Sunday, February 21, 2016

Is Hail, Caesar! Worth the Suffering?

In my mind, there are three general types of Coen Bros. films:
a. crime
b. comedy
c. existential
    ...or some combination of these.

I think Hail, Caesar is some mix of the last two categories. On the surface, it is all comedy with a love-letter/critique of golden age Hollywood. The five mini-films included are perfect renditions of the classic genres, all with a comic twist. And there is a perfect comedy routine between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich, which although given in a trailer is still a joy.

In the end, however, the meaning is existential. The bookends are of Eddie Mannix, the historic "fixer" of MGM studios, (not a good man, in any way) in confession, attempting to reconcile himself with his sins. The struggle is whether small bad acts can add to a good end.

And anyone looking at the history of Hollywood could easily question whether movies are worth it. Lately I have been pouring over thepodcast You Must Remember This where Karina Longworth goes through the"hidden or lost history of Hollywood of the Twentieth Century", in aset of audio essays, brilliantly told. But the stories she tells are dark, at times disturbing. Like the story of Eddie Mannix. All these broken marriages, all this money spent for lighthearted fluff, all these twisted lives-- are the movies we enjoy worth it?

I suppose the Coens ask themselves the same question. All the money they spend for their films, all the hurt, all the hardship... is it worth it? To a certain degree, I think they are giving themselves a cop-out-- sure, guys, compared to participating with the atomic bomb, making movies is a much better occupation.

But is it better than spending the same money on the homeless, on AIDS victims, on immunizing the world's children, on providing clean drinking water? Can the billions we spend on movies be better spent?

For the Coens, I'd say the answer is a clear "yes." In the end, there are a lot of bad things that go into making films, including the amount of money spent, but there is a "spiritual message" a heroism, an opening of the conscience that we might not be able to get any other way. There is a cost, sometimes a horrible cost, but in the end, it's all worth it for that message.

I am still torn. Admittedly, I spend a moderate amount of personal dollars on movies and personal time. I do that so that I can get a break from my other work, to "forget about life for a while." I think about the end message of Sullivan's Travels, that movies provide joy for the joyless. But are they just an opium for the masses? An evil, although small, that could do more, that harms some, but we accept because of the small good they produce? It is entertainment we receive worth the megalomania of Lars Von Trier and Errol Flynn? Is it worth the destruction of the Madonna/Sean Penn marriage, the downfall of Judy Garland?

What about the children, the grown-ups who take movies as a blueprint for their misguided lives?  Me included?

But aren't movies, and the celebrities they inevitably create simply a microscope of the lives and thoughts we struggle with as society? An opportunity to see the result of our thoughts on a big stage? The outgrowth of philosophies we actually hold to? In movies we can see the result of the redemptive violence philosophy, both good and bad. In movies we can see the romance myth encouraged and debunked. In movies are laid out bare the cowardice and hopes of all humankind.

I'm not the one to say whether movies are moral or not, I guess. For now, they are here to stay and they are essential to my life and many others. I guess, in the end, I have to say that they are important to me. After all, were it not for a movie, I would have never had this reflection.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Experimenter: Obedience and Ethics

Experimenter is a playful biography of Stanley Milgram, a professor of socio-psychology in mid-20th-century New York.  It is an experiment, aiming toward a point, just as if it had been directed by Milgram himself.  It goes back and forth between biography and ideas, constantly rephrasing the truths that made up the foundation of Milgram's life.

Stanley Milgram is a cold fish. He speaks with a monotone, views crowds of people as experiments, and is willing to deceive in order to discover truth.  Sure, he has a wry sense of humor and a quirky way of looking at the world, but still, he seems almost alien.

That's the way many people feel under the gaze of an INTJ (a personality type, sometimes called "the scientist").  A person whose inner thoughts drive her to improve the world, but in strange ways that might seem manipulative or rebellious.  Yet people regard her as distant, removed from everyday life.

I have personally experienced this.  I'm an INTJ, too.  We make up less than two percent of the population, and for many people that's all for the good.  We don't follow rules very well.  But we figure things out in unique ways.

For myself, I have set my sights on the "homeless problem" (not that any people are a problem).  And so I am constantly battling city code so that my homeless friends might have places to sleep, and opportunities to survive and thrive.  I created a work program and a three-day homeless camp, and gave the homeless people jobs with housing and formed networks of churches to open their doors to allow the homeless in.  For my unique ways of working with the poorest in our society, I've been told that I cause homelessness and that I am to blame for the "homeless problem" in my community.

You gotta shrug that stuff off.  It's gunna happen.

Professor Milgram understands this.  He was trying to understand the basis of how a community can participate in evil, such as many nations participated in the destruction of the Jews under Nazi rule.  So he created a famous experiment which shows how deeply we hold obedience to authority.  He had people apply (fictional) electric shocks to a subject when he failed a question on a test when an authority took the responsibility for the results.  Authority, he discovered, erases personal responsibility, and allows one to participate in acts that they know are evil.  They give one allowance to ignore and to even support the worst actions.

And for this he discovery he was persecuted.  Of course, he was a cold fish, a person many people wouldn't like.  Removed, like the authorities he pulled the rug out from under.

And can truth be discovered through deception?  Can authority be undermined by imposing authority?

But I think Milgram wasn't trying to undermine authority.  He is trying to give a basis for acting morally, no matter what the circumstances.  To say that there is a time to do what is right, to speak up for what is right no matter who is telling us otherwise.

Like when we see someone being harassed and moved on by the police in the middle of winter.
Like when churches are told they can't open their doors to let people in from the cold overnight.
Like when the homeless are told to leave and go somewhere else-- anywhere else--
and again
and again
and again.

Sometimes we just have to do what is right, no matter what anyone else says. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


I avoided this film for a long time. It is on Netflix Instant, and I've had it on my list, but I couldn't make myself watch it. The phrase 'torture porn' kept running though my head, and I'm not a fan of gore. Honestly, I kinda despise it. Still this film is on so many lists and it's generally considered positively. Yesterday, my kids and I sat down to watch Ringu, and I slept through the whole movie. Waking up, I was still really groggy, so I decided I needed a movie to keep me awake. It was time to watch Saw.

And I am surprised at just how great it is. "Torture porn" is certainly not the phrase that would come to mind. Rather it is a psychological thriller, that amps up the tension about every ten minutes. It doesn't linger over torture. Frankly, it doesn't linger over anything. I was amazed at how fast-paced it was. It even eschews real-time speed when the action is a bit too drawn out. Having a fast drive between action? Just speed up the film, to get to the next action sooner. There is no filler in this movie, no time to really develop dread. Just intensity.

The whole time, as well, I thought I was smarter than the filmmakers. Nope. They played me every step of the way. It is a stunning, enjoyable film, and a great example of how entertaining and smart a horror film can be.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Crimson Peak

Instead of being a monster film, like I might expect from del Toro, this is really a classy gothic. Sure, it has ghosts, pretty creepy scary ghosts, but it really has more in common with Gaslight or Hitchcock's Rebecca. Still, it hits the two Hitchcock high "Cs" hard and strong: Classy and Creepy.

Edith Cushing is ten years old when her mother died, and then visited her as a ghost, warning her about "Crimson Peak." More than a decade later, as an aspiring writer, her life is turned upside down by falling in love with Baronet Tom Hiddleston (which I'm sure happened to many a girl) and her father tragically dying. She marries Tom and moves into his estate, which she didn't know was also called "Crimson Peak."

Every frame of this film is exotic and full of life. It is simply beautiful or powerful. The casting was amazing as well, where Mia Wasikowska is perfect as the doll-like woman attempting to be frail for her husband, but is really strong. Tom Hiddleston is the frail man attempting to act strong and Jessica Chastain is simply creepy in every scene. I think it is a misnomer to call the film a "horror" at all. It isn't even a "thriller" because there is little surprise in how the plot turns out. But as a gothic (with horror elements), it is expertly measured, and a visual feast.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

A Deadly Lust: Two films by Claire Denis

For Claire Denis, sex is a hazardous decision.  Gone is the thought that one might casually, flippantly hold the attitude of Marline Dietrich, “It’s just sex.”  Sex is a life-and-death compulsion, it drives and destroys in equal measures, it is a deadly lust.  Dare anyone call these films “erotic”?  They do not titillate, but rather warn.  And we wince.

The title “Bastards” really says it all.  Men manipulating, forcing themselves upon women, using them and casting them aside as an old sex doll.  Men, all men it seems, are so goal-oriented that nothing will stand in their way, but their goal is never relationship, but relationship is used as a means to their ends.  A female human being is simply a hurdle, a means, but never the end in and of themselves.  One man might be considered a good father, another might be a good uncle, but they are never, nor do they have the capacity to be, a caring husband, a stirring lover.  The good male companion is a fantasy, never to be fully fleshed out because they never give more than a cursory glance at their partner.

In “Trouble Every Day” lust is a drive to consume.  Perhaps we have experienced this—our love of a child might cause us to pinch them, to claim, “I could just eat you up!”  But in this film the compulsion for sex is always accompanied with the drive to devour flesh.  This leads to a couple of the most disturbing sex scenes possibly every put upon screen—revolting, disgusting.  And yet, and yet…  Perhaps Denis is speaking about addictive personalities, perhaps she is opening up the fetish can of worms in which lust occasionally leads down darker paths.  Or perhaps she is revealing something about all of us, that in the end our lust is about our appetite, and no matter how we try in the end our compulsion will drive us and destroy others.  Maybe we just can’t help it.

My friends who have seen more of Clair Denis will tell me that these films are different for  her.  Perhaps so, but this is a side of her that must be recognized.  The driven darkness of us all are explored and exposed and there is a time that we must look right in the mirror of cinema and confess, “That is me.”

Monday, February 8, 2016

After Life (1998)

Okay, so you’re dead. Sorry, but you knew it had to happen eventually. For some, it happens young, but most of us when we are older and worn. Rather than a bright light, you end up in a low budget college with a dorm and a staff. Their purpose is singular: to help you choose the one memory that you will spend eternity with. It’s a tough choice because eternity is a long time and out of all the beats in your life you only get to choose one.

Think about it for a second. Your whole life, one memory is all you will get. Your whole life will be boiled down to this one moment. Nothing else will count. Will you chose a happy memory? A poignant one that perhaps represents your whole life? A lesson you learned? A person you spent your life with… or a person you wanted to spend your life with. It’s a tough decision. But don’t worry, you’ve got a few days to figure it out.

I love the conceptual seed of the film, but also the rough, almost gritty feel of it, just the opposite of most presentations of the afterlife. There’s no mystic light, no robes, no courtroom feel. Just a group of social workers, there to bring you to your inevitable conclusions, who, of course, have their own issues. The interviews are also quite realistic, documentary-like, and rightly so, as some of the people are not actors, but just people who they are asking this singular question to.

So you might ask, what is my choice? After spending two plus hours thinking on the question and asking my family about it, I think that a scene that is interpreted various ways would be best for me. If I’m going to spend eternity watching a short about my life, I’d like it to be provocative, with different answers. Because I will be many people, thinking different things throughout eternity and I’d rather have a scene that could be interpreted various ways. Or I could just have a recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. Or maybe a poem by John Donne. Something like that.


I. Beauty

After a few minutes, I began considering this "The Pinterest Movie". A collection of beautiful images, cobbled together without much organization intended to stir awe and wonder. On a huge screen, I could imagine some of these images causing jaw-dropping amazement, but on a laptop, it feels like I'm going through a Google Images search of "beautiful".

II. Deconstruction

After I had been put into a lull, an artistic performance stuns the viewer, helping us realize that we are not in the movie we once thought. No longer sleepy, I awake to a breakdown of the beauty presented in the first part of the film. Even though this middle section continues none of the images from the first, in a sense this set of images destroys the beauty seen in the first section, forcing us to forget, to almost negate the beauty originally presented.

III. Restoration

Through religion, the directors seem to be saying, we can restore the world to the beauty that creation was intended to display. This is the weakest set of the three, because although we see a semblance of the beauty, it is neither as stunning as the first or any kind of antidote to the second.

I love the progress the film goes through, but I think it is religiously naive, and starts too slowly. Still, for a non-narrative film, it has a clear message and a lot of depth, especially in the second section.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Searching for Sugar Man

Because of the existence of this film, I knew a few things about Sixto Rodriguez. That he had no real music career in the U.S., that he did have some popularity in Australia and did some tours there, that people compared him to Bob Dylan, and he was very popular in South Africa without him knowing it. That last part seemed strange because how could he not know that his albums were selling like hotcakes? I was concerned that the film would seem like a set up, like a lie by omission.

Not at all. What a surprise to get a documentary that not only told a great story, but was a feel-good movie. The secret of the film is to tell the story from the perspective of the South Africans and to keep Rodriguez himself somewhat a mystery. The fact that he remained a hard laborer throughout his life seems to say more about his character than his lack of popularity. He believes in hard work and in earning your own keep. But the film didn't really explore the man... they focused on the story.

And the story is wonderful. I can feel the excitement of them discovering that Rodriguez is alive and talking to him and seeing him for the first time. It is a story about research before the internet, and how the internet changed the speed with which we find things out tremendously. It is a story about how one nation might not be ready for a message, or the messenger, but another nation might. I smiled throughout the film because the narrative is so well done.