Everything Is Illuminated

| September 10, 2005

Illumination And Insight At The Peninsula
*Italicized portions refer to moments spoken by Elijah Wood
For some strange and almost cosmic reason, it takes an extremely privileged individual to successfully pull off the act of smoking.
According to the Huron Indian legend, in ancient times, when the land was barren and the people were starving, the Great Spirit sent forth a woman to save humanity. As she traveled, everywhere her right hand touched the soil, there grew potatoes. And everywhere her left hand touched the soil, there grew corn. And when the world was rich and fertile, she sat down and rested. When she arose, there grew tobacco.
At present though, there was no woman ready to save humanity sitting before me. Rather, a blue-eyed Elijah Wood. Slowly sending a spiraling ring of smoke down the canals of his nostrils.
“The last Pumpkins record was such a disappointment. I mean to think of that as the band’s epitaph, a group that’s done so many great things, is just a let down.”
The young man speaks with an honest truth, and conveys a sense of pure appreciation and wonder over the topic.
With an almost ballet-like grip, his hand caresses and swings the cigarette through the open air. Leaving a discarded trail of haze as if some enigmatic ballerina had dropped it by mistake.
Gently flicking miniature cinders into a makeshift ashtray, the young man enlightens me with a barrage of music-related questions and comments. With his own label Simian Records quickly materializing, the actor takes time out to discuss his interests and desires in the field of music.
“There’s a band right now from Glasgow called Sons and Daughters. I’ve definitely started to dig them lately. They’re really unlike anything else out there.”
It is within his eyes that the true emotion can be absorbed. Seeming to be colored by a set of flamboyant watercolors, the ethereal blue gaze of this individual provides sight not only into his cinematic tastes, but his desires as a human being as well.
At present, the topic of discussion revolves around Wood’s latest effort Everything is Illuminated. Weaving together the tragic and hopeful desires of three characters, the film embarks on a quest of personal and emotional discovery. Leaving behind the chains of regret, and instead, pulling back the curtain of confusion and uncertainty.
Wood plays Jonathan Safran Foer, a young Jewish man who travels to the Ukraine in the hope of meeting the woman who saved his grandfather’s life during World War II. With thick, black-framed glasses and the kind of suit a mortician would delight in, Jonathan spends his time collecting relics from his family’s past, and gently storing them in zip lock bags.
“The opportunity to play a guy who was so still and socially awkward, neurotic and odd was really interesting to me. It was quite unlike anything I had played before.”
As Jonathan makes his way through the Ukrainian countryside, he is guided along by a young man named Alex and his grandfather .
Alex exists as a prime example of an American-influenced upbringing. His clothes could have been bought at the Sugar Hill Gang’s garage sale, and his speech combines a thick European accent with the slang, and inventiveness of an American Youth.
With his supposedly blind grandfather behind the wheel of a car, Alex leads Jonathan down the back roads of the many enchanting landscapes dotting the country. Through chance encounters and poignant revelations, the three will discover a sunken armada of feelings, facts and unfiltered emotion. Jonathan’s glasses are thick and cumbersome, but by the end of the film, the lenses have been removed, and a supposed lost sight has been given life once again.
The Jonathan character remains somewhat different than that of previous roles played by Wood. Although he has portrayed characters in a troublesome or weak state, the Jonathan character delves into issues of religion, family loyalty and the acceptance of foreign points of view. Matters which have not been tackled extensively in his previous attempts.
“I just fell in love with this story of these three people and their dog and their car, and driving through the Ukraine, and the kind of incredible comedy that came out of that situation. And ultimately the poignancy and beauty that came out of their journey. I think what drew me to the project more was the substantial differences in the characters. For me, it’s always been about putting myself in films different from the last one, and just challenging myself as an actor.”
With a variety of emotional obstacles, the Jonathan character remains sort of a polished enigma. Physically he is well groomed, and would give off the perception of being educated and particularly sophisticated. But the audience quickly learns that Jonathan’s intentions run far more deep.
Initially, Jonathan doesn’t really say much about his personal goals, other than he is searching for a woman. But as the three characters roam about the Ukrainian countryside, a library of information soon opens, and with it comes instances of comedy, adventure and certainly reflection. It is with this key that Jonathan opens up the door to his inner desires, and provides a common hope in relation to his fellow travelers. A hope that certainly paves the way for a richer understanding of life, and the pieces that hold it together.
“What is so great about the film, is that it does have at times these tremendous tonal shifts. That there can be these genuinely funny moments come out of these serious interactions. I love movies that do that. When tragedy, drama and comedy are mixed, and when they’re done right, it’s a pretty extraordinary effect. The comedy in this piece is so genuine and situational, which of course is what appealed to me because, in a sense, I really haven’t had an opportunity to participate in a lot of comedies.”
Certainly adding to the diversity in tone and feeling, is Matthew Libatique’s photography. As if creating this world from scratch with a palette of organic paints, Libatique materializes landscapes, architecture, and bodily contours with the soft bristles of the camera lens.
Eisenstein had used the steps of Odessa to showcase the cold blood and bitter brutality evoked by the thoughts and intentions of a corrupt group of individuals. But with Libatique’s eye carefully glued to the scene at hand, the stairs of Odessa turn into this garden of culture, color and most definitely rebirth. An insightful reawakening sprouts forth from the seeds planted many years ago. And with this gardener carefully attending to the soil, the audience is able to revel in the color and thematic beauty projecting before them.
“There’s just something about filming in the countryside that adds this dreamlike quality to the picture. And as the characters near the resolution, the photography, and even the story become more dreamlike. It just becomes more fantastical as each one of them reaches their own sense of self and illumination.”
In the end, one could view Everything is Illuminated as this sort of machine gun ready for warfare. With an intended target in sight, the trigger is squeezed, and thus a storm of shells go flying into the air. With such activity occurring at the moment, it is inevitable that some shells will hit, and others will fall short.
Thematically speaking, the amount of emotion both physically, mentally and verbally is tremendous. The film certainly revolves around this fascination with the past. Whether it’s simple curiosity or sincere redemption, the actions taken by the characters result in a barrage of both answered and unanswered questions. Like the machine gun, many shells will miss their target. But the few that land, can certainly have an everlasting effect on the recipient.
“I think ultimately the film is about self discovery. A connection to the past and a connection to family. And we will find a greater sense of who we really are through that sort of journey. But I also think it’s about these three characters and their connection to one another. In the beginning, they really have nothing in common. Initially the communication is broken, but by the end there’s this real connection, and I think that’s an important, beautiful aspect of the movie as well.”
The final ashes slowly float off of Elijah’s cigarette, and soon the graceful fingers plunge the butt into an inevitable and quite satisfying death.
His hypnotic blue eyes continue to manipulate my thoughts and ideas. With the mental force of a car crash, he urges me to come up with one final question. The day has been long, and like the cigarette moments earlier, he wants nothing more than to temporarily extinguish the fire within.
Amidst the lingering haze, the words suddenly come to me. “What drives you to do what you do,” I ask him. “What is it that gives you the most pleasure in life?”
Slowly leaning back in the chair and placing his hand on his chin, the young man submerses himself into reflection and thought. Moments later, it seems as if the answer has finally surfaced.
“There’s a lot of things that drive me to do what I do. Especially with acting. Loving to portray other people, and loving to be a part of the filmmaking process. It’s also about interacting with other people, and traveling and learning from those encounters and experiences. These incredibly little microcosms that sort of become your family for a short time, and that sense of unification and camaraderie of everyone having a similar goal to fulfill that vision definitely drives me.”
And with that, the questions have been laid to rest, and the interview completed. But like the newly formed haze from the cigarette, a certain unexplainable feeling still lingers. One of confidence and satisfaction. Wood has certainly challenged himself with this role. Though it is by no means a harrowing, over the top performance, it still evokes a relatable emotional intensity. A certain common intrigue that exists within everyone.
In many ways, Wood handled his role just like the cigarette. Taking in the harshness and emotional devastation of the character, and in turn spewing forth a gentle cloud of resolution. Certainly, a fire exists within this young man. And as the trail of ash falls upon the countless ashtrays, one can only assume that a fire with this much potential will burn for quite some time.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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