Sunday, September 03, 2006

“Little Miss Sunshine” and the Middle Distance

There exists that place we look to when entangled in long, deep thoughts. We don’t need to focus our eyes when looking to this place, because what we’re really looking for is beyond our gaze; what we’re seeing isn’t nearly as important as the act of looking. It’s this place, this middle distance, where we reside during those interregnums when we’re helpless to do nothing other than look, and wait, and think. The middle distance is always before us, but only announces itself at certain places: hospitals, courthouses, bedroom windows, vans during long family trips. If you’re like me and you tend to reside within your thoughts for too long, the middle distance is a hideaway, a place that allows what’s inside you to course freely and enables you to become detached from the immediate and physical surrounding you.

I reside in the middle distance frequently, but some times have stood out more than others. I lost myself in a gaze during the drive to the airport on the way to my grandmother’s funeral. My many trips up and down and across this country were spent almost entirely within the middle distance. And it became very sharp and up close while I waited on a bench at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse on the angrily cold January morning of my divorce.

Some of the most arresting images from “Little Miss Sunshine” are the scenes when the ensemble is in the VW van, each character’s eyes gazing into that haze. Somewhere beyond the middle distance might lie relief to the emotional burdens that weigh down the Hoover family. By the time they are traveling from Albuquerque to Redondo, we know what ails everyone, and before we come to the resolutions that await them, these scenes in the van wordlessly communicate the woe those ails engender. They’re striking images to me because they beautifully evoke that inevitable melancholy that descends on travelers during long periods of silent waiting.

I could create a long checklist of elements in “LMS” that evoke moments from my life, but those interludes in the van are some of the most piercing. “LMS” is structured straightforwardly: the characters make plain their problems, embark on a journey toward solving those problems, and finally resolve those problems or at least address them and put them in perspective. The movie’s everlasting success is in the sublime execution of this structure. By the time the Hoovers are rattling across Interstate 40, I understand the challenges facing each character. But it’s those scenes spent in the middle distance when I actually feel what they were trying to conquer.

The middle distance and the concentrated self that is encountered there is proof that there’s something in each of us that can’t be completely revealed to the outside world. And, to some of us, the allure of the middle distance threatens to permanently envelop and arrest us, creating withdrawn figures who shuffle on through the outside world but don’t truly exist in it. The joyous revelation of “Little Miss Sunshine” is when the Hoovers finally break into their shared world and realize the strength and elation of communal triumph. There’s no doubt that by movie’s end the characters still have material problems, but they’ve at least experienced the jolt of looking each other in the eye rather than peering into that place either just before or right after the horizon.


btrain said...

Good post.

Pat said...


I agree.

And I also liked the part about the grandfather and the porno.

Hud said...

I liked how you had your hands down your pants the whole time we were watching it. Then we were like, "Craig, knock it off." And you're like, "This is who I am" and some nonsense about middle age or distance or something.

Craig said...

He's right, I said it: "This is who I am."

You have to let Craig be Craig.

Deuce said...

Gaines, you probably don't know that I once wrote a play called "The Middle Distance." It's about some old men at the Nate & Al's deli. Why am I writing this in your blog?