Wednesday, October 16, 2013

oct 26 29 30 | wings of desire | cinematheque

Wings Of Desire is certainly one to see on the big screen, if at all possible: and Cinemathque is making that possible, even for free if you're lucky! Also clearly one of the Soul Food masterpieces: indeed, director Wim Wenders came to faith during its filming, as he describes to filmmaker Scott Derrickson in this interview for IMAGE Journal. It also happens to be the favourite film of Jeffrey Overstreet, which is something - he's seen one or two movies. Roger Ebert also a fan - also saw lots.

Wings of Desire
West Germany/France 1987. Director: Wim Wenders

Pacific Cinematheque
Sat Oct 26 | 6:30
Tue Oct 29 | 6:30
Wed Oct 30 | 8:40

Cinematheque: "Angels perched atop the buildings of Berlin listen in to the innermost thoughts of mere mortals in Wim Wenders’s lovely, lyrical Wings of Desire, a soaring high-point of the famed German director’s cinema, and a highly moving, melancholic elegy to a Berlin still divided. Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander) are two brooding, compassionate angels who eavesdrop on the secret pains and fears of ordinary peopled going about their daily business in the city. When Damiel falls for a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he decides to renounce his immortality to return to earth as a human, hoping to attain a love that will transcend life in the heavens. The stunning cinematography — crisp black-and-white, lurid Technicolor — is by French great Henri Alekan, whose many credits include Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Inspired by the poems of Rilke, and dedicated to Ozu, Truffaut, and “other fallen angels,” Wings of Desire earned Wenders Best Director honours at Cannes in 1987. “Remarkable ... A film about the Fall and the Wall, it’s full of astonishingly hypnotic images ... Few films are so rich, so intriguing, or so ambitious” (Geoff Andrew, Time Out). B&W and colour, 35mm, in German with English subtitles. 127 mins."

To enter to win tickets to see Wings of Desire, email your contact info and preferred screening to:
Contest ends noon, Thu Oct 24. Two pairs of tickets will be given away, winners will be selected at random. Good luck!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

oct 18-23 | nostalghia | pacific cinematheque

tarkovsky + big screen = soul food
enough said

Okay, I'll say more. This Tarko isn't as explicitly about matters of faith as, say, Andrei Rublev or The Sacrifice. But a mystical Christian aesthetic informs every one of his films, and the images in this one are without parallel. Don't go eager for narrative: this is all about image. There is story there, but take my word: you'll be in the right frame of mind if you go to look at moving pictures rather than a movie: at visual poetry rather than a story onscreen. But if you're up for that... 

Italy/USSR 1983. Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Pacific Cinematheque
Friday, October 18, 2013 - 6:30pm
Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 4:00pm
Saturday, October 19, 2013 - 9:10pm
Sunday, October 20, 2013 - 7:00pm
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 - 9:10pm

30TH ANNIVERSARY! NEW 35mm PRINT! ► A true gift to cinephiles: a new 35mm print of an unsurpassably gorgeous film by one of cinema’s greatest visionaries! We’re pleased to present the Canadian premiere of this deluxe 30th-anniversary re-release of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia. Shot in Tuscany, and co-written with prolific Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra (who also co-wrote Antonioni’s L’Avventura), Nostalghia was Tarkovsky’s first film made outside the USSR — he had finally tired of Soviet censorship — and proved to be his penultimate work. (1986’s The Sacrifice, made in Sweden, would be his last film.) While in Italy researching the life of an 18th-century Russian composer who died there, a Soviet musicologist has a sexually-charged but unconsummated relationship with his beautiful translator, and meets a mysterious madman (played by Bergman regular and Sacrifice star Erland Josephson) who is convinced that the world is about to end. Nostalghia is suffused with an almost overwhelming sense of longing and homesickness, and is composed of some of Tarkovsky’s most astonishing imagery. It shared, with Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, a special Grand Prize for Creative Cinema at Cannes in 1983 (given that year in lieu of the best director award). “Extraordinary ... Nostalghia is not so much a movie as a place to inhabit for two hours ... A world of fantastic textures, sumptuously muted colours, and terrarium-like humidity. This is a film that turns the spectacle of an ancient, leaky cellar into an image as memorable as any this century” (J. Hoberman, Village Voice). Colour and B&W, 35mm, in Italian and Russian with English subtitles. 125 mins.

"Tarkovsky's films remain so important today because of their ineffable spirituality."
Slant | full review

oct 16 | tyrannosaur | pacific cinematheque

Here's one I had long ago flagged as potential Soul Food - perhaps in the same sort of register as HARDCORE, REVANCHE, or the films of Lars Von Trier. Dark, but sometimes that's where even dim light shines brightest. Anyhow, it's screening tomorrow night at Pacific Cinematheque - sorry for the late notice. 

Great Britain 2011. Director: Paddy Considine
Pacific Cinematheque
8:15 wed oct 16

Cinematheque: "In his first feature as a writer-director, British actor Paddy Considine plumbs the depths of human fallibility (not to mention his own straitened childhood on a Midlands council estate) in an auspicious debut that references the “kitchen-sink” realism of directors such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Set in gritty blue-collar Leeds, Tyrannosaur stars Scottish actor Peter Mullan as Joseph, an unemployed, hard-drinking widower whose inchoate rage leads him to commit acts of unspeakable violence. One afternoon, on the run from a fight, Joseph ducks into the closest refuge — an empty thrift shop - where he meets Hannah (Olivia Colman) a gentle Christian woman who offers to pray for him. Convinced she is nothing but a smug middle-class do-gooder, Joseph angrily rebuffs her, yet finds himself drawn back to her shop the next day. A tentative friendship develops, one that is challenged when Joseph learns the truth about Hannah’s relationship with her abusive husband James (Eddie Marsan). From this least likely of places, a story of grace and possible redemption gradually emerges. “A visceral, considered dissection of abuse and rage ... The performances of Mullan, Colman, and Marsan are excellent and create a compelling human drama” (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian). Colour, HDCAM. 92 mins."

Warning: Contains scenes that may be upsetting to sensitive viewers.

Monday, September 09, 2013

sep 26 - oct 11 | viff

One of the great pleasures of September - compensating in part for summer's end and the return to work - is the Vancouver International Film Festival. Combing through the titles, making lists, adjusting schedules. I'm always watching for possible Soul Food movies - films with a spiritual flavour. If they were plays, we might stage them at Pacific Theatre. That sort of thing. Here are a couple I (and friends) have spotted so far.

There Will Come a Day ("Un giorno devi andare" Italy/France, 2012, 110 min)
Sep 27 12:00 pm | Centre for Performing Arts
Oct 07 06:15 pm | Centre for Performing Arts

The Amazon is a major character in Giorgio Diritti’s heartfelt, piercingly beautiful There Will Come a Day, a superbly made and very affecting film about a young woman searching for herself while working as a missionary in Brazil. Her spiritual and physical journey leaves her—and the audience—profoundly changed.

 “Giorgio Diritti has no fear of the astounding image; the opening shot is of a night sky with a half-moon, against which is superimposed the sonogram of a fetus. The baby will not survive. A woman is heard crying. Augusta, a thoughtful, intense young woman [with a face worthy of Botticelli], is traveling by boat along the Amazon in Brazil, ministering to the “Indios” along with Sister Franca, an Italian nun of the old-line Catholic stamp. Why does Franca care, Augusta asks, whether or not the Indios perform the sacraments of the Church, when they don’t understand what they’re doing? It is a bond with God, Franca says; understanding is irrelevant. They are an odd couple, not destined to last. But what is, Augusta wonders. She has been abandoned by her husband because she cannot have children, and has left Italy for missionary work in search of answers… Diritti addresses a number of topical issues, including the rise of Third World evangelism, the displacement of poor Brazilians (in preparation for the World Cup and Olympics), the ecological disasters brewing in the Amazon and the widening disparity between rich and poor. Technical credits are first-rate, especially the work of d.p. Roberto Cimatti, who captures in his camera a suggestion of divinity.”—John Anderson, Variety

A Place in Heaven ("Makom be-Gan Eden" Israel, 2013, 117 min)
Sep 27 04:30 pm | Vancity Theatre
Oct 03 01:40 pm | International Village #10
Oct 06 06:45 pm | International Village #10

When a retired general lies on his deathbed, bitter and alone, his estranged son, an ultra-orthodox Jew, tries to save his soul from hell. This quasi-Biblical, epic drama spans the history of Israel through 40 years and three wars, yet, like director Yossi Madmony’s previous film Restoration, it is, at its heart, about father-son relationships.

The meaning of the title emerges as a tale within a tale that begins shortly after the founding of modern Israel. When a brave, much admired officer, dubbed Bambi (Alon Aboutboul), returns to base after a daring mission, the cook’s assistant, a young rabbi, tells him enviously that he has earned a place in heaven for endangering his life on behalf of his Jewish brethren. As a secular Zionist, Bambi scoffs at this notion and notes that he would gladly give up that place in exchange for his favorite spicy omelet. Since religious law permits the trade of such an abstract concept, the cook draws up a contract. Such impulsive behavior, typical of the arrogant, young Bambi, proves to have long-term consequences…

Like the flawed heroes of the Old Testament, Bambi registers as achingly human, no more so than in his relationship with son Nimrod, who rejects his expectations and turns to other father figures in order to forge a life of his own as a religious Jew. In the end, this probing fictional biography provides an intimate portrait of an obstinate man whose principles come before everything else. And just the right hint of Madmony’s characteristic mystical overtones adds to its allusive weight.


The Dostoevsky source for With You, Without You may signal Soul Food content: who knows.  The Priest's Children looks like a Soul Food long-shot, but hey....

*   *   *

The Missing Picture

Other films have caught my eye, if not necessarily on the Soul Food portion of the menu. Last year some cinema pals and I watched Mark Cousins' 17-hour The Story Of Film: An Odyssey in a two-day marathon: this year we'll reconvene at his latest, A Story Of Children And Film, which surveys everything from The 400 Blows, Kes, ET and Fanny and Alexander to selections from Finland, Iran, Japan and elsewhere. The aesthetic strategy of The Missing Picture reminds me of Kamp, a memorable Holocaust theatre piece I saw in the PuSh Festival a couple years ago, and The Act Of Killing which screens at the VanCity prior to the film festival, on Sep 16, 18 and 19. Also at the fest, the deadpan quirk of Matterhorn appeals, as does Finding Vivian Maier, a portrait of the celebrated street photographer whose work was unknown in her lifetime. And Time Goes By Like A Roaring Lion clicks with certain of my own fascinations (should that be "chronophobia" or "chronophilia"?). 

Most Telling Blurb: "With its culture of intimidation, the playground has always resembled a prison yard." German film? Yup.

Friday, September 06, 2013

son of the return of soul food movies

Okay. A couple posts ago I mentioned The Movie Discovery Of The Summer.  But I didn't mention what that discovery might be.

Public libraries.

A year ago, after a long DVD drought coinciding with a protracted period of mourning for Videomatica, I started weekly visits to Black Dog and Limelight - the two surviving great Vancouver video stores - availing myself of their 2-for-one Tuesdays and five-for-$10 Wednesdays, revelling in the experience of standing among shelves of movies and chatting Whit Stillman with the guy behind the counter.  In January I stopped decided to move on from the memory of Videomatica's DVD-by-mail service, and signed up for - which has a lot of gaps, and about a zero percent chance of being sent anything within the first six months of its release, but still, if you dig deep enough and make a long enough ZipList.  And I started watching DVDs again.

But this summer I discovered the Vancouver Public Library.  You go to the website, you search for any given movie, 80 or 90% of the time they've got it - I'm not kidding, their collection is vast - you put a hold on it (free, for your first fifty holds, then 50 cents each after that - and they deliver it to your local branch and email you that it's arrived.  That simple.  Wow.  (Okay, same problem with new releases, but if you can't wait, there's always iTunes or Black Dog.) (I've also gotten a ton of movies from the Richmond library, but it's only fair to say that their selection is a lot more limited. Very interesting, but much, much smaller.) (And you should never put two bracketed sentences back to back.)

So. There. You want to watch movies again, and not just settle for what flows through the interweb conduit...  Get a library card.

Also a couple posts ago, I mentioned The Soul Food Good News of the Month.  Two Good Newses, actually.

The first comes up next week at Pacific Cinematheque - Krysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy, Blue, White and Red.

Sep 9 - 6:30 Blue | 8:30 White
Sep 11 - 6:30 White | 8:30 Red
Sep 12 - 6:30 Red | 8:25 Blue

Equally highly regarded as high water marks in spiritual cinema as Kieslowski's  Decalogue project (ten 1-hour films, each dealing - however obliquely - with one of the Ten Commandments), these three films are far more visually appealing, replacing the aptly dour look of the Eastern European TV project with a richer, more vivid cinematography.  (The trilogy was shot, and set, in France). The opportunity to see these on a big screen is particularly appealing. And like Eric Rohmer or Woody Allen, the director has a fascination with beautiful women, and these three films centre around Juliette Binoche, Julie Delpy and Irene Jacob. So there's that.

Like The Decalogue (or Dekalog, if you aspire to the highest echelons of cinephilia), these three films have placed in all five iterations of the Arts & Faith 100.

The second Soul Food Good News of the Month item, advertised on the back of the Cinematheque schedule for Sep/Oct, comes along September 22, when the three great Rossellini Soul Food films finally become available.  It's always been nearly impossible to see any of the great Italian auteur's collaborations with Ingrid Bergman - Stromboli, Europe '51, Journey To Italy - films which are also among the film maker's most explicitly Christian. Not only have they been unavailable except on bootleg DVDs (hard to get, low quality), but they have rarely been screened even at cinematheques and art houses.

I've only seen portions of the three films, in the Martin Scorsese documentary My Voyage To Italy.  I couldn't make it to Ontario Cinematheque in 2006 when they screened there as part of a complete retrospective of Rossellini's work, and though I saw the MOMA exhibit of Rossellini-Bergman posters and documents (including the letter of introduction she wrote him, asking to be in one of his films, and his reply), my New York visit wasn't timed right to catch any of the screenings.  I even requested a screening of at least these three films at our local Cinematheque, but was told that they were unavailable to be programmed.

So this is a bit of a Big Deal.  Rossellini's spiritual themes come through in some of the short segments of Paisan, and in the landmark neo-realist picture Rome, Open City (both available in the Criterion boxed set of the War Trilogy) and certainly in the eccentric-but-wonderful The Flowers Of St Francis (also titled Francesco, giullare di Dio - Francis, God's Juggler), but are apparently most evident in the three Bergman films.

I can't wait.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

the return of soul food movies

I've always loved film. For about a decade - let's say 1997 to 2007 - it was my Big Non-Theatre Obsession. (I cycle through those.  Six months to three to ten years each on, say, The Beatles, baseball, hard-boiled detectives, the life of Christ, the history of jazz, New York city, etc, etc.)  For that stretch - a particularly fertile one for movies in general, and for spiritually-themed movies in particular - I worked away on a book, and a blog, called Soul Food Movies.  Made thousands of posts to the Arts & Faith conversation board.  Saw everything that came out that was good, or had some sort of spiritual angle. And wrote about them.

Then I had to set the book aside - at that point it was PT or the book, and I know the difference between a marriage and a fling.  And around the same time, a certain cultural moment passed.  The internet - which had super-charged the whole cultural conversation about the movies - started to kill the print media, and career film critics fell like Aussie soldiers at Gallipoli. Around the same time, TV series started to be the big rental item at video stores, and people started watching thirteen or fifty hours of Seinfeld re-runs rather than a couple dozen real movies.  (I will restrain myself from making gratuitous comments about the Anti-Christ.)  And then the internet got the whole streaming and down-loading thing figured out, and between illegal tormenting and legal netflicking and iTuning, the video stores died, and the cinemas finished dying, and...  And now it's now.

The other day I had a chat with a friend who'd been a movie nut last time I saw him.  I didn't even ask him what movies he'd seen lately: I asked him if he was still watching movies.  And the answer was, pretty well, no.  So we chatted about cultural forces, and the death of Roger Ebert, and Hollywood economic forces, and the stuff I already mentioned in that last paragraph, and...  That was that.

But afterward I thought about this summer's discovery that's got me mainlining DVDs again. And about the fact that there are still films worth seeing in the theatres - I saw several this summer that I really liked. And that even Netflix has the occasional film that people ought to know about.

And then at the coffee shop I picked up the latest copy of the Cinematheque schedule. And realized there's still Soul Food Movie news that's fit to print.  Most definitely.

So neither the cinema, nor God at the cinema, nor either on one's home video screen, are in fact dead. Movies, and movies dealing with matters of faith, may not be at the centre of the cultural conversation the way they were maybe a decade ago.  But hey, I'm used to that - I work in live theatre, after all.  Who needs to be at the centre of the party?  I'm quite content to chat off in a corner, thank you very much. That's where the best conversations happen, anyhow.

There won't be any full-fledged revival of the Soul Food Movies project.  But from time to time...

Monday, June 17, 2013

SUPERMAN (1978, 1980, 2006)

SUPERMAN (1978, USA, Richard Donner, screenplay Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Robert Benton, Tom Mankiewicz)
SUPERMAN II (1980, USA, Richard Lester & Richard Donner, screenplay Mario Puzo, David & Leslie Newman, Tom Mankiewicz)
SUPERMAN RETURNS (2006, USA, Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty & Dan Harris)

Even though you've been raised as a human being, you are not one of them…. It is now time for you to rejoin your new world and to serve its collective humanity. Live as one of them, and discover where your strength and power are needed… They can be a great people, Kal‑El. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all — their capacity for good — I have sent them you. My only son.

Battles rage, wars are waged over whether SUPERMAN RETURNS is a worthy successor to its predecessors. Over where the franchise went wrong, over who was the best Lois Lane or Lex Luthor, over whether Supe is a Christ figure, or whether he's a worthy one, or whether it matters. Over whether SUPERMAN and its sequels and siblings saved a foundering seventies film industry, or whether the adolescent adventure blockbusters from the Whiz-Bang kids (Lucas, Spielberg, Donner et al) were commercial kryptonite to the golden age (or would it be a silver age? I can never keep such matters straight) of seventies auteurism (Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader et Altman). I'm inclined toward a third theory: that the seventies were an abysmal time for movie-goers, that apart from the occasional masterpiece there wasn't much on the big screen that you'd want to watch any given week, but that as refreshing as Supe, Indie and Skywalker's gang may have been, they also resuscitated a dying studio system whose resurrection was mostly bad news for good movies. You can pick your own myth.

What's obvious about this new generation of nostalgia-tinged adventure flicks is that they were just plain fun: they didn't take themselves too seriously, they lasted longer than a theme park ride and you didn't have to travel to Orange County to get your thrill. What's maybe not so obvious is that all three of the fin de seventies "Just A Movie" franchises offered audiences something more than just a movie. Along with thrills and chills and good triumphing over evil (in morally ambivalent times), they offered – or tried to offer, or could be interpreted as offering – Faith. Transcendence. God.

It had been a long, long time since Christians had found much at the movies that connected with their faith. Not since the Good Priest movies of the forties or the Bible Blockbusters of the fifties had the silver screen reflected much Light. Cinematic dreamers dream the dreams of their culture (check out David Mamet's Writing In Restaurants for more on this), and for a couple decades there our collective consciousness had pretty much decided God was dead, or at least too boring to be in a movie. Christians who loved the movies and yearned to see some sort of onscreen representation of their faith – or any sort of faith – had to gain what soul sustenance they could from dour and doubting Europeans. Christian film books pretty much orbited around Bergman, Bresson, Fellini and Dreyer (how could they miss Rossellini?), or settled for spelunking for moral nuggets deep beneath the surface of Oscar-contending American fare.

Maybe that's why we all seized so hard on what Robert Short called The Gospel From Outer Space. Suddenly, from the place we least expected it, there was all this religious stuff. Righteous quests, spiritual mentors, mysticism and transcendence, the affirmation that there might be something higher than cold rationalism and reductive science. Christ figures even! The coolest movies out there, the ones everybody wanted to see, also carried this secret (or not so secret) message, and if you knew how to decode it, the right answer was… God!

Somehow it was validation. It was like finding out the most popular kid in your high school was a Christian! So maybe you weren't such a geek after all.

I think something like that accounts for the immense amount of attention these movies attracted in religious circles in their day – and for the rather underwhelming spiritual significance that's apparent when when you re-examine them today, in a time when religious faith is once again permissible onscreen. You'll find people (guys, usually: they were between ten and twenty when their favourite came out, probably while they were going to a Christian school) who spin elaborate theologies out of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Superman movies, and as interesting as their arcane and intricate and well-supported theories may be, you can't help feeling the case is being over-argued: the movies weren't as good as they're certain they are, and the spiritual import of the stories isn't all they crack it up to be. The rest of their tastes have grown up, they've discovered Kieslowski and Kurosawa and Kaurismaki, but when the talk turns to Quasi-Spiritual Blockbusters Of The Late Seventies, the perspective shifts. They take on the unreasoning (or over-reasoned) intensity of benign conspiracy theorists. They've seen these films more times than they've read the gospel of John. And that's saying something.

No doubt they're onto something. In the original SUPERMAN film, when his father sends baby Kal-El away from the dying planet of Krypton, Dad's blessing has undeniable Johannine overtones: "You will carry me inside you all the days of your life… The son becomes the father, and the father the son." Discovering an apparently abandoned toddler near a meteorite crater, Ma Kent speaks of her prayers that "the Good Lord would see fit to give us a child," and when young Clark comes of age he leaves his earthly family behind to head into the wilderness and learn his true nature. At thirty, in obedience to the words of his heavenly father, he goes out into the world "to serve its collective humanity." In the words of Jor-El (echoed in the series-reviving SUPERMAN RETURNS , which makes a point of taking up and embellishing the orginal film's Christological imagery), "They can be a great people. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all I have sent them you. My only son." (Woulda been better with "only-begotten son, but whatever…)

It's at this point – a full fifty minutes into the story – that SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE goes suddenly astray. In the portrayal of Superman's origins, on the dying planet Krypton and in the Kansas cornfields, there is a commitment to evoking the mythos of the original DC comics, being faithful to a context in which the sheer goodness (and even, perhaps, the Goodness) of the hero rings true, in which the mythic themes resonate, in which simple heroism can carry the day. But when Our Hero hits the big city and encounters Real Evil – a guy stealing a tomato? wacky newsroom types unsure how to spell "massacre" and "rapist"? – the film descends to corn and camp, and for this viewer at least, its capacity to stir the soul is lost. Some appreciate Christopher Reeves' penchant for physical comedy: it struck me as embarassing and, as much fun as Gene Hackman is sneering his way through Lex Luthor (splendidly reprised by the impeccably-cast Kevin Spacey in the 2006 revival, though with a nastier edge), the whole tone increasingly veers into the kind of dismissive camp I knew enough to hate when the Batman TV series did the same to my other DC hero – when I was only nine! Fans of the films protest when less-than-fans say these movies are "for kids," but can they really deny that much of the writing here is utterly juvenile? From Clark's goofball act to the smirking "dirty joke" tone of Lois and Clark's first date to her unbearably mawkish monologue as Superman takes her flying ("Do you know what it is that you do to me? Holding hands with a god, quivering like a little girl shivering, you can see right through me, wondering why you are all the wonderful things you are…"), it's really embarassing and juvenile. Sorry.

SUPERMAN 2 compounds these sins. In an attempt, I suppose, to make the too-good-for-the-times Superman "a guy we can all relate to," a situation is contrived for the no-longer-quite-so-super man to sleep with Lois – hey,everybody was doing it – and the whole Messiah Of Steel thing has pretty much fizzled away to nothing. The mighty had well and truly fallen, unadulterated goodness trumped by good old adultery. How disappointing.

Two more sequels followed, each lacking more lustre than its predecessors, and for a couple decades it seemed Superman was deader even than God – who, incidentally, was making something of a comeback at the cineplex in the absence of the Krypton Christ. Which in turn may have prepared the way for Bryan Singer's re-theologized franchise-resurrecting SUPERMAN RETURNS in 2006.

Singer and his writers pay tribute to the 1978 original with abundant (some would say overly abundant) references and riffs while dialling down on the camp and picking up on the Christ. When Superman returns to earth after a five year absence seeking his father's home planet, Ma Kent cradles him in her arms in an obvious pieta image. Lois has won her Pulitzer Prize but lost her hope, writing an acclaimed article "Why The World Doesn't Need Superman," telling her live-in partner "The world doesn't need a saviour, and neither do I."

But this film is convinced that, actually, she does, and it goes an extra mile or two to polish up this particular Superman into something closer to the image and likeness of a savior. Superman responds directly to Lois's cynicism: "You say the world doesn't need a saviour, but every day I hear them crying for one." In the film's most affecting image, a world-worn Superman flies high above the earth to surrender himself to the life-restoring light of the sun, then to listen to the sounds of human life rising up like prayers to his all-hearing ears: at the sound of evil or suffering, he soars back earthward to bring at least a limited sort of salvation.

Like the earlier films, this one also goes some way toward putting human flesh on the man of steel, and for some reason I appreciated the way that theme was handled here in pretty much exact inverse proportion to how I felt about it in the earlier films. Clark/Supe is clearly in love with Lois (and far more convincingly: Clark isn't so pre-adolescent goofy, and Lois loses her shrill and salivating silliness), but he's kept from inserting himself back into her life by the fact that she's got a pretty good relationship with a pretty decent guy, who's being a not-too-bad stand-in father and provider for the child Supe/Clark fathered in that previous one-night-stand. (Yup, in the new Superman moral universe, even those sorts of actions have consequences.) In his loneliness, he yields to temptation and uses his super-powers to watch and listen in on what he shouldn't - not to leer through Lois's clothes (as every teenaged Superman reader fantasized, and the earlier films toyed with) but simply to watch her leave in an elevator (a gorgeous bit of filming), or to torment himself by eavesdropping on a scene of peaceful domesticity with Lois's new family. The earlier film told us Kal-El would be isolated and alone: this film shows us that, let's us experience it at least a little bit.

But still. What sort of Messiah is this Man Of Steel? In even the best of these films (whichever you might personally prefer), or in the Superman uber-myth that overarches them all? How much of a saviour is Superman?

Maybe not much of one. For starters, there's a big difference between saving somebody dangling from the edge of a building, or even a planeload of somebodies hurtling toward their mortal destruction, and doing anything about anybody's immortal souls. I suppose that's self-evident, and everybody knows that even at their most intentional superhero movies would never claim to have anything more than a parabolic, metaphoric resonance with bigger, realer stories of salvation. But this 1979 Newsweek points up a potential problem with that sort of thinking;
People can croak "Entertainment! Entertainment!" until they're blue in the face. The fact remains that films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, SUPERMAN, and even STAR WARS have become jerry-built substitutes for the great myths and rituals of belief, hope and redemption that cultures used to shape before mass secular society took over.
In settling for heroes who offer only salvation from physical danger, in conflating invented, simplistic earth-bound myths of strong men coming to the rescue with truer, eternal myths of redemption through sacrifice, the kind of strength that's only shown in weakness and surrender, do we subtly lose track of those essential truths, swapping them for something that's a pretty cheap substitute?

In 1983, Robert Short drew out the nervous-making resonances between Neitzsche's superman and the more familiar guy in the cape and tights, going on to point out how different either were from the Guy from the sky the latter sought to invoke: "There is a significan resemblance of Superman to Christ in the man part. But an essential difference is in the super….
Jesus was very cautious in using the 'super-powers' of his Father, although he obviously could have at any time. "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?"… Why did Christ generally refrain from this kind of outwardly obvious use of supernatural power?
Short points out not only that Jesus avoided offering signs or proofs of his divinity in order to put the focus on who he was and what he taught, but also that
Christ doesn't let us off so easily: he rejected the role of a superman… He was a humble rabbi, a meek and lowly shepherd, the carpenter's son, whose mother and brothers and sisters the people also knew. To believe in this man requires a radically deep sacrifice on our parts… God did not send our Savior to us in the form of a superman, but rather in the form of a servantman, a lowly man of sorrows who finally would not even save himself from the torment, the humiliation, the death, of the cross.

To be fair, as sharp a commentator as Roy Anker is quite content to delight in the incarnational resonances he finds in SUPERMAN without building an entire (and misguided) theology on them. In his very fine book Catching Light: Looking for God in the Movies, he identifies this as "a Jesus story – significantly, not the Jesus story," and demonstrates how "the shape and substance of these contemporary religious fables" fits them quite specifically into Catholic film scholar Neil Hurley's designation of "christomorphic" fiction (which Hurley developed from the work of Theodore Ziolkowski). Citing films that range from John Ford's THE FUGITIVE or Bresson's DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST to Ken Russell's TOMMY and Rosenberg's COOL HAND LUKE, Hurley identifies and finds value in a specific type of film by considering "formal patterns of resemblance and not…the theological substance of the life of Jesus as we find it in its exemplary expression in the gospels."

Anker in turn brings considerable skills as an interpreter of literature to his exploration of this particular film franchise, and if we disagree about Christopher Reeve's "splendid physical acting and nuanced manipulation of voice and face" or Anker's assertion that Superman's first public miracle "is perhaps the finest comic moment in a golden age of American film, 1970s cinema," it's nevertheless a pleasure to bask in this erudite (and theologically sophisticated) writer's detailed enthusiasm for a favorite flick:
The whole of the film serves to elucidate and impart the surprise, wonder, and delight of the fantastic possibility of an incarnation of divine love itself… no simple miracle-working trickster in a cape or spider webs but a notion of God that features an extravagantly loving servant who comes out of nowhere to suffer and triumph for bedraggled human creatures. To the filmmakers' credit, they do indeed, in Frederick Buechner's words, "get the joke," the high humor of the Incarnation, "the hilarious unexpectedness" of the impossible actually happening.

But if we're going to haul in Roy Anker as a witness for the defence, we need to consider consider the estimable Robert Jewett for the prosecution: he's got real problems with Superman and all his buddies. In Captain America and the Crusade Against Evil and The Myth of the American Superhero, co-written with John Shelton Lawrence, the boys go kinda easy on Supe while finding the whole American fixation on superheroes the root of all kinds of evil. You'll think they're nothing but kill-joys when I tell you they don't like the fascist politics and spirituality of STAR WARS (huh? what?). But you know? They make a lot of sense. They see Superman as the pivotal dude, the guy who added "super" to the earlier vigilante heroes of Lone Ranger ilk, and led to the proliferation of an anti-democratic, counter-Christian monomyth where leaders are always weak or corrupt, the community helpless and truth and justice entirely in the hands of the lone, zealous outsider who overcomes evil with violence – a distinctly American "pop fascism." Shame on you, Shane! (I'd be curious to know what Bob and John think of SUPERMAN RETURNS, where some just plain folks actually do follow the hero's lead and get heroic themselves, filling in the part of the job that the man of steel can't quite manage on his own.)

So anyhow, that's SUPERMAN, weighed and wanting. Look for too much theology and you run into trouble. Supe just ain't that great a Christ figure, and his movies just ain't that great either. These are pretty slight cinematic fare, and their underdeveloped Christ The Kick-Butt Rescuer theology isn't really going to feed anybody's soul, won't sustain for the long journey.

Or will it? Because, having said that, it still feels like there's something there, and to dismiss these movies out of hand would be to dismiss something this story (in its many incarnations) actually does manage to get right, at least in its better moments.

Maybe it just comes down to this. For all the times the movies fumbled it, for all the ways the Supe-as-Saviour metaphor falls short, for all that other superheroes may be more complex or more conflicted or more human or more identifiable-with-in-their-human-fallenness… I think this contributor to the Arts & Faith conversation (he goes by CrimsonLine) got it right: "I've always been a Superman fan. He set the example that I always aspired to - pure self-sacrificing nobility."

Maybe it's that simple. Maybe that's all the soul food we're really going to get from Superman. And maybe that's enough.


first posted 2006

Saturday, June 01, 2013

jun 20-27 | caesar must die | vancity

Not straight up "Soul Food" here, but a film that fascinates me nevertheless. THE great This American Life episode of all time has to be ACT V (you can stream or download it here), about a production of Hamlet in a maximum security penitentiary. Now the Taviani brothers have a faux-documentary about a production of Julius Caesar in Rome's high security Rebibbia prison.  

Caesar Must Die
June 20 24 25 27 @ 7pm VanCity Theatre

Filmed in a documentary style in Rome’s high security Rebibbia prison, the movie chronicles a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar performed by the inmates just a few miles from where the Roman emperor was assassinated. The actors are real life murderers, mafiosi and drug dealers, and their performances slip subtly between Shakespeare’s text and their own contemporary argot, blurring the lines (literally) between past and present, art and life… But complicating things even further, the Tavianis scripted everything, off-stage as well as on, so what we take for "reality" is every bit as artificial as the play itself - and just as true.

"Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar usually runs about two-and-a-half hours uncut. Italian directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s tale of a prison-based production of the classic runs 74 minutes. Yet the film gets on screen not only the play’s bloody, double-dealing, hungry essence, but the redemptive potential of art... Such is literature’s power that the cast is more at ease portraying ancient Romans than speaking as versions of themselves. Muses the man playing Julius Caesar, 'To think I found this so boring in school.'" Farrah Smith Nehme, New York Post

"At once ancient and dangerously new." Anthony Lane, New Yorker

jul 26-28 | screening jesus | regent college

Quite extraordinary, really. SON OF MAN is my favourite Jesus film. It played VIFF a few years ago, and I attended both screenings, and searched for years before coming up with a DVD copy. I'm also a big fan of THE MIRACLE MAKER, which is - believe it or not - a claymation life of Christ that is anything but cheesy. Screenplay by Murray Watts, a co-founder of Riding Lights Theatre, a model for Pacific Theatre.  SON OF MAN director Mark Dornford-May is also a man of the theatre in England and South Africa, with a filmed treatment of NOYE'S FLUDDE currently in post-production. Both Watts and Dornford-May will be in attendance! with screenings of their respective Jesus movies at the Hollywood. Such a well-conceived event - standing ovation, Regent College! I'll be there. 

Screening Jesus: Cinema’s Abiding Fascination with the Character of Christ
Regent College
July 26 - 28

Adele Reinhartz (Scripture On The Silver Screen, Jesus of Hollywood), Murray Watts (screenwriter: The Miracle Maker), Mark Dornford-May (director, Son Of Man), William Romanowski (Eyes Wide Open, Reforming Hollywood) and Diane Stinton (Jesus Of Africa). Hosted by Iwan Russell-Jones.

Deliberately set up as a conversation between academics and practitioners, this conference brings together leading experts on film and popular culture, filmmakers, theologians, and three intriguing films from the last thirty years. Over three days, participants will enter into this conversation, considering with the host of speakers such topics as the Jewishness of Jesus in the movies, the challenge of dramatizing Jesus for film, the interpretation of Jesus in a non-Western context, and the public controversies that have sometimes surrounded cinematic portrayals of Christ.

Are you interested in film and intrigued by film depictions of Jesus? Are you keen to discuss the social and ethical issues often raised by them? Do you desire to take a deeper look at the ways in which Jesus has been thought about and interpreted in popular culture? If you answer yes to any of these, plan to join us July 26–28.

Cost: $280 (Discounts available for Seniors, Students and Early Registrations before June 14)
Register By: July 24, 2013

jun 15+16 | ben hur with live piano score

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ 
1925 silent film with live piano score by Sara Davis Buechner

Pacific Cinematheque Special Event
June 15 @ 7:30
June 16 @ 4:00

On Saturday, June 15 and Sunday, June 16, The Cinematheque is very pleased to present the renowned pianist Sara Davis Buechner, who will provide live musical accompaniment to director Fred Niblo’s 1925 blockbuster Ben-Hur, one of the silent era’s most spectacular and celebrated epics.

MGM’s 1925 version of Ben-Hur (remade by William Wyler in 1959 with Charlton Heston) was the most expensive film of the silent era, and still astonishes with its amazing set pieces and action sequences and truly colossal scale. Matinee idols Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman have the leads. Novarro is Judah Ben-Hur, the Jewish prince-turned-slave who crosses paths with Christ while on a quest for revenge. Bushman is Messala, the old childhood friend, now a Roman official, who betrays Ben-Hur and his family. The film’s thrilling sea-battle and chariot-race sequences are justifiably legendary; the lavishness on display throughout is breathtaking. “It was a remake even then [there was a 1907 film version], but MGM put $5 million into it, and so much Amazing, Gargantuan, Stupendous, and Mighty Biblical Pageantry that vast numbers of viewers were swept off their feet. There’s a galley manned by a thousand slaves, the sea battle between Romans and ancient pirates, the Valley of the Lepers, and the chariot race staged in a mammoth stadium” (Pauline Kael).
B&W with Colour sequences, silent. 142 mins.

Dr. Sara Buechner, an Associate Professor of Piano at the University of British Columbia, is an accomplished classical concert musician whose performances and recordings have won acclaim and awards around the world. She has appeared as a soloist with many internationally prominent orchestras, won prizes at some of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions, and has an active repertoire of more than 100 piano concertos. Dr. Buechner has been the subject of profiles in the New York Times,Maclean’s, Paris Match, and other major media. She has a great passion for film music and is one of the very few concert pianists today performing originals scores to silent movies. Dr. Buechner will also provide an introduction to the performance/screening and conduct a short Q&A afterwards.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

magdalene / silent night

IMDb: Father Joseph Mohr, a newly appointed priest in the town of Oberndorf (near Salzburg), meets the beautiful prostitute Magdalene. He struggles to change her situation and make a new life for her, and while doing so, they fall in love. Mohr struggles with his feelings for her, versus his commitment to God. Meanwhile, the Prior, Mohr's superior, whose corrupt dealings with the Baron von Seidl are threatened by Mohr's integrity and honesty, works (unsuccessfully) to falsely accuse Mohr of sexual misconduct with Magdalene, and thereby remove him from office. Meanwhile, Mohr and local schoolteacher Franz Gruber compose the hymn "Silent Night".

1989, Germany
Writer/Director: Monica Teuber
Cast: Nastassja Kinski

 There's a trailer you can view here. At least for marketing purposes, it seems they've chosen to downplay the "this is how the beloved Christmas hymn came to be written," and emphasize certain other aspects of their story.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Wrong Man (1956, Hitchcock, Maxwell Anderson)

I just watched The Wrong Man. Very fine little film. My friend Doug Cummings recommended it to me years ago, in the context of my Soul Food Movies project, and now I see why.

 Even apart from that aspect of the film, it connects with me in a way some other Hitchcock's don't: it seems less cold, more compassionate (or at least empathetic). I like the aesthetic, too: there is the suggestion that it's influenced by the new awareness of foreign film in the mid-fifties - particularly the post-war realism of Rossellini, Satyajit Ray, perhaps Bresson.

 I find it intriguing to notice that all three of those film-makers were very interested in spiritual questions, even as their aesthetic emphasized unvarnished reality.  And fascinating that this sparse, essentially realist film should also be Hitchcock's most explicitly religious - though in a complex way.

Some of that faith element must be credited to the screenwriter (which is so often a glaring oversight in film criticism): playwright Maxwell Anderson, son of a Baptist preacher, whose plays include Journey To Jerusalem, Miracle of the Danube, The Eve of St Mark, Joan of Lorraine (connected with St Joan of Arc), and Lost in the Stars (based on Cry The Beloved Country).

It's easy to over-emphasize (or over-simplify) Hitchcock's Catholicism, as it is Anderson's Baptist background, but there's clearly something going on here.


Thinking about the film's connection to the Italian Neo-Realists or Robert Bresson, and their use not only of real locations but also non-professional actors (or "models," Bresson's preferred term), I found these notes from the TCM website:
In a February 1957 American Cinematographer article, Hitchcock was quoted as saying, "I want it to look like it had been photographed in New York in a style unmistakably documentary." According to reviews and contemporary news items, Balestrero's 74th Street home in Jackson Heights, the Stork Club, the 110th and Roosevelt Avenue police stations, Ridgewood Felony Court, and the actual courtroom used for Balestrero's trial at Queens Felony Court were used as location sites in the film. The Greenmont Sanitarium in Ossining, NY and Edelweiss Farm in Cornwall, NY were also real locations from Balestrero's story. In addition, Hitchcock filmed on Queens and Brooklyn streets at cafeterias, delicatessens and liquor stores. The American Cinematographer article reported that O'Connor's office in the Victor Moore Arcade was also used as a shooting site.
According to modern sources, Hitchcock joked that he needed to add to the film all the reality he could get, because the premise of the true story was so unbelievable. Therefore, he used real people from some of the incidents in Balestrero's life in the film. According to the American Cinematographer article, the husband-and-wife liquor store owners, a policeman, detectives and Cornwall resort owners were real people who portrayed themselves in the film. Sherman Billingsley, the well-known proprietor of the Stork Club, also appeared as himself in the film.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

jan 31 + 16 | vertigo

Good choice, Cineplex. The movie that bumped Citizen Kane from top slot on the Sight & Sound once-a-decade poll, just this past summer. Makes me eager to see it again.