Thursday, June 16, 2011

DEADWOOD (HBO) - SEASON ONE REVIEW (2004 - Created by David Milch)

(Review originally written on November 25, 2007.)


Johnny Cash said - "I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgement day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak, and love. And Mother. And God."

So I admit that I'm a sucker for westerns. Ever since I was little, my imagination has been captivated whenever exposed to the story of the lone underdog standing up for what he knew was right in the lawless world of the Wild West. I still enjoy reading biographies of historical western characters and watching the latest westerns that arrive in the theater (3:10 to Yuma and The Assassination of Jesse James finally bringing the genre back with a traditional exuberance after Brokeback Mountain).

And now I've just finished watching the first season of the HBO TV show Deadwood. I admit I was really surprised. I was cautious in beginning the show because the few reviews I could find of it from a Christian perspective were extremely negative saying that the show was very dark and overly generous in its portrayal of human sin. The philosophical nature of the show attracted me, however and, after the first couple episodes, I was hooked.

This show is the story of the settlements starting in the Black Hills of South Dakota during the gold rush. This gold rush resulted in the Americans violating their treaties with the Lakota/Sioux tribe and the subsequent death of General George Armstrong Custer. Deadwood started out as a mining camp full of prospectors, miners, adventure seekers, and outlaws - all looking for an easy way to find their fortunes. It thus becomes one of the most well known stories of the beginnings of a town in the wild west. The lawlessness, depravity, and chaos of the "state of nature" in which the settlement begins turns slowly to law and order, security, and civilization.

The main characters of the show are all historically based, and eventually other famous western characters show up as they did actually visit the town. The lawman and gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok actually died there, shot in the back during a poker game. Keith Carradine does an excellent job playing him as a man (simultaneously world weary, kind, compassionate, violent and brutal) who is weighed down by his celebrity status and the knowledge that it's only a matter of time before one of these men, constantly trying to prove themselves by challenging him, eventually accomplish his death.

The acting in this show is phenomenal. Both tragedy and comedy are in every episode. Think William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and The Sopranos meet Tombstone and How The West Was Won. So many scenes and characters jump out at you like they walked right out of a Dickensian novel (the always scheming innkeeper Farnum; the joyful and childlike cripple, Jewel; the powerfully manipulative Swearengen; the kind but emotionally scarred, Doc Cochran). Different characters will think out loud to themselves in Americanized soliloquies that Shakespeare would have made Shakespeare proud.

Two contradictory things struck me about this show.

First, few Christians or conservatives will probably be able to enjoy it. The content is too offensive. Frequent obscenity, some nudity and sex, and graphic violence are all portrayed throughout the series. Most of the characters live out the results of their sin natures to the fullest extent possible. This little lawless western town allows a complete outlet for basic human depravity. Characters violently murder and steal from each other whenever they please. Almost all of the women in the town are prostitutes working in saloons or brothels, being used and taken advantage of by the men. The regular media has even questioned the amount of foul language in the show. It's every other word for some of the characters. This is a dark story. I cannot recommend this show to most of my friends and family.

Second, the Christianity in this show is alive and real. In fact, I can't say that I have ever seen a TV show before where Christianity showed up with so much light shining brilliantly out of the darkness. In a world filled with sin and despair, Christian characters appear in the town. Reverend Smith (based on the real and historical first Methodist circuit-riding preacher who started ministering in Deadwood) is not the typical Hollywood portrayal of the Christian. This is even more ironic given the fact that he actually does go insane (also historically based). Smith is immediately the kindest, warmest, and most conscience driven character - and his face lights up with joy whenever he is given the opportunity to talk about the gospel. Half of his dialogue, even when he is so sick that he doesn't make any sense, is simply nothing more than quoting relevant Scripture. His effect on some of the most morally corrupt characters on the show is one of the most important parts of the story. Swearengen is at his most vulnerable, good, and human when in the Reverend's presence.

"Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort than to be comforted, to understand, than to be understood, to love, than to be loved ..."
- Reverend Smith

The Christian worldview is fought for by numerous characters who, though morally flawed, turn out to be the real good guys, in spite of immediate viewer expectations. Wild Bill Hickok is portrayed as a principled, self-sacrificing hero. You can feel the hunger for justice in the conscience of Seth Bullock (historically a Rough Rider and friend of Teddy Roosevelt) as he realizes that part of what he believes being a man means taking the stand for right and wrong that no one else is willing to take. Doc Cochrane seems gruff and confused on the surface, but proves to be one of the show's most loving and caring characters as he constantly puts everyone else before himself. Even Calamity Jane, drinking and swearing herself into almost retardation as she grieves, shows kindness and sacrifice in her actions, even if her actions are in spite of her words.

"Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh."
- Al Swearengen

During the Season finale, when Doc Cochrane carefully explains to God that he is sorry he feels pain when he kneels in prayer because it means that he doesn't pray like he should, and then proceeds to utter the most heartbreaking prayer I've ever heard on television, I couldn't help but being dumbfounded that this was on what I had been told was one of the more morally corrupt TV shows around. Christians usually dislike HBO. And often for good reason. So how does this happen? Why was a show made that portrays all the offensive sinful things that offend Christians and conservatives and then also portrays real redemption, love, self-sacrifice, and the transforming power of Christianity in a dark and evil world? I really don't know how this happened. But I suppose it happened because of a man named David Milch.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS - FILM REVIEW (2009 - Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

(Film review originally written on August 22, 2009.)

"If my answers frighten you, then you should cease asking scary questions."
- Jules, from Pulp Fiction

... This is a beautiful film.

Does that seem like a strange thing to say? Almost every Christian who avoids this will do so with good reason. First, because almost all the "Christian" movie reviews will denounce it for it's "sickening" violence. Second, because the previews and commercials advertising for this movie were all promoting it to be two and a half solid hours of nonstop bloody Nazi slaughter. And this, of course, is the moralist's cue to denounce our taking vicarious pleasure in violence of any kind, and besides, Nazis are people too.

Add to this the further element that this Jewish-American team of "basterds" is the embodiment of all that’s wrong with modern day movies in the eyes of the older generation of your church. You’ve heard the complaint before. Instead of clear cut good guy vs. bad guy, the good guy started wearing the black hat. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys anymore. Part of what makes the good guy “good” is that he doesn’t lower himself to the methods of his enemy, he shows mercy and values every human life. I’ve already heard complaints that it’s the younger generation who will be making excuses for enjoying Inglourious Basterds because they’re just so desensitized that they are now entertained by the bloody and graphic deaths of other human beings.

And finally, look back on the old classic movies through the years. What is the one genre where at least the lines between good and evil have stayed absolutely clear? That’s right - World War II movies. There’s a reason Nazis make such good bad guys in Hollywood. You won’t find a single person willing to defend what they did. The Nazis stand for all that is evil in human nature, and the Allies stand up against them. Think back to The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Kelly’s Heroes - all great WWII films but ... none of the good guys were scalping the bad guys.

But suddenly, we have a story about a group of heroes who decide that, because the Nazis are showing inhumanity to the Jews, they are going to show inhumanity to the Nazis. Essentially, in the eyes of your mother, Brad Pitt’s character Aldo Raine and his merry men are stooping down to the bad guys' level. Every single person who denounces this film for moral reasons is going to focus on one admittedly uncomfortable scene with a baseball bat. These Jewish-American "heroes" are engaging in a sort of psychological guerilla warfare that is making them … just … as … bad … as … the … Nazis?

But I'm going to side with the whimsical here and say that you really ought to see this film regardless. To begin with, you know those movies where the trailers and previews are very misleading? Where, for some reason, they advertise their movie to be something that it isn’t? Well, this is one of those films. The trailer pretty much showed you almost all of the violence you’re going to actually see. In fact, I’d have to look at it again, but I’m pretty sure there was a memorable scene in the trailer that showed one of the Americans running down a hallway blasting away on his machine gun. Yep, it didn’t even make the final cut.

If you are sensitive to really graphic violence, then after Sergeant Donny points to the war medals on their captured Nazi colonel’s uniform and asks him how many Jews he’s killed to get those, just close your eyes for a few seconds when he swings his baseball bat. That’s as graphic as any scene gets. When you look at the two and half hours the story takes, all the violence put together is less than five minutes worth of screen time. This is not to say that there are not a few very fast VERY violent shoot ‘em up scenes, but none of them are really as impacting as the first time that someone pulls the trigger - and when that happens, even though you can’t see what’s happening off the screen, it will matter more to you than when all the rest of the characters get to pull their triggers later.

When it comes to bloody violence, if you’ve seen The Patriot or Braveheart , then you’ve seen worse. Mel Gibson’s The Patriot brings up some interesting questions though. That was another story of a group of rag-tag men fighting for the right side who start using questionably brutal guerilla tactics. Questionable enough for the more idealistic Heath Ledger character to demand that they purposely distinguish their combat tactics from the style of their enemy. He appeals to a higher moral standard that they "are better men than that", and then towards the end of the film he changes his mind.

In Inglourious Basterds, Lt. Raine has his men purposely adopt guerrilla warfare designed to inspire fear in the Nazis. They don’t take prisoners. They take scalps like the Apache Indians instead. Raine explains “and when the Germans close their eyes at night, and their subconscious tortures them for all the evil they’ve done, it will be with thoughts of us that it tortures them with.” In other words, thoughts of soon approaching Jewish justice and revenge. Whether you agree with it or not, this is a form of psychological warfare against the Third Reich that no one has really been able to try before in a WWII movie.

What does taking no prisoners and taking scalps remind you of? Film reviewer, Peter T. Chattaway made a comment that this reminds one precisely of Old Testament Israel -
I am intrigued to hear, also, that modern-day Jews regard Hitler and his ilk as being, in some sense, "descendants of Amalek". The Amalekites, of course, were the race that Saul was supposed to stamp out -- in retribution for their treatment of the Israelites in Moses' day -- and it was because his act of genocide wasn't as thorough as it could have been that the prophet Samuel declared that God was taking the monarchy away from Saul and giving it to someone else, i.e. David. (And David, of course, is the guy who massacred Moabite soldiers after they surrendered, and who killed 200 Philistines for their foreskins after Saul told him, "Every man in my battalion owes me one! hundred! Philistine! foreskins! And I want my foreskins!" Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the point.)
Quite interesting, although the purpose of this review is not to engage in a philosophical discussion of what sort of tactics one can use while engaging in a “just war.” Actually my point here is that the “basterds” engaging in this sort of warfare are really only given one Nazi killin’ scene in the whole movie in order to explain the legend they’ve become behind enemy lines. After the introductory scenes of the movie, and for all intents and purposes of the story, they are more of a looming presence - always there in the background - until they suddenly find themselves forced into some espionage work that they aren’t quite as suited for.

I’m constantly surprised that people call Quentin Tarantino’s movies amoral (at least, if not just plain immoral). Am I the only one being fooled into seeing the distinct moral choices and positions being taken in these films?

(Possible Spoilers in the next paragraph only if you’ve never seen one of these decade old films.)

For me, the poignancy of Reservoir Dogs has always been that the cop is making the choice to suffer a slow and agonizing death (while he could save himself at any time) because he believes the cost is worth it if that means catching the bad guy. In True Romance, the one scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken is going to offend some people, it’s also going to be an example of loving self-sacrifice to others. Pulp Fiction is still probably Tarantino’s greatest - and it’s filled with characters taking moral stands. Bruce Willis finds himself in a situation where he has to decide whether it’s worth risking his life to save his mortal enemy who was just trying to kill him five minutes ago. Samuel L. Jackson’s character (a) decides he believes in miracles, (b) thus decides he believes in God, (c) thus decides he’s been living an evil life, (d) therefore decides to repent and change, and (e) immediately gets a chance to test out his new beliefs in action.

(End of old Spoilers).

Inglourious Basterds is pure, movie loving fun and entertainment. But that doesn’t stop it from making its characters take some very specific moral stands on a few things. Besides the obvious, that all the Allied characters are risking their lives (against impossible odds in near suicide situations) in order to stop the Nazis from winning the war (with the depth of PluggedIn reviews, maybe they can list this as the one thing in their “Positive Elements” list - “well, the American and British are fighting a war on the right side, so that’s good I guess. Now on to list all the bad words they say …”).

One question often asked in WWII stories is how culpable do you hold the German troops fighting for Hitler? Most of the “Nazis” were really just regular men and boys fighting for their country, right? Whenever modern historians look at the history of war today, we find it very uncomfortable to blame the actual troops for what they were fighting for. Most of them are just doing their jobs and probably didn’t understand what was going on. Because of Adolf Hitler, and because of what he lead Nazi Germany into doing was so evil and morally repugnant to us, we find Nazis to be the easiest evil bad guys in any story.

Tarantino could have just made the Nazis into stereotypical caricatures and left it at that in order to commence cartoonish blood and slaughter. But he doesn’t (take either option). Instead, Inglourious Basterds takes the clear and unambiguous position that it was an individually morally wrong choice to decide to wear the Nazi uniform. If you think about it while you watch the film, you’ll notice a theme. At the very beginning, Lt. Raine asks the German soldier he’s about to let go (to help get the word out) if, after the war is over, “are you going to take off your uniform?” The frightened fellow replies enthusiastically that not only is he going to take it off, but that he’s going to burn it (as if there were something inherently wrong with it in the first place).

Raine replies - “Yeah, that’s what we thought. We don’t like that. You see, we like our Nazis in uniforms. That way, you can spot ‘em just like that. But you take off your uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us.”

The implication here being that choosing to fight for the Nazi army was a crime - a capital crime actually. It was not something that you just did because it was your job. This is directly contradicted by the two most developed Nazi characters.

Colonel Landa casually dismisses the nickname he's been given for working for the Nazis -

"Jew Hunter? (pffft) I’m a detective. A damn good detective. Finding people is my specialty. So naturally, I worked for the Nazis finding people. And yes, some of them were Jews. But Jew Hunter? Just the name that stuck."

Landa doesn't feel he's responsible for the side he's working for. He just does what he does best wherever he happens to be. In another scene, when Shosanna tells Zoller she doesn't want to be his friend because of who he is, he protests that he's "more than just a uniform" - in other words, the uniform he has decided to wear doesn't say anything about who he really is. But not to Shosanna. And not to Raine and his "basterds" either, which is why they make a practice of giving the soldiers they allow to live something they "can't take off" like a uniform.


(Film review originally written on July 17, 2009.)

"It comes down to whether or not you trust Dumbledore’s judgement. I do; therefore, I trust Severus."
- Lupin

I never wanted to like the Harry Potter books. I was basically conned into reading them by some well-meaning friends against my will. By “conned” I mean they got me to promise to read the first one, and well … that about did it. I didn’t actually allow myself to admit I liked them until I was halfway through the third book (Prisoner of Azkaban), but then it became clear that J.K. Rowling was really one of those rare good modern day writers. As someone who admittedly loves to read, it’s amazing how hard it is to find contemporary authors who produce quality literature. Sure, I’m prejudiced … but I sometimes feel as if I could count the really talented modern day authors all on the fingers of one hand. Rowling would probably belong in this small select group.

It was almost the same with the movies. The first two movies are alright, nothing special, but there is something that changes during the third one. As Harry and his friends are getting older, they are being forced to grow up. In fact, Harry in particular, has to stop being that wussy little kid that everyone hates and learn how to grow up and become a man sooner than later. The fact that a very powerful dark wizard, who is also rising up to take over the world, happens to be the murderer of Harry’s parents helps, but just because Harry can hate and want revenge does not make him likable. I had no reason to root for or even really care about Harry Potter for quite a while, even though I was enjoying the story. In Prisoner of Azkaban, suddenly you have the character of Sirius Black teaching Harry by his own example that there has to be something more than revenge.

Each story (book and film) has always won me over even more than the last one did. I found myself enjoying the continued character development, enjoying how Rowling simultaneously manages to make each story darker and more serious while keeping up her sense of humor and comedy at the same time, and enjoying watching Harry - the one character I found completely unlikable - slowly bringing himself round into a less nerdy, less wussy, suddenly more selfless fellow that you can actually begin to root for. Every really good story, from a guy’s point of view, needs a badass main character. The Harry Potter series has a number of tough guy supporting characters (Dumbledore? Arthurian Merlin-like badass. Sirius Black? Scrappy badass. Mad-Eye Moody? Piratical badass. Professor Snape? A badass that ONLY Alan Rickman could play.) And this helps. But the main problem with attracting guys to this series is the main character is this nerdy, often crying, whining and complaining little kid. Maybe that doesn’t bother you if you’re a fantasy fiction reading sponge. But it bothered me until … Harry ditches the crying and whining and starts growing up and trying to act like a man. If you’ve got to have a wuss for the main character of your story, then at least make the story into how this wuss is being forced into growing up into a man/badass.

Taking all this into account, The Half-Blood Prince is the best of the six Harry Potter movies so far because it gives most of the main characters the opportunity to finally stretch their acting ability. This is the most acting that a Harry Potter movie has had yet (and this is even without Ralph Fiennes, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh or Emma Thompson around).

Tom Felton is the surprise of the film. Remember the bully/rich kid stereotype at Hogwarts? Well all of a sudden, Felton (as Draco Malfoy) has grown up - and he gives his character a depth that I didn't think he'd actually reach. Malfoy is no longer the school bully. Instead, he's an outcast (with his few other friends as the other outcasts at school that no one else likes). It almost seems like they are destined to be the bad guys. Many of their parents are Lord Voldemort's henchmen. Malfoy's father is now a prisoner at Azkaban. And, whenever Dumbledore makes one of those moralizing speeches, he always seems to give their table a withering look. Malfoy is also suddenly being forced into doing something that (a) he thinks his role in life has now destined for him to do, and (b) in his heart, he suddenly finds he really doesn't want to do - and that scares him. Tom Felton is suddenly old enough to show all of this in his face. When this series is over, I wouldn't be surprised to see Felton find himself as one of the actors from the series that still has somewhere to go.

Helena Bonham Carter - ok, we all knew she was perfect casting for the role as soon as she walked on the screen. But in this film, she chews up every scene she’s in. Giggling and laughing her way through, is it just me, or is she really enjoying this part? I can’t think of anyone besides Tim Burton’s Shakespearean trained wife who could quite make Bellatrix into the same fun-loving evil b**** that she has now become in the films.

Jim Broadbent - again, great casting. Broadbent invests a gentle and vulnerable Professor Slughorn with a … sort of … tortured joviality. He’s kind and selfish at the same time. His ego allows him to “collect” students with a painfully awkward favoritism, while his conscience punishes him for the mistakes he’s made in his past - all with that bright and crooked smile. Broadbent nailed the role of Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Now he’s nailed the role of Professor Slughorn in The Half-Blood Prince.

Daniel Radcliffe - I’m not sure if it was my dislike for Harry’s character that made me dislike Radcliffe, or if my dislike for Radcliffe made me dislike Harry even more. I always thought, even as the main character of the series, that he was the most one-dimensional actor cast in the films - only capable of registering one of three facial expressions - blank stare, complete surprise, or self-satisfied smirk. He did start showing signs of more acting ability in The Order of Phoenix (fighting off Voldemort’s control with the help of Snape and Dumbledore). But, in the Half-Blood Prince, it looks like Radcliffe is finally growing up and stretching out his acting ability, which should only be natural with the older talent he’s surrounded with (Michael Gambon in particular). If Felton’s got the inner turmoil thing down, this is the first film where I’ve found Radcliffe’s inner turmoil act at all believable. He does actually seem to care about his friends this time (and looks to be just barely suppressing his amusement whenever around the interaction between Ron and Hermione). An important emotional scene towards the end with Harry and Dumbledore is made all the more believable thanks to Radcliffe. Let’s hope he keeps this up.

Is this probably the darkest Harry Potter film made yet? Absolutely (And it’s rated PG, which for the life of me I can’t figure out why - wouldn’t let my kids watch it until they reached a particular age - maybe this one just didn’t have enough violence to make PG-13 … but that’s bull.) It manages to be the darkest, and yet perhaps even one of the most humorous films in the series. Different critics have commented on all the romantic relationship elements to the story now - mostly so that they could provide themselves with clever sounding names for their movie reviews. “There was so much boyfriend/girlfriend interaction in this story I’m calling this ‘Harry Potter and the Opera of Soap’ - did you see what I did there? Look how funny I am!” Romance is not the theme of this film, but it is more prevalent - and so what? The characters in the story are getting old enough for romance, and no good story, even a blasting action movie, is really complete without it.

A number of movie critics kept complaining how awkward Harry’s new found love-interest with Ron’s little sister was on the screen - But I didn’t find it so (except when it was supposed to be, and then it was meant to be funny). I personally found this new Harry & Ginny element to the film to be another reason to like Harry. He’s found the right girl. She’s the angel that he needed - not in the sense that she’s perfect, but in the sense that suddenly, Harry has another reason to fight the evil that is within himself. His past crushes didn't give that to him. She does. And Ginny formally begins their romance by encouraging Harry to resist a temptation to give in to a part of himself that most of the rest of his friends wouldn’t blame him for. And she actively does this, but I’m not sure if it’s a spoiler, so I won’t say how. Every guy should find a girl like that - giving him a reason to build up the better parts of his own character like mercy, kindness and the utter refusal to become the same as his enemies.

Bonnie Wright - does precisely what she's supposed to with the small role she's been given. She's needed as a presence. As Harry has slowly been growing up, maturing, and starting to lead his fellow students, who's always been in the background? Ginny. When the Weasley family is attacked by an old enemy and Harry storms out of the house in a irrational & suicidal rage, who's the first person after him? Ginny. And when Harry is devastated by his own temptation to do evil and his ability to really hurt his enemies, who is the first person to tell him that he has no choice but to resist? Ginny. Wright makes her believable, and that's all we ask.

Rupert Grint - speaking of the Weasleys, Grint is also giving us more character development for Ron than we've been given before. Harry's best friend is growing up to become a man too, and so his self-confidence has grown and we get to see it strengthen during the film. Ron is now the school football star (I mean quidditch star or whatever they call it), and he now has a girlfriend (not Hermione) who is unwittingly helping him figure out what he really does want in a girl. But Grint, who has been solid as Ron in the films so far, now invests Ron’s character with equal mixtures of fun and comic relief. Every scene with Grint is now a reason to smile. Emma Watson has been one of the best child actors from the beginning of the series, and now that Grint’s acting talent is strengthening, their interaction together is becoming more meaningful.

By the way, the Quidditch Games are finally back, and as a sports fan, I can appreciate how this wizard version of sports could at least be far more enjoyable than watching, oh say, golf or soccer. If there is one thing the Harry Potter films emphasize when showing clips of Quidditch, it's that this is a VERY violent sport. Blocking, hitting and tackling are all important aspects to the game (which is a good thing) - and this sort of thing becomes a little more rough when you are speeding around at 60 mph. The way this game was looking in The Half-Blood Prince, I could probably have been easily convinced to watch a half-hour or more long clip of the game itself instead of the actual storyline in the movie. (Note: add more sports footage next film, Mr. Yates.) Maybe someday in the future, we can figure out how to really play this game when we're all riding jetpacks or something. (And no, I do not mean anyone should try and running around holding brooms between their legs to pretend your in Harry Potter's world. Stop that. It's dangerous. Bad things can happen to you doing something like that. Go back to your mom's basement and get on with inventing those jetpacks.)

Alan Rickman - Whether Rowling even intended it or not, the role of Professor Snape was made for Alan Rickman. As perfect as some of the casting in the films has been, there has not been a single more dead-on portrayal of a character in Harry Potter than Rickman’s performance as Professor Snape. He’s been stealing every scene he’s been in starting from the very first movie, and not only does this not end with The Half-Blood Prince, it gets better. Anyone who’s read the books knows how important Snape is to this part of the series (an understatement), and for the first time, the story gives Rickman something more to do than just pure comedic sarcasm. On one side or the other (or both), Snape suddenly finds himself having to do things that he doesn’t want to do. And with Rickman, it shows, but only just barely like it ought to. There’s not a film critic out there who can resist giving Rickman credit. For being the most cool, collected, logical, unemotional, and sarcasm filled character in the story, Rickman invests more emotion and feeling into his voice while uttering two little words “Avada Kedavra” than I even imagined while reading the book. Alan Rickman is why we love films based on the good books - rarely are we really given more than we were even able to imagine by ourselves.

I want to discuss further exactly what it is that Snape is doing in this story, but I wanted to keep this review spoiler free. If you've read all the books, you already know. If you've managed to avoid the books and movies so far, and there are a number of you still out there, Alan Rickman is one of the best of many fine reasons that it's acceptable for you to look at what all the fuss is about. This is no longer a series just for little children (it decided to ditch that classification by the 3rd book and film). This was made for your enjoyment, no matter what your age happens to be.

Michael Gambon - gets the final and best recommendation for his acting in the Half-Blood Prince as Professor Dumbledore. I’m not with all the movie critics who are currently blathering about how much better Gambon is as Dumbledore than Richard Harris. Harris rocked at every part he ever played. He was a perfect Dumbledore, and I’m not one to claim that he couldn’t have done what Gambon has now done with the role. But Michael Gambon has also grown into playing the perfect Dumbledore as well. This is what good acting does - the actors make you forget who they are and think only of the character they’ve become.

Dumbledore’s character and his fatherly mentoring relationship with Harry are at their most prominent in this part of the series. While in the past, Dumbledore has often kept himself and his plans secret from Harry, in The Half-Blood Prince, this has finally changed. Dumbledore has made Harry into his right-hand man, and admittedly asks him to do some terribly hard things. THE theme of this film (and it was the theme of the book) is trust in Dumbledore. How much do you trust him and how much can Harry and his friends trust him? That is the ultimate and important question. Gambon makes Dumbledore into the wise, and apparently trustworthy, mentor that Harry is going to desperately need. But Dumbledore isn’t perfect, and he needs Harry as well. The comparisons everyone is making are justified (Merlin to Arthur, Gandalf to Frodo, Obi-Wan to Luke).

Gambon shows us Dumbledore at his best and at his worst. He is both the most powerful good existing wizard who seems to be almost single-handedly holding evil at bay, and he is also inherently vulnerable. The very fact that he is around gives everyone the hope they need against the impossible odds they are facing. He is their rock. He reminds me, as Merlin and Gandalf did, sort of how Old Testament prophets must have been in their day to the people in the nation of Israel. Wise and kind, powerful and vulnerable, seemingly indestructible and yet still searching for answers - Gambon fills his performance with all this and more. He makes you feel safe, and you wish you could know him.

Monday, June 13, 2011

JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO - FILM REVIEW (1990 - Directed by John Patrick Shanley)

(Film review originally written on December 18, 2008)

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
- Psalm 19:1-4, RSV

There are only a few rare films in the world that intentionally explore the human desire for joy with the depth of a film like Joe Versus The Volcano . Call it whatever you want - quirky, whimsical, corny, trivial - but this is a special little story that asks questions and inquires into values inherent in exactly what Christianity teaches about life. I'm not a fan of most romantic comedies, but there's something different about this one. Think of it this way - if G.K. Chesterton had to write a script for a film, this could be something like what he would write. It's hard to describe, but every once in a while there's a story that's about what it means to wake up to living and enjoying the life that you've so mysteriously been given - Joe Versus the Volcano is this kind of tale.

Just look at the dialogue - who writes dialogue like this for Hollywood anymore?

Joe: I couldn't have imagined any of this. (he looks at the stars) Are you used to this?

Patricia: What?

Joe: The ocean, the stars.

Patricia: You never get used to it. Why do you think I want this boat? All I want to do is sail away.

Joe: Where would you go?

Patricia: Away from the things of man ...

Joe: Do you believe in God?

Patricia: I believe in myself.

Joe: What's that mean?

Patricia: I have confidence in myself.

Joe: I've done a lot of soul searching lately. I've been asking myself some tough questions. You know what I've found out?

Patricia: What?

Joe: I have no interest in myself. I think about myself, I get bored out of my mind.

Patricia: What does interest you?

Joe: I don't know ... Courage ... Courage interests me.

Patricia: And you're going to spend the rest of your life on a tiny island in the South Pacific?

Joe: Well, up till now I've lived on a tiny island called Staten Island, and I've commuted to a job in a shut up room with pumped in air, no sunshine, despicable people, and now that I've got some distance from that situation, that seems pretty unbelievable. Your life seems unbelievable to me. All this like life, seems unbelievable to me. Somewhat. At this moment.

Patricia: My father says almost the whole world's asleep. Everybody you know, everybody you see, everybody you talk to. He says only a few people are awake. And they live in a state of constant total amazement.


Call it a Chestertonian fairy tale. A man named Joe has a lousy job, he feels sick all the time, and his doctor tells him he has a medical condition that is going to kill him in six months. A mysterious friend of the doctor discovers this, and hires Joe to go to a tiny tropical island to kill himself by jumping inside a volcano. Apparently, doing so will appease the local tribe's god and save the island. Along the way Joe meets a girl and it turns out that she is the one hired to take him out to the island on a yacht.

It doesn't sound very serious, does it?  But that is the art of creating a story that is both light-hearted and intensely interested in the big questions at the same time.  Roger Ebert admitted to being enraptured by this movie -

"Gradually through during the opening scenes of 'Joe Versus the Volcano,' my heart began to quicken, until finally I realized a wondrous thing: I had not seen this movie before. Most movies, I have seen before. Most movies, you have seen before. Most movies are constructed out of bits and pieces of other movies, like little engines built from cinematic Erector sets. But not 'Joe Versus the Volcano.' It is not an entirely successful movie, but it is new and fresh and not shy of taking chances. And the dialogue in it is actually worth listening to, because it is written with wit and romance ... The characters in this movie speak as if they would like to say things that had not been said before, in words that had never been used in quite the same way."
- - Joe Versus The Volcano

The main character, like anyone else who is aware of either themselves or the outside world, is looking for something. He knows that there is something about his life that isn't right. In fact, it is noticeably missing. And, he feels sick inside because of it. When he tries to tell his boss, his boss just brushes it aside -

"So what! Do you think I feel good? Nobody feels good. After childhood, it's a fact of life. I feel rotten. So what? I don't let it bother me. I don't let it interfere with my job!"

That is precisely the philosophy of possibly the majority of people on the planet. Life is rotten. Life sucks. Life isn't fair. The only thing to do is to accept that reality and work hard at your job until you die. The song lyrics in the music at the beginning of the film confirm this - "You load sixteen tons, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt. Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go. I owe my soul to the company store." (from Sixteen Tons) - "I gets weary, and sick of tryin', I'm tired of livin' but scared of dyin'" (from Ol' Man River). Isn't that how it seems for everyone? There are truths in this story about how you are living right now. So Joe is a character we identify with.

It may be overly simple for the storyteller to confront Joe with his own death sentence.  How many other films have used this same trope to try to appeal to the sentimentality of the viewer?  But this is part of what makes this a special film.  What would be clichés in another film seem innocent in this one.  The makers of this film are not just trying to appeal to our sentimentality, they are genuinely delighted with the story they are telling us.

So, with nothing left to live for, Joe decides to take up the offer of the mysterious stranger and sets out on an adventure. He accepts that he only has six months left to his life and then, as a result, starts waking up to the world around him. I still can't get over how cliched this sounds written down.  But really, most Hollywood films about smelling the roses leave me cold.  This one is different.  For all intents and purposes, Joe has lived his life alone but now he starts meeting people as if for the very first time. The idea here is that we are capable of forgetting even the most elementary of social skills.  Do we realize what it means to meet a human being that we don't know anything about?  Could such a meeting be an adventure, the prelude to something life-changing, the beginning of a newly discovered life-long love?  For the first time in his life, Joe looks into their eyes and treats them as if they actually have souls. By the way, listen for talk about people's souls during the film. They reference and question the subject more than once.

My favorite scene in the whole film is when Joe is stranded on his makeshift raft (of luggage) in the middle of the ocean. This scene surprises you. Things don't look good. He's running out of water and is going die of thirst because he's giving everything to care for the unconscious girl that he's rescued. He waits it out for days and you'll enjoy how he amuses himself. Then, one night, he sees the moon rise. It's something as simple as that. The moon rises in the night sky.

With tears in his eyes, Joe offers a prayer to God. And here's what surprised me. He's doesn't ask God to send something or someone to rescue them. He doesn't ask for help. He doesn't ask for anything. He offers, instead, a prayer of thankfulness - it's all he can bring himself to do - "Dear God, whose name I do not know, thank you for my life. I forgot how big ... Thank you for my life." The beauty of creation astonishes him and points him to the Creator. All he can do in return is offer thanks.

This doesn't end his search, and there are a number of other things he and the girl, Patricia, decide to try by faith. But suddenly they find that they have a belief that there is something or someone out there that is worth believing in. Why? Simply because they exist and simply because of the miracle that is Creation around them. Life itself becomes a joy, even though there is still something wrong and something missing. Awakening to the most powerful inner desire that we have - a desire for something more meaningful than the world of men has to offer us - this is not a subject that Hollywood movies usually explore. How did they even get away with this sort of thing? Aren't they just supposed to put in laugh gags instead?

It is quite often that, in reading the very articulate C.S. Lewis, you will read him repeatedly attempting to describe something that he finds very difficult to put into words. He tried to describe it as a “stab of joy." Lewis also used the term “sehnsucht" a German word that could only be defined in English as a haunting longing or desire for joy.

BEAUTY (2009) - by Roger Scruton (book review)

The Old-Fashioned Outdated Unfashionable Classical Viewpoint

Art: the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance

- Webster's Dictionary of the English Language, 2001, Random House, Inc.

Art: skilled human creativity that reflects God's truth or God's beauty

- Jeff Baldwin, Research Director for Worldview Academy, former Humanities Chair for Providence Classical School

"All art is subjective. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." We've heard it all before. And the proposition that art is subjective is the majority viewpoint. You ask almost anyone and they will tell you. You ask one of a majority of art professors in any given university, and he or she will tell you that art is just self-expression of an artist that can be interpreted however the viewer desires. Everyone has their own opinion and their own tastes. Who's to say whose personal tastes are better or superior to another's?

And now, here comes along philosopher Roger Scruton to argue the minority viewpoint. In his book, Beauty , he makes the reasoned argument that there must be objective standards for art and beauty. Art is not subjective, according to Scruton, because we have objective principles with which to measure it by. One of these is beauty. But beauty, and its appreciation, is something we are losing our sense for in modern day culture.

Roger Scruton is always enjoyable and provocative to read. He's a philosopher and prodigious writer. His bibliography to date consists of over 40 books, among which include
I Drink Therefore I Am: A Philosopher's Guide to Wine ,
Understanding Music ,
An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy ,
Sexual Desire ,
On Hunting ,
and The Aesthetics of Architecture .
Every single book of his that I've read has been engaging and full of a large number of unusual conversation starters (which often, as Scruton will tell you, go quite well with a glass of good wine).

So how does one begin the argument that art is not subjective but objective? Scruton begins his argument by asking a few questions -

pg. ix -
"If there are people who are indifferent to beauty, then it is surely because they do not perceive it. Yet judgements of beauty concern matters of taste, and maybe taste has no rational foundation. If so, how do we explain the exalted place of beauty in our lives, and why should we lament the fact - if fact it is - that beauty is vanishing from our world? ... Moreover, since it is the nature of tastes to differ, how can a standard erected by one person's taste be used to cast judgement on another's? How, for example, can we pretend that one type of music is superior or inferior to another when comparative judgements merely reflect the taste of the one who makes them?"

Well, if all art is subjective, then so is beauty. If beauty is subjective, then there is no reason for beauty to have any exalted place in our lives. To say that beauty is disappearing from our modern culture would be laughable then. Time spent listening to the dialogue of cartoon characters in a video game is not less or more valuable than time spent listening to dialogue written by Shakespeare. Thus, no standard can be set up to ever say one person's tastes of better than another person's tastes. We can never say one type of music is inferior to another type. We can never say that a painting, by an artist who has spent 50 years studying and perfecting his skill as a painter, is any better than the painting of a 5-year-old. These are the logical conclusions of claiming that art is subjective.

So doesn't everyone get to decide what they think is and isn't beautiful. The Grand Canyon? Nah. I can personally decide that I think a shopping mall is more appealing to the eye. The seascapes of J.M.W. Turner? Nah. I can decide that I prefer the motion-capture films of Robert Zemeckis. I decide what I want to look at because I get to do whatever is most pleasing for me, myself and I. Scruton doesn't buy this narcissistic view of our mass-consumer culture. Instead, he argues -

pg. 2 -
"There is an appealing idea about beauty which goes back to Plato and Plotinus, and which became incorporated by various routes into Christian theological thinking. According to this idea beauty is an ultimate value - something that we pursue for its own sake, and for the pursuit of which no further reason need be given. Beauty should therefore be compared to truth and goodness, one member of a trio of ultimate values which justifiy our rational inclinations. Why believe p? Because it is true. Why want x? Because it is good. Why look at y? Because it is beautiful."

Again, remember, this is the minority view today. But, it has historical backing by a large number of heavyweight thinkers. Basically, the idea is that there are things that are really and truly beautiful, whether I, with my own limited experience and desires, recognize it as beautiful or not. Beauty is something you discover and learn about, not something you get to define for your own little purposes. Beauty is something outside yourself that can affect and change you once you're exposed to it. Experiencing something beautiful causes you to think about things in ways you never have before. Truth, goodness and beauty are all objective values to be pursued and desired. I think I also prefer this minority view. But even if I prefer it to the more narcissistic one, before I read this book, I still needed to be convinced. Luckily, convincing you over to his side is the very purpose of the book. Scruton continues -

pgs. 5-6 -
"It would help to define our subject, therefore, if we were to begin a list of comparable platitudes about beauty, against which our theories might be tested. Here are six of them:
(i) Beauty pleases us.
(ii) One thing can be more beautiful than another.
(iii) Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.

(iv) Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgement: the judgement of taste.
(v) The judgement of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject's state of mind. In describing an object as beautiful, I am describing it, not me.
(vi) Nevertheless, there are no second-hand judgements of beauty. There is no way that you can argue me into a judgement that I have not made for myself, nor can I become an expert in beauty, simply by studying what others have said about beautiful objects, and without experiencing and judging for myself."

So, first of all, ask yourself if you see anything here you disagree with. (i)'s alright. He has more explaining to do with (ii). (iii) seems self-evident. Looks like we're starting to get somewhere with (iv). Taste is a judgment that we make or a preference that we impose. In other words, beauty is a quality about which we make judgments. There can obviously be different kinds of beauty, so that would be where personal tastes and judgments come in. (v) seems pretty important to Scruton's argument. Objectively, beauty is an inherent characteristic of an outside person, place or thing. It is not my own little state of mind. (vi) looks like it can be used to temper this sort of thing going to extremes. You can never know that something or someone is beautiful without seeing and experiencing it yourself. Simply reading about it, without experiencing it, makes it only a figment of your imagination.

pg. 32 -
"When I describe something as beautiful I am describing it, not my feelings towards it - I am making a claim, and that seems to imply that others, if they see things aright, would agree with me. Moreover, the description of something as beautiful has the character of a judgement, a verdict, and one for which I can reasonably be asked for a justification. I may not be able to give any cogent reasons for my judgement; but if I cannot, that is a fact about me, not about the judgement."

I want to say something here for a bit about being a snob. A snob is generally defined as "a person who believes himself or herself an expert or connoisseur in a given field and is condescending toward or disdainful of those who hold other opinions or have different tastes regarding this field" . Scruton is not trying to be condescending here, and you are allowed to follow his line of reasoning without disdainfully looking down your nose at the tastes of others. The fine arts or the "high life" is not something only for the genteel upper classes. It is, as Scruton is arguing, a pursuit to be engaged in by anyone.

This argument is one that can only be made if you hold to the idea that there are certain universal truths out there that apply to everyone in the history of the planet. There are certain universals that apply to every man, woman and child. Beauty is one of these. A beautiful work of art that captures some universal truth or feeling that can move the hearts of anyone - that is something to be highly valued. And you don't have to be a snobbish art critic to value it, most snobbish art critics would tell you all art is subjective anyway. I actually think Scruton is taking the more accessible view. Under the idea that there are objective and universal standards in art, and its ability to reveal beauty to us, this means anyone at all who pursues it will grow as a human being. Yes, we all have our own personal tastes, but -

pgs. 58-59 -
"Kant followed Shaftesbury in supposing that taste is common to all human beings, a faculty rooted in the very capacity for reasoning that distinguishes us from the rest of nature. All rational beings, he relieved, have the capacity to make aesthetic judgements; and in a life properly lived taste is a central component. However, many people seem to live in an aesthetic vacuum, filling their days with utilitarian calculations, and with no sense that they are missing out on the higher life."

Remember, the "higher life" can include the process of the improving of your taste, and anyone can improve their personal tastes.

pg. 63 -
"If we cannot justify the very concept of the aesthetic, except as ideology, then aesthetic judgement is without philosophical foundation. An 'ideology' is adopted for its social or political utility, rather than its truth. And to show that some concept - holiness, justice, beauty, or whatever - is ideological, is to undermine its claim to objectivity. It is to suggest that there is no such thing as holiness, justice or beauty, but only the belief in it - a belief that arises under certain social and economic relations and plays a part in cementing them, but which will vanish as conditions change."

Here, Scruton is arguing against what is known as the Marxist art history. The Marxist tradition (Clement Greenberg, Meyer Schapiro, Arnold Hauser, T.J. Clark) taught that art is directly tied and created by social classes in society. To the Marxist, art is simply a tool in the hands of the elite to make their own economic status seem natural. In other words, the fine arts were ideologically motivated to support the bourgeois power over the proletariat. Historical and cultural conditions thus determine what is beautiful, and art is completely subjective - a tool in the hands of the powerful to lord it over the masses, yadda, yadda, yadda. To the Marxist, even the word "aesthetic" has power struggle undertones, because it denotes a standard created by those in power.

pg. 64 -
"It is true that the word 'aesthetic' came into its present use in the eighteenth century; but its purpose was to denote a human universal. The questions I have been discussing in this book were discussed in other terms by Plato and Aristotle, by the Sanskrit writer Bharata two centuries later, by Confucius in the Analects and by a long tradition of Christian thinkers from Augustine and Boethius, through Aquinas to the present day. The distinctions between means and ends, between instrumental and contemplative attitudes, and between use and meaning are all indispensable to practical reasoning, and associated with no particular social order. And although the vision of nature as an object of contemplation may have achieved special prominence in eighteenth-century Europe, it is by no means unique to that place and time, as we know from Chinese tapestry, Japanese woodcuts, and the poems of the Confucians and of Basho."

Historical periods, different cultures, different places on the globe ... all these things are transcended by a great work of art. Scruton points out that the beauty of God's creation has spoken to and inspired countless people over the ages. After all, the apostle Paul does write in Romans 1 that "what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made." So the word aesthetic can refer to an objective standard for beauty. This standard is valuable because beauty is something that man can destroy.

pg. 76 -
"Planning law in Europe has always been sensitive to the threat that buildings pose to natural beauty, and has tried, with limited success, to control the style, size and materials of buildings in the countryside, in order to safeguard our shared aesthetic inheritance."

Beautiful things have value. Objective value. And they can be made less beautiful by man.

Beauty is an objective thing to be experienced that points us in a particular direction. It points towards intent. It points toward design. And it points towards a purpose.

pg. 78 -
"The experience of beauty in art is intimately connected with the sense of artistic intention. And even the experience of natural beauty points in the direction of a 'purposiveness without purpose.' The awareness of purpose, whether in the object or in ourselves, everywhere conditions the judgement of beauty, and when we turn this judgement on the natural world it is hardly surprising if it raises, for us, the root question of theology, namely, what purpose does this beauty serve? And if we say that it serves no purpose but itself, then whose purpose is that? Once again we recognize that the beautiful and the sacred are adjacent in our experience, and that our feelings for the one are constantly spilling over into the territory claimed by the other."

Our culture strongly rejects this point of view.

But isn't it the most logical? To say that someone or something is beautiful is to describe an inherent quality possessed by that person or thing. We aren't talking about appetites here. Satisfying an appetite is not the same as appreciating something that is beautiful. You don't have to consume or devour beauty. It exists, objectively, in and of itself ... almost as if for its own sake. If beauty is objective and describing something as beautiful is making a value judgment, then your own personal taste needs to move in a certain direction. I want my tastes to get better. And, with time and effort, I know they can.

Art therefore has value because of what it can do for and to us. To say something is art is to imply skill, and, to imply at least some level of creative reflection of a universal good. To say everything is or anything can be "art" is to destroy any meaning the word possesses in the English dictionary.

pg. 98 -
"If anything can count as art, what is the point or the merit in achieving that label? All that is left is the curious but unfounded fact that some people look at some things, others look at others. As for the suggestion that there is an enterprise of criticism, which searches for objective value and lasting monuments to the human spirit, this is dismissed out of hand ... The argument is eagerly embraced, because it seems to emancipate people from the burden of culture, telling them that all those venerable masterpieces can be ignored with impunity, that TV soaps are 'as good as' Shakespeare and Radiohead the equal of Brahms, since nothing is better than anything and all claims to aesthetic value are void. The argument therefore chimes with the fashionable forms of cultural relativism, and defines the point from which university courses in aesthetics tend to begin - and as often as not the point at which they end."

Essentially, Scruton is arguing that the modern view renders the very idea of aesthetic value completely meaningless. I have a hard time trying to think of any way in which to disagree with him. How does rendering all art completely subjective and all about the state of mind of your own little self ... how does that have any value at all? It has none. It gives us zero motivation to make any effort to cultivate our taste or appreciation for anything in particular. And it sounds dreadfully dull.

pg. 99 -
"Good taste is as important in aesthetics as it is in humour, and indeed taste is what it is all about. If university courses do not start from that premise, students will finish their studies of art and culture just as ignorant as when they began. When it comes to art, aesthetic judgement concerns what you ought and ought not to like, and (I shall argue) the 'ought' here, even if it is not exactly a moral imperative, has a moral weight."

The state of affairs of the modern world ignores this moral weight.

pg. 100 -
"... people no longer see works of art as objects of judgement or as expressions of the moral life: increasingly many teachers of the humanities agree with their incoming students, that there is no distinction between good and bad taste, but only between your taste and mine."

Scruton doesn't stop here, but next focuses in on what our modern culture does actually care about - entertainment. Growing up in the culture we currently live in, we have all been taught that we need to be entertained. Entertainment is the pursuit of the average American living even at the lowest of subsistence wage levels. But what does this pursuit do to our appreciation of that which is beautiful?

pg. 101 -
"In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse. The distinction was taken up by Croce's disciple, the English philosopher R.G. Collingwood, who argued as follows. In confronting a true work of art it is not my own reactions that interest me, but the meaning and content of the work. I am being presented with experience, uniquely embodied in this particular sensory form. When seeking entertainment, however, I am not interested in the cause but the effect. Whatever has the right effect on me, and there is no question of judgement - aesthetic or otherwise."

Scruton then fine-tunes this idea to make it a little less extreme -

"The point urged by Croce and Collingwood is exaggerated - why cannot I be interested in a work of art for its meaning, and also be entertained by it? ... Nevertheless they were right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of subject-matter and the mere cultivation of effect ...

pg. 102 -
"Since cinema and its offshoots are most at fault among the arts, in pursuing effect at the cost of meaning, it is fitting to give an example of cinematic art from which that fault is absent. There have been few directors as conscious as Ingmar Bergman, of the temptation posed by the camera, and the need to resist it. You could frame a still from a Bergman film - the dream sequences in 'Wild Strawberries,' the Dance of Death in 'The Seventh Seal,' the dinner party in 'The Hour of the Wolf' - and it would sit on your wall like an engraving, resonant, engaging and composed. It was precisely in order to minimize distraction, to ensure that everything on the screen - light, shade, form and allusion, as much as person and character - is making its own contribution to the drama, that Bergman chose to make 'Wild Strawberries' in black and white ..."

Scruton likes the film, Wild Strawberries because it is clearly a work of art designed to make the viewer think about the meaning of the story. It is beautiful to look at and yet, it is not designed to create effects (or to satisfy appetites) in the viewer. Its beauty is simply part of what gives the film its meaning in the first place. To help explain the difference between the two, Scruton distinguishes between the terms fantasy and imagination.


pg. 105 -
"Modern society abounds in fantasy objects, since the realistic image, in photograph, cinema and TV screen, offers surrogate fulfillment to our forbidden desires, thereby permitting them. A fantasy desire seeks neither a literary description, not a delicate painting of its object, but a simulacrum - an image from which all veils of hesitation have been torn away. It eschews style and convention, since these impede the building of the surrogate, and subject it to judgement. The ideal fantasy is perfectly realized, and perfectly unreal - an imaginary object that leaves nothing to the imagination. Advertisements trade in such objects, and they float in the background of modern life, tempting us constantly to realize our dreams, rather than pursue realities."

In other words, our consumerist culture encourages a life of fantasy. Not fairy tale fantasy, but of fake, virtual, vicarious, and immediate satisfaction of the appetites. Things, of value in and of themselves, cease to have any value at all other than their fitness for immediate consumption. We'll develop this idea a little further in a bit.


pg. 105 -
"Imagined scenes, by contrast, are not realized but represented; they come to us soaked in thought, and in no sense are they surrogates, standing in place of the unobtainable. On the contrary, they are deliberately placed at a distance, in a world of their own."

Art and beauty appeals to your imagination. Your imagination allows you to consider persons, places and things as possessing inherent value all their own. Pausing to reflect and learn from something that is virtuous or beautiful can affect who you are, what motivates your decisions, and how you cultivate your personal tastes. If I imagine something, I take the time to reflect upon it and this can affect how I act later. If I fantasize about something, I'm using the fantasy to accomplish a goal to satisfy something in myself, instead of pursuing the real thing outside my own self. Scruton explains -

pg. 127 -
"Some insight is provided by the connection made by Schiller, in his ‘Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man,’ between art and play. Art, he suggests, takes us out of our everyday practical concerns, by providing us with objects, characters, scenes and actions with which we can play, and which we can enjoy for what they are, rather than what they do for us."

pg. 128 -
"... this ludic attitude is fulfilled by beauty, and by the kind of orderliness which retains our interest and prompts us to search for deeper significance of the sensory world. Hence, as soon as we are engaged in generating and appreciating objects as ends in themselves, rather than as means to our desires and purposes, we demand that those objects be ordered and meaningful. This ‘blessed rage for order’ is present in the very first impulse of artistic creation: and the impetus to impose order and meaning on human life, through the experience of something delightful, is the underlying motive of art in all its forms."

Simply satisfying the physical appetites does not provide us with any meaning for our lives. Animals do the same. But since we are rational creatures, there is no reason why pleasure and intellect cannot join together. Finding meaning in that which is pleasurable to us opens doors that can only be opened by a thinking person. Meaning is what gives the pleasures in our life all the more power. This is a theme throughout Scruton's argument -

pg. 110 -
"We want to say that works of art are meaningful - they are not just interesting forms in which we take an unexplained delight. They are acts of communication, which present us with a meaning; and this meaning must be understood."

pg. 117 -
"Art moves us because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful in part because it means something. I can be meaningful without being beautiful; but to be beautiful is must be meaningful."

pgs. 110-111 -
"Some works have changed the way we see the world - Goethe’s ‘Faust,’ for example. Beethoven’s late quartets, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet,’ Vergil’s ‘Aeneid,’ Michelangelo’s ‘Moses,’ the Psalms of David and the Book of Job. For people who don’t know those works of art the world is a different - and maybe a less interesting - place."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

OF GODS AND MEN - FILM REVIEW (2010 - Directed by Xavier Beauvois)

"I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of the extremists. For me, Algeria and Islam are something different: they are a body and a soul ... This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills - immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with Him his children of Islam just as he sees them ..."
- Dom Christian de Chergé

Let us turn to the Man of Sorrows,
Who beckons us from the cross,
Because He is with us as on Easter morn.
Let us not forget the blood He shed.
Let us break the bread.
Let us drink from the chalice of passage.
Let us greet the One who sacrificed Himself.
By loving us until the end,
Through Him, with Him and in Him,
You shall receive, Almighty Father,
In the unity of the Holy Spirit,
All glory and honor,
Forever and ever.

- Trappist Hymn excerpt

So how do I convince you to make the effort to see something that, at a first superficial glance, seems really boring? Of Gods and Men is a slow and thoughtfully paced film. Of course, if that's not your thing, at the moment it looks like you could just go see, oh say, The Hangover 2 , Bridesmaids , Fast Five , Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Priest, Rio, Prom, or Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family . A whole glut of summer movies are also about to release for your viewing pleasure along the lines of Bad Teacher , Transformers 3 , Zookeeper , Friends with Benefits , The Smurfs , Final Destination 5 , and Conan the Barbarian . Sounds like fun?

After reading up a bit, looks like Of Gods and Men has actually been praised by a majority of critics. But does that mean many people are going to go see it? Nope. It contains long slow tracking shots of the landscape, sunrises and sunsets, and countrysides of Algeria. It contains lengthy, softly sung Gregorian chants and hymns voiced in worshipful tones by a small collection of Trappist monks. It's directed by the actor who played the father in Ponette . And it contains, mostly, conversations and sermons about theology - a dry topic in the eyes of modern day culture if there ever was one. Of course, there's also a collection of film reviewers who are echoing the sentiments of the majority of the population. Daniel Eagan, from Film Journal International, complains that the "monastery is depicted with documentary precision" (he doesn't mean that to be a complement) and then asks:

"Are the monks paying for the sins of the colonials? Beauvois won't say, but by depicting most of the Algerians as menacing thugs or corrupt killers, he absolves the monks, and by extension the French population, of any complicity in the story's events."

Colonialism and imperialism? The French colonized Algeria around 1830. The story in Of Gods and Men is set in 1995. Yeah, that's relevant to the story, Mr. Eagan. But come to think of it, there really isn't any reason to care about this story if the main characters are all just religious imperialists who are imposing their culture on an Islamic land. One assumes Mr. Eagan just needed an excuse to explain his boredom with the film - so it was their fault for being in Algeria in the first place. Given that the film does not portray most of the Algerians as killers and thugs, let's be kind to Mr. Eagan and just assume he only sat through the first 15 minutes or so before walking out of the movie theater.

Tony Medley writes -

"The movie is so long and so without pace that it seems as if we see each and every chant they made throughout those 3 years, unexpurgated. Not only that, but the lyrics of the songs and chants are shown in subtitles. These songs go on for several minutes each. That pretty much tells you that this is a story that could have been told in 15 minutes but director Xavier Beauvois must have had a lot of film that he had to get rid of, so he stretched it out with the scenes of the monks singing. Either that or he thought he was filming a musical and intends to use this as an application to direct a remake of Singin’ in the Rain.

When filming seven monks singing religious songs didn’t get rid of all the film, he inserted thoughts of each of the monks thinking. What were they thinking about? There were Islamic terrorists who had slain a bunch of Croats in the area and because they thought the monks were in danger the army encouraged them to leave. That doesn’t sound like a particularly difficult decision, but they ponder it throughout the entire film, at least when they weren’t singing, and in the end they make the totally illogical decision to stay."

Mr. Medley couldn't be bothered with paying attention to the actual lyrics and poetry embedded in the monks' songs. The content of these songs is directly relevant to why these characters make the choices that they make. Neither could he care in the least how this little historical group of missionaries were providing aide and comfort for a poor third-world village in need of medical care and education. The monks' decision to stay working in this community is actually thoughtfully and carefully reasoned out during the film, but Mr. Medley was too busy being annoyed to notice.

The complaints continue. Joe Williams, in the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, looks down his nose at the film and opines that "... a conscientious critic can't just genuflect to the lofty ideals that the characters represent without noticing that the film they inhabit is flat." Sam Adams, from the AV Club, sneers that "[t]he film mistakes volume for weight, assuming that if a scene goes on long enough, viewers will get the sense it’s important ... the film has a scant feeling for spirituality, which mainly surfaces in the monks’ fatalist hymns." Mr. Williams is left cold by a film about men who decide their work and ministry is more important than their lives. They've dedicated themselves to living out their lives for God, and therefore in service to others in need. Mr. Adams describes their songs as fatalistic. Why? Because they reason their way from their praising God to their risking their lives for the service of others.

The shadows, for You are not shadows
For You, night is as clear as day ...

We do not see your face
Infinite Love,
but you do have eyes
for you weep through the oppressed
and look upon us
with a shining gaze
that reveals your forgiveness

- Trappist Hymn excerpt

Again, obviously the nobility in the story of this film is not for everyone.

Mr. Kirk Honeycutt grumbles in The Hollywood Reporter -

"The problem is that a whiff of saintliness envelops the Cistercian monks right from the start. The doctor (Michael Lonsdale) ministers to the sick from a nearby village while their wise leader (Lambert Wilson) guides them in prayers and songs. Occasionally, he strolls in the picturesque countryside, as the songs by a male choir fill the soundtrack. Presumably, he's pondering the monks' safety. Then again, who knows what he's thinking?

Obviously, not Mr. Honeycutt. God forbid any historical character in a film be given even a whiff of saintliness. Mr. Honeycutt instead much prefers films like Hop, The Company Men, or Love and other Drugs . Those films have a different whiff of something altogether ... and they aren't full of boring old prayers and songs that reflect upon the meaning of life, and upon the nature of God and man.

You think the main characters in the film had it rough. That's nothing compared to the travails of the bored out of his mind film reviewer, like oh say, Christopher Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd resents the time that he was paid to spend on the film in order to write a review for the Sarasota-Herald Tribune -

"...the sad, harsh truth is that two hours spent inside a Trappist monastery turns out to be achingly dull. Watching this film, we feel like fidgety children at Mass, kicking the pews and sending our mind out to wander in a failing attempt to make time pass faster."

Squirming and fidgeting in his seat like an eight-year-old forced to sit through Mass - that sums up Mr. Lloyd's experience with Of Gods and Men . A brief perusal of his recent film reviews will demonstrate that Mr. Lloyd instead enjoys himself giving higher ratings to the likes of The Hangover 2 , Bridesmaids , Paul , Arthur , and once again, Love and Other Drugs . And such is our modern day culture. Most Americans will not see Of Gods and Men . Many who do see it will only see the first 10 minutes or so before giving up on it. This is reflective of the times we live in. It says something about who we are.

So why should I spend the first half of this thing going over negative reviews of the film? Because I believe the inability to watch and think about something like this is important to notice. Of Gods and Men forces the viewer to ask oneself a couple hard questions. These are ideas and questions no one wants to think about anymore. What is your life for ? Is there anything that exists out there that is worth dying for? If so, have you found it? Just because something is worth dying for, does that mean that you would want to die? If you can avoid hardship, pain, and suffering by not living or dying for something greater than yourself, is it worth it? Is it ever your own decision to become a martyr? Is dying for something that results from trying to obey God even fair or just? It sure doesn't seem like it, does it? Are vows and commitments worth keeping, even at the very highest price? Why? The list of questions we could talk about together after watching this film are almost endless.

Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth will proclaim your praise ...
Save us, Lord, while we are awake,
guard us while we are asleep;
that, awake, we may watch with Christ,
and, asleep, may rest in His peace.

- Trappist Hymn excerpt

Of Gods and Men is a film about men wrestling and agonizing over these sorts of questions. It's a film about how two completely different cultures can still be transcended by certain universal truths about God and man. It's a film that demonstrates how human beings can love each other. And it's a film that shows a group of characters suddenly confronted with danger and hardship. Why not retreat in order to fight the good fight another day? Why not leave in order to serve other people in a different place? That is the more logical thing to do, according to some people who've seen the film.

One of the largest questions that those who do watch this film will ask each other is whether the decision facing the monks consisted of one of martyrdom or suicide. If you know you will likely be killed in a place, and you deliberately make the decision to go to or stay in that place - are you committing suicide? Can that decision be Godly? How can you make a decision that will likely kill you and still desire to live? These are topics upon which, if you listen closely, the main characters start teaching each other. Is suffering a virtue? No. Does weakness and suffering have any value? Maybe, but ought we to strive or look for weakness or suffering? No. At least, not in the opinions of these guys in this story.