Rightwing Film Geek

Same-sex “comedies of marriage”

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.

chucklarry.jpgIt’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).

Advertisements

October 8, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

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.
———————————————————-
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.

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

Speaking of knee-jerk

At least Blockbuster and the Blog-rating have the excuse of being dumb (in every sense) mechanical programs. But what is the American Spectator’s excuse for this bit of unfocused spite, against the AFI Top 100 list.

It’s fine to take down a consensus masterpiece (I was one of the cinephiles who saw the first efforts of Vlad the Impaler). But reading through this dreck by Larry Thornberry, it’s hard to see what he has exactly against KANE.

He makes exactly one serious, sane point made against the film, an observation that counts as criticism. Slathering negative adjectives and sneering at “film majors and various other humbugs” doesn’t count. Nor do also potentially-serious points that are actually factually wrong, such as “it’s long” (it’s 1 minute short of two hours, which is the “standard” feature-length), or that betray fundamental misunderstandings such as “Welles is pompous” (Kane the character often is; Welles the man is completely self-effacing, here at least).

In addition, all his criticisms against KANE also apply to the other films on the list that he explicitly approves of. BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (not “over”) and THE GODFATHER are far longer than KANE and THE SEARCHERS is exactly the same length. CASABLANCA and DUCK SOUP (Harpo aside) are talkier films. And no movie that screeches to a halt for the BJ Thomas “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” interlude can even pretend to be about Butch Cassidy or anything other than the 60s Summer of Love.

Thornberry’s one serious well-taken point against KANE is that “it’s talky.” Which is to some extent true. But apart from the already-noted double standard, and the fact that lots of great movies are “talky” if the “talk” is great (including those of former American Spectator editor Whit Stillman), he also completely ignores the fact that by far the larger part of the standard pro-KANE panegyric is about how VISUAL the film is. KANE is a stylistically dense masterpiece, of light and shadow, of true blacks, of German expressionist lighting, of deep focus, of visual metaphor, etc. Here’s a quick, cheap primer.


I’m no fan of formal credentialism in the field of film criticism, but it’s hard to imagine why someone would be qualified to dismiss KANE if he thinks he can get off doing so without mentioning the film’s extremely distinctive visual style. How out of touch with the field of film criticism — populist, highbrow or otherwise — can he be?

The rest of his article is just a bunch of cheap shots that are even less developed than his attack on KANE — GONE WITH THE WIND is long; 2001 is obscure; RAGING BULL is boring; TITANIC is long and expensive; SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and BONNIE AND CLYDE celebrates criminals (THE GODFATHER and BUTCH CASSIDY don’t?); Benjamin in THE GRADUATE is stupid; THE DEER HUNTER wasn’t made by a Vietnam vet … and much more.

I wish Bob Tyrrell gave his raspberry-filled J. Gordon Coogler Award to magazine articles. The 2007 winner wouldn’t have had far to travel for the presentation.

June 25, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Cannes winner controversy?

fonda.jpgHopefully, there won’t be a big stink in conservative circles over the fact that 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS — a movie about a quest for an illegal abortion in Ceaucescu-era Romania — won the top prize at the world’s most prestigious and important film festival.

I fear the worst though, if there’s much knee-jerking or the word about this film gets out the wrong way. Especially given the headlines from the US press — CNN: “Cannes’ top prize goes to film about abortion” (complete with a picture of Jane Fonda granting the top prize and kissing the director; how many buttons could they push if trying); ABC/Associated Press: “Romanian Abortion Film Wins Cannes Prize”; Drudge (from Agence France-Presse): “Top Cannes award for harrowing Romanian abortion film.”

The film has been noted in the Catholic blogosphere — at American Papist, Catholic Fire and Creative Minority Report — and the common ground is sight-unseen suspicion without very good or even much-stated reasons, even of the kind that are justified sight-unseen. I certainly understand the suspicion to a degree, but VERA DRAKE a “rather mediocre” movie? I didn’t think so. Peter Chattaway didn’t. Jeffrey Overstreet didn’t. I asked Mike D’Angelo, who saw 4 MONTHS at Cannes, how he’d guess I’d react to the “abortion film.” Though Mike is, in his words, “a fairly devout atheist,” he knows my tastes and dispositions (including my religious beliefs) fairly well. This was his answer, cited with permission:

I can’t say, but if you don’t like it I doubt it’ll be for political/moral reasons. It’s an “abortion film” the way SAFE is an “environmental illness” film.

4-months.jpgSo I remain very optimistic that 4 MONTHS will be a good film in itself though, and it’s not simply because I had VERA DRAKE in my Top 5. I really liked THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, the last “harrowing” Romanian movie to come garlanded with Cannes prizes, and also dug 12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST when I saw it last year.

There is neutral-to-favorable comment at Lifesite; (some AFP versions of the story even labeled the Cannes prize-winners as “death-obsessed”); nobody from Cannes that I’m aware of was calling 4 MONTHS a great blow for women’s freedom or against the fascist godbag patriarchy or any of the rest of that. And the comments from the director Cristian Mungiu in this Australian ABC article are somewhat encouraging, given the audience and the fact that he was speaking in a language not his own:

Because of the pressure of the regime, women and families were so much concerned about not being caught for making an illegal abortion that they didn’t give one minute of thought about the moral issue … [putting the baby onscreen] makes a point — people should be aware of the consequences of their decisions.

OK, not Father Pavone, but certainly no reason to be suspicious of his movie, which is for most, still sight-unseen. Given the reports the Cannes lineup was unusually strong this year, I am psyched.

May 28, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Separating the artist from the art

Oliver Stone’s WORLD TRADE CENTER opened today. And I’ll be honest, when I saw the trailer, I was ready to stick my finger down my throat. The “start of the day” shots felt like the sarcastic BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY overture; slow-motion and heavy scoring is a standard trailer-baiting effect, but it brought to mind that same film’s beginning. It looked like a manipulative soap opera, done by someone I have no reason to think wouldn’t be hiding Conspiracy Theories behind the trailer.

But from conservatives who have seen WORLD TRADE CENTER — the prebuzz was been unanimously favorable — Cliff May, John Miller, and Kathryn Lopez at National Review Online; Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center; Cal Thomas, the former No.2 at the Moral Majority; Jonathan Last at the Weekly Standard; Ivy Sellers at Human Events; and Michael Medved. And the reaction at places such as Free Republic was more positive than negative. But in reviews published today, Peter Suderman at National Review and Christian Toto at the Washington Times were mixed or slightly-negative on WORLD TRADE CENTER.

As of my writing this (I will certainly see WORLD TRADE CENTER, but probably not until the weekend), I think JFK is easily Stone’s best film, because it’s his most paranoid and nonsensical. It’s so bizarre that the text cannot be taken seriously, except as the occasion for Stone’s virtuoso style — which is dazzling (Christian complained in TWT that there wasn’t enough of that in WTC). It’s the film equivalent of coloratura opera, or listening to one of the drug-addled conversations in A SCANNER DARKLY. But I couldn’t persuade conservative friends back in 1991/92 to see it.

But this is the latest example of how political/religious conservatives are so much better at separating our reaction to a work of art from the artist. We have to be. With a handful of notable exceptions — Jane Fonda, Michael Moore and (until now) Stone but no others that immediately come to mind — we generally patronize the films of artists that we despise politically or make fun of. Oh sure, we’ll ridicule Susan Sarandon, Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn and the rest of the Film Actors Guild. But the much common attitude seems to be the line that I started this review of THERESE and CELSIUS 41.11:

In THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS … the French colonel in charge of the anti-terrorism unit is read a Jean-Paul Sartre quote denouncing French rule in Algeria. In response, he asks aloud: “why are all the Sartres on the other side?”

No conservative of my acquaintance seriously doubts that many bone-headed liberals are in fact great actors, singers, etc. In fact, it’s even common for conservatives to see brilliance in works that are unquestionably propaganda for despicable ideas. I could cite my own Top 10 lists, which has THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST below VERA DRAKE¹ and HERO² for 2004, and has annual #1 slots occupied by THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS³ and EARTH⁴.

It’s not just me. At the Washington Times newsroom, I AM CUBA has been a bit of a hit. A few weeks ago, I was speaking to a senior manager at work — a Cuban-born woman — and I said “Soy Cuba” in some context that made the title of Mikhail Kalatozov’s famed 1964 Cuban-Soviet propaganda film a funny punchline. She responded in a way that indicated she knew what I was referring to. I told her that I AM CUBA had recently run on the Sundance Channel and I had burned a Tivo’d DVD of it onto two discs. She said she had never seen it and jumped at the chance to borrow the film. When she returned the discs, she was rapturous about how visually stunning was the style and gorgeous were the images. Her favorite moments included the student on the steps, walking through billows of smoke up to an assassination attempt; images of the farmer burning his cane fields; the famous early swimming-pool shot; long shots of people in the distance marching through streets, and it turns out to be a funeral, which the camera hovers over like an angel.

A couple of days after she returned the disc, the managing editor came to my desk, told me he had heard the Cuban lady rave about I AM CUBA and asked if he could borrow my discs. On returning them, he was just as impressed, calling it “a great propaganda film” (he also noted the involvement of Yevtushenko, who later became a bit of a dissident in the Soviet Union). He noted not just the cinematography but also the faces in the film, and how “great to look at” the film was. “And very timely,” he joked, given Castro’s stepping down just days before. We agreed that the images in the film are so sensual — the high-contrast black-and-white, the lengthy takes, the dramatic compositions, the aura of smoke, the feel of heat — that you just want to caress them.

Perhaps the difference from their own homeland inspired Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky to capture so completely the “feel” of the sun-soaked tropical country where they were working, making the film a giddy romp on summer holiday.

Though not blind to the Batista regime’s faults, none of the three of us are Fidelistas by any definition (and Castro himself doesn’t appear in the movie, like Lenin used to in the Soviet classics of the 20s). Still, none of the three of us were seriously put off by the Fidelism of I AM CUBA. When a film is this gorgeous, the style makes everything else irrelevant (this is, approximately, how I’d defend the awesomeness of HERO). I’d say the style even makes the film’s points — though I AM CUBA is nobody’s idea of intellectually-subtle or well-acted. But Kalatozov and Urusevsky’s great style, the overwhelming style, stamps itself so firmly onto the sometimes clumsy performances that it turns these “bad” actors into icons or types — persons who stand less for than themselves than for the image of Revolutionary Hero. Like a Communist “Lives of the Saints” picture book.
——————————————————
¹ about a saintly abortionist, though I think the film ultimately is more complicated than that.
² a full-throated Chinese nationalist apologia for tyranny.
³ I saw ALGIERS just a block from Pennsylvania Avenue and within walking distance of the White House and Congress just as the Iraq insurgency was getting seriously under way.
⁴The Ukrainian Embassy had a ceremonial person introduce EARTH at the National Gallery of Art’s Dovzhenko retro. Another Ukrainian official, a cultural attache (though I wouldn’t swear to that), participated in a post-film roundtable that never, to my recollection, touched on the issue of making a film in Ukraine in 1930 about the peasants’ glorious struggle against the Kulaks.

August 8, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

Apologia pro Ang Lee

brokeback5.jpg

BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, Ang Lee, USA, 9

On Dave Kehr’s blog last week, a commentator named Joe Baltake noted that Ang Lee’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is a film that “will be both liked and disliked for the wrong reasons.”

The film stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall in the romantic tragedy of a couple of gay cowboys who eat beans rather than pudding. It’s already received seven Golden Globe nominations, won several critic circles’ “year’s best” nods, and nabbed the top prize at probably the world second-most-prestigious juried film festival (Venice). In the coming weeks, it will be garlanded with multiple Oscar nominations and will probably get some wins. But a mere perusal of Rotten Tomatoes (87 percent “Fresh”) and the right Google search terms tells you that at least part of the stated reason for some of this is seeing the film as a commercial for gay “marriage,” “tolerance” and all the rest of it. Quick examples from Newsweek

Brokeback feels like a landmark film. No American film before has portrayed love between two men as something this pure and sacred. As such, it has the potential to change the national conversation and to challenge people’s ideas about the value and validity of same-sex relationships.

… and from Entertainment Weekly:

In an age when the fight over gay marriage still rages, Brokeback Mountain, the tale of two men who are scarcely even allowed to imagine being together, asks, through the very purity with which it touches us: When it comes to love, what sort of world do we really want?

YEAH!! That’s the kind of praise I want to hear about a movie — “this is the blood of the lamb, which washes away the sins of the homophobes. Have mercy on them.”

And I like BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. A lot. But I don’t say that because I’m a priori impressed with gay subject matter, though I admit to not being absolutely turned-off by it either. I really don’t want to hear that sort of praise for it, since it turns the movie into a Cause. With some predictable (and equally wrong-headed) response from the other side of The Cause (the side to which I very emphatically belong).

There was a kerfuffle last week over the review by Harry Forbes, head of the Office of Film and Broadcasting at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Such conservative Catholics as apologist Jimmy Akin, journalist and expectant father (and friend, at least for now) Dom Bettinelli and the LifeSiteNews (here and here) went to town on the review, calling it in various ways an amoral whitewash that downplayed the Church teaching on homosexuality. As the editor’s note explains, the film was initially rated “L” — for “limited adult audiences, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling” and is short of the “O” rating for “morally offensive.” That L-rating was quickly changed to “O,” but the review remained the same, to the chagrin of Dom, Mr. Akin and others, who began (or reiterated) calls for Mr. Forbes’s head.

Thing is, neither man nor the writers at LifeSite (ditto most of the people in their comment fields) have seen the film and so they are taking Mr. Forbes’s descriptions at face value. I agree that the review is lacking severely and that may account for the negative reaction (I’ll get back to that and some related issues after making my own case for the film as at least not O-offensive), but I have actually seen the movie.

akin.jpgLike THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST last year, I’d like a first-rate film to be seen as something other than a Kulturkampf football and a measurement of one’s bona fides therein, much less as their Judgment Day Sheepness or Goatness. And I’ll say the following: reducing BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to “homosexual propaganda,” as Lifesite does, and saying that “It is BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS that this one is morally offensive,” as Mr. Akin does, is meaningless and ridiculously overstated coming from people who have not seen the movie.

Now … I’m not, not, NOT saying that one cannot say anything about a movie without having seen it, including (1) reasonable expectations about what it might be like, (2) judgments of the public discourse surrounding it, and (3) one’s decision whether to see it himself (which is, always and by definition, a decision made sight-unseen). But there are limits. And labeling something “propaganda” and insisting in ALL CAPS that something is “blindingly obvious” and calling others’ points “mere spin” are … to use Mr. Akin’s phrase … not borderline cases. Those are opinions to which the writers are not entitled, though in fairness Dom doesn’t “fisk” the review sight-unseen as Mr. Akin does (not to his credit) and is a bit more careful to say only what he can.

brokeback3.jpgI had dinner at David Morrison’s house earlier this fall. His roommate “Dan” had read the Annie Proulx short story, but not seen the film. I had done the reverse. So Dan and I have this odd conversation, trying to figure out between ourselves what the adaptation was like, while trying to be spoiler-vague in front of David, who had neither seen nor read it. Dan was fairly emphatic that the story didn’t make the affair attractive, but rather was portrayed as a destructive force of nature. David was listening to us and (metaphorically) threw up his hands in frustration, saying something like “you guys are kidding yourselves. You both know perfectly well how this film will be spun. ‘How awful is it that the homophobic society and the constraints of the nuclear family got in the way of the happiness of these two nice well-meaning gay men by repressing their natural desires to marry each other.’ It’ll be taken as a commercial for gay marriage and that’s what all the Oscar night speeches will be about.”

I had to admit that the film doesn’t exclude that “read,” though I insisted (and insist) that this reduces and flattens the film and rides roughshod over some of its psychology. But I think David’s reaction is typical of the general Catholic suspicion of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. The above-noted hosannahs (or as I put it elsewhere above, “the public discourse surrounding it”) — “I’m here. I’m queer, it was fabulous” — deserves suspicion. And they are indistinguishable from the outside from what would be said if BROKEBACK were in fact homosexual propaganda. But the film deserves better than to be reacted to, positively OR negatively, as an exercise in gay-lifestyle validation. It isn’t.

anglee.jpgOn the basis of his past work, I think Ang Lee is entitled to at least some consideration that he’s not making libertine propaganda. You’ll read very often, and sometimes from the horse’s mouth, that Lee’s movies are about “repression.” This is obviously true, but *how* are they about repression? As often as not, they’re about the destructive effects on the individual and society of willful characters and their destructive effects on the social and themselves — CROUCHING TIGER, where Zhang Ziyi’s adolescent pique and social-climbing bring ruin; the contrast between the two sisters in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (remember Kate Winslet sobbing on the bed); and THE ICE STORM, where the sex is about as unrepressed as it gets — and ugly and destructive and (frankly) joyless.

brokeback7.jpg

The most important thing I have not seen noted elsewhere is what happens on the night of Jack and Ennis’s first sexual encounter. They were supposed to be keeping watch over a flock of sheep, protecting them from the wolves. When they wake up the morning after, they find out one of the sheep has been killed during the night. Their passion killed. You don’t have to be Harold Bloom to see the archetypes here — homosexuality as death force, as a passive destroyer of the soul, of innocence. In addition, the film certainly doesn’t portray the affair as viable as an alternative lifestyle, though each man thinks it might may be, for a time, after a fashion (Jack is the only one with the Massachusetts “marriage” dream). The relationship only “works” when it’s set apart from the social world — and this is the classic “homophobic” construction of homosexuality as outlawry.

Jack and Ennis’s not getting together has as much to do with the particulars of who they are as for social disapproval. Jack has a penchant for dangerous risk-taking; Ennis is a-romantic, period (if the second love had been a woman, the story would not have played out differently). As the movie went on, Jack and Ennis’s relationship became less sexual and more of an increasingly elusive “if only,” often tinged with jealousy and anger at each other. There’s even one scene where Ennis explicitly turns away Jack with the same “I gotta work” line that some woman hears from some overworked and unavailable man every second of every day of the year.

brokeback2.jpg

Nor does the film, contrary to Mr. Akin’s sight-unseen assertions and dismissal of noting this as “mere spin,” skimp on the affair’s destructive effects on others, with neither cowboy being a good husband or father, at least in part because the other is always a possibility. Jack marries for money and lives unhappily castrated. Before his divorce, Ennis even turns his wife into a man in bed one night. He becomes estranged from his children and even turns down a chance for custody of his daughter. And, most obviously — the film ends tragically and unhappily.

Now … I’m not going to oversell BROKEBACK on these grounds. It’s definitely not a Christian work, and one should approach it with caution. But if this story were about an illegitimate lisison between a married man and a married woman, maybe it would be far easier to see how comfortably BROKEBACK fits into the traditions and templates of romantic tragedy, and so (and this is what I care about here) not leap to conclusions about what the film is supposedly “endorsing.” It’d be easier, in some quarters, to see that its low-key elegiac tone and its bittersweet ambivalence about an impossible love come straight out of BRIEF ENCOUNTER or THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. But the essence of tragedy is that every option be costly. Nobody seriously maintains that David Lean or Martin Scorsese have constructed screeds against marriage or the breeder lifestyle — merely acknowledging that marriage involves some dying to self. (The most underappreciated film of this topic, though it’s not a tragedy, was 2003’s THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.) But all three of the tragic movies I’ve named are about people who choose family over eros, and from a mix of motives, not excluding shame and social disapproval. To acknowledge that such choices, even the right ones, have costs, and that some might not prefer those costs at certain moments or with a certain part of their soul, is simple truth-telling.

It’s also thoroughly Catholic apropos of homosexuality. Catechism 2358 says as follows:

(M)en and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord’s Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.

Now what “difficulties” might the Church be talking about? And what could be united to the Cross other than suffering? And a suffering that, because it is based on something “deep-seated,” may not end or be “cured” on this side of paradise. Sure, the right path is clear (and 2359 does offer hope for homosexual persons, albeit of a kind they tend to hold in contempt), but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or painless, or, to steal a line I’ve heard, that it’s the broadest path.

Thus, potentially and in principle at least, the pain of homosexual repression (whether from without or within) can be the stuff of romantic tragedy without implying that homosexual acting-out is a preferable option. Only an Americanist pragmatism, an insistence on moral happy endings, or a willful desire to draw unsubstantiated pro-gay conclusions could say otherwise. And the USCCB guide goes astray in stating that the film includes “tacit approval of same-sex relationships.” Or rather, that’s true only if every stance other than explicit condemnation constitutes “tacit approval.” Under that understanding, yes, since BROKEBACK isn’t interested in approval or disapproval, it does indeed give tacit approval to homosexual sex. But that’s a crabbed, unidimensional and ultimately boring understanding of art, thought and discourse in the first place, one that owes more to Puritanism and other forms of religious purism than Catholicism. Surely reason and secular plurality offer some space to representation other than the 60s totalitarian-radical stance: “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

brokeback4.jpg

Now this “take” may very well not be Ang Lee’s or Annie Proulx’s. But there’s plenty in the film to support it and, more importantly, nothing in the film that excludes it. One of the things that needs to be made clearer about BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN is its open-endedness and disinterestedness. Part of the reason the film’s widely-praised last image (a closet, a uniform, a window, a child walking away, and Heath Ledger’s face and body language all create a spine-tingling memento mori) is so brilliant is that it isn’t an overdetermined “moral” — it keeps open both BROKEBACK’s sources of loss. The film does nothing to “force” its audience into a conclusion about homosexuality, other than simply presupposing “homos is people too,” which is hardly heresy. The fact that secular film critics are cheerleading this film on (some of) the grounds they are is not surprising, but what is surprising is Christians taking their word for it. The film-critic community is one where theological illiteracy reigns (see 90 percent of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST criticism) and where opposition to gay marriage is understood only or primarily as “hate,” like when Scott Tobias at The Onion AV Club blog refers to “the recent glut of anti-gay marriage voter initiatives” as evidence of “homophobic sentiment.” (And believe me, Scott is a friend who wouldn’t even enter my mind if I were asked to name the Top 40 Leftist Wack-Jobs in the Field of Film Criticism.)

But Scott makes a much more important point at the end of the conversation:

The 9/11 echoes in War Of The Worlds are subtext. The commentary on race in Do The Right Thing is text. The “plea for tolerance” in Brokeback Mountain comes as a side effect of telling this story, not it’s raison d’être.

Even though I think (as Scott does not) that homosexual behavior is sinful and identifying oneself as “a homosexual” is dubious — in more than one sense of “dubious” — this is still a basic fact about how a work of art “works.” Scott distinguishes films that are propaganda, both implicitly and explicitly, from works that are not, but which may have effects that lead it to be understood in a certain way. But it is purely and simply not the case that people reacting to a text (by, say, calling it a great boon for gay marriage, yadda-yadda, etc.) has anything to do with the text. Though my meter is probably not St. Blogs’ most sensitive on such matters, I see a handful of “gay propaganda” movies every year and I can say definitely that BROKEBACK ain’t one, though it is certainly consumable (and is being consumed) as validation by gay-lifestyle propagandists, just as last year’s even better VERA DRAKE was equally bluntly and oversimplifiedly pushed into service as pro-abortion propaganda.

It is true that, like all movies, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN does require of the viewer at least some provisional acceptance of its terms of reference. No thing can be about everything. Homosexuality as a public issue doesn’t appear in the movie at all, and homosexuality as a moral issue hardly does, though adultery and infidelity as moral issues very definitely do. What you simply have to accept provisionally is that some people have an erotic desire for the same sex, and (and this is the hard part) that this might not be the most important thing to say about their sexual behavior or their moral character. This shouldn’t be too hard for Catholics, since Catechism 2359 above says homosexual persons are called, like all, to sainthood.

That these two men have, at least somewhat, released the homosexual genie to destructive ends does not (a priori, at least) answer the question of whether the genie should have been let out the bottle in the first place or whether we should encourage everyone to rub as many bottles as they find, and call it good. Indeed I think, in a strange way, the liberal lovers and the conservative haters of the film are arguing from the same template — that a movie that treats homosexual persons as persons first (with the particulars of their sinful weaknesses being a secondary detail) is somehow implying something about either about the morality of homosexuality or about the public issues surrounding it. It doesn’t. The Entertainment Weekly reviewer (Owen Glieberman) immediately before the passage cited above, writes explicitly:

It’s far from being a message movie, yet if you tear up in the magnificent final scene, with its haunting slow waltz of comfort and regret, it’s worth noting what, exactly, you’re reacting to: a love that has been made to knuckle under to society’s design.

Leaving aside the direction of the terms of approval and disapproval, this is essentially the same as Dom:

Is that all that the official reviewer for the US bishops can say about a movie that attempts to normalize homosexuality as just another lifestyle? From the beginning you detect an enthusiasm for the movie that seems a bit untoward.

As I’ve said, I think the Catholic reaction to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN has more to do with the Forbes review, which is freely available and appearing in the context of secular hosannahs, than to the film, which has not been widely released yet. And that review was, in fact, fairly pitiful and deserving of scorn.

As Mr. Akin points out, there are just a few sentences of “slight caveats thrown in as sops to those who would find the film objectionable.” Those sentences aside, the review was pretty indistinguishable from what one might read from a daily newspaper. Also, and take this from an editor, those sentences read like “afterthought” — that is, if an editor were of a mind to, they would have been cuttable instantly without making yourself as a result do any further rearranging or major editing. You wouldn’t get any sense from reading almost all of this review that the writer was writing for the US bishops office or for Catholic publications. When you look at what the USCCB did (eventually, and apparently after some kicking and screaming) and what Christianity Today’s movies page did, they look similar. That is, discuss and rate the film as a work of art, with a disclaimer about the subject matter.

But … CT’s review was much better and meatier, and had its moral concerns better integrated throughout. I don’t think Forbes did nearly enough of that, didn’t approach the film from a specifically and identifiably Catholic view from beginning to end, and the result was an oil-and-water effect.

When I wrote my reviews of IRREVERSIBLE and THE ARISTOCRATS, I knew I was writing about two movies I loved, but which had subject matter guaranteed to turn off most religious viewers.¹ I made damn sure that I communicated my knowledge of that fact from the start, leading with a volley of vulgarities in one case and some graphic descriptions in the other. I would do the same if I were to write about EYES WIDE SHUT and LAST TANGO IN PARIS — the questionable moral status of the film’s images and surface content would suffuse and be central to my claims about the films (i.e., that they’re masterpieces, and highly moral to boot). This is, in my opinion, the only legitimate way to do real film criticism — according to a sensibility from a specific POV.

But then, this blog is the product of one man and wholly about what interests him. Nobody would (I hope) take anything I say as “The Church” in an official or even semi-official capacity. One reason I did not include “Catholic” in my site name was never even to hint at such, and so leave me freer to write according to my sensibility, which you either share (at least somewhat) or don’t. But surely, the only reason the US bishops, as opposed to one layman in Washington, should be writing about film is because they speak from *their* specific perspective (for those of you in Rio Linda, that would be “being successors to the Apostles,” not “adding a sentence of reservation to the NY Times’ stance”). Despite the Vatican list of “Some (45) Significant Films” (which is as good a “canon list” as any of its length), film criticism is simply not in the episcopal charism.

Which also speaks somewhat, if via a very different route, to part of what Dom and Mr. Akin wonder aloud about the value of this USCCB office. In Dom’s words: “Methinks that there is a corruption in the film office of the USCCBureaucracy and in the USCCBureaucracy itself.” Mr. Akin says “the quality of the reviews and ratings has declined — to the point that I no longer consult them as they are of little use.” I agree with them wholeheartedly. Frankly, I have rarely consulted the bishops’ reviews (and never for critical input per se), as I’m confident enough in my own judgment on this matter. I did and do occasionally look up reviews from curiosity over the ratings. When I read in a diocesan paper that they rated PULP FICTION “O” and KIDS “A-IV” (the predecessor to “L”), I wrote a letter that I couldn’t bring myself to send. But my esteem could not be won back.²
———————————————–
¹ To be fair, compared to those two movies, BROKEBACK is much tamer in style and actual content. It has one fairly graphic sex scene; but only its being between two men makes it particularly noteworthy in this day and age. And a couple of other nude or half-nude bits and pieces. Granted, my subject-matter Sensit-O-Meter is perhaps St. Blogs’ least acute, but considering the subject matter and contemporary standards, BROKEBACK is a pretty restrained film (one cause for complaint by the “insufficiently radical” crowd, BTW). And thanks, Ryan and Scott, for noting that David Ehrenstein is … well, follow the link and to the comment field.
² Can it be any more obvious that Larry Clark is a nihilist perv getting off on drooling through the camera at half-naked teens, while Quentin Tarantino is telling a tale of a providential religious conversion, albeit one heavily salted with surroundings of rough language, violence, and pomo irony?

December 19, 2005 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Culture vs. religion

Mark Shea has a bee in his bonnet about an article in the City Journal. I suppose I might agree with him if the article he was responding to ever claimed that American conservatism *is* eternal. But the article is entirely about the culture we live in, not theology or soteriology, so necessarily it’s about temporal things, the things of the age, Augustine’s city of man, where virtues (albeit imperfect ones) can be found even from the Romans. We judge temporal things primarily by temporal standards, under prudence — not eternal ones, under judgment.

So considered *as cultural-political criticism,* Mr. Shea doesn’t lay a glove on the article. When he says “Try, seriously, to square the worldview of contempt which informs South Park with Catholic teaching,” he’s missing the point. The article makes it clear that South Park’s virtues are negative ones — it’s the enemy of the enemy. This is not exactly a friend, but in the world of politics, that’s close enough. In addition, you can only engage a culture (either politically or religiously) where it is, otherwise it tunes you out. Nostalgia-based condemnation of the age is not a serious stance, certainly culturally-speaking. In this ironic day and age, THE BELLS OF ST. MARY’S ain’t gonna cut it. I remember as a boy hating Mickey Mouse because I thought it was too much like education and moral uplift, and there was something about Bugs Bunny’s insouciant poise that was more attractive. Mickey could have had imprimaturs out the wazoo, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I didn’t like him. Flannery O’Connor talked about saving your work first. One of John Paul’s greatest virtues is being the first mass-media pope, understanding that you engage people where they are, and if the world has a comic-book culture, then make a comic book out of your biography.

I’ve already written some of my own thoughts about South Park, and wish only to add that a new season of 8 episodes began last week and that there has to be good in any show where all the Gay Guys Who Dress Up The Breeder, or whatever it’s called, get killed. It’d be impossible to deny that the show has a tone of contempt, but there’s a gleeful quality to it that is equally impossible to miss and which makes the show a valuable satirical weapon for these times. I’d compare South Park to Camille Paglia — not orthodox, but friendly because it has all the right enemies to have in this day and age. I frankly wonder whether Mr. Shea, who repeatedly rails against TV as such, has seen very much of the show, of which he does not cite a single moment.

I’m also massively unconvinced by Mr. Shea’s implicit “a pox on both your houses” moral-equivalence stance toward politics. It strikes me as imprudent and makes the perfect the enemy of the good. American conservatism is definitely imperfect sub specie aeternitis, but Catholics and Christians can find much common ground and get a serious hearing without contempt for our very existence and the belief that we are the enemy as such — the “keep your rosaries off my ovaries” attitude. With conservatism, the spirit is willing, even if the flesh is sometimes weak; with liberalism, the spirit is in total league with the Enemy. *That* is what the culture war (on which Mr. Shea does brilliant service on the side of the angels) is all about; whether Christianity can inhabit the public space or whether progress is measured by how thoroughly it can be repudiated. There is an absolute difference here between the two dominant ideologies and parties, and Christians should not kid themselves about who their friends and enemies are.

If Tolkien really, truly intends “The Lord of the Rings” as some sort of global indictment of “Power,” then I feel vindicated in my aesthetic resistance to him — I was pretty tepid on the two movies and cannot comment on them as novels because I found them unreadable. It’d be good therefore to know, if that account is accurate, that they’re also pretty silly. A serious politics cannot begin with the notion that power is some evil Ring. It is all fine and good to say render unto Caesar, and that the regime doesn’t matter because the gates of hell shall not prevail, etc. But the Catholic Church has never taught political quietism, and frankly I’d rather see the Body in a friendly culture and polity than an unfriendly one, if I can affect the matter at all (and again, *that I can* is the unstated assumption of all political and cultural engagement). But maybe that’s just me. The question is not whether there shall be worldly power, but who shall wield it and for what ends — relatively good ones or relatively bad ones. Ones hostile to Christ or friendly to Him.

October 28, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Something I missed about MATCHSTICK MEN

lohmancage.jpgPro-life blogger Emily Peterson sees a critique of abortion in MATCHSTICK MEN, something that had completely escaped me. (Warning: Spoilers coming)

My initial reaction to her note was: “I’m assuming your argument might roughly go along the lines of ‘you always wonder how the baby you killed would have turned out’ — except that in MATCHSTICK MEN, this emotion is what gets Cage’s character into trouble, no?”

Emily’s take is a bit different than that and relies on the film’s coda being considered a happy ending, something I rebelled against narrative-wise, and Cage’s wife telling him that she had miscarried their child after they split up, a detail that I now remember, but had slipped my mind. Essentially, she’s saying that he’s able to settle down and put the con man lifestyle and his psychiatric problems behind him, now that he knows what happened to his unborn child. It’s an interesting subtextual take.

October 15, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The Secret Feminism of the Secret Lives of Dentists

In e-mail and list-servs, I have often lamented the dearth of good American film critics who are self-consciously right-wing. The one exception that I have almost always made, depending on the health of the American Spectator, has been James Bowman, who has been critic there since at least the early 90s. I was somewhat surprised to learn, on Mark Shea’s blog (thanks for linking bud) that Bowman loathed THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS.

My surprise was based on DENTISTS being one of the few films of recent vintage that presents as (eventually) whole and happy a marriage in terms other than post-psychological, post-analytical “let’s discuss our relationship” nonsense that Bowman and I both loathe. I even know people who were aggravated by DENTISTS because the wife dropped a few hints at wanting to “discuss what’s wrong with us,” but the husband resisted — from reticence, from fear, using a desire for sex, from busy-ness, and [finally] from love.

dentists-hope.jpgBowman isn’t buying, instead seeing this movie as a feminist fantasy, a thought that quite literally never occurred to this ardent anti-feminist. His argument basically is that Campbell Scott’s character is a feminized, emasculated, honor-free less-than-man who doesn’t turn his wife out because of her eventually-confirmed adultery. Not only does he doesn’t kick her out, thus giving wives everywhere a license to cheat, but his impulse to do that is embodied in the boorish Denis Leary (thereby proving that the filmmakers are out to caricature masculine pride). It has its loopy parts (hygiene and good health represent femininity?), but this is a reasonably coherent argument, though I doubt very many actual feminists would see themselves in this movie (like they did in THE HOURS). In their fantasy movie, the wife would have left her husband, either because the lover satisfied her more, or because he was uncommunicative, or just … because. By staying, she’s admitting her need for a bicycle, and that’s a no-no.

But my problem is that Bowman is that he leaves out two rather important factors. First of all, he writes more than 700 words on a film about marriage without once using the word “love.” There’s nothing wrong with protesting collapsing sex roles, but Bowman is just playing into feminist hands if he writes of nothing more than asserting masculine honor. After all, St. Paul’s notorious (to Our Very Advanced Modern Minds) admonition for wives to submit to their husbands (the Second Reading this past Sunday, coincidentally) is couched very specifically, and made thus defensible in my opinion, in terms of his parallel exhortations for husbands to love their wives, as Christ loved the Church, and for both to submit themselves to the Lordship of Christ. “As He loved the Church” means, among other things, to die and sacrifice Himself so that sins may be forgiven etc. I hate to put it quite this crudely, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Bowman, following Nietzsche, simply sees Christianity as slave morality. Its doctrine of divine grace, Christ’s command to forgive seventy times seven — it’s all just a rationalization for feminine weakness. He even signs off with: “Here we have mommy’s revenge fantasy as she does act on it, leaving daddy to teach the formerly feminine virtues of submissiveness and forbearance. Talk about your chick flicks!” Um … OK.

The other rather large matter that Bowman leaves out is … the children. He only makes one slight mention of the fact that the family has three children, and that’s to complain that … get this … they’re all daughters, thus enveloping Scott’s character in femininity, with all that cleanliness, with no puddles of vomit or anything. I submit that this complicates matters. Having children, being entrusted with a life, imposes enormous duties, and unfortunately they are duties that men are too often eager to ditch if given an excuse to rationalize away the demands of love and duty. It’s one thing to dump a girlfriend and even (from a social POV) a childless marriage. But scholars like Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and Maggie Gallagher have done yeoman’s work in recent years collecting the data on the effect of divorce, and there can no longer be any serious doubt that divorce hurts a couple’s children in myriad ways. Is wounded pride and the pleasure of slamming the door in the bitch’s face really that valuable? And is a cultural conservative really arguing that? Just because one has “right” on one’s side doesn’t mean that it is “right” to do it. Walking out on your children pretty much fits that template of the cataclysmic action against which every presumption should be honored. Even if one has been wronged. As Rod Dreher put it on Shea’s blog, “If Scott would do what Leary says, he really wouldn’t be wrong. Nobody could really hold it against him. And yet, and yet…”

Another correspondent at Shea’s blog complained that “Bowman does come across as too macho for his own good.” And too eager to embrace reacting from wounded pride, rather than consider consequences and duty to others, like the gang-banger who’ll shoot you from dissing him by stepping on his shadow. Now Bowman can perfectly fairly protest that the gang-banger has a distorted view of honor. He’d obviously be correct on the intellectual merits, but social history is littered with the unintended consequences of ideas. And at his better moments in his other writings, Bowman recognizes that Christianity can never be wholly at peace with honor-based ethics. But mocking as he does the notion that “A person can think anything they want … But you mustn’t act on it” is, at the very least, unhelpful in the world we now live in, whose vices-disguised-as-virtues Bowman has so well diagnosed elsewhere.

August 26, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Coming Around Again”

THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS (Alan Rudolph, USA, 2003)

Early this year, my friend Rod Dreher wrote a vigorous attack on THE HOURS and a Gloria Steinem appreciation thereto, as an apologia for selfishness, applause for walking out on one’s family as a means to “self-actualization.” “A fairytale for contemporary narcissists,” he called it. He also favorably cited a James Lileks bleat about what a dirtbag the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire is for having abandoned his family. “Life is not about always being happy; it’s about doing the right thing,” Rod wrote on the Dallas Morning News’ blog.

Well, here is the anti-HOURS, anti-Hollywood, anti-narcissism movie. And it’s a great film — the somewhat-misleadingly titled THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS. From the title, you’d expect a bizarro comic romp, and the film does give you some of that for a while. But it gradually becomes a serious, dry-eyed and, finally, romantic film about marital love and a husband’s struggles with his suspicions that his wife is cheating on him.

Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play a married pair of dentists, with three daughters, an SUV and another car, one home in the suburbs and another in the country, and all the rest of the setup that might make you think you’re in for AMERICAN BEAUTY. Early on, Scott sees his wife with another man, but not irrefutably cheating. But then he starts having more and more suspicious thoughts through the score of asides, facial looks and “I’ll be home a bit late tonight, dear” moments of daily life. Those suspicions become embodied in a fantasy character played by Denis Leary, a belligerent patient at the film’s start who was on the outs with his wife and wouldn’t get any dental work done until his teeth started to hurt (there’s a lot of metaphor packed away in there, especially considering Scott’s opening voiceover about the strengths and weaknesses of teeth).

Fantasies of unfaithful-spouse-killing has been the subject of comic romps before (as in Preston Sturges’s UNFAITHFULLY YOURS … DENTISTS even has an early scene at an opera), and the fact that DENTISTS plays with two levels of reality in the Leary character and a couple of other scenes may make you think that’s where the film is going. But no. Scott tells Leary that he’s not going to confront her with his suspicions, because “then I have to do something about it.” Hopefully, he says, it’s just a momentary lapse that will pass. Leary taunts him, and the suspicions mount as the film progresses through a nor-especially-eventful plot. There’s a sequence where Scott drives off after a quarrel with Davis over the youngest child and yells at the top of his lungs “fucking bitch!!!” that led me to believe he was going to stray — LAST TANGO IN PARIS starts with a near-identical yell in a similar-looking setting. But no.

Through these sequences, DENTISTS instead shows the romance of routine, what “love” means after sex has worn out its immediate luster. And yes, the title of this entry *is* a Carly Simon reference. Scott and Davis are shown in bed together a few times, but there’s nothing that could qualify as a sex scene (there’s an instantaneous flashback of a quick encounter) or even any particularly sexy clothing or nudity. What “love” means for this couple, and most marriages (I suspect) is the joy-pain of parenthood. There is a lengthy sequence during which stomach flu strikes every member of the family, and it will resonate with anybody who has had a sick child or can remember being one (i.e., all of us, I suspect). And who remembers having his father rush him to the hospital. Scott feels ill himself but still does his best by the varying ill members of the family — gets a little frazzled, fantasizes to the song “Fever,” as the healthy kids make things difficult, as he wipes the vomit off the shoes of the youngest who doesn’t know better, as he takes a daughter to the hospital and stays overnight when the fever hits 105.

In other words, Scott is an almost-unheard of character in Hollywood movies today and someone whom the makers of THE HOURS looked at with contempt (the John C. Reilly character in that movie) — a conventionally loving good husband and father who is happy in his role and who defines himself and his happiness in those terms. DENTISTS is like an American SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (though obviously far lighter in tone, and more immediately “pleasurable”). Or maybe, something more like an American version of one of French director Eric Rohmer’s films, where little in the way of great dramatic events happens, but rather, like Rohmer once said about his own films, it’s less about what people do than what they think about while they do it.

That approach to this movie is why Roger Ebert is wrong in the one criticism he makes against the movie in an otherwise-positive review. The Leary character is necessary as a route into Scott’s mind. What makes the film lifelike is Scott’s taciturn manner; if they were the kind of overpsychologized couple who hashed everything out, yes, Leary would be redundant and mood-breaking. But in a movie that’s all about surfaces and maintaining appearances, there has to be some way to show us what temptations, suspicions, and ill thoughts Scott is resisting.

And this is ultimately why the husband and wife love one another. They *don’t* act on every impulse. Or if they do, they repent. And the other has the grace to forgive unconditionally, without dwelling on the particulars. (Despite the theological language there and my firm conviction that the film follows a Christian template, DENTIST is a secular movie about a secular family.) Instead, “love” for them as with my parents (I had as happy a childhood as my parents could reasonably have provided), is a verb not a subject. Love is the things they do (and don’t do) without thinking, just *because.* Nothing is said between Davis and Scott. They just do. Exactly.

Another part of what made DENTISTS so moving for me, and enhanced its intellectual appeal for me, is that it doesn’t over-romanticize love. Or turn it into *luv* as Peter Kreeft might put it. Scott and Davis have outgrown both *luv* and the original sexual passion that first brought them together, but still they clearly love each other and their children. To the movie’s credit, there is only one, not-very-long scene near the end where they explicitly try to hash things out “in our relationship.” And it’s not psychologizing or therapyizing, it’s a potentially-nasty confrontation. Tempers start to flare, but the children unintentionally (the key point) get in the way. It’s ordinary routine asserting itself over narcissistic explicitness.

Why DENTISTS is so convincing in its portrayal of an ordinary family may lie in the performances given by the children. Davis is good enough; Scott is merely as brilliant as can be expected (he gave *this* performance *and* the greasy, fast-talking ROGER DODGER at more or less the same time); Leary is nothing short of perfect casting — sarcastic, brusque, rude. So far, so expected. But the kids — Gianna Beleno, Lydia Jordan and Cassidy Hinkle — are revelations. They’re not “performers” or Olsens-esque muggers. The youngest (Hinkle) looks about 3, openly prefers her Daddy and slaps both her parents in the face. But the slaps are innocent, and somehow Hinkle knows how to slap like someone who doesn’t know any better, rather than as someone following the script. The elder two girls, meanwhile, know how to be in the room with their parents while paying no attention to them, since they’d rather watch the Powerpuff Girls, or eat their own food, or get absorbed in their own quarrels, even as mommy and daddy are cleaning up after them. There’s a natural, unostentatious quality to them that’s both perfect for DENTISTS and the (blessed) opposite of most child actors who get significant screen time.

August 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Passion politics

If I’m gonna slag Michael Medved in my initial post, I’d better link to him when he says some wise things, as in this interview with the Washington Post Web site, mostly about Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION. To elaborate on a couple of points myself.

First, Medved says in one place that “Hollywood” is more anti-religion than specifically anti-Christian or anti-Catholic. I do agree that secularism and an associated set of anti-religion prejudices (“poor, uneducated and easy to command” and all that) seems to be the default ideology in the culture industries, rather than a specific and explicit animus against Catholicism or Christianity (and as an Orthodox Jew, Medved would know that).

But the fact that secularism is the greater force doesn’t mean that specific anti-Catholicism doesn’t exist. A film as insultingly ignorant about Judaism as PRIEST and THE MAGDELENE SISTERS (I have seen neither and will not do so merely for the debater’s right to make a point obvious from the makers’ own descriptions of their films) simply could never be made or distributed. The taboo against anti-Semitism is just too strong. The excellent documentary TREMBLING BEFORE G-D, about Orthodox Jews dealing with their homosexuality, at least presents the Jewish teaching against homosexual acts in a halfway-serious manner and by halfway-loving rabbis shown without authorial contempt. I don’t expect any movie to take the virtually identical Catholic doctrine on that subject for the foreseeable future as anything other than repressed-tight-ass caricature.

Second, I think Medved is right that the debate over THE PASSION is essentially deadlocked because Gibson now trusts neither the objectivity of the ADL/Jewish groups nor the religion scholars, and vice versa. I would go further: the battle lines already are set for a major public spat over charges of anti-Semitism, Christ-killers and all that next spring. Paula Fredriksen, who wrote the disgraceful, self-righteous attack on THE PASSION in the New Republic (now available at http://www.tnr.com, but a paid subscription is required) said on “Good Morning America” last week that she will not see the film, even when it’s released. Good for her (“play nice” ecumenism is overrated).

And if I were Gibson, I’d see no point to cooperating with her or the ADL, since they’re coming from a theological perspective that’s not mine and one I want no part of. But that perspective also has the gall and presumption to claim to be the arbiter of reason and to claim at least a moral right to be my editor and script doctor. (Is it necessary to do anything more than laugh at an essay in A.D. 2003 that claims to know, in some dispositive sense, about Pontius Pilate’s thought process, while slagging the Gospels as unreliable historical documents because their [disputed] date of authorship [supposedly] lags several decades behind the depicted events?) Did the makers of PRIEST or THE MAGDALENE SISTERS submit to Church censors in order to get its imprimatur on their movies? Or did they play up Church opposition as a box-office hype tool? To ask the question is to answer it.

August 11, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advance word on Mel’s movie

There was a private screening in Washington last night for Mel Gibson’s THE PASSION. A few dozen conservative glitterati were there, and the first round of reviews is all positive. Gibson is showing the film around to build word-of-mouth before its planned release next year.

The film has come under attack for anti-Semitism and historical inaccuracy, including an article in the New Republic (not on the Web far as I can tell) for which I frankly didn’t much care — it takes higher Biblical criticism far more seriously than I think it should be, but [much more unforgivably] cites it as though it were as “scientific” or supersecessionist as Newton’s laws of gravity.

Though admitting she was bound by a secrecy deal, Kate O’Beirne of National Review said that “The movie is intense and riveting, and the time quickly passes as you are completely drawn into the events in biblical Jerusalem. Although Gibson hasn’t yet begun negotiating with distributors, it is intended for general, nationwide distribution … Some will unfairly use Gibson’s labor of love to create a controversy, which is wholly unjustified in the case of this masterful film, but hopefully Gibson realizes that this too shall pass.”

Matt Drudge was just as forthcoming, gushing on MSNBC’s Buchanan and Press show that: “this is the ultimate film. It’s magical. Best picture I have seen in quite some time, and even people like Jack Valenti were in the audience in tears at this screening … and speaking as a Jew, I thought it was a magical film.”

“Mel Gibson stood back at the end and took questions for about an hour, and he is — he told me he’s tired of Hollywood. That this is it. He’s going to do it. He’s going to do it his way, and this film, I tell you, is magic. It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle,” he said.

Matt dismissed the charges of anti-Semitism, saying “They haven’t seen the darn film and those of us, every single person in there, and I’m not talking about tears, I’m talking total tears.”

Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA agreed about the anti-Semitism charges, saying that “I don’t see what the controversy is all about. This is a compelling piece of art.”

Now, none of these people are film critics or cinephiles and there’s often an element of “gee whiz, I saw the movie early” from audiences in such screenings. I don’t actually have the best track record with Jesus movies (upon reflection this morning, I realized I can’t say there’s a single one I’ve really flipped for and I haven’t seen even seen the most notorious — Scorsese’s LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Still, it’s looking better and better that THE PASSION might be the one.

July 22, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment