In some similar veins, Christianity Today a few weeks ago did an interview with Michael Landon Jr., who directed one of the Fox Faith films (and I wouldn’t touch the Love Comes Softly series with a 10-foot crucifix and a year of anti-estrogen pills). But that aside, he had the following to say about making Christian movies, with hosannas from the CT Film editor:
Christians can be a tough audience. They want “truth,” but not necessarily the depiction of hard reality.
Landon: Yes. And I’ll say this about the Christian audience: Sometimes there is something like hypocrisy that is taking place. The same people who will patronize a secular PG-13 or R-rated movie will have a different standard if there is violence or sexuality or language content in a Christian film. I don’t get that.
There’s a huge audience that claims to be Christian, and a certain amount of hypocrisy that germinates our culture. They go and see some R-rated film that has much more explicit stuff than a Christian-based film where you can’t. How in the world is anybody going to tell a really good urban story if these kids from the streets are saying, “Oh, gosh darn!”? You’re definitely not going to speak to the ones you’re hoping to speak to—kids living in the urban city. They’re going to turn it off in a nanosecond.
CT Film reader responses are here, and it tilted in favor of agreement with Landon. I can understand (though I can’t really say I respect) refusing to see R- or PG-13 rated movies. But to have one content standard for secular art and another for Christian art (and this is not an attitude a Christian will never see, though I wouldn’t exactly call it “common”) is nothing but self-infantilization. As Flannery O’Connor almost put it: “sentimentality for Christians is inexcusable.”
Let’s do the easy stuff first, my grades from the last three days of the Toronto International Film Festival:
DOGVILLE (Lars Von Trier, Denmark, 2003) — 9
THE FOG OF WAR (Errol Morris, USA, 2003) — 6
A TALKING PICTURE (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal, 2003) — 4
THE COMPANY (Robert Altman, USA, 2003) — 6
LES TRIPLETTES DE BELLEVILLE (Sylvain Chomet, France/Canada, 2003) — 7
GOOD BYE, DRAGON INN (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2003) — 8
AT FIVE IN THE AFTERNOON (Samira Makhmalbaf, Iran, 2003) — 4
THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (Richard Linklater, USA, 2003 ) — 7
21 GRAMS (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, USA, 2003) — 6
THE GRUB STAKE (Bert Van Tuyle/Nell Shipman, USA/Canada, 1923) — 3
SHATTERED GLASS (Billy Bob, USA, 2003) — 7
And here are the capsules for the remaining films I saw through Day Four:
BRIGHT FUTURE (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan, 2003, 6)
This is easily my favorite film by Mr. No Relation, but this really isn’t saying as much as it might sound. Plus the Kiyoshi fans I know think this is one of his weaker efforts — call it a Kurosawa film for people who don’t like Kurosawa. The plot begins with two slacker friends, Yuji and Mamoru, and their boss, who wants to relive his youth. But sometimes whole subplots and sequences play themselves out merely to set up or get to the heart of something else (think THE CRYING GAME or CITY OF GOD), and the heart of the film is a pet jellyfish that Mamoru left Yuji, and the relationship between Yuji and Mamoru’s father.
What sets BRIGHT FUTURE apart from KK’s other films for me is that this time, he has a metaphor (the jellyfish) and stays with it and doesn’t try to get too obscure (CURE ended in a blizzard of non sequiturs; PULSE was just wtf? throughout). We’re kinda expecting this to morph into THE JELLYFISH THAT ATE TOKYO, since most of Kurosawa’s earlier films were horror films of one sort or another. But here, he stays with the film’s third father-son relationship and how it deals with “the jellyfish.” What is the jellyfish a metaphor for — the “sons” friendship, the future, adaptation to environment, all sorts of things (it’s one of those deliberately all-unifying symbols, like Moby Dick).
The film is shot on two different qualities of digital video, and the effect is a grungy, dirty, washed out world where the red on the jellyfish stands out as practically the only primary color, and results in a truly glorious image as a parade of glowing red balls swim through a grungy canal out to the sea. Sometimes the metaphors, hooks and symbols are just too obviously (and sometimes explicitly) metaphors, hooks and symbols — they don’t really work as themselves (there are two father figures; one of them has two sets of sons; the jellyfish revert to their nature once freed; fatherhood is transferred). BRIGHT FUTURE is a very schematic movie, with a deeply ironic and unsubtle ending. Still, I didn’t leave the theater bored or indifferent, and that’s always good.
ONG-BAK: MUAY THAI WARRIOR (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003, 9)
This martial arts film from Thailand is awesome. This movie has a Mr. Big villain that has a tracheotomy and so speaks through a machine, like Ned in SOUTH PARK, and smokes through the hole in his throat. This movie has a hero who jumps through a coiled-up ring of barbed wire, at full speed. This movie does not use wires or computer imaging. This movie’s hero runs over the shoulders of six bad guys in a line. This movie’s hero jumps over one moving car at full speed and slides under another at full speed. This movie has an Australian villain who snarls “Thai women come to my country to be hookers.” This movie has a fight in which a refrigerator is used as a weapon. This movie has two guys falling from a third-story window, and one plants a full kick on the other while in midair. Did you get that … “while in midair”? This movie has a hero who can execute a jump kick to the head while his legs are on fire. Did you get that … “while his legs are on fire”? This movie’s villain has a secret lair in the mountains. This movie has a villain who breaks the sidekick’s arm with a chop against the joint (think Joe Theismann); the hero retaliates by using the same maneuver to tear off that villain’s leg. This movie has a Buddha head crush two villains at once. This movie prompted dozens of winces and gasps (and laughs) from the hardened gorehounds at Toronto Midnight Madness (and the series’ first-ever standing ovation, according to the programmer). This movie had the first question for the director be “how many stuntmen were killed in making this movie?” (A: None.) This movie didn’t let out, because of delays and a lengthy Q-and-A, until 3 a.m. at the end of (for me) a six-film day; I was still on too much of an andrenaline high to sleep for more than an hour. This movie is the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.
THE MAYOR OF SUNSET STRIP (George Hickenlooper, USA, 2003, 7)
A small bit of genius here in the fact that this is a moral film that is never moralistic. You might not even recognize until, purely hypothetically speaking of course, you are looking through your viewing notes in order to write your capsule live from a Toronto Internet cafe, just how thoroughly it repudiates the lifestyle and mores of its titular character, Rodney Bingenheimer.
The illusion and transitoriness of celebrity, in this case a disc jockey who was one of the great celebrity hangers-on of all time, has been done a thousand times before — but seldom with both this much thoroughness and with this much understanding for what made the lifestyle attractive in the first place without coming across as a scolding jeremiad (except in one scene, involving a member of the girl band the Runaways). It’s mostly a bright, fast-paced and funny look at one man’s journey through the sexdrugsandrocknroll lifestyle, and is consumable on those terms.
Bingenheimer was never exactly famous, but he was the ultimate plugged-in guy, and he had a knack for spotting The Next Hot Thing in pop music. This in-between status gave him thousands of celebrity photos with seemingly everybody who’s anybody — a fetish from a very young age; he even recorded a call to JFK’s White House, which we hear. He also had access to limitless sex. Groupies could get close enough to him, but not the actual celebrities, for a hookup. He got more than Robert Plant by being the next-best thing and available — which about says it all. The movie compares Bingenheimer to a West Coast Andy Warhol, but the amazing photos and footage in the film suggest another comparison — Woody Allen’s Zelig character, in that he seemingly morphed into whatever crowd was The In Crowd.
Yet you come out of the theater wondering just how much self-knowledge this guy has. He’s kept on at a radio station merely for show, and he doesn’t seem to realize that he has helped wreck the life of a man who went out West to become famous like him. There are several stand-out references to Kato Kaelin (a punchline) and Phil Spector (potentially a murderer). His father and stepmother are clearly, without saying it but showing it in the placement of photos, ashamed of him. And his girlfriend doesn’t love him.
My fellow TIFF geek Noel Murray said as we walked out the theater that the girlfriend and parent scenes were the documentarian rubbing Rodney’s nose in it. I initially told Noel that I didn’t really think so, but I have changed my mind. However, I have to say that it just didn’t bother me — partly because the film filmed Rodney’s holy moment (dumping his mother’s ashes); partly because Rodney makes it equally clear that he doesn’t love his girlfriend either (he says he’d move to London in a jiffy if he saw someone better); and partly because he seems so oblivious that self-knowledge might have required it.
TIME OF THE WOLF (Michael Haneke, France/Austria, 2003, 8 )
The first 30-40 minutes of this movie are as good as anything Haneke has ever made, which is saying a lot. The man is the best pure director in the world, but his script lets him down in the middle of the movie. Society breaks down for reasons that are never explained and are thus not important — and the movie’s brilliant beginning shows Isabelle Huppert and her family trying to get by on a day-to-day basis (or a minute-to-minute one, actually) in a world where nothing can be counted on and all social rules have evaporated.
The opening scene, of a confrontation in the cabin, is as tight and tense as anything in FUNNY GAMES. The camera successfully follows a parakeet as it flies inside a cabin; a night-time closeup of a burning branch becomes a glowing speck on the horizon as the first outsider arrives (think of the famous horizon shot in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA); and a much bigger ember becomes the first group of outsiders. It’s all formally breathtaking, along with taut and suspenseful. Much of the action in the early part of the film occurs at night in the countryside, with no source of light beyond the fire the family keeps or the branches they can burn for a few seconds, but Haneke makes everything perfectly intelligible (except that which isn’t supposed to be). This family basically is slow to realize that they are no longer living in the bourgeois liberal social world, but Hobbes’ state of nature.
It is a critique of the modern bourgeoisie, but not one that many liberals are very eager to push — that if social relations are constructed, then outside the rules of society, the only rule is the law of the nature — force, the time of the wolf (they even meet a conscious outlaw), the war of all against all. Even the occasional grace notes are reversed (the smashing of a grave). However, Haneke is too smart to realize that the state of nature can’t last — “man is by nature a political animal,” Aristotle says, and so we get the family joining bands of people trying to form an embryonic society on the basis of survival. Haneke does “state of nature,” though, so much better than he does “civil society.” TIME OF THE WOLF just loses focuses about the midway point amidst an undisciplined flood of new characters that we never really come to know or care about, and no film has room for more than five or six archetypes.
There are still flashes of Haneke’s formal brilliance — a closeup of tears flowing down Huppert’s impassive face at night cuts to a blinding shot of a lush, verdant, sunny morning in the forest; the way he frames the single shot of a child’s funeral. But it’s not enough, though the film bounces back in the last two majestic shots, which I won’t spoil beyond saying that during the last one, a lengthy shot, I was muttering under my breath “please let this be the last shot.” And it was. thanks mickey.
GOOD BYE, LENIN (Wolfgang Becker, Germany, 2003, 7)
This movie is gonna get a lot of flack from U.S. conservatives when it’s released because it’s basically a Communism nostalgia comedy, but we should give this film a spin, even though it will obviously attract plenty of the wrong kind of praise. Just keep in mind — it’s a light comedy. Basically the family mixup genre, but there’s a lot of heart in it, too — my TIFF geek friend Daniel Owen said it’s basically “everybody loves his mum.” And if that means harboring fond memories of communist tyranny .. well … she’s still your mum.
Plus, to the extent the film has a political point, it’s *making fun of* East German believers and their Western excuse-makers. Sure enough, the reliable nitwits at the Toronto Festival Guidebook People’s Central Committee refer to the unreconstructed East German Communist mother at the plot’s center as an “idealist” (while also somehow saying the film “steers clear of broad comedy,” which I guess is true if the Three Stooges set the standard). If you could groove on the Australian comedy THE CHILDREN OF THE REVOLUTION and ignore the idiotic critical praise it got, this film will work like gangbusters.
In 1989, an East Berlin true believer gets a heart attack while seeing the East German police be mean (imagine that). She slips into a coma and only awakens in early 1990, after the Berlin Wall has fallen and while the country is preparing for annexation by West Germany. Rather than risk another heart attack from her seeing all the decadent consumer capitalism consuming the Workers and Peasants Paradise (stop laughing, people), her son decides to take the bedridden woman home, so he can control the environment and maintain the illusion that East Germany is doing just super. OK, it’s an idiotic premise (he’s obviously gonna have to tell her someday), but it’s basically just Rip Von Winkle.
Once it gets cooking, however, this film becomes very funny, as the son has to go to increasingly elaborate lengths to keep his mother, whose health and thus mobility are improving, from finding out. The best scenes involve creating fake East German newscasts to tape for mother, and they are a perfect parody of Communist kitsch, Communist lies, and this woman’s limitless will to believe (and not just hers). The 1989 footage of East Germans climbing into West German embassies becomes quite literally the opposite, and she finds it believable. And every shred of the “news report” was a lie. But telling lies was the only way she could continue to believe in socialism and communism. Imagine that.
THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD (Guy Maddin, Canada, 2003, 6)
(Open with map of Canada, star on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Images are in soft-focus, using high-contrast black-and-white. And no sound unless otherwise noted.)
The largest city in Canada, known to its residents as Toronto, decided to host a film festival, to find the saddest sound in the world. There were many contenders, from every corner of the globe.
(Cue Bollywood music clip; followed by Japanese samurai yell; Italian cursing; French philosophy debates; the sound of seats hitting the back of chairs as people walk out of 29 PALMS.)
But the saddest sound in the world turns out to be unrequited love, the tears flowing from the dashed expectations of a cinephile betrayed. (Cue picture of Victor over a broken heart). He went to the frigid Canadian north in expectation of a masterpiece from the man. (Insert picture of Guy Maddin, gleam on teeth) who made the greatest live-action short Victor had ever set eyes upon.
(Cue 20-second clip from HEART OF THE WORLD, with music soundtrack, preferably one of the cannon shots, depending on the negotiations on the rights.)
Further, he drank from this wizard (insert picture of Maddin, in Merlin costume) the most bizarre cocktail (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow) he had ever seen. This cocktail was a DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY, as the Merlin of the barstool (insert picture of Maddin, in bartender apron and white shirt with sleeves rolled up to elbow, and also wearing a pointed wizard hat) called it, made from the ingredients Murnau, Mahler, Daghiliev, and Dracula (use flash inserts for mugs of first three men, George Hamilton for the fourth). This feature inspired Victor to start writing a useless blog that nobody ever reads. And all this Maddin (flash edit mug) material came just in the past few months.
(Cue 30s Art Deco title card from THE SADDEST MUSIC IN THE WORLD.)
An encounter with Mr. Maddin’s latest filled Victor’s heart (insert a beating heart from some animal; no goats) with anticipation as he took off (jet sound effect) on his trip to the Great White North. He paid two 2003 Canadian dollars to struggle through the Toronto Metro (subway sound effect) to the far-away Elgin Screening Room (North Pole image). And at first, all was as expected. The good Mr. Maddin (flashback to bartender/wizard costume) produced the expected deadpan absurdist comedy (pan along Isabella Rossellini’s beer-filled glass legs) done in an over-the-top pastiche of early cinema melodramas (cut to Mark McKinney in Snidely American Whiplash costume and Cheshire Cat grin), the softest black-and-white photography in the world (cut to practically any image), obvious studio sets (show Winnipeg in the snow), and fruity line readings (cue a clip from the pair of Winnipeg’s “Saddest Music in the World” contest commentators).
For a period of approximately one hour, perhaps less in the metric system or the Canadian exchange rate, Victor was delighted. One particular laugh of Victor’s (cue high-pitched loud laugh) was even heard and recognized at the farthest reaches of the Elgin (cut to quizzical looks from Mike D’Angelo, Noel Murray and Daniel Owen).
(Closeup of a giant, generic script crushing a Maddin doll as it tips over.)
But then the gods of cinema decreed that there should be a plot. That romantic alignments between the main characters must change repeatedly (cut to shot from the swapping orgy in THE ICE STORM), and that we must be made to care about them as human beings, rather than as ciphers and signifiers (cut to Cinema Studies pupil salivating; Victor in an ascot looking puzzled) for Maddin’s virtuosity and demented sense of humor.
So the good people of Toronto decided (cut to funeral pyres, with the big red word “SARS” superimposed) that this, then, was the saddest sound in the world. The sound of a dejected Victor leaving the Elgin (cut to North Pole shot, with penguins added) after expecting and then halfway getting a masterpiece. But by the end having been left merely with the sound of one hand clapping. What a sad sound.