Tuesday, June 30, 2009


WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND (1961, UK, Bryan Forbes)
He's not your private property. Everyone can see him if they want.

This Hayley Mills vehicle – adapted from a novel her mum wrote – has a much darker tone than you might expect. When three Lancashire children decide the man in their barn is Jesus, they form a secret society to keep the truth from the grown-ups, "Cause if you don't, they'll come and take him away again like last time." And no wonder: their surly father and overbearing aunt are as hard as the land they farm. Filmed in black and white, it's all dreary hills and rock quarries under oppressive grey skies.

These children lead a secret life, ducking out of view of the adult world that carries on around them, mostly oblivous. Left to their own devices, they hammer things out in a curious blend of childhood innocence and pragmatic bloody-mindedness. Clearly, Jesus needs food: if that means stealing some bread and wine for him, so be it. " Do you think it's wicked?" "No. How can it be when we're doing it for him?"

Out of the mouths of babes. One immediately thinks of the evils and compromise that have been justified with the same easy logic – while also being reminded of the words of Christ, "Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me."

Alan Barnes, who had never seen a script before, plays the tough-minded little brother who pretty much steals the movie out from under Miss Mills and even the haunted, hunted performance of Alan Bates as "The Man." He's the tough, clear-sighted boy who'll prove, sadly and inevitably, father to the stony Lancashireman he'll inevitably become. Or maybe there's more spirit in him than that. Certainly his sheer spunk brings endless, sharp comedy to the film. He shushes a chattering gaggle of village children on their way to the stable: "Do you want to see Jesus or don't you? Well, shut up then." He disarms his younger sister's qualms that "Jesus wore a long dress" with the simple observation that "That was in them days."

I'm not sure the climax of the film works all that well – though a comparison to WITNESS is interesting. But the world of the film is unique, and for all its simplicity it grows richer on repeat viewings. Perhaps the film escapes the expected coyness because we are constantly aware that the man in the barn is not Jesus – he may even be an escaped criminal – and the convolutions the children indulge to sustain belief take the piss out of adult "true believers." At the same time their simple loving concern for this man has an undeniable sacredness about it. There's a thin line between serving Jesus and visiting a criminal, whether in a stable or in a prison.

VHS only available at Videomatica


O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000, US, Joel & Ethan Coen)
“Well that's it boys, I been redeemed! The preacher done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight-and-narrow from here on out and heaven everlasting's my reward!”
“Delmar, what are you talking about? We got bigger fish to fry...”

The jokiness of the Coen brothers' southern-fried Odyssey means it's unlikely to touch the deep places of the human heart, but hey – so what? It's a lot of fun. The unexpected thing is that this shaggy dog yarn unravels in a cartoony world that's also surprisingly moral, taking seriously things like salvation and prayer.

Not that "serious" is a word we really should apply to anything here: Joel and Ethan are in their most playful mood this time out, gleefully juggling Deep South and Depression era mythologies with twinkle-in-the-eye movie references (like a Ku Klux Klan ceremony choreographed like the Yellow Winkies in THE WIZARD OF OZ!), glorious old time music and campy riffs on Greek mythology. The Coens admit no more than a Classics Illustrated acquaintance with Homer, but the tie-ins are daffy and delicious: we've got one-eyed Bible salesmen, beguiling sirens, fellow travelers turned into animals and a gospel-singing blind Teiresias. Ulysses' Greek name, Odysseus, translates to "man of pain and sorrow," and when George Clooney's stooge-like trio of chain gang escapees cut a record under the alias Jordan Rivers & The Soggy Bottom Boys, it's the traditional "Man Of Constant Sorrow" that becomes their theme song.

On first viewing, this film felt slight to me: the glorious soundtrack, featuring roots-gospel luminaries like The Fairfield Four, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, promised a spiritual potency that the silliness of the rest of the film didn't come close to fulfilling. Sure Delmar and Pete got baptized and saved, but the absurd suddenness of those conversions and their "dumber'n a bag of hammers" characterizations seemed to shrink the significance of those events, rendering them nothing more than the occasion for plenty of good-ol'-boys-get-religion gags.

Seeing the film a second time, that whole perception turned on its head. Sure this is a looney-tunes world, but if Pete and Delmar are hilariously naive and mostly just plain dumb, they're also just plain right more often than not, particularly when they put their trust in God or give credence to the words of the flatcar prophet. The most truly foolish of this gathering of likeable fools is Ulysses Everett himself, whose deliciously overblown rhetoric glibly explains away the Inexplicable and denies events that are, within the world of the story, undeniably miraculous – answered prayer, deliverance from death and prophecies fulfilled, even unto a cow on the roof of a cottonhouse "and oh so many startlements!" And inevitably, Everett's rational evasions just lead ever more impossible tasks on the road to his promised salvation.

If Everett is the kind of fool whose false wisdom is mocked in the biblical Book of Proverbs, his redeemed side-kicks point the way to another kind of foolery that's praised in Saint Paul's first letter to the Corinthians;
"Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Were is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, but God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things, so that no one may boast."

Like a piece of rock candy or some horehound twist tucked away under your tongue, this childishly sweet and mischievous story yields up its greatest pleasure gradually, over time. Where I once found its comedy superficial and its performances over-the-top, I now glory in the film's wise foolishness and serious fun, returning to favourite scenes over and over again. And when, out here in the less-wacky "real world," I listen to the pundits and professors of Nothingbutness summon up all manner of verbose and fancy justifications for their proposed world without wonder, I can't help but think of the obtuse and self-serving obfuscations of George Clooney's brilliantly-rendered Ulysses Everett McGill, and I find myself grinning.


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

LES MISERABLES (1998, UK/Germany/USA, August)

LES MISERABLES (1998, UK/Germany/USA, Bille August)
You no longer belong to evil. With this silver I've bought your soul. I've ransomed you from fear and hatred. And now I give you back to God.

Forgiveness and transformation are at the heart of Christian faith, and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables is one of the most deeply Christian stories ever told. The inspector Javert personifies the law, relentlessly pursuing what he considers truth and justice, exaggerating offenses – even his own – and demanding payment. And he does not believe in the human capacity to change: "Reform is a discredited fantasy. Modern science tells us that people are by nature lawbreakers or law abiders. A wolf can wear sheep's clothing but he's still a wolf."

Jean Valjean, on the other hand, is a thief "who has been forgiven much" and, like a character from the Gospels, learns to love much. Early in the film the bishop provides him a meal and a bed to sleep in, and the convict remarks that "In the morning, I'll be a new man." Truly, the rest of his life will be spent testing that possibility.

Hugo's plot is a brilliant construction, an endlessly inventive series of variations on these themes of justice and mercy (one thinks of Portia's speech in "The Merchant Of Venice), of fundamental human nature and divine renewal (one thinks of II Corinthians 5). Danish director Bille August's star-studded treatment of this vast novel is a favourite of many, focusing on the story of these two characters. He is a director capable of great understatement and tenderness – Twist & Shout and Pelle The Conqueror are moving and evocative stories of childhood and coming of age – and one of the fascinations of this Les Mis is the tension between his directorial subtlety and the melodrama of the Rafael Yglesias screenplay. The dialogue in particular is often "on the nose," potentially off-putting for a sophisticated viewer: it spells things out for us with all the bluntness of a fable or an allegory.

But there is something deeply right here. The very directness of the story and its telling feels almost like scripture, one of Jesus' parables perhaps. "A certain man, a thief, was brought before a Bishop from whom he had stolen precious silverware. But the Bishop, being a merciful man...."

This story is melodrama: the focus is on plot, the events are writ large, the stakes always life and death. Sometimes the machineries of narrative clank a bit. (It may even be that the adaptor made an intentional choice to embrace and even heighten these genre conventions: like the director, this writer is capable of much more subtle writing, as evidenced in his script for Peter Weir's Fearless.) Perhaps for a sympathetic viewer, such conventions signal deep truths, eternal verities: what can seem on first viewing over-stated and obvious may have the capacity to stick in the mind and, with familiarity, prove profoundly True.

For me, the film is at its best in the first half, where the focus is entirely on Javert and Valjean. It loses some of its power once the story moves to Paris: the clash between the two men is backgrounded, and the adolescent love story doesn't have the same capacity to move me. At this point the revolution should inflame my passions – their cry for justice would be a glorious variation on the story's central themes – but the filmmaker doesn't spend enough time on the social context in Paris or on Marius's story for this new story to truly catch fire. We don't get to feel the passion of the revolution, the justice of their cause. Political backgrounds are summed up in an explanatory sentence when needed: we absorb the information, but we are not moved. If only the filmmakers had been willing to make a longer film, to show rather than tell some of these things, it could have been a much more potent realization of Victor Hugo's masterpiece of mercy and redemption.

The best reflection of the social passion of the novel comes earlier, in the trial of Carnot, an addled simple man who struggles to describe himself: "I'm a man who... what's the word for it? I'm one of those people who doesn't eat every day. I'm... I'm hungry, that's the word."

Ultimately, the power of this film probably lies not so much in what the filmmakers have done or failed to do with the story, as in the story itself, the underlying myth. C.S. Lewis writes of "the art of myth-making," where the pattern of events retains all of its power independent of the means of its telling: "it produces works which give us (at the first meeting) as much delight and (on prolonged acquaintance) as much wisdom and strength as the works of the greatest poets."

Whatever its successes and its failings – and indeed, it has both – this rendering of Hugo's mythic story has immense power to move, and perhaps even to transform. As a Christian, I find the essence of Valjean's central story to be my own. I recognize this man who has been bought with a price and then set free: a new creation who may never escape the reality – and the consequences – of his own human failings.



In the history of the world, only two or three stories keep recurring forever. This story is one of them, and it has every alibi.

Critics are radically divided in their response to Claude LeLouche's deeply personal reworking of Victor Hugo's classic. Some are with Damian Cannon, who finds it "A wonderful and impressive film," intricately structured and deeply resonant, while Rita Kempley calls it "a turgid three-hour epic," "miserable," an "earnest extravaganza."

This story, set a century and a half after the novel, is equally ambitious in scope, opening with the swirl of a grand ball on the eve of the 20th century and following its characters through "the most miserable of times," World War Two in occupied France. Everywhere are echoes of the original story: a man is unjustly imprisoned, a desperate women sells not only her hair but her body, helpless people must rely on greedy opportunists, while underground idealists fight against overwhelmingly powerful government oppression. Eventually the story comes to focus on a certain character's "painful rebirth," which begins when people begin referring to him as Jean Valjean: illiterate, he relies on others to read or tell him this story which he once saw in a silent movie, projected on a bedsheet in a seaside inn, and around which he now begins consciously to shape his life.

The film careens wildly between stunningly beautiful visual moments and sophisticated narrative subtleties and complexities on the one hand, and overly self-conscious parallelism to Hugo's story on the other. Hand in hand with that tendency to overstatement are episodes that are criticized for being overly romantic, melodramatic, even maudlin, and a thematic explicitness that can diminish the impact of events. But it may be that this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the original – if Hugo is a myth-maker, he is also a moralist, and Lelouche seems to embrace it all whole-heartedly. At one point a character comments that the novel's final section is "a bit over the top – like us in the Resistance!" Perhaps the actions of real people caught up in cataclysmic events take on a certain melodramatic quality, viewed at a safe distance.

Those who are severely critical of the film neglect to mention its many extraordinary details, such as images of the convent girls running downstairs in white night gowns, or practising "It's A Long Way To Tipperary" on a seemingly endless row of pianos. (Note the way the sound is handled when we return to this same scene later). And while the morality of the movie is sometimes black-and-white obvious, it is also subtly nuanced in other places: the film is masterful in creating for the viewer an understanding of the extraordinary ethical dilemmas, the compromises and collaborations that tore at French citizens under the Vichy regime. Notice how LeLouche approaches the difficult question of discerning God's hand in times of great evil: the filmmaker comes at it through a complex layering of dramatic ironies in the scene in the Normandy pub, where the son of the original innkeeper argues "Thenardier is an angel! He's sent by the Lord. I'm not saying he isn't a scumbag. I'm saying he's sent by God." The film's detractors overlook the fact that several of the parallel storylines actually evolve into fascinating inversions of the comparable characters or events in the original, lending the film a constant unpredictability.

Still, no one who writes about this film overlooks the extraordinary work of French screen icon Jean-Paul Belmondo: you need look no further than the extended opening scene to see the power in a face, the depth of this man's connection to a role. Particularly glorious are some of his sequences with the director's daughter, the wonderful Salome Lalouche. She plays a Jewish girl (in another flourish of inter-textuality, the character is also named Salome) who is torn from her parents through the harsh circumstances of war. When she is with Belmondo, watch those two faces, the one so beautiful and young, the other so leathered and worn.

While this film stands on its own, you'll really appreciate its richness if you're familiar with the original story, whether by acquaintance with the musical, reading the novel or viewing one of the many film adaptations. Les Miserables provides a central myth for many Christians, and when this French director interweaves it with the central events of the twentieth century, the story of the Jews under Nazi oppression, the result – however uneven – is an intricate, important film experience.


Monday, June 08, 2009

June 12-15: Touched By Tibet

Graham Peat, owner of Soul Food's beloved Videomatica, sends us this...

Dear friends;

I invite you to attend the 2nd Touched by Tibet film series, which runs Friday June 12 to Monday June 15 at the VIFC/Vancity Theatre (the most comfortable and modern theatre in town).
The very best new films or Tibet and Buddhism are featured this year and we offer talks by guest musicians, speakers and film directors at many performances. The large lobby will have Tibet-related and human rights groups displays and sales.
More event information and ticket details here

Tashi delek!
Graham Peat
Touched by Tibet 2 www.vifc.org
presented by Canada Tibet Committee Vancouver & VIFC Vancity Theatre

June 12 - 15

The Vancity Theatre’s second Touched by Tibet series is programmed by, and co-presented with, the Canada Tibet Committee, an independent organization of Tibetans and non-Tibetan Canadians concerned with the continuing human rights violations and lack of democratic freedom in Tibet.

Touched By Tibet screenings will include guest speakers,lobby displays by Tibet-related groups, appearances by some of the filmmakers, and a performance by the Vancouver Tibetan Music Ensemble (June 12). Friday June 12, 8:15 Reincarnation/Thread of Karma will have comments and Q&A with Prof. Jeffrey Hopkins. Saturday June 13, 8:00 Meltdown In Tibet- Q&A with director Michael Buckley, and 6:30 Tulku will be followed by a live Q&A via Skype with director Gesar Mukpo.


Call the FILM INFO LINE: 604.683.FILM (3456) for the latest info and listings. Tickets can be purchased in advance on-line at www.vifc.org or in person 30 minutes before showtime.

Vancity Theatre is located at 1181 Seymour St. (at Davie)

Friday, June 05, 2009


"If you arrived late for TERMINATOR: SALVATION and missed the name of the director, at what moment would you realize you were not watching a Mike Leigh film? I would nominate the scene in which a rusty tow truck, armed with a wrecking ball, is pursued by a riderless robot motorbike, armed with automatic machine guns . . . The business of the film is not to tell a cogent story or earn the devotion of our sympathies but to analyze alternatives and, when in doubt, pick whichever is loudest . . . Take John Connor, played by Christian Bale as a scar-nicked warrior, consumed by a messianic belief that he can save the world by shouting. After the opening battle, he answers his radio with yelps of "Here!" and "Connor!" as though introducing himself to a befuddled and very deaf grandmother . . . When, and on what possible ground, did someone decide that the Terminator franchise should be no fun to watch? It's surely not a good sign when time travel gives you a sense of deja vu. . . . The title is unfortunate, giving the impression—which is more than borne out by the film—that something must be done to save the franchise . . . With a brief cameo by a C.G.I. version of Arnold Schwarzenegger; or maybe this is him, and the virtual one is governing California."

Anthony Lane, The New Yorker, June 1 and June 8, 2009

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

FIELD OF DREAMS (USA, 1989, Robinson)

FIELD OF DREAMS (USA, 1989, Phil Alden Robinson, W.P. Kinsella novel)
Is this heaven?
It’s Iowa.
I coulda sworn it was heaven.

Late in my work-weary third decade, God sent a book that rekindled a vital spark that hadn't fired me up since my childhood. It would be going too far (a lot too far) to say He drew me back to my first love, but it was at least a childhood crush that got stirred up again, and it kindles my heart in a way that has sustained me through some very tough years.

I didn't find this inspirational classic in a religious bookstore. Even though it's done as much for my spirit and my soul as a shelf full of devotional literature, it wasn't recommended by my pastor, or even a therapist. My muse was a scratchy voiced radio announcer, who very clearly said to me – well, to me and however many other hundreds of thousands of CBC listeners had tuned in that afternoon – "If you read it, your life will be changed." (Well, not in so many words. But I know what I heard!)

I went straight to the used bookstore and got myself a copy of a book that began;
My father said he saw him years later playing in a tenth-rate commercial league in a textile town in Carolina, wearing shoes and an assumed name.
He'd put on fifty pounds and the spring was gone from his step in the outfield, but he could still hit. Oh, how that man could hit. No one has ever been able to hit like Shoeless Joe."
And I was hooked. I read Shoeless Joe three times through before I started devouring everything else W.P. Kinsella had written; The Thrill of the Grass, The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, and lots more as they issued forth from the pen of this prolific baseball prophet.

I'll be honest here: Kinsella would be appalled to be considered the mouthpiece of God. I don’t think he even likes Christians that much (apart from his red-headed wife Anne, with whom he is smitten, and who, interestingly enough, happens to be a devout Christian. Go figure....) and that dislike comes through in his books. But he understands calling, loves life and the "Behold it is good!" glory of the created world, and the way these simple earthly joys are caught up in spiritual mysteries as close to hand as a cornfield or a ballpark. If God can speak through donkeys, if rocks and stones can praise Him and the trees of the field can give Him a standing "O," surely we can hear from Him through a baseball writer, or find heaven in a blade of outfield grass.

When the film version came out, I was astonished. Even though they changed the title (yet another attempt to strike Shoeless Joe from the history books, I couldn’t help thinking) and plenty of other stuff, it worked. An amazing book became an amazing movie, using film language to do what written words did a different way. We lost the narrator's voice, so droll and beguiling and expressive, but we gained that amazing final shot, and lots of other gorgeous, evocative images. They moved things around, had to cut other things – but what we lost in J.D. Salinger, we gained in the amazing James Earl Jones. And the heart of the thing, the thrill of the grass and what it feels like to be called to fulfill an impossible, impractical, maybe-divinely-inspired dream, was all still there. I'm only one of many who watch this movie through tears (see, there is crying in baseball!).

It's a film about the price we pay for obedience – and the higher price we pay for its opposite. About the tough choices involved in discerning between enthusiasm and calling. It's about fathers and sons (what baseball movie isn't?), husbands and wives and daughters, restoration of the fallen and how it feels to get some good wood on the ball on a green field in a summer evening. And if you think this is just sentimental wish-fulfilment about playing ball instead of living life in the real world, don’t forget Moonlight Graham stepping across that white chalk line.

The story is so well known, I won't lay out the details. And anyway, if you're one of the lucky ones who can still go see it for the first time, I'm not going to be the guy who spoils even one of its wildly imaginative, deeply inspiring plot twists. Don't bother to find out more about it, don't talk to your friends, don't even read the back cover of the video – just rent it, and watch it.

Maybe all you'll get out of it is an enjoyable evening at the movies. Or maybe you'll hear another voice, whispering to you in the middle of a cornfield. I know I did. A voice that came in a weary time, giving me back not only baseball – abandoned since my childhood, a blessed release from the pressures of day-to-day responsibility – but even more, a deepened certainty that my sometimes pointless and seemingly inescapable day-to-day toil is actually a God-breathed calling. And that He can use it to ease people's pain. My own included. That what we're building here may be a field of dreams, a little corner of the kingdom of God.


Available at Videomatica