Friday, November 30, 2012

Ruby Sparks: A Review and Reflection

Just to let you know, up front, I might gush a bit at the film Ruby Sparks.  But it’s not really my fault.  I love magical realism and movies about writing and touching romances.  It just gets me right here, you know?  The two films Ruby Sparks is just like are probably Stranger Than Fiction about a man whose life is being determined by a novelist he’s never met and (500) Days of Summer, a quirky, funny movie about a breakup.

Like (500)… this tells the story of a romance from a male point of view, and how screwed up he is in it.  It is clever and wonderful and heartfelt and it makes you really sympathize with the screwed up, selfish, sometimes abusive guy.  In the end he sees how screwed up he is, so that’s okay, right?

Like Stranger, this film speaks of the magic of creation through writing.  It really is magic, but it is fascinating because we also recognize it as real.  To write a character, or at least to do so well, is to create a new person that people—perhaps yourself—can appreciate, argue with, explore, discover life with, and even love or hate.  To write or read a character is to bring a new person into your life.  We recognize that when, at the end of a marvelous book, we are saddened by the fact that we won’t be with this person, or these people… perhaps ever again.  No wonder Kathy Bates got so upset.  Really, wouldn’t any of us?

At this point, I’m not going to go into the details of the plot of Ruby Sparks.  It explores an idea with some cool characters and if what I haven’t written above doesn’t encourage you to see it, then I won’t be able to write more to do so.  Perhaps it is enough to say I loved it. 

Below is a reflection on the film.  Although much of it is tangential to the film, I highly recommend not reading it unless you have seen it.

* * *

Relationships are difficult. 

Your significant other has habits you hate, says inappropriate things, misrepresents you as a couple, complains about your normal behavior, and embarrasses you.  Why do we remain in such a relationship, with so much baggage?  Because, of course, there are things you love about the other person, but most of all you are IN LOVE with the other.  You are no longer you yourself, but you are a part of them and they are a part of you.

And that’s the problem.  Because all of these unacceptable behaviors are not just a part of the other person, but a part of “us” and “us” is a part of you.  This is where controlling behavior in a relationship begins.  We control our significant other in the same way we control any irritating, immoral, unacceptable behavior in ourselves, because the other is now a part of ourselves.

Once a relationship matures, there are three people: “you”, “I” and “us” and the “you” behavior can be separated from the “us”, but at first it is difficult to measure that out.  Some people never grow in this way.

The difficulty for Ruby is that she has no real backbone, no real “self” except that was created by Calvin (a very deterministic name, to be sure).  There is a “you” in Ruby, but a very weak one, one that is dependent completely on Calvin.  Ruby is little more than a sim, and Calvin is her god.  She can leave her god, but in the end he is in control.

One of the reasons a human being finds it difficult to be God, or even a god, is because we are so filled with ambitions and hopes and desperate desires that must be fulfilled, that we cannot leave free will alone.  If we had complete control over our significant other, which of us would set that aside, completely, to allow them to be their own person.  Eventually, all of us, convincing ourselves that we were doing it for “their own good” would use the power to control in order to make “the relationship better.”  In other words, we would control the other in order to fulfill our own desires.

Relationships are tough.  And that’s the way it’s meant to be.

If one person in a relationship controlled all aspects of the relationship, then there is no growth.  Sure, there could be growth of each individual person in other aspects of their lives, but not in the relationship.  If a relationship is seen as a perfect, unchanging entity, then it is, by definition, incomplete, imperfect.

We are meant to be in relationship, because we need to grow.  And growth only comes from conflict with one whom one must remain attached.  The struggle between the attraction and the unacceptable, both within the same person, is how we grow.  We learn to compromise, to mediate, to surrender, to convince, to seduce, to minimize, to forgive.  We learn to love.

Because love isn’t just the overwhelming feeling of desire or connection.  That’s just the first step.  Love is learning to live with the other that is so vastly different than the self.   Love is the blending of the self with the other, while never actually erasing the other or the self.   Neither control nor complete surrender has any part in love.

I just want to say one more thing about the film that I hope the writer and female star of the film never reads. (Zoe, if you do read this, I am sure you deeply disagree with me on this, but it’s just the funny way I see these things, okay? I really loved the movie, so just remember that.

The movie is about Calvin who controls his relationship with his girlfriend, and how he learns not to be so controlling.  But in reality, not the film, it is Zoe, who plays Ruby and who wrote the screenplay, who is in control.  And Paul Dano, who plays Calvin is her boyfriend.  So in reality, while the film might be about men controlling women, it is actually about a woman finally getting control over her real life relationship, making her boyfriend grow up by her own literal script.
Control goes two ways.  It always does.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

What is the Cost of Art? (The Red Shoes, 1948)

82. The Red Shoes (1948)  

“When we first met you asked me a question to which I gave a stupid answer: You asked me whether I wanted to live and I said ‘yes’.   Actually, I want much, much more.  I want to create, to make something big out of something little…”

Vickie doesn’t want to just live, she wants to dance remarkably, memorably.  She wants the glory of being an artist.  We might give many definitions of “art” and certainly a two year old can create art without much effort or thought.  But when we speak of capital “A” Art, art as an ideal, then it becomes difficult.  Such art is not content with imitating reality, or outlining reality—such art must be bigger than reality itself. 

Just as the ballet in the Red Shoes has color more vibrant than reality can show and express emotion more poignant than reality can express, so Art is huge, requiring a canvas so large that no one can drink it in at a single glance.  Art requires not only talent and discipline but a vision that is larger than life.

Upon such a canvas nothing less than one’s life’s blood can be spilled.  To be bigger than life, Art requires life.  No one can touch the depth of a soul without placing one’s whole soul within it.  The cost, the worth of Art cannot be measured by materials, time and effort.  For who can place a cost on one’s soul?  What is a human life worth?  Art demands life, and so it is worth life.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Can We Live In Our Dreams? (Paprika, 2006)

83. Paprika (2006)

In Brazil, Sam chases his dreams.  In Inception, dreams are visited.  In Paprika, the line between dream and reality evaporates. 

In order to provide therapy for patients, dreams are viewed and eventually enter the real world.  But this becomes problematic, as the dream world is, at best, a cracked reflection of the real world, and our own personas in dreams are unlike who we are in reality.  In dreams, even our desires and ambitions are warped and unlike our awake selves.

Should there be no separation between dream and reality, it would be as if our evil twins came to life, accomplishing feats we would not wish to see out of our dreams.  But who can say that it is not ourselves?  Should we do an evil act in a dream, we can say that it was “only” a dream.  But if dream becomes reality, then are we not the source of the evil act, and should we not be held responsible? 

No, let it never be.  Let our dreams remain in their own ethereal, nebulous world, where they belong, mysterious and unknowable.

Must We Pursue our Desire? (Brazil, 1985; The Matrix, 1999)

84. Brazil (1985)

Sam is a low paid but expert bureaucrat who has a very specific woman in his dreams, drawing him to a utopia.  He accomplish his tasks with the utmost skill until he actually meets the woman he sees in his dream.  From that point on, he gives up on his life and pursues his dream, despite the objections of all the knows, the woman herself and the opposition of the entire system. 

Imagination and love is all well and good, but is that worth trading in an existence in the real world?  In The Matrix, Neo trades in a false life for a harsher real one.  In Brazil, Sam makes the opposite decision—he would rather live in a glorious, unreal dream than to live in the harsh, stupid real world.  Who is to say which is the better choice?

In the end, does not the choice between the red and blue pills depend on our own deepest, heartfelt, intimate desires?  Will we not, in the end, pursue our desire, wherever it leads us?  And even though Neo chose reality and Sam chose fantasy, didn’t they each make the same choice: to pursue their true selves?

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Master: Review and Analysis

PT Anderson has created what is, in some ways, the inverse of one of the greatest movies ever made. 

His last film was There Will Be Blood, and, like The Master, it deals with the drama in a single relationship.  The central relationship also has a charismatic, skilled leader, used to directing and controlling situations with his charisma, and a weak, almost pathetic individual who is trying to succeed and finds he is unable to achieve his goals.  In both films, the relationship changes each of the men, directing their future in a way that would unforeseeable.

In the film There Will Be Blood, the central relationship is an enmity that increases envy, greed, power plays and violence.  In The Master, the central relationship is a friendship that increases each man’s ability to function in the world.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddy, a sea man who was in the navy and worked other vessels after that.   He is sexually deviant, but we later discover that he doesn’t just take opportunities for sex—what he really wants is relationship but he cannot control his desires or anger.  Due to his drunkenness, he loses many jobs and then stows away on a ship borrowed by Lancaster Dodd, the head of a new mystical cult. 

Lancaster is also in a bit of a bind.  He is in financial difficulties, and his wife says that he finds himself obsessed with his enemies who attack him and his methods.  When the clearly drunk, hopeless, pathetic Freddy comes on board, they have an immediate attraction for each other.  They truly enjoy each other’s company and appreciate each other in a way that others’ do not.  Freddy has never had anyone who accepted him, but also wanted him to grow.  Lancaster was inspired by Freddy, seeing him as a pallet to create new theories and to inspire new ways of healing the weak.

Paul Thomas Anderson is a great director.  He knows how to pull in varying elements to make a fascinating, cohesive whole.  His writing has gotten much better over the years and he pulls in some remarkable talents in cinematography and music. But his most remarkable gift is that of pulling out some of the best performances by very talented actors.  In years past, he directed Burt Lancaster and Tom Cruise into possibly their best performances.  There Will Be Blood has arguably the best performance by one of the best actors on screen, Daniel Day Lewis.  In The Master, Joaquin Phoenix certainly gives his best performance on screen, and Amy Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and others give their strongest, most memorable characters.  Whether one appreciates PTA’s stories or conclusions, his films are requirements to be seen for the performances.

Although I’ve heard otherwise, I think that The Master is one of Anderson’s best films, second only to There Will Be Blood.  It stands as a great film about relationship and deep human connection.  It has some of the best performances you will see this year.  It is a remarkable work and will not get the praise it deserves. 4.5/5

(Spoilers below)

It would be easy to focus on the cult, called The Cause, in this film.  When you hear about the studies of Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard PTA did to work on this film, we might think, as the rumors have said, that this would be a film about Scientology.  But The Cause isn’t the central player, and how the cult grew and expanded isn’t the focus of the film.  This is only tangentially about a cult or religion.  It is instead about human connection.

Everything that happens is about the central relationship between Freddy and Lancaster. And all the side stories are about where the two men came from and how this one central relationship shaped their lives.  Freddy wasn’t, we find, completely pathetic.  He was in line to marry a young beauty in his home town.  But he needed work to establish himself financially, so he took on a position on a boat that took him far from home for many years.  And that proved to be too much for him, causing him to despair about his life and to drink severely.  In the end, what Freddy really wanted was not alcohol or sex, but a deep, lasting relationship, and he felt that he had lost his opportunity.

Lancaster had a successful cult, but it was limited in scope and easily mocked.  He wanted not just to help old women discover new things about themselves, he wanted to find out how to improve the human condition, to heal and to teach others how to heal.  His relationship with Freddy helped him achieve these goals.  He was able to gently experiment on Freddy, using what relational powers he had to bring Freddy to a new level.  In the end, he felt that he had learned much, even if Freddy never accepted the teachings of Lancaster, and his findings were posted in a new book.

Freddy didn’t learn about methods to make him successful, and he was never truly accepted by the cult, the way he was by Lancaster.  Despite his relationship with Lancaster, Freddy continued to be a drunk and despite Lancaster’s protests, Freddy continued to have violent rages.  But Freddy picked up on what he needed in life from Lancaster’s friendship that he couldn’t find in Lancaster’s teaching.  He learned about loyalty, about faithfulness, about connecting with others, about self-discipline, about taking joy in others.  Finally, he was able to take what he learned and face the world.

Although his relationship with Doris, his intended, was long past recovery, he could use his new social skills to meet new people, and to find a deeper level with a woman than just sex.  He went into life ready to relate, ready, for the first time in his life, to really love.

Only relationship can train us to relate.  Joy in friendship helps us to find the wonderful things that others have to provide.  The discipline of keeping friendship helps us to be disciplined in other areas.  Only love can teach us how to love.  And to find that relationship of love is almost happenstance, and it is certainly odd.  Love makes for strange bedfellows, both literally and figuratively.  A cult leader and a drunken sailor best friends?  What do they have in common?  In a friendship, what we have in common is our mutual need for each other.  Maybe this need isn’t a deeper relationship, maybe the need is more course.  But that need is what initiates, and sometimes drives, the love.  But that need causes us to grow and to deepen, to become richer human beings in ways we never would have seen.

Every intimate relationship, in its own way, makes us a new person.  And even when the relationship ends, whether for good or for ill, we can look back and say, “If it were not for this person, I would not be who I am today.”

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shocktober: A Selection of Reviews

Below are some of the movie reviews I posted this last month for the Filmspotting Marathon Shocktober.

The Call of Cthulu
A fascinating exploration of neo-silent film.  It isn't as elegantly done as The Artist, but it recaptures much of the unique vision of the silents of the 20's and early horror such as Nosferatu and King Kong.  It is also captures the feel of HP Lovecraft-- the drawing together of many mysterious pieces to reveal a terrifying truth.

But, like Lovecraft, it is convoluted at times and without any connecting characters.  The horror is spelled out well over the short film, but I would have preferred it took more time and introduced a character we could explore this horror together with.  Instead, it is a bunch of pieces thrown together in an artful way, but not in a compelling way.  3/5

The Haunting (1963)
Easily the most interesting of haunted house movies I have seen, and I would include Gaslight in that list.  Perhaps it is the entertainment equal to The Shining.

A scientist wants to prove the supernatural, and so he gathers a team of people who are psychically sensitive to spend time in the most evident haunted house-- Hill House-- to gather evidence for spooky happenings.  Out of this team, only two women and the eventual owner end up coming.   From that point on, it is a battle between the spooky, noisy house (but not as noisy as some apartment buildings I have lived in) and each person's character and will.  It clearly follows Shirley Jackson's novel pretty closely, as the plot is tight and brilliant.

The speculation of what is really going on is maintained right up to the end, and the different characters' reactions to the spooky events were completely believable.  It was very creepy, perfect to send shivers up your spine, from the cinematography to the set up, to the outcome.  If The Shining is the great movie about dread, this is the film for creepy.   I do wish that the "in the head" narrative wouldn't've been there-- that was irritating quickly.   Still, a clear 4/5.  Maybe 4.5/5 in time.

The creators of Coraline had pretty high expectations to meet.  After all, they make Nightmare Before Christmas and other great animation classics.  So they give us the story of Norman, the bullied kid who talks to the dead.  It works on a lot of levels.  The characters are pretty well developed for a comedy, and they are a lot of fun.  The story was interesting enough and better than most horror films.  There were a couple animation styles that were used brilliantly. 

But what I found most interesting was the unique camera perspective.  At the beginning, it closes into body parts, focusing on the grotesqueness of fleshy bodies.  There are other parts that every Hollywood bone is screaming for a close up and they give us a distance shot, which was interesting.  They give us a couple views behind the animation so we could see the art, and that was just as brilliant as keeping us focused on the plot. 

A good film.  In the running for the best animated of the year.  4/5

Aoyama's dear wife had died many years ago, and he is encouraged to obtain a new wife.  He had no interest in this, as he had been raising his son, but he decided that his encourages were right: he would get married.  But to who?  A filmmaker co-worker decides that he should hold auditions to see who would be his new bride. 

Although the method is odd, really this film is about the reluctance and vulnerability of dating.  I love the actor who played Aoyama who is, in many ways, the opposite of the brash young heroes found in most films.  At first I thought he would be a supporting character, because he is a bit pudgy and is a relatively quiet character, allowing others to push him around a bit.  For a genre film that is not a comedy, this film has done a number of trope reversals.

It is interesting to me how often dreams are used to convey disturbing images in the horror films I've been watching.  Sometimes it is just confusing, trying to determine what is real and what is dream, such as Audition.  And it is difficult to be as coherent and yet completely frightening as the first and third Nightmare on Elm Street films.   3.5/5

Willard (2003)
Willard is unhappy.  Quite unhappy.  A boss reminicent of 9 to 5, a sick mother who apologizes for making him weak, no friends, no girlfriend.  Of course, when he takes much more interest in a white rat instead of the girl who mysteriously wants to hang with him, that indicates some problems.  These problems come to fruition in a big way by the end of the film.

Crispin Glover is the heart of the film, and all of what makes this film quite fun.  He is both creepy and pathetic causing us to in turns pity him and condemn him.  Which makes sense since he has a good angel and a pretty powerful demon on his shoulders... well, they are rats, but who's paying attention. 

There are some great visuals here, and I loved the cinematography which was really creep-inducing.  The supporting roles were generally bland (except for R. Lee Ermey, who glories in his evilness), and the plot was pretty predictable.  Still, it was fun. 3.5/5

Dark Shadows (2012)
A well-told gothic horror with some of Burton's most stunning visuals.  A remarkable achievement by Burton and a return to form.

But after the ten minute introduction, the movie goes downhill.  Bland comedy, bland horror, bland action.  The visuals are still top-notch, but everything else we've seen before, and better.  It isn't bad so much as forgettable.  After those first ten minutes.  Great, great short attached to a dull film.  3/5

Not great horror.  Wasn't scary at all, and although gross, that's all it was.  No deep themes, no social commentary.  Not really smart.

However, it was great comedy.  The running gag of the rules worked really well, and the casual violence was played so well for laughs that even this Mennonite pastor couldn't help but loudly laugh at it all.  The scene with Bill Murray still has me laughing.  A good time was had by all, meaning me, although my oldest daughter would have loved it and I wish she had watched it with me.  4/5

What is Horror?

This last October my forum friends over at Filmspotting and I participated in Shocktober, a month of watching and reviewing horror films. (You can see the idea and the list of over 200 reviews here. )  In year's past, when Shocktober occurred, I hesitated for two reasons.  First, because as a person of faith I am unsure about celebrating a month of fear and murder and monsters.  Secondly, I found that horror, as a genre, is pretty dull.  I'm not interested in the occult, and I gain no entertainment value from an excess of blood or monsters.  I'd rather have something to think about or a film that deeply moves me instead of jumps and cheap scares.

I don't know why, but I decided to participate in this years Shocktober anyway.  And, less in the films I watched, but more in the conversations I had about horror, I found that my ideas of horror were misconceived.  Yes, there are a number of horror films that are poorly made or are focused on blood and jumps.  Even some of the well made ones, like Nightmare on Elm Street or The Mist, are a collection of cheap fears.  But horror isn't limited to monsters, the occult or slaughterfests.  The most effective horror is that which deeply disturbs us, which provokes us to a response of dread, disgust or deep loathing.

To think of horror this way, I realize that some of my most despised films are actually films that unexpectedly stirred my deep revulsion, and they were intended to do so.  So what I thought of as an action film (Oldboy) or an art film (The Piano) were actually, in a sense, horror films, and as such they were deeply effective to me.  My disgust of the subject matter, of the point of the films, effected me so much that I transferred my disgust of the subject matter to the film itself.  I feel that Oldboy deserves some of that revulsion, because I think it revels a bit much in the most disgusting matters.  But I have to re-think my position on The Piano.  Because it wanted me to feel the disgust at the central relationship of the film and to sense the horror of the position the woman was in.  It was intended for me to feel horror for the greater good.

But to broaden my idea of what horror is, also means that I need to reconsider the genre of some of the movies that deeply stirred me and made me think.  The survival film The Grey and the historic film Kanal were not about action or a particular context, but about the horror of life in general, and the existential dread that death is around the corner all the time.  These are fundamentally horror films. (I reviewed each these films earlier this year).

And while people fear the serial killers Leatherhead or Freddy, the truly frightening monster is played by Martin Landau in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, who kills without guilt for his own needs. The film doesn't present him as a fearful character, but he is all the more frightening because he could be your doctor, your professor, your husband.  He is the one you know and trust, which makes the whole situation all that more frightening.

Certainly there are good examples of traditional horror films, but in breaking the horror genre out of its conventional mold, we are able to see the everyday horrors and experience them as they really are.  The more I hear of the main presidential candidates, the more I am afraid, and that was truly was scared me the most in Shocktober.