Sunday, July 29, 2007

AGNES OF GOD


AGNES OF GOD (1985, USA, Norman Jewison, John Pielmeier play and screenplay)
I know what you want from me, you want to take God away. You should be ashamed. They should lock you up people like you.

A young nun stands accused of a terrible crime: a newborn baby has been found strangled in her convent cell. It seems improbable that she could be the child’s mother, impossible that she could be a killer. So innocent as to seem angelic, Agnes is torn between two powerful, impassioned women – the Mother Superior who fights to protect the girl’s fragile spirit, and the court-appointed psychiatrist, fiercely atheist, who is determined to heal her shattered mind.
Pielmeier’s compelling drama originated as a celebrated stage play, the claustrophobic study of three women isolated together on a bare and tiny stage. Jewison diminishes the story by naturalizing it and expanding it for the screen: the sense of compression and intensity are mostly lost, and what was an excruciating inquiry into the human soul and spirit becomes a drably melodramatic not-quite-horror story. Such a pity.

Still, the film may mostly suffer in comparison with the play. The Tony-winning playwright did his own screenplay adaptation, and keeps intact the carefully constructed series of revelations that slowly illuminate events that have shaped each of these three women and their fiercely-held faiths – whether in God, science or the Church. He carefully charts their traumatic movement through suffering, doubt and faith, probing the elusive boundaries between sanity and sanctity.

SAINT JOAN

Available at Videomatica

49TH PARALLEL


49TH PARALLEL (1941, UK, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger screenplay from Rodney Ackland story. Ralph Vaughan Williams score)
When we win the war, we send you some missionaries.

1940. Six Nazi crewmen are stranded on Canadian soil when their U-boat is sunk in Hudson's Bay. Seeking a route to asylum in safely neutral America or Japan – delicious irony – they encounter most of the available Canuck stereotypes, from courageous Eskimo to noble Indian chief and scarlet-clad Mountie. Not-yet-Sir Laurence Olivier steals the first part of the show with a French Canadian accent as thick as maple syrup: he's Johnnie The Trapper, a devout Catholic appalled at the inhumanity of the godless Nazis. The film’s greatest interest is in the way it proceeds to complicate such preconceptions, establishing the humanity (even religious faith) of several of the German soldiers while vilifying Hitlerism. In the most celebrated and stirring episode, the soldiers take refuge in what they expect will be a sympathetic German farming community, only to be confronted with the Hutterite’s scorn for Nazi ideology: the communal, pacifist way of life stands as an appealing contrast to the Fuhrer’s gospel of coercion, not only for the audience but for one of the fleeing soldiers.

WITNESS, WE’RE NO ANGELS, BROTHER ORCHID


Criterion DVD available at Videomatica

Friday, July 27, 2007

BREACH


BREACH (2007, USA, Billy Ray, screenplay with Adam Mazer & William Rotko)
Do you know why the Soviet empire collapsed? Godlessness.

No-nonsense portrayal of post-cold war Russian spy Robert Hanssen is more character study than spy movie, but plenty intense. Foregrounds his seemingly sincere ultra-Catholicism, but doesn’t pretend to solve the cipher only Hanssen himself could maybe decode – why so conservative a Christian would sell secrets to the “godless” communists. Haunting final image complicates the film’s FBI-as-bland-corporate-bureaucracy ethos.


Available at Videomatica

BLADE RUNNER


BLADE RUNNER (1982, USA, Ridley Scott, Hampton Fancher / David Peoples / Roland Kibbee screenplay from Philip K. Dick novel)
Then the LORD God said, `See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand, take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever – Genesis 3:22

Great looking future-tense urban decay anticipates the high-tech/low-life frisson of William Gibson cyber-punk, with (especially in the director-maligned voice-over version) the delicious savour of hard-boiled Raymond Chandler mean streets / good man tension. Fans – and this is a movie that restores the “-atic” to the end of that washed-out word – make much of philosophical / theological themes and imagery. Bounty hunter Deckard tracks illegal replicants (ultra-human androids) who’ve become human enough to dream, feel, and even murder. Cloud-dwelling corporate robot manufacturer Tyrell is a false creator/god with a bloodless attitude toward his creations, invoking questions about bio-ethics, techno-hubris, and the nature of humanity. There’s lots of biblical imagery – serpents and satan figures, stigmata and (multiple) saviours, even s dove ascending. I’ll confess the high-minded stuff sometimes feels under-developed and over-stated to me, but the compassion evoked for borderline-humans and their pressing mortality, as well as resonances with real-world treatment of anyone we deem not-quite-as-human-as-we-are, pack a surprising emotional (even spiritual) punch. But what maybe matters most? It looks super cool.

THE MATRIX, STALKER

Sharon L. Gravett of Gonzaga U teases out the God Stuff in The sacred and the profane: Examining the religious subtext of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner


Videomatica has both VHS and laserdisc versions of BLADE RUNNER, as well as both VHS and DVD copies of BLADE RUNNER: THE DIRECTOR'S CUT. On December 18 they will also have VHS and DVD copies of the 2-disc BLADE RUNNER: FINAL CUT, which includes a whole new version. See what I said about fans? Well, you ain't seen nothing yet. Also at that time, Warner will be releasing 4-disk (4 versions) and 5-disk (5 versions) sets in DVD, HD and BluRay editions.

I'm getting all three of the new sets, in all four formats: forty new versions of the movie! Now I just need to track down all the previously issued dvd, vhs and laserdisk editions so I can compare them all. And I'll need to fly to NYC or LA to see the limited theatrical releases of when they come out... (ED: Okay, so I mis-read...)

From the press release...

For Immediate Release

At last! The Definitive Version of Sir Ridley Scott’s Sci-Fi Classic
starring Harrison Ford

The Film That Started It All

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT

San Diego, July 26, 2007 – In celebration of its 25th anniversary, director Ridley Scott (Alien, Hannibal and a three-time Oscar® nominee, Best Director, for Gladiator, Thelma & Louise and Black Hawk Down) has gone back into post production to create the long-awaited definitive new version, which Warner Home Video will unveil on DVD December 18th in the U.S. Blade Runner: The Final Cut, spectacularly restored and remastered from original elements and scanned at 4K resolution, will contain never-before-seen added/extended scenes, added lines, new and improved special effects, director and filmmaker commentary, an all-new 5.1 Dolby® Digital audio track and more.

 A showcase theatrical run is also being planned for New York and Los Angeles October 5.

Ford, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, Joanna Cassidy, Sean Young and Daryl Hannah are among some 80 stars, filmmakers and others who participate in the extensive bonus features. Among the bonus material highlights is Dangerous Days - a brand new, three-and-a-half-hour documentary by award-winning DVD producer Charles de Lauzirika, with an extensive look into every aspect of the film: its literary genesis, its challenging production and its controversial legacy. The definitive documentary to accompany the definitive film version. 

Said Sir Ridley Scott: "The Final Cut is the product of a process that began in early 2000 and continued off and on through seven years of intense research and meticulous restoration, technical challenges, amazing discoveries and new possibilities. I can now wholeheartedly say that Blade Runner: The Final Cut is my definitive director’s cut of the film."

DETAILS OF BLADE RUNNER EDITIONS

BLADE RUNNER: THE FINAL CUT SPECIAL EDITION (2-DISC)


RIDLEY SCOTT'S ALL-NEW "FINAL CUT" VERSION OF THE FILM
Restored and remastered with added & extended scenes, added lines, new and cleaner special effects and all new 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio.

BLADE RUNNER: COLLECTOR’S EDITION (4-DISC)
The Four-Disc Collector's Edition includes everything from the 2-Disc Special Edition plus three additional versions of the film, as well as an “Enhancement Archive” bonus disc.
1982 THEATRICAL VERSION
This is the version that introduced U.S. movie-going audiences to a revolutionary film with a new and excitingly provocative vision of the near-future.  It contains Deckard/Harrison Ford’s character narration and has Deckard and Rachel’s (Sean Young) “happy ending” escape scene.
1982 INTERNATIONAL VERSION
Also used on U.S. home video, laserdisc and cable releases up to 1992. This version is not rated, and contains some extended action scenes in contrast to the Theatrical Version.
1992 DIRECTOR'S CUT
The Director's Cut omits Deckard's voiceover narration and removes the "happy ending" finale.  It adds the famously-controversial "unicorn" sequence, a vision that Deckard has which suggests that he, too, may be a replicant.

BLADE RUNNER: ULTIMATE COLLECTOR’S EDITION (5-DISC)
The 5-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition includes everything from the previously described
4-Disc Edition, plus the ultra-rare, near-legendary WORKPRINT version of the film, newly remastered. The Ultimate Collector’s Edition will be presented in a unique 5-disc digi-package with handle which is a stylish version of Rick Deckard's own briefcase,  in addition each briefcase will be individually numbered and in limited supply.
WORKPRINT VERSION
This rare version of the film is considered by some to be the most radically different of all the Blade Runner cuts. It includes an altered opening scene, no Deckard narration until the final scenes, no "unicorn" sequence, no Deckard/Rachel "happy ending,” altered lines between Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his creator Tyrell (Joe Turkell), alternate music and much more.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

ABOUT A BOY


ABOUT A BOY (2002, UK/USA/France/Germany, Chris & Paul Weitz, screenplay with Peter Hedges from Nick Hornby novel)
Let's play “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” Who wrote the phrase "No man is an island"? John Donne? John Milton? John F. Kennedy? Jon Bon Jovi?
Jon Bon Jovi. Too easy. And, if I may say so, a complete load of bollocks. In my opinion, all men are islands. I like to think I’m Ibiza.


It starts with a quote from metaphysical poet John Donne and, surprisingly enough for a comedy from the directors of AMERICAN PIE, it follows through. Or not so surprising, considering Hornby and Hedges. The former’s “lout lit” is sort of turn-of-the-millenium Jane Austen for guys, tracing small awakenings of consciousness and conscience in oblivious, self-preoccupied lads – HI FIDELITY was made into a terrific film, HOW TO BE GOOD ought to be. And screenwriter Hedges brings all the heart and smarts (and, I suspect, spiritual orientation, though I’ve got no proof) that make WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE? and especially PIECES OF APRIL such quintessential soul food. About the latter film Jeffrey Overstreet remarked “It takes a village to cook a turkey,” and here’s the same sort of story – though this turkey happens to be heir to a fortune gleaned from his father’s songwriting, and he doesn’t get cooked so much as thawed.

The film richly rewards close viewing: look at the craftsmanship in how the stories of Will and Marcus are interwoven and juxtaposed, consider how each of the characters is given complexity and humanity (even and especially Marcus’s mum, so easy – and cheap – an opportunity for caricature), and watch how many thematic and narrative strands come together in the beautifully set up Christmas scene that closes the film. (Compare the PIECES OF APRIL Thanksgiving. Hm...) And what an extraordinary scene of self-sacrifice – even self-immolation – at the school talent show! What was in the zeitgeist when that scene was being dreamt up, along with those of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE and LOVE, ACTUALLY?

Theologian Rick Watts observes how much a departure the film is from the received doctrine of current American screenwriting, the Joseph Campbell-derived obsession with the loner hero: ABOUT A BOY (along with films like THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION) is not essentially an individualistic journey. It interrogates our culture’s addiction to wealth, image, leisure (okay, let’s just come out and say it: sloth), and self, and ends up earning its John Donne reference. Who wants to be a millionaire, indeed!

Available at Videomatica

BOOK OF LIFE


BOOK OF LIFE (1998, France/USA, Hal Hartley)
I could never get used to that part of the job. The power and the glory. The threat of divine vengeance. But I persevered. I was about my Father’s business. It was the morning of December 31st, 1999 when I returned, at last, to judge the living and the dead. Though still, and perhaps always, I had my doubts.

Doesn’t the Bible say Jesus’ return will be nothing like anybody expects? So maybe this is the most biblical Second Coming picture of them all. He flies into La Guardia with PJ Harvey – er, Mary Magdalene – at his side, forgiving people and marveling at Manhattan like a Midwestern tourist: “I love this town!” He’s en route to a meeting with his father’s – er, Father’s – lawyers, Armageddon, Armageddon & Jehosaphat, who’ve drawn up the papers for the legal separation of the quick and the dead. But when he picks up the PowerBook of Life from the locker of the beast (#666), he’s got serious second thoughts about the second coming. Should he really click on that icon and open the final three of those seven famous seals?

There’s a distinctive Hal Hartley vibe: self-consciously clever, tinged with almost-melancholy, hip, flip, earnest. If you like it, you’ll love BOOK OF LIFE, my own favorite. Partly because at 63 minutes it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and partly because, surprisingly enough, it provokes real eschatological, not to mention soteriological, questions. (Hey. I have a Masters Degree....)

The devil – suave, rumpled, black suit, blood red shirt – quotes scripture as he harvests a couple last souls before Revelation 12:12 kicks in: “The devil has come down to you with great wrath because he knows that his time is short. Not my favorite passage.” He gets a barfly to bet his girlfriend’s soul on a horserace: it’s not that hard, the guy doesn’t believe people have souls (the devil rolls his eyes: he’s heard that one before, why do they make it so easy?), so what’s to lose? Besides, he’s a compulsive gambler. He gains the world but loses Edie’s soul, so right away he needs Jesus. Well, who doesn’t.

This Jesus is as uneasy with the idea of Final Judgment as I am: he doesn’t want to consign anybody to eternal torment, he just plain likes people too much, the good ones and the bad ones. I love how Hartley takes his crazy premise and plays it right through to its apparently logical conclusion. Do only good people escape divine judgment? Does anybody deserve eternal judgment? Does everybody deserve forgiveness?

The movie also shows the absurdity of our all-too-common picture of Grumpy God and Gentle Jesus, where the Son sacrificed himself to use up the Father’s wrath. So, how are the two of them one? And what about the whole “God is love” thing? There’s a moment late in the film when the devil offers God’s attorneys something like a partnership plan, and I couldn’t help remembering that the Bible identifies Satan, not God, as “the accuser.” It’s not hard to picture a happy (if litigious) partnership between His Satanic Majesty and the angry God of BOOK OF LIFE – and, if we admit it, of the secret fears of so many of us. (But what if Jesus was sacrificed to appease mankind’s wrath, not God’s? I think Hal would like Rene Girard.)

Whew. Heady stuff for so slight a film. It’s that kind of movie. Where the world ends neither with a bang nor a whimper, but a wry, affectionate grin.

DOGMA, THE SEVENTH SEAL, THE RAPTURE


Available at Videomatica

Monday, July 23, 2007

BULL DURHAM

I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. There are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary, and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us The Lord laid too much guilt on me. You see, there's no guilt in baseball... and it's never boring. I've tried them all, and the only church that truly feeds the soul day in, day out, is the church of baseball.

Lots of baseball movies are religious, and this one – written and directed by former minor leaguer (and former evangelical) Ron Shelton – is the most religious of them all. One problem: it sure as heaven ain't my religion. Annie Savoy – a "baseball Annie" who takes up with a different young prospect every season to educate them in the ways of the world, her flesh and the devilishly divine secrets of baseball – opens the film with one of the most inspired and entertaining pieces of heresy every spoken. Too bad Mr Shelton never figured out that Jesus is in the business of healing guilt, not inflicting it. (And if he thinks there’s no such thing as guilt in baseball, maybe he never played right field with bad depth perception and a lousy arm.)

FIELD OF DREAMS, BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY, THE ROOKIE


Available at Videomatica

BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON


BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON (1972, Italy/England, Franco Zeffirelli, screenplay with Lina Wertmuller, Kenneth Ross, Suso Cecchi d’Amico)
Is it not possible, Holy Father, to live according to the teachings of our Lord? Or have we sinned through presumption? If that be the case, then we would like your Holiness to tell us of our errors.
My dearest son, errors will be forgiven. In our obsession with original sin we too often forget original innocence. Don't let that happen to you. We are encrusted with riches and power. You in your poverty put us to shame.


This is a movie that's easy to dismiss. Director Franco Zeffirelli often gets accused of sentimentality, and this 1972 film and its flower power sensibility plays right into that expectation. Saint Francis is presented as the original hippie, complete with trippy folk songs and a "love will conquer all" pseudo-philosophy that gets little cred in our more savvy and cynical day.

It's too bad BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON has ended up with that reputation, because there's much more to this film than that. If we're embarassed by the movie's simplistic rejection of war and materialism, I wonder how much more uncomfortable we would be with Saint Francis himself? As easy (and tempting) as it may be to discount Donovan's "get high on God" lyrics, it's much harder (but just as tempting) to try and dodge the words of Jesus that Francis constantly quotes. There are aspects of the gospel that fly in the face of our western consumerism, and we're quick to criticize anyone naive enough to take Christ's words at face value. We know better. (Improbably, the script was co-written by seventies iconoclast Lina Wertmuller, with SWEPT AWAY two years in the future and SEVEN BEAUTIES two more. Knowing that lends a certain weight to this film's critique of bourgeois materialism: as wrong-headed as she was, Wertmuller was utterly serious about her radical leftist politics, and it's intriguing to think of her making common cause with Saint Francis!)

One element of the film that comes in for easy criticism is the acting, particularly in the case of the lead character. For the most part, though, this is not a bad performance so much as it’s a performance of its time. Four years earlier, Leonard Whiting did a similar turn in the title role of Zeffirelli's widely-praised ROMEO AND JULIET, complete with the requisite Running Through Fields Of Flowers sequence, neither less nor more cloying than Graham Faulkner as Francesco. That's how Idealistic Young Men were supposed to act and, within the convention of the day, these youthful actors are just fine. There is a certain fey staginess to these performances, which partly comes from the era and partly from the director's continuing background in live theatre and opera. If you can't get past it, this film won't work for you. But for anyone who can, there's a lot to appreciate in Zeffirelli's hagio-pic.

Visually, the film is gorgeous, all vivid colours and eye-catching composition. Francesco's father was a cloth merchant, trading in beautifully dyed, richly textured fabrics from exotic lands: the opulence is tangible, the appeal of such riches undeniable. Assissi's young soldiers gather in the church to be blessed by the Bishop before departing for the Crusades, standing arrayed in cobalt-blue battle dress or sitting astride horses clad in in copper and silver coloured armour, their helmets a kind of death mask, echoed in the jewel-encrusted Christ on the church's ornate crucifix. There is a sustained image of Francis's face covered in cloth which clearly evokes the shroud of Turin. For the first fifteen minutes of the film we repeatedly view him through gauzy fabric: a death-shroud between him and the life he knew. At one point we hover above his canopied bed, a casket made of translucent cloth.

Once Francis has his spiritual awakening – reacting against the bejewelled Christ in the Assissi church – he goes to the fields, and there is a new palette of colours, the natural colours of poppy fields, forested valleys, sheep and sky, photographed with all the vibrant juxtapositions of an impressionist painting. Zeffirelli filmed in the Umbrian hills near the actual birthplace of Saint Francis, and it is illuminating to realize that the saint who so gloried in God's grandeur as revealed in natural things was surrounded by this kind of beauty. The image of the broken down chapel of San Damiano, all grey rubble in the heart of a magnificent green valley, is a marvel of composition – and all of this to frame a single battered and neglected wooden cross, carved with a naked Jesus. This will be Francis's new church, rebuilt by the hands of the poor.

The film culminates, visually and thematically, with Francis's audience with Pope Innocent III in Rome. The grey-habited monks enter a scene of impossible majesty and splendour, the papal court arrayed on either side of the massive hall in sumptuous coloured garments, the mile-high ceiling sparkling with jewels set in gold. In the film's most stunning moment we see lavishly tiled steps, the perspective flattened to create the effect of an intricately tiled wall, down which the Pope descends, clad in white, as if from heaven, to bless the lowly monk.

The most serious problem with this film is its softness, that sentimentality Zeffirelli is often accused of. Where are the stigmata? Where the exhaustion, disease, and despair that poverty, even intentional poverty, brings, even to saints? Where is the aging Saint Francis, betrayed by his successors? Not in this film. If you want those darker colours, you'll have to seek out Liliana Cavani's FRANCESCO, which is included on the Vatican's list of spiritually significant films.

It's hard to discern where the sentimental wishful thinking of a younger time leaves off and the hard realities of a more ancient gospel begin. If this film doesn't quite manage to achieve all it sets out to accomplish, perhaps at least it may cause us to wrestle with some important things – to hold our knowing pragmatism up against the impracticalities of the youthful idealism of Zeffirelli's decade, or maybe even the holy folly of St Francis's century. Or maybe even the radical gospel of Jesus, no more or less appropriate – or practical – in our time than it was in His.

FRANCESCO, THE FLOWERS OF ST FRANCIS




Available at Videomatica

Thoughts on Dardennes, Kiarostami, Bresson, Brecht and Crocodile Dundee

My friend Doug Cummings, a Dardenne brothers and Bresson fan who pointed me to the new Dardenne short (and introduced me to Bresson, for that matter), responded to the Kiarostami quote I sent him with this observation about one particular section;

>>Cinema is really a wonderful thing. Any viewer sitting in a seat in a
>>dark movie theatre is turned into an innocent child. And there's
>>nothing quite as magical as light and darkness. It can send viewers
>>into raptures. Under the circumstances, I suppose this is akin to
>>picking pockets in the dark. By captivating the viewer, we rob him of
>>his reason, which is even worse than emptying his pocket.
>
>Boy, doesn't this remind you of the Dardenne short?

Which got the gears turning. I wrote...

Marvelous! Of course. Once you make the connection, it even seems as if it must have been on their minds, even an inspiration for their film - though that's unlikely.

The connection certainly brings to the fore the tension I experience in my response to Kiarostami's words. With you and him, I no longer react well to movies that try to take me hostage with action sequences that batter my senses. However, I very much value the "magic" of entering into a film, of feeling with a film, experiences which (he rightly points out) are enhanced by the darkness and quiet of a movie theatre (or a live theatre, for that matter). Kiarostami seems ill-at-ease with an emotional / imaginative engagement (he reminds me of Brecht in this way), while he strongly desires an intellectual / conjectural engagement - the viewer co-creating the work with him. (The latter is a mechanism that we in the live theatre very much rely upon - or at least, that was a very important part of how I was taught. It underlies the "less is more" aesthetic that you'll hear among many artists in many art forms.) Kiarostami doesn't seem to value the idea of sending his viewers into raptures, of the viewer being "captured." Well, I do. And I suspect the Dardennes do. I doubt whether they are sitting in judgment on the woman in the cinema in their short film. And few films have so captured me, so aroused my emotions, so drawn me in, as THE SON: I doubt whether that would displease them.

I'm going to suggest that this points not to the undesirability of taking viewers to a place of childlike innocence, where the light and darkness can send them into raptures - like the woman in the cinema in the Dardenne short. And yes, that leaves them vulnerable to being pickpocketed: just because some reprehensible filmmakers set out to take advantage of us in the dark while we're in raptures, doesn't mean no film maker should seek to send us into raptures. I think it points only to the fact that, as artists, we are faced with a tremendous responsibility to the people we enrapture, that we treat with respect the people over whom we cast our spells. Enrapture them, yes: just don't pick their pocket while they're surrendered to so innocent and vulnerable a condition.

And by the way, it's a false dichotomy that suggests we either feel or think. That when we are emotionally moved we shut off our brains. Ridiculous! When the Dardennes use my intellectual curiosity to lock me into the world of THE SON, or Kiarostami engages my intellect so overwhelmingly (and I choose that word intentionally) in CLOSE-UP, or Bresson in A MAN ESCAPED, I am all the more prepared to feel deeply in the course of the film - precisely because they have so completely drawn me into their world by engaging my mind, my intellect, my curiosity.

Hm. (That's an acceptable two-letter word in Scrabble, did you know?) I'm thinking I'd like to work these thoughts up into a lecture about audience engagement, Brecht's "A Effect" (or "V Effect," if you want to really impress the academics), sentimentality, manipulation, artist responsibility, "less is more," all that. Using the Kiarostami quote and the Dardenne short, then showing clips from films that illustrate filmmakers' various approaches, from the opening of THE SON to an excerpt from CLOSE-UP, contrasted with other films that clearly use swelling music and high-intensity situations to manipulate audience emotions. (I flash on the climactic scene of CROCODILE DUNDEE, of all things, which so galled me 20 years ago when emotional music elicited tears in the corniest "lovers getting together" scene imaginable: I felt, well, robbed). I also think of THE QUEEN, where everything is framed in so muted and restrained an emotional and aesthetic range that the filmmakers calibrate our responses to be ready for the film's climactic moment, a scene which I found both extraordinarily complex and deeply affecting - as well as narratively dense, saturated with reversals - which we would find unexceptional in most other films.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Darkness ("Dans l'obscurité") - new short from dardenne brothers



DARKNESS ("Dans l'Obscurité") is the short film Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne were commissioned to create for this year's Cannes festival. Wow. (That is, "wow" if you're in on the, well, not exactly joke, but... Maybe it's wow anyways, but if you're primed for this one, double-wow.)

Make sure you've got the sound turned right up, as well as the brightness on your screen (and/or watch the clip in a darkened room). The more I think about the film, the more I realize what a perfect tribute this is to the filmmaker who seems in many ways to be the mentor of the Dardenne brothers.

Beautiful. Funny.

Now I just need to find myself a DVD copy...

Ron

*

Cinema is really a wonderful thing. Any viewer sitting in a seat in a dark movie theatre is turned into an innocent child. And there's nothing quite as magical as light and darkness. It can send viewers into raptures. Under the circumstances, I suppose this is akin to picking pockets in the dark. By captivating the viewer, we rob him of his reason, which is even worse than emptying his pocket.
- Abbas Kiarostami

Saturday, July 21, 2007

THE FLOWERS OF ST FRANCIS


THE FLOWERS OF ST FRANCIS (AKA “Francesco, guillare di Dio” / “Francis, God’s Jester” 1950, Italy, Roberto Rossellini, screenplay with Federico Fellini, Father Antonio Lisandrini & Father Felix Morlion)

This odd little picture is the director's most explicitly religious, even devotional, work, emphasizing the joyous life of the first Franciscans, portraying them as an order of "fools for Christ." The film is jarring to many viewers, with a strangely primitive style arising not only from the amateur performances of real-life Franciscans in the monks' roles and the comic over-acting of the film's one professional, but also from odd rhythms of movement and editing and the buffo physical comedy of several scenes. This is no conventional hagiography: Francis was no conventional saint. Mike Hertenstein: “The overlap between Rossellini's insistence on spiritual solutions in his content and his increasing avoidance of conventional form make watching these films a unique opportunity for the viewers to experience simultaneous growth and even breakthroughs, spiritual and aesthetic — and point up the mysterious connection between art and faith.”

STROMBOLI, EUROPA ’51, FRANCESCO, BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON

BECKET


BECKET (1964, UK/USA, Peter Glenville, Edward Anhalt screenplay from the play by Jean Anouilh)
My prince, I wish I cold help you.
What are you waiting for?
For the honor of God and the honor of the king to become one.
That may take long.


This lavish screen adaptation of the acclaimed stage play was immensely celebrated in its day but completely neglected in our own, despite a dozen Academy Award nominations. Apart from a hard-to-find, low quality videotape, this classic film about King Henry II and the martyred Saint Thomas a Becket was out of circulation for four decades until Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation financed an extensive 35mm restoration, completed in 2007.

BECKET is a visually glorious evocation of the color and texture of life in the 12th century. The performances too are grand (but never false or stagey), with two of the greatest actors of the era meeting at the peak of their powers: Henry II was Peter O'Toole's first role after his electrifying Lawrence Of Arabia, and Richard Burton (as Thomas) was fresh in viewers' minds from his work opposite Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA.

Still, the real power of BECKET lies not in its historical pomp and star casting, or even in its language, which is glorious (and gloriously spoken), but in one of history’s great stories of spiritual transformation, of a great friendship torn asunder by the gospel that comes "not with peace but with a sword." When the young and profligate King Henry decides to make a mockery of church interference in his kingdom by appointing his drinking and womanizing buddy as Archbishop of Canterbury, he has no idea that Thomas will find a divine calling – a man without honor who finds himself defending the honor of God, "vulnerable as a boy king fleeing from danger."

In Reel Spirituality Robert K. Johnston identifies BECKET (along with DEAD MAN WALKING, BABETTE’S FEAST, BREAKING THE WAVES, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, ANDREI RUBLEV and THE GREEN MILE) as a film that seems "uniquely able to mediate the holy, to be the occasion for epiphanies." Including his own. As a young man, Johnston himself found a life-changing sense of vocation through the film, despite a sense of personal unworthiness. He heard in the story of the 12th-century saint an invitation that is the essential core of this indispensable film: "You need not be holy. Thomas was not. You only have to be obedient to my call."

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS


Available at Videomatica

TEN (Kiarostami, not Edwards)


TEN (2002, Iran/France/USA, Abbas Kiarostami)
Before, praying seemed ridiculous. I used to say, “You pray to force God to give you things.”

A modern Iranian woman drives a series of friends, relations and strangers through the streets of Tehran. Ten front-seat conversations trace only the outlines of her story: the filmmaker is content instead simply to observe the details of interactions between the woman and her passengers. Kiarostami: “It’s from this point that the viewer’s duty to complete a work or a film begins. The viewer must be enticed into reflection on himself and the surrounding world. By simply showing the reality, one can make people think about their own and other people’s acts or behaviour. In this kind of cinema, the most important subject matter is human beings and their souls.”

The hectoring of her not-quite-adolescent son hints at the reasons behind her divorce. She celebrates her freedom while a friend prays for a husband. She is challenged not only by her sister’s conservatism but by a streetwalker who turns her words back on her: “Don’t you ever think about sin or guilt?” / “Why don’t you ask yourself the same question?” An elderly religious pilgrim makes an unexpected offer: “I’ll watch the car while you go pray.” She smiles and declines. Lacking the usual narrative cues, we must scrutinize the characters’ words and faces for hints of their souls’ journeys. The smallest alterations in the pattern of conversation come to signify a great deal.

I thought of Jack’s comment about prayer in SHADOWLANDS: “It doesn’t change God. It changes me.” What it is that effects change in this woman – or, indeed, whether she changes at all – is left to each viewer to decide. From my perspective though, few films record the subtle transitions of the human soul with such reality and mystery, and with an artistry that seems so refreshingly artless.

CLOSE-UP


Available at Videomatica

CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (1995)


CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (1995, South Africa / USA, Darrell Roodt, Ronald Harwood / Joshua Sinclair screenplay from Alan Paton novel)
He is, I think, the only truly good man I’ve ever met.
Then why, I wonder, does God not show him any mercy?


The portrait of a gentle Zulu man – an Anglican priest – who travels from a rural village to find his son, his sister and his brother in Johannesburg, encountering the hard ways of the world and the harder ways of a nation on the verge of apartheid. The Boston Herald calls the film “electrifying,” but in fact the cry of the title is one of mourning rather than rage: the grand stillness of the African landscape photography and the quiet dignity of the central character inform the whole. The director doesn’t shape the story to dramatic climaxes, he elicits strong but understated performances, his soundtrack is curiously muted: he foregrounds a reflective orchestral score while minimizing, say, the bustle of a city or the response of a courtroom to the verdict in a murder trial. The most compelling journey here may be that of a racist landowner confronted by the written legacy of his murdered son; “He said that we taught him nothing about the country in which he lived. He said that we called ourselves Christians, but we were indifferent to the sufferings of Christians. He said that when we say we are Christian, what we mean is that we are white.”

LOST IN THE STARS, FINAL SOLUTION, FORGIVENESS

Thursday, July 19, 2007

THE BIG FISHERMAN


THE BIG FISHERMAN (1959, USA, Frank Borzage, Howard Estabrook / Roland V. Lee screenplay from Lloyd C. Douglas novel)

The forties and fifties were big decades for big fat Biblical novels and big budget big screen adaptations. Big big BIG! I've got a soft spot for these "you were there" paperbacks about characters who were in one way or another affected by Jesus, penned by middle-initialled writers like Frank G. Slaughter, Thomas B. Costain and Lloyd C. Douglas. I share their fascination with the fact that God Was Here, I like the way they reach after incarnation, the way they try their darnedest to take us there. For me, thought, they’re best on the page, where my imagination can supply a certain grittiness, where I can imagine the dialogue being spoken by real human beings. They work less well on the screen, where mannered mid-century acting and semi-convincing, far too lavish sets render unbelievable these attempts at believing the unbelievable.

Peter is the coolest of the disciples (that's why they made him Pope), THE BIG FISHERMAN was the best of the best-selling Bible bio books, and the film version wanted to be just as swell. It did nab Oscar noms for design, but its Academy Award aspirations were crushed beneath the thundering chariot wheels of another para-gospel spectacular (that also starts with “B”), BEN-HUR. FISHERMAN didn't make enough of a splash to have become available on video yet, but when it does, I'll be renting it: in the meantime, I'll just have to reread the book.

QUO VADIS?, THE ROBE, SALOME, DEMETRIUS & THE GLADIATORS, THE SILVER CHALICE, BEN-HUR, BARABBAS

BARABBAS


BARABBAS (1962, Richard Fleischer, Christopher Fry screenplay from Par Lagerkvist novel)

Where the other New Testament epics are based on best-selling religious pot-boilers (which I happen to like just fine, thank you very much), this one's got real literary cred: the 1951 Swedish novel bagged a Nobel Prize, and the screenwriting team included celebrated playwright Christopher Fry, shining light of the verse drama movement that put Christianity centre stage in Britain for a decade or two. BARABBAS doesn't aim to be as straight-forward devotional as as its para-Gospel siblings, for all their adventure movie ethos: here our title character, the criminal Pilate freed instead of Christ, is a bit of a brute, and we're not sure he ever quite figures out whether or not Jesus is God. Fry describes Barabbas as caught in "a battering conflict between his conscience and his passions, between half-belief and doubt, in which Barabbas becomes almost the archetype of modern man, with his groping for some meaning in life, with his perpetual questioning; and alternations between hope and despair." Fry's desire "to translate the bare, brooding atmosphere of the novel into film terms" is best realized in the remarkable crucifixion scene. Producer Dino De Laurentiis insisted it be filmed six weeks ahead of the scheduled start of production to take advantage of a total eclipse of the sun. ("Ready when you are, Dino!")

THE ROBE, BEN-HUR, QUO VADIS

BEN-HUR


BEN-HUR (1959, USA, William Wyler, Karl Tunberg screenplay from Lew Wallace novel)

I love Pauline Kael's summation: "Lew Wallace's hectic potboiler-classic has everything – even leprosy." Not to mention a chariot race. The 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (penned by a Civil War general) got the silent treatment in 1907 and then again in 1926, but it was the late fifties version that pulled out all the stops and nicked all the hardware, taking home statues for eleven of its twelve Oscar nominations. The story of a Jewish prince who vows revenge after being betrayed into slavery by a Roman officer unfolds against the backdrop of Jesus' life. Pretty much the flagship of the Romans vs Christians sub-genre of sword and sandal flicks, with uncredited writing contributions by heavyweights of the mid-century religious drama movement Christopher Fry and Maxwell Anderson and just general all-round literary heavyweight Gore Vidal. Apparently the stormy crucifixion scene made quite an impression on Adele Reinhartz, who sees it echoed in climactic moments of THE TRUMAN SHOW, SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and PLEASANTVILLE.

QUO VADIS, THE ROBE, BARABBAS, GLADIATOR


Available at Videomatica

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

BLACK SNAKE MOAN


BLACK SNAKE MOAN (2007, USA, Craig Brewer)
You can’t go around hurting people and then just say you’re sorry and it all gets washed away. Why would heaven want people like that?

What do you say about a movie like this? Well, for starters, that there is no movie like this. An exploitation flick with all the best intentions, where a rage-filled dirt farmer finds the town’s nymphomaniac beaten unconscious on a country road and chains her to the radiator for her own good. (The radiator in his house, that is: to chain her to the radiator of his truck would be too sick even for this nasty – or wannabe-nasty – little number.) It’s as trashy as a mildewed True Crime rag you’d find hidden in the barn, or a sex-obsessed drugstore paperback like “The Whole Town Knew,” with Samuel Jackson chewing the foulest of his dialogue like cheap, over-cooked steak, and Christina Ricci – lithe of body, gaunt of face – mostly naked and mostly in heat for much of the movie. Lurid. Violent. Crude. Outrageous. Exploitative.

There. You’ve been warned.

Now I’ll tell you this: that this is one of the most audacious, original Soul Food movies you’d ever want to see (or not). That it made me cry. That it’s got the ballsiest, truest preacher you’ll ever see on a screen, filled with grace that’s never cheap. That the film is as intent on this lost girl’s salvation as you hope the Jackson character will turn out to be. If this girl’s the kind of human trash that gives trailers a bad name, this movie’s all about refusing to see her as trash. Grindhouse for God.

There. You’ve been enticed.

And now this: that the story doesn’t quite have what it takes to pull off so genre-defying a feat. It psychologizes what it should only suggest, therapizes what should be worked out in action as shocking or at least intense as what’s come before (though the moment where she lifts her shirt and lays on the man’s bare back comes close). We start out mean as a trip to the dump to shoot us some rats, we end up realizing we’re on a school recycling project. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about recycling, both literal and spiritual. But for heaven’s sake, let the pay-off match the set-up: I couldn’t help feeling that this guided tour of the wrong side of the tracks falls short when it goes soft. Okay, not soft like a box of chocolates: we don’t end up in Hallmark land. I won’t spoil or misrepresent the movie by pretending everything works out fine. But neither do we stay in Flannery-ville, which is really where this story wants to live, right to a bitterer end, with redemption tough enough and hard-won enough it might barely look like redemption at all.

SHERRYBABY, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA


Available at Videomatica

PS...

Monday, July 16, 2007

dan in real life - new Peter Hedges project


A widower (Steve Carell) with three daughters writes a parenting column for his local newspaper. His strict rules for behavior are tested when he falls for the girlfriend (Juliette Binoche) of his younger brother. Dianne Wiest also stars.

I guess you have to be a true movie geek to be a fan of a screenwriter, but count me the Founding President of the Peter Hedges Fan Club. He wrote the (terrific) screenplays for WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE and ABOUT A BOY, then wrote and directed PIECES OF APRIL, much loved around these parts. Word is he's just finished editing DAN IN REAL LIFE, which he also wrote and directed, slated to open October 19 (or maybe 12). It's a Touchstone picture, so count on a much bigger budget, and looks like a more conventional romcom, but we'll hope that takes away none of the heart and not too much of the originality that made PIECES OF APRIL such a favourite. (Didn't hurt ABOUT A BOY any...)

Jason Goode, Annunciation Pictures


I met Jason Goode through Pacific Theatre and Regent College, and he's become a personal friend, a serious movie buddy. We recently spent a very long day (morning, afternoon and long into the evening) working our way scene by scene through the under-appreciated VANILLA SKY, with occasional looks at scenes from OPEN YOUR EYES - we had a heck of a time, and I learned a lot about Cameron Crowe.

This Thursday night (July 19) HITCHHIKER, his short film (starring Gina Chiarelli, written by Kathy Parsons) will screen as part of the Regent College Mini-Shorts Film Festival evening, with the filmmakers and a panel of movie people in attendance to talk about the films.

Jason's Annunciation Pictures is in development on a number of other projects, including a couple written with the marvelous Lucia Frangione (whose ESPRESSO, CARIBOO MAGI, HOLY MO and CHICKENS have all graced the Pacific Theatre stage).

Here's what Annunciation is all about;
Annunciation Pictures: Bringing life to stories
Established in 2005, Annunciation Pictures' aim is to bring to life movies of integrity and substance, and deliver them to audiences around the entire globe. Annunciation Pictures seeks to tell these stories with excellence and nurture emerging storytellers who share this vision.


A list of HITCHHIKER's festival selections and awards;
Los Angeles International Short Film Festival (World/US Premiere)
Calgary International Film Festival (Canadian Premiere)
Winnipeg International Film Festival
D.C. Shorts Film Festival
Niagara Indie Film Fest (Best Independent Drama)
Okanagan Film Festival (Opening Gala Presentation, Audience Top 10 Award)
Women in Film Festival, B.C. (Audience 2nd Place Award)
Big House Film Festival (Best Comedy)
East Lansing Film Festival
Flickerings Film Festival
Digital Narrative Arts Film Festival
World of Comedy Film Festival
Longbaugh Film Festival
Beach Blanket Film Festival

Sunday, July 15, 2007

ADAM'S APPLES


ADAM’S APPLE (“Adams æbler” 2005, Denmark/Germany, Anders Thomas Jensen)
I want to go some place where people die when they are sick, and don't sit in the yard eating cowboy toast when they have been shot through the head.

I’ll say this: it’s the funniest movie I've seen for a very long time. I haven’t laughed so hard in years and years. I’ll also say this: if you find it as funny as I did, I don't want you anywhere near my loved ones. I’ll also say this: it’s as theologically stimulating, baffling, transgressive, paradigm inverting, idiosyncratic, theologically gutsy and – just maybe – spiritually significant a movie as almost any I've seen. Ever.

Adam is a very nasty neo-Nazi whose prison release requires a community service stint at a rural church. At first he can’t believe his luck: the “Put on a happy face” pastor overseeing his rehabilitation lets him name his own terms, and appears quite content with Adam’s suggestion that he need only bake an apple pie before being released back into society. When a series of wildly improbable quasi-Biblical plagues afflict the parish apple tree, preventing completion of what ought to have been dead-easy penance, Adam takes it upon himself to confront the insanely optimistic preacher’s galling naivete with ever-increasing doses of harsh reality.

There’s a “Book Of Job” throughline and (therefore) lots to unpack about the ultimate source of the plagues that beset us. There’s clever riffing on everything from “first Adam / second Adam” (and I suppose third Adam?) to the Bible’s various trees (we’re talking Eden and Golgotha), and a considerable amount of “I can’t believe I’m laughing at this” random cruelty and wanton bad behaviour.

At a certain point the basic psychological survival mechanism of good old-fashioned denial crosses into delusional madness: in ADAM’S APPLES, the “Always look on the bright side” philosophy of Pastor Ivan has definitely gone way past that point. There can also be a very porous border between madness and sanctity: I’m thinking Saint Francis and his buddies here – more FRANCIS, GOD’S JESTER, not so much BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON. It seems pretty clear that Anders Thomas Jensen’s outrageously black comedy is quite convinced that faith – at least, Ivan’s extreme “Don’t worry, be happy” brand of faith – is foolishness: the question you’ll have to decide for yourself is whether the man might possibly be a holy fool, or just your plain old garden variety fool. This sly religious parable is canny enough, artful enough, and respectful enough of it’s audience to leave plenty of room for either reading.

And regardless of where you come down, I can promise you this: you’ll never hear How Deep Is Your Love the same way again.

FLOWERS OF SAINT FRANCIS, ORDET, DOGVILLE, FORREST GUMP, THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST


Film Movement has slated a North American DVD release for late 2007! Which means it may even end up in your local video store sooner or later, just like HAWAII OSLO did. Meanwhile you can order a copy (fully equipped with English subtitles, though on a Region 3 disk - most players, especially in computers, will handle that with no problem) from this Danish DVD distributor for a paltry 59.95 Kroner - something like $11.64 Canadian! (Though there's no telling what the postage will come to). I couldn't manage to figure out how to log into the site to order myself a copy, not speaking a whole lot of Danish, but if anybody has the requisite skills to help me out, I'll be buying it in a flash. A movie I must see again, and show all my most twisted friends.

Website Recommendation: Past The Popcorn

I posted my first pass at a quickie review of ANGEL-A at A&F, and was pleased to find somebody else who'd seen it that I could have a conversation with - and who'd written a real fine review that's helping me rethink my own. (I'm going to steal that line, "Angel-A comes across as a very personal tribute to the redemptive power of supermodels..." WIWT)

Greg's a very good writer, a key contributor to the relatively new (it started fall 2006) faith and film website Past The Popcorn. A bit more from Greg's PTP bio: "Writer in Residence at Puget Sound Christian College in Everett, Washington. The author of Peter Jackson in Perspective: The Power Behind Cinema’s The Lord of the Rings (Hollywood Jesus Books, 2004), as well as Tolkien in Perspective: Sifting the Gold from the Glitter (VMI, 2003), Greg has been an editor at HollywoodJesus.com for several years, and is a member of the Faith and Film Critics Circle."

Here's some popcorn for you to munch, samples from a handful of PTP reviews that happen to have caught my eye - either because they're Soul Food related, or because the review made me want to see the film. The title of each is a link to the full review: click on it and you're there!

After the Wedding
There's More At Work Than What You Think
Mike Smith (20.04.07)
Our father, who art in Denmark, overwhelming is thy wealth. Thy kingdom comes, thy will is done, on earth… But not so much in heaven. Jørgen is a father; he is a wealthy, smart manipulator who apparently has an eagle eye for detail and an uncommon understanding of human nature. He seems to know everything about everyone, and has them and the world under his control. Except for one thing… mortality. But no one in After the Wedding can possibly imagine what is foremost on Jørgen’s mind. They are too caught up in their own guilt, personal struggles, pain, and lives in general to see his plan for what it is: their best chance at new life and peace.

Amazing Grace
Amazing and Graceful, If Not Perfect
Greg Wright (23.02.07)
As a history lesson, Amazing Grace is beyond admirable. As a tract on the evils of the 18th-century slave trade, it’s a powerful indictment and makes a fine companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 19th-century slave-trade tale from the opposite side of the Atlantic, Amistad. As a portrait of Wilberforce, it’s an Oscar-bait complex powerhouse. As an example of ensemble acting that might be more memorable than anything else we’ll see this year, we couldn’t ask for more. And still, the whole doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts.

Angel-A
Of Schlubs and Gorgeous Women
Greg Wright (22.06.07)
Angel-A appears to be genuinely interested in seeing people lifted out of their circumstances. While at the film’s beginning André seems to operate on the principle that “the only person who can do anything for you is yourself,” he learns (and the film seems to support the idea) that humanity has not been abandoned: that God really does care, and also has the good sense to recruit angels built like (and played by) supermodels. Ultimately, Besson’s is a moral universe in which one’s actions toward others are a pretty good barometer of how one will treat oneself. Very Golden Rule-ish, in a French and earthy fashion. And this is all commendable, and prettily filmed. The wildly prolific producer/writer/director Besson is no hack.

Away From Her
Love, Drama, and Threat of Alzheimer’s
Jeff Walls (11.05.07)
Sarah Polley’s deliberate story-telling is aided by Away From Her’s brilliant lead performances. Julie Christie, one of the most radiant women ever to shine on the silver screen, has lost none of her glow in her older years. As Fiona, the 66-year-old actress steals the light in all of her scenes as she subtly, gracefully plays a woman whose mind is deteriorating. It’s hard to watch, yet impossible to look away as Christie’s Fiona struggles to remember the simple things, such as the word “wine.” Still, as good as Christie is, it is the performance of Gordon Pinsent that is the heart and soul of this moving picture.

Becket
Like a Comfortable Pair of Old Mocassins
Greg Wright (23.02.07)
One of the reasons Becket feels so refreshingly comfortable is that it begs to be talked about in conventional narrative terms. For instance, the “central conflict” is easily identifiable. By today’s standards, though, the pace of the film will seem plodding to most, almost even soporific. The performances will come across as overdone, even hammy. The direction and storytelling will seem positively pedestrian. Still, the two areas where Becket should still work for all audiences, though, are in its dialogue and in its themes. Becket and many of its contemporaries were such fine, fine films.

Beyond the Gates
Staredown with a Tragic Dilemma
Jenn Wright (30.03.07)
As director Michael Caton-Jones presents the terrible history of these appalling events, Beyond the Gates plunges the audience into a palpable abyss of ethical considerations, leaving us with only our ideas and our thoughts and our beliefs to wrestle through. For me, Caton-Jones’ work is the machete that cleaves bone from flesh, separating the sinews into ugly lumps of mere potential strength with no solid support. Ultimately, he presents a painful history, made all the more profound when, at the end, 800,000 people are violently murdered; certain races are saved; and we are left wondering what we would do if we were in Joe’s or Father Christopher’s shoes, and what, if anything, is “right.”

Black Snake Moan
Expect the Unexpected
Michael Brunk (02.03.07)
Despite the heavy setup, there are more than a few light moments to be found in Black Snake Moan. With Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Lazarus, you can expect a healthy dose of his unique wit, and more than a little salty language to go along with it. It’s safe to say this movie has its raw moments as well, and that includes a few fairly graphic sexual scenes featuring Christina Ricci’s Rae. She’s a good match on-screen for Jackson, though. Still, if that’s all the movie had to offer, it would be easy to dismiss. Fortunately, wrapped inside is a touching story of redemption.

Conversations with God
Implications of the Metaphysical
Greg Wright (27.10.06)
Director Stephen Simon brings a marvelous visual eye and narrative pace to Conversations with God. Particularly impressive are the visual conceptions of the film’s opening and closing scenes—sequences whose metaphysical implications are sure to pique the ire of those who don’t particularly buy Walsch’s “God is within you all” line of inquiry—as well as the simple, gritty realism of Walsch’s experiences on the street, which reminded me of Martin Bell’s American Heart (1992) and Tim Hunter’s The Saint of Fort Washington (1993). This ain’t Factotum or Barfly land, which is good, because there’s no hint of ironic self-indulgence or sarcastic humor in Walsch’s Conversations.

Evan Almighty
If You Film It, Will They Come?
Greg Wright (22.06.07)
The narrative tension in Evan Almighty, if you haven’t seen the trailer, comes from wondering whether a flood is actually coming; if you’ve seen the trailer, the tension comes from wondering just how, exactly, Evan and his ark will tie in to Congressman Long’s land use bill. Most of the humor in the scenario derives first from Steve Carell’s comedic physicality, which he invests pretty fully in his portrayal of Evan Baxter; then from Baxter’s reluctance to buy in to the whole “voice of God” thing; next from his transformation from Mr. Primp to Mr. Hairy/Robed Prophet; and finally from the Keystone Kops-lite ark-building sequence. Is the humor enough to warrant a recommendation? Probably, for most audiences.

Fay Grim
Grim Fools and Grimmer Fairytales
Greg Wright (25.05.07)
Hal Hartely’s latest film, Fay Grim, picks up where Henry Fool left off ten years ago—that is, I have to assume it does. While I’m a big Hartley fan (or at least a fan of the artily self-conscious dialogue that he writes) I missed Fool. But all the cast members are back, reprising their roles and extending the story while revising both it and Hartley’s own milieu. In the past, one could never really accuse a Hartley film of being over-plotted; but to be perfectly honest, having just completed my review of the latest Pirates movie, the thought of also synopsizing the equally plot- and exposition-heavy Fay Grim has me a little daunted. It’s that dense.

The Fountain
Clear as Mud, But So Was Kubrick
Greg Wright (22.11.06)
Oddly, The Fountain isn’t about the fountain of youth. It’s about the Tree of Life. Melding tales from Mayan culture, biblical accounts, and related religious traditions, Aronofsky envisions an apocalyptic future which unites and fulfills them all. Ultimately, his film analyzes our perceptions of death, and our perceptions of life. I don’t think it gives anything away to note that, when he finally fulfills his quest, Izzi’s conquistador discovers that eternal life looks nothing like what he expected. The same is true with the space traveler’s quest: does it fail, or does it succeed? That all depends on one’s perspective—a perspective that Tommy sorely needs in order to deal with Izzi’s terminal condition.

Hidden Secrets
The Not-So-Hidden Secret: It’s “Christian”...
Greg Wright (27.04.07)
Sometimes low expectations work in a film’s favor. That’s certainly the case with Hidden Secrets, the flagship release of new film production company PureFlix Entertainment—a film I only agreed to review because it technically meets the criteria for films we review at Past the Popcorn: it’s booked for theatrical release (May 30), and it is potentially relevant to our readership. But boy was my schlock-meter calibrated for maximum sensitivity when I popped the screener into my laptop on a flight down to L.A. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by this idealistic, gentle, somewhat cloistered, but genuinely moving little film.

Into Great Silence
And At Great Length, Too
Greg Wright (30.03.07)
Into Great Silence is indeed a worthy project in documenting monasticism. It takes its time and gives us enough silence to whet the appetite for more—or satisfy us that we’ve had plenty, thanks. It makes no attempt to sugar-coat the experience, clearly depicting the level of self-denial involved. It’s also revelatory in its communication of the role that repetition and structure play not only in monastic life, but in general liturgical faith. Upon reflection, I’m also grateful that the film makes to attempt to either “sell” the audience on monasticism or persuade the audience of the discipline’s merits. Sadly, I grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of anything distinctively Christian about the experience, apart from the sparse liturgy and Scripture.

The Painted Veil
A Fallen View of Redemption
Greg Wright (22.12.06)
The Painted Veil—a project of artistic passion for partners Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, as well as Watts’ prior collaborator, director John Curran—is both maddening and refreshing in its refusal to answer its own questions in the style to which we have become accustomed. There are no pat answers here. The tale of Kitty Fane’s journey toward love, loss, and restoration is both revealing—as the veil of Kitty’s self-absorption is lifted to reveal the truth of life, death, and Walter Fane’s passion—and mystifying. It’s easy to see why Somerset Maugham’s novel has now thrice been adapted to the screen (first in 1934, with Garbo as Kitty, and again in 1957 in the loosely adapted The Seventh Sin).

Pan’s Labyrinth
Great Fantasy, Compelling Hero, Failed Film
Greg Wright (29.12.06)
Young Ivana Baquero is well up to the task of portraying Ofelia, the protagonist of Pan’s Labyrinth, and her performance is another of the film’s strengths. Baquero manages the nuances required for such a complex character, and she never seems overwhelmed either by the special effects, the ghoulishness of her two worlds, or the one-dimensional overacting of her costars. The film also delivers what are probably the best fantasy sequences in recent memory—and that’s saying quite a lot, given the fantasies that have come to the screen in recent years. Specifically, del Toro’s creatures possess the convincing, realistic otherness which was so lacking in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Perfume
So Much Artistry, or So Much Decadent Wallow?
Greg Wright (27.12.06)
The first half of Perfume plays like a gritty and literate commentary on the dilemma of an artist. Is it even possible to capture beauty, to limn truth? If so, how do we go about it? Is it better to be blessed with innate talent, or to learn your craft by discipline? Perhaps some combination of the two? Given that Tykwer has said in interviews that film “is a way to … put [time] in a box”—to capture “the beauty of people”—it’s even easy to read the Paris sequence as Tykwer’s meditation on his own chosen artform, his private film fanaticism.

The Reaping
Once More into the Spiritual Breach
Greg Wright (05.04.07)
The Reaping’s strength is its production design—just reminiscent enough of a backlot set to remind us this is a movie, just otherworldly enough to invoke the metaphysical. And it’s all stunning. After a while, though, it becomes difficult to really care much about what’s real and what isn’t—particularly when filmmaking flim-flammery almost constantly reminds that we are, after all, just watching a movie. I’m pretty sure that director Stephen Hopkins more-or-less buys into the idea of supernatural evil; but it seems here that studio-head queasiness has watered down the director’s potion. And most of the audience with whom I saw the film just wasn’t swallowing it.

Rescue Dawn
Herzog At His Best
Greg Wright (13.07.07)
Rescue Dawn is something of an ordeal for the audience—much as Herzog’s other films before it. Think, perhaps, of a Terrence Malick or Carroll Ballard film tied to a bullwhip or a mace. Think of lyric brutality. And then imagine Herzog thinking, rather dispassionately, that any audience which imagines itself as suffering more than his protagonist—or himself, as an artist—is not much worth worrying about. I’d say that the smart money is that you won’t much care for Rescue Dawn. But if you like cinema that demands a great deal of you, that doesn’t let you off the hook with ten-second character development, a half-hour hook, and three dazzling chase sequences, then this film may just be for you.

Waitress
A Bittersweet, Charming Confection
Jeff Walls (11.05.07)
A humorous, quirky comedy, Waitress is short of great; but it demonstrates some marvelous potential—and director Adrienne Shelly might easily have joined the likes of Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron as one of the premiere female directors if not for her untimely death. Although some major plot points are easily predictable and some editing issues cause the pacing of the film to ebb and flow, for the most part Waitress is a delight, a charming, somewhat whimsical comedy that is uplifting and heartwarming. Adrienne Shelly, high above us, should be proud.

ANDREI RUBLEV (1966, USSR, Tarkovsky)

ANDREI RUBLEV (AKA “The Passion According To Andrei” 1966, USSR, Andrei Tarkovsky, screenplay with Andrei Konchalovsky)
I'll never paint again. Because it's of no use to anyone. That's all.

This film doesn’t pander. It barely accommodates. You can watch for an hour, you might even make it all the way to the end, without being entirely sure which of the grim Russian monks is the title character. They look all alike, and names are rarely spoken.

As the film opens, a mob tries to prevent a man from taking flight in a hot air balloon made of animal skins. He soars headlong over land and water, experiencing a view of the world unavailable to the violent crowd left behind him on the ground. A dizzying, perhaps disastrous, descent to the earth. Then in slow motion, a horse rolls on its back, gets to its feet and walks past the deflating balloon. What this incident has to do with the rest of the film is never explained. It might or might not become clear on second or third viewing.

ANDREI RUBLEV might be considered the Mount Everest of spiritual film. It is intimidating, imposing, remote, yet sooner or later every cinephile with an interest in exploring the furthest reaches of faith and art will mount an inevitable expedition. For those who persevere, the film yields an extraordinary perspective of the world below.

The director's quasi-autobiographical film conveys the near impossibility and apparent futility of the artist’s task in the face of suffering and upheaval. Overwhelmed by and even implicated in the horrific violence of Tartar invasions and ongoing bloody clashes between warring Russian princes – the protracted birth pains of modern Russia – the nation’s greatest artist struggles with the legitimacy of his work, questioning whether art-making could possibly server the glory of God in such circumstances.
Andrei Tarkovsky was himself a Christian, and it is easy to read the film as the testimony (protest?) of an artist believer under the repressive Soviet regime of the early 1960s. Its subtitle suggests his personal identification with the travails of the great Russian iconographer, and may explain why the film was shown only briefly in Moscow in 1966 before being shelved for three years. A single covert out-of-competition screening at the Cannes Festival introduced this austere, obscure masterpiece to the world, and its mystique grew until bemused London audiences were finally able to view a 140 minute cut in 1973. They assumed that this elliptical pageant, moving almost at random through a quarter century of medieval Russian history in a series of barely connected scenarios of brutal violence and obscure theologizing, interrupted by sudden and unannounced fantasy sequences, must have been rendered unintelligible by Soviet censors.

Such challenges did not originate with the bureaucrats. Far more complete versions screened in the ensuing three and a half decades, each successive release only adding to the film’s narrative and thematic challenges. Tarkovsky’s subsequent films all confirm the artist’s lack of interest in conventional narrative and his unwillingness to diminish the mysterious complexities of the images he places on screen. Indeed it might be said that his central preoccupation is Mystery, that he fiercely resists any steps toward simplification or clarity that might diminish his ability to evoke that quality on film. In his aesthetic manifesto Sculpting In Time, Tarkovsky himself writes that his masterpiece “strikes me as disjointed and incoherent”: he calls it “a complete mystery, the riddle of my life.”

It was only during my second viewing that I started even to appreciate this daunting, opaque film. It took a third time through (with two friends who had never met, each of whom counted this their uncontested favorite film) to begin actually to like it. But it was only after working my way through the film scene-by-scene, followed a fifth complete viewing, that the power of ANDREI RUBLEV truly took hold of me, and I came to share my friends’ enthusiasm. I can't understand why the film didn’t speak to me when first I encountered it, it lives so close to the central concerns of my life. In all its mystery and concreteness, Tarkovsky's masterpiece has become essential to my faith, speaking as no other film does to my understanding of the place of my art in the world, and in the kingdom of God. And in no way that I can express in words, it reassures and strengthens my resolve to face the inevitability of suffering that comes to every human life.

It has been worth so so long and challenging a climb. So difficult a flight. When you get up high enough, there’s a lot you can see.

THE SACRIFICE


Available at Videomatica

Saturday, July 14, 2007

AFTER LIFE


AFTER LIFE (“Wandafuru raifu” 1998, Japan, Hirokazu Kore-eda)
What is the one memory you would take with you?

In a worn, empty and utterly ordinary old building someplace between earth and eternity, a dutiful group of caseworkers guides twenty-two people in their transition from life to what lies ahead. Each client has three days to choose one, and only one, event from their lives to accompany them into the after life. Then the staff has three more days to stage and film each of the episodes on a simple soundstage. On Saturday the short films are shown, each client takes their memory and departs for whatever lies beyond the walls of this metaphysical way station. A meditation on the sacredness of the everyday, this exquisite film quietly grounds its otherworldly premise in closely observed quotidian details – including the use of actual documentary interviews – regardless of whether it is considering the making of tea, the making of memories, the making of art or the making of eternal decisions. The literal translation of the Japanese title is “Wonderful Life.”

DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, OPEN YOUR EYES, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK


Available at Videomatica

ANGEL-A


ANGEL-A (2005, France, Luc Besson)
My name’s Angela. I fell out of the sky.

He’s charming in a Euro-schlumpy sort of way, but he talks too much (and lies a lot), and now he’s talked himself into bad trouble with some really bad guys. There’s no way to raise their 30K before they toss him in the river, so he decides to save himself a beating and them the trouble. Poised on the edge of a picturesque Paris bridge, our hero notices an impossibly tall, impossibly gorgeous (apart from the tears and runny mascara marring her impossibly high-cheekboned face) blonde in an impossibly tiny black micro-dress, one pylon down. Once she’s taken care of the mascara problem by flinging herself into the river and having him rescue her, it becomes apparent the whole thing was a set-up: she’s not only figuratively but literally an angel, sent Clarence-like to save him from himself.

Early on it’s a kick: there’s a quirky comic chemistry between the statuesque babe in the little black dress and the charming schlump with the motor mouth. For a while the movie is content to look great and get its kicks riffing on angel movies like WINGS OF DESIRE and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, not taking itself too seriously. But as things progress it tries to dig deeper and... Well, there’s just no depth there to dig. The gospel of this wannabe-spiritual effort is some embarrassingly juvenile “love yourself” psycho-babble folded into a seriously creepy over-ripe romanticism that’s all about rescuing, worshipping and lusting after sexy, fallen angel-whores.

Luc Besson (definitely not to be mistaken for fellow French filmer Robert Bresson) wants desperately to make spiritual films, but this one makes it clear that he’s seriously confused. If, like me, you think this sleek, chic black and white fashion video might be a lot of fun – at least a guilty pleasure – be warned: it’s all eye-candy, zero soul food. The gorgeous angel gets the schlemiel off the hook by schlepping the gangster who’s after him – yech – and drums up the money he needs to pay off the other thugs by having ten or twenty guys pay her a thousand Euro a pop to have sex with her in the bathroom of a club – serious yech. And while the beneficiary may express qualms about her tactics – he’s falling in love with her, after all – the angel doesn’t seem to mind, I’m quite sure Besson doesn’t really mind, and he invites us to figure it’s No Big Deal. I figure it’s repulsive.

A shame about the whole whore thing. Apart from that, this could have had a kinda-dumb-but-cute likeability. No such luck.

THE FIFTH ELEMENT, THE MESSENGER

*

PS I love this post from an IMDb user...
There is, it seemed to me, a big effort to make his film deep considering the discourse. It can be perceptible through the plenty of plays with symbols that are contained in it. The main problem is that by writing such dialogs, certain scenes seem too artificial and often too long. This has to be added to the fact that if you see the film in french, you"ll quickly notice that the dialogs that often concern both J Debbouze and Rie Rasmussen are more than sometimes incomprehensible and require a permanent attention to decipher them.
"More than sometimes incomprehensible" indeed...

Friday, July 13, 2007

ABOUT SCHMIDT

Short version
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002, Alexander Payne, screenplay with Jim Taylor from Louis Begley’s novel)
It doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt.

Starting with the toast at Warren’s retirement party, an old work buddy paying him tribute with the abrasive wisdom of a half-soused Solomon, this movie resides not only in the heart of America’s Midwest, but at the centre of Old Testament wisdom literature. You can read it in Jack Nicholson's sad-eyed, tight-mouthed, ever-so-weary face: it’s all vanity. A chasing after wind.

Approaching the end of his days – days he’s spent numbering; he’s an insurance actuary – a man begins examining his thus-far unexamined life and wonders if it’s been worth living. And so, in the finest of American movie traditions, he decides to head out on the highway looking for... Well, whatever it is he’s missing. It’s EASY RIDER in a Winnebago (“Born To Be Mild”?), a Bing Crosby / Bob Hope vehicle with no Hope. Call it ROAD TO DENVER, a buddy-less buddy movie.

ABOUT SCHMIDT is a confounding film, as hard to get a handle on as the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, a comparison theologian Robert K. Johnston details in Useless Beauty. We want to believe that if you just do the right thing, set aside your risky, irresponsible schemes and live out the unspectacular kind of charity that begins at home, it’ll all work out for the best. Like it did for Jimmy Stewart in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But Solomon ain’t buying it. Neither are Taylor or Payne.

Some find this director smug, his attitude toward characters condescending, judgmental, mocking: others see affection, sometimes respect, even grace, eventually. The truth lies at neither pole. Payne both criticizes and cherishes, shows the good alongside the bad, tips the scale back and forth with masterful, disorienting precision.

Sometimes the job of the artist is to bring the bad news. Without it, the good can be sentimental and self-deceiving. If something’s rotten in the state of, say, Nebraska, shouldn’t somebody say something?

ELECTION, IKIRU, THE STRAIGHT STORY, MILLIONS

*

Long version, rough draft
ABOUT SCHMIDT (2002, Alexander Payne, screenplay with Jim Taylor from Louis Begley novel)
I am weak. And I'm a failure, there's just no getting around it. Relatively soon I will die, maybe in twenty years, maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt.

The blank faced, sad eyed, tight mouthed Warren Schmidt might almost be Auden’s Unknown Citizen, “one against whom there was no official complaint / And all the reports on his conduct agree / That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint.” Ah, but in the true sense? “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd: Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

At his retirement banquet a buddy from the old days begins paying tribute with the wisdom of a half-soused Solomon – not the know-it-all wise guy of the biblical Book of Proverbs, but the sadder, wiser preacher of Ecclesiastes. "All those gifts over there don't mean a god damn thing. And this dinner doesn’t mean a god damn thing. And the social security and pension don’t mean a god damn thing. None of these superficialities mean a god damn thing.” The truth of his words is reflected in Warren’s weary face: it’s all vanity.

But when Ray moves on to really does mean something, we begin to wonder if he still speaks the Bible truth. What matters, according to Ray’s living epistle to the Nebraskans, is “the knowledge that you devoted your life to something meaningful. To being productive and working for a fine company. Hell, one of the top-rated insurance companies in the nation. To raising a fine family, to building a fine home, to being respected by your community, to having wonderful lasting friendships. At the end of his career, if a man can look back and say I did it, I did my job, then he can retire in glory and enjoy riches far beyond the monetary kind. So, all you young people here, take a good look at a very rich man.” Warren is also unconvinced: the effort required to muster the requisite smile in response to the oracle’s words exhausts our hero, and he excuses himself to seek out the company of a vodka gimlet in the lonely bar. Approaching the end of his days – days he has spent his life numbering, in his job as an insurance actuary – Warren begins to examine his so-far unexamined life, and wonders if it’s been worth living.

ABOUT SCHMIDT is a confounding movie – as confounding as the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, which theologian Robert K. Johnston finds to be the centre of this film’s power and meaning. What kind of comedy offers a guided tour of the futility of a decent, well-meaning man’s life? What kind of Bible verse goes “In spite of all our work there is nothing we can take with us. It isn’t right! We go just as we came. We labor, trying to catch the wind, and what do we get? We get to live our lives in darkness and grief, worried, angry, and sick.” I don’t recall memorizing that one in Sunday School.

It seems so wrong. We want to believe that if you just do the right thing, if you set aside your riskier, larger ambitions – Warren would have loved to see his smiling picture on the cover of Fortune 500, “Schmidt Int’l blows the bell curve with its out-of-this-world performance” – and focus on the good of others, do the unspectacular kind of charity that begins at home, it’ll all work out for the best. Like it did for Jimmy Stewart in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. You’ve got job responsibilities, a family to support, your wife could never handle the strain of risky enterpeneurship, so you settle. I mean, that’s the gospel, isn’t it? Self-sacrifice? Laying down your life, your self-aggrandizing dreams, for others? You go to church, you do it by the book, take on adult responsibilities, you do what makes your wife happy – and then you find it’s left you with this? No job, no hobbies except channel surfing, a wife you can’t stand, a daughter who can’t stand you, and one friend – who you find out has been schlepping your wife. A chasing after wind.

So in the finest of American movie traditions, Warren takes to the open road in search of... Well, whatever it is he’s lacking – in an absurdly oversized Winnebago, the fruit of a dutiful career. Ultimately this is a road movie, the kind of picaresque buddy picture that’s low on plot but big on self-discovery, where a couple of guys (or gals, if they’re named THELMA AND LOUISE) head out on the highway looking for adventure and... Well, self-discovery, America, meaning, friendship. Whatever comes their way. This is ROAD TO DENVER, and Warren plays Bob Hope to... Well, to whose Bing Crosby? Turns out ABOUT SCHMIDT is the saddest thing of all, a buddy-less buddy movie. At the outset, Warren’s only apparent buddy called him a rich man, but it turns out he’s ended up without even George Bailey’s legacy: he has no friends.

Except Ndugu, an African orphan to whom he’s begun sending his dutiful twenty-two bucks a month. He even goes the extra mile, enclosing a personal note. And lacking anybody in his real life to talk to, Warren pours out his heart – wildly inappropriately (“Goddammit if they didn’t replace me with some kid who doesn’t know a damn thing about genuine real-world risk assessment or managing a department for that matter – cocky bastard!”), and bracketed with the conventional wisdom of Warren’s world whose absurdity reveals itself in juxtaposition to Third World realities (“I highly recommend you pledge a fraternity when you go to college”). There’s also delicious irony in the gap between what Warren writes and what we see; after reporting his wife’s passing (“I hope you’re sitting down...”), he observes (Solomon-like) that death awaits everyone, life is short and he’s got to make the best of whatever time he has left – as we see him fall asleep in front of the TV. “I can’t afford to waste another minute.” Fade to black, white title appears: “Two weeks later.” Fade up on the same face, a bit puffier, a bit more stubble, sleeping in front of the same screen, wearing the same pajamas. I love the complexity: it’s an on-the-nose illustration of the gap between Warren’s words and his actions, between his perceptions and reality, a portrait I suppose of self-delusion. But it’s also a terribly sad, completely understandable snapshot of a lonely man grieving the loss of his wife, cut loose from his place in the world. (Don’t let anybody – even Robert McKee – tell you that voice-overs are flaccid, sloppy writing, shortcut explanations of a character’s thoughts. One of the great subtleties of twentieth century fiction is the complexity of the unreliable narrator: in the hands of an Alexander Payne or a DAYS OF HEAVEN Terrence Malick, the dissonance between what’s said and what’s seen is the essence of an artistry that does anything but condescend to the viewer or explain itself away.)

Viewers are as fiercely divided on this film as they are over ELECTION, the director’s other great assault on standard-issue mid-American values, the received wisdom of good old meat-and-potatoes Protestant work-ism. But Rob Johnston maintains that if the attack on dearly held convictions grates on us, it’s meant to – just as the disorienting words of Ecclesiastes are intended to smack us hard, shake loose our well-thought-through answers and confront us with the gap between what we want to think and what we’re afraid to face.

The job of art – heck, the job of prophets, let’s come out and say it – is to interrogate our presuppositions. We take offense when it’s suggested that these things we value are weighed in the balance and found wanting – our jobs, our churches, our families, our inadequate charity, our half-failed attempts to be responsible, to do what’s required of us. Are these things really so bad? No, of course they’re not bad – or at least, they’re not necessarily bad. But what about when they go bad? What if the day comes when all of a sudden they turn out not actually to be enough? It’s those days that draw the attention of the artist, if not the entertainer – those hard questions, the questions maybe without answers. (What answers do you find in Ecclesiastes? It may be there, in fact I think it is – so does Mr Johnston – but it’s damned elusive. No wonder so many artists love that book so.) Perhaps Alexander Payne’s calling is to bring the bad news that must always precede the good – without which the good news is nothing but sentimentality and self-deception. If something’s rotten in the state of, well, Nebraska, isn’t it somebody’s job to point that out? First the tragedy, then the comedy – or in Payne’s case, a whole lot of both, all at the same time.

(A moment’s digression, to talk more about this bad news – the film’s idea of what may be at the heart of Warren’s lostness, and maybe that of a whole culture around him. Let’s take a moment to say just a word about compliance, repression and passive aggression. Could it be that these are Warren’s besetting sins? The fundamental dishonesties, the endless small acts of moral and relational cowardice that have, over time, corroded his soul. Watch as he relates to his wife, watch the veiled resentment as he shrinks, contorts and limits himself to fit her peculiarities and foibles, mistaking preferences for commands, turning her into a tyrant, to the point where he’s become the surly slave, she the caricature of the harsh taskmaster. And it’s not only in his marriage, or his workplace, that he’s shrunk himself too small: watch the man, or what’s left of a man, comply himself to death in a marvelous scene, deleted from the final cut of the film, where he orders breakfast the morning after his transcendent experience on the rooftop of the Winnebago;
I awoke from my night in the wilderness completely transformed. I'm like a new man. For the first time in years, I feel clear. I know what I want, I know what I've got to do, and nothing's going to stop me ever again.
Can I take your order?
Um, I'd like a plain omlette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, cup of coffee and wheat toast.
No substitutions.
Oh. Fine. I'll just have the potatoes.
So much for good intentions. It’s a brilliant scene, funny, revealing. Even if you don’t recognize the riff on Jack Nicholson’s iconic scene in FIVE EASY PIECES, three decades prior;
I'd like a plain omelet. No potatoes. Tomatoes instead. A cup of coffee
and wheat toast.
No substitutions.
What do you mean? You don't have any tomatoes?
Only what's on the menu. You can have number two, a plain omelet. It comes with fries and rolls.
I know, but it's not what I want.
Make up your mind.
I have made up my mind. I'd like a plain omelet. No potatoes on the plate. A cup of coffee and a side order of wheat toast.
I'm sorry, we don't have any side orders of toast. I'll give you an English muffin or a coffee roll.
No side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don't you?
Would you like to talk to the manager?
You've got bread and a toaster of some kind?
I don't make the rules.
I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like a plain omelet and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast. No mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce, and a cup of coffee.
A number two. A chicken sal san.
Hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee.
Anything else?
Yeah, now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for a chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken
any rules.
You want me to hold the chicken, huh?
I want you to hold it between your knees.
You see that sign, sir? You'll all have to leave, I'm not taking any more of your smartness and your sarcasm.
You see this sign? (He reaches his arm out and "clears" the table for her. Dishes, menus, cutlery crash to the floor.)
A scene that spoke the heart of a fed-up generation, mad as hell and not going to take it any more – however immature and petulant, there was something right about that kind of insistence, discontent, resistance. How terrifying to think this later, echoing scene might be an equally accurate summation of the spirit of our corporate times, with people reduced to compliant consumers, sad and ineffectual and more than willing to take whatever “it” is so long as we don’t make a fuss. Suddenly those cattle cars Schmidt keeps noticing look like something more than just local color. So maybe his bland-as-white-sauce probably-Lutheran pastor was right, way back there at the funeral, in spite of all the insipidity: “I want to tell you about anger. Anger is okay. God can handle it if we’re angry at him. And I’ll tell you why....)

If some find the film offensive for its attack on perfectly good middle class values, others find even more offense in what they take as an attack on perfectly good middle class people. It’s one thing to make fun of a culture, it’s quite another to make fun of people: that’s personal, and mean spirited. Some find Payne smug, his satire vicious (or, even worse, obvious), his attitude toward his characters condescending. But I maintain that the beauty or beastliness of Payne's characters (or of his attitudes toward his characters) is very much in the eye of the beholder: where another sees ugly mockery and harsh judgment, I see an affection, sometimes even a respect, always eventually a grace that’s sublime, amazing, beautiful. The truth lies at neither pole: Payne both criticizes and cherishes, the good right next to the bad, tipping the scale back and forth from scene to scene, moment to moment, with masterful (and disorienting) precision. Which perspective we most readily respond to, and – more importantly, I suppose – which one we decide after more careful consideration ultimately predominates, will always be a highly subjective judgment call that may reveal as much about ourselves as it does about Payne, about Schmidt, or about the Rusks.

Or about Randall. Oh my gosh. The gormless son-in-law to be. To my mind, one of the film’s great accomplishments is the way we swing between loathing and loving this guileless guy. Of course, it’s Schmidt’s movie, and we can never be sure when we’re viewing the overgrown kid through the eyes of his almost-father-in-law – there’s there’s something like the unreliable narrator thing going on even there. And face it, isn’t Randall – a mulleted, mustachioed momma’s boy of a waterbed salesman who approaches you in your moment of grief with a pyramid scheme – your worst nightmare in the potential-husband-for-your-darling-daughter department? Or is he? An unpretentious, earnest young guy who says what he thinks and feels what he feels – and the most important thing he feels is immense, foolish love for your daughter. No wonder she’s drawn to him and his messy, emotive, soulful, sensual family. Tacky be damned! At least they’re alive.

One usually perceptive friend finds the film’s portrayal of John and Vicki Rusk, the welcoming Winnebago neighbors, unforgivably condescending. I see a pretty straightforward picture of just plain decent prairie folk – a lot like many in my immense circle of relatives, truth be told – who may have smile-worthy mid-west accents and less-than-sophisticated conversational strategies (not to mention tastes in decor that, shall we say, I do not share), but who offer open-hearted warmth and companionship to a desperately lonely man. And frankly, Vicki’s perceptiveness (even wisdom) about the precarious state of her new friend’s soul – “I see something more than grief and loss in you. Something deeper. I just met you but my guess is anger. Anger and, I don’t know, maybe fear?” – and her disingenuous willingness to talk with him about these matters of the heart, things that really matter, came as a stunning surprise to me: I was so taken aback by her directness that I was instantly suspicious, fearing an embarrassing scene of heavy-handed evangelism – just as Warren himself assumes that Vicki is driven by some unspoken agenda of her own. Nope. She just cared, and said something. How functional! How human! And how sad that Mr and Mrs Schmidt have so starved themselves of these simple, direct, soul-feeding things that he (and his daughter, for that matter) have become so desperate for a thing like simple friendship and affection. Know what I think? That viewers who believe John and Vicki are being viewed through a directorial perspective of judgment and urbane condescension may be mistaking their own lenses and prejudices for those of Mr Payne.

SPOILER WARNING

And what do you make of that final scene? Maudlin, a tacked-on, unearned – a sentimental reversal, too little too late? Not nearly enough good to counter a lifetime of not good enough? If you’re inclined to think that the filmmakers intend those tears to signal a complete change of heart for old Warren, a new journey into selflessness, then you’ll likely find it unconvincing, a bit of an indulgence in wishful thinking. If you figure the letter is meant to stand as a resounding “All is not lost! You are making a difference in the world, Warren, your life does mean something!” then I’d have to agree – it seems pathetic that an aid agency’s form letter should mark the sum total of all the good this man has ever done.

But I believe this movie’s final moments border on the sublime: that there’s an inscrutability to this man’s tears, and an authenticity, that lift the film to a level of genuine artistry and un-pin-downable spiritual truth. We cannot know precisely why Warren Schmidt begins to weep. Is this grief for a life utterly empty, a recognition the self-serving nature of his own actions in contrast with the deeply self-denying commitment of Sister Nadene Gautier? Is this perhaps the first moment in the film that isn’t tainted with self-deception, passive-aggressive compliance or misguided meddlesomeness – with folly? Are we witnessing the sort of divine humbling that might, just might, be the forerunner to wisdom?

Robert Johnston sees it all coming down to something as profoundly simple, as primal, as human as the recognition that, though his work has been in vain, though all of his strivings have ended up only a chasing after wind, that there remains the ineluctable reality of Ndugu’s painting – of human conection, the “Two are better off than one” that Ecclesiastes also comes down to after all its hard truths.

I see a miracle of sorts, a heart-breaking that isn’t unearned or at all sudden, that follows from this poor man’s terribly long journey from which he returns to an empty home empty-handed, stripped of illusions, and alone. A man who has been reduced to nothing. All the things he has built into his life for security, protection, meaning have been stripped away. He’s concluded that he is of absolutely no value: “What in the world is better because of me? Relatively soon I will die, maybe in twenty years, maybe tomorrow. It doesn’t matter. Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all.” I call that repentance. I call that sorrow. I call that the absolute, destitute poverty of spirit that maybe ushers in the kingdom of heaven, at least according to Jesus.

The note from Sister Nadene, and the painting that comes with it, taste like a banquet to a soul as hungry as this one. It may not amount to a resounding “Well done, good and faithful servant” from the lips of God himself, but who could expect that? It is, at least, a small but genuine “thank you” from one of God’s servants – and that will do for now. (And that voice! The speaker uncredited anywhere I can find. I’ve got to think that’s a real Sister of the Sacred Heart. It rings, it scratches, it resounds with hard-lived authority, experience, sacrifice, humility – the legacy of a life well-lived. Everything that Warren Schmidt’s life, ultimately has not been about. Alas.)

If we exaggerate the value of Schmidt’s tiny act of generosity, particularly in the context of everything else he has and has done (and has not done), we sentimentalize what is after all a very tiny gesture. The hope at the end of ABOUT SCHMIDT is a small, fragile hope. Does 22 bucks a month counter-balance a life that doesn’t really amount to Schmidt? Does his drop in the bucket really buy him anything like the kingdom of God? Will the rich old former ruler sell his Winnebago, give his money to the poor and follow Sister Nadene into happiness and meaning in the African mission field? Seems unlikely. That’s too much to hope for.

But I think a mustard seed-sized hope is just the right size for the small thing that this man’s soul has been reduced to. We can’t know exactly what Warren’s tears are for. Could be any of a number of things. But I suspect they’re at least two things at once. Grief that he’s done so little, has so little to show for it all – that grief that’s called regret, remorse, humility, maybe repentance – grief that his offering is so small, so inadequate. And relief, gratitude, even joy that the little he brought has been received, recognized, appreciated – that it has mattered. That he has mattered. Even just a little.

Not a lot, in the grand scheme of things. What are two loaves and a handful of fishes among so many? It’s not much. Not nearly enough. But it’s a little.

ELECTION, IKIRU, THE STRAIGHT STORY, MILLIONS


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