Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe

Staring down the wrong end of the barrel of a Trump Presidency, I ran for cover into the nearest liberal safe space last night— the local art cinema. Along with current European fare that might just get the plug pulled on it by grumpy Trump tariffs, Ithaca’s best movie house serves up a varied roster of indie films, open-minded and occasionally provocative on the checklist of approved topics—gender, environment, and race.  There’s little to nothing radical in these offerings, and you’re pretty damn unlikely to bump into Tea Party types waiting in line to get a cup of fairly-traded tea before heading into your screening.

Word-of-mouth and the tiresome, but somehow tantalizing PR pieces placed in the New York Times in advance of the Academy Awards sent me to Manchester-by-the-Sea, written and directed by Manhattanite auteur Kenneth Lonergan. It turned out to be an odd choice for someone in an escapist mood more dire than the usual one that launches me towards the movies.

The two questions that kept beating me about the head and shoulders as I watched the tormented figures make their way across the screen and their broken lives were: Did these characters vote for The Donald? And if so—or for that matter, even if they voted for The Hilary, The Jill, The Gary or The No-One-At-All—, why are we being subjected to a soundtrack of suffocatingly Romantic, superpathetic, cranked-to-high-volume, hackneyed classical hits?

Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret was a critically acclaimed money-loser set in the filmmaker’s native urban habit. His latest movie migrates up the Atlantic coast from New York Yankee territory to Boston Red Sox turf (actually more often in this wintery film, Boston Bruin’s ice), from the tony precincts of the Upper West Side to the lower-middle class grit of the Massachusetts North Shore.  A crux scene in Margaret takes place in the Metropolitan Opera House with Gounod’s Damnation of Faust doing some dangerously heavy lifting on stage for Lonergan and his film’s confrontation with the trap of moral equivalence.

We don’t see the Met in Manchester-by-the-Sea, but it’s definitely there just out of frame on a massive offshore barge, and when some unseen maestro waves his baton the orchestral sound swamps the whole show like a rogue wave. Worse still, the opera house relocation job must have been done by working people like the characters in the film—and not at union scale. Call it the scab soundtrack.

These violations against labor laws and good taste don’t come at the start, however. The film’s first shots suggest seascape affluence: grey-blue winter views of yachts bobbing at anchor with freshly-painted clapboard mansions looking on from the far, snowswept shore, the opera house not yet hove into earshot. The introit is instead intoned by boy sopranos singing composer Lesley Barber’s “Manchester-by-the-Sea Chorale,” its weightless procession of puritan harmonies suspended above a shroud of sustained electronics.  An occasional dissonance troubles this opening prayer as if to conjure the stain of sin, yet the purity of the young voices is also a harbinger of the tragedy at the center of the story: with an austere beauty the credit music reminds us that we are in the ancestral lands of the puritans, and that redemption will not be had on two-day free delivery from amazon prime. Lonergan is to be praised for his resistance to the seductions of Hollywood’s default absolution narrative.

A recurring flashback takes us farther off shore to a trawler piloted by Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler) with his younger brother Lee (Casey Affleck), who’s teaching his nephew (the younger version of this character is played by Ben O’Brien) how to fish, while describing to him the marine geography. Lee points to an island and says it was bought by some “rich guy” so no one can go there now.  The boat of the Chandlers (a venerable nautical name) is separated from this hedge fund potentate’s fortress not just by leagues of open water but also by roiling class resentment.

It is right that the only music here is the leitmotiv chugging of the motor, itself an anguished, if relatively minor character in the film.

As for the opera armada: the tugs are still pushing the Met into its position within haling distance of the town. The most luscious of its sonic salvos will be fired late in the proceedings over the heads of the troubled working people on screen. It’s an overused aria from Chérubin by Jules Massenet (Massenet!) premiered in 1905 in Monte Carlo—a seaside locale about as far you can get in every way from Manchester-by-the Sea. The aria Lonergan chooses from the work is the one everyone chooses: “Lorsque vous n’aurez rien à faire.”  However ridiculously this music resonates against the lives portrayed on screen, the text (“When you have nothing to do”) is ironically appropriate for the downsized and disaffected.

But the most deafening sonic barrage comes near the midpoint of the film during Casey Affleck’s tour-de-force of acting when he vaults from numbed grief into action. Here it’s not just Gounod, not just Massenet, but Albinoni. That’s right, Albinoni!  And not just any Albinoni—but the Adagio G Minor for organ and strings. But it’s even worse than that: it’s not even really by Albinoni, but a pastiche based on a few bars of bass-line by the celebrated Venetian cooked up into a full-fledged symphony of schlock by the twentieth-century Italian critic and composer, Remo Giazotto. Hoax or not, this super soupy tear-jerker has already been shanghaied into dozens of films, among them Rollerball, Flashdance, and Gallipoli. Lonergan’s film earns the dubious accolade of making a run at Peter Weir’s World War I melodrama for most egregious use of this “classical” concoction.

In a word the “Albinoni” “Adagio” is “iconic”—a term and a tune that should have made to walk the plank long, long ago in an ocean far, far away. Even if there is no singing in the piece it corresponds to Lonergan’s apparent notion that opera is all about excesses of emotion.

While pseudo-Baroque dirge’s pizzicato bass trudged along, those questions nagged and needled ever more urgently. As a state Massachusetts went overwhelmingly for Hillary, but the electoral map shows some pockets of support for the Republican nominee, even along the North Shore.  Even Manchester-by-the-Sea went two to one for Hilary, but there were nonetheless nearly a thousand residents who voted for him. The hard-drinking, debt-ridden, working folk of this film seemed to me like they belonged to this lot of protest voters—assuming apathy didn’t keep them out fishing or bellied up to the kinds of bars we see in Manchester-by-the-Sea. They’re much more likely to listen to Springsteen, even if he is the consummate Obama entertainer. Just last week the Boss did a private acoustic concert in the White House that bookended his presidential service begun at inauguration eight years ago with his hymn “The Rising” done on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Or maybe the American Mancunians of Manchester-by-the-Sea would have favored minstrels of the Trump inaugural concert like the dreadful 3 Door’s Down and their long-ago-hit of the early 2000s, “When I’m Gone,” a song that his now been elevated by the forces of darkness to a patriotic anthem. The playlist of classical pops in Manchester-by-the-Sea sounds more like the background music for a Clinton fundraiser in one of those grand beachfront Victorians we intermittently catch sight of.

Taking many steps back from the art house screening of Manchester-by-the-Sea you realize that what you’re looking at are Democrats in their seats watching Trumpites on screen.

When I visited the town back in the 1980s it was still called Manchester, the subsequent name upgrade suggestive both of real estate [insert copy] and the kind of economic and social divisions that bring us Trump today.

Promoting the movie as he navigates towards an Oscar for Best Actor, Casey Affleck had time to tell Variety back in October that “There’s a few loudmouth idiots who make a lot of noise to make it seem like Trump has supporters … I think most people look at him and can tell he’s a dangerous fool.” The characters in Manchester-by-the-Sea don’t have a word to say about politics, but this film and its music will tell all you need to know about the present catastrophe.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at