Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sly on Church

"You need to have the exdpertise and the guidance of someone else. You cannot train yourself. I feel the same way about Christianity and about what the church is: The church is the gym of the soul."

Sylvester Stallone

Saturday, January 27, 2007

USHPIZIN


USHPIZIN (2004, Israel, Giddi Dar, Shuli Rand screenplay)
I didn't prepare for guests.
What can I do? Do we run the world? God sent guests to our succah. Should we send them away? They'll wash hands and bless the food. They'll sit in a succah, maybe for the first time ever! Does it get any better than that?
You're all glowing.
Like a torch. I feel that we are about to receive abundance from Heaven.


It's not the miracle that matters. It's the woman's face: grinning, rapt, her eyes shining, dancing and singing in her plain and cramped apartment, she radiates joy. She's in love. With God.

Her husband comes in from the street and stops the tape player. She turns to him. "Moshe, you saint, God loves you so much!" Their desperate prayers have been answered, but it's not the thousand dollars slipped under their door in an anonymous envelope that's the blessing – it's the sure and certain knowledge that they are loved by God.

When actors find their way into a character, their starting point and ending point is the character's deepest need: "What am I fighting for?" What's the precise shape of the hole at the centre of this character? We call it the super-objective: the need, the hunger, the ache, the grail, the image of the way things have to be, that draws the character forward, causes them to initiate the events of the story, dictates the ways they will respond. A character cannot rest until they have it: once they have it, or know they can never have it, or realize that what they thought they were seeking wasn't really what they wanted, the play is over.

Apply the question to your own life, and the "right answer" for every Christian will be "God" – all our yearnings are ultimately satisfied only in God. The hole at our centre – at the centre of every human being – is God-shaped, and nothing else will fill it. Why, then, can I think of no other film whose characters' every action is so clearly motivated by that one overarching desire: to experience, to know the love of God.

Radically Orthodox members of Jerusalem's Breslau hassidic community, Moshe and Malli Belanga are poor as synagogue mice. He's called "rabbi," but it's obviously not a paid position – think "Bible school student" on a very meager scholarship. They want for many things they cannot afford: some food in their bare refrigerator; a succah, one of the temporary plywood dwellings their neighbours are all building in the courtyard of the apartment complex, for the seven-day celebration of Succoth, the Feast of Tabernacles; ushpizin, holy guests to stay with them during the feast; the Four Species, to make blessings – date-palm branches, myrtle, willow, and especially citron, for the special blessing of children, which they yearn for above all. Above all except God himself, and His love.

We have seen religious films whose climax is a miracle: the characters' deepest desires are finally fulfilled when God provides. Even those of us who know that miracles do happen can be let down but such literal deus ex machina – sure God intervenes, sometimes, but is that any way to tie up a plot? USHPIZIN takes the opposite strategy: the miracles happen right near the beginning. They initiate the action. In answer to prayer (some of the most gloriously fervent, heart-felt, unabashedly human prayer you'll ever see on screen) God starts the ball rolling. It's the consequences of His action, the choices and crises that flow out of His blessings, that this movie is most interested in. Me too.

Reviewers frequently refer to the film, which as far as I can tell is universally praised, as a "fable" or "fairy tale." I know what they mean, and I don't. It does have the simplicity and directness of an ancient story, its two righteous (or aspiring-to-be-righteous) protagonists fitting well with a long line of hasidic tales and instructive parables. But I think it's also more than that.

For one thing, there's real meat on the bones of these characters, they're recognizable, flawed humans, not just symbols in a moral illustration. I know these people. Sometimes, I am these people.

The other thing. If your real world is one where miracles don't happen, where prayers aren't answered, perhaps one where people don't really even pray or experience the love of God in any way as tangible as money in an envelope or the provision of a house (however temporary), then this story can be seen as nothing but a magical tale, wishful thinking, as quaint and artificial as fantasies about fairies, enchantments and talking animals. No wonder they feel uncomfortable seeing USHPIZIN as anything bigger than a fable.

But if your real world is a world of prayers answered and unanswered, of both poverty and provision, of inexplicable miracles alongside unresolvable trials, USHPIZIN is anything but a fable: in fact, it may feel like life itself, truer than scores of films where God is only absent, or silent, or cruel.

God doesn't always answer prayers with a miracles, but sometimes He does: USHPIZIN is the story of one of those times. But it's not the miracle that matters: it's what comes after.


Available at Videomatica
Nice write-ups at Greencine (David D'Arcy) and Movies Matter (Ken Morefield)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

THE SPITFIRE GRILL

THE SPITFIRE GRILL (1996, USA, screenplay and direction by Lee David Zlotoff)
You suppose if a wound goes so deep, the healing of it might hurt as bad as what caused it?

This well-meaning little film really works for lots of people. It won the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival. The curious thing is how badly it misfires for those of us who don't fall under its spell.

It's the story of a young woman released from prison who sets out to make a new start in Gilead, a town she's only read about – a town at least as wounded as she is, ever since the local golden lad left for Vietnam, never to be seen again. She gets a room above the local eatery and when the proprietress suffers a nasty fall, ends up running the place – at first badly, then very well indeed once she's joined by the town's other lovely outcast.

Financed by a Catholic aid organization in Mississippi (Gregory Productions, the fundraising arm of The Sacred Heart's League) and directed by Jewish director David Zlotoff (who describes himself as "extremely religious"), the film doesn't deal explicitly with religion, apart from one character who takes refuge in the dying town's boarded-up church, and another who gets off by herself in the hills to sing "There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole…" But the story is packed (too packed?) with redemptive themes, and New England character names lend Old Testament overtones: from Hannah, who grieves for a son, to Nahum, namesake of the pessimist who prophesied "nothing can heal your wound: your injury is fatal." In the tension between Gilead's balm and Nahum's curse lies the dramatic premise of the film.

The photography – of the quaint New England town and the wooded hills surrounding – is undeniably beautiful. Too beautiful: I kept thinking this was an ad for life insurance or the Vermont travel bureau. The acting is generally praised, even by those who aren't sold on the movie, but to my taste even the strongest performance – Alison Elliott in the central role, bringing something like Jody Foster's scrappy winsomeness – is undermined by affectation. Nobody here could be mistaken for a human being: I could never forget these were movie characters.

For this viewer, there's too much of everything: too much prettiness, too much acting, and far too much plot. I don't want to bully this sweet little film by dwelling on its narrative excesses, and I certainly don't want to put you off seeing it if you might find yourself one of its many enthusiastic fans. If you're the sort whose critical vocabulary tends toward words like "sentimental," "contrived" or "predictable," skip it – you'll wear out your thesaurus. But if you're okay with the occasional Hallmark TV movie, or can overlook their shortcomings enough to love heart-felt movies like, say, RETURN TO ME or SAVING GRACE (the pope one, not the dope one), you should maybe consider hunting down THE SPITFIRE GRILL. There's a thin purple line between sentiment and sentimentality: your affection or distaste for this film will be determined by where you draw that line.

BAGDAD CAFÉ, FRIED GREEN TOMATOES


Available at Videomatica

Saturday, January 20, 2007

THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU


THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU ("Moartea domnului Lazarescu," 2005, Romania, written and directed by Cristi Puiu)
It's a problem of mortality.

Dante Remus Lazarescu lives alone with his cats. He drinks more than he should, more than he admits. When it comes time to die, he is shunted from hospital to hospital by an endless series of health professionals – all of them brusque and exhausted, some of them concerned about this old man and his pain, others concerned more for their status in the professional pecking order or their legal liability.

Filmed with a hand-held camera and never a moment of melodrama in a succession of dreary apartments, ambulances and hospital rooms, the film is unrelenting in its stark realism. Yet this is in subtle tension with a layer of quite intentional (if sometimes ironic) mythic and Christian symbols – the director calls them signs – that suggest this Dante is descending into a kind of hell, a Lazarus who will die alone, waiting in vain for someone to bring life.

At two hours and forty minutes, it's a harrowing journey, as we stand by, helpless witnesses to the breakdown of Mr Lazarescu's body and mind. Harrowing, but humanizing: this fading old man can do little to earn our affection, yet his pain, his weakness, his fleeting moments of dignity stir us to compassion. People travel across continents to spend time with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, simply to be with the poor and lonely as they die, and often those people come away tranformed. This film offers us a similar opportunity.

THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU is a memento mori, a reminder of death, like the skulls medieval scholars kept close at hand to remember their small and mortal place in the grand order of things. G.K. Chesterton wrote that there must be priests to remind us that one day we will die. Writer-director Cristi Puiu is such a priest, believing – in the face of all the human imperfection and isolation he observes so unflinchingly – that "there is a God who created a perfect world," where "everything is related to everything." This sad, raw film is the sacrament he offers, a remembrance of suffering and death that has the power to quicken our divine humanity.


Available at Videomatica

pan's labyrinth (notes)

Next to SON OF MAN, my top movie of 2006. Bowled over. I'm thrilled that it's caught people's attention, continues on at arthouse and multiplex alike. Huge imagination, visually brilliant fantasy (or supernatural?) world juxtaposed against atrocities of the all-too-real Spanish civil war - and ultimately, for me, very close to the heart of the gospel.

A girl on the verge of womanhood experiences two interconnected worlds, the real-world horrors of the last days of the Spanish civil war and another, subterranean world that may be fantasy, or may be a deeper reality. The brutal real-world violence (and comparable below-ground terrors) are far removed from the pain porn of HOSTEL or its ilk: this visionary film earns the right to show us the dark side of human behaviour with its commitment to showing the courage and sacrifice that counter-balance. Film-maker Guillermo del Toro identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic, but takes pains to clarify that that's "not quite the same thing as an atheist," and that distinction doesn't surprise me - this film gave me one of the most extraordinary glimpses of Eternity I can recall. It's become an annoying commonplace these days to label films (usually sentimental ones) "redemptive": which usually just means "don't worry, it ends happy." But redemption is a far more exacting, sacred, and potent word than that: PAN'S LABYRINTH is the rare film that can truly claim that descriptor.

Here are some notes I've gathered from here and there. Of course, best thing is for you to see the movie first, THEN read the notes. But if you need further prompting...

Darrel Manson:
"The most theologically interesting film of the year."

Mark Kermode, Sight & Sound:
"The film of the year.. a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema, a masterpiece made entirely on his own terms.…
It's an epic, poetic vision in which the grim realities of war are matched and mirrored by a descent into an underworld populated by fearsomely beautiful monsters - a transformative, life-affirming nightmare which is, for my money, the very best film of the year. …
del Toro: "Ofelia is a "princess who forgot who she was and where she came from", who progresses through the labyrinth to emerge as a promise that gives children the chance never to know the name of their father - the fascist. It's a parable, just as The Devil's Backbone was a parable of the Spanish Civil War. I was also trying to uncover a common thread between the "real world" and the "imaginary world" through one of the seminal concerns of fairy tales: choice. It's something that has intrigued me since Cronos, through Hellboy and now to Pan's Labyrinth: the way your choices define you. And I thought it would be great to counterpoint an institutional lack of choice, which is fascism, with the chance to choose, which the girl takes in this movie."
del Toro is a divided soul, a realist attuned to the strange vibrations of the supernatural, a lapsed Catholic ('not quite the same thing as an atheist') with an interest in sacrifice and redemption who turned down the chance to direct The Chronicles of Narnia because he 'wasn't interested in the lion resurrecting'. Crucially, like the artistic refugees from Franco's Spain who first inspired him, the writer-director considers himself an exile from his home country, Mexico, not least because of the 1997 kidnapping of his father, at the height of a vogue for such ransomed abductions. He was released after 72 days. "'I was 33,' el Toro recalls. 'The perfect age to be crucified! I had lived my life believing two things - that pain should not be sought, but, by the same token, it should never be avoided, because there is a lesson in facing adversity. Having gone through that experience, I can attest, in a non-masochistic way, that pain is a great teacher. I don't relish it, but I learn from it. I always say, even as an ex-Catholic, that God sends the letter, but not the dictionary. You need to forge your own dictionary."
'It would be a cliche to say that, because I am a Mexican, I see death in a certain way. But I have seen more than my share of corpses, certainly more than the average First World guy. I worked for months next to a morgue that I had to go through to get to work. I've seen people being shot; I've had guns put to my head; I've seen people burnt alive, stabbed, decapitated ... because Mexico is still a very violent place. So I do think that some of that element in my films comes from a Mexican sensibility.'
"Shooting Pan's Labyrinth was very painful, but it also became a war about me not compromising. I gave back my entire salary in order to get the film made the way I wanted it. I probably should have abandoned it the moment the funding fell through the first time, but I stuck with it for almost two-and-a-half years and refused to back down. It's the first time in the six movies I've directed where I've said: I'm doing this one my way, no matter what. Financiers ran out on me and everyone involved in my career was saying it was the biggest mistake I could make. But I'm very happy with the result. And for me, nothing will be the same again."...
The key inspiration for Pan's Labyrinth was a slim volume published in 1891: Edwin Sidney Hartland's The Science of Fairy Tales: An Enquiry into Fairy Mythology , which "classified fairytales, and their oral origins, and broke down the recurring myths - the myth of choice; the ritual of not eating or drinking while you're in the fairy world; facing very often a figure like the frog. I took all these things and came up with the story of Pan's Labyrinth . The psychosexual interpretation is, of course, much more modern, but I find it very reductive. For me, Pan's Labyrinth is a dark fairytale in the classic sense. The settings of Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and Oscar Wilde were incredibly brutal: Hansel and Gretel were two children abandoned in the woods in the middle of a famine to die of hunger and cold. But you need to know the brutality for the reality of the magic to happen. That's why the war made such a perfect backdrop."
He also wrestled briefly with the ill-fated Exorcist prequel Dominion (aka Exorcist: The Beginning ), the prospect of which appealed to his lapsed-Catholic sensibility. "One of the most important movies in my life, emotionally," he says, "is William Peter Blatty's Twinkle, Twinkle "Killer" Kane [aka The Ninth Configuration ]. It's a movie about redemption through sacrifice and the giving of your blood to save others that speaks to the soul of somebody who believes in a messiah. It deals with the fragility of faith, which is essential to Blatty's work - how faith is almost intangible and yet incredibly strong. And I think it affected me because, although I am no longer a Catholic, I share the belief that there is a state of grace that can be reached not through moral purity but through almost ethical purity - by being yourself and being immune to the world. It's a little ascetic, but it's essentially the thesis of Cronos . In that film the girl who does not mind dying is the truly immortal character. And the character played by Federico Luppi becomes immortal at the moment he decides to die, the moment he says: 'Fuck it, I don't want to kill my granddaughter.' Immortality doesn't mean you live longer; it means you are immune to death. I think that's the same thing that occupies Blatty: faith, the state of grace, immortality, redemption. And these are things that are important for me too." These themes are central to Pan's Labyrinth , the climax of which becomes an epiphany of sacrifice and rebirth.

"opus," in his "twitchfilm" blog entry about the Toronto International Film Festival:
"Guillermo del Toro's much-anticipated dark fable, Pan's Labyrinth, was very well received by an afternoon audience at the Toronto International Film Festival today. The film, which played at the historic Elgin Theater to a packed house, garnered a lengthy standing ovation, amid shouts of "Bravo!", "Encore!", and "Viva Guillermo!"
A&F participant and blogger "opus":
Even the fairy tale segments get pretty dark and spooky... As with the real world violence, I think this just serves to further impress that there is something truly at stake in the heroine's quests; there is evil out there that needs to be vanquished, not glorified and exalted, and I appreciated the film for that. Obviously, I won't spoil the ending, but there is a cost to facing down evil and it is a heavy one.
In this day and age where the term "fairy tale" has become synonymous with cleaned up, whitewashed, Disney-fied "family entertainment", it's easy to forget that many of the great classic fairy tales are, at their core, incredibly dark, twisted, and horrific. The villains are not merely poor, misguided souls who but need a little tolerance or political correctness to turn over a new leaf. Rather, they are vile through and through, not above torturing little children, abandoning them in the wilderness, and planning to serve them for dinner.
In order for there to be hope, there must be something to hope against. And in order for evil to be vanquished -- not merely understood or tolerated, but outright destroyed -- a heavy price must always be paid. It all adds up to a film that successfully draws you into a world of magic, repulses you with brutality and evil, and ends on a lyrical note that is as haunting and beautiful as it is tragic and emotional.

Jeffrey Overstreet:
"This is the feeling that was missing from Wardrobe." Not that I think Wardrobe should have been so creepy, but the fantasy world felt REAL, and living, and unpredictable, and strange... a true wonderland. And Aslan's presence in Wardrobe doesn't even register on the scale compared to Pan. I mean, I didn't doubt Pan's presence for a moment, whereas watching Aslan I sat there thinking about how oddly unconvincing his animation was.
"This film would probably have delighted Tolkien and Lewis, who believed that fairy tales—even dark and troubling myths like this one—serve to help us explore spiritual mysteries and apprehend the reality of grace as it glimmers through a glass, or in this case a screen, darkly. Pan's Labyrinth is a parable so profound it's like the gospel masquerading in a mysterious disguise."
"The film speaks to me about the power of myth, and how myth and reality are intertwined. But its clear to me that the "real world" in Del Toro's story is itself a simplification... and I doubt he would deny that. The whole thing is a "fairy tale" that comments on aspects of the real world. I have boxes full of stories that I wrote when I was a kid, and when I read them, they don't make much sense, but I can find *some* things that correlate to things I was struggling with, or convictions I held, or tests I was going through. I'm fascinated with that subject, and I found Pan's Labyrinth to be enthralling. Del Toro is still a kid in a lot of ways... he strikes me as such in his interviews, and his storytelling shows he's much more adept telling fairy tales than he is with portraying a complex "adult" reality. In films where he deals with both, he ends up giving us a child's perspective on reality... big, frightening, and arranged in much simpler categories than a more mature perspective would present."

Doug Cummings:
"For me, it was a strong corrective to Children of Men in so many ways: the violence was never a thrill ride but always a moral issue; the film contains warm and inspiring human characters as well as neutral or dark and destructive ones; the film's warfare is rooted in actual human existence (in this case, the historical battle between Facists and the Reds) involving real issues; it's a multilayered and superbly constructed double narrative with a thematic depth that only grows the more you think about it afterward. And its performances and technical credentials are just as stellar as CoM. In short, if you want to see a thoughtful fantasy film by a hugely talented Mexican filmmaker this year, this is the one to see."

Best Films Of 2006: Arts & Faith Tally

When the end-of-year windfall of watchable movies begins, I start keeping track of people's year-end lists to come up with ideas for what I want to see. Because the folks at the Arts & Faith conversation board have been friends for years, fellow film fans as well as people who are interested in the spiritual aspects of what they see, I go out of my way to compile their year-end lists as they emerge between the beginning of December and the end of February - it takes that long for some of the best films to reach our various towns, or to track down the dvds.

Anyhow, here's the latest tabulation of A&F Top Tens (or twenties, or mores...)
Titles in blue are available on dvd at Videomatica: boldfaced titles are currently showing in Vancouver: check out NOW PLAYING: Big Screens for details

1 United 93
2 New World
3 The Departed
4 The Queen
5 L'Enfant
6 Babel
7 Sophie Scholl
8 Little Miss Sunshine
9 Children Of Men
10 Death of Mr Lazarescu

11 Casino Royale
12 Little Children
13 Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
14 Pan's Labyrinth
15 Science of Sleep
16 The Fountain
17 Inside Man
18 A Scanner Darkly
19 When The Levees Broke
20 Pirates: Dead Man's Chest

21 Climates
22 The Prestige
23 49 Up
23 Thank You For Smoking
25 Tsotsi
26 A Prairie Home Companion
27 Requiem
27 Borat
29 Proposition
30 Brick

31 Akeelah and the Bee
32 Army Of Shadows
33 Ushpizin
34 An Inconvenient Truth
35 Still Life
36 Half Nelson
37 Woman On The Beach
38 Syndromes & A Century
39 Black Dahlia
40 Colossal Youth

41 Shut Up And Sing
42 Superman Returns
42 Hamaca Paraguaya
44 World Trade Center
45 Volver
45 Lady In The Water
47 Water
48 Hawaii, Oslo
49 Joyeux Noel
50 Forgiving Dr Mengele

into great silence

Mar 27 update: new review up at CT Movies

Nice piece at NY Times.

This was right next to SON OF MAN at the top of my wish-list for VIFF 06, but I didn't buy fast enough and got turned away at the door. Can you imagine: an almost entirely silent three-hour film about a Carthusian monastery, and you can't get a ticket for love nor money?

Well, it runs at the Vancouver International Film Centre (VanCity Theatre) this coming week! Monday Jan 22, Tuesday Jan 23 and Thursday Jan 25 at 7:15. There's a trailer at the film's German website.

And, as timely as John the Baptist, Steven Greydanus posts the following at A&F;

Philip Groening's Into Great Silence is one of those rare films that I hardly know how to begin to praise.

As a rather feeble point of departure, I saw nothing released in 2006 that I would venture to compare to it, in terms of achievement. Perhaps even nothing released in the few years I've been writing reviews. A shortlist of most valued films I've seen as new releases in my critical life might include The Son, The Passion of the Christ, Spirited Away, and a few others. This film is of a different order than any of these, or any I might add to the list.

Into Great Silence is more than just a documentary of monastic life. It is a contemplative, transcendent meditation on the human pursuit of meaning, on man as a religious and social creature; on the form and function of symbols and ritual and tradition; on the rhythm of work and prayer, day and night, winter and spring.

The film offers an implicit challenge, not so much to the trappings of modernity (modern technology crops up here and there in the monks' world, occasionally to humorous effect), as to the spiritual disconnectedness and social fragmentation of a world in decay, to the postmodern incapacity for commitment and sacrifice, to the dissonance and haphazardness of life as we know it.

Among names from Bresson to Vermeer that floated through my head while watching it, Kierkegaard came to mind:
The present state of the world and the whole of life is diseased. If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today. And even if it were blazoned forth with all the panoply of noise so that it could be heard in the midst of all the other noise, then it would no longer be the Word of God. Therefore create Silence.
This film creates silence. Not just absence of noise, but inner stillness.

There are the kind of long, static takes beloved of many cinephiles here (and which I appreciated here as perhaps in no other film). The quiet of the monastery reaches out into the theater: the creaking of monstery floorboards, the creaking of theater seats.

But it's more than that. The movie is not just about comparative quiet; it bears witness to a silence that embodies purpose, seeking, openness, discipline, faith, commitment. It is silence that is avowed. No voiceover narrative tells us why. No intertitle explanations (except brief excerpts from the Old and New Testaments and from other traditional sources). No interview footage (except for one brief, remarkable little meditation from a blind monk, on happiness, abandonment to God's providential care, and the tragedy of the loss of faith and meaning in the modern world). The silence isn't absolute, but it gives meaning to the words, rather than the other way around.

Ultimately, Into Great Silence reveals itself to be about nothing less than the presence of God. So many films are about God's absence. This film is about a God who is there, who can be found, when he is sought with our whole hearts.

The film makes no apology for the monks' dogmatic Christian milieu; the first sustained speech in the film is a chanted excerpt from a patristic treatise on the Holy Spirit, a catechesis in Trinitarian theology. The film is punctuated by intertitles citing Old and New Testament scriptures as well as traditional sources. "Unless a man gives up all he has, he cannot be my disciple," we are told in no uncertain terms.

Yet in this specificity is something universal. Or perhaps this specificity is communicated in a way that makes it universally accessible. Sophie Scholl director Marc Ruthmund, an atheist, told me that he believed in God the whole time he was making that film. Here is a film for which I can't help thinking that receptive viewers, whatever faith or lack of faith they may bring to the table, may just believe in God while they are watching.

The film is 160 minutes long. There is little overt structure, and much repetition; it wouldn't be hard to argue that a 90-minute version would be substantially the same experience. And yet it would and it wouldn't. A hundred minutes into the film, you may feel that you've basically experienced what the film has to offer; and in fact much of what remains is of a piece with what has gone before. Yet for me the last hour of the film was the most sublime. Not because the second half is so different from the first, but because the experience of the first half altered my experience of the film for the second. Like a postulant at the monastery, one needs time to truly acclimate to this world before one is ready to fully appreciate and embrace it, to experience it aright. Repetition, even if you will a degree of monotony, is inseparable from what this film wants to illuminate, what it has to offer.

A great film, what I usually think of as a great film, often leaves me thoughtful, challenged, moved, inspired (creatively and/or spiritually). The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was haunting and thought-provoking. Sophie Scholl was edifying and deeply affecting. United 93 earned my gratitude and admiration more than any other film last year.

I can't fully articulate how Into Great Silence affected me, except to say that it was a transforming experience, in that I find very, very few films to be. I walked the dozen or so blocks from the screening room to my parking garage in another world -- not just imaginatively immersed in the world of the film, but enveloped in a silence in my own heart. Part of me was resolved to find ways of make changes in my life, to find ways of creating silence, of accomodating in small ways the spirit of what I had experienced.

Coincidentally, the film is released by Zeitgeist, which also released the first of my favorite films of 2006, Sophie Scholl. The two couldn't be more different. Dialogue is at the very heart of Sophie Scholl; it's a very talky film. Obviously, Into Great Silence is the antithesis of talky. Beyond that, Sophie Scholl was reasonably critiqued for the absence of any particularly cinematic quality. Here again Into Great Silence is at the other end of the spectrum -- pure cinema, and of an ethereal order.


Ron's P.S.
Having watched SOPHIE SCHOLL for a third time this past weekend, I really cannot agree with his assertion about "the absence of any particularly cinematic quality." It's filmed with great restraint, but there is a terrific sensitivity to color - note the use of red in the beautifully muted colour palette, particularly in the night-time scenes - and any number of sparse but beautifully framed shots - the window in the cell block, the stairway into the room where the final scene takes place, etc. No eye candy, no thrilling landscapes, but a solid (and appropriate) sense of visual artistry, however understated.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Feeling Films: An Actor's Perspective

A friend of mine over at the Arts & Faith film conversation posted some interesting thoughts that tied in with my own movie-going experience. And as the conversation eventually meandered over to some thoughts on film criticism and the responsibility (one might even say "talent"?) one might ask of a film viewer, i thought I'd post it here. (And hey, who's gonna stop me?)

Christian writes;

Three recent films have snuck up on me, and I wanted to get the thoughts of A&Fers about this phenomenon.

Specifically, while watching “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Children of Men,” and “The Queen,” I’ve found myself detached from the proceedings for as much as half of each film’s running time. Then, during the final third, or final quarter of these films, they tap into some reservoir of emotion, and I find myself overwhelmed.

“COM” created the least intense reaction, but its final moments were nonetheless quite powerful emotionally. I watched “Letters” with a somewhat jaded, “seen this sort of thing” mentality for much of the film, but the grim horror of the soldiers’ situation slowly settled in during hour number 2. Most recently, flying home this past weekend, I watched “The Queen” on the airplane. A curious film with very good performance, but all that Royal Family stoicism resulted in a cold film (appropriately, given the subject matter and how the queen’s reaction is depicted) – until that scene where the Queen asks if she can lay a young girl’s flowers among the other markers of Diana’s passing. The girl’s response undid me.

That must have been an interesting sight—some guy in the window seat, wiping tears.

But the crying isn’t the point—I’ve been doing too much of that at movies lately. Rather, it’s the way these films elicit an emotional response, grabbing me at a point when I’d pretty much decided they weren’t as good as I’d heard. It bothers me to think that an exhibit of a little emotion—which can be so easily manipulated—would tip my opinion in favor of all three films, but that’s a large part of my overall assessment of these movies. I do wonder, however, how these films will hold up when the element of surprise is gone.

My reply;

Oh, very good thread, Christian. I've noticed the same in my reaction to some films recently.

THE QUEEN, definitely. Just like you, I observed all the regal and prime ministerial goings on with interested detachment. Until the scene where Elizabeth visits the tribute to Diana, when suddenly I was ambushed by great upheavals of feeling. (And to be clear, I'm as cynical as Chattaway about Lady Di-olatry. No manipulative buttons were being pushed for me, connecting up with images that evoked sorrow back in the day: I was pretty much on the Queen's side with respect to that!) I've come to think this is the film's greatest accomplishment: over the course of the first hour and a half, it recalibrates our emotions and observations to such a subdued, repressed, understated scale that we are prepared to respond in a large way to a scene which in most other films would be a non-event. Frears teaches us how to view his movie, familiarizes us with how to "read" his character, and then with the subtlest of adjustments conveys immense significance and evokes tremendous feeling. Therein lies the great artistry of that film, in my opinion. It's on the strength of that accomplishment it's enthroned so high on my list of films for 2006.

PAN'S LABYRINTH is a diametrically opposite film with regard to emotion, but I had a similar "release" late in the film: where THE QUEEN is introspective, understated, withheld, "northern," LABYRINTH is extroverted, it expresses, it finds outsize imagery to illustrate inner states, it's "latin." Yet something similar happened for me on the latter film : I was absolutely caught up in the flow of events, crises, character development, dread, excitement, fear, all that. But it wasn't until the final moments that the film sunk into much deeper and more personal emotions - indeed, that it took me to what I would call a "spiritual" place. That's when the tears came, even the quiet sobs - and not just at tragedy, but at triumph mixed with loss. At something that is very akin to elements of the gospel, as Jeffrey has noted.

CHILDREN OF MEN actually faded in personal impact, for me, as it progressed. I pulled away as it involved more and more sustained "action sequences." I didn't hate it, or lose interest, but the immense emotional charge it had built up in me early on simply dissipated with all the running and hair's-breadth escapes and explosions and stuff.

JOYEUX NOEL was probably the strongest demonstration of this "emotion explosion" that I've experienced lately. For half the running time, I was really not finding myself able to engage with the film. I was detached enough to be thinking "Okay, now we meet the Scottish soldiers. Now we meet the French, and now the Germans. They all get humanized. Now they're at the front. Bad front. Then they'll all have Christmas together, and love will overcome hatred. Until the next morning, when they resume chopping each other up into beefsteak tartar." Now that's another overstatment: I wasn't hating the film. Just sitting outside it, wondering what the fuss might be about. So I turned it off, planning to return to the film when I was in a better state of mind. (I was certainly tired, and fighting a tendency to drift off, so that's a definite contributing factor in this instance. But still, some movies cut right through that, others cannot.)

It was several days later that I got back to the film, almost dutifully, to finish it off so I could check it off my list and get it back to the shop before accumulating further late fees. Popped it in the player, jumped to the scene where I'd left off (the piano / voice recital / duet bit for the German officer). Within minutes the German soldiers started putting their Christmas trees on the edge of the trenches, the singer wandered out into No Man's Land (as if under a spell, mystically, or in a dream), and the tears were pouring. It seemed so surreal, so death-defying, so dream-like, such folly. Testimony to catching up on one's rest? Or something in the film itself? Perhaps all that lead-up had a chance to work on me in my subconscious over those days: certainly as an artist, I absolutely know the need to let things lie fallow, to allow the unconscious to work them over at certain phases. Perhaps that kicked in for me as a viewer?

Anyhow, I know what you mean. I don't actually believe the element of surprise was the key factor in any of these films: I think it was more a matter of the stories "gathering to a greatness" (Hopkins) - that they needed time to build the foundation for what was to come.

On a more personal note, you say you've been doing "too much" crying at movies lately. I find that hard to believe. If you're crying, for whatever reasons, I'm guessing you're crying just the right amount. Whatever might be going on in your heart, in your life, in your spirit, is finding egress in these films. Or maybe there's nothing outside the films that contributes: maybe you're just responding to the films themselves: you've entered into them powerfully enough that they are forming a powerful connection with your soul, whether you see it coming or not. In either case, I say, good on you! Not enough is made of our aptitude as viewers to enter into a film, but you know, we are partners in that creative event. Believe me, as an actor, I know the difference in my performance between the times when I'm fully engaged in a scene, bringing to bear all my imagination and concentration, and those other times when I'm still only finding my way - and, speaking frankly, the difference in other actors' performances depending on how powerfully they are able to enter into the world of the play, the skin of the character. I see similar things coming to bear on my movie-viewing: sometimes I'm just not on my game, and can't blame the film for my lack of engagement as a viewer any more than I would blame the script for my lack of engagement as an actor.

Too many film critics have atrophied powers of empathy: their wonder and imagination and willingness to suspend judment and disbelief have worn away by too much criticism, too long standing in judgment, and they lose the ability to authentically engage with the material. Just as a jaded actor begins to simply go through the motions, rely on old tricks, "say the lines and don't bump into the furniture" in order to collect that paycheck every Thursday. it's the death of theatre, and the death of virile film criticism.

(Anyone want to borrow my soap box? I'm done with it for now.)

By the way, not exactly on the topic you've raised, but related. I was given a nifty film book for my birthday (thanks Jason!), a TimeOut publication called "1000 Films To Change Your Life: The Movies That Move Us," in which the chapters are organized not by genre or era or theme, but by the emotions they trigger; Joy, Anger, Food for thought, Desire, Fear, Sadness, Exhilaration, Regret, Contempt and Wonder. "It's about the ways - even ways their makers may not have foreseen - that films go to work on us." I like it a lot.

*

PS For all the feeling that we actors do onstage, emotions are NOT the goal. A good actor - at least, according to my training - puts the whole focus on the dramatic action of the play, what I need from the person in the scene with me here and now, what I do to them to get what I crave, how I respond to their responses: emotion is an inevitably result of immersing yourself in the scene and fighting for what you fight for, but intentionally "playing" the emotion is a deadly trap that leads to false, self-indulgent, dramatically weak performance. Sentimentality. Similarly, the success of a film (or our success in viewing it) isn't particularly to be measured by how much emotion it caused us to feel: that's just not healthy, or human, to go searching after emotion just for its own sake. Just like marriage: you simply can't feel head-over-heels infatuated all the time, the emotion of "in-loveness" is no measure of the love in a relationship, and yet... A marriage where such feelings never occur is in trouble. Same for the actor. Same for the film-goer. Even the professional.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

"Christian Moviegoers Required Viewing List" (1997)

Digging around to see if I'd written a review of P.D. James' novel Children Of Men back when I used to write regularly for Christian Info (now called BC Christian News), I found a column from November or December 1997 that included the seeds of the book I'm now working on, and this blog, and all sorts of other trouble. Kind of fun...

Thinking back to Trip To Bountiful had me contemplating a Christian Moviegoers Required Viewing List. Now, I'm not saying that these are the twelve best movies ever made, or the twelve "most Christian movies" ever made - how does a movie become a Christian, anyhow? But if you want to really be a part of those watercooler discussions after church on Sunday - provided your church even HAS a watercooler - check these ones out;

Tender Mercies (1983) My favourite film. Extremely understated story of an alcoholic country singer struggling to build a new life. Horton Foote screenplay.

Trip To Bountiful (1985) Beautiful, beautiful film about a woman nearing the end of her life who resolves to see her childhood home one final time. Geraldine Page's performance in that role was one of the great performances I have seen, and Horton Foote's script a masterpiece of understatement and insight into the human heart.

Wings Of Desire (1988) Artful German film about an angel who yearns to become human, made well before the recent pre-millenial angel explosion. Don't go looking for orthodox angelology (or theology) here, but it certainly is high on many Christians' favourite film lists.

The Mission (1986) Deeply moving story of conscience and religious persecution in the 18th century Brazilian jungle.

Chariots Of Fire (1981) The first commercial film I remember seeing with an authentic, evangelical protagonist - the novelty of that fact alone made it required viewing for a generation of Christians. And what artist can forget Eric Liddell's words to his sister, concerned that his Olympic running was interfering with a call to the mission field: "God made me for China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure."

Godspell (1973) Very much of its time, but if you can get past that, a wonderful re-setting of the gospel story.

The Hiding Place (1975) Corrie Ten Boom's story of Christians protecting Jews in World War Two Holland. Stars Jeannette Clift George, who went on to found A.D. Players in Houston, one of the first professional resident Christian theatres.‘

The Jesus Movie (1979) Produced by The Genesis Project, used widely in evangelism. Some say it's blandly literal, some are
deeply affected.

Jesus Of Montreal (1989) A remarkable Canadian film which intrigued but did not move me - maybe I hadn't been getting enough sleep. A group of actors are commissioned to create a modern "Mystery Play" (a life of Christ, not a whodunnit). The fingerprints of some of the more annoying 20th century liberal theologians drove me a bit nuts, but that didn't detract from the heart of the movie, which seems to me to have been very much in the right place.

Saving Grace (1986) A little-known, unpretentious gem of a movie about a drop-out Pope.

Shadowlands (1985) Anthony Hopkins is stunning as CS Lewis.

Spitfire Grill (1996) Small-town redemption.

Ten Commandments (1956) Cecil B. DeMille does the Old Testament: it's big, it's dramatic, it's long and it's Hollywood.

Babette's Feast (1987) This Rorschach of a film is seen as deeply affirming of Christianity by believers, and as a critique of religion by the non-religious. Talk about having your cake and eating it too...

*

Then I found this, the beginning of another list that was to have formed something of a follow-up to my first list. I didn't finish the list, nor was it published...

(Ten) Controversial Christian Movies
Amateur
Bad Lieutenant
Hail Mary
Last Temptation Of Christ
Priest
Rapture
When Night Is Falling (Patricia Rozema)

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Best Films Of 2006: Vancouver Critics Weigh In

The New Year has come, the Best Of lists continue, and their abundance maketh the movie-goer's heart glad. A particularly bountiful windfall of snazzy year-end releases this time around means the theatres are packed with movies worth seeing.

The Movie City News "Big Chart" compiles all the critic Top Ten lists they can find: as of Jan 2, 214 had been tallied, giving a pretty good sense of what (mostly American) reviewers considered the best films of 2006. Now that the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Sun critics have brought forth their own selections, I've noted those, as well as the rankings of the Indiewire poll (to my taste, the most reliable of the lists or meta-lists: features only the very best critics).

As for what's showing locally, CHILDREN OF MEN (the P.D. James-derived dystopia) and PERFUME (Tom Tykwer's high-budget take on the best-selling historical-set serial killer novel) premiere this weekend. OLD JOY and MUTUAL APPRECIATION (two darlings of the ultra-indie press) are this week only at the VanCity, and I'm intrigued by CSA: The Confederate States Of America, Monday only at Cinematheque - a faux-Ken Burns doc on the premise, "what if the South had won the Civil War?" THE PAINTED VEIL is also new at the Fifth, and looks like my cuppa.

LITTLE CHILDREN is flat-out stunning, very similar in scope and tone (human scale, morally searching, contemporary literary source material) to the same director's justly acclaimed IN THE BEDROOM, just as truthful and unflinching but (unless its glories fade with time) even more complex: my friend Peg said "this is what movie making is all about," and I have to agree. HISTORY BOYS is a marvel: same extraordinary cast as the West End stage hit, a head full of ideas about ideas, the treatment of the "sexual harassment" theme perhaps glib, but adds to the pile of things to talk about after the final reel - and if you pay attention, you may find one of the film's two Christian characters a fascinating (and, appropriate to the script, complex and nuanced) study of a certain kind of integrity. Helen Mirren is as good as THE QUEEN as everyone is saying, in a film that's as restrained and royal as its subject. THE DEPARTED is potent, but ultimately I found myself distanced from the proceedings, in my head not my gut or heart, because of plot convolutions: chiefly memorable for me are Leo's performance and ultra-punchy, blackly-funny dialogue. STRANGER THAN FICTION felt a little slighter and a little slicker than I expected, but what can I say, God spoke to me through the movie (He did that a lot this Christmas, also chatting me up during AKEELAH & THE BEE, LITTLE CHILDREN and SCROOGED - clearly, He's no respecter of critical tastes). APOCALYPTO is mostly notable for immersing us - in blood, in fear, in another world - but isn't dismissable: it's premise that we're seeing a civilization under the judgment of God makes the film better or much worse, depending on your perspective. I dutifully checked out VOLVER because it keeps getting raved, and realize I need to learn to trust my instincts: I'm just on a different wavelength than this Almodovar dude, I'm afraid.

Most-anticipated not-yet-here films are PAN'S LABYRINTH, a fantasy for grown-ups set against the Spanish Civil War - if it's eye candy, it's from Bernard Callebaut's - and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, a Japs-eye-view of the horrific WW2 battle by Clint Eastwood that mirrors the Yanks-eye-view of his FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, still dug in at a Coquitlam moviehouse (what you want to bet they don't quite manage to overlap?).

And at the rental shack, SOPHIE SCHOLL has now reached the shelves of some Rogers stores, only a couple months behind our celebrated Videomatica: #2 or #3 of the year for this viewer. UNITED 93 is agonizing, brilliant, intense, and never exploitative. THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU is among the 2006 top three of many cinephiles, was a big hit at the VIFF. Jeffrey Overstreet has been urging FFCC (Film & Faith Critics' Circle) voters to check out THREE TIMES in consideration for our year end awards. 49 UP continues my all-time favourite documentary series, and figures on plenty of year-end lists (perhaps mine as well). THE PROPOSITION looks like a good double feature with the also nasty (but definitely worthwhile) THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA, the bastard spawn of Flannery O'Connor and Sam Peckinpah. TSOTSI has lots of fans, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE was probably Vancouver's favourite movie this past year and might make my Top Ten if I can get past my feeling that it doesn't play fair. You don't need to hear me rave L'ENFANT even one more time - it's been either #2 or #3 on my 2006 list for a very long time, and unlikely to budge. I snagged myself a cheap PV copy of FATELESS at Rogers the other day that I'm eager to watch. And hey - if CACHE counts as a 2006 movie, how come it's not ranking way higher? (Of course, foreign indie fare always faces the fate that ragged distribution and micro-marketing budgets inflict, my dearly loved SOPHIE SCHOLL, HAWAII OSLO and REQUIEM all being cases in point).

MOVIE CITY NEWS - The Big Chart
Compilation of Critic 2006 Top Ten Lists

Jan 2 (214 critics)

1 United 93 - Smith, Yamauchi, MacArthur, Monk - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 8 )
2 Queen, The - Eisner, McArthur, Monk - Fifth Avenue, Rio, etc (Indiewire: 11 )
3 Departed, The - Smith, MacArthur - Granville 7, Feb 13 DVD (Indiewire: 3 )
4 Pan's Labyrinth - "Coming Soon" (prob Jan 12), Fifth Avenue (Indiewire: 14 )
5 Letters From Iwo Jima - Eisner - "Coming Soon," Fifth Avenue (Indiewire: 19 )
6 Borat - Smith, Monk - VanEast, Paramount, Riverport, Station Square, etc (Indiewire: 15 )
7 Little Miss Sunshine - Eisner, Smith, Yamauchi - Videomatica, Rogers
8 Babel - Smith - Paramount, VanEaset, Station Square
9 Little Children - Monk - Granville 7
10 Half Nelson - Eisner - Feb 13 DVD Videomatica (Indiewire: 10 )

11 Children Of Men - - Tinseltown, everywhere (Indiewire: 9 )
12 The Death of Mr Lazarescu - - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 1 )
13 Volver - Eisner - Tinseltown, Fifth Avenue (Indiewire: 17 )
14 Army Of Shadows - - (Indiewire: 5 )
15 Dreamgirls - McArthur - Riverport, Paramount, etc.
16 Flags of our Fathers - - Eagle Ridge
17 L'Enfant - Smith - Videomatica, Rogers PV (Indiewire: 2 )
18 Casino Royale - Yamauchi - Everywhere
19 A Prairie Home Companion - Eisner - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 16 )
20 Old Joy - - VanCity (Indiewire: 7 )

21 Three Times - - Videomatica (Indiewire: 6 )
22 Inland Empire - - Dec 29 wide release (Indiewire: 4 )
23 Notes on a Scandal - Eisner - Fifth Avenue
24 The Proposition - Smith, Yamauchi, Monk - Videomatica
25 An Inconvenient Truth - Eisner, Yamauchi, MacArthur, Monk - Videomatica, Rogers
26 Deliver Us From Evil - - Oct 13 release
27 A Scanner Darkly - - Videomatica, Rogers (Indiewire: 13 )
28 Marie Antoinette - - Denman
29 Brick - Yamauchi - Videomatica, Rogers
30 Tristram Shandy - - Videomatica, Rogers

31 Last King Of Scotland - Smith, Harris, Monk - Tinseltown
32 Climates - - Oct 27 limited release (FC: 12 )
33 The Lives Of Others - - Feb 9 07 limited release
34 Thank You For Smoking - Yamauchi, MacArthur - Videomatica
35 Battle In Heaven - - Videomatica (Indiewire: 18 )
36 The Fountain - - Granville 7
37 The Descent - - Videomatica
38 Happy Feet - - Various
39 Stranger Than Fiction - Monk - Tinseltown, satellites
40 Inside Man - - Videomatica, Rogers

41 Dave Chapelle's Block Party - - Videomatica, Rogers
42 The Science of Sleep - - Videomatica
43 Good Shepherd - - Everywhere
44 Feb 20 07 Prestige - Yamauchi - Denman, Granville 7 Feb 20 DVD
45 Neil Young: Heart Of Gold - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
46 Painted Veil - Eisner - Fifth Avenue
47 Apocalypto - - Tinseltown, Rio, Riverport, etc
48 Blood Diamond - - Park, Paramount, Riverport, etc
49 Lady Vengeance - Smith - Videomatica, Rogers
50 World Trade Center - - Videomatica, Rogers

Also notable, further down in the Top 100 Or So...
History Boys - (Eisner mention) - Ridge
V For Vendetta - - Videomatica, Rogers
Shortbus - - Mar 13 DVD
When The Levees Broke - - Videomatica
Days Of Glory - - Dec 8 limited release
Iraq in Fragments - -
Water - - Videomatica
Miami Vice - - Videomatica, Rogers
Devil Wears Prada - - Videomatica, Rogers
49 Up - - Videomatica
Duck Season - - Videomatica
Superman Returns - - Videomatica
Pursuit of Happyness - - Tinseltown, Richmond Centre, Riverport, etc
Illusionist - - Jan 9 DVD
Akeelah and the Bee - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
The Road to Guantanamo - Videomatica, Rogers
Mutual Appreciation - - VanCity, Feb 13 Videomatica (Indiewire: 20 )
Cache - Harris - Videomatica, Rogers PV
Manufactured Landscapes - Smith, monk
Cars - - Videomatica
Jesus Camp - - Jan 23 DVD
War Tapes - - Videomatica
Venus
Our Daily Bread - -
Perfume - - Granville 7
Woman is the Future of man - -
Fateless - Eisner, Smith - Videomatica, Rogers
Sweet Land - -
Devil & Daniel Johnston - - Videomatica
Russian Dolls - - Videomatica
Clerks II - - Videomatica, Rogers
Bobby - -
Sophie Scholl - Eisner - Videomatica, Rogers
Tsotsi - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
Aura - -
Guide To Recognizing Your Saints - -
Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada - - Videomatica, Rogers PV
Black Dahlia - - Videomatica, Rogers
Break-Up - - Videomatica
Devil's Miner - - Videomatica
Iron Island - - Videomatica
Hostel - - Videomatica
Lady In The Water - - Videomatica, Rogers
Pirates: Dead Man's Chest - - Videomatica, Rogers
Puffy Chair - -
Good German - - Fifth Avenue
Why We Fight - - Videomatica, Rogers
Lassie

And some that didn't figure in the MCN 100 Or So, but were picked by our local crix...
A Comedy Of Power - Harris
Border Post - Harris
The Promise - Harris
The Curse of the Golden Flower - Harris Tinseltown, Riverport
Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles - Harris
Catch A Fire - Harris
I'm Your Man - Harris, MacArthur
Click - Yamauchi
The Protector - Yamauchi
The World's Fastest Indian - MacArthur
For Your Consideration - MacArthur Dolphin
Scoop - MacArthur
Shut Up And Sing - Monk