Saturday, April 14, 2007

Billy Collins, "The Movies"

I would like to watch a movie tonight
in which a stranger rides into town
or where someone embarks on a long journey,

a movie with the promise of danger,
danger visited upon the citizens of the town
by the stranger who rides in,

or the danger that will befall the person
on his or her long hazardous journey—
it hardly matters to me

so long as I am not in danger,
and not much danger lies in watching
a movie, you might as well agree.

I would prefer to watch this movie at home
than walk out in the cold to a theater
and stand on line for a ticket.

I want to watch it lying down
with the bed hitched up to the television
the way they'd hitch up a stagecoach

to a team of horses
so the movie could pull me along
the crooked, dusty road of its adventures.

I would stay out of harm's way
by identifying with the characters
like the bartender in the movie about the stranger

who rides into town,
the fellow who knows enough to duck
when a chair shatters the mirror over the bar.

Or the stationmaster
in the movie about the perilous journey,
the fellow who fishes a gold watch from his pocket,

helps a lady onto the train,
and hands up a heavy satchel
to the man with the mustache

and the dangerous eyes,
waving the all-clear to the engineer.
Then the train would pull out of the station

and the movie would continue without me.
And at the end of the day
I would hang up my oval hat on a hook

and take the shortcut home to my two dogs,
my faithful, amorous wife, and my children—
Molly, Lucinda, and Harold, Jr.

from "Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems" by Billy Collins

Garrison Keillor reads this - wonderfully - at The Writers Almanac for Thursday, April 12, where there's also a link to buy the Collins book. You can subscribe to Garry The K's podcast through iTunes. Thanks, Spencer, for the tip.

More readings over at Oblations

Monday, April 09, 2007

opens apr 13 - after the wedding

UPDATE: Opens in Vancouver (Fifth Avenue) on Friday, April 13, 2007

The March-April Film Comment includes a Joumane Chahine review of AFTER THE WEDDING that catches my interest. Went into limited release in North America March 30.
There's nothing quite as devastating as tragedy treated with sharp and precise Northern European restraint. Susanne Bier is quickly installing herself as a master in the field. Following OPEN HEARTS (2002) and BROTHERS (2004), AFTER THE WEDDING is the Danish director's third consecutive - and clearly symbiotic - collaboaration with screenwriter Anders Thomas Jensen (a Dogme favorite who penned MIFUNE and THE KING IS ALIVE, and devised the characters for the recent Zentropa-produced RED ROAD). Three powerful, emotionally charged films linked by a recurring motif: the random suddenness with which calamity can enter lives, alter them forever, and yet not necessarily destroy them.

In OPEN HEARTS and BROTHERS, calamity strikes directly and very early on (a paralyzing car crash in the former, the loss of a husband in Afghanistan in the latter). In AFTER THE WEDDING, the tragedy is not so brutally evident, at least not initially. It reveals itself slowly, in tiny and often mystifying ripples, through cool shades and shaky camera-work that hints at muted undercurrents. But the impact is no less poignant.

The film's opening sequence introduces us to Jacob (Mads Mikkelsen, who also starred in OPEN HEARTS, and more recently shed tears of blood as Le Chiffre in CASINO ROYALE) a Danish good Samaritan who has classically renounced the distasteful comforts of the West for life as a humanitarian aid worker in India, running an orphanage in dire need of funding. A mysterious magnate, Jorgen (Rolf Lassgard), seems puzzlingly keen to help - on the peculiar condition that Jacob travel to Denmark to meet with him face to face. For reasons that remain unclear at this point, Jacob is particularly unwilling to return to his native land. But the mogul is insistent. So far, the film's premise has all the trappings of a standard social drama, with the usual pruging dose of Western self-loathing. Soon enough, however, Jacob finds himself back in Copenhagen, meeting with the exuberant yet unfathomable Jorgen, and accepting a casual invitation to attend the wedding of the tycoon's daughter that weekend. At this juncture the film veers off in an entirely different direction.

The seemingly random wedding invitation begins to feel fraught with suspicious intent when Jacob realizes that Jorgen's wife is his old, nver quite forgotten girlfriend Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and that his daughter Anna (Stine Fischer Christensen), the bride, is not actualy Jorgen's biological offspring. A bare 30 minutes into the film and the business trip that was supposed to yield a clash of values and a hefty check is suddenly steering into the familiar soap territory of troubling revelations, wedding disasters, and infernal mind games. But once again, Bier and Jensen whisk us away in an unexpectedly thought-provoking direction as the forceful Jorgen, seemingly unfazed by the surrounding summering melodrama, makes Jacob a surprisingly generous offer. it's an offer that Jacob, humanist and idealist though he may be, initially greets with the utmost distrust, suspecting the worst.

To divulge more would be a spoiler. However, several more expectations shall be confounded, protective veneers stripped away, and emotional outbursts contained by Bier's impeccable quartet of actors before this reflection on human weakness, mortality, and the ties that bind comes to its powerfully understated denoument.

The theme of misleading appearances is a classic one. One that can all too easily become mere gimmick. Not in Bier's hands. ... Bier uses cliches not merely to upend them - that would be too easy - but to force us to challenge those short-cut judgments and ill-conceived assumptions we too often use to gauge the world around us. She confronts us with the good and the noble when we're too busy seeking proof of treachery, so convinced that the way to hell is paved with good intentions that we've almost forgotten tha the way to heaven is as well.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

soul food titles at blockbuster ($9.99)

Okay, it's usually Videomatica I blab about, hereabouts. But when it comes to buying your own copies of movies cheap, you wanna haunt the chains, yeah? Noticed four titles in a Sony display on my last scrounge of Blockbuster, flix I like a lot with surprising Soul Food levels (at least to this movie muncher). The first a Guilty Pleasure, the second a Big Discovery, the latter two Soul Food Required Viewing;

Tears of the Sun

The Big Country

A River Runs Through It

Groundhog Day

All rentable at Videomatica, by the way...


TEARS OF THE SUN (2003, USA, Antoine Fuqua)
I can't look at them like packages any more.

An elite squadron of U.S. troops sets out to deliver a group of idealistic Nigerian refugees to safety in Cameroon. The movie about them tries to deliver a message of compassion and human involvement in the camouflage of a war movie. Neither mission is accomplished with complete success.

There is a lot going on in this ambitious, well-crafted film. We see the transformation of soldiers from mechanisms in a fiercely efficient machine into human beings who feel. We meet another set of characters who are trying to live out Christian compassion in a situation so dark its seems God himself must have abandoned them. We get all the expected story developments required of this particular strain of the heroic action-movie genre. And, most unshakeable, we encounter the horrors of the civil wars that ravage Africa – and we're asked not only to care, but to do something besides sit idly by.

The humanization process of the soldiers is accomplished brilliantly. Initially they are a machine for following orders, impressive in their single-minded efficiency. Lt. Waters, their commander barely speaks: he says only what is needed to clarify and carry out his mission. Personal feelings are cloaked with the mask of the professional soldier, dismissed as irrelevant to his function. It is a fine performance: Bruce Willis allows only the smallest hints of feeling and humanity to penetrate the hard, relentless set of his face, but they are enough to convince us there is a man inside the machine.

The Africans' first encounter with the soldiers is traumatic – they emerge from the water, faces camouflaged: they appear silently from the forest, irresistable – as menacing as whatever enemy may threaten.

Over the course of the story the men humanize. They are forced to make their own decisions that may not fulfill the letter of their mission. They find themselves with "front row seats to an ethnic cleansing – and must choose whether to break with the rules of engagement, get out of those seats and intervene. The camouflage make-up wears away, their faces and words and choices reveal more of what is inside. "I broke my own rule. I started to give a fuck."

Christian faith is everywhere present in this film, to a degree I found surprising. Not among the soldiers: there is a clear division between those who confront this situation with force, and those who choose other means. And it's not just a matter of a lot of unconvincing God-talk: there is real weight given to these people – nuns, a priest, a doctor and several of the African characters – and the life-and-death sacrifices they make from motives of compassion and conviction. When the priest stands in the doorway of the church, makes the sign of the cross and says "Go with God," and Waters replies "God already left Africa," it is difficult to discount either man or his perspective – especially as events continue to unfold.

The film's greatest accomplishment, though – and it is an important one – is to bring us face to face with the terrible atrocities of African civil war, and to do what it can to urge us not to sit idly by. Our inevitable identification with the characters takes us on a vicarious journey from disengagement to horror and, hopefully, beyond that to some sort of action. The film ends with the words of Edmund Burke: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

And the film definitely confronts us with evil: by carefully orchestrated increments we move deeper and deeper into a truly horrifying vision of this present day heart of darkness. First we glimpse the missing limbs, the wounds, the terror or broken-spiritedness in the eyes of the people at the mission hospital. Later, the revolutionary troops arrive at the compound: the camera pulls away as the carnage begins. Eventually we fly over the devastation in an evacuation helicopter, and at this remove the camera is allowed to linger: what we see are the sights that prompt the first major reversal in the central character. And ultimately, when we find ourselves at another village where a full-scale massacre is underway, the camera is relentless, unveiling one horror after another as we move from building to building with the American troops.

It is a sustained, fifteen minute sequence that moves from horror to horror with an unsparing eye that many will find unwatchable. Those who choose to stay with it will find these images unshakeable. Rape, torture, mutilation, terror, and endless killing, rendered in a disturbingly personal way. Surely some will protest that this sort of material is a sort of pornography of violence: these images are too terrible for us to have to see. The reaction is legitimate: whether you think the argument is correct may ultimately depend on what type of film you decide you are watching.

If TEARS OF THE SUN is just an action movie, and these human atrocities only exist to heighten the stakes for the heroes and justify further violence, then these images are inexcusable, another contribution to the brutalizing tendencies of media in our western culture. But if the film makers are fundamentally setting out to bring home the realities that are ravaging much of the rest of the world, perhaps they have earned the right to expose us to these things. Because make no mistake, these images on screen are in no way exaggerated for dramatic effect.

I personally am convinced that these film makers are very much trying to make the second kind of film. The music that concludes the village sequence, the images of the soldiers standing in the middle of the devastated village seeing the traumatized survivors cling to grave markers, bodies – these convey an awareness, I think, that these unthinkable events are more than just plot device. The director takes time to stand in the aftermath of all the atrocities, all the avenging action, and to let us reckon with what we have seen, and to weep if we are able.

But the great problem of the film is whether it can possibly succeed in doing what it seems to want to do: humanize us by showing us these realities, and urge us to action as a consequence. The very strategy of encoding its message in this particular genre may ultimately defeat its best intentions.

The beginnings of the problem occur in the very sequence I have just described. Already the film presents what would appear to be the only reasonable response to such violence: bloody, cold-minded retribution. The unveiling of the ongoing atrocities is framed in what is an extended action sequence, with the American Good Guys making their way through the village taking out the Bad Guys with relentless, impervious efficiency. Now, I don't expect the film to share my pacifism – rare indeed is the war movie that does! – but there is still something disquieting about the all-but-inescapable logic that the only real response to such events is military action.

If the film went only as far as the "cleansing" of the village, I would find such a scene deeply troubling but also deeply ambivalent. When Waters is told "You did a good thing today," he is himself unconvinced: "I don't know if it was a good thing or not. It's so long since I've done a good thing, the right thing..." He shakes his head, and we are left with the question hanging. It seemed right, necessary, heroic, inevitable: and yet....

But from that point on, the movie began to lose me. I found myself distanced from the story as it lost credibility in its final half hour, as the grinding plot machineries of the conventional war movie lumbered into action like so many tanks. Pure melodramatic hokum kicks in: one of the refugees is a traitor, another just happens to be the fleeing prince of Nigeria, the one hope for the country's peaceful future. Outside help is refused: no evacuation will be possible. Even requests for air support are denied – though we know as soon as it is requested that the cavalry will in fact ride over the hills in the nick of time to firebomb all the baddies and save the day. The pursuing soldiers number in the hundreds, and truckloads more arrive: still, the five or six American soldiers will manage to fight them off indefinitely. All the Good Guys shoot straight and lob their grenades at just the right moment (almost as Untouchable as they were in their scourge of the village): the hundreds of Bad Guys can't seem to get a bomb or a rocket into their midsts no matter how hard they try. True enough, the refugees are hit, and the soldiers themselves begin to fall – the film doesn't become complete G.I. Joe caricature – but even so, however many Secondary Good Guys get killed, however badly a Main Character may seem to be injured, you just know the Big Name Stars will all come out okay in the end.


The great strengths of the film – the transformation of the soldiers, the portrayal of authentically Christian characters, the unflinching presentation of the horrors of civil war and the inherent challenge to the viewer not only to care, but also to perhaps respond – are largely undermined by the film's final, melodramatic act. The questionable narrative inevitabilities of the adventure genre – we assume from the outset that these guys pretty much have to save the day – do much to distance us from the troubling personal impact of the torture, rape and genocide we have witnessed. The best intentions of the movie are, to some degree, subverted, and in the final analysis it seems most likely that the "good men" who view the film will ultimately "do nothing" – after all, the movie demonstrates, the military will take care of it.

Peter Chattaway has pointed out that the film, coming into release at a time when America was building its case for the invasion of Iraq, can be read as an argument in favour of a policy of military intervention. He makes his point well, and it is a troubling one for me, a pacifist. Surely this is exactly how the film will be received by many – as a justification for war. (Those tempted to take TEARS OF THE SUN as a literal call to arms would be well advised to check out CASUALTIES OF WAR before sending in the troops. They don't always save the day. Dogs of war aren't easily leashed in once they've been let slip.)

But I don't think the film is simple propaganda: there are enough layers here, there is enough ambition in the storytelling, that it ends up doing more than one thing. I think the film also speaks to its audience on a personal, human level. Certainly it did to me.

As the film came to a close, I sat in front of the screen deeply affected by the horrors I had witnessed. And as I read the words of Edmund Burke quoted above, I could only think, Yes, surely, I must do something. But what? What are we to do? I thought of the words of the crowds whose consciences stirred by the words of John the Baptist: "What, then, should we do?" I thought of those words echoing in the life of Leo Tolstoy, I heard them in the voice of Billy Kwan: "What shall we do then?"

I went to bed with that as my prayer. And in the morning I checked my email to clear the way for a day of writing, and there it was: the first email of the day, top of the pile of junk mail and business letters and all the rest. A friend's note urging me to sign an Amnesty International petition. And I had the eeriest sensation that God had sent me this Himself.

That conviction only deepened when I went to the Amnesty website, and read this;
In recent weeks, killings have spiralled in Ituri and Kivu provinces, where renewed fighting has exacerbated an already terrible humanitarian situation. In Ituri, thousands of civilians have been killed and tens of thousands more forced to flee conflict between ethnic militia.
The war in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a human rights and humanitarian crisis of vast proportions. Since August 1998, at least 3.3 million people are estimated to have died because of the conflict, most from disease and starvation. More than 2.25 million people have been driven from their homes, many of them beyond the reach of humanitarian agencies.
Armed groups have aimed ruthless violence directly at civilian communities, especially in rural areas. Villages throughout the east have been attacked, their inhabitants killed, raped, beaten or driven into the countryside. In many areas, homes, fields, health centres, food stores, everything that survival depends on, have been looted or laid waste.
And so it continues.

I signed the petition, of course: it isn't every day God sends a guy an email. And I continue my prayer, changed slightly: What shall I do next. My name on that petition weighs no more in the balance of things than does Warren Schmidt's name at the bottom of those tiny cheques he writes, from deep ignorance and motives as mixed as my own. Our easy signatures won't save a nation, or a soul. But they are something – if you don't think so, ask someone who works for Amnesty International or Food For The Hungry. And if the reminders in my datebook bear fruit, these baby steps may lead to something more.

You see, I support Billy Kwan's view: "You do whatever you can about the misery that's in front of you. Add your light to the sum of light." We're as helpless, I suppose, as the aid workers caught in the cross-fire of these demonic wars. But we must do what we can: "We must give love to whomever God has placed in our path."


Available at Videomatica


GROUNDHOG DAY (1993, USA, Harold Ramis, wr Danny Rubin & Ramis)
What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?

Sometimes once in an artist's life, lightning strikes. Some creative lives are lit by regular lightning storms that go on for weeks or months at a time. Rarely, there are half a dozen whole years of lightning, like with the Beatles, say. In utterly rare instances it lasts a lifetime – Mozart, Shakespeare, maybe there's another name or two you'd add, but it's a very short list indeed.

For many of us it never strikes, not really, not the pure bolt-from-heaven indisputable electrifying probability-defying blast of unadulterated every-last-detail-is-exactly-right inspiration. Entire and entirely worthy lives are lived, artistic and creative lives are lived, by the light of distant lightning, or by electrical storms mere blocks away, or by painstakingly contructed bonfires or cleverly devised illumination systems. But lightning from on high? For many, never.

For Harold Ramis, one time. Oh, he's had his moments in the sun or spotlight, he's even himself been brilliant on occasion. But there was only one GROUNDHOG DAY. Only one perfect idea, perfectly played out. He tried to repeat the formula, or a variation on the formula, in MULTIPLICITY. But there's no bottling lightning. It's no GROUNDHOG DAY.

At this point you're thinking, Is he talking about the movie I think he's talking about? With that obnoxious weatherman, and he keeps waking up and it's the same day over and over again. With that actress everybody thought was so great but she really wasn't, pretty cute in an early nineties sort of way, had a guy's name? Andy something? Bill Murray movie, wasn't there a giant gopher driving this truck or something? Yeah it was funny, but.... C'mon.

Only the thing is, put this movie on with a few friends, watch it through to the end, and just see if you don't have plenty to talk about. Not just, "I liked the part where he kept stepping in the ice water." Just see if it doesn't pretty quick zero in on all kinds of stuff, like "What would you do if you knew there wasn't going to be any tomorrow," and "No, really," and what's your definition of hell, and why do people fall in love, and why do we do the jobs we do, and what really matters anyhow, what makes people happy, truly happy, and what makes people do something good instead of something bad, how much is it about getting caught or getting noticed or getting rewarded, and what happens anyhow when there are no consequences, oh but there are consequences, and what's eternity, and what's it all about anyway, and why did Bill Murray's character change the way he did, and then change again, and again?

Not bad for a Bill Murray movie, eh?

First time I saw it, the credits rolled and I thought, "I wish I could make a movie like that." This time I thought, "I wish I could live my life like that."

Not bad for a movie about a giant gopher.

If you think I'm leaning a little hard on what is after all just a romantic comedy with a gimmick, I suppose maybe you're right. But I'm not the only one leaning. When the ever-so-cultured Museum of Modern Art launched a major three-month film series on "The Hidden God: Film and Faith," featuring such heavyweights as ORDET, ANDREI ROUBLEV and AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, they led off with the rodent flick. Soliciting essays from critics, scholars and film makers for the companion volume to the series, "more people wished to write about GROUNDHOG DAY (and UNFORGIVEN) than any other film."

Harold Ramis, speaking to the New York Times: "At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief. Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years."

In a fabulous piece for The Independent, Andrew Buncombe wonders (with his tongue in his cheek) whether this is in fact "The greatest story ever told," and cites Buddhists (both traditional and Mahayana), Jewish scholars, gaelic mystics, Wiccans and even Baptists who find unexpected spiritual significance in the movie. There are strong connections to Gurdjieff and his pal P.D. Ouspensky, but also links to orthodox Christianity through Joyce Kilmer a high Anglican convert to Catholicism. (Okay, that's a stretch, but still...)

Now, all of this may be quite enough to scare any sensible person away from this unpretentious movie, and that would be a shame. Don't get the idea GROUNDHOG DAY is some sort of earnest celebration of the idea that all religions are one, there are many paths up the mystical mountain, any of that. It's just a movie about a guy coping with the realization that his life is going to be an endless series of days, each one pretty much like the one before. But there's something about that idea, and about the way it's played out in this charming, funny "theme and variations" of a film that strikes a chord in some deepl place in human beings.

I don't believe that ll religions are essentially the same. At their cores, there are profound and important differences, and to minimize those is to turn these faiths into what they are not. But there are things they do tend to have in common, deep truths that wise people pretty much every spiritual tradition have all come around to, realizations people tend to come to given time and perhaps a divine nudge.

That's where this film lives, offering one of those small-T (but profoundly true) truth. Or, in one of those bright little constellations of turths. I don't want to nail them down by explicating them for you here – though there's a certain satisfaction in working through exactly what stages Phil works through on his journey toward a certain sort of enlightenment. More to the point, I'm sure I'd bungle the job by reducing the film's themes to a checklist, since the remarkable fact is that GROUNDHOG DAY is about an amazingly vast array of themes, making a surprising number of personal connections with a remarkable variety of persons. It's a bit of a Rorschach, actually, though that sounds too drearily psychological and introspective. Let's call it a mirror ball, or one of those sideshow mirrors that gets you laughing at the same time it makes you look at yourself different.

I won't lay out the myriad themes and spiritual implications, or tell you the best jokes. I will tell you that this is one of Bill Murray's best performances, with a gradually evolving comic style within the picture that's perfectly modulated to match the unfolding character transitions of the screenplay. And let me also hasten to opine that Andie MacDowell is just fine opposite Murray. This was before the anti-Andie groupthink set in that decided She Can't Act, back when we all still realized she was actually quite lovely, thank you very much.

But mostly what I'll tell you is what this movie had for me, third time through.

Book writing is a long, long obedience in the same direction. I'd been granted almost half a year away from running my theatre company to finish my book, and after a bumpy start I'd found my groove and was rolling. I mean really rolling, having a blast watching movies and pouring words into my computer, sitting on my sunny deck or locked away in my study poring over favourite films. Ah, the life of a writer!

Until I hit about the two month marker, that is. Coping with a sudden onslaught of interruptions, coming up on some serious breaks in the action, time suddenly looking like a commodity to be measured and guarded and rationed. Panic set in, counting days and hours, adding up movies, what had to be in, what I'd never get to, how much the book couldn't be what I wanted it to be, was it time to find an agent, a publisher, should I polish up some sections for submission but that would steal even more precious time from actual writing, and all those movies to be watched, was I going to have to settle fro the diminished thing the book could be by the end of my sabbatical time or strategize how to kedep working on it in and around my other job, in stolen hours, what would have to be moved, cancelled, what expectations managed, who would expect more from me than I could give, what pressures would that exert, where would the money come from, had I wasted all this time in self-indulgence, my family (and family income) paying the price for my movie binge, I was surely a fool and would be better to cut bait and quit fishing right now, quit wasting time, I was sick of movies anyuhow, sic, of my own voice in my head always talkingabout movies, actually no I was still having fun, but I was filled with dread looking ahead at what was to come, three more months of this, and even then (it was becoming clear) the damn thing wouldn't be done, it would never end, it was a certain and specifically personal kind of hell I'd created for myself, forced to ingest the food I most enjoyed until I could hold no more. And all sorts of other problems, they all came bobbing to the surface as I became more and more submerged in my low mood. Who knew there was so much small stuff to sweat?

And then I put in GROUNDHOG DAY. Laughed – which is pretty good medicine in itself, what do you know, Reader's Digest is right. Then sat and talked about the movie with my wife for a surprisingly long time – also tonic for the soul, talking movies. (But a Bill Murray movie?) And then we were talking other things, eternity and spiritual direction and the stages of grieving and I don't know what else, well into the night. (After a Bill Murray movie?) Then I talked out my heart a bit more, all my present fears and disheartedness, and she prayed for me some, and I went to bed. I still didn't see much light, mostly tunnel, and lots of it, stretching off interminably into the darkness ahead of me.

And then I woke up. And started over. It was more like 7:59 than 6:59, no need for an alarm clock, I was on sabbatical, but other than that (and the absence of Sonny and Cher), I could have been Phil Connors waking up to another Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I flashed on Phil waking up, over and over again, facing an endless line of Groundhog Days and no tomorrows.

And all at once it hit me. No tomorrow. Exactly. That's it.

And I got up from my bed and started in writing like there was no tomorrow. Which of course means writing a lot. With energy, motivation, gusto. For hours on end. How many hours? Hmmm... And if I could keep up this pace, that would be how many hours a day, how many words an hour, how many movies before mid-November? How many days a week, for how long, ending up with what kind of book? Which would justify my time... How?

I dunno. I'm not going to worry about that stuff anymore. Doesn't work, doesn't help anything. For now I'll just write this word, this one right here, and then the one that follows it. One word at a time. Thought by thought, movie by movie, bird by bird.

And I find myself grinning like a kid who just got away with something.

Simple. "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." It's a trick I learned from a groundhog.


Available at Videomatica

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT ("The Devil Probably" 1977, France, Robert Bresson)
My sickness is that I see clearly.

Bresson's second-last film, in color, just over a decade since the more faith-affirming AU HASARD BALTHAZAR which it echoes. We learn at the outset that Charles has died, perhaps a murder, perhaps a suicide, then retrace the bleak events of the six months leading up to his final moments. Bresson expert James Quandt describes this as "a moral illustrate that the world is hopelessly corrupt and despoiled, and that the various solutions society offers – traditional religion and the 'new' Church, political and ecological activism, psychoanalysis, art – are variously fraudulent, misguided, impotent." Perhaps - though Quandt is more prone to find loss of faith and absence of God in Bresson's films (and life) than others might be. Still there's no denying, Charles finds little in this world in which to place any faith.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


AU HASARD BALTHAZAR ("Balthazar, By Chance," 1966, France, Robert Bresson)
Bresson: It is about our anxieties and desires when faced with a living creature who's completely humble, completely holy, and happens to be a donkey.

When the Museum of Modern Art announced "The Hidden God," a major faith and film series featuring titles as diverse as MAGNOLIA, ANDREI ROUBLEV and GROUNDHOG DAY, the curators said the one film which clearly had to be included was Robert Bresson's masterpiece, AU HASARD BALTHAZAR. The New York Times called ├čit "one of the greatest films in history, and Andrew Sarris wrote "No film I have ever seen has come so close to convulsing my entire being. Bresson's Christian spirituality finds its most earthy, layered and life-giving expression. Grace has never been dramatized more lucidly, or more movingly, than it is here."

Not bad for a donkey movie. This unadorned 95-minute story follows the young colt's adoption as a family pet, through the hands of many masters, to the moment of his eventual death. It is a fragmentary portrait of a French village in the mid-sixties, tracing the interwoven lives of eight characters. It's a study of human weakness and cruelty, it's a portrait of Christ the suffering servant, it's the heart-breaking story of a young girl's descent from innocence to despair. But above all, it's a movie about a donkey.

Robert Bresson was a French Catholic who made his greatest and most deeply Christian films in the two decades following World War Two. Afficionados would be hard-pressed to choose his masterpiece – A MAN ESCAPED, DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST, THE TRIAL OF JOAN OF ARC and PICKPOCKET all have their advocates – but it is AU HASARD BALTHAZAR that may be his most resonant and most profoundly spiritual work. It is certainly his most affecting. Watch film scholar Donald Richie come close to tears as he describes the film's final moments on one of the special feature tracks of the new Criterion DVD: "The combination of something awful and something wonderful going together defeats any critical acumen I may have. It reduces me to an emotional human being – which I think was Bresson's intention in making this picture."

This director had no interest in merely making movies, which he thought of as filmed plays, hybrid creations cobbled together from other art forms. He was intent on forging a pure and completely new form which would have a unique capacity to evoke distinctly spiritual responses. He shot his most distinctive films in stark black and white, focusing his camera on repetitive physical activities and dreary, impoverished locales. We watch feet and hands, not expressive faces. His soundtracks are mostly silence, punctuated by mundane sounds, usually off-camera: footsteps, the clank of metal on stone, a braying donkey or a clanking harness bell juxtaposed against the brashness of a transistor radio or a harsh motorcycle engine.

Bresson's story-telling style was just as sparse: he pruned away explanations of behaviour, standard plot set-ups and obvious emotional build-ups to the point where we're frequently unsure of what exactly is going on in a given scene. "We must let the mystery remain. Life is mysterious, and we should see that on-screen. The effects of things must always be shown before their cause, like in real life. We're unaware of the causes of most of the events we witness. We see the effects and only later discover the cause." In Bresson's world we feel like children (or animals?) viewing the baffling behaviour of adults: not understanding the context or background of what's unfolding in front of us, we pay fierce attention to every nuance of every interaction, fine-tuned to emotion and implication and barely-grasped subtext.

Bresson's characters were the plainest of all his elements, ordinary people with small lives and petty, terrible troubles and vices: self-preoccupation, pride, faithlessness, suspicion, cold-heartedness and all the small cruelties that flesh is heir to. Bresson hated artificial or self-conscious effects, and would run his non-professional actors through a scene as many as fifty times before filming, so they would stop interpreting and simply live the scene. (Perhaps a donkey was Bresson's ideal performer!)

All this makes Bresson sound cold and inhuman, unapproachable and difficult. That's certainly his reputation: just try and find an article about his work that doesn't use the word "austere." But surprisingly, viewers who can set aside their usual expectations often find these pictures extremely powerful – far more accessible than, say, Bergman or Tarkovsky. Even on first viewing, I found A MAN ESCAPED the most stomach-knotting prison-break film I'd ever seen, its painful tension due to a million factors, not least of which was the film's utter realism: the director's claustrophobic concentration on the physical realities of the prison, the stone and iron and silence, convinced me not only that this was a true story but even that it was actually happening. DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST aroused such immense compassion in me for its odd and introverted fledgling priest, ostracized by his parish and crushed by physical and spiritual agonies, that I felt I was witnessing an anonymous martyrdom as heroic as the early Christians or more famous saints.

But it's "the donkey movie" that haunts me most, though I can hardly say why. Perhaps this is part of its power: there is something about AU HASARD BALTHAZAR you can't quite get hold of. It arouses deep feeling and an undeniable sense of Mystery, but when you try to describe it (or even more wrong-headedly, to explain it), the words seem to miss the point.

Bresson devotees will cringe when I say it, but the film shares part of its appeal with the Disney nature films of the same era, the privilege we feel watching animals doing animal things. There's a childlikeness in creatures, and a childlikeness is uncovered in us when we spend time with them: some essential empathy comes into play, we recover something that eludes us as adults and become more deeply human. C.S. Lewis was right when he said that much of our nature – and, indeed, a profoundly good part of our nature – is shared with the beasts. We may be animals with spirits, but we're animals nevertheless.

Still, in most ways the two sorts of animal movie couldn't be more different. Disney gives us the winsome antics of cute critters, complete with warm-voiced narration to explain their behaviour and let us in on their "thoughts," making their animal subjects almost human. But Balthazar is above all a donkey: there's no Shrekking or Eeyoring here. Instead of bringing the animal closer to us, letting us imagine that he's more human than we would have thought, Bresson takes us closer to the animal, and we realize how "not human" he is – and how inhuman our world looks through his eyes. Bresson immerses us in life as a donkey experiences it, and instead of identifying with the creature because he's almost human, we identify with him because we're almost animals. (Back to Lewis – isn't there something profoundly Christian about being reminded that we are, after all, common and lowly creatures ourselves? Fashioned by a Creator?)

But this is not just the story of a donkey. The gentle-eyed Balthazar is always there, and the fact that we can't quite get hold of the human stories around him – they're told in such a fractured, fragmented way – keeps him at the film's emotional centre. Still, those human characters are intriguing, especially Marie, a luminously beautiful, achingly vulnerable girl (think Scarlet Johannesen) whose spirited resistance to her oppressive circumstances coexists with a self-destructive attraction to men who use and mistreat her. She gives herself to Gerard, a petty small-town punk who's the runt of the litter of black-leather-jacketed angry young men of the era, a down-market James Dean. He's no big deal: his "wild ones" ride around on a less-than-intimidating collection of mopeds and ten speed bikes. No major league Bad Guy, Gerard is small, venal, selfish, mean. But it's precisely his commonness that makes him really troubling: that is Bresson's vision of evil; ordinary, everyday, pervasive. Believable. Real. There may be only one Brando in the world, but there are thousands of Gerards, and thousands of Maries.

At one point, Gerard and his cronies light firecrackers in the street outside a party that will soon turn violent, and Marie's mother voices our bafflement: "What do you see in that boy?" Marie's answer explains nothing, but tells everything: "I love him. Do we know why we love someone? If he says 'come,' I come. 'Do this,' and I do it. I'd follow him anywhere. If he asked me to, I'd kill myself for him." A firecracker explodes, we see Balthazar flinch, and a whole constellation of dreadful, fateful connections is made between girl and donkey.

Above all, this is an Easter film. I think of Mel Gibson's PASSION: both directors focus unflinchingly on a blameless sacrificial victim, mistreated by those who have power over his life, a victim who endures cruel things at their hands and for their sake as he trudges resolutely forward to fulfill his purpose in the world. (Bresson remarked that the donkey's owners represent the various vices that bring about Balthazar's suffering and death.) Christ's torments are extraordinarily violent, compressed into twelve or fifteen hours, while Balthazar's are casual and sustained, a lifelong via dolorosa of mundane cruelties. I see here the Suffering Servant I saw in Kurosawa's IKIRU (it's no coincidence that both films draw inspiration from Dostoevsky), quietly bearing grievous burdens as he sets out in obedience to do the task before him, whatever the cost.

Though the film is rich with resonances to the life of Jesus – the Nativity, Palm Sunday, the last supper, Calvary – AU HASARD BALTHAZAR is no straightforward allegory of a donkey-Saviour. His death goes unremarked, saves no one, atones for nothing. But does Balthasar remind us of Christ? Absolutely, and with a simplicity and profundity that stirs us and stays with us long after more direct portrayals have faded from from our hearts and memories.


Monday, April 02, 2007


A MAN ESCAPED (1956, France, Robert Bresson)
We’ll meet up.
In another life, maybe.
In this life. Have faith.
Have faith in your hooks and ropes. And in yourself.

Robert Bresson is one of those directors film lovers inevitably discover, and his Catholicism, shaped by the traumas of World War Two France, make him especially fascinating to cinephiles with a taste for spiritual things. This is a film you can return to over and over again, a stark and powerful experience that reveals layer after layer of mystery and understanding the more we consider it.

The “man” of the title is Fontaine, a French Resistance fighter locked away in a Nazi prison. We know from the blunt title and his past-tense narration that he has escaped and is recounting his story at some later time. Or do we? If we know that his ultimate fate is secure, why do we feel such tension and suspense?

As relentless as the film-maker’s attention is to the inescapable physical realities of this prison – wood and iron and stone, fabric and wire and water on a face – we’re also led constantly to question whether these are the only reality available to Fontaine. Perhaps his escape will be spiritual, the kind of rebirth suggested in a scripture smuggled to him on a scrap of paper: “You must be born from above.” The film’s subtitle undercuts the main title’s apparent sense of certainty when it refers to that same passage in John, reminding us that God defies predictability: “the wind blows as it listeth.” (Bresson, a master film-maker whose Christianity is perhaps more integrated into his work than any other, loves titles that introduce notes of uncertainty that stand in tension with the “certainties” of faith: LE DIABLE PROBABLEMENT translates to “The Devil Probably,” and the “au hasard” of AU HASARD BALTHASAR means “by chance.”) Or perhaps Fontaine’s only escape will be into eternity, through the doorway of death, as suggested by the man without hope in the next cell: when Fontaine encourages him by saying “We’ll meet up,” the man replies “In another life, maybe.” Will Fontaine be taken away and shot without warning or explanation, like other prisoners? Will he escape the walls of his cell only to be taken in a corridor or gunned down on a rooftop?

Is escape even a possibility? It hardly seems likely, and Bresson explicitly tells us that the slim hope of freedom will be kept alive only through constant faith – faith, the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Visually we’re as confined as Fontaine: we glimpse the corridors of the prison only through the peephole in his cell door, by surreptitious glances down hallways when the prisoners are led to the prison yard, in the awkward view from his barred window. We hear cryptic sounds that must be deciphered – tappings from other cells, footsteps, keys on a railing, unidentifiable squeaks and sobs and whimpers. Secretive conversations at the trough where inmates wash their face elude our understanding, cut short by guards or full of obscure and uncertain meanings. And from outside the prison, sounds of traffic, trains, a clock tower’s bell.

We are caught, along with Fontaine, in a constant, sometimes unbearable tension between confinement and liberty, between palpable physical circumstances and invisible spiritual realities.

While it may sound like A MAN ESCAPED is an extended allegory about the hope of escaping “the prison of this life” through some sort of spiritual transcendence, the film is far too particular for that. Its overwhelming realism uses endless visual details and all the tactile sensation they suggest to draw us vicariously into an experience of imprisonment in World War Two France. Confinement, waiting, fearing, hoping. The inscrutable capriciousness of the mostly-unseen prison authorities. The way our senses strain to pick up minute details when denied of almost any stimulation. The way stolen scraps of conversation must satisfy the craving for human contact and community, the way smuggled scraps of scripture speak to a starved human spirit. The mechanics of hope.

I’ll be honest: this film is hard going. People often refer to Bresson’s films as “rigorous” or “austere,” and A MAN ESCAPED is quintessential: there’s little dialogue and long silences, we’re as cut off from beauty and certainty as the character whose prison cell we share, and the story itself is stripped down to absolute essentials – cold hard physcial reality, and the will to escape.

If you’re looking for more accessible prison movies that touch on these spiritual questions - hope in the face of despair, the power of human relationship in a place of terrible inhuman isolation – I would recommend THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION or TO END ALL WARS. But if you’ve got an evening free of distractions and you’re ready to experience a true landmark of spiritual cinema, let me point you to A MAN ESCAPED. As with so many truly great films, you may want to view it more than once, to talk about the film with friends and to read up on it – on the web, at your local university library.

But don’t get the idea that this film is an intellectual puzzle that has to be picked apart and philosophized over to make any sense. The fact is, it can be a remarkably powerful experience the first time you view it, its suspense gradually building to excruciating intensity – frankly, this film made me breathless the way few Hitchcocks ever have. And the master director accomplishes all of this with incredible restraint and nuance. It’s nothing short of a wonder that so stark and minimal a film can create feelings that are so potent, images and moments that linger so persistently, divine intimations that seem so inescapable.


I also created a discussion guide for this film, which you can order online from CT Movies

This film is available (but only in vhs!) at Videomatica