Saturday, March 31, 2007

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE


THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005, USA, Mary Harron, screenplay with Guinevere Turner)
O Father, we ask that you deliver this woman from sin. Destroy it by the spirit of God. Heal her through and through, including her heart. Make her a new creature in Christ.

I’m not sure Bettie Page ever knew quite what to make of her career posing for girlie pictures in the 1950s. I’m not sure THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE knows what to make of it all, either. Nor am I sure that I know what to make of this seemingly noncommittal film. Which, I’ve decided, is all to the good.

Bettie’s notoriety comes from the fact that she became, quite literally, the poster girl for the whole gamut of erotic photography in the fifties, from cheerful cheesecake bathing beauty shots to nude pictorials in “naturist” magazines to the cheapie fetish and bondage films whose rediscovery in the porn-saturated eighties restored her cult status.

But the fascination with Bettie goes deeper than the merely salacious. Even in the most depressingly tawdry of contexts, she exudes some sort of essential wholesomeness, even innocence, that seems to press the question, “What’s so wrong with all this, anyhow?” And, even more provocatively, an innocence that seems rooted in Page’s own Christian faith, which was never offered as a public apologia for her risqué profession.

Bettie Page grew up in church – portrayed in this HBO film with neither mockery nor sanctimony, nothing to tip us off to the film-makers’ intentions – and in a church-going, grace-praying family – though they are treated here with less detachment: we glimpse the beginnings of an episode of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, and her mother’s Christmas table grace years later is bitter with resentment and judgment. Throughout the film, Christianity and most Christians are portrayed sympathetically – just as Bettie’s photo shoots and many of the photographers who shoot them are presented without caricature or judgment. Even the altar call which leads to Bettie’s conversion (or re-commitment) to Christ is rendered without a trace of the mockery, distaste, or even melodrama any other film would offer – particularly in its climactic scene.

Its an even-handedness that is very appealing early on, but which at a certain point stops seeming like a virtue and begins to look like a real failing: the failing of being noncommittal, of detachment, of being so accepting of everything than nothing ends up mattering. The sin of blandness.

So my first viewing of this film was oddly unsatisfying. I loved the look of it, to be sure, utterly convincing in its authentic period look, predominantly black and white with occasional jumps to the vivid colours of super 8 home movies or big screen Technicolor – a visual stylization that draws attention to the fact that everything we see is being photographed. Bettie’s world is the world of the camera. Perhaps this is the story not so much of the woman as of her photographs, her career.

But does it tell even that story, or simply – even simplistically – photograph it as it drifts by? Does it care about the woman in front of the lens, does it understand her conflicts and choices, or is it only interested in what it all looked like? This is a film curiously without affect, where dramatic event and consequence, rising action and narrative reversal and character motivation are flattened into a glossy moving image that ultimately doesn’t care to move us.

At least, that’s what I felt as the final credits rolled, and as I pondered the film in the hours following. In the days following. Until I reached the point where I realized that the simple fact that I was still pondering the film days later told me something significant was going on here. That perhaps the film-makers were up to something, and it was working.

As I lived with the film, and particularly as I began looking at it closely to try to come to terms with my ambivalent response, all sorts of subtleties and complexities began to emerge. The extremely effective opening montage of Times Square street life shows us a theatre marquee for THE WIZARD OF OZ: much later, when the film leaps from black and white into colour, there may be more informing the choice than look and feel, a thought that’s confirmed when, after a long time when “we’re not in Kansas any more,” Dorothy’s – I mean, Bettie’s – journey finally ends with a homecoming. There’s the fascinating interplay between Bettie’s story and the roles she plays in acting class or audition: “I am as like to be saved as thou!” (set up with an iris fade onto Jesus in stained glass), or “This man who is more than man and less at the same time: He will tie you down to anatomize your very soul, he will ring tears of blood from your humiliation and then he will heal the wound with flatteries no woman can resist,” both from Shaw’s “Dark Lady Of The Sonnets” in which a mysterious, beautiful lady supplies the genius that an oafish and pitiful man uses for his own ends (the self-serving oafs in TNBP are everywhere: in GBS, the oaf is William Shakespear!). Responding to her performance, Bettie’s acting teacher (brilliantly performed by Austin Pendeleton, himself a professor at New York’s HB Acting Studio) says more than he knows when he invokes Stanislavski: “To reproduce feelings you must be able to identify them out of your own experience. Now, Bettie, would you tell the class what you did to find the truth in the lady-in-waiting’s emotions.” Only to have dramatic irony give way in a most startling way to the film’s even deeper concerns: “Well, I tried to think of something that would make me really scared. I thought of what Jesus might do to me for all my sins.”

But what might Jesus do to her for her sins? There’s the rub. Does she really see them as sins? Do the filmmakers? Should we? The film certainly isn’t scandalized by Bettie’s modeling (though its viewpoint becomes more complex in a bondage scene late in the film). Nor is it prurient: even Bettie’s nudity is more sweet than sexual, her S&M scenes just plain silly. (As Stephanie Zacharek writes, “Her pictures are so elemental, so lacking in guile, that they often seem to be less "about" sex than about a pure state of being -- maybe even a state of grace.” Director Mary Harron: “This film is not about how the audience is looking at her and getting excited about that image; it’s about capturing her performance, which is more mystical. I think her sense of being photographed was an experience of religion.”) The film alludes gently to sexual abuse at the hands of her father, is slightly more direct in the events leading up to a gang rape, but gently averts its gaze from the actual events. Niether does it look at at cause and effect: we don’t see that Bettie has any idea there’s a connection between these dark events and her self-display for men, which is portrayed as sunny, cheerful, “gee whiz, aw shucks.” But perhaps what is a charming, only slightly alarming ingenuousness in Bettie may be disingenuous on the part of the filmmakers.

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE frustrates with its unwillingness to take a stand, to make its viewpoint known, which seems particularly problematic when considering a character caught in so obvious a dilemma, torn between flesh and spirit. (But ah! The thoughtful reader may begin to see where we’re heading with this.) Mary Harron’s film differs from other faith-and-porn (or morality-and-porn) films in lacking any sense of outrage, or even consequence: there’s none of the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” stuff we find in the films of conflicted TULIP-haunted ex-Calvinist Paul Schrader, and while NOTORIOUS resembles P.T. Anderson’s BOOGIE NIGHTS in its affectionate irony-tinted nostalgia for “the good old innocent days of porn,” the Bettie Page flick never takes on the cautionary tale quality of the latter half of Anderson’s piece. I’m not the only viewer who has qualms about the approach: as Linda Ruth Williams comments in her superb Sight & Sound feature, “Aren’t we becoming tired of nostalgia movies about the sex industry that view the pre-video past as a world of happy families and consensual pleasures? The notion that back then fashions were cooler, sex was hotter and everyone looked after each other is wearing a bit thin.”

So is that all that’s going on in THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE? Is it all just a “boys will be boys,” “Whatever you’re into” brand of hyper-tolerance, self-negating in its unwillingness to acknowledge real weight on either side of the moral, personal scale?

It may be that the key to the film’s conscience may finally be found in an aesthetic closely linked to another of the film’s great strengths, its fifties jazz score. Eschewing the all-too-familiar soundtrack of early rock and roll hits, we hear mostly jazz and Latin pop music, varying from the vintage tackiness of Esquivel (though at the less brazenly cheesy end of his musical spectrum) to the undeniable sophistication of a Charles Mingus composition or a Clifford Brown – Max Roach collaboration. The music is undeniably cool.

Perhaps the director has intentionally chosen an approach to her subject which owes something to that distinctive school of Fifties jazz where the sentimental emotionality of swing. or bebop’s overt expression of passion, were set aside for an intentionally “cooler” approach; smooth melodic lines without rhythmic surprises, gliding over subdued percussion. No builds or crescendos, all very even. Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool, Lennie Tristano, some of Clifford Brown, Gerry Mulligan, early Chet Baker. The Modern Jazz Quartet. Sophisticated, urbane, and above all, modern. Smart, almost detached. Ear-pleasing. And highly addictive.

Director Mary Harron: “One of the things people have had a hard time dealing with about the film is that it uses some of the stylistic elements of 1950s melodrama but at the same time I didn’t want to tell the story in that heightened, structured way that a melodrama would, with a huge rise and a fall. I wanted a more modern, realistic narrative so that things don’t really tie up and motivation isn’t always clear. The storytelling and the style are in contradiction.”

It’s not bland, it’s not banal, it’s not compromised. It’s disciplined. It’s smart. It’s cool.

The lurid story-line – NAÏVE COUNTRY GIRL BECOMES PORN QUEEN, LEAVES IT ALL FOR JESUS – cries out for melodramatic treatment, yet Harron refuses to sensationalize, refuses to psychologize, finding instead a core of decency in the pinup queen throughout her life, even when trussed up in the machinery of bondage or wielding the whip of cheesecake S&M. It’s the frisson between decency and indecency that has always captivated Bettie Page fans, from the furtive magazine flippers in the adult bookstores to the Hugh Hefners and Howard Hugheses of the world, their interest equally tawdry, if less furtive.

There’s a similar aesthetic strategy in Todd Haynes’ Fifties-set FAR FROM HEAVEN, where serious and substantial themes are treated with laughable melodrama, creating tremendous tension between content and form. Or does THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE take the opposite approach, deftly matching its attitude with that of its subject? Bettie seems oblivious throughout to the idea that there could be anything scandalous to her behaviour, or that it could do any harm. Even once she’s left nude modeling behind, and is handing out tracts (in a park, interestingly enough – echoing the settings of her “naturist” photo sessions), Bettie tells a puzzled admirer “I'm not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the Garden of Eden. When they sinned, they put on clothes."

Which brings us back to the core of the confounding puzzle not only of this film, but of Bettie Page herself: If that’s so, if that is truly her conviction, why did she leave the business? Only a few scenes previous, the quandary at the core of the story has been made explicit, as a particularly sleazy bondage photographer carries on a smirking conversation with Bettie, trussed up in bondage gear, spreadeagled for the camera. Snapping pictures he sings a crude soldier’s ditty, Bettie objects, and he removes the rubber ball from her mouth so she can speak;
Don’t you approve?
I believe in Jesus.
Well of course you do my dear. Of course you do. … Do you mind if I ask you a question, Bettie? What do you think Jesus would say about what you’re doing now?
Well, Mr Willie. I’ve thought about this quite a bit. I’m not really sure anymore. I think God has given each of us some kind of talent and He wants us to use it. That’s why he gave it to us. Mr Willie, would you mind untying my hands? It’s hard for me to think like this. God gave me the talent to pose for pictures. And it seems to make people happy. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?
Not to me it’s not. But what does God think?
Well I can’t say for certain. I can’t speak for him. I do worry sometimes about some of the things that I’ve done.
What things?
I posed naked for photographs.
Have you, my dear? You naughty girl. (He chuckles.)
But is that really bad? Adam and Eve were naked in the garden of Eden.
So they were.
I don’t know what God thinks about all this. I hope that if he’s unhappy with what I’m doing, He’ll let me know somehow.
I’m sure he will, my dear. I’m sure he will.
Gretchen Moll’s performance in this scene epitomizes her considerable accomplishment in the role of Bettie Page. For the most part, her delivery is sunshine and perky confidence, perhaps naïve but with clear-eyed curiosity and intelligence (the film makes the point that Bettie was one missed class away from being the valedictorian of her graduating class). Yet for fleeting moments here, and in other scattered instances, her confidence sags, her sweet and open face clouds: however comfortable she may be with her body, however willing to be looked at – naked and unashamed – she can’t deny that something isn’t quite right. In this scene, of course, the not-quite-rightness is very much brought to the fore, as Bettie is confronted with the pornographer’s sniggering lust and condescension, her chipper assertions about her work being “a gift of God” are (quite literally) in tension with the stark physical reality of her situation.

One scene later, it appears that God begins to answer Bettie’s hope, when Estes Kefauver turns the focus of his Senate investigative committee to the effects of pornography on the nation’s youth. And while our first exposure to the hearings at the beginning of the film played into audience expectations, presenting Kefauver as a standard issue cliché-spouting Fifties prude, the tone is different now: Straithern’s portrayal is more in keeping with the moderate and intelligent Kefauver of history, no Joseph Macarthy, but a concerned legislator with the same concerns about sexual victimization and violence that troubled feminists three decades later.

Eventually Bettie is called to testify, and in one of the movie’s most evocative sequences, she waits outside the hearing room for hours, overhearing snatches of the evasive, self-serving testimony of her employer, Irving Klaw (a telling reversal: to this point, Klaw has been portrayed as a genial, supportive father figure), followed by the earnest testimony of a man whose son’s death seems to him to be linked to bondage pornography in which Bettie herself had appeared. When Bettie is informed that her testimony will no longer be needed after she has waited for twelve hours alone in the lobby – the Klaws don’t even speak to her as they make their way from the hearing – Mol’s face and physical posture embody a certain sadness, a dawning sense that life is changing without any clear sense of how, or why, or what comes next. A woman without guile who means no harm to anyone, who can’t quite put the pieces together but has begun to wonder. “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right” isn’t quite cutting it anymore.

And yet… Even after she wrestles with her conscience along a night-time Florida beach (another jungle/garden image), then follows a neon cross to a simple church, hears the voices sing “Soon I will strike the heavenly lyre / With saints of great renown / And join that great harmonious choir / Oh, I am homeward bound,” goes forward to be prayed for and experiences “a wonderful feeling… a lifting up,” even after she leaves modeling for good, places a silver cross around her neck and heads out to distribute pamphlets and quote scripture to passersby in a city park (“For the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said “Behold, I make all things new.”), the film still doesn’t know what to do with Bettie’s conversion. “I’m not ashamed. Adam and Eve were naked in the garden of Eden, weren’t they? When they sinned, they put on clothes.” So, if she has no remorse, no regrets, why did she leave it behind? Particularly when it gave her so much pleasure? The filmmakers seem unwilling to play out the resolution that Bettie’s story seems to have come to, uncomfortable with the decision she has ultimately made, unwilling to do anything but tolerate… Well, to tolerate anything.

How unsatisfying. How confounding. How noncommittal.

And yet… As my appreciation for the film has grown, I’ve come to think that perhaps in this instance “noncommital” should be rendered “nonjudgmental.” There is something admirable in a film that chooses not to make up our minds for us about this conundrum of a woman – who apparently never did entirely dismiss the modeling career she’d left behind, even through the decades she spent working for a Christian mission (according to David Bruce at HollywoodJesus, Bettie enrolled at Biola College, and was a volunteer worker for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, passing out gospel literature in airports.) Instead of passing judgment on either her vocation or her faith, the filmmakers offer us her story with all its bemusing contradictions intact: artfully told, drained of melodrama, full of respect, and certainly affection.

When I worked my way through this film a second time trying to clarify what I thought and felt about it, I had just finished reading “Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul,” Tony Hendra’s very personal tribute to the Benedictine monk who offered him tremendous love and understanding through decades of personal calamity, ambition, self-indulgence as he swung wildly toward and away from faith. There was rarely a whisper of advice, even when the young man sought it, nor remonstrance, even when the grown-up man probably deserved it. Only love. A love so unconditional as to be divine, a love so relentless as to become a tangible, life-saving manifestation of God when, for the author, any other traces of the divine were gone from the world. It seems Father Joe saw his vocation with utmost clarity, at least with respect to this particular sinner: it was his job simply to love, and to listen, and to leave the judging and convicting of sin entirely to God.

Perhaps the coincidence of timing between reading the Hendra book and close-viewing the Harron film is what led me to this, but I’ve come to have tremendous respect and affection for THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE – both the film and the woman. As for my judgment? Moral, aesthetic, critical? I find that whenever I get close to being ready to hand one down, something in me balks. Should the film have told its story “better,” drawing out the choices and consequences, shaping events and decisions into a more satisfying dramatic flow? Shouldn’t we be clearer about how Bettie comes to her change of heart? Or is it her heart that changes, or only her behaviour? Does she repent of sin, or is she simply called to move on, “lifted up” to something new, something wonderful? At the end of the film, does Bettie want to have it both ways, giving up a livelihood that she enjoyed but never expressing any remorse or regret about what she’s done? Does the film want to have it both ways, burning her pictures yet slipping a few into its pocket?

I don’t know. Perhaps the film-makers don’t know either, and aren’t willing to impose their judgment on the perplexing events of Bettie’s life. They leave such judgments to us, if we’re so inclined. Or to Bettie, perhaps, knowing she would still be alive to view the film. Or to God.

There’s something divine in that.

BOOGIE NIGHTS, HARDCORE, AUTO FOCUS


Available at Videomatica

Thursday, March 29, 2007

STRANGER THAN FICTION


STRANGER THAN FICTION (2006, Marc Forster, Zach Helm screenplay)
You don't understand that this isn't a story to me, it's my life! I want to live!

Pleasing enough tale of a man who starts hearing a narrator inside his head, only to realize he’s a character in somebody else’s novel – and the story probably won’t end happy. It’s ADAPTATION Lite: the comedy’s not the least bit black, the carpe diem theme is easily digested, and the romance is sweet and comforting (with Maggie Gyllenhaal cute as a counter-cultural bug's ear). Soul food? Well, some folks believe it's not just Will Ferrell who's a character in Somebody Else’s story.



Check out some thoughts on story from J.R.R. Tolkien and Wendell Berry. There's also a Crystal Downing piece at Books & Culture called "Theology Is Stranger Than Fiction" which expands on my elliptical closing comment: beware spoilers after "In The Mind of the Maker, Sayers suggests that the relationship between the writer's idea and its fulfillment in the written word parallels the relationship between Creator God and the incarnated Christ."

PAN'S LABYRINTH


PAN’S LABYRINTH (“El Labertinto del fauno,” 2006, Mexico/Spain/USA, Guillermo del Toro)
A long time ago, in the underground realm, where there are no lies or pain, there lived a Princess who dreamed of the human world. One day the Princess escaped. She forgot who she was and where she came from. However, her father, the King, always knew that the Princess' soul would return. And he would wait for her, until he drew his last breath, until the world stopped turning...

A girl on the verge of womanhood experiences two interconnected worlds, the real-world horrors that follow the Spanish civil war and another, subterranean world that may be fantasy, or may be a deeper reality. Is there royalty in her, immortality? Or is she merely mortal, the step-daughter of a vicious fascist officer? If those sound like sentimental fairy tale questions, or their answer a foregone conclusion, you haven’t reckoned with the unsparing vision of Guillermo del Toro, a Mexican director who has lived amidst everyday tragedy, whose own father was the victim of a vicious abduction for ransom. This is the man who turned down the opportunity to direct THE LION, THE WITCH & THE WARDROBE because he “wasn’t interested in the lion resurrecting.” Pity.

The film’s real-world, historical violence (and comparable below-ground terrors) are indeed brutal, and unflinchingly portrayed, but remain far removed from the pain-porn of HOSTEL or its ilk: much closer, in fact, to the brutal settings of the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson or even Oscar Wilde, all of which were inspirations. This visionary film earns the right to show us the dark side of human behaviour with its commitment to demonstrating the courage and sacrifice that counter-balance – even when they may not triumph. “opus” writes;
There is something truly at stake in the heroine's quests; there is evil out there that needs to be vanquished, not glorified and exalted.
In this day and age where the term "fairy tale" has become synonymous with cleaned up, whitewashed, Disney-fied "family entertainment," it's easy to forget that many of the great classic fairy tales are, at their core, incredibly dark, twisted, and horrific. The villains are not merely poor, misguided souls who but need a little tolerance or political correctness to turn over a new leaf. Rather, they are vile through and through, not above torturing little children, abandoning them in the wilderness, and planning to serve them for dinner.
In order for there to be hope, there must be something to hope against. And in order for evil to be vanquished -- not merely understood or tolerated, but outright destroyed -- a heavy price must always be paid.

Film-maker Guillermo del Toro identifies himself as a lapsed Catholic, but takes pains to clarify, that’s "not quite the same thing as an atheist." The careful distinction doesn't surprise me - his film gave me one of the most extraordinary glimpses of Eternity I can recall. From the outset I was absolutely caught up in the flow of events, crises, character development, dread, excitement, fear, all that – del Toro is a masterful storyteller. But it wasn't until the final moments that the film sunk much deeper into me, stirring far more powerful and personal emotions - indeed, that it took me to what I would call a "spiritual" place. That's when the tears came, even the quiet sobs - and not just at tragedy, but at triumph mixed with loss. And something more, that would reveal much about me, and far too much about the film.

Sight & Sound critic Mark Kermode dubs this film “the very best film of the year,” and goes so far as to say “This latterday Welles has created a Citizen Kane of fantasy cinema, a masterpiece made entirely on his own terms.” I agree with every word.

It's become an annoying commonplace these days to label films (usually sentimental ones) "redemptive": which invariably means "don't worry, it ends happy." But redemption is a far more exacting, holy, and potent word than that: PAN'S LABYRINTH is the rare film that truly earns so sacred a claim.

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE, HELLBOY

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

CHILDREN OF MEN

CHILDREN OF MEN (2006, UK/USA, Alfonso Cuaron, screenplay with Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, from the P.D. James novel)
"Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men."

Set in the not-very-distant future, this story of an apocalyptically infertile world descending into barbarism – or fending off barbarism with all-too-recognizable fascism – passed through five different screenwriters on its way to production. In the process, it was mostly stripped of what made the P.D. James source novel her most distinctively Christian work. That doesn't stop many Christians (and almost everybody else) from celebrating it, but while I’m willing to let the book be the book and the film be its own unique thing, I can’t help mourning what was lost, especially once the personal and political focus of the film’s first third gears up into chase movie mode for the duration. However impressive the long takes, however welcome the Nativity imagery (emphasized by the Christmas release date – anybody else reminded of JOYEUX NOEL?), however troubling the nods to current political agonies, the almost non-stop action flattens the film into something almost ordinary. It could have been so much more. Faced with the choice between the book and the movie, take my advice – skip the flick and start reading.

APOCALYPTO


APOCALYPTO (2006, USA, Mel Gibson, screenplay with Farhad Safinia)

The plot is simple, even simplistic: a noble savage and faithful family man runs through the jungle pursued by Mayans, who in turn are being chased – more or less – by God. Their culture is under judgment, apparently for being too violent. (So what's that say about ours? that entertains itself with ultra-violent movies like Mel's?).

But this primal, immersive film shouldn’t be so handily dismissed. Pulitzer-winning film critic Joel Morgenstern calls it “a moral fable,” “a visionary work with its own wild integrity,” placing Gibson in a noteworthy auteur lineage with D.W. Griffith, Erich Von Stroheim and Cecil B. De Mille “who combined the power of primitivist themes with all the razzle-dazzle technique at their disposal.” APOCALYPTO (like THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST before it) is certainly an uncompromising film, its violence extreme, its dialogue spoken entirely in Yucatec, its cast entirely comprised of indigenous actors (and, mostly, non-actors): in the face of so much calculated corporate product, I find its utter disregard for commercial considerations exhilarating. Gibson shows us the alien-ness of this ancient civilization in images we’ll see nowhere else: a primitive culture of death, viewed through the half-comprehending eyes of captives rushed to execution; the strangely prophetic ravings of a traumatized child who’s survived the razing of her village; the unexpected arrival of judgment, both terrible and – dare we say it? – deserved. We may not dare, but Mel Gibson did, and some of us are left to wonder what rough beast may be slouching towards Bethelehem to be born, even now?

DOGVILLE

THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS


THE PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS (2006, Gabriele Muccino, Steve Conrad screenplay)
If you've got any compassion, you'll feel for this can't-get-a-break eventually homeless single dad: if you've got ulcers, they’ll only get worse. There's gospel music in a church shelter that suggests some sort of transcendence in this down-but-not-outer’s hope, yet I can't help thinking that this is pretty much just Horatio Alger materialism when you come right down to it. Regardless, it’s an emotional (and not always sugar-coated) portrait of a father’s love for his boy, with tremendous chemistry between Will Smith and his (on-screen and off-screen) son.

THE PAINTED VEIL (2006)


THE PAINTED VEIL (2006, USA, John Curran, Ron Nyswaner screenplay from W. Somerset Maugham novel)
When love and duty are one, grace is upon you.
A narcissistic and over-privileged young woman "taken in adultery" is challenged when her husband volunteers to fight cholera in a remote Chinese village. The sympathetic portrayal of a Catholic orphanage lends spiritual resonance to a story of moral awakening. Rooted lead performances by co-producers Naomi Watts and Edward Norton, combined with Maugham's characteristic British restraint and psychological insight, temper what might sound like melodramatic stuff into something understated and substantial – though the novel’s more ambivalent and complex ending is not retained. (Nor was it in the 1934 version, often considered a lesser Garbo vehicle, but directed by renowned Method teacher Richard Boleslawski, who trained at the Moscow Art Theatre and founded what became the Actor’s Studio in New York.) Gorgeous cinematography.
THE SEVENTH SIN

THE NUN

THE NUN (“La Religieuse”, 1966, France, Jacques Rivette, Jean Gruault / Jacques Rivette screenplay from Diderot novel)
Austere style, lurid content, initially banned for attacking the Church. Considerably more substantial than the sort of CONVENT OF HORROR nunsploitation flick plot description may suggest: 18th century girl forced to join a religious order, kindly abbess dies leaving sadistic Mother Superior to torment her, lesbian Mother Superior to lust after her, Priest to help her escape then try to rape her. Not exactly food for the soul, yet the non-sensationalist treatment lends weight to critique of undeniably historical abuses. Acquarello: “It is society's intractable adherence to doctrine, regimentation, and procedure over humanity and conscience that is symptomatically echoed in the cruelty, barbarism, pettiness, and self-indulgent excess within the walls of the cloisters: a pervasive moral bankruptcy that infects even the most hermetic - and powerful - of institutions.”
ANCHORESS

LITTLE CHILDREN


LITTLE CHILDREN (2006, USA, Todd Field, screenplay by Todd Field & Tom Perrotta from Perrotta’s novel)
Do you feel bad about this?
No, I don’t.
I do. I feel really bad.


Literate, intelligent, challenging, adult: the anatomy of an affair, an inquiry into sexual and other sin that holds an unflinching - but never cynical - mirror up to human behavior. A queasy watch (due to a pedophile character, and much Risky Behaviour on every side), and some have qualms about the trademark novelistic/ironic tone of the Tom Perrotta voice-over (dialed way down from ELECTION, but still), yet it all works for me. It’s an intriguing counterpoint to director Todd Field's IN THE BEDROOM: living in Updike/Cheever territory, both are all about Our Human Condition – infidelity, family, death, decision and consequence, guilt and shame, the threat of violence – but this one's also all about grace. Wow.

THE WOODSMAN

Available at Videomatica

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

COMING SOON: Big Screens (Mar 27)

Soul Food(ish) films on their way (sooner or later) to your local cine 'matheque or 'plex
Updated Mar 27 2007

Mar 30 - Apr 2, Apr 5: ADAM'S APPLES (Vancity)
Mar 31: OPAL DREAM (Cinematheque)
Apr 4: JEANNE LA PUCELLE Part 1 (Cinematheque)
Apr 5: JEANNE LA PUCELLE Part 2 (Cinematheque)
Apr 18: JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE (Cinematheque)
Apr 13-14: CACHE (Cinematheque)
Apr 14-15: CODE UNKNOWN (Cinematheque)
Apr 22-23: TIME OF THE WOLF (Cinematheque)
And a few others pending, with no specific release dates yet
Note: A gorgeous restoration of BECKET is currently touring American cities: see below

Soul Food(ish) flicks that have supposedly been released but haven't (to my knowledge) shown up in Vancouver yet...
ANGEL-A, COPYING BEETHOVEN, MAN PUSH CART, NINA'S HOUSE

DETAILS AND LINKS

ADAM'S APPLES
Vancity
Fri Mar 30, 9:00
Sat Mar 31, 7:00
Sun Apr 1, 9:00
Mon Apr 2, 7:00
Thu Apr 5, 9:00
No idea what to make of this, but its got one heck of a tantalizing description!
Vancity: "Fresh from prison, middle-aged neo-Nazi atheist Adam (Ulrich Thomsen) is sent to live in a country church for a stint of community service. Ivan (Casino Royale supervillain Mads Mikkelsen), the priest charged with his reform, maintains a delusional optimism as a defense against darker truths in his past and all around him. Asked to set a goal for his stay, Adam nonchalantly sets the bar pretty low: he’ll bake an apple cake. But when the church’s beloved lone apple tree is beset, in short order, by crows, worms and lightning, and fallen bibles keep opening to “The Book of Job,” it’s clear that the thunderclouds above the parish have blown in straight from the Old Testament, and a test of faith is at hand. The pitchest of black comedies, Anders Thomas Jensen’s wickedly funny film reverberates with profane dialogue, appalling behaviour and strategic use of the Bee Gees, as Adam only somewhat maliciously sets out to dismantle Ivan’s sunny armour... Assuredly filmed in frosty blues and suitably stormy weather, Adam’s Apples is a sly religious parable by a writer/director with a bracing talent for dark, astringent humour. Steve Mockus, San Francisco Film Festival"

ANGEL-A (France 2005. Director: Luc Besson)
Played the 'teque in December, slated for commercial release in May.
Cinematheque: "Marks the much-anticipated return to the director’s chair of French high-concept stylist Luc Besson... hadn’t helmed a movie himself since 1999’s The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc). ...A chic hybrid of It’s a Wonderful Life and Wings of Desire." (More here)

BECKET
The story of Saint Thomas A Becket is one of the classic Soul Food movies, a fitting companion to A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, unavailable on DVD, the hard-to-find videotape muddy and muffled. But there's been a painstaking restoration, and some of the pristine prints are touring to American cities. Details about the restoration plus a screening schedule can be found at Steven Greydanus's Decent Films website.

CACHE
Pacific Cinematheque
Fri Apr 13 7:15
Sat Apr 14 9:30
Notes about the Michael Haneke retrospective here

CODE UNKNOWN
Pacific Cinematheque
Sat Apr 14 7:15 - CODE UNKNOWN
Sun Apr 15 9:20 - CODE UNKNOWN
Notes about the Michael Haneke retrospective here

COPYING BEETHOVEN
I'm nervous about this one. Was supposed to go into limited release November 10, but I've still heard nothing about it, and begin to suspect the worst. Remember all the delays for the promising BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, or ALL THE KING'S MEN - neither of which ended up keeping their promises?
This one's the fictional story of a young woman who lands a job copying musical scores for Beethoven near the end of his life. Beethoven wonders if he should send the woman away, or see her as a sign from God. "I'm starting a new chapter in my life. New forms, a new language. And now this woman is sent to me at this very moment. Suppose it's a sign.That it's time for me to join with him." Directed by Agnieszka Holland; THE THIRD MIRACLE, EUROPA EUROPA, TO KILL A PRIEST, scenario for THREE COLOURS WHITE and BLUE, and MAGNIFICAT (in production). More on COPYING BEETHOVEN here

JEANNE LA PUCELLE (Joan the Maiden, 1994)
Pacific Cinematheque - Wed April 4, 7:30pm (part 1); Thu April 5, 7:30pm (part 2)
"The two great intimidating films about Joan of Arc, by Dreyer and Bresson, are purely poetic," director Jacques Rivette has said, "Whereas I was aiming for a more narrative approach - although I hope there are poetic moments."

JONESTOWN: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PEOPLES TEMPLE
Pacific Cinematheque - Wed Apr 18 7:30pm
Peter Chattaway picked this as the most spiritually significant film of the past year, over L'ENFANT, PAN'S LABYRINTH, SOPHIE SCHOLL or SON OF MAN (for example). Remember Jim Jones? Back in the decade of the cults. The Kool-Aid mass suicide in Guyana? This is the story of the quasi-Jesus People church that started out so good - social conscience, community, all that - and came to such a bad end.

NINA'S HOUSE
Variety: "Quietly magnificent tale of readjustment by young Jews who survived the horrors of WWII... "Houses of hope" were established to lend a semblance of continuity to the lives of youngsters orphaned by the war... Conflicts are keenly portrayed between the initial residents (who lean toward secular Jewish pride) versus the boys and young men who survived the camps. Latter feel obliged to assert the faith of their exterminated fathers and revive their rituals... Momentous historical events are contrasted with the smaller but equally momentous events at the chateau."
Details here.

OPAL DREAM (2005)
Pacific Cinematheque - Sat Mar 31, 2:00
CT Movies editor Mark Moring's a big fan of this family-friendly Aussie indie about an imaginative little girl whose family become outcasts in a rough outback mining town. I like to be more the appreciator than the critic, so I'm a bit stuck here, as I was underimpressed by the movie, but Mark's endorsement lets me know there are plenty of folks who would enjoy this uplifting tale. Certainly an alternative to the commercial fare dished up for kids in ever-mounting heaps by the American studios. By the director of THE FULL MONTY.

TIME OF THE WOLF
Pacific Cinematheque
Sun Apr 22 9:25
Mon Apr 23 7:15
Notes about the Michael Haneke retrospective here

BLUE PLATE SPECIALS: Links & Articles on Film & Faith

Links to a smorgasbord of miscellaneous soul food(ish) movie writing
Updated Jul 4 2007

A&F 100: Spiritually Significant Films (2004-2006)
A list compiling the 145 titles which have made the list at least once.
A&F 100 (2004)
Thoughts on the first ever Arts & Faith selection of 100 Spiritually Significant Films.

Andrei Tarkovsky's Top Ten Movies

Best of 2006: A&F
Best of 2006: CT Movies
Best of 2006: Movie City News
Best of 2006: Vancouver Critics
FFCC Awards 2007
Half a dozen ways to look at the films of 2006

Best Of The Bard: Top Ten Shakespeare Films
My picks.

Bresson on faith
Excerpts from Paul Schrader's Film Comment interview with Robert Bresson around the time of filming Le Diable Probablement.

Celluloid Christians: Faith portrayals in recent movies
Jeffrey Overstreet asked me to write this for his Looking Closer website.

Christian Moviegoers Required Viewing List (1997)
A piece I wrote for BC Christian News that looks something like the seeds of my book

Feeling Films: An Actor's Perspective
Thoughts on the emotional impact of film, and my twin vocations of actor and "critic"

Movie Gourmet: The First Sitting
The first of what was intended to be Christianity Today's quarterly round-up of "off-the-beaten-track" films with a spiritual angle. Nov 2006; Hawaii Oslo, Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days Of Disco, My Night At Maud's, The Devil & Daniel Johnston, Requiem, 49 Up, Deliver Us From Evil, Copying Beethoven, Perfume, Danielson: A Family Movie
Movie Gourmet: The Last Supper
The last of said round-ups, I stepped back from my CT reviewing duties between writing it and publication. Feb 2007; Ushpizin, The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Flowers of St Francis, Open City, Germany Year Zero, The Double Life of Veronique, Becket, Into Great Silence, Sweet Land, The Painted Veil, Angel-A, Beyond The Gates.

Rossellini resources
Notes and links to Mike Hertenstein's extremely helpful thoughts on the Rossellini retrospective at Cornerstone 2006, and to the definitive notes on the Cinematheque Ontario Rossellini retrospective.
Rossellini: From Scorsese's "MY VOYAGE TO ITALY"
Roberto was a huge influence on Marty: here are some transcriptions from Scorsese's wonderful documentary on Italian film.

Scorsese: Faith Under Pressure
Excerpts from a Sight & Sound article on the Catholicism of Martin Scorsese

Soul Food Movie Course?
Thoughts toward a film course I'd love to teach.

Soul Food Snacks in "TimeOut: 1000 Films To Change Your Life"
Fantastic book about the movies, with top-notch writing. I've grabbed graphs about anything I consider a Soul Food flick.

Take Me Out To The Movies: Top Ten Baseball Films
My roster.

Verhoeven Jesus movie notes: Spring '94
Verhoeven Jesus book
Bad boy Paul Verhoeven hung around the Jesus Seminar for a few years, talking about doing a suitably iconoclastic movie about Christ. Never happened, but I did end up with notes from a session he presented in 1994, outlining some of his ideas. Now that they're letting Paul make movies again (his licence was revoked after Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man - Black Book sounds like he's learned his lesson, though it still annoyed the heck out of me), he's thinking of at least doing the Jesus thing in book form.

*

LINKS TO OTHER REVIEWS AND REVIEWERS

Here's a collection of links to movie writing I like (or, that I wrote). Movies I'm interested in (usually with some sort of spiritual angle), or writers I'm interested in (usually for similar reasons, whether or not the film itself is such a big deal). I'll keep adding things that catch my eye.

There's a rough guide to the initials at the end of the post.

SOUL FOOD MOVIE WRITING
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY JO
8 MILE TT
ABOUT SCHMIDT JO JRP TT
THE ADDICTION RR
AMADEUS JO RE
AMELIE JO JRP
AMERICAN BEAUTY JO BP: PD
AMERICAN SPLENDOR JO TT
AMISTAD A&F JO PTC
ANTWONE FISHER JO
AU HASARD BALTHAZAR DC RE RR
THE AVIATOR JO TT
BARBERSHOP TT
A BEAUTIFUL MIND JO TT
BEFORE SUNSET TT
THE BEST TWO YEARS RR
THE BIG KAHUNA JO RE
THE BIG LEBOWSKI JO
BLACK HAWK DOWN TT
BLADE RUNNER JO
BORN INTO BROTHELS JRP SL
BREAKING THE WAVES JO
BRIDGET JONES DIARY TT
BRIGHT LEAVES RR
BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS TT
BROTHER SUN, SISTER MOON RR
CHANGING LANES JO
CHARIOTS OF FIRE JO
CHINATOWN RE TT
CHOCOLAT FMG JO
CINDERELLA MAN JO
CITY OF ANGELS JO / PTC
CLOSE-UP RR
CLOSER JO
CODE UNKNOWN SL
COLLATERAL JO TT
CONTACT JO
COOL & CRAZY RR
THE COOLER TT
COTTON PATCH GOSPEL RR
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO JO B&C: TH
CRASH JO RE
DANCER IN THE DARK JO
DEAD MAN WALKING JO
THE DECALOGUE RE
DIRTY PRETTY THINGS JO
DOGVILLE JO JRP
DONNIE DARKO JO
THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE JO
DOWN WITH LOVE JO TT
DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS JO / RR
DRIVING LESSONS LAC
E.T. TT
THE END OF THE AFFAIR JO
THE ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND JO TT
FAR FROM HEAVEN JO TT
FIELD OF DREAMS MP
FIGHT CLUB JO RR
FINAL SOLUTION JO
FINDING NEMO JO TT
FISHER KING JO
THE FOUR FEATHERS TT
GARDEN STATE JRP TT
GATES OF HEAVEN RE RR
GHOST WORLD JO TT
GOSFORD PARK JO TT
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW RE
GREEN MILE JO
GROUNDHOG DAY RE
HARRY POTTER 1 JO TT
HARRY POTTER 2 JO
HARRY POTTER 3 JO
HEAVEN (Tykwer) SL
HELL HOUSE JO
HITCH JRP
THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG JO RR
THE HUMAN STAIN JO TT
THE ICE STORM JO
IKIRU RE RR
THE INCREDIBLES JO TT
THE IRON GIANT JO
JAMES' JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM JRP
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN JO
KINSEY TT
THE LADYKILLERS JO TT
LANTANA JO
LEVITY JO
THE LIFE AQUATIC JO JRP TT
THE LONGEST YARD RE
LOOK AT ME TT
LORD OF THE RINGS 1 JO
LORD OF THE RINGS 2 JO
LORD OF THE RINGS 3 JO
LOST IN TRANSLATION JO TT
MAGNOLIA DC JO
A MAN ESCAPED RR
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE JO RR
THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST JO
THE MATRIX JO
ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW TT
MEAN CREEK JO JO Interview SL
MEDEA SL
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE RR
A MIGHTY WIND TT
MILLION DOLLAR BABY JO JRP TT
MILLIONS JO
MONSIEUR IBRAHIM JRP
MOSTLY MARTHA TT
MOULIN ROUGE JO
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE RE
MYSTIC RIVER JO TT
NAPOLEON DYNAMITE ML TT
THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER RE
NIGHTS OF CABIRIA RE
NOT OF THIS WORLD RR
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? JO
OCEANS ELEVEN TT
ON THE WATERFRONT RE
ONE HOUR PHOTO JO TT
OPEN RANGE JO TT
ORDET SL
OUT OF THE PAST RE
PALE RIDER RR
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC RE
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST JO TT
PERSONAL VELOCITY RR
PHONE BOOTH JO
PICKPOCKET RE
PIECES OF APRIL JO
PONETTE JO
PRIMER JO
PRINCE OF EGYPT JO
PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE JO
THE QUIET AMERICAN JO TT
THE RAPTURE RR
RAY TT
THE RECKONING JO
THE RETURN JO JRP
RIVERS & TIDES JO
THE ROOKIE JO RR
SAVED! JO
SCHINDLER'S LIST RE
THE SEA INSIDE RR
THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS TT
SEE GRACE FLY RR
SEXY BEAST JO TT
SHANE RE RR
THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION RE RR
THE SHIPPING NEWS TT
SHREK TT
SIGNS JO PTC TT
THE SIXTH SENSE JO
SOLARIS (1972) SE
SOLARIS (2002) JO
THE SON JO
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR JO
SPELLBOUND TT
SPIDER-MAN JO TT
THE SPITFIRE GRILL TT
SPRING, SUMMER, FALL, WINTER... AND SPRING JRP
STAR WARS JO
THE STATION AGENT TT
THE STRAIGHT STORY JO
TEARS OF THE SUN TT
THE THIRD MIRACLE RE SL2
THREE COLORS TRILOGY RE
THREE COLORS: BLUE JO
TIME OF THE WOLF (Haneke) JRP
TO END ALL WARS B&C RR
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE TT
THE TRUMAN SHOW JB JO
UNBREAKABLE JO
UNFORGIVEN RE
THE UP DOCUMENTARIES RE
WAKING LIFE JO
WHAT DREAMS MAY COME JO
THE WIDOW OF ST. PIERRE JO
WINGS OF DESIRE JO RE
X2 JO
YI-YI JO
YOU CAN COUNT ON ME JO TT + TT

Danny Boyle JO
The Coen Brothers TT
Aki Kaurismaki JRP
John Sayles TT

"Better Movies For Tougher Times" TT
THE GENERAL, THE RULES OF THE GAME, THE SEARCHERS, THE SPITFIRE GRILL, BARCELONA, HENRY V

"Ten Films For A Rainy Day" TT
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, PANIC IN THE STREETS, ON DANGEROUS GROUND, TROUBLE ALONG THE WAY, LUST FOR LIFE, SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERRIFF, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, HARRY AND TONTO, HEARTS OF THE WEST, A SHOCK TO THE SYSTEM

*

B&C = Books & Culture
BP = Breakpoint
DC = Doug Cummings
JO = Jeffrey Overstreet (Film Forum, CT Movies, Looking Closer, Paste)
JRP = J Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth, Looking Closer, Paste)
LAC = Lisa Ann Cockrel, CT Movies
ML = Mike Leary
MP = Matt Page
PD = Patton Dodd
PTC = Peter Thomas Chattaway (CT Movies, BC Christian News, Books & Culture, etc.)
RE = Roger Ebert
RR = Ron Reed (soulfoodmovies, CT Movies, Looking Closer, Matthew's House)
SDG = Steven Greydanus (Decent Films, Catholic Register)
SL = stef loy
SL2 = Steve Lansingh
TH = Todd Hertz
TT = Terry Teachout (CRISIS MAGAZINE: “The mission of CRISIS Magazine is to interpret and shape the direction of contemporary culture from a standpoint of Catholic tradition. We are dedicated to the proposition that the crisis of modernity can be answered by a Christian humanism rooted in the teachings of the Catholic Church. We bring the wisdom of the Catholic tradition into direct dialogue with contemporary politics and culture.”)

*

And here's a rundown of other websites and blogs which can provide a significant portion of your RDA of Soul Food nutrients

Bible Films Blog (Matt Page)

Decent Films (Steven Greydanus)

Filmchat (Peter Chattaway)

filmjourney (Doug Cummings)

Framing Device (J. Robert Parks)

Gladsome Morning (John Adair)

god is not elsewhere (Gareth Higgins)

Looking Closer (Jeffrey Overstreet)

opal dream (2005)

CT Movies editor Mark Moring's a big fan of this family-friendly Aussie indie about an imaginative little girl whose family become outcasts in a rough outback mining town. I like to be more the appreciator than the critic, so I'm a bit stuck here, as I was underimpressed by the movie, but Mark's endorsement lets me know there are plenty of folks who would enjoy this uplifting tale. Certainly an alternative to the commercial fare dished up for kids in ever-mounting heaps by the American studios. By the director of THE FULL MONTY.

Pacific Cinematheque
Sat Mar 31, 2:00

NOW PLAYING: Big Screens (Mar 27)

Currently (or very soon to be currently) on screen at Vancouver-area theatres

Updated Mar 27 2007

AMAZING GRACE is – or ought to be – the new buzz-film among Christian movie buffs, and it opened this past weekend at the Fifth Avenue and SilverCities Riverport and Coquitlam. Sure it’s got some melodrama, and the script may be over-written at one or two points, but those are quibbles: the story of William Wilberforce’s struggle to outlaw the slave trade stirred me deeply, and I recommend it. Superb companion piece to AMISTAD.

LIMITED RUN ENGAGEMENTS: Don't miss ADAM’S APPLES (Mar 30/31, Apr 1/2, 5) at the VanCity Theatre, Vancouver International Film Centre. Sounds utterly fascinating. At Pacific Cinematheque, a Saturday matinee of OPAL DREAM, charming kid-friendly Aussie fare that charmed CT Movies editor Mark Moring more thoroughly than it charmed yours truly (2pm, Mar 31). Then at the 'theque, a rare showing of Jacques Rivette's two-part, five-and-a-half hour Saint Joan hagiopic JEANNE LA PUCELLE. When I bumped into Jacques over at Bob's Subs the other day, he said "The two great intimidating films about Joan of Arc, by Dreyer and Bresson, are purely poetic. I was aiming for a more narrative approach - although I hope there are poetic moments." PART I: THE BATTLES is Wed Apr 4 at 7:30, followed by PART II: THE PRISONS on Thu Apr 5 at 7:30. The Joans are available at Videomatica

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Fifth Avenue and Cinemark Tinseltown) is next on my gotta-see list, a German film about life during the cold war. PAN’S LABYRINTH continues at the Clova and Granville 7 cinemas, the best general release film of 2006 in my opinion: visually brilliant, see it before it leaves the big screens.

The trailer for BREACH (Granville 7) sure did catch my interest, a fact-based story about a man accused of spying against the US government that foregrounds his impassioned (fanatical?) Catholic faith. The fun-looking FIDO (PLEASANTVILLE meets SHAUN OF THE DEAD?), lensed by Vancouver cinematographer and friend of Reel Light Jan Keisser, opened recently to swell reviews and continues at a ton of theatres; Colossus Langley, Paramount Vancouver, SilverCity Coquitlam, SilverCity Mission, SilverCity Riverport, Station Square 7, and Empire Studio 12 Guildford.

The PURSUIT OF HAPPYNESS continues at Granville 7 and Eagle Ridge (as well as throughout America, if their constitution is anything to go by). If you've got any compassion, you'll feel for Will Smith's can't-get-a-break eventually homeless single dad; if you've got ulcers, they'll only get worse. There's gospel music in a church shelter that suggests some sort of transcendent Hope, yet I can't help thinking at another level that if this film's got religion, it's pretty much just Horatio Alger materialism. But if you're sceptical about Will, dont be: what chemistry between him and his (on-screen and off-screen) son!

CHILDREN OF MEN stripped out most of what made Anglican P.D. James' most distinctively Christian novel distinctively Christian, but that doesn't stop many Christians (and everybody else) from celebrating it: I loved the dystopian vision of the first third, but the more it became a chase movie, the less it stuck with me - think of it as a sci-fi APOCALYPTO: Tinseltown.

THE QUEEN has reigned almost half a year now, currently enthroned at the Empire Granville 7, Helen Mirren is in ultra-understated mode in a smart, carefully calibrated character study. More royalty at Tinseltown and Park & Tilford: LAST KING OF SCOTLAND borne aloft on the shoulders Forrest Whittaker.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

AMISTAD


AMISTAD (1997, USA, Steven Spielberg, screenplay David Franzoni)
Their people have suffered more than ours. Their lives were full of suffering. Then he was born, and everything changed.

A sometimes harrowing, ultimately uplifting account of an uprising of African prisoners on a Cuban slave ship and the ensuing trial, which not only determined their fate but marked an irrevocable turning point in the Abolitionist campaign in the years leading up to the Civil War. If the film was under-praised in its day (suffering, I think, from back-to-back comparison with SCHINDLER'S LIST, Spielberg's masterpiece), it has nevertheless found an enduring audience, particularly among Christians. It is surprising to see what an important role Christian spirituality plays in the film: given that, it is also curious to realize that the film seems determined to diminish the central role Christians played in this remarkable story.

Where the film follows on from the director's deeply affecting holocaust film is in its portrayal of "America's holocaust" (well, one of them), though this film restricts its field of vision to a single group of slaves in a succession of slave ships and prisons. AMISTAD does not chart the whole history of slavery in America, but the images it does give us are unshakeable, particularly aboard the notorious "Tecora," which transported its human cargo from Africa to Cuba. The voices of those who berate the film as sentimental turn tinny and callous when one remembers the depiction of men and women being selectively starved, shackled in rows in the holds of ships or chained together and cast overboard. And the Europeans thought the heart of darkness was to be found Africa? The horror, the horror.

The charges of sentimentality are significantly questions of style, I think. The film does have an expensive history movie look to it – some may prefer something starker for the setting or subject matter – but I think much of that perception may originate with the soundtrack. This score is, is, as the Amistat incident itself, a curious collision of two cultures. The African music is striking. We're not talking township jive here, but, I suppose, Big Screen African: children's choir and plaintive solo voices in a strange tongue over pulsing rhythms. Easy to like if you're not an ethno-musicologist. The American music is more problematic for more people. It's that mid-century Americana that sounds like Aaron Copeland's lyrical stuff (better leave the drums to the Africans, I guess they thought). At times you think you're in Disneyland watching "Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln." When I'm feeling dismissive, I think of it as Americorn, and apparently that's how it struck the ears of plenty of the film's critics.

But you know, I don't mind that stuff. If it sounds like movie music, well, who am I to complain? I love movies! And now and then I don't mind one that sounds like one. If you can praise the unabashedly cinematic STAR WARS score, why quibble when another film (same composer) plays a similar game? Perhaps for some the strategy reduces an important and true-ish story about slavery to the level of a Sat-mat space opera. I guess that's in the ear of the behearer.

Another personal proclivity that exerts a huge influence on perceptions of this film has to do with the tensions between history and invention. The film departs from some details of the actual history of the events, not only conflating characters and inventing dramatically compelling histories for them, but also going so far as to cook up a different kind of Presidential meddling for Martin Van Buren to mess around with, for example, as a way to render the historical reality of his role into something readily comprehensible in the flow of the story. From my reading, I'd say the screenplay does a better job than most of sticking to the story: walk out of the theatre and turn to an historical account and, apart from running the risk of bogging down in legal minutiae, you won't feel like you've been mislead.

Except in one regard. If you happen to care about the one moment in history when Bible-believing church folk unarguably got it right.

It's a shame that evangelical Christians don't know their own history – and that this otherwise illuminating film will do nothing to enlighten them in the matter. But the fact is, it was their political perseverence in both England and America that changed the course of history, literally carrying out Jesus' mandate of proclaiming release to the captives – and paying huge personal costs to back up their message. In both countries it was protestant Christians who led the Abolitionist cause which ultimately put an end to slavery in the new world. But you won't find that out watching AMISTAD.

The three men who led the campaign to free the Amistad Africans were devout Protestant believers: Lewis Tappan, a wealthy New England merchant; Joshua Leavitt, a Congregational minister and editor of "The Emancipator"; and Simeon Jocelyn, pastor to New Haven's first black church. It was Christian students from Yale University who taught the prisoners English, and once the Africans were freed from prison it was Christian congregations that provided for them during the eight months they remained in the United States, and raised the money to hire a ship to return them to their homes in Africa. (Apparently the American government was quite prepared to ship them back to the slave prisons in Cuba, but couldn't see their way clear to pointing a boat in a more easterly direction to get these people home).

In the film, only one of the men fighting for the freedom of the Amistad Africans is shown to have any religious convictions, the historical character Lewis Tappan, but the last we hear from him is a cynical comment that the prisoners "May be more valuable to our struggle in death than in life." It is up to the fictional and curiously religion-free Peter Joadson to voice the audience's revulsion at such a statement: "What is true, Mr. Tappan – and believe me when I tell you I've seen this – is that there are some men whose hatred of slavery is stronger than anything. Except for the slave himself." And that's the last we see of the (apparently) bigoted abolitionist: no day in Supreme court for that unfeeling dog. What an insulting portrayal! You might just as well call Martin Luther King a racist, or accuse Desmond Tutu of sympathizing with apartheid.

Indeed, the film makers seem to go out of their way to portray Christians as dour and ineffectual bystanders to the action, lining the roads the prisoners travel between jailhouse and courtroom, holding out crosses and offering Bibles (which the Africans cannot read). When they gather outside the prison to pray, we see them from the Africans' perspective. "Looks like they're going to be sick." The Christians begin some dreary singing (is Amazing Grace the only hymn these Hollywood types know, for God's sake?). "They're entertainers. But why do they look so miserable?" Understandably, the Africans turn away.

But as unwilling as Franzoni and Spielberg may be to give evangelical Christians their due, they confound us by offering one of the most remarkable presentations of the Christian gospel to be found on film, intercut with a remarkable sequence of a man wrestling with his conscience in a Catholic church. Yamba leafs through a Bible he previously wrenched from the grasp of one of the odder-looking Christians on display in the film, and intuitively – almost miraculously – comes to understand the Jesus story simply by contemplating its Gustave Dore illustrations, and seeing Christ's identification with their suffering. "He was captured. Accused of some crime. Here he is with his hands tied." Another prisoner says, "He must have done something," to which Yamba replies, "Why? What did we do?"

Lacking a word for the cross on which Jesus has been crucified, he draws one in the air before him, as the film cuts to the man in the church crossing himself at the foot of a lifelike crucifix. The man prays in Latin, its foreignness blending with the strangeness of Yamba's Mendi language. "They wrapped him in a cloth, like we do. They thought he was dead, but he appeared before his people again and spoke to them. Then, finally, he rose into the sky. This is where the soul goes when you die. This is where we're going when they kill us. It doesn't look so bad." Is some possibly mystical connection being suggested between the events in the cell and what's happening in the sanctuary? And when the identity of the man in the church is revealed, we see that these possibly linked events provide a critical turning point.

(Interesting to note that Franzoni's next screenplay also finds its primary spiritual interest in a slave's yearning for heaven – in another film which, it might be argued, leaves the Christians on the editing room floor. GLADIATOR is followed by the woeful KING ARTHUR, again centred on liberty, this time endeavouring to restore the essentially Christian core that most retellings of these quasi-historical myths have removed – even if it Arty is pretty much a Pelagian heretic. By the way, if Franzoni's penning of these successively weaker scripts gives you pause, no need: AMISTAD stands as a very well crafted screenplay, that yields up more detail on each successive viewing.)

The film's strongest, if less explicit, gospel resonance may come from what is admittedly a commonplace in "triumph against overwhelming odds" flicks, but which has particular power here – perhaps because the theme is woven into so many aspects of the plot, perhaps because it is so essential to the improbable story of slaves finding their freedom in pre-Civil War America. At the heart of Jesus' teachings is the idea of strength in weakness, the fact that God chooses the weak and powerless to shame the privileged and powerful. And that's the cloth that AMISTAD is cut from, as we come to see great strength and dignity in characters who begin the story in chains, barely considered human, and witness the same kind of transformation in those who take up their cause; a former slave, a crassly opportunistic lawyer, and a doddering ex-president. In a paradigmatic scene, the lawyer appeals for help from Cinque: "I'm not a great orator or advisor, not a big man. When we go to court, I need you to speak." Cinque insists that he cannot speak for the others. "What's this I hear about a lion? You alone slew the most terrifying beast..." To which Cinque replies, "I am not a big man. Just a lucky one." Yet in the final stage of the legal process, John Quincy Adams singles out both men for praise before the highest court in the land, and his tribute carries the ring of divine blessing, of the last being first, the lowly called up to the highest place.

The film's greatest artistic accomplishments lie in the work of Djimon Hounsou as Cinque and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams. These actors chart the progression of their characters with virtuostic skill and range, Hounsou in a break-out performance of tremendous passion and presence, Hopkins with one of the most layered and detailed characterizations of his extraordinary career. It may be a screenwriting truism characters must strive to change something in their world, and themselves be changed in the pursuit, but performances of this potency make transformation tangible, visible, specific, testifying in their very bodies to the hope that we may all be changed, may all be honoured.

These themes culminate in the climactic courtroom scene, when "Old Man Eloquent" presents his final arguments before the Supreme Court. In a day of superficial sound bites and market-driven political sloganeering, it is an immense privilege to listen to ten minutes of compelling rhetoric, a movie climax that has the courage to rely on words and ideas alone. (Actually, words and ideas and gobs of patriotic music, but I'll overlook that: I'm not letting that particular over-indulgence ruin an otherwise tremendous scene.)

Actually, words and ideas and a masterful performance. Watch Hopkins' command of nuance and innuendo as the now-formidable ex-president appeals at once to minds and hearts, flatters and bullies and condescends as he throws down his challenge to nine of the most powerful men in the land – seven of them Southern slaveholders. Carry out the unfinished business of the American Revolution, honour your forebears by taking their noblest ideals to their logical conclusion: free these people, whose fight for liberty on the decks of the Amistad was nothing less that the War of Independence writ small. He even dares to invite the cataclysm to come, with his implication that the "all men" who were declared equal by the founding fathers might just include not only the Amistad Africans, but black slaves throughout America.

We Canadians are a tad skeptical about appeals to Yankee nationalism: when I saw the statues in the Supreme Court, I couldn't help thinking how many of those champions of freedom had themselves been slave owners. I'm also a bit of a commie: when Queen Isabella of Spain wrote "The business of great countries is to do business. Slavery is a pillar of commerce in the new world," I couldn't help thinking "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose" – which is French for "so what about those fancy runners you're wearing, and the third world sweat shops that whipped those up for ya?" And I'm a pacifist, not too convinced of the nobility of that whole "I'll kill anybody who stands in the way of my freedom" premise that seems to underlay the country's founding and entire subsequent history. I have to wonder why that reasoning was alright for oppressed peasant farmers in North America in 1776 or so, but not alright for oppressed peasant farmers in Central America in 1976 or so. America seems to apply the old "freedom fighter" label with a certain self-interested selectivity, to my far north way of thinking.

All that said, this movie reminded me that there's something deeply true in those ideals of liberty and equality – especially when you lay down your life so someone else can experience their benefits. They may live more in the ideals than in the practical outworking of American history, but I guess that's what makes them Ideals – and worth fighting for. In courts of law, and maybe even sometimes on battlefields or the decks of slave ships.

AMAZING GRACE

Available at Videomatica