Sunday, January 20, 2013

A New Kind of War Film: Zero Dark Thirty

I had tears in my eyes throughout most of Zero Dark Thirty.

Mind you, I’m ill (keeping away from everyone, though), and so I might be a little more prone to emotionalism.  And I left the film utterly exhausted because of that.  But the film as a whole pained me to no end.

This is less the fault of the film as it is the fault of the ideology I bring to the film.  I am a pacifist, and I am opposed to revenge and this film is, no matter what else it is, certainly a film about revenge.  So to spend two and a half hours seeing a Federal assassin track down her victim—even if the victim is Osama Bin Laden—is painful for me to watch.

I recognize that most others will watch this film with different eyes, and that is how it should be.  Because this is a film that will feed almost any ideology.  What you get from the film is what you came in with.  This doesn’t mean we won’t learn something about how spying works today or about war in a post-9-11 era.  But if we are opposed to torture, we can see that in this film.  If we think that any amount of cost is worth such a lofty goal, there is evidence for that in this film.

A new era of war requires a new kind of film to describe that war.  In the 40’s, war films were mostly propaganda, with the rare film showing the subtleties of personalities (Colonel Blimp).  Some aspects of war were criticized in film in the 50’s, but there is always a noble soldier for us to identify with (Paths of Glory).  In the 60’s there was quite a bit of discomfort after the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dr. Strangelove), but war was still often glorified in film (The Green Berets).   It wasn’t until the 70’s that film turned firmly against war, deconstructing the whole war film, showing it to be destructive to the soldiers and to the nation (Platoon, Apocalypse Now). 

After 9-11, though, war changed.  It is no longer nation against nation, but one nation in opposition to small enclaves of well-funded, well-organized enemies.  It requires subtlety, and the moral ground is different than it used to be.   Terrorists are horrible, but they are human beings as well, and they might even have a point.  The new war film is less ideology-heavy and more documentary style, allowing the viewer to be on the ground, seeing what we could never possibly see, giving us the experience of warfare, not an entertainment.
This was first done in a famous, amazing scene in Saving Private Ryan.   We had the opportunity to experience D-Day as it has never been seen before.  We were an allied soldier, hearing—even feeling!—the mass of bullets missile past us, seeing our comrades fall, the gore, and we feel the difficult courage it takes to keep moving up that deadly beach.  However, that scene was surrounded by a film deep in the old ideological presentation of war.

Paul Greengrass is the one who really introduces this new perspective on terrorism and war in two films: Bloody Sunday and United 93.  They are objective, documentary-style and while they give a very particular point of view, we have a sense of objectivity that we have never experienced before.  We were there, we are not just viewing the tragedies so much as experiencing them as they unfold in time, seeing people’s reactions as they happen.  Yes, it is a movie trick, but it works.  We are involved in these experiences like we have never seen.  This continues with Steve McQueen’s Hunger and with Kathryn Bigalow’s  The Hurt Locker.  Yes, they are told from a certain perspective, but we are on the ground with the characters, able to judge or to applaud them as we felt.

Most of all, these films didn’t tell us how to feel, but they opened discussion.  They gave us facts, and ideas and powerful experiences that we could look at and draw our own conclusions.

In Zero Dark Thirty, Bigalow continues this, showing us not only a documentary-like view of Bin Laden’s discovery, but also showing us the heart of the United State’s war on terror.  The new war, the new spying, is less about capturing cities, but about discovering who we are at war against.  Names and locations are hidden, and even with massive amounts of technology at one’s disposal, they are almost impossible to find.  Politics also gets involved and public opinion can cut funding even in an essential operation.  Researching and the military go hand-in-hand, but it feels like the scalpel is replaced with a sledgehammer—the two approaches make for strange bedfellows.

Nevertheless, the new war has heroes.  Tenacity and courage is still what wins the day, whether a soldier or an analyst.  No matter how we feel about the proceedings, we still see Maya as a powerful person, one we admire, a force of nature.  But we see the other side as smart, and those being tortured as very human.

Despite all the torture, the bombings, the threats, the shootings, the killing of parents in front of children—we are not told how to feel about all of this.  Yes, this is a film about revenge, but not like Inglorius Basterds, where we cheer the brutal killing of Nazis and then we are slapped on the wrist for being like them.  Again, we are given a difficult, even brutal, experience, and we are emotionally impacted, but not told what to think.

At the end of the film, Maya cries.  This isn’t a spoiler, really, although it is an amazing ending of the film.  But why does she cry?  Does she cry for her colleagues who suffered so much to get to this place? Does she cry for relief because it is done?  Does she cry because the tortures and deaths were too high a cost?  Does she cry because she doesn’t know what to do with her life now?  We don’t know.  We might guess, but that is putting our experience on Chastain’s marvelous performance. 

The new kind of war film is objective, but not emotionless.  Zero Dark Thirty made me feel, in turns, frustrated, laughing, angry, excited, relieved, and outraged.  But we know the difference in this: the new war film doesn’t leave the audience clapping.  They walk out in silence, both deeply considering and deeply stunned by what they have witnessed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wisdom of a Child: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Empowerment is a central focus of American society.  It is the heart of our discussion about freedom.  We want to be free to be who we are, to do what we want to do (so long as we hurt no one else),  and one of the main keys to this in American society is the power to tell people stopping us from wanting to do our own thing, “Leave us alone!”  This is a power that people in the past didn’t have.  We don’t have to go far back in history to find large masses of people being arrested, imprisoned, tortured and killed because they were living their lives the way they wanted to live them.  Most Americans are offended by the idea of persecuting or prosecuting people because they are black, gay, atheist, or a child.  The American answer to all these cases is to empower the people to refute persecution with law.

However, there are still masses of people who are not given such empowerment.  One type of community that is still vulnerable to persecution is presented in Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The residents of The Bathtub, an island on the “wrong” side of a levy, are a truly wild people.  They make their own homes, determine their own work, create their own lifestyles, without regard to law or “normal” culture.  The way they raise their children, what they teach in schools, how they associate with one another is completely without regard to societal norms, and that’s the way they like it.  The scariest thing for them is to be institutionalized, to be forced to live according to someone else’s rules.  There are pockets of this feral community throughout the United States: you can find them in homeless camps and in outback rural areas.   And they frighten the majority of mainstream cultures.  Feral communities are depicted as dangerous in such films as Deliverance, The Wicker Man and in recent films like Winter’s Bone.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, however, takes a very different view of feral communities.  The Bathtub is a joyful, if not especially bright, community, full of innovation and support and love.  Even though many of them barely survive, they are still vibrant.   Although floods come to devastate their community, this isn’t a story of desperation and rescue.  In fact, salvation from the outside is the enemy.  While most of us would be on our roofs, waving to the helicopters, they crawl in drying hovels, hoping the helicopters would go away.  Because for the feral community, empowerment is separation from government, separation from laws and the police and from anyone who wants to “save” them.  Even when their land becomes unlivable.

This film is not about the community, as fascinating as I find it.  It is a movie about the empowerment of one person—Hushpuppy a very young girl tossed to and fro by circumstances.  In the mainstream community, we see such a child as necessary to be protected, because she is so frail, so vulnerable.   But is she really?  Does she have resources that we know nothing about?  Absolutely. 

Where the Wild Things Are, Tideland, Spirited Away and Pan’s Labyrinth are three films on my top 100 movies of all time.  The Spirit of the Beehive and the Iranian film The Mirror also are powerful films. And they all deal with a child’s resilience in the face of tremendous crises.  The Mirror is the most simple one, displaying a child lost in the midst of a huge city, but using her own independence and determination to make it home.  Pan’s Labyrinth and Beehive has a child in the midst of fascist oppression, undermining it through powerful determination.   Spirited Away has a child in a spirit world with rules she doesn’t really understand but her hard work and innate talents shine in the midst of crisis.  Tideland is perhaps the hardest of these films to watch, with a young girl becoming orphaned in a dangerous wilderness.  Where the Wild Things are has a child facing down the toughest opponent of all: his own lack of control and anger.

A child, along with the developmentally disabled and mentally ill, is the one who has the least ability to be empowered.   Yet all of these films give the main tools for empowerment for the most helpless and vulnerable.  It is not law, for law requires some legal standing and experience.  It is not governmental authority, because adults do not really understand the perspective and need of the child (or mentally ill).  How can a hopeless, helpless child be empowered?

For a change, movies give us a key.  All of these films, including Beasts of the Southern Wild, give us the key: determination and imagination. 

It is the imaginative who are empowered, because even if they cannot understand the complexities and massive scale of the trouble they are in, they can use their imagination to grasp it in a way they can grasp.  The solutions may be beyond their ability to intellectually fine, but they can use their imagination to find a path that will lead to survival.  As adults, we might dismiss imagination as being something less than reality.  But imagination can stand in place of reality, giving us empowerment in situations that we cannot live with otherwise.  This is the wisdom of the child.

It is the determined who are empowered, even if they have no other sword to wield.  Only the determined will see through their survival and safety to the end.  The determined can not only deliver themselves, but others as well.   The determined remains on the path to their goal, no matter what obstacles, no matter how wayward the path, no matter any naysayer.  Only the determined have the faith necessary to reach safety.  This is the wisdom of the child.

Although children, and others in powerless situations, may lack in traditional intelligence or resources that normally means survival, if they (or we) have that imaginative determination we can and will survive.  Perhaps these are qualities we should encourage.  For these are the true leaders of our society.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Theology of Life of Pi

The most recent Ang Lee film, Life of Pi, is easily the most beautiful film of 2012.  I really enjoyed my time with it, as did my two daughters who watched it with me (since you asked, 12 and 16).  It is a simple tale, but wonderfully told and engaging.  I encourage you to see it.  4/5

There.  Now the review portion of this post is done.

But I have been asked a few times concerning my opinion about the religious themes of the film.  This makes sense, since the point of the film is a religious one and I am a pastor.  So I ought to have an opinion, right?  Well, I do.  I’ll try to be unpastorlike and keep it brief.

I have found five theological statements this movie makes.  Let me summarize them:
1. God, as a powerful being, exists
2. God has something to say
3. God speaks through stories
4. God speaks through a variety of stories, sometimes contradictory
5. God is less concerned about truth than communication

The first three points are in full agreement with Christianity, as well as Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.  Other religions, such as Buddhism, thinks that what a god might say isn’t as important as enlightened humans.  But few religious people should have a problem with these first three.

The fourth principle is a problem with certain orthodox believers and certainly fundamentalists.  They hold that God is completely contradiction-free and there is a logic and consistency in God’s communication.  If God gives us a narrative, it a cohesive narrative.  And if there is contradiction, it must mean that part of the narrative is not of God. 

The final principle speaks directly against the fundamentalist point of view, because that point is all about the one truth.

What I want to point out is that the movie doesn’t disagree that there could very well be one truth.  What it actually questions is whether the direct communication of that truth is the best way to create a world.  People don't always handle truth well.  Jesus spoke truth, and it wasn’t received well at all, and so he spoke in parables which were not understood, but people then just scratched their heads or came to Jesus and asked.  Indirect truth seems to have done work equally well.

If God’s perspective is to bring people to a certain place—let’s say to train people to love, or to prepare them for eternal life—and truth isn’t the best way to bring people to that place, would God be so restrictive as to not give a narrative that might be more flexible with statistics?  Must every jot and tittle be historically, scientifically, measurably accurate?  Or can the details be fudged in order to bring people to the place where He wants them to be?

I am not saying God has done that.  Nor is the film.  It is just a question, a thought, to put us in the mindset of God and to possibly not be so narrow minded about our “truths” we hold dear.  After all, it could be that we have a stranglehold on a “truth” that has been colored, let’s say.  And that would be very embarrassing when we found out the real truth.

For me, it is more important to find out the direction God wants us to move than to find out the details of all that He has done in the past.  The stories are clues and the principles we are given are directions.  But it is up to our relationship with God here and now to determine what it means.

Important visual commentary by Kilgore and his daughters:

What Counts: Interpretation and Intention

I am an arrogant SOB.  At least so I have been told.  I am so convinced that I am right that I won’t listen to other points of view.  Mind you, I am perfectly willing to allow others their (wrong) point of view, but I very rarely will allow their points of view to shake my own.

This only makes sense because my opinion is distinctly my own and it doesn’t make any sense to me to adapt another person’s point of view.  That seems very invasive, to allow another’s mind to rest in my own as if it lived there.

And this goes with movies as well.  You might notice that I don’t very often post a typical “review” of a film, as if it is “good” or “bad”, enjoyable or not.  I typically am writing about movies that meant something to me and I am writing at least a part of what I understood about the film.  I am not asking others to agree with me necessarily.  But unless you give me pretty solid evidence, I won’t change my mind about what the film means to me.

In my review of Martha Marcy Mae Marline, I gave an opinion of the meaning of the last name in the film title, and a couple readers wrote in to tell me I was wrong and they gave me evidence from the film.  Well, I was wrong.  I’m disappointed I was wrong, but there it is.

Now recently I watched the film Looper, the popular time travel flick by Rian Johnson, who is a director I really enjoy.  The plot, like all good time travel stories, is complicated and intricate.  But there seemed to be a clear contradiction in the plot, involving the end which I won’t get into.  I thought it through and decided that there must have been an unexpressed, subtle twist in the film that isn’t usually seen.  I was pretty excited about it, and I was ready to share it with my film friends, to see what they thought.

Then I listened to an interview with Rian Johnson and he happened to be talking about the plot of the film and he made it clear that, as writer/director, he had no thought as to my subtle twist.  It just wasn’t there.  Which meant that the contradiction stood.  This really irritated me.  I didn’t want the film to have a logical problem with it.  Admittedly, it is difficult to have a complex time travel without a misstep, but I wanted RJ to have it right.  I like him a lot, both as a person and as a moviemaker and I wanted him to get it right.  But he just didn’t.  That sucks.

Now, I have some friends who, it might be argued, are more arrogant than I.  They would tell me, “The director cannot tell us the ‘real’ meaning of his film.  Once the film is released, it is in the public arena.  He can have his opinion of the film and you can have yours and both can stand as equals, each must stand under the scrutiny of the text of the film.” 

I can certainly see this point of view for most films.  Because most film is art created by committee.  So the director may have one intention, but the scriptwriter another, the studio another, the cinematographer another.  So while my opinion isn’t reflecting one imaginative mindset, it could represent another.  The intention of the director, or the writer or the cinematographer or lead actor is only one point of view on this art.  There are other creative people who have input into this and my point of view might be representing another equally valid point of view.

I have a harder time doing that with a writer/director like Johnson or Woody Allen or Ingmar Bergman.  These artists have more control over their work, and have a singular mindset, a point or point of view they want to express.  They are more like novelists, and when a novelist expresses an opinion about the meaning of their work, their view, while not completely authoritative, is certainly more authoritative than anyone else’s.   
I can express my point of view about Looper’s plot, and it might disagree with Rian Johnson,  and if anyone pointed out that it disagreed with the 90 percent creator, I would hang my head in shame.  I still think that I have the right to my point of view.  And it is as good as anyone else’s , unless I am proven otherwise.  But just because I like my interpretation better, the main creator of a work still gets first say.

All this is to say I wish writer/directors would just shut up about their work.  Just release the work and then let it go.  You’re stepping on my toes. L
(Just joking, Rian.  You are so cool, I like listening to you. But let us have some mystery, okay?)

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Wonderfully Difficult Film: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

"Watch this film or else!"
"You can't make me!"

I think everyone has those great films that they just can't find time for.  Sure, it may have a great Metacritics score and be on umpteen lists on icheckmovies and it may be at the top of your List of Shame-- heck, you may own it and Bill Thompson may have dictated it to you two years ago-- but still you haven't gotten around to watching it.

And you don't know why.  Something about the film just seems unpleasant or difficult and you just never seem to be in the right mood or frame of mind to tackle it.  Netflix may have a fantastic rating for you, all your movie buddies can tell you that you will love this film, but it still seems like a bitter pill to swallow. 

And this is the way I felt about this film adapted from a play which won five Academy Awards.  Seeing Richard Burton and Liz Taylor at their most bitter for more than two hours didn't have my idea of a good time stamped all over it.  But for some reason, as miserable as I felt last night, it was the night to watch this film I'd been avoiding.

First of all, let me say that the film deserved every award it received.  Richard Burton was a dream.  I was swooning every time he spoke and wished that Liz would just shut up and let him speak.  Never mind that the bitterest, nastiest speeches were his, I would listen to them again if only to let him speak.   Having seen a few other Taylor performances, this was eye-opening to me as well.  Her spleen-bursting shrieks were horrible, but full of gleeful disregard of public decency. 

But the two performances take a back seat to the art and cinematography.  The black and white is some of the most beautiful I have seen, and it is a wonder to behold, even without nature or unique art to look at.  Instead, the everyday is turned into art, albeit of a disturbing nature.

However, all my concerns were right.  Never has there been a more thorough rape of character's personalities by other characters.  This movie breaks one of my cardinal sins of movies: "A movie must not make every character so thoroughly dislikable that there is no one to sympathize with."  Sweet Smell of Success was able to break this rule while still gaining my complete praise, but WAoVW must receive a slap on the wrist for it.  Must there be almost no sympathy?  Must every character be vivisected and we nod with clear agreement?  I believe that Burton and Taylor must have been divorced so many times because every time they watched this film, they must have wondered "How could ANYONE live with this wretch of a human being?"

Needless to say, this is a difficult film.  A tough one for me to recommend it, actually.  But recommend it I do, to those who love great film.  For this deserves the title "American classic" as difficult as it is.  I can't give it full marks because my enjoyment was certainly limited.  But my admiration for the filmmaking-- directing, acting, script and cinematography-- is at it's highest.