Tuesday, January 06, 2004


Observations on HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG

This is a film that sticks with you. It's rich and intricate, and the more you reflect on its specifics, the more its meaning and mysteries present themselves.

My wife has been mulling ever since we saw the film last night, and at one point she said she thought the film was like a poem. I think she meant that it was moody and sparse and evocative, that it engaged the senses and didn't always make its intentions known: we couldn't constantly see the machineries of plot grinding away. Her comment made me think, though, of film poetry in another sense: this movie rhymes. Over and over again, images and scenes "sound like" what's come before, and in that way the film gains a remarkable sense of unity and interconnectedness. Kathy stops (or is stopped?) on the threshold of "her" home to avoid getting blood on the floor: earlier, Behrani cautioned his son (who didn't seem to care) about getting blood on things when he came into their apartment with his knees bloodied from skateboarding. The plastic bag Kathy's foot is wrapped in is echoed by the garment bag at the end of the film. Nadi offers tea to Kathy – it is the (ironic) welcome of a hostess, it is an offer of friendship that (ironically, again) becomes a marker of cultural difference, but most importantly as the story progresses we come to see that it offers an almost sacramental peace, a healing calm and respite – also a dark irony. Mr Behrani takes tea as an act of meditation, to quiet himself: a slant rhyme to other drinking, which deadens pain. And when Kathy comes into the house a second time, Mrs Behrani has her take a bath to calm herself. The bath and the tea, and the release they offer, end up sounding very much alike by the end of the story. And of course the film's final stanza is deeply satisfying, structurally – a precise rhymed couplet to the opening lines, slightly elaborated.

There are rhymes that are almost entirely visual. The camera takes its time to look at environments, especially the interiors of the various "homes" – there's an intricate rhyme scheme to be found in images of cleaning, the way we regard sinks and taps, the angles of walls and floors and doorways, the different beds these characters sleep in (even the bath tub). It also spends considerable time contemplating exteriors, mostly fog. (I had thought the title or the film slightly deficient in the latter respect, initially: the camera's preoccupation with the latter certainly illustrated that this was a house of fog, but how was it a house of sand? Of course, once we ask ourselves that question, the title seems utterly apt, even biblical.)

The film makers often use the outside environment, the weather in particular, as "pillow shots" between scenes: rather than cut directly from one sequence to the next, scenes are often "cushioned" from one another with images of the outdoors, mostly in fog, often rendered threatening by time lapse techniques. This gives us space to contemplate the events of the story, to let significance soak into us. It also provides a sense of structure and order, as the metre in a poem. And when this framing convention is subtly shifted, it provides another very significant rhyme: on two occasions I can remember, the sped-up cloud or fog imagery is unexpectedly imbedded in the middle of a scene, in such a way that we seem to be looking through the eyes of a character, who responds with alarm to this vision – in one case, Mr Behrani, in the other, Kathy. A potent camera technique which has provided space and structure suddenly becomes something more: not allowed to stand outside the story, like a frame around a picture, these images become part of the character's experience within the story. This vision is now shared by the characters themselves. They are seeing evidence that events are beyond their control and moving much too fast: time is out of joint, the natural order has been violated, the world cascades into the sea. There's something Shakespearean in this imagery of nature responding to wrong and dreadful choices of humans: "The night has been unruly. Where we lay, Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say, Lamentings heard i' th' air..."

The moment back in Iran when the colonel ordered that chainsaw to be fired up and those mighty trees were leveled, removing any impediment between him and the open sea, some terrible erosion began: there was nothing to keep their lives from slipping, tumbling off the earth and into the ocean like the fog. It was as if he invoked a curse at that moment: in his hubris, something dire was unleashed, and we glimpsed it on the face of the woman on the beach below, alarm and confusion and a helpless anger, her two children running from the sea in a sort of panic. Of course later we realize that these are the wife and children of the man himself, posed in uniform at the railing of his deck, surveying the tree-stripped horizon with satisfaction. And I think of his wife's eventual comment that it was his fault they had to leave their homeland: because we never see the actual events that led to their departure, I couldn't help thinking it was somehow because of the trees. Foolish, of course, but also true? The way a child might misattribute actual specific causes and effects, lacking information or good understanding of their parents' realities, but nonetheless seeing something in the pattern of behaviour. It wasn't this father's cutting of the trees that caused them to have to leave their home, but that act revealed something in his nature that we intuitively understand to be connected with his inability to function under the new regime – something forceful, proud, intransigent, perhaps visionary or idealistic, but also threatening and potentially destructive. There is another visual and narrative rhyme in the two railed decks that view two different seas, two sets of workers wielding tools, cutting wood, imposing Behrani's will on things.

There is a fatefulness in this story that seems close to Shakespeare's tragedies (and I suppose those of the Greeks, and Arthur Miller), and it is truly Shakespearean that the relentless inevitability of events (but not quite inevitability: at so many moments, changing the course of things seems within the characters' grasp) seems not only in the hands of some external fate or fates, and somehow inextricably interwoven with nature, but just as inescapably that it's to be rooted in the natures and consequent actions of the people themselves. Some of the apparent inevitability seems as threatening as it does precisely because these dark consequences arise out of the characters' choices, and we are led to wonder if the inevitability is build into their own hearts. (Another set of visual rhymes involves the times when the colonel – or, for that matter, the sheriff – chooses to don his uniform. Fateful moments all.) It is frightening to think our fates are in the hands of ineluctable natural forces or vengeful gods: when we consider that perhaps our own choices, and the choices of the people around us, are just as inevitably shaped by the darknesses in our hearts, that fear is compounded into real horror – the threat is so close at hand, so undeniable. Some actions will bring destruction, darkness will flow out of us – from our pride and prevarications, from our weakness and addictions, from our disrespect and disregard, from our certainty that we know how things should be and our blind willingness to do all we can to make them so, whatever the cost.


...And a few on 21 GRAMS

Massoud Amir Behrani turns to God when his own will and resources can no longer make the world bend to his desires. And God – if there is a god in the world of SAND AND FOG – will have none of it. It may be that there is no god here. It may be that God is powerless, or that this God is detached, uninvolved, or perhaps even vengeful: "Behrani has sought to make himself a god, he shall have the consequences." If there is a God in the world these film makers have made, he's apparently not a rescuing god.

In this I was reminded of Jack Jordan, Benicio Del Toro's deeply flawed character in another film that's all about tragic circumstances, and the violent consequences of tragic flaws in desperate people. He too calls on God to save him, and God doesn't come through. The estimable Jeffrey Overstreet commented that, in 21 GRAMS, "If there is a God, he's gonna hang you out to dry, especially if you try to serve him." His apt comment has led me to wonder how that's different from the God in THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG? Or the book of Job, for that matter.

Jeffrey's reaction to 21 GRAMS was negative: he found the film's emotional tone over-wrought, the narrative devices a smoke-screen for a thin and melodramatic plot, and he took issue with what he saw as a cynical portrayal of the Del Toro character's Christianity (inflamed by interviewer Jeffrey Wells' representation of the director's stance toward Christian faith). It's a completely understandable response, well-stated and well-supported: it just didn't happen to be my response. I thought the intensity of tone seemed suited to the horrific circumstances of the characters (which didn't seem so improbable to me), I found the shattered story-line engaging and invigorating, and I saw Jack Jordan as a violent and violated man clinging, white-knuckled, to the hem of Jesus' garment. From the outset he was haunted by his past, which was completely understandable. He was also grotesquely inconsistent at living out the faith he was clinging to so fiercely and awkwardly – which I also understand, from first-hand experience. And when he brought about a tragedy of unbearable weight, his newly awakened conscience was crushed. I could only wonder if I would fare any better in such a situation.

God didn't rescue him. All I can say is, sometimes God doesn't. God didn't take Mr Behrani's deal, either. I wasn't surprised: life is often like that. "Are we to expect only that which is good from the Lord? And shall we receive no misfortune?" To tell such stories – Job's story, Massoud's story, Jack's story – isn't necessarily cynical or God-denying: in my experience, sometimes God simply doesn't do as He's told. He doesn't behave as we think He should. Now, it's also true that sometimes God does rescue us: sometimes, Jesus saves. Sometimes he lifts us out of our agonizing circumstances, sometimes He works the miracle that calms the storm or raises our dead child from death. But sometimes He does not.

Sometimes we tire of the fact that there are so many stories where Jesus doesn't save, and so few where He does. But what else would we expect? That second truth isn't one that very many people really know, faced with all the hard things that are part of every life, including every Christian life. How many people are able to be wedded to Christ for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health? Following Jesus simply isn't something most people are going to do, at least not over the long haul. Not long enough to really get to know Him. Jesus said as much: the Way is narrow and few enter, the Kingdom of God is little like a mustard seed, all that. Most intelligent people clear out when Jesus says "Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you" – only a dumb, devoted handful stick around at that point, having nowhere else to go.

A friend who has lived most of his past 20 years in Liberia and Ivory Coast has taught me the way African believers greet one another in those tormented places – a ritual conversation, a reminder, a small everyday liturgy;
You: God is good.
Me: All the time?
You: All the time.
Me: God is good.
That is deep wisdom, coming from people who have suffered it all, and who nevertheless persist in clinging to their God. In neither of these films do the characters know God quite so well. Few of us do. For the most part we count on God to make our circumstances pleasant, and if things in our lives get really nasty – as they do sometimes, in some lives, as in these two films – we are all too likely to conclude that God isn't there, or that He isn't listening, or doesn't care, or is powerless. We ask Jesus for an easy answer, He gives us a hard one, and we go away sad.

We want a God we can order around. We want to put on our uniforms, hire God like a contractor, and have him cut down the trees we don't like, build the deck we desire, free us from our addictions or raise our children from the dead. We'll pay the price if He'll do what we want him to. "And can You start today?"

Both HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG and 21 GRAMS are available at Videomatica