Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

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Lost At Sea, in Space, in the Cloud

Two of my favorite films of recent months, Gravity and All is Lost, have more than a few things in common. Both are basically one-man or one-woman shows about individuals trying to survive in an incomprehensibly vast wilderness. Gravity finds Sandra Bullock desperately attempting to return to terra firma after being stranded in space. All is Lost shows Robert Redford (in a mostly silent, yet tour de force performance) lost in the Indian Ocean after his solo yacht venture goes awry. Both films are very much about the visceral, unnerving feeling of alone-ness; both are about the frailty and contingency of man in an often-hostile universe, but also man’s ingenuity, adaptability and cleverness in survival mode. Both are very good films that you should see before they leave theaters.

Another survival-story of sorts: Blockbuster video. The once-dominant video store chain survived the digital revolution (and transition to cloud-based media consumption) longer than many expected. Yet as we knew it would eventually, Blockbuster announced this week that it will soon be closing its final 300 stores and ending its DVD-by-mail service.

The death of Blockbuster, following the death of the record store and the local bookstore (Barnes and Nobles will surely not survive much longer), marks the ongoing transition to a new era in which cultural commerce unfolds no longer in any sort of common, physical Third Place, but in a digital diaspora wherein individuals personally access streams and store (I wouldn’t say “collect”) media for their convenient consumption. And while this iMedia world has its advantages (the ability to access millions of songs and movies on one’s phone with just a few clicks and swipes), it also has severe drawbacks.

all is lostSuch as: Are we losing a sense of common culture? Perhaps that is an outdated question. To the extent that it ever existed (in America for instance) “common culture” has been rapidly dissipating since at least the 1960s. Still, I wonder if the post-Blockbuster world of cloud-based media consumption is making it ever more unlikely that “culture” or “the arts” or “media” will be something that in the future pulls people together in unifying experiences, discussions and debates. After all, we don’t have to talk to anyone anymore (not even a person behind a counter!) when we purchase a movie, an album, a book. From start to finish, our entire experience of pop culture can happen through one little screen and/or one pair of headphones, wholly unique to us and totally tailored to our tastes, preferences and whims.

With everyone becoming their own self-styled curator, commentator, and ala carte consumer, and with the Internet exponentially subdividing niches, genres, and micro-communities for any of a billion interests, it seems implausible that “common” anything will survive the 21st century. As much as the Internet has gotten mileage out of the “connectedness” metaphor, it seems to be more adept at making us isolated consumers with the power to curate consumer pathways and narrative webs entirely on our own timetables and at our own discretion. We are subject to no one and nothing but our “instant” whims and desires; the curatorial power of “gatekeepers” has been diminished; metanarratives have been long deconstructed. We’re on our own, lost in the vast wilderness of the consumptive “cloud.”

Perhaps this is why the theme of “isolation” seems ever more ubiquitous in our cultural narratives. The solo shows of Gravity and All is Lost are not (of course) overt commentaries on 21st century media consumption trends. But I do think the subtext is there. We are alone, navigating our way in a free-for-all space. There’s a freedom in that. But also a terror. It’s a reverse claustrophobia: a fear of too many choices, too many open roads, too few guides and too little guidance.

One sees the isolation elsewhere. Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White are quintessentially American anti-heroes: stubbornly independent, allergic to attachment and subsequently desperately alone. Walt White’s Whitman-esque “Song of Myself” in Breaking Bad–often played out in the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the desert Southwest–illustrates the sobering reality that utter independence often leads to wayward isolation. To a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha conveys a similar, albeit more humorous, sense of freedom as isolation in the character of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething hipster whose freewheeling decisions to go to Paris on a whim, for example, or to literally dance in the streets of Manhattan, only deepen her directionless despair. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the free spirit dancing pose of the Frances Ha poster resembles the iconic iPod ads featuring silhouette bodies solo dancing against a bright neon background.

gravityAre these movie and TV narratives reflecting the unforeseen isolation of the iPod age? As we further individualize our mediated and cultured lives and embrace the freedom to dance to whatever cultural beat we like, are we simply left spinning and dizzy? That’s certainly the way I felt after watching Gravity and, to a lesser extent, All is Lost: dizzy, unsteady, destabilized, sea-sick. I was left feeling hungry for ballast, for anchors, for solidity; for something outside of myself to offer orientation.

Because going to Blockbuster on a Friday night used to be overwhelming enough. But at least the options were finite. These days the sheer ubiquity of all that is available, all that is recommended, all that is buzzed about in ceaseless streams of 140-character bursts, leaves me with a bit of vertigo: spinning like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, pulled in a million directions at the mercy of vacuity, untethered and uncertain which way is up.

Body Politics in the Films of Steve McQueen

With his new film 12 Years a Slave earning rave reviews and Oscar buzz, British filmmaker Steve McQueen–whose background is in fine art and experimental filmmaking–is poised to become a darling of this year’s awards season. Accolades are pouring in for McQueen’s Slave for its powerful depiction of slavery and the dynamo performances of its cast. But to me the most interesting thing about Slave is what it means in the larger context of McQueen’s feature work. His films–Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and Slave (2013)–each depict visceral, sometimes brutal explorations of human embodiment. They are centrally concerned with the body: its power, its limits, and the complex manner in which it interacts with one’s will.

1212 Years a Slave, as any movie about slavery must be (including last year’s Django Unchained), is a harrowing look at the politics of the body. In the flesh-for-cash world of slavery, bodies are reduced to property: instruments of labor that can be beaten, whipped, lynched or worse with nary a conscience-pricked hesitation (this is all horrifyingly depicted in Slave). The illogic and evil of this is underscored by the plot of Slave, which follows free-born African American Solomon Northrup as he is kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he is in bondage for 12 years. McQueen foregrounds the shocking juxtaposition of the civilized, middle class Northrup at the film’s start–decked out in antebellum suit and top hat–with his stripped, beaten, bloodied body later as a slave. It makes the now familiar imagery of slavery seem shocking and horrific in a new way. A scene of Northrup and other naked slaves being “inspected” by auctioneers and white suit-clad aristocrat slaveowners has a similar effect.

One of Slave’s most indelible images is a prolonged, agonizing scene in which Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hangs by a noose from a tree, his toes just barely touching the ground, enough to shift his weight around slightly but not enough to relieve the suffocating pull at his neck. McQueen’s camera stays on this painful scene for what seems like an eternity. It’s hard to watch, yet McQueen forces us to watch. As kids play in the background, and the lady of the plantation (Sarah Paulson) peers out coldly from a nearby balcony, we are confronted with the horrifying humiliation and degradation of a human body. Similar scenes (particularly a brutal lashing near the end of the film) are repeated throughout. Over and over again, the slaveholders express their power position by beating the slaves into submission. The idea is that over time, the relentless lashings will break the slave’s will–rendering him or her wholly obedient (which is to say largely powerless).

Yet the human body is resilient. One of the striking things about Slave is that it shows just how much bodily violation a human being can withstand. To keep living, to refuse to break (as Northrup does), is to wield the last shred of power an embodied being can exert. The opposite may also be true: To end one’s own life, especially when one is held captive as valued “property” of another, is in its own way an act of power. This is an idea flirted with in Slave by own of its most tragic characters. It’s also the idea at the center of McQueen’s first feature film, Hunger.

hungerIn that film, control over one’s body as a means of political power takes the form of the 1981 Irish Hunger Strike. As Bobby Sands, Michael Fassbender leads his IRA comrades in a statement of rebellion by refusing to bathe and then refusing to eat. In prison, these men have no freedom but the freedom one can wield (in some capacity) over one’s body. They intentionally wallow in their filth and refuse to bathe as a punishment to their captors. They refuse to eat until their demands are met. And yet one’s ability to push the body to extremes in this way, while retaining the ability to function, has its limits. In both Slave and Hunger we see visceral portraits of the bodiliness of bodies, simultaneously strong and frail, willed and wild, under and out of control.

McQueen’s second feature film, the controversial Shame, explores these same issues by depicting one man’s (Michael Fassbender) struggles with sex addiction. With its scenes of pain, frustration, guilt, and self-loathing, Shame soberly illustrates how one can be both master and slave to their body. Brandon (Fassbender) is at war with his carnality. Even while he is free to employ his physicality at will to charm any woman he wants into fulfilling his lustful desires (a form of power, to be sure), he cannot fight the bodily desires that plague him: to have more, and more, and more sex. Brandon finds himself a captive in his own body. The film’s deepest conflict is Brandon’s conscious desire to do one thing vs. a body that wants to do another.

In all his startling depictions of the raw carnality and fleshiness of humanity, McQueen is less interested in judging the morality of his characters’ actions as he is with observing the curious ways that humans attempt to control their bodies or abuse them as a sort of power play.

It’s interesting to consider these themes in light of our contemporary culture’s peculiar relationship with the body. Increasingly disembodied/digitized both in our expressions and perceptions of reality, are we becoming estranged from our own embodiment? Has our body become an abstracted other?

Think about all the ways we treat our bodies as almost alien things to be conquered and controlled:

  • We adopt bizarre diets and crazy fitness regimens to force our body into whatever beefed-up or slimmed-down physique we desire (often in efforts to mimic some idealized body image we’ve been mediated to envy). As a corollary to this, eating disorders are rampant.

  • We can purchase a medicine or an implant or a surgical procedure for almost anything we could possibly want our body to do or be.

  • We use contraception, and in some cases abortion, to stop the body from doing what it naturally does (procreate).

  • We use technologies and performance-enhancing drugs to push our bodies beyond the limits of what they can naturally do.

  • We pierce and tattoo our bodies, we reconceive our body’s gendered makeup, we twerk around like Miley Cyrus, all to declare our absolute ownership and dominion over the body, however transgressive it might be.

What does all of this say about the way we think about our bodies today? In some ways it’s simply a natural progression from the feminist and racial body politics of the latter twentieth century. What’s new is the extent to which technology is reshaping our understanding of embodiment and our ability to manipulate our bodies to our liking. Not only can we define our bodies, reshape them and package them to serve an agenda, but we can also manipulate how others see them. Think about Facebook/Instagram. In the Photoshop era of quick-click touchups and cropping, our actual embodiment is sometimes less important than the way it is portrayed to others. This is just another way we alienate ourselves from the body, even while we seek to control it more.

Is Steve McQueen conscious of these changing realities of how humans understand embodiment? Is that what’s behind his films’ preoccupations with bodies as symbols of power and politics? Perhaps. Or maybe he’s simply an artist with a particular fascination with the complexity and brutality of embodiment. In any case I find his vision absolutely fascinating, frequently beautiful, and provocative without being gratuitous. His films are not easy to watch, by any means, and I cannot in good conscience recommend Shame to anyone (I would never see it a second time). But Hunger and 12 Years a Slave are compelling works of art. Punishing, yes. But also profound.

Romeo and Juliet (2013 film) Review

Professor Lyle Smith of Biola University once said in a class that Romeo and Juliet almost get it right. Most fans or critics fall off their respective sides of blind devotion to the story or disenchanted skepticism that such love could ever even pretend to happen. I take Shakespeare as careful and sincere: the romance almost truly works, and despite the protagonists’ fall it is one of the most hopeful tragedies. The weight of Romeo and Juliet’s tragedy is predicated on the gravitas of the romance, and the one does not exist without the other. It is very difficult to get the romance and the tragedy right so that a production has serious feeling.

The latest offering in limited release starting today fares no better than most. This production caught my eye with the early announcement that Hailee Steinfeld of 2010 True Grit magnificence had been cast as Juliet. This did not appear to be a glib or obvious choice and boded well for a thoughtful production. How she as a handsome Juliet would play against the all-too-pretty Douglas Booth as Romeo was intriguing.Romeo-and-Juliet-2013-Movie-Poster

Indeed, there are aspects of this production that are commendable: The scale of the story, shot on location in Italy, was as big as a movie could and should make it. If you only watch Downton Abbey “for the costumes” this show is pleasing to the eye in many ways. Kodi Smit-McPhee upstages all comers as Benvolio, and indeed should have been cast as Romeo. This rendition refreshingly attends to parts of the play many productions typically exclude—the Prince’s role is foregrounded, and Friar Lawrence’s appearance in the crypt has unusual bearing.

Alas what positives exist are overwhelmed by critical decisions unpalatable to anyone who likes their Shakespeare neat.

Julian Fellowes’ screenplay is disastrous given his inability to resist improving the source. Shakespeare’s poetry is subsumed into yet another costume drama where we should look but not listen. If you do listen, this is Romeo and Juliet no fear Shakespeare that smoothes over the language with the subtlety of a road grader. Perhaps half of Shakespeare’s lines are dubbed by Fellowes’ bad impression.

The delicious supporting roles of Mercutio and Nurse also fall prey and are recast most bizarrely as serious. Paul Giamatti as Father (no, really) Lawrence is flat. The scale of the spectacle is pervasively dominated by close-ups of our crossed stars—perhaps the most flagrant problem in what amounts to almost total lack of perspective.

Little commercial consequence will come of these creative decisions. The target audience is clearly those more susceptible to taglines such as “THE MOST DANGEROUS LOVE STORY EVER TOLD” and #ForbiddenLove and Juliet’s Homecoming Guide (no, no, really). Creative decisions were driven by how early and often gratuitous snogging might feature. (I don’t know what book Romeo was kissing by, but it wasn’t the gospel.) This production is unambiguously counting on some Danes-DiCaprio-esque love effect for its commercial viability. It’s going to need something, because awards season will not bring success.

And for those who care about Shakespeare as popular and high art, this film needs to succeed. Thankfully executive producers with significant capital still regularly risk new attempts at Shakespeare. Some are schlock. Some are daring failures. Every so often we get a profound film. All such ventures need a chance of making money. In this case someone else will need to try.

Fr Micah Snell teaches in the Honors College at Houston Baptist University. He is a PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews’ Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.

Catching Up With Time in the “Before” and “Up” Films

A professor I admire once said — while discussing the films of Yasujiro Ozu, or maybe it was semiotics (can’t remember) — that watching the sun set can be both a thing of incredible beauty and deep sadness, often simultaneously. I thought of this as I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, which includes a scene of a couple sitting by the sea in Greece, watching the sun slowly dip below the horizon. It’s there, there, there — and then it’s not there. A fleeting flare of arresting orange. Present and then absent. Perhaps the beauty and sadness of a sunset has to do with the fact that it’s the process in nature we humans most identify with. Ours is a context of ephemerality.

Midnight just released in theaters, and it is certainly one of the best films of 2013 so far. But before you see it, be sure to watch the two preceding films in Linklater’s Before series: Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004). Together they comprise a trilogy that is one of the most understated and elegant in the history of cinema.

Before MidnightLinklater’s films follow the love story between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) as it plays out in more or less real time in one Vienna night in 1994 (Before Sunrise), a sunset stroll in 2003 Paris (Before Sunset), and an evening jaunt in Greece in 2012 (Midnight). The films let us peek in on these two lives every nine years, witnessing only as much of their “present” as the 90-100 minutes of movie watching allows us to see. The glimpses we get into this couple’s journey together are snapshots not just of their particular world — compellingly characterized by highbrow garrulity, philosophizing and Gen X angst — but of humanity in general: how we age, how we love, how we fight and how we dream.

Similar in many ways to what Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are exploring in the Before series is what Michael Apted has done and is doing with the astonishing Up series. Beginning in 1964 as a British television documentary examining the lives of fourteen 7-year-old children representing a diverse array of socioeconomic positions in 1960s Britain, the Up series has followed its real-life characters every seven years since. 14 Up (1970) checked in on the children at age 14; 21 Up (1977) updated audiences on their lives as they each turned 21; and so on. 56 Up just came out a few months ago and is now available to watch on Netflix, as are all of the other Up films.

In his review of 56 Up, the late Roger Ebert — who once called the Up series “the noblest project in cinema history” — wrote this: “It is a mystery, this business of life. I can’t think of any other cinematic undertaking that allows us to realize that more deeply.”

Indeed, I think that one of the great potentials of cinema — particularly when it is used in the way Linklater and Apted are using it in their respective series — is that it can capture some of the idiosyncrasies and mysteries of the “business of life” that we might otherwise fail to see (presumably because we are too busy wading through our own “business of life”). Things like the peculiar experience of the passage of time: simultaneously the most obvious and yet ungraspable mystery of existence.

The Before series is about love and relationships on one level, to be sure. But the real subject of these films is time, and the frequency with which it is discussed by the characters in the films hammers home that point.

“O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time,” says Jesse (Hawke) in Before Sunrise, quoting Dylan Thomas quoting W.H. Auden. At other times Jesse waxes philosophical about how surreal it is to self-consciously observe himself living in real time, or Celine shares about how she always feels like her life is either a dream of the future or a memory of the past. Meanwhile, the couple walks and talks in (more or less) real time, as the sun — that most vivid of all reminders of temporality — either rises, sets, or cedes its position to the moon. As Hawke said earlier this year when Midnight premiered at Sundance, the star of the Before series “is not Julie or [Hawke] but Father Time himself.”

Up SeriesThe Up series is far less meta in its treatment of time; yet like the Before films, Father Time is a palpable presence in every frame. There’s something compelling about observing the passage of time — 56 years, in this case — as it molds, batters, refines and weathers these people on each of their wildly divergent paths. Some of the original fourteen children grew up to be very successful; others not so much. Most started families and now have kids, grandkids, stepkids, and exes. Some (but not all) exceeded the expectations of the social class into which they were born. Some are happier than others (from what we can tell in our peeks inside, at least), and the only thing they all have in common is that none, not a one, has conquered time. They are all aging, and with every passing Up film we feel the weight of this ever more.

Cinema is unique among mediums in its ability to “sculpt in time,” as Andrey Tarkovsky wrote. It’s all about compressing, elongating, speeding up, and editing time to tell a story (that may span millennia or minutes) in the span of just a few hours. But Before and Up are especially compelling because rather than focusing on the filmmaker’s power over time, they focus on time’s power over us. Linklater tries his best to tell each Before film in real time, avoiding cinema’s manipulative power and instead foregrounding the somewhat eerie feeling of just sitting with time as it unfolds.

The Up films leverage cinema’s ability to compress time by including footage from the previous entries in each present portrait. What we get is essentially a moving-image scrapbook of each of these peoples’ 56-years, summarized in about ten minutes each. Watching it evokes the emotions of looking through an old box of photos and reliving an entire past in one quick burst of nostalgia. It confronts us with the expansiveness of what has come before; which seems large to us because our memories are painfully small and cannot hold every special moment we’ve had or beautiful thing we’ve seen, let alone the histories of other lives and lands.

Unless we have cameras there to capture every moment, our pasts are just as inaccessible to us as our futures. Memories, photos, tales of old can only reconstruct former glories up to a point (for a smart take on all this as it relates to “documenting” one’s past, see Sarah Polley’s amazing new film, Stories We Tell). And yet it could be argued that the “present” is the most elusive of all. For in reality, what we think of as the present is really just our brain processing things in the past — even if just a millisecond ago. Time is most relentless in the present because try as we might to slow it down or speed it up, it only goes by its own pace. The past and future are more malleable categories because they exist entirely in our minds, where we can elongate, embellish, or edit our recollection or vision of an experience, to our liking.

Tarkovsky puts it well in this excerpt from Sculpting In Time:

“Time is said to be irreversible. And this is true enough in the sense that ‘you can’t bring back the past’. But what exactly is this ‘past’? Is it what has passed? And what does ‘passed’ mean for a person when for each of us the past is the bearer of all that is constant in the reality of the present, of each current moment? In a certain sense the past is far more real, or at any rate more stable, more resilient than the present. The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.”

The Before and Up films are powerful because they embody the “sand between the fingers” brevity of the present: reminding us that even the most magical moments in life are fleeting, that our “when I grow up” dreams will be here and gone before we know it, and that as a result it makes little sense to live in search of a permanent state of pleasure or satisfaction. Such a thing would be, as Solomon might say, like “chasing after the wind.” Our hearts will be restless, said Augustine, until they rest in Thee. And perhaps that is “Father” Time’s greatest gift to us: stirring up a restlessness in our souls that directs our longing to something Other, unfathomably infinite and unbound by time.

To Malick’s “Wonder”

To the Wonder Malick

Terrence Malick’s latest, To the Wonder, is an apt follow-up to the enigmatic director’s 2011 classic, The Tree of Life. Both films are beautiful experiences of image and sound, deeply personal memoirs and heartfelt explorations of Christian faith.

To the Wonder has received substantially fewer enthusiastic reviews than Life, however. It’s not a film likely to show up on anyone’s “Greatest Films of all Time” list (as Life did for the late, great Roger Ebert). Why is that? I suspect it has to do with the fact that the film is not nearly as flashy and majestic as Life. There are no nebulae or dinosaurs. The world of Wonder is ho-hum by comparison. The Sonics and strip malls everywhere don’t help. And unlike all of Malick’s other films, it’s not a period piece or in any way exotic. Aside from a few dreamy sequences in France, Wonder is about American suburbia and its attendant quotidian struggles.

At least on the surface. Wonder, I think, is a far more substantial film than many assessments have pronounced it. Far from the “minor Malick” some have labeled it (or at best: “a B-side to The Tree of Life), Wonder is a characteristically ambitious, boundary-pushing film that builds upon the stylistic and thematic trajectories of its predecessors in the Malick oeuvre. I’ve now seen the film three times, and each viewing (as is the case with all of Malick’s meticulously assembled works of cinematic art) reveals new details, thoughts, emotions, epiphanies. Malick’s collaborators—especially production designer Jack Fisk—are all detail people, and it shows. Notice the extensive attention given to space, architecture, rooms, furniture, decor (yep, that’s a globe!) and appliances, for example. The geographies and materiality of everyday life are of great interest to Malick, likely in part because of his interests in Heideggerian phenomenology.

To the Wonder is challenging, to be sure. It’s not at all clear what the film is chiefly about. Love, perhaps? Marriage and parenting? Suffering? Dasein? In some areas, though, Wonder is more overt than Malick’s last few films have been. Take its treatment of Christian faith, for example. The film is imbued with it at every turn. Malick goes so far as to have a priest (Javier Bardem’s “Father Quintana”) as a central character, with his heartfelt homilies and prayers giving the film a liturgical directness that follows from but goes farther than even The Tree of Life.

Sadly, most critics have failed to adequately engage the Christian elements of the film, which are aplenty. Perhaps that’s because we have such a dearth of films like this, which earnestly—sans cynicism or irony—explore Christian faith without preaching or offering pat answers. (Though there are some out there).

In my review for Christianity Today, however, I try to engage the film on this level, making sense of Malick’s spiritual preoccupations in Wonder as well as his other five films. Below is an excerpt from my review, the entirety of which can be read here.

Though many of Malick’s characters struggle with faith and feel God to be distant (Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, Pocahontas in The New World, Sgt. Welsh in The Thin Red Line), most of them—through encounters with Love or with beauty—come back to a place of belief. Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) in To the Wonder, for example, remains thirsty for God the whole film, even in the midst of suffering. In a beautiful sequence Quintana quotes part of St. Patrick’s Lorica in a prayer that encapsulates the film’s underlying vision:

Teach us where to seek you. Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me.Christ in me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me. Christ on my right. Christ on my left. Christ in my heart. Thirsty. We thirst. Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of you. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you.

Immediately prior to this prayer, Malick’s curious gaze lands on a nun, fully outfitted in habit, standing at a kitchen sink alone, washing silverware. We then see that it is actually Quintana looking at her, and we see that he is moved. In one image: the sacred and the mundane; work and worship; washing away the stain; the specter of Eden in a household chore. In a way the moment echoes the final voiceover of the soldiers leaving Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, looking out on the blood-soaked beaches and the baptismal wake of the departing boat: “Darkness and light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind, the features of the same face?”

I suspect Malick’s answer is yes. Pain, struggle, loss, strife: it’s all an opportunity to see the face of God and to grow in faith. Just as nature was created to be resilient in the midst of difficulty (see the asteroid in The Tree of Life, or the palm shoot springing up from the bombed out beach in the final shot of The Thin Red Line), humans were created to press on and grow, emboldened by the grace, forgiveness and guiding Spirit of “the Love that loves us,” come what way.

If you’re interested and have some spare minutes, read the rest of my review here, as well as this one by Richard Brody in The New Yorker, and this piece which offers great insights into Malick’s creative process on the film. Also, if you have not yet seen the film on the big screen—and I highly suggest this format for viewing any Malick film—check this list of current theaters where the film can be found.

Jackson and Tolkien: Hollywood’s Infatuation With Angst

Matt’s piece on The Lord of the Rings a few weeks ago nicely summed up one of the major ways in which Peter Jackson’s view of the world diverges from Tolkien’s: its profoundly different moral vision. But Jackson’s storytelling sense diverges from Tolkien’s in other, equally profound ways — not least in its approach to conflict.

Return of the King book and movie covers

There are two fundamental types of conflict in literature: external and internal. External conflicts pit the character against forces in the world around them: other men, society, or nature itself. Internal conflicts pit the character against himself. For prototypical examples, one might think of Odysseus and Hamlet. While each faces a variety of conflicts, Odysseus spends of the majority of his time confronting external enemies, and Hamlet spends a great deal of his time wrestling with himself. One of the literary strengths of Tolkien’s works is that they contain just about every sort of conflict imaginable. Continue reading

Anna Karenina: The Uncontainable Joy of Redemption

Note 1: A version of this article was originally published in The Examined Life, the e-magazine of Wheatstone Ministries.

Note 2: The novel came out in 1878. This film has been out for months. I crave dispensation from spoiler alerts.

There hasn’t been an ideal time to review 2012’s Anna Karenina. Released two months apart, it earned $8.7 million in the UK (respectable given the market size) and $12.3 million in the US (which is weak).* Presumably the distributors are hoping for an awards season bump. They may have been hoping for a theatrical re-release, but initial box office, combined with Keira Knightley’s lack of nominations and the February DVD release, indicate which way the wind is blowing. So probably, this title will be expensive or in the discount rack. It’s too bad it didn’t do better, because this is a very good film.

If you haven’t read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, it would be a shame to be introduced by anything but the novel. Regularly we see a movie before we read the book, which we read in translation, usually having skimmed Wikipedia for characters and plot. Alas. Few things compare to immersing oneself in hundreds of pages of Tolstoy — I can only imagine what it must be to read it in Russian — and he saturates his work with every aspect of nineteenth century Russia in a way for which there is no substitute. I don’t know how much Tolstoy is read any more, but few things are better than spending a week unbending one’s mind in Tolstoy’s vise.kinopoisk.ru

Anna Karenina is not a tragic story, but Anna is an utterly tragic character, and the novel explores the deepest levels of human suffering and sin. It’s not for the faint of heart. Redemption and forgiveness are the greatest themes, but Tolstoy does not blanch from the psychic—soulish—agonies of depression, adultery, drug addiction, and suicide in which the greatest forgiveness and redemption may be found. Caveat spectator for Joe Wright’s adaptation, which shrinks from less of the book’s depravity and may glamorize more of it.

The British release proved a strong draw for Bright Young Things—presumably because the trailer fixates on the costumed Knightley getting swoony with a mustachioed dreamboat and runs the tag-line “You can’t ask why about love.” Happily this is the least-accurate promo ever. The film is a preciously-rare, unadulterated adaptation of the source, excepting the scenes of the fallen Anna and Vronsky that Tolstoy much better leaves off-stage. Tom Stoppard’s genius for adapted screenplay is married to Joe Wright’s directorial sensitivity. Miss Knightley carries the lead better than expected, and she is the weakest casting in a superb ensemble.

The real controversy about this adaptation is its doubling of the theatrical conceit. Continue reading

The Risks of a Heart Awakened: Emotional Detachment and Les Miserables

Back in the late 1990s, I watched Saving Private Ryan in the theater. The opening sequence, with its intense depiction of the carnage of battle, captivated, disturbed, and moved me all at once. It was my understanding that this was not an uncommon response, but it was not the only possible response. Some apparently found the scene humorous. A handful of teenage viewers sitting a row or two in front of me (I should say that at the time I was not much older myself) found the sequence laughable, particularly the point at which a disoriented soldier bent down to pick up the arm that had been blown off his body. Think what one will of the filmic depiction of violence, laughter can hardly be thought appropriate. In fact, it would seem nearly barbarous.

A few years later, as I watched The Fellowship of the Ring, a similar thing happened. In the closing scene, Sam struggles out into the water to catch up with his friend Frodo who had thought it best to continue his quest alone. Sam nearly drowns in the process before Frodo pulls him up to safety on board his little boat. Sam then explains that he will not abandon his friend nor shrink in the face of whatever dangers lay ahead. Here, at this juncture, surprisingly incongruous laughter once more presented itself. It was slightly less egregious this time, perhaps, but, nonetheless, strikingly inappropriate. It was not long before I began to think of these two incidents together.

Why the laughter in each of these cases? I suspect that there are a number of entirely plausible explanations, and what follows may very well be overwrought analysis, but I concluded the laughter amounted to something like self-protective ironic detachment. Why laugh at moments such as these if not to undercut their emotional force? This dynamic is not unlike the urge most of us have felt to crack a joke when a conversation among friends takes an unanticipated turn toward the serious or poignant. It is a way of diffusing the emotionally treacherous implications of giving oneself over to the possibility that life is morally serious and consequential.

I came to this conclusion before ever reading about the advent of postmodern irony, that cool and sophisticated, sometimes world-weary stance of intellectuals for whom pre-modern and modern commitments to transcendent sources of meaning (and their immanentized would-be replacements) had become untenable. Among the ruins there was nothing to do but play. This is a widely diffused disposition, even among those who’ve never read a page of postmodern theory. It was inculcated by the structures and patterns of late 20th and early 21st century life. It manifests itself variously, most commonly in the inability to comfortably abide emotionally and morally freighted moments.

Cover of "Les Miserables"

Cover of Les Miserables

I’ve thought about all of this again as I came across some of the more dismissive reviews of the film, Les Miserables. It would not be fair to group these together indiscriminately, and more than a few valid criticisms are raised. It’s certainly true that the film was not a masterpiece. And yet I can’t help but wonder whether some of the criticism does not share in the spirit of the misplaced laughter I’d observed years earlier. Might there be a hint of resentment at having been brought dangerously near the edge of feeling again what had been assiduously suppressed by reflexively deployed irony or cynicism? Les Miserables, after all, threatens to awaken the most outlandish possibilities – of redemption, love, and justice rightly understood – and all of it bound inextricably to the story, language, and symbols of the Church. Written today, it might seem calculated to offend.

The posture of ironic detachment is not altogether unreasonable or necessarily callous. It is, as I mentioned earlier, a self-protective impulse. Better not to be caught believing in what will only disappoint, and profoundly so. It is the familiar stance of the jaded lover whose heart has been broken one time too many. It is safer to guard the heart by denying the possibility of love, than it is to continue hoping for it requital. The desire to love and be loved is natural; the jadedness is learned. And for reasons it would be tedious to enumerate, we have too often tended toward the posture of the jaded lover.

For such as these there must be nothing so disconcerting as the stirrings of a stubborn heart whose longings are awakened unexpectedly – like lovers betrayed at the mention of a name, in C.S. Lewis’ apt phrasing. To riff on Lewis again, we take our revenge on whatever threatens to penetrate our cool, imperturbable detachment by calling it sentimental, saccharine, melodramatic, or manipulative. By doing so, the distance is preserved and the threat averted. But such stirrings, once felt, can haunt the heart.

Returning once more to Victor Hugo’s story, the tragedy of Javert lies less in his unswerving devotion of the law than in his inability to put to dismiss an awakening to greater possibilities. Continue reading

Is Depiction Endorsement? Filmmaker Responsibility in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained”

Of all the 2012 films nominated for best picture Oscars this year, two have gained press as much for their controversial content as for their awards-caliber quality. Those two films are Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

The former, a tense action thriller documenting the CIA’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, has proven controversial because of its hard-to-watch depiction of “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) early in the film. The latter, a revisionist pop art spaghetti western about a slave uprising in the Antebellum South, has raised eyebrows because of its over-the-top violence, racially offensive language (over 100 uses of the “n” word), and generally irreverent treatment of a sensitive topic.

The Zero Dark Thirty controversy is a murky one, with accusations claiming either that the film dangerously misleads in its depiction of torture (Senators John McCain, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein are leading this charge) or that it gets the facts mostly right and is well within the latitude usually afforded the “based on a true story” Hollywood genre. In his lengthy defense of the film in The Atlantic, Mark Bowden writes,

Torture may be morally wrong, and it may not be the best way to obtain information from detainees, but it played a role in America’s messy, decade-long pursuit of Osama bin Laden, and Zero Dark Thirty is right to portray that fact.

Critics on the other extreme, like The Guardian’s Naomi Wolf, accuse Bigelow of nothing less than deception and propaganda, comparing her to famous “facts”-benders like James Frey and Leni Riefenstahl.

In her acceptance speech for best director at the January 7 New York Film Critics Circle Awards, Bigelow defended the film against such attacks by saying:

I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices; no author could ever write about them; and no film-maker could ever delve into the knotty subjects of our time.

Though Django Unchained exists in an entirely different universe than Zero Dark Thirty (a much more cartoonish, stylized universe), presumably Quentin Tarantino would echo Bigelow’s sentiment that what a filmmaker depicts in his or her films should not be assumed to be endorsement. For Tarantino, who has since the days of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs been something of a scapegoat/posterboy for the societal hazards of violent cinema, the “depiction is not endorsement” defense is a crucial one. But is it ironclad?

In a recent interview with a British journalist who tried to press Tarantino on the question of the relationship between movie violence and real violence, Tarantino went a little bit crazy, saying “I’m not your slave, and you’re not my master,” as he repeatedly refused to answer any questions on the subject. Clearly (and perhaps tellingly) Tarantino was uncomfortable with the topic. Watch the amusing clip here.

In the wake of the Newtown and Aurora massacres, when questions about the role of desensitizing movie and video game violence seem reasonable if not obligatory, it seems that the burden is on filmmakers like Tarantino to at least ponder the question.

In an interview this month with NPR, Tarantino sort-of addresses the subject of violence and exploitation in Django:

What happened during slavery times is a thousand times worse than [what] I show. So if I were to show it a thousand times worse, to me, that wouldn’t be exploitative, that would just be how it is. If you can’t take it, you can’t take it. … Now, I wasn’t trying to do a Schindler’s List you-are-there-under-the-barbed-wire-of-Auschwitz. I wanted the film to be more entertaining than that. … But there’s two types of violence in this film: There’s the brutal reality that slaves lived under for … 245 years, and then there’s the violence of Django’s retribution. And that’s movie violence, and that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for.

But that’s precisely the troubling thing about movie violence. As fantastical and as clearly “movie-fake” as it might be, it is so often tied up with the emotional arc of a character we are rooting for or a justice we are vicariously hoping to experience. These are Tarantino films in a nutshell: Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, Death Proof. They are revenge fantasies, hypothetical alternate histories in which terrible killers are vanquished with samurai swords, theaters full of Nazis are destroyed by Jews, and evil slaveowners like Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) are terminated by lowly slaves. The violence in these movies is embarrassingly, unnervingly enjoyable because it is employed in the service of a juicy, attractive tale of (mostly) good overcoming evil.

Even when movie violence is gritty, ugly and un-romanticized (as in Zero Dark Thirty), it has a potency that attaches itself to our emotions and causes us to more or less cheer it on. Critic David Edelstein named ZDT the best film of the year but nonetheless finds himself unnerved by some of these questions: “In cinema,” he writes, “the adrenaline rush can overwhelm our squeamish objections to violence. That’s what makes the medium so dangerous. … Bigelow doesn’t just depict the hunt for and killing of Osama bin Laden. She puts it into our bloodstream.”

But is it really the filmmaker’s responsibility to account for the affective, intoxicating power of cinema? Must a filmmaker worry about what others feel, or in extreme cases are inspired to do, because of what they see in a film?

From some angles, the suggestion that artistic depiction is endorsement appears ludicrous. A cursory survey of art history reveals as much. Caravaggio was clearly not endorsing the behavior of the Roman soldiers in his paintings of Christ’s passion, for example. And then there’s the entire tradition of social realist art which intends depiction for the very opposite of endorsement: for chastisement or expose. Courbet’s The Stone Breakers and any number of Ken Loach films, for example, do not depict poverty and inequality so as to endorse their existence; rather they depict them to bring awareness to egregious conditions and abominable injustices.

But the depiction of “the ugly” in art as means to bring about reform is one thing. Should artists be given free pass to depict the extremes of ugliness (torture, unspeakable gun violence, hundreds of uses of the “n” word) when their only purpose is to convey a purported verisimilitude to the “reality” of the world in which their story is set?

In short, yes. I believe that insofar as an artist honestly sets out to tell a story that is truthful (to the world in which it is set, to the real struggles of its characters), then it is their right and even obligation to not shield us from the darker elements. As I wrote recently in Relevant Magazine, “Something about the way the world is (that is: difficult, risqué, R-rated) tells us that to be truthful, art must grapple with darkness. As filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, ‘The artist is the one who does not look away.’”

For me, it all comes down to whether the artist is in the business of seeing the world more clearly and thus focusing the audience’s gaze on a reality in the truest since. This would exclude artists and filmmakers who use depiction and all of its accompanying visceral pull to twist reality and tell propagandistic lies (e.g. Leni Riefenstahl), as well as those who use depiction not to guide the viewer toward contemplation of truth as much as to be provoked, grossed out, titillated or otherwise distracted (e.g. “torture porn” directors like Eli Roth, shock-artists, etc.)

In the case of the two films under discussion in this essay, I’d say Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty fairly passes the test. However foggy the history may be in her narrative of the hunt for “UBL,” it’s clear that her intention is not propagandistic or sensationalist. Tarantino’s Django is a bit of a harder case, because everything about it screams sensationalism and maybe even exploitation. It’s less clear whether Tarantino’s aim here is wholly oriented toward truth-telling (as opposed to merely a stylish exercise in genre and pop culture pastiche), but I’m going to go out on a limb and give Quentin the benefit of the doubt.

His film is not a ripped-from-the-headlines true story like Zero Dark Thirty. But in spite of its flamboyance, the world of Django–the passions, atrocities, hatred, fear, vengeance, occupations, camaraderie–rings true. And the same painstaking, sometimes dirty quest for the destruction of a villain that drives Zero Dark Thirty also drives Django. It’s Hollywood, and it’s life.

And that’s precisely why cinema is at once a powerful, beautiful artform but also something that troubles the waters of our scapegoat-seeking, hyper-violent culture. Cinema tells the truth like nothing else because it sticks like nothing else; as Edelstein noted, it “gets into our bloodstream.” It gets our heart pumping. Cinema is powerful because it is dangerous.

Or maybe it’s the other way around.