Rightwing Film Geek

A spoiled masterpiece

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LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (Joe Dante, USA, 2003, 7)

That “7” is misleading. This film should have been one of the year’s best. It only stars two of the greatest comic performers of all time, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, at the top of their game. Isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings? But how can a great movie result from a screenplay that reportedly went through at least 27 revisions and was the subject of constant quarreling between writer, director, animators and front-office suits.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION is very much less than what it should have been and sometimes even is — it’s brilliant around the edges and vacuous at the center. A casualty of pomo self-consciousness. And the part that really hacks me off is that it seems to be deliberately made that way. To cite Pauline Kael, this is the kind of film that results when a director contents himself with “express[ing] himself by shoving bits of style up the crevasses of the plots.” It’s a masterpiece in every insignificant, irrelevant detail.

The main plot is just some silly spy intrigue rejected from the Austin Powers assembly line. The result is bland and watered down at the center, but so brilliant, saucy and anarchic at the edges that you’d really rather look at it on DVD, so you can rewind and use the slo-mo to see what you only half-saw in the theater. I can still bring himself to helpless giggles by remembering — the Jerry Lewis posters decorating Paris, Sylvester getting skinned, “that’s not boxing; bite his ear,” “that would send the wrong message to children,” the snatch from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville,” and the race through the paintings in the Louvre, Daffy’s facial expressions in the reprise of the “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!” exchanges, and all the hundred various asides and uninflected jokes at the edge.

wilemartin.jpgUnfortunately, the pomo filmmakers feel the need to “air out” the Looney Tunes characters by putting them in a live-action world to show off the greater technical prowess of animation today, as though animation in that sense was what the Looney Tunes were noted for. As for the human actors … frankly who cares? Joan Cusack and Steve Martin give wonderfully fruity cartoon performances (though I wonder whether Martin is finally a wee bit *much*). But Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman? Who cares? They’re like Kitty Carlisle and Allan Jones in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA. Who would rather watch them than Bugs and Daffy, or maybe more of the other Warner Brothers characters, like Foghorn Leghorn or Sylvester and Tweety?

Now, its not any postmodern premise or the style itself to which I object. Nor were the Warner Brothers cartoons above such techniques as spoof (“Thugs with Dirty Mugs,” “Bugs Bunny Rides Again,” the celebrity caricatures in “What’s Up, Doc”), in-joke references (Daffy as “Robin Hood”; the way the ritual line “What’s Up, Doc” spawned jokes riffing off that expectation), self-consciousness (the way Bugs’ antagonists became increasingly bizarre — from Elmer to Daffy to Yosemite Sam to the Tasmanian Devil — and his line to the audience “of course, you realize, *this* means war.”) or even outright deconstructions of textuality (“Duck Amuck”).

So it’s not as though postmodernism isn’t a fertile source of humor. But the pomo comic techniques in the Looney Tunes originals didn’t go “all the way down” and didn’t assume a thoroughly pomo audience. In other words, “Duck Amuck” shows how a cartoon produces meaning, but shows the animator at the end, preserving the illusion of the author-god, so to speak. And Bugs’ “this means war” aside is to an audience that didn’t expect asides every time and accepted the illusionist conceit that the war Bugs was promising existed for its own sake (they knew it was fake, of course. But as pro wrestling shows, there’s a fundamental difference between knowing something is fake and being told by the fakers that it’s fake).

Here, the innocent surface is absent. The filmmakers don’t seem to have the confidence to make a straight cartoon movie, to try to tell a coherent first-level story appropriate to the characters. Instead, textuality gets thrown in right away as Bugs and Daffy “play their characters” as Warner Brothers stars negotiating their contracts, rather than just “be their characters.” There’s even a moment when Fraser “plays himself” in split-screen with his character in the movie, and it’s just showing off and winking at the audience. The result is the decadent selling of the jokes the audience expects.

Now, the original Looney Tunes animators used this sort of “playing themselves” premise freely themselves (remember Daffy pitching “The Scarlet Pumpernickel” or the two competing in “Show Biz Bugs”). And Bugs and Daffy can still “play themselves” brilliantly — isn’t it a barometer of how thoroughly the Looney Tunes characters, and the great short subjects they made *before I was born,* are so embedded in my mind that I talk about Bugs and Daffy as performers rather than as drawings?

daffyanger.jpgIn this particular movie, the “pitch” premise produces a great early scene in which Daffy’s sputtering outrage is being deliberately tweaked by the WB suits’ estimate of his worth. But what tarnishes even some of the great stuff going on around the edges is that its hollowness is sometimes underlined or the lines merely references rather than used. For example, Bugs, Daffy, Elfman and Fraser are walking in the desert and we get an offhand reference to “a left turn at Albuquerque.” Except they’re not underground, they don’t wind up anywhere as a result of the mistake or anything else. Or the singing lunchpail frog appears at the table in the background as a deal is being brokered (but unless you’ve seen the original, there’s no joke). They’re just referents to name-drop, an assurance that the filmmakers have seen the originals too, the equivalent of Eric Idle’s “I’m trying, really” nudge in the ribs.

Though this is an infinitely better film than SPACE JAM, the tragedy is that it didn’t have to be this way. Take a look at “The Simpsons,” which has *both* good stories and lots of jokes at the edge of the frame. Or take a look at “South Park,” self-conscously pomo decadent though the show is, but which uses its characters as themselves in pomo ways, rather than as “playing themselves” fodder for another bit of metacinematic fiddle-faddle.

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November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Shameless promotion of others, part 1

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ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (Shunji Iwai, Japan, 2002, 9)

I’m gonna do something I’ve never done here before — plug a DC-area screening. The Japanese movie ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU is getting a onetime screening this coming Wednesday at the University of Maryland Hoff Student Center. I won’t be able to go myself (work schedule), but this film never played in Washington (or very widely in the US at all) and I only saw it because a friend had a tape. But LILY CHOU-CHOU made my Top 10 for last year and I want to get the word out on a great and profoundly-moving film that deserved a better chance than it got to find an audience.

Despite this fellow’s enthusiasm for it, I had trepidations about LILY CHOU-CHOU, which is a longish, slow-moving Japanese film about sullen, alienated teens — a genre that also includes the annoying “blue,” which Charles Odell called (on his Sept. 9 entry) “the most boring film about teenage Japanese schoolgirl lesbians possible,” and EUREKA, which bored me so silly that it has become one of my “pet hate” films.

ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU does require patience. But if you can go with its plaintive, dreamy rhythms, it turns out to be one of the saddest, gentlest, most-poignant films ever made about teenage loneliness, centering on the gap between the hellish time they have in school dealing with bullies and cliques on the one hand, and the fanboy gushing on message boards over Lily Chou-Chou on the other. But unlike some such movies, stuff happens in LILY CHOU-CHOU — there is an arc, though it’s not always transparent. Characters develop and have some believable good times (there’s an Okinawa trip captured on the kids’ home videos), the students turn from friends into enemies and try to connect with one another.

lilypiano.jpgThe movie has two basic levels of reality, first, the daily life of school, and then, attempts to escape its misery through the Internet, centered on worship of the title character, a little-seen or -heard J-pop star. The Internet board “scenes,” which constitute about 25-30 percent of the running time I’d guess, are made up of Japanese script being typed onto a black screen. That’s it. While the amount of time and visual redundancy drove batty this usually on-target guy, I found the conceit thrilling. It keeps the kids’ identities secret from each other and us, while at the same time creating them as online personae (a theme that should resonate around the blogosphere). The blackness and its disconnect from ordinary visual storytelling emphasizes the gap between the students’ real lives and online lives. The blackness literalizes both Lily’s Ether and the ethereality of fame, meaning and connection. The ending absolutely depends on that blackness, as if even Lily fandom is not only not enough to unite the two boys, but that commonality is precisely what made the bullying finally intolerable (“your devil is not wholly Other”).

Mike also complained that Lily is not an interesting singer, which is a reasonable opinion (though I found her ethereal, Enya-Sadeness style an interesting and thematically apropos choice), but the movie’s themes might resonate even more strongly if Lily stunk as a singer — sorta like in MEMENTO, “we all have to have a god in our lives, even if it’s an unworthy or nonexistent one.”

lilyfiels.jpgShot on Hi-Definition Video, LILY CHOU-CHOU is also one of the gorgeous-looking video-shot movies ever made, but in a most peculiar and hypnotic way. There are repeated nature images, of long shots of tall green plants rippling in the wind while the kids play their Discman (supposedly of Lily’s music, but Claude Debussy’s lush Romantic melodies are what *we* hear from the film’s soundtrack). The pictures and their florid color are overripe and alienating, simply exemplifying what AMERICAN BEAUTY preached and preached and preached about that stupid paper bag and the unbearability of natural beauty and even beautiful music while your soul is in torment. Again, in contrast to the Internet’s darkness.

Unlike AMERICAN BEAUTY and some other Western films about alienated teens, LILY CHOU-CHOU is blessedly free of sarcasm and caricature of parents and adults. They want to help and they sometimes even do, especially early on, but they finally are just outsiders who CAN’T get it. It’s L’AVVENTURA for Generation Wired — one teenage friend on a private discussion group called it “the greatest movie ever made about the Internet,” and it’s hard to think of a topper. There’s a whole series of brilliant sequences near the end, including the climactic scene, one of the very best of last year, where Lily sings in concert and we finally see her, on a jumbotron outside the arena. And to her music, we see a boy, mesmerized by her image while his heart breaks. A weaker man than myself might have cried.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Shameless promotion of others, part 2

I have a good gift idea for any movie fans on your list, particularly fans of classic and silent movies. Some people at alt.movies.silent, a Usenet newsgroup where I have posted some (but mostly lurk), have put out the 2004 edition of their annual silent-films calendar, which you can order here.

The 2003 edition is peering over my workspace right now. This month is Mabel Normand; past months have included Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish and the German cartoon THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED. All money beyond production costs goes to the UCLA Film and Television Archive for preserving silent films. The 2003 calendar raised almost $700 — not bad for the avocational project of a silent film orchestra.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Chagrined promotion of others (or DVD pricing strategies, part 1)

smublackfilms.jpgA selection from the Tyler, Texas Black Film Collection, consisting of movies made for segregation-era black theaters by black artists, has been preserved and put onto video by Southern Methodist University. Although I recognize both the specific titles cited in the AP article and I know some stuff secondhand about the director of MURDER IN HARLEM (Oscar Micheaux), I’ve never seen any of the “race films” made in the silent and early sound era.

So obviously, it’s great that these films are being preserved, put on disc and distributed to museums and schools. I suspect from what I know of Micheaux that he wouldn’t be to my taste, but I’d love a chance to look.

However, it doesn’t look like SMU really wants me or other members of the general public to buy or rent these discs in the open marketplace. The cost is $250 for a 3-DVD set. Ouch. I agree that the potential market for these films is probably small, but it’s not as though there’s a studio’s need to make a profit from the small number of expected sales, the commonest reason for exorbitant pricing. SMU did the restoration under a grant. Confining these films to institutions is false to the populist nature of the medium, particularly for “race films,” which were not made by the sort of heavily-capitalized major studio that could afford to lose money on some “prestige” or “artistic” films.

ossiedavis.jpgI’m certainly not gonna pay $250 for anything short of the missing nine-hour print of GREED. And I’m not a normal person. I’m the sort of person who’ll watch a film he’s pretty sure he won’t like just because he thinks he “should.” Who’ll watch a film just because he wants to sample a genre or style he’s never seen before (I went to see a 30s Yiddish-theater melodrama at a film festival last year). Who’ll plunk down $20 to buy a film sight unseen just to be a completist for a favorite director (Tsai Ming-liang’s REBELS OF THE NEON GOD, I’m thinking of specifically). If *I’m* not willing to consider such a purchase, how many others would? What’s the point of Ossie Davis saying the films show the “ ‘do-for-self’ spirit of blacks just after the turn of the century. They had to make do with nothing. And look what they did’,” if people are priced out of access to what these artists did?

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

DVD pricing strategies, part 2 (Laurel & Hardy)

dvdboxlh.jpgI suppose I should say to myself “what do you expect from a 2-DVD set you picked up for $6 in the bargain bin at Wal-Mart?” Well, some truth in advertising. That impulse pickup was of a Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy DVD set, put out by Platinum Disc Corp. under the “TV Classics” series. I’d be madder than I am if I weren’t enjoying some of what I’m seeing in the stead of what I expected.

On the box cover, you see the pair in their classic look — their familiar bowler hats, with Stan in his bowtie and dumb innocence and Ollie’s girth and moustache. Thing is though, that of the “14 episodes” advertised (actually two features and 12 shorts), only in the features and “as celebrities” in a Pete Smith short, do we see their familiar “Stan & Ollie” characters. And of the 10 other shorts I’ve now either seen or been able to trace the Internet Movie Database credit, only in one do they act together onscreen, and it’s not in their iconic roles … but more on that in a second. The others have one or the other acting or Stan directing. Before Hal Roach put the team together in 1926-27, Ollie had been played supporting “heavy” roles in shorts by the likes of Larry Semon, and Stan had played a more hyper (but equally clueless) character and directed some.

semon.jpgThe real discovery for me in the several shorts was Larry Semon, who starred in THE SAWMILL and KID SPEED, with Hardy playing the villain. In the early 1920s, Semon was sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, though he’s hardly known today. Unlike many of the silent comedians, his slide was not the result of sound — he died in 1928 and his career had been on the skids for a few years even before that. Still these two films, from 1922 and 1924 respectively, give a good sense of what Semon had going for him.

Of all the silent comedians, his style was the closest to that of a traditional circus clown — he played a child-like dynamo with a rubberlike face and large features exaggerated by a thorough face-blanching makeup job (KID SPEED has a couple of whiteface/blackface gags that I did laugh at). His clothes were even more ill-fitting than Chaplin’s: he wears a bowler hat with overalls that almost reach his armpit. That small body and delicate-looking hands make him an ideal “victim” for the massive Hardy. And Semon’s films feature some spectacular stunts amidst broad physical knockabout — of cars crashing off bridges and people falling several stories onto one another. There’s even space for the subtlety of Semon sitting on a log that gets sliced in half lengthwise, missing his back by inches.

Unfortunately, the pictorial quality of these prints is not very good (there are a lot of visual hiccoughs, even stepping on the punchlines) and the scores just have generic-sounding piano music seemingly played at random. Semon’s character doesn’t (for now) seem that deep, but he looks like a comedian who’d be worth a rediscovery and a proper restoration of his work, a surprising amount of which survives.

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The Laurel & Hardy “together” short that I saw was LUCKY DOG, their first appearance together. But it’s from 1921, several years before they became a permanent team. This film (only the first reel of which was on this DVD set, though) starred Stan as a naif dandy and Ollie plays a mugger who holds up Stan at gunpoint. It’s amazing in retrospect that nobody thought to team them up before Roach did several years later, realizing that their contrasting personalities and “Another Fine Mess” story lines could get you several laughs for the price of one — the gag itself; Stan’s vacuous, puzzled reaction; Ollie’s frustration with Stan; Ollie turning to us to plead for our sympathy for having to deal with this dolt; Stan’s solicitousness with regard to Ollie’s (often unjustified) exasperated superiority.

But LUCKY DOG doesn’t rely for its interest on a trivial bit of casting coincidence — that Stan-Ollie dynamic, what made the team tick, is amazingly present in this 1921 film. For example, when Ollie tells Stan at gunpoint to turn around, rather than go against the fence, Stan does a 360. When trying to fish out his wallet, Stan unthinkingly hands his dog to Ollie, who unthinkingly accepts it before bursting into rage. These are jokes that could easily have come from one of their 1930s Hal Roach features.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Mel to make a misstep?

I have repeatedly backed Mel Gibson against charges of anti-Semitism and theological error over THE PASSION OF CHRIST, to the extent one can from the POV of not having seen the film. Neither Jewish groups nor self-appointed theologians’ circles have either the moral entitlement to final cut or the right to issue moral imprimaturs. But he may be about to make a mistake.

The latest talk in the entertainment industry is that federal authorities are investigating the New York Post over its forum on THE PASSION OF CHRIST, possibly for piracy and copyright violation, and there is other word that Gibson may sue the Post himself over the forum, which I blogged on last week.

There may be a theft issue here — which the Post denies. And I understand that if we’re gonna make a big flap over Academy screeners, studios and distributors have to defend their copyright (after all, that security is what allows more-than-homemade movies to be made at all). There is something a little off about writing about a film based on an unfinished rough cut. Professional critics sometimes do it reluctantly, but almost always with the caveat stated explicitly (and thus implicitly saying: “readers, adjust accordingly.”) The Post did state that caveat in this case, though you had to bring along your magnifying glass.

Further, there are rough cuts and there are rough cuts. There are quickly- and cheaply-made videos used just to check final continuity issues (is a character’s collar buttoned the same way and are the props in the same place throughout a scene — that sort of thing) at one end of the spectrum and the actual work prints sans title credits or subtitles at the other. I would like to think that at least Post critic Lou Lumenick would be sensitive to these matters of print quality and how they affect the aesthetic experience of THE PASSION OF CHRIST or any other film. The Post merely said that “the rough-cut version of the film that we screened – with temporary English subtitles, no credits and further editing changes likely.” And if you read the wording of the Post’s intro carefully with this thought in mind, you realize that never did the paper originally say whether the five viewers saw the movie on videotape or on film.

So all these criticisms of the value of the Post forum are perfectly fair to make, and I added my doubts about what the viewers said last week. But I think Gibson would be making a prudential mistake to pursue legal action against the Post. It would just look too much like he’s suing over a bad review. And that would just be fodder for Leno and Letterman. Yes, there are other issues, but appearances matter and Gibson would just be giving too much and too easy ammo to people eager to interpret his actions in a bad light. Of which there is no shortage.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Jews for Mel (sorta)

Some sanity comes from a couple of America’s leading rabbis, one of whom who has seen THE PASSION OF CHRIST and expressed reservations over it.

Rabbi James Rudin of the American Jewish Committee, while not backing away from his criticisms, said that Jewish groups should not boycott the film but should take a different tack — try to use the occasion to teach about the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

eckstein.jpgAnother senior rabbi, Yechiel Eckstein, the founder of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says it is not wise¹ for Jews to be seen as trying to dictate Christian artists’ interpretation to their own religion. Plus Jews have much bigger fish to fry in the world today and he compared focusing on Passion plays as generals still fighting the last war. Amen.
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¹ This link goes to a Salt Lake City Deseret News article in February 2004, later than this article’s time-stamp. The Baltimore Sun article I linked to when I first wrote this post in November 2003 was no longer on the Web when I reposted this entry in January 2008, unchanged in its text, except for this footnote and the photo(see the original here). Even though the February 2004 Deseret News article cites a press statement from Rabbi Eckstein from that week (“Tuesday”), you can see that the Rabbi is making essentially the same points I cited him as making the previous fall.

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The master-slave dialectic

I am not making this up. Los Angeles County wants computer and video companies not to use the terms “master” and “slave” to describe interfaces between two machines in which one tells the other what to do. This insane e-mail cites concerns “based on cultural diversity and sensitivity.” I wonder whether the use of the terms “male” and “female” for plugs that fit together reinforces patriarchal notions of heteronormativity and oppress the LGBTQ Community?

In the guts of the story it says “a black employee of the Probation Department filed a discrimination complaint.” Why didn’t his boss laugh in his face and tell him to get a clue? While the county said it wasn’t “workplace discrimination,” why did the Affirmative Action Office “take seriously this person’s concern” and cite any “(constant) need to be conscious of these issues.” Remember: this is what discrimination laws now mean; this is what “sensitivity” and “cultural diversity” now means; this is how affirmative-action offices think; and the fact this worker was taken seriously tells us what public standards now are (fear of the most paranoid idiot drives people’s actions).

November 29, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

More on the screener ban

The MPAA’s screener ban is being challenged in court by smaller distributors, saying among other things that the exemption for members of the Academy (and not, say, members of critics circles or voters in other awards shows like the Golden Globes) violates antitrust laws.

A ruling on the injunction might come next week.

November 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

What’s in a name?

Some people in the town of Corleone, Sicily want to change its name to remove the Mafia taint. If you remember the plot of GODFATHER 2, Vito gave the name “Corleone” to US authorities at Ellis Island purely because that was his hometown.

Makes sense. After all, cities in Sicily not named Corleone have no Mafia reputation at all, do they?

November 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A New Testament film with zip about Mel Gibson or the ADL

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THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (Philip Saville, Canada/Britain, 2003, 6)

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN had a marketing strategy that raised eyebrows — it opened weeks ago in a bunch of medium-sized and small markets in the South and Midwest and has stayed away from the blue-state major Metro areas where films customarily open. It only began screening in Washington and Los Angeles last weekend, and best I can tell from the film’s Web site, New York or Chicago runs aren’t even planned. It looked like the kind of marketing strategy an example of what Eve Tushnet calls “Junk For Jesus” would use. Actually though, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is better than that, much better than it looks. Still, as long as no validly ordained priest said the Eucharistic Prayer over the cans of film, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is still a movie and has to be evaluated as such.

The basic idea of following John (or any of the other Gospels) word-for-word is unfortunately a very bad one. The Gospels simply are not written like screenplays. There are maybe a couple of characters besides Jesus who get more than one scene. There are no real conversations; there isn’t much description but a lot of narration. They’re mostly “Jesus said X” and “Jesus did Y.” And so THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, even more than most Jesus films that felt free to expand or contract as drama requires, often has Christopher Plummer narrating the action along only to interrupt it by breaking into dialogue, often of not very great detail. The effect is kinda like drifting into and out of song sometimes even within a line, as in Alain Resnais’ SAME OLD SONG. I don’t mean that as a compliment — it emphasizes THE GOSPEL OF JOHN as an illustration rather than as a movie, the “Junk for Jesus” ethic.

But though THE GOSPEL OF JOHN never does overcome the basic misguidedness of its pitch, the film-makers do work well with the grain of the wood and make the best possible film that could have come from this wack idea. Still, I hope that Visual Bible International, which describes itself on the film’s Web site as “having secured the exclusive worldwide rights to develop, produce and market film adaptations on a word-for-word basis, including both Books of the Old and New Testaments,” doesn’t try this trick with … um … Romans or Second Corinthians.

John differs from the other three Gospels, in both tone and content, much more than other three differ among themselves. Relatively speaking:

— There are more miracles and theologytalk in John and fewer parables and practical sayings. For example, His most famous speech and the one most concerned with right conduct, the Sermon on the Mount, is never even alluded to in John. By contrast, the famous opening verses of John are nearly impossible to get your mind around purely in modern English. Plus, in the place the Agony in Gethsemane would occur, John gives us four chapters of prayer and theological exhortation to the Disciples.

johnjesus.jpg— There is more Glory and certitude in John and less Sorrow and doubt. Neither Satan’s temptations nor the Agony in Gethsemane are even mentioned. The Jesus of John is never in doubt as He goes around performing miracles to show Who He is and has an absolute air of knowing what must happen. He nearly has to chase Judas out of the Last Supper — “go betray me now,” practically. The words from the cross in John are “it is finished” rather than “why have you forsaken me?” (as in Matthew and Mark), again emphasizing the playing out of Providence.

But why I think THE GOSPEL OF JOHN is a worthwhile movie is that the filmmakers effectively “roll with these punches,” these particular emphases in John’s Gospel. And know they *are* punches (to overstrain the metaphor). While I’ve said that John is a theology-heavy Gospel, one of the virtues of THE GOSPEL OF JOHN comes in explaining that theology. It happens in one of the few moments when the film discards its literalist premise. On the night of the Last Supper, we get impressionistic flashbacks to various things that we’ve seen, and now Jesus’ words explain what the miracles were all about, bearing witness to the Father who sent Him. The “that they all may be one” prayer is accompanied to half-second shots of all the various sorts of people Jesus encountered.

johntrial.jpgThe film benefits enormously from a quietly excellent central performance from Henry Ian Cusick, one which plays to the way Jesus is portrayed in John. This is a Jesus Who is sure in His skin, often happy and, yes smiling along while trying to enlighten the world that often rejects Him — never either a tortured doubter (the only tears you see from Cusick are when Martha, the sister of Lazarus, weeps at his death) nor a flat icon of good-two-shoesness. He sometimes tosses fire and brimstone as needed (the money-changers in the Temple), but only rarely. In other words, you see why His disciples would follow Him. And that He knows He is the Son of God and the Messiah, and doesn’t find that or his mission remarkable. The film’s portrayal of Jesus’ miracles is particularly fine. They are presented literally, but in an offhand way. There’s no thunder or zapping or wailing or attempts to explain them away. Or even an attempt to awe us. Instead, the wedding partiers pour water into their jugs and a few seconds later, wine comes out. We never see Jesus “resurrected,” as if in the payoff shot. Simply, as the Gospel states, we see Mary Magdelene come and find the empty tomb and then she comes across Jesus outside. The GOSPEL OF JOHN manages to be a low-key, reverent film without slipping into the sort of pious bombast that stifles drama.

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN uses a recent translation, the Good News Bible, that is very understandable though it consequently loses some poetic/ritualistic glory. It took me a few minutes to realize that the reason Jesus kept saying “I am telling you the truth,” is that this is the oath better known in its King James translation as “verily, verily I say unto you.” The Douay-Reims has the (more literal) translation: “amen, amen, I say to you.” Either of the older translations has more artistic merit and probably a greater comfort level, but it’s safer to say the later one is clearest and least (in our terms of reference) adorned.

As for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN’s negative virtues, the foremost is that there isn’t very much (that I recall anyway) bombastic cinematic underwriting of the Jesus’ holiness, beyond what He says and does. It also helps in this vein that the disciples and the other characters are all played by actors unknown to me, avoiding the spot-the-star travesty that was, e.g. THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (that’s how *great* this story is … every star in town is in it). The score is restrained as Gospel films go. Only in a very few places, e.g. is Jesus is framed in those cliched glowing halos. More often in fact, we look at a plain sun to represent Jesus as a light unto the world. There are a couple of halo shots very early on, but that’s before Jesus has said a word and we’re mostly seeing Him through the eyes of John the Baptist. The film actually shows Jesus’ shadow and feet before we see His face, as the narrator says “and the Word became man.”

johnsandals.jpgYes, the feet. One of the most moving ceremonies to me personally is the Holy Thursday custom for the Pope to wash the feet of 12 Roman parishioners, which most bishops also follow. In THE GOSPEL OF JOHN, the disciples’ feet are shown to be dirty, and this is what a film about the Gospels can offer that even the Gospels themselves cannot — tactility, presentness. To put it bluntly, we see the dirt on the Disciples feet; we have seen the dust in the streets of the Holy Land. Thus when Christ humbles himself before his followers after the meal, we see what it means for the Word to be made flesh — that it rubbed elbows with dirt. Consistent with its offhand manner, THE GOSPEL OF JOHN doesn’t ever rub our faces in its cinematic ability to make us see and feel the things of the world. But it’s there, present, and frankly quite moving.

November 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Hate, Actually

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LOVE ACTUALLY (Richard Curtis, Britain, 2003, 2)

Why did I even bother to see LOVE ACTUALLY? Upbeat heartwarming chick-flick romances are not my favorite genre, but even if they were … good gawd, is this fat hunk of English toffee sweet. It is so relentless in its desire to be upbeat and happy and uplifting and “the feel-good film of the year” that I was reaching for the insulin. This is the kind of movie that makes you want to go out and kick a baby or strangle a puppy to de-treaclify your system. It’s like Ren & Stimpy’s “Happy Happy Joy Joy” song, only played straight.

LOVE ACTUALLY has about 10 romance-plot strands, brushing lightly off one another — Hugh Grant as Prime Minister, suppressing his hots for a staffer; Colin Firth falling for the Portuguese maid with whom he can’t speak; Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman as a married couple, with Rickman sorely tempted at work; Laura Linney unable to connect with the guy she has a crush on at work; Bill Nighy as an old star recording a Chrtistmas hit; a British loser goes to America because all the chicks are hot and love a British accent; two nude body doubles; a man has an unrequited crush on his best friend’s wife; Liam Neeson plays a stepfather whose 11-year-old son has his first crush shortly after his mother dies; meanwhile, Neeson pines for Claudia Schiffer. (I may be forgetting, or repressing, some others.)

If that sound like too much for a 130-minute movie, you’re absolutely right. Some pruning away was needed. The individual plots are completely underdeveloped (avg: half a sitcom episode each) and thus nothing gets a chance to surprise us. Every last frickin one of those threads end happily — OK with maybe one kinda exception. But that’s the one that doesn’t get tied up well at the end — making the film’s last 20 minutes a truly toxic piling on of one more coming-together, one more reconciliation, one more successful meeting. The fact that eight different plot strands are all being resolved happily one after another after another (and in two different public meetings) makes it seem even more relentless and grimaceworthy than it might otherwise.

lovelincoln.jpgIt’s bad enough that an engagement between two people who can hardly speak a common language is treated as a great triumph worthy of triumphal trumpets on the soundtrack, but having Liam Neeson get together with Claudia Schiffer is just Cruelty to Audiences. Even getting a kiss from an unavailable love is treated as cathartic (imagine Emilio Estevez driving away from the snow cabin in ST. ELMO’S FIRE for a sense of the emotional falseness of this movie). And when LOVE ACTUALLY has a church funeral, as dictated by The Hugh Grant Romance Template, it’s for someone we had never seen alive, so there’s no emotional investment (death is SUCH a downer; like the Director said in THE PRODUCERS: “The whole third act has got to go; they’re *losing* the war.”). But more than that, the dearly departed supposedly prepared a snapshot video of her life to “Bye-Bye Baby,” a piece of Bay City Rollers bubble gum. I didn’t imagine that even the Church of England was that liturgically advanced. The whole script is like MAGNOLIA as rewritten by Up With People and Norman Vincent Peale.

I can already hear the objections — “Victor, this is a romantic fantasy. It’s not meant to be realistic.” Except that LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE AND ACTUALLY EVEN MORE LOVE tells you the opposite right away. It begins with pictures of people hugging and a narrator telling us that “love actually is all around us” and says you see it most clearly at the arrival gate at Heathrow. And the film ends with several of the plot strands coalescing at that airport terminal, and then the film subtly goes from its characters hugging and smiling and to those “real people” doing the same, and then a greater and greater number fill the screen. This film could not be more explicit in telling us it is a slice of life, something real, and that is simply an evil lie. Unless one’s idea of a slice of life is for a British dork to show up at the first bar he finds in Milwaukee, be surrounded by four supermodel-lookers who insist he stay over at their place. But unfortunately they’re so poor they only have a single bed and cannot afford any nightclothes and so they have to sleep naked (I am exaggerating not at all … I was actually ready for the film to reveal “it’s all a dream” because it’s SO over-the-top that you can’t even take it seriously as a fantasy). But no. That is not a plot strand, it’s a beer commercial. Or a sketch on “The Man Show,” which at least knows it’s parodic. This film is what Pauline Kael called “the sugar-coated lie” that drove her into a frenzy of hate about THE SOUND OF MUSIC. I’m not saying every movie has to be Ingmar Bergman or GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS … but couldn’t LOVE ACTUALLY have at least a couple of endings that somehow suggest that life is not perfect.

Then there’s one scene, in which Grant upbraids a visiting American president (Billy Bob Thornton as a Bushclinton horndog-yokel) for selfishness and bullying, that reportedly produced (predictable) cheers at the Toronto Film Festival. Now leave aside the scene’s basic absurdity — two heads of govenment do not dress one another down at a public press conference — which tends to code it as fantasy, i.e. wish fulfillment. But what also justifies calling the scene purely anti-American (rather than anti-this-or-that American policy) is its terminal vagueness. No American policy is mentioned … not Iraq, steel tariffs, Kyoto, the Confederate flag, any number of The Usual Suspects … no, none, nothing — only airy platitudes about “standing up for our interests,” without any idea about what the filmmakers think those interests are. (Wouldn’t a president and a prime minister mention this or that policy beyond “we’ll do what we want”?) So this makes the scene the equivalent of a meaningless generic insult of a person, rather than saying, e.g. they’re lazy, stupid, dishonest — or any number of insults that specific referents. The scene is just the equivalent of “America is an asshole.” And that’s anti-Americanism as such.

November 25, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

The Kazan haters

It’s unfortunately not on the Web site, but the December issue of The Atlantic has a postmortem on Elia Kazan from conservative writer Mark Steyn, in a bit of a reined-in writing persona compared to what he did at, e.g. the American Spectator. Steyn has an interesting take on a film (GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT) that I found pretty weak but Steyn makes me want to see it again. But most importantly, he states bluntly the principle behind supporting Kazan.

kazan.jpgBut the arts have little time for anti-Communists, especially premature anti-Communists, especially as premature as Kazan: he quit the party in 1936, after he’d refused to help it turn the Group Theatre into an actors’ collective …

But if we were to frame Kazan’s testimony to HUAC in terms of personal loyalty, what about his responsibility to, say, Vsevolod Meyerhold? When Kazan joined the Group, straight out of Yale, the company looked to the Russians for inspiration — not just to Stanislavsky, but also to his wayward disciple Meyerhold. The latter was a great mentor to the young Kazan and other Group members. This was a period, remember, when the Group frequently visited Russia; [Waiting For] Lefty, for example, was staged in Moscow. Meyerhold loved the older stylized forms — commedia dell’arte, pantomime — and refused to confine himself to Socialist Realism. So Stalin had him arrested and executed.

Think about that: murdered over a difference of opinion about a directing style. As ‘persecution’ goes, that’s a lot more thorough than forcing some screenwriter to work on a schlock network variety show under a false name.

And that really says it all about why I scorn the professional anti-McCarthyites, and why Kazan’s memory was honored by these rodents’ hate. Any comparison or parallel between McCarthyism, HUAC, loyalty oaths and the rest of it and the *ordinary way of doing business* in the Soviet Union is obscene. Anyone who’d make it has no sense of proportion or a sense of what a monstrous evil Communism was, and therefore thus how derivatively evil supporting it was.

November 24, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 4 Comments

Bubba the bibliophile

Here are Bill Clinton’s favorite books, according to The Impeached President’s Library (thanks Adam).

I wish I could think of some more smart-alecky comments to make, beyond noting that Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is nowhere to be found. For some reason.

I frankly don’t see how anyone could list Max Weber’s [brilliant] “Politics as a Vocation” as a favorite book (though it’s actually a widely-anthologized lecture) and also quote St. Paul’s vision of Heaven in his inauguration speech — but trying to figure out Clinton’s mind is like getting into a land war in Asia. (Nick Gillespie and Fred Moramarco ponder the meaning of Clinton’s love for “Leaves of Silly Romantic Claptrap.”)

Any other comments on these books, only 5 1/2 of which I have read?

November 24, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

A priest, a minister, and a rabbi walk into a theater …

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Well, that’s not exactly what the New York Post did in its forum Monday on THE PASSION OF CHRIST (now only available here; scroll down to the post by “respaul” at 00:15, 22-11-03). There’s an academic professor of theology, standing in for the Protestant minister, though she has an Italian-sounding name. There’s also a Post reader and one of its film critics. Follow the links at the end of the main page for their reactions from each of the individuals. (Aside: one of the reasons I don’t like to read newspapers outside work is that I find myself looking at them with a professional’s eye — I can’t look at the second page of the spread on the hard copy of the paper without realizing that the dominant art, a still from THE PASSION OF CHRIST, has been flip-flopped.)

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The intro material repeats the meme that Gibson has violated the Second Vatican Council’s denunciation of the deicide libel in Nostra Aetate, but it at least actually quotes what the Council said, which is revealing: “what happened in [Christ’s] Passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.” But in Rabbi Robert Levine’s hands, that statement becomes the claim that the movie “undermines the 1965 Vatican II declaration that Jews are not responsible for the death of Christ.” When you realize and have pondered on the difference between those two statements, you’ll have a sense of why I have so much scorn for the ADL and its ilk on this topic. In fact Nostra Aetate specifically does *not* say with the Rabbi says it does. Right before the part the Post quotes, it reads: “Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ …” The mere fact that one portrays some Jews demanding Christ’s blood does not make a film contrary to Church teaching. As usual, what Vatican 2 actually *says* is the opposite of what some theologians discern its “spirit” to mean.

Rabbi Levine is fibbing, unless Gibson does something specific to endorse intergenerational, collective guilt (the fact it is generally considered an absurd idea today means that the presumed default from silence is that the film doesn’t endorse it) or to tie the Jews of 1st century Jerusalem to the Jews of today. And e.g., the fact that Christians who have seen the film said Gibson excluded Matthew 27:25: “His blood be upon us and our children,” suggests he doesn’t do that. The Rabbi doesn’t say to the contrary (in fact, I was generally dissatisfied with the Rabbi’s review in that it served up the same ADL talking points and he *could* have written it without having seen it). The problem, I suspect, is that Rabbi Levine seems to be looking at the film qua Jew, i.e. his primary interest in THE PASSION OF CHRIST is its representation of Jews. Maybe that how a Jew would view it, and so he’ll be offended by *any* reasonably faithful depiction of the Gospels. Nothing I can say to that.

castelli.jpgBut if we are gonna be making *predictions* about hate crimes, or ripping the scabs off, or inspiring violence against Jews, like the theologian Elizabeth Castelli does, then you just as clearly, for that purpose, have to privilege how actual Christians (or atheists/agnostics too I guess, but that’s really not what people have been talking about) see the film, what their reaction will be to THE PASSION OF CHRIST. Cuz *they’re* the ones that supposedly are gonna be motivated to go out and Jew-bash. For one thing, Jews have no more to say on the matter of Christian consumption than I do to their offense-taking. And for another Castelli can complain all she wants about ahistoricity, the latest scholarship and Mel’s ignoring “years of important work … between Jews and Christians on understanding the effect of the Passion narrative on their relationship.” (Can you hear the “don’t crap in my garden” tone there?) She can be as right as rain theologically, but unless Christians react in her predicted way, the whole dispute is academic, in the worst sense.

And the reaction of the one panel member, Joan Wilson, who was not a professional theologian or minister was instructive about what I think will be both the dominant reaction of the Christians who see the film (assuming, as I must, that it doesn’t anachronistically pander to contemporary Jewish stereotypes). I also think she represents the dominant view among Christians today — that portraying 1st century Jews as out for Jesus’ blood in no way implies guilt on the Jews of today, whatever might have been true in other times. As Wilson puts it: Caiaphas “was doing what he believed he had to do to protect his faith … a Catholic or a Protestant would have defended his religion too.” And again, unless the film plays down the Jewishness of Jesus of Nazareth and all His early followers (which is nowhere to my knowledge charged and is contradicted by every Christian to my knowledge who has seen the film and spoken to that matter specifically), it is simply nuts to come away from an internecine dispute among two groups of Jews and blame “the Jews.” Or to put it bluntly, the rabbi and the theologian are going into the film, looking to take offense. And such people can always find what they’re looking for. Or to put it even more bluntly, the ADL and the rest have effectively poisoned the well against Gibson’s film.

lumenick.jpgI also predict that Lou Lumenick’s reaction on this matter, two handwringing paragraphs (“deeply troubling”) that make a concession before soberly siding with the ADL et al, will be the commonest one among daily newspaper critics. The alt-weeklies and the committed-left journals will … um … crucify the film and Gibson.

Since I slagged on the Rabbi, let me spend at least as much time on the priest, Father Mark Hallinan. If you can get past the phrase: “It doesn’t touch on the values that [Christ] represented and that continue to be a positive force in the world today,” without wanting to say “oh, come off it,” you’re a better man than I, Gunga Din. “Values”? “Positive force”? This is the language of a Jesuit? (Don’t answer.)

fatherhallinan.jpgThe priest at least provided some specifics about the film, so I have to defer to him on those. But he got my blood boiling with this little crack: “Unsophisticated people viewing the film will see Jews as cold, heartless people.” How does a man with advanced theology degrees know how “unsophisticated” (what a Spongian term!!) people will react? Particularly since the least-sophisticated person on the panel did *not* come away from the film denouncing the Jews, citing the blood oath, subscribing to Al-Jazeera on her satellite or anysuch.

Then we get this complaint: “Hallinan also questioned the depiction, during the crucifixion, of Gestas, the bad thief, having his eyes plucked out by a crow after he questions Christ’s divinity. ‘It’s contrary to the Gospels,’ said Hallinan, adding ‘Jesus taught us not to persecute our enemies’.” Is there any oxygen in the House? One of the Gospels (Luke) starts with the story of the coming of John the Baptist and has a very similar story about his father Zachary and how he was struck dumb for doubting a divine messenger. The Gospels repeatedly have parables in the general character of “God is not mocked,” which is what happens here. Sure, the specific detail of the eye-gouging is not in the Bible, but there’s a rich and thoroughly orthodox Catholic tradition of embroidering around the Passion narrative and fleshing out details in works of art. Surely Father Hallinan has often led the Stations of the Cross, though several of *them* have no Biblical antecedent or only the vaguest … there’s no mention of Veronica (much less of the Lord’s face on the hankie) or of any specific number of falls. And who’s “persecuting our enemies”? As Father Hallinan tells the story, the one doing the persecuting is … a crow.

November 19, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

A portrait of the artist as a fat, middle-aged man

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Slate is running a diary this week from Neil LaBute, an important event because of who the man is — in my opinion, one of the most distinctive artists-moralists in American film today. He was the both director and story-script writer of IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, and THE SHAPE OF THINGS, and the director of NURSE BETTY and POSSESSION, the latter also being adapted by LaBute and two others from a novel.

labute2.jpgAnd for those who’ve seen me in person, don’t rag on my title; LaBute makes a point of talking about his weight, and even linked his diet woes to his personality, some of which you can see in his movies. But the LaBute diary seems to be pressing ahead pretty well — he’s described the concept and premise of his next film, and it sounds crackerjack: “a pregnant woman who is rushing around a city, trying to get to her lover’s cell phone before he reads a sweet text message to her husband that she accidentally sent to him, sort of an American Rohmer with a ticking clock.” Though a little birdy tells me that Eric Rohmer (maybe the greatest director alive and working) will not come to mind when I see this next LaBute film.

LaBute’s three films from his own story-scripts are all year’s 10-best quality (though the year’s obviously still not over for SHAPE), and the other two are solid achievements also. La Bute is part philosophical anthropologist and part mathematician. The three films that are distinctly his own all share an abstract quality (in that sense only, they remind one of Fritz Lang’s revenge films, like RANCHO NOTORIOUS, which LaBute mentions watching in his diary). The characters are archetypal — the central couple in SHAPE is Adam and Eve(lyn); the characters’ names in NEIGHBORS are never given in the movie itself. The dialogue has an incantatory ping-pong quality to it — the characters in NEIGHBORS all give a museum director their opinions of the same unseen painting in “chapter breaks” sprinkled throughout the film, and from COMPANY: “Women. Nice ones. The most frigid of the race. It doesn’t matter in the end. Inside they’re all the same meat and gristle and hatred. Just simmering.” The dialog-in-progress LaBute quotes at the end of the first day of his diary seems to be of same type.

Chance and extraneous detail do not exist in LaBute’s universe — in COMPANY, we never find out the company’s name or what products or services it’s involved in; but we do find out the name of the college that is the setting of SHAPE (Mercy College — and don’t think LaBute doesn’t call attention to that fact). Two of the films have major third-act plot reversals that I will not spoil beyond saying that on second viewing, they twists recode every last detail in the films and make absolutely perfect sense with no loose ends. The films also intolerantly insist on a moral reckoning with the universe — all three films end in the triumph of a certain sort of person and/or the defeat of a different sort. “Give me God or give me Nietzsche,” one might say. Or “give me starvation or give me a whole bag of Cheetos and an entire pizza.”

friendsbw.jpgAll LaBute’s own films are underpopulated (Central Casting must be ready to picket this guy) and focus on a small group of characters — with just one very important exception, all are present-day upper-middle class white professionals. And the “winners” in these films are shown as too deeply soulsick even to know how soulsick they are. (As much as I feel I can say without spoilers.) In both NEIGHBORS and SHAPE, there is a conversation where one character asks another about whether “you are a good person.” That specific formulation is used, and then reiterated when the nihilist figure in the movie mocks the question as meaningless cant. (Something in the back of my head tells me that’s a typical formulation of Mormonism, LaBute’s religion. Donna? Other theologians?) There’s not exactly a precise equivalent in COMPANY, but the central plot engine is a practical joke played for no reason other than its sheer gratuity.

There’s a certain stagy, ritualistic quality to them all. SHAPE was a stage play at first and apart from finding natural-looking sets, LaBute made absolutely no attempt to “air it out” — it’s basically 10 dialogue scenes. And when a certain showdown comes in COMPANY, one of the two characters makes a point of closing all the blinds in an office window, and LaBute’s emphasizes the gesture until it becomes a preparatory ritual.

In a certain sense, you can’t really criticize LaBute’s work, you either go along with his works’ sensibility and enjoy (sic) with the ride he is giving or you don’t — and the people who don’t, tend not to merely dislike his work or the work in question, but to loathe it — seeing them as airless, overdetermined puppet shows serving as prosecutorial briefs against the human race. This is a criticism with which I obviously can’t really disagree. I can only defend him by citing Flannery O’Connor’s aesthetic credo:

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural … to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”

November 18, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | | Leave a comment

Reader input (and response)

A reader took exception to my reference to liberals as people who “see a picture of a shit-smeared Virgin, and smile and call it good — artistic expression.” The following exchange took place by private e-mail, reproduced here with permission from the author, who wished to be identified only as “the anonymous postmodern aesthete.” Anyway, here’s the two notes, his first.
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They see a picture of a shit-smeared Virgin, and smile and call it good — artistic expression.”

I expect more from you bud. The NEA? They have not mattered in over a decade and have so shied away from controversy it is repugnant. Coming off your brilliant SOUTH PARK defense, the attack on Ofili seems especially misinformed and knee-jerk.

hvm.jpgFirst confession, I have not seen the painting in question in person. That said, I have seen numerous gallery and museum shows including Ofili’s work and while he ain’t totally my cup of tea I have never, ever seen smeared shit. He uses dried elephant dung, which resembles dried mud really and it often serves as a connection to the earth, mounting the painting or as an adjunct of the canvas — hanging off it like a piece of crisp biology. The reproductions of the offending painting put it in that camp as far as I can see. The use of this material (elephant shit) never suggests disrespect in the way that a Paul McCarthy or Mike Kelley using shit might — it is so safe, dry, scentless, and aesthetically sculpted as to move beyond filth into something new.

On top of all that Ofili is a Roman Catholic of African descent and a native of England — he is exploring his African roots in his work, linked here.

Pay no attention to the gallerists and curators in the piece, rather, focus on Ofili’s stance. His work is no more blasphemous in my opinion than that of SOUTH PARK in which Jesus is hosting a hippie cable access talk show — the new age Donahue.
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Although I had forgotten the detail about genital cutouts from porn magazines (which would have made my point better and the relationship of which to African nature cults is unclear), I actually did know “The Holy Virgin Mary” had dried elephant poo, rather than a piece of toilet paper one second after human use.

The problem is that shit is shit — and to shit on is a signifier of waste, contempt, the lowest animality. At least in Western society, and Ofili is not a Hottentot ignorant of our conventions and language and symbology, you don’t use it, even “to make people think” or whatever other cant the curators care to use, on whatever one considers holy. He may be exploring his African roots (Zimbabwe is a rather odd place for a Nigerian to do that, but let that go), but he’s doing it on Western nickels and in a Western public space.

If I saw the painting in real life and it’s as you describe it and how it looks in that article you hot-linked for me, I might not figure out that it was shit, taking it for mud and maybe I would get the metaphor or maybe not (it sounds at one and the same time obscure and ham-fisted).

You tell me to ignore the curators, but you really can’t. Truth be told, I think that’s the real cause of the fact I have zero interest in the contemporary art world. Were I to see “The Holy Virgin Mary” and take it for mud, there’d still be a panel next to it or a program guide *telling me* it was shit and extolling the work’s daring at epatering the bourgeoisie and “asking questions,” and the narrative of “Pretentious Blaspheming Artiste” then clicks in and I check out. Even if it may be wrong in a given case, it’s hard to deny that the art world and the culture crowd are asking for (literally) this kind of reaction.

ofili.jpgFurther, I’m not so sure Ofili stands so apart from the curators. Here’s the article’s nut quote:

“I don’t feel as though I have to defend it. The people who are attacking this painting are attacking their own interpretation, not mine. You never know what’s going to offend people, and I don’t feel it’s my place to say any more.”

Refusing to explain his work, reducing it to interpretation disagreement, and, this is the richest part, *You never know what’s gonna offend people.* Really?

At some point in the future, I’ll write a lengthy exigesis of the portrayal of Jesus in SOUTH PARK. Suffice it for now to say that he is one of the few characters in the show who does not manifest a caricatured to-the-nth-degree extreme form of one or more vices.

November 18, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quick drive-bys (before a $200 backyard cab ride)

— Advice to Kathy at Relapsed Catholic (on THE SINGING DETECTIVE) … don’t mess with this sort of stuff. It just attracts attention to them.

lileks.jpg— A fine James Lileks bleat on two film-related topics — what he sees as the spiritual emptiness, or more precisely have-it-all-ness, at the heart of the latest Matrix movies (near the end: “they want God, but they want to design him on their own screens with their own programs by their own terms for their own needs”); and a thorough fisking of Harry Knowles and the dirty, unpretty things that happen when fanboys try to talk politics and theology.

— A shakeup at the Anti-Defamation League, reportedly over THE PASSION OF CHRIST. According to the Jewish magazine Forward, some people are getting antsy over the confrontational approach the ADL has taken over Mel Gibson’s film and how it could damage inter-religious dialogue with the Catholic Church — a point made several times before by yours truly.

November 17, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

In a Steel-Cage Death Match … Beavis vs. Butt-head

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THE BACKYARD, Paul Hough, USA, 9

For the people who thought MTV’s two cartoon cretins were absurd caricatures too shallow, vulgar and thoughtlessly vicious to represent The Kids Today — I wish I had the power to force them to see THE BACKYARD when it comes out on video Tuesday. I saw it twice during its second-last theatrical engagement, and here is a documentary about kids (and, more importantly, adults) who seem like real-life versions of Beavis and Butt-head — ids shaped only by celebrity culture and a very high self-esteem quotient.

THE BACKYARD is like an anthropologist’s trek to a world, that of backyard fantasists putting on “pro wrestling” shows, that you have not seen and could not imagine existing. While the film’s appeal, the incredible number of amazingly funny sequences, is not dissimilar to that of a PT Barnum circus-geek show, it’s the kind of laughter that sticks in the craw. We’re not laughing at freaks, but at people who have willed themselves into freakdom. Which makes it both easier to laugh at them and easier to be angry at them. Everybody who’s ever put aside a childhood fantasy (I wanted to beat Ali and become heavyweight champion … stop laughing, people) will feel better about himself after seeing these amazing scenes of people who can’t let their dream go.

It made me decide that, besides the truly cheap and ugly-as-ass Digital Video, what I really hated about JACKASS (which this film obviously resembles in some ways) was the way it locked you into complicity with the jackasses and had a surrogate audience, the other jackasses, laughing onscreen as though this was so obviously funny, and I just began emotionally rebelling against the film. If Jeremiah had an ironic sense of humor (and movies had been invented in 7th Century Judah), he might have produced a Lamentation like this. It’s almost a time capsule of the vices of our time:

bb4backyard.jpgThe culture of fame, and the way fame even defines the behaviors of the patently unfamous and untalented. Everyone wants to become a pro wrestling star and they can talk the talk because they’ve been so saturated in its language — in one moment, a 17-year-old promoter (yes, that’s right) tells his troupe that other federations are coming into the hotbed of Modesto, Calif., and “we’re not gonna become the WCW of Backyard Wrestling.” Yet they can’t walk the walk — the shows look like the Max Fischer Players production of WWF Smackdown. Or any of Beavis and Butt-head’s school reports or projects. And are hilarious in that very same way, often *because* of their sincere pretensions. But that’s what they know. Lizard talks like he thinks his heroes do, but he can barely spit out a sentence without mispronouncing or mangling something: “I’m gonna walk in with very much confidence in my self-esteem.” The absolute cheesiness of these shows and the obviously sincere hunger for fame becomes sad with its combined the patent fact that there *is* a career path to being a professional wrestler, outlined by Rob Van Dam at the beginning, but which is basically a type of craft apprenticeship, and none of these people are on that track. I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s reaction to a young man who said he wanted to be musician. Then when he admitted he couldn’t read music and had no interest in learning how, he said “I just want to be creative.”

Me-ism and self-esteem run amock. Everybody in THE BACKYARD is confident that “nobody’s gonna get in the way of my dream”; “I have the dedication and drive,” and all the rest of the cliches of the therapeutic society that tells you that you can do anything, when nothing is farther from the truth, especially in this case. Practically the film’s very first image is of a guy, Lizard, lecturing to the camera (in a perfect poor imitation of “camera” talk, though the guy has about 40 cards in his deck) about how he’s gonna become heavyweight champion of the world. And you see him stripped to the waist, and, well … it’s kinda obvious that he certainly doesn’t have the needed physique and strength. It’s doubtful that his body shape would ever let him, but it would certainly take years of work. But he’s playing it straight, flexing his biceps and doing a bodybuilder’s “grrrr” pose. It’s not done for irony, like when Benny Hill talks about how sexy he is, so it’s finally pathetic.

backyardchew.jpgThe Peter Pan syndrome. One absolutely indelible scene shows a 26-year-old man playing in a room full of thousands of dollars worth of WWF dolls and souvenirs and “train sets,” while his 2-year-old daughter wanders in and out of the room. While her father is playing with dolls. Lizard tells us that his girlfriend, her parents, his mother all object to his fame-seeking, but it’s all water off a boulder. It’s at the same time incredibly funny and really, really sad. These guys are simply playing Xtreme Cowboys and Indians in the backyard. Except that most of us grow up, and these people are adults, risking (and suffering) injury and cutting themselves up — essentially for nothing (at least when Hulk Hogan takes a razor to his forehead, he’s getting appropriately compensated). One of the other wrestlers, Scar, gets a girlfriend who forbids him from doing backyard wrestling any more. Hooray for her.

Absent or toxic parents.
It’s hard to know what’s creepier or more disturbing in THE BACKYARD: the parents who refuse to be interviewed about why they let their (mostly) sons do this, those who do get interviewed, or those about whom we learn nothing. An early scene shows the mother of two Nevada sons, helping wrap the barbed wire around the ring where Bo and Justin will fight. She brags about how this gets her more involved with her sons’ lives than other parents. She’s proud about “it gives me a rush as a parent.” And then there are all the parents in upstate New York (this is not just laughing at the inbred hayseed states) who actively get involved in the organizing and planning and even (get this) the local school. Their rationalizations, inevitably: “it’s a lot worse than other stuff they could be doing”; “at least he’s not out doing drugs.” Which leads one to wonder what their standards are. (One hilarious moment involves reading out the list of promotions that the school put on, one being “Martin Luther King Day Destruction.”) There’s even one parent who is shown on camera refusing to sign a medical release form demanded by the 17-year-old promoter because her son has a knot in his head (“What if you get dropped on your head? Who’s gonna have to take care of you, feed you, wipe your ass? You think these guys give a fuck about you?”) Speaking as someone who could not participate in any contact sports after adolescence set in because of major leg surgeries to correct a dormant birth defect, these are very good reasons. Which makes what happens later even more repulsive. Another mother even says “we realized that it had to be his choice,” and that phrase about says it all. Choice is the God we mortals dare not question.

backyardweapon.jpgVicious indifference and contempt for social standards. We aren’t simply talking about people here who are misguided; we’re talking about people who are proud of their misguidedness and who, in the words of Bo and Justin’s mother “don’t care what people think” or, in the words of Chaos, “we don’t give a fuck what you think, this is for us” and “if you don’t like us, fuck off, cause we’re gonna stay here” (or idiomatically: “We’re here; We’re XXX; Get used to it.”) Backyard wrestling also seems to promote an aggressively self-infantilizing and morally indifferent culture. T-shirts are labeled “Most tasteless” and the two Nevada brothers wear Satanic pentagram T-shirts without ever once doing anything that would strike most anyone as Satanic in the usual sense. It’s as if even Satan, whom Milton could make grand and serious, is now just one more signifier. Beavis: “The real Satan doesn’t do videos. Unless maybe it’s for Danzig.” The Retarded Butcher wears a T-shirt reading “I put the ‘S’ in ‘Retarded’ “; and Chaos casually compares using some of the weapons to “going out gay bashing.” Both moments are incredibly funny, but again nauseating because it’s hard to know what could ever be said to souls like that, whether they mean their words literally or not.

Obsession with erasing the fakery/sincerity gap. Now here’s where I’m not sure THE BACKYARD knows what it’s doing. Or rather, all of what it’s doing. It’s patent that some of the violence is faked, and the “wrestlers” show they’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade (like setting on fire the underside of garbage can lid, but bashing the opponent with the other side of it, and “blading,” nicking themselves on the forehead with a razor to simulate a cut on the head from some blow). But for all they show the filmmakers, it’s also patent that some of it is not faked — we see the scars. After all, even the best professional wrestlers do sometimes injure one another (as all acrobats occasionally miss a mark or a tumble or whatnot). And these “wrestlers” are very far from experts, and the things like lightbulbs, mousetraps, tacks are playing with fire (and the real Fire does do this video). But by showing the fakery, it looks like a strategem to sow doubt about whether the other stuff is fake, too, and make it look like pro wrestling (which we all know is fake). But that has consequences, in that it makes it hard to know when anyone is being serious. So when the mother of the Retarded Butcher breaks up the match in the park (after going through about six rounds of DW Griffith heroine-like hand-wringing and lamenting) and says to the camera “to all the parents out there. Don’t let your kids do this,” you realize, if you’re a fan of pro wrestling at all, that this is a very common pro wrestling script. And the sound mix was suspiciously good for a woman being recorded on the other side of a field. But it could just as easily be real too. Making fakery transparent and then going ahead anyway makes it hard to tell when something else is *not* fake. (I remember hearing Tonya Harding’s boyfriend, the one who actually performed the hit on Nancy Kerrigan, say “it didn’t look like I’d really done anything until I saw the video.” A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has a similar line.)

All that is clear enough, but then we get to the end, we get the part I’m not sure how to take. Brothers Bo and Justin explain their “Three Stages of Death storyline”: 1) fight to a finish in a barbed wire ring; 2) battle to bury the other guy alive in the desert sands; 3) slam your opponent into a pit through a plank wrapped in barbed wire and then set aflame. They explain this as a cathartic ritual for one of the boys having been abused. In the arc of a conventional documentary, this is at the “revelation” moment, and could be taken as an attempt for pathos or at least something serious on the filmmaker’s part. But I didn’t feel a damn thing or any emotional involvement at all. The brothers do it in such self-aware, blandly positivistic language that it’s hard to take seriously as truly cathartic. “This pit symbolizes the mirror my father threw me threw me against and when I crash through it and walk through the fire, I’ll have left it behind,” he says. Is it really the case that you’re haunted by something if you can talk about it so casually and clinically? To readers of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind”: my reaction was very like that of Bloom to his Atlanta taxi driver talking about the various therapies he had undergone and how he was “trying out gestalt.” The clinical and self-conscious language completely locked and I sat stone-faced through the scene. And yet the fakery of everything else makes me doubt that this was intended to be “real” — and thus its miserable failure on those “straight” terms might be its method — it’s a storyline meant to be seen through. But I’m by temperament and longstanding ideological disposition ill-disposed to entering that hall of mirrors.

THE BACKYARD definitely has its problems, and second viewing persuaded me to drop it a couple of notches in the Year-to-Date Top 10. The main problems are 1) that it is filmatistically pretty undistinguished; 2) that we never get to see Lizard’s tryout with the WWE and because of a sloppy camera movement and focus pull, we even have to infer what happened offscreen; 3) a voiceover that, while not omnipresent, is never necessary or enlightening; and 4) I’m really not certain that the attempt at pathos near the end was actually not sincere. And indeed, even most of the film’s fans aren’t really sure how conscious the filmmakers are of what they have and what they’re doing. But maybe that’s irrelevant since the subject makes nonsense of trying to tell apart the real and the fake, the ironic and the sincere, in this milieu at least.

There is also one moral problem with the movie. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but some readers will disagree. THE BACKYARD, it has to be conceded, is what Eve Tushnet calls “purely negative” (THE ICE STORM also fits into this category, so sez she). It tells you how awful is a certain segment of the world that has lost its moral compass, and even if you think the film hilarious and sickening in equal amounts (as I do), it’s hard to claim that it gives you a vivid sense of what that world *should* look like. It’s not the most damning criticism of a film (even negative virtue is in short supply in these interesting times), but it is a true one.

November 17, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Little gurly-mahn

kilt.jpgAnother reason to dislike the European Union.

Even apart from the impossible task of ignoring the arrogant stupidity of Brussels Eurocrats, I genuinely do not understand why the Scottish National Party favors Scottish independence *and* membership in the EU Superstate. If it be a bad thing for 5 million Scots to be outvoted and have our affairs run by 49 million English; why is it an improvement for 5 million Scots to be outvoted and have our affairs run by 60 million French, 58 million Italians, 82 million Germans, 41 million Spaniards, 27 million from the Low Countries, *and* the same 49 million English as well.

(Um, well, OK. Insert “English are wankers” joke here. Go Australia!!!)

November 16, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The Reel Presence

bresson.jpgA fine generalist article about the life and ouevre of the French Catholic director Robert Bresson is available here from National Catholic Reporter (thanks Amy).

Have to confess though, that Bresson really is not my cup of tea (when it comes to boring/harrowing European religious movies, give me the Scandinavians — Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Lars Von Trier, and Ingmar Bergman — every time).

Among Bresson’s Jansenist-influenced films, only A MAN ESCAPED really sent me, and that’s because it seemed like the only time Bresson’s quiet, deliberately inexpressive and unpsychological style fit the subject matter. The central character *has* to keep his thoughts to himself in order not to blow his cover for the only thing that matters — escape. The retrospective voiceover narration becomes both necessary and thrilling — cuing us in to what he’s thinking and why, so ESCAPED is not so obscure and arbitrary as much of Bresson’s body of work (I defy anyone to tell me the logic of why anything in L’ARGENT happened as it did). Still, I recognize that my opinion of Bresson is a distinct minority view among familiar enough with him to have an opinion.
———————————————-
blake.jpgA priest has an interesting-sounding book (thanks Kathy) about the influence of Catholicism on the works of six important Anglo-American filmmakers, all of them at least cradle Catholics — Frank Capra, Francis Coppola, Brian De Palma, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock and Martin Scorsese.

It’s not exactly the first time this will have been noted for any of the named directors, but having a theologically-literate priest (named Richard A. Blake, SJ) write such a book could give a new view to these works. I’m already intrigued by the article’s paragraph on THE CONVERSATION. Called “AfterImage: The Indelible Catholic Imagination of Six American Filmmakers,” it uses the metaphor of the “afterimage,” meaning the imprint left even after after the original is gone. Or as the Jesuits (of which the author is one) put it: Give me the child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.

November 16, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment

Victor agrees with Ted Kennedy

jackiefuneral2.jpgTo my knowledge and surprise, nobody in St. Blog’s Parish has picked up on this item, which ran on the national news wires Thursday evening, about the release of a priest’s papers, some of which detail Jackie Kennedy’s conversations in the wake of JFK’s assassination.

The material is inherently interesting for those fascinated with All Things Kennedy, and it’s also a blessed reminder of a pre-therapeutic world, when it was considered vulgar to emote in public. But there’s about 6 or 7 grafs in the middle of the story about the propriety of a Catholic priest (Father Richard McSorley) keeping notes about his conversations with Mrs. Kennedy, some of which were clearly religious in nature (Mrs. Kennedy’s suicidal thoughts, and questions about the afterlife).

I well realize that not everything a priest says or learns in any context is bound by the sacramental seal. But there’s still something creepy about a priest keeping notes on someone. I know I wouldn’t want my confessor to say anything about me to any third party. And something, well, jesuitical, about the searching for loopholes and saying McSorley wouldn’t want to hurt Jackie and was doing it with an eye to history, etc.

… and expeditions have been sent out to measure the temperature in Hades.

November 16, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Sullivan on “thought police on gays”

Andrew Sullivan finally notes the increasing trend of gay activists trying to silence, prosecute or psychologically “re-educate” dissenters.

sullivan.jpgGood that he’s acknowledging this, I suppose. But even here he sneaks in his “our freedom is their freedom.” If I thought for one second that Sullivan’s proposed “liberal” tradeoff (also made explicitly in “Virtually Normal” — gay marriage and open military service in exchange for an end to hate crime laws, pressure on the Boy Scouts, the Church and other private institutions) would hold, it might be worth considering. But it wouldn’t hold. For one thing, Sullivan’s own life refutes it — he’s made the cause of advancing homosexuality within the Catholic Church practically his vocation, so the kulturkampf would continue in private institutions. Call me cynical, but I frankly doubt he would be less perturbed by and opposed to certain Church teachings if the state let him marry his boyfriend, but the Church didn’t.

“It’s also vital for people of good will to understand that civil rights for gay people in no way should affect the rights of others, especially in religious denominations of all kinds, to loathe, disdain, pity or malign homosexuality,” he says. The key word here is “should.” This is less than reassuring. I would be tempted to say that Sullivan simply doesn’t know what illiberal Jacobins fill up the gay activist movement. Except that he perfectly obviously does — and arguably no journalist/public intellectual has suffered worse public humiliation at their hands than Sullivan has.

I’m sure Sullivan says what he does sincerely and in good faith, but to put it bluntly, how many divisions does he have? Which attitude is more common among homosexuals — his or ones like this in which a high-status comfortable homosexual tells a mainstream gay group in the pages of the most serious gay journalistic outlet that “We as a group have become tolerant of intolerance. Whenever anyone justifies their bigotry with what I call DHRB (deeply held religious beliefs), we roll over as if that were the end of the discussion. We have confused respecting a person’s right to hold whatever religious beliefs they choose with respecting those beliefs. … Is no one willing to say forcefully that homophobic DHRB have no place or value in a civilized 21st century?” And Episcopal gay activists are already demanding in Sovietized terms for bishops to “make sure” that a dissenting priests get “appropriate pastoral, episcopal, and psychological care to help him understand” the “embarrassment to himself, his diocese, his superiors, his Church, his vows, and his Lord” that opposition to homosexuality is. Andrei Sakharov didn’t hear it any better.

Thus, however hideous they strike Sullivan as being, we have decisions like the Colorado case Sullivan cites in which a judge forbids a Christian parent from indoctrinating a child with homophobia, including going to a church where they hand out “homophobic material.” They happen from the perfectly reasonable demand in shared custody cases that one parent not poison the child’s mind against the other. Add onto that (uncontroversial) premise merely the secular religious belief that homophobia is an irrational prejudice that has no public standing and deserves no public acknowledgement, like racism. That latter premise is quite widely held by our judicial masters, and endorsed by Sullivan and used by him as a weapon in the discussions over gay marriage and the like.

Sullivan himself once defended on “Crossfire” the use of books like “Heather Has Two Mommies” in public schools on the grounds that an increasing number of the kids in schools will have gay parents. And thus, he understands perfectly well that because some homosexuals want to redefine family for themselves, obligations and burdens are imposed on others that share the public sphere and must drink from the same cultural well, contrary to their religion.

November 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A good piece in the Village Voice (really)

gibsonbraveheart.jpgThanks, Phil (are you part of an Experiment by the way?) for pointing me to a piece by Jessica Winter on Mel Gibson’s filmography. As you said in the comment field, it’s kinda dumb when discussing THE PASSION OF CHRIST or religion as such. I had to grit my teeth through the nonsense phrase “fundamentalist Catholic” and the imputation of anti-Semitism on the “Traditionalist Catholic” movement (to which the relationship of Gibson himself, rather than his father, is not crystal-clear in any event. Certainly Mel has said some interesting things, but to my knowledge, he’s never publicly declared himself a Sedevacantist, called the Second Vatican Council invalid, or even spoken of his religious beliefs in detail at all).

But when Winter cuts the crap and gets down to discussing Gibson’s movies, she is quite intriguing. If it hadn’t been for SIGNS or BRAVEHEART, I would have been inclined to pooh-pooh the theory of Mel as Christ figure. After all, Jesus is only the most influential figure in Western history. The kinds of images of Christ that Winter analogizes to moments in Gibson’s filmography have centuries of Western iconography or language (“crucified” can now mean just “persecuted unjustly”) behind them, and moviemakers of every variety have drawn on various pieces of them to illustrate images of suffering or “holiness” (first example to pop into my head: Oliver Stone’s PLATOON). And to her credit, Winter recognizes that — there’s a tradition behind whatever gore will be in THE PASSION OF CHRIST that the LETHAL WEAPON movies don’t. But the very lack of context would push me toward the conclusion that it was just writers, directors and actors just using a quickly-available concept without thinking it through (like the superfluous “Death of Marat” shot in ROAD TO PERDITION).

gibsonsigns.jpgBut those two films do make it seem like Gibson’s been leading toward this. I liked SIGNS quite a bit (and a film about a priest regaining his faith fits my own life’s trajectory as a revert), though I preferred it more as a straightforward creepy Twilight Zone episode rather than as Christian theology. It’s pretty threadbare on those latter terms, basically a God of the Gaps. Nothing in SIGNS committed the film to any conception of metaphysical truth. But viewing it as religious psychology, as Winter does, makes it more about how “a man who’s lost his faith in God is as a petulant child who hasn’t gotten his way.”

The execution of Wallace in BRAVEHEART referenced the Crucifixion 100 ways to Sunday. Check out the first picture on the Voice article, which is as clear a Crucifixion reference as it gets, in contrast to say, the pictures from LETHAL WEAPON (which looks like an S&M club), from MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (which looks more like a Hindu or Muslim funeral, than a Christian or Jewish one), or from PAYBACK (a reference to RAGING BULL or 1,001 other boxing movies). People who have seen THE PASSION OF CHRIST said the violence reminded them of BRAVEHEART, and certainly secular nationalisms, Scottish or otherwise, have tended to try to latch onto a martyr figure. When I was learning Scottish history as a boy, though, Robert the Bruce and his final victory at Bannockburn got a lot more press time than William Wallace and the defeat at Falkirk; Wallace’s execution was mentioned, but not gone into detail, though I was only a wee lad at the time. In other words, Gibson was pouring Scottish history into a Christian template with Wallace as Jesus.

November 10, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

What is the Matrix?

No, and I haven’t seen it, and I probably won’t. Saw No. 1 on TV on a lark once, and it struck me as self-refuting sophomoric gibberish about the world somehow not being “real.” But I’m glad that someone sees the possibility for satire in this pseud claptrap.

Sci-fi films about how the world somehow isn’t real really turn me off. We know the world exists; the only philosophers who’ve tried to deny it did so by assuming it was (i.e. by typing or writing thoughts onto paper or cyberfiles that remained the same the next day, and the next year when the work was published). That is, refuting themselves. Even if, applied to the world, it is “true,” we could never know it and we couldn’t have any effect over even if we could know. I mean, who could possibly walk around day-to-day, *seriously* entertaining the hypothesis that the world isn’t real or is a trick by some evil demon or machine or whatever?

And by “seriously,” I mean acting on the assumption that the hypothesis is true; not engaging in intellectual wankery (anybody can do that; probably I better than most people). And yes, I know the “evil demon” hypothesis was entertained by Descartes during his MEDITATIONS; it was wankery then too. On an analogous point, I stopped listening to Jacques Derrida about textuality and the author’s death when he tried to stop the publication of an interview, claiming copyright protection — the ultimate appeal to “The Author-God.”

As I’ve written about ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA and MEMENTO (I could also mention 8 WOMEN), I have no problem at all with films that hypothesize about (or even argue in favor of) living a noble lie as being better than an ugly truth. But that’s essentially a psychological-moral view. Not a metaphysical one. I check out when “unreality” gets undermined as applying to the world itself — I can never quite be sure about whether the opening sequence of SLACKER is a joke or not.

November 10, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

A Japanese masterpiece now out on DVD

tokyowake.jpg

My friend Scott Tobias has a review of the DVD release of Yasujiro Ozu’s 1953 masterpiece TOKYO STORY, one of the essential, canonized films, one that everyone serious about cinema has to see.

TOKYO STORY and Ozu’s other films offers a radically different notion of how to shoot drama. It shows ordinary people in ordinary situations and shoots them in the most-plain style I know of, but without lapsing into lazy cinema-verite. It is formal, precise, even a bit mannered at first. Very little “happens” in the course of TOKYO STORY (while a universe is happening in it): Elderly rural couple visit their children and widowed daughter-in-law in Tokyo, are treated with indifference, move on to a seaside resort, the film’s only real plot point then happens, and the survivors deal with the aftermath. Ozu’s characteristic style, at the same time one of the most subtle and one of the most distinctive of any director in the medium’s history, keeps everything calm and restrained. The camera never moves, there are no fades or dissolves, the viewer is at the eye-level of someone sitting down, the actors are restrained and speak as formally as at a Japanese tea ceremony.

The style has been linked to Buddhism, a “Transcendental” style, and a repressed, knowing acceptance of fate. But Ozu was also an ironist, though in a very gentle way. He was well aware of the gap between how people talk and what they think and how they deal with that gap, but he never “exposed” it in a sneering fit of adolescent brutalism. Scott describes well in his review the facial expressions of Chishu Ryu (the father) and Setsuko Hara (the daughter-in-law), and how they carry the film. The two actors have a rapport, born of familiarity, that suggests an ambiguous ocean of emotions under the plain surface gestures (a metaphor that pretty much describes TOKYO STORY as a whole, come to think).

tokyofullon.jpg

But the feature of Ozu’s style that has been commented on least is how often his characters talk to the camera in an ordinary conversation. Rather than the intercutting of over-the-shoulder or profile shots, Ozu often shoots an ordinary conversation between two people by intercutting shots of each character talking in full-frontal view, eyes to the camera. I know of few other directors who have ever done this (and then mostly to talk to the audience — breaking down the fourth wall as it were) and none who made it part of their habitual style.

The effect heightens subjective involvement by having us sit in one character’s shoes while another talks to him with eye contact, just like a real conversation. At the same time, it also, by forcing eye contact with the *other* character, this shooting style makes *him* more sympathetic as well. Ozu’s technique heightens subjectivity without sacrificing objectivity, like most first-person camera techniques tend to. Although Ozu’s films are about family ties and thus sound like soap opera, there is no melodrama or heroes and villains in any of the half-dozen films of his I’ve seen. Just people living.

As implied by my unfavorable comparison of cinema verite, Ozu’s aesthetic shows that it is possible to achieve the goals of capturing the real without abandoning art. The New Republic’s Stanley Kauffman said it may be the greatest art work of the second half of the twentieth century. Like all such superlatives, take that with a grain of salt, but suffice it to say that the statement will never be cited on Kauffman’s commitment papers. (Also very much worth catching: AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON, EQUINOX FLOWER and FLOATING WEEDS — all available on tape, though not DVD, for right now anyway. Unseen by me, but with very high reputations and available on video are GOOD MORNING and I WAS BORN BUT …)

tokyocriterion.jpgTOKYO STORY does make demands on you because you’ve never seen a film quite like an Ozu before. But for those who can make the demand of themselves, it is as deeply moving and unsentimental a film as you’ll ever see. “Dry-eyed tears” is the metaphor that comes to mind — the DVD box on the Onion site is a facial closeup of Hara shedding a most-discreet tear. And yes, years ago, when I saw this film for the third time (first in a theater), when Hara is describing to one of her in-laws her expectations of life, I shed a few of my own.

November 10, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

The Return of The Passion

gibson5.jpgWARNING: Abstract, boring and probably anti-Semitic. Please don’t read.

Well, the same day that someone starts a thread at Dom’s blog on “Where has The Passion gone” there was a forum at the ADL on The Protocols of the Elders of Mel Gibson, and this news account makes it sound like a total love-in.

One interesting thing though — the grafs near the end indicate to me (again) that Paula Fredriksen, the author of the New Republic attack on THE PASSION OF CHRIST, will never understand why she was rebuffed and why people like Gibson (and myself) pay no attention to her.

“Fredriksen said Gibson feels he is being persecuted by the scholars, but she said their intention was only to correct mistakes.
” ‘He doesn’t understand the difference between criticism and being attacked,’ she said.”

fredericksen.jpgShe doesn’t understand the difference between interpretation and error, I say. Now I realize the phrase I’m gonna jump on is the AP writer’s not hers, but her New Republic essay has examples of the same thought process. The phrase “only to correct mistakes” is high-handed, arrogant and a complete overplaying of what it is possible for higher Biblical criticism, of the kind Fredriksen performs, to do. No wonder Gibson told her and her acolytes to shove it; she and her ilk simply have no standing to talk about Gibson’s “mistakes.” Partly because the very category “mistake” presupposes an infallible measuring stick to determine veracity (which is to say, judging according to some other Gospel); but also partly because Gibson and Fredriksen mean completely different things when they talk about Biblical accuracy.

The contemporary world of academic Biblical scholarship is atheistic — not in the sense that only atheists practice it, or that only an atheist could practice it, or that it is an atheist plot to undermine the Church. Rather it is atheistic in the sense that it approaches the Gospels (and the rest of the Bible) as merely a human artifact, a historical-literary text, which certainly testifies about human beliefs about gods certainly. But not anything supernatural. The Bible being in some decisive sense divine or inspired — the revealed word of God, in some sense true (if not necessarily “infallible”) and reliably so — is simply a hypothesis that cannot be entertained within the rules of modern scholarship. It’s like asking to roll dice to determine how many spaces a chess piece can move — that’s just not how the pieces move or the game works.

But this approach is totally removed from the world of Christian belief and the world of the Church teaching, which is that the Bible is … true. The Higher Critics operate in ways that (try to) bracket the question of “truth” (which they varyingly consider perspectival, a patriarchal plot, a metaphysical delusion, an epistemological dodge, any number of things) in order to consider the Bible in the manner they wish. I’ll leave it to them to ponder whether the question of truth *can* be bracketed (if Jesus actually did rise from the dead, surely that’s something that *can’t* be set aside). And whether, in the absence of metaphysical, absolute truth (the presence of which would make nonsense of their method) it makes any sense ever to speak of someone’s “mistakes.” Suffice it to say that when many believing Christians, such as Gibson, see this approach, the reaction is simple: garbage in, garbage out. The method is so far gone, and so obviously inappropriately applied to something divinely inspired, that it has no more standing before them than reading tea leaves or bird entrails would have in a modern court of law. Gibson and Fredriksen are quite literally speaking different and untranslatable languages.

November 7, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Howard Dean wusses out

howiegrits.jpgAs I predicted, only even faster, Howard Dean was forced back inside the PC box. The Vermont governor’s remarks about the Democrats’ need to appeal to the kind of Southern white who has a Confederate flag on his pickup truck came up in the *very next* debate. During the event itself, Dean gave an admirably peppery defense, and the early versions of the Associated Press account said he refused to apologize.I’ve already said my $.02 about why there is nothing objectionable about Dean’s remarks in the first place and I compared the other candidates’ reactions to Pavlov’s dogs slobbering on cue to a bell, just from habit even though there’s no food there. Dean got “good for him” kudos from such commentators as Andrew Sullivan and Rod Dreher (these are words to similar effect Rod wrote later, as the original links I used then are dead; VJM 5 Oct. 07).

But in between Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, something happened. Maybe those cajones that Sullivan and Dreher so admired had to be surrendered and put into a blind trust for the duration of the campaign. In Wednesday’s later versions of that AP story, Dean *does* apologize, and a close look at the wording of the story makes it clear just how abject he had become. Here are the money grafs (I can’t find this online now, Lexis could confirm if needed; VJM 5 Oct. 07):

Later, he called the AP to clarify the comments in his speech.
“That was an apology. You heard it from me,” Dean said. “It was a remark that inflicted a lot of pain on people for whom the flag of the Confederacy is a painful symbol of racism and slavery.”
Still defensive, Dean said he stood by his broader point that Democrats must court Southern whites who have voted for Republicans and received nothing in return.
“My remarks were misunderstood, of course, with the help of my colleagues” in the race, he told the AP. Dean called and apologized to rival Al Sharpton, who had challenged Dean on the debate stage.

Note the wording: *he* called the AP. It’s possible there was some maneuvering by handlers beforehand, but front-running candidates just don’t, as a matter of routine, solicit interviews with news outlets, particularly one as ubiquitous and anonymous as the Associated Press. He emphasized that it *was* an apology: “You heard it from me.” This was a major act of damage control.

It’s not from the candidate, but we also get this lovely bit from a South Carolina DNC member: “My God. Couldn’t he have simply said we need to appeal to the ‘Bubba vote’ or ‘good ol’ boy vote’?” But just calling them “Bubbas” or “good ol’ boys” doesn’t change anything about them — they’re presumably the same people who (tend to) put Rebel flags on their pickups.

All right, lemme see if I’ve got this straight: It’s OK to solicit the votes of Southern whites who have Rebel iconography. But it’s not OK to note that they sport such symbols, even for the purposes of saying “back us over other matters and put down your offensive symbol.” It is not OK to use that brandished Confederate flag as a short-hand way of referring to those working-class and poor Southern whites, because that’s hayseed stereotyping, according to Southern Democrats as conservative as Zell Miller or as (relatively) liberal as John Edwards: “Some of the greatest civil-rights leaders, white and black, have come from the South. To assume that southerners who drive trucks would embrace this symbol is offensive,” he said at the weekend. But “Bubba” and “good ol’ boy” are acceptable ways to refer to the *exact* *same* *people* who are sporting those symbols. *Now* their support has been ritually purified, like a Temple priest, I guess. And of course, in today’s apology-sodden climate, you beg forgiveness for your comments, which you maintain are not racist and were “misunderstood, of course, with the help of my colleagues.” But you still must personally solicit pardon from one of those colleagues who distorted your remarks. Is it because that candidate is black (three guesses, “yes” or no”), even though the icon is supposedly offensive to *all*, white and black alike. And actually you only solicit one of the two black candidates — doesn’t Carol Moseley-Braun count as black (like Clarence Thomas)? Doesn’t NOW’s endorsement make her a major player?

I’m confused.

southerncross.jpgActually, I’m not confused about one thing. The way this contretemps played out over the past three days — the innocence of Dean’s original remark, the speed with which the others piled on, and the even greater speed with which Dean then backed off — is one more nail in the Democratic coffin in the South as the party of South-hating liberals. Both an Orlando Sentinel columnist and Sen. Edwards know how this will play out. In Tuesday’s debate, the senator told Dean: “The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.” Confederate symbology is generally not an issue in Southern politics, but when it gets made into one, Southern whites tend to close ranks. It’s not 6th century Sparta, but the South is as close as America gets to an honor-based culture. Most Southerners (including myself during the 5 years I lived in Georgia) don’t fly the Confederate flag for a variety of reasons, but they have an acute nose for realizing when they are being dissed and held at contemptuous arm’s length over it. That’s all an honor-based culture needs to hear, and no Deanesque talk about health insurance for your kids is gonna matter at that point.

November 6, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrity Politics Update (Today’s Guest Star: Minnie Driver)

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Dumb Celebs Web site picks up on this stunt by Minnie Driver to work at a Cambodian garment maker to raise awareness of sweatshop issue and shock the world’s conscience into … blah, blah, blah. I wonder which sweatshop is gonna cooperate with this plan to drive them out of business? Just asking.

Anthony makes some fine points about what these Cambodians would be doing if we didn’t buy clothes from their factories and how economics is more complicated than egalitarianist outrage allows. Some *other* points he didn’t make but could have. It’s an embarrassment of riches dealing with these artistes, frankly:

First, we need to get some scientists to test just how dangerously-potent is the form of crack Minnie is smoking if she thinks that this issue is something that she needs to “raise awareness of.” What person who is sufficiently culturally awake to learn about Min’s efforts at consciousness-raising doesn’t already know about the garment industry in the Third World and the issue of working conditions in those places? This is the cause du jour on college campuses and the Protest Movement. When I went to college in the late 80s, it was Apartheid, and one would be as likely not to know about Apartheid then as someone today would not know about sweatshops.

Second, Miss Driver wants clothing makers to raise the wages of their Cambodian workers to Western standards (presumably with no regard to the inflationary effects on the Cambodian economy … it’s needed to make *Minnie* and *Us* feel good). More likely, this would switch production back to the United States. But in either case, the manufacturers’ labor costs are gonna go up dramatically, and this will then be reflected in the prices of their clothes. At Miss Driver’s level of income, the extra few dollars will mean nothing. But for working-class or poor people in the United States and (even more so) for Third World *consumers* … who have been known to buy these clothes, I hear, that price premium (we’ll call it the Guilty Liberal Conscience Tax) would be a deal-breaker for buying the clothes at all. And they’ll do without or with less. But we’ll feel good, having Done Our Part.

November 5, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Protestant hagiography

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LUTHER (Eric Till, USA/Germany, 2003, 6)

Circumstances don’t come together like this. I saw LUTHER with a Lutheran friend (Wisconsin Synod) … on Reformation Day. Although frankly, if noting that Reformation Day is the same day as the Satanic holiday of Halloween isn’t enough to make you Catholic, Christ Himself would probably be powerless. Is LUTHER a good film? Yes. Is it a great film? No. You just have to go into it with the right set of expectations. LUTHER is a hagiography, a Protestant “Lives of the Saints” film. Expect that, and the film delivers nicely. But my fellow Papists are advised to have thick skin.

Is LUTHER historically or theologically distorted? Yes, in a certain sense. People more knowledgeable than I have had more severe problems with its history and theology than I could possibly have had. I can forgive it showing none of Luther’s anti-Semitism (neither atypical of the period nor the reason Luther matters). Or passing over his abusive, scatalogical debating style (his rants against Erasmus in “Bondage of the Will” hardly matter any more, though they make for ‘interesting’ reading). In any event, those features of Luther became prominent later in his life than the period the film shows and I don’t think that that focus was a deliberate choice, made to duck those issues. It is simply that the most-important things Luther did, the reason he is important in a way Huss or Tyndale are not, he did early in his life — his break with the Catholic Church on [in part] the grounds of individualism, his [sorta] bucking the German princes into ending the Holy Roman Empire and other features of the medieval system, his lighting the fire of German-ness and thus nationalism in general. That was all early. And the Catholic Counter-reformation and the Enlightenment, which the Protestant Reformation helped spark, are obviously beyond the scope of a Luther biopic.

marty.jpgBut what is not forgivable is the film reducing the Protestant Reformation to questions of indulgences (practices the Church promptly reined in) and Papal authority. These were both prominent issues certainly, but there isn’t even a passing reference to any of the others, like sacramentality or soteriology. In fact, joking before the movie, my Lutheran friend and I devised soccer-fan style incantations to chant during the relevant scenes (“SOH-la-FEE-day, SOH-la-FEE-day …”) Maybe “sola fide” and “sola gratia” might make people’s eyes glaze over today, but that’s precisely why the issues are important. Their absence gives us a Luther comfortably domesticated to Our Virtues. (Yeah, freedom and the individual! Boo, control and authority!) Also, even I knew that the shock the movie’s Luther professed at the peasant massacres and attacks on Catholic churches was a sop to modern-day audiences. Even a Lives of the Saints portrayal has some responsibility in these regards.

Nevertheless, this is a fairly good retelling of the Founding Myth of Protestantism. We turn reverently from one station to the next in the story, though I admit my knowledge of the history here is less than perfect. My Lutheran friend had to tell me after the movie that the story of the lightning storm that begins the film is true, from Luther himself. But the roll call of scenes is gone through — the trip to Rome, the disillusionment, the quarrels with his teachers, his seeing John Tetzel sell indulgences in a brazen manner, the nailing of the 95 Theses on a Wittenberg church door, the condemnation of Luther’s works, the Diet of Worms, the marriage to a wayward nun, the Bible translation, the Augsburg Confession. And so on. The history is also not as anti-Catholic as it could have been — the down side of the Reformation is clearly shown (even if Luther’s attitude toward it is not), as is the worshipful “New-Pope” reaction of the German people; Church figures are shown doubting some of Tetzel’s practices (they would soon be repudiated) and also realizing that Pope Leo didn’t handle everything as well as he might have.

From the outside, Joseph Fiennes just looks like a horrible casting mistake — Luther was a peasant mensch; Fiennes has a fine-fingered white-collar aura. But Fiennes makes it work by playing Luther as tortured. Some critics objected to this characterization, but there can hardly be any doubt that Luther saw himself in the constant shadow of God’s judgment. So when he goes “bonkers” praying in his room the night before his famous words at the Diet of Worms, it recodes in advance Fiennes’ relatively subdued except-when-clearly-stretching performance before his judges. When Fiennes says the next day, before God, and recites the modern man’s credo: “Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me” … well … a chill went up and down my spine. Really … a physical chill.

lutherustinov.jpgThe truly delicious performance in the film though, is given by the great Peter Ustinov as Frederick of Saxony. It has some of the qualities of Orson Welles’ late work as an actor (or even the performance Charles Laughton gave in SPARTACUS, opposite Ustinov himself). There’s something liberating and relief-giving in the total hammy ease and self-confidence Ustinov flashes in playing a cynical, knowing, sly old man. It’s as if Ustinov knows he’s the best actor in the show, the thing you’re gonna be looking at in every scene he’s in, and dammit, he’s gonna have some fun hamming it up, and you’re gonna have fun watching him.

November 5, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment