Film & Television

Interstellar, Science Fiction and the Odyssey of Love

A lot of buzz has surrounded Christopher Nolan’s latest thriller, Interstellar. But in the bevy of space-themed television and films, from Battlestar Gallactica to last year’s Oscar winning Gravity, should we care that yet another large-production space film has captivated journalism and the public? Beyond the impressive cast, Nolan’s resume as a philosophical auteur (Memento, The Prestige, Batman Trilogy, Inception) is reason enough to go.

The opening setting is a Steinbeck-esque throwback to the 1930s Dustbowl crisis where the farmer and his family face the imminent destruction of their crop’s yield. It is an American agrarian vision, nostalgic of folk culture and architecture. Think of Grant Wood and Andrew Wyeth’s farmhouses, even the Kansas whitewashed sideboard structure, homes perfectly at home along the cornfields in The Wizard of Oz. Set in base of the mountains in Alberta Canada, Interstellar is a pastoral-turned-science-fiction. We don’t know when this is other than the near future. However we know that something has gone tragically wrong. The land is ravaged; the dust storm is apocalyptic, congesting the lungs and destroying the fields. Humanity requires an Exodus.

 

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Interstellar’s odyssey, unlike Kubrick’s or Cuarón’s, is not merely the triumph of the human over the technological machine. Rather, it is a moral study in underscoring human motivations, treacheries, collaborations and love. Like all odysseys it is about a journey, and classically speaking, this odyssey is about the journey home.

Matthew McConaughey’s character is Cooper, a pilot and farmer, but first and foremost—a widowed father. His close relationship with his son Tom and daughter Murph are the pulse of the film. Cooper departs in order to save them and aches to rejoin them. He expresses during his nightly ritual on the porch, sipping beers with his father Donald (John Lithgow) in the golden-hour Malick light: “We’ve forgotten who we are—pioneers, explorers, not caretakers…We used to look up and wonder about our place in the stars, now we look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” The relation to the soil is shared in humanity—in the earth’s very humus. In a sense, Cooper suggests that humans have stopped becoming philosophers because survival has taken precedence. But at what expense? Does one make us more human without the other? Cooper remembers just enough of what humanity has forgotten to remember to not forget.

The kitchen functions as the microcosm of the narrative, the nuclear unit of the family as the oikos (household). Much takes place in the domestic space, particularly the kitchen, as a congregating point throughout the film. The most common axis point of the home becomes juxtaposed to cosmic exploration. It is around the breakfast table that we hear Murph first comment on the disturbance in her bedroom bookcase due to an unidentifiable “ghost.”

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In episode 4 of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” Neil de Grasse Tyson explains that astrophysics William Hershel referred to the stars as “ghosts” because they are remnants of the past. To look at the stars is to look back in time. Not to provide spoilers, but the relationship of stars to time is what Murph encounters from her bookcase: gravity.

It is helpful to think about last year’s Gravity in comparison. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is in ways the antithesis of Interstellar. While narrating a more seemingly realistic story of a doctor repairing the Hubble telescope, the events that follow are scientifically impossible. In contrast, Interstellar is imaginative in its narrative depiction and scientific in its execution.

Gravity highlights space’s silence. What originally provides a calm work environment for Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) turns into a leviathan of nothingness. It is episodic as we watch frame by beautiful frame what happens to Stone, from the explosion to space stations to reentry. With very little dialogue, we do not know Stone’s story or very much about her life other than the daughter she lost. Emmanuel Lubezki’s brilliant cinematography visually captures Stone’s solo survival instincts as she evolves from a floating fetal position aboard the space station to the film’s ending, where she crawls out of the water and slowly stands erect as a bipedal, human-as-deity-in-nature. Is this final frame the film’s underlying thesis? Human survival is self-reliance

Additionally, Gravity’s musical score intentionally highlights the void of space through psychological and emotional sounds as a backdrop to the progression of each scene. We hear fear as we watch Stone’s thinly veiled despair turn to resignation. It is almost a joke that Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) appears in her imagination as the deus ex machina for her survival. It gestures towards Gravity‘s underlying thesis that the void has the last word. Yet this assumption is interrupted by this unlikely dream in which Kowalski more or less saves Stone’s life. Is it artistically honest that the film negates the inevitability of what it portrays because it cannot concede to nihilism’s finality?

Quite differently from Gravity, Hans Zimmer’s score of organ music in Interstellar creates the sonic architecture of a cathedral, giving the film religious overtones. Some have suggested that it indicates the film is an argument for science as the new religion. However, Anne Hathaway, in an interview with Time, quotes Einstein: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” The music is more than intense, at times it echoes of Bach and Requiem compositions. Other times, the single strike of the piano key is the immanent reminder of time passing. The metronomic click echoes the watch hand that ticks for Cooper and Murph, preciously lost.

One can almost channel McConaughey’s character, Rust Cohle, from this year’s “True Detective” on his Nietzschean discourse of “time as a flat circle” to the metronomic tick tock. At faster speeds, one feels the exhausted plodding march, perhaps a musical leitmotif of the film’s recurring quotation of the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not go gentle into this good night.” We hear the slavish toil of the music pass time like a ticking clock, spinning round and round like the Endurance spacecraft. Yet when the organ pulls back, we hear relativity break its slavery to time into a waltz rhythm, as a kind of cosmic dance.

Dr. Amelia Brandt (Anne Hathaway), a female biologist, is responsible for fostering biodiversity and habitat on the potential worlds. She is the Eve figure, the mother of future living things, a “shepherd of being” as Heidegger would say. She expresses to Cooper on the Endurance one of the film’s most important speeches: “love is the artifact of a higher dimension that we do not understand, beyond social utility. We love those that have died. It is the one thing we are capable of perceiving that transcends time and space.” Understanding the component of love is critical for considering the underlying theme of the film. At times we ask, is it love that holds the universe together or is it gravity? Is Nolan asking us to choose? Are they in ways, the same?

For the medieval cosmologist, love was the underlying component that held the universe together. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Love is the primum mobile (“first mover”) that governs and orders the cosmos: “the love moves the sun and the other stars.” Interstellar is not claiming to be Dante, but it is not rejecting love from the fifth dimension either.

In this way, concerning the relation of faith and science, Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) is anticipatory of Interstellar. It is another film where science is ultimately taken on faith through the experience of love. Dr. Eleanor Arroway (Jodi Foster) attempts to communicate with extraterrestrial life, which eventually leads her to visit Vega. Here she discovers that her deceased father has been the source of her extraterrestrial communication, loving her across the dimensions of space and time. Her father contacted her in such a way that he knew Arroway would one day discover it. From this vantage point, it a similar story to Interstellar—Cooper’s relationship with Murphy, a father-daughter collaboration, corresponds across multiple dimensions through the language of love.

Interstellar extends the tradition of science fiction films that underscore the moral condition of the human within a technologically savvy narrative. Hallmarked by Kubrick and Carl Sagan, Nolan’s odyssey joins the lineage of film that utilizes mystery (even faith) to inform our familial relationships. Indeed, maybe the most important dynamic in the cosmic order is love.

Thoughts on Citizenfour

“One of humanity’s prime drives is to understand and be understood.”—Buckminster Fuller

As a college professor teaching introductory non-fiction filmmaking classes, I spend a lot of time helping students generate ideas and identify the subjects for their work. For first-time filmmakers this can be an exhaustive process. With tastes informed by their consumption of pop culture, they know what they want their film to look and sound like, but they don’t know what they want to say. I begin with a discussion about privileged access. As a viewer, I want to understand something new, “who or what do you have access to that no one else does?”

Citizenfour s the ultimate fulfillment of that question, and Laura Poitras—the film’s director—has spent her life, both professionally and personally, positioning herself to have that access. This isn’t VIP access to celebrities, but admission into the lives of real people, and their trust to have themselves recorded by her, Her most recent film documents Edward Snowden’s efforts to reveal illegal invasions of privacy by the National Security Agency (NSA).

In June 2013, Snowden arranges to meet Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong, in order to hand over classified documents gathered at his job with the NSA. Citizenfour primarily consists of those days in Snowden’s Hong Kong hotel room.

Compared to when film was shot on actual film and there was no internet distribution, filmmaking has become a far more approachable art form. There’s a sense that anyone can do it. The tools are affordable and user-friendly. There’s dozens of free online tutorials on lighting an interview or storyboarding your documentary. Movies almost seem easy to make.

And, Citizenfour validates that attitude. Poitras shoots in an informal way; there’s nothing flashy or dramatic in her visual style. Noting the long takes, accentuated by focus adjustments and awkward pauses, simple graphics and occasional news footage, a student might even say, “I could do that.” But part of what makes Citizenfour so unnerving is the contrast between this fluid, accessible, directorial style and the unsettling reality of its content.

Yes, “anyone” with a decent camera and mic could have made this film, but only Poitras did. She was the only one whom Snowden trusted for this delicate job. While Snowden went about revealing these secrets through journalists, handing over these documents to the journalists, and then the public, he wanted the process documented by a sympathetic eye. Poitras documented the process.

Poitras has been emphasizing under-reported and anti-establishment stories in her documentation of post 9/11 America. Her work has lead to her repeated detainment at airports—the confidential nature of her footage has resulted in her decision to edit outside of the United States. Snowden chose her because she shares his own fears about a surveillance state. I didn’t learn anything new about the NSA or their vast spying enterprise that was the news of 2013. What I did see was a new kind of relationship and trust that must be cultivated between the filmmaker and her subject. That shared risk and fear of retribution created a bond between them, and the resulting footage resonates with the intimacy of that mutual experience. There’s an adrenaline in the room; we wonder what the personal cost will be to Snowden, and to Poitras herself, for being part of releasing such a massive trove of confidential and damning information. There’s a sense that they are in it together.

Some suspicious part of me also wondered if Citizenfour was just an extension of a selfie. Had Poitras really gotten the ultimate scoop, or just been roped in to holding up the lens for Snowden to show the world what it looked like to be in his shoes? While he claimed to have no personal ambition, by now, among the general public, Snowden is more famous than the documents and data he exposed. Whether you judge or sympathize, you know him. He is public figure. Poitras is a key player in making that happen. Her camera validates the choices Snowden and Greenwald made and her presence in that hotel room confirms how important their voices are.

As I watched Citizenfour I craved some image of Poitras herself. Snowden engages with her directly. Even as he understands that her lens represents millions of viewers, it is her that he interacts with in that room, speaking and looking directly at her. I wanted that camera to turn around and show me who’s perspective I was inhabiting. Poitras stays behind the camera and all we hear is her voice reading the messages she and Snowden exchange behind this bright, sterile hotel room.

In the film Snowden talks about how the press will want to quench their curiosity about who is leaking this information and that he intends to reveal his identity on his own terms with the advice of these trusted journalists. Snowden and Poitras understand our fascination not with the message, but the messenger, and Citizenfour triggers the same curiosity in me. More than wanting to know about Snowden, I am left wanting to know the story of the woman who got us in that hotel room. Does the thrill of being “chosen” by Snowden impact her ability to tell this story? How does she reconcile her role in this situation?

Privileged access. Who or what or where do you have access to that no one else has? Poitras’ unusual choice to sacrifice personal liberties in the pursuit of controversial stories attracts me to her films. Her process and commitment intrigue me. Snowden hopes that more individuals involved in the design and implementation of vast spying machines will come forward, inspired by him. I hope more filmmakers, inspired by Poitras, will come forward and show us what only they can. I hope that they will be individuals propelled, not only by ambition and ideology, but by the curiosity and bravery to confront their own responsibility in the vast media machine they contribute to.

Poitras got what she came for in Snowden. She documents his story, and portrays him in a suspenseful way that keeps audience’s attentive. Still, I wondered if her preconceived ideas about Snowden, whistle blowers and surveillance had hindered her reflexes for other details. Is she just so excited to be in that room, the chosen, trusted secret-keeper, that she no longer questions Snowden? I wanted her to arrive in Hong Kong open to the story, but I think she already knew what she had come to get.

“How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else.”―Buckminster Fuller

What is so Scary About The Walking Dead?

Despite its chilling effects, the commercial viability of fear implies a demand to be scared. There is no better evidence than the record setting premiere of Season 5 of The Walking Dead. But why do we desire fear? What purpose does fictional horror fill for us?

Philosopher Hans Blumenberg says the purpose of horror stories, like all myths, is to reduce the unknown into something tangible—thereby ameliorating the anxiety caused by the unknown. If you accept Blumenberg’s argument, though, there is an apparent contradiction present within our love of horror. Stories are supposed to relieve our fear, yet horror stories cause fear.

From Blumenberg’s perspective, that inconsistency is superficial. Horror stories swap one fear for another by making an intangible threat tangible. They name an unknown menace and through that simple process, reduce its power. That is not to say, though, that the threat is eliminated. On The Walking Dead we have heard zombies called walkers, biters, and geeks, but we are still afraid. And even though we know it is only a TV show (there are no walkers in the street), we still experience fear. A simple explanation for why we fear monsters on a TV show is the fact that the characters show us how to act. But we can react emotionally, following the characters’ portrayed emotions in every genre; it is hardly unique to horror. Moreover, if that were the full explanation, we would stop feeling fear when the show ends. Sometimes, though, the fear sticks around. The question, then, is if not the monsters, what are we still scared of?

The Walking Dead shows how the zombie apocalypse brings out the monstrousness in the survivors.

One response is that there is an ethical horror in scary movies—there are a handful of tropes we see again and again that present the horrific antagonist as a way of revealing the monstrousness of ourselves. As in many previous zombie stories, The Walking Dead shows how the zombie apocalypse brings out the monstrousness in the survivors. The television series began as the comics did: comatose Deputy Rick Grimes awakens to discover the dead meandering the halls outside his hospital room. Meanwhile, his fellow officer and loyal friend, Shane, saves Rick’s family and leads a small band of survivors camped outside Atlanta. But with Rick’s arrival at the camp, we begin to witness a different Shane emerge: a would-be rapist, a murderer and foil for Rick’s attempts to preserve humanity after the dead rise.

Seasons 1 and 2 are structured around this conflict. Rick endeavors to secure as much of a pre-apocalyptic life as possible for his family. His efforts show a cautious optimism that he can restore order to their lives and find a way to recreate a world where zombies are not a constant threat. Ostensibly, Shane is working towards the same goal. But for Shane, the ends justify atrocious means. It becomes obvious, well before the conflict between Rick and Shane resolves, that the zombies are no longer what we should fear the most.

Shane represents a challenge to our value system, but this challenge is only one source of horror. Ethical horror does not explain the horror instilled by the zombies. The walkers retain nothing of their humanity, so we cannot really say they have values of any sort with which to challenge. Eugene Thacker’s book, In the Dust of This Planet, helps us understand why the walkers are horrifying— identifying how this horror challenges our being-in-the-world.

Humans take being, our existence, for granted more than anything else, perhaps because our fundamental mode of being is familiarity with the world. Maggie explains this best reminiscing with her sister about life on the farm before the walkers. As children, they approached the world of their farm as a playground. As adults they invest meaning into the small part of the world where they grew up. But in whatever way we as human beings relate to the world, it is a process of taking the world-in-itself and transforming it into the world we are used to (or the “world-for-us” to borrow Thacker’s term). Certain works of horror, Thacker argues, attempt to reconsider the world outside our typical, anthropocentric view—what he calls the “world-without-us.”

The world-without-us is not necessarily unpopulated by people. If people are still there, they are not center stage—or on stage at all. Thacker points out that the “world-without-us” is not opposed to humans either, writing, “to say that the world-without-us is antagonistic to the human is to attempt to put things in human terms, in terms of the world-for-us.” The world-without-us, then, is the world indifferent to us; a world where all our beliefs are irrelevant and our projects do not actually matter.

Before the apocalypse, the world was under control as far as the survivors in The Walking Dead were concerned. They went about their days in the world-for-us living relatively comfortable lives without worrying about survival every day. But the dead rising disrupts that relationship with the world and presents the survivors an existential threat. The herds of walkers force the survivors to constantly move. Every potential safe harbor fails eventually and it is back to running just to survive a little more.

The persistence the walkers show in pursuing survivors might create the perception the world is out to get humanity. But Thacker anticipates that kind of impression:

“But even this is too anthropocentric a view, as if the world harbored some misanthropic vendetta against humanity. It would be more accurate – and more horrific, in a sense – to say that the world is indifferent to us as human beings.

To say otherwise would imply the walkers have a purpose in mind and are acting toward that end, when in fact they are no more goal-oriented than a hurricane or a pandemic. The walkers might be said then to represent the existential horror. To Rick’s group, the zombies are a constant reminder of a cold, uncaring world and to the home audience they reveal the world-without-us—they are nihilism made manifest.

To Rick’s group, the zombies are a constant reminder of a cold, uncaring world and to the home audience they reveal the world-without-us—they are nihilism made manifest.

The walkers’ likeness to a natural disaster is significant because not all flesh eaters on the show upset our worldview—some bring explicitly ethical challenges. For most of Season 4, the survivors followed signs advertising refuge in the township of Terminus. But like the walkers, the residents of Terminus consume survivors too. Rather than hunting and gathering like Rick’s group, the Terminants choose to lure other survivors to Terminus for dinner. For the walkers and Terminants both, eating people is a way to survive. But the horror we feel at each is distinct. The walkers might appear to share the Terminants’ enthusiasm for consuming humans, but they derive no pleasure from devouring the living. Instead of challenging our value system, the walkers horrify by challenging our being-in-the-world.

As a taxonomy of horror fiction, the existential and the ethical covers a lot of ground and conveniently overlap at The Walking Dead. There are other examples too that horrify through both existential and ethical scares: Aliens, Carrie, and The Cabin in the Woods. There are other examples, of course, that fall mostly or wholly into one category or the other: The Wicker Man in the ethical category and The Exorcist in the existential. These two categories are useful to broadly understand the horror genre. But more importantly than how they might apply classifying works in horror fiction, the categories of existential and ethical horror reflect what we are scared of when we turn off the television and account for why we seek out the scares in the first place.

Marriage (and Black Holes)

Portraying the life of celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking, the new biopic, The Theory of Everything, raises questions about the age-old conundrum of how to reconcile science and religion. Almost entirely paralyzed, Hawking has ALS—a disease that typically condemns the sufferer to gradual muscle degeneration and ultimate respiratory failure in an average timeframe of 39 months. Hawking, however, has outlived his prognosis by 50 years, powerfully contributing to the fields of general relativity and quantum gravity despite his illness.

The film is directed by James Marsh, director of the Academy Award-winning documentary Man on a Wire, and stars Eddie Redmayne as Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane Hawking, his wife of 25 years. Marsh’s wonderfully sensitive Man on a Wire chronicled the irrepressible Phillipe Petit’s mission to tightrope walk between the twin towers. Marsh stays true to his interest in depicting the striving of the human spirit in all its wonderful variety with the The Theory of Everything, directing a script adapted from Jane Hawking’s memoirs Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen. In contrast to other depictions of Hawking’s life and work, The Theory of Everything is distinctive for giving equal weight to the Hawking marriage, Jane’s struggles in caring for Stephen, and maintaining her belief in God against his increasingly strident atheism.

However, in portraying the dynamics of the Hawking household and the issue of faith—and also charting Stephen’s illness and elucidating Stephen’s very abstruse work in astrophysics—the film suffers from its own ambition, taking on more than any movie can be expected to satisfactorily accomplish in 123 minutes. But ambition is never wholly a bad thing. Despite being stretched  thin, the film does succeed in balancing Stephen’s scientific triumphs with the story of Jane’s quiet love and sacrifice, all while providing a thought-provoking domestic microcosm of the fraught intersections of faith and science.

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In her memoir Jane affirms that the schism between science and religion cut across their married life. Before they were married Jane remained convinced that there had to be more to the meaning of life “than was contained in Stephen’s cold philosophy.” The film, however, is only able to give a superficial account of this clash in worldviews. We find out that Jane is “busy on Sundays.” She joins a church choir to find relief from the burden of her domestic duties and comes to have a tense ménage à trois with the choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer. This unconventional relationship is a central focus of the film. At first the relationship was platonic. Jonathan, a recent widower, found solace in helping to care for Stephen and the Hawking family. But as the relationship becomes romantic the film suggests it is their shared faith in God that gives Jane’s relationship with Jonathan an ease that her relationship with Hawking lacks.

Similar to the one-dimensional portrayal of Jane’s faith, the NYT has complained that the depiction of the scientific process in The Theory of Everything is rather muddled. Complex theorems are given superficial explanations and Hawking’s work seems to proceed by a series of inspirations. Although the film sketches the clash between scientific and religious worldviews, the narrative is too driven by biography to deliver a thoughtful treatment of this theme. The Theory of Everything will, however, prompt conversations about the clash between science and religion. It is interesting then, to attempt to push this discussion a bit farther to gain a clearer picture of the intersections of science and faith in Hawking’s life and work.

Stephen Hawking as played by Eddie Redmayne

Stephen Hawking as played by Eddie Redmayne

Hawking’s work has indeed struck right at the heart of the debate between the roles of faith and science. His early work caused a great stir in the scientific community by upsetting the dearly held Steady State Theory, which maintained that the universe had no beginning or end. Hawking’s postgraduate work provided the theoretical basis for the then nascent Big Bang Theory. In part, because of Stephen’s work, the theory that the universe began from a singularity 15 billion years ago has become scientific gospel. Although, he suffered quite a few lecture walkouts in the process of overturning the scientific status quo. It is not difficult to understand why many physicists were reluctant to surrender the Steady State Theory—any theory that suggested the universe had a beginning opened the door to speculations about nonmaterial causes of the universe.

Science has been left to flounder for a material explanation for the origin of the universe since the discovery of cosmic background radiation provided proof for the Big Bang Theory. Remarkably Professor Hawking was among the first to refute the idea that the Big Band Theory required the universe to have a beginning. He has since thrown his support behind Superstring Theory, which appears to be gaining precedence in physics circles, although it has a purely mathematical basis and has not provided a prediction that can be experimentally verified. Superstring Theory predicts that space-time has 11 dimensions and further development of the theory, known as M Theory, makes the remarkable prediction that ours is not the only universe. There may be an infinite number of universes each with it’s own physics. The implication for the beginning of the universe is that space-time, although appearing to be finite, has no boundaries. Hawking writes: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end, it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”

Professor Hawking had an intimate relationship with at least one other person with a robust faith in God. Don N. Page, now a theoretical physicist at the University of Alberta, lived with the Hawkings from 1976-1979 while a doctoral student at Cambridge. The way Don was able to reconcile his beliefs with an interest in physics appeared paradoxical to many onlookers. Don addresses this apparent paradox in the conclusion to a paper entitled Scientific and Philosophical Challenges to Theism:

“As finite beings, we should not expect to understand everything, though it is good to seek as much understanding as possible. We can wrestle with the problems, but in the end we have to live life with the limited knowledge that we do have. Let me close with an aphorism that I coined to summarize my thoughts as a scientist and as a Christian: Science reveals the intelligence of the universe; the Bible reveals the Intelligence behind the universe.”

Physicists do not often make this distinction. Rather they often conflate the “intelligence of the universe” with the “Intelligence behind the universe.” When Einstein said “god doesn’t play dice with the universe” he was voicing opposition to the apparent randomness of quantum theory by, in effect, saying that “God” (the intelligence of the universe) is not like that. Similarly, Professor Hawking ends his first book, the record-breaking best seller A Brief History of Time, with the line, “…if we discover a theory of everything,”… “then we should know the mind of God.”

Nikita Khrushchev also conflated the idea of a God of the universe and a God behind the universe in a 1961 speech given after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the earth. Khrushchev said: “Gagarin went into the heavens and he did not see God.” C.S. Lewis was still alive at the time and he penned an essay responding to this statement entitled The Seeing Eye. In it he writes, “If God exists, he is not a man in the attic, but the Playwright. That means we won’t be able to find him like we would find a passive object with the powers of empirical investigation.” Lewis points out that the expectation that we can discover God or know the mind of God through empirical investigation is mistaken. If a creator God exists then trying to find Him empirically is like Hamlet trying to find Shakespeare by looking in the rafters of the theater.

It’s impossible to watch The Theory of Everything and not feel a tremendous amount of compassion and admiration for a man who has suffered so resolutely through such a horrifying disease. However, it’s also troubling that, although he has been able to intellectually explore the furthest reaches of the universe, the beginning of time and the places where time and space stop, he has confined himself to the limits of the universe, never allowing his imagination to consider what might lie beyond the rafters of the theater.

Dear White People: Identity in the Post-Obama Era

Spoiler Alert: Major elements of the plot are discussed in this post.

 

The film Dear White People is a provocative piece of social commentary that represents a post-Obama generation come of age. Satirically portraying what it’s like to be a black student at an elite, predominantly white institution of higher education, a “black face in a white space,” the movie explores the performances and negotiations of identity on a college campus. As a recent graduate from a predominantly white college, I found Dear White People to be over-the-top and too real all at the same time (perhaps the intended goal of a satire?). More importantly, this movie captures a historical moment that coincides with a Millennial post-racial malaise and the encroaching politics of white resentment.

The story revolves around four black characters who attend the mostly white, fictional Ivy-league Winchester University. Samantha White is the artsy, “radical” student who hosts a campus radio show called “Dear White People.” Lionel Higgins is the nerdy and openly gay aspiring writer who doesn’t fit in with any group and attempts to break through at the student newspaper. Troy Fairbanks is the clean-cut, secretly pot-smoking, outgoing head of the traditionally black residence hall and happens to be son of the Dean of Students. Coco Connors is the “diva” from Chicago’s South Side who’s trying to assimilate and achieve fame. As the story unfolds, with Sam surprisingly beating Troy for head of house, and then culminates with a controversial “blackface” Halloween party, the identities of the four are further complicated with the biggest twist coming in the development of Sam’s character.

If there’s a villain in the movie it’s Kurt Fletcher, who embodies “privilege” as the son of the university president and as head of the campus’s elite humor magazine. In one particular scene, Kurt and Sam get into a heated exchange in the cafeteria of the traditionally black residence hall about who belongs where on campus. Sam sarcastically apologizes to Kurt: “On behalf of all the colored folks in the room let me apologize to all the better qualified white students whose place we’re taking up.” At one point, Kurt exclaims: “I believe the hardest thing to be in today’s workforce is an educated white man.” When I heard Kurt’s words in the theater, they were all too familiar. It’s moments like these when Dear White People really gets the racialized tensions in today’s college campuses. Swimming against a stream of post-racial consciousness, minority students are confronted by a growing sentiment among their white peers that it is they who are systematically disadvantaged in today’s age of multiculturalism, political correctness, and there-being-a-black-president.

Kurt and Sam

Kurt and Sam

But aren’t Millennials more inclusive? Kurt’s post-racial frustrations may appear to be exaggerated until one is reminded that a recent study found that 48% of Millennials think “discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against racial minorities.” Dear White People scratches below the surface of 21st century campuses to show that we haven’t progressed that far when it comes to race; it scratches to reveal simmering tensions and often claws to render dramatically explicit—sometimes overwhelmingly so—what goes on implicitly but would not necessarily be said in real-life dialogue.

One of the most striking scenes is a film within the film. For a class project, Sam creates a short film called “Rebirth of Nation,” a reimagining of the classic (and white supremacist) American film, “Birth of a Nation.” Sam’s short silent film depicts whites in white-face hurling insults at Obama after he wins the presidency and consequently weeping and losing all hope for life when he gets re-elected. After the screening is over in the classroom, Sam’s white peers are speechless—noticeably uncomfortable. This moment in the film, with its subtle and sharp commentary, is reflective of a post-Obama generation disillusioned with post-racial fantasies and having to respond to white reactions to demographic changes. Where some see progress, others see and experience institutions’ inability to address racial legacies. Perhaps this is best exemplified by Winchester University’s proposed “Randomization of Housing Act,” the cause of Sam and her radical friends’ initial protests. The housing act would diversify—break up the traditionally black resident hall—all housing in theory but most likely hurt black students in practice.

To come of age after Obama became president is to live in a world of progressive contradictions. On the one hand, there are more people championing marriage equality. On the other hand, we have the American courts gutting affirmative action and voting rights. The growing consensus appears to hold that we’ve moved beyond race and best thing to do is stress color-blind equality. In addition to this, coinciding with the rise of Obama and demographic changes in the country, there’s an emerging politics of white resentment. Flying in the face of history and accounts of economic and social power, whites come to be seen as the “new” disadvantaged group discriminated against. This is the backdrop of kids going to college after Obama. College tends to always involve heightened identity confusion and exploration. Dear White People takes the perennial themes of college-age identity confusion, exploration, and belonging and places them in the context of a post-Obama America.

What director Justin Simien says about black identity in the development of the four main characters will certainly raise questions and debate. Blackness is portrayed as a diverse array of performative strategies. Particularly noteworthy, and the driving force of the film, is Sam’s transformation in which she apparently renounces her radical “act,” an act pressured in part by her black love interest, Reggie.

In the early part of the film, Sam neatly fits into an agitating protester archetype: calling out the president, distributing a subversive pamphlet called “Ebony & Ivory,” and making quips (e.g. “Dear White People, the amount of black friends required not to seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, your weed man, Tyrone, doesn’t count”) on her radio program. Yet, we later learn that she is secretly sleeping with one of her class TAs, a white man named Gabe, and that her ailing father—whom she says little of to others—is white. These loves in her life push her towards a crossroads in which she is forced to confront an identity she has taken up, one that has crowded out her loves and authentic interests.

It’s Gabe, Sam’s white lover, who attempts to define who she really is: an anarchist, an artist at heart “who actually likes Ingmar Bergman more than Spike Lee.” In this intimate conversation in her room, Sam appears to accept the claim. This is confirmed by Sam’s change of hair and dress, and by what we surprisingly discover is her involvement in creating the invite for the scandalous blackface Halloween party. The party becomes a canvass for her to draw out what she knows is already present on campus, and she shows up with her camera to create her next short film for class.

Does Sam’s shift away from her radical “act” represent a repudiation of black radicalism on the part of this film? One possible way to read this is to see Simien—maybe unhealthily—pitting radicalism against anarchy/art and the role of the artist. A broader question that can also be asked: does this movie re-center whiteness in the character of Sam? Perhaps the liberative potentials of Simien’s black characters remain constrained.

If you want Dear White People to be primarily a catalogue of microaggressions or a pedagogical tool to explain all of the intricacies of racism to white people, you will likely walk away disappointed. The director himself has stated in interviews that he sees the film as preeminently about identity, about the theatricality and presentational nature of identity. If you watch Dear White People as a campus satire about identity in post-Obama America, then it has something to say. Hopefully Simien and others will say more.

If You’re an Artist, Wayne White Understands

I used to watch Netflix documentaries on my laptop while getting ready for work. One particular morning, without pretense or expectation, I clicked on the documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, and then, about twenty minutes into the film, I had one of those moments. A moment when a truth connects with you so deeply that time seems to stop. A slow-motion epiphany isn’t a good thing when getting ready for work. When I came home that day and the next morning and the next evening after that, I watched the movie again and again, trying to soak up its wisdom—learning about working hard, believing in yourself, artistic inspiration, and being brave.

The road an artist travels is almost always the “road less traveled.” It is exhilarating to be an explorer, to chart new territory. No matter how independent or audacious a traveler you may be, however, sometimes it’s nice to have simple tools, like a map and a compass. The subject of Beauty is Embarrassing, lifelong artist Wayne White, is farther down the road than most and can tell you how he got there. He has been creating art for decades, but is just being noticed by the fine art world. His start came with the avant-garde children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where he flexed all his artistic muscles, building sets and puppets, and providing voices for multiple characters. The show became a cult sensation across the country, for adults and children alike. (The show’s creators knew the show was big when they heard of college students filling bars at 7am to watch episodes together.)

White is an artist because he has to be. It’s a compulsion. He certainly didn’t do it for success or accolades, because those were a long time coming. For those with similar creative compulsions, Wayne’s wisdom can meet you on that road. It doesn’t have to be as lonely as we make it out to be. These are the lessons that met me.

1. “Art is a 24/7 lifestyle.”
"It never stops"

“It never stops”

Key word: lifestyle. Art is not a job. (Well, maybe you make money at it as your profession, in which case, we’re all jealous.) No one wants to work 24/7, but people want to live in wonder and possibility all day everyday and that is what you’ve signed up for as an artist.

"Fried Chicken"

“Fried Chicken” comes from series where White pours paint onto a canvas and then describes what it looks like after drying.

I worry that I have no big stories, no resolutions, and no takeaways. But I make myself write anyway. I write about finding a stray strand of hair glued by condensation to the outer rim of my drinking glass. I write about sitting on an upholstered stool at Chipotle, watching passersby on Sixth Avenue. I write about my first personal essay getting jammed in the work printer for my boss to later find.

You must open your mind to the wonder around every corner—that must drive you. The whole reason you’re an artist is you want to share your point of view with an audience. Make sure that view port stays open all the time, that your whole lens on life becomes that view port. You can’t pursue depth and live a shallow life. Real life happens in the real world, and real art happens in the real world. In some ways, creativity is an escape from reality, but in other ways it’s meant to engage it at the highest level. Andy Warhol had similar advice: “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” If you can’t find art in the quotidian, where else are you going to find it?

2. “A lot of art is ditch digging.”
"Impossible"

“Impossible”

Towards the beginning of the film, White is sitting in his dimly lit art studio, back facing the camera. He steadily and painstakingly moves his brush across the canvas and says this line. “A lot of art is ditch digging.” Remember that activity or work you resented because you saw it as tedious and time-consuming, but then you saw it with new artist eyes and it became shiny and new? That shiny and new thing will become the new tedious and time-consuming thing. It’s just how the cycle works. Such is life and such is the creative process. The time when a project becomes tedious and time-consuming is the worst time to give up on it. You’ve already got skin in the game.

"Dunno"

“Dunno”

Only in the ditch-digging phase of writing do I begin to see the broader implications of my everyday observations. The awareness of a strand of hair has more to do with the fear of losing my hair. The trick is enjoying and embracing the tedium as a pursuit in and of itself. At this point on the artistic road it is easy to lose track of the finish line. In this moment you might be tempted to ditch this project for a new one. More likely, however, you’ll be tempted to change the “direction” of your piece substantially. This is a trap door that many people fall through. Drastically changing the direction or thesis of your project midway through so that it is basically unrecognizable from your original intent is the same thing as ditching your project. Don’t do that. Unless you really, really have to.

3. “Hoozy Thinky Iz?”
"Hoozy Thinky Iz?"

“Hoozy Thinky Iz?”

White painted this old school cartoon saying across the canvas of one of his word paintings. It’s the imposter syndrome, the voice that lives inside the head of every creative that says over and over “what right do you have to be here?” It’s the creeping suspicion that all of your peers actually paid attention in school and have deeper thoughts and smarter reasons. It’s the feeling that you’re the only one without a hardcore purpose and mission behind your work. It’s the feeling that you’re a fraud and everybody knows it. You’re not fooling anybody.

These are my own insecurities. At times I feel like a pseudo-everything: pseudo-friend, pseudo-designer, pseudo-writer. Nothing is as humbling as moving to New York City upon graduating from college, where Ivy League degrees are treated like passport stamps. One is requisite; two are preferable.

One antidote is simply to know that all other artists, including Wayne White, suffer from this. It doesn’t make one’s mind a fun place to live, but it helps create some good art. To run at a fast pace, you either must be running away from something or towards something, or both. If you let “Hoozy Thinky Iz?” chase you, you’ll run faster, but you’ll run out of breath really fast and might wind up on a different road entirely (see lesson 2). At the end of the film Wayne seems tired and ready to end his dysfunctional relationship with the voice of doubt. “The ‘Hoozy Thinky Iz?’ phantom is always in my head,” he says. “Even though I’m looking around going, ‘Who’s even saying that to you anymore, Wayne?’”

4. “Beauty is Embarrassing.”
"Beauty is Embarrassing"

“Beauty is Embarrassing”

This is the heart of the documentary. Creating the work is only half the battle. Believing in it, being naked and vulnerable enough to share it is the other half. We are embarrassed in the presence of true beauty and embarrassed to think we are capable of producing true beauty ourselves. An artist’s life will always live within this tension.

White is embarrassed to share what he does for a living. He fears calling himself an artist sounds both self-aggrandizing and downright silly. His fear is far harsher than anyone’s reaction. Eleanor Roosevelt famously said that no one can make you feel inferior without your consent; and no one can make you feel embarrassed without your consent. Even so, allowing others to view and critique your work will always involve embarrassment. My personal essay getting jammed in the printer at work was terrible. I did not want anyone to read what I had written, especially my boss. And yet, this exemplifies a complicated relationship with writing because, of course, I had also written because I wanted everyone to read. Art is always personal, and sharing it will always feel like you are sharing an unfamiliar part of yourself.

Part of White’s mission is to imbue the art world with a sense of humor, encouraging it to stop taking itself so seriously. He is sure to point out, however, that this mission has come up against a great deal of resistance. “Entertainment is a dirty word in the art world,” he confides. Many critics cannot accept a piece of art as both meaningful and humorous. But humor is serious business to White. If he did not view laughter as important, as something both healing and sacred, it would not be worth it for him to subject himself to the judgments of the art world, to risk embarrassment. Indeed, the embarrassment has a purpose. The viewer can sense that as White has come into his own as an artist, he now understands the importance of pursuing a mission in his work. Running away from “Hoozy Thinky Iz?” is no longer sustainable. Running towards a goal, having a concrete purpose is a stronger and more rewarding driving force. This alone is what makes an artist brave enough to share. It also turns out to be the only map you ever really need.

 

A Broken Person Taking Care of Broken People

In an early scene of the new documentary The Overnighters, a young man with bloodshot eyes describes how he ended up jobless and homeless in the fracking boomtown of Williston, North Dakota. After a fruitless job search in his Indiana hometown, he read an article claiming there was “boatloads” of work in the oil fields of North Dakota. Desperate, he borrowed money from his grandmother and bought a one-way ticket to Williston. At this point, he leans back in his chair, saying: “It’s been trial after trial and I’m at the end of my rope.” Unconsciously, his hands grip his throat as he leans forward again.

Through this man and others like him, The Overnighters reveals a hidden dark side of American energy production. Beyond environmental concerns, the film adds the fear that this voracious industry treats human beings as expendable in ways reminiscent of the social novels of John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and Upton Sinclair. However, as stark as they are, neither the human nor the environmental costs of fracking are the main focus of The Overnighters. Rather they provide the ominous background to the more singular story of human desperation found in the film’s subject: Pastor Jay Reinke.

Pastor Reinke

Pastor Reinke

Curious about life in an oil boomtown, San Francisco based filmmaker Jesse Moss began reading the Williston Herald in 2011. His curiosity was kindled by Pastor Jay Reinke’s column, which called on the community to welcome the men traveling to Williston hoping for jobs. Moss noted this as an unusual sentiment in Williston, especially following the kidnapping and murder of Montana schoolteacher Sherry Arnold by men looking for oil work. Moss called Reinke and the pastor explained how he allowed out-of-work newcomers to sleep on the floor of his church. Reinke invited Moss to come see what was happening. Traveling alone, camera in tow, Moss ended up living among the homeless men and women in the church for periods as long as six months, filming this exercise in charity on a daily basis.

There was no noble beginning to the “overnighter” program. A man came into Reinke’s office saying that he had been sleeping in his car for three weeks and couldn’t take it anymore. The pastor offered him the floor of the church. Word spread and Reinke continued saying yes to the desperate men and women who came into his office until the church was housing dozens each night.

Perhaps because of a natural screen presence or because, as a pastor, he is practiced in living a public life, the story irresistibly gravitates toward Reinke. Reinke comes across as energetic and forthright with a compassion born of equal parts idealism and pragmatism. He recites the simple rationale for his work: “I can’t save the world. But there is a man standing in my office. I can help this man.” He hugs the men who unburden their pain on him and begins his days striding cheerfully through his church, gently but insistently waking the sleeping men by singing hymns. The burdens of the desperate men he has befriended become his own and he prays with them: “Oh God. Please. Where we are tempted to despair. Give us hope.” For stretches of the movie the audience is almost willing to believe that he might embody this hope. Almost.

Reinke’s charm is accentuated by his openness and self-consciousness. His positivity is peppered with asides like: “No one has pure motives. Maybe my motivation is that I don’t say ‘no’ very easily and it’s better to say ‘yes’ and live with the consequences.” However, as Reinke’s story unfolds, these comments seem less like reflective self-deprecation and more like the cries of a burdened conscience. As Reinke’s program balloons, accommodating 50 men every night in the church, cracks begin to show in his persona and in the congregation of Concordia Lutheran Church. Belying the etymology of their name (Concordia: of one heart), Reinke’s flock begins to balk at his open-armed stance toward the needy out-of-towners, several of whom have felony convictions. Made uneasy by the men inhabiting their church and dubious of a pastor they perceive as incautious, congregants begin to leave the church. Here, too, Reinke is transparent, acknowledging that just as his faith prompts him to love and serve the overnighters, he is called to love and serve those who don’t want them there.

Handout photo of Reinke is shown in this film production still addressing oil-patch workers from his church pulpit in Drafthouse Films' "The Overnighters" in Williston

This tension builds to a dramatic third act revelation that requires a rethinking of Jay Reinke’s work and motivations. The intimacy of this portion of the film is almost off-putting. It includes a conversation between Reinke and his wife in which he reveals something so personal it is almost too uncomfortable to watch. It is helpful to know that initially Pastor Reinke protested the inclusion of this portion of the film, fearing that it detracted from the message of hope the overnighters program represented. However, director Jesse Moss convinced Reinke and his family that their willingness to be open about their lives was a powerful message and would not obscure the message of the film. Reinke has supported the film, helping to present it at Sundance and other festivals.

The opening scene of the film foreshadows the disintegration that Reinke’s persona will undergo. In shadowy twilight, Reinke, facing away from the camera, contemplates how “it is easy to become a facade, maybe especially when you are a pastor.” Only after witnessing Reinke’s personal disintegration does it become possible to understand the depth of torment in these words.

With all of its complexity, it is difficult to know what Reinke’s story means. What does it mean that, even at their best, human beings do good for very complex and sometimes conflicting reasons? Certainly, if we look this closely at anyone’s life, cracks will begin to show. Perhaps Reinke summarizes the meaning best when he states that even in the generous act of welcoming the homeless, he was just “a broken person helping to take care of other broken people.”

Saint Fred

 “You can ask a lot of questions about the world and your place in it.

You can ask about people’s feelings; you can learn the sky’s the limit.”

—Fred Rogers, “Did You Know?”

I was a late 70s New York City latch key kid: TV dinners were stocked in the freezer for lonely evenings, I got the actual chicken pox, eating bologna and cheese on white bread wasn’t the moral issue it is now. We had scratchy brown-beige sofas and wore unfortunate sweatsuits and played handclap games instead of touchscreen ones. There’s not much more of my childhood that I do remember, though. Like many others, I was a statistic of childhood trauma. Most of my childhood memories are halting, hazy and a bit gloomy, but there were two safe places to which I remember retreating: my Grampa’s freckled arms as we snuggled on his fake-leather recliner and watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and under my covers at night with a flashlight and a picture book.

The most precious of my books were ones like Winnie the Pooh, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Frog and Toad; I still have my tattered copies of The Two Admirals and Around the House that Jack Built. The material treasure of my life—I may will to be buried with it—is my well-loved copy of Cinderella by Hilary Knight. I was a self-initiating child, teaching myself to draw by copying pages from my picture books. As time went on, it seemed the stories I gravitated to most were the dark fairy tales such as The Little Match Girl and The Tinder Box. The more difficult and nuanced the hero’s crisis, the sweeter the victory. What these stories offered were existential containment and categorization of experience, which were of immeasurable importance to me in an untethered home life. I believe that is also why I gravitated specifically to Mr. Rogers: his mastery of creating an environment of safe containment. It was within this framework that he encouraged children like me to try new things, to learn about others’ lives, and to be brave in the face of challenge.

Those in my generation remember the calm, reassuring tone of Fred Rogers as we traveled to “The Neighborhood of Make Believe” and watched balloons and crayons being factory-made on “Picture Picture,” but we may not realize the gift he gave to Generations X. I credit him as one of the most profound influences on my work. My career as an illustrator owes a debt directly to Rogers and his validation of the child’s inner life.

Saint Fred

“Saint Fred” illustration by Vesper Stamper 

Childhood is an expansive time. A child’s imagination is seemingly limitless, and of course that is one of the best things about it. But if the unexpected or unimaginable happens—divorce, abuse, the death of a loved one or even of a pet—the imagination can become a limitless enemy: nightmares, paralyzing fears and distrust of adults can result even from the shadows of these events. We would do well to remember that we do not raise “children.” Instead, we are given stewardship over future adults who must be able to succeed and thrive in a very beautiful, but very flawed, world. Both realities—beauty and pain—need to be acknowledged and prepared for as children grow, within an appropriately expanding worldview.

At a recent coffee date with a friend, we discussed our seven-year-olds’ fears and insecurities. My friend’s daughter deals with separation anxiety, and with powerlessness concerning stories of others’ suffering. Mine struggles with paralyzing irrational fears. I offered to my friend a technique that seemed to be working for us: deep investment in fostering my daughter’s personal prayer life with an infinitely intimate Father. My friend said that she encourages her child to send her fears out into “The Universe.” I wondered later, could that be serving to deepen the insecurity? If we acknowledge this concept of expansiveness, we see that “The Universe” is an awfully big, unknowable place, whether you’re seven or 70.

Booking flights to Europe—does anyone have any SAS Airlines horror stories? The Waldorf educational philosophy pinpoints the end of a “fantasy worldview” right at about age six or seven, which is why, in that model, formal education in didactic subjects like reading are only hinted at until after this “awakening” has taken place. We find this line between “real” and “imagined” to be extremely fuzzy at seven, which explains the monsters in the closet, the bedwetting, the imaginary friend, the fluidity in understanding of time. The last thing that children would seem to need during these formative years would be sending their precious emotional and mental cargo on a spaceship into the Universe. What if the Universe is the Ultimate Closet of Monsters?

Fred Rogers, however, brings the scale of childhood experience into the confined square footage of the child’s own person.*  His small house set is, as he readily tells children, merely his television house. It is a model of the imagination: it has possibilities (Will Purple Panda come to Make-Believe today? What trick does Lady Elaine have up her sleeve?), but also boundaries and routines: Trolley always goes to Make-Believe, never to any place else; Mr. Rogers demarcates the time for imagination by changing out of his “real” coat and shoes into his “playtime” sweater and sneakers. This helps children gently bridge the “real” and “imagined” worlds between which they are in constant flux.

And this is what great books do, too: whether experienced in a lap or under the covers at night, the child has a manageable parcel of real estate in which to park her emotions: See? The world is not as wild as it seems. The Pigeon cannot and will not drive the bus, and Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Days do come to an end. Pooh wanders the Hundred-Acre Wood, but always under the omniscience of Christopher Robin. You do not have to wield the sword against the Closet Monster alone, because someone has gone before you, in a book, or a trusted guide, like Mr. Rogers, has told you that you cannot go down the bathtub drain.

Mr. Rogers’ wisdom is just this: children, even children who have endured suffering and challenge, have the innate potential for self-mastery, so necessary for navigating the world. He confirms that you are special, even if your caregivers tell you that you are worthless; your experience and feelings are valid—to your television friend, at least, whether or not your school friends agree; even if the world around you is wild and unpredictable, you have inherent worth, and “people can like you, just the way you are.”

In my own work, I seek to validate the dignity of the emotional life of the child, to provide imaginative possibilities, but never with cheap tricks, manipulative marketing or inescapable despair. It is this scaling down the wild world of which Rogers was such a master, and which is my own guiding principle. I, too, seek to build the mystical Bifrost bridge between “reality” and “imagination” for these future, brave adults who have been entrusted to our care, as parents and as artists.

* Levi Pinfold, in his new and superlative book, The Black Dog, portrays this “shrinking down” of the huge and unknowable into an animal that shrinks as it goes only where the child can fit.

This piece was originally published in April 2013.

Why Pick the Old Bones?

Like many good curators, Sir Walter Scott was a creative falsifier with a rich sense of his own license. Many of us know him by reputation rather than by reading, but The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border has shaped English-speaking culture because it was one of the first and best literary assertions of enthusiasm for the local. We owe our American passion for regional farms and boutique shopping at least partly to Scott’s collection of lowland border songs and legends, because he was one of the first cultural figures of significance to celebrate what was near for nearness’s sake. The Minstrelsy itself, after a little investment in its dialects, is a rollicking read—since the ballads and poems it includes intentionally avoid the highbrow, they tend toward the lurid, and forecast a career where Scott continued to make heaps of money with stories of suddenlylost virginity or violent death, including one where a witch actually blows up a hunter on the doorstep of his cabin.

Scott was a full-time anthologist before he became the popular novelist and poet, but it is widely recognized that he added his own touch—even his own stanzas—to the songs and stories he preserved, so that The Minstrelsy should be seen as an act of invention as much as one of arrangement. And as quickly as the curator became creative, he started to feel the guilt associated with profiting from old war stories, which were his anthology’s main fare. The Minstrelsy includes an “anonymous” poem about two crows eating a dead soldier, “The Twa Corbies,” which simmers with a restless regret about depicting violence that has hounded generations of writers since. Settling on the corpse, one crow says to the other:

…Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek oor nest whan it grows bare.

Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
Oer his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.

Whether Scott wrote parts of this poem or only smoothed its edges is unimportant. What matters is its intentional place in the collection, constituting a confession, or at least a worry, on its author’s part. When we pick the bones of old stories, especially about conflict, do we assume a part of the war-guilt that leaves us a little richer for plucking out the “bonny blue een” of the dead?

Since this dilemma has roots in our most popular kinds of storytelling, it isn’t surprising that it has cropped up everywhere from the gardens around Scott’s mansion to the Hollywood box office. There is nothing historical about the wildly profitable film adaptation of Marvel’s comic series The Guardians of the Galaxy, but its plot is palatable and resonant because it is built on familiar political premises. A religious extremist, Ronin, is stirring up trouble in politically unsettled territories, seizing the power always available to maniacs in a culture of fear, and conducting ethnic slaughter while the distant governments who might be able to do something about it flounder in a bog of bureaucratic halfheartedness. Subtract space travel and walking tree-beasts from the premise and it sounds like a lead from CNN.

It is significant that Ronin’s character and motivations were adapted to echo contemporary world-political events—a wise move on the filmmakers’ part, and one that places The Guardians of the Galaxy squarely in “The Twa Corbies’” territory: The narrative gets its punch, its sense of currency and relevance, by picking over stories of real international violence—scavenging the battlefield, as Scott would have put it.

But is it necessary for our storytellers to wrestle with this theoretical guilt, or for us—the consumers—to equivocate before we buy a movie ticket? The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney, one of our master political storytellers of the last century, certainly thought so. As a survivor of Ireland’s Ulster Troubles, Heaney discovered much of his subject matter in the rubble of grocery stories blown up by the IRA or their enemies, and his sense of scavenger’s guilt was so acute it became the paradigm of his early work. “Bone Dreams,” one of his many poems about digging up Irish graves, locates the cause of the Troubles in England’s savage, militarized colonial politics at the time of the Act of Union, but the guilt he reserves for himself:

White bone found
on the grazing:
the rough, porous
language of touch

and its yellowing, ribbed
impression in the grass —
a small ship-burial.
As dead as stone,
flint-find, nugget
of chalk,
I touch it again,
I wind it in

the sling of mind
to pitch it at England
and follow its drop
to strange fields.

Heaney was aware that his poems would be read widely, “dropping to strange fields” even if he aimed his spite at England, but also that by writing about Ireland’s past he disturbed actual graves, unearthing deep hurt and political rancor along local party lines. It took him years to reconcile himself to a creative process that destabilized Ireland’s tenuous seasons of peace to seek out solutions beyond the power of politics, but when peace finally came to him in “Station Island,” it wasn’t through a rejection of his identification with the corbies. Instead, he literally embraced the dead, allowing the “cold and bony” hand of a corpse to lead him on a visionary journey:

Like a convalescent, I took the hand
Stretched down from the jetty, sensed again
An alien comfort as I stepped on ground
To find the helping hand still gripping mine,
Fish-cold and bony…

…the tall man in step at my side
Seemed blind, though he walked straight as a rush
Upon his ash plant, his eyes fixed straight ahead.

Accepting his identity as scavenger allowed Heaney an “alien comfort”: the realization that in a violent world, violence is inherent to truth telling. The trick was to avoid what Romantic scholar Fiona Stafford calls the “anonymous and predatory” posture of the crow, and involve himself emotionally in the narratives he salvaged. It is not bloodiness that’s the crime, but detachment.

The professional hooligans in The Guardians of the Galaxy have more or less the same epiphany, deciding that while they are happy to steal from the government, blow up a prison, and break people’s necks over a stolen Walkman, detaching themselves would be appalling when the situation escalates to ethnic cleansing. Star Lord and his friends are willing to profit from the help they lend the government that defamed them in the first place, because the only alternative would be a culpable silence—the same silence that Scott and Heaney rejected by continuing to write. But this tension isn’t laid to rest because some of our literary predecessors or blockbuster heroes found peace about it in their own time: Since the dilemma is founded on conflict, it will continue to behave like conflict—evolving, defying borders, and troubling the comfortable. In that sense scavenger’s guilt isn’t an impediment to good writing, but one of its predicates: the dead weight at the bottom that makes it seaworthy.

 

Quotidian Magic

It’s a wonder that Richard Linkater’s new movie Boyhood ever got funded, because on paper the story must have sounded really boring: a brother and sister complain about moving, go bowling, go to school.  They go to a baseball game with their dad. They jump on a trampoline. They have lots of walk-and-talks.  Not to mention the fact that Linklater was also asking for a 4,207 day shooting schedule. But thank goodness for the plucky executive who gave the gutsy green light, because Boyhood is a film that is much bigger than the sum of its mundane parts.

In his essay, which Emily Belz cited in her review for WORLD,  “E Unibus Pluram” David Foster Wallace critiques the stylized conceits of contemporary cinema and television as meretriciously catering to our desire to transcend our average daily lives. These hysterical collages are, in his words, “unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting … more lively.”  We leave these films dazzled, punching the air, ready to do combat with a gang of bad guys or lose a pursuer in a car chase, but we enjoy none of the edifying potential that Leo Tolstoy and other early theorizers of cinema’s potential saw in the fledgling art form.

Contemporary independent cinema often works in stubborn self-conscious contrast to the transcendence aesthetic, but too often the results are aimless, dreary, overly abstract, and riddled with dead points.  It is only once in a great while that a film eschews the comparatively easy luster of dreams and manages to turn the stuff of our average daily lives into something magical. Boyhood is one of these rare films.

In the late 1990s Linklater began to process a specific inclination to depict the 12 years of public school that is the average American childhood.  His conception of this work, however, repeatedly ran aground against the problem of time limitations imposed by the physicality of actors.  He meditated on the problem for two years until, like Archimedes in his bathtub, an elegantly simple solution presented itself—provide time for the actors to age along with their characters.

 

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Boyhood focuses on the lives of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), father Masor Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) over the course Mason’s rather ordinary childhood. What makes the film remarkable is that Linklater shot the film in short annual increments over a period of 12 years. He then collapsed this collection of segments seamlessly into a 3 hour feature. Thus the film not only depicts a story arc, but also the actual physical and emotional maturation of the characters (and actors) as they age. The effect, like human time-lapse photography, is breathtaking.

If great art, like science, advances through problem solving, then Linklater is the ‘scientist’ to make this breakthrough.  This latest temporal experiment is the culmination of an increasingly sophisticated body of work preoccupied with the subject of time.  These films include Tape (2001), which unfolds in real time, Waking Life (2001), which evokes the experience of a continuous dreamlike present, and most notably his Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy. These three films—chronicling love and marriage, spanning 18 years, and shot in fictional 6 year increments—come closest to the formal experimentation and thematic concerns of Boyhood.

Although similar in structure and concept, the impression of time created in the Before Trilogy is distinct from Boyhood.  The Before films are remarkable for tracking the vicissitudes of a relationship—the longing, romance, frustration, and disappointments—over an 18-year period. But taken together, the films play as a series of vignettes, suggesting that, rather than a continuous progression, time moves in fits and starts, in sprawling years punctuated by intensely dramatic moments. Boyhood, because of its tighter narrative arc and shooting schedule, creates a markedly new sense of the progression of time. Just as time-lapse photography allows for normally imperceptible phenomena to be observed (plants growing, for example), Boyhood reveals the interstices between the dramatic events of childhood, in which memories are made and real life is lived.

It is not only the unconventionally long shooting schedule of Boyhood that captures this resonant experience of time and memory, but also Linklater’s choice to keep the momentous and melodramatic events of childhood at the periphery of the film. The film functions like a subjective memory of childhood, where the big events often take second-tier status to quieter moments and memories that remain embedded in our consciousness and puzzle us by their lack of significance.

 

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In an early scene in the movie, a young Harry Potter-reading Mason asks his father: “Is there any real magic in the world?” His father answers:

“…. what if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean there is this giant sea mammal that can use sonar and sing songs and it was so big that it’s heart was as big as a car and you could crawl through it’s arteries. You would think that’s pretty magical right?”

In the same way, by skirting the momentous events of childhood and allowing its gaze to rest gracefully on the quotidian, Boyhood evokes what is wondrous and memorable in everyday life.

 

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As late as the editing process, Linklater and his team were considering titling the movie “Always Now.” The final bit of dialogue in the film expresses this dominant theme of the passage of time. Mason and a friend muse that rather than the platitude “seize the moment” being true, the moment seizes us. “The moments are constant. It is always right now,” says Mason.

In choosing the title Boyhood, though, Linklater acknowledges that there is more to the film than a meditation on the passage of time. The film’s pathos resides there.

Part of the film’s pathos resides in the tension between the thrill and potential of the future and the persistent sense that the march of time is relentless and the past is irretrievable.  There is hope and excitement as we see Mason realize potential and independence, but also tragedy.  Upon sending her son to college, Mason’s mother weeps and holds her head in her hands considering the series of milestones that has been her life and the fact that her funeral is the next to come, she laments: “I just thought there would be more.”

This chafing for something more in the face of one’s mortality is an articulation of what the modernist poet Wallace Stevens called “the need of some imperishable bliss.”  It is a desire for transcendence more fundamental than the desire to escape from our lives through entertainment that David Foster Wallace so aptly identifies.  It is the hope of coming into contact with something bigger than ourselves, something “more,” something outside of time. In Escape From Evil, Ernest Becker calls this man’s desire “to know that his life has somehow counted,” but, “in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.”

“…in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.”

For all of its intelligence and sensitivity, like much of contemporary narrative, Boyhood vividly traces the contours of this desire for the transcendent at the center of the modern psyche but offers little insight into how it might be healed. Because the making of the film not only spanned 12 years in the lives of its actors but also 12 years in Linklater’s own life and career, the viewer cannot help but think about how the director has changed over the period.

 

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In contrast, Linklater’s early, and granted, less mature, films are doggedly concerned with questioning the possibility of encountering the transcendent. Near the end of Waking Life, Linklater himself addresses the camera with a spiel about his favorite topic:

“There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity. And it’s an instant in which God is posing a question, and that question is basically, ‘Do you want to, you know, be one with eternity? Do you want to be in heaven?’ And we’re all saying, ‘No thank you. Not just yet.’ And so time is actually just this constant saying ‘No’ to God’s invitation.  And there’s just this one instant, and that’s what we’re always in. And actually this is the narrative of everyone’s life. That, you know, behind the phenomenal difference, there is but one story, and that’s the story of moving from the ‘no’ to the ‘yes.’ All of life is like, ‘No thank you. No thank you. No thank you.’ Then ultimately it’s, ‘Yes, I give in. Yes, I accept. Yes, I embrace.'”

Although Boyhood is a cinematic achievement that won’t soon be eclipsed, it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic for the more impetuous and philosophically adventurous Linklater of 13-years ago, an artist who seemed open to a magic beyond the quotidian. Regardless, it’s impossible to be a movie lover and not feel excited to see what this innovative director does next.

Bearing New Images

Hayao Miyazaki’s films are some of the most charming in the short history of cinema. The heroes of his animated tales—Pazu in Castle in the Sky, Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke, and Princess Nausicaä in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind—adventure through richly imagined worlds, amongst spirits and gods, where the stakes are very high: love is tested by hate, good by evil, life by death. And despite their many obstacles and inner temptations, Miyazaki’s heroes choose rightly: Pazu embraces love, Ashitaka stands with good, and Nausicaä dies for life.

Turning Point is the second in a pair of memoirs by the author. More can be learnt about Starting Point 1979-1996 by following this link.

Through their triumphs, Miyazaki’s heroes are liberated. They soar—literally. All but two of his ten written and directed films feature an extended scene in which our heroes take flight, weave through the clouds, and ride the wind across a lush acrylic sky. One feels free when watching his films.

But Miyazaki himself is weighed down, overburdened and in despair. That’s the principal lesson of Turning Point: 1997-2008, a collection of translated interviews, public statements, essays, and panels on which Miyazaki sat, compiled from the years he directed Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Howl’s Moving Castle. The book offers “lessons” rather than “themes,” because there is a distinct lack of about-ness to it. Miyazaki’s public voice, chronologically ordered, roams to and fro and very far from his films. Even at events convened to explore them, he moves quickly to other subjects, often timely matters of public concern, and those subjects slide to talk of Japan’s cultural troubles. Eleven years of free-roaming conversation will reveal the bent of a man’s thoughts; the conversations collected in Turning Point capture Miyazaki deflecting talk of his films and hurrying to speak of Japan’s imminent demise.

Dimming the Children

While the troubles named are many, for Miyazaki, the greatest threat to Japan’s future is the systemic dulling of Japanese children. Their fate, Miyazaki avers, is to be made into “normal, boring adults.” But he means far more than “boring.” He fears Japanese children are dimmed by a culture of overconsumption, overprotection, utilitarian education, careerism, techno-industrialism, and a secularism that is swallowing Japan’s native animism. The play, imagination, and moral formation of children have been ceded to the sedations of digital gadgetry and—surprisingly, in light of his own profession—animation. Japanese children are formed in the womb of technology, says Miyazaki, and raised on the easy pleasures of Japanese comics and animated films:

“I’m part of a subculture that makes animated films. What we have done is to narrow down the world of children and fill that narrow sliver with this subculture. The television stays on all day long even in rural homes [just as in urban homes]. People’s lives have become filled with this subculture.

“This,” he adds, “is the source of the downfall of a people.” This is not hyperbole; seventy pages earlier, Miyazaki lamented that manga—Japanese comic books and graphic novels—have become the “common denominator” of the Japanese people. This is “the peril faced by Japanese culture.”

Spirited Away

Spirited Away

Downfall at the hands of cartoons and television seems alarmist, curmudgeonly, and, in light of Miyazaki’s own profession, self-centered. However strange this may be, on one point he is surely, but sadly, right: Japan is in peril. Indeed, it’s dying. In its 2013 survey of the sexual habits of Japanese, the Japan Family Planning Association (JFPA) discovered that a catastrophic number of Japanese teens and young adults, aged 16-24, have lost the desire for sex. A quarter of Japanese young men were “not interested in or despised sexual contact”; 45 percent of women reported the same. Not surprisingly, in 2012, fewer Japanese babies were born than in any other recorded year. The consequences are clear: JFPA director Dr. Kunio Kitamura warns that Japan will “perish into extinction.”

A Crisis of Desire

Japan’s crisis is perplexing. Countless explanations have been put forward—mostly economic, many social, none which fully satisfy. All agree, however, that “hopelessness” has extinguished the erotic drive of many young Japanese. The root of this hopelessness, observers frequently assert, is ongoing economic stagnation. Miyazaki does not address the erotic conditions of young Japanese directly in Turning Point, but he concerns himself with Japan’s interior life time and again, especially with how the imagery of Japanese pop culture and technological gadgets affects desire and disaffects Japanese from the world and one another. Where Miyazaki parts from his contemporaries is that his exploration does not give economics pride of place, even though he treats it with great seriousness. For Miyazaki, despite the 25 years of economic decline, the “critical” issue Japanese face is their passionate need of the synthetic and digital. This, he says, “is a bigger problem than all the economic chaos.”

According to Miyazaki, Japanese children lack a taste for the real and human and know little of the natural beauties of the world. He said:

“This was fated from the time when television, or manga, or video games, or even photo print clubs came to fill in something children had lost [a less restricted life, close to nature in the pre-war economy] and became more exciting than reality.

The desires of many—if not most or even all—Japanese children, Miyazaki believes, have been hollowed, stretched, inflated for the false, and, thus, deflated for the true. The beauty of woman for man and man for woman, especially, has been supplanted by the cartoonish, pornographic, robotic, and monstrous. This is what he meant when he called animated films “the source of the downfall of a people.”

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According to Web Japan, a Japanese information website, manga accounts for “36% of the volume of all books and magazines sold in Japan,” an astronomically high share of the market. And their stylings have stretched far into other mediums, deeply influencing even the content of novels, making manga, as Miyazaki put it, “no longer a subculture,” but, rather, “the originator of culture.” In Japan, manga imagery is ubiquitous—advertising, television, social media, toys, public festivals, conventions, and social groups—and travels with you via smart phones, tablets, handheld videogames, and countless other portable gadgets. “Everything,” Miyazaki said, “has become insubstantial and mangalike.”

Hoping for Reality

Miyazaki recounts this to his own great shame. An extraordinary 96 percent of Japanese have seen one of his films. His fear is that he is greatly responsible for the fantasia of Japanese life. His hope, on the other hand, is that his films illuminate what others make dark. Miyazaki’s ambition is to make realist films that urge children toward reality. He, for instance, described his film Spirited Away—about a ten-year-old Japanese girl, whose quest is to land a job from a witch who owns a bathhouse for tired spirits—as an attempt to “trace the reality in which ten-year-old girls live.” But with all the frog people, sentient soot, and ten-foot babies, what could such a reality be?

Much as it appears. Miyazaki is an animistic pagan living among a world of spiritual essences—beasts, insects, plants, trees, rocks, and the wind are ensouled—where the forest groves and deep waters are home to the gods. At least, that’s how he styles himself.

His animism may explain the content of his films, but not necessarily his approach to film craft. His criticisms of Japanese culture and the manga industry offer a better starting point. The largest problem facing the manga industry is that the people running it are anime fanatics, known as otaku in Japan. These “sickly otaku types,” as Miyazaki called them, were reared on manga and Japanimation, and developed an inordinate desire for them—their shape, scale, motion, symbols, and narrative tropes. Such children, “locked in [manga’s] own enclosed world,” became illustrators themselves, reinforcing the enclosure. With their arrival in the industry, characters became boxier, eyes ballooned, and, to be frank, breasts grew larger. The expressiveness of the manga industry was further attenuated, a cycle that cheapens and thins the general taste of Japanese society. These otaku, “raised amidst the clamor,” Miyazaki said, “probably can’t be the flag bearers for new images.”

Bearing New Images

To bear “new images,” to make films that liberate, the filmmaker must himself be liberated, free of the customs of the genre. That’s why Miyazaki frequently stresses that he does not “watch film at all” and describes his own career as an ongoing effort to escape the yoke of his great forebear, Osamu Tezuka, the father of manga, creator of Astro Boy, and Miyazaki’s greatest influence. That’s also why he strongly urges that, if an illustrator is to spur audiences to seek and love the world, he must himself be filled with its riches. That is, he must gain an intelligent understanding of it by cultivating “a constant interest in customs, history, architecture, and all sorts of things.” Otherwise, he “can’t direct.” And if he doesn’t have time to study, he must “look carefully at what is right in front of [him].” If he fails to do so, no matter what he makes, “it turns out to be a film we’ve seen somewhere, or something we’ve seen in manga.”

That’s also why he strongly urges that, if an illustrator is to spur audiences to seek and love the world, he must himself be filled with its riches.

Unlike most of today’s major directors, there is nothing counterfeit about Miyazaki’s work. His films have an inner clarity and beauty that few others achieve. Yet they are frequently wrapped in mystery, ambiguity, and confusion. And purposely so. Miyazaki not only fills his films with the treasures of intellectual study, he also refuses to over-clarify them. As he said of his epic Princess Mononoke, “I made this film fully realizing that it was complex…If one depicts the world so that it can be figured out or understood, the world becomes small and shabby.” To truly mirror the world, he makes his films difficult to understand, because “there are so many things in the world that we don’t understand.” If a film answers all the questions it raises, after all, one need not search beyond it. Miyazaki’s films stretch into the world and require things of it for their completion, say, a conversation with friends, a hike through the woods, a fear of the gods, or even a childlike innocence.

“If one depicts the world so that it can be figured out or understood, the world becomes small and shabby.”

When reading Turning Point, the burden of synthesis lies with the reader. For that reason, despite its evident charms, I cannot recommend it, except to would-be biographers or critics. As much as one can glean from the book about Miyazaki’s craft (and much more can be mined from it than I have), his thoughts move most naturally towards Japan. That, the book makes clear, is where his heart is—and not with his films. This, paradoxically, is one of the keys to their greatness. His films are not about his ego or even the art of film. They climb for far higher reaches.

What becomes of Japan, only time will tell. But I hope along with Miyazaki that his films do spur Japanese children to seek a better, realer happiness. As Miyazaki said, “All I can do is to create films that help children feel glad they have been born.” That is all his films ever do. And that is no small thing.

 

Jim Jarmusch: Expect the Unexpected

It’s easy to envy Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), the reclusive, exceedingly pale protagonists of acclaimed filmmaker Jim Jarmusch’s latest feature, Only Lovers Left Alive. Granted, the pair is forced to live under a few inconvenient restrictions. They can only leave the confines of their respective sanctuaries at night, and such forays often involve a risky search for unpolluted type O-negative plasma. Still, their (ahem) condition does have its perks. Most conspicuously, they have eternity to broaden their minds, create works of art, and savor new experiences.

 

 

Immortality is inherently appealing, of course. No one likes having the Grim Reaper leering over their shoulder. What makes eternal life so precious to Adam and Eve is the possibilities it represents. Undeath means having time enough at last to indulge in all the finer things in life, from Sufi poetry to vintage electric guitars. It represents a chance to become disarmingly accomplished, erudite, and stylish through sheer practice.

Adam and Eve are spouses, although when the film opens they are living in separate hemispheres, for reasons that remain obscure. She has settled into an inviting, richly appointed flat in Tangier, Morocco, surrounding herself with mountains of books. He is secluded away in a decrepit Detroit mansion, where he composes dark, experimental rock on ancient analog equipment. Adam has clearly fared worse during the couple’s time apart. Early in the film, he convinces a guileless human lackey to procure a single wooden bullet, a presumably modern take on the classic stake through the heart. It is not self-loathing that drives Adam’s suicidal impulses, but his contempt for the present state of the world. He’s had enough of humankind’s stupidity, vulgarity, and propensity to corrupt everything it touches. Eve eventually talks Adam down over a video chat, but she thereafter resolves to fly to America to join her husband, lest his disgust at the “zombies” (as he calls humans) push him to the brink once again.

The reunited couple enjoys a short span of marital bliss. They listen to music, dance, read, play chess, make love, and have free-wheeling conversations until dawn. They jump into Adam’s futuristic car and cruise the eerily vacant nocturnal Motor City landscape. Jarmusch presents this period as one of idyllic romance, an undead second honeymoon that blends epicurean and bohemian ideals.

For a time it acts as a balm to Adam’s despair, but like all good things it comes to an end.

The harmony of the couple’s alone time is eventually disrupted by the appearance of fellow bloodsucker Ava (Mia Wasikowska), Eve’s “little sister”. Adam visibly bristles at the newcomer’s presence, and not only because she has interrupted the languid perfection of his seclusion with Eve. Uncouth, reckless, and grasping, Ava is a girlish vampire’s skin wrapped around the worst human character traits. She’s a walking borderline personality disorder with fangs, and in short order her rash actions place Adam’s carefully constructed Stateside existence into jeopardy.

This motif—rosy expectations and idealized fantasies running headlong into the messiness of reality—is endlessly repeated in Jarmusch’s filmography. Its appearance in Only Lovers Left Alive is surprising only if one assumes that the Dracula set would be immune to such disillusionment. As ageless supernatural sensualists, vampires are eminently capable of fulfilling their desires while simultaneously nursing a chic world-weariness. This is particularly true of the über-cool rock n’ roll bloodsucker, a notable figure within the subgenre at least since Anne Rice’s novel The Vampire Lestat and Joel Schumacher’s film The Lost Boys. Only Lovers Left Alive functions as an acidic retort to this romanticization of the nosferatu as a Byronic bad boy, suggesting that immortality and flawless fashion sense are not bulwarks against disappointment.

While hardly revelatory, this observation is a vital one within the context of Jarmusch’s previous narrative features. Much of the black humor in the filmmaker’s work stems from the absurdity of a character’s affected pose, naïve hope, or cherished delusion when considered alongside grubby reality. Jarmusch’s breakout 1980 film Stranger Than Paradise is rife with such contrasts, beginning with Hungarian immigrant Willie’s clownish self-conception as a strutting, high-rolling, thoroughly American wise guy, and ending with a Miami-bound road trip that stalls out in a quagmire of confusion, hot tempers, and foolish decisions.

This deflation of expectations is Jarmusch’s stock and trade: for his myopic outsiders and befuddled innocents, simple survival often replaces wish fulfillment as the immediate goal.

Many of Jarmusch’s characters are delayed, waylaid—diverted from their anticipated paths. In Down by Law, Jack, Zack and Roberto are all plucked from the streets of New Orleans and crammed together into a parish prison, cutting short their careers as a pimp, disc jockey, and tourist, respectively. Mystery Train’s Italian widow Luisa must endure an involuntary (and hallucinatory) overnight layover in Memphis, while elsewhere friends Charlie and Will lare shanghaied into an ad hoc liquor store robbery by their volatile pal Johnny. Dead Man’s priggish accountant William Blake arrives at the frontier town of Machine to discover that his new job has been offered to another man. Later, mortally wounded, his half-formed revenge plot peters out, and he finds himself floating to the afterlife in an oceangoing canoe.

 

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Humankind’s best-laid plans almost always go awry in Jarmuschland, leading to frustration, disenchantment, and even mortal peril. In Broken Flowers, Don Johnston’s search for a former lover—and possible son—is stymied by the peculiar reality of his exes’ contemporary lives. His quest eventually ends without resolution, but only after a steel-toed beatdown at the hands of backwoods toughs. In Night on Earth’s Los Angeles sequence, casting agent Victoria is flabbergasted when teen cabby Corky rebuffs a proffered invitation into the glamorous world of Hollywood. One of the more comically painful sequences in Coffee and Cigarettes features an enthusiastic Alfred Molina attempting to ingratiate himself to a plainly disinterested and self-absorbed Steve Coogan.

 

molina and coogan

 

Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai finds the titular assassin facing an unexpected witness to a contract killing, the result of another man’s screw-up that nonetheless puts Ghost in the crosshairs of his benefactors. Even Jarmusch’s most deliberately opaque feature, The Limits of Control, pulls a fake-out, albeit on the audience: the Lone Man’s highly anticipated James Bond-style infiltration of an American stronghold happens entirely offscreen.

If Jarmusch’s filmography can be summed up in a single statement, it is probably, “Things don’t turn out the way we expect.”

This is a truism for both the aforementioned characters and for Adam and Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive. Indeed, that film’s final act is concerned principally with the unintended, potentially lethal fallout from Ava’s rashness. In need of a quick exit from Detroit, Adam and Eve take a gamble on returning together to Morocco, only to discover that Eve’s formerly reliable blood source has been compromised. Their hunger mounting, the couple end up wandering the streets of Tangier in a daze, where they are entranced by a crooning vocalist (Lebanese artist Yasmine Hamdan). The haunting melody seems to stir Adam and Eve to action, and they ultimately feed from a passing human couple, giving in to the sort of barbarism that went out of fashion centuries ago. It’s a vulgarity they never foresaw stooping to again. But sometimes even a vampire has to be a little uncool to survive.

A Review of ‘Calvary’

Brendan Gleeson is not a small man, and we should all be grateful.  As the Irish priest James Lavelle in John Michael McDonagh’s film Calvary, his enormous presence generates an engaging tension:  the loving man of God who, if he hugged you a little too tight, might crack something.

Should you make him angry, he could do some real damage.

Don’t worry.  Writer/director John Michael McDonagh never lets the man or the story bluster too far into Santa Claus or Rambo territory.  In general, Father Lavelle feels trustworthy and safe, reinforced by his gentle smile and that ever-present collar.  And yet, from the outset, we’ve been primed toward suspicion by the opening title card:

“Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved.
Do not presume, one of the thieves was damned.”
— St. Augustine

The first spoken line, right after, also undercuts our security. Lavelle patiently listens in a confessional booth, as an off-screen voice sneers:

“I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”

We immediately see where this is going, and the Catholic sex abuse scandals will billow like thunderheads over most of the film.

We also know, from the next line, that Calvary will be a better movie than most.  Our priest pauses, then responds somberly with an honest and human answer:  “Nothing to say.”

Then, in one of those terrific register shifts at which Gleeson so excels, Lavelle quips:

“… certainly a startling opening line…”

Gentle gallows humor will prove Lavelle’s greatest defense against evil throughout the film, second only to his faith.  Or are they the same?  Does not one flow as grace from the other?  Throughout, Lavelle persuades us this is so.  He has a past, but he understands and lives in the present, and he’ll be damned (literally) if he doesn’t give it as much grace and integrity as he can muster.

He’s going to have to, because, after some tortured conversation about a horrendously abusive priest, the “penitent” states his true intentions:  to release a shockwave through the seemingly apathetic Church that has destroyed so many innocents.  “I’m gonna kill you father. I’m gonna kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

So, as Christ died for the sins of the world, this priest may need to die for the sins of the Church.  And, so, the film is structured:  a week for the priest to “get his house in order” and “make his peace with God.”  The assassin’s identity remains a mystery, but Lavelle knows him, as he recognized the voice (a sign of his attentiveness to his flock).  So, the real drama is not really “whodunit?” or “will he do it?” but whether Lavelle can pursue his calling under threat.

 

 

Lavelle gets his house in order as every priest should:  by doing what he always does, in everyone else’s homes – another day, another conversation, another horrendously broken parishioner.  They often mock him, taunt him, tempt him.  One miserable old man suggests Lavelle should assist in his suicide; another, a prisoner, seeks re-assurance he’ll go to Heaven, despite having enjoyed raping and killing numerous young girls.  Lavelle doesn’t typically give great theological answers, and he often seems frustrated at these moments.

But, by God, he is there.  He fills the frame in every way, and that black cloak just makes him all the more monumental.

To be battered by enemies is one thing, but to be abused by those you love is quite another, particularly when you know that one of them is planning to shoot you dead on a beach this coming Sunday.  And still, with each conversation, Lavelle avoids dwelling on the assassin.  He’s more concerned with understanding his duty to God, and the way He appears to have stepped away while the world rips itself to pieces.

“I’m gonna kill you father. I’m gonna kill you because you’ve done nothing wrong.”

This is where Diary of a Country Priest comes to mind.  Georges Bernanos’ marvelous novel, about a similarly underappreciated and much abused priest, mirrors Lavelle’s situation.  Robert Bresson turned the novel into a much-revered film in 1951 that has defined a whole cinematic approach to the spiritual life.  The writer/director Paul Schrader famously described Bresson’s film as an example of “transcendental style,” by which he meant an austere, ascetic approach to acting and mise-en-scene.  This creates a type of distance or disparity that signals an otherworldly dimension, like the knowing stare of an icon.  It’s an ostensive marker of a higher reality.

Only a few directors have really managed to understand or properly emulate this approach, and, gratefully, Calvary attempts nothing of the sort.  Instead of Bresson’s sickly, quiet, unsmiling priest, Gleeson ripples with energy and emotion.  If Bresson’s priest was an icon of Christ, Calvary’s priest is more like a long-form essay in the New York Times Magazine; the everyday Saviour, humble and sincere, suffering for his troubled flock.  His Via Dolorosa, if it is that, runs through the heart of this Irish village.

The complications of life as a priest hit us at every turn. No Catholic stereotype or failure is left unmentioned, and doubt haunts every doorway. We learn that Lavelle became a priest in response to the death of his wife.  It is noble that he redirected that emotional energy toward the good of others.   Yet, his troubled daughter argues he was blind to his own motivations and this has yielded some hard consequences, with which he must reckon.

“The heart is more deceitful than all else, and desperately sick.  Who can understand it?” the prophet Jeremiah once lamented.  Likewise, redemption is often a long and unmanageable road, as every priest knows.  The Apostle Paul called it “the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings,” and saw the long and unmanageable road a privilege. It was a privilege because it was a small price to pay for the reward of helping Christ heal the world.

…he’s faithful in the trenches, facing humanity’s hardest questions.

We look to religious figures to carry our theological baggage on this road.  Like the villagers here, we give little thought to the human frailty of our leaders unless they fall from the sky in flames.  To shift metaphors, we use them as a screen on which to project our image of God and see if something like Him shows up.

The Irish have a particular fondness for this idea. Give us a good man in the collar, a not-too-perfect representative of God, who wants very much for Him to exist, amid a world where people are consistently remarking how unlikely it all seems.  He can be kind and loving to God’s desperate children, and maybe they will believe in something.

 

 

Calvary fully engages this tension and so avoids a two-dimensional portrait of the priesthood.  However, if there is a flaw in Calvary, it is in the lack of stable and ordinary characters around the man of God.  Seemingly, this village is the epicenter of cosmic darkness:  Racism.  Pedophilia.  Murder.  Greed.  Exploitation.  Suicide.  People who urinate on priceless artworks (Holbein’s Ambassadors, no less!).  When Father Lavelle ends up across the table from the serial killer, one starts to feel this is closer to David Lynch’s Lumberton than Glencolumbkille, Ballyferriter, or Feakle Town.  It’s not clear how small this Irish village is, but it’s no metropolis, so it’s a little startling to picture it as a menagerie of human depravity.

But Father Lavelle takes it all in stride, mostly through dutifully listening.  It’s not that he’s a pushover or beyond personal doubt—far from it—but he’s faithful in the trenches, facing humanity’s hardest questions.

And this is the gracious pattern of the film:  no sermons, no doctrinal revelations, no miracles or shocking interventions, just the steadfast walk of life, and the struggle for hope.  Father Lavelle’s authenticity in the Valley of the Shadow suggests we all might, possibly, find a way to “fear no evil.”  Bresson’s longsuffering priest famously realized, at the end, that “Grace is everywhere.”  Father Lavelle, echoes that sentiment to one of his desperate parishioners: “God is great.  The limits of His mercy have not been set.”

Calvary stands as one of those steady, respectable films Christians point to as good storytelling with a thoughtful spiritual telos. “Finally… a film somewhat sympathetic to the faith and not utterly embarrassing,” they might say.  Such films—far too few of them—are usually carried by a stellar leading actor, and the rest of the film’s elements (the formal and technical dimensions) stand as modest complements to the lead performance.  The budgets are modest, the artistry serviceable (less than brilliant and occasionally flawed), and the director is smart enough to lay low, leaving the central performance and script to shine unencumbered.  Robert Duvall’s The Apostle is one example.

Calvary is another.  There is nothing particularly remarkable about the artistry of the film, but one must respect that as humble and wise restraint in the wake of Brendan Gleeson.  It’s his film, his cross to carry, and he does so, admirably.

The Siren Song

[Note: This essay contains spoilers.]

Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerizing new feature, Under the Skin, bids the viewer to peer through the eyes of a monster. The creature in question has assumed the shape of a comely human woman, portrayed by Scarlett Johansson in a performance of breathtaking precision. The film intimates that this strange entity is extraterrestrial, but does not offer specifics as to its origin or nature. Indeed, Under the Skin is positively ruthless at withholding details that are incidental to the story’s fundamental needs. Glazer presents the viewer with the minimum information that is necessary to follow the film’s alternately prosaic and abstract narrative.

The mysterious woman appears to be operating under the direction of an outwardly male counterpart. Their ultimate purpose is never established, but their proximate mission eventually becomes dreadfully apparent. The woman prowls the streets and motorways of Scotland in an anonymous van, seeking solitary men who are easily inveigled into the passenger seat and thereafter into a squalid building. Within a black, featureless chamber, the woman entices them forward in erotic anticipation, even as the unfortunate soul sinks heedlessly into the semi-liquid surface underfoot. Encased within a murky prison, the victim is slowly digested until—with an abruptness that is downright nightmarish—bone, muscle, and viscera are torn from their bodies in an instant, leaving only a floating husk of skin.

Broadly speaking, Under the Skin‘s curious protagonist has qualities that could be regarded as vampiric. Like the nosferatu, she preys upon humans for their tissues, a harvest with not-so-subtle sexual undertones. Indeed, a glib description of Under the Skin could be “Stanley Kubrick’s Lifeforce”. Conceptually the film bears some resemblance to Tobe Hooper’s notorious exploitation classic about naked “space vampires”, but its chilly aesthetic is informed by the likes of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining.

Nonetheless, Under the Skin‘s creature has a stronger resemblance to another famous monster, the siren of Greek myth. Although physical descriptions of this beast differ across Archaic and later sources, the siren typically possesses female attributes and a malevolent intent. Her most conspicuous characteristic is her entrancing song, a sound so exquisite that it can entice sailors to their dooms. Robert Fagles’ translation of The Odyssey vividly describes the sirens in terms that echo the horrific imagery of Glazer’s film: “lolling there in their meadow, round them heaps of corpses, rotting away, rags of skin shriveling on their bones.” The kinship between this mythic fiend and Johansson’s she-thing is such that the latter (unnamed in the film’s credits) might be simply dubbed the Siren.

The film’s screenplay is loosely adapted by Glazer and Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s surrealistic science-fiction novel of the same name, a work that is more satirical in tone and much more explicit regarding the protagonist’s nature. The film subjects the traditional monster movie to a perspective flip, presenting the Siren’s encounters with humans primarily from her viewpoint. A lesser filmmaker might have used this reversal as a gimmick, a means to a shallow sort of revisionist alien abduction tale. Glazer achieves something more thoughtful, disquieting, and challenging. As in John Gardner’s landmark novel Grendel, seeing the world through monstrous eyes presents an opportunity for existentialist rumination.

In the film’s early sequences, the Siren goes about her tasks with agile efficiency. She chats up potential prey to determine whether they would be missed if they disappeared. When she deems a target unsuitable, her friendly demeanor vanishes as she pulls back into traffic to continue the search. The speed and exactness with which Johansson achieves this shift—from humane warmth to cold focus—is astonishing. It suggests that the temptress is merely a mask, and beneath it lies the resolute blankness of a prole. This can also be discerned in the way that the Siren’s come-hither routine evaporates the moment a victim sinks into darkness, leaving her to methodically gather the man’s discarded clothes.

Nonetheless, the film also presents telling moments when the Siren appears to be plagued by confusion and anxiety. She is occasionally taken unawares by human behavior, and at times seems stunned into inaction by the events around her. She stares in befuddlement when one potential victim bolts down a beach to save a stranger downing in the freezing pull of a riptide, as though such selfless imperilment were wholly foreign to her. She gazes at her own eyes in a mirror, perhaps seeking some answer to a nagging question, or a telltale flaw that will herald the end of her usefulness. (The latter is reinforced when her mute male overseer, outfitted in a motorcycle racing suit, also scrutinizes her eyes with his pitiless glare.)

The film’s turning point occurs when the Siren encounters a man (Adam Pearson) with facial disfigurements from neurofibromatosis. She successfully ensnares him by adjusting her tactics, voicing sympathy for his loneliness and complimenting his youthful hands. After the man sinks beneath the dark room, the Siren peers at herself in a dim hallway mirror for what seems like minutes. One can sense something rising to the surface in this long shot, and it abruptly breaks through in an unthinkable act of rebellion. The Siren releases her victim from his gooey imprisonment and then runs for her life.

"Odysseus and the Sirens"  by  Herbert James Baker

“Odysseus and the Sirens”
by
Herbert James Baker

The Siren’s treacherous actions neatly bisect Under the Skin into two parts that might be labeled Slavery and Freedom. Like Grendel, the film is entwined with the philosophy of Jean Paul-Sartre, and specifically with the pivotal concept that “existence precedes essence”. The former is illustrated in the Siren’s realization that she can define herself through her actions, that her seductress identity is not tied to some intrinsic quality imprinted in her flesh, but to her performance of that role. She can, at any time, choose a different role and thus become something else (the Not-Siren).

This freedom—an individual’s ultimate liberty to define themselves—is not without limits, as becomes agonizingly apparent in film’s second part. The Siren is still constrained by what Sartre calls facticity, the tangible details of her existence. She is penniless and alone in a society that she does not fully comprehend. (Post-liberation, she seems freshly infantile and bewildered by the world around her.) She discovers to her dismay that she cannot consume a slice of chocolate cake without retching, and that sex is perilous to her veneer of human flesh.

Moreover, her free state carries with it the terrifying weight of responsibility. This is true in the existentialist sense that she is “condemned to be free,” and therefore her fate ultimately hinges on her decisions, irrespective of external limitations. The Siren’s experiences also reflect the changes wrought by transformative socio-political movements such as feminism, postcolonialism, and Marxism. These offer a perilous kind of autonomy, a freedom from paternalistic forces (patriarchy, empire, capitalist) that exposes the liberated individual to unfamiliar threats.

Deprived of the protection and guidance of her masters, the Siren eventually stumbles into jeopardy when a logger attempts to sexually assault her in a remote forest. That this cruel encounter ends fatally for her does not imply that a state of self-imposed enslavement is preferable to freedom. Rather, it illustrates the inherent evil of systems that would impose a false identity on the individual. The Siren’s masters have a vested interest in keeping their charges ignorant and helpless, as it ensures that deviants such as her meet an ugly end. As disconsolate as Under the Skin‘s conclusion might seem, the film’s final shot, straight up to the zenith of a snow-filled sky, hints that the Siren is not alone in her epiphany. Elsewhere in the universe, there are countless other Sirens, and they will not remain bound forever.

Meeting the Grotesque in True Detective

Consider reading this piece alongside another True Detective entry by Alex Miller Jr., published several weeks ago. Warning: contains spoilers. 

I met the South in the back of my parents’ minivan when I was thirteen. The South hits you—in all its prayer-in-schools and porn-on-billboards glory. The billboards really got us. The only billboard I remember in Massachusetts was an anti-gun ad tallying how many people had been killed so far that year by gun violence. This, however, was a whole new world. Signs advertising the “Lion’s Den,” “Girls, Girls, Girls” and “$tripper$” graced the four-lane highways, side-by-side with “Jesus Saves,” “REPENT” and “I Saw That. -God.”

I’m the one Flannery O’Connor’s talking about in the essay “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” when she writes, “Of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader.” I surprised myself as much as anyone when I moved to the very tip of the Deep South to go to college. “They readin’ down there yet?” my Uncle Billy asked. Even more surprising, I discovered Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. They grabbed me like the $stripper$ highway sign.

When I heard about Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. The opening credits on the first episode grabbed me—like the Jesus billboards and Morrison’s Milkman. It was fascinating and distorted and crazy good.

As I met True Detective’s main characters, Cole (played by a chilling Matthew McConaughey) and Hart (Woody Harrelson), I was re-introduced to the Deep South through wide and long landscape shots, regional accents and Southern color. In an interview with HBO, Pizzolatto confirms this intentional introduction to Vermilion Parish, Louisiana.

“In the same way we’re establishing Cole and Hart with as much nuance as possible as dimensional human beings, we want to establish this landscape as realistically as we can, not only on its own, but as a background for our main characters as something they live in that effects them and surrounds them.”

The place has a hold on the characters in True Detective, and the show continues to weave the stories of Hart and Cole alongside striking images of Louisiana. As Alex Miller explains in his essay run in Curator earlier this month, Cole and Hart are detectives attempting to solve a heinous crime we’re introduced to in the first episode. A girl named Dora Kelly Lange is murdered and left in front of a sprawling tree in an occult and ritualistic display. She’s wearing a crown of deer antlers, there’s a spiral drawn on her back and her body is positioned in prayer—a gruesome scene. The show follows the detectives on their nearly twenty-year search for the freak who murdered Dora Kelly Lange and, as we discover throughout the show, many others.

O’Connor’s “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” probes the shocking elements of Southern literature and, in turn, has something to say to this Southern literary screenplay. O’Connor reflects on why Southern writers seem to have a fixation on freaks. Her response: They are still uniquely able to spot a freak when they see one. O’Connor credits this keen Southern sense to the “Christ-haunted” nature of life in the South. She writes,

“The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.”

Religion has a heavy role to play in True Detective. From our first glance at the murdered woman on her knees in prayer, there is a strong current of religion running through the eight-episode story. When asked about the religious overtones and undertones in True Detective, Pizzolatto often reminds interviewers that he grew up in the South. The show is set in Louisiana. This is a story of the South, and it’s hard to imagine a Southern story without religion.

At the very end of O’Connor’s essay she gives one final pat-on-the-back to Southern writers, but concludes with a fear and a warning that one day writers in the South might do away with grotesque and uncomfortable mysteries. She writes,

“I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.”

While we watch True Detective unfold and see breaks in the case, multiple suspects, and interrogations, we also get a glimpse at the hidden lives of Hart and Cole. We see their “suits,” their social lives, and meet Hart’s family. But we also see behind the curtain. “The world needs bad men,” Cole tells Hart. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” Cole recognizes his own inner turmoil, anxiety and inconsistencies. Hart, in his suit, with his beautiful family, has a harder time. He’s blind to his exploits with young women, his anger and his fooling around. He blames marital problems on his wife. He can’t see the freak he is. Cole, in his realism and honesty has an inverse blind spot. He can’t seem to entertain the idea that there is more to life than the stories we tell ourselves in our heads.

The finale brings both men face-to-face with a gruesome freak—the serial killer they’ve been looking for. And in the face of the grotesque, in the death of a serial killer, the pair seems to hobble their way toward hope. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Pizzolatto explains his idea for what became a controversial ending to True Detective:

“To me, the challenge was to not only let these guys live, but show true character change through this journey. That passing through the eye of the needle in the heart of darkness has actually done something to them. . . . We don’t know what kind of life they’ll have. But I think we can be sure that each man is more willing to acknowledge the presence of grace. That was one of the ways that they both failed the same: Neither man would accommodate the idea of grace for their own reasons. Where I wanted them to go in their journeys wasn’t a point of redemption or conversion or even closure but a point of deliverance.”

This is the kind of fiction O’Connor writes about in “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction.” Southern writers who truly understand the grotesque are the ones who write with an eye toward mystery—they want to push the limits of the everyday, because that’s where the real story is. O’Connor writes,

“Such a writer will be interested in what we don’t understand rather than in what we do. . . [h]e will be interested in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who act on a trust beyond themselves–whether they know very clearly what it is they act upon or not.”

True Detective ends with Hart and Cole in the parking lot of a hospital. They’ve defeated the “freak” serial killer, and they’re recovering together. They look up at the sky and Cole launches into another metaphysical rant he’s become known for. They talk about the oldest story—the battle between light and dark. Hart, who has previously berated Cole for his nihilism, says, “It appears to me the dark has a lot more territory.” The two talk for a minute longer and begin to walk away when Cole turns to Hart,

“You’re looking at it wrong—the sky thing.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.”

This story—the story of Hart and Cole—along with the stories of O’Connor and Faulkner and Morrison, is a Southern story. It’s haunted by religion and pushes toward mystery. It brings the grotesque to the HBO screen and its characters meet evil and grace face to face.

I think O’Connor would’ve been proud.

“Whatever is said, the past remains”

(At Left) Cotton candy clouds, warm sunlight dancing with dust motes, trees and flowers stretching skyward as if about to break out into song, all trademarks of the deceased Painter of Light™, Thomas Kinkade. (At Right) Saloons and shooting rainbows of blood, continuous trains of entendres and and one-liners, every scene a homage, every human limb a trunk to be sawed off, all trademarks of the living Director of Blood, Quentin Tarantino.

Some supposed real estate wisdom holds that when putting your house on the market, you should take down any pictures of your family to help prospective buyers envision themselves within the space. Thomas Kinkade’s paintings operate by this principle, for most of the landscapes he paints are human-free. The absence of people is how Kinkade sells what he paints—the lack of others permitting a frictionless imaginative exercise that the locales in his paintings are yours.

Even after his death Kinkade functions as a preferred punching bag of the faith and arts conversation, and rightly so. Kinkade used light to re-create creation. In his own words: “I love to create beautiful worlds where light dances and peace reigns. I like to portray a world without the Fall.”[2] Light imposes his Edenic edits upon the world. The soft glows, the pastel sunsets, the sun softly kissing thatched roofs and moderately unkempt forests; light is his means of sentimentality. Through light Kinkade censors the world, the brush strokes forming an unearthly creation and inviting the viewer to forget the Fall. For all of this criticism and mockery Kinkade is our Dante, providing an innovative picture of what hell looks like—empty cottages by the sea.

However, the faith and art conversation doesn’t need another Kinkade–bash. Instead, I want to turn from the Painter of Light to the Director of Blood, Quentin Tarantino.

At present Tarantino is two films into his “rewritten history” trilogy. The first, Inglourious Basterds, turns Hitler into a bullet-riddled pile of putty. His corpse is then blown up and burned, enacting what has been called a “counter-Holocaust.” In Django Unchained slave-owners are shot through the heart; slave traders get their heads blown to bits; armies of plantation goons are cut down.

The reasons for this violent re-writing of history? Tarantino said in an interview with NPR:

“I do think it’s a cultural catharsis, and it’s a cinematic catharsis. Even — it can even be good for the soul, actually. I mean, not to sound like a brute, but one of the things though that I actually think can be a drag for a whole lot of people about watching a movie about, either dealing with slavery or dealing with the Holocaust, is just, it’s just going to be pain, pain and more pain. And at some point, all those Holocaust TV movies — it’s like, ‘God, I just can’t watch another one of these.’ But to actually take an action story and put it in that kind of backdrop where slavery or the pain of World War II is the backdrop of an exciting adventure story — that can be something else. And then in my adventure story, I can have the people who are historically portrayed as the victims be the victors and the avengers.”

Do viewers of the Shoah yawn? Or maybe a reader of Night by Elie Wiesel intersperses the story with viewings of online cat videos? It’s troubling that the horrors of the past might be boring, in need of an injection of action to maintain our attention. Tarantino’s understanding of his revenge fantasies sounds similar to Psalm 137, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks”—a cathartic prayer of vengeance expressing the Jewish communal anger over the injustice of the Babylonian exile. Echoes aside, there are deep differences between Tarantino’s films and this Jewish prayer. Psalm 137 has a purpose to its catharsis. Instead of being consumed by or acting on the anger, this psalm believes it is better to give your thirst for vengeance and violence to God. Instead of waging war against their oppressors in the physical streets of Babylon, the Jewish community met them on the battlefield of prayer.

Tarantino’s films are more like Memento, Christopher Nolan’s film about an amnesiac, Leonard, who seeks revenge on a man named John G. for the murder of his wife. Because of his memory problems, Leonard forgets that he has already killed John G. So Leonard is always on the search for the next John G., the next body to enact his revenge upon. The process of revenge, not its satisfaction, is what Leonard lives for. This is Tarantino’s filmic career. Pull it all away: the great scenes and the poorly executed stories, the solipsism of filmic self-reference, the excellent actors, the one liners—all you have is the feeling of revenge, an endless loop of spilt blood and broken bone. Like Leonard, these films live for the kinetic feeling of revenge, not for the resolution of horrific memories.

For films containing wars worth of violence and bloodshed, there is an odd rarity of corpses in Tarantino films. His films are awash with the dying yet scarcely show the dead.[3]  At first it seems that the heroes don’t have time to deal with the corpses—they’re always on their way to the next killing—but this dearth of the dead gets even odder in Django, given that the title character and Dr. Schultz are bounty hunters who supposedly transport the bodies of their victims back to the court for a reward. In this long blood-fest we never once see them handling or transporting a corpse. Even the famous “Oh man, I just shot Marvin in the face” scene from Pulp Fiction, an almost 17-minute scene about disposing a body, only contains a brief one-second shot of the corpse. These films are comfortable with violence but not with death. When it comes to dealing with death, these films are prudish. They live according to the Memento principle: revenge is an infinite dish, best served again and again and again.

In Tarantino’s films every human is an ocean of red, the skin a thin dam waiting to burst, to spray, to gush, to spout and cover the world in its brilliant color. Tarantino’s blood functions like Kinkade’s light. This is how the world is re-born and re-recreated—censored through light and blood. The paintings of Kinkade hate the world as it is and the films of Tarantino hate the world they have inherited. Through farcical violence the rough draft of the past is re-written; history is taken by the throat and throttled until it retells its tale.

Ultimately though, while Django and Basterds are mindful of the history of film it’s a mistake to think these films are mindful of history. Violence is fun and history provides bodies for the cinematic meat grinder. No one mourns slaughtered Nazis and slave-owners.

Through comedic bloodshed Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds forget the tragic dimensions of history—watching them feels like viewing a production of King Lear where the only voice you can hear is that of the fool, with the pain and the tragedy fading into the background. Tarantino and his films use blood to sentimentalize rage and, by extension, the activities of revenge. The Holocaust and slavery provide an opportunity for humor-laced rage, for emotions without a telos, killing without bodies, indulgent revenge without any self-wounding. The comedic violence rejects the difficulty of the past, making it safe again by overlaying the cries of memory with a laugh track. There is no truth to this remembering because these films do not want to remember at all, for: “A man who makes a religion out of the comic is unable to face suffering.”[4] If blood is Tarantino’s cathartic laugh track, then it is the laugh track of our forgetting, a euphoric communal lobotomy. It is possible that stories without hope, pure nihilistic tragedy, are better, truer than the hope of Django and Basterds. These films are animated by warped hopes and failures of memory—hoping to balance the debts of the past by denying their existence. Sort of like painting a world without the Fall.

In their own way, the works of Kinkade and Tarantino long for the redemption of the past. Instead of inviting grief or confession, they hope to undo the broken reality of what was and what is. But we cannot ban tragedy, and neither can we forget it. The past is not ours to redeem; it is ours to remember.

 

 

[1] Rowan Williams, Lost Icons.

[2] “The Kinkade Crusade,” Christianity Today.

[3] The three notable exceptions to this are the two bloodbaths in Kill Bill, and one in Django Unchained, when the bodies become props amidst the continued killing.

[4] W.H. Auden

Floating Aronofsky’s Noah

“Myth is the mountain whence all the different streams arise which become truths down here in the valley; in had valle abstractionis.”
—C.S. Lewis

How does one picture the pathos of humanity, of creation, of the line between good and evil that runs through the heart of all, of the twilight confusion between the god we create and the Creator who made all; between idolatry and true worship; between being forsaken and being redeemed: the span of human experience in the figure of an ark afloat on the chaos and wickedness and fear of a world we did not create but nevertheless find ourselves in without our permission, knowing enough light to see and enough dark to be blinded? Truth happens in the tension, when the familiar, mythological milieu folds over itself and opens something new upon the expanse of human consciousness, like a new wave upon an ancient sea. These thoughts came about while watching Darren Aronofsky’s controversial film Noah.

The film is remarkably unbiblical. And hence remarkably biblical. For if there is one thing the bible is not, it is biblical, at least in the senses we tend to force upon it, like those who would turn it into a manual for family values or sentimental moralism. Of course the practice of retelling biblical stories has a long and often venerable literary tradition. (At times, for example, watching Noah felt like watching a cinematic expression of D.H. Lawrence’s chapter from Women in Love, “An Island” — which is about creation and humanity’s place within it. The argument between Birken and Ursula is nearly the same as that between Noah and his wife. Read this chapter if you want a synopsis of a central theme in Noah.) In fact, one can hardly understand much of great literature without knowledge of the actual biblical text. The brilliance of this tradition lies in disabusing ourselves from what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” the myth that our present time is de facto more enlightened than previous generations, as if time magically made us smarter and better people. More often than not, we repeat the same barbaric atrocities and errors we accuse the ancients of, all the while conveniently forgetting that only the wispy speed of time separates our age from being just as ancient as well. But instead of the fantastic and imaginative mythologies of ages past, we cleverly cloak our errors with séances and myths about “scientific” progress and enlightenment. So, I suppose, many will watch Noah and think about how barbaric the story is, while some will be chilled by the blatant similarities with our own barbaric times: our penchant for destroying creation, the worship of the will to power and violence, our constant fashioning of idols (Mammon, anyone?).

The spirit of the Bible, its central themes, are remarkably prescient and just as ethically complicated and shrewd and subtle as, say, the novels of Dostoevsky; we must not be fooled by their ancient mythological clothing. Nor should we be so quick to assume the philistine fundamentalism of religion and atheism. Both of these camps have remarkably naive readers, thinking mythology and fiction as synonyms for lies. But is not history more complicated than the idolatrous praise of brute literalism both these camps, ironically, engage in? Is it even possible to speak of a brute, uninterpreted historical event? If The Brothers Karamazov were not historical in one sense, then why do I have it on my bookshelf? How was I able to read it? And, really, is there anything more historical than human consciousness and its productions? The very idea of the “historical” is a far cry from a brute historical event; in fact, the “historical” is an imaginative criterion and category invented by human consciousness. What we think about — what we intend — is the most primal historical event of all. History, then, is not synonymous with the truth; rather truth resides in the crepuscular wrestlings with the meanings of history, the meaning of human experiences as they unfold in time.

All I’m saying here is that there are levels and modes, often labyrinthine in nature, to what should be called the “historical” — all arising from the same book of human consciousness, albeit different pages. And in this sense the biblical myths, and Aronofsky’s retelling, are both historical, even if not falling within the reductionistically — and often banal — literal aspects of history. The question lies not in whether Noah built an ark at such and such a time and place but whether what the story is saying about humanity is true or not: are the aspects of the characters on the ark semblances of what reside in all of us in all times and spaces, in contradictory simultaneity? To dismiss it offhand would be like dismissing everything in Melville’s Moby Dick because it didn’t “really” happen. To the contrary, Moby Dick is too historical because its themes are played out in the daily historical experiences of humanity across the world. We have divine poetry and divine history in the Bible; shall we not, as C.S. Lewis wrote, also have divine fiction? (Lewis, in his brilliant essay Is Theology Poetry?, took Noah’s Ark to be “legendary, even mythological.”) Is it not the fictional and most mythological language of the Bible that proves the most perennial of all? Why do most of us love novels over the plain telling of dates and times? Dates and times are irretrievable, unable to be repeated, whereas myths tell universal truths in the visceral language of the imagination, both bounded by and free of particular spaces and times, like consciousness itself.

What I admired most about the film is that watching it actually evoked in me the same tensions as when I read many Old Testament stories: the constant temptation to dethrone the image of God resting upon each woman and man in order to usurp the throne for oneself, and that central biblical tension of mankind’s desperate attempts to escape self-deception and idolatry. The first temptation, after all, begins with the doubtful question of “Did God really say … ?” — the rest of the Bible is a very subtle midrash on this very question, but instead it tries to get us to ask the doubtful question back to the tempter, to the deceptive idol itself, which is often our own ego. Without the right questions, the Jewish tradition stresses, the answers, however seemingly right, will inevitably lead to self-deception.

Aronofsky, I think, brilliantly and subtly asks the right thematic questions, making multiple viewings both necessary and enriching. But, to be honest, the actual cinematic aesthetics could’ve been far better, most notably — and here I agree with a review by Richard Brody in The New Yorker — the music, which is perhaps the least powerful soundtracks of all Aronofsky’s oeuvre. Being a fan of Aronofsky’s films for sometime, though, I’ll blame these contretemps on the lack of funding he received for a film that certainly would’ve been an absolute disaster in the hands of a lesser wit.

True Detective

How much do detectives need the dead? In the first Duino Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “In the end, those who were carried off early no longer need us…But we, who do need such great mysteries, we for whom grief is so often the source of our spirit’s growth—: could we exist without them?” Rilke’s lines feel as right as they do surprising, because they identify the imaginative potential for the living of those who have died young. Because they symbolize the unrealized promise of a life well lived, the young dead fill a necessary role: The warning implied by their absence places a demand on the living to forge stronger identities.

HBO’s True Detective, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary JojiFukunaga, is a crime drama that needs the dead very badly, and has made a feast out of them, along with a few other common ingredients: the gothic mystique of the rural south, two emotionally wounded detectives who have no idea how to be decent men and some butchered pieces of the philosophy of Nietzsche. When Marty Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey) stumble onto a murdered prostitute dressed up as a pagan goddess in a Louisiana cane field, the ensuing grief turns their young partnership into a friendship, and a single case into a 19-year-long chase for a serial killer who—of course—is twiddling his thumbs all along right beneath their noses. The machismo of their journey from end to end—which involves innumerable cigarettes, several affairs, gun fights, manly smack-talk and a sprinkling of angry anal sex with each other’s wives—has invited a backlash of feminist-tinged criticism after the drama’s initial surge of praise from critics.

But True Detective will survive the contention because for all its myopia, it compellingly explores the emotional territory shared between the murder and the detective without once confusing the two. For both, the dead are the great mystery, but it is only the detective for whom they can be the source of the spirit’s growth.

Most of the series is arranged in a double timeline: Marty and Rust, brought in separately to be interviewed by the Louisiana Police about the cane field murder case, narrate the drama in sequences which become voiceovers for lengthy flashbacks. In their mutual past, what at first appeared to be an isolated murder lead to a hunt for a cultic serial killer who could still be at large in the series’ present, entrenched in a system of local schools funded by a fundamentalist parachurch organization. Marty, who plays a down-to-earth father of two with a propensity for extramarital affairs, is a hypocrite: his characterization of his now ex-partner is full of pity for Rust’s lack of “family ties” which “give a man direction.” Rust, who forces his interviewers to buy him a six pack at the outset because on his off days he “starts drinking at noon,” is equally hypocritical: His own narration is smattered with nihilist jargon that, the audience always knows, conceals the deep hurt created by the accidental death of his daughter and unraveling of his marriage, which occur before the show begins.

The mystery of the girl’s death, which is lively and well-crafted, is shot through with the strong dialogue that results from this pairing of a rudderless everyman with a bored, isolated brainiac. Each partner has a clear vision of the other’s flaws, and isn’t afraid to lay them out, yet it is Rust’s uncanny knack for interpreting the murderer’s symbolism (antlers on girls, spiral tattoos, etc.) which draws the partners toward the mystery’s solution. Marty, of course, doubts Rust’s logic—that the somehow school-affiliated murderer is being concealed by the state government—at every step, and for good reason: It smacks of conspiracy-theory conjecture. And these misgivings frequently become charged with personal dislike, because though Marty and Rust make good partners, they uncannily mirror one another’s flaws:

Marty: “You know the real difference between you and me?”

Rust: “Yup: denial.”

Marty:  “The difference is that I know the difference between an idea and a fact. You are incapable of admitting doubt. Now that sounds like denial to me.”

Rust: “I doubt that.”

This dialogue crackles because it bares the human needs that fuel each partner’s compensatory obsession with the murder. Rust, who views humanity as “sentient meat,” the product of an evolutionary accident that put consciousness into the “thresher” of fleshly existence, insists to Marty late in their partnership that “however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgements. Everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you’re living wrong.” Marty responds to this with fantastic incomprehension (“What’s scented meat?”), but Rust’s philosophizing has put a finger on both their problems nonetheless. Slowly, each man begins to dedicate more and more of his personal resources to the case, and we get the sense that the inevitable collapse of their relationships is what they actually needed deep down; as if their own identities depended on giving the murdered girl a past, and that anything short of an air-tight solution to the case would result in personal dooms so terrible they might as well be paralleled by interpersonal ones.

These dilemmas have been criticized as meaningless because they are so gendered. As Sarah Kelly rightly put it in her review in Ex Terra, what is at stake in True Detective is how, in the 21st century, men can figure out how to be men. But Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorker, insists that “while the male detectives of ‘True Detective’ are avenging women and children…every live woman they meet is paper-thin.” None of these women, she argues, has any interior life. Nussbaum suggests compellingly that we cannot expect a coherent answer to the question of male identities from a show that has no concept of female identities. Women are never singular in True Detective, only plural: a symbol, a totem, a commodity or a memory, a mystery or a desire.

Yet though this lack of depth is a real narrative failure for the show, it is precisely the same failure that, as it turns out, Marty and Rust must correct in order to discover themselves. Theirs is a story of escaping a gendered myopia, and it turns out that they must sacrifice all of their relationships, all other narratives in their lives, to rescue the narrative of the murdered girl. The show’s writers seem to have committed the same mistake, but the characters ultimately escape it. It is unfortunate that Nussbaum wrote her review before she got to see both Marty and Rust weeping at the finale, where they give up their macho myths of themselves in order to reconnect with the living world.

True Detective drew its audience in with the sensational and macabre. It will retain that audience with a refined plot, muscular dialogue and surprisingly refined moral sense. The success of recent HBO dramas has proven that shock factor can propel a narrative a good long way, but many of their claims to seriousness turn out to be based on the confusion of the brutal with the deep. When someone dies in Game of Thrones, they usually die terribly, but they rarely die significantly. But death is always significant in True Detective; in fact, its characters spend the length of the show trying to escape the demands of the dead so they can get back to the business of living. Their journey into the dark world of sexualized murder matters, not only because the art of it is well-rendered, but because it reminds us of the darkness in fetishes instead of fetishizing darkness.

 

On Parakeets and Human Nature

One Mother’s Day in elementary school, my family arrived home from church to find that my sister’s parakeet, Duncan, had eaten my parakeet, Blue Jeans, and had discarded the remains of his skeleton in the water dish. Duncan sat there unrepentant, our very own avian harbinger of doom, while my mother gathered Blue Jeans’ carcass and put it in a coffee can. Blue Jeans was buried that afternoon under our rose bush in a harried, child-run ceremony. Duncan ate another bird later that year. She died shortly after, professedly of natural causes. I would suggest she died of self-loathing.

I present to you Duncan, as the counterargument for all that follows.

On Human Nature

AMC’s popular show, The Walking Dead, features a post-apocalyptic world of zombies. The zombies are flesh-eating, horrible creatures—dead, human, detritus feeders especially eager to prey on living, non-zombie humans. The show, developed by Frank Darabont, follows a group of non-zombie protagonists as they seek refuge. It is a survival tale.

The Walking Dead is of sociological interest because it depicts the spontaneous government that arises among the group of protagonists, best described as a Humean, common good constellation of social laws and contingencies that are erected ad hoc among the group as they work together to survive. At times, they become like beasts, acting as both predator and prey in turn. They wield weapons. They share meals together. And as life around them unfolds in destruction, Guillermo declares, “[The world] is the same as it ever was: the weak get taken.”

Perhaps most interesting are the basic assumptions of zombie-ism itself. At the end of season one, the group finds itself at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, with the sole remaining doctor, Edwin Jenner. Dr. Jenner shows the group a video scan of the process of a person being overtaken by the zombie virus: At first, the brain activity arrests, the person dies, and then the base of the brain (site of basic living processes—respiration, circulation, etc.) resurrects. The zombie is born. “The frontal lobe, the neocortex, the human part—that doesn’t come back. The you part,” Jenner explains. “Just a shell driven by mindless instinct.”

Essentially, once your higher-order rational superintendence is gone, you become a zombie, which is not a morally-neutral state. Zombies are aggressive human-eaters because “mindless instinct” is understood to be savage. The assumption here is that human cognition is tiered, not strictly in terms of anatomical positioning, but rather with regard to functional primacy. The outer, cortical layers are those we associate with our humanity, and ethics is a higher-order “cultural overlay,” cloaking deeper, darker impulses. This is called Veneer Theory—the popular hypothesis so dubbed (and dethroned) by Dutch primatologist ethologist Frans de Waal. It is the central notion that animates the Hobbesian state of nature, wherein men live in bellum omnium contra omnes—war of all against all—unless tempered by a social regime that cloaks their instinct (Hobbes, De Cive).

And veneer ethics is not assumed exclusively in zombie shows. It is the governing assumption of most popular media. In Breaking Bad, a devoted family man and high school chemistry teacher is diagnosed with lung cancer and cracks. He loses his moral reservations and becomes a crystal methamphetamine dealer to provide for his family. The story is post-ethical; moral calculus becomes an auxiliary task—incidental, not integral to his daily affairs. Likewise, the political drama House of Cards depicts an American government rife with hostility, indecency, and revenge, both revealing and disguising the tumult of key political players’ lives in turn. In this show, the American government—transcribed by its founders in the words of John Locke—startles by being more Hobbesian in praxis, at least just beneath the surface.

Ironically, while screenwriters are preoccupied with the savage human animal stifled beneath a veneer, there is a radical inversion occurring in the narrative of our popular media regarding non-human animals—that they are not all that brutish themselves.

On Animal Nature 

In recent months, there has been an influx of articles surrounding the topic of animal altruism—death behaviors, ensoulment, and apparent morality—sharing a common thesis that non-human animals are of higher sentience and potential for goodness than we might have imagined. Last year, Catrin Nicol wrote asking New Atlantis readers, “Do Elephants Have Souls?”, a question few ask of humans anymore. In October, Gregory Berns proclaimed that “Dogs are People, too.” In June, The New York Times published Maggie Koerth-Baker’s article, “Want to Understand Morality? Look to the Chimps,” an anecdote-based surveyal of chimpanzee death behavior that projects outward onto animal morality more generally.

In Koerth-Baker’s article, she explores the question of animal mortality rituals on the locus of a 2010 account from Current Biology of Pansy, an elderly chimpanzee who died in the company of friends. At the outset of Koerth-Baker’s descriptions, we are duty-bound to care, as we read the flowery descriptions of chimps with human names growing old together and holding hands. The zoologists are the most inhuman in Koerth-Baker’s account: “When the scientists at the park realized Pansy’s death was imminent, they turned on video cameras, capturing the intimate moments during her last hours.” It seems insensitive, like tactless chaplaincy.

We are in the process of realizing that animals are more capable of moral-like action than we may have previously perceived. So the statements we are making of ourselves in popular media need to be adjusted, because the veneer theory does not accommodate a beast that is not exceptionally beastly. The cortical veneer, in this case, would basically be covering a scaled level of goodness.

As things stand, the combined statements of our media are: 1) Beasts are actually quite noble. 2) Humans are rather savage. But we are covered in a tissue paper layer of human moral cognition that disguises this (until perhaps we become zombies). We are veiled, appetitive terrors.

Is anyone paying attention? Not only have we collapsed the gap between human and animal morality, we have inverted them so that animals are our moral superiors.

An Alternative

Frans de Waal, a contemporary primatologist ethologist, has spent his lifework studying the gap between primates and people, specifically in terms of morality, operationally defined as capacity for empathy. In this gap, you find what it is that distinguishes human nature from non-human animal nature.

The primary innovation of de Waal’s project is his objection to Veneer Theory. Instead of the moral cloak, he offers a view of “nested dolls” of prehuman selves—layers upon layers of increased aptitudes in social-interdependence relationships among organisms. He does so specifically by drawing out the moral-like impulses in animals, primarily of our closest nonhuman relatives, the chimpanzees, to show that our evolutionarily inherited instincts are not as brutish and self-serving as we imagined.

DeWaal’s work is given legs with cognitive modularity theories, which presume that a significant amount of our moral processing takes place in locked-down mental modules (or processing units), reified by our biological inheritance to uphold basic kinship altruism. These are super fast moral shortcuts that happen without reflection. They produce gut-response, impulse reactions. With animals, we can stop there. But human moral cognition extends beyond this. Set apart in a secondary tier of processing, are the rational, utilitarian, Divine command, and revelation-based modes of moral cognition we typically associate with humanness.

For deWaal, the non-human animal pre-moral landscape stops just short of attribution, the ability to fully step outside of oneself and see things from another’s perspective. Humans alone have the highest order of empathic capacity, a robust self- and social-cognizance paired with language and memory, which, combined, enable a true morality. We transcend the pre-moral landscape and can uniquely act in ways that are not dictated under the auspices of adaptive proliferation. We feel accountability toward moral laws we cannot satisfy (a phenomenon John Hare calls the “performance gap”), and we feel compelled to establish our own laws. In The Roots of American Order, Russell Kirk remarks,

“Even the simplest human communities cannot endure without some form of laws, consciously held and enforced. Ants and bees may cooperate by instinct; men must have revelation and reason.”

Humans have a desire for external coherence and a more stable sense of identity that elevates accountability and prevents us from being a theatre of passing appetites. We are different, though not in a cloaked way. We depart from non-human nature in a way that is continuous with animal nature—a departure that advances and sophisticates a pre-extant capacity for moral conviction, not in a way that radically dismisses the good of those below, but instead affirms it.

Interestingly, deWaal’s stance better accommodates both the Judeo-Christian notion of creation’s goodness, and modern evolutionary theory. St. Augustine paints an analogous picture of the human as moral actor. In his chain of being, he collapses morality onto ontology and illustrates how virtue affirms being. By living rightly—in obedience to God—we affirm our proper place on the chain of being. Conversely, when we disobey or seek lesser goods than God, we become less of who we were created to be. We “[sink] to the animal” (Augustine, Confessions). Likewise, evolutionary theory is sustained because veneer theory is antiparsimonious (evolutionarily uneconomical).  With deWaal’s moral scaling, we no longer have to posit a reason why humans departed from their inherited natures, because their natures are fairly good to begin with.

As things stand, there is a strange disjunction between depictions of animal nature and human nature in contemporary media, though this might change. Perhaps as we grow in our understanding of animal nature, we will learn to refine the questions we ask about ourselves.

 

THE GREAT BEAUTY

This year’s Golden Globe and Oscar winning The Great Beauty opens with Stendhal Syndrome: faced with the majesty of Rome, and hearing an ensemble singing David Lang’s “I Lie” on a balustrade above him, a tourist collapses. The Great Beauty has uneven moments, but the film is so gorgeous it seems calculated to produce similar reactions in the audience.

Paolo Sorrentino, co-writer and director, gives us a film about Jep Gambardella, a novelist and journalist whom Rome has bewitched for forty years. The morning after his sixty-fifth birthday, he learns that the love of his youth has died. In the film he reckons with his life and whether there still exists a beauty strong enough to cure him of nostalgia, redeem him, and teach him to write again. As I watched I felt that two ideas formed its mold. The first, from Tertullian, considers culture and religion. In De Praescriptione Haereticorum he asks: What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? The second is from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice: “Who can unravel the essence, the stamp of the artistic temperament! Who can grasp the deep instinctual fusion of discipline and dissipation on which it rests!”

Sorrentino answers Tertullian with images of a third city. His shots of Rome imbue everything they capture with a kind of Catholic sacramentalism. Here is the nightlife, here is a convent, here they are intertwined, and here is the protagonist in love with all of it and consequently, as he says, on the brink of despair. At every encounter with the sacred and the profane a representative from each asks him: “Why didn’t you write a second novel?” The deeper question is: why have you only been pretending to be alive?

Toni Servillo as Jep answers this question by answering Mann. He plays the gentleman author with poise and elegance. At first I was worried because he looks like an Italian Joe Biden, but after five minutes I realized that if Joe Biden had spent any time with this man he wouldn’t have had to settle for Vice President. The film is almost worth it for Jep’s suits. But notice the dignity of his nightly strolls and even his easy smile. The decadence of life in Rome has not erased its grace or compassion. He has the discipline of sprezzatura, a practiced indolence that mixes best with the dissipation of raucous nights.

Athens and Jerusalem, the sacred and profane, discipline and dissipation—they impress us most when they are gold-plated. Some may resent that this film is about rich people, but I go to movies to enjoy them, and it’s more fun to watch rich people survey the wreckage of their lives because the wreckage is much more extravagant than mine. You and I have our own wreckage, but it’s probably on a different budget. Sorrentino succeeds because he never forgets that the wreckage in both instances is still human. Hence the twin failures of the recent films The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street: All ruin, no people. A balance is necessary between the whirl of the high life and true contemplation of what it means to be alive. Otherwise a man who wakes at noon only to lie in a hammock with a glass of bourbon until the party resumes will not enchant us. Even if his jacket is by Kiton.

Sorrentino achieves this balance like Fellini before him. The nightlife is full of screaming, pulsing, intoxicated people: harridans, supermodels, dwarfs, eccentrics. But like an older, less mischievous Guido in 8&½ or Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Jep endures the post-party melancholy with his own self-proclaimed sensibility and humor. He goes for walks. We see what he sees: the nun picking oranges with her habit extending beyond her shoes so that she appears to be hovering, suspended from the tree like a white fruit. The Muslim couple eating pasta and the flash of dark eyes under a burka, children running in the gardens of the convent beneath his apartment. Sorrentino gives Jep a poet’s eye.

Jep claims he is the king of the high life, but it is also at his apartment, not the papal palace, where a visiting saint will dine. Of course, this is the same apartment where we watched a washed-up TV star spend the evening sucking up cocaine only to find herself awake at dawn, touching the blood rivulet on its way to her upper lip, watching passenger jets make contrails. But then there is also the profound moment when Jep and his consort encounter the man who has the keys to all of Rome’s monuments. There is even a magic giraffe and a visit to the wreck of the Costa Concordia (Does it stand for Jep? For Rome? All of Italy?). We’re forced to consider whether the waste can or cannot catalyze meaning.

I’m no technician, but to my eye the camera work throughout is pristine. And, like Fellini, the humor consistently drives deeper themes. If you see the film, look out for the “royals for hire” scene.

Good balance also requires a good soundtrack. Sorrentino deftly transitions from techno to Gorecki, Tavener, Bizet, the Kronos Quartet and back again. I had a difficult time understanding the addition of a Damien Jurado song midway through the film, but it’s a hiccup in a score that captures wide-ranging emotion without becoming a crutch.

While The Great Beauty is complex, it never lacks for grace and it never preaches. The final scene steals the final shot from La Dolce Vita while redeeming it in a way Fellini would likely have dismissed. It almost (but not quite) agrees with the final lines of Czeslaw Milosz’s “One More Day:”

And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.

Caveat emptor: This film might play a joke on you. The morning after I watched it I found myself reading through Ecclesiastes and ironing all three of my pocket squares with Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake blaring. Also, there’s nudity.

What Is Hope to A Fearful Mind?

Although the serial killer is a ubiquitous presence in the pop cultural landscape, the roles that this terrifying figure is permitted play are relatively limited. Some murderers serve as an elemental force: the threat of a violent death in human form. This is the killer of the giallo and the slasher flick, an antagonist whose visceral effect on the reader or viewer is paramount. Raw menace rather than psychological texture characterizes such bogeymen, whose apotheosis is Halloween’s unstoppable villain, Michael Myers (dubbed only “The Shape” in the 1978 film’s credits).

At the other end of the spectrum, one encounters fictional predators whose fractured minds are a critical point of investigation. In this category are mid-century cinematic monsters such as Lou Ford (The Killer Inside Me), Norman Bates (Psycho), and Mark Lewis (Peeping Tom), as well as more recent fiends like Patrick Bateman (American Psycho). This self-aware stripe of killer invites rumination on enduring philosophical conundrums like the nature of the will and of good and evil. The genus of serial killer even has its own blackly absurd version of St. Augustine’s Confessions in the form of Dexter, an exhaustive and paradoxically humane exploration of ethics and the self.

And then there is Hannibal Lecter, the über-serial killer. Ever slippery, Dr. Lecter’s darkling appeal is not primarily that of a pitiless predator or disquieting case study. Although physically lethal and psychologically multifaceted, Hannibal’s most enduring quality is the distinctive manner in which his madness is expressed. He is a man of refinement: gracious, poised, brilliant, an aficionado of fine cuisine, wines, literature, and opera. He is also a murderer and a cannibal. Although concealed, Hannibal’s more unconventional tastes are essential aspects of his character. His genteel demeanor is no facade. The real Hannibal Lecter is both the cultured doctor and the cannibalistic fiend; the two are indivisible.

Hannibal is too precisely drawn to be a faceless monster, yet too inscrutable to serve as an instructive exemplar of his kind. Accordingly, the doctor’s progenitor, novelist Thomas Harris, prefers to utilize Hannibal as a narrative force, a chessboard queen whose very presence is disruptive. In Red Dragon, the doctor is an imprisoned spider, nudging others from afar for his own amusement. In The Silence of the Lambs, he is similarly manipulative, but also a perverse mentor, possessing secret knowledge that Clarice Starling must ferret out. Hannibal finds the titular doctor roaming free as a dragon in his own right, sought by those who would slay or capture him. The prequel Hannibal Rising, meanwhile, is the exception that proves rule: when Harris attempts to portray young Lecter as a sympathetic Byronic hero, the results prove lackluster. The filmmakers who have adapted Harris’ works have generally preserved Hannibal’s place in each story, although actors Brian Cox and Anthony Hopkins each provided a particular spin. Cox’s Hannibal is genial and almost off-handed, Hopkins’ more piercing and subtly bestial.

It is into this landscape that Bryan Fuller’s bold and absorbing series Hannibal descends. Updating characters first given life over three decades ago, Hannibal reimagines the relationship between the doctor and FBI investigator Will Graham prior to the events of Red Dragon. The series presents Will as mentally frazzled and socially awkward savant, cursed with an uncanny ability to empathize with murderers and thereby reconstruct their crimes. In the series pilot, Special-Agent-in-Charge Jack Crawford convinces a reluctant, semi-retired Will to return to the field. However, on the advice of Bureau consultant Dr. Alana Bloom, it is arranged for Will to partner with the esteemed psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. The doctor serves as an informal therapist to Will, tasked to monitor the man’s increasingly disorganized and fissured mind. Hannibal, of course, is also secretly the serial killer dubbed the “Chesapeake Ripper,” devouring the organs of Baltimoreans who have offended him (or his aesthetic sensibilities).

On the surface, Hannibal follows familiar genre television patterns. Narratively, it most closely resembles a police procedural in the serial-killer-of-the-week vein, such as Millennium, Profiler, or Criminal Minds. The wrinkle, naturally, is that Hannibal is himself a cannibalistic killer, and is not above toying with Will’s investigations for his own purposes. Purely as a delivery device for nail-biting tension and ghoulish imagery, Hannibal is a success, one that benefits from being richly performed and uncommonly gorgeous. As Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen is ruthlessly charming, giving no hint of the malevolent butcher within. His Dr. Lecter is less unnerving than prior incarnations. Debonair and witty, he is a figure of fearless style and sparkling intelligence. Will Graham could have been a mere collection of tics, but Hugh Dancy portrays him with sensitivity and depth. His interpretation of the man presents a pitiable hero who seems perpetually on the verge of collapse. The series’ striking production design and cinematography, meanwhile, are as essential as the performances. Using bold colors and compositions, the show creates divisions between safety and peril, and then gradually blurs those boundaries, establishing an air of disorientation and perversion.

One could marvel at length about the series’ formal merits or its cunning repurposing of characters and events from Harris’ novels. What makes Hannibal particularly compelling, however, is how methodically and richly the series develops its themes. Proximally, the show concerns the strange, irresistible relationship between Will and Hannibal, but this is but a means to more profound concerns. While it touches upon several subjects—violence, morality, the topography of the murderous mind—Hannibal is most fundamentally a portrait of fear. Ultimately, when the white-knuckle thrills and clotted gore are peeled away, what remains is a harrowing depiction of the way that dread dominates human behavior and relationships. This desolate thematic core, more than anything else, is what distinguishes Hannibal not only from other television dramas and serial killer tales, but from previous versions of Dr. Lecter’s saga.

Fear runs through every aspect of Hannibal, but most conspicuously through Will, who is a walking snarl of live-wire anxieties and clammy panic. The ominous, feathered stag that haunts Will’s dreams throughout Season One serves as a potent totem, embodying both his strange talents and all the misery that flows from them. The series’ other recurring characters are likewise shaped to a great extent by their fears. Crawford is unsettled by the growing wedge of silence in his marriage, and by the possibility that he will repeat past lapses in judgment. Dr. Bloom is fearful for Will’s mental well-being, but is also wary of his fumbling romantic intentions. Even Hannibal, so walled-off in the novels and films, lets his confident demeanor slip in front of his own psychiatrist, hinting at the anxieties that coil within his reptilian heart. Terrors both real and imagined also plague the show’s gallery of killers: one murderer fears expiring in his sleep, while another is convinced that everyone around her is an evil imposter.

Although Hannibal presents outrageously baroque murders—one killer turns a victim’s remains into a macabre cello—most of the fears it explores are remarkably relatable. The show unsettles not because of its blood and viscera, but because the terrors that hang so heavily on it are mundane: isolation, rejection, failure, disease, and death. Notwithstanding grotesqueries like an obelisk of rotting corpses, Season One’s most terrifying image is a scrambled drawing of a clock, sketched by Will at Hannibal’s request. When the doctor conceals this and subsequent evidence of the encephalitis that is boiling Will’s brain, a seismic shift in the series occurs. Hannibal is no longer “merely” a murderous monster: he is now a doctor who is withholding critical information from his patient. (And who hasn’t secretly feared such malpractice at one time or another?) This moment emphatically illustrates that Hannibal is not truly a show about serial killers, but about the universal anxieties that attend the contemporary human experience. With the arrival of Season Two imminent, the question that lingers is whether fear (his own and others’) has doomed Will Graham to an inescapable fate.

 

This is the Way the World Ends

With the recent screen release of John Wells’ August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer-prize winning play by Tracy Letts, I found myself reimagining the geographical aesthetic of Texas where I grew up. Texas and Oklahoma, the regional setting of the film, are not properly considered “the South,” though they are both located below the Mason-Dixon Line. But for a women who grew up in central Texas with headstrong female relatives who dwelled in the country, the film’s verisimilitude was haunting. From the shared social mannerisms to almost identical life events, August: Osage County was like a memory from a past I left long ago.

Common Southern sightings spotted in Wells’ film include pitchers of iced tea; creaky screened-in porches; unbearably hot 108-degree August days; historically tense settler and Native American relations; heated disagreements resolved by drives down a dusty road; the ubiquitous First Baptist Church on the corner; smoking indoors; big hair; large floral motif wallpaper; and store-bought white sugar Bundt cakes in plastic containers. Oh, and the dysfunctional bitterness. The film is colored with such culturally specific details that serve to reanimate memory from the landscape in which the narrative takes place.

In the opening line of the film, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) muses, “‘Life is very long.’ T.S. Eliot. Not the first person to say it, certainly the not the first person to think it. But he’s given credit for it because he bothered to write it down.” We are not given an immediate account of what has made life so long for Beverly, but we can infer from his demeanor that time has only led to resignation. His marriage to Violet (Meryl Streep) has not been a joyous union or even companionship, but rather coexistence in endurance and resentment.

“The facts are: my wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck, just one paragraph of our marriage contract…cruel covenant. And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine.”

“Traditional” values (and I choose that word intentionally here) of marriage are revealed throughout the film to be less than adequate. Remaining together despite infidelity and secrecy does not lead to renewed commitment and transfiguration. In contrast, unforgivingness and disdain lead to generational brokenness and even suicide.

In “Learning from Looking: Geographic and Other Writing about the American Landscape,” Pierce Lewis writes that

“human landscape is a document wherein cultures unwittingly reveal their present and their past in a kaleidoscopic array of things, patterns, symbols. Before rushing to judge a landscape ugly or beautiful, one should pause and understand how it came to be, and what is says about the people who created it.”

In the film, landscape acts as a kind of theatre, where the space and place define the characters who settled it. It’s a member of the cast, an actor in its own right. As a result, locality and space are integral to the psychology of the characters.

Painters and filmmakers alike have captured psychological narratives within desolate landscapes formed through economic hardship and ethnic genocide. Consider American painter Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925) or the setting of filmmaker Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) in the Texas panhandle sharecropping field of 1916. Hopper and Malick both give us glimpses into the history of place that precedes the story of the Weston family by emphasizing the solitary house on the open plains. Understanding the integral role of the landscape to the play, Wells employed the strength of film to contextualize the narrative by shooting on location in a three-story Victorian farmhouse situated on over twenty acres of encompassing emptiness in Osage County. Instead of encountering the open plains as a place of freedom, Wells highlights the texture of space and the unbearably hot weather as suffocating, isolating, and claustrophobic for both the Weston family and us as viewers.

"House by the Railroad"  Date: 1925Medium:Oil on canvas Dimensions:24 x 29" (61 x 73.7 cm)

“House by the Railroad” Date: 1925Medium:Oil on canvas Dimensions:24 x 29″ (61 x 73.7 cm)

Surveying the land, Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) looks at her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and exclaims:

“What were these people thinking…the jokers who settled this place? Who was the asshole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag? I mean, we f***ed the Indians for this?”

Even the notion of “going west” to homestead the plains (Horace Greeley’s “Go west, young man!”) is captured in the family’s name: Weston. Not only has the landscape fostered fragmentation among the Weston family, but it has instigated a diaspora among the three daughters before the film even begins. Thus, August: Osage County chronicles a kind of nostos, or “homecoming,” though differing from the Homeric tradition. It is not a tender longing for home that brings everyone back to the homestead. Nevertheless, it is indeed a process of the family remembering their identity as they gather together for the liturgy of death.

The culminating scene of nostos in the film is the congregational dinner following Beverly’s funeral. We witness a confessional scene where the matriarch Violet slices through the semblance of reunion, pointing out every character’s failures. Having self-medicated on downers before the dinner, Violet is unable to filter her scathing assessments. In what could have been a scene of reconciliation, we find each member of the family judged. Not only is reconciliation not possible, but it is also not desired. Far from seeking consolation following her husband’s death, Violet distances herself. The scene’s staging evokes the false pretenses of a Norman Rockwell painting (Freedom from Want, perhaps), yet there is no veneer of appeasement in this dinner conversation. Bitterness and resentment have taken up residence in each of the characters, their poisonous effects resulting in a toxic ecology, one that Beverly Weston had decided to permanently exit.

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). Freedom from Want, 1943. War bond poster. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Oil on canvas. 45 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. (116.2 x 90.2 cm).

Norman Rockwell (American, 1894-1978). Freedom from Want, 1943. War bond poster. Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, March 6, 1943. Oil on canvas. 45 3/4 x 35 1/2 in. (116.2 x 90.2 cm).

Phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion discusses the role of time on the human face in his In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena:

Time does not pass, but accumulates…the weight of time accumulates there where my flesh is most openly visible—my face. It is on my face that time prefers to leave its traces…One never sees the same face twice, because time in being accumulated, deforms it as much as it shapes it. Only time alone can draw the face, since it alone sketches it. Time distinguishes the face, because it marks it—in the taking of flesh, in archive. (95)

We might consider this passage as we witness Violet and Beverly’s sole encounter in the film, just after Beverly’s opening remarks on time. Time has certainly chiseled narratives on their worn faces as they stare into each other’s hollowness, bereft of empathy or understanding. Their wrinkles and lines from a life of marriage together show silent desperation. Is the land to blame for this despondency? How has this family become so dehumanized? What cancer has grown from their habits of brokenness?

Neither the play nor the film attempt to resolve these questions, as the family once again departs from Osage County, save for Violet. In the penultimate scene, Violet puts an Eric Clapton record on the turntable as she stumbles around her living room, medicated and delirious. Her sanity cracks as she encounters the reality that her entire family has left, even her husband. “You’re gone, and then you’re gone and then you’re gone!” she sobs as she collapses on the stairs into the arms of her Indian housekeeper Johnna. Johnna rocks her and recites parts from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” which Beverly had read in the film’s beginning: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends.” Eliot’s poem not only bookends the entire narrative, but expresses the film in those very lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Violet’s cathartic whimper situates the script among the greats of American tragedy (such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), revealing a despair with no real resolution. Instead of ending the film with this scene (the stage play’s finale), Wells cuts to Barbara and Bill driving away from the Weston estate sharing an optimistic dialogue unfitting to the tenor of the narrative. Wells was concerned that the moviegoer would have less of a tolerance for the bleak denouement of the staged play. Nevertheless, we are still left with the portrait of a lone, disheveled matriarch haunted by the desolate plains of Osage County. The psychology of place is all the more heightened as we witness the finality of her solitude in the empty farmhouse.

Watching this last scene, I couldn’t help but feel the deepest empathy for Violet as I saw much of my own grandmother’s biography come alive through her character: the steamy land and her unhappy marriage, her struggle with cancer and her feisty antagonism, her addictive painkillers and her eyes that perceived every detail in the Morris family drama. August: Osage County allowed me to imagine the depths of her struggle through the medium of film and witness her crisis of both despair and resignation. Perhaps my condolence towards Violet Weston was a kind of posthumous reconciliation with my grandmother. Unfortunately for Wells’ film, we are given no such hope that any kind of restored relationship is even possible.

Dissension in the Ranks

It’s hard to imagine anything more innocuous. Band of Sisters opens with two Sisters of Mercy, Pat Murphy and JoAnn Persch, praying the rosary in front of a deportation center in Chicago. Immediately one sympathizes with the saucy, white-haired Persch who stands up to the security guard who tries to move them off the sidewalk in front of the facility. And what’s not to love? She’s quick-witted, frail, and full of righteous anger. She’s also a Roman Catholic nun.

And yet these sisters, like many of the others portrayed in Mary Fishman’s first documentary, are some of the most controversial members of the Catholic Church, and the life of religious women in the United States as a whole is under investigation by the Vatican as a result. The documentary, which director Mary Fishman (present at the screening I attended) called her tribute to “the risk takers of the Church,” follows about a dozen different sisters who saw the sweeping changes of Vatican II and adapted as they saw fit. Fishman succeeds in gaining sympathy and admiration for the sisters, especially to an audience already suspicious of the Catholic Church’s male hierarchy. As far as documentaries go, Fishman’s has little artistic merit, though—it’s too long, slowly-paced, and the interviews are redundant. It’s much more valuable as a study of the stories of Catholic female religious in America in the mid-to-late-twentieth century.

Citing documents from the Second Vatican Council, the sisters point to a call for a greater involvement of religious people in the affairs of the world, with a special attention to social justice issues. They specifically quote the 1964 document, Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, which states that

“even when occupied by temporal affairs, the laity can, and must do valuable work for the evangelization of the world… the whole laity must cooperate in spreading and building up the kingdom of Christ” (35).

For many Catholics, this emphasis on the necessity of the laity broke down traditional ideas about the importance of priests and religious, or at least the idea that the laity were somehow of less value. With this seeming rise in the status of the laity came a simultaneous call for religious to reexamine themselves, which resulted in religious sisters and brothers becoming involved in the secular world in an unprecedented way.

For Sisters Pat and Joanne, that took the form of working for the rights of immigrants through political lobbying. The film follows their efforts to pass a bill through Illinois legislature that will allow detained immigrants awaiting trial and deportation the right to pastoral care. Eventually the sisters are allowed to bring ministers to pray with the detainees, but they report back to their local congressman about the lack of uniform enforcement of the bill. The sisters are both compassionate and politically savvy and defy the stereotype of a quiet, obedient nun.

The reforms of Vatican II took on different shapes. One of the sisters acknowledges that they were never explicitly told to stop wearing their habits, for example—“it just began to happen.” Nuns began to get involved in causes ranging from the Chicano movement and racial equality to workers’ and women’s rights. “I did exactly what the Church told me to do,” says Sister Theresa Kane, who was president of the LCWR from 1979-1980.

Yet this doesn’t quite tell the whole story. As the sisters became involved in various social justice issues at home and abroad, they also came into contact with controversial movements that put them in conflict with members of the Church hierarchy, such as liberation theology in South America. Work in what are more typically considered “conservative” ministries, like the pro-life movement, is not mentioned in the film; this omission is glaring given the emphasis it has received from the American Church.

And with the social revolutions of the 1970’s and their tendency to completely mistrust or even renounce authority, came a questioning of all traditional authority, including that of the Church. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to Chicago in 1979, Sr. Theresa Kane gave a speech asking his holiness to allow women to serve in all levels of Church hierarchy, including as ordained members of the priesthood. In what is meant to be a climactic moment in the documentary, Sr. Kane’s words are met with thunderous applause from the other women religious gathered in the cathedral. Pope John Paul II, seated behind her, is caught with a quizzical look on his face, accenting the film’s view of Church hierarchy as elderly, out-of-touch men. Protesters outside the cathedral, among them female religious, stand holding signs that say, “Ordain women or stop baptizing them.”

The last part of Fishman’s film focuses on the Vatican investigation of the nuns, launched by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. The sisters who were interviewed react with surprise and anger to the investigation. They claim that they have been faithful to the Church their whole lives, even as the documentary shows the ways in which they divert from orthodoxy in their beliefs on the male priesthood and other issues. In the documentary, the words “social justice” are spoken over a dozen times; the name of Jesus is spoken once. It begs the question: who, or what, is being worshipped?

Catholic Orthodoxy is not the only lens—and probably not the best lens—through which to view this film. Most of the work that the sisters have done is of immeasurable value and was done not for profit or fame but simply out of their moral convictions. And yet for the knowledgeable Catholic, the documentary remains problematic. The sisters insist that they are faithful “daughters of the Church” when their stance on certain vital issues remains suspect.

The documentary is most helpful as a showcase of a particular kind of religious life that arose in response to the socio-political movements of the sixties and seventies. It goes into deep, sometimes monotonous detail about the work of the sisters and records the projects to which they have dedicated their lives. But Band of Sisters  also sheds light on a deep rift in American Catholicism, that between a social-justice oriented “left” and a more traditionally inclined “right.” As long as this schism is widened by American Catholics, the power struggles seen in Band of Sisters will continue, despite the fact that the two sides ostensibly have the same goal: a radical living out of the Gospel in the modern world.

House of Cards

The public has come to assume the worst in politicians. We assume that there are back room deals, plays for power and bargaining within the various administrations. But the Netflix series House of Cards not only confirms our suspicions, assuring us that it isn’t as bad as we thought – it shows us that it’s even worse.

The series, released onto Netflix in its entirety to allow for “binge watching,” is certainly “binge worthy.” The show follows the devious Democratic Majority Whip Frank Underwood, played by Kevin Spacey, as he weaves a meticulous web of manipulation in order to rise to power and gain revenge. The first season was met with such enthusiasm that Netflix is set to release the entire second season on February 14 while it begins filming the third season.

The first episode opens to Underwood quietly killing a dog that has been hit by the car. He looks directly at the camera and speaks to the viewers:

There are two kinds of pain. The sort of pain that makes you strong, or useless pain. The sort of pain that’s only suffering. I have no patience for useless things. Moments like this require someone who will act. Who will do the unpleasant thing, the necessary thing.”

Thus, Underwood is established as a man of brutal pragmatism who the audience is inclined to trust as the sole narrator, but also someone who the viewer is to fear. The opening continues at a party celebrating the election of Democratic elect, Garret Walker, and Underwood commands the room and the audience’s attention, as they are unwittingly pulled deeper into the plot. Even a simple aside glance to the audience is a serious and fearful thing. Underwood clues the audience in on the background, flaws and motivations of the people and situations around him. One is both amazed and cautious of his vast knowledge.

In a lecture sponsored by The Guardian, Kevin Spacey comments about the appeal of his character:

“He has no allegiances to party, to titles, to forms, to labels: He doesn’t care whether it’s Democrats, Republicans, ideology or conviction. What he sees is opportunity and the chance to move forward. OK, he’s a bit diabolical but he’s also very effective.”

Underwood may be effective, but at very morally questionable costs and consequences. He devours anyone who gets in his way, and simply uses and discards other people. It appears that all people are simply pawns in the game of his revenge, moving the pieces like a skilled chess player. Frank’s calculated power grabs outweigh any sort of moral calculus: He doesn’t bat an eye while paying prostitutes thousands of dollars to keep quiet and forcing others to make political suicide.

Many have compared Frank Underwood to Richard III, a Shakespearean villain at his finest. In Richard III, a power hungry and deformed prince aspires to the throne and decides to kill anyone who gets in the way. Underwood doesn’t necessarily kill those in his way, but he does squash political careers and disgrace those who defy him.

Kevin Spacey was starring as the villainous king before he took the role of Frank Underwood, which allowed him to practice his menacing asides. Spacey told NPR that he “was able to actually look into people’s eyes all over the world and see how much they relished it, and how dangerous it was, and how sporting and naughty they felt in being sort of brought in and made Richard’s — and now Francis’ — co-conspirators.”

Both Frank Underwood’s and Richard III’s asides to the audience make one complicit in their actions. They are not heroes, but they are the characters that the audience must follow, perhaps to their own demise. Underwood knows that he’s bad and revels in it, as a fully aware agent, having his own form of twisted integrity.

Comparisons have also termed Underwood as a modern “Machiavellian” agent. The idea is confirmed by David Fincher, producer of the show:

“The idea of Machiavelli taking you under his wing and walking you through the corridors of power, explaining the totally mundane and crass on a mechanical level to the most grotesque manipulations of a system that is set up to have all these checks and balances was just too delicious.”

The common quotation by Machiavelli asserts that it is better to be feared than loved, but it is best to have both. Underwood employs both fear and love. He strikes fear in those whom he manipulates but, with his Southern charm, he can quickly turn to assure the other characters that he has their best interest in mind. Underwood makes his enemies and allies believe that he is only doing what’s best.

We’ve seen the power obsessed politics movies before, but House of Cards’ calculated, ruthless “butchery” takes them a step further, showing the gory human condition on display. In other movies, one expects the villains to have a stroke of conscience, but viewers of House of Cards have long since given up the idea that Frank Underwood will atone for his sins. And in some strange turn of events, we feel as if we are rooting for him. What, but divine retribution, could stop a man like that?

One of the most interesting and telling scenes with Frank Underwood is toward the end of the season when he enters into the sanctuary of the church he attends. Viewers are given a glimmer of hope that Underwood might repent, or show some form of conscience but instead he presents us with a monologue:

“Every time I’ve spoken to you, you’ve never spoken back, although given our mutual disdain; I can’t blame you for the silent treatment. Perhaps I’m speaking to the wrong audience. Can you hear me? Are you even capable of language, or do you only understand depravity? … There is no solace above or below. Only us — small, solitary, striving, battling one another. I pray to myself, for myself.”

Underwood’s conversation with God provides a complex, and deeply orthodox, understanding the human condition and its lust for power. Those who are surprised by this cold-hearted quest for power are not well acquainted with Augustine or the capabilities of the human condition. It is not money that Underwood is after. For him, money is a trivial choice over success. Money is a mansion that will fall apart in ten years while “power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” It is the age-old Christian narrative: humans seeking to be God and seeking to rule.

St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo in the late 300s A.D., wrote his colossal life work The City of God amidst the crumbling of the Roman Empire, political corruption and confusion within the early church.

Augustine comes to describe the human condition as a “twisted knottiness” that only God can straighten out. He calls mankind’s basic human problem the passion and drive to dominate and subjugate others: the libido dominandi. Augustine argues that people, after the Fall, are constantly trying to bring others to subjection to his or her will. As R.A. Markus writes in Saeculum: History & Society in the Theology of St. Augustine, Augustine’s work does not consider fully “political thought” but there are certain political implications that Augustine ascertains from the condition of man. Mankind wishes to be its own ruler, apart from any allegiance to God, and makes others follow accordingly.

This certainly seems to describe the aspirations of Frank Underwood as he weaves a web of lies and political deals that bring all those around him into submission to his will. Underwood’s motivating factor is to dominate others, to assert his power over them. Underwood has defied any sense of divine retribution, acknowledging a mutual disdain, and continues like a villain lusting for power rather than purity. This is, from Augustine’s and the Christian perspective, the ultimate downfall of man.

But what Underwood may soon learn from Augustine is that those who follow after these passions of domination are never at peace and never satisfied. They are always striving for a false power that can be instantly snatched from the grip: they do not rest. Frank Underwood does not rest, for his house of cards can come tumbling down around him at any time. Several times during the season, it appears that all of his ends are unraveling and he must frantically squelch the rebellion.

In Augustine’s mind, those who enact the libido dominandi have no possibility of rest. Men make horrible gods, and their kingdoms usually end disordered and tattered with tension, much like the Roman Empire.

Augustine wrote that society must become about minimizing disorder and keeping men from “devouring each other like fish.”  All is subject to the distortion of domination, every ruler and leader – there is no one above it. Frank Underwood chooses to revel in it, but he may soon come to find that he is not the masterful orchestrator he imagined.

The question is how accurately this “immorality play” has to do with the real condition in D.C. Should the public fear that the politicians in power have only the goal of more power in mind? Alyssa Rosenberg points out that Underwood has no concern for the consequences of his actions, whether it’s a strike that puts thousands of teachers out of work or closing 12,000 jobs at a shipyard simply for political power. The emphasis isn’t the substance of the matter but the game-like manipulation of it. Rosenberg argues that the show buys into the worldview of manipulation while being enamored with the ugliest parts of Washington.

But the “morality” of House of Cards and its exposé of the human condition is worth noting, whether the show identifies it as a problem or not. The manipulation and games may prove for good, thrilling television, but it also serves to squelch our naiveté about those in power.

If one subscribes to Augustine’s assessment of the human condition, we should not be surprised by the immorality that is hidden behind doors and political deals. That is not to say that we adopt cynicism and distrust any good willed attempt by politicians to help people. There are genuine people within the political process. But, we must not let our inclination to assume the best in people cloud our judgment of the capabilities of evil that power can bring. These things are just beyond the tips of our fingers, so easy to access at the cause of “pragmatism.”

While Frank Underwood is a complex and compelling villain, we must soberly understand that this is not an abnormality. Given the circumstances and the power, any one might be inclined to do the same. Perhaps many already do. There is still a need for checks and balances, for accountability within the processes of power, because it is so easy to slip into the twisted human condition of Augustine’s libido dominandi. The lust for human power is strong but the kingdom it builds is merely a house of cards; it can just as easily and quickly crumble around us.

Elevation and Entertainment

As the van headed out of the dry basin that holds Salt Lake City, we exchanged introductions. I managed to overhear some of my fellow riders’ careers—accountant, musician, pastor, web developer — but soon we fell silent and admired the mountains. At first they were just a darker shade of sky pinned to the horizon like a ragged strip of construction paper. Then the road began to wind, the van’s engine grew louder, and enormous peaks surrounded us. I yawned to make my ears pop and began to see snow and ski lifts. Eventually we veered south as we reached the east side of the Wasatch Mountains, and, 7,000 feet up, we entered Park City.

I soon learned that for the first hundred years of its history, Park City, which boasts the “greatest snow on earth,” was known not for its skiing, but for its silver mines. It’s strange to think that miners ascended the mountain and saw the shimmering snow-covered peaks only to be plunged day after day into darkness. Today, most visitors to Park City give little thought to the dormant network of tunnels beneath them as they hit the slopes. But for ten days each January things change. It is as if a piece of history flickers to life again. Visitors arrive in the city not to ski, but to file in and out of the darkness in search of something—but not silver. They are looking for something unique and fresh in the films premiering at the world’s largest independent film festival: Sundance.

That is why a group of nearly 30 of us assembled in Park City. We weren’t coming to Sundance as filmmakers or employees in the Entertainment industry. We weren’t there to buy, sell, or promote anything. Instead, we had all signed up to attend the festival as part of Into the Noise, an organization intent on approaching film, music, and art festivals as occasions for growth, transformation, and spiritual experience.

It might seem strange that people still travel to the mountains of Utah to see movies. After all, as early as 1936 the art critic and theorist Walter Benjamin claimed that film was the first medium of art that was completely reproducible. He pointed out that with film there is no “original” work of art the way there is an original Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo. A film screened in Los Angeles is the same film when it is screened in Chicago or New York or Singapore. So, for Benjamin, when it came to film there was no point in using old words like “uniqueness” or “authenticity.”

I think we would have to admit that Benjamin’s ideas hit even closer to home in the digital age, when services like Netflix, Vimeo, YouTube, and Amazon Instant Video deliver content on demand. But, while Benjamin believed that film would make audiences thoughtful by making art more democratic, it seems often to have the opposite effect. With access to so many films at our fingertips, it is harder than ever to find what is valuable among what is merely available. We lump trite and disposable films together with lasting and profound ones—it’s all “Entertainment.”

That is why in 1985 the Sundance Institute began helping independent filmmakers tell different kinds of stories. Instead of highly consumable products created based on carefully calculated business decisions, they wanted films that provoked, challenged, and unsettled audiences. Nowadays, when the budgets of major Hollywood films regularly top $200 million, ideas like risk and failure aren’t on the table. But this year’s Sundance Film Festival included 26 films that relied on crowdfunding sources like Kickstarter and IndieGogo, as well as 54 premieres by first-time feature filmmakers.

In order to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, the Sundance Institute held “Free Fail,” a day-long celebration of failure and its role in the creative process. Even Robert Redford, who founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, was able to relate: the first day of the festival news surfaced that Redford had failed to receive an Oscar nomination for All is Lost, the widely-acclaimed independent film he made with Sundance Lab filmmaker J.C. Chandor. When asked for his reaction to the “snub,” Redford said: “[All is Lost] was for me more of a pure cinematic experience. I love that. But also, almost more than anything, it gave me the chance as an actor to go back to my roots … [Hollywood] is a business and we couldn’t conform to that.”

Sundance provides a place for similar labors of love, like Boyhood, a film that was shot intermittently over a 12-year period, or the musical God Help the Girl, written and directed by Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch. Murdoch wrote the songs for the film over a decade ago and slowly pieced together a script, then a cast, and managed to fund the film through Kickstarter, offering creative prizes for backers, such as a tour of Glasgow (where the film is shot) led by Murdoch himself.

This year’s festival also provided a place for experimental works. 52 Tuesdays, a film about a teenage girl dealing with the changes in her family as her mother undergoes gender reassignment operations, was written on a week-by-week basis and shot only on Tuesdays for an entire year. And, on the other side of the spectrum, They Came Together, a film directed by David Wain starring Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd, parodies all of the conventions of a typical romantic comedy. They Came Together was shot in just twenty days within the space of a few blocks in Brooklyn.

One of the most profound films to come out of this year’s festival, Happiness, took the issue of the role of Entertainment in our lives head on. The film documents the changes in the lives of the citizens of Bhutan following an announcement from their King that he would allow television and internet access in the country for the first time ever. The people, most of whom live an agrarian lifestyle in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, are overjoyed. They happily descend the mountains with yaks to sell for the money to buy their TVs, which they then lash to horses for the two-day journey back into the mountains.

The film won a cinematography award for its exquisite shots of the remote Bhutanese way of life. We, the audience, are transfixed by the stunning surroundings, and as we look up at the grandeur of the Bhutanese homeland, we’re puzzled why they think bringing a television up the mountain could possibly increase its value. As we finally see them sitting in the roar and glare of the television as they watch pro wrestling, the world suddenly becomes a little flatter.

Watching Happiness, I couldn’t help but think of the song “That’s Entertainment” by the British punk band The Jam: “watching the telly and thinking about your holidays … feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away—that’s Entertainment!” Entertainment might feel like an escape, but it always leaves us back where we started, in the place we were trying to escape from. It even shows through in the word’s etymology: it means “to maintain or continue,” from the Latin word tenere, or “to hold.”

Isn’t that why a “mountaintop experience” like Sundance is more important today than ever before? Like Moses at Mount Sinai or Roy Neary at Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we are looking for an experience that—despite it lasting for a moment—transforms us permanently. Mountains help because they are the punctuation of landscape; they break up the boring prose of the plains and situate everything in a meaningful way. They are a marker, a signpost. But they also disrupt and dislocate our plans and pathways; if you’re going to go up on a mountain, you have to be ready for anything.

But you also have to go with someone who has your back. Not that we were in any danger at Sundance, but the environment is the product of hundreds of variables that are best navigated as a team. As I met with my fellow attendees for a few moments of stillness and reflection before we headed out in search of the dark rooms we would move in and out of for the day, we always practiced a mixture of rumination and strategy. Our experiences were part curation and part improvisation as we hurried to the films we had passes for and tried to see others along the way, using waitlists or finding individuals selling or giving their tickets away.

Each day we jelled for a moment, like an orchestra tuning up for a symphony. The violinist strikes a note, and then, from what feels like only noise, a single note emerges. And isn’t this what film is about in its purest form? Sitting together for a moment, seeing the same thing. Here. Now.

I often ask friends about movies—whether one is good, whether they liked it, whether I should go see it. Maybe I’m asking the wrong questions. Instead of, Is this good? or, Should I see it?, I‘ll ask, What can we discover in this together? What truth does it lay hold of? What glimmer can we find in the darkness? What note can we, together, wrest from the noise?

 

For more information on how to experience Sundance or one of the other festivals Into the Noise engages with, visit intothenoise.org.

Hope Has Passed Away

Llewyn Davis is a perennial loser. The threadbare folk singer who trudges through the slushy streets of the Coen Brothers’ latest cinematic triumph is accustomed to failure. In the bitterly cold New York winter of 1961, however, Llewyn is slouching at a professional and personal nadir. His first solo record following the death of his partner is selling so poorly that he has received zero royalties. He is effectively homeless, surviving on the charity of friends and the meager proceeds from penny-ante gigs. He has systematically alienated his family and colleagues with his churlishness, thoughtlessness, and starving artist pomposity. He has not one but two possible illegitimate children, and may be responsible for the death of his friends’ cat. In short, Llewyn’s existence of late is a cavalcade of foul-ups. Sadly, this is nothing new for the musician. He is so habituated to misfortune that his reaction to each fresh indignity consists of vague disbelief followed by bitter sarcasm, eventually receding to weary resignation.

Inside Llewyn Davis presents roughly one week in the life of its titular singer-songwriter. It is a period that one might generously call “eventful” if it did not come across as dismally typical for Llewyn. Each day he faces more hardship, more opprobrium, and more chances to wound the few people who are still willing to tolerate his presence. Collar turned up against the wind’s snapping teeth, he schleps his guitar case in circles: uptown, downtown, crosstown, cross-country, and back again. Yet he never seems to be moving forward; he’s just treading water.

The Coens underline the sullen sense of déjà vu that characterizes Llewyn’s experiences through the repetition of dialogue, action, and motifs, a familiar method within the Brothers’ filmography. However, the film’s potent sense of entrapment–its “stationary motion,” if you will–is also expressed through its ingenious structure. The film begins and ends with the same vicious scene: Llewyn’s thorough ass-kicking at the hands of a stranger in a snowy, darkened alley. The narrative seam that lies between these bloody bookends–the point at which the story laps itself–passes by unnoticed at first. Gradually, the viewer grows aware of it in hindsight, as it becomes clear that Llewyn’s travails have no beginning and no end. His route is not a circle but a Möbius strip: a twisted path that provides the illusion of advancement. It ruthlessly returns the pilgrim to his starting point, where he once again faces all the obstacles he thought he had overcome.

The Coens have repeatedly interrogated the subjects of defeat, misadventure, and calamity in their work. The shambles that result from the intersection of nefarious motives and sheer stupidity are played for black humor in films such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, and Burn After Reading. A more serious-minded exploration is evident in the filmmakers’ masterful theodicy dyad, No Country For Old Men and A Serious Man. Llewyn bears more than a passing resemblance to the latter film’s hapless protagonist, Larry Gopnik, in that both men are magnets for suffering. However, whereas the whirlwind of woe that afflicts Larry appears suddenly and seemingly without reason, Llewyn’s miseries are both distressingly routine and directly attributable to his own actions.

At times, his missteps are the product of mere short-sightedness. For example, after he impulsively directs his sister Joy to toss his meager possessions out with the garbage, he belatedly discovers a desperate need for his discarded merchant marine license. Just as often, however, Llewyn’s selfishness and prickly arrogance are the culprits. His generous Upper West Side patrons Mitch and Lillian Gorfein provide him with meals and a bed, but when they urge him to perform for their friends, his resentment boils over and lands him back out on the street. Like many of the Coens’ long-suffering protagonists, Llewyn is pitiable but not blameless. Every time the viewer begins to empathize with his plight, he shoots his mouth off and demonstrates that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving guy.

Defeat has a strange gravity in Llewyn’s world. The bleak yet altogether characteristic week depicted in the film highlights the way that consistent failure can nudge a person into self-destructive patterns. “Do you ever think about the future at all?,” former lover Jean asks him disdainfully (and rhetorically). Repeated disappointment and debacle have collapsed Llewyn’s horizons to a few days. He smugly justifies this by declaring that “blueprinting a future” is hopelessly square, but he isn’t fooling anyone except himself. This self-delusion marks Llewyn as kin to contemporary comic art’s many snarky losers, including those of Brian Lee O’Malley, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and Jeph Jacques. Like O’Mally’s Scott Pilgrim, Llewyn has become comfortable with his place at the bottom. Both have created self-serving narratives for their lives, stories that bestow them with a victim’s righteousness and absolve them of the need to scrutinize their own behavior.

Still, one can understand why Llewyn would avert his eyes from the future. He knows all too well how unlikely even modest fame and fortune are for a professional folk musician. Meanwhile, his elderly father’s mute dementia provides an unnerving preview of his long-term fate. In lieu of looking forward, Llewyn can only gaze at the past and wonder what might have been. While other people make their plans, he quietly hoards his cynicism and wallows in his regrets. His history is one characterized by fumbled opportunities, botched relationships, and abandoned responsibilities — each an inflection point when he was tested and failed. “Everything you touch turns to shit,” spits Jean, and Llewyn does not contest the point. However, the sorrow that looms the largest cannot be laid at Llewyn’s feet. The suicide of his musical partner, Mike, has engendered a dense grief that Llewyn has buried in alternating strata of feigned indifference and petulant anger. While he is mentioned only briefly in the film, Mike’s absence is plainly crushing Llewyn from within, like a pinpoint black hole embedded in his heart.

Llewyn presents a fascinating case study of despair as a kind of addictive narcotic. Pummeled by seemingly limitless adversity, he has fashioned his misery into a lifestyle. In a sense, Inside Llewyn Davis provides a map of the psychological hazards that surround failure and tragedy. Through Llewyn’s harsh example, the Coens illustrate the risks of allowing oneself to be defined by suffering, to the point where anything positive must be knocked down with an acerbic swipe. Such an approach to life might hold a grungy glamour to the would-be cultural radical, but the endpoint is merely drab, directionless stasis.

This is not to say that Llewyn is merely a risible cautionary example. Indeed, as written by the Coens and given marvelously nuanced life by Oscar Isaac, the musician is a wholly rounded and convincing figure. When the situation warrants, he can be resilient, resourceful, and even contrite. He is perhaps the most recognizably human character in the Coens’ entire oeuvre, a man whose essence lies not in his heroism or villainy (or in quotable one-liners) but in his struggle. He is a distinctly drawn character, yet also a surrogate for the viewer at their lowest moments: unemployment, poverty, rejection, heartbreak, crushed dreams and horrid mistakes. In Llewyn, the viewer can discern a reflection of their own ordeals and failings, as well as the toxic modes of thought and action that could ensnare them into a feedback loop of misery. This deeply personal resonance with the experiences of individual viewers is among Inside Llewyn Davis’ most splendid achievements, and one that marks it as a profoundly incisive, instructive, and humane work of cinema.

Illustration by: Jamie Toon

Walter Mitty, the Critic, and the Believer

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention,” Sean O’Connell, played by Sean Penn, philosophizes in Ben Stiller’s recent blockbuster, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The film follows the daydreaming, droll, and unexceptional negative assets manager of Life magazine, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), as the magazine transitions through a merger. Mitty’s final job is to publish the last cover photo, negative 25 by renegade photojournalist Sean O’Connell. O’Connell calls the photo his “masterpiece” and the “quintessence of Life.” But when the negative is missing, Mitty is sent on a wild chase across the globe in an attempt to track down O’Connell and discovers that life is brimming with possibilities if one is willing to get up and go.

The film, hailed by some to be the millennial form of Forrest Gump, reached for Oscar aspirations, but, in the minds of many critics, it fell short of its lofty goals. On Rotten Tomatoes, the rating of the critics was a lowly 49 percent, and on Fandango’s rating system, the critical response was “So-So.”

Mike LaSelle of the San Francisco Chronicle remarked that the film was “logic lost in a dream,” in which an air of whimsy had to be continually pumped throughout, lest the film collapse like a soufflé. Dana Stevens at Slate expressed frustration: “Neither the spiritual insights nor the jokes always hit the mark, and sometimes one cancels out the other, giving the film a curiously neutral, blank quality.” On Rotten Tomatoes, however, 76% of the audience liked the film, with an average rating of a 3.8 out of 5. Search the tag “Walter Mitty” on Tumblr and you will find a multiplicity of posts, some with thousands of likes. It seems that indifference on the side of the critics is unbalanced with the public response to the film.

The movie struck chords housed deep in some hearts, while others found it too idealistic and enigmatic. The disparity between the critics’ and the public’s reaction to the film provides a lens into the way we have come to understand and view art.Within the bounds of traditional film and aesthetic criticism, many of the critics’ observations are accurate. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is not the darling of criticism. It is a bit of an anomaly with an almost nostalgic look at life. Luke Buckmaster argues in his review of Mitty that the film is a “sort of cinematic gateway drug that plays around with art film concepts for audiences who don’t necessarily want to watch an art film.” The quote appears to suggest that the critical value of the work is degraded when an artist creates with the enjoyment of the people in mind. High art is for the critics, and low art is for the people.

But this is a false dichotomy: all art is intended for all people.

Art isn’t just for those with aesthetic terminology and critical facility but for the general public as well. The problem with criticism is that, at times, it can dull our emotional faculty for experiencing art for the sake of emotion and instruction. Perhaps Mitty asks us to lay down our critical minds for a time and to imagine what life could be. As Mitty hikes treacherous mountains and jumps out of hovering helicopters, a sense of possibility exudes from the, albeit implausible, circumstances.

The question is then: do we believe in the possible? What the disparity between the critics and the audience forces us to take into account is our own cynicism. Are we able to accept the dazzling optimism that the film presents us, or will we grumble and lump it with the plight of the naïve? Perhaps there is something to learn from the viewer who feels the film without understanding the complex narrative, cinematography, or structure of it? What then, as critics and viewers, can we glean from the film? What gives the film a its emotional resonance are its accessibility, simplicity, and sentimentality.

Buckmaster before commented that Mitty is an “art film” for those who don’t want to watch an art film. This is exactly what makes Mitty valuable. It grants accessibility into the strange world of “art” films. The film, though imperfectly, takes the forms of art films and communicates them in a way that resonates with the general public. While most general filmgoers would not be drawn to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life on their own volition, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty may nudge them closer to appreciating the cinematography, slight but poignant narration, and subtly of the film’s message.

The Wall Street Journal’s review argued that what made the film feel dissociated was the blurred line between fantasy and reality, in which one couldn’t tell if Mitty dreamed he jumped into the Arctic or whether he actually did. But this blurring is intentional and structural when one considers the genre of magical realism. Magical realism is characterized by a highly detailed, realistic setting that is interjected with something strange and unbelievable. The laws of nature and physics are set aside for the creation of a new reality brimming with possibilities and interactions between the characters and their physical worlds.

Did Walter Mitty really just jump into the window of a fiery building? Did he actually sweep the woman he loves off of her feet? While some of the visions are more fantastical (i.e., him being a Latin Arctic explorer), some of the visions are woven into scenes that are undeniably real. Because of the setup of Mitty’s visions, one is led to question the things he does in reality. Did he really just fly in a helicopter in Greenland with a drunken pilot and plunge into the sea? Yes, in fact, he did. This is the beauty of Mitty: the film creates a realistic and accessible magical realism. The people in the film do not grow magical pigtails like in Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but they do harness the powers of fantasy to go on improbable adventures, such as trekking through the Himalayas and bribing the Yemen border patrol with cake.

Aristotle wrote that art should recount “probable impossibilities rather than impossible probabilities.” By using an accessible form of magical realism, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds us that life is exciting in its probable impossibilities, the things that can occur that you would never imagine in your dreams, though one would not suggest attempting to outrun an exploding volcano in Iceland.

The beauty of the movie is its simplicity, which criticism can often overlook, creating a film that is simple in its narrative and plot. The film suggests that our minds do not need complicated story lines or movies brimming with action to find wonder. Mitty asks us to stretch our aesthetic concepts in the genres and films we have become accustomed to. Can we still be excited by beautiful shots of nature? Does the subtle spark of potential love still move us? Or we are too glutted on hyper-realistic, over-exaggerated spectacles to relate to the beauty of a quiet mountaintop and the patience of waiting for a snow leopard?

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is like the roll of negatives from O’Connell: picturesque moments strung together to communicate something about life. What makes Mitty work is its well-crafted emotional message. One might be inclined to buy a longboard or a ticket to Iceland immediately after exiting the theater. The film reminds viewers to go, do, be, explore, and hope. As David Carr from The New York Times wrote, “[I]t is a reminder that dreams are meant to be lived.” Many may criticize the film for being overly idealistic and sentimental. But what is wrong with being a little sentimental? When was it necessary to simply accept reality as it is? Most of art and human action has been striving towards creating things as they ought to be. Gritty realism is necessary, sure, to account for the grim occurrences of life, but have we forgotten that there’s some beauty in it all too? Let us not forget that despite all our problems, we’re alive and beautiful things exist.

Sean Penn’s character tells Mitty, while waiting for the illustrious snow leopard, “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.” If beauty does not ask for attention, then that assumes that we, as humans, must be paying attention. It’s easy to be distracted. It’s easy to watch the repeatedly gruesome stories on the news and become cynical of life and cynical of people achieving their “dreams.” “Dreams” seems to be a dirty word, an idea you had in college but grew out of like an old sweater. But if we are to take O’Connell’s quotation seriously, then it may be time to look a little hard for beautiful things around us. Maybe things like beauty, hope, and wonder are not givens, but things to be searched for.

The film explores the “quintessence of Life,” a phrase that the enigmatic Sean O’Connell uses to describe his life work, twisting the phrase to be both about the magazine and the lives that we all lead. Are we reaching for the quintessence, or are we rather comfortable to stay where we are, entertained but unhappy and unfulfilled? Could we shake the cynicism out of our bones? Emily Dickinson wrote that “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Maybe hope is also a longboard on the roads of Iceland.

The film whimsically explores what happens when we give beauty, wonder, and love their way and our attention. There is a safety in detachment because it assumes emotional stability, but there is much more to gain by embracing vulnerability. If we would become less detached and more vulnerable toward art, we might find a way to dispel our cynicism and learn to believe again.

The motto for Life magazine in the film is “to see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, to draw closer, to find each other and to feel: that is the purpose of life.” The Secret Life of Walter Mitty asks each of us if we are ready to adopt this motto for ourselves. It is much easier to critically analyze the film than to take up the dangerous emotional response that the film asks of us. The choice is ours.

“Girls” & Gadamer

When Girls premiered in 2012, everyone had an opinion about the show. Some hated it, some loved it, and others hated that they loved it. Questions arose like: Who is Lena Dunham? Who is this Hannah Horvath character? Why do I hate her so much? And why can’t I wait for next week’s episode?

Everyone in the U.S. started talking about Girls and Lena Dunham, who, at the ripe-old-age of 25, had managed to write, direct, and start in a hit HBO series. Girls brought questions of sexuality, millennial ambition, friendship, white privilege, and self-actualization into the minds of viewers across the country.

I remember watching the Girls pilot and feeling disgusted by Hannah’s whiny attempts to guilt-trip her parents into supporting her by telling them about her friend Sophie who didn’t get any money from her parents and who’d had two abortions. Her friend Shoshanna’s non-stop “Like, I don’t know, you know what I mean?!” was painfully annoying. Hannah’s control-freak roommate Marnie stressed everyone out. Shoshanna’s mysterious cousin Jessa was way too bohemian, European, and free-spirited. But I couldn’t get these girls out of my head.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, a 20th century German philosopher most well-known for his work in hermeneutics, was fascinated by how we know and what happens in the knowing process. His ideas about knowing and understanding help bridge the gap between Girls as a guilty pleasure and Girls as an insightful text. In discussing how we know, he writes about humanity’s finitude and reminds readers that our specific place in time and space influences everything we know and study and analyze. We are “situated” at a certain point in history, and our place in time is necessarily part of how and what we know.

Gadamer describes this “situatedness” in Truth & Method:

“The very idea of a situation means that we are not standing outside it and hence are unable to have any objective knowledge of it. We always find ourselves within a situation, and throwing light on it is a task that is never entirely finished.”

This description alone is a start at describing the world of Girls—it’s a bunch of young kids working hard at understanding themselves, but never really pin-pointing what the heck they’re going through.

Gadamer points to conversation as a way to shed light on our hidden situations. In his foreword to the second edition of Truth & Method, he writes that “the experience of the Thou throws light on the concept of historically effected experience.” We don’t learn and grow in a vacuum, and dialog with other people (Gadamer’s “Thou”) can help shed light on things we’re too blind to see. His first step toward solving the difficulties caused by our “situatedness” is to enter conversation with other people, where we can earnestly work together toward understanding.

Gadamer’s ideas of situatedness help explain why I can’t wait for the next episode of Girls. Sure, I’d rather Shoshanna never open her mouth, and I judge Hannah every time she steps out of her door in another outfit that doesn’t fit. But something keeps me watching. I want to watch the conversations unfold. I want to watch the characters stumble toward self-understanding. I want to watch them work at understanding each other. As much as these girls annoy me, I don’t hate them. They’re just people situated in a place they can’t see clearly—but they’re trying. They’re working at it. And that makes me want to root for Hannah to finish her book, for Jessa to find a passion, for Marnie to chill out, and for Shoshanna to become “the Carrie” she’s always wanted to be.

Every character is relatable—not because I relate to their experiences, but because I relate to their struggle to become who they are. In selfish, sometimes caricatured ways, the girls of Girls are living pictures of what it’s like to be a person. It’s not simple. It’s dirty and strange and sometimes full of weird sex and random friendships and loneliness.

There’s no formula Hannah and her friends can follow to become who they are supposed to be. In the absence of a step-by-step guide to life as a 20-something in New York (unless articles from Thought Catalog and BuzzFeed count), Hannah and her girls (and boys) are left to work at finding meaning in bumbling, fumbling, human ways. Their work often results in half-formed truths and feeble attempts at some grasp on reality. Along the way, they start scratching the surface of the kind of knowledge that counts.

In an earlier essay, “Truth in the Human Sciences,” Gadamer writes,

“Knowledge in the human sciences always has something of self-knowledge about it. Nowhere is deception so easy and so near as in self-knowledge, but nowhere does it also mean as much, where it succeeds, for human existence.”

Unlike “hard,” formulaic science, the knowledge that makes our lives rich and meaningful isn’t something we can pin down. Yes, deception is always possible when we’re talking about knowing ourselves. But we have to try.

The real possibility of self-deception is pretty clear in Girls. Hannah’s OCD and Marnie’s relationship woes are near-perfect examples of radical self-deceptions. But there are places, every so often, where these girls succeed—where they get a glimpse of who they really are and what it really means to be a friend and a person. Jessa crying in a bathtub with Hannah after she breaks it off with her husband. Adam giving strangely solid life advice to Marnie in the premier of Season three. Ray realizing that his cynicism might not be worth it. These moments make sense of all the fumbling and bumbling.

Gadamer’s work on hermeneutics and how we apprehend meaning doesn’t shy away from the fumbling and bumbling we see in Girls. His whole project aims to demonstrate how the clear-cut formulas of science, while neat and clean, don’t offer much to people trying to get at meaning. We don’t follow a step-by-step guide. We don’t make calculated experiments. We live. We have conversations. We encounter tradition and religion. We, along with the girls of Girls, make sense of ourselves and the world through an ongoing dialogue that never really stops. It’s not a pretty way to find truth, but it might be the most human way.

 

The Ethos of the Geek

Simon Pegg and his pals Nick Frost and Edgar Wright are not only fabulous and hilarious filmmakers: they represent the ethos of the geek, and are therefore tremendously important cultural figures. In 2004, these Brits half-stumbled-half-exploded onto the film scene with their zombie parody Shaun of the Dead and it was met with nearly universal praise. Since then, Pegg has made several more genre parodies: Hot Fuzz, Paul, and The World’s End (he even played Scotty in the recent Star Trek reboot), giving him perhaps the strongest claim to the throne of the geek kingdom.

It is a recent phenomenon, largely spurned on by the existence of the Internet (but that’s another discussion entirely), that “geek culture” has emerged from the basement and become acceptable, and even cool. In its most romantic classification, the geek is identified by cultural effusiveness, nostalgia, and non-ironic devotion to current and bygone cultural artifacts. Here is Pegg’s oft-quoted explanation:

“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

To be honest about this sort of adoration is to admit the enormity of a niche in your own life and its humorous smallness in the grand scheme of things. Each of his films is set in a painfully plain context from Pegg’s humdrum upbringing, from the drone of city life to the quiet English countryside to the milquetoast suburbs. When Pegg actually lived as a young geek in such places, his affections turned to supernatural and heroic stories.

In an interview with Marc Maron, Pegg called himself a child of popular culture. He described Star Wars as changing his whole perspective on culture and media. On the silver screen, Pegg takes on fantasy villains in his hometown; he imports the imagination of George Lucas into his simple circumstances. From the zombies in Shaun, to killer robots in The World’s End, to a secret cult of serial killers in Hot Fuzz, he brings all his dorky Hollywood nostalgia into the places where real-life geeks live and work. Along the way he lampoons genres, film tropes, British culture, and most poignantly, himself.

Contrast that with Scary Movie or its many horrible derivations (Epic Movie, Disaster Movie, Superhero Movie, etc. ad infinitum). Scary Movie lacks real characters and affection for the genres it attempts to satirize. Those films lack a geeky mentality toward themselves and toward their genre. They rework the surfaces of other films rather than getting into the deep logic of a genre. As a result, they are less funny, less interesting, and generally bad films. In the words of Michael McKean (co-writer and co-star of “mockumentary” films like Spinal Tap, Best in Show, and A Mighty Wind), “We couldn’t make fun of these topics if we didn’t truly love and revere them.”

Shaun of the Dead faithfully adhered to the formula of the great George Romero zombie classics Day of the Dead and Dawn of the Dead, but jokingly focused on the charming, admittedly inane relationships of the characters instead of the struggle against zombies. Where Romero used zombies as a device to critique Capitalism and Consumerism, Pegg and Wright used zombies to joke about the genre itself, and their own depressing lives.

Shaun, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End focus on humanness and culture in the face of sensational action, and in many ways, that’s what drives the comedy. Frost and Pegg’s characters remain largely unfazed by the turmoil around them, preoccupied with drinking beer, how best to channel the spirit of Keanu Reeves in Point Break as a reference point for good police work, or deciding which vinyl records are disposable enough to be thrown at a zombies as a weapon (Purple Rain? “No!” The Batman Soundtrack? “Throw it.”)

Nostalgia, unfortunately, can limit as much as it can inspire. All of Pegg’s protagonists are driven by something they once had but cannot get back, whether that be their youth, their girlfriend, or their job. In The World’s End, Pegg, Frost, and their other 40-something friends go home to finish an epic pub crawl they couldn’t finish in high school. It turns impressively dark in the scenes when Gary (Pegg) is confronted by his ex-buddy about his pettiness and his alcoholism.

In Pegg’s complex psychological profile of the geek, perhaps the most compelling idea is that all of his villains threaten to homogenize. Tellingly, the first hint that their hometown has been overrun by robots is that all the colorful, unique pubs of yesteryear have been “Starbucks’d” into an identical chain of pubs. Pierce Brosnan’s character reasons with them, “[The robots are] here to straighten us out, to prepare us for the big league… And guess what? They want us along for the ride! Pretty cool, huh?” Behind the veneer of the robots’ normalcy, their Britishisms, and their niceness, there’s something sinister. It’s just like the cordial townspeople in Hot Fuzz with murderous night jobs who offer Pegg and Frost life if (and only if) they join the cult. The most obvious manifestation of homogenization is the image of the zombie hoard in Shaun of the Dead mindlessly devouring, short-circuiting brainwaves, and forcing their victims to join the group.

The plight of the geek is to resist homogeneity and to cling unflinchingly to his collection of shitty records. That plight is actually much cooler than clinging to something cool. Pegg’s geekiness is like punk that is too punk to be hip. And now, with the rising acceptance of geeks in the mainstream, the plight becomes more complex: like all subcultures, won’t geeks lose some of their realness if Hollywood likes them? Will that spurn on a new derivative form of nostalgia for a time when dorky nostalgia wasn’t cool? Are you still a geek if you’re a geek at a time when it’s respectable to effusively love Sci-Fi?

Regardless of abstract wondering, these films embody the mind of the geek in vivid and hilarious detail. The nostalgia is palpable, but not obnoxious. The characters are sad, but not quite pathetic. The laugh lines are ridiculous, but not overblown. Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and especially The World’s End walk a razor-thin line between stupid and brilliant, and somehow manage not to teeter. As a microcosm of geek-acceptance in pop culture, their movies are partially comforting and partially awkward, but also sincerely relatable and honest to their own geekiness.

Day In, Day Out

If there is an Oscar for the category, “best glorification of the life of the mind” then Hannah Arendt deserves it. Rarely have the classroom and the writing desk glowed with more fervor on-screen than in Margarethe Von Trotta’s biopic of the acclaimed Jewish political theorist.

It’s a winning presentation. Barbara Sukowa’s Arendt is a lantern-jawed hero of independent thought, steely-eyed in the face of criticism.

And that criticism is stiff, for Hannah Arendt chooses to center its drama around Arendt’s coverage of the Adolf Eichmann trial and the writing of the subsequent book, Eichmann in Jerusalema period in Arendt’s life when she was embroiled in controversy. The film makes much of this drama, reminding the viewers that what is now familiar in the history of ideas was once too hot to handle.

Arendt’s argument was a lightning rod: she attended the trial of Adolf Eichmann, lieutenant colonel in the S.S. and chief logistician of the Holocaust, and declared him — in what seemed at the time a grievous and even culpable understatement — guilty of not thinking.

Worse, she leveled an accusatory gaze — one which her opponents accused her of sparing Eichmann himself — at the Jewish leaders in the Judenrate, committees of elders assembled by the Nazis as go-betweens with the Jewish community. The complicity of these leaders, combined with the mindlessness which she sees in Eichmann, make up the crux of her argument about the nature of evil in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Evil is a troublesome word. Use it and you’re committing to a visceral reaction in your reader. So when Arendt coined the phrase, “the banality of evil” and used it for both the subtitle and last sentence of Eichmann in Jersualem, she was condemning her ideas to overreaction and misprision. But she was also guaranteeing that they would stick in the public imagination as no measured, equivocal term could.

Arendt uses Eichmann’s testimony and cross examination as an opportunity to look evil in the face and think from its — his — perspective. The resulting book alternates from the court in Jerusalem, where the prosecutor attempts to paint Eichmann as the mastermind of the Holocaust, and the narrative of Eichmann’s S.S. career — a career marked mostly by mediocrity, remarkable only for that facility with deportation logistics which secured Eichmann his place in the Nazi hierarchy and in the halls of history’s villains.

Eichmann, as described by Arendt, is a factotum, a non-entity, a man given to cliche and averse to thought, a capable functionary and nothing more. She mocks his grammar, notices the pat phrases which he repeats in his own defense, and marvels that such a man could even be worthy of the attention given him by the world.

Arendt is concerned with debunking the mythos of Eichmann’s monstrous power. The portrait that emerges is of a deflated man, a functionary with no function, being called to account for his involvement in an evil too great for him to engineer or even comprehend.

This does not mean that she is absolving Eichmann of wrong. But Arendt is condemning Eichmann for a different, less dramatic, but more insidious crime: Eichmann is guilty of non-thought, of anti-thought. He condemned himself to complicity with great wrong because of his total lack, or total suppression, of critical faculty.

It is this lack of originality, this absence of the jack-boot glamour one might associate with the S.S., that led Arendt to describe Eichmann’s brand of evil as banal. But the more interesting — and more controversial — conclusion one might draw from Eichmann is not that evil is banal but that evil, of the kind practiced by the Nazis, required mass complicity.

According to Arendt, Eichmann “expected — and received, to a truly extraordinary degree — [the Jews’] cooperation.” She goes so far as to argue that the Final Solution would have been impossible without Jewish cooperation:

“There can be no doubt that without the cooperation of the victims it would hardly have been possible for a few thousand people — most of whom moreover worked in offices — to liquidate many hundreds of thousands of other people,” she says in one of her most controversial passages.

This shift of focus away from Eichmann and toward the alleged collusion of Jewish leaders — in administering ghettos, registering possessions for confiscation and even preparing deportation lists — earned Arendt excoriation from many in the Jewish community.

Yet this portrayal is central to the argument Arendt makes in Eichmann about the nature of evil. Evil, she argues, is not a man in tall, black boots with a skull on his cap. Evil is thoughtless complicity with injustice.

This is powerfully illustrated in the section of the book where she examines the varying results of the Nazis’ attempts to exterminate Jews in occupied countries. Though they were successful in their horrifying end in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Romania — where the local population accepted and cooperated with the deportation of the Jews — they were stymied in Italy, Bulgaria and Denmark, even though each of these countries was either allied with, or occupied by, the German military.

Denmark surrendered to Germany early in 1940, but the population engaged in a systematic campaign of civil resistance, including strikes, work slow-downs and protests, keeping the German authorities from establishing full control over the economy and society. Eventually the German military fully invaded in 1943 and attempted to deport Denmark’s 8,000 Jews.

What resulted, instead of the predictable concentration and deportation that was Eichmann’s modus operandi in the other occupied territories, is remarkable. Nearly every Jewish inhabitant of Denmark was hidden in neighboring Danish homes, and then ferried by night across the North Sea to neutral Sweden. In the end, only a few hundred Danish Jews died in the war years.

This account illustrates the knife-edge between hope and condemnation that Arendt brandishes. As she notes, though the Holocaust “could have happened anywhere, it did not have to happen everywhere.”

Eichmann, in his trial, tried to exonerate himself by playing up the utter hopelessness of resistance to Nazi power. “Everyone thought it was useless to resist” he says in footage included in Von Trotta’s film, “like a drop on a hot stone that evaporates without purpose or success or failure or anything.”

Yet the testimony of the Danes stands as an accusation: resistance was possible and meaningful. Therefore, those that refused to consider resistance are guilty not of a monstrous evil but of a banal one.

In the end, the terrifying yet hopeful conclusion to be drawn from Eichmann in Jerusalem is that evil needs no monsters; it needs us. Evil cannot thrive disembodied. Only the consent of ordinary, thoughtless, working-day banality can give it flesh.

Hannah Arendt opens and closes on Sukowa’s Arendt, alone in her apartment, smoking, a figure of bodily repose contrasted with an active mind. This, we are supposed to see, is a bulwark against evil. The assumption may well be idealistic on both Arendt’s and Von Trotta’s part. But the film nevertheless does us a great service. It graces with dignity the citizen’s task: look at what’s in front of you. Think.

 

 

The Company That Keeps Us

Neither the creation nor the reception of a work of art takes place in a social vacuum. We read, write, listen to, and watch creative products in the company of other people. Even if we are literally alone when making or consuming cultural works, we always have with us all the people we know – family, friends, teachers, students, and members of artistic or intellectual subcultures. So our interpretations of movies and books are never purely objective evaluations of the quality of the art; we include in our likes and dislikes what our communities like and dislike. And just as certain songs or books become permanently associated with a trip, an event, or a relationship, so our responses of them are deeply colored by our company. It’s a good idea to choose fellow audience members, then, as carefully as we choose what to read and watch.

This was especially true for my experience of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. You may remember my preview and review last year of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. I hated it. I still do. I sincerely believe that it is a very poor movie, even though it is an interesting adaptation of Tolkien’s drafts, backstory, and revisions of The Hobbit. I expected to like this second Peter Jackson Hobbit film about as little as the first; perhaps I had hoped to like it a bit more, as I had reason to think that Jackson would have more leeway to make up more of the material in this second installment, which should (theoretically) lead to a better movie. And by better I mean a more internally consistent movie.

Indeed, I liked this second film more the the first. Quite a bit more, actually. My assessment of the first film was that only 45 minutes of its 3 long hours were any good – and my assessment of this one? Only about an hour of it was bad. That is quite an improvement. It is a visually stunning film, with gorgeous camerawork and gorgeous characters. Oh, and a great-looking dragon, too (with Benedict Cumberbatch’s incomparable voice). Most of the acting is world-class: Martin Freeman as Bilbo, Ian McKellan as Gandalf, and Richard Armitage as Thorin are especially noteworthy. There are many interesting interpretive choices, including some that arguably improve upon Tolkien’s somewhat inconsistent story.

So does that mean I am right — that I have the correct evaluation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, that it is a better movie than the first?

That is not a very interesting question. The more interesting question is why I came to that conclusion, what the social factors were that led me to like it. And the answer is? I was with 74 other people who were bound and determined to have a wonderful time, to enjoy their movie-going experience to the fullest, and to tear the movie apart to discover its every strength and weakness, but mostly to applaud Jackson’s creative work of reinterpretation.

I was at Mythmoot II: half Hobbit-party, half Tolkien conference. This is the creative invention of one of the more innovative people in higher education today. Corey Olsen, “The Tolkien Professor.” Dr. Olsen founded an online institute, Mythgard, that offers courses in Tolkien studies and related fields, and Signum University, that is expanding its online offerings and extending the reach and scope of online education. Prof. Olsen is a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about Tolkien’s Legendarium, and (among other topics) is committed to dispelling misconceptions about book-to-film adaptation in general and Peter Jackson’s films specifically.

The Tolkien Professor has the ability to explain any artistic choice Jackson might make, providing insight into little-known aspects of Tolkien’s works that may inform the film’s changes from the published Hobbit. For example (spoiler alert!): the notorious elf-dwarf romance between Tauriel and Kili. As Olsen sees it, this plot addition serves to accentuate a sub-theme in the book: the very important question of elf-dwarf relations, political tensions, and historical antagonism. One important “lesson” of the book is the need for peace and harmony among peoples far different from one another, and the need for cooperation among all forces of good against the creeping power of evil. How better to illustrate this than a forbidden love between two members of warring peoples?

This is but one example, and the dry summary above does little to capture the lively atmosphere created by 75 rabid Tolkien nerds gathered to shared their knowledge and love of this complex writer. There were people in costume as elves, Gandalf. There was a pub quiz, with questions only answerable by those who had nearly memorized The Silmarillion (“For 17 points, list all of Túrin Turambar’s names, in both Elvish and English”)! There was someone who could quote nearly all of the songs and poems, others who could speak Elvish, and others still who make art or music inspired by The Lord of the Rings and other books. These were intelligent, energetic, beautiful people. They were gorgeous.

Why should you, dear reader, care about my weekend with people you don’t know? Simply as a specific illustration of the principle that your company creates your movie-watching experience. The weather, what you’re wearing, and what you had for dinner can create your responses, too. This is a lesson to myself not to put too much stock in my initial reactions to a work of art, but to experience it at various times, under varying conditions, and to weigh its merits carefully.

To see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the best of company is, then, helpful in this way, because my company will shape what I think of it. It is a different movie with those people than it is with these people. So choose your fellow audience-members wisely; they will make the movie for you. They made it for me.

On Bullying & Female Adolescent Fears in “Carrie”

Twenty-first century horror cinema has been dispiritingly timid (and even retrograde) when it comes to matters of gender. A few welcome and eccentric features have tackled feminist concerns head-on, among them Ginger Snaps, May, Dumplings, Teeth, and American Mary. Nonetheless, the most audacious and probing works of female-centered horror are arguably those of decades past. Looking back over landmarks such as Cat People, Diabolique, Eyes Without a Face, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Silence of the Lambs, a contemporary filmmaker could be forgiven for feeling intimidated by their formal and thematic achievements. Similarly formidable is director Brian De Palma’s 1976 masterpiece Carrie, a veritable catalog of female adolescent fears in a deliciously baroque package.

One can therefore appreciate the tension between reverence and creative confidence that simmers within director Kimberly Peirce’s new adaptation of the film. Remakes have an especially treacherous road to traverse, given cinephiles’ almost reflexive resistance to new takes on iconic works.  No less a figure than Stephen King displayed this sort of knee-jerk disdain in 2011 when he reacted with bafflement at the news that his 1974 debut novel would be adapted yet again into a feature film. “The real question is why, when the original was so good?” King remarked.

Undeniably, the 1976 version of Carrie is a great work of cinematic craft, just as old-fashioned greed and creative laziness almost certainly motivated MGM and Screen Gems’ recent decision to resurrect American horror’s iconic terrorized teenager. Notwithstanding the merits of De Palma’s film and the cold-bloodedness of Hollywood avarice, however, King’s still-shocking tale of adolescent rage possesses abundant potential for fresh interpretation.  Now that the 2013 adaptation has arrived, grousing about the audacity of a remake seems all the more unfounded, given that such complaints must confront the new film’s rich and thoroughly engrossing vision of poor Carrie White’s story.

It’s a tale to which almost any outcast can relate. After years of relentless abuse from her fanatically religious mother and sadistic schoolmates, the latently psychokinetic Carrie at last seems to find social acceptance just as her mental powers emerge. Unfortunately, her newfound popularity is merely part of an elaborate prank masterminded by in-crowd queen bee Chris Hargensen. The very moment that she is improbably crowned prom queen, Carrie is humiliated beneath a downpour of clotted pig’s blood. With this gruesome act, the last vestige of Carrie’s cringing flight instinct turns to unholy fight, prompting her to unleash a maelstrom of murderous psychic devastation. The film that director Kimberly Peirce makes of this story is ultimately a less potent work of cinema than De Palma’s more accomplished and nightmarish version, but at every turn it reveals crevices that are worthy of scrutiny.

Peirce’s lamentably small filmography includes the Heartland transgender romantic tragedy Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the bluntly anti-Bush war drama Stop-Loss (2008). The dominant theme that emerges in her work, Carrie included, is the consuming impact of violence (and the threat of violence) on individuals. Despite the overt sociopolitical slant to the director’s films, it is Peirce’s insistent focus on the personal over the broadly ideological that makes her work absorbing. Admittedly, the screenplay for the 2013 iteration of Carrie gives the director little space for creative flexing. Penned by playwright and comic writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, it is far too faithful to the 1976 script, relying on similar scenes presented in the same sequence, often with nearly identical dialogue. Aguirre-Sacasa astutely updates the plot for the twenty-first century in spots – a YouTube video of a mocking locker room mob assault has a pivotal role – but it often feels like more a rewrite of De Palma’s film than a reimagining of King’s novel.

Peirce’s film utilizes both Carrie and her mother Margaret to explore responses to emotional and physical abuse, particularly when that abuse has sexual and misogynistic dimensions. It’s perhaps an unsurprising thematic aspect of the new Carrie, given the presence of a socially conscious female director rather than the shamelessly prurient De Palma. Carrie has always been a female-centered story, but in Peirce’s hands it becomes more decisively concerned with the experience of American girls. Although the aforementioned fidelity to the 1976 screenplay restrains Peirce’s Carrie somewhat, the director succeeds in creating a distinctive tone, one that is more achingly tragic than luridly macabre.

The 2013 film’s opening scene is its most conspicuous deviation from its predecessor. Where the 1976 film descended dreamily onto a high school volleyball court and then wandered in slow-motion through the steam of a distinctly R-rated locker room, Peirce’s version begins with the birth of Carrie. A plainly pregnant Margaret White (Julianne Moore, all lank hair and whispery terror) flails about in her dim bedroom, confused and horrified at the swelling “cancer” that is wracking her with painful spasms. Moore’s Margaret is more simmering and pitiable than Piper Laurie’s portrayal, which resembled a demon dowager from a Japanese opera. Moore’s incarnation of the character retains Margaret’s unhinged authoritarianism, but she is more spooked than malicious, sharing her daughter’s flinching reactions to the outside world. Consistent with King’s horror fiction, Peirce’s film portrays fundamentalist zealotry as a wellspring of well-intended but toxic evil, represented in this instance by the purity- and sin-obsessed Catholic-Protestant heterodoxy that Margaret practices.

One of the fundamental achievements of Peirce’s Carrie is how comprehensively and yet subtly the director molds Aguirre-Sacasa’s script into a post-Megan Meier tale of sexual shame, ritualized humiliation, and vindictive violence. The casting of Chloë Grace Moretz in the titular role only underscores the scathing depiction of patriarchy’s no-win viciousness.  Sissy Spacek’s frail, otherworldly appearance (the sheer concavity of her) allowed the viewer to quickly accept Carrie White’s outcast status in the 1976 film. At sixteen years of age, Moretz still retains an androgynous “offness” in her countenance – exploited to fine effect in her role as preteen vampire Abby in Let Me In – but she is unequivocally a fetching adolescent. Hidden behind a shroud of tangled hair and beneath rumpled thrift store clothes, Moretz’s Carrie is but the latest in a long procession of cinematic “ugly ducklings”: teen girls magically transformed from repellent to lovely by little more than a hair, makeup, and style consultation.

Carrie seizes this obnoxious trope and sharpens it into a blade of cultural criticism. Rather than presenting Carrie’s transformation from Weird Girl to Prom Queen as a glorious triumph, Peirce’s film exposes a darker and more disturbing truth about the shaming and bullying of adolescent girls: that there is no victory to be had in striving for the perfection demanded by others, as it a hollow (and moving!) target. While the proximal cause of Carrie’s revolting prom night degradation is the cruelty of single-minded bully Chris, the hidden villain is the social system that equates physical beauty and possession of a desirable man as the pinnacles of female achievement. Where the platitudes and selfless gestures of Carrie’s nominal allies seemed earnest and compassionate in De Palma’s film, the words and deeds of good girl Sue Snell, sensitive hunk Tommy Ross, and gym coach Mrs. Desjardin in the 2013 Carrie invite wincing. From the contemporary film’s vantage point, Mrs. Desjardin’s counsel that Carrie put her hair up and wear a little mascara in order to find social acceptance seems not just naive, but woefully wrongheaded. Not only does it strengthen the sexist system that has already pummeled Carrie into near-submission, but it disregards the first principle of bullying behavior: that a bully will find any excuse to terrorize a victim, and as such, conformity offers no guarantee of safety.

Carrie’s climactic, telekinetic rampage against her tormentors – and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity – is not a rousing act of justified vengeance. Nor is it, as in De Palma’s film, an explosion of elemental power set off by an emotionally shattering event. Rather, it is an inevitable and terrifying cause-and-effect: push a person too long and too far, and they will strike back with the weapon at hand. For Carrie White, that weapon happens to be a towering reserve of psychic power, but it just as easily could be a broken pop bottle or a duffel bag weighed down with handguns and rifles. Yet Peirce’s Carrie is not an admonishment that the viewer watch over their shoulder for a suddenly vengeful victim. Rather, it offers an unsettling critique of simplistic, sexist reactions that can dominate public and private responses to bullying. What’s more, it grimly asserts that fairy tale transformations – of individuals, institutions, and culture – can be brought to a screeching halt by the figurative bucket of pig’s blood from above. One could argue that this represents a rather cynical puncturing of the progressive, long-arc-of-history view of society. However, in an age when a transgendered sixteen-year-old can be crowned prom queen, only to be merciless derided and threatened by thousands of adults via social media, Carrie’s skepticism seems closer to the mark than not.

In Plain Sight

It is strange that we come at it so sideways, so often.  Brutal asides in Family Guy, the brushed steel gallows humor of stand-up punch lines, the deep horror in Chapelle’s Show so misunderstood, the strange complicity played for laughs in Key & Peele, a chronicle of suffering drenched in spite and cynicism in Ask A Slave.

So charged, still.  Slavery—a hot potato for all Americans, black, white, and every shade in-between. You have to squint your eyes just right to get a glimpse of it. When was the last time in popular culture that somebody approached it directly in full sincerity?

To their credit, Steve McQueen, a Black British director with art-gallery pedigree and critical acclaim for previous films Hunger and Shame, and John Ridley, an African-American screenwriter, attempt this rare and singular task. Watching their latest effort, 12 Years A Slave, one is struck by how lonesome McQueen’s film appears in the theaters and electronic screens of American media consumption. The ‘peculiar institution’  is conspicuous mostly in its absence.

Consider the apparently inexhaustible appetite we have for World War II-as-commercial-product, still going all these years later, achieving what appears now to be permanent cultural cache.  (Of course that war remains so tightly bound up with the American self-regard for its proper place in global affairs, continuing to comfort us with its seductive lies about ourselves post-September 11.)

Or consider the strange self-negation of a future apocalyptically shorn—the shambling zombie hordes blotting out our communal hopes like locusts the sun in a pop-culture wave that may now be just cresting – yet no less puzzling for its sudden coming and going, for its rich mining of an inscrutable vein in our current psyche.

Of greater consequence (and concern) is the retreat from the real evidenced by innumerable prequels and sequels from fantasy worlds, comic books, space operas and mythology.  We are in the grip of incessant reboots and spin-offs, a witches’ brew of diminishing returns and special-effects exhaustion, the special hell of truly awful travesties making billions of dollars.

But slavery.  You could drive a truck—many hundreds of trucks—through the gaping hole it leaves in American popular media.  Does it have a chance of ever catching the zeitgeist?

Sure, Roots was an event in its day, and the occasional drama like Glory, The Color Purple, Amistad, and most recently, the vengeful Django Unchained keeps the coals stoked in certain cultural corners.  But, taken as a whole, we have to go all the way back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to find the last time slavery was so, well, enthralling to the entire nation as an artistic subject. How can this be, when slavery informs the entire backdrop of race relations in America?  When it lingers behind so much of the dialogue around President Obama and the meaning of a black president?   When in black America and white America slavery is always everywhere hidden in plain sight?

***

McQueen’s movie doesn’t provide any answers to these questions, but he is aware of these cruel interrogatives in American history. In fact, the entire film may be understood as an exploration of the irony of slavery as a system, its play of hiddenness-and-revelation, its intermingling of light and dark.  For a director who promised to “not pull any punches,” the approach is oddly intellectual—a check dragging on the visceral experience of the protagonist, and, ultimately, a source of  distance when immediacy was wanted.

The ironies begin early with an inversion of the comforting storyline preferred by white Americans: slavery to freedom, ideally through the mediation of some benevolent and brave Caucasian with which we can identify and invite into the circle as “one of us.”  Here we have the opposite—and, lest we forget, the far more common, historically speaking—passage from freedom to bondage.  Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a born freedman from Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, lives a comfortable middle class lifestyle with his wife and children.  A family man and musician, he is lured by the promise of short term but lucrative occupation while his wife and children are away on a trip, and is thus convinced to journey south to Washington, D.C. as a violinist for a traveling circus.  Poisoned by his unscrupulous companions within sight of the nation’s Capital building, he wakes—horrifyingly—in chains, beaten until he accepts his new identity as Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia.  Shipped to New Orleans, Solomon is sold as property to three different owners over the course of twelve years.  The first, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a paternalistic and sympathetic owner—the kind face slipped like a mask over an inherently brutal system.  Soon, this brutality resurfaces in the persons of Tibeats (Paul Dano) and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Solomon’s second and third owners, respectively.  He is the property of the deranged and troubled Epps for ten years, subject to his capricious whims and insane bouts of cruelty, until a smuggled letter to the North eventually wins the prematurely-aged Solomon his freedom.

Imagery of hiddenness, masks, and adopted personas abound.  Most forcefully is the scene when Solomon is strung up by his neck for an entire afternoon in the hot Louisiana sun, on the tips of his toes, where any slip in his resolve or footing would ensure death by asphyxiation.  Around his gasping form, life on the plantation continues as normal.  Slaves keep on laboring, eyes on their work so fixedly, they avoid even furtive glances in Solomon’s direction.  Children play in a sward meters from the lynching, apparently carefree and undistributed.  The white overseer, although not responsible or approving of Solomon’s treatment, remains aloof and uninvolved.  Equilibrium on the plantation is maintained through studied ignorance, through fearful refusal to acknowledge what is unavoidably there.  Both as baleful witness to Northup’s experience and as a metaphor for the chattel system, the scene works awfully well.  What was more foundational to the illusion that was slavery than to reject the humanity of the person standing right in front of you?

***

Ejiofor plays Northup with great nobility, a performance that relies on presence and heft and brooding interiority.  He does much with his character’s sudden erosion of agency.  Shorn of the privilege of moral action, he becomes a moral witness, instead—his watching eyes outraged, brutalized, an American Dante dragged through the underworld and returning to tell his tale.  Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a marvel, a man unbalanced in the extreme but never a caricature, a man of appetites and impulses beyond his understanding or control. Lupita Nyong’o does incredible work with Patsey, an unfortunate slave caught in a vicious triangle between Epps and his chilly wife.  In the midst of unbearable circumstances, her Patsey manages to combine both royal grace and vulnerability—a woman whose gaze pierces and condemns.

There are powerful undercurrents, a sense of dread, inhumanity, and fear here. A mother is separated from her child in ghastly tears.  Brutalizing violence prowls at the edges of every scene, warping the moral fabric of every character with its strange witchcraft.  Northrup’s keen longing for his wife and children are gradually tempered by the horror of his own dissipation, of losing himself as Northrup only to be consumed by the new slave identity of Platt.

Yet at certain moments of great feeling, the director decides to pull back, to drop a veil.  Twice, at least, Northrup turns his face away from the camera, his emotions hidden in shadow—in deference, perhaps, to the fact that none of us now, with all the distance of time and history between us, with a standard of living so high it would be impossible for even the richest in that era to fathom, could ever approach his horror.  The slave is essentially unknowable, McQueen hints. The slave is hidden. Any attempt to psychologize or enter in is prima facie futile.  Who can know, in the terrible solitude of his soul, the dark interior nights that passed while stranded on the edge of a hostile bayou with all the world against him?

***

I am not sure McQueen’s choices in this regard stand up to scrutiny. Turning to the real Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, one finds a whole world among the slaves on Ebbe’s plantation, distinctly rounded and sharply drawn personalities, with a great deal of the interior life of the slave on display. The reader is privy to hidden and hushed conversations, to moments of unguarded social intercourse away from the gaze of the slave master, to human quirks and foibles and the capacity for magnificence. We see slave society on a human level, grounded in real characters with real names, with histories and backstories and their own moments of moral triumph or failure. Northrup allows himself his own little asides and observations, even indulging in occasional visions of vengeance.  But if the movie is your guide, Eppe’s slaves barely spoke to one another. Aside from Patsey, they are essentially nameless extras—background scenery.  One is forced to conclude this distance is a deliberate choice on the part of the director, and the more you notice it, the odder it becomes.

Strange tableaux result: whips arcing gracefully through golden air, fields white with cotton edge-burned in the setting sun, black backs bent almost in supplication—­in slow motion, nonetheless, in repose, like a Constable pastoral.  The whipping post with its distracting movie-perfect puffs of blood.  The awful torn flesh of Patsey, lit so lovingly it could be an abstract painting.  Why such beauty? Why such grand painterly strokes?  (One recalls McQueen’s art gallery roots, unfavorably.)  Perfect cinematic brushwork like this betrays an artist’s inability to enter in, a willful intellectualizing damaging in its incapacity to plunge sincerely into an honest point of view.  This becomes problematic when the camera detaches from Northup’s perspective and floats off into what is presumably intended as an ‘objective’ documentarian angle on the events.  At these moments, the camera lingers on the outside of things.  Troubling questions of point of view assert themselves: who is watching? Why? What particular interest, even complicity, do they have in this story?

What is left is the parade of ironies that is slavery mingling with the ironies of McQueen’s filmmaking: the white slave owner enslaved by lust for his black field hand; the many British actors in a film about the most American of topics; the man born free bearing the bondman’s yoke; the immaculate camera work capturing a sordid era; a religion of liberation used to pacify and oppress; a beautiful film about violence.

Despite its considerable merits, the film has a sense of the “almost-chosen” about it.  Consider the heaps of praise it is receiving.  Isn’t it sad, really, that critics are lauding it as such a watershed, a work of art at the head of a very short list of ‘serious’ slavery films? For a country that has not properly reckoned with slavery—despite eleven million human lives snatched from their homes and sent across the seas and the snuffing out of over six hundred thousand lives in civil war and over a century of legislation and countless marches and songs and lynches and speeches and gunshots in the night and bodies dumped in hate in Mississippi swamps and an incarceration rate that will send one in three black men born today to prison at some point in their lives and an education system that leaves only fourteen percent of black eighth graders reading at what is considered proficient and the exceedingly deep ignorance about each other that enfolds us still—it isn’t the film we might have hoped for, but it is the film we deserve.  At any rate, it’s the best film about slavery yet produced.  And it’s not even by an American!

Isn’t it a tragedy to say maybe that’s the best we can do?

The Curator + Ruminate Short Film Competition

This summer, The Curator and Ruminate Magazine co-hosted a competition for contemporary artists who create work with moving images. Submissions were placed in two categories: short film and video/or alternative time-based media. This past weekend, we debuted the winning works at International Arts Movement‘s INHABIT, the annual gathering for people interested in beauty, faith, and art.

We are very pleased to announce the winners of the Short Film category here!

GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Codex by Micah Bloom

In Codex, Micah Bloom reveals his interest in the relationship between humans and computer — the analog and the digital. He gained an MFA from the University of Iowa in 2010. He currently lives in North Dakota and teaches art at Minot State University. He has been selected for numerous artist–in–residence fellowships and has published work in several literary and art journals. He shows artwork nationally and internationally, including the Shanghai Museum of Contemporary Art.

RUNNER-UP: Inertia by Travis Lee Ratcliff

Travis Lee Ratcliff is a recently graduated film and television student of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Travis’ focus and passion has been the study and practice of writing and directing narrative films and is currently relocating to New York City to pursue work in the film industry and practice his craft. Travis is interested in the boundaries of the narrative format. His work searches for meaning in the subtext behind the moving image and attempts to demonstrate how the unseen world of ideas shape and move individuals in the world. Inertia seeks to explore how our choices determine the habits that define our character, whether we like it or not.

RUNNER-UP: The Key in Falling by Rachael Glasgow

Rachael Glasgow is an artist, animator, and videographer located in Richmond, Virginia. The Key in Falling is about a man who falls into a pit that represents the desires of his heart. In his death, he finds the key that brings him back to life and unlocks him from the chains of slavery. The concept of this animation is rooted in Romans 6 – which proclaims that a Christian is buried with Christ and also raised with him to live a new life – apart from their own sin and desire. They are forever rescued out of the pit and brought into heavenly places through Jesus Christ. As the things on earth grow strangely dim, He will become king of the soul and reign in the hearts of those who love him.

RUNNER-UP: Syncopated by Nathan Clarke

Nathan Clarke is a documentary filmmaker working and living in Richmond, VA. Clarke wanted to create something that didn’t simply feed the viewer information but immersed him or her in the experience of creating. In February 2013, Seattle artist Roger Feldman began a residency at Laity Lodge during which he would construct a permanent, site-specific art installation titled Threshold. Shot concurrently on location in the Texas Hill Country, this film serves as an artistic companion to Feldman’s work and yields rich visual and aural insights into how the space came to be.

SHORT FILM JURORS

Christopher Boghosian
Filmmaker \ Los Angeles CA
Living on student loans as a first-year law student, Christopher realized it was now or never, so he packed his bags and returned to his hometown, Los Angeles, to make movies. Since then, he has fathered multiple short films, a feature and a super-cute baby boy!
FollowMyFilm.com

Dean Poynor
Playwright & Screenwriter \ New York NY
Dean Poynor is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter whose work has been developed and produced in New York, California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, South Carolina, Nebraska, Washington, DC, and Australia. Holland New Play Award / Great Plains Theatre Conference Main Stage, Trustus Theatre Playwrights’ Festival, Helford Prize for Drama, Sloan Screenplay award, and Playwrights’ Center KC/ACTF Core Member Apprentice.
DeanPoynor.com

Chris White
Filmmaker \ Greenville SC
Chris White makes artistically ambitious, non-cynical narrative feature films for his family, friends, and fans. An advocate of ambitious artistry and process simplicity, Chris writes, speaks, and teaches about micro-budget cinema, non-traditional theatre-making, and the intersection of art, faith, and commerce.
ChrisWhiteHQ.com

Lauren Wilford
Film Critic & Screenwriter \ Seattle WA
Lauren Wilford holds a BA in Aesthetics and Narrative Studies from Seattle Pacific University. She has served as editor-in-chief of SPU’s literary journal, interned at Image journal, done curatorial work in SPU’s art gallery and acted in many theatre productions. She has written on film for The Other Journal and Filmwell and pursues screenwriting in her spare time.
WilfordLauren.tumblr.com

 

Return to Mogadishu

As the Battle of Mogadishu, commonly referred to as Black Hawk Down, escalated around him, U.S. Army Ranger, Jeff Struecker reconciled with death. Surrounded by brutal violence and death, that moment of prayer and acceptance, freed him of fear in a way that many soldiers around him found inspirational. Return to Mogadishu: Remembering Black Hawk Down is a 9-minute movie, filmed in 2013, following Jeff and another former U.S. Army Ranger, Keni Thomas, as they return to the war-torn streets of Mogadishu—a trip no other Ranger has risked.

What inspired you to make this short film?

Jim Hocker, the Executive Producer, saw my first film and approached me about making “Return To Mogadishu.” Jeff Struecker’s story had already reached half a million people through a small booklet entitled “Bullet Proof Faith.” After reading the booklet and seeing its impact on soldiers I was thrilled to tell his story through the medium of film. Seeing the stacks of thousands of personal letters written in response to the booklet moved me. Another factor was this story’s connection to the Rwandan genocide. Just before saying yes to RTM I had become involved in seeing Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Rwandan genocide survival story brought to the big screen. When Jeff informed me of the connection between Black Hawk Down and the Rwandan genocide and his desire to apologize to Rwandans, it was clear that I needed to be a part of telling this story through film.

Why is it important for your protagonist to return to Mogadishu?

The power of Jeff’s story is his courage in the face of death. He moved forward in the midst of fear in such a way that his fellow soldiers approached him after the battle, curious about what set him apart during the firefight. We wanted to tell his story in the most powerful way and filming his return to the site of the battle seemed like the most powerful way. It was also the first time anyone from Task Force Ranger had returned and in light of the 20-year anniversary this October, it seemed like an interesting, dangerous and important setting.

Who is your intended audience?

We hope millions of people view this film that come from a variety of backgrounds. Obviously those active in the military or veterans will find a particular interest in it. But we hope that we have told the story in such a way that it is accessible to a broad range of people.

What do you want viewers to walk away with?

Three things come to mind when I think about my hopes for this film. First, I hope that it allows people to get a taste of what our service men and women go through in defense of our nation and are more deeply grateful for the sacrifices that they make to ensure our freedom. I hope this film reaches many who are unfamiliar with the history behind The Battle of Mogadishu and peaks curiosity that leads to a greater education about this particular event. Most people after viewing the film have expressed their desire to watch “Black Hawk Down” and to read the book. Lastly, Jeff Struecker’s faith is central to his experience in Mogadishu. I hope that viewers are curious about his faith and will want to hear more from Jeff about this. The “Hear More From Jeff” link on our site [under “Story”] gives our viewers an opportunity to begin to learn more.

Do you think the soldier’s faith made them better soldiers?

That’s a great question. I think so. Jeff’s ability to move forward courageously in the midst of a terrifying situation as well as his ability to rally others to follow him into the firefight is one example of how his faith made him a better soldier. Jeff competed in the 1996 David L Grange Best Ranger competition and won. He is among the “best of the best” when it comes to soldiers. I think if you asked him he would say that his faith influenced the way that he fought.

The idea that Jeff Struecker is fearless because of his faith raises some difficult ethical issues. On the one hand, we admire his bravery and calm in the face of such violence, but there is also something unsettling about it. It reminds me of how fanatics justify suicide missions. Is there something problematic about the idea of a soldier who feels right with God and prepared to die?

Another great question. I think there is a distinct difference between Jeff’s faith and peace with God and those who engage in violent suicide missions. Jeff’s peace with God was settled not because he was willing to die, but because Jesus died. Jeff wasn’t justifying himself before God by fighting, but because he was justified he was able to face death without fear. Also, Jeff’s objective wasn’t to kill, but to rescue his fellow soldiers who had fallen.

Jesus, preparing to face crucifixion, asked God to spare him. I’ve wondered if that meant Jesus didn’t really know what was to come—He is still laying out His hopes before God, and His hope is for life. The soldiers in your film describe being ready to die because of their faith, but I don’t think Christ was even ready to die. It seems to me that the Bible describes a deep value to human life and resistance to the acceptance of death. So, when I watch your film and the coolness with which the soldier describes his freedom from death, it unnerves me. He explains that “death really became less significant to me in Somalia,” and while that gave him, as an individual, peace, it seems like a dangerous thing to place in the hands of military leaders, an army of soldiers with no fear of death would be a powerful and frightening military force. As you made this film, were you faced with ethical dilemmas of how to tell their story?

I guess I see Jeff and Jesus in a similar position. Jeff didn’t want to die, he very much wanted to live and return home to his family. But, despite their desires to live, Jesus and Jeff were willing to sacrifice their lives for others. In the case of Jesus, he lost his life. Jeff’s story could have ended similarly, but for some reason he survived. What the battle clarified for Jeff was his perspective on life and death and eternity. His time in Somalia crystallized for him the importance of eternity. He has dedicated his life since the battle to inviting others into a relationship with God through Christ: First as a chaplain and now as a pastor. To answer your question about an ethical dilemma, I did not face one. My agenda and objective was to faithfully tell Jeff’s story. I think we’ve done that.

After “Citizen Kane”

A lot of people have tried to solve the mystery of how Orson Welles made the best movie ever on his first try* with Citizen Kane in 1941, then stumbled through a career of disappointing movies, bad makeup, and YouTube-famous wine commercials.

Among Welles’s researchers and admirers during the last act of his life was Henry Jaglom. From 1983 to his death in 1985, Welles and Jaglom regularly had lunch together at Ma Maison in Beverly Hills. Thanks to Jaglom’s boldness and Welles’s interest in talking about everything under the sun, Welles agreed to have their conversations tape recorded. Peter Biskind, known for his books on the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s, a movement which included Jaglom, edited transcriptions of the conversations, the result of which is My Lunches with Orson, a new book through Metropolitan Books.

Welles fans wanting to measure the feverish activity of his mind should read these conversations. Welles has opinions about everything: Charlie Chaplin and a brief history of clowns, that Carole Lombard’s plane was actually shot down by Nazis, the role of the presidency from Eisenhower to Reagan, why Russians are actually less emotional than Germans. His ability to take a subject and weave a provocative theory out of it is pure entertainment. And entertainment is what this book—and what Welles in his later years—provides.

What it doesn’t provide are answers to the questions so persistently put to him regarding why Kane was great and why The Magnificent Ambersons was cut, for example. Rather than try to decode Welles’s opinions as a way to unlock the secrets of his legendary success at age 26, My Lunches with Orson gives us an entertainer, a man who held forth.

In this way, Welles reminded me of the late Christopher Hitchens: the professional talker. Welles takes a familiar topic and improvises on it until you have something else, something foreign and strange. He’s like a freak debate student instructed to take the opposite position and defend it without being allowed to do any research. Welles even has the requisite anecdotes. He quotes G.K. Chesterton, reminisces about meeting Mussolini, and explains that Humphrey Bogart was actually a second-rate actor. As such, there’s no rhyme or reason to a lot of his opinions; his categories are arbitrary and sometimes helpful. For example, he draws a dramatic distinction between stars and actors. “What is indelible is the quality of stardom. And whether it’s acting or not is a useless argument. Because the star thing is a different animal. It breaks all the rules.”

Having made his last complete film in 1973, F for Fake, Welles spent the final 12 years of his life making frequent appearances on talk shows including the Merv Griffin Show and the Dick Cavett Show, as well as making commercials to fund movies he was never able to finish. His disappointment throughout the conversations is clear and it’s more than just Hollywood irony that he was his own biggest obstacle. By the early 1980s, Welles didn’t have much to hope for. “I don’t dare believe it–you know what it’s like. The world is too full of disappointments to celebrate these things until they happen,” he said about two late scripts with which Jaglom was helping him shop around to producers.

One script was for Shakespeare’s King Lear, one of Welles’s lifelong passions. The other was a script based on two short stories by Isak Dinesen called The Dreamers. Jaglom admitted later that Welles’s chances of anybody working with him were slim. “I was hustling me and him, and hopefully them, into a self-fulfilling prophecy. I told him deals were done, all that was needed was for so and so to fly in and confirm them, when it wasn’t true,” Jaglom shared via email last summer in 2012, according to Biskind. Even so, Jaglom made the most of his rare opportunity to ask good questions and to befriend a damaged old man.

Jaglom’s interest in Welles was genuine. As Biskind points out in his own interview on The New York Times Book Review podcast, Welles became a hero of the new generation of filmmakers in the early 1970s. Director-actor-producers including Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson opposed the studio system and looked to Welles as a true auteur, something in plentiful supply in the 1960s in France and Italy. Jaglom even cast Welles in the first movie he directed–A Safe Place.

The book, at times, reads like a play. Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jack Lemon make cameos as they pass through the restaurant. Richard Burton tries to say hello only to get the bum’s rush from Welles. In fact, Welles comes across more embittered and brusque in these transcriptions than he did in any videotaped interview. His twinkle and charm don’t translate to the printed page and maybe that’s an accurate picture of where he was toward the end of his stormy life. He seems profoundly alone.

“I fear they’ll never come through. They all want to have dinner with me, but when it comes time to fork over the money, they disappear. It’s always the same thing–I’m unmanageable, I walk away from films before they’re finished, et cetera,” Welles said in imitation of his detractors. Lunches is an entertaining book, but if it’s secrets someone is looking for, not even Jaglom got them out of Welles after having lunch for three years.

 

 

*The New York Times reported in July 2013 that Too Much Johnson, an unedited 40-minute film of his from 1938 thought to be lost, was just discovered in Italy. Plans for an October screening of the film are in the works.

Elysium: Neill Blomkamp’s Latest Masterpiece

Ever since I saw District 9, the sci-fi thriller released in 2009, I have desperately craved a sequel or at least another film directed by Neill Blomkamp. Elysium was announced in early 2011, but the obsession over its August arrival began at the beginning of this summer. I’m an avid Tumblr blogger, and I have to admit, the only reason I joined the social-media website was to feed my hunger for District 9 and share my obsession over every actor, director, cultural impact and all-in-all breakdown of the movie. When the people I followed and tags I tracked began raving over the second film by Blomkamp and actor Sharlto Copley, I was hooked. Before the movie even premiered, I had read enough reviews, seen enough screenshots, watched enough interviews and researched production and actor background to know exactly what to expect in every aspect of the film—except for the well-guarded plot details.

On August 8, I finally saw Elysium’s premiere at a local theater with a few friends and my movie-geek father. We arrived about an hour early, but the wait seemed like forever. First lingering outside and candy-buying, then lingering inside the empty theater (of course, it was almost full by the time the movie actually started), hanging around the lobby on a movie-poster hunt (sadly, no posters were available for this fangirl), then previews, and finally it began.

Elysium portrays a dystopian future set in 2154. Lower-middle class people live on a rundown Earth, and the wealthiest 1% live on a space station, a manmade paradise complete with swimming pools, giant houses, greenery, wildlife and great healthcare. Max Da Costa (Matt Damon), an Earth-dwelling factory worker, dreams of getting up to Elysium with his childhood friend, Frey (Alicia Bragg). But the people of Elysium don’t want worthless immigrants using their healthcare. That’s where the coldhearted Elysium officials come in, to protect the people and hide the discrimination and inhumane treatment of any outsiders who attempt to enter the Elysium airspace. Secretary Delacourt (Jodie Foster), head of Elysium protection, fights against the immigration using brutal tactics, such as her top agent, Kruger (Sharlto Copley!!!). Max’s mission is to hack into the Elysium system and allow non-Elysian access to medical care, for himself as well as Frey’s daughter.

Neill Blomkamp, the South African director of Elysium, only recently came to light in the world of cinema with the release of District 9. Besides making use of absolutely stunning CGI graphics and animation, Blomkamp is a one-of-a-kind sci-fi enthusiast with tactics and styles that will impact the art of summer-blockbusters and sci-fi galore forever. Elysium is an example of his attention to detail. He doesn’t just build a set to throw a scene into, but works opposite, building a world that’s incredibly realistic, accurately depicting culture and human life, and creating a plot around that. His general idea of human mutation or transformation combines his view of people, both in anatomy and humans as a race, with advanced, technology and/or other creatures (like aliens). Blomkamp’s backdrops are grungy, slum-like settings overlaid by futuristic technology. The squalor of shanty towns complete with graffiti, dirt, blood, rust, trash and miserable human (or alien) inhabitants is partnered with unbelievable weapons and robots.

One thing lacking in District 9 that makes Elysium all the more spectacular is a good old-fashioned villain. I nominate Kruger, the South African militia-based character, as the greatest bad guy of all time. Kruger is the violent, horrifying, gruesome and all-around creepy psychopath who hunts down Max. He’s absolutely terrifying, riveting whenever he is on screen. A fantastic performance by Blomkamp’s film-partner and long-time friend, Sharlto Copley. Playing the star in District 9, Copley basically invented Wikus Van De Merwe on-screen, improving every line the entire movie, quite a feat for his first big acting gig. Never before setting foot in front of the camera (except in several short films), he proved you don’t need to be a professional to be an incredible actor. His insane natural talent and character work makes Kruger a one-of-a-kind in Elysium. He blows away every scene he’s in, with his exotic Afrikaans accent and fiery, violent nature. He was certainly the most distinct character and greatest performance in the movie (sorry, Matt). In a few years’ time, the rising star’s name will probably become very well-known in Hollywood.

Matt Damon is an outstanding actor, don’t get me wrong. But the downside to Elysium is the lack of strong characters. I thought, besides Kruger (who was, like Wikus, an invention of Copley’s), many of the Elysium characters are rather two-dimensional, despite the starry cast. Even Max isn’t as creative or original as Kruger. This inconsistency may be one of Blomkamp’s directing flaws, perhaps, but every director has them. Despite the lack of depth and the film’s poor dialogue, Matt did his best and brought enough life to Max to make him as enjoyable to watch as an otherwise dull character can be. Jodie Foster, too, clearly represented the Elysian attitude and motivation in Secretary Delacourt’s character. With her almost-robotic voice and passion for Elysium protection, she is at least somewhat more lovable than Kruger (but who wouldn’t be?).

I was a bit traumatized by the violence and gore in Elysium. People get shot, people explode, faces blow up, and faces are restored with Elysium’s ridiculous technology (spoiler: I will probably never be able to forget seeing Sharlto’s pretty face in a fleshy, mushy, bloody heap on top of his body, and then the every tiny chunk of his blown-up face molding back together as if being melted in reverse). I left the theater, speechless, blown away by the incredible CGI, intensity of the film, Copley’s performance, District 9 nostalgia and shockingly disgusting graphics (that many of you may remember from District 9; a notable Blomkamp element). But I also left quite inspired. Although I am merely a review and fanfiction writer, I would absolutely love to work with film and directing one day. Elysium made me feel as if that dream were possible, I left in a daze. Elysium is a cinematic masterpiece with its intense science fiction elements and stunningly beautiful (and quite believable) visuals that will knock you off your feet. Blomkamp accomplished something similar to what Guillermo del Toro was aiming for: action, a good plot and an edge-of-your-seat thrilling experience.

I would like to see Sharlto Copley in more of his movies. He brings a heart and depth that Neill Blomkamp otherwise has a hard time accomplishing. As a cinematic duo, Copley and Blomkamp can deeply impact the art of Hollywood film.

Image above designed by Sharm Murugiah

Pacific Rim: A New Kind Of Summer Blockbuster

This is the second half of a double feature review by Natalie Belz.  Here’s yesterday’s review of Despicable Me 2.

For months I’ve been hearing about Pacific Rim from friends and followers on Tumblr, the all-things-pop-culture social media site for sharing spoilers and trailers and celebrity craze. Every few posts on my feed would be “Name Your Jaeger,” “Who’s Your Jaeger Co-Pilot?” or “Warning: Kaiju Attack.” I trust the opinions of the seemingly intelligent Tumblr-users, but it took me a while to finally decide to go see the hit movie for myself. My Elysium obsession has kept me from fully appreciating any other 2013 film. Neill Blomkamp’s (District 9) second movie is said to hit theater on the August 9, and I couldn’t be more excited. But alas, I did manage to find some room in my completely empty schedule to go see Pacific Rim on Monday this week.

I have to say, I was a bit disappointed. IMDB’s 4-star rating was an exaggeration (Maybe 3 1/2 would have been more suitable?), as was the feedback I got from Tumblr. But what can you expect from die-hard fans of Sharknado and The Avengers?

Pacific Rim, released on July 12 (Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures), is an all-out action/science-fiction directed by Guillermo del Toro. Large, monstrous beasts called Kaiju have emerged from an inter-world portal that has opened up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. At first there are only a few, but soon, more and more larger and larger Kaiju begin to attack coastal cities like Sydney and San Francisco. Eventually, the whole human race comes together to stop the Kaiju by creating giant robots called Jaegers. A Jaeger requires two pilots who can “drift” together, which means entering a mental state in which both pilots’ brains could work together to move the arms and the legs of the robot. But when the Kaiju begin to get too big for Jaegers to defeat them, the Jaeger project is abandoned, and the humans build a wall that—alas—proves incapable of holding back the Kaiju. The Jaegers are then sent to Hong Kong, where, as a last attempt to save humanity, they try to destroy the portal between our world and the Kaijus’. The movie stars Charlie Hunnan, Idris Elba (The Wire’s Stringer Bell) and Rinko Kikuchi.

Pacific Rim opens with a brief description of the terrors that have begun to emerge from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and then bang, straight into the movie’s over-the-top action. The premise of the movie was it’s insane, Japanese-monster-movie type action, with huge, metal robots fighting gigantic Godzillas in the streets of Hong Kong. Half of the time I was watching the man-made robot blasting the seemingly undefeatable creatures from the deep with plasma hand-cannons and ripping them apart with sword-arms, an almost comical, classic form of entertainment. Big things fighting other big things in a city. But wasn’t that what Pacific Rim was basically about? Before going to see it myself, I’d read several reviews and interviews with the director, Guillermo del Toro, who based the movie on old-fashion action-adventures, and claims to have intended to make the movie about nothing more than that, reviving the style to summer blockbusters.

As far back as I can remember (which isn’t very long) the summer hits—science-fiction, action, adventure, fantasy, etc.—have always been very Hollywood in every aspect. They have formulaic plots, predictable romance, good guys and bad guys, and loads of action. But as I watched Pacific Rim it seemed that Del Toro’s intentions weren’t to create a Hollywood hit or an artsy, indie film, but simply to revel in the sheer entertainment of robot fight scenes and gigantic monsters that shoot acid and have glowing blue blood. It may have been just me, but I certainly saw some visible symbolism in the Kaiju vs. Jaeger scenes—titan-sized Gods vs. Demons, standing in a storm in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with great waves crashing around, were a picture of the cosmic clash between good and evil.

Besides showing off science-fiction special effects, Pacific Rim has the same theme of connection—the establishment of bonds between characters—as Avatar (the alien movie released in 2009). Throughout Pacific Rim, there’s almost an alchemy of spirits, whether it’s people’s minds bonding, people becoming one with their robo-bodies, monsters swarming and sharing info like a hive, or a man bonding his mind with that of a monster’s. This theme plays out in other more subtle ways, too. Hidden examples of real-world bonding between two things, animals or people, such as in relationships between family members (brother/brother, father/son, mother/unborn fetus, etc.) or the natural bond between man and woman are also present in Pacific Rim. And if I’m not mistaken, this idea of harmony between all things, even things like the human world and an alien world, is based on the Eastern philosophy of everything having a spirit that embodies our world that can synchronize and flow together to create something new, like two people coming together to work a giant robot, or the alien creatures having two brains to move their massive bodies.

As far as imagery and overall rhythm of the movie, Pacific Rim is very colorful, futuristic, but not as utopian as the Star Trek films. It isn’t exactly dystopian like Blade Runner, although the dark streets of Hong Kong, with the rusty walls of the Jaeger base, did resemble the noir style of Blade Runner. It also borrows a lot of Tony Stark’s hologram, touch-screen technology and metal suits. Most of the movie is insane CGI animation, and the same “Jaeger Battle” soundtrack was played throughout the entire film. So not much to go on, there.

What Pacific Rim tries to accomplish—an old-school Japanese-style action movie with a hint of depth—it mostly succeeds in. It is, of course, very over-the-top, but not unconsciously so. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, like most summer blockbusters, and it delivers a worldview of harmony. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not much more than it is on the surface, and the dialogue is contrived and doesn’t make much sense, but it is entertaining. It’s exciting, and it was worth seeing even though I was occupied with nothing else to do.

Plus, in addition to watching Pacific Rim, I witnessed the first ten minutes of The Conjuring (which I really want to watch the rest of) and got another Elysium trailer beforehand. I also recommend Elysium, even though I haven’t seen it. It’s the greatest movie ever.

Despicable Me 2: Movie Review

This is Part 1 of a double feature film review by Natalie Belz. Tune in for a review of Pacific Rim tomorrow morning.

I did not really want to see Despicable Me 2 when my father took me to the theater last Monday. We were going with Grammy and Sydney, two very good friends, and their cousin, so I felt obligated to go. When we met up at the theater, Grammy gave us funny, plastic minion McDonald’s toys that blew “fart guns.” These were fairly entertaining to play with throughout the movie.

The sequel follows the much beloved Despicable Me of 2010. I’d never seen the original, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The movie follows ex-evil villain Gru, who is now a father and “jelly-jam” maker and has no time to waste on evil schemes and science-y weapons and ray-guns and over-the-top flying mobiles with their fantastic features. Instead he enjoys his humble life fathering his adopted daughters Agnes, Margo and Edith. The inevitable twist comes when he is recruited (kidnapped) by the Anti-Villain League, who want him to partner up with the young, red-headed agent Lucy Wilde (wonderfully voiced by Kristen Wiig).

Despicable Me 2 is greatly entertaining as a children’s movie. Enjoyable to children as well as adults of all ages, it is chock-full of quick, clever humor and fabulous animation. The characters are quirky and lovable. Lucy Wilde is a spunky, easily excitable woman who many a minion and ex-evil villain can fall in love with. Gru’s adorable daughters are also memorable for their sweet attitude toward Gru and his minions, ninja skills, fluffy unicorns and first crushes. And yes, the minions—the iconic, unforgettable, and hilarious little, yellow things are back, dominating half the comedic aspects of the films.

As far as wild children’s humor goes, Despicable Me 2 is all over the place. But look closely. Between silly minion dialect and “sheepbutt” jokes, you’ll find Alien references (chicken popping out of Gru’s chest), pole-dancing minions, ditsy, goofy romance and subtle Eminem praise. The older you are, the more you will laugh at the layers of comedy. For not usually taking much interest in children’s movies, I definitely had a smile plastered to my face the entire time.

For meeting every aspect a Disney cartoon strives to meet, it still failed in the one way that many (especially recent) Disney movies do—originality. I’m not much of a fan of sequels, especially to good movies that had closed-endings. Despicable Me, from what I’ve heard, was very good and quite popular. And oddly enough, Despicable Me 2 was predicted to be even better. But the fact still stands that it followed a common children’s film plot and shared similar elements with the first movie. Gru, the protagonist, is dragged into a wild mission involving a great threat to humanity. His love interest gets involved and is eventually threatened. Our love for the minions is somewhat exploited. But for being a standard cartoon, it was still very good. Very, very good. It didn’t try too hard in any way, and Gru’s desire to leave his crazy, villainous ways behind and newfound father complex create a wonderfully heart-warming story. Not to mention finding the love of his life.

I generally dislike going to see cartoons or children’s movies. I was completely raised on Hayao Miyazaki’s movies and, now with the freedom to go see them, have a hard time adjusting to Disney, Pixar and other similar production companies. Studio Ghibli can make a hardened critic out of anyone.

I did see Monsters University. I thought it was good, too. As good as Despicable Me 2, anyway. Another notable animation of this year that I saw was Wreck-It Ralph. A newfound family favorite across the nation, Wreck-It Ralph shared many qualities with Despicable Me 2. For instance, the protagonist, Ralph, was a “bad-guy” who suffered from the villain stereotype and wanted to drop his wrecking ways. He, like Gru, also developed a fatherly attitude to the movie’s adorable, iconic little-girl character. In Wreck-It Ralph, it was the candy car racing Vanellope von Schweetz, who was shunned by all the other characters in her videogame, Sugar Rush. In Despicable Me 2, Gru found his softer side with his three adopted daughters. Being a fan of John C. Reilly and videogames, I found Wreck-It Ralph to be superior.

I quite enjoyed the romantic side of Despicable Me 2. Lucy Wilde was a great love interest—she was red-headed (like myself), tall, skinny, and a bit goofy, and way out of Gru’s league. But her relationship with Gru was very sweet. Her admiration for him and easily excitability let us all fall in love with her at the end. She really wrapped up the movie, and brought out much of Gru’s romantic nature. Next to her, the second side of the romantic aspect in the movie, was Margo’s cute adventure with her crush, something any middle-school girl could relate to. It played a key role in exposing Gru’s protectiveness toward his daughters.

Though it is well made, Despicable Me 2 will never be my favorite movie. It just didn’t stick, and after writing this I probably won’t think of it or see it again. I’m just not the kind of person to take much interest in those kinds of movies. And if you ask me, it wasn’t the great summer Disney movie that would have enough impact to eventually change the way cartoons are made/viewed. But it was good, entertaining and absolutely hilarious. Not overdone or over-the-top, and not too much like the original. It’s worth seeing if you have enough money and time to go see a movie at a regular theater.

Risky Art: A Review of Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

It’s a feast for a Whedonite. I found myself squealing “Topher!” when Fran Kranz came on screen and asking myself, “Where have I seen her?” practically every time a new actor appeared. But it’s not just for Joss Whedon fans. And it’s not just for Shakespeare fans either. Much Ado About Nothing is one of those smart, funny, interesting, clever, and artistic films that the thinking viewer hopes will come out of Hollywood, but comes too rarely.

Plenty has been written about how this Much Ado came to be. Joss Whedon had wanted to do Shakespeare for years and found himself with time between finishing filming on The Avengers and post-production. His gracious wife gave up vacation so they could pursue the project and they gathered together a group of friends in the industry to make it happen.

I remember when the word broke that Joss Whedon was making the movie. They’d just finished filming and they had managed to keep it completely under the radar until that point. It was the indie scene’s fairy tale: a major director, a big name who had just made a Marvel superheroes movie, had stepped back and done what independent filmmakers do every day – made a movie at home with no studio backing, no plan for distribution, and practically no budget.

It was a move that said true art is not dead in Hollywood. It was a move that said there’s value in a group of people creating together. It was a move that said risks are still worth taking, even though our culture’s artistic industries allow less and less room for them.

Of course, the independent filmmaker who hasn’t ground it out in the industry, found a cult following, and crossed over to big-time studio success probably won’t follow quite the same happily-ever-after path Whedon’s little project has followed. There was immediate buzz about the film; before it even entered post production people wanted to see it. They took it to Toronto for the 2012 Film Festival last August and Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions picked it up for limited theatrical release. Risks may still be worth taking, but in a Fast and Furious 6 culture, they’re not going to make the mainstream.

That’s a shame, because Whedon’s Much Ado stands up to even the expectations of the Shakespeare/Whedonite that I am.

It’s beautiful.

There’s an acrobatic act going on during the party scene—two women dancing in the air as they hang from a tree over the crowd. The loveliness of that has hung with me since I left the theatre. It was high-wire ballet, moving sculpture.

Joss Whedon took something very old and made it very new. It’s a tad jarring to have Leonato enter with a smart phone, saying, “I have here in this letter…” So to bridge the gap, Whedon gave us a sense of place—the house his wife designed—and a sense of timelessness by filming in black and white. The textures of the house are emphasized by the lack of color—the stucco and wrought iron and wood grains and glass—each lend themselves to the feel of the whole film. The textures of the characters’ clothing, from the sheer fabric of Beatrice’s dresses to Don Pedro and Leonato’s smooth suits and ties even to Benedick’s sweat suit in one scene, both add to the individual characters and delineate one from another.

The shot of Claudio and Don Pedro leading the procession of mourners for Hero’s funeral is absolutely breathtaking. The characters, dressed in black, line a long path down the hill, their eyes lowered, each holding a single candle in their hands as they walk. Whedon’s somber arrangement of “Heavily” (Shakespeare’s lyric for the funeral) adds to the beauty of the moment.

It’s emotional.

Hero and Claudio steal the show on an emotional level. Fran Kranz’s earnest conversation with Don Pedro about his feelings for Hero, his somewhat-drunk unbelieving stupor when he’s told Don Pedro did not betray him, his portrayal of broken-hearted anger at Hero’s faithlessness before the wedding—all of them tug the viewer’s heart, from joy to frustration, from pity to anger.

Jillian Morgese’s Hero is understated and delicate. We smile with her at her teasing and loving relationship with her father (Clark Gregg’s Leonato). We enjoy her moments of young love with Claudio. Our hearts break with hers as she’s cast off at the altar, not knowing why she’s been so falsely accused. We sorrow with her as she watches Claudio grieve her at the funeral, and we thrill when she says, “One Hero died defiled, but I live. And as surely as I live, I am a maid.”

Amy Acker (Beatrice) stands out on an emotional level as well. She is able to balance the downright funny with the deeply moving, and to deftly go back and forth between the two, making them both believable.

It’s funny.

Beatrice gets a good portion of the humor as well. There’s a scene where she, in the midst of a having a conversation, is fending off the flirtations of a man. The joke is completely visual; there’s not a single line of dialogue directed toward him, but the scene gets funnier and funnier each time she dodges his advances.

Alexis Denisof shines as Benedick in the funny scenes. His performance is the most slapstick of them all, and unfortunately makes the more serious scenes a bit harder to believe. But when he’s funny, he’s fantastic. There’s brotherly banter with Claudio, bravado with Beatrice, and absolute hilarity in the scene when he listens in on Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio talking about Beatrice’s love for him.

The humor isn’t limited to the over-the-top scenes. There are bits and pieces, looks and jokes throughout most of the lighter moments that add to the layers of funny. Watch the characters in the background of any scene—Clark Gregg’s Leonato in particular—there are jewels to be found.

Perhaps the funniest of all, though, is Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry. And perhaps the greatest compliment I can give him as an actor is that he made the choice to enunciate. So often Dogberry is played with extreme silliness that detracts from the hilarity of the lines Shakespeare wrote for him. Fillion’s performance of Dogberry as the bumbling cop lets his utterly mixed up vocabulary shine, and Dogberry is better (and so much funnier) for it.

It’s art.

The fairy tale of big-time-director-goes-indie wouldn’t hold much weight if they hadn’t made a good movie. But they did. And therefore the idea of the movie shines out even brighter.

Joss Whedon is exceptionally talented. Even those who don’t really follow his genre could not argue against that. But what I like most about him is that he thinks when he makes movies and television. He’s never willing to just do what needs to be done to get something made within the confines of the system that exists.

Perhaps the best thing of all about Much Ado About Nothing is that it actually got made—that a group of friends decided they wanted to do this, made the time for it, and did it well. Limited release or no, it’s encouraging to see that something like this movie can still happen. May it encourage all artists to do what they love, and do it well, and may we see more communities of people creating art together for the love of it.

#GrowCurator Campaign: Introduction

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Lovely readers,

I’ll be straight: the budget under which The Curator has been working for the last five years is…jaw-dropping. That is, for those of you who know anything about what it’s like to publish a consistent and relevant journal in the world today, you’ll know that ~$3,000/annum is, uh, beyond meager.

We aren’t complaining, though. Heck, we love what we do; for us, The Curator is one of those rare places Frederick Buechner talks about where our “deep gladness” continues to meet “the world’s deep hunger.” That being said, we’ve decided The Curator deserves a better version of itself, for everyone’s sake. Our writers and editors deserve better care and compensation. (Side note: I myself have not received a penny in a year’s work). Our readers deserve more and better content and an expanded vision. Even beyond that, we’re utterly convinced there are artists and geniuses out there scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it, and they deserve more and better attention. With your help, we can continue celebrating them. And, by golly, there’s some really cool stuff you will get in return! Check out our INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN for the special perks you’ll receive for donating, and stay tuned for updates!

Zach Terrell,
Asst. Editor
@zachterrell

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Indian director Mira Nair’s new feature, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, is a poignant and vivid tale about what can occur when the process of American enculturation goes sour. There is, of course, no shortage of films that depict the joys, challenges and indignities of the immigrant experience, including several stellar entries in the subgenre from just the past decade (Journey From the Fall, Sweet Land, Golden Door, Goodbye Solo). On the surface, Nair’s film appears to be more prosaic than these works, wrapped as it is in the familiar constituents of the romantic melodrama and the globe-trotting thriller. Yet The Reluctant Fundamentalist is also more brooding and sharp-elbowed than its cinematic kin, a tale of angst and dissolution rather than assimilation. Just as So Yong Kim did so marvelously in her feature In Between Days, Nair focuses on immigrants’ alienation as they attempt to acclimate to an adoptive homeland. What makes The Reluctant Fundamentalist so distinctive is its unmistakable resemblance to a tale of relationship disintegration; the film is, in essence, the story of a breakup, one which is rooted in intensely personal qualities but which has broad geopolitical ramifications.

Adapted from Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel of the same name, the film depicts the initially exhilarating but ultimately dispiriting American experience of Lahore native and financial wunderkind Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed). Hailing from a well-to-do but diminished family—his father, Abu (Om Puri), is a secular poet of some renown—Changez makes the leap to Princeton and then to Wall Street in 2001, where he becomes an analyst at white shoe valuation consultant Underwood Samson. Quickly singled out as the firm’s rising star by his superior Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), Changez is tasked not only with assessing the financial worth of troubled companies, but with developing possible cost-saving measures (e.g., identifying which workers should be fired). Meanwhile he tumbles into a romantic relationship with lively but troubled photographer Erica (Kate Hudson), who is just beginning to emerge from the emotional shell she had constructed about herself following the death of her previous boyfriend.

The promise of the American Dream seems to lie before Changez on a silver platter. Then, while he is abroad on assignment, Islamic terrorists attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, and his meteoric rise to the commanding heights of the West begins to stall. When he returns to New York City, he is waylaid by airport security and humiliatingly strip-searched, in a discomfiting foreshadowing of the erosion of his privileged position. Over the ensuing year, ethnic slurs are tossed in his direction, his tires are slashed by enraged workers, and he is mistakenly arrested in a street scuffle. When he returns from a holiday visit to Pakistan with a beard, whispers fly behind his back at Underwood Samson. Yet Changez’ growing disenchantment with America is a product not only of encounters with post-9/11 jingoism and racism, but also of his own gnawing doubts about his choices. He is increasingly distracted by guilt about his firm’s predatory character and by anxiety about his family’s life under a nuclear shadow back home. Eventually, the revelation that Erica has obliviously exploited Changez’s nationality for her artistic ambitions leads their relationship to an agonizing end, and also sets into motion his final break with America.

As in Hamid’s novel, the film adaptation of The Reluctant Fundamentalist—scripted by the author, Ami Boghani, Rutvik Oza, and William Wheeler—presents Changez’ tale in flashback as he relates it to an American at a Lahore café. The novel is written exclusively in Changez’s polite, precise voice, and it at times suggests that the narrator’s tale is, if not exactly unreliable, at least self-serving and subtly manipulative. Hamid never identifies the edgy, menacing American across the table from Changez, and the book’s conclusion is pointedly cryptic. Nair’s film is less formally daring, expanding the framing narrative into an elaborate (if mostly unremarkable) ticking-clock suspense scenario. A decade after his tribulations in America, Changez has evolved into a politically outspoken college professor in Pakistan. He has also recently been flagged as a person of interest in the kidnapping of an American academic, prompting investigative reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to track down Changez for an interview. While the latter recounts his tale, the CIA and the Pakistani police begin to close in, prompting an escalating protest from Changez’ students and local allies.

Nair’s feature takes to heart the feminist adage that the personal is political, exhibiting a profound absorption with the process of Changez’s transformation from a would-be American corporate ace into a political lightning rod for Pakistani nationalism. Crucially, the film does not portray Changez as a mere reactive figure, hardened by the betrayals of a malevolent America. The portrait is more complex: while his run-ins with institutional and casual racism play a role in upending his comfortable life in New York, his growing awareness of the cold-hearted nature of his profession is just as significant, as is his discomfort with Erica’s inability to move on from her deceased lover. Moreover, Changez’ trajectory from Pakistan to the U.S. and back is governed as much by who he is as by what happens to him. He carries with him from Lahore a cluster of traits—self-conscious economic insecurities, nationalistic pride, a sense of familial obligation, and a latent religiously-inspired abhorrence of violence—that collectively propel him back into the embrace of his homeland.

This holistic perspective on Changez’ relationship with America enables a remarkably evenhanded depiction of how assimilation can go off-track, even for immigrants who attain everything that Americans themselves covet. While the film is in general agreement with Changez regarding the most objectionable aspects of the American character—militaristic meddling, cultural arrogance, corporate callousness—it also highlights the extent to which a poor fit between an individual and a culture can be rooted in real incompatibilities rather than personal failings. Changez ultimately decides that America is not for him, even though he professes that he still loves the nation and what it represents. (Jim, revealingly, reacts with desperation and hostility when Changez eventually resigns and announces his intention to return to Pakistan; like a romantic partner, the manager views his protege’s departure as a betrayal.) In this, The Reluctant Fundamentalist evinces a humanistic maturity that is lacking in most relationship dramas, where so often one partner is crudely painted as the culprit when the ardor fizzles and the bickering begins. Nair’s film allows for the possibility that it might not be Me or You, but Us: a partnership that seems promising at first may be revealed to be unsustainable in the long term.

Ethics of the Exotic

Samsara (2011) is a documentary that consists of various images, from around the world, of people and their lives. Director Ron Fricke calls the film a “nonverbal guided meditation…on themes of birth, death, and rebirth.”[1] It’s hard to know which aspect of Samsara is most memorable: its breathtakingly beautiful cinematography, its utter lack of dialogue, or its deep reliance on music to drive and organize the visual action. Yet Samsara’s treatment of musical exoticism is shallow at best.

Samsara is not the first film of its kind. Director Fricke and producer Mark Magidson also collaborated to create Baraka (1992), and Fricke helped write and create Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Similarly, others have sought to present non-fictional stories in a visually striking fashion: director Thomas Riedelsheimer (Touch the Sound [2004], Rivers and Tides [2001]) is just one example. But what’s uniquely problematic about Samsara is its misleading, Westernized presentation of “the exotic” in image and particularly in music.

Magidson says, “The hope is that [Samsara] is a profound interpersonal experience for the viewer, but an experience that they are bringing, to some extent, from within. And not a strong point of view from us about what’s right and wrong or good and bad; it’s really just showing the essence of things the way they are, and stringing those together with amazing music that creates a personal journey.”[2]

I certainly cannot deny the visual splendor of Samsara. However, it’s a stretch—at the least—to say that Fricke and Magidson refrain from articulating right and wrong in this film. For instance, the juxtaposition of images of meat processing plants (staffed by thin Asian employees) with images of husky Westerners devouring fast food leaves little room for the viewer’s “personal journey.” Instead, this sequence is a straightforward attempt to criticize mass consumerism, non-local food sourcing, and Western gluttony. Another sequence shows Ethiopian Mursi women wearing traditional tribal garb and holding machine guns, followed by an American family (including an early-teenaged daughter) bearing rifles. Here, too, the viewer is left with little interpretive freedom: Fricke and Magidson are clearly commenting on the intrusion of modern weaponry on traditional, peaceful ways of life.

But whereas it’s relatively easy to spot the subtext behind the film’s visual content, Samsara’s music is far more deceptive. The song underlying the abovementioned gun sequence is “Kothbiro,” by Kenyan singer Ayub Ogada. The use of a Kenyan musician’s work to comment on violence in Ethiopia is troubling, to say the least. While it’s true that violence in sub-Saharan Africa has sent waves of people from their homelands to neighboring countries (both Ethiopia and Kenya received many Sudanese refugees in recent decades, for instance), the fact remains that Kenya and Ethiopia are distinct countries. Equating them through music only propagates Western ignorance. (And in any case, The Constant Gardener [2005], a film based on political violence in Nigeria, had already used and credited “Kothbiro” in its soundtrack. Why didn’t Samsara simply find an Ethiopian song to comment on Ethiopian violence?)

Unfortunately, Samsara also fails to include Ogada in its soundtrack, giving him only a perfunctory mention in the concluding credits. Instead, Samsara chooses to present its music as an almost wholly unified creation by a trio of white artists: Michael Stearns, Lisa Gerrard (of “Now We Are Free”/Gladiator fame), and Marcello de Francisci. These three take nearly 80% of the artist credits on the Samsara soundtrack. Given Samsara’s visual diversity, why neglect Ogada and instead present, racially speaking, such a white soundtrack?

The answer to this question has at least two parts. In the first place, Stearns, Gerrard, and de Francisci seem to lack any qualms about co-opting the (apparent) musical practices of other cultures. The behind-the-scenes video “SAMSARA: The Musical Journey”[3] emphasizes the musicians’ desire to use live musical recordings—rather than canned software instruments—to create the soundtrack, and in fact to make these recordings themselves. “Musical Journey” underscores the musicians’ essential performative contributions to the soundtrack by including shots of Stearns playing crystal singing bowls, de Francisci playing what appear to be small conga drums and ukulele, and Gerrard singing. It’s highly unlikely that these three are experts in all the instruments they played for the soundtrack, but no matter. (With limitless takes and some basic audio mixing software, you, too, can make exotic music—no actual musicians from other cultures required!)

Yet the musicians’ overprivilege in cultural borrowing is not their only problem; ignorance also prevents them from doing justice to the musical traditions they draw from. Here’s an experiment: Listen to “Modern Life,” the third item on the Samsara soundtrack. Does it sound “ethnic” to you? Now check out “Musical Journey” at 4:43. That percussion is not the product of, say, a tribal drummer trained extensively in their own culture’s music, but of a white guy surrounded by expensive recording equipment, trying to pass off his music as “exotic.” In fact, I’d argue that, accustomed as we Westerners are to hearing a few common instruments, it’s only the relatively unusual timbre of the congas and the vaguely polyrhythmic character of the drumming that make this music sound “ethnic.”

Let’s try again. Consider “Geisha,” from Samsara’s soundtrack. Does it sound “exotic” to you? Now watch “Musical Journey” beginning at 5:20. Unfortunately, “Geisha” is not really “other” in any meaningful way – it’s simply an ersatz, a white lady (Gerrard) singing a wordless melody that includes augmented seconds and therefore meets Western criteria of the “foreign.” Yet, whereas geishas are a part of Japanese cultural tradition, augmented second intervals are not particularly closely associated with any East Asian musical traditions, but more with Middle-Eastern musical traditions. Lumping all non-white cultures together into a general “exotic” is heinous.[4]

To be blunt, it’s highly disappointing that Stearns, Gerrard, and de Francisci employ cheap Western stereotypes of the musically exotic to create their soundtrack. And unfortunately, the music of Ayub Ogada—perhaps the closest this film comes to musical authenticity—does not even make it to the soundtrack.

Indeed, this is no ethical music. It is the most Western and colonizing of do-it-yourself approaches. It is lack of awareness about other cultures’ musics. It is failure to not hire and credit people who actually are experts in these various musics and who thus can do it right.

I can recommend watching Samsara for its jawdropping cinematography, and as a thought experiment concerning Western depictions of other cultures and their musics. However, viewers should not expect to undertake a “personal journey” when watching this film, nor to draw much “from within” themselves. Fricke, Magidson, and especially the musicians Gerrard, Stearns, and de Francisci have already done all the interpretive work here.



[1] YouTube.com. “SOHK.TV Interview with Ron Fricke & Mark Magidson (Samsara).” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAZwaFCH6ro. 0:27.

[2] Ibid., 1:36.

[3] Vimeo.com. “SAMSARA The Musical Journey.” http://vimeo.com/46902388.

[4] “Geisha” underlies images of plastic surgery, sex dolls, female sex workers in Thailand, and a geisha, who sheds a single tear. It’s possible that Gerrard’s technically inaccurate use of melodic augmented seconds was simply intended to create a sad, forlorn ambience. However, if evoking sadness and remorse is the primary musical goal in this moment, I can only conclude that the filmmakers and musicians are noting the physically or sexually “deviant” quality of the people filmed here. And this kind of objectification is not only cruel but also contrary to the filmmakers’ stated purpose of not expressing “a strong point of view…about what’s right and wrong.”

Unstable Lovers in an Unstable World

In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch memorably says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

As profound as Atticus makes this sound, when we stop to consider the people around us, we often feel like we’re surrounded by lunatics and screw-ups. We find people we don’t understand, and a whole lot of people who don’t understand us. We wish everyone could climb out of their lunacy and their mess and reach us on our own level. It’s the level of trying to make sense of life, working to improve ourselves, and of being better than all the crazy folks out there.

My husband and I recently sat down to watch the newly released Silver Linings Playbook (a 2012 film by The Weinstein Co. based on the novel by Matthew Quick). It claims to be a romance and a comedy, but it’s more than that. It is comedy in the midst of lunacy. It is romance because of lunacy. It is the story of two people who are quite literally crazy by most people’s standards—one has had a mental breakdown after her husband’s death, resulting in extreme sexual behavior, and the other has just finished his court ordered time in a mental institution after brutally attacking his wife’s lover. He’s learned that he’s bi-polar.

So there they are, two unstable people in an unstable world trying to make a go at life. Pat’s way, though, is entirely focused on seeing the silver linings and working to improve himself, all in the hopes that his cheating ex-wife will take him back. He says, “Nikki’s waiting for me to get in shape and get my life back together. Then we’re going to be together.” He’s working for a love contingent on him having his life together, and the problem is that there’s still not a whole lot put together about him. As Pat screams at his parents about Ernest Hemingway in the middle of the night, tears furiously through the house looking for his wedding video, also in the middle of the night, completely ignores his restraining order, and ends up in a full-on fight with his dad, you sit there and you know—you know, because it’s you, that despite all our best efforts at self-improvement, we still end up right back where we began.

That’s why Pat needs Tiffany. She’s young, brash, and off-her rocker. And she meets Pat where he is, in his crazy, broken, screwed-up mess. Pat’s fascinated by her problems, but doesn’t know what to do with her. When he looks at her, she’s worse off than he is. He’s getting his act together, but she’s a stalking lunatic. He can’t see himself in her. Pat tells her, “You have poor social skills. You have a problem.” And Tiffany replies, “I have a problem? You say more inappropriate things than appropriate things.”

As he resists their commonalities, he pushes away his chance to be understood, perhaps even to be loved. Tiffany is the one person who’s come to meet him where he’s at and he can’t see it. He’s horrified when she tells him he’s sort of like her. “Sort of like YOU? I hope to GOD she didn’t tell Nikki that!” “Why?” “Because! It’s just not right, lumping you and I together, its…. I mean it’s wrong and Nikki wouldn’t like that. Especially after all the shit you just told me.” You can see it dawn on Tiffany and she finally gets it. “You think that I’m crazier than you….You know what? Forget I offered to help you. Forget the entire f***ing idea. Because that must have been f***ing crazy, because I’m so much crazier than you! I’m just the crazy slut with a dead husband!”

Pat doesn’t know how to deal with himself. He wants to move past his crazy, to forget it, to be better. He doesn’t know how to accept it and he definitely doesn’t know how to be loved where he’s at. “You’re crazy!,” Pat tells Tiffany. “I’m not the one who just got out of that hospital in Baltimore.” “And I’m not the big slut!… I’m sorry… I’m sorry… I’m sorry.” And Tiffany gets to the heart of the matter. “I was a big slut, but I’m not any more. There’s always going to be a part of me that’s sloppy and dirty, but I like that. With all the other parts of myself. Can you say the same about yourself f***er? Can you forgive? Are you any good at that?”

And there stands Pat, in the midst of trying to fix himself up so his wife will take him back again, and he doesn’t have any idea how to love the lunatic in front of him because he can’t admit that he might still be there, in the midst of madness, with a dose of crazy. Maybe, “there’s always going to be a part of [him] that’s sloppy and dirty.” Maybe he doesn’t have things together and he’s still screwing up and he’s not totally in control of himself or his marriage. Maybe he’s just as crazy and hurting as the person in front of him.

It’s not until Pat realizes he needs to be met, in his weak and uncontrollable state, that he’s able to give and accept love. He tells Tiffany, “The only way you could beat my crazy was by doing something crazy yourself.” In this we see ourselves—we who are crazy trying to ignore our crazy and busy trying to earn love. We don’t realize that to be human is to need to know we’re loved no matter what, to have love meet us and accept us in our lunacy.

Mark Twain wrote, “Let us consider that we are all partially insane. It will explain us to each other…” (Christian Science, 1907). The key to climbing into another’s skin is first seeing yourself in them—recognizing that their insanity is your insanity, and knowing that none of us have things put together. When we know that we need to be met, we are also able to meet others, to climb into their skins.

While it seems like craziness to admit to craziness, it is freedom. In knowing that we are weak and needy, we release ourselves. We stop trying to earn love and we become ok with the wild insane kind of love that comes to us, and maybe, we give some of it. We are the Pats of this world, and God only knows we need some crazy to beat ours.

The Last Exorcism

 

Romanian writer-director Christian Mungiu’s superb new feature, Beyond the Hills, is an astonishingly sneaky work of religious and cultural criticism, nearly as duplicitous as Old Pitch himself. Its potency relies to a significant extent on a rather nasty manipulation of the viewer’s perceptions and expectations. However, unlike the cheap twists that characterize big-budget and two-bit thrillers alike, Beyond the Hills‘ chicanery is of a generic rather than narrative nature. The film functions as a virtuosic cinematic parlor trick, designed to provoke the viewer into a stark confrontation with the most monstrous aspects of a conservative, demon-haunted religiosity. In its chilly and somber way, Mungui’s film is a fictional corollary to documentary exposés such as Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp, depicting as it does the abuses that are obfuscated, rationalized, and even glorified under the auspices of the sacred. Nevertheless, despite its bluntly damning portrayal of Romanian Orthodoxy—and of patriarchal, reactionary theology in general—Beyond the Hills is a remarkably sober engagement with superstitious hysteria as an all-too-human phenomenon. The sensation that emerges from the film is not a white-hot anti-religious rage, but a sort of perplexed secularist gloom at our species’ propensity to engage in oblivious cruelty, so long as it is cloaked in whispered invocations.

A similar inhumanity is a central component of Mungiu’s 2007 Palm d’Or-winning sophomore feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, although in that film the depraved social strictures are of a nominally atheistic nature. In its portrayal of a back-alley abortion in the waning days of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, 4 Months relies upon a stone-faced realism to establish the suffocating terror that suffuses its female protagonists’ desperate odyssey. In this way, Mungiu creates a first-rate thriller that also functions as pointed attack on the misogyny of autocratic authority, providing a sharp illustration of the everyday means by which women’s liberty is constrained.

Beyond the Hills explores similar thematic territory, but the two films employ markedly divergent approaches. 4 Months depends on straightforward adherence to genre, fulfilling the promise of its thriller form with an almost ruthless resolve. Indeed, the cold-sweat atmosphere that Mungiu’s 2007 film summons is strongly dependent on the manner in which its screenplay suggests each enervating movement before it occurs. Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, relies on a genre fake-out. While it dresses in the vestments of an reserved character-based drama, the film’s story is gradually revealed as a work of demonic horror—albeit one in which the supernatural exists solely in the minds of the perpetrating zealots. Other filmmakers have exploited narrative ambiguity to phenomenal effect in recent years—Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Abbas Kiaorstomi’s Certified Copy come to mind—but Mungiu’s new feature is the rare work that that plays upon the viewer’s assumptions regarding artistic categories.

Adapted from a pair of non-fiction novels by Romanian news producer-turned-author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills‘ screenplay relies on a tantalizing opacity to hook the viewer. Two women—diffident Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and raw-nerved Alina (Christina Flutur)—meet at a train station in a Romanian town. The pair seems to have a history, but the film’s determined naturalism precludes the kind of spurious exposition that would quickly clarify their relationship. Instead, the viewer must piece together the background from various provocative questions, offhand comments, and frank gestures. Gradually, the past comes into focus. Years ago, the women were raised together in a local orphanage, where they became inseparable friends and eventually lovers. Cast off from the facility when she turned eighteen, Alina fled to Germany in search of work, while Voichita remained in Romania.

Alina has returned from her apparently rudderless tribulations abroad to retrieve her beloved and pursue opportunities elsewhere, but Voichita has undergone a dramatic personal transformation. She is now living as a novitiate at a tiny, austere Orthodox convent, and it is to this sanctuary that she escorts Alina, albeit with some wariness. Once the pair arrives at the humble rural monastery, the lines of conflict that will dominate the remainder of the film become apparent. Voichita, spurred by a tangle of Christian obligation and lingering affection for Alita, seeks a way to aid her troubled friend that will not conflict with her newfound religious commitments. Both her fellow nuns and the community’s governing priest (Valeriu Andriuta) take a dim view of Voichita’s efforts, regarding Alita’s mere presence as a disruption to the convent’s social order. Moreover, suspicions quickly surface regarding the “unnatural” relationship between the two women, as well as the spiritual corruption that the sisters allegedly sense in Alita.

For her part, Alita exhibits symptoms of sexual obsession and general psychological precariousness. Furthermore, she seems utterly unwilling to entertain the notion that Voichita’s pious calling might be authentic. Alita’s perverse need to possess Voichita by any means leads her to act out in ways that are alternately conciliatory and blasphemous, provoking rising vexation, fear, and anger within the convent. The newcomer’s growing emotional dissolution leads to periodic narrative detours into town—first to a psychiatric hospital, and then later to Alita’s former foster home—but the action continually returns to the remote monastery. On the cusp of the vital Easter holiday, the tension between the convent’s residents and Alita finally ignites an unspeakable act of mercy-cum-brutality. Fed up with the woman’s aggression, vulgarity, and sacrilege, the priest and nuns bind the frenzied Alita to a pair of wooden planks and subject her to an extended, grueling rite of exorcism. Paralyzed by conflicting loyalties and sheer terror, Voichita must decide whether her conscience permits her to take part in a remedy that seems more akin to the torture of a mentally ill woman than a palliative for an imperiled soul.

In a cinematic landscape ever more dominated by dreary conformity, what’s most impressive about Beyond the Hills is the distinctiveness of its concept: It is, fundamentally, a supernatural horror tale drained of its otherworldly elements and reframed as work of contemporary social realism. Indeed, Mungiu’s film is a shrewd inversion of The Exorcist—a work that remains the first and last vision of demonic possession in the pop cultural consciousness. William Friedkin’s visceral and deeply Catholic adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s pulp novel is a forceful vision of human fragility wrapped in old-school Hollywood fright tactics. Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, lands its existential sucker-punch by eschewing the formal conventions of horror cinema. Mungiu’s arid, ragged-edged approach to his tale convinces the viewer that they are witnessing a very different sort of a film. Depending on the angle, Beyond the Hills could be mistaken for a queer-flavored romantic tragedy, a socially conscious miserablist drama, or an allegory about the collaborations of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the Communist decades. Arguably, the film functions well enough as a representative of any of those species (and others), but it is the film’s sly employment of horror tropes that lends it critiques such breathtaking bite.

People of faith will doubtlessly find much that is discomforting in Beyond the Hill’s bleak depiction of religious terror gone haywire. Certainly, Mungiu could not have selected a more fitting setting for such a portrayal than a rural Orthodox convent (at least in contemporary Christendom), which in the film’s universe offers up a witch’s brew of codified sexism, snarling homophobia, and generalized anxiety regarding the encroachment of cosmopolitan modernity. Yet while Beyond the Hills does not shrink from the ugliness a hellfire-obsessed religiosity, the film never assumes the tone of a jeremiad against belief as a phenomenon. (It is, meanwhile, partly a broadside against the lingering, terror-stricken medievalism that still thrives in some parts of rural Eastern Europe). Mungiu’s film is mostly agnostic with respect to the legitimacy of Voichita’s tremulous faith, but it is clear-eyed on the question of human dignity and the sanctity of bodily liberty. While Alita’s behavior is often appallingly selfish and dangerously erratic, the moment when she is restrained and chained “for her own good” is the turning point that reveals the nature of the film’s horror: Not the fear of a mentally ill person, but for her.

The film’s coda is crucial to an appreciation of its is grim assessment of the supernatural’s awkward place in a secular twenty-first century. Following a tragic outcome from Alita’s exorcism, law enforcement authorities appear at the convent and question the priest and nuns about their role in the incident. In the harsh light of hindsight, the monastery’s residents look less like whirly-eyed fanatics and more like children with guilty consciences. A plaintive, half-hearted declaration clings to the sisters’ shell-shocked countenances: We thought we were doing the right thing. While Beyond the Hills is resolute in its condemnation of religiously-motivated abuses and blinkered belief systems, it does not gloat as the priest and nuns are handcuffed and hauled away. Rather, it rhetorically asks how it is that what seems like pity at midnight can so clearly resemble callousness at dawn. Above all, the film illustrates how seductive it is to imagine oneself as a lonely champion of righteousness in a fallen world, and how fiendishly easy it is for fear to overwhelm compassion when the phantom demons of that world seem to be drawing near.

A Garden of Sacramental “Wonder”

I am pretty certain that every review of Malick’s To the Wonder will at some point refer to the scene in which the church janitor describes the presence of God as solar heat in the panes of a stained glass window. For some, the moment will appear a bit too on the nose, evidence of Malick’s regression to a pop-spiritual or formal mean. For others, the moment will be welcomed as a shorthand for his increasingly obvious sacramentality; arriving like a cinematic beatitude in the midst of the bit-part priest’s voice-over reflections on deus absconditus. Either way, I can imagine reference to this scene becoming endemic to its popular and critical reception.

The programmatic scene in To the Wonder actually appears near the beginning as Neil and Marina make their way across the tidal pool to Mont St. Michel (often referred to as “the wonder of the western world”). Before the bridge to the steep rise of stone walls and spires across the water, they pass a small checkpoint where two guards keep visitors from crossing the causeway at high tide.

Mircea Eliade spoke of “thresholds” as spatial markers that signify passage from a profane space to a sacred space. We live our lives in the former lost amidst schedules and domestic routines — groping for fixed points among the anxieties. In the latter exists the ideals, the great big ideas, the things that locate us in a sense of history and purpose. This sense of threshold and frontier is precisely what I think Malick has in mind with this brief clip of two border guards at the tidal crossing.

But these kinds of thresholds are not as static as this arrangement seems at first glimpse. Traffic is permitted either direction. As Eliade says, “For religious man, space is not homogenous; he experiences interruptions in it, breaks in it…” And in this case, Neil and Marina descend back down into the film and its transition to suburban Oklahoma. What we find on this side of the threshold is small town America, brimming with chatty neighbors, main streets and kaleidoscopic fairgrounds. “A land so calm. Honest. Rich,” Marina says. There is also their large, empty house next to a hulking transmission tower. There are stony piles of construction waste blooming in the backyard. There are the flat expanses of lawn being parceled into patches by wooden fences. Hotel rooms by the hour.

The introduction of Father Quintana takes us to the other side of town, where clapboard houses sag in the heat and sidewalks buckle at the edges of unkempt yards. Here we encounter less ornate shots of young mothers, addicts and struggling families. Somewhere in here, we begin to perceive Mont St. Michel as a numinous “Wonder” in comparison, a space untouched by the rubble and sprawl, in contrast to the profane:

“…fragments of a shattered universe, an amorphous mass consisting of an infinite number of more or less neutral places in which man moves, governed and driven by the obligations of an existence incorporated into an industrial society.” (Eliade again…)

This brings us back to the stained glass scene, which is either a generic or enlightening image of the “fragments of [Malick’s] shattered universe.” To the Wonder is Malick’s most formally affected film, the rapid pace of cuts and profusion of angles cobbled together with the random coherency of a cathedral window. The frequent movement of the camera vertically through the thirds of a wider frame pushes the economy of these images even further. With five editors and scenes from several other well-known actors on the cutting room floor, the “amporphous mass” of To the Wonder emerges as Malick’s closest extended brush with pure cinema.

Which is interesting, given that this is also the most pedestrian of Malick’s storylines. Neil meets Marina in Paris and falls in love with her, an enchantment affirmed in a scattered aria from images from a trip to Mont St. Michel. Neil is a nice, solid guy. An environmental engineer. He impulsively invites Marina and her daughter to live with him in the US, and at first, they are enchanted by small town Oklahoma. The local Walmart, for example, is impossibly clean and orderly.

But things begin to fall apart. Neil is investigating a possible toxic contamination of the local water table, and his interaction with people in the affected areas is growing strained. Marina and her daughter grow restless. “Something is missing…, her daughter says. They return to Paris, Neil quietly packing their suitcases in the trunk of the car. Marina will eventually return without her daughter to try again, but in this interlude Neil encounters an old childhood friend, Jane. She is lovely, luminescent and more importantly, rooted deeply in the Oklahoma soil. In a particularly glorious scene (and what my be my favorite Lubezki moment), Neil and Jane stand in the middle of a buffalo herd, perhaps the closest the film gets to a sense of unity: person, nature, each other.

This reverie is broken when Marina returns to wed Neil in a civil ceremony, as she is still married to her daughter’s father according to the Church. Behind them in the courtroom, handcuffed convicts signature their plea bargains and sentences. Circling this set of doomed love stories is the local priest, Father Quintana. He is losing his spiritual grip and wanders through his fatherly routines with questions about the presence and absence of God eating away at his sense of purpose.

So we have little more than a lengthy episode of Friends with notes of Erin Brockovich. But the interleaving of these stories generates a number of connections orbiting the initial wonder of the Mont St. Michel sequence. Neil finds himself dipping test agents into pools, rivers and soil — the toxicity there an industrial profanity measured against the lush sand and creeping purity of the water surrounding the island monastery. The dissolution occurring in the voice-over of Father Quintana is an echo of the agony of faithfulness that plagues the cycles of Neil, Marina and Jane. If the “Wonder” rests at the heart of the film as an image of the locating sense of the divine, these are stories about the restlessness that pervades our experiences of each other, manifest even in our domestic spaces as they crumble in disrepair or spool out from Main Street in search of the manufactured permanence of suburban tracts.

Lest we think that Malick is singling out suburbia as a place that strips us of historical or relational identity, the film is suffuse with imagery of Parisian streets and the local parish that ring similarly hollow.

 …

I was not a big fan of The Tree of Life. I have always thought that Malick works best as historian, whether through the Dylan-esque chronicle of a late 50s crime spree, Depression-era naturalism, WW II battlefields, or the sweeping movement of Pocahontas from The New World. His films bank on transcendence as something encountered in history and its events; the materiality of our experience. As his muse Heidegger said, “To dwell is to garden.” Malick’s sacramental gardening has always taken the shape of creative historiography.

To be fair, even The Tree of Life has a slight measure of this sense of location — memoir folded into visual reflections on the cosmic context of remembering. But the great scandal of To the Wonder is its utter sense of the present. It takes place in a generic version of now, rather than in a mythic version of the past. But then there is also Ben Affleck lumbering across most of his frames doing that thing with his jaw to indicate terse, conflicted male. Olga Kurylenko bounds through rapid changes of camera position and exquisitely framed patches of light and shadow similar to the dance of Q’orianka Kilcher through the dappled forests of The New World. But here the rustle of grass and reed are traded for the track of sunlight across freshly laid carpet and the swish of blinds and bedsheets. Rachel McAdams in Carhartts is ripe for a Zizekian double-take.

This sense of the present also appears in the voice-overs of this cast of characters. In a recent interview, editor Billy Weber talks about how Malick happened upon the voice-over in Badlands. They were enamored of the voice-over in Truffaut’s Wild Child, and developed this backgrounded script as a means of “Not necessarily telling the story, but telling the story through the language of a romance magazine.” It then evolved through experimentation into a way to frame Days of Heaven scenes in with narrative.

Through successive films, the Malick voice-over has developed alongside his movement toward abstraction as a sort of philosophical enchantment. Though striking some as insipid and distracting, aphorisms like “Love makes us one” burble up through edits like Platonic forms of basic human experiences and responses. They are elementary and naïve because that is how we encounter existence. By the time we get to To the Wonder, the voice-over is almost completely hieratic. It has passed through the naïve, distilled through learned reflection and lands again in what Ricoeur described as a “second naivete.”

Not only is To the Wonder steeped in an uncharacteristic sense of now, but it is also marked by Malick’s progression toward his current mode of cinema. I had the uncanny sense while watching the film that Malick has caught up with history itself, his past forms of sacred curiosity deployed in our very midst. It is disconcerting to have his cinema erupting in our contemporary tense of the everyday, as if he is pushing his sense of history as myth into the prophetic mechanics of the present.

 …

During the interlude with Jane, she talks about the loss of her first child. We learn in her voice-over: “My father, he said to read Romans. ‘All things work together for good.’ ” And then the punch line, “He believed that.

This is a curious biblical reference for the context. Romans is often read through a Reformation lens as a formula for salvation, but it is better read as a theodicy that includes this frequently sentimentalized idea about “all things working together for good…” This ancient letter to the Roman church is more a demonstration of God’s righteousness, his right-ness, a justification of the seemingly moving target of his favor.

Much is said about Malick as a sacramental mystic. And some of this is correct, but only some. Malick is a storyteller, not just a formalist erecting visual information dumps. As in To the Wonder, most of his stories are a sort of theodicy. Father Quintana’s internal struggle foregrounds this theological quandary. But so does Neil’s blank apathy and Marina’s hapless indecision. Theodicy embraces Eliade’s “interruptions” and “breaks” as plot devices. As a theodicy of the present, To the Wonder is a broken formal vessel through which glimmers the spatial and historic presence of God’s rightness despite the revelatory inadequacies of our inert storylines. It is a presence worth navigating. Underscoring this theodicy is the final shot of the Mont St. Michel “wonder” itself. It erupts from the Normandy coast like a sacred antenna, a fixed pole around which Neil, Marina, and Father Quintana pivot; radio waves of questions bouncing off the canopy of a responsive cosmos.

With all the Malick-fatigue out there a lot of reviews note a quality of formal redundancy throughout To the Wonder. But through the lenses of theodicy and threshold it belongs to a tradition that bears repeating when done well.

 

 

Life of an Animator

Aaron Belz: Hi, Tony.

Tony Bancroft: Hey Aaron. How are you doing this morning? It’s pretty early for me, I don’t know about you.

AB: It is a gorgeous day here, and I’m happy to be talking to you.

TB: Thanks.

AB:  Okay, so, first of all, if you want to tell me how you got started in animation, I’m looking for that moment—I had a moment when I felt called to be a writer—that moment in high school or earlier when you first began to earnestly pursue animation.

TB: Well, I think you know, it starts with my brother, Tom Bancroft, too, and we both grew up artists, and it was what we were competitive about, I guess. You know, a lot of brothers who are close in age tend to be competitive, it’s usually pushing each other, but for us it was drawing. At first it was with comic strips. We drew comic strips all throughout high school. And we loved creating characters and telling stories, and with comic strips it was just kind of a one-day gag, but we wanted to explore making a bigger, fuller story. It wasn’t until I went to City College—my brother and I both went to City College—when we met a guy who was doing these cool clay animated little shorts, and we did one with him, and then somehow we made a movie. We thought, if we could do this, we could bring these characters to life in clay, or particularly in sculpture, we could do it with the characters we loved to draw. So we looked into in the college, and they brought us from California to New York and then to Disney, and that was the thing that ignited the passion that I have for telling stories through animation, making them move, making them free, you know, dealing with performances and characters that come to life off the page. That’s what started it for me.

AB: That’s great. And so it was competition with your brother. That’s wonderful. When you were going through this process did you begin to see a connection between your Christian faith and your passion for animation? Was there a sense that you felt that one could inform the other?

TB: Well, yeah. In the first part of my journey, as a young Christian, I didn’t see that much of a connection. I thought, well, this is my art side that I do, I make these animated movies, and then I have my church/spiritual side that I share with friends and family. But as I developed, and as God developed me spiritually, I found that with true animation and storytelling I could present bigger concepts to the world at large. And through the Disney stuff I did that, but it also spurred me to leave Disney in the year 2000 and pursue my vision and to pursue my own animation studio where we did do family values, Christian value-based entertainment. And we had a series that we called Lenny and Sid that was in the Christian market that had good moral values themes that taught kids the Word of God. And so that’s kind of how I developed in my maturity was understanding that I could use my talents and abilities in animation more for Kingdom purposes.

AB: And that was that, that was with Toonacious, right?

TB: Yeah, correct.

AB: I read about that a little bit.

TB: So while I was doing my own company Toonacious, I think that inspired Tom to leave Disney also and start working with Big Idea on this stuff.

AB: I know you don’t work at Disney now, but what was your most satisfying project there? You don’t have to say Mulan. I know you’ve brought a number of characters to life,  so which was the most satisfying on the most levels for you?

TB: Well, you know, it sounds kind of hokey, I guess, but I do think of these characters that I help create as children of mine, it’s kind of hard to pick your favorite, but my two all-time favorite films to have worked on were Lion King and Mulan. And for two different reasons. Lion King was my first time supervising a character—Poomba, the warthog. And I brought him from day one almost wholly through the end of production. I brought him to life and was even involved in drawing him for merchandising elements and toys, things like that, after the movie, which was awesome. It was a great experience. But I was still just one character, that one cog in the greater wheel of creating the movie. And the reason I loved Mulan is that I was a part of the whole thing. Not just one character, but the whole story from the script all the way through final dailies, color output and post-production. I got to be part of making that whole movie, and I worked with some of the best artists in the world, and I got to see day-in and day-out into their creative process, and to me that was just a phenomenal experience, one that I’ll never be able to get again. But with the release of Mulan on Blu-ray on March 12, it’s a great anniversary for me to be able to reminisce about that movie experience.

AB: It’s—it may be hard to believe it’s already been fifteen years.

TB: Yeah. Yeah, it’s aging me for sure, but you know it’s great to look back. I enjoy it.

AB: Yeah. Well, speaking of aging you, you started quite early in your life in the business, and as I recall, I’m not looking at those notes right now, but I think you were one of the youngest directors in Disney’s history. Is that right?

TB: Yeah, that’s true. When I first started, when they offered me the job of directing Mulan I think I was 24 or 25? Something like that—

AB: Wow.

TB: But yeah, I was pretty young at the time. And I had a big goal, I had big plans. I think my brother and I, our mom instilled in us that feeling of ambition and shooting for very high goals, so when I first started working at Disney, I had this ten-year plan. I’m going to work through the system, and in ten years I’m going to be directing a feature. That was huge. That was a bold, bold plan. And somehow, through God’s grace or gift and blessing to me, I did it in five years, and that was unheard of at the time.

AB: Right. That’s crazy, actually, as you probably know now.

TB: [Laughs] I do. I look back and I think, oh gosh. How did I—how did God prepare me for that? And how did I do that? I don’t—I still don’t get it.

AB: Well, it’s a great movie. We’ve enjoyed watching it. I mean, my kids and I. But it’s not just for kids. You mentioned showing values or people that have values—Mulan is girl that saves her country, and she’s an unlikely hero. It’s just sort of the day of small things. She’s small, she’s a female in a male-dominated society. This seems like a message that has a Christian faith element to it, which is that salvation comes from the unexpected place. Were you conscious of that while you were making it? It’s not exactly like projecting Christian values, but it certainly does have a connection.

TB: Yeah. Yeah, there are a lot of connections on a spiritual level with Mulan’s journey and story. The fortunate thing for me was that it was another one of the God-blessing-things that I just did not expect, was that I found out when I came on the film that my co-director, Barry Cook, was also a believer. And I had known Barry for years and didn’t know that about him. I didn’t know that he—he was kind of a quiet believer at the time. When we first joined together and started talking about working together, we quickly discovered that we were both believers in Christ, and then we agreed early on that we would work together to try and make sure that Mulan had good core values and we didn’t overstep the bounds in our own belief system of, of elements of a story that could have gone dramatically different. We still had to be true to the culture and the era that we were presenting in the story of Mulan, which was generally Buddhist, and they worshiped their ancestors, things like that. They weren’t walking around as Christians in that day and environment Mulan would have been in. So, we couldn’t go to that level, but within that element and that structure of the story, it being historically accurate, we felt that those things that we could do we could stay with. It was those kinds of choices that Barry and I working together that we made we played with the element of ancestor worship. Glorifying in some kind of way because otherwise it made it more like a family reunion when the folks come up, and they’re hilarious, you know, they’re like this fighting family at a reunion, you know this dysfunctional family that we wanted to kind of have fun with.

AB: Right.

TB: So those were some of the choices where our spiritual side helped to steer the direction of the story and the choices that we made. But then above that, you know, I wanted to present a character who loved her family, who respected her family. That’s the motivation for she does what she does in her journey. And Mulan loves her father so much that she’s willing to sacrifice herself, because she doesn’t want to see him die, and she knows that he will if he goes off to war, so she takes his place and dresses as a man in a man-centered world and journeys as a girl to fight in the war. For me that was a great value to be able communicate to Western culture, this story and this character that did not change who she was. She did not need a prince to come in, she didn’t need a man to come in and tell her “I’m going to save you from your plight” and pull her up. It was all about her being true to who she was, who she was in her belief system, and doing it out of love for her father and her parents and her ancestors. That’s what I was passionate about getting across and sharing with my girls, a Disney girl that my girls could look up to. That’s what I felt passionate about.

AB: Good. That’s very helpful. Thank you so much, TB. I have couple more que—we only have a couple more minutes—but the fun quest—

TB: You’re my last interview. It’s okay if it goes over a little bit.

AB: Okay, good. Well, then, you could fill these questions up as much as you want. I would if I were you. [Both laugh] What animated movies do you love most that you’ve had no part in making or directing? I mean, what are your core texts?

TB: Well, we love, well, animation? I guess I’m a huge fan of Lady and the Tramp. The classic Disney film Lady and the Tramp is one of  my favorites, because I love what those animators did in creating unique personalities that are animals—they’re dogs—but they also speak to people that you would see in the mall or at church. They feel like human personalities within these dog characteristics. So I love how they anthropomorphized those dogs and created personalities for them from an animation standpoint. Now from the comic book geek and adventure fan in me, I just love Pixar’s The Incredibles. And I love that too because it’s such a family story. You know, not only is it superheroes, it’s about action. But I love that the core-based theme of it is about family and unity and always sticking together and you know those core values that are just so important to me and my kids, too. So those are a couple that I can think of off the top of my head, yeah.

AB: Okay, great. I’d like you to send us off with some advice for young people. You’ve been through this and you had an unusual experience in getting in so early in your life, but a couple of years ago my daughter Natalie and I visited Buddy Systems, which makes Robot Chicken, among other things.

TB: Oh, yeah.

AB: So we got to see stop motion in process, and we got to see their craftmaking studios and so forth and how it all works. She left those stages with a strong desire to get into animation. She’s already an artist, but she specifically wanted to get into stop motion. But in a general sense, if you have a gifted kid who isn’t rushed into the system the way you were, what advice would you give her? How would you tell her to continue to pursue her passion?

TB: Well one is, never give up. Never give up on that passion, because I believe strongly that God puts passion into our hearts and into our souls. It drives us for a reason and if we have a passion for art, we have a passion for entertainment or storytelling or whatever that is, that passion is there to be a fire to keep us going, and God wants us to pursue that. So there’s a definite reason that she has that passion. That comes from somewhere and it comes from God above. I believe that. And use it and to never give up on that. Now another thing that I tell kids all the time, kids that I talk to about animation and about art in general—is that it’s a skillset that needs to be fostered just like and practiced just like a sport. So a football player doesn’t get to be a better football player or throw the ball farther or more accurately by just doing it in the game. He has to practice and practice and practice the art of throwing that ball and the skillset that’s involved with that every single day, every single, just all the time, continually. And it’s the same with drawing, it’s the same with animation, it’s something that you have to do continually and perfect yourself and be critical about. How can I do this better? I want to do this better, so what do I need to learn? How do I do it better, better, better every single time? And that takes practice. So, practice makes perfect.

AB: That’s great. That’s a great word to end on, I appreciate your time, Tony, and I wish you the best. I look forward to speaking to your brother this afternoon.

TB: Yeah! Tell him I said hi, okay?

AB: I sure will. Thank you so much.

TB: You bet, man. Take care.

 
[The Curator thanks Marissa Branson for her help in preparing this interview.]

 

The Maker of Mulan’s Mushu Speaks

Aaron Belz:  Tom, nice to meet you. As the 15th-anniversary Blu-ray release of Mulan and Mulan 2 is about to come out, and you led the team that invented one of its most memorable characters, Mushu, you’re a person we’d like to hear from. Would you begin by telling me how you got started at Disney?

Tom Bancroft:  Haha, thanks. Nice to meet you too, Aaron. It was through a nine-week internship. Disney was going to all the major art schools in the country, and Cal Arts, where my brother Tony and I were enrolled, was always sort of their feeder for new artists. They were reaching out even wider for that internship because they wanted to see other art schools and see if they were up to par. So they ended up getting all these interns—there were about twenty of us that were chosen from different art schools across the country. Tony and I were in that group. It was during the time that they were making The Little Mermaid, so it was an exciting time to be at Disney. And then we both did get accepted—or given the jobs once the internship was over—so then we flew to Florida. I lived there for the next twelve years of my life. Most of my Disney career was there.

AB:   Great. As you know, many writers and readers of The Curator are Christians,  so I’m coming at this discussion with that in mind. When did you first become aware of a connection between your faith and your work as an animator? And, if you can elaborate, what’s the connection?

TB:  I’ve been a believer and a Christian since I was about fifteen. So for most of my artistic career, or all of it, really—especially professionally—I have been a Christian. But I guess because I worked on n family-friendly stuff for Disney for so many years I never really thought there would be a sort of a moral dilemma to what I was doing. Every job that anybody can have is going to have some kind of a—you know, a thing in it where at times you’re going to go. “You know, I don’t know if I agree with this,” or, “I’m not sure this is something I should work on.”  In my case I started realizing that while I loved the films I was working on at Disney— I loved the time and the people—towards the end I was just so focused on my career and my love of the films that I ended up climbing the corporate ladder. But I was putting in too many hours. I got so exhausted after Mulan, and then I was working on Tarzan and then a short film at night. I was basically saying yes to everything because I was so enamored with moving up and all those things that professionals get into…you know. But then I got sick.  I got viral meningitis and I really feel like this was something directly from God. I was in the hospital for a week and could’ve died. When I came out of that experience and was healthy again I went back to Disney. I went back to work.I didn’t have quite the same passion anymore. Going back, I looked at everything differently and it was an awakening that I needed. Because I realized, you know what? My relationship with God and with my family need to be the two most important things. Everything else is second and third to that. Within a month of that experience and being back at Disney,  out of a fluke kind of a situation, someone told me, “Oh yeah, there’s this little company called Big Idea Productions that makes VeggieTales, and they’re looking for people because they want to make their very first feature film.” The job that they were looking for was a programmer. It didn’t apply to me at all but I just got obsessed with it. I looked them up online—I wanted to know more about this company—I wanted to be a part of this company and was even willing to leave the company that I loved and this dream job that I had to do it. So I quit my job with Disney. I went a new direction. That was a huge,  huge life change for me. Now I do all kinds of quiet work in Nashville, still with Big Idea, and still with Disney and other clients, too. I’ve even illustrated a children’s Bible and things like that through these last ten to twelve years.

AB:  I wish—I would love to talk to you again at some point where we can really get into the VeggieTales side of things. But I want to come back to Mulan, since its Blu-ray release is the occasion for this discussion. So let’s talk for a second, about,particularly, your contribution to the making of Mushu. I understand there was a lot of flux in that process and the character kept morphing until you finally arrived at the tiny dragon. Want to tell that story?

TB: Yeah, you know when I came onto the film they said that I’d be the supervising animator for the character Mushu, but even then they hadn’t quite decided what Mushu was going to be, because it was so early in the process. So what that meant was that while other people were working on another film, I  was put on Mulan very early, almost a year before production. During that time the script was changing almost daily and Mushu at one point was going to be two characters—like two different dragons called Yin and Yang—and they would maybe meld together at the end and become a whole character. At one point it was going to be a phoenix and a dragon, so again two characters. But then as the film developed they started realizing—and this was well before Eddie Murphy was the voice — they didn’t know who the voice was going to be, so as they were trying to decide who that character was going to be I was doing character designs of an Asian dragon, you know, a Chinese dragon. I was doing my research on what kind of things the Chinese dragons had about them that was different than, say, a European dragon. To me it was very different. The Chinese dragons were very thin and snake-like while the European dragons were more heavy, thicker like a lizard or an alligator. And Disney had donethose kinds of dragons. They’d done the one in Sleeping Beauty and a few shorts and things. This was going to be the first time Disney had done a Chinese dragon so that was a part of my research and beyond even before we knew his personality. Once we started realizing his personality then I started nailing myself on what facial expressions and poses were going to make up his personality. We were looking at Joe Pesci and Richard Dreyfuss, and Michael Eisner made the final choice, Eddie Murphy, so that kind of set everything in place. We had a direction, and we knew what his personality was going to be—a smart aleck, a more urban kind of a character. So that was kind of the adventure that went on for Mushu.

AB:  It just struck me—this isn’t in my questions—did that character of Mushu eventually help DreamWorks come up with the donkey in Shrek? I mean, Eddie Murphy really knocked it out of the park with Mushu, I think. What do you think?

TB:  Well, I mean, would they have thought of Eddie Murphy doing the voice for Donkey without him having already done Mushu? I doubt it. We were the first ever to use Eddie as an animated voice for anything. He wasn’t somebody you normally would have thought for that, especially at that time.

AB:  Right. He’s the small sidekick in both films.

TB:  You can really look at the personality and the acting and everything in both characters. They are very similar. It’s just their outward appearance that isn’t. And you know, I did hear from some of my friends over at Dreamworks that they did look at the Mushu animations when they were making Donkey—probably just to see what facial expressions and actions we did. They definitely didn’t copy it—it wouldn’t translate at all. But you know, I think that’s an honor. I’ll take that as compliment.

AB: Did you get a chance to work with Eddie Murphy directly?

TB:  I got to see him do the voice—I went to two different voice recordings and watched him you know. That was good for me to see him act full on in character. I would be at my desk and have an audio tape, listening to Murphy over and over again, trying to figure figure out how Mushu was going to act this out, that out. I could actually see Murphy say those lines and see how he acted them out. That was a great learning experience. He was shown the character designs—he didn’t really have an opinion on what the character looked like, though. I mean I’m sure he just trusted Disney to that. He wasn’t a huge part of the process, I guess you could say. He just came in and did the voice recordings. But he certainly influenced me more than he’ll ever know. I had watched all of his SNL stuff and Trading Places and all his other movies and really tried to put a lot of him into the character.

AB:  One final question. Since your experience at Disney—and you’ve already started to talk about this—you worked with Big Idea. You’ve also written art instruction books. Would you care to tell our younger artists who are interested in animation how to pursue a professional calling because it probably seems like such a dream to many of them?

TB: Well, I mean, it is. For those who get the opportunity, it’s a dream come true. I think that’s still true today because so few get that opportunity. It’s such a hard thing to get into, so the thing that I suggest to people who are wanting to get into it is to treat it like—Tony and I, when we were young, we asked ourselves, “How do I compare to people doing it?” Not to our peers, other high school students. We compared ourselves to the pros. At the time, we wanted to be comic book strip artists, so we would look at Peanuts and Garfield and all the strips that were out at the time and say, “How does my comic strip look next to theirs?” And you need to do that even at a young age, and it can be devastating when you’re first starting out and still learning how to draw. But if you’re not really being honest with yourself and accepting how far you really have to go, or hopefully even celebrating how close you are, then you’re really not on that track. So I tell people, if you’re not drawing every day, yet you want to be an artist, then you’re not going to be a professional artist. Because that’s what it takes, a daily dedication to the work you want to do. And they say writers write, and I couldn’t be an Olympic swimmer unless I got into the pool every day, and those are kind of equivalents.

You know you hear the odd story of this actor, this famous actor, who was in his first play and discovered and made it, but that is super rare, and I would say that doesn’t happen in the art world. You don’t become a good artist accidentally, you really work at it. So even for computer animators it’s the same thing—even today. They need to be animating, and I think even computer animators still need to draw well. They need to communicate. You learn from drawing what you can apply to each computer animation.

AB:  Sage words. I hope my kids read this. Thanks for your time, Tom.

TB:  Thanks for the opportunity. It’s been a pleasure.

 

To learn more about Tom Bancroft, visit charactermentorstudio.com or his weekly webcomic, “Outnumbered.”

 

Don’t Shoot, Part Two

[This is part two of a two-part essay. View the first part here.]

It would never happen.

Of course, the movie industry would never stop depicting gun violence in “positive” ways. Perhaps there is no call for such a step, even on moral grounds. As Aaron Farrington pointed out, guns are inevitable and sometimes necessary in real life. Therefore, they will show up in art. How could directors make war movies and crime movies without guns? They could not. But does that mean guns and their aftermath have to be shown as positive or inconsequential—a hot accessory like an Aston Martin DB5, or a casual gesture like the Lindy Hop? Perhaps not.

The economics of show business entered the conversation pretty quickly. Bob Massey wrote about the difficulty of getting something made in commercial entertainment; a story has to interest producers:

There’s a lot of competition and often the flashiest pitch wins. More subtle stories are hard to get made. In short, the more life-and-death the stakes for a character, the more compelling the story becomes for the audience… “kiss kiss, bang bang” [are] the only essential elements needed for a Hollywood film.

If a story includes loaded guns pointed at beloved characters, that story sells. Scott Teems concurred that serious gun violence is quintessentially not entertaining, and this is after all the entertainment industry we are talking about. Bullets piercing flesh are not fun. People won’t get laughs from a movie that shows the real results of gun murders, so they will soon stop buying tickets. Therefore…

The box office would suffer.

The film industry would never try it. But this is a thought experiment, in which we can pretend anything we like. So let’s pretend that they do. Let’s pretend only a few acts of gun violence will be shown on screen in the entirety of 2013, and they will be realistic: tragic, horrific, unbearable. If we “limit onscreen gun victims to one or two per film… then almost by definition the violence is never cool, funny, casual, painless, or valid” (Bob Massey). If we did this, how would it affect ticket sales?

Scott Teems wrote that the financial results would be disastrous at first, because the action film as a genre could not survive. Bob Massey agreed: there would be fewer escapist films, which means fewer patrons coming to the theater to escape, which in turn means less money. He went on, though, to note “that Bollywood relies on singing and dancing and pretty girls for its escapism and basically mints money.” The loss of money at the box office, then, would quickly be recouped. Scott Teems told us:

fear not, for this gaping entertainment hole would soon be filled by an extreme of some other kind. Most likely sex. Because one of the primary allures of Hollywood films is the vicarious experience of the unknown, the adventurous, the forbidden…. If there were no hyper-masculine gun fantasies to satiate male bloodlust… Hollywood would be quick to offer fantasies of another kind.

In other words, my thought experiment would not make the world a better place: it would just replace one problem with another.

Yet perhaps…

The movies would be better.

All my interviewees agreed about this. Movies without massacres would be better movies. Aaron Farrington said that mass gun violence in movies is bad art, because such scenes are impersonal and even boring. Bob Massey wrote: “One death is a tragedy, a hundred deaths is a statistic.” Statistical, shock-value deaths are quick-and-dirty ways to shoehorn thrills into stories. Mature, artistic storytellers can write more subtle stories without resorting to guns. Chris White thought the same:

If creators abstained for one full year from the flippant use of gun violence, they might be able to reclaim the dramatic power of “Chekhov’s gun”—the appearance of a gun in the first act of a play means that it will be fired in the third. The return of honest foreshadowing, dramatic tension, narrative excitement… just imagine how empowering this could be for creators!

Writers, directors, and actors would be forced to develop more subtle stories. They would investigate other forms of “death”:

spiritual death. Emotional death. Physical death by some slow process. But those are much harder to show onscreen. I’ll argue that those are also much more important to show onscreen. But it takes a high degree of skill as a writer…. These are the films that graduate from craft to become art. They are rarely blockbusters. Sometimes they make a profit, if the filmmakers are savvy and accomplished enough….. But making such films is hard and brave and time-consuming. Virtues not beloved by this industry. (Bob Massey)

Scott Teems said, “There are occasional films that break through the studio drivel and find (relative) box office success while telling stories that force audiences to wrestle with the dark truths of gun violence.” But it is hard to find these films; they rarely make it to the big screen. Yet they are great art. For sheer quality control, then, wouldn’t it be great if there were fewer terrible movies packed with meaningless violence?

If there were more artful, thoughtful films like that, it is just possible…

We might all be safer.

One of my interviewees told me that he saw Natural Born Killers in a packed Manhattan movie theater when it first came out. He said it was an awesome movie, but he was terrified. It made him want to shoot guns and blow stuff up—and there could easily be someone else sitting in that same theater, watching that same movie, who would really would be inspired to rush out and wreck havoc.

Chris White had a similar response: “I imagine it might make all of us little less jittery as we walk back to our cars following the nine o’clock screening of the latest whiz-bang action flick. A little less jumpy.” This, of course, loops back around to where we started: would this thought experiment, put into practice, really do anything to make us less jumpy? Wouldn’t a reduction in gun violence just be replaced with other violence in inverse proportion?

In other words, banning images of gun-happy shooters probably wouldn’t make any lasting difference, because…

A deeper social analysis is necessary.

Nathan Scoggins moved towards this deeper analysis when he pointed out:

“the human beast is capable of incredible violence without guns—be that tool of violence a bomb, airplane, knife, stick, bow and arrow, spear, gasoline and a match, fire, stick, etc. As a result, even if the studios and filmmakers voluntarily put a moratorium on gun violence (which would never happen), the core question for storytellers would be to continue to tell stories with dramatic conflict and narrative stakes. There are no greater stakes for a story than life and death, and there is no stronger, more visceral conflict than man vs. man. So, in my honest opinion, the question of whether guns specifically are the problem is an irrelevant one…. Perhaps the far more cogent question for filmmakers and storytellers is the context in which that violence is depicted.”

In what contexts, then, are depictions of violence either morally or artistically warranted?

For some people, watching death on screen provides “a vicarious thrill” that is actually healthy rather than dangerous: “an outlet for the increasing rage/confusion/angst that we feel…. Violence—particularly in the hands of a good man enacting either retribution or vengeance—can be a cathartic release for an audience conditioned to expect violence as a necessary and just retribution for villainous acts” (Nathan Scoggins). That would be good, then, if people watched violence as a way of preventing themselves from acting out their anger against others.

Sadly, this is not the only possibility. Nathan Scoggins went on to say that watching violence “can also frustrate audience members who return to a world of injustice and do not have the tools to cope with that world. As a result, what can be cathartic for one person can incite another.” What makes the difference? When does shooting on screen replace shooting in real life, and when does the one incite the other?

While the experts are still working on answering this question, trying to determine whether untreated mental illness makes the difference, Bob Massey suggested another, more disturbing possibilty: “Perhaps the flaw is in our national culture, which is premised on the Lone Hero myth. And also perhaps our national culture causes individuals to feel powerless, so each of us fantasizes about wielding power.” Does this suggest that Americans are more susceptible to imitating movie violence than members of other cultures? If that were the case, America would need to take a long deep into its collective spiritual condition. Banning guns on screen for a year would not provoke such healthy introspection: “it would not address the reasons people have such an appetite. People who feel powerless to change their circumstances resort to escapism—be it cartoonishly violent movies, or metal music, or video games, or wanton sugar consumption, or superficial churchgoing, or sexual thrillseeking, or thrillseeking of various flavors” (Bob Massey).

As opposed to banning gun violence altogther, “Films that depicted one or two victims (as opposed to the blur of bodies and blood that allows us to detach emotionally) would hit us harder, emotionally”— they would “force a confrontation with reality, if only for a moment.” Bob Massey summed up the importance of this thought experiment in his closing words to me:

“…other people exist, and have immense value, and are worth sacrificing for, because I myself have a value that is a deep mystery not limited to the here and now…. It is ONLY that kind of film that can affect human behavior, turning a person away from her violent, animalistic nature toward a way of being that is less self-centric, more sacrificial, more empathetic and willing to count the high cost of actual love for another.”

So it will not happen. Movie-makers will not limit themselves to only individual, serious, tragic acts of gun violence in 2013. You will be able to see all kinds of massacres on screen over the next ten months. But in the mix somewhere, in the arthouse theatres and indie film festivals, there are certain to be thoughtful films that engage with the seriousness of murder and the beautiful pain of the human condition.

Don’t Shoot, Part One

[This is part one of a two-part essay. View the second part here.]

A character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, observing the ludicrous antics of his fellows, declares: “If this were played upon a stage now, I could / condemn it as an improbable fiction.” Truth is stranger than fiction, reality is funnier or weirder or more awful than fantasy. Real death and destruction are more horrific and heartbreaking than any gory film; no screen depiction of murder, massacre, or war has ever come close to the monstrosity of the event itself. If the violence of this past year were played on a movie screen, it would be far too graphic for public viewing. As Quentin Tarantino said recently (in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross) about Django Unchained: “What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than [what] I show.” No scene in Batman: The Dark Knight Rises shows violence as devastating as the shooting at its Aurora premiere; no movie of the Sandy Hook abomination would capture a thousandth part of its pain.

In the public response to a year of at least fourteen mass shootings in America, amidst the debates about gun control and care for the mentally ill, there have been questions about the media’s responsibility for inspiring killers. James Holmes said he was The Joker, and the staging of his crime—“a deranged man in a gas mask opening fire on innocent victims—eerily mirrors a scene” in the very movie his victims were watching (The Daily Beast). There is speculation that Adam Lanza may have been incited by violent video games and movies. Such concerns abound.

While there is some scholarly consensus that well-adjusted individuals will not be inspired to imitate movie violence, Emanuel Tanay told the Psychiatric Times that “some mentally ill individuals are vulnerable to dramatized violence.” Craig Alan Anderson writes: “media violence is only one of many risk factors for later aggressive and violent behavior”—but it is one of the factors. One study by the American Academy of Pediatrics indicates that “media violence can contribute to aggressive behavior, desensitization to violence, nightmares, and fear of being harmed.” Aaron B. O’Donnell of The Chronicle of Higher Education wonders if films like Red Dawn “break down the barriers between violent fantasies and violent action,” and Stephen Marche of The New York Times claims that “real violence and violent art have always been connected.” In other words, cultural observers are divided over whether or not fictional depictions of violence incite real violence.

In this context, I decided to conduct a thought experiment, to ask a hypothetical question: What would happen if everyone in the film industry voluntarily covenanted not to show positive gun violence for a year? If there were no movies, at all, for a whole year, in which gun violence was shown to be funny, cool, sexy, manly, stylish, casual, or inconsequential—what would happen? If shooting people was not shown to be a viable escape from personal problems—would such incidents decrease? If the only gun violence depicted was evil and catastrophic—would this serve as a deterrent to potential shooters? And what would happen to box office sales, movie attendance, the artistic freedom of movie-makers, and the artistry of films, in such an imaginary case?

I put these questions to several people in the film industry. I received thoughtful, thought-provoking responses from Aaron Farrington, photographer and filmmaker; Bob Massey, writer and composer; Nathan Scoggins, writer, director, producer, and actor; Scott Teems, director, writer, and editor; and Chris White, producer, writer, and actor. Their responses included skepticism that such an abstinence could ever happen but an intelligent curiosity about what the artistic and social results might be if it did. There was something like agreement that the movies might be better, and we might all be safer.

 

Come back to Curator on Friday morning to read their responses. 

 

 

 

 

 

image from miami.com