Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top 100 Movies: #90-81

90.   The Apostle
Trope: Sympathetic Murderer

89.   Stranger than Fiction
Trope: No Fourth Wall

88.   Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Trope: All Myths are True

87.   His Girl Friday
Trope: Belligerent Sexual Tension

86.   The Seventh Continent
Trope: Genre Busting

85.   Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
Trope: Ineffectual Sympathetic Villain

84.   50 First Dates
Trope: Relationship Reset Button

83.   F is for Fake
Trope: Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness

82.   Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Trope: Batman Gambit

81.   Cast Away
Trope: Companion Cube

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Experience, Interpretation and Film

Please watch this video:

Most of what Paul Bloom says here is familiar to me, having read it or having been portrayed in films I have watched.  Check out F is for Fake and My Kid Could Paint That for lengthier versions of a couple of the stories.

What was striking to me was his point that what is significant in the aesthetic is what we consider to be the "essence" of the art.  Origin narratives, vision of the artist, "cooties", what have you.   And I think a number of the arguments we have between film critics as to the excellence of a film has to do with what we consider their "essence", or the significance of the film itself.

But what I note is that, in the end, the reality of "essence" does not, in fact, exist.  Sure, we can see whether a film is using certain cameras, that it has certain themes, that some actors starred in it, or had a particular director.  But these facts are simply details that we use to support our idea of it's essence.  But the essence of the idea does not exist in the film itself, nor in the director's notes of the film, but in our imagination, in our beliefs.   A film is only good to us because we believe it is good, because we see something in the film that may be there, but only we would give it that value, or something that isn't there at all, but it is significant to us, nevertheless.

Thus, to write a review is not to declare a film "good" or "bad", but is, in the end, a reflection of our belief system.  I have a friend who attempts to distill our personalities from the list of our top 100 movies.  It's a party trick, but maybe it isn't so far off from reality.  But he might also need to have our bottom 20 to get a more rounded idea of what we believe about aesthetics.  But we should also see our reviews as personal statements, like NPR's "What I Believe" rather than journalistic statements of fact.

And what does that say about ALL of our experience? A movie is a certain kind of experience, but we interpret and give value to experiences every day.  We could say that our appendicitis is "bad" because we experienced pain, but perhaps that pain also helped us see and understand a strength or a weakness in ourselves and changed our outlook, thus it could be "good".  The person cutting us could be "bad" in a street fight, but "good" in an operating room, depending on what we see the motivation of the person is.  But we don't actually know their motivation. Perhaps the one in the street fight is trying to get us out and the surgeon is a masochist.   I'm not saying that such interpretations should be normative, but that it is our belief system that determines such interpretations, not necessarily the context.

Today I watched a film called "Kill the Poor" pretty much exclusively based on its name.  It was a better film than the name would indicate (and the title had nothing to do with the film, actually).  It is the story of a number of tenants in an apartment who had excessive judgments on one tenant based on inadequate evidence.  I kept thinking, "why are you assuming that?  You don't really know that it happened that way."  But characters in movies never listen to me.  And this is what happens with many of our experiences.  We allow interpretation to color the experience rather than experience determine the interpretation.

We do that with film as well.  I expect a certain kind of film when I watch a Eric Rohmer or a Stallone pic.  Lots of people expected something when they went to see this year's Brad Pitt/Sean Penn film.   And what we expect, or what little evidence we have colors our interpretation.  And that isn't bad.  It is what it is.  But that also means that we can't give solid value judgments on film.  I don't think I'd care for The Room, but many people gain a lot of enjoyment out of it.  We could put a value judgment of "bad" or "good" on it, but that doesn't really tell the whole story does it?  Rather, a description of our experience is the only adequate description of the film.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Top 100 Movies #100-#91

100.   The Godfather

99.   Metropolis

98.   Big Fish

97.   Synecdoche, New York

96.   A Scanner Darkly

95.   Wild Strawberries

94.   Dear Zachary

93.   Rachel Getting Married

92.   Paprika

91.   The Passion of Joan of Arc

An Introduction to My Top 100

For the next however many posts I'll be listing my top 100 movies.  Of course there will be pics, but also links to tropes for every film.  What does this all mean?

On my Top 100:
Most of you know that I've been working on updating my top 100 for more than a year.  I am only about half way through, but I feel like I can offer a temporary top 100 this year.  Of course, all top 100s are temporary, but I have a number of films that I removed from the list (like 2001 and Schindler's List) that I felt I was too far removed from my last viewing to give it a fair rating.

That said, I feel good about this list and wish I could have included more.  There are some canon standards in there, as well as some (like, say, Lilo and Stitch) which might come as a complete shock. I am often surprised myself at what stirs my soul.  I think my next year's list will be more solid, but I'm not holding back.  This is my list and I'll do what I want to.

On Tropes:
 A “trope” is a theme or concept that is used in many forms of media: television, film, comics, web videos, literature, etc.  A trope is really a narrative concept that is used again and again. 

About a week ago, as I was finalizing my top 100, my son forced me to look at the wiki TVTropes.org, all the while warning me how addictive it was. It is a description of thousands of tropes, along with a list of examples across various media.  It was wrong for him to do this to me, and he was right about the addiction.  So I thought I could share the addiction and include it in my top 100.  “How hard could it be” I mused, “to put a trope onto every one of my top 100?”  Well, it’s a week later and after spending most nights on this, I am done.  I am pleased with the result, and at least it’s a different way of doing a list.

The tropes I chose for the films sometimes represent the whole film, or sometimes it is a major part of the film or just a very obvious part.  I hope you have fun with it, but, whatever you do, 
Do not click    on any of    these links!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ain't Nothing But the Blue

A Review and Analysis of Three Colors: Blue

Have I ever told you that Krzsztof Kieslowski was a master of filmmaking?  I wish more people would see his films so more would recognize what a craftsman he really was. I don't think anyone should begin with my favorite, The Double Life of Veronique.  Perhaps some of his television show, The Decalogue. Perhaps A Short Film About Love, a film release of one of the stories of the Decalogue.

For myself, I started with Three Colors: Blue, and I was only mildly impressed by it at first.  It was so slow and didn't seem to have much of a plot. I didn't realize that Keislowski had a different style of storytelling, one that is uniquely suited to film.  He weaves all the aspect of film: the music, the characterization, the plot, the visual elements even the filter he uses in his cinematography, all of it is a symphony of a theme.  And like most symphonies, the theme may not stick out the first time you experience it.  How do you know if you want to listen to it again?  Because it won't leave you mind.  It has become a part of you.  And this is what happened to me with Blue.  The film haunted me.

It is the story of a woman dealing with her grief at the loss of her husband and daughter in a car accident.  Her grief is deep, caverns deep, but she cannot share it with anyone, so she isolates herself, trying to forget that she had ever had that life. However, life intrudes.

If you are not a fan of slow films, you will not like this movie at first blush.  However, it is not a slow film.  There is a lot going on in every scene.  What is happening is quiet, but it is powerful.  Allow yourself to be captured by it.

*        *         *

Spoilers below:

Of course, the Three Colors come from the French flag and it is well known that they are associated with the  three word motto: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.   Like Keislowski's TV series The Decalogue, each film deals less with a certain theme, but rather reflects the whole of the subject.  Is Blue about Fraternity?  Or Liberty?  Or some aspect of each?  It might be better understood that this film deals with the opposite of them all: Isolationism.

At the beginning of the film we know nothing about Julie or her family.  We see the accident, but we have no feelings about it because we know almost nothing about them.  We only learn about the family and their day to day life as Julie is trying to destroy it, which reminds me so much of Michael Heneke's The Seventh Continent.

The grieving wife and mother feels that she can only live her life isolated from all people.  She attempts to destroy everything of her old life, leaving only the blue glass lamp to remind her of what she gave up.  What exactly does the color blue represent?  Her family, her grief that she has tried to shut out, humanity, the pain of humanity?  Perhaps all of that.  Blue is everything she no longer wants in her life.

This doesn't mean that she doesn't wallow in that same grief.  Poignient scenes take place as she swims in the pool, drenched in blue light, the only place where she allows herself to grief, to weep.  But as soon as she is with others, she dries her whole self and is as stoic, as independent as ever.  She sees a man being beaten by a group of other men and she does nothing, even when he comes to her door and seeks asylum.  She pushes away all neighborly interest because she doesn't want to be involved.

But she can't keep everyone away. A street flute player catches her interest.  A talkative neighbor impresses herself upon her.  A man at the scene of the accident finds her.  And finally, an old flame seeks her out, attempting to pull her back to life and humanity.

It is interesting to compare and contrast this film with the previous film Keislowski made: The Double Life of Veronique.  Grief is also present in that film, although the protagonist doesn't know who she is grieving for.  But two other themes are interesting connections: music and sex.

In The Double Life, music is a symbol of the spirit, that which draws one away from the earth (some disagree with my interpretation of this, and I'm okay with them being wrong).  In Blue, music is strictly fraternal.  It is a symphony with many players, many writers, a score being written for the unification of Europe.  Julie attempts to destroy it, because it is a part of everything she no longer wants to be a part of.  But it survives, because it cannot help but survive.  Life on earth is about fraternity, about connection, about association. No one can escape it forever.  The most stringent hermit, such as The Desert Fathers or a Trappist Monk in a vow of silence, none of them are completely isolated.  Rather, recognizing the need of hospitality, they welcome all who come their way.  Even so, Julie, although at first irritated by human interruption, eventually welcomes it.

Sex is also an interesting theme in both films.  In the Double Life, sex is that which keeps one bound to the flesh, attached and associated.  At first, Julie wants to use sex to show that she is just the same as any other woman, unworthy of notice, thus easy to leave alone.  But sex in Blue is clearly shown to be connection, association, intimacy with others.  Julie's neighbor says, "I can't spend a night alone" and "Everybody wants to do this"-- while Lucille was crudely talking about sex, in the end what was really meant was connection and intimacy.  Everyone wants what Julie has shut out of her life-- even Julie, although she doesn't know it.

In the end, I think that Three Colors: Blue is a magnificent symphony on how we all go through periods where we demand loneliness.  Humanity, in times of deep depression, is too much work, too many demands, too much stress.  And if we can get isolation, we might enjoy it for a time.  But humanity always beacons us back.  We are always woven together with others and we can't escape it forever.  One of the most touching parts of the film is the finale when we see the many people Julie has touched, even during her period of isolation  and the full musical piece that she has been avoiding plays in the background.

Almost at the beginning of the film, she awakens in the hospital after the accident and we see a close up of her eye.  It is empty, even hollow.  At the very end, we see her eye again, but the center of it is filled with the man with whom she has just made love, the man who dearly loves her in return.  That, in a nutshell, is the theme of the film.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Personal Thoughts on Hunger

Watching Hunger (2008) is one of the most brutal experiences of my life.  I say this as a recommendation.

Hunger is the story of Bobby Sands, an Irish Republican put in prison for political violence against the British.  While in prison, he leads protests, demanding to be treated as political prisoners—POWs— instead of just criminals.  As the British refuse, he and his co-prisoners suffer the filthiest existence at their own hands.  And then they endure forced bathings and the most inhumane searches.  Finally, Bobby Sands decides on a hunger strike, for him and his comrades.  And the horror of that fast is depicted gruesomely.

Obviously, this is not a movie for everyone.  By the end of this film I began to wonder why I was putting myself through this torturous movie.  Then I wondered why the director put in all of this amazing effort, with some amazing filmmaking talent, to put us through this experience with Bobby.  It seems that Bobby is going through some of the most terrible self-torture, and for what?  Political recognition?  For the recognition of human rights, most of which were in their grasp at any point?  To make some petty point?

But I realized that this was not a political film.  The director depicts the suffering of the guards as well as the prisoners.  The fact how everyone’s life involved was simply miserable because of this system, because of the determination of these men.

Finally, I realized what the movie is about, at least for me.  Endurance.  It doesn’t matter what Bobby Sands was fighting for, or what methods he used.  The point is simple—he was willing to go to whatever extent to obtain his goals.  He had the steadfastness to put his body through any degradation, to suffer whatever the cost, to go through any pain or mutilation in order to achieve his goals.  The ethic nature of the goals weren’t significant.  But his determination was.

And, honestly, that’s what makes any cause great.  Not the rightness of the cause, but the stark determination of the promoters of the cause.  This is what made the civil rights movement great, as well as the Indian freedom protests—they were willing to suffer all, while not causing the suffering of anyone.  This is what made the early Anabaptists great, the early Franciscans, the first century church.  They all promoted their cause to the death, while never harming another.

I am ashamed of our modern day church.  How little determination we have.  How we speak so much about “balance” and “cycles”, as if the main text of Scripture we should be living out is not the Sermon on the Mount, but Ecclesiastes 3.  We speak of the “discipline” of rest, but the fact is our lives are full of rest and we do little work for those who honestly need it.  Pastors are the ultimate compromisers, seeking salaries and retirements and office hours, instead of trusting and giving. 

I know true endurance.  I once lived it.  For fifteen years, I worked hard for the people on the street until my body, slowly but decidedly gave up on me—until my stress levels exploded.  Surely, people would say, that is the need for balance.  And I will say, no one’s body is meant to endure terrible stress for twelve or fifteen years.  We just can’t keep doing it.  Even Jesus only dealt with daily suffering for three years or so.  However, I keep it up.  Perhaps my schedule and stresses aren’t as grueling as they used to be, but I’m still out there.  Somehow.

And this kind of endurance isn’t for everyone.  It is a saintly life to support the spiritual athletes and soldiers—those who lay down their lives for the cause.  But, honestly, we are in a time of the church where those who are willing to lay their lives down for the gospel are few.  Very few. 

What is the task?  To love others, even if it means our own death.
What is the cost?  Our lives, our sanity, our family, our balance.
What is success? To make other’s lives tolerable, even at the cost of our own life.

Who is willing to endure?

Who is willing to endure?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A Christian Read of Avatar

Ah, Avatar.  The current king of the box office, both in the U.S. and internationally.  Many critics found it uninspired, but pretty to look at.  I think it did what Science Fiction does well: allegorizing subjects that are difficult to talk about.  Just as Twilight Zone discussed racism, greed and hatred in short story form so Avatar takes the themes of Dancing With Wolves-- the plight of the aboriginal-- and sends it to another planet.  Only those who want to see the themes understand them.

I loved the story, myself, because it has a story that is ancient and hopeful, full of justice and mercy. Rather than giving a review, or an analysis, I am simply going to tell the story again, from the perspective of a homeless pastor, siding with the down and out, the oppressed and lowly, seeking justice. 

There is a empire, ruling the world, and its focus is to increase the wealth of a limited few, even if that hurts others. Everyone within the empire is a part of this system of greed, even if they superficially attempt to oppose it.

There is an alternative system which focuses on relationships, community and spiritual power.

The secret of the spiritual community is empathy. It is the sign that one is a part of the spiritual community, the unifying principle as well as the power. One has empathy with all life. Even if one must kill to survive, empathy requires that one feels the death of the other, and give it the respect that one would demand. The minimal amount of empathy is treating other’s life as one would be treated.

All empathy begins with understanding, with listening. Eventually, one can “see” another, deeply understanding the other, placing them as an equal in importance to oneself. Those who do not have the ability to understand, to empathize, are insane and cannot exist in the spiritual community.

But some relationships have deeper empathy, a full bond. In those relationships, two share their minds, their lives, their souls. And once bonded, the bond cannot be broken except through death. This is love.

The opposite to empathy, to bonding, is fear. To fear the other is to separate from the other. To listen to the other, one must receive the other; to accept the other, one must trust; to bond with the other one must unite.

Those of the empire cannot empathize. Yes, they can understand intellectually the other different from oneself, but they cannot truly see them as equals to themselves. They are so caught up in building their own empire for those like themselves, that they cannot see the other. So they outcast those who truly empathize, because the desires of empathy is opposite to the greed of the empire.

The evil empire wants the resources of the spiritual community and will ignore all the concerns of the spiritual community to get it. On the surface, the evil empire is more powerful than the spiritual community, and the spiritual community is in threat of extinction.

For the spiritual community to survive, there must be a mediator—one who knows what it is to be spiritual and one who has lived amidst the empire. He or she must be born of both worlds, but the Mediator does not straddle the fence. The Mediator must be on the side of the spiritual community, the weak, the oppressed, if they are to survive.

In the end, there will be conflict—disasterous conflict—between the empire and the spiritual community. And although the empire seems to have the greater power, the fact is that the spiritual community has a source that is at the core of all life. The only way to connect to that Source is through prayer. Thus, though the Mediator may use many different resources, the true power is found in prayer. Prayer is what changes the course for the spiritual community.

One must recognize, however, that the Source does not take sides between the empire and the spiritual community. The Source is on the side of all life, of order and balance. However, as long as the spiritual community is on the side of the Source, then the Source will act for them. And this action is more powerful than anything else they might conceive themselves.

Eventually, the spiritual community of empathy will rule the world and force the empire out. But this will only happen when the truly are united in Empathy. Only then will many in the Empire become united with the Source of all life, and seek balance.