Saturday, November 16, 2013

Experiencing Evil: 12 Years a Slave

The best movies are not intellectual.  This is not to say that the great movies do not have an intellectual element.  Certainly they do.  The very best films stimulate thinking and conversation.  However, at times also some not so great films do the same thing. 

The greatest films do not remain just in the mind, however, but in the soul.  It stirs your emotions: inspiring awe or anger; inciting romance or rage; stirring tears or trembling.  There is much to consider, but it is also an experience in and of itself.  It puts you in another person’s shoes and, for a moment, allows you to see the world as they see it.  To wear their clothes and allow us to walk around in them, allowing others to react to us as if we were them.

For a few moments, we experienced what it felt like to be a soldier on D-Day in Saving Private Ryan.  We could experience the ethereal beauty of music in The Double Life of Veronique.  We could experience the dread of the supernatural evil in The Exorcist.  We could sense the awe of the desert world in Lawrence of Arabia. We could feel the rage building up in us in Malcolm X.  (Sorry if you didn’t experience those particular feelings when watching those films.  Consumer response may vary.)

Certainly two films this year comes close to that: Gravity, that allows us to float with the astronauts and 12 Years a Slave that give us the barest taste of what it meant to be a slave, if we were not born a slave.
There is much in this film to intellectualize, certainly.  Systemic injustice and how it touches everything in society.  How the black was assumed to be property without proof.  The differentiation of treatment between white and black and how that still affects American society.  The use of religion and Scripture in unjust institutions.  Smaller themes—just pay for one’s work, the loss of name as dehumanization, just and unjust use of violence—abound.   All of these could be discussed forever.

But what I was constantly wondering was how much the director identified with this story.  Steve McQueen—despite the connection in name with the white American movie star—is a black British artistic director.  I wonder if he picked this story because if he were born at a different time, this might be his story.  It might be him, having woke up with chains, told he was a runaway slave and given a new name, beaten until he accepts his new life.

The fact is, if I were born a different color in a different time, this could be me.  Being articulate, being educated, having a northern accent and even being born free didn’t help Solomon.  In a time of prejudice, it takes very little to be on the other side of the tracks.  One dramatic change, and you are no longer well regarded, you are no longer loved.  You become the outcast, the very bottom rung of society, no matter what you did, no matter who you are.  So much depends on the story society tells about you.

I trembled as I watched this film.  Not just at the atrocities Solomon and his fellow slaves had to suffer.  But at the fact that so few did so little as to change this societal abomination.  That the promoters of this evil used the very same words I do on a daily basis to teach people how to love and care.  I wept at Solomon’s experience.

Just as the credits rolled, my phone rang.  Don’t worry, I had it silenced through the film, but I decided to walk out and take the call.  On a Saturday, I would normally be leading a day shelter and worship service for some fifty homeless people, but once a month I get a day off, which I occasionally use to watch a film I am highly anticipating.  My day shelter leader, who used to be homeless herself, asked me about getting gear for Greg.  The police came and took everything he owned except what was on his back.  We didn’t have a tent, but we made arrangements to get him a tarp, a sleeping bag and a leather coat.

Today, more than ever, anyone could be at the bottom rung of society.  Anyone.  Suddenly, without warning, one could be thrust onto the street and become a criminal, an object of public scorn.  And the only way to get past this gauntlet of shame is to clamber up the myriad of obstacles to become middle class again.  The longer one remains on the street, the deeper the pit of shit one sinks into.

Who will help stop this societal injustice?  Since I see it, whoever else will, I must participate in this evil’s demise. If only because I see it for what it is.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Battle for the Soul: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

For me, books ruin movies. Not the books written after the movie, but books from which a movie is adapted. When I watched this film in my teens it was soon after reading the Ken Kesey novel, which I found magnificent. But when I watched the film, all I could think of is the many things that were changed, and how the tone of the film differed from that of the book.

Now, more than twenty years later, the book has mostly faded from memory. All three productions of this story-- book, film and play-- melded in some vague outline of a story. Yep, time to watch the film again.

What the film stands against this time is years of going into various state and private mental facilities in Oregon, including the one where this was filmed, the State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, in a pastoral role. I've had a lot of experience with the mentally ill and have seen hospital officials deal with their clients in many different situations. How does this film hold up against that experience?

Amazingly well. Mind you, the situations in 1968 were quite different from the last 15 years when I've visited institutions. At this point security is set at a much higher priority. And after the purging of hospitals in the 80's you don't find many clients able to play cards with other clients.

But much is the same. Line ups for medications, the high priority on keeping control of the clients by the hospital staff, as well as the fact that a prison sentence has an end, but a committed patient, if ordered by the state, can remain in the state hospital for the majority of one's life.

The idea of a con using the state hospital as a way out of prison is brilliant, because then we can see the clashing of these two similar but very different worlds. Both inmates are institutionalized, both are in an underground rebellion against "normal" society. Yet the approach differs. The prisoner often feels trapped, screwed by society. The mentally ill feels screwed by their own minds. Within both institutions, there are those who feel that it is best for them to be set free, to live their lives as they see fit; while others feel that freedom is a trap that forces them to be whom they never want to see again.

This story could just as well be called McMurphy's War. Because it is not just the story of how McMurphy turned the hospital upside down, but it is a battle between two approaches toward health: one, as represented by Nurse Rached is an institutional approach, offering discipline, medication and cool exteriors to assist toward normalcy. McMurphy offers plunging the clients into chaotic human experience, and pushing personal boundaries. While we might personally be drawn to a more human approach, the brutal nature of the film is that of all wars-- it is the conflict, not any single approach, that brings destruction. And when the battle is for the human soul confrontation and competition is the very worst approach, for the fragile soul must be torn in the midst of battle, as seen in divorce courts all over the world.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Conversationally Romantic: Linklater's "Before" Films

What I find amazing about the "Before" films by Linkater, Delpy and Hawke, is how they grow with me.  

Before Sunrise I saw many years after its release and found it the most sophmoric of efforts.  Especially I found Jessie's character unlikable, but I still found the romantic element to be full of spark and the conversation of interest. Linklater is the master of conversation films, and this one was good, if not excellent.

Before Sunrise, which takes place nine years after the first film, was a remarkable improvement for me.  The maturity of both characters was marked both emotionally and intellectually.  We were clearly seeing the same people, yet different many years apart.  As the movie grows, so does the spark we saw in the first film until it was clear that this romance was fated.  I understood this film, and it struck my soul.  This was romance as I knew it, if perhaps a bit more intellectual.  Two souls marked for life.  

Before Midnight, however, is a big question mark.  The characters have matured again, physically and emotionally, and time has worn on them.  There is sorrow over past decisions and anger over how trapped they are in the life they choose.  There is much speech about the necessity of being transitory, but still flashes of the romantic in the first two films.

This also is romance as I understand it now.  Anger, desperate decisions, insecurity, attachment worn by years. This film isn't about romance, it's about the life that grows out of romance.  It's about decisions that can't be turned back and the continuous process of creating a life together, and how difficult each decision could be. 

It reminds me strongly of Certified Copy and the themes explored in that film, which was clearly influenced by the Before films.  In Certified Copy, it explores the change and yet the sameness of a relationship over many years, almost trying to put Before Sunrise and Before Midnight in a single film. 

The strength of Before Midnight, however, is the strength of the characters the three writers created.  It is exciting to participate in the scintillating conversation between these two vibrant people.  This time, there are more characters, many as powerful as the initial two.  Especially two elderly actors, who give powerful points about the power and movement of love.  The discussion around the table is one of the most powerful scenes in the whole series, and possibly the most fascinating discussion about gender and love since Plato's Symposium.
Yes, it a movie full of talking.  And it is a rollercoaster of emotion and depth.  The final scene is a powerful conclusion for the trilogy, should the trio decide to retire this series.

DONT TAKE ME SERIOUSLY!  Please, Linklater and team, come back again in nine years.  I have so much to learn, and I don't want to lose these friends of mine.


P.S. A couple things that surprised me in the film. First is the frank talk of sex in the film.  The second is the topless Julie Delpy in the middle section of the film.  I was watching the film with my 13 year old daughter and nothing like that had been shown before.  Some frank discussion of sex, but certainly no depiction.  Now, Delpy's topless, Hawke is nuzzling her nipples... ummm... and I'm getting very uncomfy watching this with my daughter.  I purposely didn't ready anything about this third film so I could appreciate it all new and everything.  It wasn't just that she was topless, but half the conversation in that scene is just her with no top.  In a sense, it was cool.  This is how married couples converse at times.  It seemed very natural.  Except I was watching it with my young daughter.  Okay, I wish I had known that.

One other thing: Julie Delpy is such an amazing actress.  I watched her performance in Three Colors: White a couple months ago and in 2 Days in New York yesterday.  She can do anything, and she seems to have fun with whatever she plays.  In Before Midnight I wish she could get an Academy.  It's such a powerful role.