Archive for the 'Movies' Category

Baa Baa Land

January 24, 2018

Two of the films I most enjoyed last year were Fog Line and La La Land. Imagine my delight when I discovered an unlikely mash-up called Baa Baa Land:

Yes, it’s eight hours long, and, yes, it’s in slow motion, and, yes, it’s nothing but grazing sheep. I have to see at least some of it.

Favourites of 2017: Film

January 8, 2018

This was another year in which I made an effort to get to know older films. The nice thing about older films is that there are so many of them, and, among the many, many good. But my tastes continued to skew recent, and the 10 films I’ve selected as my favourites from among those I saw this year are, mostly, of relatively recent vintage.

For want of a better method, I shall proceed alphabetically.

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A highlight of my year was undoubtedly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a surprisingly beautiful meditation on maternal love and sacrifice disguised as a nerdy puzzle about linguistics dressed up as an alien invasion movie. I loved the slow, atmospheric pacing, and how the film used familiar film conventions to surprise us with an unexpected story. I’m giving my personal Best Actress award to Amy Adams.

As usual with science fiction movies, there were some not quite coherent ideas at play, but by the time that become clear the film had become so rich and moving that it hardly mattered. My wife and I talked about it for a long time afterwards, and our conversation eventually came around to a discussion of the inner life of the Blessed Virgin. Any alien invasion flick that can do that earns top marks from me.

**

Some years ago I was at the National Gallery in Ottawa, wandering through the modern art section, looking at a pile of carefully laid out Cheezies, and at boards of plywood propped against the wall, and entertaining sobering thoughts about the end of civilization. For a respite I ducked into a small room in which a film was showing. There was one chair; I sat down. I watched some cows grazing in a field. I stayed about twenty minutes, until the film looped, and when I left that little room I was restored, and my faith in the continuance of civilization was revived. Indeed, more than that, I felt I was seeing the world with new eyes. That film of cows grazing in a field did it.

I was reminded of this experience as I watched Fog Line, a short film made by Larry Gottheim in 1970. It’s about 11 minutes long, and consists of one unbroken static shot of a valley in which fog is slowly drifting. At first one doesn’t see much, but almost imperceptibly the view changes. Trees are revealed and then concealed again. One sees grass, and notices, in time, a little shrub in the foreground. After a few minutes of this one’s thoughts begin to fasten on firmer fare than merely drifting fog. The world is a beautiful place, is it not? This valley scene has unfolded countless times before, without my knowing about it, and is no doubt unfolding still, and it’s all wonderfully, stupefyingly real, and new every morning. And bit by bit one’s mind trips up the ladder of being until it runs headlong into the gratuitous, unfathomable mystery of being itself. And that same mystery confronts us everywhere.

And all this on the strength of a simple, admittedly not very cinematic, just barely moving picture. Even so, I am grateful for the experience. Oh look, here it comes again:

**

Last year I praised La Sapienza, from director Eugène Green, as one of my favourites of the year. I liked it so much that this year I set about tracking down as many of his other films as I could. He had a new film in 2016, Le Fils de Joseph, and I also contrived to see Toutes les Nuits (2001), Le Pont des Arts (2004), and La Religieuse portugaise (2009). These are not yet all of his films, but they have given me, I think, a better idea of what he does.

I have had to revise, for instance, my interpretation of La Sapienza to some extent. In my reflections on that film, I placed particular thematic significance on the oddly unnatural acting style characterized by flat affect and muted intonation. It turns out that this same acting style is common to all of Green’s films, and so is probably not meant to convey all of the meaning I ascribed to it — unless the same significance is intended in all the films, which seems unlikely. In fact I’ve discovered that many of the directorial peculiarities I encountered in La Sapienza recur in his other films: symmetric compositions; a reliance on the gaze directly into the camera; an interest in architecture; patient filming of actors’ feet, which strikes me as a wry jest (and, perhaps, a self-depreciating reference to the comparisons made by critics between Green and Bresson, who showed a particular interest in hands); a cameo by the director; a musical flourish at the film’s opening and closing.

I’ve selected two of his films for this year-end discussion. Since they are not alphabetically adjacent, I would here run afoul of my alphabetical ordering, were I not cunningly grouping them together under G, for Green.

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St Augustine said, “My love is my weight.” It is my love that carries me through the world; it is my love that determines where I will go, and where I will end up. We can love the wrong things, or love the right things in the wrong way, and end up where we do not want to be. This is the condition of Julie, the lead character in La Religieuse portugaise (The Portuguese Nun), as it is your condition and mine. Julie is a French actress who is in Lisbon making a film. She has a series of encounters, mostly ephemeral romantic entanglements with men, but also, crucially, a conversation with one woman; these encounters first chart her spiritual topography, and then help her find her way out of the dark wood in which she has been lost.

In Lisbon she is drawn at night to a candle-lit church where a young nun sits quietly through the night before the tabernacle. When she finally speaks to the nun, who is already, in a way, her second self (for Julie is playing a nun in her film), she encounters a kindred soul of depth and understanding. What the nun, Sister Joana, says to her is essentially the Gospel: to find one’s life one must lose it; unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it brings forth no life; love means giving oneself away until there is nothing left, and only then does one find happiness.

It is notable that religion seems to be important to Green; I know nothing about his personal piety, but I think that all of his films (that I have seen) have at least one scene in a church, and Christian imagery and ideas permeate his work. This is particularly true of this film, in which the key scene takes place not only in a church, but actually at the altar, where a kind of spiritual marriage takes place between our actress and the nun. How many films even try to address a question like, “How can I receive God’s love?” And how many fewer can do so without being trite?

What is wonderful is that this elevated spiritual drama fits comfortably into a movie with a sense of humour. The film in which Julie is acting is directed by a man played by Eugène Green himself, and though the film is clearly not the film we are watching (this is not Adaptation), it bears a sufficiently close resemblance to permit Green to make good-natured jests about his own films: that they are intellectual, and boring, for instance. In the film-within-the-film the characters hardly say anything to one another, which is a nice foil for Green’s rather talky pictures. And a disco scene in which Green’s attempts at hipness fall flat is hilarious. “It’s so tiring to be hip,” he says the morning after. This must be why he avoids it.

*

Le Fils de Joseph (The Son of Joseph) is in some respects reminiscent of La Sapienza inasmuch as it explores relationships between older and younger people and is interested in the role of fathers, and father-figures, in the lives of young men. We follow a teenaged boy, Vincent, who lives with his mother but has only recently discovered the identity of his father, whom he then proceeds to try to meet. It’s a film in which Green’s peculiar combination of delightful wit, semi-metaphorical abstraction, and stylistic oddness come together in a particularly successful way.

Distinctive about this film are the Biblical motifs that pop up: the sacrifice of Isaac, the flight into Egypt, Mary and Joseph, the golden calf. Vincent finds himself, perhaps not quite entirely without his contrivance, enmeshed in a story saturated with Biblical typology. He is in the role of Issac, sacrificed by his father; in the role of Abraham, ready to sacrifice; as Moses, I suppose, observing the hedonism of those who are without God; and, finally, as the Christ-Child. What is going on? Is this a kind of metaphor for Providence, in which God reveals his presence in Vincent’s life using, as it were, tried and true signs? Is there something mystical at work in this film, which is stylistically so highly controlled and rational? Or, given Green’s penchant for whimsy, is it just that the director enjoyed dressing up an ordinary and sometimes tawdry tale in grand clothing? I admit I’m not sure; it is a film I’d definitely like to see again.

One last note: There is a scene in the middle of the film, of a performance of an early Italian opera in a church, that has a remarkably powerful numinous quality. It lasts maybe 5 or 10 minutes, and of course I cannot predict how it would affect anyone else, but for me it was like the rending of a veil, through which I caught a glimpse of an immense and powerful beauty. It was the best 5 or 10 minutes of cinema I saw this year, hands down. Eugène Green is a very good filmmaker.

**

My notes on La La Land were brief: “I need more films like this in my life.” It was the critical darling of 2016, and I think the plaudits were largely deserved. We can agree that it’s not in the same league as Swing Time, but it is refreshing to have a little song and dance in a big-time Hollywood picture.

The film has been criticized on the grounds that the protagonists, Sebastian and Mia, are both selfish and shallow. This is true, and is part of the point. The film’s epilogue, especially, is far from being a whimsical addendum, but is crucial to clarifying and completing the character arc of Sebastian, who sees, at last, what his selfishness cost him. I found the film quite touching, and I’m keen to see what Damien Chazelle does next.

**

With the possible exception of Chaplin’s City Lights — a very different film — I have never enjoyed a silent film more than F.W. Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), which has, for some reason, been given the English title The Last Laugh. It tells the story of an older man who loses his job as doorman at a luxury hotel, and thereby loses the one thing that, so he thinks, gives him dignity.

The film is remarkable because it has essentially no dialogue, and therefore none of the intertitles that normally appear in silent films. Instead, the story is told entirely through visuals, and so feels less like a technically-deficient movie (as silent films sometimes feel to me) and more like an avant-garde experiment, immersing the viewer completely in the visual medium — or nearly completely, because the film does have an incredibly beautiful score, one of the best I’ve ever heard, led by a warm cello, tragic and noble in the best late Romantic mode. I loved it. I have tried to discover the composer, and based on the IMDB page I believe it was probably (because, like many silent films, this has more than one score) Giuseppe Becce.

The film gradually moves toward its tragic finale, but it has a surprising epilogue in store. An intertitle appears, not to convey dialogue, but to inform us that though “the story should end here” it will instead take an implausible turn in order to provide the audience a happy ending. Our tragic hero suddenly inherits vast wealth and proceeds to indulge to excess, turning into a glutton and buffoon. The score follows suite, abandoning its solemn gravitas for superficial ditties. I don’t know why Murnau decided to include this epilogue — was it under pressure from the producers? If so, it’s a startlingly acerbic swipe at them, which, naturally, one can appreciate, but also at the audience, which one can tolerate, but also at his character, which flirts with misanthropy. It’s witty, in its way, but I think the film would have been better without it.

**

I’d not have thought that Bergman, who gave us this scene and this scene, would have the right temperament to direct a film of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, but I stand corrected. He brings out the joyful playfulness of the piece alongside its (also joyful) fearfulness, and the results is the best opera film known to me. The recognition scene with Pagageno and Pagagena, which was the only section I’d seen previously, is still my favourite part, but I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly, as did my kids (8 yo and 6 yo), who watched with me. Excellent singing throughout.

**

It is true that Manchester by the Sea was among the best films I saw this year, but it hits like a punch in the gut. The story is about Lee, a man crippled by grief and regret who is, nonetheless, haltingly and partially, trying to overcome them and live again. The troubles he faces are formidable and probably finally permanent, but still he labours to stay afloat. There are no easy answers, no easy roads back.

A reason to prize this film is Kenneth Lonergan’s direction; it was important that he find a way to tell this story without cheap emotional manipulation, and, given the nature of the story, the manipulation-meter had a hair-trigger. I expect he did it about as well as it could be done.

Something should be said about the music, which, for such a bleak story, is surprisingly warm and rich. Lonergan’s decision to use Handel’s “He shall feed his flock” at a crucial juncture struck me as a bold one, but it worked. The music said that all was not lost.

**

My liking for slow, quiet films brought me to Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 homage to the slow, quiet life. Paterson, who lives in Paterson, NJ, is a bus driver for Paterson public transit. He is husband to Laura, a quirky, earnest woman whom he loves with all his heart. And he is a poet, pausing each day, at bus stops or on breaks, to write poems in his notebook.

Paterson is something like Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith”, a man whose exterior life looks thoroughly ordinary but whose interior is dramatically alive. Unlike Kierkegaard’s knight, Paterson is basically content, appreciative, and patient, bearing his burdens humbly and grateful for the good in his life.

The film is about contentment, and is itself mostly content to be contented. Absent a great conflict, Jarmusch gives the film shape by following Paterson for a few days, and making the sequence of days analogous to a sequence of stanzas, each different from the others, but following a similar structure. It’s a nice example of unity in the manner and the matter of a story. At one point a calamity besets him; true, it might seem a small thing to an outsider — indeed, his wife is the only one to whom it would mean anything at all. (Bless her, she knows it.) But then he is visited by something very like providential grace, and a new beginning.

It’s a lovely film; quiet, observant, and gentle at heart, let down only by the rather poor poetry he writes. A formalist he is not. But it doesn’t really matter.

**

Good movies about religion are uncommon, and great ones are rare indeed. Werner Herzog’s little — at just 18 minutes long — and little-seen documentary Pilgrimage, from 2001, is somewhere in that range: not truly great cinema, for it makes limited use of cinematic resources, yet all the same it is one of the best films about religion that I’ve seen.

A mercy is that Herzog stays out of the way; we get no commentary or questions from behind the camera. Instead, the film consists entirely of shots of pilgrims at the tomb of St Sergei in Russia and at the Basilica of Guadalupe in Mexico. We see them at their devotions, praying, weeping, crawling on their knees; we see faith in its agony and ecstasy; we see humanity at its vulnerable, determined best, longing for the transcendent and willing to suffer and sacrifice just to touch the hem of that garment. The film showed me how very complacent and self-satisfied I am myself.

Of course the hazards of religious devotion are real and evident here, as a subtext, and why not? There is danger whenever we love something greatly.

There is a striking scene in which Herzog shows us pilgrims stopping, looking up, and making their devotions. Their faces are engrossing, their devotion beguiling. But he never shows us what they are looking at. (I have a guess.) Is it because he thinks it doesn’t matter? If so, we have here a notable and, I suppose, poignant example of a film about transcendence that is itself trapped in immanence.

***

As for films actually showing in 2017, I saw only a handful. Among those, I liked Spider-Man: Homecoming the most; it had the rarest of rare things in superhero movies — a good villain — and, anyhow, I have a weakness for Spider-Man. David Lowery’s haunting fable A Ghost Story was a close second. I saw Get Out, which is emerging as the critical favourite of the year, but I didn’t much care for it. I was greatly disappointed by Malick’s Song to Song, and I wish somebody could take away my sorrow.

***

Concluding Trivia

Shortest films: The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979) [3m]; Father and Daughter (2000) [8m]; Begone Dull Care (1949) [8m].

Longest films: Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) [3h11m]; Toni Erdmann (2016) [2h42m]; Silence (2016) [2h41m].

Oldest films: The Phantom Carriage (1921); Girl Shy (1924); Der letzte Mann (1924).

Best re-visits: The Tree of Life (2011); In the Mood for Love (2000); There Will Be Blood (2007).

Favourite animated film: Your Name (2016).

Favourite literary adaptation: Coriolanus (2011).

Favourite feel-good movie: Queen of Katwe (2016).

Most films by the same director: 4 (Eugène Green); 3 (Malick, Kubrick, Bresson); 2 (Scorcese).

Watched, but not remembered: Sullivan’s Travels (1941); Ninotchka (1939); My Man Godfrey (1936).

Disappointments: Close-Up (1990); Dr Strangelove (1964); Blade Runner (1982); Song to Song (2017).

Some Catholic films, briefly noted

December 19, 2017

I’ve been going over the list of films I saw this year, preparatory to drawing up a list of favourites. I’ve noticed that I saw a healthy handful of films that were, in one respect or another, about Catholicism. Some of these will make my Top 10 list, but today I am grouping together those that will not, with a few brief comments on each.

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Bresson’s Procès de Jeanne d’Arc (1962) follows the trial of St Joan of Arc, apparently with a relatively firm grounding in the surviving records. It cannot escape comparison with Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a contest from which it does not emerge triumphant. The problem, for me, was the flat — characteristically flat, I am tempted to say — visual and dramatic sense Bresson brought to the material. Although I did appreciate it, in the end I thought it would have worked about as well as a radio-drama, and that is surely not a compliment to a film.

I also saw Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), a film that I was primed to love, as I loved the book on which it is based, but my Bresson Blockade continued. Certainly scenes worked very well, but overall I found him cold as ice, despite a good lead performance. This is essentially a story about a man’s inner life, and to tell it through the medium of film is, arguably, to start with an insurmountable handicap. However, this is by reputation a great film; the fault is mine.

I watched The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima (1952) because of the anniversary of Fatima this year. It’s not bad, exactly. It has some sparkle, and I did appreciate Big Hollywood’s effort to make something to honour ordinary Catholic devotion, which is not something we can count on anymore. But it played much like an ordinary homily: pious, inoffensive, and, in the end, rather forgettable. One character was strikingly irritating. The film’s epilogue, showing real footage from a ceremony at Fatima in 1951, with a million pilgrims on hand, was for me the best part.

No Greater Love (2009) is a documentary that takes us inside a community of nuns in London, mostly during the events of Holy Week. We see them doing the ordinary work of the community: washing the floors, ringing the bells, ordering food, dancing. We meet several of the sisters in interview segments; they tell us something about themselves and about the challenges and rewards of the life they have chosen. All of this is excellent. The film is, unfortunately, marred by poor lighting and sound through much of the production. I’m still glad I saw it, but I wish it had been up to the exemplary standard set by its kindred predecessor Die Große Stille, which is this film’s superior in pretty much every respect.

I hardly know what to say about Silence (2016), a film that suffers many of the same troubling ambiguities and confusions as its source material, but which nonetheless, I think, deserves to be in a conversation about important religious films. It was moving, it was vexing, it nearly cracked under the strain, and so did I; a difficult movie to watch, and probably too long for its own good.

Set in Poland in the months after WWII, as the Allies were cleaning up and the Soviets were moving in, Les Innocentes (2016) centers on a convent of cloistered nuns who suffered horribly in the waning days of the war, and on a young French nurse who befriends and assists them.  The plot, beyond that setup, is best left quiet. Thematically it is a rich stew: God, evil, suffering, family, love, and compassion. The religious life is neither romanticized nor demonized; on one hand, some of the nuns have doubts, some even commit terrible acts, but others are devout and authentic in their faith, and their distinctive way of life is shown as one having its own integrity. My main reservation is that the film’s denouement draws a rather too-sharp contrast between the vocations of Mary and Martha, and is too ready to grant advantage to the latter. That said, it tells a compelling story about how good can come from evil, and is well worth seeing.

*

I expect to post my list of favourite films from 2017, including a few with Catholic themes, in a week or two.

Multi-Malick

February 17, 2017

When it rains, it pours. Earlier this week we got the first still from Terrence Malick’s forthcoming Radegund:

radegund-still

And then today the trailer for Song to Song (formerly called Weightless) was made available:

Song to Song will open the SXSW festival next month. Radegund is rumoured to have a 2017 release date as well. Come quickly.

Favourites in 2016: Film

December 30, 2016

Today I wrap up these year-end reflections by considering my favourites of the films I saw this year.

I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I don’t see movies until they are on DVD. For instance, I’ve seen only a couple of the films on this list of 2016’s best. Instead, I watched a lot of old movies this year, from the likes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krzysztof Kieślowski, François Truffaut, Frank Capra, and Charlie Chaplin. These are all great filmmakers, and no doubt those films were great too, but I’m still learning how to appreciate them, and the films I liked best — the 10 I’ve chosen to discuss in this post — are of recent vintage and generally less distinguished pedigree.

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By way of prelude: It will come as no surprise that the best film I saw in 2016 was, once again, The Tree of Life. In fact this year I enjoyed it even more than before, in part because I had several opportunities to think about it, both when I wrote about it at Light on Dark Water and when I read Peter Leithart’s book on the film.

treeoflifeclimb

But I propose to write today about films I saw for the first time this year.

***

brooklynA young Irish woman leaves her family to travel to New York, c.1950, in search of a better future. She slowly makes a life for herself state-side, but then events in Ireland draw her back, and she finds herself torn between two homes, and two competing visions of her future.

Yes, of the films I saw for the first time this year, and if plentiful tears are anything to go on, my favourite was Brooklyn. I am a little surprised at this, because unlike some of the films I’m going to praise below, this is pretty much by-the-book movie-making. It has no grand ambitions, no particular sense of style, and no philosophical overtones. But what it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan has a quiet but commanding presence, and that Irish lilt is irresistible. (Not since Jennifer Ehle was Elizabeth Bennett have I been so ready to fall in love with a leading lady.) It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

***

My favourite comedy of the year was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially — with a notable exception — are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to Stillman’s comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

Beckinsale dominates the film, but the supporting cast is good. The amiable fool Sir James Martin stands out as a particularly wonderful character; a cheerful idiot whose good intentions leave him ill-prepared to contend against Lady Susan’s wiles; he is played with hilarious volubility by Tom Bennett.

Love & Friendship has its laugh out loud moments, but it’s also a film that has humour in its very bones: in a sense, everything in the film is funny, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and the tone. Even the music, which has been judiciously chosen and carefully integrated into the action, has a comedic role to play. The whole package is highly enjoyable. Decidedly enjoyable. Not unenjoyable at all.

*

My runner-up comedy is 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, a war-time film about the Nazi invasion of Poland that dared to make the Nazi war machine the subject of farce. One can still sense the dangerous edge of the humour, and apparently the film did offend viewers when first released. But it is easier now to appreciate how well the film is made, to enjoy how delightfully funny it is, and to admire the chutzpah of those who made it.

***

Several films caught my eye this year partly on account of their unusual formal elements.

Dietrich Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), from 2014, follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Bruggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and that ‘almost’ is key. On one level the film is not really, per se, about this fringe sect, but about the hazards encountered by any group that finds itself positioned against a majority while trying to retain its own intrinsic nature and culture. The issue is not about whether they are right to resist the larger culture — and this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be, fraught with loneliness and isolation, and fringed with risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s a potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

***

Personal sacrifice also plays an important role in La Sapienza (2014), from writer/director Eugène Green, albeit in a different way and with very different results. The film introduces us to Alexandre, a successful architect who, in the midst of honours bestowed upon him, finds he regrets the principles he has followed in his art. He resolves to travel to Italy to study the works of Borromini, the idol of his younger days. His wife, from whom he is very nearly estranged, comes with him initially, but, as it falls out, it is instead a young man, a budding architecture student, who accompanies him to Rome.

Rome! Over the years I’ve tracked down quite a number of films made in the Eternal City simply for the pleasure of watching the backgrounds, but never have I encountered, or even hoped to encounter, a film that puts the city on such loving display as does La Sapienza. The camera fairly caresses the marble facades, and the viewer is invited to bask in the many beauties on display. To call it magnificent is to undersell it.

But the film is more than surfaces: Green, though the adoption of a whole battery of highly unusual conventions in perspective and acting style, asks us to contemplate the depths that surfaces conceal, and to entertain the thought that beauty might be more than just in the eye of the beholder. It is a film that slowly creates around itself a space in which mysterious currents of the spirit flow. It’s rather profound and very lovely, and is unseen, I believe, by almost everyone. (Again, I’ve written a brief essay about it for Light on Dark Water.)

***

As great as are the challenges posed by these last few films, they pale when set beside Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor that, after several viewings, has left me with the sense that I have still only dimly understood it.

The difficulties don’t lie in the basic structure of the film, which is clear enough: we follow Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, explicitly so, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

Many reviewers have said that the film is about the superficiality of Hollywood, but this commits the error of taking literally a film that, it seems to me, takes place almost entirely on an analogical or metaphorical plane. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells. Hollywood comes into it only because fairy tales work best when the contrasts are bold and consistent, and nothing says pomp and empty promises like Hollywood.

The difficulties of the film lie not in its structure, then, but in its manner. Malick’s recent stylistic hallmarks, following on from To the Wonder, are presented undiluted: almost no on-screen dialogue — and what little there is is often sunk into the mix and made unintelligible — intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, discontinuous editing, and — a saving grace — gorgeous cinematography. The images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is often difficult to discern: waves on a shoreline, a city skyline, a road, Rick and one of his (many) girlfriends circling one another, the sun, a swimming pool. It seems to follow a dream logic (and indeed we are told in the first minute of the film that, like Pilgrim’s Progress, it will be “delivered under the similitude of a dream”). This dream aspect allows Malick to mix realism and visual metaphor with gusto. When Rick, at a strip club, crawls into a gilded cage, we understand that a point is being made, and the point is clear. When he stands at a fence gazing at a line of distant palm trees the point may be less evident, until we remember that someone had earlier told him, “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.” But is this the “possible” of formless self-invention or the authentic “possible” of escaping unreality for reality? Palm trees are trees, tall and thin, which in Malick’s visual vocabulary usually makes them signs of transcendence, reaching instinctively toward the sun.

This call of the transcendent will not leave Rick alone. It seems always present, like the distant roar of the ocean, recalling him to himself especially in his moments of greatest debauchery and aggrandizement. Even when he hears it, however, and even when he heeds it, he faces a recurring question: “How do I begin?” His life’s rotating door for beautiful women testifies to his confusion, for in eros he perceives an intimation of the reality he seeks, though more often than not he mistakes the sign for the reality itself. At one point we hear in voiceover an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which feminine beauty is said to remind the soul of the wings which it has lost, evoking in it a desire for flight.

He does eventually begin to recover the thread of his quest, spurred to a significant degree, it seems, by an act of violence that disturbs his restless reverie. He begins to take an interest in meditation, he visits a priest, and, eventually, in one of the more purely metaphorical scenes, he sets foot on the lower slopes of a steep mountain. The resonances with Sinai and Purgatory are very much intended, I expect.

The texture of the film is complex, right down to the sound design. There are moments when there are 3 or even 4 layers of audible “action” occurring at once: on-screen dialogue, interwoven voices of different characters musing to themselves, a narrator, along with music or other sounds. A distinctive feature is that there is almost always a low hum present in the soundtrack; true silence is rare. And this hum is ambiguous, for sometimes it turns out to be the sound of wind or, as I have said, of waves on the shore, but at other times it becomes the sound of a passing car or airplane. It thereby co-operates in one of the film’s leading formal strategies, which is the contrast of the natural world, understood as God’s world, with the textures of modern urban life, the quintessential city of man.

My principal reservations about Knight of Cups pertain to the visual strategy, and in particular to the seemingly disconnected way in which the images sometimes succeed one another. I’ve already conceded that there may be a governing symbolic logic to these sequences, but is the viewer sufficiently tutored in that logic as to able to follow it? A truly great filmmaker should not waste a shot, and while I am convinced that Malick is certainly a great filmmaker, there were moments in Knight of Cups where I was not sure it was a great film, and precisely on these grounds. My jury is still out. The film requires thoughtful attention.

I want to link to two very good essays on the film. At Mubi, Josh Cabrita explores the Christian themes in Malick’s films generally and in Knight of Cups in particular, and at Curator magazine Trevor Logan considers the film from a specifically Kierkegaardian point of view.

***

Successful filmmakers are talented people, and it stands to reason that they might have put those talents to uses other than making movies. Are movies worth committing one’s life to? This is the question explored by the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar!, an introspective but witty and appreciative look at the means and ends of movie-making. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it follows a studio executive (Josh Brolin) who has his hands full dealing with the personal foibles of his stars, the intrusive probings of the press, and the many challenges of putting a picture together, all the while pondering an offer to move out of the movie business and into a more practical and respectable line of work. It’s a paen to old-time movies — the Coens take us on set of a number of different productions, but rather than giving us a cursory look they, rather affectionately one feels, let each scene play out in its entirety before moving on — and a good-natured satire on Hollywood too, with bubble-headed big stars in one corner and coteries of Communists hatching dark conspiracies in another. Tonally it’s an odd duck, with farcical elements playing on the surface but serious questions about the value of art underneath. Nevermind, though; the Coens can handle it. Noteworthy are a number of fantastic bit parts played by Scarlet Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes (whose comic turn as drawing-room drama director Laurence Laurentz is a riot). It’s not quite the greatest story ever told, but it comes closer than you might think.

***

The best horror film I saw this year (from a small sample) was The Witch, the debut of director Robert Eggers. I’ve heard it said that the principal challenge of directing a film lies not so much in the technical aspects, nor specifically in working with the actors and the cameras, but in maintaining a tonal consistency throughout the process, so that the finished product comes to the screen feeling organically put together. Based on this criterion, Eggers is to the manner born. His film rests largely on precisely this careful calibration of tone to generate and maintain suspense. Much of the success of the movie is presumably due to his careful preparation; I understand he gestated this project for several years, doing a great deal of background work to bring the authentic textures of seventeenth-century New England life, including the distinctive cadences of their speech, to the screen.

The movie, which is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, is about a Puritan family, banished from their community, trying to establish a new farm in a hard-scrabble wilderness on the edge of a great forest. (The location, in all its glorious desolation, was filmed not all that far from where I live.) They experience a series of strange and increasingly disturbing events that hint at the activity of a malevolent supernatural force dwelling in the forest, and the movie follows them as they do their best to contend against it. It’s a slow movie, heavy on atmosphere and dread, that, at least for most of the runtime, keeps its secrets under wrap.

The film has faults. I have particular reservations about the acting of one of the characters (I shant say which), and, like many people, I have some doubts about the way Eggers chose to end the film. However when first I saw it my principal objection was this: in the world of this movie the power of evil is palpable and effective, but the power of good seems impotent. Prayers for safety and deliverance fall, for all we can tell, into the void, and all the while something definitely not imaginary is encroaching on this family’s peace. This is not only a theological problem, but a dramatic one, for there can be no contest of good and evil if goodness is absent. However when I reflected on the initial setup of the story — that this is not simply depicting a Christian family, but a family that has been cast out from the Church — then in a curious way their impotence before the evil that confronts them might be interpreted as a reaffirmation that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But this still doesn’t solve the dramatic problem.

***

George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) is a superb psychological thriller about a man whose wife goes missing while they are on holiday. Part of the tension of the film relates to what happened to her, but much of it is focused on the husband left behind. How can he carry on with his life without knowing what become of her? What would he do if she came back? Can he let her go? What would he do to find out what happened to her? At its heart it’s a love story, and a rather convincing one. It is also a study in the psychology of evil, for we spend much of the film observing a third character who is up to no good. Sluizer’s direction is unobtrusive and perhaps a bit flat, though there are a few key shots that use the camera very effectively.

The Vanishing is sometimes classified as a horror film. I knew this going in, but was puzzled as I watched, for it didn’t seem to have any horror elements at all. But no: having seen it to the end, it earns its horror film credentials, in spades.

Note that I’m praising here Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-language film (also called Spoorloos). He re-made the film in English in Hollywood in 1993, but that version I hear is dreadful (and not in a good way).

***

The Hunt is a 2012 Danish film that depicts what happens to a small, closely-knit community when one of its members is accused of a terrible crime. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) helps at his village’s kindergarten, but his life becomes a nightmare when he is (wrongly, as we the viewers know from the start) suspected of sexually assaulting one of the children. This is dark subject matter — though not so dark as if the allegations were true — but it nonetheless makes for riveting drama. Friendships rupture, fear and mistrust spread through the community, and Lucas, of course, is ostracized and personally devastated.

The film is notable not just for its exploration of personal relationships subjected to intense strain, but for its implicit criticism of well-intentioned “zero tolerance” policies. So much that goes wrong in this village goes wrong because “best practices” are allowed to replace prudential human judgment. Naturally, such policies and practices are intended to promote justice, but The Hunt illustrates how easily the opposite can result.

***

Rounding out my Top 10 is About Elly, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It was originally made in 2009 but only got an international release in 2015, and I caught up with it this year. It’s a stunner.

The story is about a group of families who go together to a beach-house for the weekend. One of the families invites their child’s teacher, Elly, to come along as a guest. The first half of the film is a loose study of how this group of people interact with one another, how certain personalities dominate, what they think of one another, and how they include or subtly exclude their guest. With deft use of foreground and background and reliance on multiple overlapping conversations it feels like a Robert Altman masterclass, while also preparing us for the film’s crucial sequence.

In that sequence, which occurs at about the mid-point, something happens (which I’ll not reveal); when it is over Elly is gone and no-one is sure where. The second half of the film is then a drama exploring how all of those relationships we learned about in the first half change under stress. We are shown the devastating power of lies, and the film finally arrives at a point where the duty to tell the truth is surpassingly clear and pressing. It’s a terrific movie.

***

Brief thoughts on other films

Apart from the few runners-up already indicated, I also enjoyed this year the CGI-animated The Jungle Book, though it’ll not replace the 1967 film in my affections, and the documentary The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing from Joshua Oppenheimer, a man with a fair claim to be the world’s bravest filmmaker. I saw Spotlight, Best Picture winner at the 2016 Oscars, and while I thought it was quite good, and appreciated its willingness to tell its story clearly and soberly, it wasn’t as good as its model, All the President’s Men (1976), which I also saw this year. Other highlights for me were the harrowing escape drama Green Room, with Patrick Stewart a superb villain, and the off-beat but delightful Bird People, about … bird people.

*

In the waning days of the year I was unexpectedly able to see Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. This film has been released in two versions: a 90-minute version for regular theatres and a 40-minute version for IMAX theatres. It was the latter that I saw, at our local science centre, with two of my kids and a crowd of holidaying families. This was a bit like going to Disneyland and finding an exhibition of Rembrandt and Titian. My guess is that few of those present were expecting this contemplative, philosophical pondering of what natural history tells us about the universe and ourselves. Malick wonders about the origin of being, about whether consciousness preexists created minds, and whether it is love that animates and unites the natural order. The film is visually stunning — imagine a longer version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life — and the music, dominated by Mahler 2, Arvo Pärt, and the Mass in B Minor, is superb.

I loved it. I must say, too, that I was proud of my kids (5yo and 7yo), who were fully engaged with it throughout. Eldest Daughter’s favourite part was a quiet moment in which the camera floated gently down a stream between high canyon walls — a lovely moment, to be sure — and Eldest Son’s favourite part was the space shuttle launch — in truth, this was part of the pre-film demonstration of the IMAX theatre’s sound system, but he did very well. Now, if only I could see the longer version…

*

Did you see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films? I suffered through the first two but dodged the third. But this year I learned that an enterprising fan had edited the trilogy to exclude anything not in the book, which cuts the run-time in half. This Tolkien Edit I did see, and while I would not quite call it good, it was decently enjoyable, and certainly far superior to the theatrical versions.

***

Miscellanea

Oldest films: Dante’s Inferno (1911); Safety Last! (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Newest films: Voyage of Time: IMAX (October); The Conjuring 2 (June); The Jungle Book (April)

Most films by the same director(s): 4 (Coen Brothers & Terrence Malick)

Longest films: The Right Stuff (1983) [3h13m]; Magnolia (1999) [3h08m]; Fanny and Alexander (1982) [3h08m]

Shortest films: World of Tomorrow (2015) [0h17m]; Night and Fog (1955) [0h32m]; Voyage of Time: IMAX (2016) [0h40m]

Started, but not finished: Dazed and Confused (1993), The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Disappointments: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Safe (1995), The Right Stuff (1983)

Films I failed to understand: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); La double vie de Véronique (1991)

Most egregious foregrounding of bad music: Sing Street (2016)

Best hagiography: Jean la Pucelle (1994)

Scariest goat: The Witch (2015)

***

And that, more or less, was my year in movies. Comments welcome!

La Sapienza

December 15, 2016

la_sapienza_poster

I wrote a final contribution to the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water, this time about the 2014 film La Sapienza. When you take pictures of buildings, do you like them to be symmetric? If so, you’ll probably like this movie.

My other contributions to this series have been on The Tree of LifeMagnolia, and Stations of the Cross. Those aren’t the films I volunteered to write about at the beginning of 2016, but that’s how it turned out. It has been fun to be involved in this series, from which I’ve learned about quite a few interesting movies.

Stations of the Cross

November 9, 2016

I’ve written another contribution to the 52 Movies series at Light on Dark Water. This time the movie is Stations of the Cross, a very interesting 2014 film from German director Dietrich Brüggemann.

Despite its formal elegance, the film occupies a messy middle-ground in which a combination of personal, social, psychological, and spiritual elements combine to turn religion toxic. Exactly what those elements are, and in what proportion they matter to the outcome, is unclear. There is much to ponder.

Read the whole thing here.

Things blight and beautiful

September 30, 2016

A few brief noteworthy items:

  • The Tragically Hip have been on tour in Canada, a final, farewell tour that was organized after frontman Gord Downie announced that he has brain cancer. Non-Canadians probably don’t understand the place of The Hip in Canadian pop culture: a band that at least aspires to art, that has nonetheless been consistently popular here, but a band that never made it big outside our borders. I am not a huge fan, but I will be sorry to see them go, and naturally I wish Downie and his family well. That said, the laudatory coverage of this final tour in the Canadian press has been a bit hard to take at times, and I admit I was rather grateful for this high-spirited critique of their “spasmodic non-sequiturs and salvos of blurry amplification”.
  • For the opposite of blurry amplification, check out this charming video of Boris Giltburg, who found an upright piano in a train station and decided to pass the time by tinkling a few keys. (The music is the middle section of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7.) Isn’t music a wonderful thing? (Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
  • Speaking of beauty, an interview with Peter Kwasniewski reviews a century of Catholic teaching on sacred music and argues that the beauty of our worship should be a central concern for Catholics:

Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God.

  • A few years ago I reviewed Robert Reilly’s wonderful book Surprised by Beauty, an alternative history of twentieth-century music that focused on composers loyal to tonality and dedicated to making something beautiful. A new edition of the book, much enlarged, has just been issued, and here is a good interview about it. I hope to get this book for Christmas.
  • Terrence Malick’s new film, Voyage of Time, is set for wide release soon. I missed seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m determined to see it once it hits theatres. Early reviews have been mixed: Richard Brody at The New Yorker loved it, Ben Croll at IndieWire hated it, and I’ll just have to see it for myself. Here is the trailer:
  • The title of this post promised blight. The other day I walked past the north side of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum:royal_ontario_museum

***

For an envoi today, let’s hear one of The Tragically Hip’s best songs:

Films of the new century

August 31, 2016

The BBC polled a reel of film critics and assembled a list of Top 100 films of the 21st century (so far). I find such lists irresistible.

My first observation is a personal one: because I don’t have a great deal of time to watch movies I try to be discriminating when choosing one, and, to judge by this list, I have not been doing too badly in that respect. To wit: I’ve seen two-thirds of the films on the Top 100, including 24 of the top 25. It’s gratifying to know that I’ve not been wasting my time — not utterly, anyway.

The fact that David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive came out on top has raised some eyebrows. The first time I saw it I was befuddled — a not uncommon reaction, I think, and no doubt I was even more befuddled than most. After my next foray I was dazzled by its brilliance; Naomi Watts’ performance, in particular, I thought one of the best I’d ever seen. But when I returned to bask again I found it a mess; I simply couldn’t make sense of it, and that unnerving Lynchian magic seemed to be gone. I still love Naomi Watts in the lead role, but right now I’m pretty sour on Mulholland Drive. Perhaps I need to see it yet again.

I was delighted to see Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love take second place. Has anyone actually seen this film? It’s an unusual love story, saturated with an elegiac tone and filmed with stupefying beauty. I’ve been meaning to go back and watch it again, and perhaps its high ranking on this list gives me the occasion I’ve been looking for.

Naturally, there are some head-scratching elements. How did Yi Yi (#8) crack the Top 10? Sure, it’s a lovely film, but I wouldn’t have thought it Top-1o material. The high placement of Linklater’s Boyhood (#5) annoys me, as does the mere appearance of The Social Network (#27).

I wonder which directors have the most films in this Top 100? I see the Coen Brothers have three (#10, 11, 82), as do the Andersons (P.T. at #3, 24, 75, and Wes at #21, 68, 95). And Michael Haneke (#18, 23, 42) and Christopher Nolan (#25, 33, 51) are in that elite group too. I count 5 animated films on the list, 4 of which are from Pixar. Well, they deserve it.

**

As an envoi, I’ll propose my own Top 10. As it must be, this is a rather personal selection. In rough descending order, and with the corresponding placement on the BBC list in parentheses, I vote as follows:

The Tree of Life [Malick, 2011] (#7)
No Country for Old Men [Coens, 2007] (#10)
Die große Stille [Gröning, 2005] (-)
Остров [Lungin, 2006] (-)
Adaptation [Jonze, 2002] (-)
Ida [Pawlikowski, 2013] (#55)
In the Mood for Love [Kar-wai, 2000] (#2)
Sudoeste [Nunes, 2011] (-)
Kill Bill [Tarantino, 2003/4] (-)
Brooklyn [Crowley, 2015] (#48)

Some others that might have made the list on another day: The New World (Malick), 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Mungiu), The Secret World of Arriety (Yonebayashi/Rydstrom), The Departed (Scorcese), Gosford Park (Altman), Stations of the Cross (Brüggemann).

Yonder and yonderer

August 10, 2016
  • The bump that launched a thousand papers was just a statistical anomaly, says CERN. The world of fundamental physics research may well be finding itself in the nightmare scenario.
  • Damian Thompson critiques the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ concert series, arguing that the prejudices of its planners undermines its interest.
  • Ever wonder if there might be something more to Brexit than raw xenophobia? Roger Scruton — make that Sir Roger Scruton — makes a number of good points about the possible motives of ‘Leave’-ers.
  • David Warren writes in brief appreciation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The always wonderful Whit Stillman has a new film, Love & Friendship, based on a little-known Jane Austen novella. Stillman and Austen: it’s a match made in heaven.
  • Speaking of films, rumours are that Terrence Malick’s next project (after this fall’s Voyage of Time and next year’s Weightless) will be Radegund, about the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector and martyr under the Nazis.
  • Giving the lie to the notion that the Vatican moves slowly, the modest suggestion from Robert Cardinal Sarah that Catholic priests of the Roman rite return to the customary practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem received a rapid slap-down from high-ranking Vatican prelates, including the Pope. The reasons for this are worth thinking about — try this or this, for starters — but in the meantime I recommend reading Cardinal Sarah’s full address, which is quite beautiful.
  • Rowan Williams has written a play in which he dramatizes a meeting between St Edmund Campion, a Catholic martyr under Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, a possibly-maybe-recusant Catholic. It’s an interesting choice of subject matter for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to say the least. The play, entitled “Shakeshafte”, is playing in Swansea, Wales, and neither you nor I will get to see it.
  • Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Faber & Faber, and received in response a rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot.