God’s Pocket is one of the last films that Philip Seymour Hoffman made. The film finds us in a down-and-out part of New York, with down-and-out people who are never going to be anything better than they are. Except for local hack Richard Shellburn, a resident of the area who is successful enough to write pages and pages of empty words on his observations of these people which are then printed in the local paper. He romanticises their lives, these working men and their dirty faces, and how beautiful their struggle is. It’s lapped up of course, he’s lauded as a man that ‘understands’ the people, yet as the film progresses, the absurdity of the nature of it becomes more and more apparent.
Hoffman is Mickey Scarpato, a man too poor to bury his own son in the coffin that his wife so badly wants, and the lengths he goes to in order to try and resolve this are painfully degrading and undignified. The juxtaposition between Shellburn’s hyperbolic, insincere scribbles and Hoffman’s genuine humiliation makes for a pretty uneasy viewing experience. It’s far too easy (and tacky) to try and draw a comparison between the film and Hoffman’s life, how could one know after all, and there’s a lot to be said for the acknowledgement that art doesn’t always imitate life, it often does the opposite- it lies.
How fascinated we are by tragic Marilyn Monroe, or the desperate, passionate love between Burton and Taylor, two people who, when one attempts to apply any sort of reality to the little one knows about them, can’t have done anything other than make each other incredibly miserable. In Hoffman’s case, the sad truth is that somebody so talented, who brought so much to the cinematic landscape, was tortured and unhappy.
The more cynical amongst us may scoff at the idea that any of us can feel any acute sense of loss at the passing of someone we didn’t know, but by that argument, surely none of us can ever cry when watching a movie? Cinema, for the most part and at its most basic level, tells us stories about people that we don’t know. Yet it’s through the analysis of cinema that we ultimately discover some sort of truth about the world we live in, and that it itself is a deeply personal experience. People associate particular films with their real life all the time; who they saw the film with, what else happened that day, or what they were going through at that particular time in their lives. It’s why we squirm when we’re sitting with our parents during a sex scene, or why a boy chooses a romantic film to watch when trying to pluck up the courage to kiss the girl he’s sitting next to. It’s how cinema changes us.
You never analyse somebody in such intricate detail as you do when they’re gone. Perhaps the only comfort to be gained is to truly take the time to appreciate what it was about them that was so great. In Hoffman’s case he was a man of such presence, so booming and bumbling and giant, that it almost seems ridiculous that anything could take him away. He was always the best thing in his films (or in the case of Flawless, the only good thing), and cinema is certainly less rich without him.