Monday, October 6, 2008

Burn After Reading: Laughing at What We See in the Mirror

After winning Best Picture with their suffocating somber No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading marks a return to the eccentric brand of screwball comedy that produced such classics as The Hudsucker Proxy and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?. At least that’s what I had been told and believed upon entering the theater. Though Burn After Reading was certainly eccentric with a touch of screwball here and there, the movie certainly doesn’t comfortably fit any category currently available; indeed, what makes the Coen comedies great is the sheer impossibility of marketing them accurately to consumers. Familiar labels like the broad and inclusive genre “comedy” or even more narrow subgenres like “screwball comedy” cannot even come close to conditioning our expectations accurately to what we see on screen. What we end up seeing is more expansive and complex than what we signed up for.

In typical Coen-esque fashion, Burn After Reading hurtles the audience into an impressively interwoven plot. Characters as widely diverse as an ex-CIA analyst, two oddball clerks at Hardbodies Gym, a philandering federal marshal, and an icily condescending pediatrician are elaborately connected in a web of philandering, light treason, involuntary manslaughter, absurd plain-view homicide, and bucket loads of pure bungling and human folly. The appropriate backdrop for this mayhem is Washington D.C., our country’s center of intelligence, and the Coens derive a couple of their best laughs from their send-up of CIA culture.

“Intelligence,” we’re told in the movie’s tag-line, “is relative.” Most everything in Burn After Reading is relative. The plot veers slightly towards coherence before losing all meaningful intelligibility. Relativism hangs over this movie like a palpable cloud, and we’re forced to watch the moral confusion, chaos, and irrational paranoia that results from losing contact with the light of day. The characters and the events they get inextricably wrapped up in are elaborately and smartly connected, yet one cannot call Burn After Reading a story, since that implies a beginning point and movement toward a meaningful conclusion. The vast array of characters grope towards happiness that the Coens continually tell us doesn’t exist.

What separates Burn After Reading from the Coen’s previous unclassifiable comedies is the nature of the laughter. In previous Coen offerings the facile label of “screwball comedy” hid a more complex movie; in Burn After Reading the label is entirely misleading. Sure I laughed a lot, but not in the way I’m used to laughing having been bred on the Marx Brothers, the Stooges, and David Zucker. Burn After Reading relies on absurdity, the same comedic formula as Groucho Marx; yet it hits uncomfortably close to home in a way no true comedy ever does. The absurdity is terribly discomfiting because it’s an awfully accurate portrait of our culture, and the Coen’s trademark comedic exaggeration barely veils the nihilistic reality underneath.

At several points in the movie, the Coens make it patently obvious that Burn After Reading was never intended to be a conventional comedy. Without blinking an eye they break the cardinal comedic rule of “do no real harm” to startle us from the feeling that this is a true comedy and thus a caricature and removed somewhat from reality. An unexpected and particularly brutal homicide forces us to judge their “comedy” in a different light; perhaps the farce is not so much a farce as a depiction of a real disease. The characters are indeed overly eccentric, but their obsessions, paranoia, and blind groping for transient happiness could be found in every city in America.

Burn After Reading could, as Michael Medved labeled it, be considered a “dark comedy”, though even that genre tag is misleading since dark comedies traditionally accentuate and dwell on the darkness, while Burn After Reading does no such thing. Despite its genuinely hilarious screwball moments, Burn After Reading is still a thoroughly uncomfortable movie. Most of the laughter it generates can be aptly compared to raucous mirth that reportedly followed novelist Franz Kafka’s private reading of his short story Metamorphosis, a particularly morbid tale of a traveling salesman who copes with the horror of having been transformed into vile bug. Metamorphosis certainly isn’t known for its clever zingers, but the laughter was generated by the story’s spot-on encapsulation of the modern dilemma of man’s plight severed from God. In Burn After Reading we also laugh at what we see in the mirror, and I think most of us would rather not pay for the pleasure.

It makes sense that Burn After Reading’s initial boom of box office success was short lived, considering they marketed it with one of the most misleading trailers in film history. Our culture hungers for meaning, and postmodernism will never sell outside of academies. If only the Coens had the faith to offer a little transcendent meaning and a little hope that there’s a way out of our predicament. Unfortunately, all we get is terrible absurdity.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Supernatural Evil and Divine Providence: The Dark Knight Gets It Half-Right

The pure camp of the 1960’s Batman will forever be etched in our cultural memory. Even young adults, born decades afterwards still sigh and reminisce about the fight scene exclamations “EEE-Yow!” and “Urkk!” as if it were yesterday. The Batman franchise in the 1990’s did little to shake itself free from its enduring link to the sixties, releasing a series of sub-par movies culminating in the 1997 abomination Batman and Robin where George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger did their utmost to revive the campy feel. It’s this tired and caricatured franchise that Christopher Nolan took over in 2005 with Batman Begins. To many people’s surprise, he was able to shed the franchise’s cultural baggage, reviving it through an injection of tonal seriousness layered with psychological and philosophical complexity.

Hype leading up to The Dark Knight promised an even greater transformation for the Batman series. Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern called it “suffocating.” Most critics echoed that thought. “Psychotic,” “brilliantly nihilistic,” and “sinister epic” are merely a few of the synonymous phrases used to echo the same sentiment: Batman was once more going through a 360 degree transformation, one which put ticket buyers in a flurry of anticipation.

The Dark Knight does more than merely continue shedding the cartoonish camp. It is the first comic book franchise movie to transcend its genre and become arguably a masterpiece in its own right. Many critics have cited Heath Ledger’s iconic performance, Nolan’s stunning direction, and strikingly original writing as proof of The Dark Knight’s potential Oscar windfall. It accomplishes, however, something rarer than a mere coalescing of top acting, direction, and writing performances. It achieves a thematic coup not easily accomplished in mainstream cinema.

The Dark Knight takes us to the depths of spiritual evil without turning audiences away or trivializing the subject matter. Only a handful of movies can be said to have done this. Schindler’s List, The Passion of the Christ, and The Lives of Others are three in recent history that have taken audiences deeply into the mystery of evil without inducing us to upchuck our last meal or stay away from the theater. It’s much easier to go the route of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a brutal Romanian movie about a woman who pursues an abortion, which goes beyond reasonable viewer endurance in an attempt to show the depth of evil (Schindler’s List nears that boundary, but without crossing it—the heroism of Oskar Schindler adds enough paradox to get the audience through the brutality).

It’s even easier to trivialize the reality with a superficial caricature. A majority of slasher, horror, and crime dramas give us images of unmitigated evil, but without the underlying spiritual reality. The villains are merely horrifying aberrations, humans with a couple of fuses blown in their minds, but are the stuff of nightmares, not reality. There’s no mystery here—just a matter a few crossed wires in the human mechanism. We needn’t be afraid of that evil: it’s rare, outlandish, and safely removed from our daily lives. Evil, then, is not part of our nature, but the equivalent of a computer crash, avoidable through consistent upkeep and an occasional therapy group. In other dramas, evil is purely exterior. In these movies, human nature isn’t the source of evil—only the objects of desire are. If only we would stop pursuing money or power, then our problems would simply disappear.

The Dark Knight derives its power from eschewing trivialization. The conflict between order and the maniacal nihilism of Ledger’s Joker is the real reason The Dark Knight transcends its genre. Nolan turns the Joker into a realistic, physical manifestation of Satan. He’s seemingly demonic, always ten steps ahead of his short-sighted human victims, wanting nothing but evil for its own sake, drawing human souls into its vacuum of nothingness. The Joker’s efforts are frightening, because he understands and manipulates fallen human nature. The potential for evil and nothingness is not safely removed from our lives but intimately a part of our being. The Joker explains that all we need is a little demonic push and gravity will pull us into chaos. The confrontation of the Joker’s evil catapults The Dark Knight from merely entertaining and well-made to genre transcendence.

While Christopher Nolan hits a chord in creating a truly terrifying manifestation of spiritual evil, he misses the mark in fully understanding how to confront it. Secularism limits his imagination. Courage, a little nifty technology, and refusal to capitulate principles are enough to bring the Joker down. The implication is that we have no use for Divine Providence: if we trust in our own strength and goodness, we can defeat evil. Best Picture Academy Award-winning No Country for Old Men similarly shows the limits of secularism when understanding how to confront the horrifying spiritual reality of evil—resignation and passivity is the path presented.

Despite the shortcomings of Nolan’s worldview, he does our culture a great service. Nihilism is a real threat to us, when we tend not to believe it. We’d like to believe that we can form our own cosmopolitan truth without having to risk falling headlong into the void. We’d like to believe that order and truth will always keep us moored despite our infidelity towards it. When our culture considers nihilism, it sees the effeminate, posturing German nihilists of The Big Lebowski hissing hilariously “we believe in nahthing.” We owe Christopher Nolan our gratitude for reminding our culture that evil exists and it’s not trivial.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Lilies of the Field

Sunday night, Martin and I watched the 1963 film "Lilies of the Field," for which Sidney Poitier won a Best Actor Oscar and numerous other awards. Martin had never seen it before; I had, countless times, as a child at my grandmother's house.

What a great film. It's a refreshingly simple, honest story, told without playing on emotion or artificially revving up drama, supported by wonderful performances. As I mentioned, Poitier won an Oscar for playing the itinerant construction worker Homer Smith; Lilia Skala was nominated for her supporting role as the Roman Catholic Mother Maria, who is trying to get Smith to build her and her sisters a chapel (or, in her thick German accent, a “schappel”). She gives the kind of performance that makes you forget she’s even an actress – you can’t imagine her as anyone other than her character. (The character, a severe German nun, could easily have been cartoonish – Smith even makes fun of her for this.) But she does a remarkably convincing job.

The film is notable, too, in the way that it treats Mother Maria’s faith. She trusts in God so completely that nearly every character thinks she’s a lunatic, but (without giving away too much) she’s vindicated. And it doesn’t have the cloying relativism of many faith-based films that tone down the spiritual in order to draw as many paying customers as possible. There are differences in people’s faiths, struggles within faith, but all are respected without the equivocation that tries to value any and every belief but ends up tearing every belief down (cf. Evan Almighty).

It’s such an honest story, too, without sacrificing good storytelling for absolute realism, or exacerbating vice to make people grittier or “more human.” It travels at a realistic pace – changes of heart take the time they would in real life, and hard work is depicted in a way that actually shows the hard work (no montages skipping right to the result).

The honesty continues in the depictions of the relationships between very different people, who are treated as people and not as peons of demographics. It’s often remembered as a very 'racial' film - Poitier's Oscar, for example, was the first awarded to a black man and the first given to a black person in a leading role. But the references to race are underplayed, rather than a focal point of the film. Smith, in teaching the sisters English, describes his skin as black like a stove or a record - just that, an observation, not an obsession. His accomplishment in the movie is a real achievement, valuable for the thing achieved and not because or despite the fact that's he black. In fact most characters never refer to or seem to notice his race at all. The result is a movie that's focused on humanity and not color. Watching the film as an adult, I noticed racial references that I never picked up on when I was younger. But that layer of the story never mattered, really: what I remembered was the very compelling story – a strong man being implored by a stronger Mother invoking the Strongest, God.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Magnificence of Wall-E: Pixar Simply Gets It

My childhood introduction to anthropomorphized robots occurred when I first witnessed R2-D2 sass an up-tight C-3PO and subsequently ignore the chorus of passive and ineffectual complaints from “The Professor” in Star Wars: A New Hope. Science fiction has never been my particular brand of nerdom, but the first three Star Wars movies greatly appealed to me as a youngster as they still do today. Unlike many of my generation, the principle appeal of Star Wars for me has never been its intricately layered galaxy, so well known for its technology, social makeup, Gnostic religion, and epic conflicts—the stuff of which has inspired legions of B-grade novels.

I had never reflected on this until George Lucas bludgeoned the world with his prequels and I witnessed the potential for an entertaining story and likeable, empathetic characters wash away in a flood of highly manipulated pixels. The Star Wars galaxy in the prequels was still complex and deeply detailed, but essentially soulless, a stunning story world with nothing in it. Even a lovable moppet like Jake Lloyd failed to evince the slightest amount of empathy in a movie where the cast droned their lines with less life than the droids they fought. Say what you will about Mark Hamill’s heroic struggle to act, but the first trilogy won over a generation, not because of the ingenuity of the Star Wars universe, but because it was an incredible story that forged bonds between the audience and the characters. It’s the human element that counts, not the spectacle; it’s no wonder that the prequels failed to revive the Star Wars frenzy or win over the younger generation. Eye candy, once consumed, is digested and never thought of again.

George Lucas embodies an odd paradox: As technology expanded his capacity for filmmaking, the more his ability to tell a story visually receded. When you spend enormous amounts of time and money building a precise model of Jar-Jar Binks’ eyebrow, it becomes a self-sufficient work of art in itself, and there is no needs to actually have that eyebrow express something of significance.

And finally, this brings me to the subject of Wall-E, Pixar’s latest masterpiece. Pixar has made movie after movie that has challenged and expanded the limits of animation. After seeing a preview of Wall-E, it became obvious that this movie was going to take animation to even greater heights than the stunning Ratatouille. Would this be the movie in which Pixar would finally succumb to the Lucas paradox? Would they toss aside what made them great? I witnessed quite the opposite. As technology has expanded Pixar’s range and ability, they have returned to the subtle visual power of the silent age, and created a story about anthropomorphized robots that captivate us and shed light on our humanity.

For director Andrew Stanton and his colleagues at Pixar, the story is central. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Stanton adamantly denied that he had created a powerful environmental message movie, which warned of the dehumanizing consequences of excessive consumerism. It simply didn’t factor into the equation at all. According to Stanton, the primary thing at Pixar will always be the story. Thank God for that.

The upshot for Christians is that Wall-E gets its message across powerfully to all ideological shades without trying. I am certainly not a global warming enthusiast. In fact, I have grown tremendously sensitive to the fervent religiosity and misanthropies of excessive environmentalism, and thus was not well disposed to accept a priggish lecture from an animated movie. Wall-E, however, did not prick any of those sensitivities. It made me reflect on how reactionary I had become on the real dangers of consumerism, spending more mental energy reacting against the pervasive Marxist agenda-driven environmentalism than reflecting on what Christian environmental stewardship might mean. Wall-E is an effective message movie because it doesn’t subsume story by becoming pedantic or lapse into extremism. In the end of Wall-E, it’s clear that our Earthly environment serves the human spirit, not the reverse.

The more the message looms over the movie like a threatening cloud, the less disposed we are to accept it. Pixar gets it: the story is and should always be the cornerstone of a film.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Through a Screen Darkly: A Christian Watches Secular Film

In a rare excursion last week to San Diego’s downtown Central Library, I came across an interesting new title from Jeffrey Overstreet, a film reviewer for Christianity Today. His first book, Through the Screen Darkly, chronicles his odyssey from a culturally isolationist Baptist home, one that distrusted serious engagement with popular culture, to a profound appreciation for cinema art and its ability to advance Gospel values. A movie critic, yet seemingly sensitive to criticism, Overstreet uses the book to defend himself on two fronts, each the polar opposite of the other. Through the Screen Darkly is his personal justification of his vocational choice from Christians suspicious of secular film, contending against the prevalent idea that movie criticism’s sole end should be the chronicling of objectionable content. With equal vigor, Mr. Overstreet ruffles at the label of snobbery, the notion that he may be paying insufficient attention to mainstream secular film in favor of languidly paced art house fair. His response to both criticisms makes for an interesting, insightful, and genuinely affecting read.

Mr. Overstreet doesn’t lament his somewhat sheltered upbringing, but is deeply grateful for being kept away from potentially harmful content before he could grow into a fully mature Christian man. Having gained maturity and conviction in the truth of Christ, however, he laments the desire of many Christian reviewers to throw the baby out with the bathwater by refusing to seriously watch secular art. “Christ’s incarnation,” Overstreet writes, “teaches us that spiritual things and fleshly things are not separate. The sacred is waiting to be recognized in secular things. Even those artists who don’t believe in God might accidentally reflect back to us realities in which we can see God working.” This reflection cuts, he believes, to the heart of what ails the Christian film/music industry, mainly the reduction of art to transparent message. Christians impoverish themselves by refusing to look closely at secular and morally ambiguous films, for the struggle to find meaning in a godless world reveals to us truths about reality and God.

It’s a mistake, however, to believe that this reduction is born out of naivety or superficiality, as many writers suggest. While Mr. Overstreet makes no effort to conceal his latent frustration with many Christians’ reduction of art to message, he does, however, give credence to the position he is attempting to counter. Plato and Tolstoy (in his later years) are two examples of profound thinkers who distrusted the volatile and subjective power of art. Plato famously banned it from his ideal republic, while watching Hamlet made Tolstoy shudder. For both thinkers, art was either served as unambiguous moral instruction or it was perverse.

Plato’s hostility to art was enough to turn me off in the ignorance of my undergraduate days. I once had the audacity and flat-out stupidity to declare to my philosophy professor father that I had no use for Plato’s work but only preferred Aristotle. Without mincing words, he told me I was mistaken. Mr. Overstreet’s book has force in its argument because he doesn’t dismiss art’s dangers. Overstreet draws through his gradual cultivation of his power of artistic perception in his youth and makes it clear that without such a maturation period the films he lauds may have been dangerous to him.

Art can be dangerous. Outside my window looms the giant cathedral-like edifice of the adjacent Edward’s Theater. Art can become an end in itself, rather than pointing to transcendent truth beyond itself. It can incite irrational passions and undermine reason. Without a mature faith and a cultivated power of perception, art can lead us down dangerous paths. But, Overstreet contends, the negative power of art shouldn’t deter us from encountering it. He begs us to look closely and humbly at secular art with the realization that God may reveal something to us about the nature of reality. “Mathematics, science, art,” he writes, “these are languages through which God is speaking. All truth is God’s truth. We mustn’t be afraid of science, numbers or surrealist paintings. If God is sovereign in the world, as we assert that He is, these explorations affirm and increase the faith of those who look closely.”

While I fundamentally agree with his thesis, I couldn’t help thinking he had taken it too far and my wife confirmed my suspicion. “How close are we supposed to look at secular art?” My wife pointed out. “If you ‘look closely’ at an atheist’s surrealist painting and come away with a message affirming God, aren’t you just imposing your belief on someone else’s art? Can anything then be communicated through art, if observers just ‘look closely’ to see what they want to see?”

My wife reminded me of a letter to First Things regarding classical music. A musician wrote, defending classical music against some review or other, to say that they thought a particular symphony “irrefutably” affirmed the resurrection of Christ. The author of the original piece said that if that was the case, then every hearer would have to be converted. We can’t look too closely, or we may come away with a horribly blurred vision of the work. All things considered, however, Mr. Overstreet’s thesis is valuable for Christians who are embracing evangelization through media. If we refuse to engage secular art, how can we ever expect to compete in the marketplace and actually move secular souls to truth?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

First Thoughts on Bella the Movie

What can I say about Bella the movie? It's beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, beautifully paced--it has everything a "nice" "inspiring" film has--except it has some unnameable other thing, something more. Director Alejandro Monteverde has given his vignette a subtlety of symbol that filmmakers like Spielberg and Shyamalan should study. The film has a couple of moments in which the significance of people, things, and events deepen beyond their simple appearance--moments and images which, like icebergs, drag with them the immeasurable bulk of Something More below the visible tip.

The best example of this is the Edenic imagery of the film: riding the train out of the city, Bella gives José a very green apple, then pulls another one out for herself. What distinguishes this from all other tired references to the fall of man is that it inverts it: the apples become a communion, a shared meal. It is a refiguring, not a replay of Eden. Stepping off the train, they walk to Jose's parents' house, and meet his father (read Father?) who puts them to work planting his garden. "It will be Paradise," he says in Spanish. Again, the film takes the simple act of gardening--taking with it the events of the fall of man--and refigures it as Eden should have been--man and woman working together WITH the Father, to "till and keep" the garden.

Perhaps more on this later.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has received as many critical awards as its transcontinental name has letters. Some critics love to have their sense of established film conventions jostled significantly, but not this critic. The sprawling episodic plot never departed enough from its literary source (Ron Hansen's novel) to become a good movie in its own right. The haunting riff that signaled the transition between loosely connected episodes grows more clangy and less haunting with each hour that passes until the central story line--Robert Ford's obsession with the glory, power, and mystique of Jesse James, who he follows and eventually murders-- finally gets some steam about 2/3rds of the way through the movie.

The last third of the movie is worth the wait. With all the superfluous characters (and oddly well-developed) dead or in jail, we can focus on the primary psychological conflict between Jesse James and Robert Ford. It's compelling though the camera can never quite reach inside the character's heads the way Ron Hansen's prose can. The camera strains to tell us what's in Jesse James' head through close-up after agonizing close-up, but can never quite articulate it. That's the problem with adaptations that aren't adapted. The beauty of the original is lost in an extended effort to be faithful to the source.

I don't get all the fuss surrounding Brad Pitt's performance either. It was neither striking nor powerful. I guess people are just floored that he took a complicated role.