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The countercultural Jesus

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THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (Mel Gibson, USA, 2004, 9)

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through a Christ without a cross.”
— Richard Niebuhr, “The Kingdom of God in America”

Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is not a movie made according to the kind of Christian creed Niebuhr mockingly describes and that has become the dominant religion in this corner of Christendom. Hallelujah.

In fact, between this film and Lars Von Trier’s upcoming DOGVILLE, every one of those four “withouts” gets put through the wringer. Both my two favorite films of the year to date are religious movies that play up these “negative” countercultural features of the Christian faith that have been watered down in this era of Nice Jesus Who Affirms Us In Our Okayness. Gibson’s film is a film about man’s sin and Christ’s cross — viewed unsparingly and without sugar coating. If we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, “For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died, and was buried,” then THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is about what we really mean by that sentence. Nothing else.

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t flawless, in fact I was frankly surprised I was moved by the film as much as I was. But I was. The shivers went up and down my spine from the first appearance of Satan in Gethsemane and the tears flowed on several occasions (usually in concert with Mary’s IIRC … this is a very Marian Passion play). But my response was not preprogrammed. Jesus movies generally haven’t fared well with me — I really liked Pasolini’s GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW and had a restrained admiration for THE GOSPEL OF JOHN. But Nicholas Ray, Franco Zeffirelli and George Stevens left me tepid or downright cold, and let’s not even talk about the “Junk for Jesus”/straight-to-video schlock that some of us were exposed to in school. And Gibson’s previous directorial work (primarily BRAVEHEART) I found pompously overblown, overwrought, telegraphed and repetitive. Some of those flaws find their way into his latest work. And though I think Gibson’s flaws as a director mostly work for him, I will go to my grave thinking he could been more discriminate in his use of slo-mo and didn’t need quite so much music score mixed quite so loudly. Their overuse, like all forms of promiscuity, eventually dissipates some of their power when most needed and most-deeply intended.

PassionCarryBut Gibson’s limitations, which produces movies that come across as self-important and grandiose on other projects, become strengths when applied to a Passion film, as if he’s found his project and his niche (think a modern-day Cecil B. DeMille). THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST isn’t a drama with a plot (it lacks the usual narrative hooks and assumes you know the basic story already), rather it’s more like a ritual — a real-time Stations of the Cross. If the Roman soldiers doing the scourging behave in a flamboyantly evil style, like the rednecks in DELIVERANCE, it serves to underline that this isn’t a story about some arrogant, privileged yuppies learning a lesson about intruding on nature. Nor are the Romans beating up some thieves. Or the English executing some foreign rebel. To act in a realistic, human register *in this story* would be false to the profanity of what the soldiers are doing. This is why the complaints about how the film is too violent are so utterly misguided. This is the Son of God atoning for all the world’s sins, dammit. If any event deserves to be portrayed as Big, over-important, it’s this one. We’re seeing, at a certain level, an act of evil beyond comprehension and so cranking up the whipping to the infinitieth degree is the only way to make the scale of the point, given that Gibson is restricted to making a film featuring a mere man. Look at the contrast between Jesus’ body by the time He is crucified and those of the two thieves. If Jesus looks like the two thieves, the brutality is merely equal and thus the uniqueness of this suffering and death, what makes it the Atonement, is not shown.

*As works of art* (the only meaningful way to compare the Gospels to a movie that will be dust one day like everything else) the Gospels offer a different experience, though they have the bonus of a unique-for-all-time guarantee of infallibility. They’re very direct, unembroidered accounts (especially the first three), with minimal description — “Jesus was scourged” is about as detailed as it gets. But since the Passion is such a familiar story and has been done so many times, it’s reasonable to demand that an artist bring something new to it, some of the kind of embroidery absent from the Gospels, and that’s where film’s immediacy comes in.

PassionChristBodyMovies are concrete, particular, and veristic; while words tend to abstractify and conceptualize (which is a good thing, I hasten to add; it’s just a matter of how the different media operate). Gibson’s style, overblown as it is, produced for me something even the Gospels themselves don’t — being overwhelmed emotionally by the sensation that something extraordinary and world-historic is happening before my very eyes. And that’s the bell to try to ring if you’re gonna make a *film* of the Passion. A film can show the utter ruination of Christ’s body, something other media can only suggest. The Suffering Servant parable of Isaiah, which Gibson alludes to in the opening title card though not this particular verse, says that the Servant had “no beauty in him, nor comeliness: and we have seen him, and there was no sightliness, that we should be desirous of him” (Isaiah 53:2). We see what such a body looks like, what “the stripes by which we are healed” (the part he does quote, 53:5) look like.

Even the John and Matthew films I favorably cited are Gospel films, not Passion films. Gibson’s movie owes more to the tradition of Passion plays, a centuries-old genre that cinema has generally shied away from but *is* the genre of one of the greatest movies of all time — Carl Theodor Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC, which I deliberately watched again the day before seeing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. While Dreyer, who is ten times the director Gibson is (that isn’t an insult … Dreyer is ten times the director pretty much anyone is), doesn’t amp up the violence like Gibson does, he certainly went for the same effect — a single-minded, compressed appeal to the viewer’s emotions. Dreyer just amped up the feeling in other ways. JOAN is one of the most aggressively eccentric films ever made — shot almost entirely in closeup against white backgrounds, with odd angles and compositions, strange camera movements and montages, chosen for subjective involvement above even logical sense. Much of Dreyer’s drama is contained in the actors’ makeup-free faces, shot like bas reliefs on a wall, and those faces are usually something less than serene. Even when they are serene, the film’s out-of-scale close-ups greatly magnify small details like the path of a tear and a blizzard of sputtered spit.

The entire genre of the Passion play was never intended as a “life of Christ” primer any more than one week’s Mass is the whole liturgical year or one TV episode the whole season. Dreyer tells us nothing about the Hundred Years War and we never see the Dauphin. The genre simply assumes you know something about the Bible (and it once could) in order to get more out of it than the bald events, which aren’t on the surface very interesting otherwise. There are only a few short moments presented as the import of it all — but they’re there.

One of the earliest lines of dialog is Satan taunting Jesus at Gethsemane that no man could bear the burden of all the sins of all men. It’s too much. Jesus shrinks from the prospect, but then crushes a serpent, the symbol of Satan’s reign in the world, and proceeds to do just that — to take on, according to the Father’s will, the sins of the whole world. Q: How can a mere man tolerate this? A: He was no mere man — both again justifying the hyperviolent quality of the film, but also giving us a Jesus worth following to the ends of the Earth and dying to self for, rather than just a teacher whose homilies we can take or leave at will as they suit us.

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This extremity also plays with our identification. Jesus’ superhuman endurance, along with His lack of speech, make it hard to “identify with” Him in the usual sense. Instead, Gibson cuts away from Jesus (far more than he’s given credit for) to give us plenty of shots of the people who see Jesus — Mary primarily, with subsidiary roles for Peter, Judas, Pilate and Simon of Cyrene. The dominant identification, I think, is to associate with how they react to Him, to see the meaning of His suffering and how they do or do not contribute to it, more than to Christ’s suffering itself. This is Gibson’s (and the Church’s) point about how we all crucified Christ. If we identify too closely with Jesus and see ourself in Him, then we’d kinda miss the point. Everybody but Mary contributes in some way to Jesus’ fate: Judas’ betrayal; the Temple Jews’ accusation; the disciples’ abandonment; Peter’s denials; Herod’s insouciance; Pilate’s condemnation; the crowd’s mockery; and finally the soldiers’ executing Him. And Satan remains behind the whole action — floating above and through it, and motivating the people.

PassionPeterWhen watching THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the first time I remember the tears flowing over my eyes came with Peter’s denials — something I’ve read, referred to or seen represented a thousand times, but in terms of making that denial convincing as something *you* might do, there’s just no substitute for actually *seeing* a threatening, angry mob constructed as Other (and constructing you as Other). Just words on a page, or just a few people milling about, or a Hyde Park soapbox crowd instead of a lynch mob, just won’t do. Since we live in basically a risk-free environment today, it’s easy for us to say “I’d never deny a friend” and so look down on Peter. Well, no. That’s part of the reason I had such scorn for the ADL’s whining that the Jerusalem mob was threatening … well, duh. How could it have made a man deny his rabbi three times if it weren’t?

There was also an uncanny event that I’ll remember forever. The church I had gone to for Ash Wednesday Mass had some nails set up in the vestibule and you were encouraged to take one as you left for keeping with you during Lent and nailing it into a cross on Good Friday. I kept that nail in my pocket and it began to lie against my thigh a little uncomfortably just at the point of the film where they arrive at Calvary. So I fished the nail out of my pocket and held it in my hand, fingering it and fiddling with it, for the rest of the film. Partly for comfort’s sake obviously, but holding a nail during the last 30 minutes conspicuously underlined and, as a sacramental, reminded me of the role I played in the crucifixion being depicted.

Gibson personalizes the Passion both through that kind of visceral concreteness, the sacramental quality of his images, and through the liturgical points made in the flashbacks. They don’t really fill in backstory as much as tell us what all this gore is the implicit culmination of. The Passion is what the Gospels had been leading up to.

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For example, the late Last Supper flashbacks are rhymed with the spearing of Jesus’ side and the resulting contemporary-Hollywood arterial spray. So when Jesus picks up the wine and says “this is my blood … it will be shed for you,” the same words the priest says every Sunday, THIS is what “shedding blood” means. Similar flashbacks take us from Calvary to the breaking of bread. It’s as if Jesus “remembers” the Last Supper even as he enacts the eucharistic sacrifice it both establishes and memorializes. Unlike most of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, the Sermon on the Mount “love your enemies” admonition is shot in the usual Biblical Epic style, but it occurs as they arrive at Calvary, and after we’re already been through the streets and the scourging. It’s a way of saying THIS is what this admonition means, His command is neither abstract nor easy and no man could be exactly faulted for not wanting to live up to it or failing to do so.

As I say, the brutality’s very unendurability and relentlessness, taken in human terms, is pretty much the point. And it’s what gives force to the Sermon on the Mount … what makes it Commandments from a God rather than admonitions from a man. THIS was your ransom, a ransom only a God could or would pay. There’s also a raindrop effect that I don’t want to spoil beyond saying it puts God’s sovereignty and the universe itself in His tears, like in John 3:16. The resurrection itself is just one quick shot that’s barely long enough to qualify as an afterthought. The words “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” come right after Caiaphas is shown at the Cross. A critic coming to the movie looking for anti-Semitism would notice Caiaphas’ appearance but somehow ignore what Jesus says.

Which is a longwinded way of saying that I believe THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST really works only if the viewer at least provisionally believes that Christianity is true — suspends disbelief in the same way viewers of comic-book movies allow for the purposes of the film that the sun’s yellow rays can give an alien super strength, x-ray vision and all that. Now this is obviously easier for those of us who do believe it’s all true, and my own Catholicism obviously predisposed me to liking this movie. But what infuriates me about many of the negative reviews THE PASSION is getting is that they are coming from a stance that is at least implicitly anti-Christian (certainly non-Christian) but usually doesn’t acknowledge itself as such (or even as a point-of-view). These critics simply would not or could not suspend disbelief — citations coming in the next couple of days.

There’s been a lot of talk in churches and the Catholic blogosphere and other Christian sites about THE PASSION being a great “teachable moment” in evangelizing a world that has turned away from Christ. And quickie books and pamphlets on the Passion are being published and whatnot. I have my doubts (actually, I have more than mere doubts) of this film’s effectiveness in terms of converting hardcore or convicted non-Christians. I think its impact will be much stronger with genially, uncritically lapsed Christians and in deepening the conversion of those of us who, while practicing, affirming and following Him, are not doing so as well as we should strive to do. Lord knows that’s a great achievement in itself and it doesn’t affect my emotional experience of the film. But I persist in believing this not-exactly-but-almost “preaching to the choir” aspect of THE PASSION to be an imperfection.

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PassionMarysMaia Morgenstern as Mary gives by far the movie’s best performance. In fact most of the film’s best moments, as cinema, are scenes she dominates — this is a movie that only a mackerel-snapper like Gibson could have made. For starters, there’s the film’s second-last shot, not just a Pieta, but one that has Mary looking right at the viewer as if to say “look what you did to my son.” It frankly overshadows the rather rote and low-key Resurrection that follows it. There’s also a scene that combines the 3rd and 4th Stations of the Cross, where Jesus stumbles under the weight of the cross and a lying-in-wait Mary runs up an alley to see Jesus. It flashes back to Jesus as a boy and Mary saying something banal in the earlier context and heartbreaking when she says it in the current one. Then there’s a few short shots of Mary following Jesus by walking down one side of the street while Satan walks down the other. It’s like a kind of pas-de-deux, pairing the two black-hooded women in opposition.

The movie’s other outstanding performance was Hristo Shopov as Pilate, who’s played as the most-modern man in the movie — a bureaucrat who acts from prudence in this to him confusing inter-Jewish quarrel in which he ain’t got no dog. Shopov plays him in the very opposite register from his flamboyantly evil droogs that do the whippings — annoyed, well-meaning, but utterly ruthless in the end as long as he gets to wash his hands. The contrast of evils is brilliant — he’s Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil presiding over some evil Snidely Whiplashes.

The two biggest names in the cast do not quite so well. Monica Bellucci is mostly just wasted as Mary Magdelene. And then there’s Jim Caviezel as Jesus. To compare him to Falconetti in Dreyer’s JOAN movie is unfair (the films’ direction and what is demanded of them as actors is so different that you’d be better off comparing two athletes playing different sports). Caviezel plays this conception of Jesus as well as you can, but there isn’t much there for an actor to do but simply “be.” For the last 100 minutes of THE PASSION, he has to give his performance with one good eye. But his left eye is about the only body part he has in good working order from beginning to end, and it does give a fine performance, mixing defiance and serenity in its gaze.

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February 27, 2004 Posted by | Catholicism, Mel Gibson, Religion in movies | Leave a comment

Bad News Bears down the Bear

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MIRACLE (Gavin O’Connor, USA, 2004, 6)

Do you believe in miracles … Yes!!! MIRACLES was actually a good movie in a genre that’s usually pretty dire (early-year Disney “Bad News Bears” template movie). I went with a work friend who is not the movie fan I am, but is much more of a hockey fan (he wore a Minnesota Wild jersey to the film); and we were both impressed.

The best thing about the film, the story of the 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team, is the hockey action sequences. To start with, all hail the casting director. The actors who played the US team looked like hockey players, both in terms of general build and gait, and in terms of none being pretty-boys, as opposed to guys who get crashed into boards or have 100 mph pucks reshape their facial features. Their nonstardom made them as anonymous as hockey players (I wouldn’t recognize Mats Sundin or Martin Brodeur if I saw them out of uniform, like I would Tim Duncan or Barry Bonds), and it also underlined one of the most amazing things about the 1980 gold-medal team and their victory over the invincible Soviet Union (um … I guess that’s a spoiler for those of my readers under the age of 20) — that the real-life team was made up of unknowns. And though they got the Wheaties box and all that, none of them went onto especially distinguished NHL careers, even coach Herb Brooks himself, the central character in MIRACLE.

I don’t *know* if the use of unknowns meant the filmmakers had looked to cast skaters or players first and actors second (as Stallone did when casting the opponent for ROCKY 3; he sought a tough, mean-looking guy whom he could train to act rather than an actor whom he’d have to train to fight). But for whatever reason, the game footage (all created anew … they don’t use archive images even for Al Michaels’ famous countdown) is very good and convincing. The actors are actually skating in the frame, and the camera gets on the ice along with them, and follows the action.

miracleskating.jpgOne of the things I hate about a lot of sports movies is that they never get the sport even passably right. Compare MIRACLE to something like BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, where it was clear that director Gurinder Chadha didn’t even understand the game well enough to choreograph an actual scene of the sport or give any sense of a game’s flow. (I ‘loved’ the moment when the manager actually held up the score with his fingers after a goal, I guess to explain to those in the audience the intricate complications of soccer scoring.) Apart from the opening fantasy scene, there was not in BECKHAM a single moment of action, not even a shot, that was even marginally convincing. The keepers always dove the wrong way when the ball is kicked right at them, which looks good but has nothing to do with the game … like when a fighter’s head always snaps back vigorously and arms go flying every time he takes a punch to the head. The shots in BECKHAM were so short and the sequences so heavily edited, and with so much extraneous moving about [and helpfully obscuring in the foreground], that it seemed designed to hide the fact that BECKHAM’s actors had no chops as athletes. Not MIRACLE. Some of the individual moments *are* of the edited-together “he shoots, he scores” genre, but there were several shots that lasted long enough and they were framed sufficiently clearly that they resembled something like the flow of an actual hockey game. It felt like many lasted as long as 15 or 20 seconds, which doesn’t sound like much (and it isn’t, compared to the real thing, obviously), but compared to 3 or 4 seconds per shot, it *feels* so different in terms of verissimilute and “not cheating by editing.”

In addition, I wasn’t as bothered as I might have been by the sports-movie cliche of “Underdog David slays Goliath” (which is almost never the case; even when underdogs win, it’s usually “underdogs” at the same level, like the Marlins winning the World Series. Nothing like the raw talent gap as it was here). If ever there was a real-life sports contest that followed that template, it was this one. The Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas title fight is the only thing in my lifetime that comes close in terms of a sheer unexpected upset. And even there, nobody doubted that Douglas was a world-class fighter and a legit-contender in some abstract sense; it was just that Tyson was thought to be invincible. But at the same time, MIRACLE doesn’t go overboard. The team won because of strategy and hard work — as most teams do. There’s was a lot of the political backstory (the malaise speech, the second oil shock, Iran’s invasion of the US, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all came in the previous 12 months) as there has to be. But it isn’t presented as the reason they won, but rather and more-reasonably the reason their victory mattered (thanks, Bilge) — a momentous sports victory as a lifting of national morale.

miraclerussell.jpgThe always-underestimated Kurt Russell is also terrific in the role of coach Brooks. He nails the Minnesota accent perfectly (as my Minnesota-born-friend pointed out), but also got something a little more elusive. There’s a certain taskmaster hardness in the coach’s persona — the sorta tight-jaw-and-cheeks look. It’s so contrary to Russell in real life that it surprised me more that he got it right — it’s like he’s chewing on bubble gum with the texture of rubber.

MIRACLE is not a great film — in fact if you go in with too-high or the wrong expectations, you might be disappointed. The score is overbombastic and redundant, underlining all the significant moments with what it imagines as Aaron Copeland grandeur. It doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t expect (obviously, it couldn’t, but still …) We also get another example of the Wife Complaining About Being Neglected At Home But Is In The Crowd For The Final Showdown. This role cannot be played because it is thoroughly cliche and dramatically redundant. And I will not mention the way the malaise speech was used on account of I think Josh still reads this blog (and congratulations bud).

February 19, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Mao, more than ever

maoposter.jpgMy friend Adam alerted me to this awesome film criticism site for people with a really ironic and ghoulish sense of humor. So naturally, I can’t take my eyes off the Maoist International Movement film site, and I have had hours of time-wasting fun.

I actually think we should keep a few Commies around, and put them in a theme park for display. This Maoist site, at which the critics are identified at most by code names, like MC-17 and PG-13, is a good step in that direction. It makes David Walsh of the World Socialist Web Site look sane. These Maoists are definitely worth a bookmark if you want the Chairman’s Revolutionary Nonrevisionist perspective on:

PATCH ADAMS: the plot points “agree [some] with the proletarian perspective of medicine. The bourgeoisie puts great emphasis on technical training and puts this above common sense and contact with the masses.”

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS: I think they liked this one, because they acknowledge that it “deserves not to be banned under the dictatorship of the proletariat.” (I repeat: I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP.) Apparently, it shows the wizard school in a “crisis” situation where learning has to take place outside the context of the status quo system. Which Mao saw. And saw that it was Good.

TANK GIRL: On the down side, she “smokes, which is not MIM’s idea of good in a role model. Tank Girl does not have the advantage of Marxist science.” And “as an individualist Tank Girl’s class awareness appears limited and reactive.” But it gets better and is “overall objectively progressive. It is progressive because it is the story of wimmin and brown skinned persyns (“kangaroos”) fighting against monopoly capitalists.” It is all in all, “about the best culture were going to see under imperialism.” Maybe that means would prevent it from being banned under a dictatorship of the proletariat.

charliesdiaz.jpgCHARLIE’S ANGELS 2 and LARA CROFT, TOMB RAIDER 2: They “perpetuate gender oppression and inequality” by “pornographic portrayals of wimmin.” But not, not NOT from “some Christian purism or moral code.” No, no, no. But CHARLIE’S ANGELS 2 does have one redeeming facet. “In the end the evil Angel wasn’t put in therapy: they killed her, so at least Charlie’s Angels got that right.” Some Christian purism might be a good idea.

CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: Close, but no cigar … um … uh … close but no communal proletarian rice bowl. It has empowered wimmin, but “aesthetics cannot be separated from political content.” Durn it. And since, the film “fails to deliver any good reason for the wimmin — or the men — to use their [athletic] skill,” I guess it’s onto the Little Red Bonfire.

Some of the reviews were almost coy, though. I was actually surprised it took the Undercover Revolutionary Reviewer as long as it did, the second-last sentence of a 1,000-word review, to get to the (obvious) point that BLACK HAWK DOWN‘s “perspective is reactionary.”

My favorite quote is probably this one, about THE FARM. “Angola was transformed from an old-style slave plantation into a modern day slave plantation (prison) after the Civil War.” I’d never before realized that “police are key weapons in Amerika’s imperialist war against its internal Black, Latino and Indigenous colonies” in the “Amerikkkan Lockdown.” At the end of the same review, it laments the number of people who came to a screening but didn’t sign up to overthrow the state, because they were too racist to associate with the African Diaspora figures being oppressed in Amerikkka.

hammersickle.jpgYou can’t make this stuff up. You wouldn’t think it would be possible to attack Noam Chomsky from the left, but these people manage. Did you know that in POWER AND TERROR: NOAM CHOMSKY IN OUR TIMES, Chomsky is a “cop out” on capitalism and “misleads his audience about the reality of historical activism” because he doesn’t tell people to fight for communism — “an alternative … that has been tested historically and proven superior to capitalism”? I did not know that. Or that even Jean-Luc Godard committed historical errors. His TOUT VA BIEN (starring Hanoi Jane Fonda) “was too much in the direction of economic demands by imperialist country workers — this despite the fact that Godard separated from social-democracy and revisionism while showing how the imperialists exploit the Third World for the benefit of themselves and their lackeys.”

I’m too unsurprised to really be disgusted by the fact that Maoists would not care for such revisionist running-dog films from “Capitalist China” as Zhang Yimou’s TO LIVE, Chen Kaige’s FAREWELL, MY CONCUBINE, and Tian Zhuangzhuang’s THE BLUE KITE. The Zhang “downplays the tremendous gains the Chinese people made under Maoist leadership.” The Chen film “Includes typical revisionist history depicting the Cultural Revolution as anarchic and destructive.” And the Tian doesn’t do enough to emphasize “the important advances made in the Cultural Revolution.” But it does show unintentionally how good the Cultural Revolution was in fighting bourgeois reactionary liberal ideas — yes, you read that right.

Stop laughing, people. This site is real. I think. Oh … and did you know that MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING “may have had some progressive value in feudal times… [but] it’s hard to see this film continuing to have value today.” Or that SCHINDLER’S LIST is a “fitting Amerikan eulogy to one benevolent capitalist who saved people by putting them to work in his factory.” I gotta stop right now. I could be writing in this mode forever.

Just a word to my 5.5 readers (half of David Morrison’s) … if I *ever* start sounding like a right-wing version of that site, just go ahead and shoot me. And cite this post in defense; I’m sure you’ll get off.

February 19, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Passionate paranoia

passiononesheet.jpgParanoiacs can still create justified enemies. THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST is hacking off a lot of journalists. Apparently professional critics are being stonewalled and generally aren’t being allowed to see the film until a couple of days before the Ash Wednesday opening.

I’ve said here before that I believe pro critics had their knives out for the film long ago, but the press agencies’ paranoia is generating (semi-justified) ill will that won’t make things better. Just because they dislike you doesn’t mean you can’t make it worse. And it’s not just film critics, it’s also religion writers. A while ago, I got this note from the religion writer at a conservative daily paper who is an orthodox Christian, much more inclined to sympathy for Mel over the ADL, about the difficulties she had. She was treated like the enemy. Here it is, reprinted with her permission:

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You would not believe what I had to go through to do the 2 stories that ran last week. A Larry Ross’ folks (the press agency managing the Gibson film) gave me permission to sneak in – they even told me how to sign up and get access. They said any confidentiality agreements would not apply to me. So I told my bosses 2 weeks ago everything was all arranged. But when I arrived in Orlando on Wednesday, I found everything had changed. People had to have their hands stamped to get in (the mark of the beast as it were) and they had these draconian confidentiality agreements everyone had to sign. This included the Mel Gibson “interview” in front of 5,000 pastors a few hours before the film was shown. Nothing could be written on what he said and the ushers were told to eject anyone caught with a tape recorder. This was totally unexpected. I signed the stupid form and walked in; took notes on Mel Gibson’s speech (he had nothing new to say), filed my story, then made the mistake of calling Larry Ross’ s folks to say I was in town. Ross’ folks panicked and they flooded my cell phone plus the newsroom with threatening calls – this was all 6:30 p.m. and later – So I called the managing editor and we discussed the legal aspects – we decided to go ahead and run the story on A1. But 3 hours later, Larry Ross was still putting in frantic calls to the newsroom to try to stop the story. WHY they thought Icon Productions (Mel Gibson’s production company) even cared at this point is beyond me.

Finally my immediate boss called me on my cell to find out what was going on – this is 9:20 p.m. minutes before the film is to start – I was in the middle of the church – as I went out into the hall to tell my boss on my cell phone what was going on, Larry Ross himself was standing there, reading to pounce. Being that he’s well over 6 feet tall, he’s hard to ignore. I was caught like a bug in a net, berated by Larry and then kicked out of the church. Standing next to him was the employee who had encouraged me to sneak in. I didn’t want to say much as I was afraid she’d lose her job.

As I was standing there, shivering (January nights in Fla. are cold), pouting and asking God what to do next, I walked around the church – all the doors were locked cept the main doors from what I could see. Went back to a plaza in front of the church where I could at least hear the soundtrack (all in Aramaic and Latin)- this guy (an angel in disguise) came up to me – asked if I was OK – I said no – he asked what I needed – I said I needed to get into the church but not through the main entrance which was under guard.

So he took me around to another door which was unlocked. This let me into a hallway next to a door right in the front of the church (where no usher would dare kick me out as everyone would hear the racket). Then I dashed into the auditorium and watched the rest of the film. (Missed about 20-25 mins but that’s all).

The next day, I bumped into an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter in my hotel lobby – we were laughing about how stupid the whole secrecy thing is as he too had wormed his way in on a false ID. He had not filed a story for Thursday’s paper like I had, tho. He then introduced me to the 2 guys from the ADL who also snuck into the film under the guise of being from the “Church of Truth” in Brooklyn. The ADL guys were very happy to give us quotes. They were quite inaccurate in terms of certain things the New Testament says – which I called them on – but most reporters do not know and will just repeat all these guys’ accusations of anti-Semitism. Larry Ross called me *back* later that day – didn’t apologize for kicking me out, but was tearing his hair over the ADL folks whose remarks by this time were on the wires.

I think “The Passion” is a great film but the way Icon is going about the security – while at the same time showing it to 5 zillion Christian groups and telling them not to talk about it- is nuts. There was a ton of media people there Wednesday afternoon trying to talk to him after his speech to the pastors – one producer flew down from New York and got nothing – Gibson just ran past the cameras and jumped into a car. I understand he’s got an exclusivity agreement with Diane Sawyer.

February 19, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Like a virgin

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I watched THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS again last week, for the 23rd time over 15 years, the most I have seen any film. It was playing on TCM overnight and I was up, so … why not.

ambersonsfanny.jpgI know the film and its barrage of perfect scenes almost by heart now … Agnes Moorhead’s great speech as Aunt Fanny comes apart at the end (“it’s not hot”), the high point of the greatest supporting female role in film history; the beautiful ball sequence (“remember you very well indeed”); the sound mix in the leave-taking at the hall (“Lucy, you’ll catch cold”); Welles’ opening narration (“all the ladies who wore silk or velvet knew all the other ladies who wore silk or velvet”); the exchange between Fanny and George in the kitchen over strawberry shortcake and romantic jealousy; Major Amberson looking into the fire; the line “it’s like quarrelling outside an operating room”; Isabel’s dying delirium; “As I walked along the Bois de Boulogne.” I’ve never tired of AMBERSONS and I can’t imagine ever doing so.

Still … what I would give to be able to see THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS for the first time again.

February 18, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

Lab-coat Killers

This is the kind of news that makes you angry at God for not smiting the people doing this and raining fire on the culture that loves it. Some Korean scientists have cloned human beings and then killed them at the embryo stage for use as spare parts. And this is hailed as a great scientific breakthrough, because these Dr. Frankensteins succeeded for the first time in actually harvesting the cells they wanted, actually getting the gold from the teeth. Though not without some collateral damage: “the Seoul team … succeeded in cloning 30 blastocysts — early-stage embryos containing a mere 100 cells. From those, they harvested just one colony of stem cells.”

This is murder, blessed by a lab coat. Which of course means, in the Culture of Death, that the “objective” media will hail it as a very good thing. And sure enough, they got as weak-kneed as a bobby-soxer within 100 feet of Frank Sinatra. This is the sort of story that tells me that the so-called “objectivity” of the mainstream media is nothing but a sham. Several things worth noting about the first version of the Associated Press story.

We aren’t even finished with the first paragraph before we get told of all the wonderful things cloning does. The third paragraph begins “This is not cloning to make babies” (can you hear the writer emphasize the word NOT, NOT, NOT, DAMMIT?) as though some other purpose makes it something other than cloning. It is reassuring, though, that this “cloning” is not gonna result in something as horrible as babies. Can’t have that, can we, in this overpopulated, messed-up world?

The rest of the paragraph gives us a soothing bit of doublespeak — “embryos … are grown … to supply,” like they were a herd of cattle and with no mention of how this “supplying” is achieved. The herd needs to be culled, though at least the farm industry is honest enough to call them “slaughterhouses.” In fact, you’ll see words like “kill” or “slaughter” more often in stories about mad cow disease than about human embryo and tissue research.

Throughout, the story pays obeisance and hinges around this nonexistent and evil (CQ) distinction, dreamed up by self-justifying researchers and medical “ethicists” (sic), between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning.”

Since when have medical or scientific procedures been distinguished according to the use to which identical products from the identical process would be put? It’s like saying there’s some ontological or definitional difference between building “bank-robber getaway cars” and “nursing-home trip cars.” It is pure euphemism designed to hoodwink gullible people and illiterate lawmakers into thinking scientists aren’t “really” cloning human beings, and thus what they are doing is somehow morally acceptable. But cars is cars. Judging from history on partial-birth abortion, you almost expect the next edition of the AP stylebook to make the preferred style “so-called ‘cloning’,” or “the procedure opponents refer to as ‘cloning’.”

Then in the 15th paragraph of the story that we get this little sentence. “Culling stem cells from embryos kills them…” What is so remarkable about this is not just that it uses the world “kills,” but that it considers 14 paragraphs of material somehow more important than this indisputable scientific fact about “culling” — what an unintentionally revealing metaphor, human beings as livestock herd. Imagine, if you can, 14 paragraphs about Jack Kevorkian (or a state executioner, pick according to ideological fancy) “giving chemicals” and “providing injections” and then a casual aside about the fact that people die from these “chemicals” and “injections.” No worry; they were just culled from the herd so to speak. Actually, my 10 years as a daily newspaper wire editor tells me I hardly have to “imagine” such blowsy euphemism in stories about subjects such as abortion, euthanasia or the other Blessed Sacraments.

What’s even more contemptible and disgusting is that later write-thrus of the AP story in question, such as this one, cut that paragraph down, and eliminated the word “kills.” But it keeps this odd locution: “Bush administration policy forbids any federally funded research on stem cells from embryos destroyed after Aug. 9, 2001.” How is “embryos destroyed after …” in any sense different from “embryos killed after …”? Oh, it’s less direct all right and different in connotation. The word even has literal meanings other than “kill”: “The detonation destroyed the building and cleared the way for a new development”; or “Manning destroyed the Chiefs secondary, throwing five TD passes and no interceptions.” Something tells me that was the point.

But journalists are supposed to be the enemies of obfuscation, cant and euphemism. Either “culling” does not mean killing, and hence “destroyed” is inappropriate; or it does, in which case, it’s euphemistic in meaning and the story also buries the most-important detail. Why bury the fact that human embryo research kills the human embryos? To ask the question is to answer it.

February 12, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 1

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CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS (Andrew Jarecki, USA)

If CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS were only a police procedural about a suburban family victimized by charges of child molestation against two of its members, father Arnold and son Jesse during the 1980s day-care witch-hunts, it would still be a very good, interesting and diverting film. But what made this film so unique and so great, the best of the year and NOW out on a kick-ass 2-disc DVD, is that the family basically recorded its entire life on film and video, before during and after the charges, and the current-day filmmaker had access to all the footage.

With that footage, and a truly brilliant storytelling structure that lets us have information in strategically-parceled-out drips to lead us down garden paths and then pulls the rug out from under us, FRIEDMANS somehow manages to be, all at the same time — a case study of a terrible miscarriage of justice; a mind-dizzying game on narrative and expectations (its twists truly rival MEMENTO); two father-son love stories; a family meltdown (there are scenes of family quarrels that play like early John Cassavetes or Ingmar Bergman); and a meditation on knowledge and the will to believe. By the very end, the dizzying kaleidoscope has even turned upon itself and we’re questioning the very ethical existence of the film and the final hug sticks in the craw horribly. (Again, like MEMENTO’s heartbreaking “now, where was I?”) All at the same time. CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS is that good.

friedmanstown.jpgArnold and Elaine Friedman are introduced as a typical 1950s couple with three sons (David, Seth and Jesse) and a home in Great Neck, Long Island. It looks like we’re gonna see another Suburban Hell movie, shooting leaden ducks a la AMERICAN BEAUTY with obviously contrived time-lapse footage of the town and shots of home facades, because we all know that Suburbia is a “comfortable concentration camp” and that beneath the surface placidity, passions run dark and dangerous. We *do* know that, don’t we? And so the revelations begin, starting with Arnold’s arrest one ordinary day for receiving child pornography in the mail and ending with charges of hundreds of counts of sodomizing the boys in a computer class the Friedmans ran in their basement. Both Arnold and Jesse plead guilty and are sent to jail for a long time. That’s the basic structure and I can’t duplicate the pleasure of actually following the story, but there’s a lot of meat on them thar bones.

I should say that I believe the charges against Arnold and Jesse were false, the product of group hysteria, the leading questioning of children, and police blackmail. To my mind, three undisputed facts are each dispositive — 1) there was never any physical evidence of sodomizing, as there had to have been after the description of the game “leapfrog”; 2) there were zero complaints of abuse before Arnold’s porn arrest, yet hundreds of counts were charged; and 3) many “victims” were tainted by police-questioning techniques, including the leading of children and the absurd use of hypnosis.

friedmansarrest.jpgLike with MEMENTO, part of the pleasure in FRIEDMANS is the way the story structure invites us to jump to (wrong) conclusions and thus makes us understand how an outrageous miscarriage of justice and the destruction of this family could *both* have happened. The test question is this: once it’s established that a miscarriage of justice took place, what’s your next thought? Moralistic denunciation of witch-hunters is fine and there’s a place for it, but for me that can only go so far. The *much* more interesting question is — how and why? How could people believe something so obviously false? That people believe that hundreds of sodomizings could go unreported for years tells me people were watching too many Suburban Hell movies (setting their expectations of the possible and the normal). But if one wants to go beyond cluck-clucking, the filmmaker has to make *us* (at least tentatively) see the world the way the mistaken people did. And one way to do that is to mislead the audiences into jumping to conclusions in exactly the way real-life authorities and the town did.

This is where I think Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comparison with DAY OF WRATH is so apropos. Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 masterpiece was notoriously ambiguous on the matter of whether Herlofs Merthe and Anne are actually witches. It was about hysteria but it made you understand the hysterics. Besides being 20th-century sofisto audiences, we’re cued through various means early on to see Merthe’s death as hysterical, sexphobic retaliation on the part of repressive authority. But if we reflect on it and see the film a second time with the plot events in mind, we realize that Merthe’s first line was “there is great power in evil” while selling gallows herbs (i.e. she actually *was* guilty of conspiring with the devil); that all her stakebound maledictions came true; that Anne wished death on her husband at the moment he felt death on the moor; and that Anne’s trying to realize an unnatural liaison. In sum, we see how even Anne could have come to be seen as a witch, even by herself. The whole point of FRIEDMANS (well, of one of its strands anyway) is precisely about such emotional manipulation based on partial knowledge and the “will to believe,” both within the family and within the town. In Great Neck, people who said their sons weren’t sodomized were viewed as suspect and the horror of pedophilia meant that the charge was enough — doubters were ostracized as insensitive.

FRIEDMANS makes us think one thing and then give another piece of the puzzle, which makes the rest appear in a completely different light. For example, the preposterous investigation and the lack of physical evidence (plus the basis for the investigation being a porn bust) cues us to think Arnold wasn’t really a pedophile, he’d just committed “pedophilia in his heart” as Jimmy Carter might say. But then we find out he was a sex abuser, though not of the charges involved. And then we reflect on how the mother’s uncertainty about Arnold’s innocence (a major factor in tearing the family apart, and which we’ve been cued, through Elaine’s unattractive personality, to see as the sons do) as not so unreasonable after all. And Arnold’s decision to accept jail time appears in a new light. And Jesse and David’s dogged faith in their father appears as more than (or less than) filial loyalty, and also possibly as the latest act of anti-Momism (or certainly, we can see how *Elaine* could see it that way). David’s scene dismissing Arnold’s confession of the other acts of abuse is as hilarious an act of willed denial as you’ll ever see. And so on. This is why I find FRIEDMANS’ withholding of information and manipulation so enlightening and thrilling. As Jean Renoir put it: “The thing that is most horrible, don’t you see, is that everybody has his reasons.” You feel everybody’s reasons in this film. That’s what the manipulations achieve.

friedmansbox.jpgFRIEDMANS never gets “meta” like such documentaries as ABC AFRICA or DERRIDA, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a nonmeta-documentary (and few films), for which textuality is such a central concern, and eventually the film’s central ethical concern. The whole film is essentially a reality TV show avant la lettre — voyeuristically looking at the misery of people who film themselves and volunteer for debasement. Rosenbaum writes a lot of tendentiously-wack-liberal soapboxing, but when he’s on his game … I read no better film review last year than his above-linked piece on FRIEDMANS, where he zeroes in on this very matter. We see footage of the most rancid, bitter family fights. At the absolute minimum, it’s the Friedmans exploiting themselves or each other, and to both common ends and to ends against each other … in three of the nastiest confrontations — the nights before Jesse and Arnold go off to jail and the defense-strategy meeting at the dinner table — someone explicitly says “stop photographing me” and it’s clear in at least two of the cases that the footage was part of David’s persecution of the mother Elaine. There’s even a subtle reference, if you blink you miss it, to the fact that David has been kicked out of the house by the time of Jesse’s plea. It’s very uncomfortable to listen to … like arguing outside an operating room, as an Orson Welles character once said, but a family breaking apart should be uncomfortable at a certain level.

But the film explicitly implicates us, the movie audience, practically from the first three things we see. They are — 1) home-video footage of mock news-style interviews, including Jesse and Arnold breaking the fourth wall and talking into the camera; 2) opening credits that include the double-meaning word “Capturing” (i.e. arresting and photographing) and the song “Act Naturally” and its repeated line, “I hope you come and see me in the movies”; 3) self-made footage of David, amid tears, ranting into the camera at an imaginary viewer, i.e. us., telling us that nobody will ever see this footage unless you’re cops or prosecutors, and so, to anyone watching this: “GET LOST!!!! (that’s the G-rated version) … don’t invade my grief; my family is destroyed and leave me alone.”

One of the things things emphasis on textuality does is challenge the astute viewer of FRIEDMANS to ask himself “wait a second, how did this footage make its way to this screen?” until by the end, the film has completely transvalued (and subtly, I leap to my feet in applause to note) a closing shot that would otherwise be a sentimental cliche. That shot, of a hug between Jesse and Elaine at a hotel room, leaves us with a very strange taste in the mouth. It sticks in the craw as something artificial and staged.

friedmansjarecki.jpgDirector Jarecki has shown us much home-movie footage where we can “see” (in various senses) the filmmaker; the “characters” frequently break the fourth wall (David addressing the camera at the start); and the process of filming has been interrupted (the “please don’t film me” requests and the attack at the courthouse at Jesse’s sentencing come first to mind). So by the end of the movie, we have become very sophisticated viewers about the process of image-making. And so the minute we see the camera inside the hotel room and pick up that it’s supposed to be Jesse and Elaine’s reunion, we start thinking. David is estranged from his mother and Seth absent from the film for some reason or another, and so the immediate question to come to mind is “who is filming this and isn’t it obviously a ‘staged’ moment?”

The hug and the implied uplift of the final shot, if taken or meant to be taken straight, would be a false emotional note. Look at the situation — the family is in shreds. The father is dead and disgraced, the mother was always an outsider and is now remarried and apparently relieved of it, Jesse is the walking prison-scarred dead, David is consumed with anger at his mother, and Seth is, far as we can tell, nowhere around and unspoken of. And this is all supposed to end on a hug? I’m not saying Jesse and Elaine were “faking it” for the camera, in the sense that professional wrestlers “fake it.” But the artificiality and stagedness of the means underlines that it’s a staged moment emotionally. It reminded me emotionally of a scene late in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece CRIES AND WHISPERS in the moments after Agnes’ death when Karin and Maria try to synthesize the love for one another they had as girls and they touch one another and speak with the tentativeness of a toddler still learning to use its muscles. But the next day, things are back to normal.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 2

campbellscott.jpgTHE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA)

I’ve pretty much already said here what I wanted to say about THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS in this post and in this post.

I watched it again last week, when I got the DVD and each of the five times I’ve seen DENTISTS, it’s just gotten better: more seamless, more romantic and more moving.

And Denis Leary is *NOT* giving a bad performance people. He’s playing an id in a world of superegos. He *should* be performing in a completely different key. Grrr.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 3

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THE SON (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)

“Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.”
— St. Francis of Assisi

THE SON is a European art movie that almost nobody saw (it never played commercially in Washington; I saw it twice at festivals) and it’s still not on video unless your player can read European-coded discs or tapes. This joker compared it to Robert Bresson; when I saw it a second time, with a professor at Howard University, she thought it excruciatingly slow and boring (though she warmed up to it once we started discussing it); the other day, I got a note from a film-buff pal who wondered to me “I’ve watched the first 20 minutes or so of this and I’ve yet to see anything of interest … what should I be looking for?” So I well realize that THE SON, much as I love it, is not a crowd-pleaser.

Still, I can’t get the suspicion out of the back of mind that THE SON could be a crackerjack success among the people at St. Blogs (Barbara? Father Sibley? Mark? Others?) if more people could see it and get the word out on it, because this little Belgian masterpiece speaks to the workings of God’s grace more than any other film I saw last year. In addition, it centers around divine grace and one of Christ’s admonitions to virtue more thoroughly than any film I can think of where the word “God” never appears, the central character never goes to church, and priests or religious figures are absent. Or rather, THE SON preaches grace without ever using words. Oh, there are indications that we’re supposed to understand the film allegorically and theologically all right, the film’s title and the fact that the central character, Olivier, is a carpenter. And he is faced with a moral dilemma of Christ-like proportions. But even if God is present everywhere in the film, He is visible nowhere.

Brother writer-directors Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne spend the first 25 or 30 minutes of the film just following a mousy, pasty-faced character actor named Olivier Gourmet (who won a deserved best-actor prize at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival) as his character goes about his job teaching carpentry to teenage boys at what looks like some sort of apprentice program. We learn the nuts-and-bolts of a profession in THE SON like in few films I recall. For a long time, in fact, the film hardly seems to be more than IF I WERE A CARPENTER and the Dardennes show Olivier’s taciturn, stern, fatherly manner with his charges — a perfectionist teaching and exuding a work ethic and job skills.

And he goes on living alone. And merely existing. And looking. At something. Or someone. For some reason.

thesonavuncular.jpgWhen I say “following Olivier,” I mean that about as literally as one can. The Dardennes use the same close-up-heavy, seemingly hand-held style as they did in ROSETTA — the camera is constantly moving and seemingly permanently perched about a foot behind Gourmet’s head, creating a kind of intimate claustrophobia for us within Olivier’s skin. Some wags complained that the Cannes jury should have give the prize to the back of Gourmet’s neck or his earlobes, and other sane (but wrongheaded) people found the style offputting and/or said it wrecked the film. But I found the camerawork a breathtaking virtuoso act and, although the plot doesn’t obviously kick in until a big revelation at about the 30-minute mark, the Dardennes hide more story-exposition than you’d ever guess until after THE SON is over (the Dardennes’ focus-puller does more story-telling than most Hollywoof scriptwriters). We get a general sense that Olivier is haunted by something he’s been able to put in the past. But he has that … inexplicable interest in one of his students? I usually cannot abide films that go nowhere for long periods, but right when I mentally said to myself “OK, I think they’ve milked this for all it’s worth, something needs to happen soon” — something did. And then I said “thanks dardennebuds.” That plot point constitutes a major spoiler for one of the great pleasures of THE SON (for me at any rate) — the intimate mysteriousness of the opening half-hour. You have been warned

“Then came Peter unto him and said: ‘Lord, how often shall my brother offend against me, and I forgive him? Till seven times?’ Jesus saith to him: ‘I say not to thee, till seven times; but till seventy times seven times’.”
— Matthew 18:21-22

We find out the reason for Olivier’s interest in one of the pupils — a teenager named Francis just released from reformatory. Francis had served five years in juvenile hall for killing Olivier’s son in a car robbery gone awry. Olivier knows this; Francis does not know who his boss is. And the rest of the film concerns the VERTIGO question — what happens when Scotty/Francis finds out who Judy/Olivier is? And what is Olivier’s agenda?

One of the many reasons this film is so great and the last hour so tension-filled is that we never quite know (from the uncertain way Gourmet carries his body and his taciturnity) what Olivier is doing. Is he an ironic criminal out of Poe planning the perfect crime? Is he trying to exercise Jesus’ command to perfect forgiveness, despite its obvious impossibility and the nature of the wrong done him. Not until the very last shot of the film can we be certain. THE SON is a series of temptations put before a Christ-figure on the road to exercising perfect forgiveness, the last of which, perversely, is his own righteousness.

thesonwife.jpgMost of the time, when people “forgive” their tormentors (and I’m speaking of much more than parents of murdered children, which is at the extremities of torment), they generally say a few easy words, and then they leave the sinner at a distance and move on. But THE SON is about a man who has “forgiven” (in that easier sense) his son’s killer at the start of the movie. But then the world, as if guided by an invisible providential hand, conspires to push the limits of forgiveness … by putting the killer in his apprenticeship program, by a scene in which Olivier has to save the boy from a ladder-climbing accident, by Francis’s starting to like Olivier, treat him as a friend and finally asks him to be his guardian. Olivier’s ex-wife (their marriage broke up over the death of their son) finds out and goes batshit — “how can you do this,” she screams. “I don’t know,” he (honestly) answers.

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In the climactic scene, Olivier makes a date with Francis go out to a lumber yard alone. The drive out there makes up most of the film’s third act and it keeps tantalizing us with doubts and hints until I was thinking of the third act of IN THE BEDROOM and of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado,” with Olivier as Montresor luring a young Fortunato to his crypt for an ironic death. There’s a universe in the smallest snubs and changes in tone of voice. They stop at a pastry shop, and each gets a turnover. Olivier pays for his, leaving a surprised Francis to pay for his. No explicit explanation is offered or sought, but look at the faces. We’ve seen Olivier’s fatherly or avuncular manner with his pupils, but when your father or favorite uncle took you out somewhere, you didn’t go Dutch — and these are Belgians (couldn’t resist). It seemed like such a calculated and particularized snub that I thought it was paving the way for something more. There’s also an element of shame in Francis’ behavior throughout the drive (his evasive answers to Olivier’s asking “why were you in jail?”) and that makes his fleeing a perversely moral reaction to being made to face your wrongdoing.

Martin Luther once said: “Love God, often I hate him,” and Isaiah was terrified by seeing the face of God, and that’s sort of the dynamic here. And then, in a final perverse twist at the end, when Olivier tells him who he is, Francis flees him precisely BECAUSE the boy (quite rationally, I add, since he has seen IN THE BEDROOM) assumes he has been lured out to a murder site.

Has he? See the movie.

February 10, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 4

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CITY OF GOD (Fernando Meirelles, Brazil)

CITY OF GOD won multiple Oscar nominations (including script and director) and is taking advantage of the publicity with a minor theatrical re-release, at least in Washington and so I imagine in some other markets too, giving people who missed it (and shame on you) another chance to catch it. (Though its video release just got pushed back a few months, and not for the first time, now to June.)

And that additional chance really should be taken advantage of, because of the four movies among my Top 10 that are in foreign languages, the two from Europe will not be to everybody’s taste, I acknowledge. But the two films from Brazil — CITY OF GOD and BUS 174 — are movies that I’d heartily recommend to anybody, even people who rarely see foreign-language flicks. BUS 174, as I’ve said, begins with the form of a “Cops” episode, while CITY OF GOD is basically a gangster film. One of the most dazzlingly directed, most powerful and brilliantly structured gangster films ever (think GOODFELLAS … and yes I do intend that comparison; CITY OF GOD *is* that good). But a gangster film, so it’s well within most people’s comfort zone (as IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON are not) if they would just go see it.

The title does not refer to St. Augustine’s theology, but to the name of a Rio de Janeiro favela, which, in the course of the movie’s sprawling 20-year, dozen-character scope, breeds an army of killers, drug lords and thieving children (the three categories by no means mutually exclusive). It begins with several teens in the 1950s, and follows their story for about 30 minutes until it ends with a police crackdown following a massacre at a whorehouse, after which the three central characters — Clipper, Goose and Shaggy all take three different routes — religion, respectable poverty and crime. But then CITY OF GOD shifts focus and we see this sequence has been there primarily to get to the heart of the emotional situation among some younger children on the fringes. These kids survive into adulthood to provide the engine for the main plot — principally Rocket (the somewhat bland central character who nibbles around the edge of the gangster-drug lifestyle), Ze Pequeno (who never really grows up but comes to run the favela as a teen by sheer ruthlessness) and Benny (the entrepreneur who’s down with murder, but only instrumentally and so is a restraint on the psycho). The children have become the men.

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It’s as if, on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” director Fernando Meirelles had been a contestant for “Authors” and had to do “LOS OLVIDADOS in the style of Martin Scorsese.” This is a good thing, by the way; the hyper-caffeinated style in CITY OF GOD is just breathtaking and entertaining as all get-go — the orange-clay look of the 50s segment, a bravura one-shot dissolve through the history of a single room in the favela over decades, the repeated freeze-frames, a 360-degree stop-motion shot, the great sequence of Benny’s “leaving the life” party. And it’s not all that Old Razzle-Dazzle. Mereilles understands the importance of counterpoint. In the midst of Benny’s party, which is basically all hurtling, exhilirating “flow,” the shot I most remember (maybe more than any other single shot in a movie this year) is the scene’s one moment of “ebb.” Mereilles holds for several seconds, but it feels like an eternity, on the face of Ze Pequeno (think the Joe Pesci character in GOODFELLAS), as it dawns on him that all his machismo isn’t getting him the thing he wants most. And as the dance floor lights flash, the opening bars of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” swell up (oh … hoh-hoh-hoh …). The look on the face of actor Leandro Firmino da Hora, a nonprofessional like most of the (terrific) cast, says everything and nothing at the same time.

But CITY OF GOD is more than an empty exercise in cinematic fireworks. One of the keys to seeing what it is about is to notice how few of the significant deaths (and there are a *lot* in this movie) come deliberately from an expected source. Neither Ze Pequeno nor Ned the vigilante kills the other, though their feud is what drives the last hour of the movie. Probably the most-memorable death is a botched attempt to kill someone else. Your downfall is never what you expect, precisely because you’re on guard against that. But life forces so many unthinking and habitual actions on us that we can never quite know what will turn out to have been the important ones. “Life can be lived forward, but can only be understood backward,” Kierkegaard said. One’s character and a polity are defined by what they take as ordinary and taken-for-granted, *not* what is self-consciously agonized over. That’s the reason for the initially deliberately misleading gaps in the narrative (e.g., we’re at first cued to think a massacre at a brothel is the work of the police).

Although most of the central characters meet the fate you expect, the film becomes richer on second viewing (the classic test for a great-vs.-merely-good movie) because you see each man sow the seeds of his doom, but he’s never cognizant of it and Meirelles does nothing to make *us* cognizant of it on first viewing. But (and here’s the movie’s genius), in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. One of the great strengths of CITY OF GOD, and what allows it to do this, is that it creates a real sense of a teeming world beyond the edges of the screen.

For example, there is a bus conductor whom we see for a moment at about the midpoint but are casually told “it’s not time for him to enter the story yet.” But he becomes the central engine for the third act. The amazing screenplay juggles a huge number of characters and incidents without ever losing focus or getting confused. One central character is killed by someone only seen on the periphery in three or four moments (which the film re-plays and thus re-codes for second viewing). Survival in CITY OF GOD is at one and the same time unpredictable while living it, while seemingly perfectly predictable in hindsight or with perfect knowledge (which as limited mortals, we don’t have; and even apart from that, most of our actions are habitual and not self-consciously thought-through).

citygodphotog.jpgThe ending, and the fates of the two or three characters may seem arbitrary, but in some ways that’s the point — the life of sin leaves so much ruin in its wake that the sin that comes back to haunt you isn’t the one you’d been looking out for (see also, MENACE II SOCIETY), nor necessarily is it the worst sinner that suffers most (ditto). This “fickle finger of fate” theme common to gangster-drug movies — that kind of lifestyle, shall we say, does not offer security and stability as one of its benefits. Or as the hit man in Wong Kar-wai’s FALLEN ANGELS put it: “someone else decides who lives or dies.”

There is one harrowing set-piece involving some child thieves (think the Travolta-Jackson apartment invasion at the start of PULP FICTION … only instead of college students, they’re kids of 8 or 9). It might sound craven to use children as symbols of innocent vulnerability, but by the point in CITY OF GOD where this happens, nobody watching the movie could be under any illusions about these kids’ innocence — and Mereilles has these kids turn up later at some rather important points. Still, the scene goes on for a while while Ze Pequeno recites Ezekiel 25:17 and the tears start to flow. It’s not gory exactly (in fact, for a film shot as much brio as CITY OF GOD, there’s no fetishizing of blood or gore that I recall). But it’s not for the psychologically squeamish — I saw about a dozen people walk out at this scene in my three viewings of CITY OF GOD.

Plus I knew I was seeing a work of genius when the flashback began with a soccer game and everybody can dribble and move like a mofo, but the goalkeeper absolutely stunk. THAT’S Life In Brazil for you.

February 8, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 2 Comments

2003 TOP 10 — Number 5

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IRREVERSIBLE (Gaspar Noe, France)

Now, to the capsule I’ve been dreading having to write since I started this blog. Where to begin? With the 9-minute unblinking, unbroken shot of the anal rape of Monica Bellucci, with her face in closeup before the rapist smashes it into the concrete? With the homosexual S&M club called The Rectum (and don’t think for one second there aren’t 100 references to anal sodomy and worse in the dialogue)? With the early sensual attack on your ears by the music — a loud hum cycling up and down monotously like a sine curve? With a camera that, for the first 50 minutes, never stops moving, and spends much of that time spinning, like the strobe lights at a disco? Or with an overall narrative trajectory that actually gets more depressing as the subject matters becomes more palatable?

Just sitting through this film is in some way an act of masochism, as its existential “success” depends on getting your mental ass kicked and feeling drained and wiped out by the film’s sensual assault (CQ) in its first 15 minutes. People with any capacity to be turned off a priori by the subject matter of fictional images will HATE this movie. And they should. And you know who you are … why are you still reading?

So … why did my friend Scott Tobias link to my site by calling me the only Catholic moralist who loved IRREVERSIBLE, which 95 out of 100 sane people will find morally indefensible? Precisely *because* it is morally indefensible. Or rather, because it depicts a universe that has turned to shit (CQ), because it depicts both sin and its wages unblinkingly, because it ruthlessly removes and/or undermines every bit of hope. In short, because IRREVERSIBLE is an 97-minute taste of Hell. And in Hell, there is nothing but hell.

I first saw both IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON at the 2002 Toronto Film Festival, a couple of days apart. These two very dissimilar French-language films were my two favorites among the movies I saw there that year, and it was as though they commented on each other and were providentially intended to be seen together. They both present a world of sin, La Cinema De Boue, but in the latter film’s world, there is grace (see upcoming capsule at #3) and in the former’s there is not. An irredeemable vision of an irreversible Hell is not the greatest achievement one can discharge, but I have never seen a film discharge it better than this one.

irreversibleknife.jpgThere is no question that IRREVERSIBLE is nihilistic, but it is not a nihilism of the Western-preferred variety — what Allan Bloom called “nihilism with a happy ending.” This is the real, nauseating thing. The fact that so many people hate this film and that its notorious rape scene has prompted mass walkouts since its premiere at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival almost validates the film to me. Or maybe you should dismiss me on the grounds that my single all-time favorite film is A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.

IRREVERSIBLE moves backward in time, basically from a brawl and a murder in the bowels of the homosexual S&M club to how the murder came about to the motivation for it (the rape scene) and then the previous relationship between the three principals — basically girlfriend (Bellucci), boyfriend (Vincent Cassel) and best buddy (Albert Dupontel). In MEMENTO, the backwards-chronology story structure, and the way it constantly recoded what we had earlier seen, was used to put us sympathetically inside the head of a man with no memory. But in IRREVERSIBLE that same recoding is used for almost the opposite — and completely pitiless — purpose. It makes a story that, told in chronological order would be just a straight downward spiral, absolutely heart-breaking, because even when the three principals have happy or normal moments, we know they’re doomed, see the mistakes they’re making, are powerless to stop them.

irreversibleparty.jpg The true kick-in-the-gut scenes are actually not the notorious ones in the film’s first half, but the sedate ones in IRREVERSIBLE’s second half. Seeing a woman as beautiful as Bellucci all aglow in the final moments retroactively raised the stakes on what we had seen — any decent man would want things to come out differently. When Cassel acts like a drug-toking teenager at a party, we share Bellucci’s frustration with him — and on 2nd viewing, even more so because of the revelation at the film’s end, which makes the portrayal of the Peter Pan Syndrome in Cassel bite harder. So you get frustrated at him, and cheer her as she walks out of the party. Then you remember what you’ve just seen happen “next.”

In one of George Will’s greatest columns, he printed some of 2 Live Crew’s lyrics (though he had to use print-euphemisms like “p–sy” to satisfy Newsweek) to make the point that one of the ways that cultural extremity advances is that people, in interest of maintaining decorum, will talk about it in vague euphemism and thus be false about it. Catherine MacKinnon once made more-or-less the same point on an ABC News special, that engaging pornography required her to engage in it herself in some sense, using words like “ass” (she noted the immediate snicker from the audience) and thus reinforce pornography’s effects. And to bring this back to IRREVERSIBLE, the film’s structure effectively torpedoes this problem of extreme subject matter. But IRREVERSIBLE goes beyond not being pornography, rather it’s the very opposite. Noe systematically denies the audience even the pleasures, however morally dubious, of pornography.

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Consider the start of the final dramatic scene, a nude Bellucci and a nude Cassel are curled together asleep in bed. It is the closest thing the film has to a turn-on scene (it’s bathed in a warm, golden light, and the two actors, lovers in real life, have an easy rapport and affection). But before it can do anything for you, Bellucci says she had a dream of a long red corridor (we wince) and there are several lines referring to revenge and some playful slaps between the two (wince again). In fact throughout, the film has 100 foreshadowings and allusions throughout to the events of future past.

Then look at the two most notorious scenes in IRREVERSIBLE. Our first view of the beautiful Bellucci is of her battered body, and while our second view is more conventionally tittilating (she’s walking away from the camera in a skimpy dress), we know better than she does the fate we’re helplessly following her toward. The rape scene itself, people walked out on it because they sensed its unredeemed sadism. But making sadism unredeemed is far more moral than aestheticizing it in the name of Good Taste, making it like the rape scene in the film of TESS, which, in the name of Good Taste, made the act look like having a wart removed. IRREVERSIBLE’s rape scene has to, in conventional dramatic-arc terms, go on for far FAR too long, in order to make its point — which is to take the logic of extremity past the point of any possible pornographic pleasure. Good.

In the same way, consider the descent into The Rectum, where dozens of men are committing every conceivable manner of sexual degradation. But between the dark lighting schemes, the redness of the little light that is there, and the camera twirling upon itself as it darts through the club, so we never even have a sense of which way is up — between all these things, we can never get a good look at any of the nudity or sex. Oh, we get a fleeting glimpse of this and that, but almost as soon as we figure out that, e.g., “this guy’s masturbating,” we lose sight of him, lose any ability to be turned on by what we’re seeing, and thus get more frustrated. The lighting only becomes dimly adequate for when the action becomes as unerotic as imaginable and for one glimpse of a character that turns the movie inside out (though you might not realize that on first viewing). From the Rectum sequence, we remember clearly only the mind-bending camera work, the monotonous hum of the music, and images that even if we’re of a mind to remember with a smile, we can’t. By giving us too much of the rape and not enough of the S&M club, Noe gives us a major achievement — a film with outre subject matter that cannot be consumed as tittilation.

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So relentless is Noe in denying his audience and characters any hope or grace that he even undermines the logic of revenge and self-defense that motivates Cassel and Dupontel in their hunt for Bellucci’s rapist in The Rectum. The man they kill is not the guilty party — a fact that it’s tough to see without a second viewing (mull over what you think *that* might mean). But … he *is* a rapist, and the men surrounding him egg him on in his threat to sodomize Cassel. Until Dupontel saves him. And then goes too far in what is one of the most blood-curdling images I’ve ever seen that, like the rape of Bellucci, goes on for far FAR too long — about three fire extinguisher plunges into the face too long. Yes, it’s a fake face, but still, it’s one of the few things in The Rectum we see very clearly at all. Dupontel’s murder is committed basically as an innocent bystander stopping a rape, which makes problematic a minor detail in the rhyming scene of the rape of Bellucci. Other than the two principals, it’s the only thing in the earlier scene for the entire nine minutes.

But is there a point to it all? Absolutely. The pattern of the scenes basically follow a slide of basically increasing degeneracy. The film’s credo, stated at the beginning and (unfortunately and redundantly) the end, is “Time destroys all things,” which isn’t very profound as a moral but does tell us that the film’s end-to-beginning events represent a decline. And what is time destroying? In chronological order (thus the reverse of IRREVERSIBLE’s presentation): children and family, affectionate (if unmarried) sex, adolescent sex talk, party animal promiscuity, rape, prostitution, revenge, consensual gay sex, homosexual rape, and (finally) sexualized murder.

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Or in Catholic terms, from the natural to the unnatural. From the co-creation of life to anonymous fist-fucking. And Noe draws this comparison in many other ways between the first and last scene — the music degenerates from Beethoven’s Seventh to that siren-like hum; the lighting scheme goes from full and bright to dark and dank; we see the pinwheel shape that, embodied in the camera, made the Rectum scene so punishing, only now in the form of a water sprinkler on a verdant lawn. From life to death. Before going to absolute white, the film even spins and looks straight up for the only time. And so, in the beginning there was light. But at IRREVERSIBLE’s beginning, the camera is doing so much spinning that we can hardly know which way is up, as though even the structure of the universe is disintegrating. I’m not just referring to The Rectum, but also the apartment block next to it where the film’s first scene takes place — the spinning camera is seemingly free of even gravity and so a coherent cinematic space never emerges. But it all ends with two ugly people we don’t know¹ musing about how there are no bad deeds, just deeds. Beyond good and evil.
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¹ They’re actually characters from Noe’s earlier film I STAND ALONE, but unless you know that, there’s no way to tell or figure it out.

February 8, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 6

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MASTER AND COMMANDER (Peter Weir, USA)

“Exactly.”

That’s what my inner 10-year-old boy kept telling me during this great, rousing adventure story. MASTER AND COMMANDER is exactly what Robert Louis Stevenson might have made if he had been a film-maker. It gets the period details right and in the right way, i.e. by not showing off that it’s getting them right, because the film is too self-confident to need to show off.

We just *see* that early 19th century surgery was done on tables that people had just eaten off of, without the didactic speech that, say, Hawkeye might have given in a purely hypothetical MASH episode about an operating room’s unclean wooden floor. We aren’t given a reason why the crew, when repairing their ship after an unsuccessful early skirmish with the evil French, goes to such trouble to repair the ship’s decorative touches that have no fighting value (although we can figure the subtext out — “this ship is England,” captain Russell Crowe tells his crew. Exactly. Appearances matter for their own sake, and love of country demands that one’s country be lovely).

Some of my favorite “just so” details were those that stand out in greatest contrast to our regnant pruderies. Grog rations are explicitly described as a sine qua non to keeping discipline and getting the men willing to fight. It sounds silly to us, until you remember that the Panama Canal was built by men who, to judge from the ration books, had to have been drunk or hung over the whole time. Mothers Against Drunk Sailing lay 170 years in the future. Even when a period detail *is* lingered over, it’s because there’s a reason for the characters to do so — like when such catch-as-catch-can surgery methods result in a piece of shirt caught in a wound, making it life-threatening. Exactly.

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My outer flaming-reactionary adult also thought MASTER AND COMMANDER was pretty good. Characters both wear uniforms and pray without an ocean of rationalization and hand-wringing. In Captain Lucky Jack Aubrey (played by Crowe in another great performance), MASTER AND COMMANDER shows exactly what a modern potrait of military heroism and masculine virtue from a pre-psychoanalytic world should be.

mastercrowe.jpgBy coincidence, I took a break from writing this to watch VH-1 Classic for a while and I saw the Bangles video “Hero Takes a Fall,” where one of the last images is of a mannequin being tipped over and shattering. Typical of our time but exactly *not* what MASTER AND COMMANDER is. Nobody will be talking about “undermining conventional notions of heroism” in this film.

Capt. Aubrey is in charge and has absolute authority, but is not a petty tyrant and knows how to lead. And when to bend — thanking and congratulating his men for everything (“now wasn’t that fun,” he asks a seaman at one point). He neither shows his doubts nor ducks difficult choices such as … triage. Aubrey loves his crew, but as their leader, not their friend, and thus discipline is possible. The salutes are appropriately awkward after a sailor is whipped for insubordination.

(By the way, for ungrateful niggledy-piggledy, can you beat this review from honor-bound James Bowman, the one film critic who I knew would love this movie. You have to keep reminding yourself as you’re reading it that he’s given it his highest rating). In addition, in the contrast between Crowe and Paul Bettany’s doctor, we get in nascent form, the coming cleavage between scientific man and martial man. But at this point, each still believed he had a duty to the other, and it creates marvelous tension between the two men and their agendas for the trip.

My friend Mike D’Angelo liked GLADIATOR, another Russell Crowe period piece, a bit more than I did, but I had his GLADIATOR reaction to this film. MASTER AND COMMANDER is filled with so many “just-so” moments and hits all the notes for this sort of swashbuckling adventure that I frankly was no longer a pedantic 37-year-old white-collar American professional masquerading as a film critic, but a wannabe-pedantic 10-year-old working-class British boy who just hated the frenchies and the jerries because they were the frenchies and the jerries. Exactly as this material needs me to be. Since the treacherous cheese-eaters are the bad guys in this movie, I was pretty much in clover from start to finish.

masterfrance.jpgMy favorite recent example of healthy national chauvinism came from Margaret Thatcher after Germany’s soccer team had eliminated England from the European Championship. She said, close as I can recall: “They may have beaten us at our national pastime, but twice this century, we’ve beaten them at their national pastime.” There is a speech late in MASTER AND COMMANDER that’s very much in that spirit, with frog insults worthy of one of Jonah Goldberg’s lamentably-dead annual Bastille Day columns. But again … exactly. Hatred of the enemy begins with images of the ruination they will bring upon the picture you have of your country. And this is exactly how soldiers are motivated. Short of the spectre of being forced to give up bangers in favor of pate de foie gras, there’s hardly a note of French evil not touched. It’s not quite at the level of the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in HENRY V, but my using that speech as the standard of comparison should tell you how rousingly chauvinistic it is and how brilliantly Crowe delivers it.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 7

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THE SHAPE OF THINGS (Neil LaBute, USA)

You like Neil LaBute or you don’t. THE SHAPE OF THINGS is didactic. It is mathematical. It is choppy. There is no middle ground. His art is true or it is hateful. All art that isn’t true should be destroyed because it is hateful. The actors don’t say the words. They recite their dialogue. Every shot is framed and can only be framed that way because that is the only way it would be true. Any other way would be false. And thus bad.

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THE SHAPE OF THINGS, La Bute’s third film based on his own original script (after IN THE COMPANY OF MEN and YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS), is about a feminist art student (Rachel Weisz) who snares a nerdy museum security guard (Paul Rudd) and, without ever exactly “making” him, gets him to improve himself, in terms of his wardrobe, his weight, and … eventually … more. There’s another couple in the film, who have their doubts about this relationship. And a fascination with it.

Part of this film’s greatness lies in Weisz’s performance of La Bute’s self-consciously clipped and mannered dialogue, back after a break for NURSE BETTY and POSSESSION. She is playing a character who *is* this overdetermined style. If you’ve seen David Mamet’s OLEANNA, you have a general idea of the kind of role she has — Debra Eisenstadt has a similar role, of a campus feminist, in that movie. Only Weisz is much better than Eisenstadt — with more conviction in herself and the incantations she is reciting, but without skimping on this manipulated/manipulating style.

In describing this film and LaBute’s other work as mannered and artificial and stagy (it is all these things), I fear I may be turning people off of this movie more than on to it, and I wouldn’t dispute anyone who says this material worked better as the stage play it originally was (there is not even a token attempt even to “air out” the play … 10 dialogue scenes are essentially played before some naturalistic backgrounds). THE SHAPE OF THINGS is also a movie that really demands to be seen twice or not at all — not because it’s difficult or incoherent — but because some things happen in the third act that recode the whole movie and even alters the kind of film we’ve been seeing.

labute.jpgBut LaBute’s style, worldview and vision is too distinctive not to treasure — how many American movies would have a line like “What ‘Take Back the Night’ rally did you find *her* at?” without explicitly coding the speaking character as hateful and the woman in question as oppressed. he’s an authentic prophet against the era and the world that exists, although it’s not yet clear in the name of what. Indeed, one of the things about the ending is that it casts doubt on rummaging through an artist’s work for windows into his soul. And his Slate diary from a few months ago gave me the impression that LaBute considers the whole idea of artist biography to be contemptible. But in his films’ caustic misanthropy and contempt for contemporary mores (though not their formal style), we may have an American Bunuel on our hands.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 8

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BUS 174 (Jose Padilha, Brazil)

This is the second of the three documentaries on my list, and what lifts all three films is that there’s more there than mere reportage or the capturing of an interesting or amusing corner of The Diversity Of The American (or Brazilian) Quilt. The latter is an estimable thing of course, and can make for an enjoyable couple of hours. But BUS 174 is much more.

On the surface, it’s a police procedural, recounting the June 2000 hijacking of a Rio De Janeiro bus by a former street child that gets botched by both the police and the perpetrator and so turns into a hostage situation and then worse on national TV (think the OJ-Bronco chase). Because all of Brazil was on the edge of its seat for five hours of an afternoon and evening over the “Bus 174 Hijacking” and the police never set up a security perimeter around the vehicle as it stood at the Rio bus stop, the footage of the crime-in-progress is … incredible, unbelievable. You never overcome your amazement that this footage exists.

padilha.jpgSo Padilha starts with the greatest episode of “Cops” in history. But then he does two other things: 1) he meticulously reconstructs the life story of the perpetrator, named Sandro, and does so sufficiently thoroughly while weaving it into the hour-by-hour recounting of the hijacking in all the right places, so that it all seems inevitable and tragic; and 2) he demonstrates Freddy Riedenschneider Heisenberger’s Uncertainty Principle of Policing (i.e., watching a thing changes it) and all the ways it contributed to the police botching the siege. Contrary to what you might think, the Brazilian police are not shown as brutal oppressores, trigger-happy Third World gangsters with badges.

Very early on, the film makes it clear that bus and car hijackings are not rare in Rio, but are generally handled extra-judicially in one (let it pass) or another (street justice) sense. But the media circus made both impossible. It forced police into doing *something.* But it paralyzed them from doing anything in particular, partly for fear of looking like “jackboot fascists” in the wake of investigations of police brutality, including the notorious Candelaria massacre of dozens of Rio street children, and partly from micromanagement at the highest levels of Brazilian politics. (There’s also a documentary to be made about the nearly-identically botched 1980 US attempt to rescue the Embassy hostages held in Iran.)

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That combination of necessity and paralysis explains why the police botched this siege *in this specific way* and how Sandro met his fate *in this specific way.* And so #2 defangs and even reverses the criticisms from some over #1 — that, by detailing his backstory, the film makes excuses for Sandro. Through this depiction of top-down chill, sent down like an Ashcroft order against racial profiling, BUS 174 actually implies all sorts of not-so-nice things about that very kind of “oh, poor misunderstood criminal who had a crappy life” discourses that #1, on the surface, represents.

Oh … and have I mentioned that BUS 174 is also formally dazzling? Two scenes take place inside Rio prisons where Sandro had been. In the first, the prison has been shut down and we see the cells where dozens of men had been crammed. In the second, we see an in-use prison, only Padilha shoots this scene entirely in reverse exposure — you’re basically looking at the film’s negative. The jail thus looks even worse than what our imagination had told us from the first scene because the inmates have been turned into an indistinct, wailing chorus trapped in a Dantean hell. Near the end, there is also a fatal shooting that we see in real-time — we go “wtf?” — and then Padilha gives it to us frame-by-frame, like the Zapruder film. And you’re on the edge of your seat as you see exactly … what … you feared … it was.

One of the saddest stats I know: this great but-in-Portuguese film, entirely accessible and not-the-least-bit arty, has made barely $100,000 in US release and has not played on more than five screens nationwide in any week. A handful of BUS 174 prints are still inching their way around the country. If it hits your town — try to catch it.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 9

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BUBBA HO-TEP (Don Coscarelli, USA)

Here’s the pitch: Elvis and JFK are both alive, in an East Texas nursing home. The other residents are having their souls sucked out by an Egyptian Mummy disguised as a redneck. So they go out and fight this “Bubba Ho-tep.” If that description and the title do anything for you at all, and you have at least one silly bone in your body, you won’t have a funnier time at the movies than this one.

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Despite the presence of Bruce Campbell, it’s not EVIL DEAD territory, exactly, where the violence is so extreme as to become funny. In fact BUBBA HO-TEP is basically (and early on, entirely) a comedy with a small amount of gore — it hardly works at all as a straight thriller. The opening sequence sets the tone as we get dictionary definitions of “ho-tep” and “bubba,” as if this was some serious self-important treatise (like Spike Lee defining “satire” at the start of BAMBOOZLED), and when I saw this film at 2002 Midnight Madness at the Toronto Film Festival, the audience was already laughing at the deadpan seriousness of it all.
Campbell is as terrific an Elvis as expected, but Ossie Davis as a black JFK more than holds his own than (“that’s how clever they are — they dyed me this color”). Both actors have great fun trying to out-underplay their other’s deadpan overplaying, if that makes any sense. But never is there is even a wink at the camera — both characters really believe they’re Elvis and Kennedy. I knew I was watching some kind of work of demented genius when, talking vaguely to avoid spoliers, we got a joke involving an iron lung. Also not to be missed: the only man-vs-bug battle that I can recall being shot from the insect’s POV.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Number 10

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THE BACKYARD (Paul Hough, USA)

I have pretty much written all I wanted to say or can say about this film at this post here. It’s now on home video, so the film is liberated from its greatest weakness — its undistinguished formal qualities would matter less on TV than a theater screen. It’s really funny. In a disgusted-snort kind of way.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | Leave a comment

2003 TOP 10 — Honorable Mentions

These were the films that just missed my Top 10 for 2003.

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GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING (Peter Webber, Britain) — It’s hard to say what’s most drop-dead gorgeous thing in this movie, Eduardo Serra’s cinematography, Ben Van Os and Cecile Heideman’s art direction or Scarlett Johansson’s face. All three superbly-controlled surfaces seem to do nothing, yet inspire by their mere calm existence. And they evoke and create a world with no artificial light, no mass-produced goods and a servility that can see beyond herself. Misses the Top 10 because Colin Firth as Vermeer gives the weakest performance of his career (oh … to transplant Michel Piccoli from LA BELLE NOISEUSE) and the film doesn’t offer much more than those three swoonable objects. Actually, that’s not quite true, Tom Wilkinson and Judy Parffitt are pretty good as the randy benefactor and the domineering mother-in-law, but they’re roles any middle-aged British character actor could do in his sleep.

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG (Vadim Perelman, USA) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 for reasons stated there — I just never quite fell in love with it.

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DOWN WITH LOVE (Peyton Reed, USA) — This overthetop, overacted, overdecorated, overcostumed, and oversplitscreened homage/re-creation on the Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies was the year’s tastiest bon-bon — with pastels that a Castro Street interior decorator would have found excessive. Last year’s Sirk-homage FAR FROM HEAVEN unintentionally showed how difficult it is for a re-creation to keep a straight face under all that artifice. But in an exaggerated comedy, unlike a weepie, such periodisms and incongruities contribute to the fun. I saw DOWN WITH LOVE a couple of days after watching PILLOW TALK, and it helps to have one of those films fresh in your mind. Misses the Top 10 because the last 20 minutes of the movie (roughly, after Renee Zellweger … um … gives a monolog) just isn’t very good or inspired; they’re tying up plot threads. But stay through the closing credits (or best of all, look at the DVD extras) to see Renee and Ewan MacGregor sing “Here’s to Love,” the best scene in the movie and one of the year’s best. Oh. And memo to the Academy: *This* was Renee’s best performance last year (insert grumble about Oscar ignoring comedies.)

phonebooth.jpgPHONE BOOTH (Joel Schumacher, USA) — Nearly every thriller will hype itself with the word “Hitchcockian,” causing film geeks to roll their eyes, but this is one that understands the details of The Master’s style. You can actually be familiar with ouevre and imagine Hitch making PHONE BOOTH. Naturalistically and logically, it doesn’t makes much sense, but I’m not certain it’s really supposed to, like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. The reliance on the villain having supernatural knowledge, the fact that it takes place in a “booth” and the voice on the phone demanding an admission of wrongdoing tells me there’s something else going on here, something that Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer were the first to note about Hitch. Works also as a showcase for director Schumacher (yes, really), who somehow manages to keep the basically one-set film visually alive under very constrained circumstances, like in REAR WINDOW or ROPE. Colin Farrell has an easy, meaty role to play, and though he isn’t exactly great, he’s like Patriots QB Tom Brady — doesn’t have the glowing stats but wins the game mostly by not messing up or fumbling the film away. Actors are cattle, etc. Misses the Top 10 because … well, Hitchcock would have made it better.

DRACULA: PAGES FROM A VIRGIN’S DIARY (Guy Maddin, Canada) — I’ve written a little about this film already. Misses the Top 10 because, fun though it was, I found my admiration a bit more distant than I prefer.

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SWEET SIXTEEN (Ken Loach, Britain) — When leftist director Loach hasn’t got politics on (the foreground of) his mind and makes kitchen-sink portraits of working-class urban Britons, he is quite a filmmaker, particularly as a director of actors. He gets a great central performance here from the nonprofessional Martin Compston in the role of Liam, a (smart and tough) juvenile delinquent approaching adulthood — naturalistic, funny, exuberant, defiant, and determined (in both senses). Maybe it takes a Scot to appreciate the exchange: “We’re just trying to keep your customers satisfied,” “You’re a right wee Simon and Garfunkel, you” “well, here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson” (looking at it on my computer screen, I see that it just doesn’t *read* funny. Spoken in Glaswegian patter, it’s hilarious. Trust me.) Misses the Top 10 because the film stacks things too much in Liam’s moral favor. Theo first made this point to me at Toronto, but I became convinced on second viewing during (being purposely vague to avoid spoilers) a stabbing scene — which isn’t really a stabbing scene. Between this and MY NAME IS JOE, Loach should make more films about Glasgow and fewer about Chile.

February 6, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Passion updates

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A bunch of news on THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST these past few days (while I struggle over my Top 10 post), not including the latest words from Abraham Foxman and Marvin Heir, on whom I will waste no more bandwidth as their latest words (especially the former’s) are inexplicable except as an unadulterated blood libel from anti-Christian bigots.

ITEM! I’m surprised I haven’t seen more about this at St. Blogs. A Texas theater chain is refusing to run a pre-film ad, timed to coincide with THE PASSION, from the state Baptist Convention. According to the church spokesman, AMC Theaters has said the 30-second ad is, among other things, “too Christian.” Um, yeah. The Pepsi ads are too capitalist too, I guess.

This is a common demand made of Christians — that our speech (in this case commercial speech) and access to public forums is conditional, second-class or somehow suspect. As a college student, I once distributed fliers at some University of Texas academic departments and student/professor boxes for a speech being given at a Christian off-campus ministry. I had to assure several of the department secretaries, whose permission I needed, that the speech would not be religious, as though that mattered.

ITEM! While the response by Heir to this interview was contemptible, I don’t think Gibson does himself any favors by engaging in the relative martyrdom game, defensible though it may be in itself.

The filial devotion aside, he has enough to do to defend THE PASSION from the (apparently absurd) anti-Semitism charges and really shouldn’t be a soldier on these historians’ wars. It raises eyebrows and is really hardly better than having to listen to the Dixie Chicks, Michael Moore, Martin Sheen, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Gwyneth Paltrow, Danny Glover, Rosie O’Donnell … (NOTICE FROM BLOGGER: List too long and an abuse of free bandwidth. Cease forthwith.) Yes, people can debate the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and I suspect Gibson and I would have a lot to agree on about the shameful relative whitewashing of Communist genocides (not the plural).

But Mel … choose your fights.

morgenstern1.jpgITEM! Maia Morgenstern, a Romanian Jew whose father died in the Holocaust, defended Gibson and THE PASSION, in which she plays Mary. Interview is here.

ITEM! The New York Times reports that Gibson decided to delete a scene that tested poorly — the “his blood be upon us and our children” line, from Matthew 27:25. This is probably the Gospel verse that Jews consider the most anti-Semitic, and defenses of Gibson from Christians who had seen earlier cuts of the film had specified that this notorious verse was not in the movie. So he was tinkering. Again, bad move in adding, Mel. Though maybe this was the old bargaining technique of putting in something you don’t care about in order to get praise for relenting on it later. A tactic not unfamiliar here inside the Beltway.

February 4, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another sign of the Apocalypse …

spikelee2.jpg… when Spike Lee starts sounding like Dr. Laura or Pat Robertson or … me … we hear the echoes of the thundering hoofbeats of a certain equine quartet. Here are the money quotes.

Film director Spike Lee criticized Janet Jackson’s surprise breast-baring during the Super Bowl halftime show last weekend as a “new low” of attention-getting antics by entertainers. …
Lee, speaking at Kent State University’s regional campus in Stark County, Ohio, on Tuesday night, said there has been a decline in artistry.
He said it’s not enough to be a good singer, and that entertainers “have to do something extra” — such as the openmouthed kiss Madonna gave Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera during the MTV Video Music Awards in August.
“What’s gonna be next? It’s getting crazy, and it’s all down to money. Money and fame,” said Lee, the director of “Malcolm X” and “Do the Right Thing.” “Somehow the whole value system has been upended.”

OK, I’m now free to insult Mr. Lee for another year.

February 4, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment