[Ed. note: This is the 23rd in a series of essays by the @U2 staff about U2-related visuals and videos. Some essays may be informational and educational, while others may be more personal.]
Our “Like A Video” segment usually highlights a music video or live concert footage, but this month I’m thinking about a movie that features the music of U2 and a screenplay by Bono. The Million Dollar Hotel delivers themes we’ve seen repeatedly in the U2 catalog, some of which show up in their latest release, “Invisible.” Both Hotel and “Invisible” take a look at how we see other people, as well as how we see ourselves, and they both challenge our hearts and minds. Here’s a teaser to get you started.
"I can't die. I don't exist. I'm fiction." Those are the words of Eloise (Milla Jovovich) as she talks with Tom Tom (Jeremy Davies), her admirer. In Hotel, both of these characters are part of a larger group of mentally ill people who live together in a real-life theater of the absurd, while struggling to find identity and a place in the world.
The plot unfolds as FBI Special Agent Skinner (Mel Gibson) struts confidently into the hotel lobby, announcing his intent to investigate the death of Izzy, a friend of the group and fellow resident. Skinner’s aggressive investigative methods, sophisticated attitude and confident demeanor are contrasted with the hotel residents’ lack of power, authority and control over anything, especially their own destinies. They live in an invisible world, the dark underbelly of Los Angeles, unknown and unseen by the rich and powerful who conduct global financial transactions in skyscrapers just blocks away.
"Eloise moved like a shadow," Tom Tom reflects. "You could almost see right through her. I always wanted to protect her, but Izzy said, ‘Don't worry, no one can hurt her. She's not even there.’"
The context for the movie—a collection of bizarre people who yell and cuss at each other throughout—is not unlike what I have witnessed in downtown Los Angeles. The lobby of an old inner-city hotel might seem like a strange backdrop for exploring human dignity, but I find it perfectly appropriate. Then again, my vantage point is different from most.
Every spring, I lead a group of college students into the infamous Skid Row district, an area of Los Angeles defined by poverty and homelessness. We spend four days on an "urban immersion" talking to, eating with and learning from homeless people there. Consequently, I have been in the lobby of the actual Million Dollar Hotel.
Built in 1911, this once glamorous residence to stars, dignitaries and socialites fell into disrepair during the Great Depression as people with resources and money fled the downtown area. It, along with many other fashionable hotels of the early 20th century, is now derelict and home to people who have no permanent residence. They live on welfare subsidies, often have mental illness and addictions and are generally ignored. This marginalized group includes the elderly, minorities, single mothers with children, and others who have endured trauma. As strange as the movie presents life in a Skid Row hotel, and though it is a bit dramatized, it is genuine. These people, like all who are shunned, are truly invisible.
Names are an important subtext in Hotel. As Tom Tom summons enough courage to introduce himself to Eloise, he tells us, “I wanted her to know my name.” He is intuitively aware that to remain anonymous is to be unknown. About halfway through the film, he finally encounters Eloise and has a type of conversion. Soon after, he triumphantly marches into the lobby and announces to his friends, “There’s no more Tom Tom; only just, Tom.” It’s a defining moment as Tom signals a new reality. He is someone with a different name; a real name. Eloise never refers to him as “Tom Tom.” She is the one who grants him his new name. She is his liberator, his creator, his object of worship and affection.
The musical background of Hotel is rich. Many of the songs are recorded by U2 or feature members of the band along with other familiar collaborators. The soundtrack contains some of my favorite U2 songs. “Stateless,” a beautiful, haunting tune, symbolizes many of the movie’s themes:
I've got no home in this world / Just gravity, luck, and time
I've got no home in this world / Just you and you are not mine
Stateless, Weightless, Stateless.
Other songs from the film also resonate well with me. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” a Salman Rushdie poem set to music, describes a man’s passionate pursuit of a lover who is lost in a dark and lonely place. “Never Let Me Go” reminds me that life is fragile.
But the song I’m most reminded of isn’t one of U2’s older tunes. On the contrary, it’s their latest. I believe “Invisible” incorporates many of the themes found in Hotel. The act of naming as it leads to identity is clearly evident: “I finally found my real name / I won’t be me when you see me again.” Bono lets us know that his identity is greater than simply being the son of Bob Hewson (an ongoing tension that has been sung about repeatedly, especially in “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own”).
In “Invisible,” Bono and The Edge sing, “There is no them / There’s only us.” The distance between “them” and “us” grows wider because of unfamiliarity. The less we know about somebody different from us, the more fearful we might be of them. The space is greater when “they” remain unknown, unnamed and unwanted. Those we don’t understand should not be isolated; rather, they are a gift to be received with compassion and love. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” Skinner says at one point in Hotel, but I hear a different message in “Invisible”: Familiarity breeds trust.
When I listen to “Invisible,” I hear the voices of Eloise, Tom and the other residents of the hotel:
I’m more than you know / I’m more than you see here
I’m more than you let me be / I’m more than you know
A body in a soul / You don’t see me but you will
I am not invisible / I am here
How many people do we miss each day who are crying out with similar, yet silent petitions?
As Hotel comes to a conclusion, we see Izzy giving counsel to Tom during a flashback. “You’re in love with nothing,” Izzy reiterates. Tom protests, “She’s not nothing!” As the two struggle physically, the movie climaxes and Izzy fills in the missing details (spoiler alert), “I’m going to tell you what I did to her. She was nothing. I f---ed nothing.”
Both The Million Dollar Hotel and “Invisible” remind us that nobody is “nothing.” No one is irrelevant. U2 tell us, yet again, that love transforms reality and changes the world in often nearly imperceptible ways, one person at a time. The journey toward love, both as individuals and as communities, is a heroic one that is modeled not by those with power, resource and privilege, but by those who are pushed to the edges of society and go quietly unnoticed. As I grow older, I pray to have eyes that see the unseen, and ears to hear the unheard. Then, maybe I can agree with Tom, “Life is perfect. Life is the best—full of magic, beauty and surprises.”
(c) @U2/Neufeld, 2014.