Peter Chattaway begins his review of the new TEN COMMANDMENTS movie in Christianity Today thus:
Another year, another Moses movie.
It’s good to be dictator.
North Korea’s tyrant-god Kim Jong-il is apparently a big fan of South Korean actress Lee Young-Ae (known to US cinephiles mostly from two Park Chan-wook movies: SYMPATHY FOR LADY VENGEANCE and JOINT SECURITY AREA). So big that South Korean officials planned to use her to butter him up.
“Chairman Kim likes to watch South Korean TV programmes. Among South Korean entertainers, he favours Lee Young-Ae the most,” an unidentified South Korean official was quoted as saying by the Joong Ang daily. “DVDs of South Korean movies and dramas, including those featuring Lee Young-Ae, will be included as summit gifts.”
But if I were Miss Lee, I would boost my security retinue or get the hell out of South Korea real quick, in case one day Kim gets jealous at South Korean cinema’s international prestige and decides North Korea’s needs a boost, like he’s given it in the past.
His obsession with developing North Korea’s film industry was so great that in 1978 he reportedly ordered North Korean agents to abduct a famous South Korean movie director, Shin Sang-Ok, and his ex-wife, actress Che Eun Hui.
The couple stayed in the communist state for eight years while making propaganda films. They escaped in 1986 and wrote a memoir about their saga.
I wonder if this movie was among the gifts the South Koreans gave to The Dear Leader:
Not to be outdone, in the category of “today, US-hating dictator; tomorrow, entertainment star” Hugo Chavez has released his latest musicalbum, that I’ll bet is already topping the Venezuelan charts.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has released a CD of traditional folk music that features him singing, and which will be distributed free inside the country, presidential sources said.
The CD, titled Canciones de Siempre which roughly translates to Songs For All Time, includes tunes that Chavez has sung during his regular Sunday Hello, President television and radio program.
Hopefully, it’ll be just as good as this album:
Apparently the Chavez record is not available at Amazon, and there’s not a separate Amazon site for Spanish material, as there is for French, Chinese, Japanese and German. No doubt The Man trying to keep Chavez’s revolutionary truth away from The People. So I can’t buy the record, but I hope Harry Belafonte was asked to sing backup on the No. 1 hit single “Bush Is the Greatest Terrorist.”
Of course, in both cases, the dictator doesn’t allow artistic freedom, or the fruits thereof, for his own people. It’s good to be dictator. According to the article on Cinephile Kim above:
In July, North Korea reportedly ordered the shutdown of karaoke bars, online game rooms, video-screening rooms and Internet cafes as part of a battle to stem a flood of South Korean pop culture.
And at the other end, Spanish singer Alejandro Sanz has had a concert canceled by the Venezuelan government over his criticisms of Chavez, and Chavez continues to attack the independent press in Venezuela. (Good job, Bono.)
In a few hours, Scotland will play the game I have been dreading for the month since our victory over the perfidious French made qualifying for the Euro 2008 tournament a real possibility. It’s not the last game, at home against Italy. It’s a Wednesday afternoon game against one of those ex-commie countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
But before I get to fretting, here’s the highlights from Saturday’s glorious victory over another of those ex-commie countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago. (Though I’m sad to hear the Hampden Park PA system playing that awful Proclaimers song.)
Anyway, this afternoon’s game is against Georgia in Tbilisi and it’s being touted, for example in the Guardian, with such headlines as “Scotland confident of overwhelming weakened Georgia.”
This is exactly the kind of game Scotland have historically screwed up. It’s a longstanding pattern — win heroically against the big boys and fall flat on our face against the teams we should beat. Maybe the most-fabled victory in Scotland’s history was a 3-2 victory in 1967 at Wembley over the England team that had won the World Cup on that very ground the previous year. But it’s for naught. UEFA made two years of the former Home International championship into a 1968 European Championship group, and the English go through because we lost one game to to Northern Ireland and drew another against Wales.
Right after the Ukraine game, the Scotsman was reporting that Georgia plan to field an experimental side, with a lot of young players, get them experience, etc. The Guardian report above details three minors that Georgia plans to play. But still … we needed an 89th-minute goal to beat them 2-1 in Glasgow.
I fear the worst.
Keep in mind … this is a country whose two most-famous historical personages are Stalin¹ and Medea.²
Yes, we are a bunch of dour Calvinists. Remember that scene in THE 39 STEPS on a Scottish farm. That was fairly good.
¹ The only public museum and statue of Stalin in the world is in Gori, Georgia. My understanding is that Stalin is admired in Georgia not only on “local boy made good” grounds plus a traditionalist admiration for strongmen, but also on “local boy stuck it to the Russians” grounds.
² We should be lucky to get out alive. Let’s hope none of our players took along their kids.
THE DARJEELING LIMITED (Wes Anderson, USA, 2007, 1)
In my high-school AP English class, we were asked to judge the relative poetic merit of four or five quotations, with the choices being something like — a Hallmark card, something by Frost, directions from a recipe, something by Hemingway and “a²+b²=c²” Several years after graduation, my teacher told me that I seriously argued for the Pythagorean Theorem on the basis that it was the only one that offered certain knowledge in succinct and certain language. And that she told several subsequent classes after I had taken it that I was the only person in her 20 years of teaching to argue for the poetic merit of a mathematical proof (she said she stopped naming me when the students were no longer close enough to my age to know who I was; otherwise, it wasn’t funny).
I repent. And THE DARJEELING LIMITED did it.
I cannot say I have ever really been a fan of Wes Anderson. In fact I joked that when I saw THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, that I was as stone-faced as Gwyneth Paltrow was during the film and that I took it as training for a future job as a Buckingham Palace guard. But DARJEELING LIMITED is the first one I’ve actually *hated.* The previous ones (I’ve seen all but BOTTLE ROCKET) were aggravating, over-rated, smug, self-satisfied, but intermittently funny and so obviously the work of a talented and original mind, that the obligatory hope pushed my dominant reaction toward disappointment. No more. I officially give up on Wes! unless the buzz for some future movie is that it’s nothing like his previous ones.
It’s not that anything in DARJEELING is so markedly different than before or transcendently unacceptable. It’s more that this was the first time that all I got from the movie was Anderson’s annoying stylistic little quirks, to the point that the entirety of my viewing notes consist of reasons the film was aggravating me. Or maybe it finally became undeniable to me that Anderson will never overcome his flaws as I see them because he is too invested in them as his virtues.
Anderson’s framing has always been tight and flat, squishing the visual space to the point that his personages are pinned and propped onto these depthless compositions like moose trophies from the taxidermist. But never with any regard for anything plausible. In one shot from DARJEELING, for example, the three brothers (filled in screen space by Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody and Owen Wilson) on a spiritual journey to India are sitting side-by-side on the same bus seat, despite the fact that when you look around, everyone else aboard is sitting one or two to a seat. In the still attached to this paragraph, because the brothers are near the bottom of the frame, there has to be a compositional weight above them, and it has to be perfectly centered to follow The Rules of Composition. It’s the directorial equivalent of an actor smiling at the audience to rfemind it that he has remembered his lines.
Everything in the movie is in threes, as if this was Schoolhouse Rock’s magic number. Each of the three brothers has a type of medicine; each has a secret that he tells one brother on condition that it’s their secret against the other (all get betrayed in turn); each even “gets” an Indian boy to save from drowning — “I can’t save mine,” Brody pleads (what … you say there are families with 4 brothers or 2 sisters or a mix of boys and girls, and they don’t all get threatened with drowning simultaneously? Not in this movie there ain’t); each leaves the other two at the final train station to make a phone call; each is fixated in some positive or negative way on a particular woman (wife, girlfriend(s), mother). I was waiting only for them to start building houses of straw, sticks and bricks.
In DARJEELING, Anderson amps up his symmetrical compositions by having the camera move in exactly the same way. Always along a straight line. Always during a strictly defined period, and to a complete stop. Never with any regard for character movement, or anything other than the design. One shot, while waiting for a bus at an Indian village, the camera takes a 360-degree pan, but stopping with clusters of characters at 90 degrees, 180 degrees and 270 degrees. And always to a perfectly balanced shot centered on 90, 180 and 270. It’s the director jumping out from behind the camera and yelling “look how clever I am, framing and planning everything down to the millimeter.” In another scene, the three brothers and the Indian girlfriend have a conversation spanning two railroad compartments, during which the camera, viewing the conversation from the outside passageway, completes four perfectly-straight line moves, each at a 90-degree angle from the last one (left and right, up and down), so as to track in the shape of a rectangle. And the fact that I remember the path of the camera movement and not what was happening should tell you everything you need to know about how obtrusive and self-regarding it is. The effect of all this precision and symmetry is that Anderson has filmed not a drama but a mathematical equation. The Pythagorean Theorem really isn’t very artistic, Victor.
Nor is the content any less contrived, abstract and airless. This is supposed to be a spiritual journey to India, to find their mother and get over her missing their father’s funeral. I would say the metaphors rush in, but they more like “clang” in. DARJEELING starts with Bill Murray, the father figure in two of Anderson’s last three movies, being left behind by the train. Get it — the father’s dead; this is a journey to leave him behind. Like the train did. DARJEELING ends with the three brothers chasing after a train and yelling “the baggage isn’t gonna make it,” and so they can only catch the train by ditching the baggage. The father’s personalized baggage. A matching set. With monograms. In Wes! font. It all must be left behind. Am I spelling it all out clearly enough for you? In case I’m not, Anderson films the scene in slo-motion to some pop song. DARJEELING has another funeral in the middle of the movie, which I think is supposed to represent the brothers being hit in the face with the reality of the suffering of others far greater than their petty concerns. Kinda like leaving behind the father’s matching monogrammed baggage, but I could be wrong about that. DARJEELING has a character who spends most of the movie with his face bandaged and busted-up. Late in the movie, he takes off his bandages, assessses his face and said “I guess I still have some more healing to do.” Get it? It’s a spiritual journey, but he still needs healing. DARJEELING characters repeat lines like “the characters are all fictional” and “let’s make an agreement” like talismans, until it comes time for resolution, and then the line is at the exactly perfect moment, somehow broken or restated. There’s a German mechanic shop named “Luftwaffe Automotive” (what … had someone already taken the more-logical “Wehrmacht Automotive”?) Everything in this carnival of contrivance is too drunk on its own supposed cleverness to connect with anything other than the sensibility of the “in”-crowd.
I understand this movie isn’t trying to be naturalistic. My complaint isn’t that the style is stylized, simpliciter (how could it be, given some of the movies I most love). Rather, the stylistic quirks, the little curlicues of Wesness are the sole and only point. Wesness isn’t a style concerned with subject matter or even with style for style’s sake, like a Felliniesque virtuoso. It’s self-referential commercial, concerned with BEING a style to the point that the film exists only as self-promotion. And Anderson’s characteristic deadpan would-be-comic tone maps onto the film’s being too cool to recognize its own ticks. Self-referentiality all the way down becomes obnoxious self-absorption. In love with its own pat cuteness. I’ve officially had it with Wes!
THE KINGDOM (Peter Berg, USA, 2007, 7)
I saw this film in the company of a group of counter-terrorism analysts, the majority of whom have at least some facility with Arabic and in whose company I was probably the least knowledgeable person about Arabian and Saudi politics and society. It was a bit of an intimidating experience, albeit one much preferable to seeing it with such deep geopolitical thinkers as Kenneth Turan of the LA Times (“across-the-board portrait of malevolent Arabs [with a] … thematic similarity to those jingoistic World War II-era ‘Yellow Peril’ films”) or Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (“[the] theft of images forever associated with the hideous killing of journalist Daniel Pearl … a decent person might look away in disgust. The sight of a masked gunman on a balcony evokes the Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, but for no good reason.”)
The film promises to be great in its first two scenes — a historical montage and a terrorist assault on the American section of Riyadh. The former is as swift, direct and accurate as is reasonable to expect of a historical background primer (in this case, the history of US-Saudi ties) with just a couple of minutes to cover about 80 years. The latter shows Berg knows how to milk an action scene for both the suspense of preparation, the chaos of its violence, the swiftness of a suicide bomber, and the ultimate brutality of the whole plan, once revealed.
Which is a pity, because the rest of the movie is really only OK, with occasional flashes of excellence. Or rather, when THE KINGDOM is about the machinations of doing business in the byzantine political and social worlds of Washington and Riyadh, it is very good. But once those labyrinths has been negotiated, it retreats into familiar police procedural/action film territory. Berg keeps the sequences clear and intelligible, but THE KINGDOM eventually just hunkers down into the kind of routine spolosionfest that Hollywood’s assembly line cranks out like Detroit’s used to. The FBI team is a Benneton ad’s worth of diversity — a black, a woman, a Jew and a redneck — and it’s hard to resist wondering about the smarts of an FBI guy (or a scriptwriter) who would handle such a politically-sensitive mission by assembling such a squad (or rather, two-fourths of it).
Still, there’s a lot to like. Everyone with whom I saw THE KINGDOM agreed is that it gets Saudi society right — an “otherworld” where Americans are always outsiders and never can be certain whom they can trust and whom they cannot trust. There is a scene of a video-game parlor, where the kids play first-person jihad simulators and, upon seeing Jamie Foxx, ask the grandfatherly cafe owner (in unsubtitled Arabic that I still understood and confirmed afterward) whether they should kill the American. Saudi institutions are not the legal-rational secular bureaucracy that America’s are, but those of an honor-based Muslim patriarchy based on loyalty and family — everything depends on who one knows, and all appearances must be upheld, including avoidance of appearing too complicit with the infidels. It looks to us very much like corruption. Before you can do anything, you must negotiate the right to do it, though this is rhymed with similar machinations from head righteous dude Foxx, of the Beltway-Journalism genre, to get the trip in the first place.
There is also one very strong performance (Chris Cooper is good, but he can play this sort of good-o-bwoy in his sleep) — and that is Ashraf Barhom as the Saudi police minder for the group, the one character who has real depth and an arc. As for the rest of the Saudi police and functionaries and princes: they’re not really evil — just disinterested except when it involves saving face. A State Department functionary played by Jeremy Piven is suitably and realistically unctuous. A couple of people also said at dinner afterwards that the Arabic was correct, although there were some subtitle quibbles and a general consensus that, in the subtleties, it usually more resembled the Arabic of Israel or Lebanon than that of Saudi Arabia. But the greatest proof of this film’s worth and authenticity — Saudi Arabia has forbidden its importation.¹
The KINGDOM’s ending seems to traffic in moral equivalence — it’s revealed that two “death whispers” on opposite sides of the jihad were the same line. But in this context, it’s hardly supportive of the Peace Narrative. At some level, it’s useless to deny, “blowback” [sic] and “cycle of violence” [sic] are true. Or that all actors consider themselves moral superiors to opponents. But understand that this “blowback” and “cycle” are not the product of an optional war, but of a law-enforcement operation that is (or should be) supported by the sort of liberal who says he opposes the Iraq war because it supposedly distracts from the war against Al Qaeda (i.e., this kind of action). There is no getting around the fact that any war, just or unjust, wise or unwise, kills people and will leave behind family members who, cultural prerequisites existing, become bent on vengeance.
¹ The country has no public movie theaters, but many wealthy Saudis have private screening rooms and films usually can be imported for this purpose. Also, DVD players and discs are as ubiquitous there as in other rich countries.
And by that, I don’t mean that same-sex “marriage” is a comic farce (though it is). I’m referring to this wonderful article in National Review by Justin Shubow (HT: Peter) about how a recent spate of male buddy comedies follow the conventions of the romantic comedies of the past. Shubow concludes:
In these extremely unromantic times (Is there anything less romantic than having sex while wearing a condom?), in which serial monogamy followed by divorce-prone marriage has become the norm, living happily ever after has become a less and less believable fantasy. By contrast, “best friends forever” is not just a live possibility, it’s one that is widely lived.
Part of the reason the article is so great is that it gets its head around one of the great shibboleths of our time — “the gay subtext” and the supposed “homophobia” or [ick] “denial” on the part of those who resist seeing it.¹ Instead, Shubow shows how the conventions of romantic comedy are being used in a male-male relationship and sees … well, what men had no difficulty seeing until the start of the 20th century — friendship. A form of love certainly, yet the H-word never breathes its presence.
It’s most interesting to consider with respect to CHUCK & LARRY, because gay “marriage” was woven into the movie’s very comic premise. But it’s still fundamentally a “comedy of marriage” about the two firemen, identical in architecture to, say, McCarey’s THE AWFUL TRUTH or Kanin’s MY FAVORITE WIFE (I’m not talking quality, obviously; simply the pattern of the plot). At the start of the movie, Chuck and Larry love each other, as best buddies whose lives are in each other’s hands as firemen. Then they fall out, while pretending to be “married.” But by the end, their love, their true love, has been fully reconciled and restored. With a lot of pro-gay “messages” spread around.
But a huge number of liberal critics (only the Census Bureau could document the number adequately) had a huff over never seeing Adam Sandler and Kevin James kissing (or more) — even though in every surface way possible, the movie is pro-gay. This indicates a rather spoiled lot and/or a group that thinks love without sex is ridiculous and/or a group that thinks homosexuality should be in-principle-universal. I’d argue that the social acceptance of homosexuality his precisely what has caused such critical blindness (though curiously, two of the few “fresh” reviews on Rotten Tomatoes were written by Nathan Lee in the Village Voice and Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe), because it’s severely wounded the notion of same-sex friendship — making us see sex where there isn’t any.
Indeed, quite a few radical and queer scholars such as those cited in this Wikipedia article have noted, in the context of romantic friendship (a notion now pretty much obsolete) or “Boston marriages” (a term that now means something rather different), that the range of physical acts and emotive language that a person could engage in without their being constructed as proof of homosexuality or sexual interest was quite wide in early modern times. The 20th century is also, more or less, the period during which homosexuality as we now know it (an “orientation,” definitive for at least some, and the moral equivalent of sex and marriage) came into being. This is not “gay panic” (whatever that means) … nobody is “panicked” about anything … but an acknowledgment that if “love” always means “sex,” at one remove or another, then people not interested in sex are less likely to love. Which is what happens in CHUCK AND LARRY.
¹ “Denial” is, of course, circular waterproof reasoning, distilled into its purest and an ad-hominem attack to boot. Its deployment a sure sign that you’re dealing with a vulgar fool (on that topic, at least).
In the words of Drew Carey …
… Cleveland rocks.
Surprisingly … since math was my favorite subject throughout my primary (seen above) and secondary schooling. And becausemovie geeks of my generation also tend to be scifi/comic nerds (or at least have had a phase). I shudder to think of the prospect of one day meeting Father Rob Johansen, whose site is where I saw this latest multi-pronged test. Check out THOSE scores.
BTW … we still won the
Malvinas Falklands War. Go South Africa!!!
For Scottish sports fans, it’s hard to be a Calvinist right now, particularly for me since so much of the success has come at the expense of The Perfidious French. Here is what “Oor Wullie” says (fae “ma bucket“) has happened in the last few weeks
Celtic beat the reigning European Champions League holders, Rangers beat both the French and German Champions and the National Team sits proudly atop a qualifying group containing *both* World Cup Finalists
He actually understates Rangers’ achievement — the Huns beat the *6-time reigning* French champions. *Away from home.* The Stuttgart victory was good, but not entirely unexpected — at home against a team off to a bad start in its national league. But what kind of odds could you have gotten on the scoreline Lyon 0, Rangers 3. I didn’t see the game, but here are the highlights, from France’s Canal+ … one of the Rangers goals is scored by American DaMarcus Beasley.¹
Probably alone among Scottish-born Catholics, I do pull for Rangers when they play in Europe (Celtic gains via the UEFA rankings; I also have a Protestant father). Realistically, the Proddy-dogs need only to hold serve at home, and could probably even afford just an Ibrox draw against Barcelona, provided they beat Lyon at home. Ranger manager Walter Smith even admitted to the Daily Record after Tuesday’s win that his heart sank seeing the group his new-look team had been put into:
“I had no great ambitions about qualifying from the group – I was just hoping that we could learn from the experience of playing in there.
“After these first two games, we’ve given ourselves a better chance than Stuttgart and Lyon have at the moment.
“It’s now down to us but there’s a fine line between success and failure at this level. Hopefully we’ve got a chance now of getting through and of doing something in the home games especially. The aim is to try to grasp that opportunity.”
So what could Celtic do to match that? Beating the reigning European champions might count, and that was a game I DID see, at an Arlington sports bar (and was text-messaging G-Money throughout it). Here are the goals, Celtic 2, AC Milan 1:
You see everything game-relevant in that video, including how both Celtic goals were really defensive errors on AC Milan’s part (the first was an own-goal, though it took multiple-angled replays to see that). Truth be told, though it was exciting as all hell, it was a pretty sloppy game technically, played through nonstop rain (suiting Celtic’s style and hobbling the Italian thoroughbreds). But Celtic created few chances and the red-and-black really only looked like world-beaters for the 6-minute span during which they trailed 1-0. I was sitting next to two AC Milan fans and they were stunned at how their team “woke up” and started playing well only when they fell behind.
But wasn’t doesn’t really come through was so appalling about the penalty call. There is no question that Celtic defender Lee Naylor was marking Massimo Ambrosini closely; you might even say “draped all over him.” But the ball was unplayable, and Ambrosini simply flopped — he was not pulled down. No way. I texted Michael: “Worst. Penalty. Call. Ever.”; “absolutely diabolical,” the commentator on that YouTube video says; on the ESPN2-Spanish feed the sports bar had, the commentators were referring to the referee’s call as “un regalo” (a gift). Even the two AC Milan fans on my left were embarrassed by it. The staidly objective Independent said the penalty “was awarded after some opaque offence, probably related to Lee Naylor tussling with Massimo Ambrosini while the ball was nowhere near.” Agence France-Presse report I saw later at work pulled fewer punches:
There appeared little wrong with Naylor’s challenge in the 68th minute, but [referee Markus] Merk saw what no-one else in the 60,000 crowd did and awarded Milan a penalty.
Kaka, playing his 50th Champions League game, wasn’t going to refuse the gift and he calmly sent Boruc the wrong way from the spot.
Worst. Penalty. Call. Ever. I was reminded (and it was not even the first time during the game) why I have such an easy time rooting against Italy and against Serie A teams. They are the worst “floppers,” i.e., dishonorable liars, in sport. And an even worse moment happened later. Celtic went up 2-1 in injury time, and I was going nuts in the bar, yelling “justice reigns,” referring to the bad penalty. Then came the moment that prompted all kinds of sidebar articles about “controversial circumstances” and “dampened joy” and investigations by UEFA, Celtic and the Strathclyde Police. A Celtic fan ran onto the pitch and had some contact with the AC Milan’s goalkeeper Dida. Here’s a separate video of just that, though you also can see it at the end of the highlight video I posted above.
What you see in both that video and this picture is that the fan only brushes Dida on the shoulder. Further, Dida clearly took several steps toward the fan, in “you wanna mess with me” mode, before crumpling onto the ground and play acting, like he was hit upside the head with a lead pipe. He then stayed on the ground for several minutes and was carried off the field on a stretcher. For a shoulder tap. I. Am. Not. Kidding. Again, even the AC Milan fans I was sitting next to were laughing at Dida’s play-acting, which would have gotten him laughed out of pro wrestling school. The Italian TV commentators were also laughing and an Italian magazine mocked the episode as “clowning worthy of Buster Keaton” (anyone read/hear Italian better than I?)
Regardless of the dishonorable actions of their goalkeeper, AC Milan as an organization, led by a good conservative man of honor, seem to be acting with class and accepting that the actions of the Celtic supporter had nothing to do with the outcome.
“We will not appeal. It is a decision that I have agreed with the president Silvio Berlusconi,” Milan vice president Adriano Galliani told Italian TV. “It is a decision we have taken because we are European champions and must behave like that.”
Exactly, though one still wonders whether AC Milan would be sounding this tune if the video evidence of malingering weren’t so irrefutable. I think UEFA’s rules are ridiculously draconian about relatively minor things (fans invading the pitch was practically a tradition when I was growing up). But hopefully UEFA will do nothing more than fine Celtic. The game is not affected by a single nut’s essentially harmless act (and in a free society, there are limits on what can be done against fans) versus Dida’s sort of play-acting and game-spoiling (the players ARE acting under sanction of their clubs). And hopefully, the fan who could have jeopardized Celtic’s win will get smothered in Glaswegian kisses.
Speaking of Scottish victories over Italian teams in technically ugly but tension-filled games, there was also the Rugby World Cup at the weekend: Scotland 18, Italy 16, putting Scotland in the quarter-finals, where we’ll play Argentina this weekend. The Pumas beat France in France to win their group, so they’re not the pushovers they were when I was a boy. We haven’t beaten Argentina in a long time, but it’s always been close and I’d certainly rather play them than any of the three other group winners — New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.
But with the Italy game, my reaction was more relief than joy. I don’t think we should ever lose to Italy at rugby (though we have). And Scotland didn’t put the game away until the very end, giving up a penalty to the Italians with three minutes to play, and handing David Bortolussi a chance to go up 19-18, and I let out a cheer when the kick went just wide (no more than a few feet)
Like the Celtic game, this match was played in rain that never let up (and in St. Etienne, a stadium with bad memories for Scotland in World Cup group deciders). Like the Celtic game, the conditions forced a grind-it-out game with little offensive flair. In fact, Scotland never really came close to scoring a try for the whole game, and Italy only did the one time they did. Like Celtic, Scotland got their scores entirely from Italian mistakes near their own goal (in this case, giving up unnecessary and some outright-stupid penalties to a world-class kicker, giving Chris Paterson six shots, and all 18 needed points).
And like with the Celtic game, the Italians did some world-class flopping (and some dirty play too). Actually, they only did it once, but it really stood out because this is rugby. In fact the commentators, upon seeing the replay, said of the Italian writhing in pain: “he probably thinks this is Serie A or something” and then went on to say there also was an exaggerating Frenchman involved in a Namibian player getting sent off in their group game. But the thing about rugby is that the sport’s macho ethos (the “Give Blood; Play Rugby” bumper-stickers, e.g.) has long prevented “flopping for fouls” from becoming a problem. A potential malingerer would be laughed at, “get up, you wimp,” by his own teammates. I hope this disgraceful practice doesn’t infect another sport.
UPDATE: In the interest of equal time, and the principle that all of your country’s clubs are one team in Europe … I note that Aberdeen in the UEFA Cup today did what Celtic couldn’t do a couple of weeks ago and the national team couldn’t do last year: go to Ukraine and get a result. The Dons travelled to Dnepropetrovsk, currently second in the Ukrainian league, and got a 1-1 draw, enough to see them advance on away goals into the UEFA Cup group stage.
I shamefully admit I had mentally written off Aberdeen after they got only a 0-0 draw at Pittodrie. I don’t think a Scottish club other than Rangers and Celtic had won a European tie in years … a few years ago, Hibernian got blitzed by the same Dnepro team and Dunfermline already had crashed out of this year’s UEFA Cup to a side from … gulp … the Swedish second division. But congrats to the Dons as well … Celtic and Scotland would both have killed for a 1-1 draw on their recent Ukraine trips.
¹ I wonder if Rangers fans still sing their song that ends with the line “I’d rather be a darkie than a tim” (“tim” = “Catholic”).
As great as were the justly-hyped new films by Andersson, the Coens, Reygadas, Maddin, Mungiu, etc. — the event at Toronto I was most looking forward to, which I wouldn’t have missed for the world, was seeing Ingmar Bergman’s THE VIRGIN SPRING presented in the Dialogues program by Max von Sydow. SPRING is a very very good film obviously, but it’s not Bergman’s greatest by a long shot (not even in his Top 10, I’d say). Still … a month after the death of the cinema’s maybe-greatest director, to see one of his films presented by his maybe-greatest actor, with an onstage interview and an audience Q-and-A … no explanation is possible or necessary. It’d be like skipping your best friend’s funeral.
It was even better than I’d hoped.
I arrived as early as I could to make sure I’d get a good seat. I got one in the very front row (which fills up slowly even at the mostly-excellent TIFF theaters, though at this one, the Isabel Bader, the screen is on a slightly-elevated live-theater stage, and back a bit, so there’s no neck-craning at all). And I was just four seats or so in from the aisle — prime autograph-stalking territory. And just 20 feet away from where Von Sydow would be when introducing SPRING and then being interviewed afterward by festival director Piers Handling. While waiting in my seat, my parents called and I told them excitedly and breathlessly where I was and who I was about to see: “Max Von Sydow … THE VIRGIN SPRING … The Knight who played chess with the Grim Reaper? … in THE SEVENTH SEAL??” The person sitting next to me in the theater said: “try the priest in THE EXORCIST.” Well … THAT reference my father got.
When von Sydow strides out on stage, in very good physical shape for a man pushing 80 (born 1929), everyone gives a standing ovation, which von Sydow quickly joins, realizing it’s as much for Bergman as for him. When it finally dies down, I’m close enough to see the tears welling up in von Sydow’s eyes when he says of Bergman “I owe it all to him.” And then they welled up in mine, as if the event was no mere film screening, no … BECAUSE the event was no mere film screening, but a wake for Ingmar Bergman. With von Sydow as the chief eulogist.
After the film was over, von Sydow and Handling came down the aisle, but Handling went up on stage first as the stagehands were arranging chairs, a table, microphones, etc. That was the opportunity I was waiting for and had my festival guidebook deliberately marked at the page for THE VIRGIN SPRING. I quickly walk the 20 feet over to von Sydow, hold out a pen, and say “Mr. von Sydow, would you sign my festival book, on the VIRGIN SPRING page here? It would be a great honor and make my festival.” He does so quickly, and I leave him right as Handling calls him onstage to another standing ovation.
Incredibly, I also got to ask von Sydow a question during the audience Q-and-A. This one didn’t go quite so well. Close as I can recall, what I said was “do you know whether Bergman, when casting his male roles, tailored them to your specific personality offscreen, and do the same for the offscreen personalities of Gunnar Bjornstrand and Erland Josephson and others?” He didn’t give a very good answer, saying in general terms without examples, that he did and that “once a part was cast, he would even rewrite some things to fit me, of course.” Not very illuminating, but that was my fault. What I was hoping for was confirmation or denial for a theory I have about Bergman’s whole body of male roles — that, to coarsely generalize, von Sydow played the tortured souls, Bjornstrand played the self-conscious skeptics and Josephson the post-Christians. And I was wondering whether that was deliberate and/or the result of roles being tailored to the men’s offscreen personalities. In my dreams, von Sydow might have even discussed his own religiosity. But asking it that way would have required a whole critical setup of the premises on my part, and thus my committing the cardinal sin of audience Q-and-As, the questioner making a speech of his own. I also didn’t want to be perceived as asking him too personal a question. So I decided to be short and tactful … and it fell flat. Though, with reference to von Sydow’s own religiosity, he may have revealed something in his word choice during his intro, saying SPRING was about religious clash, and how “there was still a lot of heathen beliefs” in Sweden at the time. “Heathen”?!?! Isn’t that a hate crime? Where were the language police? How did von Sydow ever escape the Soviet Socialist Republic of Canuckistan after committing such an awful Thoughtcrime??¹
Anyway, unlike most TIFF Q-and-As², this one was genuinely enlightening, partly because a prepared professional questioner had most of the time, and partly because von Sydow was trying to be as forthcoming as he could, and was Old-World gracious about everything. When he answered my question for example, he strode toward the part of the stage near where I was sitting, and looked me in the eye as he gave his answer. Later, when someone asked, “what are your personal memories of Bergman,” he responded slowly and sadly, without coming across as scolding: “I can’t talk about that. I’m sorry. I just can’t. Not now.” And surprisingly, while he called the approximately 10 years when he did most of his work for Bergman “the happiest time of my life as an actor,” he said his single favorite role of his whole career, was in PELLE THE CONQUERER.
Von Sydow recounted his first encounter with Bergman — in the early 50s, as he was starting to make a reputation in Sweden. He and two actor friends wanted to be in one of this hot new director’s movies, and one of them got Bergman’s number somehow, plus wind that he needed to fill a few small roles in his next movie. “So we crammed into a phone booth and told him we were all interested. He turned us down, saying he had completed casting, and I had no contact with him again for several years” — until Bergman was casting THE SEVENTH SEAL.
Surprisingly to me, von Sydow said Bergman gave little explicit direction³, something to the effect of “he gave us general ideas and if we weren’t doing something right, he’d tell us.” But he was not a control-freak, which von Sydow said he liked. “Actors don’t like to be given orders. You want the sense of having some input and some control over what you’re doing. Otherwise, it’s boring,” he said. Surprisingly, this was more or less the direction style of another of my favorite directors, but a man who doesn’t have Bergman’s reputation as a great director of actors — Alfred (“actors are cattle“) Hitchcock.⁴
Despite Bergman’s reputation as an expressionist, von Sydow said he tried to make things as realistic as possible in THE VIRGIN SPRING. It wasn’t simply eschewing directorial-tricks like underscore music in the climactic revelation to the mother of who the killers are. But Von Sydow said Bergman also didn’t like “dramatic shadows that had no reason to be there.” When Bergman saw the dailies one day, he realized Sven Nykvist⁵ had the killers casting ominous-looking shadows as they returned unwittingly to the family home. He said Bergman threw a fit … “why? It’s the dead of night,” and before there could be modern illumination. But there wasn’t time to reshoot, and the shadows stayed in the film. Von Sydow also said he didn’t like his performance in the last scene, a very long take which focuses on his post-murder penitential speech. He was shot mostly from behind (though over the course of the shot, it turns into a profile), which he thought was “cheating,” but it was what Bergman wanted. “He said I should direct myself toward God, not the camera,” von Sydow recalled.
Most of all, von Sydow came across as likeable, and as an Old World gentleman, and even his few difficulties with hearing and accented (though otherwise perfect) English contributed to that feel. When asked “what was the most difficult thing you had to provide Bergman,” he paused and gave a one-word answer “Quality.” And paused again before repeating the word and then elaborating a bit. When he was asked the sort of vulgar contemporary question about whether his VIRGIN SPRING character went ballistic against the killers because of “repressed sexual feelings for the daughter,” von Sydow handled it with class and simple directness: “No. Not at all.” When asked what he thought of the theory, he said “sounds like something somebody just came up with,” which I think is a to-Swedish-and-back-to-English translation for “pulled out of his ass.”
But my favorite moment was (of course) a funny anecdote about shooting THE VIRGIN SPRING. In one scene, von Sydow’s character wrestles down a birch tree, to get branches for a cleaning sauna. As you can see from this still above, this tree was isolated and thus von Sydow’s actions more dramatic (he’s locked up the killers and is getting ready for his revenge) and thematically apropos (he’s alone). Von Sydow said “we sent location people all over, but we couldn’t find a usable tree.” The problem was not finding birch trees per se — there are millions of them in Sweden; it’s finding birch trees all by their lonesome, not part of a forest. “So,” von Sydow said, “we found a usable open field and decided to plant one we had just cut down.” When the crew and von Sydow went out there, a bunch of nearby farmers showed up and “couldn’t believe what these crazy people from Stockholm were doing, planting a lone birch tree in the middle of nowhere.” “There’s thousands of trees over there in that forest,” von Sydow recalled the disbelieving farmers as saying. So the team shoots the scene … an exhausting one for von Sydow. But the next day, they look at the previous day’s footage: catastrophe. Some light found its way into the camera and completely blew out the image. “The only things you could see were all-black and all-white,” von Sydow recalled, “since you couldn’t see me, you saw the tree shape fall over all of a sudden, for no reason.” So they had to reshoot. And go back to the same fields. To face the same farmers. Now doubly nonplussed at this bunch of picture folk who can’t even do their crazy games right.
¹ In a similar vein, when introducing THE WALKER, Paul Schrader used even worse Hateweapons. He was referring to Washington’s (supposedly) being the only place in the US where homosexuality can be grounds for blackmail. He said “in Washington, it’s the sin that dare not speak its name; in New York, it’s the sin that won’t shut up.” SIN?!?!?! That is Badthought! Get that man in a re-education camp!! NOW!!!
² I will never forget the very first question I ever heard at my very first TIFF. It was a Dialogues showing of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, presented by Canadian director Bruce Sweeney. The first question he had to field still holds the record for “dumbest question ever” — “so why couldn’t they leave the room?”
³ I recalled once having read/seen an interview with Liv Ullmann in which she said the only “character trait” Bergman gave her for Maria in CRIES AND WHISPERS, other than what was in the script, was “she’s the sort of woman who never closes the door after she enters the room.”
⁴ Doris Day, in her memoirs, said something almost identical about Hitchcock’s lack of direction of her in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. I can’t find the exact quote quickly, but according to Wikipedia‘s paraphrase: Hitchcock “said everything was fine; if [Day] wasn’t doing what he wanted he would have said something.”
⁵ Throughout, von Sydow pronounced the surname of Bergman’s ace cinematographer, who von Sydow said was as great in his field as Bergman, as “NOOK’-vist.” Which sounds wrong to me (I want to say NIGH’-kvist), but he’s the one who speaks Swedish.
I’d better give him a hat tip for this New York Times article by Dennis Lim about SECRET SUNSHINE, based on an interview with Lee Chang-dong. When J. Robert Parks and I discussed the movie, we agreed that Lee wasn’t interested in the sort of easy caricature that comes as second nature to Hollywood and Sundance. Several other Christian critics besides myself have noted this film’s interest (thanks Jeffrey and Peter). But it wasn’t obvious what Lee’s personal religiosity was. Here’s the answer (though the Lim article does note this realism):
Asked about his own religious beliefs, Mr. Lee quoted Ludwig Wittgenstein — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” — and added, “That’s my position on God and faith.”
“Secret Sunshine” ends on a note at once ambiguous and hopeful. Its limpid, humble approach to suffering and grace suggests something like “Breaking the Waves” stripped of mysticism, or a rationalist version of “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
“Shin-ae is always looking up and never at the ground,” Mr. Lee said, pointing out a recurring motif. The film opens with a wide shot of the sky and concludes with the camera trained on a patch of earth. “I wanted to show that the meaning of life is not far from where we are,” he said. “It’s not up there. It’s here, in our actual life.”
I think what Robert and I were responding to, and this probably says something about the damage the Kulturkampf in the West has done to artists, was seeing a Korean skeptic/humanist able to suspend his disbelief, as it were, and produce a judicious, if critical, movie that Christians could engage with. I even said in my initial review that there is no way SECRET SUNSHINE can be compared to the Samstopher Dawkinses. But an environment where any manner of silliness, as long as it’s anti-Christian, can pass for deep thinking¹ is the cultural air that Western Christians must breathe. Where adolescent Christophobia is normal, films like SECRET SUNSHINE really really REALLY profit by comparison.
But to respond to something to a point Peter raised in that thread at Arts & Faith above (SPOILER warning henceforth):
How one reacts to the film — and its portrayal of Christians in particular — may depend to a great degree on a particular scene between a man and a woman, roughly halfway through the film (I think). … But what did you make of the fact that the “forgiven” man shows pretty much zero remorse or zero felt need to be reconciled with the woman? I really like that scene and the direction in which it spins the plot, on a number of levels, but there was something about that part of the scene that didn’t feel quite “right”, quite “real”, to me. It is scenes like this that people probably have in mind when they (or should I say, we) point to the “superficiality” of the film’s depiction of evangelical faith (or should I say, the evangelical faith depicted in this film).
I don’t agree that the child-killer shows little remorse or felt need to be reconciled. He’s calm and not playing up the sackcloth and self-flagellation angle, sure. I don’t recall his precise dialogue, beyond thanking her and welcoming her into the “Christian fold” and thanking the Holy Spirit for bringing them together, etc. For me at least, the entire energy of the scene was on her reaction, her shock. She (and I, quite frankly) expected some snarling brute and we didn’t get it; she can’t quite process that, so she takes out her disappointment on God. We have an easier time processing that surprise, and thus “judging her” … because … well, it wasn’t our child, so it’s easier for us to see the principle at stake beyond the personal (aside: this is why I oppose victim-impact statements during criminal sentencings).
That said, I’ve already noted that I see her subsequent reaction is evidence of a certain spiritual immaturity — not in her failure (she was doing something that would try the greatest saints) but in her very attempting it and being encouraged in that by her congregation (“fighting for the title right out of the Golden Gloves”). It is a true test of sainthood: can we be happy for the forgiveness received by those who have wronged us? To take it to the logical end: do we *want* Hitler to be in Hell. It’s hard to say “no” to that, but Christians must. The breadth and depth of God’s forgiveness is not a particularly interesting theological question; the answer is cut-and-dried obvious: “we must be happy for the killer” (and must not want Hitler in Hell). But it’s much more interesting as an existential dilemma: “can we be,” or “can she be.” In fact, the existential questions make for far more interesting drama, though it always has to dance at the edge of orthodoxy, precisely because the acting-out of something is neither the same thing as nor so easy as the affirmation of something (one reason I had no interest in people who dismissed BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN based on the sinfulness of homosexual sex). And this is a far broader and deeper point than the particular extremes of dealing with a child-murderer or of sodomy — in fact, it’s the one that all of us sinners face every day.
¹ At the E Street Theater in downtown Washington at the weekend, I saw a “Coming Soon” poster for FOR THE BIBLE TELLS ME SO, which looks like a veritable Summa of this sort of stuff. The film (which Peter has apparently seen) is playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival, which describes the film thusly: “The hermeneutics of hate are given a precise translation in director Daniel Karslake’s look at how a literal reading of the bible has been the justification for centuries of persecution, violence and hatred.” I’m almost tempted to see the film just to have the privilege of slamming it.