Virginia Film Festival — 2006
… if I don’t get started, I’ll never get finished.
Anyhoo, I had an absolutely terrific time last weekend in Charlottesville at Revelations: Finding God at the Movies.
TRAPPED BY THE MORMONS (Ian Allen, USA, 2005, 4) — Hard to see why this movie needs to exist. There’s an inescapable aura of self-congratulation in creating something intentionally campy (or rather in re-creating something that exists as unintentional camp). This bothered me more than I expected to, and I couldn’t join in the laughter. It actually worked a little better as a straight-up horror film about Evil Kidnappers of Any Religious Persuasion.
ORDET (Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1955, 10) — Yes, it’s still a masterpiece. Before the (film-breakage riddled) screening, Danish film scholar Anne Jespersen said Johannes sounds even odder to Danish-speakers than he does to us foreigners. Armed with that knowledge, I noticed that I actually understood Johannes better than the other characters. It was the slowness and formality of his speech, and the way his dated vocabulary and syntax had more in common (I confirmed this with her) with the other Germanic languages than contemporary idiomatic Danish.
TENDER MERCIES (Bruce Beresford, USA, 1983, 9) — Robert Duvall was in person to introduce the film (and his THE APOSTLE, which I didn’t see). After entering the theater and walking down the aisle, he took the seat *right in front of yours truly.* While he was being introduced, I pulled out my program and a pen, and got Duvall to sign it on the page for TENDER MERCIES. The film itself is one of the most subtly moving films I’ve ever seen, and I was choked up helplessly when we get to a conversation, speaking vaguely, near the end in a garden where Duvall’s faded country singer and his wife (Tess Harper) make clear what distinguishes the two of them, without having an argument per se. MERCIES (which takes its title from the Psalmist) is almost entirely the dramatic equivalent of reaction shots — all the most-dramatic events (marriages, deaths, recordings, etc.) occur offscreen, as if human drama is not about what we do but how we react to what the offscreen Narrator does. You could, in fact, make a stage play of this with minimal changes — just two or three sets you could reliably “cut” between. And for an actor who can’t sing, Duvall is a pretty good singer, which is a good choice for a character who’s drank away his career and for a story that is primarily about his comeback as a man, not as an entertainer. On a directorial note: I recently saw BREAKER MORANT again. Beresford is awesome when his material consists of precisely observed “small stories” of particular times and places (you could toss in BLACK ROBE and DRIVING MISS DAISY). Not so much otherwise.
I CONFESS (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1953, 7) — Hitchcock once said that if he were to make CINDERELLA, the audience would start looking for a body in the carriage. That reputation hurts this film, and I felt obliged to come to its defense from some fairly nasty attacks in the post-film discussion (though I did genuinely like it more than I expected to on this, my first viewing). Yes, I CONFESS isn’t “suspenseful” in the sense that NORTH BY NORTHWEST or REAR WINDOW are. It so obviously isn’t even trying for this that I think we have to assume Hitch was trying to make a Gothic romance like JANE EYRE (or REBECCA) — the threatening shots, with scores to match, of churches oppressively towering over the viewer like The Old Dark Castle; the harsh black-white contrasts (far sharper than I think anything else in his ouevre); the love triangle with an absent (sorta) 3rd side; the exotic setting. I wish Hitch had made more films with Ann Baxter. Glad he didn’t make more with Montgomery Clift.
AMAZING GRACE (Michael Apted, Britain, 2007, 4) — A big fat hunk of liberal historic issue wish-fulfillment (abolitionism). Combined with typical biopic shapelessness (Wilberforce). And the highlight-reel approach to history (letters that “catch up” the viewer with fates of the historical personages). I wish this film had noticed that Britain had the world’s most-efficient and productive free labor, making its declaring war on the slave trade consonant with its economic interests. I wish this film noted that slavery hadn’t been practiced in the British Isles since the Dark Ages. I wish this film noted that abolition within the Empire happened just a few years before everyone knew the Americans would abolish the slave trade. And the moment … I will be vague … involving Michael Gambon and a ticket to Epsom was so pat and practiced as to become ridiculous.
ONE PUNK UNDER GOD (Jeremy Simmons, USA, 2006, 3) — Contrary to my expectations, this program was just the first two episodes of a reality-TV show, rather than a freestanding doc. I’d seen enough after one episode. Like most reality-TV, it’s more interesting when it’s being unintentionally revealing about its very self-conscious subjects and/or makers. In this case, Jay Bakker is a textbook case of where you will go if you separate “agape” or “caritas” from any and every tie to tradition, to sin, or to judgment, more of a mirror or reverse-parallel of his father (or rather, The Liberal Image Of His Father) than you’d ever guess, but I don’t think that’s what the makers or Bakker himself intend. So I left, as I thought I might, after the first episode (what the grade refers to) so as to be in time to catch another film I thought I’d check out in commercial release, just a block away …
DEATH OF A PRESIDENT (Gabriel Range, Britain, 2006, 8) — I’ll need to discuss this in more depth than I have time for right now (I wanna finish this post in one sitting). In the meantime, just put in the combox (or post to the group) “V-Mort please explain.” And let me get away (for now) with “Mea Culpa. Anybody who thinks this movie is exhortatory has shit for brains.”
DEVI (Satyajit Ray, India, 1960, 9) — I wish it could mean more for me to say that this is my favorite Ray film (I’d only previously seen PATHER PANCHALI). But DEVI had me sold from its brilliant opening credits — the threatening-sounding sitar music; the progression of an idol from all-white (form) to painted (representation) to mask (present). And my inability to read Devanagari actually helped, as it turned the letters into an art element rather than words. Like the rest of this Freudian-Chekhovian chamber drama, the credits are artful and clear, both clever and not in-your-face. Theme: Being thought of as a god is a burden that would crush a mere man … (VJM continues, beyond Ray’s intent) … so it is one only a god could actually handle.
THE RAPTURE (Michael Tolkin, USA, 1991, 8) — I have friends who take the “to hell with you, you sick sadist”-approach to God. And while I obviously don’t think you can make it intellectually satisfying, THE RAPTURE makes it make more emotional sense than any movie I’ve ever seen, makes it something other than an adolescent pose, though I could imagine other stories and situations where refusing to love God makes emotional sense. Times change. When I saw THE RAPTURE on theatrical release with a Calvinist Evangelical friend, we split vigorously — I liked it a lot and Curt hated it, though our discussion mostly went in another direction (Perseverance of the saints, or the P in TULIP).
THE GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE (Paul Wagner, USA, 2006, 6) — This is purely a subject-matter grade (the local angle for me doesn’t hurt), as this film is not more than the greatest episode of Frontline ever. But CHANCE is that. It gets off to a shaky start (literally, too much amateur hand-held footage before we know who’s who), but it quickly finds its subject matter and focus (ditto) around a couple of black churches and ministries, and several of their members in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood. Its achievement is simple — show a part of the world and introduce us to people we might not otherwise see. To document.
TEN CANOES (Rolf DeHeer, Australia, 2006, 5) — This aboriginal folk tale is funny at times and has the same anthropological value as GOD OF A SECOND CHANCE. But all the layering of stories-within-stories served no discernible point to me, except giving more words to the annoying voiceover narrator (his style is perfectly reproduced here and it gets REAL aggravating when uses childlike terms such as “people who cover their willies”). Particularly since the narrator specifically says he’s telling the story to us for pedagogy’s sake, just like the 2nd-level protagonist is telling the 3rd-level story to someone else to teach him a lesson. But the only one we’re given has something to do with jealousy between men in a polygamous society, something whose specific point to a viewer today outside some remote corners of Utah is obscure at best.
THE MILKY WAY (Luis Bunuel, France, 1969, 9, formerly 7) — I was truly not theologically literate enough to see how brilliant this film is when I saw it for the first and only time on home video about 15 years ago. With his density and dry allusiveness, Bunuel’s sense of humor is so much like my own (I could say the same of Hitchcock) that this theological pilgrimage following two tramps on the Trail of St. James is right in my wheelhouse. Bunuel has a (not unjustified) reputation as the Village Atheist and Scabrous Surrealist. But this film, along with SIMON OF THE DESERT and NAZARIN (plus hearing CS Lewis scholar and presenter Terry Lindvall read after the film from the end of Bunuel’s autobiography “My Last Sigh”) makes it clear that Bunuel was much more interesting and subtle than that. It does no injustice to this pilgrimage film to say that Jesus is the most attractive character in it and Bunuel does and says nothing against Him or distorts anything in the Gospels. And the director pays Him the ultimate Bunuelian praise — we see Him with a razor and get a closing shot of His feet.
THE SACRIFICE (Andrei Tarkovsky, Sweden, 1986, 9, formerly 8) — I have come to love Tarkovsky over the years, but I can’t honestly recommend THE SACRIFICE (or any but his earliest films) to the casual fan or anyone not prepared to commit to multiple viewings, much thought and a great deal of patience. Like all of his films, THE SACRIFICE feels obscure and self-indulgent at first but becomes shorter with each successive viewing. This weekend was my fourth, albeit my first on the big screen and in a theater, you get much more of a sense of, e.g., how thoroughly drained of color and light the middle section of the movie is, and I’m not talking about the distracting use of black-and-white in a scene or two. When Alexander wakes up (?) from the dream (?) with the witch (?) and we’re back at something like a conventional natural “look,” the contrast is truly eye-popping and startling and makes what follows far more believable than the range of the cathode ray tube could. Still … what is this thing Tarkovsky has with couples floating in mid-embrace? I remember thinking as I was watching this: what would my newly-Orthodox and sick of movies bud Rod Dreher think of this very Orthodox movie. Erland Josephson (another brilliant display of angstwringing by a Bergman actor) gives an early speech/manifesto about modern man losing his way that is cut right from the tradition of such Rod favorites as Kirk, Chesterton and Solzhenitsyn.
IN YOUR HANDS (Annette Olesen, Denmark, 2004, 5) — TC
TRAVELLERS AND MAGICIANS (Khyentse Norbu, Bhutan, 2005, 7) — TC
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