Across the world today, our actions testify to our belief that we can go on like this forever, burning oil, poisoning the seas, killing off other species, pumping carbon into the air, ignoring the ominous silence of our coal mine canaries in favor of the unending robotic tweets of our new digital imaginarium.”
― Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
There are a growing number of humans alive today who are starting to figure out just how screwed we are. Most of us don’t want to know. Many of us defiantly resist the science that tells us we’re heading into the last gasp of not only our own species, but quite possibly the sixth extinction of life as we know it on earth. Our pretty blue planet is custom-built for life to thrive. It is an extremely rare planet and we’re incredibly lucky to have it. But if estimates are correct, we’re headed for a much hotter planet, one that will render large areas uninhabitable, swallow up coastal cities, and cause unpredictable chaos in our biology. No one knows just how bad it will get, but at the rate we’re going we’re not even going to bother trying to prevent one of the possible scenarios: total catastrophe.
What to do with this knowledge? Make an attempt to reverse things? Save the animals? Save the ocean? Or you can be one of those people who pretends you care because you buy gluten-free organic detergent and you felt the Bern. But you know, you still eat meat, you still drive, you still fly, you still use your cell phone and your computer and your electricity. We all do. Individually it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you think about the future, the numbers, the potential for a planet of 11 billion — that’s when things start to get tricky.
What I loved about Beatriz at Dinner, directed by Miguel Arteta and written by Mike White (their third collaboration as filmmakers), is that it does not give easy answers but simply presents two extremes. On one side of that equation sits Beatriz (a brilliant Salma Hayek), who feels everything, sees everything through the eyes of an empathetic healer. Her compassion is so strong she finds the world in its current state, and all of the pain and suffering herein, unbearable. On the other side sits Doug Strutt (an equally brilliant John Lithgow) who sees everything, knows a lot, but he just doesn’t care. Doug Strutt is the guy who would hit a deer and keep driving. Beatriz is the woman who would hit a deer and spend the rest of her life in agony over it.
Caring too deeply or not caring at all. The party guests represent those who dwell somewhere in between, as most of us do. The reason it’s a choice is because the people watching the film are likely going to be those who mostly live lives of privilege. They (we) watch the film believing ourselves to be Beatriz. But we don’t want to acknowledge the parts of ourselves that are Doug Strutt. And that is perhaps where this film holds its true power — it holds up a mirror and it’s your choice to look into it or not.
The two find themselves facing off in an unlikely circumstance when Beatriz’s beater car breaks down in the driveway leaving her no way to get home, and Cathy, the wealthy woman of the house (Connie Britton) invites her to dinner and eventually to stay the night. As the dinner guests arrive, it becomes increasingly clear that Beatriz is not welcome in this world. She is tolerated as long as she knows her place, hides in the shadows, and speaks only when spoken to. But when she speaks to them as though she is their equal that’s when things get very very awkward. Before long, these party guests want to be rid of her.
The conflict is that this is southern California and Beatriz is from Mexico. Although the class differences here often have to do with occupation (caterers, maids, waitresses are not equal to party guests, for instance) being Mexican often puts you in a different “invisible” class among the rich. So to see a woman like Beatriz mingling with the moneyed folk is an interesting juxtaposition on its own, but probably for Californians it hits home harder.
Many of the reviews I read revolve mostly around this aspect of the film, the class struggle, and thus saw it as a cliché. Maybe they believed it was just about that — a Mexican women among rich white people. But Beatriz at Dinner only starts there. It eventually becomes a stand-off of two different ways to view the modern conundrum: care or not care. If you care, then what? You’re in for a world of misery because no matter what you do as a Beatriz there will be many more Strutt’s negating it.
Just like the film itself, the human experience — to be alive every day — is to be part of a conundrum. We want to feel good about ourselves, to do the right thing. But how many of us do? How many of us can? And even if we could, how could we stop other people? We know that we can’t. For all of the ways India and China are making changes to combat climate change, the United States, among the biggest — if not the biggest — polluter in the world charges ahead, prepared to take and take and take and crap it all out. What then must we do?
The truth is that we will not stop until nature stops us. We’ll be shrugged off the planet like the parasites we are someday. Carl Sagan said that 99% of everything that has ever been alive has gone extinct. As Strutt says in the film, we all die, everything dies – “the elephants are dying, the bees are dying. Why not just enjoy ourselves?” And to an extent, Lithgow is right. Beatriz probably knows he’s right too: that we have come to far too turn back, that our very natures we are pleasure-seeking creatures with no limits.
I would like to say that Beatriz at Dinner offers some hope. But it does not. What it does offer is clarity, a perspective shift. A chance for the viewer to maybe look at both extremes and really think about where they fit on the spectrum. It tells the truth. The best kind of art does.
Compassion and sensitivity are burdens in a world of indulgences because everything hurts all of the time. A dead dog hurts. Sharks whose fins are cut off and left alive on the ocean floor hurts. The way things are going, the way we are, the way enough is never enough — all of it hurts. So what to do with all of that pain?
With similar shades of white privilege being debated in this film and in Jordan Peele’s superb Get Out, there is no escaping the current state of politics with either. Trump’s election heightens the deeper associations in both. While Get Out takes a surrealist approach, Beatriz at Dinner is more directly confrontational. But both operate on a metaphoric level. We need a name for this brand of cinema.
This film, unlike Get Out, offers no end relief for the viewer. This is a bleak reality of the human condition, with a choice to be made. That choice is to do what you can however you can, or to do nothing. There has never been a better time to make that choice than right now. Maybe it’s a matter of choosing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness over the preservation of the natural world and the vulnerable life forms within it.
Beatriz at Dinner was not the most buzzed film out of the Sundance Film Festival – Call Me By Your Name and Mudbound were the most talked about. But this film, I believe, is better than the reviews would have you believe. It does require a deeper appraisal than the one most seem to see at first glance: just another screed against Donald Trump. It’s more than that. But John Lithgow is a well-oiled machine of an actor — this performance, among many great ones by him, is up there with the best of them. Salma Hayek has never been better. She’s never been more stripped down, raw, and in touch with a character like Beatriz. With a different actress, the film might have been quirky enough to keep the audience at a distance. With Hayek, her plain, unflinching stare, her refusal to see herself as a second class citizen or to see class at all, is one of the more compelling portraits of women who dwell in our world everyday — women who would change your life if you ever crossed paths with them, but also women who, to most of the world, are invisible.