Monday, July 31, 2006


WAKING NED DEVINE (1998, Ireland/UK/France/USA, Kirk Jones)
There'd have been a mighty party.

Twice now, several years apart, we've been part of movie groups that meet in our house. Like a book club, but with movies. Both times, one of the films we ended up watching was a charming little British comedy about an Irish town that connives to pull the wool over the corporate eyes of the lottery commission. Both times, coming together after watching the film on our own, someone would say, "I loved it! But I don't see what there'll be to talk about." And each time we ended up talking the night away, and came away feeling we'd only just started getting a handle on this subtle, sublime bit of blarney.

Is the whole thing nothing but a great lark? Or is it a morally bent tale that calls evil good and good evil, wrapping a whole catalog of sins in the pretty paper of lovable faces, quaint scenery and charming accents? Or is it actually a morally perspicacious tale about the transcendent importance of friendship, love and community over little things like money and rules and propriety, as bracing and paradigm-shattering as the trickiest of Jesus's parables?

Fundamentally, this is a story of transformation. "Money changes people" – it's a truism that's repeated many times throughout the film, by many different characters. The great surprise is that, at least this one time, with a little help from Ned Devine, it changes them for the better.

At the centre of the story is a charming rascal who thinks nothing of lying to get what he wants – whether it's a piece of lemon tart or an undeserved piece of the lottery action – a man who touches death, and glimpses eternity, and ends up willing to sacrifice his share of the winnings without thought or hesitation.

What's true of Jackie O'Shea is true of Tulaigh Mhor. Glasses of Guinness are the markers of this town's progress from parsimony to community: at the outset, they're only bought strategically, "to make sure we're best friends when they cash the cheque," but the time comes when the harried pub master rings a bell to stop the commotion, demanding "Who's paying for this now?" A moment's silence, then every hand in the room goes up.

Now this may well be nothing but the over-exhuberant generosity of a roomful of people, newly rich. However much Jackie may invoke the spirit of his departed friend, his progression from coveting and conniving to generosity and communal sharing can mostly be explained by self-preservation – if he doesn't involve the entire village in his plan, he'll likely wind up in prison – and the solidarity of his neighbours may be nothing more than pragmatic self-interest. As Jackie's wife says, the townspeople are joining the scheme "for the money, not for the spirit of Ned Devine." But by this point Jackie is convinced he's serving something beyond himself: "If it's claimed and spent at all, Ned will rest in peace."

The story-tellers are convinced that Jackie's on to something, providing a cosmic frame for their earthy, earthly yarn. The film opens with a panorama of the starry heavens, as an omniscient voice contrasts the unchanging and orderly universe with the randomness of the weekly lottery. Sublime, transcendent images of the heavenly spheres cut abruptly to lotto balls, as luck and fate conspire to single someone out for transformation: "an event that will undoubtedly change their lives forever. Lucky sods." And at the film's ending we stumble with four men and a boy out of a pub and into the early morning light, the last to leave Ned Devine's wake, and ascend high atop a glorious wild sea cliff somewhere in Ireland. They raise their glasses aloft, we circle them in the fog and ascend back toward the heavens as they drink a toast to their divine friend.

But what about all that skulduggery? When you look hard at the thing, isn't it all just a great big swindle? Is it really any more righteous for a gang of fifty-two people to steal seven million pounds than it is for one or two self-interested swindlers? Forget who wins or loses or gets what portion of the "winnings," isn't there a more fundamental problem? The film doesn't take issue with the lottery at all – and anyone who's been exposed to the realities of gambling, and gambling addiction, knows there's a real darkness in that industry, one that openly preys not only on people's dreams, but on their covetousness and compulsions? Not to mention that the film seems completely unconcerned with all sorts of other immorality: no one blinks an eye at the female romantic lead, who seems to have had as many lovers as the woman taken in adultery who was brought before Jesus and told to "Go and sin no more." When characters aren't staying up all night drinking, they're sleeping it off.

It's not just fundy moral watchdogs and swear-counters who have problems with Ned. In a Books & Culture essay " Richard Rorty for the Silver Screen Waking Ned Devine as apologetic for postmodernism," Scholar Crystal Downing calls the picture "incredibly enjoyable – and disturbing," arguing that it "presents a postmodern ethic with such delight that it seems far more attractive than traditional Christianity." Her concern isn't really Guiness or gambling or the occasional misuse of God's name, it's the fact that "community solidarity becomes the highest good." Referencing Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, she reads NED as a fanciful illustration of the neo-pragmatic ethic that what is true "does not correspond to universal moral principles but is contingent on the coherence of a community's vocabulary." Is it wrong to defraud the lottery of seven million pounds? Not if "we" all get together and decide it's okay.

Downing is onto something important here, I think – particularly when she zeroes in on the way the film presents the sole member of the community "who refuses to endorse the rules of the game." Surely it's conceivable that someone in the neighbourhood would have legitimate qualms about the swindle, that there would be some voice within the story to question the goings-on. But those qualms are caricatured in the person of Lizzie Quinn, a misanthropic cat-lady whose greed and self-interest make Jackie a saint by comparison, and who is quickly branded with the label "witch." Downing comments that "this is how witches have often been limned… like Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century France and Goody Proctor in seventeenth-century Salem." Perhaps the film is simply having fun with us at this point – certainly the horror-movie trope of the town rising up to burn the witch is wryly subverted, but Downing (referencing Jean-Francois Lyotard) points out that even this is perfectly in keeping with its postmodern ethic, where any pressure toward conformity would amount to "an act of terror."

Still, the movie gets to eat its sacrificial cake nonetheless. The community is spared the nastiness of having to dirty their hands sacrificing the old goat when tragi-comic timing and (perhaps) a Devine hand unite the angel of blessing (a sneezing Lotto man) with God's returning agent (the priest, back from pilgrimage, his VW van plastered with bumper stickers like "I HEART LOURDES" and "Honk If You Love Jesus") in a brilliantly staged stroke of retribution against the anti-communitarian old crone. While we may cheer her wildly comedic demise – "Ding dong the witch is dead!" – there is at the same time a troubling undercurrent to a sequence that intercuts the rising action of Lizzie's fate with events at the pub, where the townspeople cheer on a wild-eyed fiddler to an eerie crescendo that seems mystically linked with Lizzie's destruction.

There's an undercurrent of something primal here. Perhaps, for all its bedtime prayers and Irish Catholicism, the spirituality of the film isn't in the final analysis Christian at all, but harks back to something pre-Christian, something darker and more akin to what you might find in another small town that's not always kind to outsiders, in THE WICKER MAN.

Or perhaps what we're picking up isn't so much a pre-Christian Celtic paganism as it is a robust – if unfamiliar – Celtic Christianity, that emphasizes hospitality and community and mystery and a certain unabashed earthiness over rules and sin and atonement. One friend, who grew up in a pretty unbending, pretty German protestant church and ended up drawn more to the mysteries he found in liturgy and music and ancient fairy tales, fell head over heels in love with this picture: "For a few years now I have relished the spirit of Patrick - myself having grown up in the shadow of Augustine. This finely spun tale is theology according to the Celtic Church. A few details: Michael's funeral has to be celebrated; he needs to die before Ned's gift can be received. The initial greed is indeed transformed into love, relationship, community. Fatherhood is more important than money. Jim (the lottery-man) is a messenger, an angel of grace; it is through him that the priest is able (albeit unintentionally) to remove the source of evil from their midst. The "witch" blasphemes when she mishandles the loaf of bread and calls it stale - a sin against the Holy Spirit." And more. A fanciful, fairy-tale reading of the film. Sometimes it serves to read a text in the language it was written in.

But if the film is so Christian-friendly, what's with that young priest? He's as ineffectual as he is sweet and winsome: he's nice enough, but has no impact on the community's lemming-like rush toward imagined wealth. But that's not the whole story: it's a sympathetic portrait, one that many a priest-on-assignment could identify with, called on to give a funeral for a man who's better known to every person in the church than he is to yourself. And it's clear his lack of influence in this isolated, insular town is as much the fault of the community as it is his or the church's.

But why is he even in the movie, if not to demonstrate the church's irrelevance? What are we to make of three of the film's most winsome scenes, between the novice priest and the fatherless boy who appears to be the town's only child? "What can you play?" the boy asks, as the priest sits in the empty church picking out notes on the organ.
Nothing really, I just like messing around.
Can you play songs about Jesus?
No, I wish I could.
So, did he come to you, then?
Who's that?
Jesus. Well he did in many ways, yes.
But did you see him?
Well not exactly, no.
But you're working for him.
I am. Doing the
best I can.
Do you get paid for it?
Well it's more a payment of the,
spiritual kind, Morris.
Do you think you could be drawn
to the
church, Morris?
I don't think so.
Well you never know.
don't think
I could work for someone I'd never met, and not get paid for it.
Does the scene weigh the professional religious man's faith and find it puny in comparison to the child's robust practicality (and, subsequently, almost mystical connection with the sky and the sea), or are we being ever-so-subtly encouraged to see an affinity between this heaven-hired Father and this son whose fatherhood is a mystery? How are we to perceive this man who works out his vague calling (without earning a cent) among people more interested in lottery payouts than spiritual treasures? What kind of fool is he, anyway? Could he be a holy one? Or are these scenes more about the boy? Or do they simply layer in a quiet counterpoint of transcendence, in a story whose themes might easily be mistaken for worldly ones, but which is aiming for something more heavenly?

The film begins and ends in the heavens, and makes a point of returning us every now and again to spend time with the only two characters in the county who aren't completely preoccupied with winning and losing. But the movie's most explicit gesture toward transcendence comes at the end of the story's first act, when Michael's and Jackie's boyish games have come up against the reality of death, and Annie suggests they "make room in this day for some prayers." Now Jackie sleeps, and dreams: we hear a choir sing "Lux Aeterna" (Eternal Light), and see Ned in a boat on a golden sea, eating a delicious – and seemingly endless – chicken dinner, like the one Jackie and his cronies used to ingratiate themselves with the town's potential lottery winners. But Ned is all grace and generosity: he simply enjoys his feast, repeatedly offers to share his culinary bounty with his friend Jackie, and trusts the tides to carry them safely to the light – even when their divine dory is grounded high and dry on an improbable rock.

Central to this scene is the briefest of interchanges between the two friends, deftly thrown into prominence by Jackie's perspective on the death shown in the scenes which precede and follow the dream. When Ned was first discovered in his cottage, the winning lottery ticket clutched in his dead hand, Jackie could see it only as a tragic irony: "There'll be cursing in heaven tonight." Even after his revelatory dream, it takes time for Jackie to get past his earth-bound perspective on Ned's situation: "He plays the lotto all his life and dies from the shock of winning it. Can you imagine the anger of his spirit, man?" But this repeated idea brackets the reality of Ned's death, at least from the Devine perspective:
Are you angry, Ned?
Not at all. Are you sure you wouldn't like some chicken?
At its simplest level, perhaps, the film is most profound. When everything else falls away – and, indeed, it will – and all the getting and losing and scheming and spending is done, there will be light, and water, and friends, and a feast.

But how can a film that glorifies – or at least delights in – covetousness and fraud have anything to do with the Kingdom of Heaven? To my mind, that's the core question. I'm reminded of Jesus' parable of the crooked accounts receivable guy, who knew he was about to be fired (financial improprieties, it seems) so he went around to all his master's debtors with a stupendous, one-time offer: "You owe the corporation ten thousand bucks? Listen, pay me five grand and we'll call it square." Made himself some friends at the boss's expense, which may have hastened his severance but stood him in good stead when the paycheques ran out. A self-serving, skin-saving con, a liar and a thief.

And Jesus judged the guy, right? Wrong. He said, "The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness… And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." Pick up a note of something like admiration in his voice?

I think of the time the disciples came to Jesus, concerned that he was risking trouble for not paying his tax. So like everybody's cornball uncle, he pulls a coin from a fish's mouth, as if to say, "Oh yeah, you guys down here care about that stuff, I keep forgetting. Okay, if it's that important to you…" There's a guy, I think, who'd get a kick out of Jackie and Michael. A guy who loved hanging out with the crooks and the fallen women and their fatherless kids, who loved a good story about prodigals come home: "Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it! Let's have a feast and celebrate."
I also wonder what he'd make of the better-than-everybody character who stood outside while everybody else was partying, who ended up dropping the dime and calling the cops to break up the party. "Woe unto you, hypocrites, whited sepulchres…" That sort of thing. A God of parties, a God of judgment, a God of turning everything upside down.

This doesn't negate the other readings of the film, the conundrums and complexities it yields up when we peel away its winsome comic skin and savour the considerably more exotic scents and flavours we find when we bite into this tangy little piece of filmic fruit. For my money, those confounding contradictions aren't problems, they aren't flaws, they're what make this a truly wonderful, truly artistic, truly wise little film, that becomes all the more flavourful (and memorable) the longer you chew on it.

Some truths – the best and deepest truths – don't come down to either/or. Dig in on either side of the question and you'll be wrong: you won't have just half the truth, you'll have none of it. And sometimes the best way – perhaps the only way – to ponder these holy, baffling puzzles is in stories, in comedies, in divine fairy tales like this one. Where self-interest and self-transcendence, greed and generosity, loss and gain, sin and grace, judgment and blessing are all gathered up together in one great, cracking yarn. As Michael himself says when he finally comes clean and tells the whole village the story of Ned Devine, the way Ned himself wanted it: "I'm not a great man for telling things as they are. I've been known to add a little colour to stories and riddles for the benefit of those that'll listen. Yet here tonight I can swear that all I've told you is true."

Well, most of it, anyhow.

Available at Videomatica

Friday, July 28, 2006


AMERICAN BEAUTY (1999, USA, Sam Mendes, Alan Ball screenplay)
That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid. Ever. Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world I feel like I can't take it... and my heart is going to cave in.

In a letter Saint Paul wrote to the Philippians, he gives some good advice: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things." So it's easy to see why many Christians, recognizing the wisdom of those words, avoid AMERICAN BEAUTY. An angry, self-preoccupied man sneers at his wife, blackmails his employers and lusts after his daughter's girlfriend. His wife commits noisy, gymnastic adultery in a motel room. Parents subject their children to physical and verbal violence, profanity proliferates and breasts are bared. And when the film offers us transcendent wisdom, it is in the person of a drug dealer.

Why, then, does this film mean so much to so many people of faith? Could it be that AMERICAN BEAUTY is just the sort of movie Saint Paul is advising us to see? And not only to see but, just as importantly, to think on? For this is a richly detailed film that yields much through conversation and close, thoughtful viewing.

Paul's list begins, of course, with truth – though that is often overlooked in our eagerness to get to the spiritual stuff – and this film has a lot of truth to tell. About our culture of consumption. About our families, and the terrible distance that can grow between parents and children, husbands and wives. About parents and children who love one another, however tragically they fail one another. About the things that can imprison us, and the damage we can do when we struggle to break free. These may not be new truths, but they continue to need telling, and AMERICAN BEAUTY tells them with tremendous energy, humour and style – and it does so from a deeply moral and compassionate perspective, leading us constantly to reconsider the true nature of characters we would judge by the faces they present to the world.

The film wonders what honour might look like in a man who has traded any he might once have had for a lazy, passive-aggressive surliness. Justice is served – deliciously, shamefully, at a drive-through window. The film is about sex, but ultimately I believe it is about sexual purity: Lester lusts for a vision of a girl covered in red rose petals, but to what degree is his true desire for the woman we first see tending roses? Words of grace are spoken by characters who have the power to do otherwise, who have every reason to judge, to act out of fear and paranoia, but choose not to.

Centrally, though, AMERICAN BEAUTY asks us to think on one thing in particular: what is lovely? What is the most beautiful thing we see in this film: Angela's extraordinary appearance, or an ordinary plastic bag? An image of female beauty on the internet, or the reality of female beauty viewed through Ricky's sacrilizing eye? There are constant, unexpected moments of beauty: in snapshots, in Carolyn's face during an unguarded moment, in the undeniable love between a father and a son, in youth, in age, in death.

AMERICAN BEAUTY gives us conventional images of beauty – beautiful homes, beautiful bodies, beautiful people, beautiful stuff – and then subverts them. Ricky's camera looks past the angelic Angela to the utterly plain Jane. People, and things, become truly beautiful when they are seen to be beautiful – or when they stop trying appear beautiful and simply be what they are.

The tension between appearance and reality is brilliantly played out in an array of phenomenal performances, where our expectations – derived from faces, surfaces, perceptions – are constantly undermined. Annette Bening gives a fearless, unchecked performance as a woman whose great beauty is defaced by terrible grief and pain – which is in turn hidden under a clenched Martha Stewart veneer of success. Kevin Spacey's brilliantly realized Lester Birnham is the middle-aged version of Edward Norton's numb twenty-something character in FIGHT CLUB, which played on movie screens at precisely the same time – both mask the terror of spiritual disorientation with self-indulgence, lies and aggression – however passive. Chris Cooper embodies a man whose controlling hostility springs from a hidden agony of self-loathing. At essential moments, Mena Suvari makes the subtlest character shifts to give fleeting glimpses of a desperately ordinary (beautifully ordinary) little girl hiding beneath layers of sexualized bravado. Thora Birch is note-perfect as the almost-adult whose heart-broken disappointment in her parents (and her world) is disguised as unmitigated contempt, and the under-celebrated Wes Bentley gives us the most complex web of disarming honesty and manipulative prevarication imaginable – the impenetrable, inexplicable amalgam of love and malice he holds toward his father is played out in astonishing changes of emotion and in breathtaking subtlety.

I would suggest that the character of Ricky Fitts may present us with the most important way this film subverts our expectations, and puts us in a position to perceive fresh truths. Ricky is a pusher: his lucrative drug business liberates him to do as he pleases, living out the kind of freedom and self-fulfillment that makes him Lester Birnham's personal hero. He is also the character who speaks truth without counting the cost (except, confoundingly, to his father), who values only things of true value, a true seeker whose digital camera and pure heart give him eyes to see beyond the ordinary to the sublime – "it's like God is looking right at you, just for a moment. And if you're careful, you can look right back."

One problem: in the real world – or should I say, in my own preconceptions – you don't deal that much dope without being an addict, and addicts don't liberate people, they use people. Ricky mocks his father's tactic of denial, but the fact is, denial is the number one strategy of the user – far from seeing reality clearly, they obfuscate it with the mismanaged thought processes of addiction.

But AMERICAN BEAUTY doesn't allow me to hold on to my carefully constructed preconceptions, here – any more than Jesus' parable about the good Samaritan allowed his Jewish audience to cling to their certainty that Samaritans were enemies, heretics and idolators. If they truly wanted to learn who their neighbour was, they needed to set aside their certainties and learn practical theology from an infidel. Screenwriter Alan Ball demands the same of me – if I want a glimpse of true beauty, if I want to enter into the world he has built to show me the grandeur of God, I will have to willingly suspend not my unbelief, but my Beliefs. I will have to set aside the riches of my hard-earned knowledge of The Way Things Really Are in order to squeeze, camel-like, through the eye of the needle of this confounding, improbable, world-inverting little parable.

Make no mistake: Ricky is the possessor, the purveyor, of the deepest truth that Art can reveal. Gerard Manley Hopkins' truth, that "there lives the dearest freshness deep down things." That, even over this bent world, the Holy Ghost broods. That, even (and especially) from things that buckle and break, things that are crushed, God's fire will break, His grandeur "will flame out, like shining from shook foil."

I'm prepared to hear that from a priest, in sublime poetry: I didn't expect – or want – to hear it from a drug dealer in a commercial Hollywood movie. AMERICAN BEAUTY uses the voice of one I deem unworthy, to speak the heart of God. And when I think on these things, I find them excellent and worthy of praise.

Available at Videomatica
Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "God's Grandeur" can be found here, and "The Windhover" here


MARCH OF THE PENGUINS ("La Marche de l'empereur," 2005, France, Luc Jacquet, Jordan Roberts narration)
In Blue Like Jazz, Don Miller reflects on his experiences as a young man whose exposure to radical secularism at Oregon's Reed College leads him deeper into his own Christian spirituality. In "Faith: Penguin Sex," Miller describes a documentary about the mating rituals of penguins; "I felt like I was one of those penguins. They have this radar inside of them that told them when and where to go and none of it made any sense, but they show up on the very day their babies are being born, and the radar always turns out to be right. I have a radar inside me that says to believe in Jesus. Somehow, penguin radar leads them perfectly well. Maybe it isn't so foolish that I follow the radar that is inside of me." Different doc, pretty much the same birds. And if his reading is probably not exactly what the film-makers intended, well hey: Hopkins says the earth is charged with the grandeur of God, Calvin calls creation "the theatre of His glory," and even rocks and asses bring the word of the Lord – so who am I to argue?

Available at Videomatica


AROUND THE BEND (2004, USA, Jordan Roberts)
Did you go on digs with him? I wanted him to leave it all in the ground. The pottery, the bones. Didn't belong up here. But... My father loved digging up old shit.

Did you ever think past the end of the parable? Now that the Prodigal is back, how are he and the Older Brother ever going to get along? I'm guessing the younger brother – we'll call him Turner – is going to want to be pals again, but he won't push it too hard because he's good and aware that he's no longer worthy to be called "brother" or "son" or anything else that's all that friendly. I'm guessing the real problems will like with old Firstborn over there – Jason, for the purposes of our story – who's spent his life (invested his life, to be more precise, instead of blowing through it like a sixteen-year-old with his first paycheck) being decent and loyal to their father – who we'll call Henry – and pretty much spending his days making up for the other brother's heartbreaking prodigality.

Don't worry, AROUND THE BEND is no modern retelling of a too-familiar parable. It goes its own way, tearing down the road in a more-than-decripit VW microbus, laughing and swearing and eating Kentucky Fried. And sometimes at night, pulled off the road to rest up a bit, dancing in the headlights.

But you get the sense that writer-director Jordan Roberts... And hey, I'm telling you, keep your eyes open for small movies like this where the guy that wrote the script also directed. Your STATION AGENTS, your PIECES OF APRIL, that's my kind of auteur – where the director is truly the filmmaker, not only the finisher but also the author. Because we're usually talking personal vision projects where story and character and heart are pretty much the whole deal, we're usually talking scripts that have been burning a hole in somebody's pocket for years and finally just have to get themselves made. Tight budgets, tight shooting schedules, open hearts. Now it happens that after a decade of rewrites and a pervasive film industry buzz that this was a fabulous little screenplay one rewrite away from amazing, Roberts decided to heck with waiting for somebody else to make the darn thing, he'd shoot it himself on digital, just get it done and out there for people to see. So he came up with one last rewrite, only wouldn't you know, that was the rewrite that did it. The light went on for somebody at Warner Independent, and the light was green, and all of a sudden there was money enough for Michael Caine and Christopher Walken and even a couple pretty nifty crane shots. Not a dime extra, not a single extra shooting day if things went wrong – like, say, if it started snowing in New Mexico – but enough money that the guy wasn't shooting the damn thing on his Mastercard.

So where was I? Right, you get the sense that writer-director Jordan Roberts has that Prodigal Son story pretty much by heart, if only in the scene where his son returns from a far country – the movie even sets us up to wonder if maybe he's come from that undiscovered country "from whose bourne no man returns," a literal not just a metaphorical resurrection – and the father runs to greet him. "God damn, boy. You came back. Get me dressed! My family's going out! To a fancy place." For a meal together, even a little dancing. Only Henry prefers chicken to fatted calf, and has a particular fondness for Colonel Sanders, but still we hear the echoes of those sacred words of reconciliation, "Get my best robe! Kill the fatted calf! For this my son, though he was dead, yet lives!"

Here, though, that's the story's point of departure, not its destination – and it is most definitely a road movie, the story of a journey. Henry was an archeologist, kind of a leftover hippy with "DIG" written on the side of his van, and he sends his boys off on sort of an interstate treasure hunt to a series of digs and Sites Of Interest from their own personal history and pre-history. Only they're putting something back into the ground, not digging it up, and any riches they uncover aren't going to be worth much to a museum. Old Henry's a savvy character: I love the way the various Route 66 stops disguise the eventual destination until it's close enough Turner might just be able to follow the trajectory of healing, get caught up in the momentum of restoration, and be in Albuquerque before he knows what's coming.

One of this film's interesting angles is that sometimes the prodigal is your father, and that's even harder to come to terms with than a brother who buggers off. I mean, that's what little brothers do, right? Head out on the road, seeking their fame and fortune? But when it's your dad who leaves, and your mom's already dead, and when he doesn't show up again until thirty-some years of thieving and drugs and prison have gone by, and you've been raised by your grandfather, and had your own little son to raise, also on your own (because who knows what lessons about marriage and relationships you didn't get the chance to learn in his absence)... There's a hell of a lot of forgiving to do. Maybe too much.

Watch for the subtleties, some real deftness in the writing. The nice reversal that follows up "Henry never asked me to do a thing in his entire life, and he asked me to do this, and I'M DOING IT! Not your way or my way, but his way." The way the musician thing is touched so lightly in the follow-up scene, then paid off in the gorgeously understated piano scene – not the last stairway we'll see, and how about that obligatory "I remember" monologue we don't get? Gorgeous.

Best of all, Turner's efforts to shape up aren't overplayed, and he's no more willing to deal with things than the next guy: he's still a man with too many decades of addiction and selfishness behind him to suddenly become the perfect son – or father. (Though he turns out to be not a bad Granddad, in a Dennis Hopper kind of way...) I love the subtlety with which his AA background is not so much brought out as woven in: after hauling Turner back to a jewelry store like a father taking a kid back to a corner store to pay for the candy bar he swiped, Jason remarks "You did have a history at places like this." But Turner won't accept the easy out offered him in that past tense, replying "I do, yes." Just like he doesn't stand up in meetings and say "My name is Turner, I was an alcoholic." It's about owning up, taking responsibility now for what you've done, or left undone, in the past.

The fact is, both prodigals and firstborns have their traps. Don't you love where the book of Ecclesiastes comes down? After this guy Solomon spent his twenties and thirties writing self-righteous and too-wise-for-his-own years Proverbs about avoiding women and doing everything in moderation and building for the future and living cautiously and responsibly, he blew off another couple decades with wine, women and song – especially women, by the dozens, but plenty of wine and feasting and every whim that ever twitched a synapse as well – he's a kind of a burnt-out prodigal himself. An "all is emptiness," mouth like an ashtray, self-loathing, morning-after kind of prodigal, no longer worthy to be called anybody's son. But you know where he finally comes down? You know where his book ends up? Not running back into the arms of self-righteousness, but here; "In this meaninless life of mine I have seen both of these; a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness. Do not be overrighteous, neither be overwise— why destroy yourself? Do not be overwicked, and do not be a fool-- why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other."

Truly, there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. And sometimes it's time to do both at the same time. You can do both, you can have both: you can head out on the road, but not leave anybody behind. That's wisdom, and that's this movie's wisdom.

And you know what? This movie ain't perfect. I don't want to send you running off to the video store expecting CITIZEN KANE. Yeah this movie's got flaws, and yeah I could spell them out for you. Fine: read the critics, or do your own fault-finding, I'm not in the mood. This human-scaled story is perfectly human in its imperfections, and you know what? You want to have any friends, sometimes you gotta look past those things. Perfectionism's a fine trait in bankers, not so much when you're looking to feed your soul. Fact is, I like hanging out with this movie, with these characters. I like the kid in the back seat and the sunsets and the music they play on their 8-track. You want to criticize, you don't have to ride with us. Now let's get us some KFC!


Available at Videomatica


THE SON ("Le Fils", 2002, Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
The new kid. I can take him.

If you've ever sat through a movie with a child, you'll know the running commentary. "Who's that? What's he doing? Why is he running? Who's that boy? How come he told a lie? Why is he so scared? Is he mad now? Why is he hiding? Is the man going to get him?" And so on.

I happened to go through that stage with my two chatty and perspicacious daughters at exactly the time when I was becoming a playwright, trying to master the tools of the story-teller's trade. And it suddenly dawned on me one day that the out-loud questions of a three-year-old movie-watcher are no different from the unspoken dramaturgical questions that go on unconsciously in every film- or play-goer, whatever their age.

Provided the writer has done his job, that is. Provided a story is being told, a yarn is being spun. The novel has gone other directions in the past century or so, but stage and screen are still essentially narrative art forms, and when you're juggling a dramatic arc or three, you're looking always to keep all the narrative balls in the air – moving, flying, floating, rising and falling and being caught and flipped up against the sky in an apparently effortless dramatic spectacle. Whatever the nuances, complexities and subtleties of your story, if the film breaks at any moment, the whole audience should have the same question in their mind: "What happens next!" Which, being elaborated, may come out as "Will he find out?" or "Will she succeed?" or "How will he manage to..." or any one of a million other questions. But if there's ever a moment in your play (stage- or screen-) when there's nothing like that hanging in the air, you're not quite doing your job. Whether we're watching Shakespeare or Shepard or John Patrick Shanley, an intelligent and engaged watcher should have in mind – conscious or unconscious – a a constant stream of childish questions: "Who's that? What's he doing now? Why is he doing that?" And so on.

Most of the time, that inner interrogatory chatter will be inaudible. At worst, that's because the story's dramatic questions aren't important enough to us, aren't important enough in the grand scheme of things, or we've heard them before in too many other stories and already know the answers, or we feel like nothing's really at stake, nothing hangs on the outcome of the questions. At best, it's because there isn't time or breath to enunciate or notice our questions: they're drown out by the sheer volume of what's coming in, we don't dare raise our voice or listen to the chatter because things are moving too fast, there's so much coming at us we don't have time or inclination to attend to that inner monologue, much less voice it. We don't want to miss anything.

Once as an adult I sat in a theatre and saw a film so unusual, so brilliantly crafted, so dangerous, so perfectly paced – and above all, so quiet – that I could hear that stream of questions in my head so loud I wondered if the people sitting next to me could listen in. There wasn't a scrap of music in the whole film, almost no talking, and almost never a scrap of explanation, justification, exposition. Nothing except people doing things, and me fearing for their lives, their souls.

White titles. Some sort of ambient sound. Something blurred, moving at the bottom of the screen: a thumb in extreme close-up, the top of a head, what? A knocking or rapping: what was that? The camera tracks upward, this is a man's back, the blur was some sort of belt. He's wearing overalls. Back of his head. He's working on something, that's what the tapping is. A woman watches. There's a droning sound, then a cutting sound: a table saw. An urgent voice: "Olivier! Come here! Quick!" He runs to another room, alarmed. Several boys run into the room ahead of him. It's a woodworking shop. He yells over the noise of the saw, "What is this? Go back to work. I told you. Twice at 2 millimeters." Some wood is jammed in a saw. He works the machine, frees the wood, guides it through the saw. What's that in his voice? Fear? Exasperation? Relief? Impatience? He picks up a file folder. Reads something inside that stops him, troubles him, preoccupies him. Begins to walk back to the other room. The woman watches, waiting for his reply. The sound of the buzz saw continues. Hammering. "You'll take him?" He begins to shake his head, then speaks: "No, I can't. The four I got are already too many." She leaves, to see if there's a place in welding. He watches her go, then turns away from us, distracted, aimless. He's doing something we can't see. He's lit a cigarette. Why is he troubled?

A sudden cut, the first so far, we're two minutes fifty into the film. The man runs up some steps, we're close in behind him, he moves slowly around a corner, watches something. What is he looking at? Meticulously, he puts out the cigarette on the sole of his work boot, saves it in the bib pocket of his overalls. Walks slowly down the hall to a corner, approaches slowly, looks around the corner. He doesn't want to be seen.

Cut to his hands, braced against the lower frame of a window. Voices. He's looking into a room. The focus shifts, we see the woman, can't see the person on the other side of the desk. She hands a paper across, a man's hands take it, a boy's hands sign it. He has a light brown jacket. We still cannot see faces in the room. Shift to Olivier, who suddenly runs back down the hall, down the stairs, almost frantic, trying to keep his boots from making noise on the tile floor, hides around a corner, stands staring at a white wall. What is going on? What is he running from? The sound of voices, closer. He looks around the corner, catches a glimpse of the boy in the brown jacket.

Cut to machine noises, we're back in the shop, he looks out an outside window, downs a cup of coffee, resumes teaching. Says almost nothing: he does the action, the student repeats the action, he corrects or not, moves on. And we've got nothing but questions, and an odd sense of dread and foreboding.

For thirty two minutes our questions and dread only grow: nothing is explained, we only observe and try to learn. We see Olivier's belt again: a tool belt? Something to do with the shop, or with lifting? A woman comes to his spartan apartment. His walls are bare, he is living out of cardboard boxes. She is pretty on an ordinary-life, real-human scale. She smiles, she likes him, and we realize this is the first human warmth we've seen. He is awkward, contained. We don't know who she is. Awkward silence, her smile fades. "Back still hurt?" "No." He moves past her through a doorway: they are close, awkward. He moves past her into the other room. Something is wrong. She smiles again, "I'm getting married. I needed to start something again." His reaction is small, contained. "That's good." He washes out his lunch box. Her smile goes again. "And I wanted to tell you that I'm pregnant." This time he says nothing, perhaps blinks a little more rapidly, dries out the lid of his lunch box. Which looks pretty dry already.

Sudden cut to Olivier racing down some stairs. Out into the parking lot, where he stops a car pulling away. "Why did you come today? Why today and not another day?" She drives away. He looks haunted.

His back is bad. Alone in the apartment, he lies on the floor, his feet on a chair. That's what the leather belt is for.

Back at the school, he waits for an opportunity, then scrambles on top of some lockers to look through a high window. Scrambles down so as not to be seen. Eats in a different lunch room, looks about warily. Watching the boys at lunch in the next room. Turns away to clean a knife, we hear a conversation with the new boy. Olivier turns to watch as the boy leaves the room. And the stream of questions continues in our head as the dread grows, and we wait for the gathering storm to break.

Why am I describing the moment-to-moment physical detail of this film so closely? Because that's what this film is: closely observed, moment-to-moment physical detail. But what is it all about? What's going on? I'm not going to say because, most of the time, the film doesn't say. Oh, it all becomes clear eventually: in fact, uncannily, it was at the very moment when I first had the thought, "Okay, I need a little more information right about now" that Olivier walked into the gas station and the circumstances got a lot more clear – even if motivations, and intentions, and what was going to happen next never did. For this utterly engaged viewer, a perfectly timed, perfectly calibrated film.

Important that I went into it knowing absolutely nothing about the story, only that it just might be one of the great films of the new millenium. Important that I wasn't tired or impatient or looking for exploding balls of flame or just a few laughs. Important that you approach the film in just the same way: if the meticulous, bare-bones description I've given catches your attention, don't read another word about it, not even on the DVD case, don't watch it when you're tired or distractable or likely to be interrupted. Don't watch it with somebody if you're going to worry about whether they're bored or not, whether they're getting it. Just take the film on its own terms, believe me and the film-makers that the stakes are as high as they could possibly be, and there's a good chance the film will work for you as it worked for me, in all its deliberateness and commitment to cold, hard, inscrutable reality. Believe Jonathan Rosenbaum when he says "To my knowledge there's no one anywhere making films with such a sharp sense of contemporary working-class life -- but for the Dardennes it's only the starting point of a spiritual and profoundly ethical odyssey."

Luc Dardenne: "Perhaps filming gestures and very specific, material things allows the viewer to sense everything that is spiritual, unseen, and not a part of materiality. We tend to think that the closer one gets to the cup, to the hand, to the mouth whose lips are drinking, the more one will be able to feel something invisible - a dimension we want to follow and which would otherwise be less present in the film. How does one capture what happens when a gesture is taught? How can you capture that on film? Perhaps by filming the gestures as precisely as possible you can render apprehensible that which is not seen."

Perhaps. Certainly, it seems so to me. The world of the film is unarguably physical and uncompromising, and it takes skill and learning (by hard experience) to negotiate one's way through it without damage - to yourself, or to someone else. Something final and inevitable is communicated by the unarguable physics of the carpentry shop: beams have overwhelming size and weight, and once they start to fall they can break a man's back. Mishandle the power saw, you could ruin the wood or (just as suddenly and irrevocably) your own body. The filmmakers present a "man's world," not a boy's world, an environment of uncompromising consequence and mortality: the stakes are as high as life and death, physical to the point of being primal.

The film's deepest truths don't come easily, nor are they easy truths, easily expressed. But when after eighty minutes of unrelieved tension and unknowing the climax comes, it is wrenching and terrible and awkward and cathartic, explaining itself no more than Olivier explains himself to the boys who attend to his gestures to learn the truths of their craft.

This is a world of doing, not explaining, of action rather than talk, where there are no abstractions, only what can be incarnated in wood and earth and physical human bodies. A potent and profound film, stripped to absolute bare essentials.



Available at Videomatica


LA PROMESSE (1996, Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
"How can you be guiltier than anyone in the eyes of all? There are murderers and brigands. What crimes have you committed to blame yourself more than everyone else?"
The Brothers Karamazov

It comes as no surprise to learn that this inquiry into the awakening of a young man's conscience should be inspired by a passage from Dostoevsky. Where the novelist delves deep into the consciousness of his characters, the film-makers restrict themselves to irreducable physical action, but the essential impulse is the same: a commitment to portray the darkness of the human heart and the possibility of its costly redemption in stories whose uncompromising realism is informed by the Christian faith.

Igor is a likeable kid on the verge of adulthood; smart, polite, eager to please. He also steals from customers at the service station where he is apprenticing, and lies about his constant lateness and unpredicable absences. Called away from the shop one too many times, his boss gives an ultimatum, and Igor is essentially offered a choice between two apprenticeships: he can learn the mechanic's trade, or give his full attention to the "family business," trading on the powerlessness of illegal immigrants.

LA PROMESSE is a marvel of balance and ambivalence. While we recoil from the nature and consequences of the work itself – observed in meticulous detail by the film-makers, who as usual are fascinated by the learning of craft, the concrete workings of a specific trade – we are drawn to the love between father and son, and the inherent goodness of family members working together in a common cause, echoes of the Dardenne brothers' own familial bond: "one film-maker, four eyes."

There is something sacred about a father passing things along to his son – profoundly appealing, and profoundly disquieting when the skills he conveys are nothing you'd want his boy to be learning. The young man grows into adulthood, grows up into the image of his father, and while we celebrate the maturing and the connectedness, we recoil from the work itself, and increasingly question whether Igor's father is an adult at all. Roger's love for his son is evident and touching, however wrong-headed, however compromised by a preoccupation with self-interest so profound it moves beyond criminality to verge on evil.

In one extraordinary scene they sing together on a tiny stage in a smoky bar, a sort of blue-collar Belgian karaoke. The performances (here and throughout the film – Olivier Gourmet is a god!) are extraordinary: they love what they're doing, glory in being together. Igor's studied cool doesn't quite conceal the fact he is playing to the audience, possibly playing to a particular someone in the audience: Roger is euphoric, flushed, constantly looking at his boy in the fineness and abandon of this moment. Ivor strives to look like an adult, Roger beams like a kid. The song ends, they leave the stage, and as they settle into a booth with two women we realize the context for their performance without a word of explanation being given: tonight, the boy will become a man, in his father's terms.

The sequence is set up with a scene of tremendous irony and sadness. After the son has proved himself in a particularly compromising task, Roger gives his son a ring "just like mine": the son glows in the warmth of his father's praise, palpably proud of growing into his father's image, receiving his father's blessing, yet the gift is tarnished by the inescapable sense that this is a reward for a bad job well done – perhaps even a seal on his silence about their complicity in evil. When Igor calls his father "Dad," he is corrected: "No, call me Roger." At the same time as there is something undeniably generous in the gesture, offering the son a certain coming-of-age equality with his father, there's something terribly sad about a father wanting to be "just like" his son. And something fateful in the timing of this moment, when a father gives away his right to the title of "Father."

Ultimately Igor is offered another choice, when he is asked to make a promise (to another father) that will require him to become protector to some of the victims of his father's self-interested cruelty, a sort-of-father to a small boy and a quasi-husband to Assita, the child's mother. To Igor, this appealing African woman began as an object of his adolescent sexual desire, as he spied on her squalid apartment as she worked in her slip: now his true manhood is put to the test when he's called on to be her provider, something like her husband - without the sex. To relate with her, rather than to have relations with her.

While Luc Dardenne's Catholic spirituality and engagement with the Bible are apparent throughout his journal (Au dos de nos images, 2005), and the thematic preoccupations of all the brothers' films – guilt and responsibility, vengeance and mercy, parents and children, poverty and justice, truth and lies, agonizing moral choices when sheer survival is threatened – resonate with that Christian faith, it is only in LA PROMESSE (and the much more obscure FALSCH) that explicitly religious elements come into play. In the person of Assita, Igor is confronted for the first time not only with the kind of strength and nobility that come from authentic and uncompromising moral integrity, but also with spiritual mysteries that suggest there are realities beyond the venal, materialistic, opportunistic world his father has introduced him to. When he brings the couple their forged residency permit, Assita and her husband are covering their baby with ointment: "In this new house he must be protected against bad spirits." When Igor grins and informs them that there are no bad spirits here, the woman corrects him: "Yes. We don't see them, but they see us." And we recall, and perhaps Igor recalls, the moment when he peered at her through the secret peep-hole: how can she know the nature of the heart behind this innocent boyish face, as false as the immigration documents he offers?

Later the woman struggles to construct a back-alley sheep pen out of trash and a discarded bed-frame: the animal is not to provide milk for her baby, but "to celebrate the end of Ramadan" – the significance of which is no more explained to the viewer than it is to the utterly secular Igor. By reading the entrails of a chicken who has (unknown to her) walked over her husband's grave, the she knows her husband "is not far away," and when Igor witnesses an African shaman discern truths about the Assita's husband by chanting and gazing at elemental things like water and sand, he is almost physically sick – not so much with the risk that his sins will be revealed as with the fact that he is suddenly face to face with grown-up realities about which he and his "worldly" father are utterly naive.


Available at Videomatica


ROSETTA (1999, Belgium, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Your name is Rosetta. My name is Rosetta.
You found a job. I found a job.
You found a friend. I found a friend.
You have a normal life. I have a normal life.
You won't fall into the rut. I won't fall into the rut.
Good night. Good night.

Rosetta is fierce – the character, as well as the film that bears her name. At the opening a hand-held camera pursues her down hallways, around corners, under steaming equipment. Doors slam, her employer intercepts her. "Why should I go?" He won't answer, she throws herself at him and bloodies his nose as another employee tries to restrain her. The police corner her in a bathroom stall, it takes three men to drag her away. All she wants is a job.

The film-makers describe ROSETTA as "a war film," and there is rarely a lull in Rosetta's battle for survival. She scrapes and scrounges to get by on the fringes of an economy that offers her no favours, no opportunity. She's the embodiment of desperation, of an animal courage that cannot entertain the luxury of making certain moral choices: anything she wants or needs she must fight for. At times she doubles up in pain, holding her stomach. We're never told what is wrong: are these menstrual cramps, or something like an ulcer, or the result of bad food and never enough of it? All we know is that this shouldn't be happening to a seventeen year old girl.

Rosetta lives in a decrepit trailer with her alcoholic mother, who trades sexual favors for liquor or a piece of fish they can eat for dinner – except when Rosetta drives the men away, shouting "My mother is not a whore!" She wrestles the fish away from her mother, who clutchess a kitchen knife, and throws it into the bush: better to eat what she can pull from the muddy stream nearby. There's a barely-contained frenzy in this girl, some kind of danger on the brink of despair that comes out in the way she walks on the verge of a run, struggles to carry a propane tank, digs in the dirt for worms, works with her hooks and hidden fishing lines – it's a matter of survival, and there isn't enough time to do everything that must be done. It's as if she's being always pursued by something deadly, some threat. No wonder her stomach hurts: mine did, watching.

Rarely will you see such an intensely committed and physicalized performance, such an uncompromisingly raw and truthful rendering of a human soul – except in every other Dardenne brothers film. Like Bresson, these directors frequently rely on untrained actors: unlike Bresson, they draw out impassioned, emotional and utterly compelling performances from their first-time talent. (Emilie Dequenne won the Cannes actress trophy for her portrayal of Rosetta.) They also rely on equally truthful work from highly accomplished actors, like the astonishing Olivier Gourmet who appears here as a gentle-but-pragmatic minor character that's as much of a contrast to the self-indulgent, self-interested father in LA PROMESSE as he is to the constricted, clenched shop teacher in THE SON – a performance which garnered him similar Cannes kudos.

If we're talking Bresson (and we should: his influence on these film-makers is everywhere evident), we might well turn our thoughts to those menacing mopeds, whose off-camera buzzing is as threatening here as it is in AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. And if Rosetta doesn't submit to her tormentors with the donkey's resigned humility, there is still something immensely noble in her suffering. The risk and relentlessness of ROSETTA grabs us in a visceral way that the French master avoids, yet there's something distinctly Bressonian in the way the film opens up its deepest mysteries upon reflection, over the hours and days that follow the final credits. Which may have something to do with the way both Bresson and the Belgians keep their focus entirely on cold, hard, ineluctable physical realities – the doing of mundane physical tasks, inscrutable faces, unexpected occurances, unexplained sounds – in a counter-intuitive effort to evoke unseen spiritual truth.

Whether a viewer identifies anything explicitly "spiritual" in this particular film will depend mostly on the person wielding the adjective. There are no apparent gestures toward God or religion, or even much sense of any more general sort of transcendent hope. There aren't in THE SON, either, but that film is so unwaveringly focused on themes of vengeance and the near-impossibility of forgiveness, on what it might take to reclaim a human soul –themes that are absolutely central to Jesus' gospel – that it's not hard for me to see the later film as distinctly spiritual, essentially Christian.

What is clear is that ROSETTA lives very much in the same universe as the Dardennes' other major films – one of the most artistically and thematically unified bodies of work to be found in cinema. A world of parents and children, of murders and near-murders and Abraham-Isaac catastrophes. Of hatred and love co-mingled, of fierce loyalties and heart-sickening betrayals. A workplace world, where routine physical tasks are performed and money changes hands. The learning and losing of vocation. Poverty, survival, desperation: crime and law, moral decisions worked out somewhere between resourcefulness and sin. Unvarnished, unsentimental characters who draw us to themselves not by their attractivenes, but by their naked and undeniable humanity. Life-and-death stakes, story-lines that drive relentlessly toward a moment of truth, an irreversible point of confrontation. Hand-held cameras. Abrupt endings.

ROSETTA placed first on the 2005 Arts & Faith poll of Spiritually Significant Films, and while that's partly due to a quirk in the survey's methodology that favoured off-the-beaten-track movies, the fact remains that a whole batch of Christian cinephiles rank this film up there with classic religious pictures you or I could more easily name. Having mulled this story for some time now, pondering the puzzle of its hidden spirituality, I come down to this: at the core of ROSETTA are a pair of questions. What will this girl do to get – and keep – a job? And in her world of marginal survival, is there anything more important? The answers, as embodied in this tough and uncompromising story, come very close to both the bad news and the good news at the heart of the gospel.


Available at Videomatica

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Soul Food Tidbits: Sight & Sound, June 2006

Lots of tantalizing Soul Food crumbs in the most recent Sight & Sound magazine to hit these shores. (S&S is maybe the premiere movie mag in the world: for decades they've reviewed every film that reaches big screens in the UK, with expert in-depth commentary contextualizing the most interesting releases and, of course, their acclaimed once-a-decade Top Ten Poll).

IKIRU is by far my favourite Kurosawa, perhaps his greatest non-samurai flick. This month S&S profiles Shimura Takashi, whose performance is the heart and soul of the film: a partial version of their profile is available online, as is my IKIRU review for Christianity Today Movies.

There are a couple Wim Wenders films I'm waiting to see. Most eager to check out LAND OF PLENTY (see COMING SOON), but also interested in DON'T COME KNOCKING – all the more interested having read the S&S review, which is available online. Check out an appreciation of this and other Wenders films by Official Pal Of Soul Food, Jeffrey Overstreet, at his Looking Closer site.
Wenders' masterpiece was WINGS OF DESIRE. In the process of shooting it, the German auteur found his way to faith: there's a great interview with WW in IMAGE Journal, conducted during the writing of DON'T COME KNOCKING, that gives the skinny.
That IMAGE interview was conducted by Scott Derrickson, whose EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE messed with some genre expectations last fall, taking supernatural evil seriously. Not everybody loved it, but I surely appreciated a lot of what it was on about: I'll post my musings for you to check out. The June Sight & Sound brings the latest Derrickson data; "Legendary Pictures, the production company behind SUPERMAN RETURNS and BATMAN BEGINS, is reportedly developing a movie based on John Milton's PARADISE LOST, with Scott Derrickson on board to direct." Hell yeah!

Another official Friend Of Soul Food Movies gets a lovely kudo in the Sight & Sound review of a new Yasujiro Ozu DVD collection, where Brad Stevens notes "There are also intelligent sleeve notes by Doug Cummings." Doug's been immeasurable help as I work on my book, introducing me to Bresson (well, to his movies, anyhow) and loaning me copies of hard-to-find films like WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, REPENTANCE, THE GREEN RAY, ROSETTA, LA PROMESSE, and Carl Theodor Dreyer's early work THE PARSON'S WIDOW.

There's Dreyer, too, in the June S&S, with two new DVD releases in the UK;
GERTRUD: "Dreyer's late masterpiece, made when he was 75 years old, has the emotional depth and intensity of one of Henrik Ibsen's plays. Gertrud is a tragic heroine: a woman caught in a marriage to a narcissistic politician. When she tries to break free, she is betrayed by her young lover and left in limob… Contemporary Dan ish director Lars von Trier has cited Dreyer's movie as a profound influence on his onw work and is reported to be planning a documentary about it…" They also cite Henri-Georges Clouzot: "Dreyer's world is a spiritual one. Through the drama unfolding on the screen, we can detect another drama, which is the world of good and evil, the world of grace and tolerance."
DAY OF WRATH: "Made in the middle of World War II, Dreyer's tale about oppression in early 17th-century Denmark can't help but appear as an allegory about the Nazi era… Old women accused of witchcraft are tortured and burnt to death by staunch, upright Christians who don’t even begin to question their own behaviour. Almost inevitably, Anne, the young wife of the priest who oversees the burnings, soon ends up accused of witchcraft herself."
Dreyer is as hard to pin down as he is fascinating. His ORDET claimed a very high spot on the Arts & Faith "100 Spiritually Significant Films" list which I curated a couple years back, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC may be the great silent-era soul food offering, and LEAVES FROM SATAN'S BOOK "gives us the story of Satan and his involvement with the evil turning points of the world's history, culminating in a powerful look into the life and death struggles of the human race via War, condemnation, etc." (Videomatica)
Yet, as Doug wrote in an email, "Dreyer is complicated. ORDET is a very committed Kierkegaardian film but DAY OF WRATH is a very cruel picture of religious bigotry. So, you’ve got to be careful. Clearly, the views of the characters are not the views of Dreyer himself. But I think he had an extraordinary sympathy and a sense of religious story telling. I saw his LEAVES FROM SATAN’S BOOK a couple of years ago and I think he was just fascinated with stories about religion. His screenplay for the Jesus film is well worth reading. It never got made but it’s very interesting and a great loss that he never did make it. But whether he went to church, I doubt it." (Doug's website, filmjourney, is undoubtedly one of the best Soul-Food-related sites on the web: he's a genuine authority on world cinema, particularly folks like Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Bresson and the Dardennes, and frequents film festivals such as Palm Springs, Toronto and Flickerings.)

Finally, S&S writes up several brand new quasi-indie films that I want to see, THE DEVIL & DANIEL JOHNSTON (which premiered at Pacific Cinematheque, so we'll probably have to wait now for the DVD to hit Videomatica), THE KING (opening this weekend at Tinseltown: 12:20, 3:05, 5:25, 7:55, 10:30), and...

DOWN IN THE VALLY (Edward Norton co-wrote, produced and starred), which has a "freewheeling, unhurried feel reminiscent of mid-1970s New Hollywood films like FIVE EASY PIECES." Says Norton: "It's a deconstruction of the spiritual bankruptcy we live in, and in that sense I'd see it as a companion piece to FIGHT CLUB, even if its texture is very different."

BRICK, just for fun, which grafts hard-boiled film noir argot and story-line onto a contemporary high-school milieu. No apparent God Stuff, but I'm a sucker for Chandler, and once went to high school, so… The synopsis and review are online at SIGHT & SOUND BUT BE WARNED: the synopsis summarizes the entire plot. I recommend you skip straight down to the review. That's what I do, given my allergy to spoilers.

Monday, July 24, 2006


A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT (1992, USA, Robert Redford, Richard Friedenberg screenplay, Norman Maclean novella)
My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things - trout as well as eternal salvation - came by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.

Regrettably, Norman Maclean waited until late in life to publish his first book, an elegantly written memoir of his youth that was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. It’s about fly fishing, it’s about his father – a Presbyterian minister who loved the Montana rivers almost as much as he loved his boys and the gospel – but mostly it’s about Norman’s kid brother, a high flying golden boy who loved danger.

Two years after the author’s death, Robert Redford’s handsome treatment reached the screen. Viewers gloried in images of unspoiled river valleys and the portrait of a family and a time that was nostalgic without being saccharine. The film celebrates the love between the Maclean men without sentimentalizing it: there are rivalries and tensions, too little is spoken or even expressed, and ultimately these men remain opaque to one another, their actions a mystery.

Critics of the film found that absence of character revelation a deficiency. Hal Hinson rightly notes that Paul’s gambling and drinking “seem to spring from an anger deep within,” but then complains that his anger is “never fully explained…. This deficiency leaves a hole in the picture that Redford can't cover over. And it causes repercussions throughout the film, particularly in Paul's relationship with Norman, who seems as puzzled by his brother's behavior as we are.” But would it really be better if Paul’s anger were “fully explained”? No. This is a film about the inexplicableness of people, particularly those closest to us, and the choice we are offered to see their beauty along with their shadow, and to love them nonetheless.

It’s not only his brother’s behaviour that confounds Paul, it is his own as well. In one potent scene violence erupts between the two brothers, without any apparent context or provocation, and when their mother happens into the kitchen and is knocked to the floor, the film brilliantly captures the awkwardness and inexplicability of the event, and the way that none of them has the words or the means to come to terms with what has occurred. The author’s wisdom lies in refusing to explain away souls: the critic has yet to attain that wisdom.

The same commentator finds it perplexing (and ultimately a flaw, a contradiction within the film that “expresses a split within the filmmaker himself”) that Paul masters fly-fishing while failing in life. Hinson correctly reads this as a spiritual movie, but faults the director for failing to deliver the straightforward moral the critic has assigned to the film;
“In RIVER, those who excel in fly-fishing do so through the grace of God. Ultimately, this is a spiritual movie, and if a man is not in spiritual harmony with himself, his God and nature, then, well, he can pretty much count on hamburger for dinner that night. … The sympathies of the gods appear to be divided here, throwing the moral compass out of whack. While Paul is blessed with the greater artistry (not to mention the bigger fish), it is Norman and his father who are blessed in life.”

Is the film full of flaws, then, or is the universe full of mystery? It seems that Mr Hinson wants answers: he’s a Proverbs man, not an Ecclesiastes man, and if a movie is going to show the rain falling on the just and the unjust, it better explain just why that might be.

Roger Ebert also assigns to the film a pretty tidy message, and in doing so quite exactly misses the point: “Fly-fishing stands for life in this movie. If you can learn to do it correctly, to read the river and the fish and yourself, and to do what needs to be done without one wasted motion, you will have attained some of the grace and economy needed to live a good life.”

Perhaps he gives too much credence to Rev. Maclean, who also seems to believe something along these lines, at least early in the film. But the preacher (like the Preacher before him) lives long enough to see his youngest son disprove it: the universe won’t boil down that way, won’t reduce to formulas.

The elder Maclean is a fascinating character. He embodies a certain tough-minded Protestantism, transcendent yet relentlessly pragmatic: he preaches a grace that seems foreign to his own predilection for hard work, righteousness and self-controlled sobriety. Do we earn our way, or are blessings dispensed on some other basis? Surely there must be something we can do to deserve grace? Something a son can do to win the love of his father?

Perhaps that central quandary is what draws him to fly fishing: in the cathedral of a river gorge, fly rod in hand, only the most highly skilled fisherman will be rewarded – yet there are no certainties. Try as we might to master the art of fly fishing, it still remains for the river to offer up its blessing. What’s hidden, or fleetingly glimpsed, may never yield itself up: when it does, when the fish rises to the lure, there is mystery and a sense of blessing. Earned, yet not earned. He begins the film as a man of certainties who will be taught otherwise by all that he loves most.

One of the first chapters in the Movie Critic Handbook states that all voice-over narration is bad, and must be criticized, and, dutifully, the film’s detractors did so here. (Maybe they ought to add that chapter to the Movie Maker Handbook, get rid of those damn voice-overs once and for all, save all those movie critics all that time later on.) But in this story it seems right, essential, reminding us that people do tell these sorts of stories, years after the fact, tell them and re-tell them, fishing for understanding, but that explanations remain elusive. “Long ago when I was a young man, my father said to me, ‘Norman, you like to write stories. Someday when you’re ready, you might tell our family story. Only then will you understand what happened.’” So now, obedient first-born son that he is, Norman tells the story. But perhaps the only understanding available to him – or to us – is that sometimes things can’t be understood. People can’t be explained. Only loved.

The film’s detractors were impatient with its leisurely pace, with its lack of complex and carefully structured narrative. I think of Auggie Wren’s words in SMOKE: “You’ve got to slow down, my friend, or you won’t get it,” and I wonder if these boys know how to look at a river? This story isn’t engineered, it’s not an irrigation system or a white-water theme park ride: it’s a river, it flows, it ambles, it finds its own way. The subplots aren’t carefully manipulated to create whiz-bang narrative payoffs: it’s a memoir, a contemplation of a life, of the ways men, and the ultimately insoluble mysteries that gather around what we love best; brothers, fathers, lovers, rivers, God.

Available at Videomatica

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Links To Other Soul Food Review(er)s

Here's a collection of links to movie writing I like. Movies I'm interested in (usually with some sort of spiritual angle), or writers I'm interested in (usually for similar reasons, whether or not the film itself is such a big deal). I'll keep adding things that catch my eye.


Friday, July 14, 2006


JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO (1990, USA, John Patrick Shanley)
Do you believe in God?
I believe in myself.
What does that mean?
I have confidence in myself.
I've been doing some soul searching lately, asking myself some pretty tough questions. You know what I found out? I have no interest in myself. I start thinking about myself, I get bored out of my mind.

You know the Tom Hanks – Meg Ryan romcom you never rented because you thought you didn't really need to see Tom and Meg do their thing again, and besides you thought it might be a little weird? Well, you thought wrong: it's a lot weird, it's like no other romantic comedy you'll ever see, and you do need to see it.

John Patrick Shanley is one of America's most widely produced playwrights, and his writing and directing for the theatre has kept his imagination alive in a way that frees him from the genre restrictions and market orientation of so much commercial screenwriting. There's a whimsical imagination at play here that goes way beyond the conventions of what's supposed to pass for realism in standard issue romantic comedy: painting with freer, broader strokes and wildly vivid colors, he gives us something that's both more romantic and more comic than any dozen SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLEs or YOU'VE GOT MAILs.

It's also more substantial, in its own whimsical, wacky sort of way. Shanley also penned MOONSTRUCK, which makes all kinds of sense, but it's even more telling that he won the Pulitzer for DOUBT, a preconception-defying investigation of possible sexual abuse in a religious school where the tough-as-nails conservative-as-all-get-out Mother Superior gets to be the good guy. (Or does she? It's too subtle and true a play to hand us such white-hat black-hat answers. Suffice it to say, the Catholic- educated Shanley dedicated the work to "the many orders of Catholic nuns who have devoted their lives to serving others… Though they have been much maligned and ridiculed, who among us has been so generous?")

Did you ever hear something called a "joe job?" Joe's got one; mindless, purposeless, and terminally tedious, he orders (or doesn't order) stationery at the whim and mercy of his whining monstrosity of a supervisor, lost in the dingiest fluorescent-lit corner of the dreariest factory industrial capitalism has to offer – the American Parascope Company, "Home Of The Rectal Probe!" Think METROPOLIS, think Kafka, think ERASERHEAD – only greyer, cheaper, and less interesting – and you'll be in the right neighborhood.

Joe is a walking dead man, so when his doctor tells him he's got only months to live, he's ecstatic. Anything, we suppose, would be an improvement. With nothing to lose, he quickly works his way up the scale of "wild and crazy," starting by asking the typist out for dinner and ending up agreeing to throw himself into an active volcano to save the mysterious and fabulously weathly Mr Graynamore's superconductor conglomerate. (Hmmm, there's something about that name…)

Obviously not your ordinary chick flick. Obviously not your ordinary any kind of flick. Roger Ebert, who arguably sees more movies than any person alive, wrote "Gradually during the opening scenes, my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wonderous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before… constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO…"

It is truly meet, right and salutary that Rodge's heart should have started beating faster since, when it all comes down to it, that's what John Patrick Shanley's oddest, sweetest movie is really all about. Hearts beating faster. The dead coming back to life. When Joe finds himself adrift in the middle of the sea, dying of thirst and scanning for some sort of human signal on his radio, it's the Dell-Vikings he finds, and the goofy, awkward, nobody's-looking-at-me-so-I-might-as-well-dance dance that he dances alone under the moon and stars, away from the things of man, is something they'll never see back at the American Parascope Company. "Come Go With Me" indeed.


Available at Videomatica

Thursday, July 13, 2006


THE STATION AGENT (2003, USA, Thomas McCarthy)
Bring 'em in.
Really, we got to give thanks. C'mon, bring em in. Hands around. Who wants to say it?
God, thank you for letting us sit here and enjoy this meal. Please watch over everybody. Please let my dad heal, he's driving me f***ing crazy…. Anybody you guys want to mention?
Amen. Let's dig in.

I love the way the Hollywood Reporter summed up STATION AGENT after the Sundance premiere. "A dwarf inherits a rural New Jersey train station and bonds with a hot-dog vendor and an artist. Gonna rush right out to see that one? Probably not, but…" It's the "but" that counts: nobody can help liking this one-of-a-kind, good natured, unsentimental beauty. No budget, small story, great performances, it's a wryly humorous portrait of two resolute loners and the ultra-gregarious extrovert who sets out to befriend them, who knows why. He's compelled, he cannot do otherwise, friendliness is hard-wired in this guy. He's a force of nature. Good nature.

This is a film about solitude and train watching, good food and casual cruelty and what ordinary community feels like. By any measure, it's a soulful film: these are richly drawn characters you just want to hang with, it's a pleasure to be in their company. Still, I'm not sure I would have pegged this one as a specifically spiritual film if it weren't for that prayer, and that from the unlikeliest of sources. Or is he?

I see that unrestrained appetite for friendship and food and everything out there, I see the comfortable place his faith has in a life that's so unapologetcally human it might get labeled hypocritical but I would call it just being alive, and I can't help thinking, "I want to be more like that guy."

Is it a certifiable God Movie? Maybe not. Is it soul food? Oh yeah.


Available at Videomatica


THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951, USA, Robert Wise, screenplay Edmund H. North, story Harry Bates)
It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet. But if you threaten to extend your violence, this earth of yours will be reduced to a burned out cinder. Your choice is simple. Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. The decision rests with you. Gort baringa.

Fans of early science fiction consider this a tautly paced, intelligent film that distinguishes itself from others of the genre by subtle wit, a preference for characterization over sensationalism, and a laudable anti-war message with religious overtones. Viewed half a century later and miles from the nearest drive-in, it's hard to imagine that any movie not made by Andrei Tarkovsky could move this slow: thirty minutes worth of Twilight Zone concept is stretched out to a leisurely hour and a half, with dialogue (and ideas) only a cut or two above PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (for which it seems to have provided inspiration). The "give up your weapons of mass destruction or we'll destroy you en masse" argument may have sounded progressive just after World War II, but it's hard to take seriously as a pro-peace manifesto today: Mark Janovich's Rational Fear: American horror in the 1950s convincingly makes the case that the story is thoroughly pro-military – it's just a matter of whose army's got the bigger guns and the higher ideals. As for the film's noted Christological symbolism (other-worldly emissary walks among ordinary humans disguised as "Mr Carpenter:" his gospel of peace disregarded, he is killed but comes back to life, ascending to the heavens with a warning of fiery judgment), it's as contrived and thin as the film's politics. Still, your mileage may vary: this early Cold War peace parable, however muddled, ranks #162 on the IMDb popularity poll. Ultra-cool theremin soundtrack by Bernard Hermann, though. And it must be said, the film does offer practical wisdom which may well save your life: when confronted by a silver-clad (if slow-moving) robot bent on destruction, you need only remember these words to avoid certain death: "Klaatu barada nikto."


Available at Videomatica

Saturday, July 08, 2006


TIME OF THE WOLF ("Le Temps du loup," 2003, France/Austria/Germany, Michael Haneke)
They jump naked in the fire. Sacrificing themselves for us.

A child of the Cold War, I've long been fascinated by post-apocalyptic fiction, and this seems to me the ultimate among the "this is what it would really be like" sub-genre. Sometimes these stories are merest misanthropy, consumerist wish-fulfillment or heroic fantasies of self-reliance. Not WOLF, which is rigourous, unsettling, and prophetic in the truest sense of the word: forth-telling rather than foretelling, Haneke warns us not about what's to come, but about what already is.

In his press notes, writer/director Michael Haneke tells us the title comes from the 'Song of the Sightseer', part of the ancient Germanic Codex Regius, which describes a time before Ragnarok, the end of the world. But the Austrian bad-boy film-maker isn't interested in making science fiction: "Four-fifths of humanity live in conditions far worse than those depicted here. The only thing I did was to take those living conditions and transpose them into our geographical area. This is not a film for the third world - they don't need to see it. This is for the wealthy nations."

Very early in this dark, dark film – visually dark as well as emotionally dark – a central character is shot to death. Suddenly, awkwardly, capriciously. Haneke has served notice that, in this unvarnished apocalyptic world, anything can happen, we can never let our guard down. In one sequence a mother is separated from her child in the middle of the night in the middle of a countryside as devoid of humanity and compassion as it is electricity. Desperate, she lights clutched handfuls of straw in a complete darkness that fills the screen for panicky, unbearable stretches, and we crave light like a drowning swimmer craves air.

Fire is as important as darkness, and once we find ourselves in the midst of – well, not civilization, but at least other people – we hear snatches of conversation about "nutters" who throw themselves into fire, sacrificing themselves: the cynical response, "Well at least there is one less" – to eat the food, to drink the water, to take up space in the crowded shelters. There's also passing comment about The Just, a Talmudic notion that in each generation there are at least 36 tzaddikim in the world, righteous people for whose sake the world escapes destruction. In Haneke's world, there is no way to know if such stories might be true or not – both tales are recounted by mad people, one of whom swallows razor blades – just as there is no way of knowing what's gone wrong with the world to reduce it to such a state. But the religious, mythical context these stories evoke is intentional on the director's part, and they are clearly taken as true by at least one character in the story in a horrifying sequence that is not easily forgotten. The monologue that follows the martyrdom scene is extraordinary, richly poetic and obliquely hopeful, especially in a film so relentlessly stripped of language and optimism. It evokes biblical language in a skewed and troubling way reminiscent of the hospital "beatitudes" in SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, another strange and vaguely apocalyptic (if far funnier) European film.

TIME OF THE WOLF is a bleak and uneventful film that offers none of the narrative excitement or melodrama of the conventional end-of-the-world flick. The soul-straining tediousness edged with fear that ends up constituting most of what life's about after society collapses proves to be just one more thing to endure, and the film is as willing to expose us to that reality as it is the threat of hunger and thirst and human bestiality. Truly, here, the light shines in the darkness, but it will be up to each viewer to decide whether the darkness overcomes it, or not.

Available at Videomatica


THE KING (2005, USA/UK, James Marsh, w/ Milo Addica)
I need to get right with God

Elvis Valderez gets his discharge from the navy and heads for Corpus Christi to connect with the father he never knew, now a family man, the pastor of Glad Tidings Ministry. Who receives his prodigal son with the words "Let me tell you something. This is my family and that is my house" – a clear warning, even a threat. Elvis isn't the sort to take no for an answer, and besides, he's interested in the preacher's sixteen-year-old daughter.

The film is dark and disturbing, and what's most disturbing isn't the strong sexual images or the violence or the constant feeling of dread, but the sense that this may very well be a cynical deconstruction not only of a particular brand of Christianity but of the deepest things of the faith, things like redemption and forgiveness.

Read most reviewers and you'll decide it's just that. But that's why you ought to scrupulously avoid the reviews, at least until you see the film and make your own mind up. Because I think this film is – or may be – much more than than a simple spit in the eye for Christianity. Indeed, it's the viewer's uncertainty about just where the film stands, and what it intends for us to think about this all-too-human family and this almost sociopathic lost son who just wants someplace he can feel home, that comprises the film's real artistry. In that, as well as some of its central themes, it begs comparison with A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and will similarly split its audience into the unconvinced who find the story nasty and simplistic, something of a genre failure, and those who decide it's subtle, nuanced, ambivalent and, ultimately, a work of real art tackling the most essential human questions.

Whatever you decide the film concludes, there's no denying it wants to grapple with – or maybe just take aim at – the same profoundly Christian questions as the more easily digested LES MISERABLES. Can a man be born again? For what can we be forgiven? What can we forgive? What must we forgive? In a stranger, in our families, in ourselves? And what happens if we do not? Wherever you decide this film ultimately lands – exploitative attack or authentic engagement – the journey there is surely a visceral, queasy, unpredictable flight, a gut punch of a movie that provokes both anger and thought.


Available at Videomatica


Previous joggings: Don't expect a sermon on celluloid, but I for one am always interested in anything that sets its story in the context of the church subculture. Many Christians viewers would find last summer's MY SUMMER OF LOVE essentially a critique (mockery?) of the born-again brother, but a gang of Christian artisitic directors I watched it with weren't so sure, and thought it a pretty interesting (and accurate, and not altogether unsympathetic) rendering of at least one sort of Christian community. So who knows about THE KING?... "British documentary filmmaker James Marsh has collaborated for his first narrative feature with hot screenwriter Milo Addica (MONSTER'S BALL) to create a horror story that is as pretty as a candy box but contains only poison. The film is an accomplished piece of mischief making that directly confronts religious conviction, in this case Christian, with its worst nightmare: can you really forgive evil? Beautifully shot and well acted, the film might well cause controversy among fundamentalist believers as a provocative allegory challenging the power of faith. The story has biblical overtones as a young man named Elvis Sandow takes an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy and heads directly to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he seeks out Pastor David Sandow (William Hurt) and claims to be his son. The pastor, who runs a successful Christian center, immediately spurns the young man, explaining that he has a new family now, and the episode with his mother occurred before he had found Jesus. Elvis, however, encounters the Pastor's 16-year-old daughter..." Hollywood Reporter
Reviewed in Sight & Sound June 2006.