Let Them All Talk About The Past

Like our partially improvised subject today, this personal review will have all its pieces laid out as if on the table in a neat little order that doesn’t make sense at first, and then it will hurriedly wrap itself into a semi-coherent bow. Let’s fast forward past the film a bit.

Let Them All Talk is an HBO Max Original film. When I finished it, I knew I had something to say about it, but like Meryl Streep’s Alice, I needed time to chew over how to put it into words. As I thought about the themes of this film, I scrolled through the bountiful offerings the streaming deities have gifted us with and I chose the 2018 documentary Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind. While my expectations were set to ‘easy watching’ and the film did not disappoint, it also painted a beautiful portrait of the actor Robin Williams, leading up to and exploring his impact post mortem. While it wasn’t a groundbreaking documentary by any standard, nor did it rank as anything particularly spectacularly, it tickled the tear ducts in my eyes and buzzed the back of my head just enough to gift me the words I needed.

(I assure you: we’ll get back to Let Them All Talk in a moment.)

Come Inside My Mind ends with a scene from yet another film, Dead Poets Society. The Robin Williams character’s famous lines about taking advantage of the life you have effectively (if in a cheesy fashion) communicate something about the actor’s life as a whole. To us, his audience, the people he touched, it seemed he lived his life as a true execution of that motto “carpe diem”. Seize the day. His work has and will continue to be invested in by generations of fans that will look to him in their dark, celebratory, or even easy-watching moments for a chuckle, a tear, and a “Nanu Nanu”.

Let Them All Talk thematically concerns itself with time’s effects on our relationships with one another. The main characters all find themselves having outgrown what they want and trying to salvage a bit of the past to give it to them. Roberta (Bergen) spends most of the film pursuing men who she supposes want younger women, and the rest of it ranting about how Alice is actually the cause of her current situation. Susan (Wiest) is doing her best to mend and rebuild her old friendships, feeling antiquated and unsophisticated in the world of literature surrounding her. Karen (Chan) is the character who most headfirst seems to dive into this theme; the theme becomes both most pointed and most dull when she rants about needing to have kids at this point in her life. Additionally, her whole motivation is getting an author to write a sequel to a very successful book. The past must literally be mined for the present.

Of course then we arrive at Alice, the woman of mystery played brilliantly by Meryl Streep. While an argument against her being the main character shivers in the shadow of her on-screen presence, there is too little time spent looking through her eyes. What she wants out of the past remains a mystery, although we do know she is writing a sequel to one of her many novels and highly reveres Blodwyn Pugh, an invented author from the 1800s. What little humility that I can afford as a film critic implores me to admit that I do not completely understand her character myself. The film takes great care to never enter her perspective until the very end, and it is then that we are treated to the oddest montage of this otherwise very classically classy picture. It’s alright though, because I don’t think that unraveling her character is the movie’s concern.

Instead, the film communicates to us through the eyes of an instantly identifiable character: the everyman. Tyler (Hedges), barely feels like more than another camera lens the audience is looking through. Lenses are hard to craft even if they’re just glass to look through, but Lucas Hedges gives a fairly good performance that allows our projections as he becomes the main way we unravel the mystery of Alice. We only know as much as he does, and Soderbergh’s cinematography enforces this. The final cruise dinner scene where Alice and Roberta’s tension starts to unravel is almost entirely composed of close-ups of Tyler’s rather blank reactions. Streep’s swimming scenes, in which Tyler is not even present, show her mysterious man from afar but never contain interactions with him until after Tyler confronts him. Her secrets are revealed to us as he learns them, and after the climax of the film, his desire for closure is the new driving force of the film until the last shot of his crying face of acceptance.

It is right before that final shot that we are treated to Alice’s voice talking about what a gift it is that Blodwyn Pugh was able to shape her thoughts from across time and after her death, using her brilliance from the past to shape a bit of the present. It is here that the film’s thesis becomes a bit clearer. As Susan reminded her two arguing friends at dinner, it was not worth living in the past and trying to resurrect it in order to beat it for its wrongdoings nor to wring it out for what ifs. Instead, the temporary nature of life presented in the film makes the fact that the good parts of the past touch us at all a true miracle.

I will always cherish Robin Williams as a great comedian and actor, as all his work continues to meet my consciousness. This way I feel about a lot of great artists from screen, stage, and scribbling. They may have troubled lives, or been gone too soon. But these things aren’t worth digging up and dwelling upon. What matters for the art’s sake is the fact that these people were able to touch us at all through it. As Alice says, that is a miracle. The relationship we have with each other and with the artists we let play with our thoughts is a miracle. Never let us forget that when we get tied up with the drama of it all.

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