Rightwing Film Geek

If I’m gonna dis Peter …

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.
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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.

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October 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Another post about “Another Year, Another Rwanda Movie”

I haven’t seen SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL and probably will not, unless the buzz is much better than it has been (50 percent at Rotten Tomatoes as I write). But Peter Chattaway brought up an interesting point about the lead he’d planned to write for his review:

“Another year, another Rwanda movie.”
I actually considered beginning my own review of Shake Hands with the Devil that way, but I decided against it, out of a sense that it might seem too disrespectful to those who endured the awful real-life events depicted in this film. I see, however, that Scott Foundas begins his review for Variety that way. Ah well.

I really don’t think appearing disrespectful to anyone should ever be a consideration with a movie and for reasons worth unpacking.

The only people to whom a smart-aleck line like that would be being disrespectful are the makers of the movie, but they don’t get any immunity-by-osmosis from their subject matter. SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL is a movie; it’s not an act of murder or mass murder or genocide, and we as viewers can only react to it as a movie. HANDS might be good, bad or indifferent but you don’t get points in my book (nor should you in anyone’s) for the gravity of your surface subject matter. In fact, giving a film points, even if only implicitly by saying you shouldn’t mock it if it’s bad, is actually what trivializes historical events. It incentivizes the commodification of human suffering by turning it into, and judging it by the standards of, fictionalized discourse … (OK, let’s try that again) … it turns historical events into one mass of raw material for movies — with the bloodier being the better.

I admit I’m approaching this from the perspective of someone who doesn’t generally care for statement or “message” movies; I care more about cinematic and dramatic style than subject matter per se (though there’d better be subject matter). But to state the obvious, HANDS is the most spectacularly brilliant movie ever, it’s not gonna bring back to life a single Tutsi victim. If it’s the most craptacular ever, no Tutsis will die. It is a movie, not ontologically different from HOT FUZZ.

In fact, I’d argue the opposite — that to treat a movie with greater deference in the same way you would a murder or a mass murder or a genocide trivializes the latter. The more one believes that making a good movie about important subject matter is “ennobling,” then the more one must also believe that making a bad movie about that same subject has to be “degrading.” Which again a “no mockery” or “must show reverence” rule would undermine. With greater risk has to come … well, greater risk. As it turns out, Peter liked the movie moderately. But if SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL were a weak, rote movie, as Foundas thought, why isn’t *that* disrespectful toward the Rwandan genocide, trying to piggy-back on the subject matter, and thus doubly worthy of a “comme ci, comme ca” dis? A sliding-scale of reverence towards films based on their surface subject matter is not only bad criticism but also encourages bad movie-making. To show greater deference to a rote or indifferent movie about the Rwandan genocide than to a rote or indifferent movie about zombies only encourages craftsmen and/or hacks to try subjects beyond their ken (the APA calls this “the Stanley Kramer Syndrome”). We already have too many directors who might make good commercial comedies or thrillers or horror movies trying to Make A Statement. (Or gussy up action films with topicality; think BLOOD DIAMOND here.) I’m reminded of Joel McCrea in SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, convinced that he only contributes by making O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. And giving Big Subject Matter some sort of kid-glove treatment is, however mildly, incentivizing such bad ideas. And the movies mostly turn out to be bad anyway. To see how wrong even the greatest of film-makers can go when he tries to make “statement movies,” take a peek some day at Ernst Lubitsch’s BROKEN LULLABY (aka THE MAN I KILLED). Or don’t … trust me.

Much more to my taste is this priceless Mike D’Angelo diss on Polanski’s THE PIANIST, as

… populated by characters who seem to have wandered in from a contemporary Shoah seminar. “There are only 60,000 of us left,” one starving ghetto Jew explains, as his compatriots visibly resist the urge to pull out a ballpoint and start taking notes. “Originally we numbered 500,000.” Like, what, did the Nazis have a big McDonald’s-style sign on every street corner: “Over 439,000 annihilated”?

I had a similar moment as a budding critic for my college paper when reviewing some slasher movie (I forget which one; one of the HALLOWEEN sequels, I think) in which a character holds up a condom into the picture frame during the “let’s have sex so we can be stabbed to death together” scene. This was at the start of late-80s Condomania, and I had written something like: “Heaven forfend that a movie with dozens of motiveless, bloody murders might be perceived as teaching kids a bad lesson about unsafe sex. All that blood splashing around — someone might come down HIV-positive and die.”¹ My journalism professor called the passage “totally tasteless … AIDS is not a joking subject.” I said, “I’m joking about a ridiculous movie scene.” She wasn’t impressed and cut it out, and I’ve resented it ever since.
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¹ The Safe-Sex-Messages in movie of that era convinced me that entertainment-industry figures (or film critics) who say, when the subject is sex or violence or vulgarity or nihilism in the movies (or other entertainment media for that matter) that “movies don’t influence behavior” are either lying or spectacularly stupid.

October 2, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment