While I was struggling with this site, I got a note from Martin Harold, an adjunct film professor at John Paul the Great Catholic University (vjm cheers) and a self-described “big fan of [my] work” (vjm gulps), telling me had started a blog. When I restarted, I added him to my blogroll at the right, and here is his site. Some recent items of interest:
– We have different takes with respect to morally dubious acts in movies — I think anything is, in principle, legitimate subject matter. Mr. Harold not so much. I think our disagreement is in his statement: “a sensual aesthetic never reaches its audience on an intellectual level,” which I would amend to “a sensual aesthetic never reaches a sensualist audience on an intellectual level.”
The latter statement is obvious but it underlines that it really matters who your audience is (though in current times, this leads me “practically” to a cultural-political stance probably indistinguishable from his). But I’ve seen unfaked sex in “legitimate” movies and never once been tempted by it — almost always I’ve been repulsed by it, and rarely that I recall to good effect in the context of the work.
– He mentions finding out late about the Fox Faith¹ division and going to the site and being … underwhelmed. His grounds are similar, as noted in his Combox, to Barbara Nicolosi’s glorious rant against not just Fox Faith but also FACING THE GIANTS (“Adult Evangelical Christians watching Facing the Giants is like sex addicts watching the Spice Channel”). Mr. Harold sez:
Apparently the label’s definition of “faith” encompasses anything considered bland and inoffensive like Garfield cartoons and Strawberry Shortcake: Adventures on Ice Cream; there was nothing advertised on its website that seemed worth seeing. Fox wants to cash in on the Christian market, yet still does not have enough respect for Christian consumers to really break the piggy bank open.
– He mentions recently having been a bit disappointed by DECALOGUE 4, and mentions that he still has the DVD of 5-7. Oh. My. God. See them soon, Mr. Harold. Soon. I think 5 and 6 are the two best episodes — actually 6 and 5, but what the hey. In fact, DECALOGUE 6 has the distinction of being the only film I have ever watched twice in a single day, seeing it as part of seeing the whole DECALOGUE, all for the first time, in a theater on a single Saturday. I rushed home to pop my DVD into the player for a second viewing and having the same tear-filled reaction to the whole second half reversal as the non-couple meets and hearts and roles change.
¹ Petty personal aside … I hate, hate, hate, HATE the growing practice of using the word “faith” as a substitute for “religion” or a specific religion. Its blandly ecumenical character manages to be both offensive in its calculated inoffensiveness and imperialistic bad labeling with respect to several major religions.
Hopefully, there won’t be a big stink in conservative circles over the fact that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS — a movie about a quest for an illegal abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania — won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious and important film festival.
I fear the worst though, if there’s much knee-jerking or the word about this film gets out the wrong way. Especially given the headlines from the US press — CNN: “Cannes’ top prize goes to film about abortion” (complete with a picture of Jane Fonda granting the top prize and kissing the director; how many buttons could they push if trying); ABC/Associated Press: “Romanian Abortion Film Wins Cannes Prize”; Drudge (from Agence France-Presse): “Top Cannes award for harrowing Romanian abortion film.”
The film has been noted in the Catholic blogosphere — at American Papist, Catholic Fire and Creative Minority Report — and the common ground is sight-unseen suspicion without very good or even much-stated reasons, even of the kind that are justified sight-unseen. I certainly understand the suspicion to a degree, but VERA DRAKE a “rather mediocre” movie? I didn’t think so. Peter Chattaway didn’t. Jeffrey Overstreet didn’t. I asked Mike D’Angelo, who saw 4 MONTHS at Cannes, how he’d guess I’d react to the “abortion film.” Though Mike is, in his words, “a fairly devout atheist,” he knows my tastes and dispositions (including my religious beliefs) fairly well. This was his answer, cited with permission:
I can’t say, but if you don’t like it I doubt it’ll be for political/moral reasons. It’s an “abortion film” the way SAFE is an “environmental illness” film.
So I remain very optimistic that 4 MONTHS will be a good film in itself though, and it’s not simply because I had VERA DRAKE in my Top 5. I really liked THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, the last “harrowing” Romanian movie to come garlanded with Cannes prizes, and also dug 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST when I saw it last year.
There is neutral-to-favorable comment at Lifesite; (some AFP versions of the story even labeled the Cannes prize-winners as “death-obsessed”); nobody from Cannes that I’m aware of was calling 4 MONTHS a great blow for women’s freedom or against the fascist godbag patriarchy or any of the rest of that. And the comments from the director Cristian Mungiu in this Australian ABC article are somewhat encouraging, given the audience and the fact that he was speaking in a language not his own:
Because of the pressure of the regime, women and families were so much concerned about not being caught for making an illegal abortion that they didn’t give one minute of thought about the moral issue … [putting the baby onscreen] makes a point — people should be aware of the consequences of their decisions.
OK, not Father Pavone, but certainly no reason to be suspicious of his movie, which is for most, still sight-unseen. Given the reports the Cannes lineup was unusually strong this year, I am psyched.
THE CHILD (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2006, 10)
I made in one of the comboxes below the admittedly counterintuitive point that contraception causes abortion (the contrary relationship is taken as an uncontroversial fact among the Rutting Animals Death Cult). Basically, like any act, contraception presupposes a will willing to engage in it. In other words, it creates the contraceptive mentality, which teaches people that they can and should have sex as a form of recreation untied to marriage and reproduction. The uniting of bodies untied from the uniting of souls. Thus is created “the need for abortion” and the very category “unplanned pregnancy.” Griswold came before Roe, not after, and historically, every country that has accepted contraception as morally indifferent has gone on to do the same for abortion. Every one (even healthy Catholic cultures like Poland and Ireland). And since my problem is one of soulcraft, I am unimpressed by next-state-over or same-time-next-year social science studies. Sure, given the contraceptive mentality and modern sexual morality … higher rates of contraception use will produce fewer abortions. But the “givens” are the problems.
Now, what does that little excursion into Catholic morality have to do with THE CHILD, a small obscure Belgian art film which I think the best movie of the year so far (so, you HAVE to see it, Donna)? It’s not as though I have any reason to think it would win the agreement of the Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre, who are among the world’s greatest filmmakers but from all appearances seem like secularized Catholic eurolefties (more on that below).
THE CHILD is now out on home video, so you can now see it even if you don’t live in one of the few US cities that saw the 2005 Palme D’Or winner and thus one of the most-important films in the world for that year (grrr). And hopefully you can see why, though home video hurts THE CHILD more than I might have thought. Like with their last film THE SON (a mere #3 on My Ten best list for that year), this film is spare and has few plot points, at least at the beginning, where the “plot” is mostly contained in minute details of behavior and gesture. Tread carefully.
The austere style of THE CHILD is the familiar Dardennes style. The seemingly hand-held camera constantly follows the protagonists Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah Francois) as they rush through life heedlessly, like young lovers. There is no music score, rather a noisy-but-incredibly-precise natural sound mix — cars on the street, honking horns, passing voices, footsteps, even money being counted. It all produces the brothers’ usual mix of intimacy, immediacy, and (this last a little less so than THE SON) claustrophobia. It’s a mannered style, but it creates an intense, urgent realism — following two people you know. The sky seems constantly overcast, only natural light is used, and the outdoor sound mix emphasizes the wind, so THE CHILD always feels cold. I mean “cold” literally, not in the sense of “emotionally frigid.” You know you’re in the hands of geniuses when you remember what the weather was like in a movie and you felt that weather.
Unlike the Dardennes’ three previous films, THE CHILD’s opening shot does not introduce us to the main protagonist. Instead, Les Freres Dardennes introduce us to Sonia, carrying Jimmy up an apartment block’s stairs — she’s apparently just out of the hospital. And she finds out that Bruno has sublet the apartment. He needs the money. For a hat. Bruno is a petty criminal who uses the somewhat-older neighborhood children to commit purse grabs, fence goods — whatever he can do to make money. Other than get a job. “Only fuckers work,” he says. And money goes through his fingers like water. When Sonia shows him their baby, he is hardly interested. When she first sees him, she has to call him several times to get his attention. He takes the baby Jimmy in his arms, but look (like in the still attached to this paragraph) where his eyes are pointing — never on his son, whom he holds like one of those baby-sized wrapped salamis, but usually on the latest scam, or playing lookout. Sonia has to remind him to kiss Jimmy goodnight — we’re talking the first day he’s seen his son, now. But in the scenes in the opening act with Bruno and Sonia together, they act like frisky puppies, wike two widdle kids in wuv. Like I noted with THE SON, it is amazing on repeat viewing how much the Dardennes tell you without seeming to tell you. All sorts of motifs are carefully set up — a jacket, a motorcycle ride, a pram, casually tossing away a will from a lockbox, then the lockbox once it’s empty.
Now the SPOILERS come …
But again, like with THE SON, at exactly the moment when the world has been established, the major plot point in THE CHILD happens. Bruno sells Jimmy to a black-market adoption agency. For a lot of money. And for some inexplicable reason, Sonia faints. “We can have another,” he assures her.
Then things get really hairy.
I can’t top Mike D’Angelo’s “at [this] point breathing becomes a luxury” line. That’s because THE CHILD grabs you like an expert wrestler’s choke hold and is about as likely to let you go. The scene of Bruno handing over Jimmy makes as eloquent a case for aesthetic minimalism as I’ve ever seen — the buyers are never seen except in offscreen sounds; the building is deliberately stripped bare; the only image we see in most of the shots is Bruno’s face — nervous, but more from impatience and fear than guilt. The closing hour of this movie is like a nightmare of making the worst mistake you ever made and then running around trying to right that wrong. Bruno is able to get Jimmy back, but now he’s in debt to the baby-smugglers. Sonia has told the cops, so he has to invent a story for them. And try to get back in Sonia’s good graces. While setting up some new crimes. The Dardennes and Renier have done such a great job of creating their world that we actually root for this thoughtless but-now-desperate cretin to get things straightened out. It all comes together in a cops-and-robbers chase scene that puts every Hollywood multimillion superproduction to shame in terms of sheer heart-in-the-throat urgency, and where the decisive protagonist turns out to be the temperature of the water (remember how I noted how “cold” THE CHILD felt? That was deliberate.)
What does all this have to do with contraception? On the surface, nothing at all. The c-word never comes up, any more than “God” does in THE SON. But consider the very simple fact of the film’s central act — selling a baby. Why does Bruno do it? From his perspective, why not? That is one what one does with things, after all — trade them in for cash or a commodity you’d rather have at that moment. I’m not alone in noting that the child is nothing more than a commodity for Bruno, and so he sells it more from diffidence than flambuoyant Snidely Whiplash “Evil.”
From Scott Foundas in Variety:
in the world of “The Child,” everything, even a human being, is potentially salable merchandise.
From Manohla Dargis in the New York Times:
For Bruno, Jimmy has no meaning beyond what he brings on the market.
From Mike D’Angelo in Las Vegas Weekly:
the ruthlessly pragmatic Bruno regards his son as little more than a novel form of currency.
Many others have noted that point — it is not difficult to get. But why is Jimmy a commodity to Bruno? Everything else is a commodity to him, sure, but commodity exchange is older than civilization and not a feature unique to capitalism or euro-socialism. And most people throughout history generally haven’t seen their children as commodities. I’d suggest that Bruno’s final reduction of even human life and the union that produces it to commodity terms is simply the logical end of combining consumerism and sex as just two forms of pleasure-seeking.
The Dardennes are post-Marxists. Though he isn’t well off, Bruno has no class-consciousness and does not reject consumer capitalism. He wants it, and on his own terms — hence his renting an expensive convertible for the day to tool around with Sonia after carefully wedging Jimmy’s child seat into the back (there’s metaphor packed in there). Similarly, Bruno views life not as something sacred and greater than our wills (hence his diffidence toward Sonia and Jimmy), but as one more experience at the same level as any other and thus only explicable and value-able in rationalistic (i.e., commodity) terms. Probably learned from the 60s Generation that we should live for today and don’t worry ’bout tomorrow (“what’s the point of holding onto money?” he says). When I saw THE CHILD for the second time, it was with a friend who had just had his first daughter, and I joked with Mark “so … this makes you wanna sell Fatima.”
In the world of today, parenthood (and thus sex) is no longer a calling, with the religious connotation of that term, but a self-conscious “choice” that, with the language of “lifestyle” and the notion of “planning” parenthood, which is the logic of rationalistic consumer capitalism (“choosy moms choose Jif” and all of that). When a child is a “choice,” then children logically will be treated as the consumer goods that we also choose. When a consumer good is defective, you get rid of it. When you don’t want a consumer good, and act against it, attempts to make you “buy” it are a threat (the high-pressure salesman, say). Value is money. And so when you can trade a good in for more money than it’s worth to you, you’d be a fool not to do it. Hell, “we can have another.”
Very simply, what is missing until the very end and the coda, is love, a true communion of persons (Father Martin Fox explains what this has to do with contraception) — the kind that can bring new life. Bruno can hardly be said to love either Sonia or Jimmy. The only time he says he does is during Sonia’s rage in the second act, when he’s pleading with her to let him back into her apartment. Sonia correctly tells him that “I love you” is just a plea (and in fact it immediately does become a plea that he’s hungry and broke). For Bruno, “love” becomes an action at a very particular later moment which doesn’t actually involve either Sonia or Jimmy — when he dies to self by hampering his chance to get away for the sake of another son, a pre-teen who steals for him. And then, when he gives himself up to the cops. Now, expiation and calvary can begin. As U2 put it “if you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” All of which is why the coda, of Sonia visiting Bruno in jail and a tearful and partial reconciliation, is not a mistake. Like an organist keeping his foot on the pedal, the Dardennes aren’t playing a “tacked-on” new note at all, just extending the last note for one more bar.
This is also the logic of the Dardennes’ other movies — all four of their fiction features widely seen outside Belgium are about people who in the last scene learn to love someone outside themselves (I am somewhat indebted to Father Bryce Sibley for this point apropos of THE SON and LA PROMESSE). In THE SON, it’s coming to forgive a tormentor. In LA PROMESSE, it’s expanding one’s circle of love beyond family to community. In ROSETTA, the look she gives is her first abandonment of total self-reliance. In THE CHILD … well, that’s what the rest of this bloviating has been about. Father Sibley asked me what I knew about the Dardennes’ religious background. “None, as far as I know,” I told him at the time. But here is something very suggestive from an interview the brothers gave Dennis Lim for the Village Voice:
Q: Your films are often parsed as spiritual allegories. Were you raised Christian?
JPD: Yes, a strong Catholic upbringing, until we were in our teens and rejected what our father had imposed on us. But despite the coercive, puritanical elements of religion, our education taught us to acknowledge other people as human beings. We were forbidden to watch TV or movies, though—our father thought they were the devil incarnate.
Jean-Pierre says they’ve fallen away, and I have no reason to disbelieve him per se. But as has been noted with such Anglo-American film-makers as Hitchcock, Capra and DePalma, the Catholic “AfterImage” remains in the Dardennes’ imaginations. One might expect the fallen-away brothers to be repulsed (if they understand English and ever read this) that someone like me loves their movies so much and sees them through the lens I do. But somehow, I think the afterimage in their work is so strong that they might be tickled at having it pointed out to them.
A couple of years ago, the National Catholic Register (that’s the good NCR) asked readers to nominate (and later vote on) “films that best celebrate Catholic life … movies with specific Catholic references, not simply with Catholic themes.” The results of the more than 1,000 votes are here. I wasn’t impressed. Like all popular polls, this is basically a list of “Catholic” movies people remember having seen recently (or in some cases treasure from their youth).
But, as much as I like it (as I said at the time), I don’t believe there is any way that THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (#1) is that much a better film than THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (#48). Or even better at all. But that I can chalk up to taste — and Dreyer is an acquired one — and to the obscurity and difficulty that an 80-year-old silent film poses for most. And since Gibson did in fact make a great film, I can’t call honoring PASSION OF THE CHRIST unworthy. But what either film has to do with “Catholic life” (particularly as distinguished from “Catholic themes”) is unclear at best.
There are also a lot of downright bad films on the list, starting all the way up at #2 — though I can chalk that particular one up to taste also (or more precisely, my distaste for easy uplift). But the #11(!!!!) showing for the 2004 THERESE is just a crime — the worst example of both presentism and judging a work of art by its surface content. There is no way, no how that the 2004 THERESE belongs on any list of honor or high regard. Particularly so much higher than the French THERESE from 1986 — Alain Cavalier’s film is down at #79. That is merely a reflection of how many have seen the film, and how recently. If this gets repeated in 2025, the 2004 THERESE will be forgotten.
A couple of people at St. Blogs have posted in the last day about pop culture sexualizing and/or desensitizing children. Rich Leonardi recounts girls who looked about 10 singing “Stacy’s Mom” on the karaoke. Barbara Nicolosi, in the course of a vigorous attack on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, protests particularly a scene involving a 7-year-old in a burlesque (skip to the graf starting “a seven year old” … the rest of her piece is certainly worth reading, but it’s not relevant to my point here).
I could certainly imagine the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE scene being offensive if there were nudity or the girl’s movements were continually sexualized (Barbara says they were; she has seen the film, I have not). But I’m not sure how much damage it actually does to the girl. I think it’s much more a matter of adult repugnance at being made to see a child in a sexual light,¹ because adults know the meaning of certain things that kids don’t. I went to an NBA game in Atlanta when the Macarena was all the rage, and during one of the time-outs or quarter- or half-breaks, the Hawks had some girls who looked to be about 6 or 7 on the court to do the dance. Their costumes were all color-coded, like the women in the video, and when they got to the last move, which involves rolling your hips, it was all I could do to think “I wonder if they know what that gesture symbolizes.” But it’s very easy for an experienced adult to overestimate what an innocent child will understand.
But for the girl in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself, assuming there was no unsimulated nudity, it could very well be meaningless. Kids play “dress-up” and “let’s pretend” all the time. She was probably directed like the kid stars in BUGSY MALONE … although one of them grew up to be Scott Baio, so maybe this is horrendous, after all.
As for Rich’s anecdote … I’m not sure how much of lyrics like that kids absorb, depending on age. I can only speak personally and maybe I was just unusually innocent as a boy or grew up in a more-generally-innocent time. But I’m certain that nonchalant defusing is the best way to keep children innocent. Children are curious and pick up pretty infallibly on adult awkwardness.
I certainly remember loving LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” — it was a hit when I was 9 years old. No adult can look at the lyrics and not know what is happening in the song, even if he doesn’t know what is English for “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” (though the lyrics to this All Saints remix just turn my stomach). I loved Sweet, David Bowie and British glam-rock of the early-70s without ever catching onto anything “queer” going on, or figuring out what “Little Willy” or “Rebel, Rebel” were all about or what a groupie was (from “Fox on the Run”). After emigration, I could also recall being mystified at the coy ads on US daytime TV for feminine products like tampons and douches, which you couldn’t advertise on British TV at the time. And asking in 6th-grade health class, when we were on the nutrition unit, why women need more iron than men (something mentioned in some vitamin ads at the time — “and being women, we lose some of that” was the vague reference to what I later learned was menstruation).
When I was about 12 or 13, my mother took me to see THE SENTINEL. There was a scene in which the frame cuts off the heroine from the waist and forearm down. But from the direction of the arm and the sounds she is making, it is clear to an adult that she’s masturbating. At this scene, I turned to my mother and innocently asked “what is she doing?” She casually said “oh, she’s just got a tummyache.” A man sitting behind us overheard this and burst out laughing. My mother was so nonchalant in defusing my question that, I remember the movie but had no memory of this exchange or the man’s laughter when she recounted it to me years later. In principle, she could have been making it all up.
Looking back, the British humour I was raised on as a boy was pretty raunchy. There was huge amounts of the transvestite and sex-identity humor on Benny Hill, Monty Python and Music-Hall-type shows. There was the lowbrow “Blackpool postcard” type of humor and the higher-toned satire of the English public-school classes. In “Virtually Normal,” Andrew Sullivan provided the following anecdote:
I also remember making a joke in a debate competition at the age of 12, at the time of a homosexual scandal involving the leader of the British Liberal Party. I joked that life was better under the Conservatives — or behind the Liberals for that matter. It achieved a raucous response, but I had no idea what the analogy meant. Perhaps my schoolboy audience hadn’t, either.
I remember very precisely the scandal he’s referring to as Sullivan and I are only 3 years apart — Jeremy Thorpe. And during the Year of Monica, it often occurred to me that I could listen to the BBC’s and ITV’s coverage of Thorpe’s downfall, which centered on homosexual blackmail, without asking “dad, what’s fellatio?” (Now, Radio 4 on the other hand …) Whether this is because the word wasn’t used or it was but I had no way of even being mystified about it I cannot say (and for the purposes of my present point, it doesn’t matter). The American press somehow made the impact of the Year of Monica worse by compounding the graphic coverage with hand-wringing think pieces about “how to talk to the kids about it.” Answer: don’t and/or deflect. Frankness can be worse than silence.
As always, everything comes back to SOUTH PARK, in particular episodes called “Proper Condom Use” (about sex ed), or “Tom’s Rhinoplasty” (about the boys having a crush on Miss Ellen … I’ll always treasure Cartman’s mind-numbingly literal understanding of a locker-room term for lesbian sex), or “Stupid Spoiled Whore” (aka “Paris Hilton is not a good role model”). These shows are, in significant part, about G-rated kids (they’re really much more innocent than you might guess) in an R-rated world — a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” turned up to 11. The primary point of these and several other episodes is how adults damage children by putting in their heads thoughts and situations and language that they don’t understand. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but there also is such a thing as too much and not enough knowledge at the same time. Kids’ll do some things on their own, of course. The sex ed episode begins with Stan and Kyle, playing like Sam Peckinpah’s WILD BUNCH kids, destroying a Jennifer Lopez doll for making albums and movies. And it ends with the restoration of the status quo antebellum:
Stan: Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh, Wendy?
Wendy: Yeah. Thank God.
Cartman: Well, I guess now that that’s out of the way, we can get on with our lives.
(Then some more dirty jokes)
I thinks that’s a healthier attitude toward bawdy material and children — try to protect them from it, but don’t make a big deal out of the failures — it just magnifies them. In other words, “minimize it” in every sense of that word — as my mother did at THE SENTINEL. I don’t think I’m just engaged in nostalgia, but when I was a boy, the culture had a “sorta ask, kinda tell” attitude toward bawdy entertainment. It strikes me now as a decent compromise in popular culture between prudery and perversity about sex. It was there to be seen by those with eyes and disposition to see it; but not there (or at least not obviously or undeniably) for those who wanted or could not “get” it.
¹ Which is certainly reason enough to call it offensive, I hasten to add — using the child to corrupt others with ill thoughts.
Forget the DA VINCI HOAX. Madonna, in her latest attempts at shocking, cutting-edge … yawn … envelope-pushing is having herself tied to a cross for her performance of “Live to Tell” on her latest tour. According to the New York Daily News, she defending herself by saying Jesus would forgive her (which is a reason to piss Him off in the first place, I guess).
But anyway, those journalistic pikers at the Daily News were not able to reach Jesus to confirm or deny this statement. But thanks to my brilliant journalistic acumen and deep sources at the Vatican, I was able to ask Our Lord to comment. He said:
Of course, I forgive her. But for SWEPT AWAY and SHANGHAI SURPRISE, the slut has to burn in Hell
*I stole that joke from a DC radio station. I forget which one.
OVER THE HEDGE (Tim Johnson & Karey Kirkpatrick, USA, 9)
I’ve been annoyed by previous Dreamworks’ animated films (like A SHARK’S TALE here; I make reference to SHREK) — with their “decadent po-mo flaunting of in-jokes only adults will get” and “seem[ing] to be more interested in replicating the consumer culture and its pop-culture baubles … with [creatures that] get personified, homogenized and flattened into the same pop-culture stereotypes as everything else.” But with OVER THE HEDGE, Dreamworks produces its best animated movie precisely by making these tendencies the subject matter of the film.
HEDGE stars animals who, during the course of the film, are threatened by human development and their own love for it. They wake up from hibernation to find their forest mostly turned into a uniformly faceless subdivision (named Camelot, amusingly). But then a shyster raccoon with his own agenda (voiced by Bruce Willis) and tells them “why don’t you get food food from the humans?” and sells suburbia to the animals in an incredible montage sequence that both follows and parodies those “buy your dream” PowerPoint presentations, culminating in the unveiling of nature’s most-perfect food — the nacho-cheese chip. And his description to the other animals of the SUV is priceless and perfectly delivered up to the brilliant punchline (“one”). But here’s the deal — rather than being threatened, the animals take to it like a fish to water, especially the kids. They fill their food stock in a couple of days, leaving them nothing to do for the remaining 270 before their next hibernation. Abundance enervates. We get into quarrels over Monopoly tokens, comparison of life to video games (“this is just like Auto Homicide 3″) and John Tesh DVDs. In other words, this is basically the ultimate Crunchy Con movie (Rod; if you’re reading this, see OVER THE HEDGE. And take Matthew and Lucas.) The animals become more “humanized” and acclimated to human ways, degrading them, taking them away from (their) nature, alienating them into forgetfulness of Being (“dat ist called Seinsvergessenheit” … “shut up, Heidegger”).
Part of the charm and the reason for the film’s success is the voice casting — which isn’t show-offy or has celebrities obviously “playing themselves.” It’s like Tim Allen and Tom Hanks in the TOY STORY movies — who never echo Home Improvement or Forrest Gump (or Ellen DeGeneres in FINDING NEMO). Wanda Sykes was the only voice in OVER THE HEDGE I instantly “spotted,” but she has a really distinctive voice (and she, thus appropriately, also has The Character Role). But Garry Shandling as a nervous-but-sensible turtle — that’s just perfect, without being eccentric. As is Steve Carell as a hyperactive squirrel. Willis basically plays his “Moonlighting” role, but without specifically reminding you of David Addison until you look back at the cast list. Even William Shatner, you have to strain your ears to figure out … it’s *him.* Shatner. Really. I mean — *really* Shatner. Really.
The movie and pop-culture in-jokes are hit-and-miss but somehow I found them less annoying than I did in SHREK and SHARK’S TALE. The CLOSE ENCOUNTERS joke was really funny (and well-hidden); the CITIZEN KANE reference less so (I saw it coming). And while I also saw coming the reversal of the Pepe LePew scenario — dressing up a skunk as a cat to seduce a real cat — I admired the film followed it to the end, and made it consistent with Sykes’ persona and voice. But can we please have a moratorium on characters named “Stella” until screenwriters have learned to resist parodying Marlon Brando? But since even the pop-culture jokes are intrinsic to what the movie is about — the spread of contemporary suburban culture and its threats to a “natural” life — even when they miss, I didn’t resent them. You don’t have to be Naomi Klein to think that life is not about what you own and what brands you use (the fact that the film is a satire of consumerist suburbia means there is no actual product-placement that I recall). The drawing is elemental, spare, with bright colors and not-too-many eccentric angles and “look what I can do with depth of field” showing off). The human characters are flamboyantly bad, even the Type-A psycho-bitch who had the best line, one worthy of STRANGELOVE — “I can’t be arrested. I’m president of a homeowners’ association.” And finally, any movie that has a joke based on the Theory of General Relativity must be awesome.
Personal point, not related to the movie per se. I deliberately saw OVER THE HEDGE as part of the Other-cott of THE DA VINCI [sic] CRAP. I went with a bunch of Church friends on the Saturday afternoon of opening weekend, one of whom was this guy. David’s been in a very bad place of late, after Holy Week brought him the death of his father and a car-wreck hospitalization. I happened to sit next to him and he was yukking it up like I’ve never seen him. I tease David a lot about economics-related issues (he once called me “Boss Tweed” and a robber baron), and so based on the trailer, I suspected that he would take to OVER THE HEDGE like catnip. I felt glad that, for atwo hours at least, he forgot about it all and just had an uproarious good time.
My reactionary papistbud Michael Gerardi saw THE DAVINCI CODE.
I have spent time more productively — watching “Man Show” reruns on the G4 channel. One of the sketches they had was “Movies Men Don’t Want to See.” And after describing such fare as ROSEANNE GETS NAKED, either Jimmy or Adam (whoever didn’t describe the movie) would say something disgusting or humiliating like “I’d rather wear Sally Jessy Raphael’s thong underwear as a ski-mask. While she was in them — than see that movie.” So in that spirit, these are:
Things Victor Would Rather Do Than Watch THE DAVINCI CODE
I would rather receive a pair of boxing gloves from Mike Tyson, with a card that says “let’s whisper sweet nothings again, Evander” — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather go to Mecca during the Hajj and smear myself in bacon while wearing a burkha patterned after the Danish flag — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather moderate a debate between Fred Phelps and Rosie O’Donnell in the Tehran University student union while eating shards of broken glass so small they only leave paper cuts on my tongue — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be the unborn child of Chelsea Clinton after Hillary finds out about her daughter’s affair with Sean Hannity. Which included a threesome with Rush Limbaugh — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather take a class on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion under Juan Cole’s new post at Yale, with Sayed Hashemi as his TA and Sami al-Arian as guest lecturer. No pass-fail allowed — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather have the Confederate flag tattooed onto my face for a Nation of Islam convention. While wearing an LAPD uniform with the badge marked “Fuhrman” — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather give Larry Flynt a piggy-back ride to the top of a Mayan temple, on the honeymoon cruise after our “wedding” sanctified by the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather lead a caravan of Toyotas sporting Wal-Mart stickers while wearing a frilly waitress outfit at an AFL-CIO convention that the Hell’s Angels are crashing — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be Jane Fonda’s PR outreach guy to the VFW and American Legion. And be paid from the grosses from MONSTER-IN-LAW — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather have my Cancun timeshare be next to J-Lo’s during the week she has PMS and sees the grosses from MONSTER-IN-LAW. And GIGLI — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather go to the Centre Pompidou during the Jean-Luc Godard retro and use a toothbrush and my tongue to clean the outhouses (that’s where the film prints should be) — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather glue my testicles to my penis with Krazy Glue. During a worldwide shortage of nail-polish-remover — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be stationed at the one-mile mark of the New York City Marathon and have to massage and apply ointment to the inside thighs of a just-collapsed Michael Moore — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather get a ride home over the Potomac on St. Patrick’s Day night from Ted Kennedy. Without there even being a chick in the back seat — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather watch a stripoff between Bea Arthur and Roseanne. With the loser nursing the winner — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be the first 12-year-old Bahraini boy to spend the night at Michael Jackson’s new pad, on the day after FedEx delivers his monthly supplies of Jesus Juice and Cialis — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather have Lars Von Trier tell me I’d be ideal for the lead of his new movie. Once I had a sex change — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather watch the “uncensored” video of what really happened “behind the scenes” during Cindy Sheehan’s visit to Hugo Chavez — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be a drummer for Spinal Tap — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be married to OJ Simpson — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be OJ Simpson — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather wear an external scapular, an alb and chasuble, and have rosary beads hanging from my waist pocket a meeting of the Jack Chick Admiration Society — than see THE DAVINCI CODE. (Well actually, that’s pretty much the same thing as my seeing to THE DAVINCI CODE.)
I would rather have to pick Cynthia McKinney out of a lineup the day after she had a new hairdo — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather get a 100 score from match.com as the perfect partner for Liza Minnelli — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather tell the Mississippi KKK Kleagle that his 11-year-old runaway daughter has been recovered, thanks to a tip from someone who saw her in an R. Kelly video — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather be a fly stuck in the mashed potatoes, on the spoon of Oprah Winfrey after she learns Steadman had an affair with Paris Hilton — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
I would rather drink a quart of Rohypnol an hour before my date with the Duke lacrosse team — than see THE DAVINCI CODE.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee, USA, 9
On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”
The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek …
Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.
… and from Entertainment Weekly:
In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?
YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”
And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).
There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.
Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.
Like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.
Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.
I had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”
I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.
On the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.
The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.
Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.
Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.
Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.
It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:
(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.
Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)
But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:
The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.
Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.
It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.
That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:
It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.
Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:
Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.
As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.
As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.
But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.
When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.
But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.
Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?
Mark Shea has a bee in his bonnet about an article in the City Journal. I suppose I might agree with him if the article he was responding to ever claimed that American conservatism *is* eternal. But the article is entirely about the culture we live in, not theology or soteriology, so necessarily it’s about temporal things, the things of the age, Augustine’s city of man, where virtues (albeit imperfect ones) can be found even from the Romans. We judge temporal things primarily by temporal standards, under prudence — not eternal ones, under judgment.
So considered *as cultural-political criticism,* Mr. Shea doesn’t lay a glove on the article. When he says “Try, seriously, to square the worldview of contempt which informs South Park with Catholic teaching,” he’s missing the point. The article makes it clear that South Park’s virtues are negative ones — it’s the enemy of the enemy. This is not exactly a friend, but in the world of politics, that’s close enough. In addition, you can only engage a culture (either politically or religiously) where it is, otherwise it tunes you out. Nostalgia-based condemnation of the age is not a serious stance, certainly culturally-speaking. In this ironic day and age, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S ain’t gonna cut it. I remember as a boy hating Mickey Mouse because I thought it was too much like education and moral uplift, and there was something about Bugs Bunny’s insouciant poise that was more attractive. Mickey could have had imprimaturs out the wazoo, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I didn’t like him. Flannery O’Connor talked about saving your work first. One of John Paul’s greatest virtues is being the first mass-media pope, understanding that you engage people where they are, and if the world has a comic-book culture, then make a comic book out of your biography.
I’ve already written some of my own thoughts about South Park, and wish only to add that a new season of 8 episodes began last week and that there has to be good in any show where all the Gay Guys Who Dress Up The Breeder, or whatever it’s called, get killed. It’d be impossible to deny that the show has a tone of contempt, but there’s a gleeful quality to it that is equally impossible to miss and which makes the show a valuable satirical weapon for these times. I’d compare South Park to Camille Paglia — not orthodox, but friendly because it has all the right enemies to have in this day and age. I frankly wonder whether Mr. Shea, who repeatedly rails against TV as such, has seen very much of the show, of which he does not cite a single moment.
I’m also massively unconvinced by Mr. Shea’s implicit “a pox on both your houses” moral-equivalence stance toward politics. It strikes me as imprudent and makes the perfect the enemy of the good. American conservatism is definitely imperfect sub specie aeternitis, but Catholics and Christians can find much common ground and get a serious hearing without contempt for our very existence and the belief that we are the enemy as such — the “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” attitude. With conservatism, the spirit is willing, even if the flesh is sometimes weak; with liberalism, the spirit is in total league with the Enemy. *That* is what the culture war (on which Mr. Shea does brilliant service on the side of the angels) is all about; whether Christianity can inhabit the public space or whether progress is measured by how thoroughly it can be repudiated. There is an absolute difference here between the two dominant ideologies and parties, and Christians should not kid themselves about who their friends and enemies are.
If Tolkien really, truly intends “The Lord of the Rings” as some sort of global indictment of “Power,” then I feel vindicated in my aesthetic resistance to him — I was pretty tepid on the two movies and cannot comment on them as novels because I found them unreadable. It’d be good therefore to know, if that account is accurate, that they’re also pretty silly. A serious politics cannot begin with the notion that power is some evil Ring. It is all fine and good to say render unto Caesar, and that the regime doesn’t matter because the gates of hell shall not prevail, etc. But the Catholic Church has never taught political quietism, and frankly I’d rather see the Body in a friendly culture and polity than an unfriendly one, if I can affect the matter at all (and again, *that I can* is the unstated assumption of all political and cultural engagement). But maybe that’s just me. The question is not whether there shall be worldly power, but who shall wield it and for what ends — relatively good ones or relatively bad ones. Ones hostile to Christ or friendly to Him.
Some other people at St. Blog’s Parish are debating KILL BILL VOLUME 1, as noted here. (Thanks David).
Father Bryce Sibley is surprised to find out that KB1 isn’t as violent or as twisted as some of what is common in Japan, a relatively pacific society. I can confirm that this is so. I saw one film at Toronto this year, Takashi Miike’s GOZU, that seems to revel in showcasing the most bizarre “wouldn’t it be neat if we …” ideas Miike could come up with. In the climactic scene, a man who likes having sex with a soup ladle stuck into his anus, is interrupted. And then in the course of the fight … he tips over. And then the scene gets *more* bizarre (let’s just say there is a birth). Hard-core pornography is sold and read fairly openly in Japan, though there are strict laws against showing any pubic hair. Yakuza films are one of the most popular genres and dozens or hundreds routinely die in them. There’s also a whole genre of manga porn, which involves animated films of tentacles and basically any human orifice. There’s a French film making the art-house rounds now, DEMONLOVER, that touches on the subject. You wouldn’t think it would be possible to have Chloe Sevigny and Gina Gershon star in a film about industrial espionage in X-rated Web sites and Japanese manga porn — and have the result be a dull, insipid movie. But Olivier Assayas is a director of rare talents.
I disagree with Father Bryce that most films in the kung fu and samurai genre have no plot. Like with a musical, films usually scrimp on it and we sometimes accept an otherwise undistinguished film with great fight scenes or dances (ONG BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR is just one long set piece). And such a film with weak set pieces generally can’t win you over with its plot. But the best such films oftentimes have perfectly strong plots (DRUNKEN MASTER 2; CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON; IRON MONKEY; SEVEN SAMURAI; YOJIMBO; SINGIN IN THE RAIN; THE BANDWAGON, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG).
In fact, Miike himself is the best proof of this, though he’s working more in the horror genre. He made one of the best films of recent years in AUDITION, in which the concluding torture scene is strengthened by its coming at the end of a movie where dread and hints at gore accumulate in half-understood ways, and then, in the greatest tone shift in movie history (yes, I do mean that), it all bursts forth like water tearing upon a dike. AUDITION certainly requires a strong stomach, but Miike was much gorier in GOZU and in ICHI THE KILLER, which had one scene in which boiling cooking oil was poured over a naked man suspended from ceiling meat hooks. Both these were much lesser films and not as disturbing and burning into the mind. Leaving AUDITION, I actually saw one woman yelling in the street at her date (not speaking, *YELLING*) demanding to know how could he take her to something like this.
I’ve already written my thoughts on the merits of KB1, which is very good for long stretches, but finally just gets to be boring. Ho, hum — another 100 yakuza to maim or kill. In fact, a few weeks ago David Morrison made a similar point about pornography (quoting Naomi Wolf — unclean! unclean!) — that’s its ultimate effect on souls may be less corruption than boredom and de-eroticization.
To make the same point with violence — it may be that seeing so much movie violence, rather than cause you to act violent, jades you to violence. But not always, or at least not yet. There’s nothing quite like being a packed theater for AUDITION and hear and feel the collective jump of the audience the second time you start hearing the words “kiri-kiri-kiri-kiri.” Indeed frankly, it was a tribute to both morality and AUDITION that the audiences reacted so strongly to it, even if to yell at their boyfriends about how immoral the film was — compared to their blaseness at ICHI THE KILLER, which the Toronto fest organizers camped up by handing out precautionary ‘Ichi the Killer’ souvenir barf bags as you entered the theater.