Thursday, August 30, 2007

across the universe

Okay, nothing much to do with holiness here, unless you count the spirit of saints John, Paul, George and Ringo. But what a trip, man! Directed by auteur Julie Taymor, it’s a sixties love story, basically a big screen musical with Beatle-named characters (named Jude, Lucy, Max, Sadie, JoJo, Mr Kite, Bono as Doctor Robert, etc, etc) singing Fab Four tunes in a swirl of truly mind-altering visuals: for a taste, check out the trailer - especially around the two minute mark, when “Hey Jude” gears up.

This from a woman who saw an early test screening;
...Taymor's vision as a director seems to borrow from everything. ... There is what looks like Jan Svankmajer in a stunning industrial dance scene in a draft board as civilians are turned into soldiers. Another scene has giant puppet pageantry straight out of Peter Schumman's Bread and Puppet Theater and Resurrection Circus. One scene is a dreamlike vision done entirely in the psychedelic solarised colors of Richard Avedon's Beatle portraits. Her set designs are at times so clever and colorful, you laugh at the unrestrained joy and daring.
She begins with a glorious reinvention of the fifties musical, and careens into pure psychedelic delirium. The cinematography is rich and varied to the purpose of each scene, and dance sequences explode into place. The film moves from the innocence of small town upper-middle class America, to the nascent hippy scene in the village, to a sort of hallucinatory Garden of Eden (with too much but amusing Bono as a Ken Kesey Merry Prankster guru type). It moves to romance, and onto the dangers and volatility of the anti war 60's. All this is rendered through a constant flow Beatles songs delivered amidst magnificent set designs and video composites.... A ballad version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" movingly reinvents the song. ... At times songs and sounds collide like the Beatles in "Number Nine". The collision of a war protest at Columbia University with Helter Skelter over Dear Prudence is brilliant. Taymor has edginess that matches the sixties zeitgeist, and avoids the vacuous cotton candy fluff of Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge".

Julie Taymor created THE LION KING for the stage - absolutely inspired. And FRIDA, which is terrific, particularly the crazy visual sequences that reference Frida Kahlo's artword. Increasingly I think TITUS may be the best - or certainly, the most cinematic - film treatment of Shakespeare, an unapologetic full-on commitment to every idea, grand or weird or questionable, Bill put into his flawed, off-kilter original.

I'll confess, I could have used a bit more of the darkness at the heart of TITUS - if Julie Taymor tkes us to Viet Nam, I was hopeing for something that would take us past the familiar images of helicopters and panicky fire-fights - but hey, I'm in love with this movie! So I don't care to quibble. A big screen musical that makes choreography out of football practise, that saturated with winsome performances and well-sung songs from the Fabs, that's pressing all my buttons! Quite apart from the fact that I've collected (blush) over 1,000 cover versions of Beatles songs, and Taymor and nostalgia and all, there's this...

Tuesday, August 28, 2007


FLATLINERS (1990, USA, Joel Schumacher, Peter Filardi screenplay)
Philosophy failed. Religion failed. Now it's time for medical science to try.

Rita Kempley, Washington Post: “A provocative attempt to resuscitate the nation's spiritual dynamism, an almost childlike look at sinning, a jazzy Sunday school lesson.” In which hotshot med students rarely have to go to class or do rounds (hospitals look like this in Chicago?), leaving plenty of time to experiment with killing each other so they can be brought back from death – not just to practice their resuscitation skills, but to find out if there’s anything on the other side. Sight-seers in that undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns – except them, of course, being gods.

Very Eighties film hasn’t aged well – which is all to the good if you have a taste for Schumacher camp, in quirky tension with a completely sincere interest in all the right themes. Hokey melodrama and hysterical (not funny) dialogue serve up the expected Life After Death and “Is There A God?” musings, and more substantial stuff as well: it’s not only what they find on the other side but what they bring back to this one, and what they have to do about it. Schumaker’s preoccupations with guilt and judgment are deepened by Filardi’s concern for real world consequences of irresponsibility and even immorality, the power of confession, reconciliation, restitution – the simple but essential idea that what we do matters.


Available at Videomatica


PHONE BOOTH (2002, USA, Joel Schumacher, Larry Cohen screenplay)
Confess your sins and beg for absolution.

Roger Ebert calls it a religious fable, a morality play. Indeed, director Joel Schumacher stakes a claim to transcendence right off the top as his camera does a cosmic zoom, ricocheting off stars and satellites before diving down into the phone system to the strains of that a capella classic, Operator – "Give me information, Long distance, give me heaven...." Soon we're pinned inside a New York City phone booth confessional with a show biz promoter as an unknown sniper pushes this fast-talking, self-obsessed man to acknowledge his secret sins.

Now, this guy's transgressions aren't such a big deal, in the Hollywood scheme of things. He hasn't killed anybody, he's just treated them badly: he hasn't actually committed adultery, he's only thought about it. But for screenwriter Larry Cohen – or at least, for the man who aims the rifle – that's enough.

On one level, this is nothing but a low rent, high octane B-movie thriller, as hard to look away from as a news-channel hostage incident. But on another, it's a pretty harrowing take on Jesus' radical insistence that sin is a thing of the heart: Cohen has read his New Testament, at least as far as Matthew 6, and if he acknowledges that the shooter is a psycho, he also knows that this psycho has a point.

For me, the strain of watching this film had as much to do with my own examination of conscience as it did with the threat of violence on screen. As a small-time hustler in a glass box in the middle of a crowded street is forced to reckon with his callous inhumanity and his all-too-human moral compromises, I couldn't help but think of Jesus' warning, "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs."

(Larry Cohen's other screenplays include GOD TOLD ME TO, GUILTY AS SIN and I, THE JURY – bit of a theme there? Joel Schumacher also directed FLATLINERS, and the HARDCORE-themed 8MM, with a screenplay by the author of SEVEN.)

Available at Videomatica


GOD TOLD ME TO (AKA “Demon” 1976, USA, Larry Cohen)
Cure a man and you impress a few people who already believe anyway. Kill a multitude and you can convince a nation. It worked with the Egyptians.

In the sixties, screenwriter Larry Cohen pitched an idea to Alfred Hitchcock himself, about a sniper who pins a man inside a New York City phone booth, forcing him to repent of his secret sins. It was 35 years before PHONE BOOTH got made. But in the mid-seventies, Cohen wrote, produced and directed another flick with some of those elements – and a whole lot more! Killing sprees, top secret cabals, infidelity and guilt, alien abductions, cheesy special effects, pretentious dialogue, pointless scenes, virgin births and a hippy Christ – it's a trip, man.

A devout Catholic cop investigates a series of mass murders by otherwise model citizens: blissfully unremorseful, each of them intones the title line before dying a sudden death. There is very little in the film that works, though I did find the climactic sequence, tenement stairways and golden light, curiously effective: maybe only because it reminded me of JACOB'S LADDER, though with a far different significance.

Unless God tells you to, I wouldn't suggest that this B-minus movie is worth the trouble to seek out. As hard as it tries, it's just plain bad. But if you're one of those people who takes delight in crummy films – or in the aesthetic frisson of looking for what might be glints of gold in a panful of gravel – you might find it an intriguing mess.

Available at Videomatica

Saturday, August 25, 2007


BLOOD SIMPLE (1984, USA, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Thought you were dead. You goin' home?
No. I'm staying right here in hell.
Kind of a bleak point of view there, isn't it, Marty?

This film is scary. And funny, and arty, and brilliant. But mostly scary. I remember seeing the trailer in the theatres, all shovels and desperation and dark country roads, and knowing this was a movie I didn't need to see. Who needs to sit through two hours of bungled, grisly violence and sustained fear and dread?

Eventually it ended up on my video screen, and I'm glad it did. It's as tense and terrifying as an extreme theme park ride, but also funny, smart, audaciously arty (in the best cheap-first-feature post-film-school tradition) and – here's the surprising part – profoundly Truthful.

The Coens are at their best when they're showing us the mundanity, the desperation, the tumbling-out-of-control consequences of crime. They can be almost Elizabethan in their portrayal of murder and its consequences: when the order of things is violated, when the great chain of being is compromised by the horror, the unnaturalness, of taking a human life (and for the most venal and banal of reasons), it's nothing but a bloody, frightening mess. Their criminals are stupid, inept, and selfish, and once they've spilt blood, there's no going back. BLOOD SIMPLE is not so very far from Macbeth, though the characters are more pathetic. "Tragedy And The Common Man," without Willie Loman's weak, sad dignity, or a trace of his desperate self-sacrifice. These all-too-recognizable monsters' only sacrifice is their victim, and the crimes and their consequences are dreadfully ugly. They transcend nothing.

In this, their first film, and in their other great serious film, FARGO, The Coens portray evil as frightening, to be sure: I do find moments in these films chilling, troubling, unshakeable, violating. But they do not make the mistake of calling evil good and good evil: they identify it as a small-minded, weak and contemptible thing, and there's something right about that.

Available at Videomatica


AUTO FOCUS (2002, USA, Paul Schrader, Michael Gerbosi screenplay from Robert Graysmith’s book)

Biopic of Bob Crane, head hero on “Hogan’s Heroes,” charting his descent into porn addiction: Willem Dafoe plays Mephistopheles to Greg Kinnear’s Faust. Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune called it “Paul Schrader’s version of the classic Puritan sermon Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God – a cold shower for the soul.” He’s definitely right about the “sinners” part, though I’m not sure God’s hand is ever shown, angry or otherwise – apart from the brief and futile appearance of a parish priest. He’s also right about the film’s essential Puritanism – further evidence that you can take the boy out of Calvinism, but you can’t take Calvin out of the boy. (Though the only petal of Schrader’s TULIP that’s still in full bloom might be Total Depravity part; Unconditional Election doesn’t seem to come up, and you definitely won’t find much along the lines of Limited Atonement or Irresistible Grace. I forget what the “P” stands for. Need to watch HARDCORE again. Or, maybe not...) On the plus side, Schrader certainly doesn’t glorify pornography (though he may be obsessed with it): the film might serve as something of a cautionary tale for the right viewer. On the minus, there’s not much glory of any sort here: the scene where two men sit in front of a television and masturbate is a tough watch. Not to be dismissive – Roger Ebert praised the film as “a deep portrait of a shallow man, a hypnotic portrait of this sad, compulsive life” – but I do want you to know, it’s that kind of movie.


Available at Videomatica


AUGUSTINE OF HIPPO (1972, Italy, Roberto Rossellini)
Christians do not denounce the arts, letters, music. Nor do they deny history. They say only that by means of it, man must always see better inside himself the light and the word of God which was made flesh and came among us.

The pagans come off surprisingly well in this late-career TV biopic that skips the saint’s spicy early years and cuts straight to his final decade or so, emphasizing tensions between political power, personal conscience and Christian morality against a backdrop of Roman Empire decadence.


ANCHORESS (1993, Belgium/UK, Chris Newby, Judith Stanley-Smith / Christine Watkins screenplay)

Story of 14th century virgin who walls herself up in pursuit of sainthood starts well enough; gorgeous black and white cinematography, powerful sense of place and period, lots of capital "M" Mystery. Sadly, infuriatingly, the latter is completely subverted once the cliche plot takes over: Bad Guy Priest (aren't they all?) oppresses Good Earth-mother Type (aren't they all?) who's in touch with her sensuality (aren't they all?). Priest stirs up Ignorant Villagers against Earth-mother's mother (also Good), has mother killed as witch. Earth-mother type finds true vocation having sex on beach with Earthy Hunk. Banal.

Available at Videomatica


AMELIE (“Le Fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poulain” 2001, France, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Guillaume Laurant screenplay)
It's better to help people than garden gnomes.

Whimsical story of a winsome, lonely, (gorgeous) young woman so delighted at the results of a "random act of kindness" she perpetrates on a stranger that she sets out on a campaign of anonymous benevolent meddling. One of the most abundantly inventive movies ever made, set in a fantasy Paris that's as glorious to the eye as anybody's dream or memory. For me, an utterly endearing "do unto others" fable: some viewers find it saccharine, or are put off by a casual sexual morality that's typically European, but I was too charmed to mind much.


Available at Videomatica

Friday, August 24, 2007

september dawn

Right when I woke up to the gospel, we're talking grade eleven, I was waking up to theatre and music at the same time, so I found myself in the midst of some of the most attractive, talented and just plain fine people around, who were very excited about my new kindled faith. They figured I had a great start on things: only, there were a few other things I hadn't quite got yet....

Lots of Mormons in Calgary, so as a brand new Christian I gave careful thought to The Gospel According To Brigham Young. Didn't end up signing up, but still have a lot of respect for folks in that community, and an ongoing fascination with their faith and subculture. (My first review for CT Movies was of a "Mormon movie," AROUND THE BEND).

So I've been looking forward to SEPTEMBER DAWN - though, judging from what Mark Moring and Peter Chattaway have to say, it turns out not to be exactly the window into the LDS I had thought it might be. (Or, who can say, maybe more of a window into their history than they wish it were? Not something I know about. But it hardly sounds even-handed.)

In any event, I'll still be keeping an eye out for when it hits Vancouver. In the meantime...
Mark Moring, CT Movies, Editor

September Dawn, which, in some ways, might also be "based on a true story, that was based on a lie." The true story is that on September 11, 1857, a group of Mormons slaughtered over 100 Christian settlers—including women and children—in Utah in what is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. That much is indisputable, but the film also implicates Brigham Young himself, saying the leader of the Mormon Church actually ordered the massacre. That may or may not be accurate; historians say it's unclear whether Young was involved. At any rate, it's a film about a very real and tragic event in U.S. history—the largest mass murder of Americans by other Americans until the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.
And this from Peter Chattaway's review, which you can read in its entirety at CT Movies...
At nearly every point, September Dawn paints the early Mormons as fanatical brainwashed zealots, and the wild, unstable camera angles that cinematographer Juan Ruiz-Anchia uses when Young or Voight's bishop speak to their followers only drive the point further home. There may indeed be some basis for this characterization—the sermons Young gives, in which he exhorts his followers to slit throats and shed blood, are reportedly historical—but it's not exactly the sort of thing that will encourage dialogue.

What makes this portrayal even more questionable is the stark contrast the movie draws between the Mormons and the settlers. An introductory voice-over tells us that the massacre took place when "two different worlds met . . . one of love, one of hate," and the film never leaves us in any doubt as to which is which. The Mormons are closed-minded and spiteful, but the settlers are so open-minded that Emily's father, a preacher, doesn't bat an eye when she says she wants to marry Jonathan. Shouldn't he be just a little concerned about that whole "unequally yoked" thing?

To its credit, September Dawn does not secularize the settlers, but allows them to be the Christians—cultural or otherwise—that they presumably were. So when Emily finds aspects of Jonathan's life puzzling, the dialogue that emerges between them is a dialogue between two religious points of view. How much sense this will make to the modern secular moviegoer is anyone's guess, but it's good to know that the filmmakers didn't go too far out of their way to make the story "accessible." Those who want to know what really happened, though, are advised to look elsewhere.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

the trial of the catonsville nine


from "Hollywood & The Catholic Church" by Les & Barbara Keyser; "The most dramatic attack on the Selective Service comes on May 17, 1968, when a ragtag army of priests, missionaries, nuns, ex-Peace Corps members and other morally indignant pacifists burns the records of Local Board 33 in Catonsville Maryland, using homemade napalm. Daniel Berrigan wrote a famous play about the aftermath of this event, "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," and actor Gregory Peck devoted his own personal fortune to seeing it filmed by director Gordon Davidson. The film, distributed by Cinema V, was a labor of love for all involved, and the principals all worked for union scale (most put their earnings right back in the production or contributed them to anti-war movements). No more literate and thoughtful indictment of American involvement in Viet Nam exists. Daniel Berrigan dramatically repudiates the whole tradition of Cardinal Spellman and Church blessings for modern wars, proclaiming the necessity to say no to such a Catholic Church. Berrigan wants everyone to know he is a Catholic, but a new kind of committed Catholic willing to embrace civil disobedience in pursuit of faith. In his testimony, he tells the world; "May I say if my religious belief is not accepted as a substantial part of my action then the action is eviscerated of all meaning and I should be committed for insanity."


My friend Doug emailed me this bit from the Variety review: "Theatrical, but fluidly controlled, direction by Gordon Davidson gives this a dramatic impetus despite static qualities and literary dialog."

Which surprised me. "Literary" dialogue. I had thought that the play was created from direct trial transcriptions, wonder if the Variety writer may have been hearing through his preconceptions: "It's from a play, must be 'literary'." Ironic if words that were actually spoken in reality play less real than lines that screenwriters write (which must by definition be less "literary" that ones in stage plays?). Struck me as an odd comment all round.

Wikipedia gives this; "Fr. Daniel Berrigan wrote a play in free verse, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, about the trial. The version performed is usually an adaptation into regular dialogue by Saul Levitt." Which made me wonder where I got the crazy idea about it being created from transcripts.

So I dug out my copy of the script. Flipping it open, sure enough, laid out like free verse. But reading the actual text, I wondered. Flipped to the Introduction.

"In composing this book, I have worked directly with the data of the trial record, somewhat in the manner of the new 'factual theater.' As I understand it, that form requires essential adherence to the letter of a text (in this case, some 1200 pages, supplied to us by the court stenographer). I have been as faithful as possible to the original words, spoken in the heat or long haul of the trial, making only those minute changes required for clarity or good sense.
"In condensing such a mass of material, it was predictable that a qualitative change would occur, almost by the law of nature, as the form emerged. And this of course was my hope: to induce out of the density of matter an art form worthy of the passionate acts and words of the Nine, acts and words which were the substance of the court record."

So. Literal and literary both. Reading the text, I can readily see that actors could ignore the line endings and essentially play the text naturalistically, or (to varying degrees) play the line endings and "verse" intentions of the playwright for a more stylized treatment.

I wonder about doing a staged reading of the play?


Used copies of the videotape at Amazon starting at 22 bucks.

Monday, August 20, 2007


CHOCOLAT (2000, USA/UK, Lasse Hallström, Robert Nelson Jacobs screenplay, Joanne Harris novel)
We can't go around measuring our goodness by what we don't do. By what we deny ourselves, what we resist, and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create. And who we include.

Like its namesake, a guilty pleasure but a pleasure nonetheless: this not particularly nourishing but undeniably yummy exemplar of the faux-foreign Miramax product tasted a tad Euro-Disney but packed art-houses and boosted concession sales – and, surprisingly, gave movie-goers with an appetite for Soul Food a thing or two to chew on.

Juliette Binoche is delish as a widow who blows into a repressive but picturesque French town during Lent and breathes chocolate-scented life into the repressed Catholic villagers: Lena Olin, Carrie-Anne Moss and Johnny Depp up the gorgeousness factor, Judi Dench provides acting cred, and there’s cool gypsy music and swell photography.

Frederica Mathewes-Green voiced and amplified my qualms in a brilliant essay where she pitches a script idea for SIZZLE: a sexy, carnivorous Yankee sets up his grill in a joyless town in India and introduces those poor, misguided Hindus into the joys of thick steaks, tender filets and racks of barbecued ribs. She points out that SIZZLE – just like the film it parodies – is “stupendously ignorant of the spiritual tradition of the community it’s presuming to chastise. Towering ignorance combines with invincible self-righteousness to form an impenetrable shield of condescension.” It’s facile to criticize Christianity for pleasure denial on the basis of Lent, the one season in the church year when believers undertake a few weeks of voluntary self-control to strengthen spiritual muscles that might help check our all-too-human tendencies “to mess up the world and hurt each other. Resisting chocolate today can help you resist an angry outburst tomorrow – a simple concept that is totally lost on the makers of CHOCOLAT.” Or on American consumer culture as a whole, where the very idea of any sort of spiritual discipline is the worst kind of heresy.

But I also like Loren Wilkinson’s characteristic “yes but” counter-response: while half the problem may be “our culture’s determination always to see Christianity in a negative light,” the other half “surely is the way Christians persist in proving the culture’s judgment largely right.” He points out that “all too often the church does act this way towards outsiders who don’t fit in, and all too often does have a pretty gnostic view of pleasure, and of the whole material world,” including “the way we have almost completely severed the communion meal from any reminder that it was part of not just a meal, but a feast.” Insightfully, Wilkinson also asks whether the Count’s final transformation might not be a direct answer to his own prayers, and with an ear tuned to the poetry of the piece points out the Count’s determined effort to close the doors of the church against the wind (Spirit?) from the outside world “which is, I fear, all too like the church,” and “the fact that the dust of the woman’s mother, a driving and destructive force in the lives of the woman and her daughter, gets scattered by the wind at the end.”

You know what I love best about this film? The way such a tasty but seemingly unsubstantial dessert can yield so rich a feast of conversation, spiritual insights and theological considerations. All depends who you invite to the table.


The Mathewes-Green and Wilkinson articles are here
The dvd is available at Videomatica


CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE (2005, USA, Andrew Adamason, screenplay with Ann Peacock / Christopher Markus / Stephen McFeely, from C.S. Lewis novel)
Do not cite the Deep Magic to me, Witch. I was there when it was written.

Brilliant to foreground the WW2 context – the original was inspired by a girl Lewis cared during the evacuation of London – but despite visual glories the magic somehow plays plastic. Screenwriter choices in this mostly very faithful adaptation (overlooking one particularly annoying, very American plot insertion, complete with cracking ice and continuity) still manage to subtly diminish the novel’s singular power; the Beavers bicker, Peter is a prig, and - the fatal flaw - a CGI Aslan is regal but not at all fearsome. Oh well, the film's still worth seeing: Lucy’s particularly wonderful, Tilda Swinton’s white queen memorably attractive/repulsive.

Word is, Guillermo del Toro was approached to direct but declined. Now, that would have been a movie! Real war, real magic, and (want to bet?) a not-so-tame lion. He’s not at all interested in the lion coming back from the dead. Pity – for us and for Mr del Toro.


Available at Videomatica


CLUELESS (1995, USA, Amy Heckerling)
I decided I needed a complete make-over, except this time I'd make-over my soul.

“Emma” in Beverly Hills, an exceptionally witty teen flick that doesn’t wear literary inspiration on its designer sleeve. Like all Jane Austen, a closely observed portrait of small moral awakenings among the oblivious bourgeoisie: amused, affectionate, engaging. Defies expectations; nerdy teachers turn out to be human (and smart) after all, and Dad works hard but is neither distant, ineffectual nor clueless. How might conscience emerge, what might the first stirrings of altruism look like, in a culture of narcissism and consumption?


Available at Videomatica.

You may also want to check out "Jane Austen Meets Jesus" at the Society Of Mutual Autopsy blog. Which has nothing to do with this movie. But still.

investigation of a flame

Intriguing companion piece to THE CAMDEN 28, which is forthcoming. This 2002 film is only 45 minutes, though, so as highly praised as it is, it's not something there's much chance of seeing. But you can order yourself a copy at the film's website.. I have a copy of the play that was made from the trial transcripts - "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" - which I thought of producing at Pacific Theatre in our early days, but set aside because of cast size. Now I wonder about a staged reading? Anyhow...

On May 17, 1968 nine Vietnam War protesters, led by brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, walked into a Catonsville, Maryland draft board office, grabbed hundreds of selective service records and burned them with homemade napalm. Investigation of a Flame is an intimate, experimental documentary film on the Catonsville Nine, this disparate band of resisters who chose to break the law in a defiant, poetic act of civil disobedience.

How did the photos, trial publicity and news of the two year prison sentences help to galvanize a disillusioned American public? Investigation of a Flame explores this politically and religiously motivated action of the 1960's in the context of a newly militarized America.

“INVESTIGATION OF A FLAME is a gorgeously crafted experimental documentary recounting the odyssey of the Catonsville Nine. Investigation's radical veneer belies the after-schoolish wholesomeness at its core, for the committed pacifism of its subjects exemplifies a venerable American tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience - the principled breaking of imperfect human laws in adherence with higher moral ones. There's little to add to the chorus of praise that followed MoMA's Documentary Fortnight screening of the film, but it's nonetheless a film to rave about, as well as reckon with.” Ionnnis Mookas, The Independent Film and Video Monthly

“One of the ten best films released in 2002” Phillip Lopate, Film Comment

Soul Food Movie footnote: Father Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine, appears in THE MISSION, on which he also served as an advisor. War and peace, passive resistance vs liberation theology...

Friday, August 17, 2007


CHILDREN OF MEN (2006, UK/USA, Alfonso Cuaron, screenplay with Timothy Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, from the P.D. James novel)
"Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men." Psalm 90

Set in the not-distant-enough future, this story of an apocalyptically infertile world descending into barbarism – or fending off barbarism with all-too-recognizable fascism – passed through five different screenwriters on its way to production. In the process it was mostly stripped of what made the P.D. James source novel her most distinctively Christian work. That doesn't stop many Christians (and almost everybody else) from celebrating it, but while I’m willing to let the book be the book and the film be its own unique thing, I can’t help mourning what was lost, especially once the personal and political focus of the film’s first third gears up into chase movie mode for the duration. However impressive the long takes, however welcome the Nativity imagery (the climax remind anybody else of JOYEUX NOEL?), however troubling the nods to current political agonies, the almost non-stop action flattens the film into something almost ordinary. It could have been so much more. Faced with the choice between the book and the movie, take my advice – skip the flick and start reading.

The book, unfortunately, is not available at videomatica. But if you're willing to settle for the dvd...


CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981, UK, Hugh Hudson, Colin Welland)
“All nations before him are as nothing
They are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings as eagles,
They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

CHARIOTS OF FIRE was something of a phenomenon when it took the screen in 1981, a film about British Olympic runners in the Twenties which unexpectedly became a touchstone for believers and artists everywhere. Christians were astonished to find themselves sitting in theatres where crowds rooted for an unabashedly Evangelical character, cheering him on as he took a moral stand they would laugh at outside the theatre. And artists found themselves strangely moved to hear an athlete speak the very essence of their sense of calling.

Though there had been a time when the occasional historical figure might be both admirable and Christian – in 1964 Richard Burton could defend the honour of God in BECKET, for example, and Paul Scofield was allowed a similar stand when A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS hit the silver screen two years later – the day was long past when movie Christians were allowed to be Good Guys. By what cinematic alchemy was Your Average Theatre-goer in TV-preacher-cynical 1981 persuaded to take Eric Liddell as a hero for refusing to run on the Lord's Day? Christians sitting in those crowded movie houses, braced for the usual mockery of their faith, experienced an intoxicating thrill as their values and way of life were celebrated. And when the film itself was honoured with seven Oscar nominations, winning four categories including Best Screenplay and Best Picture, it felt like something of an exoneration for a group of people who’d only felt themselves belittled by their on-screen depiction in recent memory.

For me the film also had a more personal resonance, and in the ensuing decades I’ve met many others who were struck the same way. I was in the middle of working out a choice between two careers, deciding whether to be a pastor or an actor. On the one hand was the practical, obviously worthwhile kingdom work of caring for souls, on the other the frivolous self-indulgence of play-acting. As I sat there in that theatre, words were spoken that profoundly shaped the rest of my life.

Eric – a winsome, self-effacing and handsome Ian Charleson – has talked of going to the mission field. With his sister, he wants to bring the gospel to China. Practical, obviously worthwhile kingdom work. But there's a problem, and Jenny confronts him with it – he seems obsessed, his head “full of running and starting and medals and pace,” frivolous self-indulgence that's distracting him from the things that matter in God's eyes. She’s troubled by his passion, and frightened for what it all might do to him.

He walks with his sister out into the countryside, and there he speaks words that both reassure her and break her heart. He’s going to China – the missionary service has accepted him – but he’s got a lot of running to do first. "God made me for a purpose: He made me for China. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure. To give it up would be to hold Him in contempt."

I’m not the only artist who experienced something extraordinary hearing those words. There it was, the answer to all the well-meaning folk who wondered if a passionate love for the arts – or running, or anything on God’s green earth – might not be a sort of idolatry. How could it be, if God made you that way? If the very act of rehearsal, or putting pen to paper, fills you with a pleasure that could only come from God, and a certainty that the acting or the writing itself gives pleasure to God? And after all, why wouldn’t the God who sighed “Behold, it is good” at the end of each day’s Creation take similar delight in my humbler acts of creation? Surely Dad would be proud as punch to see me take after Him, showing His image and likeness by doing just as He did?

At its core, this film is less about sports than it is about vocation, a word that comes from the latin word vocare, to be called. People who feel a particular sense of calling in their life’s work resonate deeply with this story, be they athletes or artists, evangelists or math tutors. Especially those who feel that their unique place in the world is somehow a gift from God.

CHARIOTS OF FIRE has not one protagonist, but two. The counterpoint to Eric Liddell is Harold Abrahams, the son of Jewish immigrants who sees his athletic prowess as a weapon, a means of proving himself in a class-conscious British society whose courteous anti-Semitism guards the corridors of power against him. “I’m going to take them on. All of them. One by one. And run them off their feet.”

Even though it’s darkened by a certain driven quality, Harold’s directness and ambition is immensely appealing. His compulsion to be more English than the English makes him a Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiast, and when he finds himself enchanted by an actress in THE MIKADO he doesn’t even wait until the performance is through to make his way backstage and ask her to dinner. Ben Cross and Alice Krige are superb in their restaurant scene, he awkward and smitten and intense, she sparkling and smart and certainly falling in love. Their dialogue is revealing;
Sybil: You don’t look very ruthless.
Harold: Should I?
Sybil: According to my brother. Tim says that’s why you always win. Why running?
Harold: Why singing?
Sybil: It’s my job. No, that’s silly. I do it because I love it. Do you love running?
Harold: I’m more of an addict. It’s a compulsion, a weapon.
Sybil: Against what?
Harold: Being Jewish, I suppose.
Sybli: You’re not serious?
Harold: You’re not Jewish. Or you wouldn’t ask.

Challenged by two Cambridge Masters (wonderfully played by Sir John Gielgud and film director Lindsay Anderson) who maintain that he runs only for his own glory, Abrahams is outraged, protesting that all his achievements are for his family, his university and his country, but in the moments before his final Olympic race, Abrahams confesses, “I don’t know what it is I’m chasing.” His losses devastate him, even his victories seem lonely and hollow. There’s a terrible emptiness in the celebration he shares with trainer Sam Mussabini, rendered by Ian Holm as the very essence of plain-spoken working-class savvy. We feel not only admiration but also pity for these two driven, marginalized men: they have surely earned more than this lonely moment of glory, but the scene has an unspoken note of desperation and denial – surely winning ought to feel better than this? Contrast the moments in Eric Liddell’s races when he throws his head back, face to the sky, contorted in animal exertion and elation. We don’t need to see any victory party – the running is the celebration.

It is a superficial reading of the film that finds some sort of veiled anti-Semitism in the contrast between these two men: Harold Abrahams’ discontent comes not from his religion, but from his lack of it. The film-makers honour both men as heroes, but they it’s clear that talent and accomplishment in and of themselves can be empty – that we find our true place in the universe only when, like Johann Sebastian Bach, we dedicate our works to the greater glory of God.

One of the film’s most potent sequences involves Lidell’s meeting with the Prince of Wales and the Olympic Committee, who pressure him to run his Sunday race despite his misgivings. These performances are richly detailed, the dialogue a marvel of concise characterization and veiled power manipulation as Liddell’s distinctly Scottish stubbornness comes up against the will of nations. For Liddell, however great his desire to run, however great his dedication to his country, there is a higher allegiance – one that is spelled out in the powerful sequence that takes place the following Sunday, as we cut back and forth between the church and the Olympic track, Liddell reading Isaiah’s glorious, terrible affirmations of the greatness and tenderness of God as we watch the agonized exertions of athletes expending themselves for the glory of nations.

Few films have portrayed so attractive a faith as that of Eric Liddell – his appetite for life, his humility, his “muscular Christianity,” a man who would do whatever it might take to feel God’s pleasure.

Available at Videomatica


CHANGING LANES (2002, Roger Michell, Chap Taylor / Michael Tolkin screenplay)
Sometimes God likes to put two guys in a paper bag and just let ‘em rip.

The hotshot lawyer’s desperate, so he slips into a cathedral. He’s not interested in confession – at least he’s clear on that much – but demands of a priest, “I want you to give the world meaning. Because the world’s a sewer. Because I got into a fender bender with this guy on the FDR, and I had a little fight with him and I tried to do everything I could but this guy just won’t let it go.”

The irony is telling. This was no fender bender: the other man’s car may be a write-off. He has most certainly not do everything he could – at least not to help the situation. Nor has he given a moment’s thought to why the other man wouldn’t let it go: it’s all his fault, after all. Or God’s.

CHANGING LANES observes two men whose preoccupation with their own needs and addiction to lives led in chaos and at top speed lock them in a spiral of ever-increasing blame and vengeance. Roger Thomas at Ethics Daily perceptively compares this film to the more tragic HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG: both films concern characters who “are not willing to compromise or even speak rationally to one another. These are not evil people doing evil things. These are normal people making bac choices and refusing to consider that the good and righteous choice lies beyond their wished.”

The events unravel on Good Friday setting. Combined with background images like a Sacred Heart picture taped to a closet wall and the interwoven prayers and rituals of AA, the filmmakers would seem to suggest that the solution lies not only in better human choices, but also somehow in something Higher.

Available at Videomatica


THE BELIEVER (2001, USA, Henry Bean, from a Mark Jacobson story)
I'm the only one who does believe. I see him for the power-drunk madman he is. And we're supposed to worship such a deity? I say never.

The yeshiva boy gets on the subway. A skinhead follows him onto the train, crowds him, bullies him, follows him off the train, then beats him savagely. It’s hard to watch, but it’s what comes at the end of the scene that’s uniquely troubling: the neo-Nazi pleads with his cowering victim to hit him back, but the boy cannot, or will not. Of course not: the Torah student perfectly embodies all that the vicious skinhead finds so repellent; the young man averts his eyes, his body closed in, elbows held close, shoulders collapsed. He wants to be invisible: his every gesture is an apology.

This film, like its central character, is concerned with power. Isaac’s powerlessness at the hands of Abraham, his father: God's power over Abraham. The power of the Nazis over the Jews, and the Jews' unwillingness to resist – particularly as played out in one holocaust story about a father and his three year old son. Danny finds all this abhorrent. Which isn’t surprising – Danny’s the young Jew we met in the subway scene, and he despises the weakness he sees in himself and his fellow Jews. More accurately – and here’s the kicker, the thing that makes this movie so controversial and so very interesting – Danny is one of the young Jews we met in the subway scene. The one with the shaved head and the Nazi tattoos branded into his skin.

After winning the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Festival, nobody would pick up this incendiary, fact-based story of Jewish self-hatred for distribution. Danny is so bright, his anti-Semitic arguments so articulate, many feared the film could do more harm than good. Whether it was the fearless, frightening performance of Ryan Gosling in the lead or the recognition that, when it comes to selling tickets, any publicity is good publicity, the film was finally released in summer 2002.

Several critics insist that the film owed us a "what happened in his childhood" explanation for Danny's behaviour. Perhaps it was the presence of Teresa Russell in the film that reminded me of one great scene in the not-so-great BLACK WIDOW where a character provides the obligatory “here’s what happened in his childhood” explication of the psychology of a serial killer, only to laugh it all off with an "I made that up: nobody really knows why anybody does anything" payoff. Which may overstate the point, but the point remains: we want film makers to provide us with explanations of behaviours that we're uncomfortable with. If they'll name it for us, we'll have power over it: whatever uncomfortable feeling or challenging thought we may have had early in the movie, we want it psychologized down to manageable size in time to box it up and leave it in the theatre.

I'm glad "The Believer" doesn't offer facile explanations. It allows us to observe a troubled, complex young man who is virtually split in half by the dilemmas his faith presents him with. Those who care less hold these contradictions more lightly, and they’re not pulled apart by them. To Danny, they matter: they grip him hard, and threaten to tear him in two. Listening to the stories of holocaust survivors, other skinheads are simply dismissive: they don't engage, dismissing them with facile, thoughtless cliches about the holocaust being a myth, Hitler not really being so bad. Danny will have none of it: of course the holocaust is real. Why pretend it isn't? And though he’s dismissive of the victims, he can’t dismiss the events themselves, and from that point on he is haunted by the father-son story he hears from one of the men.

The film presents us with many outworkings of these questions of power and victimization. His relationship with his girlfriend plays out the "sexual dominance as power" theme which also surfaces in the diner interview with a young journalist, but it is a strength of the film that their relationship goes well beyond the expected dominance and submission we expect in this neo-Nazi setting. Her nascent interest in Judaism is complex and fascinating: is this identification with the Jews simply an extension of her desire to be overpowered, an attraction to a religion they boty see as a cult of victimhood? I think there’s something more: she finds a centre, a strength, and as she does so, Danny's threat of physical violence loses its power.

As Danny teaches her about the Jewish religion, another intriguing dichotomy comes to the fore. He insists that Judaism is not about dogma but about practice: it is all about doing the rituals, observing the law, but not necessarily about what you believe, certainly not about understanding God. But as the title of the film tells us, Danny is a Believer: for all that he mocks the Jewish intellectual tradition as being impotent and without action, he is a man of ideas, a man of words and argument.

Perhaps the centre of the whole issue is this: Danny is utterly a part of his tradition in his love of argument, his ability to dispute, to wield the subtle and incisive blade of his mind and words in an intellectual fight. What infuriates him is the lack of continuity he sees in his people between their words and their actions. For Danny, it’s a logical extension to carry through the expression of power he exercises verbally into physical force. But this is not in keeping with the way his people conduct themselves in the world, and he can’t stand it.

Danny is obsessed with the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and the film plays it out three times from subtly different points of view. Danny is convinced that it was "all over" as soon as Abraham raised the knife: even though God stopped the actual killing, Abraham had committed the murder in his heart (and in this we hear the echo of another Jewish rabbi, Jesus). The damage had been done, the relationship violated, and neither the son nor the father could ever be the same again. Surely Isaac would have every right to question why his father had lacked the power to stand up to God the murderer, just as Danny challenged the Jewish man who had watched his own son murdered by a Nazi soldier and had done nothing to resist.

In the conjunction of these two stories perhaps, is the troubling centre of the film. In each of these stories which haunt Danny's memory (and consequently the film itself) there is the child victim, the unresisting father bystander, and the powerful initiator: there is a parallel between Isaac and the three-year-old boy, between Abraham and the father whose passivity allows him to survive the holocaust, and between Jehovah and the Nazi soldier. And Danny is utterly torn as he identifies at different times with the various characters in the story. Danny cannot hold these terrible, unresolvable stories at a distance: he must grapple with them, striving to find a place for himself in their cast of characters. He pictures himself in the role of the murderous Nazi soldier, a role he is playing out in the Nazi skinhead persona he lives out in his young adult life: but when he hears the holocaust survivor's story, it is clear that he perceives the act of the Nazi soldier as horrific and evil, one which the now-elderly Jewish man should have opposed. Eventually Danny re-imagines the holocaust story, seeing himself as the victim: now he is the man seeing his son brutally murdered, and now he is moved to act, to strike out, violently resist the evil. But ultimately, it seems, he adopts the third role in these stories of sacrifice: planting the pipe-bomb in the altar of the synagogue, stepping back into the familiar roles of his own childhood, he leads the people in worship and offers himself up as some sort of sacrifice. Ultimately, he chooses the role of Isaac, of the three-year-old boy emerging from the hay wagon.

And then what to make of the final scene, so reminiscent of a similarly ambitious, befuddling, Old Testament preoccupied genre-bender from a dozen years ago that wanted to play for keeps with the spiritual implications of its storyline? This ascent into the light, up the stairs of the Yeshiva, past the Torah teacher, on up into mystery. An image that was just right for Danny's questing, relentless soul. But wasn't it also implying a sort of reward for this violent, sick young man? That he had attained some sort of superiority that allowed him to ascend into this Holy Place after death? How could this be?

On reflection, I find my answer in the chaos of the synagogue scene. As the scene begins, it seems that Danny's original intention is not only to die but also to take the congregation with him – a hate crime, but one which expresses not only his hatred of the Jewish worshippers but also of himself, just as inescapably and hatefully a Jew. It seems that the culmination of the events of the story will come down to a simple suicidal act of self-loathing – or, more precisely, a murder suicide, that ultimate act of despair and hatred. Except that Danny arrives only to find something wrong with his plan: his girlfriend, drawn further and further into the realities of Judaism, is among the worshippers. He tries to get her to leave, but cannot: her identification with the Jewish faith is to strong, she is too committed to this new way she is discovering to be willing to leave it just because Danny orders her to do so.

And I believe that Danny's heart is revealed in the action he subsequently takes. He could have gone ahead with the original plan and let them all die with him, his girlfriend included: why spare her, now that she has clearly given herself over to this hated religion, just another Jew? But instead he chooses to reveal his intention: he clears the synagogue and enters into his final moments at the altar alone.

This act of compassion is, essentially, unlike anything we've seen in Danny before. Or is it? Certainly he shows a conflicted, inexplicable reverence to the Torah scrolls when he leads the skinheads into the synagogue – but that may be as much a sort of supersitious fear of the Lord as it is true reverence (though we are pointed away from that reading by the juxtaposition of the "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" comment spouted by an ignorant skinhead). Against his wishes, he complies when his sister asks him to sit with their dying father and eat some noodles. He doesn't shoot the Jewish financier, though he has him in the cross-hairs of the sniper's rifle – an ambiguous moment to be sure, since he is not a good shot, as he protests to his fellow skinhead, but certainly the possibility is there that Danny cannot bring himself to kill this man.

This choice is of a higher order, a deeper testing of his soul. This is a flesh and blood person, and indeed one whom he knows and, as it turns out, loves. Ironically, or perhaps tellingly, she is his own Torah student, the one he has tutored in the ways of Judaism. And he simply cannot see her killed. He chooses to spare the innocent victim, even though his intention had apparently been a bloodbath.

Ultimately, Danny chooses the same way that Jehovah chose on Mount Moriah. Having the means of death at hand, he compassionately spares his innocent victims. And perhaps he also, then, takes on the role of the fourth character in the Genesis story – in a sense, he then offers himself up as the ram.

In Christian understanding, the ram is a figure of Christ, dying in Isaac's place. Danny is not a Christ figure here – indeed, this is not a Christian perspective on the Moriah story. There is no propitiatory or substitutionary value to his death – it was not needed, he could have walked out of the synagogue with the other worshippers. But it is a sacrificial death, and somehow seems right. It's not just that is Danny saturated in sin, and a good death seems somehow an act of repentance if not self-atonement. More, there is the sense that this is the ultimate act of a man of action: an intentional choice to place himself in the hands of Jehovah, an act of trust as much as an act of confrontation. An act of surrender.


Available at Videomatica


THE CELEBRATION ("FESTEN," 1998, Denmark, Thomas Vinterberg, with Mogens Rukov)
"At the feast of fools humour can sometimes be cruel
but under certain conditions you have to forget the rules."
Bruce Cockburn

Jesus' gospel is mostly about forgiveness, reconciliation, the common sense recognition that there ain't nobobody perfect, and our relationship with God has nothing to do with the impossibility of us "measuring up." God loves us, loves who we are, died to make peace with the parts of who we are that He cannot love. Free gift. Grace.

Which is all very reassuring. And not surprisingly, that's the Bible neighbourhood where I like to spend most of my time. Hanging out with my buddy, Jesus.

Except now and then I happen to wander down one of the darker alleys of the New Testament, find myself on the wrong side of town. Justice, the bad news side of the good news. Where Jesus is less chipper. Where the guy who came to rescue sinners dons the black robes and takes his seat at the right hand of God, "from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead." At which time I'll be glad it's Him holding the gavel. But I'm betting gladness won't be the predominant emotion. "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the rooftops."

Like his countryman Lars von Trier, Tomas Vinterberg looks around him and sees the wicked prosper, and finds himself compelled to don the robes of Amos, or Jeremiah, or Jesus on a bad day. One night the two melancholy Danes sat down and drew up a manifesto that stripped away all the machineries that had begun to interfere with the essence of film-making, a rigorous cinematic Reformation that would free them from the distracting clutter of massive crews and bloated budgets and return them to the fundamentals of their art: director, camera, actors, story. Hand held camera, no artificial light, no soundtrack music or post-production sound effects.

That reformers' passion informs not only the style but also the substance of the first film made under the "Dogme 95" manifesto. FESTEN strips away not only commercial movie-making niceties but social pretension in its story of a family gathering among privileged hoteliers and restauranteurs. The clan comes together to feast in celebration of the sixtieth birthday of their patriarch, and does a serviceable job of being pleasant about the recent funeral of the man's daughter. And thus do the funeral baked meats coldly furnish forth the birthday table.

Relationships among the three surviving siblings are disquieting; unremarked cruelties alternate with inappropriate sexuality. Something is indeed rotten, but of course, this is not the occasion to dwell on such things – (nor has it been for three or four decades, but never mind) – we're here to party! The story's juxtapositions are so stark the whole thing plays out as dark, uneasy comedy, even farce. The celebrations proceed, griefs and conflicts are masked, until...

Christian, twin brother of the young woman whose funeral was so recently celebrated, stands at the banquet table and offers a toast. A "home truth" speech. There's that all-too-recognizeable general laughter at childhood reminiscences and revelations which aren't particularly funny, but the crowd laughs because they're meant to and they want it all to work. Until he comes to the part of the story that simply isn't funny, and the laughter stops. "Then he'd put us across the green couch that's been thrown out now and raped us. Abused us sexually. Had sex with his little ones. What a guy!"

The tone continues to veer between horror and farce, and we are as disoriented as the dinner guests, alternating between disbelief and dreadful conviction. Anyone who has spoken an unacceptable truth and weathered the absurd consequences, or been unexpectedly confronted with absurd accusations which may well be nothing but the product of some inexplicable mental disease, will find this film both unerringly and agonizingly truthful. Justice is either bad news or good: depends which side of it you're on.

The time will come when Jesus' warnings, and the iconoclasm of the Danes, and the prophetic words of Bruce Cockburn will all be fulfilled; "It's time for the silent criers to he beld in love. It's time for the ones who dig graves for them to get that final shove."

Oh Lord, have mercy on us all.


Available at Videomatica

Mike Hertenstein's terrific survey of the Dogme movement can be found at the Flickerings Festival website.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


THE BIG KAHUNA (1999, USA, John Swanbeck, Roger Rueff screenplay)
We talked about Christ.
About Christ! Did you mention what line of industrial lubricant Jesus uses?

This movie is a kick. It’s all talk, but what talk – brash, ballsy, smart, and very very funny.

Phil and Bob swap jibes in the easy, prickly way of small-time corporate road warriors who’ve traveled together for years: they’re salesmen, hawking industrial lubricants. Bob’s a new kid from the tech side, idealistic, loyal to a fault, naïve, and – here’s where it gets interesting – a born again Christian.

The Wichita trip is for one purpose only: to wangle a sit-down with manufacturing magnate Dick Fuller, in hopes of landing a big fat contract. By night’s end, all’s said and nothing’s done: they’ve come up empty handed. Only it turns out young Bob’s just spent hours in a heart-to-heart with the big kahuna himself, and didn’t sell him any product – though he may have interested Mr Fuller in Jesus.

I love this movie, but it makes me mad. I don’t trust it. It asks all the right questions – about character and honesty and friendship, about allegiances to work and to God – only it fudges the answers. Phil carries the day when he attacks young Bob for talking religion with Fuller: “If you want to deal with somebody honestly – as a human being – ask him how his kids are. The minute you lay your hands on the conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation, it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being, you’re a marketing rep, I don’t care for who.”

We’re so ready to judge anyone who’s got the audacity to broach the One Forbidden Subject, we accept Phil’s criticism without reminding ourselves that what Bob actually did was listen to Dick Fuller talk about what was on his mind, the death of the family dog. He didn’t treat him like a target, he treated him like a person: no wonder he opens up to Bob. We overlook the fact that it’s Phil and Larry who want to cozy up to the man for only one reason: to steer things around to commerce. That Bob’s the one who’s unwilling to betray the man’s trust by manipulating the conversation. And he’s not human? They’re the ones with character? The film plays on the assumption that we’ll accept his easy judgment: the young idealist must be a hypocrite just because he’s religious – the assumption being that “religious hypocrite” is a redundancy. Cheap.

Still... I love this movie. You don’t have to agree with somebody to enjoy their company, and these guys are a blast. Devito’s never been better, bringing a bemused and weary wisdom to the straight man role, and Spacey thrills as he riffs and struts and makes every line bite. And then there’s that wordless ending in the lobby: I don’t know exactly what transpires, but it sure feels fine.


Available at Videomatica

the bothersome man

Nifty-looking Norwegian film opens in NYC Aug 24, expands to select American (grrr) cinemas through the fall. Distributed by FILM MOVEMENT, which has so far been a distributor for foreign films like HAWAII OSLO on DVD but is now expanding, to place some of their titles in cinemas. Lovely development, hope it flies (esp., flies north of the border!).

First big screen FM pic is a Norwegian film, THE BOTHERSOME MAN. I liked HAWAII, OSLO, another Norskie film they distributed on dvd, and COOL & CRAZY, which was not a Film Movement title, so maybe there's some sort of racial affinity there? (I was joking, but come to think of it, my response to several Danish and Finnish films has been disproportionately positive as well - I'm thinking of ADAM'S APPLES and THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST for starters. Who knew "drollery" was a genetic characteristic?)

Three-quarters Norwegian,


Drama-Comedy | Norway
5 Awards | 2 Nominations

"Delightfully droll sophomore feature by Norwegian helmer Jens Lien ("Jonny Vang")"
--Leslie Felperin, Variety

$12.95 Subscribers / $24.95 Non-Subscribers
Currently available to subscribers only
Opens August 24 Cinema Village Theater in NYC
Running Time: 95 Minutes

Forty-year-old Andreas arrives in a strange city with no memory of how he got there. He is presented with a job, an apartment - even a wife. But before long, Andreas notices that something is wrong. Andreas makes an attempt to escape the city, but he discovers there's no way out. Andreas meets Hugo, who has found a crack in a wall in his cellar. Beautiful music streams out from the crack. Maybe it leads to "the other side"? A new plan for escape is hatched


Reviews from and Chicago Tribune at the Film Movement website

the camden 28

I've been keeping an eye on this one for several months now, hoping it would show up this summer at a Vancouver arthouse. No luck so far, but good news! The DVD is at Videomatica. CT Movies review up Sep 29.

How Far Would You Go to Stop a War?

Summer, 1971. Protests against the Vietnam War are spreading across America. In Camden, New Jersey, a group of 28 non-violent activists - mostly non-violent priests and laypeople from the Catholic left - plan to break into a local draft board office and destroy records - striking a blow against the system. But a mole has infiltrated their operation and within hours of enacting their mission they are rounded up and arrested by the FBI, under the personal authority of J. Edgar Hoover.
Featuring a treasure trove of archival materials as well as interviews with members of the Camden 28, witness for the defense Howard Zinn, and a former FBI agent involved in the case, this award-winning documentary uncovers an astonishing story of political dissent - one that has special relevance in our current climate.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Attorney General John Mitchell announced the arrest and indictment of the antiwar activists and dubbed them The Camden 28. They called themselves "America's conscience". The activists claimed that their civil disobedience was meant to call attention to their belief that the killing in this war was morally indefensible. They targeted the draft for the simple fact that it was the clearest symbol of that immorality. If convicted, some of the protesters faced up to 47 years in federal prison.

The Judge informed the jury it would not be proper to decide the verdict on the issue of the war, and that "protest is not an acceptable legal defense, as sincerely motivated as I think they were." After three and a half months of trial and three days of deliberations, a jury of seven women and five men returned a verdict of not guilty on all charges against the antiwar activists. The acquittals represented the first complete legal victory for the antiwar movement in five years of such draft board actions.
THE CAMDEN 28, part of the HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH SELECTS DVD SERIES, will be available on DVD beginning September 18, 2007.

Anthony Giacchino has been working as a producer in television and documentary filmmaking since 1994. THE CAMDEN 28 is the first feature-length documentary he has directed.

BONUS MATERIALS INCLUDE: Multiple Interviews * Bonus Archival Footage * The Camden 28 Reunion * Human Rights Watch Film Notes * Essay from Howard Zinn * Filmmaker Biography & More!
{Jury Prize and Audience Award for Best Documentary, Philadelphia Film Festival 2006}
"A brilliant merger of political outrage and filmmaking. Concise and inventive!"
"Devastating emotional powerŠone riveting, poignant twist after another!"
"FascinatingŠan inspiration!" - VILLAGE VOICE
"Inspiring and, after all these years, relevant." - NEW YORK POST
"Stirring, surprising, full of twists and turns, betrayals and redemption. If protest seems futile, The Camden 28 shows how it can be done." - SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY
"Gripping and surprisingly timely. A reminder that peace is every bit as patriotic as war."
"First-Class! A riveting documentary." - SPIRITUALITY & PRACTICE MAGAZINE

83 minutes, color & b/w, 2007, English

Wednesday, August 15, 2007


BABETTE’S FEAST (“Babettes gæstebud” 1987, Denmark, Gabriel Axel, from the Isak Dinesen story)
There comes a time when our eyes are opened. And we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss...

My entry into this soul food feast was not an auspicious one. Let it serve as both warning and encouragement.

I first saw BABETTE’S FEAST at my favorite revival house – a theatre, not a church – which happens to have bowling lanes in the basement. Now, I’d spent a hundred evenings at The Ridge, but never before had I heard those balls rumble or pins clatter. Until BABETTE’S FEAST, a film so quiet I imagined I could hear the scratch of bowlers’ pencils on their scoresheets below. A film so measured I thought I’d almost rather be bowling.

Until the feast arrived. At which point I lost track of the bowlers below, my sour attitude dissolving imperceptibly as I was caught up in textures, colors, shapes, smells, tastes – the latter entirely imagined, I’m afraid, though scarcely less delectable. Apparently the astringent opening hour cleansed my palate for the delicacies to come, and by the time the unclenching Danes slipped out into the frozen streets after the last of their surprising supper, joined hands and raised their eyes and voices to heaven, truly, eternity was nigh.

All that to say: if this one starts slow, stick with it. I think I came to this particular feast on the wrong day – I mean heck, I don’t even have a problem with Bresson on a good day – but even now I take a certain perverse pleasure in the way my journey through the film paralleled those of Martina and Philippa and their reluctant dinner guests.

The story is simple – the kind of essential simplicity that leaves room for the most subtle and complex flavors. Two beautiful sisters grow up in rocky and remote Jutland, part of a sect founded by their father whose rigorous pietism forswears pleasures of the flesh and rebuffs potential suitors. Whatever fires of revival once burned in the pioneers of this rigorous faith burn very low indeed with the passing of years and the death of their founder, and the surviving faithful are as distant and cold toward one another as their God would seem to be to them.

One wintry day a destitute woman arrives from Paris, fleeing the Revolution which has claimed the lives of her husband and children. She bears a letter: “Babette can cook.” The sisters overcome their aversion to Papists and teach her to prepare the bread and gruel they serve to the community’s poor.

Years pass, and as the hundredth anniversary of the patriarch’s birth approaches, the humble cook receives word from France that she has won 10,000 francs in the national lottery. Babette contemplates returning home – home is a recurring theme in this film about people in exile of one sort or another – but, clutching the crucifix she wears around her neck, she begs to be permitted the preparation of one last supper as a gift for the community. “Hear my prayer today. It comes from my heart.”

I have always been baffled by the way Babette’s diverse viewers see radically different feasts. Christian film lovers, who are sure to list this as one of their essential films, marvel at what they see as a celebration of community and of generous sacrifice, the sacramental quality of the things we create in God’s image, shaped from the stuff of his good creation into something transcendent, healing, life-giving. Everybody else seems to see the triumph of the aesthetic over asceticism, of sensuality over religion: in “The Hidden God” anthology, MoMA curator Mary Lea Bandy identifies Babette herself, the artist, as the god of this story, her genius and generosity hidden away in the kitchen. “The smugly virtuous, domineering, resolutely joyless dean is honored precisely by being forgotten in the fog engendered by the opposite approach to life: indulgence replaces rigidity, acceptance overcomes denial, love surmounts righteousness, and art triumphs over sermonizing.” (Maybe there are two versions of the movie in circulation?)

After pondering this for a couple decades, I came to Roy Anker’s “Catching Light” and his wonderfully detailed close reading of the film with real appreciation. He calls BABETTE’S FEAST “a seemingly simple fable about the ancient conflict between flesh and spirit” and describes (and reconciles) the same divergence of interpretations that have puzzled me all along: “Aesthetes argue for the power of art, and religionists for the power of communion. And both are right – mostly.” He calls the film “a luminous plea for the inescapable interdependence of these supposed antagonists of body and soul, art and religion. In short, they need each other – body and soul, art and belief – to make real their own deepest purposes.”

The rigorous Protestants of Jutland may judge Babette an unbeliever, and secular audiences most definitely – eager as they are to remake the film’s heroing in their own image. But what of her very un-Lutheran crucifix? Does it suggest something of the reason she fled the bloody – and anti-Catholic – French Revolution?

Babette offers up her feast like rare perfume poured out on the tired and holy feet of her fellow travelers. To miss the fact that this offering is an expression of both her art and her faith is to miss something of the essence of the film – a conjunction that Anker roots in the story’s pivotal dramatic moment. “All of this follows on her fingering of the crucifix she wears as she makes her initial request to prepare the meal for the commemoration of the minister’s centenary. That wordless gesture clarifies context and intention, and then it ramifies through everything that follows, giving those events a meaning that resolves the false conflict between art, the domain of the senses, and Christianity, the supposed conduit to a fleshless spiritual world beyond.” The meal she so painstakingly prepares is something of a wedding banquet, a celebration of the marriage of religion’s righteousness and the bliss of creation.

Faith that separates itself from the flesh runs the risk of becoming something not fully Christian. While history provides examples of saints who walk the via negativa to sanctity, ours is a fundamentally physical religion: Christ took on flesh, after all, became a man, healed our bodies, sat down to eat with us. When the founder of this world-denying sect decreed “that the earth and all that it held was but a kind of illusion,” he was asking for trouble. Trouble it took a good Catholic cook to undo.

A heavenly-minded, unfleshed religion will not sustain life – it needs the revelations of the senses to awaken famished souls. But neither is the fullness of life simply a matter of indulging the appetites – flesh without faith brings another sort of death. Feasts like Babette’s were commonplace in the Paris she fled: “General Galliffet broadly announced his devotion to Paris’s greatest chef: tragically, this same culinary devotee killed Babette’s husband and son and was in hot pursuit of Babette herself when she fled to the shores of Jutland. So much for the redemptive potential of art.” (Acker) The opera singer Papin may been rebuffed by the art-wary people of Jutland, but when the acclaim of Paris’s artistic cognoscenti finally soured, the spiritual stirrings he’d experienced in the harsher northern atmosphere beckon. The prodigal returns to find himself the celebrated guest at an unexpected feast, a homecoming of sorts.

And as the wary, weary Lutherans sit down together to eat and drink, the camera lingers on faces as they begin to thaw. Hearts slowly open, delicacies are consumed, famished souls are fed, old wounds are healed, and it’s all a great dream of some great heavenly feast to come. At some point it seems the spirit of Christ himself slips in a side door and pulls up a chair at the table – the Unseen Guest, helping Himself to a heaping helping of Cailles en Sarcophage and chuckling as He raises His cup of amontillado in a silent toast: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink of this cup, Remember me! Pass the tortoise soup?”


Available at Videomatica


BAD LIEUTENANT (1992, USA, Abel Ferrara, screenplay with Zoe Lund, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon)
Jesus said seventy times seven. A gift that makes sense ain't worth it.

The foulest movie in the book. Of all the films I’ve seen (and may well never see again), the ultimate example of how bright the slightest sliver of light can shine if the darkness is dark enough.

A nun is raped, her inner city church desecrated, and the camera never looks away. The baddest of bad cops pulls over two out-of-town teens and intimidates the driver into simulating oral sex while he masturbates beside their car. Is there any reason to see this kind of stuff?

Harvey Keitel: "I wanted to play this part because I have a deep desire to know God. Knowing God isn't just a matter of going to confession and praying. We also know God by confronting evil, and this character gave me the opportunity to descend into the most painful part of myself and learn about the dark places."

The performance is stunning, raw, naked, shameful, unashamed. Keitel’s presence in the film invokes Scorsese, though even his Catholic anguish never took us down streets so mean. This vice-ridden vice cop is beyond corrupt, he’s debauched, snorting coke off pictures of his kids’ first communion pictures. Obscenely in hawk to the bookies, he ingests every substance he can coerce from the dealers, keeping the suicidal spin going so he won’t risk connecting – with consequence, with humanity, with what’s left of himself and his conscience. “The Lieutenant is raging against God and, at the same time, administering to himself a cruel punishment for his own transgressions. A rogue, self-flagellating saint drawing himself closer to God through willful defiance – a tormented, bedeviled man engaged in unholy communion.” (Hal Hinson, Washington Post)

Until he visits that nun, who won’t name but will only forgive her abusers, and who’s more concerned with the cop’s condition than her own. “Talk to Jesus” she tells him, and in that desecrated church somewhere in Spanish Harlem, he does – raging, pleading, howling, crawling. It could be a hallucination, it could be a vision, it could be quite literally real: the drugged out, freaked out lieutenant can’t distinguish, and neither can we. Nor do any of us need to: all that’s needed is to respond.

I’m a Canadian kid, raised in the safety of the suburbs, happy middle-class family, nice life. Still, something in me knows, there but for the grace of God – or the luck of the draw – go I. Given different circumstances, the right timing, the wrong drugs, that could be me up there. I'm certain that we can be, at times, this lost, this depraved, and what is art for if not to take us to those places now and then? And what is our faith worth if it can't break in, even to those kinds of strongholds of spiritual darkness?

If there is grace or redemption in this film, it's confused and confusing, but isn't that exactly the way it would come to a man so addled, so fouled? I think of this film and I think of Bruce Cockburn's line, "Even though I know who loves me I'm not that much less lost..."

If you see this film, don’t say I told you to. But if you think you might be up to it, see this film.


Available at Videomatica


THE APOSTLE (1997, USA, Robert Duvall)
I’m goin’ to jail, and you’re goin’ to heaven.

The one fallen evangelist movie evangelicals don’t hate. Not that Sonny’s flaws are white-washed – though they may be washed in the blood, which is what really matters. He’s plenty fallen, not only before his riverside rededication (he initiates the dramatic action by taking a baseball bat to the youth pastor, right in front of the church ball team) but after. Even once he’s washed his sins away and taken a new name – “The Apostle E.F.” – he’s still got an eye for the women, a tendency to not-entirely-righteous anger, a preacher-sized ego and, the worst sin of all, a tacky sense of personal taste. (But Lord, can that man preach! One of the great pleasures of this film is the language – it lights up whenever Sonny is on fire. “I may be on the devil’s hit-list, but I’m on God’s mailing list!” He’s a “genuine, Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preachin’ machine.”)

This is no Elmer Gantry caricature: Sonny’s a real mess, but at least he’s real. And he’s trying. He’s a lot like us.

Robert Duvall paid for the film out of his own pocket, and that conviction plays out both in front of the camera and behind it: it’s one of the great performances of one of film’s greatest actors, and one of the strongest directorial debuts you’ll be blessed to see. The filmmaker’s fervency is perfectly matched to his subject. Like his on-screen altar ego, Duvall was on a mission, maybe from God: he wanted to give credence to a people Hollywood had no understanding of or time for.

Not that he dresses up fundamentalism to make a good impression on the faithless: this is plain spun old school Pentecostalism, with all the hellfire and brimstone, stomping and shouting you can stand. But when Sonny, on the lam from that murder rap, sets up shop in a neglected church in an out of the way Louisiana town, his ministry is just as old school as his preaching. He rolls up his sleeves and just plain sets in to work; building, praying, preaching on the radio (“And no speaking in tongues on the air!”), inspiring. It’s called revival, and the truest thing of all in this true-to-life portrait of a bigger-than-life sinner is that it’s Sonny who gets revived most of all. Give and it shall be given unto you, for with the same measure that ye mete withal it shall be measured to you again.

You can count on that. It’s Gospel.