Rightwing Film Geek

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


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).


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