August 2, 2011 § 8 Comments
I recently saw the newest superhero movie to come out this summer, and hopefully the last, Captain America: The First Avenger. As the film played itself out, I found myself in the place I normally do when watching any of the new wave of comic book films from any director not named Christopher Nolan: bored and disappointed. After beginning strong, Captain America torpedoes itself as soon as it resorts to the standard battle montage scene accompanied by a random shift in visual style. It’s unfortunate, because the film had an opportunity to say something profound about propaganda and media during wartime, especially considering Captain America himself is being used as propaganda. Instead, the movie contents itself with resorting to the same superhero myth that propelled the original comic books heroes, investing our wonderful Captain with all the perfect crime fighting capabilities and a charming, no faults personality to match. In an age where that myth of America no longer rings true, Captain America seems to be almost a parody.
Last year in school, I had to read an article which discussed the famous Iwo Jima war photograph and how it was used to create a largely false atmosphere which facilitated the sale of war bonds. The image was imbued with an absolute, timeless message and resonance that fell apart in the 60s and 70s leading to many parodies of that classic image. The “timeless” morals and significance of this image no longer held true in a society which had rejected the beliefs of its parents, therefore the image necessarily had to fall into satire. The same thing has happened to the comic book hero in this postmodern age. These perfect men and women who always do the right thing and never falter can no longer exist because their mystique has been shattered by the unmasking of reality. People cannot escape from this anymore, at least not to the extent they could in the past.
This is why Nolan’s superhero films are so perfectly suited for this time. Divesting the myth of the superhero, Nolan makes Batman into a real person in a real world. We see Batman’s flaws, and this allows Nolan to actually make statements about authentic issues. Of course, in this day and age, everything is subject to parody and Christian Bale’s Batman voice has seen its share of satire, but Nolan’s films, as proved by the critics and box office have made an impact far beyond mere escapism. Compare any superhero film made in the past 10 years to Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and you will see the massive difference in depth between Nolan’s dark, realistic vision and the others.
With this summer’s movies on their way out, it looks as if next summer will contain its fair share of superhero films, most notably The Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers. I’m still waiting to see if any other directors try to make their films noticeably darker to try and mimic Nolan and it appears as if the new Spiderman reboot may be trying just that. With that being said, unless those directors are willing to strip the superhero myth of its bygone conventions and restart from the ground-up, I have less than high hopes for their efforts.
July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38:4,7
These are the verses that open Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, and I thought it fitting to open my reflection on the film with these same verses. These verses are but a small fragment of God’s response to Job when Job inquires as to why he, a righteous man, is suffering. This is the same question that Malick, through his characters, is posing as The Tree of Life hurtles along its unconventional, disjointed narrative. These spiritual questions coupled with the fractured narrative allow Malick to reach a place where he seems to make some conclusions about the nature of God and the world we inhabit and illuminate these conclusions as only a director with the touch of Malick could do.
The main focus of the film is Jack, whose older iteration (Sean Penn) is experiencing somewhat of a crisis in his life as he works in the big city, surrounded by glass and mortar, a sharp contrast from his childhood days in suburban Waco, Texas. This crisis seems to have been set off by the memory of his younger brother who died earlier in life, the circumstances of which Malick never makes clear. The film flits back and forth in Jack’s memory, occasionally dipping into dream states, as he relives the days of his youth in Texas. We see the younger Jack being born and growing up, eventually reaching a kind of stasis around age 12 or 13, where he is played splendidly by Hunter McCracken. The majority of the film takes place at this time, as Jack struggles to become a man, misunderstood and confused by his father (Brad Pitt) and shown grace and faith from his mother (Jessica Chastain).
What sets the film off is the memory of Jack’s brother and his death, a monumental event in the family’s history, one that leaves Jack’s mother devastated. In this state she asks many questions of God, which lead into the film’s most challenging section as Malick shows us the foundations of the world being laid which directly hearkens back to the film’s opening verses. It is in the background of this magnificent visual and aural display that we must ask ourselves where the suffering of this one family comes into play in the universe. Why does or should God care, if, in fact, there is a God? And if He does care, who are we to ask Him questions when He set in motion the entire universe in all its glory and splendor? But we do ask questions, and we continue to struggle with death and suffering, and Malick struggles along with us.
There is a key scene midway through the film as the family attends church and the priest is giving a sermon about the book of Job, telling the people that suffering will come to them in this life because God doesn’t necessarily protect us from hardship. I saw the film twice and I’m still not sure if his words ring hollow at the sorrow we’ve witnessed or if they make perfect sense compared with the glory we saw at the beginning of the universe. I think Malick wants to make us aware of the suffering so we can see the glory after we have passed through the storm. His films all contain some element of this, whether it is the graphic battles of The Thin Red Line juxtaposed with peaceful sunsets and forest creatures or the raging fire of Days of Heaven combined with the majestic fields of grain. If there was no glory, then suffering wouldn’t matter and without the certainty of things being ravaged and claimed by death the glory might not shine as brightly as it does. Or perhaps it is the hope that one day the glory we see will be allowed to go unchecked by death and suffering that drives Malick’s reluctant, mournful acceptance of suffering in this present time.
One balm for this sorrow, at least in the film, is the presence of memory to bring us back to the happy and sorrowful times of our past. The majority of the film is seen through Jack’s memory, detailing important events in his childhood, skipping from moment to moment with no seeming order or narrative. For some this may be a distraction, but this is exactly what memory is; it is fragments strewn across our minds, something we have very little actual control over, as we remember the good and the bad with equal alacrity. In the specific memories that Malick exploits in the film, many of them probably his own, there is a certain sense of universality, at least in the emotions drawn out by the events. Many times I was surprised as I was caught by a wave of emotion brought on by a specific scene that had no direct correlation to any time in my past but I recognized the emotion that it brought forth.
Memory and the emotions associated with it seem to help older Jack arrive at some peace as the film comes to a close. With a typical Malick deftness, Jack has begun to reconcile the way of the world and the harsh competition of his father and nature with the way of grace and love shown by his mother and also through the glory of nature. The closing shots of the film can only reinforce this thought, but I would not want to spoil them for anyone. Malick certainly knows how to close his films.
So where does suffering and memory leave us in terms of God? Who is God? What is He like? It seems that Malick is content to leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to determining the nature of God. There are moments that leave us astounded at their beauty, and Jack’s mother is clearly a model of living in grace and love that is favored by Malick, as he has shown us in other films. Suffering is something that does not undermine God, but just seems to be part and parcel of the world and nature. In Malick’s world there is both glory and death, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; it’s up to us to love and show grace as we search for the glory.
June 11, 2011 § 1 Comment
It’s not often that you encounter a film that deals so explicitly with matters of forgiveness and confession as does Get Low. Surely there are plenty of cinematic explorations of guilt, shame, forgiveness and confession, but they tend to be buried deep under psychological subtexts, only unearthed through a vague symbol or in the waning moments of the script. And to be honest, that is normally the best way to deal with these issues in the cinema, otherwise the film often takes on a moralizing tone, rendering its message (no matter how good intentioned or true) largely ineffective. Get Low, however, is right up front with Felix Bush’s (Robert Duvall) guilt over a past sin and the second half of the film is preoccupied with almost nothing else.
In Bush, we find a man who is well aware of his wrongdoing, and has decided to live with it for the past 40 years, partly in a self-imposed attempt at penance, but also due to his inability to confess to those who he has hurt the most. As he approaches the end of his life he plans his own “funeral party” so he can tell his story to the world and ask forgiveness. Within this context, it’s interesting to note the stance the film seems to take on forgiveness, specifically that of the divine variety.
Bush’s reverend friend, Charlie Jackson (Bill Cobbs), urges him to not just confess to his fellow mankind, but also to God. This suggestion is taken, both in the filmic time and earlier in Bush’s life, with a certain sense of disdain by Felix. According to Bush (and viewed somewhat humorously in the film’s context) he didn’t do anything to Jesus, so he doesn’t need to ask him for forgiveness. It’s somewhat clear that this drive comes from Bush’s unwillingness to forgive himself and accept God’s forgiveness without having paid his earthly price first. It appears that the film is asserting that being able to ask and accept God’s forgiveness entails being forgiven by your fellow humans and being able to stop living in a state of perpetual self-loathing.
Incapable of forgiving himself, Felix cannot accept anyone else’s forgiveness until, as the film draws to a close, he is able to tell his story to those gathered to hear it. In this telling, he manages to finally find peace with others, and ultimately, I believe, with God. The film handles all of these proceedings with tenderness and grace, thanks to a fantastic script that is cognizant of the challenge it is to speak of forgiveness and grace without turning the film into a kitsch-fest. The films shows us that peace is found through confession and an acceptance of the forgiveness offered by others. Without either one, true peace may be hard to come by. This is but one facet of a magnificent film that I implore you to see if you get the chance.
May 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
Note: Spoilers ahoy!
With the recent death of Osama Bin Laden, cyberspace exploded with tweets, Facebook statuses and blog posts. Suddenly, Osama became relevant again, and for Americans, his death became a symbol of justice being served, the triumph of the Red, White and Blue over evil and terror. I question this definition of justice. When justice becomes about repaying evil with death in a vengeful manner, does it cease to become justice? When justice becomes about beating chests in a nationalistic fury, is it still justice? Is any violent form of justice dispensed by fallen mankind true and meaningful?
Gran Torino (Eastwood, 2008) is a film deeply concerned with justice in many ways. Eastwood’s film builds upon his previous work in Unforgiven where we first begin to see him questioning the vigilante justice portrayed in his earlier films. In Gran Torino, Eastwood seems to be making a definitive statement about the both the danger and the true nature of justice. Playing a grizzled factory worker Walt, Eastwood begrudgingly befriends a young Hmong boy Thao (Bee Vang) and his sister Sue (Ahney Her), and helps steer him down the right path. As the movie draws to its conclusion, a Hmong gang led by Thao’s cousin takes exception to Thao’s rejection of their life, shoots up his house and rapes Sue. From this point on, I believe the film shows us how to approach justice in this world.
Understandably, Thao wishes to go after the gang and revenge his sister, bringing justice to her for the act of violence they committed against her. Killing them will bring justice to Thao’s world at this instant, as he is consumed by vengeful passion and anger. Given Eastwood’s track record, we expect him to take Thao under his wing and storm the gang, finishing the film in a bloody gunfight. Even after Walt locks Thao in his basement to prevent him from joining him in the eventual confrontation, we still think Walt is going to go out in a blaze of violent glory. So what does Walt, and by extension Eastwood, do? He completely subverts our expectations of him and of justice.
Eastwood is smart, he knows what the audience expects from him given his previous work and when he approaches the house where the Hmong gang is staying with his hand in his coat pocket, we are waiting for his to pull out his trusty pistol and start blasting away. We never see it coming when he instead pulls out his lighter, and the gang rips him apart with bullets, leaving him to die on the ground. In this act, Walt has saved Thao from his own angry passions and has brought the gang to justice, as the police show up to find an unarmed man murdered.
Is this true justice? Instead of a violent outburst that leaves the perpetrators dead, Walt has given his life in a non-violent rejection of the prevailing view of justice. Violence would not have brought the gang to justice or helped Sue and Thao, it simply would have created more violence. Walt decided to not take justice into his own hands, but to let God sort it out and in this way arrived at real justice. Perhaps we arrive at justice through the much harder route of self-sacrifice, not the knee-jerk reaction of violence.
Note: If you want a hearty theological and philosophical take on violence, justice and the Other read Miroslav Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace. It’s an incredible book.
March 15, 2011 § 7 Comments
There is something about watching a Miyazaki film that leaves you feeling overjoyed, exuberant even. His animation is beautiful, sparkling with little details that are often overlooked in most Disney movies. I recently watched My Neighbor Totoro (1988), one of Miyazaki’s earliest films, and it left another stunning impression upon me. Totoro is definitely one of Miyazaki’s most kid-friendly films, especially when compared with some of his darker films like Princess Mononoke (1997) and Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). This childlike feel, however, does not detract from the film, in fact, it adds an extra layer of amusement and meaning.
When watching a Miyazaki film, one must suspend a great deal of disbelief, especially as an American watching a film created by and for a Japanese culture. In Miyazaki’s films, as well as in other Asian cinema, the disconnection between the natural and the supernatural is blurred so often, that it almost doesn’t exist. Spirits, ghosts and gods are a part of everyday life and show up everywhere, even if sometimes you can’t see them. This is exactly the way it is in Totoro, from the very beginning. When Mei, Satsuki and their dad move into a new house in the country while their mom is in the hospital, Mei quickly becomes sad and bored, a natural thing for a five-year old girl. While her dad is studying, being a professor, and Satsuki (Mei’s older sister) is off at school, Mei quickly discovers these small bunny looking creatures, which lead her to Totoro. Totoro is a large, adorable creature that the film affectionately calls a “troll” and he shows up in strange places and eventually ends up helping both the girls adjust to their new life.
There are two things about Totoro that stood out to me personally as I watched the film. The first is in respect to the girl’s father. When Mei tells him and Satsuki about Totoro, he responds graciously without a hint of condescension, and even brings the girls to a shrine to offer thanks to Totoro. If this was an American movie, it would be obvious that the father is humoring his daughter if he told her that he believed what she experienced. Here, probably due to the way the Japanese culture looks at things like magic and spirits, the father is loving, giving his daughter the ability to believe in herself and encouraging her, instead of bringing her down. I hope to be that kind of father, one who takes his children at their words and lets them experience the world and use their imaginations without squashing them before they can flourish.
The other thing that My Neighbor Totoro captures so perfectly is the way that children look at the world and see it full of wonder and excitement. Whenever I see films that spark my imagination and draw me toward the wonders of this life, I ask myself why I forget that this world is full of so many amazing things. So often I am content to sit around inside, busying myself with work and “adult” things while outside the beauty of Creation is awaiting, willing to give me its treasures if I only take the time to see them. In Totoro, Miyazaki captures the childlike sense of wonder at the smallest things, and endues his fantastical world with sights and sounds that force us to use our imagination like the cat bus and Totoro flying on a top. It is this quality that makes My Neighbor Totoro a film that everyone should see, kids and adults alike. In fact, as much as this is a film for kids, it may do more to boost the ailing spirit of imagination and wonder in adults than it ever will for children.
This is part of the Japanese cinema blogathon. Please visit the links below to check out other great blog posts on Japanese cinema and consider donating some money to the Red Cross for relief efforts in Japan.
January 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
Fire. The word evokes long tongues of flame, yellow, orange and red, flicking back and forth through the night air. It follows no discernible pattern, untamed as it is, beckoning and threatening with its selfsame light and heat. Perhaps it is the mysterious quality of fire, its burning and comfort, that has so endeared it to the artist in his search for the perfect metaphor or simile to express the necessary emotion.
I recently watched The Road which tells the story of a Man (Viggo Mortensen) and his young Son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in post-apocalyptic America as they journey southward in search of a better place to survive. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is bleak, as grays, brown and blacks dominate the landscape, with the only respite being flashbacks to the time before the war started. In both the film and book, however, there is a ray of light that bursts through the clouds from time to time as the Man interacts with his Son, spurring him on throughout the many difficult times they have. Refusing to let hope die, the Man tells his Son to keep carrying the fire, the fire within his soul. Often it seems as if this fire, this hope, is the only thing that sustains our main characters.
Fire is such a potent metaphor for this internal hope, this endless struggle between perseverance and defeat. If one fails to keep stoking their fire, it will inevitably go out, weakly smoldering until it ceases to give off warmth or light, a pile of forgotten black ash that returns to the soil. Such is the human life, and without doubt all our fires will encounter this final dampening. But what is so horrific and disappointing is those, like the bandits in The Road, who have put out their fire before their deaths. They have squelched their flames and given in to the ceaseless drudgery and overwhelming brokenness of life, their ashes only awaiting the final scattering to the wind. I sense in The Road a fierce rebellion to this way of looking at life, even though the characters inhabit an America filled with even more reasons to abandon hope.
It is this fire that hip hop group The Roots sing of in The Fire on their latest album How I Got Over. Like The Road, How I Got Over is an album filled with tales of hardships and problems that refuses to forsake hope. Black Thought raps, sounding like he’s read The Road, “I’m an icon when I let my light shine, shine bright as an example of a champion…Burn like a chariot, learn how to carry it…Fuel to the flame that I train with and travel with…I realize I’m supposed to reach for the skies, never let somebody try and tell you otherwise.” It’s a fantastic song that urges us to never give up, even amidst struggles and difficulties, which will surely come in this life.
If you permit me to speak metaphorically, we all have this fire inside of us, burning to varying degrees. Hope is hard to find sometimes in this world, but it exists, and it is this hope that can sustain us in the darkest of times. Don’t let your fire be put out by the cares of this world, keep blazing. After all if we’re carrying this fire, let’s carry it well.