Saturday, September 23, 2006

Holden Caulfield on the movies

from Catcher In The Rye
by J.D. Salinger

"I can understand somebody going to the movies because there's nothing else to do, but when somebody really wants to go, and even walks fast so as to get there quicker, then it depresses hell out of me. Especially if I see millions of people standing in one of those long, terrible lines, all the way down the block, waiting with this terrific patience for seats and all."

Thursday, September 21, 2006


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.

Matt Rindge talked brilliantly about American Beauty at a playwriting/screenwriting retreat I attended some years ago, hosted by Art Within in Atlanta. Those ideas find their way into this review, and are expanded on in his book Profane Parables: Film and the American Dream.


FIGHT CLUB (1999, USA, David Fincher, Jim Uhls, Chuck Palahniuk novel)
Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing. This is your pain -- this is your burning hand. Don't deal with it the way those dead people do.
Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. We are God's unwanted children. So be it!
First you have to give up. First, you have to know – not fear, know – that someday you are going to die. It's only after we've lost everything that we are free to do anything.

This film is mad as hell, and it's not going to take it anymore – and like Howard Beale in NETWORK, its "what have I got to lose" bravado tells enough ugly truths to assume a prophetic mantle. Its uncompromising rage touched a nerve at the turn of the millenium, and FIGHT CLUB became one of those films that spoke to – or for – a generation of alienated young men embedded in corporate structures, targets for marketers, hungry for community and transcendent purpose.

With its near-death experiences, its damn-the-consequences refusal to live life numb and ordinary, FIGHT CLUB is FEARLESS on crack cocaine, fast and full of fury. The unnamed narrator flies from place to anonymous place, investigating fatal car accidents, praying for a plane crash or a mid-air collison – anything that will deliver him from his spiritual narcolepsy.

He gets his "anything" in the form of Tyler Durden, a wildman alter-ego whose reckless abandonment of civilized ways slaps him awake and introduces him to the shadow side of things – particularly, an ad hoc secret organization where men strip off their shirts and pound each other bloody. Sieze the day, the film seems to say – grab it by the throat and smash its head against the concrete until it begs for mercy.

At one level, FIGHT CLUB seems to skewer the whole "live life to the fullest" philosophy that so dominates our culture, forging a troubling link between self-actualization and fascism. "Seems." You see, it's a tricky business, trying to figure out what this film is saying – in truly post-modern fashion, whenever it seems to land somewhere, it undercuts the insight or conclusion with another layer of irony, another "but...." This is dense and demanding film-making, cinematically sophisticated story-telling that reveals – and subverts – its deeper truths only upon reflection, discussion, argument, and careful repeat viewings. A movie for the DVD/chatroom generation.

As relentlessly harsh and violent as the movie is – on first viewing I found it dishearteningly grim and cynical, leaving me in a cloud of quasi-depression for days – FIGHT CLUB shows up on the Fave lists of a remarkable number of film-loving Christians. I think that's because this film is against what God is against: it runs counter to the very culture that the Church needs also to be critiquing.

This from one friend who's immersed in the laments of the prophet Jeremiah, and Walter Brueggeman's writings on the prophetic imagination in exile: "Some things must be destroyed and brought down completely before newness can begin. And prophets were commanded to destroy, pull down. Institutions, perhaps. Self-love, perhaps. The need to own things, perhaps. So I applauded this film for the voice of truth, anger, and destruction.
We are not what we own. We need something else. We are angry for being let down and we have a right to be. Some things must be destroyed -- including my self, my pride, my love of possessions -- if God is to have a chance at regenerating me."

Truly, this is a story about regeneration – about the need for a death, however painful, to bring about the possibility of rebirth. And indeed, the film is saturated with religious imagery, Biblical language, encounter groups in churches, sacred music, Christian metaphor. Don't let anybody tell you they know exactly what Jesus meant when he said "The Kingdom of God suffers violence, and violent men seize it" – but I think it's something about a desperate, uncompromising battle to shed The Kingdom Of This World and break through to a different one. And there's something of that spirit in FIGHT CLUB.

In Telling The Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner maintains that the gospel has to be bad news before it can be good news – that we have to tell dark truths about what is wrong before jumping to what might be right, before trotting out the happy endings. Sometimes the true calling for the artist – as it is for the prophet or the preacher – is embodied in King Lear's "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say."

FIGHT CLUB speaks what some of us feel, these days. It's not so good at providing answers – all its proposed solutions seem to spin wildly out of control and into violence, self-deception, madness, destruction. But not every story needs to tell all of the truth: not every prophet needs to offer solutions.

In the final analysis, this film wants us to get mad. It doesn't know what to do about the multinationals, about the globalization, about the orphaned young men in meaningless jobs. All it knows is, "First... You've got to get mad!"

Available at Videomatica


THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998, USA, Peter Weir, wr Andrew Niccol)
What distresses you, ultimately, is that Truman prefers his cell. As you call it.

Seahaven is the kind of place you'd love to visit, but – as Truman Burbank slowly comes to realize – you wouldn't want to live there. The seaside town with its whitewashed clapboard buildings evokes a sweeter, simpler time – a crime-free, trouble-free, poverty-free postcard world that never existed outside a Jane Wooster Scott painting. You'd take a tidy little bed and breakfast somewhere near the boardwalk, you'd eat ice cream sundaes in well-managed sunny little shops stroll the quiet streets, you'd be tempted never to leave – unless, of course, they wouldn't let you go. Then this little slice of heaven would start to look a lot like hell.

Jim Carrey plays a man born and raised in something like theme park America, a TV-perfect vision of marching bands and perma-friendly pals and next door neighbours that plays like some wish-fulfilling manifestation of North America's collective unconscious, the monstrous, squeaky-clean spawn of a toxic nostalgia for the past mated with a controlling fear of chaos and the unknown. (Interesting how the sea with its mysterious, imagined depths is as dreadful a barrier for Truman as it was for the Israelites.) As the opening credits cleverly suggest to the audience, and a mounting sense of unreality and inconsistency begins to suggest to Truman himself – a strange, otherworldly lighting instrument falls from the sky, the name of a star and galaxy scrawled on the side in felt pen – the entire story, and Truman's entire life, is unfolding on a massive soundstage. His life is the ultimate high concept Reality TV show, and Truman is the only person in the world who isn't in on the concept. He doesn't know that from the womb, his every experience has been filmed and broadcast live to the entire world. Every experience, that is, except sex: whenever his perky, almost-plastic wife (my theory? she grew up in nearby Stepford) beguiles him to bed with babies on her mind, the camera discreetly turns away to curtains blowing in the wind. Not, it turns out, because The Truman Show is too discrete to film such prurient details – God knows, the ratings would soar! – but because nobody has sex in Seahaven. (The bed and breakfast idea is looking less appealing by the minute...) Not the townspeople, who are after all professional actors. And certainly not Truman, the only true man on the set.

You see, our hero may have been plotted into a chipper but unfulfilling and unfulfilled marriage (and what a horrifying vision of marriage this is! Meryl's main function is to steer Truman, to reign him in, putting the damper on his dreams with talk of savings and mortgage and building a secure future: we're reminded of Warren Schmidt's quietly desperate marriage, and the false face he puts on to mask the discontent from himself and everyone else), but he won't make the producer or the viewing audience happy by making babies. Truman's is the oldest, best and truest reason in the world: he's not in love. His heart belongs to another, an extra who caught his eye one pseudo-summer's day and was whisked away because she didn't fit with the pre-ordained storyline. Now and then we get glimpses of The Truman Show's viewing audience out in the real world, and there she is, his lost love, living in the kind of low-rent apartment that you'd never see on Truman's show, carrying on a "Free Truman" campaign that marks her as a trouble-making nut case.

I'll level with you. First time through, I didn't connect at all with this movie. Maybe it's my irrational hatred of all things television – though that didn't put me off PLEASANTVILLE. Maybe it's the gloss. Maybe it's the high concept thing, that played to my head instead of my humanity. Maybe it just didn't speak to my experience: I read it mostly as a paranoia film, with Truman essentially the victim of a massive conspiracy. Im not paranoid enough to connect with that, I just don't see myself – or anybody, really – as the object of any sort of government plot or media plot.

It was my second try that finally afforded me a foothold, and that's when I connected with Truman's secret, the unspoken longing he carries inside him for this woman from Someplace Else. I know that yearning. C.S. Lewis calls it joy or "Northernness," Truman calls it Fiji, a strange and distant land of which we've caught fleeting glimpses. Rumours of Glory. Reality. Eternity. Our home, perhaps. And once our heart fastens on it, we're restless until we find our way there. We're "hunting the divine fox," and we can't rest once we pick up the scent.

So that's when they finally had me, the moment I picked up echoes of my own spiritual coming of age, my waking up to the fact that there was a realer world beyond the one I'd grown up believing in. Jesus called it the Kingdom of Heaven, but he didn't mean pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die, he said it's among us, within us. Gerard Manley Hopkins called it God's grandeur, said it flames out "like shining from shook foil."

And Truman glimpsed it in a girl. Now he buys glamour magazines and spends his secret time piecing together a collage of her half-remembered face: this one's smile, that nose, those eyes. And that's why there's no sex in Seahaven.

That's not the only thing missing from Seahaven: there's no religion, too. Imagine, no churches! Not even those solidly reassuring Protestant edifices that flourished in the Truman-like Fifties, fending off the fears of a nation that wanted to forget the horrors of war and manage the dread of invisible Cold War enemies across oceans and maybe even closer at hand. What's with that?

Turns out there's no religion in this sub-creation because Seahaven is sealed off from the heavens, the stars are movie lights, and the winds and the tides are controlled not by the Creator but by the creator, a television director likes to play god, who invented the series and directs every episode from a tech booth hidden somewhere just beyond the (artificial) moon. He's set himself up as god over this pre-fab, anti-lapsarian Eden, and apparently he'll have no other Gods before him. Not content to let God be God, he keeps Truman's world small, he micro-manages the risks in Truman's world to provide edification, emotion and – ironically – escape for the millions in the viewing audience.

Some read this film as pure and simple allegory: Truman is you and me and every man, Christof is God, and clearly the best thing for any of us is to get out from under this despot's thumb and get real. Not good enough: it doesn't take into account one tiny moment that points beyond Christoph to something – or Someone – higher. The Young Woman – Christof christened her Lauren, a Movie Star Saint's name like every character and every street name in this moviolatrous sub-creation, but her real name is Sylvia – embodies not only Transcendence and Wonder and the longing for Relationship, but also good old un-movied Real Life. And at the moment of Truman's greatest jeopardy, when he curses the storm and the (false) god above just like Lieutenant Dan and Captain Ahab before him, Sylvia looks up and prays, simply, "Please, God." Suddenly THE TRUMAN SHOW isn't, after all, an allegory about a human spirit constrained by a controlling, rule-making, fear-mongering Higher Power, but rather a portrait of what happens when mere creatures forge a world that denies the Creator, fashioning a false paradise that aims to fulfill every need but the spiritual and soulful. It is good and right that we should create worlds – we are, after all, made in the image and likeness of our Maker, who is before everything else creative – but if we don't acknowledge that higher Creator, if we think ourselves gods just because we create, will our creations bear the image of divinity or only our own image? If Truman's god is merely human, if he lives only in a sub-creation, will he only ever be sub-human?

Some will say that Truman's hunger isn't for God at all, that it's for freedom, mystery, love, passion, intimacy, authenticity, risk, adventure – all the great stuff that most movies are about, the "behold it is good" things that nourish and satisfy human souls, God or no God. It's a story of emancipation, just like all Peter Weir films. But it's also a story about encounters with unknown places, worlds in collision, and about the spiritual worlds we can see from those liminal places, those border lands – just like all the best Peter Weir movies. Because when it comes time for THE TRUMAN SHOW to show its hand, everything it has to say is about truth and reality and the creator, about freedom and choice and transcendence. As clever and pretty and entertaining as this movie is, it's playing for keeps. (For instance, what's with that piece of music that plays just as Truman's ship breaks through the wall of his soundstage prison camp? It's a Wojceich Kilar composition entitled "Father Kolbe's Preaching." Go ahead, look up Saint Maximilllian Kolbe, I dare you!)

Sure this movie is about personal freedom, it's about media and political systems that subjugate us with bread and media circuses and cheap nostalgia and fear, it's about how being surrounded by pretty stuff won't satisfy – you can live in at TV commercial or Disneyland and not be happy! It's about the basic human need for authenticity, and it's about the shadow side, the unavoidable, messy, dangerous, desirable chaos of real life, and the futility of trying to control it all (again I think of Warren Schmidt, who like Truman – or Bob Parr, for that matter! – makes a living managing death, assessing risk, selling insurance to fend off fear about life's one great unalterable). If you like, it's a parable about parents and children, about coming of age and apron strings. Heck, you can even see this movie as a film-maker's meditation on the soul dangers inherent in the creative process, especially when your creation will influence millions: an insider's cautionary tale about the vocational hazards faced by every cinematic Sorcerer's Apprentice who helps build the myths that people end up living inside.

You can read this movie a lot of ways, it's that rich and complex. But when the film ultimately frames its questions in metaphysical terms, is it any surprise we look for ultimate, metaphysical answers? The basic dramaturgical questions here – what is Truman hungry for? And what's Out There? – are also the essential human questions. So it's no wonder that, as Truman wakes up to the awareness that there's something beyond the world he knows, as he becomes restless in the mereness of his bland, pretty, predictable little life, we hunger with him for something much, much bigger and not nearly so tame.


Available at Videomatica


SIGNS (2002, USA, M. Night Shyamalan)
What you have to ask yourself is what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky?

I find no pleasure in dissecting other people's pets. Lots of good and smart people love this movie, and I've got no desire to deny them that. I don't like this movie, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't.

If you haven't seen SIGNS, and you like suspenseful sci fi thrillers that may or may not be about alien invaders – particularly if you're looking for something without excess violence or supernatural horror, with some pro-faith, family-affirming stuff in the mix – don't read past this paragraph. The best thing about this movie, first time through, is the tension and dread it manages to create, and I'm not going to be the one to diminish that by giving even a hint of where the story is going. And plenty of people find lots to like besides just the suspense: maybe you'll see the same strengths they did. Rent the movie, fire up the popcorn maker, turn out the lights and get ready to squirm.

For me, though, this movie just doesn't work. I started out ready enough to get the willies over critters in the cornfields, but before long I just couldn't suspend my disbelief any more, not so much over the Creepy Green Monsters premise as everything else. The script seems screenwriterish, over-wrought: the lines don't flow out of the situation or a character's need, but out of the writer's need to manipulate plot and theme (and audience). It all seems forced: characters have characteristics, not character, and I can't buy any of it.

Sharp and seasoned critics applauded SIGNS, Peter Travers and Roger Ebert and plenty of others. The very perceptive Catherine Barsotti acknowledges that the ending may be contrived, but is willing to cut the movie some slack there in appreciation for the way everything up to that point deftly interweaves the story elements of a conventional sci fi thriller, a domestic drama about a family in mourning, and a character study of a priest who's lost his faith – Fear, Family and Faith. But it's not just the ending I find contrived: it all seems calculated, mechanical and unconvincing.

Indeed, many of the film's fans see the horror movie elements as little more than a marketable way to get the shills into the metaphysical and relational tent. For me, the scary bits are the only things that worked. Shyamalan knows how to crank up the tension: when we're desperate for a glimpse of these creatures, at the same time filled with dread, and we have to get down on our knees and strain to catch its reflection on the blade of a butcher knife of all things... That's scary. He also hits the right note of helpless dread in the scenes where we watch events unfold on TV, and the first televised glimpse of an alien gave me all the jolt I wanted. But as much as I wanted to, I didn't buy the human stuff or the holy stuff for a minute.

Perhaps things first start to go seriously wrong when Gibson's character runs around the house yelling improbabilities to scare the monsters away: not only is it out of keeping with the dramatic situation, it seems condescending toward the character, the first of many over-statements and mis-steps used to create the kind of well-meaning Movie Priest who never set foot on this planet. (Why does this character ring so false, seem so badly drawn, so clunky and manufactured, his priestliness so superficial? Apparently Shyamalan went to both Catholic and Episcopal schools, well I think he mixed up his priests: Pastor Mel is married and he's expected to hear confession. And where's he get off calling himself "a reverend" – no pro would make that outsider bungle.) There's an authorial heavy-handedness everywhere in this film that drives me mad: no cross on the wall at the beginning, cross back on the wall at the end. I mean, why would a cross even leave a shadow like that, unless it was really dirty or you were running your fingers around it all the time. No, it's a Symbol, it's not the true cross it's a Movie Cross, just like the Movie Priest Mel has to impersonate, all terribly intentional and obvious and fake.

The performances are as earnest and unconvincing as everything else in the film. I like Mel Gibson, not just in action flicks but in roles that call for a real emotional connection. Still, he's not in the middle of this one at all. Not that he doesn't try hard, but that's exactly what we don't want to watch: actors trying hard. When he listens to Dr. Reddy's confession, we see an actor trying to convey tortured emotion using just his face muscles, not a human being experiencing an agonizing moment. Indeed, Shyamalan's cameo here may point the direction this film should have gone: he's slightly awkward in the role, not really an actor, but I think he's closer to the truth of the moment than his movie star counterpart. What SIGNS may need is a smaller-budget remake: go BLAIR WITCH crude or original LIVING DEAD raw with this baby, loosen up the script a bit, give the monster a lot less screen time – does he really have to stand there for five minutes so everybody sees he's just a guy in green leotards with fake claws, while characters have flashbacks and even in real time have plenty of time to slowly figure out they should hit him with that baseball bat hanging on the wall? – and you might really have something. A lot less would be much more.

And it's not just Mel: Joaquin Phoenix has but one note to play, condemned to sit for great stretches of time on the couch between two too-cute kids with tinfoil on their heads, with nothing to do but embody the Goofy Kid Brother Who's Actually Wise. Characters don't talk, they have lines and give speeches. They fulfill Dramatic Functions, they have Endearing Qualities, they're even assigned Character Flaws that will help everything to Work Out In The End. (See, it's happening: this movie awakens my Inner Pauline Kael.) I liked Cherry Jones' Officer Paski better, not only for the actor's less face-frozen performance, but also for the character's humanity, with all credit to screenwriter Shyamalan for giving us a lonely widower and a compassionate female cop who don't end up together! The best surprise in the movie.

The Tak Fujimoto cinematography that was so evocative in the dark and urban SIXTH SENSE (an infinitely superior film) seems kistchier than Rockwell in the bright rural setting of SIGNS: when the gang heads into town, it looks more like Disneyland or Seahaven than any small town in the real world – apart from the ones they tart up for tourists. If you want to tell a story about a family and a faith in crisis, give it some dust and rough edges, don't sentimentalize it with greeting card art direction.

Frankly, I think many Christians over-celebrated the film because it wrestles with faith questions that rarely show up onscreen. But I even – or especially – had problems with that aspect of the film.

The first time we see a crop circle (or "crop sign," as the film thematically calls its cornfield metaphors), Shyamalan puts his wisdom in the mouth of a child: "God did it." Well, the kid is just plain wrong: God didn't do it, aliens did, and they'll kill him if they get half a chance. We're told that there's a whole lot of people who, "when they see those fourteen lights, they're looking at a miracle... And that fills them with hope." But I'm thinking, they're reading the sign all wrong: it doesn't say "God loves you," it says "Danger danger Will Robinson!"

There are two kinds of people in the world: the kind who believe there are two kinds of people, and the kind who don't. Count me among the latter. So when the Hess brothers agree that there are "Miracle" people who think everything is a sign, and then there's everybody else that figures "whatever happens, they're on their own" and it all just comes down to luck, I'm thinking maybe I'm not a people at all then, maybe I'm some kind of alien, because I don't fit in either group. I figure some things are miracles, and some just ain't. Some things signal divine intervention, and some just happen: some things are evidence of God's benevolence, and some signal something else, and some don't signal anything at all, they just are.

Shyamalan advocates for faith, but faith in what? He connects the priest's loss of faith in God with his skepticism about crop circles, and I'm thinking hey, that's not cynicism, it's common sense. Are we simply to "believe"? In what? In faith itself, however misplaced? In the goodness of aliens? That the wife's death was "meant to be," that she couldn't have offered her family good survival tips in person but only from the brink of death? That nobody would have thought of smacking the critter with that baseball bat on the wall if mom hadn't prophesied? So God had to kill mom to save her family from aliens?

"Is it possible that there are no coincidences?" That sounds like an Eastern brand of fatalism that owes more to M's Indian heritage than his apparently half-digested Christian education. Isn't it also possible that there are coincidences, but that there are other things which are not? Is it possible that God makes miracles out of this world's fallenness – sometimes? And sometimes not.

The film's defenders may argue that this is exactly Shyamalan's point: maybe he's saying Group Two is both wrong and right, the fourteen lights aren't a miracle but there is someone looking out for them. Morgan is both wrong and right when he says God made the crop circles: sure it was only malevolent aliens who flattened the corn, but perhaps Morgan's (and Shyamalan's) God is big enough to allow both blessing and curse for his children. So maybe the film is much more thematically rich and subtle than it appears to be. But I doubt it. If that's what he was shooting for, he missed his mark: SIGNS doesn't present itself with that kind of subtlety or understatement in any other aspect of its presentation, why expect such nuance and paradox in its themes? No, when all's said and done, I think the film's contradictions are much more muddle than Mystery.

Robert K. Johnston argues that SIGNS is as complex as Ecclesiastes, that it asserts the goodness of God while acknowledging the randomness and pain and lack of resolution we experience in real life. But for me, that doesn't pay enough attention to the movie itself: Shyamalan's world could use a lot more randomness and reality, and would do well to leave things much less resolved. The God of Ecclesiastes doesn't fix everything: the God of SIGNS manipulates every last detail to make things work out swell. In Ecclesiastes, bad stuff just happens: in SIGNS, every tragedy is "meant to be."

The pervasive problem with this film may be the problem with M. Night Shyamalan's worldview. He creates a universe of themes and events that is just too tightly closed and tidy, where every occurance is a plot point, every character attribute a set-up for a melodramatic pay-off. The heavy hand of an over-functioning God (or screenwriter) is seen everywhere, and there's no room for anything – or anyone – to breathe or be human. Every damn thing means something, it's all a set-up, utterly premeditated and Significant. In Shyamalan's world, there's no room for choice or chance, subtext or serendipity. Nothing can just be what it is, everything has to be a sign.

Available at Videomatica


entry under construction...


Roger Ebert: "THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON shows us a life of accomplishment and achievement, ringed around with sadness, dampened by drugs both prescribed and not (bad acid trips didn't help), and supported by parents who the film characterizes as "fundamentalist," as if that led to Daniel's troubles. It looks to me more as if Johnston's parents are the luckiest thing that has ever happened to him, as they care for him on his good days and his impossible ones."

New York Times reader "borschtt": "Johnston's parents may be mere "Church of Christ" members, but they exhibit an intelligence, sophistication and love for their son that ultimately sets the framework of this film."


Coming September 26 to Videomatica

CT Movies: Interview with director Jeff Feuerzeig; "As far as Christianity, I learned a great deal. I learned that The Church of Christ is a very hip church. It's the only church I've ever been in where there's not one Jesus or cross on the walls; there's no symbolism. And the congregation sings the entire service together. Daniel comes out of that tradition, and he's actually recorded a few of those songs from church—like Careless Soul, which is on his gospel album, titled 1990.... The Church of Christ saved him—that and his family's faith have kept Daniel alive to this day. I believe his parents' faith has given them the strength to do what they have done—still taking care of him today. They have a deep understanding of manic depression. They're always up on new medicine, constantly searching for new meds for Daniel. He's on a cocktail of five different things a day. His dad takes his blood sugar, pricks his finger, checks his blood every single day. His dad gives him his meds because Daniel won't take his meds without his dad giving it to him. I think it's incredible what they've done."

"Hi, How Are You" - official Daniel Johnston website
"Artist, singer, songwriter and pilgrim of indie music with 30+ albums, hundreds of songs, and dozens of fans."

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Guardian, May '06: What Whit's been up to lately

by Whit Stillman
The Guardian, May 12 '06

His first three movies were acclaimed comedies of yuppy highlife, then Whit Stillman vanished. So what has he been doing for eight years? And why does it involve Jamaican churches?

I have a happy novelist friend who operates on the principle "first thought, best thought". My own experience has been "first thought, unbelievably stupid thought". If a producer wants something cliched, forced and unfunny that's also weird and meandering ... yes, I can turn that in within the contractually mandated 12 weeks. Writing my three films so far, Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, I found that however much I might have wanted to "hurry", it was only through a fitful stop-start process, with long gaps between versions, that I could come up with anything worth holding on to.

I started writing Barcelona in 1983, while I was working as a foreign sales agent for Spanish producers, and also getting to play the "stupid American" role in some of their films. Watching their shoots, I started to think Barcelona was too ambitious for a first film and shifted to writing Metropolitan.
Without realising it, I had got into perhaps the best writing situation I would ever have. My day job was running a small agency representing some great US and European cartoonists and illustrators. While nearly everything about it was pleasant, the problem was that when I was actively selling, I couldn't really write. The script had to be put aside repeatedly. Pauses of weeks or months were normal. When I returned to the script, its weaknesses were clear, but I had less temptation to fret over and disguise them. I usually only had time to work late at night, and that borderline between waking and sleeping states seemed good ground for comedy. And so eventually - by which time I was long gone from being a foreign sales agent - Metropolitan was made, coming out in 1990, followed four years later by Barcelona, and another four years later by The Last Days of Disco.

I can't recall now which came first: the intention to take on more than one script at a time as a better way of working, or having more than one project that I wanted to do. Just as the seed for The Last Days of Disco came from the "beautiful women in discos" scenes in Barcelona, the idea for what I hope will be my next film came from the early Jamaican music we tried to use in Disco's non-club scenes. Justin Hinds & the Dominoes' song Carry Go Bring Come - used during the semi-climactic taxi escape scene - fell into my life like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy. Where did this come from?

Becoming fascinated with early-1960s Jamaican music 20 or 30 years after everyone else did not seem disconcertingly different from any other passion I've had. But when I started visiting Jamaica to research the music milieu, I fell in love with something else: Jamaica's gospel churches and the people who attend them. The weekend Disco opened in 1998, I lost my New York apartment to an unfavourable lease, so I decided to return to Europe to live, with the film's screening at the Edinburgh film festival a first stop. There I met a Channel 4 promotion whiz who put me in touch with a top dog at the channel who liked the idea for a Jamaican story.

So why haven't you seen the Jamaican film yet? Not long after that Edinburgh encounter, a producer friend called to apologise for having claimed I was "attached" to a project he was trying to get a studio to buy, which turned out to be Anchee Min's memoir of the Chinese cultural revolution, Red Azalea. I just replied: "Don't apologise, let me read it." The book was wonderful, as was the prospect of beginning a script with fascinating characters and incidents, and an established conclusion, rather than the march into the void of an original story. Other producers were involved who wanted to take it immediately to FilmFour (then in its Medici period), which meant putting aside the contract for the Jamaican idea. I was a bit worried - I had liked the idea of doing the small, difficult Jamaican production before the enormous, frightening Chinese one, but the option on the Red Azalea book rights was ticking.

There is an area of discord in the film business (from the little I know of it) as to whether one is honour bound to start work on a project before contract and payment terms have been set. As this story was not mine it seemed risky to do so. That meant a delay, which was welcome as I had not entirely left Disco behind. First, I had worked on the film's French and Spanish subtitled and dubbed versions. Dubbing one's film into a foreign language is one of the greatest experiences a film-maker can have. I had first tried it with the Spanish version of Barcelona, which allowed us to play with accents and modify the jokes - and the film goes over much better in its Spanish than its Catalan incarnation. To be able to recast and redirect your film in the calm and comparatively happy atmosphere of a dubbing studio, with the great types who work in this area, is a delight, especially after the panic that it's going to go badly subsides a bit.

The other unfinished Disco business was a novel. I had thought of writing an after-the-fact novel for each of the films. In the case of Metropolitan this had got to the point of a listing in a publisher's catalogue before I put it aside to finish the Barcelona script. (This phantom Metropolitan novel still crops up occasionally as an offering on Amazon.) The Disco novel had a more promising start - with a great editor and publishing house, happy to have it come out long after the movie. In my writing experience, the start of a project always seemed full of worthless weeks, flailing around without accomplishing much, while the priceless weeks came at the end, when the fictional world is fully existent and the characters begin to operate with apparent autonomy. In this last phase, improvement can be quick and major. Then this blossoming fictional world must be cut to the scale of a feature film. The prospect of finally getting to develop it in the comparatively free form of a novel was alluring.

So in 1999 and the start of 2000, I was still with the Disco characters who, refusing to be limited by the film version, took the story forward and backward. To reflect the changed story, a new title - Cocktails at Petrossian - was considered, then compromised, with the book coming out that summer as The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. It would go on to win Shecky's Bar Guide's first (and last) nightlife literature award.

Silence is one of the greatest and least used weapons in the film business arsenal. The best rule seems to be: when a project is completed or nearly so, don't shut up about it. But when it's still in its early stages, don't say a word. That rule will be massively violated next week when the annual Cannes non-existent-film festival gets under way. This event, running parallel to the actual film festival - or the festival of actual films - features the trumpeting of entire slates of films that will never be made, at least not by the people announcing them.

While Red Azalea was announced with hoopla at Cannes, I suspect that it was idle chit-chat at a film party that led to the project's ultimate undoing. Someone with a special interest in the subject returned to Los Angeles and interested a far more important director in the book, who then started a long behind-the-scenes campaign to get it for himself - or so rumour has it. But I also had problems with the adaptation. That great opportunity - fascinating characters, situation and story already existing - became a straitjacket. The characters remained book-bound. Perhaps I could have ultimately worked it out, but the ground was shifting under our feet. Our project for Red Azalea came apart in early 2002. I still had the beloved Jamaican project to return to, and was lucky soon to find backers for that script.

My idea for the new millennium had been to use competing scripts, with their differing deadlines and urgencies, to create the stop-start pattern I found so helpful in my day-job period. The priority Jamaican script would alternate with other ideas to be kept under wraps. Finally, just in the last few weeks, that script has seemed to take its proper form - heartfelt apologies to any producer I rushed a draft to last winter. Any script with a date prior to May 12 2006 - please discard.

So I now have a project to take to Cannes, and large or small parts of others in the trunk. But I will still be keeping my eyes open for the right day job. The other evening in Mayfair, I passed a high-end yacht brokerage - they were having a glass of champagne with clients - and that seemed like very good work for a slow screenwriter. Cannes itself has its share of enormous yachts - someone must be helping the very rich buy, sell or charter them. And, based there, one wouldn't have to look for accommodation when the festival rolls around. When I go next week I'll look into it. I have never met a billionaire I didn't like.


(1958, USA, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Graham Greene novel)
(2002, USA/Germany/Australia, Phillip Noyce, Christopher Hampton / Robert Schenkkan screenplay, Graham Greene novel)

Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides. One has to remain human.

Two very strong adaptations of the Graham Greene novel. Fascinating resonances between nations and individuals, all caught in moral quandaries, political and personal. The former a rumination on the Korean conflict, the latter reaching screens as America geared up for military action in Iraq and providing a poignant counter-point to the gung-ho attitude that it could all be solved with a little well-intentioned firepower. The novelist's weary Catholicism is mostly subtextual here, though the refusal of Fowler's wife to grant him an easy divorce may subtly suggest a sort of moral solidity that stands in contrast to the character's indecision, complacency and compromise: clearly he is being challenged to decide who he is, and whether his life stands for anything. That may make the story sound moralistic in a way that it is not: both screenplays are wonderfully literate, as nuanced and ambiguous as their source material. But a sense remains that, while easy solutions may be no solution at all, neither is the vague centrelessness with which the character begins the story.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Mark Moring, CT Movies, on "Jesus Camp"

CT Movies editor Mark Moring comments on the just-released documentary "Jesus Camp" in his weekly CT At The Movies email;


The official synopsis for Jesus Camp, a new documentary opening in limited release this week, reads:

"A growing number of Evangelical Christians believe there is a revival underway in America that requires Christian youth to assume leadership roles in advocating the causes of their religious movement. Jesus Camp … follows Levi, Rachael, and Tory to Pastor Becky Fischer's Kids on Fire summer camp in Devil's Lake, North Dakota, where kids as young as 6 years old are taught to become dedicated Christian soldiers in 'God's army.' The film follows these children at camp as they hone their 'prophetic gifts' and are schooled in how to 'take back America for Christ.' The film is a first-ever look into an intense training ground that recruits born-again Christian children to become an active part of America's political future."

What the synopsis doesn't say is that this is no typical Christian summer camp, that these aren't typical Christian kids, and that this is not a typical evangelical church. This is a very charismatic and rather unusual slice of the Pentecostal church in America—complete with speaking in tongues, uncontrollable shaking on the floor, and wild-eyed prophetic utterances … even by the children. (The directors told us they had what appeared to be an exorcism on tape, but opted not to include it in the final cut because it was just too freaky.)

These are good kids—nice, articulate, caring, sensitive, bright. But they're not typical—at least not in my experience, nor that of most evangelicals I know. The synopsis above is correct in that they are clearly being taught "to become dedicated Christian soldiers in 'God's army." On the surface, there's nothing wrong with that; I'm a parent too, and I'm teaching my own sons how to grow in the faith, and they're well aware of spiritual warfare and the need to wear God's armor. But Jesus Camp shows a slice of the church that seems to take that thinking to the point of fanaticism—so that it looks more like these kids are being "indoctrinated" rather than being merely "taught."

Now, to be clear, I'm convinced that the people in this film are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I don't think this is a cult or anything. I think they're Christians who, like most Christians I know, are simply doing the best they can to grow in faith, to teach their children well, and to spread the gospel.

But my concern is this: What will those on the outside think? Jesus Camp is getting a lot of buzz in the mainstream media, and as the film releases to more and more theaters in the coming weeks, curious non-believers are going to check it out. And many of them will leave the theater thinking, Sheesh, Christians are weird.

That's a bummer. I realize that a documentary about "typical" Christians may not be very interesting. Hey, if they filmed my family, it'd be pretty boring: There's dad watching ESPN again. There's Mom making dinner. There's the older son playing PS2. There's the younger son running cross country. And hey, there they are praying together on Sunday night. Blah blah blah. Very run of the mill, everyday stuff. But I think that's typical of most Christians' lives.

Most of us aren't "slain in the Spirit" and shaking on the floor and speaking in tongues. Most of us aren't urging our kids to come to the altar to lay hands on a life-size cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, weeping and wailing as they pray. Most of us aren't handing detailed plastic replicas of aborted fetuses to our first graders to pass around the room. I could go on, but you get the picture. Again, I'm not saying these things are wrong. I'm just saying they're not typical. But when mainstream America sees this film, they're likely to believe it's typical—that all Christians are like that—and that's the unfortunate thing.

Read more about the film in our interview with the directors. And check the film's official website to see when it might be playing in your neck of the woods. It is worth watching, I'll say that much.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


THE PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR ("Der Krieger und die Kaiserin," 2000, Germany, Tom Tykwer)
I have to find out if it means anything that you were under the truck or if it was just a coincidence. I want to know if my life has got to change and if you're the reason.

PRINCESS is the yin to LOLA's yang. If RUN LOLA RUN is all compaction and intensity and momentum, Tykwer's next film has a rambling romanticism you'd find in the sort of fairy tale suggested by its title and its opening in a castle by the sea.

The fact is, these two films are more than just really good looking siblings, they're virtually joined at the hip. Joined at the pedestrian crossing, to be more precise. The story goes that, once upon a time, Tom the director was ruminating with his partner Franka the actress about what else might have happened when Lola gets flattened by a truck – as if LOLA didn't already have enough alternate realities to run through! – and as they ruminated, yet another story began to spin itself out. Obviously much got changed in the telling, but that's the myth of P+W's conception, and even if you didn't know it you'd sense the DNA patterns the two stories have in common. The bifurcated storyline that starts things out, and all that running, not to mention the million similarities in character and theme.

Here, a young woman who looks a lot like Lola falls in love with another deeply angry, desperate man who's on the wrong side of the law, and they struggle to escape the impossible, constraining circumstances of their lives. All LOLA's Big Ideas come up – passion and fate, love and redemption, randomness and meaning, violence and sacrifice and miracle.

And then there's that accident – if anything in a Tykwer world could possibly be called accidental – almost identical to its twin except this one goes on much, much longer (like everything in PRINCESS: even cops and bank security guards take their time in this anti-LOLA world). It's one of the most gruelling, sustained, visceral scenes in cinema, as Sissi lies under a truck unable to breathe, her windpipe filled with blood, as a passerby improvises a grisly but effective escape from the mortal peril she faces. No wonder they bonded.

But it's not just warriors who rescue princesses in Tykwer's ultra-modern fairy tale – it cuts both ways. For Bodo (what's with these Germans, anyhow? Manni? Sissi? Lola? Steini? Bodo? they sound like characters from The Hobbit) is nearly dead himself: in a sense, he's never left the gas station bathroom he was in when his lover died a sudden and tragic death. He yearns and schemes his escape to Australia, but it's clear he needs to find an altogether other kind of freedom than the Outback. Sissi may be just as trapped: she works as an attendant in an insane asylum, though it seems there are bonds that tie her to the place going much deeper than her paycheck.

I'll tell you no more about this one: better you should discover its surprises and savour its ambiguities for yourself. Except this: if you find its diffuse narrative and ambling pace too much of a contrast to the focus and adrenaline of its Siamese sibling, hang in there: the movie's final seventeen minutes are as audacious and inventive and as purely cinematic as anything you're going to find. I may forget other things about this tough-minded Euro-fantasy, but not what passes for its "happy ever after." Oh my.


Available at Videomatica


RUN LOLA RUN ("Lola Rennt," 1998, Germany, Tom Tykwer)
What can I do? What can I do? Come on. Help me. Please. Just this once.
I'll keep on running, okay? I'm waiting... I'm waiting... I'm waiting... I'm waiting...

You can't make a more headlong adrenaline rush of a film than this. There are movies with more action, more explosions and guns and car crashes, but how many have this many ideas per second? The opening half hour of THE MATRIX, I guess, which kicks in like a William Gibson cyber-punk novel but eventually caves, explains at least a bit, though it still shares LOLA's street-tough, heart-pounding sensibility. MEMENTO, I suppose, which plays similar mind games: these films are as much a brain rush as an adrenaline rush, shattered time-lines and spinning scraps of philosophy and backstory flung from every side, a too-intense post-modern overwhelm of syles, ideas, images, sounds – and always the drive of the music, pulsing and pushing at you like you just stumbled into something like a rave, but muscular and with more at stake.

LOLA never slows down to explain. Ever. When it slows down, it's not to explain, it's to mess with you. There are stretches of quiet, whole minutes when the story goes into slo-mo, heart pounding, blood rushing in its ears, but you're screaming for things to get moving, the clock keeps ticking and there's too much at stake to wait for the adults to stand around and talk about relationships for God's sake, or else you get places where they're only finding new ways to play with your mind, change up speeds like a big league pitcher to keep you off balance so you don't get too used to the heat. Some quiet, obtuse talk in red light, then the techno kicks in again and we're off, pounding down stairs and out into the street with Lola to hustle a hundred thousand marks and pound across town in thirty minutes or Manni gets capped. Haven't we done this before? Sound like a video game? I guess maybe it is. And if you're any good, and if you pay attention, maybe you might pick something up along the way that might pay off later. Or not.

I'd love to lay out some detail, how this stunning story is laid out. I might quicken your interest, but I'd also cheat you of the chance to sort it all out on the run, so I'm not going to. I'll tell you the movie's smart, and plays fair: watch it two or three times and marvel how it all fits together, like the engine of a Porsche. (You know those things are hand-made by one guy, that's what makes them so amazing? Same with LOLA: this is pure Tom Tykwer, no compromise. All the tough hope and street smarts, an astonishing eye and unsentimental romanticism, and best of all – to my eye – those hard-won flashes of transcendence.)

Is the race to the swift? Or is it all random, all chaos, cynical as a roulette wheel, as nasty as a punk in a stairwell? Or does it depend where you look from? Here's where I look: I start with the safety catch on a handgun and work it out from there.

Eighty minutes of brilliance. A perfect movie. Crank up the volume and pay attention. Then call me up and we'll sort it out together.


Available at Videomatica

Monday, September 04, 2006


CLOSE-UP (NEMA-YE NAZKID, 1990, Iran, Abbas Kiarostami)
Every time I feel sad in prison I think of the verse in the Koran which says, "To remember God is the best consolation for a troubled heart."

In Iran, it seems, you can be sent to jail for impersonating a film-maker. Whether this indicates a higher regard for film-makers or a lower regard for personal freedom, it's hard to say. But it provides the premise of a unique film that is by turns disorienting, revelatory, absurdly amusing and surprisingly moving.

The film has the look and feel of a straight-forward documentary, but we soon begin to wonder what is "real" and what is not. As one character later observes, "appearances can be deceiving." We begin with the meandering conversation of a taxi driver (who doesn't know his way around the city, and turns out "actually" to be a fighter pilot), and his passenger, who claims to be Mr Farazmand, a reporter, but who I quickly recognized as a fraud – the fellow journalists he refers to sound suspiciously like movie directors, and his approach to reporting seems hopelessly amateur and improvised. It seems that the film-maker is impersonating a reporter, and that what we are seeing is not a "real" situation, but a performance for the cameras which clearly must be mounted on the hood of the taxi.

In the back seat, though, are two other men, and eventually the driver reveals the truth that must have been obvious all along to anyone who has lived in a police state: they are soldiers or paramilitary, and Mr Farazmand their commanding officer, on the way to make an arrest. And though he denies this, once they reach their destination he is the one who organizes the arrest. Which is particularly odd since, as it turns out, he is in fact a journalist – though why he has to pay the taxi to take the prisoner to jail, or why he must beg door-to-door for a tape recorder to record his story, is never explained.

Then the credits inform us that Mr Farazmand, as well as many of the other key characters in the story, are being played in the film by their real-life counterparts. Frarazmand is neither a film-maker nor a cop impersonating a journalist: he is actually a journalist, playing himself, however badly. Mr Sabzian, who is arrested for posing as a film-maker, is played by Mr Sabzian, and Makhmalbaf, the film-maker he is impersonating, will eventually appear, played by Mr Makhmalbaf – bearing a great resemblance to Mr Sabzian. The Ahankhah family will play themselves, enacting the scenes in which they meet and are befriended by Sabzian, and eventually turn him over to the police. (Actually, to the journalist, but he's acting like a policeman....)

The remainder of the film focuses on the enigmatic Mr Sabzian. His real crime was in accepting 1900 tomans from the Ahankhah family for taxi fare, which they readily gave him when they believed he was a world-famous film director preparing to make a quasi-documentary film about their life in which they would play themselves. When they realized that he was actually nothing but an unemployed film buff, they were not so happy to have given him their money – an event which, ironically, leads to them portraying themselves in a quasi-documentary film about their lives.

The director of the film – the real film, the one we are watching – is Abbas Kiarostami, an acquaintance of the impersonated film-maker, who became intrigued with the story after reading the wonderfully bizarre newspaper headline, "Bogus Makhalbat Arrested." In "real" footage, we see the Kiarostami obtain permission to interview Sabzian in prison, and in the ensuing interview arrange to to film the trial itself. By this point we have our feet under us, and recognize the narrative pattern as it shifts from the "real" action of the trial to a series of flashbacks portraying events leading up to the arrest which opened the film.

No sooner do we have the shifiting realities of the film itself figured out than we become engaged with the much deeper and more significant conundrums of the events and characters, the very real tension between appearance and reality, between what is performance for the camera or the judge and what is heartfelt and authentic. The accusers make claims, the accused makes claims, and we – like the judge – struggle to sift fact from invention, to distinguish truth from pretence.

Sabzian claims to be "quite religious" – but what else would he say? He is, after all, appearing in an Iranian court before a judge who is actually a Muslim cleric. (Again our expectations are reversed: as much as the haphazard pre-trial proceedings and disregard for the rights of the accused confirm our preconceptions about Muslim law in hard-line Iran, the trial itself puts western justice to shame with its humanity, civility and emphasis on mercy and reconciliation). Sabzian also claims to be remorseful for what he has done – yet he clearly takes delight in recounting the details of his charade, and the Ahankhah family questions whether his repentance isn't as much an act as everything that went before.

This is a film about art-making, and the way in which stories inspire us and give us hope in times of suffering. It is about celebrity and anonymity, about power, the rift between rich and poor, and the improbable acts we'll commit out of desperation. It's about distinguishing truth from illusion, living from acting, law from morality, justice from vengeance.

The greatest paradox, the greatest mystery, is Hossain Sabzian himself. This film gives us the rare privilege of observing, close-up, a man who may be an artist denied the chance to live out his calling, or who may be deluded and emotionally troubled, or who may be simply an opportunistic con man with remarkable improvisatory gifts. Viewing this film, I was reminded of the humble sense of awe I experience watching Michael Apted's equally memorable 28 UP, or any of its 7-year sequels: I marvel at what an extraordinary gift we are given, to be able to look closely at the inscrutable mystery of a single human soul.

But what is most powerful about this film is the way in which it stands as quite testimony to a rather remarkable act of grace. Whatever else we may conclude about this man and the people in his story, there can be no denying the unstated but undeniable redemption embodied in a film where accusers and accused end up co-operating in making a film about the painful, even shameful experiences they've shared – and in so doing, find themselves living out the very things they've yearned for all along. CLOSE-UP is a film about the elusive possibility of true reconciliation, the hope that we too might someday find ourselves in the place "where justice and peace shall kiss."


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sep 4, Nov 6: "Cinema Salon" Tovey presents "Delius," Gaze presents "Lawrence"

Cinema Salon
Vancouver International Film Centre
Mon Sep 4, 7:30 - Bramwell Tovey presents ELGAR and DELIUS: SONG OF SUMMER
Mon Nov 6 - Christopher Gaze presents LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Less than a year old, The Vancouver International Film Centre is emerging as a noteworthy contributor to the cinematic and cultural ecology of our city. Which being interpreted means, the new kids on the block are swell, they show good movies.

One innovative program is their Cinema Salon, where they invite one of Vancouver's cultural luminaries to screen their favourite film, chat and chow following. If I was luminous or cultural enough (I'm not bitter), I'd pick TENDER MERCIES, but given that I'm not and I can't (what, a church basement drama group isn't good enough for these people!), we'll just have to settle for the likes of Bramwell Tovey and Christopher Gaze. (Maybe if we did more plays by dead people. Maybe a concert series. Where's Brian Mix's number...)

Next up, the VSO baton-wielder picks two flicks by bad-boy helmer Ken Russell, ELGAR and DELIUS: SONG OF SUMMER. The latter's blurb sets my soul food sensors atingle: "SONG OF SUMMER covers the last five years of composer Delius' life, as seen through the eyes of his amanuensis, Eric Fenby. Blind, paralysed and riddled with syphilis, the once virile composer is trapped inside his useless body but with a mind still full of music he wishes to set down. In spite of a shaky start to their relationship, Delius' inability to rid Fenby of his “great Christian blinders” and an exceptionally dysfunctional household, the relationship was a successful one until Delius' death in 1934." I think I might like this Fenby guy, great Christian blinders and all.

The Bard Boss went with LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Ooh, tempting opportunity to see all those sandy vistas on a nice big screen: methinks I might hie me thither at the appointed time... (Important note: the date in the printed program guide is wrong: Chris and Larry show will be Nov 6, not Nov 3 as printed.)

Sep 5 "Conversations With God" advanced screening

Don't know much about this film. A superficial glance at the book gave me the willies: I wasn't at all convinced that it was actually God this fellow had been chatting with. I mean, he seemed nice enough, with lots of stuff about love and all that, but it didn't exactly line up with some of the things Jesus was on about, and I take him to be something of an authority.

But there may be more to it all than my hasty judgment might indicate. If you want to check it out, and have twenty bucks to spare...

Aug 6, 2006
Contact: Erin Spencer
604.321.1225, 604.875.0670


Centre For Spiritual Living is pleased to announce its participation in the 18 City Advanced Screening Tour of the film, CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD. Before the film opens in theaters nationwide on the weekend of October 27th, residents of Vancouver will get to see it first on September 5th!

Centre for Spiritual Living is pleased to be hosting this special event for one night only at The Park Cinema , 3440 Cambie ST. at 6:30 pm on September 5th, 2006. Filmmaker, Stephen Simon, and author of Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch will be in attendance, for a question and answer period, as well as book signing following the film. Tickets are $20 in advance, and can be purchased online at, or Banyen Books at 604.737-8858, 3608 W. 4th Ave.
Adapted from the books by Neale Donald Walsch that inspired and changed the lives of millions worldwide, CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD, tells the true story of Walsch (Henry Czerny) who, at the lowest point in his life, asks God some very hard questions. The answers he gets from God/within become the foundation of an internationally acclaimed book series that has sold over 7 million copies and been translated into 34 languages. The film chronicles the dramatic journey of a down and out man who inadvertently becomes a spiritual messenger and bestselling author.

“CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD is a compelling, emotional and dramatic movie that shares deep spiritual messages without proselytizing,” explains John Pifer, Practitioner at Centre for Spiritual Living. “This is exactly the type of meaningful entertainment we believe in and we are thrilled to be able to present this screening to the good people of Vancouver”
“CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD has been in my head and most importantly, my heart for almost 10 years. For the past decade, I have dreamed of making this movie,” explains producer/director Stephen Simon, a veteran Hollywood producer (SOMEWHERE IN TIME, WHAT DREAMS MAY COME).

During the past decade, Neale Donald Walsch received offers to turn his book and life story into a film.

“Just five years before I wrote about my experience, I was homeless, with a broken neck, living in a park. I spent my days collecting cans to sell for 5 cents each just to have enough money to eat. It was important to me that this story not become Hollywood-ized,” Walsch explains.

Thanks to Walsch’s enthusiasm for WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, the Academy-Award winning film that Stephen Simon produced in 1998, Walsch and Simon became friends. Walsch says that Simon has “an extraordinarily high level of artistic integrity, vision, and willingness to collaborate” and he finally agreed to have the CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD story told on the big screen.

For the 90 million Americans who consider themselves “spiritual,” but not necessarily “religious,” a new genre of film is rapidly emerging, inspiring and uplifting films with heart and soul, called Spiritual Cinema.
CONVERSATIONS WITH GOD is a movie that will appeal to people from all walks of life and is a shining example of the best that the genre of Spiritual Cinema has to offer.

Press Contact:
Erin Spencer, Centre for Spiritual Living, 604.875.0670

Stephen Simon, ( a Hollywood Executive and Producer for nearly three decades, is the author of two books: “Spiritual Cinema: A Guide To Movies That Inspire, Heal and Empower Your life” (Hay House) and also “The Force is With You: Mystical Movie Messages That Inspire Our Lives,” (Walsch Books/Hampton Roads). He has become the leading spokesperson for Spiritual Cinema a term he coined to define the genre. He is also the co-founder of The Spiritual Cinema Circle, America’s fastest growing DVD club that specializes in uplifting features, documentaries and short film.

Friday, September 01, 2006


THE WICKER MAN (2006, USA, Neil LaBute, adapted from original Anthony Shaffer screenplay

Devoted fans of 1973's The Wicker Man make claims about the film's cinematic greatness, claims which are probably exaggerated—that's what makes them fans. Critics will no doubt massacre this new version, starring Nicolas Cage, but they are probably overly critical of the film's flaws—that's why they're called critics. When it comes down to it, this remake of this oddly chilling curiosity is neither a Big Deal nor a Big Bust. It's just a movie. And that's a real disappointment.

Director Neil LaBute has penned his own adaptation of the intelligent and troubling Anthony Schaffer screenplay, and it's obviously a labor of love. Offered a role in the remake, lead actor Edward Woodward (not to be confused with Ed Wood) politely declined, but remarked that the new script was surprisingly good. So LaBute settles for renaming the missing girl "Rowan Woodward." Nice touch.

Not only the overall arc of the story remains the same—a conventional cop travels to a secluded island to search for a missing child, and comes to suspect that the secretive, cultish residents know more about the girl's fate than they are admitting—but entire scenes are carried straight over into the new film, the dialogue virtually unchanged. The arrival by seaplane and the policeman's bar-pounding lawman-righteous speech at the pub are taken straight from the original, as is the wonderful confrontation with the school-teacher and her classroom full of eerily complicit students. Only it's William Blake on the blackboard rather than quasi-wiccan wisdom: "Toadstone preserves the newly born from the weird woman, the hagstone preserves people from nightmare" is replaced with a so-apt-as-to-be-prophetic passage from "The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell":
Once meek, and in a perilous path,
The just man kept his course along
The vale of death.
Roses are planted where thorns grow.
And on the barren heath
Sing the honey bees.
The problem with the new film is that there's less of both heaven and hell, and while the man's path is strewn with plenty of new (and superfluous) perils, he's no longer particularly just.

Like his identical twin Peter (note the eerie profusion of twins in LaBute's isolated island community—another deft tip of the hat), writer Anthony Schaffer is fascinated with the collision between conventional law-and-order Christianity and wilder, more primal religious and creative forces. In The Wicker Man, Schaffer tackles preoccupations that his brother will later take up in Equus and Amadeus.

In the 1973 version, the investigating officer is a devout-to-the-point-of-priggishness Christian. On Summerisle, he encounters not only pre-Christian (even anti-Christian) religious practices, but also a darkly tinged and blatant sexuality that not only offends but also tempts him. These are the tensions that give the original film its charge: we see the islanders through the Christian copper's eyes, and while we can't help but recoil at the cruelties and crudities we glimpse, we're uneasy with the reactive, judgmental self-righteousness he struts around town. Both the sensuality and the spirituality are absolutely essential to the film's power, not only aesthetically but also spiritually. His (self)righteousness and virginity—he is engaged to be married to a nice Scottish Presbyterian girl—is essential to the story, held in painful tension with the morality and sexual license of the islanders (a carnality memorably incarnated by Britt Eckland in the '73 version).

In this version, director LaBute, for all his Mormon background, astonishingly guts the story of both these crucial elements—a perverse and ironic prudery, as if too much (or too real) sex or religion just wouldn't be acceptable. His policeman (Cage) travels to the island community in response to a letter from Willow (Kate Beahan), who turns out to have been his fiancĂ©e—so of course it's taken for granted that they've slept together. So much for the whole virgin thing. And if it makes dramatic sense to give the investigator a stronger personal link to the case, it makes no sense to tame the story's thematic polarities. Much is made of the mainlander's Christian faith in the original script, and if he comes across as something of a judgmental prig, it also lends real power when he cries out to God in that film's stunning climax. Here, when Cage gets in a similar scrape, he's got Nobody to call on.

The 1973 version had a peculiarly British blandness to it, a drab ordinariness and a plodding, linear story progression that rendered the occult elements much more deeply troubling for their everydayness. The practices which so disturb Sergeant Howie are rooted in very real, very ancient pagan beliefs, their stony roots (and the clash with orthodox Christianity) buried deep in British soil, woven into the cycle of the seasons in harvest and May Day celebrations and the rituals of birth, procreation and death.

For the historically convincing pagan religion (many wiccans and neo-pagans celebrate the original film for its authenticity), LaBute substitutes a made-up feminist (or misogynist?) beekeeper's cult. Sister Summersisle replaces Lord Summerisle (and what's with that extra "s"? Did LaBute get the wrong pronunciation in his head when he read about the movie as a kid? Couldn't Nicolas Cage pronounce "Summerisle" properly?) as the queen bee in a metaphorical beehive community of dominant women and barely-seen, never-heard subservient males. It's a fascinating invention, but ultimately takes away from the unsettling and unexpected plausibility of the story and its resonances.

Critics will readily seize on the new film's quirks and deem it a turkey. It's easy to point out the obvious incongruities of tone and routine dead-end plot detours, easy targets for mockery. But the film has many (moderate) strengths. There's a great sense of place—though it must be said that the Pacific Northwest has been far creepier, in The Ring, or even Twin Peaks. The Angelo Badalamenti score is fine and fittingly filmish, though surprisingly lacking his distinctive sense of menace.

It's easy to mock the sometimes jarring incongruities of tone, but they're utterly true to the spirit of the original, and true in turn to the spirit of May Day (when both pictures set their story), a spring fertility festival that mixed playfully outrageous folly with deadly earnest pagan ritual. If Cage traipsing through the woods in a bear costume is an easy target for the scoffers, so was Edward Woodward in a Punch costume, chased by a hobby-horse—and frankly, those are some of the elements that are most interesting in both films. For my money, it was gutsy for LaBute to retain the bizarre—I only wish he'd done more of it.

For the average moviegoer, this remake is likely to be more enjoyable than the Robin Hardy original. The troubling mix of occult elements and pagan sexuality lend the original cult classic most of its interest, taking seriously the clash of two very real spiritual worldviews—but in the process, and adding in the oddly drab and dreary tone of much of the film, it would likely alienate many of the viewers who would consider its core themes worth considering. The un-sexed, de-spiritualized modern retread renders the story far more palatable for many moviegoers, but what remains is far more ordinary, and much more dismissible. It's just a movie.

Many folks who see Cage's Hollywood version this weekend will like it better than they would the stranger, artier Hammer Studio original. But they'll forget it by Monday—something you couldn't count on with the original.

Available at Videomatica
Originally published at Christianity Today Movies

Quick afterthought. In my review, I remark that most critics will skewer the film, especially for incongruities of tone (like Nick Cage running around in a bear suit), but that it's a glib criticism - that there's something right about the weird mix of comedy and horror not only in the remake, but the original. Subsequently I stumbled on a real nice CT Movies piece that takes a theological look at horror films in general - The Horrors!, written by W. David O. Taylor. An excerpt;
"I started with the seminal work of the German critic Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature, written in 1957. In his book, Kayser identifies four premises for understanding the grotesque in medieval art. I found that I could use his framework to make sense of the behavior of horror movies....
Premise #3: The grotesque is at play with the absurd.
I've always wondered why people laugh when they watch horror movies. I usually found them, well, profoundly un-funny. Why so much comic relief in Shaun of the Dead or Night of the Living Dead? The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin suggests helpfully that the grotesque as a form of carnival sought to expose the inordinate sense of self-importance among the cultural aristocracy and the religious establishment. Clowns, fools, gargoyles and masks, costumes and games and laughter—all of it was a search after freedom. A freedom for what? To be whole. The only way to heal, it seems, was to laugh at our disintegrating
Not a bad fit with the whole May Day thing, eh?