Canada, somehow embodies a vintage quality, perhaps from the muted colours of Ontario in winter and the semi-rural setting. Life-size dolls, which are one of the subjects of the film, are also known to facilitate ‘vintage’ scenes in photography. Maybe that is because they are posable, which facilitates snapshots of apparent action (minimal usually, such as looking up when reading a book) in a manner that is sometimes labelled timeless. This film is, in my view, similarly timeless.
One guy is a hang glider and he takes his doll to watch him hang glide so that he has company.
— Ryan Gosling quoted in a 2008 interview by Matt Mueller in The Guardian (link farther down).
Just for the record, hang gliding is dangerous, so I always fly in the company of other pilots. The only time I took a doll with me on a hang gliding day was for the filming of the documentary Guys and Dolls. (And I am not a hang glider. I fly a hang glider. Grrr…)
While the script originated in 2002, it strikes me that the North One Television documentary Guys and Dolls, which was first broadcast in 2006, provided much that the makers of Lars and the Real Girl drew on while filming was underway.
“Craig [Gillespie, director] had seen her in a book of photographs. Her particular face caught him with this sense of calmness… He was very enamoured of her freckles…”
— John Cameron, producer, in A Real Leading Lady, an extra supplied with the Lars DVD
That book of photographs is Still Lovers by Elena Dorfman, and you can see the photo, a close-up of my Rebecca taken in 2001, on Elena’s web site (linked farther down).
That’s Rebecca and me on the cover, incidentally. The photo is unevenly faded from its position on a bookshelf near a window, but it is repeated inside the book.
However, because the manufacturer (Abyss Creations) had changed to removable faces by the time the movie was being made and they no longer made solid head #4, of which Rebecca is an example, there is little resemblance between Bianca and Rebecca.
For many scenes, the film makers clearly used a lightweight foam-filled latex alternative body for Bianca that Abyss Creations produced for about a year. (Body 7, larger and bustier than my Rebecca’s body 4.)
Not only is this movie without any hang gliding, it has nothing I classify as action, which I normally consider an essential element in any such production, whether on film or in print. However, it is so well made, and the story so well-crafted that, like an un-put-downable book, it is a gripping tale. There are no wasted frames. Every scene has a purpose.
Other than the name on the front of the building, I am hard pressed to find a significant difference between Lars’ workplace and my own at the time — inside or out. We drive on the left in Britain, is all.
When the screw-action dispenser fails to release the item, you have to take hold of the whole vending machine and rock it back and forth until the thing you paid for is dislodged and falls into the dispensing tray. That is not shown in the film, but if you do not have one of these at your workplace, you can take my word for it!
This colleague of Lars, who works diagonally opposite him in the same space, browses porno web sites from work. He also collects vintage action figures. In real life, the chap over the partition opposite me, who also collects vintage UK Action Man figures (equivalent to GI Joe) was frequently pulled up by the management for misdemeanours.
One day when I arrived at work in about 2008 (bear in mind that Guys and Dolls had aired in 2006, so they knew about my dolls) he said there was a film on telly the previous evening that I should see, titled Lars and the Real Girl, “And there’s this bloke in it just like me!” I can only assume that all workplaces of the type are staffed by the same mix of people. Either that or screenwriter Nancy Oliver is an extraordinary genius. Maybe both.
The contrast between Lars’ single-guy life and that of his brother Gus, who lives with his pregnant wife Karin, is highlighted by their proximity.
Similarities between Lars’ life and mine include some that are from everyday tragedies, if that is not too much of a contradiction, rather than specific to me. His mother, we learn, made a garment for him by hand a short while before he was born. (There is more significance to that than is evident at first.) I still have some socks that my mother darned for me using her one good hand in what turned out to be the last year of her life. I recall the broken sewing needles and spots of blood on her table at the nursing home when I arrived early one day.
Some similarities are inevitable. For example, Gus panics when setting out food on the table on the first evening that Lars’ new guest arrives, “Karin, she’s not gonna eat!” The solution is obvious and is the same that I employed when Faina and I went to a restaurant with a television crew from Japan in 2015. (Photo farther down.) Fortunately, I was extra hungry.
This similarity might be coincidence: Lars’ sensitivity to pain is marvellously demonstrated in a scene with Gosling as Lars and Patricia Clarkson as Dagmar, the psychologist. (It is not that simple, but I am avoiding giving away a minor part of the plot.) On the rare occasions that I need dental treatment, I explain that I need twice as much pain killer injection than standard and we must wait twice as long for it to take effect. Even then, when drilling is underway, I normally levitate out of the chair at least once.
There are many differences between Lars and me, of course. For one thing, I have never argued with Rebecca! Having said that, she does seem annoyed with me sometimes.
In this story, Lars’ difficulty in communicating with others, especially with women, is laid at the door of early experience. My similar difficulty is simply genetic; I am wired for action rather than for interaction. That does not make for a good story, however, which maybe accounts for why those who subscribe to pop psychology are usually determined advocates of the idea that we turn out the way we do because of our experiences in life. (In case it is not obvious, an oak tree, an elephant, and a human being turn out the way they do because of their genes, although humans of course embody an unmatched capability to learn from experience.)
Sunshine on a rainy day
To be a 27-year-old single male with no sexual partner and no real hope of obtaining one, while all around you see happy couples and families, is a desperate situation. (The same is true at 37, 47, 57, and presumably 67, although I have not reached the latter age.) The receptionist at Lars’ workplace clearly worries about him and she greets him each morning with a cheerful acknowledgement and calls him ‘Mr. Sunshine’ in recognition of the fact that he never smiles. Indeed, at most of my workplaces I was known as the guy who never smiles. The reason, it seems to me, is that living a life without hope or purpose robs you of part of the normal repertoire of emotions and accompanying facial expressions. (Or maybe it is just genetic…)
Others’ viewpoints can shed light on it. One friend in 1980 said matter-of-factly, “I can’t believe you do something like hang gliding. You’re so incompetent.” Whuh? I was a well-known, if not particularly successful, hang glider pilot and innovator; in my early 20s an acknowledged expert known world-wide. Then I realised that he knew me only in the specific context of social situations; hunting for girls after work and at weekends in the part of Surrey where we worked. He assumed that my lack of knowledge of what to say and what to avoid saying to women extended to all areas. (He had no problem interacting with women, likely because he had two sisters.)
Now in my 60s, what I find most infuriating is women’s occasional smiles apparently aimed at me when they pass in the opposite direction in the street. (They might just be remembering something funny on telly the night before, I realize.) They seem to be congratulating themselves on their good sense and luck in choosing some random ordinary bloke instead of the thin-faced hang glider pilot burdened with self-doubt. (You must have some self-doubt if you do any difficult and dangerous activity, which was once considered an essential aspect of manliness.) That smile seems to me another weapon in their armoury to hasten the demise of the genetic line of humanity that I represent.
I used to think that, when a woman I was after went off with some other guy, she was playing hard to get. When she married that person (or another) and had children, I was shocked that they had let such a game go disastrously too far. Only much later, in my late 30s I think, did I realise that they were not playing hard to get. They wanted nothing to do with me. Women prefer dull ordinary blokes. Ah, but ordinary blokes with homes of their own, reasonable incomes, and ‘social capital’!
Back to the movie…
A lot has been made of Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Lars, but — having watched it many times — it is the performances of the other cast members that strike me as outstanding (with a couple of exceptions). They appear to be people caught unsuspecting on camera. Lars’ brother Gus and Gus’s wife Karin, with whom Lars shares accommodation (partially, at least) seem to me wholly real.
Margo, played by Kelli Garner, is much better looking than she appears in the screenshot, incidentally. Maybe it is the hat…
Margo and Erik are two of Lars’ co-workers. They roughly correspond to my team leader (from Canada, coincidentally) and her boyfriend, who – unlike Erik – flew hot-air balloons and powered ultralights. (I was good friends with both, despite being quietly in love with her!) Without giving away too much of the plot, one difference is that, in the film, they split up, with consequences for Lars. Lars goes so far as to ask Margo why she picked Erik. It is a question I would like to put to every woman who chooses an ordinary ‘random bloke’ in preference to someone exceptional!
Lars (Ryan Gosling) strikes me as less convincing, although I am not sure why. However, given that we never see ourselves in the same way that others see us, could it be that Gosling’s portrayal of Lars is a truer caricature (if that is not a contradiction) of me than my own self-image?
Lars, although socially inept, is portrayed as a real person rather than a cardboard cut-out stereotype. For example, he goes through the motions of resuscitating Margo’s teddy bear that was hanged by our troublesome friend with the vintage action figures, demonstrating knowledge of basic first aid. Emergency first aid courses are not trivial – at least the course I attended a few years ago was not. (Some real life – and death – video clips and experiences related by our army instructor silenced the gathering of seasoned hang glider and paraglider pilots there.)
Although sometimes described as a comedy – it does include some humour – the film is mostly serious, if unlikely. It is rare in its portrayal of ordinary people overcoming initial rejection of accommodating Lars’ delusion that Bianca is alive. The idea of such a delusion is not far-fetched, it seems to me. If you have ever been in the presence of a realistic life-size doll of this type, unlike a mannequin, it triggers some basic neural alarms dedicated to identifying people as distinct from any other objects in the environment. (Presumably those visual circuits evolved because few things are as significant as other people – either as potential breeding partners or as threats to one’s life or property.)
Those there at the house party who initially express shock at the arrival of Lars and his doll are quickly won over by a bit of leadership. I found a similar thing when, in 2015, I took one of my dolls to a restaurant as part of a television shoot. The Japanese crew interviewed several of the diners there. Only one waitress insisted on talking to me as if I was a half-wit, but likely she would have done that anyway. (I live in semi-rural England, where people who think for themselves are regarded, possibly rightly, as the enemy at the gate.)
“It’s not like you’re all one thing or the other. There’s still a kid inside, but you grow up when you decide to do right. And, not what’s right for you; what’s right for everybody. Even when it hurts.”
— Gus Lindstrom in reply to his brother Lars’ question about becoming an adult in Lars and the Real Girl
In a scene late in the story, Lars feels the hand of a real girl, which is unlike one made of silicone rubber, no matter how realistic the latter looks and, to a certain extent, how realistic it might feel. Another thing about that handshake, which I noticed only after watching the film several times, is that it differs from Lars’ previous physical contact with people in an important way. In that respect, it is more like his contact with his doll.
In a slowly emerging twist in the plot, which culminates near the end, the psychologist reminds those who were initially most hostile to the idea of taking the doll seriously, that neither Bianca or the medics taking care of her (yes, the plot is wild!) affect her deteriorating condition: It all comes from Lars. That is, from Lars’ unconscious mind.
As a born again atheist, I am surprised at how captivating I found the meeting of town elders led by a churchman.
The accompanying photo of middle-aged women sitting with Lars (out of view) in his time of suffering reminds me somewhat of my return to my old writers’ circle a few years after my mother died. I was writing a novel (I still am) and my fellow writers, who were mostly middle-aged women, must have taught me well. I became a technical author a year or two afterwards.
Coming from the late 1960s and early -70s space age, I regard any word starting psy- or socio- as standing for un-scientific junk automatically. However, we are undoubtedly complex psychological beings and the subconscious process that Lars undergoes in this story – as portrayed by events more than by Dagmar’s (the psychologist’s) explanations, although they make sense too – seems to me rather plausible.
In this scene, although you might need to watch the film twice to appreciate what is happening, Lars’ unconscious mind is deciding Bianca’s fate. The conscious Lars has only a vague idea of the tragedy that he has in store for himself.
Certain scenes possibly need clarifying, especially to women. (A generalisation, of course…)
Lars appears to ‘run away from women.’ Well, when Margo gives him a flower after church, he does run away. That scene represents (to me) an accurate caricature of my behaviour. Its seems to me to be underpinned by two drivers. First, a basic shyness and clumsiness with words — so Lars wants to avoid giving the impression of foolishness. Second, the need to appear not to be a show-off. This one needs some explaining because the result is usually just seen as lack of interest in the girl (according to what several women, including the real Margo, told me). Guys like me, and presumably Lars — although he has no ‘right stuff’ credentials that I can discern — are maniacal show-offs and always in danger of giving ‘big speeches’ to the adoring crowds, like fat blokes in suits sometimes do when given pay-rises by their dads. Tom Wolf explains it this way:
The world was used to enormous egos in artists, actors, entertainers of all sorts, in politicians, sports figures, and even journalists, because they had such familiar and convenient ways to show them off. But that slim young man over there in uniform. with the enormous watch on his wrist and the withdrawn look on his face, that young officer who is so shy that he can’t even open his mouth unless the subject is flying–that young pilot–well, my friends, his ego is even bigger!
— Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff, 1979
My understanding of that is that our evolutionary heritage, which we assume consisted of small enough groups of people so the girls knew what kind of guys those young men were, was weighted heavily towards ‘actions speak louder than words.’ In contrast, nowadays the males pursuing the girl are strangers with no reputation, but with instincts that assume a reputation. An example from more recent times: The bravery or otherwise of the ‘Red Indian brave’ would be already known to the girls. All that remained to him to impress them was to appear self-effacing and thoroughly reasonable.
Bianca (the doll) is described by Lars as half Brazilian and half Danish. My Lina (the maid) was made in 2006, the year before the Lars movie was released. She is supposedly half Amazon Indian and half Portuguese–like the character who inspired her in Jules Verne’s Down the Amazon–so it is possible they copied that.
Lars’ layers of clothing and his pain reaction to being touched is not true of me. It does, however, represent something real. My ‘generation’ of males do not like being touched, but I think that is just to differentiate ourselves from the proverbial fat blokes in suits. I read that the single most effective behaviour that differentiates unusually successful salesmen is their habit of cupping the client’s elbow in the palm of their hand when leading them through a doorway or whatever. (I mentioned it to some guys at work, who all laughed and shivered exaggeratedly.)
Emily, my English teacher friend (and former technical author) in North Carolina, whose questions precipitated this whole Reality check section, asks, “What is going on with him being angry for no reason at Margo?” Lars is upset that Margo has run off with Erik. By that I mean she has apparently chosen Erik in preference to Lars. In reality (this fictional representation of reality, anyway) she has placed Erik ahead of Lars simply because Erik has the social skills that ease the transition from their being work colleagues and friends to becoming sexual partners. How could any red-blooded male or anyone with a sense of right and wrong not be upset by that? In support of this understanding of the relationship between Margo, Erik, and Lars, Margo was not crying over the bear really. As she says, she argued with Erik over nothing. The implication, as I read it, is that it is because really she preferred Lars, which is why her sub-conscious spring-loaded her to argue with Erik.
The clearest-cut real life example of this that I can think of is one particular beautiful, intelligent, and amusing girl I knew who went off with another guy. I am still not over that more than 30 years later. We were on a club outing to a local nature reserve and I helped her up a slippery climb — this was after she split up with the other fellow — but, presumably because of my inability to know what to say, she said “What’s the point?” That outing was the last time I saw her.
Emily (my English teacher friend in North Carolina) observes, “He picked up the pink bowling ball?”
I did not notice the pink bowling ball. In Britain, I hear that self-styled ‘working class’ people colour-code their babies. Pink for girls, green (I think) for boys, possibly because they are expected to join the army. (My generation wore whatever rags were available I guess.) I do know that working class males (in Britain) avoid bright colours, which is one reason I wear a lot of bright colours. (Of course, by the original definition of ‘working class’, I am more working class than they are!)
Lars and the Real Girl brought the phenomenon of realistic life-size dolls to the public consciousness even more than did its predecessor, the documentary Guys and Dolls. It is an extraordinary film.
Two Biancas were created for the film. Ryan Gosling kept one and a Canadian media guru (the son of a World War 2 Spitfire pilot) bought the other from the film production company. He brought her to the annual UK doll convention in 2012 – just the face, which is easier to travel with than a whole doll. When here, Bianca borrowed my Caroline’s body.
Guns and roses, my review of Guys and Dolls, a documentary by North One Television, 2006
Lesbie Avenue, my review of the 1995 movie When Night is Falling, another left-leaning story made in Canada. (It is about lesbians and it does have some hang gliding!)
Midnight lightning in Connecticut—my review of the movie The Stepford Wives, 1975
Rebecca and friends (some of my life size dolls)
Elena Dorfman (includes the photo of Rebecca that inspired the look of Bianca in Lars and the Real Girl)
Lars and the Real Girl in Wikipedia
What would his mother say? — Matt Mueller interviews actor Ryan Gosling in The Guardian in 2008, including the quoted snippet about me.