Saturday, December 24, 2011
"People in the building like us. Half of them think things will never work out. The other half believe in magic. It's like a war between them."
We all have a number of preconceived notions. Some of them, well, we’re emotionally attached to them. Even the most rational and logical among us have presuppositions that we’ve always assumed to be true. We have beliefs, and we often consider our beliefs as part of who we are as persons. My beliefs are part of what make me who I am. They shape my hopes and dreams. They influence my choices. They motivate my actions. They powerfully affect how I feel. They even determine how I treat other people.
Not many of us are into questioning everything. But some of us are. One likes to say how one has no good reason for being emotionally attached to anything that you’ve been taught - how one is willing to change one’s mind and give up beliefs you’ve always just blindly accepted as long as someone else can convince you logically how they are false. But that doesn’t mean that your beliefs still don’t shape who you are as a person ... and how you act.
You can always reason things out in your head. If you are a good reasoner, you can even work out a few difficult problems that way. But thinking things through in your head is nothing compared to real life experience with other people. Other living and breathing human beings out there are affected by the way you act. Some of them are more vulnerable than others. Some of them are strong. Some of them are weak. Some of them are more loveable than others. Some of them are repelling. All of them have value and exist for a good reason. In other words, what you believe - just inside your own head - affects your attitude and actions. These, in turn, affect other people. So therefore, the beliefs you have in your head affect other people.
Some of your beliefs can hurt other people.
Some of your beliefs can help them.
Beginners is a film about a man whose preconceived notions about his own life are shell-shocked. Ewan McGregor plays this man and his name is Oliver. Honestly, I don’t think McGregor has been given this kind of role before. He’s mostly been in action movies and thrillers where the demand for acting ability has never been that demanding. But we’ve got to hand it to him, he impressively does more acting in this film just standing in one spot than I think he’s done in his other more popular films put together. The effort he puts into showing us how much his character is wrestling with his own conflicting thoughts pays off.
"What? You’re not allowed to interact with the art?"
- Oliver’s mother
This short plot summary (of really only the first five minutes of the film) is enough to keep a large number of people away from it. They are already calling it an example of gay rights propaganda. Never mind that the story is based on the director's own life experience with his own father. Never mind that the film seriously explores questions far deeper than mere political alignment on the issues. And never mind that Beginners is, in fact, an all around well-constructed and powerful film.
"My parents got married in 1955. He was a museum director. She fixed up old houses. They had a child, and they stayed married for 44 years ... until she died in their bed, after four months of cancer and eating French toast for every meal and watching the Teletubbies everyday and confusing white straws for her cigarettes and skipping back and forth through time inside her head ... Six months later, my father told me he was gay. He had just turned 75."
Gay rights, as a political issue, is supposed to be one of the main dividing battle lines in what is absurdly called the "culture war" in our country. Republican Presidential candidate, Michele Bachmann, has already declared that gay marriage is the most important political issue facing our nation today. The fact that a majority of younger Americans support gay rights was actually supposed to be a big story this year. And the more politicized our "culture" is supposed to be, the more gay rights as a political issue is a cause for offense, anger, accusations, severed family relationships, dropped friendships, bigotry, prejudice and pain.
Thus, the film Beginners will cause offense for many conservatives who will choose to avoid or disparage it simply because of the subject matter. I doubt any of us are that interested in reading very much bias so I'll attempt to deal with this quickly and then move on. Unfortunately, you couldn't ask for a more stereotypical example of nonthinking prejudice than looking for what is called a "Christian" review of this film. In spite of the fact that there is currently talk of Beginners getting "best picture" nominations this year, most Christian movie review sites have simply ignored it altogether. While Beginners was first released in the United States in April to June of 2010, so far it appears that the major Christian conservative film reviewers have essentially pretended it doesn't exist, including Focus on the Family's PluggedIn, Christianity Today, Christian Spotlight on Entertainment, ChristianCinema.com, CatholicMovieReviews.org, and The Christian Broadcasting Network.
"I’m Andy, Hal’s boyfriend ... You know I have the right to be here as much as anyone else."
Crosswalk.com seems to be one of the only ones who managed to mention it with a brief lukewarm summary. On the other hand, a popular and widely-read reviewer, Ted Baehr of MovieGuide, can be relied upon to supply just the exact stereotypical response that will be widely considered representative of the Christian point of view. He
"BEGINNERS is truly a horrible movie with a very strong Anti-Christian, politically correct worldview. Were it merely a depressing film about a father dying of cancer or a man who, scarred from childhood, is unable to handle long-term relationships, BEGINNERS perhaps would have been bearable. Were it even a film discussing marriage, art, love, or social issues, it might have been at least viewable. However, the movie only sporadically uses dark humor to offset its jumble of mid-life crisis, death, cancer, loss of identity, loss of love, and utterly Anti-Christian beliefs. In fact, this is a joy-sucking project that, while originally meant to be thought-evoking and inspiring by its Writer/Director Mike Mills (the film is based off his life), merely serves to drown out feelings of certainty, happiness or morality ... BEGINNERS is filled with abhorrent, immoral values and a politically correct, anti-Christian agenda. Thus, the movie’s few funny and touching emotional moments are vastly overshadowed by an overwhelming sense of depression. Media-wise viewers wanting more uplifting content can skip BEGINNERS."
Now, to be fair, we can't be completely sure that Baehr actually managed to see the whole thing. He could have, after all, just sort of watched it, along with exuberant use of the fast-forward button.
"They eventually have sexual relations (during which she weirdly bites his arm) and thus the relationship begins. Filled with books of pornography entitled 'The Joy of Sex' and misquoted verses from The Velveteen Rabbit, their relationship is a unique one – living out of her hotel room and seeking fulfillment from each other. Anna even tells Oliver at one point, 'You’ve lost so much. How can I make up for that?' To which he simply replies with an expletive."
I personally find it amazing that the subject matter, politically controversial as it's supposed to be in our society, should so blind people like Baehr to what this film really has to offer. He is incapable of taking anything positive from the film because the nature of the relationships in it disgusts him. And this is illustrative of our problem. Why should the private lives of other people matter to you? The answer is simple. Because you've been taught that you should care about what other people do in their own private lives. You believe that it matters.
"Your personality was created by this guy John Russell, a hunting enthusiast in the 1800s. And he bred your ancestors to have stamina and courage for the hunt. You think you’re just you, and you want to chase the foxes, but other people planted that in you years ago."
- Oliver, talking to his dog, Arthur
This is wrong, unfair and unjust.
This should have absolutely nothing to do with being politically liberal or conservative. And, even more fundamentally, if you hold to Christianity being true, then you should not be part of those who are personally offended by the sexual orientation of other people. Nor should the fact that you believe them to be sinners affect how you treat them in any way.
"My mother didn’t know she was Jewish until she was 13. It was 1938 ... Her father tried to hide that they were Jewish. This is the swim team that asked her to leave once they discovered that she was Jewish ... My father realized he was gay when he was 13. It was 1938 ... My father laid down on a couch like this and told the psychiatrist all his problems in 1955. The doctor told him that homosexuality was a mental illness, but it could be cured ... Not everyone got cured."
Gentlemen's Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird, Giant, or The Crimson Kimono were. Like them, it's a film that deals with systematic discrimination as a integral part of the story both intelligently and provocatively. As the story progresses, Oliver has to reconcile how his father lived for over four decades hiding and repressing what he felt and who he was. Throughout his childhood, Oliver sensed that something was wrong between his mother and father. Thus, you get dialogue like the following -
Hal: Did you know, about me?
Oliver: No, I just thought you and mom weren’t in love.
Hal: We loved each other.
Oliver: But you were gay that whole time.
Hal: I learned how not to be.
Oliver: For 44 years?
Hal: I knew I was gay, though, at dinner parties I was looking at the husbands not the wives. I couldn’t have survived if I didn’t know that. I just chose not to follow those instincts.
Oliver: What about sex? You guys had sex?
Hal: She didn’t think I was the greatest lover, but we made do. Look, I liked my life, the museum, our house, that’s what I wanted.
Oliver: And mom? You wanted mom too right?
Hal: Yes, stop that ... She proposed to me you know. I said - look, I love you and we’re great buddies but you know what I am. And then she says, that doesn’t matter. I’ll fix that. I thought ‘Oh God ... I’ll try anything.’
"I don’t know, Anna. I don’t think this is what I am supposed to feel like."
I don't know if everyone who sees Beginners will get this idea - but this film is intentionally exploring the idea of morality applied to your feelings. The idea is that we have desires that are right and desires that are wrong. We have feelings that are good and feelings that are evil. Doesn't this seem a bit strange? And yet, because of his upbringing, this is what Oliver now believes - he believes that there is a way that he ought to feel in a relationship.
Hal: Well, let’s say, when you were little, you always dreamed of some day getting a lion. And you wait and you wait and you wait and you wait and the lion doesn’t come. Then along comes a giraffe. You can be alone or you can be with the giraffe.
Oliver: I’d wait for the lion.
Hal: That’s why I worry about you.
Oliver doesn't want to settle like he believes his parents did. He is dysfunctional about his own relationships because he is holding them up to a higher standard. He doesn't control how he feels, but whatever it is that he believes he ought to feel is destroying every relationship he tries to commit to.
In our modern culture, we are regularly told how we ought to feel, as if we could determine this through our own acts of will. But it gets worse than that. There is a theological point of view that turns these questions upside down. There are Christian teachers and churches who will even teach that moral responsibility does not imply choice. You can be morally culpable for what you have not chosen because you were condemned to your sinful state by predetermined powers. In other words, you can never choose to act contrary to your own desires, even if your desires are evil.
"My personality was created by someone else and all I got was this stupid T-shirt."
- Oliver's graphic design theme
Sinners in The Hands of an Angry God) wrote a treatise disagreeing with Christian philosopher John Locke on the ability of man to will contrary to his own desires. In the treatise entitled 'A Careful and Strict Inquiry into the Modern Prevailing Notions of that Freedom of Will which is supposed to be essential to Moral Agency,' Edwards writes -
"So in every act of refusal, the mind chooses the absence of the thing refused; the positive and the negative are set before the mind for its choice, and it chooses the negative; and the mind's making its choice in that case is properly the act of the Will: the Will's determining between the two, is a voluntary determination; but that is the same thing as making a choice. So that by whatever names we call the act of the Will, choosing, refusing, approving, disapproving, liking, disliking, embracing, rejecting, determining, directing, commanding, forbidding, inclining, or being averse, being pleased or displeased with; all may be reduced to this of choosing. For the soul to act voluntarily, is evermore to act electively. Mr. Locke (1) says, " The Will signifies nothing but a power or ability to prefer or choose." And, in the foregoing page, he says, "The word preferring seems best to express the act of volition;" but adds, that "it does it not precisely; for, though a man would prefer flying to walking, yet who can say he ever wills it?" But the instance he mentions, does not prove that there is any thing else in willing, but merely preferring: for it should be considered what is the immediate object of the will, with respect to a man's walking, or any other external action; which is not being removed from one place to another; on the earth or through the air; these are remoter objects of preference; but such or such an immediate exertion of himself ...
Friday, December 23, 2011
"When all is said and done, there have never been better detective stories than the old series of Sherlock Holmes; and though the name of that magnificent magician has been spread over the whole world, and is perhaps the one great popular legend made in the modern world, I do not think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has ever been thanked enough for them. As one of the many millions, I offer my own mite of homage."
- G.K. Chesterton, Principles of the Detective Story, August 19, 1922
"Dr Watson doesn’t write to you, he talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy, across a glowing fire. His voice has no barriers or affectations. It is clear, energetic and decent, the voice of a tweedy, no-nonsense colonial Britisher at ease with himself. He is one of the greatest storytellers the world has ever listened to."
- John le Carré, Introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, November 17, 2004
Bartitsu (The Final Problem). And, given the dangerous world he walks in, he makes use of them in Doyle's stories on a regular basis. But really, the action is not really the point of Richie's Sherlockian films. It's the characters that make the film so enjoyable, and it's the mystery-solving deductional powers of Holmes that make his character into the larger-than-life hero that we've all grown to love. The second film in the franchise, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is superior to the first one. And it is better precisely because it gives Holmes a more personal challenge to solve and a more formidable opponent to face. I'd even argue that A Game of Shadows is perhaps also more traditional than the vast majority of other Holmes films in existence. Look at how much of Conan Doyle's original dialogue actually makes it into the film. There is more dialogue from the books in A Game of Shadows, probably, than in any other Holmes film adaptation other than Jeremy Brett's brilliant TV series.
If you still have doubts about Ritchie's latest film, just remember, it's not just a big dumb action movie when you can cram all the explosions of a 128 minute long film in just under 30 seconds ...
Holmes and Watson feel like they are my old friends. I will never get tired of returning to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing over and over again. As many times as I've read them, on a consistent basis I still find myself re-entering the rooms of 221 B Baker Street, stuffed as they are from floor to ceiling with books, newspapers, newspaper clippings, the bearskin hearthrug, the violin, pipe tobacco, cigars, chemistry sets, weaponry, bullet holes in the wall, legal codes, scientific treatises, an American Encyclopedia, forensic tools, medical references, elaborate disguises, velvet lined arm chairs, a pipe rack, a Persian slipper, scientific charts, maps, and a typewriter.
"Holmes, are you in there? ... Your hedge needs trimming."
- John Watson
As Moriarty, Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) speaks with his father's same powerful menacing whisper. He's an excellent actor and is surprisingly suddenly in competition as one of the best Professor Moriarty's in the history of film. That, along with Robert Downey Jr.'s acting, allows Ritchie's imagination to turn Holmes and Moriarty's lethal conflict throughout the film into a duel of a kind you will have never seen before. Based on Conan Doyle's short story, A Final Problem , this film elaborates on the journey to Switzerland. And yet, everything matters. Holmes is putting things together in every main scene of the film that is all intended to fall into place at just the right moment. The conflict between Holmes and Moriarty is an intellectual one, violence is just one tool to use when it is most useful.
And, speaking of violence, all those scenes where you've seen Holmes analytically think through every single trigger-pull, kick, stab and punch of a fight that Ritchie's stylized take on violence allows us to follow? Just remember what makes the ending into the chess match that it is ... Moriarty is Holmes' intellectual equal, so that means ...
"The laws of celestial mechanics dictate that when two objects collide there is always damage of a collateral nature ... Now, are you sure you want to play this game?"
- Professor James Moriarty
If you've seen the first film, then you will remember the exertion it takes for Downey Jr.'s Holmes to simply just sit still in a restaurant, much less to act empathetically with the special girl that his friend wants to marry. In fact, I'd have to suggest that, even though the second is better to the first, seeing the first film is almost a requirement for understanding the second.
Sim: "What do you see?"
Holmes: "Everything ... That is my curse."
Sim: "But, you don't see what you're looking for."
The Economist that Holmes' energy is part of what make the mysteries worth following. "Holmes never stands up if he can spring to his feet. He also grasps, thrusts, jerks and tosses." Downey Jr. gets this. He's always moving and when he's still, his eyes are moving (while his brain is moving even faster). In fact, he won over a number of Conan Doyle fans in a few of his interviews for the first film. For example, in the Wall Street Journal, Downey Jr. was asked -
"To prepare for the role, as well as that important relationship with Watson, did you watch previous portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, in movies, on television?
I watched some of the old movies, but to tell you the truth, the more you watch the old stuff, the more you realize how not traditional it is — it's not like the stories at all. Part of the tableau in which Holmes is always thought of is him, in profile, with a deerstalker hat and with a curved pipe in his mouth. Nothing about that has anything to do with Doyle's description — in one description, Doyle says he is wearing a hat, but it's more of a moleskin cap. The oversized pipe came from something that theater actor [and playwright] William Gillette used in his portrayal — and now it's always used on stage.
I really wanted to portray Holmes as Doyle wrote him. When I played Chaplin I flew all over the planet looking for clues, but the definitive Western expert on Holmes [Leslie S. Klinger] lives 20 minutes up the road in Malibu. So I went and hung out with him, I read through his book, a definitive annotated Sherlock Holmes, which was probably the modern data center for us.
Did you read a lot of Doyle’s stories?
I read them all.
Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you signed onto the movie, or did you pack in all that reading afterwards?
I honestly knew nothing about the character — just that he's a detective and that he's a weirdo. But there are all kinds of misconceptions about him. Many have said that he's a huge drug fiend, but it's clear reading the stories — he's not. It's just that none of those behaviors were considered strange or illegal at that time, so he partakes in drugs, but he doesn't abuse anything. He just overindulges in them when he's bored and when he's not bored he puts them down.
Look at "Hill Street Blues" or "CSI" — there have been so many legacies that respond to Holmes's character. He can be a little cocksure and full of himself, but Holmes is also like that freaky roommate everybody has once in their life, that guy who is a math genius but could never pay his part of the rent. And at the same time, he has this dedication to doing the right thing to the exclusion of doing all other things. He sacrifices everything so he can become better at what he does. As a character actor, I found that trait endlessly compelling."
Understanding that this is Downey Jr.'s take on Holmes allows you to appreciate many of the little things he does for the character (and his attachment to/jealousy over Watson has to do with the fact that their friendship is one of the only human indulgements that he's allowed himself). Downey Jr.'s Holmes is therefore a little more vulnerable than most other film versions of the great detective. In fact, he's not just vulnerable, he's a mess - a mess out of which he has created the superpower of his analytical mind. Not many other films have explained the personal cost of Holmes' creation of his powers, but these films do.
#1 - Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. have turned Sherlock Holmes into an action hero.
(According to Matt Brunson, Peter Rainer, Peter Travers, Richard Roeper, Jim Judy, Mike Scott, Rick Groen, Peter Sobcynski, and etc.)
Answer: While this is the most popular criticism of the film, they've got it wrong. Conan Doyle is the one who made Holmes into a thinking man's action hero. The action is just fine as long as they combine it with intellect. Besides, I've never had a problem with Holmes applying his intellect to ridiculously elaborate and precisely timed action set pieces ever since seeing the manic depressive Basil of Baker Street as a child -
This criticism is fun-killing. Downey Jr.'s Holmes does exactly, in the train sequence, what Basil does here. It's quite fun, so don't let the whining about the action scenes stop you from seeing the film.
#2 - The film doesn’t follow the books.
(According to Jules Brenner, Ethan Alter, Mark Dujsik, Todd McCarthy and etc.)
The Final Problem does not "follow the books" either. It is not a traditional Holmes & Watson story and Doyle never intended for it to be. It's not set in London or at rooms of 221 B, instead it's on the international stage (thus, the inevitable and relentless comparisons to James Bond). A Game of Shadows follows the story of The Final Problem , therefore, criticizing it for not following the books is silly. While expanding on the journey Holmes and Watson take overseas, Guy Ritchie uses it to show the more vulnerable side of Holmes (something that, if you remember those little flashes of actual human emotion that would occasionally appear in Doyle's stories, like The Adventure of the Three Garridebs , DOES follow the books). If you are going to base a film on a short story, then you are going to have to elaborate. The important thing is getting the spirit of the story right, and Downey Jr. and Law get it right.
#3 - The film critics had no sense of humor and were thus frowning with deep disapproval every time Holmes or Watson would crack a joke.
(Dennis Schwartz, Matthew Razak, Kyle Smith, Mick LaSalle, Claudia Puig, Shaun Munro)
Sunday, December 4, 2011
“Let not the sound of shallow foppery enter my sober house.”
C.S. Lewis wrote the following -
“An Illyrian Duke spoke, in an air which had just ceased vibrating to the sound of music, words that seemed to come out of the very heart of some golden world of dreamlike passion: but all this was spoiled because the meddlers had told me it was the portrait of a self-deceiving or unrealistic man and given me the impression that it was my business to diagnose ... instead of submitting to the charm. Shakespeare offered me a King who could not even sentence a man to banishment without saying:
‘The sly slow hours shall not determinate The dateless limit of thy dear exile.' (Richard II, I, iii, 50)
“Left to myself I would simply have drunk it in and been thankful. That is just how beautiful, willful, passionate, unfortunate kings killed long ago ought to talk. But then again the critic was at my elbow instilling the pestilential notion that I ought to prize such words chiefly as illustrations of what he called Richard's weakness, and (worse still) inviting me to admire the vulgar, bustling efficiency of Bolingbroke. I am probably being very unjust to the critics in this account. I am not even sure who they were. But somehow or other this was the sort of idea they gave me. I believe they have given it to thousands. As far as I am concerned it meant that Shakespeare became to me for many years a closed book. Read him in that way I could not; and it was some time before I had the courage to read him in any other. Only much later, reinforced with a wider knowledge of literature, and able now to rate at its true value the humble little outfit of prudential maxims which really underlay much of the talk about Shakespeare's characters, did I return and read him with enjoyment ...
“A good example of the kind of play which can be twisted out of recognition by character criticism is the Merchant of Venice. Nothing is easier than to disengage and condemn the mercenary element in Bassanio's original suit to Portia, to point out that Jessica was a bad daughter, and by dwelling on Shylock's wrongs to turn him into a tragic figure. The hero thus becomes a scamp, the heroine's love for him a disaster, the villain a hero, the last act an irrelevance, and the casket story a monstrosity. What is not explained is why anyone should enjoy such a depressing and confused piece of work. It seems to me that what we actually enjoy is something quite different. The real play is not so much about men as about metals. The horror of usury lay in the fact that it treated metal in a way contrary to nature. If you have cattle they will breed. To make money - the mere medium of exchange - breed as if it were alive is a sort of black magic. The speech about Laban and Jacob is put into Shylock's mouth to show that he cannot grasp this distinction and the Christians point out that friendship does not take ‘A breed for barren metal'. The important thing about Bassanio is that he can say, ‘Only my blood speaks to you in my veins ' and again, ‘all the wealth I had Ran in my veins '.
“... The whole contrast is between the crimson and organic wealth in his veins, the medium of nobility and fecundity, and the cold, mineral wealth in Shylock's counting-house. The charge that he is a mercenary wooer is a product of prosaic analysis. The play is much nearer the Märchen level than that. When the hero marries the princess we are not expected to ask whether her wealth, her beauty, or her rank was the determining factor. They are all blended together in the simple man's conception of Princess. Of course great ladies are beautiful: of course they are rich. Bassanio compares Portia to the Golden Fleece. That strikes the proper note. And when once we approach the play with our senses and imaginations it becomes obvious that the presence of the casket story is no accident. For it also is a story about metals, and the rejection of the commercial metals by Bassanio is kind of counter-point to the conquest of Shylock's metallic power by the lady of the beautiful mountain. The very terms in which they are rejected proclaim it. Silver is the 'pale and common drudge ‘Tween man and man '. Gold is ‘Hard food for Midas ' - Midas who, like Shylock, tried to use as the fuel of life what is in its own nature dead. And the last act, so far from being an irrelevant coda, is almost the thing for which the play exists ... If I err, I err in childishness, not in sophistication."
- C.S. Lewis, Selected Literary Essays, pgs. 94-97
Often have you heard that told.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Fare you well ... but your suit is cold."
- Portia's Father
Michael Radford's 2004 film version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is perhaps not quite as exuberant or showy as other Shakespeare films. But it isn't all comedy. Indeed, along with All's Well That End's Well, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida, and The Winter's Tale, The Merchant of Venice is often classified by critics as one of Shakespeare's “tragic comedies" or “problem plays." In other words, it encompasses elements both of tragedy and comedy - elements that any good drama or romance ought to contain. However, this is the Shakespeare play that gets much analysis, discussion and controversy from the critics based on modern interpretation.
“Gratiano speaks an infinite deal of nothing, more than any man in all of Venice."
This is the play that leads critics to wonder if William Shakespeare was anti-Semitic. It's the play that theater and film producers wonder if they should change or edit in order to make it more palatable for the modern audience. Much discussion is had over which characters in the play are anti-Semites, over whether Antonio is really good or bad, and over whether Shylock is really the villain or a sympathetic and tragic hero.
If you want to analyze the play by deciding which characters are anti-Semites (or whether Shakespeare himself was) you are entirely missing out on something of far more value. There is a charm and beauty to this play that, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, you will lose by overanalysis (whether you are politicizing it for ideological reasons or psychologically evaluating each character). This sort of thinking also annoyed G.K. Chesterton extremely, who wrote -
“The play called The Merchant of Venice happens to be about usury, and its story is a medieval satire on usury. It is the fashion to say that it is a clumsy and grotesque story; but as a fact it is an exceedingly good story. It is a perfect and pointed story for its purpose, which is to convey the moral of the story. And the moral is that the logic of usury is in its nature at war with life. In other words, if a creditor can always claim a man’s tools or a man’s home, he might quite as justly claim one of his arms or legs. This principle was not only embodied in medieval satires but in very sound medieval laws, which set a limit on the usurer who was trying to take away a man’s livelihood, as the usurer in the play is trying to take away a man’s life. And if anybody thinks that usury can never be got to lengths wicked enough to be worthy of so wild an image, then that person either knows nothing about it or knows too much.
- G.K. Chesterton, The New Jerusalem (1920), pgs. 278-280
Think over some of Shakespeare's other villains. Did their race, class or religion really ever matter? Don John from Much Ado About Nothing was Spanish, but so was his good brother, Don Pedro. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are Scottish. Claudius (like most of the characters in Hamlet) is Danish. Joan of Arc is obviously French. Iago (like most of the characters in Othello) is Italian. Tamora from Titus Andronicus is a Goth (but almost every character in that play is bad). Aaron is a Moor, but so is the sympathetic tragic hero of Othello. Edmund from King Lear and Richard III are both English. In fact, I think all the rest of Shakespeare's bad guys are English. So why should Shakespeare be antisemitic just because the money lender/usurer bad guy in The Merchant of Venice is Jewish (an obvious stereotype of the time period)?
Distracted by all the racial and political analysis of the play and film, critics can forget that The Merchant of Venice is actually an enchanting, nuanced and complex story. Different meaningful themes run through the play and Radford picks up on all of them. There's the problem of things and people not being what or who they first appear to be. In other words, appearances are deceiving. (Each girl main character, typical to Shakespeare, at one point or other dresses up as a male to fool other characters.) The appearances and messages in the three chests are not what they first seem to be. Antonio and Shylock both don't always follow the religions they at first seem to hold to. The hopefully profitable act of borrowing money on credit is not what it first appears to be. This is a story filled with trickery and deception. The young people interested in love have to carefully navigate this world in order to win success. The older people interested in wealth have to manipulate and work through risks and dangers in order to be successful.
"So may the outward shows be least themselves.
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
but being seasoned with a gracious voice
obscures the show of evil?
In religion, what damned error
but some sober brow will bless it
and approve it with a text,
hiding the grossness with fair ... ornament?
Look on beauty and you shall see
'tis purchased by the weight."
Radford's film adaptation is so good because he understands the crisscrossing themes of the story. The Merchant of Venice is a reflection on the nature of man, the requirements of real love, and the difference between justice and mercy, law and grace. Radford, early on, chooses to show how the Jews are being treated unjustly. They are not being treated in this society as they deserve. He even explains in the opening credits, essentially, that Shylock is a moneylender because Venetian discrimination has left him with no other choice. In the opening scene, a Jewish Shylock (forced to wear a red hat like a badge of identification) looks for sympathy or mercy from Antonio while other Christians are assaulting other Jews. The Christian Antonio has one response - he spits in disgust in Shylock's face and turns his back to him.
"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million,
laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains,
cooled my friends, heated mine enemies, and what's his reason? I am a Jew!
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands?
Organs, dimensions? Senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food? Hurt with the same weapons?
Subject to the same diseases? Healed by the same means?
Warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.
If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be
by Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me I will execute.
And it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
This is what makes Shylock a more interesting Shakespearean villain than most. His insistence on something that is evil is in rebellion to the evil with which he has been treated and enslaved. He is simply turning the tables on the society that has mistreated him for so long. There is a very logical method to his madness. Al Pacino plays him straight and passionately without any need to overact or be in any way flamboyant, and by doing that, Pacino even makes the character a little likeable. You identify with his rage against injustice. And in this rage against injustice, he insists on what the unjust society he lives in calls justice. And by doing that, he becomes unjust himself. He uses the law created by his oppressors against his oppressors. In this sense, Antonio is a symbol of everything Shylock has suffered against his whole life.
Like Chesterton, Harold Bloom also wrote (in Shakespeare - The Invention of the Human) that there was something different about Shakespeare's Shylock - "There is an extraordinary energy in Shylock's prose and poetry, a force both cognitive and passional, which palpably is in excess of the play's comic requirements." (pg. 171.) "... if only Shylock's voice and presence would stop reverberating, which they never have and never will, four centuries after Shakespeare composed, and in the centuries to come ... Shakespeare, we can assume, was Shakespeare's greatest critic, and he would have been aware that Shylock, comic or not, was a grander achievement than Antonio could be." (pgs. 178-179.) "... no previous figure in the plays has anything like Shylock's strength, complexity, and vital potential." (pg. 182.)
With this in mind, Jeremy Irons' melancholy suddenly makes more sense. While Shylock is oppressed by the law of Venice, Antonio accepts the same law and follows it almost blindly. He takes no pleasure in his role, and he accepts the risks of his profession passively and almost fatalistically.
"I hold the world but
as the world, Gratiano -
a stage where every man
must play his part, and mine a sad one."
When he binds himself to the pound-of-flesh-pact-with-the-devil, he practically considers it a joke. And when the consequences of borrowing on more credit than his diminishing resources can support look to turn lethal, he still passively accepts the system in which he lives.
"The duke cannot deny the course of law.
For the commodity that strangers have
with us in Venice, if it be denied,
will much impeach the justice of the state."
In purposeful contrast, the lovers of the play are also dealing in vows, promises and risks. But they are taking these risks and making these values in pursuit of one another. The danger in the story is that their vows and promises actually mean something. In the society in which we live today, people are living above their means with huge, overcharged lines of credit and debt because the promises our society makes about borrowing money have ceased to be meaningful. We currently have a government working under the philosophy that you can pay back your debts by taking out more debts. The consequences of this slavery to debt are just beginning to hit us.
In the same sense, in the society in which we live today, romance, dating and marriage relationships are no longer taken as seriously. Vows you make at a wedding can be terminated at any time. There is no risk in taking a marriage vow, or in promising to be faithful to a romantic partner, if modern society doesn't expect you to be able to follow them anyhow. We currently have culture of countless failed and failing relationships. The consequences of this low view of marriage and romance are still just beginning to hit us.
Anthony Esolen explains -
"‘Greater love than this hath no man’, says Jesus, prophesying his death, ‘than to lay down his life for his friends.’ In The Merchant of Venice, the merchant Antonio, apparently bankrupt, is willing to die for his friend Bassanio yet wins no credit from the modern audience. Why so? I concede that, after our recent miserable century, the most tolerant Jewish reader might not stomach [what happens at the end.] Yet Shakespeare knew little about Jewish piety, perhaps as little as the typical secular theatergoer today. There were, basically, no Jews in his England. But there were loan sharks; wherever there are cities and idle young men, you are going to find that predator prowling about, seeking whom to devour. And there were Puritans. If the Jew reminded Shakespeare’s audience of anyone they might meet as they stumbled home after the show, it was the sober, circumspect, thrifty, self-righteous Puritan.
"That too is liable to be misunderstood by the modern audience ... The Puritans of old often mistook innocent merriment for lust. We have advanced beyond that. We no longer know ‘innocent merriment.’ All is lust, and lust is good. A glance at our mass entertainment will show that we have combined the vices of the precise, scheming, bet-hedging prig with the dissipation of the debauched. We do not know what is wrong with Shylock, because what is wrong with Shylock is wrong with us; nor do we know what is right with all the adventurous lovers in the play ..." (pg. 183.)
Esolen is arguing that our understanding of this play is hindered by our modern cultural values. He continues -
'I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much asham’d of my exchange.
But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit,
For if they could, Cupid himself would blush
To see me thus transformed to a boy.'
"... Both hazard and forgiveness - hazard of body and soul, forgiveness of debts and follies and sin - are essential to the comic vision of this play. It is not simply that we are frail but that our strength lies in openness to the wound. He who would gain his life must lose it ... ‘Who chooseth me’, says the message on the leaden casket, ‘ must give and hazard all he hath’."
The romance of the characters in Shakespeare's play is not the romance most of us are encouraged to experience in modern society. In fact, there is an argument to be made that Elizabethan romance is dead. Dating and relationships are crafted today in the attempt to avoid the natural risks inherent in older romantic relationships.
Saturday, December 3, 2011
“Wizards, mermaids, travelers, adventurers ... come and dream with me.”
- Papa Georges
Part One - Go Ahead
The very first thing about this film that I'm obliged to demand of you is to ignore, ignore, ignore all the advertisements and trailers for it. Erase them from your mind. There are some terribly incompetent forces in advertising out there, and every once in a while, they get their hands on a good work and market it out of all recognition. Combine that with the fact that all film advertising is, understandably, supposed to try and cater to that which is popular (and during the holidays it is assumed we like the tawdry Robert Zemeckis styled garishness we've supported at the box office in the past). The end result is that a lovingly crafted, genuinely moving film (like this one) will be advertised as the cheap, cliche-ridden, kitschy irritating eyewash that often does so well at the box office.
(1) A particularly stupid cartoon mutilation of Romeo and Juliet (Gnomeo and Juliet), which is not, by the way, how you introduce your children to Shakespeare. (2) The story of the emotional travails of an overworked larynx belonging to a screeching prepubescent child (Justin Bieber: Never Say Never). (3) A reptilian cartoon western (narrated by an annoying mariachi band of owls by the way) with dialogue written by a 10-year-old (Rango). (4) The tale of a creepy walking corpse (motion-captured) kid who has to rescue his dead-eyed soulless mom from some fairly normal looking cartoon aliens (Mars Needs Moms). (5) Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 - the title says it all. (6) A travesty about (a) an extremely irritating jelly-bean pooping bunny, and (b) a loser whose life dream is to learn how to hop and be a bunny too (Hop). (7) A sequel which replaces the clever humor of the original with fart jokes and gags about getting hit in the crotch (Hoodwinked Too!). (8) An
"Everything has a purpose, even machines. Maybe that’s why broken machines make me so sad: They can’t do what they’re meant to do. Maybe it’s the same with people ... I'd imagine the whole world was a machine. Machines don’t come with extra parts, you know."
Hugo is essentially a film about the power of the imagination. My saying this might sound nice, but good luck getting far with a phrase like that. The “power of the imagination” could be an easy cliche, but while it’s easy to like, in a few minutes let’s take what the idea means a little farther. Scorsese takes us here into an eye-catching train station in a cold and snowy Paris. The film’s protagonist, Hugo, is a parentless child who lives inside the walls of the train station, caring for, fixing and winding the station's large collection of clocks. Thus we are taken into a world of secret passages, tunnels, small twisting hallways, hidden rooms, winding staircases, little windows, mazes of drain pipes, steam pipes, fog, mist and snow. This is why watching the film in 3D is worth it - once Hugo climbs into the gears, shafts, swinging pendulums, wheels, parts, hanging ladders and intricate clockwork, it’s enough alone to keep you spellbound.
Another part of the magic of this story consists entirely with the well-built characters. Rarely does a film develop its entire cast of characters to something other than cardboard cutout stereotypes, but Hugo makes every character important. Asa Butterfield (Son of Rambow, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas) plays Hugo, and it’s his best role to date - he gives the character a passionate energy that other child actors struggle even to hint at. With Scorsese’s penchant for using the same actors through a whole series of films, you can’t help but look forward to what he could find for Butterfield next. And I'm not the most sympathetic of film goers when it comes to child characters. I have a bad habit of finding them annoying enough to wreck a film. But Butterfield's intensity makes his philosophic lines later in the film entirely believable. He makes you end up wanting to believe what he believes.
Isabelle: “How about letting me see your covert lair.”
Hugo: “My what?”
Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat, Sweeney Todd) is the station inspector, who, if not the villain of the story, is still the foil for Hugo's self-surviving thieving ways. Cohen brings his comedic talents for delivering most of Inspector Gustav's lines ("His hand was trespassing in a paper bag with the intent of removing its contents" ... "Are they, are they ... are they smelly? Are they smelly flowers?" ..."He is disturbed by your physio-cology.
Jude Law has a cameo appearance as Hugo's clockmaker father. Helen McCrory (Harry Potter) has a small but well nuanced and sweet turn as the toymaker's wife. Ray Winstone (The Departed, King Arthur) is Hugo's cigar-smoking, drunk uncle. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) relishes an enthusiastic turn as a historian. The rest of the cast makes up the colorful and enjoyable characters that inhabit the train station.
Emily Mortimer (Shutter Island, Dear Frankie) is the flower stand girl. Richard Griffiths (Harry Potter) is the owner of the newspaper stand. Frances de la Tour (Harry Potter) is the owner of the French cafe/bakery/pastry shop. Scorsese allows us to watch all these characters as Hugo watches them. They are the life of the train station and you enjoy watching them interact as much as Hugo does. There are even two ongoing potential romances in the station, but one of them is thwarted by the inopportune squeaking of a leg brace while the other is obstructed (as many a romance often is) by the bad-temper of a highly suspicious little dog.
And then, we have what is probably the best performance of the entire film, but more on him later ...
First, let's take another look at the possible cliche of this being a story about the power of the imagination. Genuine imagination, as I hinted at in the first three paragraphs, is fairly rare in our modern day culture. The greatest story tellers, either from today or back in history, are always those story tellers with the largest and most compelling imaginations. This idea reminded me of an essay that one of them wrote "On Stories."
It's an idea that has to do with the exercise of the imagination or the lack thereof. The idea is this - there is something about a good story that is far more important than merely how exciting the dangers are, or how erotic the sensuality is, or how quantitative the violence, death or destruction is. When a story awakens our imaginations, it isn't because of how many gags or how much slapstick, violence, sex, death or danger that the storyteller can manages to cram all into one film or book.
Lewis writes that, when thinking about good stories -
"... nearly everyone makes the assumption that ‘excitement’ is the only pleasure they ever give or are intended to give. Excitement, in this sense, may be defined as the alternate tension and appeasement of imagined anxiety. This is what I think untrue. In some such books [or stories], and for some readers [or film goers], another factor comes in." (pg. 6)
Well, alright, but that is a little difficult for me to understand. I tend to judge a film or book by how well it appeals to my emotions. Films that excite me or tug at my heartstrings seem superior to me than the ones which don't.
C.S. Lewis continues -
"No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase in dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks ([for instance] that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than [oh say] the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement ..." (pg. 5)
You can, for example, have two authors or filmmakers tell the exact same story, with the exact same dangers and villains, and one will affect your imagination and the other will not. The degree of excitement that a film gives you is distinct from the imaginative power of the same film. Lewis even wonders "whether the ‘excitement’ may not be an element actually hostile to the deeper imagination." (pg. 10) This is because the kind of pleasure that a good story can give you is misunderstood ... by most of us.
The antagonist in the film, in fact, really turns out to be nothing more than life itself, with all the pain, loss, suffering, disappointments, problems and unsatisfied longings that it brings us. The real danger Hugo faces is that of being lost, alone and disillusioned with the fate that life has given him (like another different person in the film).
"There are things you are too young to understand. You should not know such sadness."
- Mama Jeanne
But Scorsese doesn't need to add arbitrary dangers or villains in order to make Hugo into a good and imaginative story, "stuck on," as Lewis complains, often "to make the narrative more sensational." (pg. 12) Another common storytelling distinction that critics like to make is the difference between reality and fiction. But if this film is really exploring the power of the imagination, then we need to distinguish between the imagination and something else. Imaginative storytelling can make use of both reality and fiction together or separately. So how do we distinguish that which is Non-imaginative storytelling?
Beauty, Scruton writes:
"True art appeals to the imagination, whereas effects elicit fantasy. Imaginary things are pondered, fantasies are acted out. Both fantasy and imagination concern unrealities; but while the unrealities of fantasy penetrate and pollute our world, thsoe of the imagination exist in a world of their own, in which we wander freely and in a condition of sympathetic detachment.
Modern society abounds in fantasy objects, since the realistic image, in photograph, cinema and TV screen, offers surrogate fulfilment to our forbidden desires, thereby permitting them. A fantasy desire seeks neither a literary description, nor a delicate painting of its object, but a simulacrum - an image from which all veils of hesitation have been torn away ... The ideal fantasy is perfectly realized, and perfectly unreal - an imaginary object that leaves nothing to the imagination ... 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 ..." (pgs. 104-105)
"Through the work of art, by contrast, we encounter a world of real, vulnerable and living people, which we can enter only by an effort of the imagination, and where we, like they, are on trial ... The matter of imagination is not realized but represented; it comes to us, as a rule heavily masked by thought ...
The Greeks knew what our cineastes have since discovered - that the portrayal of sex and violence is the natural object of fantasy, and slides of its own accord from realism to realisation. Hence it disrupts the work of the imagination ... [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge described the posture of the reader (and therefore the spectator in the theatre) as a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’. He should have written a ‘willing suspension of belief’: all pleasure and emotion depend on knowing that the action on stage is unreal. And the spectators enter this unreality by an act of will, not in search of surrogates for their own desires, but in order to explore a world that is not their own."
- Scruton, Modern Culture, pgs. 56-57
But our personal tastes do not determine how imaginative a storyteller or filmmaker is. Neither do the they determine if any given film is actually only offering us cheap visceral thrills (like Jackass or Saw) which essentially consists of fantasy offered for the every so transient stimulation of our appetites by filmmakers who ramp up the degrees of danger to infinite excess in order to merely offer the greatest quantitative amount of excitement possible. The result? A bad story that will not appeal to your imagination. Look, if the general public is willing to pay for trite cliches, then trite cliches is exactly what the market will give them. But there is a danger here. And the danger is that the market forces which we create by our own demands will eliminate those who offer us imaginative work instead.
Part Two - If You Haven’t Seen the Film Yet, Stop Reading, and Go See It (Spoilers Ahead)