Thursday, December 29, 2011

Melancholia: Review and Analysis

I haven’t watched a lot of films by Lars Von Trier.  I still haven’t seen his possibly most popular work with Bjork, Dancer in the Dark.  But in the few films I have seen by him, I know this:  Von Trier isn’t about subtlety.  He aims his 2 x 4 straight across the jaw, just to make sure you get it.  Yet this film, as opposed to many of his others, had many subtle touches and was a truly human film, filled with human touches.  The two main characters don’t represent Woman, but are characters we can recognize and appreciate, as extreme as some of their actions may seem.

This is also possibly Von Trier’s most beautiful film.  The first five minutes of surrealistic shots, almost stills, took my breath away.   And though the film then moves quickly into narrative, it is still filled with the most gorgeous shots.  The lighting of the reception moving outside to the grass, the shot of Kirsten Dunst bathing in the light of the coming planet… all gorgeous.  And  Wagner’s score from Tristan und Isolde over it all just inhances the beauty.  Honestly, if you want me to love a film, make it surrealistic, with an amazing score and throw in beautiful images—yeah, it’ll be one of my favorites.

One of the most surprising things about this film is that though it is all about depression—we get that from the title—yet it is not depressing.  It is filled with humor, beauty, and even hope and joy.  Sure, it’s about the end of the world, but that doesn’t mean it has to be sad.  More about depression in the film in the analysis.
A much more straightforward film than Antichrist, but covers some of the same themes, about depression and nihilism.  I think this film might be the key to really “getting” Antichrist, which I will watch again to get the idea of it.  If I finally “get it” then I’ll write my findings in a new post.

Overall, Melancholia was a marvelous experience, excellently acted and brilliantly conceived.   I cannot recommend it to everyone.  If you have had no experience with depression or have never struggled with being overwhelmed by life, perhaps you wouldn’t appreciate it.  But for me, it was an amazing experience, and one I want to have again.  5/5

Below is my analysis of the film, including spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the film, I recommend not reading it until after you’ve seen the film.

As I was leaving the theatre after seeing Melancholia, I heard one woman say to her companion, “That was so stupid.”  And I could understand why.  After all, the film ends with Earth being destroyed and flames engulfing the audience, and finally, complete silence.  This isn’t subtle, nor is it an ending where you have to decide whether it is happy or unhappy.   Frankly, the film makes it clear: it just is.  This is reality.  For many people, this is simply silly.  They have never experienced the end of their world, nor dealt with the depression in which such an end is inevitable.  To end the film in this way is a slap in the face to their sensibilities, a pointless exercise in nihilism. 

But part of what the film communicates is that melancholia is a state of mind, an “illness” that cannot be gainsaid.  Either you have had this state as an experience or you haven’t.  If you haven’t, then such thinking is “stupid”, overdramatic and a rejection of reality.  But if melancholia is a part of you, then it is just how reality looks.   The end is truly nigh, and our body just is preparing for the inevitable.

What is exactly meant by melancholia?  In the ancient world, a melancholic personality is one who has too much of a certain “humor” (or fluid) in the blood.  The melancholic personality is introverted and creative, and when one develops too much of the humor that creates such a personality, then such a person becomes isolated, lack energy and depressed.  This is an early form of what today we call clinical depression.   Technically, clinical depression is usually caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain, which causes one to no longer feel pleasure in everyday experience.  This causes lethargy and a lack of energy.  Such a lack of serotonin can also cause one to be anxious, inflating little fears to inaction.   Depression is sometimes a way of the body indicating that it has had enough stimulation, and that it needs rest.  In chronic depression, the body never catches up on the “rest” it needs, and the victim can spend his or her time sleeping, staying away from people and hiding from anything that might cause stress or stimulation.

Von Trier adds one more layer to melancholia that isn’t usually found in ancient medicine or modern psychology: a philosophical side.  Attached to lack of energy, introversion, and creativity is a nihilism—a confidence that there is, in reality, no hope for life.  All life will end and there is no life or spiritual force that will replace that life when it is gone.   It is true that such hopelessness often accompanies depression, but it isn’t a necessary component of it.  However, what does accompany such depression is a satisfaction that life will end, because once life is over, then so is the stress and one can finally rest.

Obviously, Justine is the melancholic, the focus of the film—and the representative of Von Trier himself.  She has all the indicators of all the layers of melancholia, and Part I lays out exactly what such a condition is.  Justine, is in the midst of the “happiest day of her life” and it is clear that everyone expects her to—nay, demands that she— be happy.  But happiness is not in her nature, and frankly, such a social event with so much planning and detail is a clear trigger for a depressive event, demanding more energy than a melancholic has.  Everyone is disappointed with her, but she has no reserves to meet everyone’s demands.

Finally, she escapes the stress by undermining her entire life.  She publicly has sex with a visitor to the wedding, thus ending her short marriage.  She deeply and publicly insults her boss, thus ending the promotion he just gave her.  The only relationships she retains are those that give her comfort:  her father (who runs from her) and her sister.   In this way, she ends her own world, allowing the thoughts of the inevitability of such an end have their self-fulfillment.  Now she can rest.  There are no more demands.  Disaster is not something to fear, but it is to be embraced.  It is the end which is best met quickly and on one’s own terms.

In Part II, the focus changes.  Now it is about the impending disaster of the planet Melancholia coming to destroy the Earth.  For the characters, there is some ambiguity as to whether the planet will hit, but for us, who has already been given a preview of the event at the beginning of the film, there is no question, and the horses agree with us—the end is inevitable.

There are four responses to this impending doom.  The first is Justine’s.  She is not surprised by the end of all life, she not only expected it, but is content with such an end.  “The Earth is evil” she says, and so it is worthy that all life be destroyed, to be replaced with nothingness.  The funny thing is, that while pressures were being put upon Justine in the first part of the film that she couldn’t deal with, the only truly evil actions in the film are hers (except, perhaps, for John’s selfish end).  “Evil” then, must be a personal definition, not a moral one.  The Earth is evil to her because she can’t deal with it. 

Because of this attitude and approach to crisis, Justine is supremely able to deal with the ultimate crisis.  Her whole life has been in preparation for this very moment, in being able to deal with the ultimate disaster.  She creates the idea of a “magic cave” which will protect them from the coming disaster.  Of course she knows that such a protection doesn’t exist.  But she creates it to ease the anxiety of those around her.   The cave is much like the isolation that she participated in to shield herself from the end of her life.

I think that this is how Von Trier sees existentialism and probably religion.  They are necessary fictions to help the normal human deal with the inevitable, impending disaster.  This is not unlike Jean-Paul Sarte’s view of reality: Nihilism is fact, but we cannot live as if there is no hope or meaning to life.  Thus we have to create fictions, commitments to life, that we surrender ourselves to completely.  It doesn’t delay the inevitable, but it makes life easier to bear in the meantime.

The second response, which is the opposite of Justine’s, is John’s.  He is completely optimistic, he is absolutely confident that life will continue on as normal.  This crisis is simply a bump in life, one of the normal intrusions to the humdrum world that makes life interesting.  He rejoices in the planet, and takes as much pleasure as he can out of it.  Eventually, he expresses his real doubts and finally seeks out the truth of the matter.  When he discovers that Earth will actually be destroyed by the planet, he finds himself completely unprepared to deal with it, and commits suicide.  It is interesting that it is the sanguine John who commits suicide and not the depressive Justine, although in real life it is the depressive that often commits suicide.  The point is that when the world ends, it is the optimistic who can’t deal with reality, not the melancholic.

Another response is the horses.  (Not Leo.  He just follows his father’s response and then Justine’s).  They know that disaster is inevitable, and their first response is panic.  All they want to do is escape it, run away.  Augustine won’t cross the bridge because he knows what is coming there.   But after a time, they calm down.  There is no point to continue panic.  What will happen will happen.  In a sense, the horses reaction is the most logical.

Finally, we have Claire.  In normal life, Claire is the most practical, the one that holds everything together, the one that smoothes out the rough edges, who maintain relationships, who keeps her head in all of life’s little crises.  She is the kind of person who keeps life going.   So the possibility of life abruptly ending is the worst possible outcome, and the one thing she just can’t handle.   Her response to this, appropriately, is fear.  Her husband tells her that she is just anxious, fearing for nothing.  However, we find out later, that he simply just couldn’t deal with her fear in light of his need for hope, so he just denied her the logical response.

When it is clear that the end of life is inevitable, Claire’s first response is to perpetuate life.  Just to stand on the terrace with her sister and son, to drink wine and make small talk.  Justine refuses this, recognizing that when life is ending, such a response is inadequate, and only perpetuates denial, leading possibly to a worse breakdown.  Claire finally accepts Justine’s solution of participating in the “magic cave”, but in the end, the false protection means nothing to her and she remains anxious to the end, recognizing that her worst fears have been realized.

The final question I had about the film is the allegory of the planet Melancholia itself.  Certainly it represents the end of life.  Possibly the end of one’s social life, as what Justine experienced in the first part of the film.  Or perhaps it represents a personal end to life—the inevitability of death for us all. 

But Melancholia represents more than the object which precipitates an impending disaster.   As its name indicates, it is also a representative of depression itself.   Certainly it represented the mental state of impending doom for Justine.  She refused to undress for her husband on her wedding night, nor did she even undress for the young tool she used to end her marriage with.  But for the planet of Melancholia, she completely disrobed and opened herself completely to it.  Depression itself was the joy in her life, that which she could completely surrender herself to.

But is the planet a representation of depression to everyone?  Is the greatest disaster of everyone’s life in the film not the “end of life as we know it”, but Depression itself?  Is John actually denying depression in response to crisis as an option, and when depression comes he commits suicide?  Is Claire fearful of her lack of response to life?  Is she ultimately fearful of losing control, of no longer having the energy or drive to love, to hope, to smooth things out? 

I don’t know that Von Trier intended such a deep metaphor, but it is interesting to think about. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

We Should Do Something About Us Fanatics

When I was a junior in high school, I took biology.  At that point I was an outspoken conservative fundamentalist Christian (now I am an outspoken social justice Christian... some would say I haven't changed much) and was waiting for the teacher to say something about evolution.  I didn't believe in "evolution", or what I thought was evolution at the time.  I realized years later that my conception of the science and the Bible were misguided, but at the time I held the fundamentalist belief that evolution was at best an error, and one that stands against God.  Although I had no interest in having a debate about evolution with the teacher, and didn't really want to say anything about the subject, I was not going to allow the teacher to compromise my beliefs.

Finally, the fateful day came and the teacher announced that he was going to be teaching on evolution.  His introduction included a statement which basically said this: "There are some who don't believe in evolution because of their religious beliefs.  I just want to make sure you all know that anyone who chooses their religion over what science says is stupid.  I am not here to teach stupidity.  I am here to teach science. Does anyone have anything they want to say on this subject?"

Perhaps you might think that this discouraged me from saying anything.  If so, you obviously don't know me very well.  If he had said anything other than insulting that which I believed, I would have let it pass.  But I had to say something.  So I raised my hand and he allowed me to murmur something incoherent about Genesis and biblical creation.  He allowed it to pass without comment, and, after seeing that no one else had anything to say, went on to teach what he needed to teach.

This is the incident I think of when I hear people speaking about the film Jesus Camp.

Jesus Camp is a documentary about a Pentecostal camp for children that train them in preaching, praying and conservative right-wing ethics, especially about the evils of abortion and evolution.  The children, ranging in elementary school ages, are taught and teach each other about these common religious views, which they all seemed to hold before they came to the camp.  The documentary has little commentary, and just observes what happens in the camp, although emphasizing some of the more dramatic (and so more interesting) events.

When I watched the film, I found it to be an interesting sociological piece of Pentecostals, whom I've already studied and taken in what I thought was positive about the group and left the rest behind.  What is interesting to me is the reaction by many who have seen it.  Most everyone considers the camp to be disastrous for the children, and those who taught at the camp to be monsters, both for the content of their lessons, and also for their teaching method.  A common reaction is to call the teaching "brainwashing" or "manipulative."   To call the teachers "stupid" or "biased."

The first time I heard this reaction, I was confused.  These are children raised by Pentecostals, and the teachers are conservative Pentecostals themselves, and this is what Pentecostals teach.  What did they expect?

After some thought I realized that they were offended that the teachers didn't give different points of view.  That a different view of evolution or woman's lives without abortion should be presented, just for balance.  Perhaps some acknowledgement that there are different points of view should be presented.

Ummm, yeah.

I understand that in a science classroom, we should only teach proven science.  That's appropriate because that is what that class is for.  Even so, no one should expect that a class on religion should present a "balanced" view of religion.  Sure, it would be great if the teachers of one subject or another would respect another side.  Perhaps they could have a discussion with the children offering their own thoughts.  But that's not the way it works.  Because the education of the young isn't about critical thinking, but rather about pedatics.  Critical thinking is taught (if one is lucky) in the late teens, or college.

Why complain that Jesus Camp is full of teachers teaching what they believe?  That's what teachers do.  All teachers.  Please don't expect objectivity in churches, in school, in parents or in yourself.  We all have beliefs and we all "teach" these beliefs.

And don't worry about children being "brainwashed."  Yes, children are taught a single perspective-- usually the perspective of their parents-- and are raised to think a certain way.  But this is the wonder of the teen years.  Those "brainwashed" kids will often rebel against the thoughts of their parents and think on their own.  So don't be worried about kids who are taught the "wrong" ideas when young.  You should rather be worried about your own kids who were taught all the "right" things by you.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hugonic Themes

For me, Martin Scorsese has been a hit-and-miss director.  I thought Taxi Driver was brilliant, but disturbing, while Raging Bull was just disturbing and Goodfellas was unwatchable and disturbing.  I enjoyed Shutter Island and adore The Last Temptation of Christ.  But I had no questions about seeing Hugo, Scorsese's latest.  He is, at his worst, a capable director, and I enjoyed the volume it was based on, even though it wasn't that  memorable.

I found my experience with Hugo immensely enjoyable.  I laughed out loud, cried at the appropriate scenes and generally just enjoyed my time.  No, it wouldn't make my top 100 films, or 200, but there was a lot there to really appreciate.  And this without the 3D (I can't watch 3D, because it all looks fuzzy to me.  That's fine, cheaper tickets!).

So I went to my film buff friends and told the naysayers my opinion.  Everyone took it well and we had a fine conversation.  But it turns out that no one disagreed with the quality of the film.  Some took issue as to the interest it held to the viewer, and there was certainly a question as to whether Scorsese was making a children's film-- or IF he could make a children's film.  All of these questions were lesser, however.

The big disagreement was what the movie was actually about.  What is the Big Theme.

Everyone agreed there was a Big Theme, a central point to the film.  But we all thought it was something else.

The cinephiles among us saw this as an advertisement for film preservation.  Mr. Scorsese has been deeply involved in the World Cinema Foundation, and certainly a bit of propaganda for the work of finding and digitally preserving all kinds of film is found in the film.  On the other hand, this is also mentioned in the book, and it isn't a main theme, there, and the film closely follows the book.

One of the main indicators, however, that those who think old film preservation is the theme is that they are bored with the film, although they appreciate that theme.  To me, if the movie is about "one thing" and yet you think that most of the film is "nonsense" or "pointless", then perhaps, I propose, you have the wrong theme.  I think that the glory of cinema is A theme in the film, but I see no evidence that it is the central theme, or even a main one.

Another theme that is discussed is finding one's place in the world.  This aspect is certainly discussed in the film, and is important.  One critic mentioned that it is harped upon so much that she wanted to say "enough already!  I got it!"   I think that this is significant in the film, but there are different aspects that are drawn out.

First is the idea that everyone has his or her place-- that no one is left out.  Some may consider you insignificant or useless, but they are simply wrong, even foolish to believe it.  One can even say as much for the minor characters of the film.  Some characters may seem unimportant, but each one has their role to play in the overall story about Hugo-- because in the end, as the title says, the story is not about George Melise, but about the simple boy whose life is always teetering on disaster.

Secondly, the theme is emphasized that to accept that one has a place in the world on faith is not enough-- we must go out and find it.  The fact is, more often than not, our place has already been marked.  We just must accept it.  This is almost a fatalistic touch-- as if God has fashioned George Melise to be a magician with film, and it was simply George's responsibility to accept it.  Even as it is Hugo's destiny to be a boy who fixes things-- anything, even people.

Finally, having our place in the world isn't enough.  We must also have recognition of this place.  We all need a certain amount of honor, of the respect due the place we have in the world.  It would be great if it were appreciation, but at least we need to be looked at and have people say, "They belong here.  They do..." whatever it is we do.

While some might argue with the work-oriented purpose in life, in the end, recognition of one's work is something both old people and young people have in common.  The young person says, "I am working, will anyone see me as a real person because of it?"  And the old person says, "I have worked, will anyone recognize that my life has been worth something?"  Between those times, most of us are so focused on the work itself that we don't seek that place, or a recognition of that place.

But in the end, it is this whole set of themes that I loved about Hugo.  The fact is, it is a complex and compelling film.  And I think, as people look at it closer and see its greater worth than just a beautiful but pondering children's film-- because it demonstrates much more than the love of film-- rather it is the love of all people and all the work they do.  That is a wonderful message for all of us. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

If I Were Directing A Jesus Film

I’m not a director or screenwriter or actor.  I'd love to write a screenplay, but I know how tough that is. A rank amateur like me shouldn't try it.  At the same time,  I don’t think I could hurt anyone by giving some tips to the next person who wants to bring Jesus to screen.

A special note to Chris Columbus:  (Director of the first Harry Potter film)  So I hear you are going to do a movie based on Anne Rice’s book Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.  Wow, I wish you luck.  It’s not a problem.  After all, displaying fantasy and science fiction is your specialty.  But please don’t think you are making a REAL Jesus movie.  Still, it might be fun to portray ancient religious novels on the screen. That's where Anne Rice went for her sources for this material-- religious novels about Jesus from the early third century on.  But I don't need to tell you that, you probably already knew.

Here’s my real tips (for someone who is filming a real Jesus film):

Jesus was socially conscious.  He was trying to open up the temple to women and non-Jews.  He related to the poor and the socially outcast.  He was trying to give real solutions to difficult problems, with a religious spin.  Show that.  Don’t make him so heavenly minded that he is no earthly good.

Jesus was a radical, not a revolutionary.  He opposed the status quo, but determined that martyrdom would do more than revolution.

Try to keep the balance of attitude.  Jesus wasn’t gentle and mild, nor was he a jerk (usually).  He was an intellectual who went popular and was very clever.  He was smarter than anyone else around him.

Jesus became popular because of the healings, not because of his teaching.  At first, no one cared about the teaching.  They only listened to him because they were stuck in church with him speaking or because they were waiting their turn in the miracle line.  Only the disciples took notes (so to speak—they memorized his oral teachings).

Try to keep to a historical Jesus.  There are too many pitfalls in making a Jesus in the "here and now".  Have you ever seen the film Joshua (2002)?  Awful.  But in keeping to a historical Jesus, ignore the many books people will want to give you. There are a plethora of modern scholars to tell you who Jesus was “really” like.  Ignore them all.  Just stick with a gospel.  Luke is still relevant, but no one has done Mark, and Mark is the “action” gospel without so much teaching.   Focus on what Jesus did, but read the text yourself and make your own interpretation.  That’s what Tim Rice did with the original writing of Jesus Christ Superstar, and though the movie was pretty silly, the original libretto and lyric are deeply insightful.


Jesus had fun.  He had a wry humor and used hyperbole and puns to good effect.  I mean, “Don’t take the speck out of your friend’s eye if you’ve got a plank in your own.”  That’s good stuff.  Put that kind of humor in there, if it doesn’t seem too weird.

Anyway, I'm not trying to tell you what film to direct or write.  I guess what I'm saying is, let's keep it real.  Jesus was a real person, and the ancient writings don't make him too "holier than thou" and yet a person really focused on his goals.  

The Human Jesus on Film

From the early 300s to today, there have been discussions (aka arguments) about Jesus' nature.  Was he a god or a blood-filled flesh bag?  The orthodox answer is that Jesus is fully human and fully divine.  He was just as human as any of us, but also completely the Son of God.  But how do you show that in a movie?  The tendancy of film is to lean one way or the other-- to be a god-like person or to be more human with supernatural qualities.  Below are some films of that second category:

The Passion of the Christ—This Jesus doesn’t have much to do except suffer.  He has a few scenes, notably the “He who has not sinned cast the first stone” scene, where he can actually be a normal human being, but these are short, and offer few insights of Jesus as a person.   The movie is not about Jesus, but about The Christ—the symbolic sacrificial lamb.  The Christ isn’t supposed to be someone we identify with, but he is deeply human, in that he suffers and struggles and bleeds.  And bleeds.  In a sense, this is the perfect orthodox Jesus.  A Jesus who doesn’t teach anything specifically, but who dies for humanity and allows his followers to fill in the gaps.  No one has to listen to this Jesus, or obey him, nor does he say anything uncomfortable.  All we have to do is watch him die.  And while observing that is, at the very least, a difficult task, it is better than a Jesus that meddles in our lives, right?  I know that the film is only about one aspect of Jesus’ life, but I really need a Jesus that does something, not just one that winces. Jesus-2/5 Film-3/5

The Last Temptation of Christ—The most human of the human Jesus’.  Jesus struggles with the common desires of every man, he gets married and has kids.  We see that Jesus wasn’t interested at first in God acts, but had to be led and prodded every step of the way.   In this way, this Jesus is the one that is most identifiable, the one we can best connect with, of all films.  I only have one personal problem with it: Willem Dafoe.  He’s a great actor and he does a wonderful job.  But he also played a rather iconic role in the much more recent Lars Von Trier film Antichrist, which I watched a couple months before my rewatch of Last Temptation.  So I couldn’t see Jesus at all, only Dafoe.  I’ll watch it again later and see if I can distance myself from his other roles. Jesus- 4/5  Film-4/5

Jesus of Montreal—I like the way that Daniel isn’t Jesus from the very first scene.  Rather, he is a struggling actor with a girlfriend trying to make ends meet and to have integrity as an actor and director.  But as the movie progresses he becomes more and more like Jesus, until the role is completely embodied.  This is probably the best portrayal of the love of Jesus and a great human version.  Jesus-4/5 Film-3.5/5

Life of Brian—First, I want to point out that Brian isn’t Jesus.  He doesn’t intend to be the Messiah, and in one scene he is trying to hear Jesus speak the Sermon on the Mount.   But on the other hand, Brian IS a kind of Jesus.  The pathetic Jesus who stumbles upon his Messiahship unknowingly.  Brian is a terrible Jesus.  But Life of Brian is a wonderful poking at religious thought. Jesus- 1/5  Film- 4/5

Ordet—Before you read the second part of this paragraph, I want to say two things.  First of all, this is my favorite portrayal of Jesus ever.  Secondly, if you haven’t seen it you MUST NOT read any more.  Major spoilers, here.  Order the film from Netflix, watch it, and then finish this paragraph…

Okay, have you watched it?  Wow, huh?  My favorite part of this film is that Johannes is seen as clearly mad throughout the film.  Interestingly enough, this is how Jesus was seen in his day by contemporary scholars and by his own family.  After all, one who makes such exaggerated claims as Jesus MUST be mad, right?  The only thing that separates a madman from a saint is that the acts and words of the saint actually come to pass.  I can think of no film that better portrays the view of Jesus family during his ministry and the aftermath.  I was as stunned and pleased and overwhelmed at the end of this otherwise dry film as any of the characters.  Glorious, just glorious.  Jesus-5/5 Film- 5/5

If you cheated and read this without watching Ordet, go and watch it anyway.  It is an excellent experience and the best portrayal of Jesus I have ever seen.

The next section, I give some recommendations to the next film portrayal of Jesus. 

The Otherworldly Jesus in Film

If you want to keep your Christian audience happy, you want a Jesus that is pretty much out of this world.  Not like an alien (although the main characters in Starman and Knowing were pretty Christ-like), but a Jesus that isn't like the rest of us.  Someone who seems to come from another dimension.  Let's look at a few films that make that choice for their Jesus:
The Gospel According to St. Matthew—This is an Italian film, made to represent a traditional view of the New Testament book.  Every spoken word comes from the book, as close to the text as possible.  And every scene looks like it belongs in a stained glass window.  Jesus himself is very handsome, so he’s nice to look at.  He’s primarily a teacher who does the occasional miracle.  But the problem with this interpretation of Jesus is that it doesn’t really say anything.  One example is the teaching montage.  Jesus is seen as speaking familiar teachings, most of the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings, one line after another in fifteen minutes.  But it is without context, and it is edited so close together that we don’t have time to hear what he is saying.  We hear a familiar line then whoosh! we’ve got the next one halfway done.  Just like how Scripture is often read in church. While the overall portrayal gives the film a saintly veneer, it also is pretty boring.  We could go to a church and get the same experience, and we can meet interesting people at the same time.  There is no real insight given in this film at all. Jesus-2/5 Film- 3/5

Jesus (1999)—The boy band Jesus.  This Jesus is a celebrity.  He knows how to work the crowd, how to use the blowdryer on his hair to let the wind give it that lift. Hip yet nondescript.  Complete fail.  Jesus- 0/5 Film-1/5

The Gospel of John—(Or is it the gospel according to Lost?-- Henry Ian Cusick who plays Desmond of Lost plays Jesus in this film)The irritating Jesus.  I know that the script comes just from the gospel of John, but the way it is performed… well, we can see why THIS Jesus was crucified.  He keeps implying that he’s God and then he insults the people he’s talking to.  And he is a equal opportunity offender—the “Jews”, his disciples, his apostles—they all get insulted at some point in the film.    I know that the text all comes from John, but Jesus doesn’t have to be so personally angry when speaking it.  The “Matthew” Jesus had it better, with more scorching text: you are preaching, not interested in personally insulting.  You can speak harsh statements with a more general delivery. Jesus- 1/5 Film- 2/5

Jesus (1979)—This film is actually an edited version of a filming of the entire gospel of Luke.  Because the purpose of that original film was to film every verse, in context, of the Gospel of Luke, this Jesus feels very textual.  The English is a dubbed over the original Greek, the settings are from Israel, all to give a very authentic feel.  To me, it just feels flat.  It is a good version of the book, but I might recommend a person to just read the volume.  The Jesus of Luke is much more socially radical and more energetic.  Jesus- 3/5 Film- 3/5

Jesus of Nazareth—Probably the best portrayal of an otherworldly Jesus.  He floats from scene to scene, doing good, speaking wisdom, but he is always focused on something else… another dimension.  His eyes are focused on people and things no one else can see.  It is stunning, but unnerving.  It is rumored that Robert Powell took drugs on set to give him that mystic-look.  In fact, Powell was given make up to accentuate his blue eyes, and he never blinked while the camera was focused on him.  The effect is that Jesus doesn’t seem to be responding to other people, just speaking his lines in the most gentle, saintly manner ever.  We can see why people would love this Jesus, but not why he would be crucified.  Still, marvelous job. Jesus-4/5 Film-4/5

You might notice that I didn’t review the King of Kings’ or The Greatest Story Ever Told’s Jesus.  Frankly it  is because I can’t bring myself to watch these traditional American films on Jesus.  If you feel I should watch them, let me know.  And tell me why.

Of course, as Kenny points out, if you portray a Jesus that is so completely different, then you will end up with a Jesus whom no one can relate to.  In the next post, we'll look at Jesus' that are more down to earth.

Jesus In Film: Part 1 of 4

Jesus is difficult to portray.  Frankly, it’s a difficult role.  Jesus is often mysterious, and his motivation is difficult.  If you are portraying a divine Jesus, then how could you know his motivation?  Perhaps you might want to be as otherworldly as possible, and so make him to be as disconnected from personal motivation as possible.  The result is to make a Jesus that is saintly, but not really comprehensible.

Or you might make Jesus a very human man.  After all, it isn’t heresy to declare Jesus human.  And it shouldn’t cause waves to say that Jesus was tempted in every way that we are (yeah, right, even though it says just that in the Scripture located in Hebrews 4).   The problem with this Jesus is to interpret him as too human is to make him too modern.  Jesus WAS human, but he probably didn’t have existential doubt.  Jesus was an ancient Jewish rabbi, not an American rock star.
In overviewing different Jesus’ in film it is clear that Jesus is hard to get right.  How can we make him both charismatic and enigmatic; both caring and angry; both mystic and down-to-earth?  Not only that, but Jesus is the second most popular person in the United States—how can one draw on that, but still match the “Jesus” they have in their heads?

In the next episodes, I’ll look at some films and rate how Jesus is portrayed in each.  Then I’ll draw some conclusions at how I’d like to see Jesus portrayed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Absolutely No Theme To This Group of Reviews

I've just started listening to Kermode and Mayo's Film Reviews and am impress how many reviews they can punch out in such a short period of time.  I do this myself, but not as entertainingly as them.  Still, let's talk about the films I've seen this last week:

Do all the situps you want-- the film won't get tighter
Limitless (2011)
Lots of irritating edits, a meandering plot that doesn't go anywhere and the moral seems to be that if you're the smartest person in the universe, you can become rich, powerful and eff off anyone you want. Still some nice tension, sometimes. Mostly forgettable.  3/5

Kidman and Eckhart looking delightfully normal
Rabbit Hole (2010)
Amazing performances.  I don't think I've ever seen Kidman or Eckhart has ever given more realistic performances.  Every time I see them I know they are acting-- but not here.  It was wonderful to see them become these troubled characters.   The pacing and arc is almost perfect.  But still, the movie seemed pretty small.  We didn't see their anguish just after the death, we only see the grieving and the process their marriage goes through when it is subtle and seemingly without an end.  Brilliant, but I just didn't care enough, I guess.  Perhaps I should have.  Should I feel guilt about not caring enough?  4/5

Human existence is shocking-- even eating!

Life In a Day (2011)
This is the obvious choice for the winner of "Top Five films To Show To An Alien".  If you want to know about humanity, here it is.  It's all real, all ordinary and yet, somehow, extraordinary at the same time.  It is beautiful and disturbing, shocking and touching, dull and busy.  In the end, I felt that I spent an hour and a half watching cool videos on You Tube.  Lots of interesting stuff, but I don't know that any of it will stick with me next week.  4/5

Barbara Stanwyck involved in criminal activity-- running through a stop sign!

Witness to Murder (1954)
I watched this for Noirvember, but I was so tired on Nov 30, I finished the film in December.  Me falling asleep wasn't the fault of the film, though.  It was so much fun.  Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who witnesses a murder (in the first minute of the film!)  She turns all Rear Window on us, but with way more doubts than Jimmy Stewart.  George Sanders (Shere Khan!) is the killer who is causing doubts upon her sanity, both with the police and with herself!  There's some great points about feminism here (like when the policewoman is chasing the killer and then suddenly disappears so the MALE detective can fight with him!), and some Hitchcockian turns (but Vertigo is a few years later).  Still, great film.  4/5

Grant (looking aged) and Hepburn (looking eternally young)  in Beyond Sunset

Charade (1963)
This is not a thriller, in my mind, but a comedy.  Cary and Aubry just keep the sit com rolling and I haven't laughed out loud at a film for a while.  Just for fun, James Coburn, Walter Mattheau, and George Kennedy are there as the clueless bad guys.  My favorite bit is where the boy goes up to James Coburn and asks if he is a cowboy, like in the movies.  The film is so busy having fun, I don't care if the plot is a little confusing or the end doesn't make any sense.  It's like most Bond films-- the joy is in the journey.  4/5

By the way, all of these films can be watched on Netflix Instant, so if you have Netflix, you have no excuse.  And, yes, I do rate a lot of movies something other than a 4, it just happened to be a particularly good week for film.  My chooser ain't broken yet!