Monday, April 30, 2007

Bella: A Powerful New Pro-Life Movie, but Will Christians Accept It?

In Passion: Films, Faith, and Fury, a recent British documentary on the history of religion in film, a Christian filmmaker was interviewed on his involvement in the 1979 epic film Jesus. Also known as The Jesus Project, the film has been translated into hundreds of languages and show at gigantic screenings across the globe. The filmmaker described the project as being inspired by Christ’s own example of reaching the crowds through parables. Neither the documentary or the interviewee heeded the glaring paradox: Jesus isn’t a parable at all, but a literal retelling of Luke’s Gospel. This anecdote highlights an established trend in Christian filmmaking. Rarely do Christian filmmakers produce films which are actually parables, metaphors, or otherwise lacking in overt Christian values or agenda. The emphasis on explicit message over subtle metaphor has impoverished many Christian films; realism and moral complexity are often lost beneath the desire to provide a neat and painfully obvious Christian message. Rod Dreher summed it up best when it described the moral blandishments of the Left Behind series as “The Gospel according to Ned Flanders.”

Metanoia Films, a new production company, has bucked this trend in their debut film Bella, which is slated for release in select markets mid-August. Its artistry and depth makes it a powerful testament to the culture of life, though paradoxically it’s not clear whether it will be lauded by many pro-life Christian viewers. Starring Mexican soap opera star Eduardo Veràstegui, Bella traces a day in the life of Nina, a young waitress who contemplates having an abortion. Nina’s position is a compelling one and her suffering is real and intense. So convincingly has Metanoia rendered Nina’s existential crisis, that many of the less observant abortion advocates see it as movie that lies within the purview of their ideology, though uncomfortably so. Their short-sightedness can be forgiven—since when has a Christian movie’s message been transmitted without fuzzy treacle?

Conflicted, alone, and steeped in a culture that lacks faith and a firm grip on natural law, Nina’s initial choice of abortion is obvious. In an age guided by the value of personal autonomy, Nina sees the birth as doubly destructive to both herself and her child. What can possibly penetrate the ideological and emotional wall that circumstances have erected within Nina’s tortured heart? The answer is clear for many pro-life activists: love, mercy, and God’s grace. The circumstances faced by many women in Nina’s position is more often than not complex, rarely alleviated by logical argument or fear of damnation, though many still try to use these to dissuade women bent on abortion.

Bella derives its power from its depiction of God’s grace working subtly and mysteriously within Nina’s troubled heart. In one particular scene, a blind man asks Nina to describe what she can see; he forces her to concentrate on the beauty she doesn’t feel like perceiving. This scene sums up the whole action of the movie: the opening of Nina’s soul and heart to grace, love, and beauty. The primary instrument of grace is Eduardo Veràstegui’s character Jose, a character rarely seen in today’s cinema: a truly virtuous and self-sacrificing soul. He is present for Nina in her hour of need and creates the haven of love and mercy that opens her heart to the possibility of life. For those women who identify with Nina, it presents a similar opportunity for grace to penetrate their desperate and hardened hearts. At the Toronto Film Festival, whose prestigious People’s Choice Award Bella won, a woman was so moved by Bella she decided to keep her child and name her Bella.

Surprisingly, many Christian pro-life advocates are not receiving Bella with open arms. At a recent screening of Bella, the MC tried to rally the Christian crowd by asking everyone who supports Metanoia Film’s efforts to stand up: barely half the crowd rose from their seats. Secondly, I received an acerbic e-mail from an intelligent Catholic film critic which lambasted me for a passing comment on my blog which identified Bella as a pro-life movie. The critic’s main objection to Bella was its ambiguity. “The film,” the critic bristled, “never mentions the life of the unborn child which seems to me inexcusable for a film made by Catholics….. People who are pro-life see the film as being pro-life, because they are told going in that the film was made with pro-life intentions. But people who are pro-choice think it is an affirmation of a pro-choice worldview.” In other words, this critic would only be placated if the movie had had an explicit Christian message.

A truly pro-life movie then is one which resembles a logically incisive pamphlet; this approach might score some points in the perpetual political power struggle, but its doubtful that it would have any effect on the Ninas of the world. Bella is powerful because it resonates on an emotional and spiritual level, penetrating through the half-baked NARAL arguments inculcated in so many women. Ultimately, reality doesn’t reflect tidy messages, and God’s grace is a mysterious reality. This movie, by not following the trend of Christian films which double as propaganda, will affect the lives of women struggling with abortion.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Cool Stylistic Elements in The Decalogue, Part II

Kieslowski's motivating passion in filmmaking was the state of common man and his response to the complexities of modern life in the wake of WW-II. After suffering censorship for his social documentaries, Kieslowski turned to fiction films but maintained his passion for probing the state of common man. His cinematic style in the Part II of the Decalogue (read yesterday's post for a plot summary) reflects a commitment to realism as Kieslowski endeavors to hold up a mirror to the souls of modern Polish people. We feel as if we were present in the story, spying upon the ordinary, mundane lives of normal people and their imminently real moral and psychological dilemmas. Here are a few interesting Stylistic Elements in Part II that communicate Kieslowski's story:
  • Lengthy takes: Kieslowski holds the camera on his character for longer than we're used to, forcing us to endure the awkward pauses and silences that occur naturally in daily life. Since the long take exhausts the image visually, we're forced to intellectually examine the pregnant pause and to use our imaginations to penetrate the character's thoughts.
  • The first shot of Part II establishes the austere and monolithic Warsaw apartment block, the setting for all 10 Decalogue films. Moving in and out of the frame in the foreground of this shot is a gardener who busily rakes the grounds. This shot, while seemingly mundane, reveals an important stylistic element employed by Kieslowski throughout the movie. The gardener’s movement, unfettered by the static frame, hints at a larger reality not captured by camera’s lens. An openly framed shot like this one suggests an incomplete visual idea, with important information missing or cut off by the unaccommodating frame—the camera becomes mere window into a larger world. Kieslowski does this for the sake of a subtle realism. The Polish world he films is real, not carefully composed on stage, and exists despite the camera.
  • Unbalanced compositions: Kieslowski doesn't carefully compose and balance the visual weights (line, shape, movement, texture) of his images. Objects, characters, and action are not always arranged in the most visually compelling way. For example, we naturally center the object of interest when we take a picture. In Part II, Kieslowski violates this inherent sense of balance within us. The main characters are often shot at the fringes of the frame. This is another example of his subtle realism.
  • Emotion is never forced by speeding up the rhythm of the editing or by using close-ups. The drama is powerful enough that Kieslowski doesn't see the need to manipulate the emotion out of the audience.
  • While Kieslowski tends to shot his films in a realistic and unobtrusive way, he occasionally violates this tenet for symbolic purposes. In one scene, for example, he shot an extreme close-up of a glass shattering, symbolically reflecting the inner anguish of the scene. In another shot, Kieslowski inspects every crevice of the invalid husband's hospital bedroom without an establishing shot. Typically, when directors pursue realism, they generally give the viewer an establishing shot before breaking down the components of the space through closer shots. In this scene, Kieslowski creates a unified space in our mind entirely through close-ups of various cracking crevices which emit slow drops of water. This emphasizes in our mind the decrepit state of the invalid and inculcates despair for the husband's recovery.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Decalogue

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to see Our Lady of Czestochowa and found it impossible to imagine her in any other country besides Poland; her countenance embodies the suffering of a people who have had the misfortune of settling down permanently on a level plain sandwiched between Russia and Germany. The Polish soul, laid bare by tragedy, is the canvas on which brilliant filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski probes the complexities and paradoxes of human nature.

Kieslowski began his career making documentaries in the seventies which truthfully probed the lives of everyday city dwellers with no regard for the standard Party rhetoric. Needless to say, though he didn’t intend to be overtly political, he quickly made enemies with the monolithic Soviet state. Disillusioned with the prospect of telling the truth under a Communist regime, Kieslowski turned to fiction films. Though a self-proclaimed agnostic, Kieslowski’s films exhibit a hunger for the truth that lies beneath the surface reality, an appetite which makes his films intellectually and spiritual challenging.

I had read in several places that the masterpiece of Kieslowski’s career is widely considered to be The Decalogue, a series of ten films made in 1988 for Polish television. The ten films were inspired by the ethical imperatives of the Ten Commandments and the effect the commandments have on modern men who cease to believe in the God behind them. I recently had the chance to see the first three and was very impressed by his talent and depth of insight.

I only have time to write about one, so I’ll choose the second installment. Part Two features a distraught woman’s plea to an elderly doctor for a prediction on the fate of her critically ill husband, who lies comatose in a hospital bed. It turns out she’s pregnant by another man; if her husband is going to live, she will have an abortion. If not, she wants to keep the baby. This thrusts the doctor into an unpleasant role of having to play God with two lives. I’ll stop the spoilers there, but I hope that is sufficient to intrigue you. Kieslowski has an incredible skill for dramatizing his ideas, taking complex reflections on human dignity and integrating them into a compelling conflict. Unlike the Wachowski brothers’ lame philosophical opus in the last two Matrix movies, you’re never aware of being lectured to. Tomorrow, I’ll post a brief reflection on a few of my favorite stylistic elements of Part II. Cinematically, I’m convinced Kieslowski is one of the best.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Yo! Yo!

I finally was able to watch Rocky Balboa after agonizingly missing its theater release. All things considered, it's simply a bad movie and nothing more than Stallone's own self-indulgent nostalgia... but I loved it. It has a contrived plot, an insipid antagonist (Mason "The Line" Dixon is no Mr. T), and an ambiguous and somewhat unconvincing motivation for Rocky's return to the ring... but I would gladly watch it again. It may have been sentimental tripe on the part of Stallone, but I imagine I wasn't alone in loving every second of it. What guy wouldn't gladly indulge Stallone? Who cares if he has no real reason to get back into the ring? It's pleasure enough to see the Italian Stallion back in action even though he lumbers around the ring like a 60 year old whose make-up artists weren't able to cover that fact up.

It's no Rocky IV, of course--there really is no replacement for Apollo Creed, a juiced Russian, and Cold War tensions. I'm not sure it matters though. I was too filled with nostalgia of the old days to care about a mediocre plot. I wouldn't be surprised if this was a common sentiment. It's also interesting to note the Catholic undertones of the movie. Apparently Stallone has had a reversion experience to his Catholic faith-- the next Rambo is about a hardened atheistic Rambo undergoing conversion to Christianity in the midst of Muslims. I didn't believe it when I heard it, but JP Catholic has a connection close to Stallone that say his reversion to Catholicism is very real.

Crazy Communist Director

It took only two weeks to derelict on my promise of a full movie review each Friday. I did finally finish my article on Bella, but must polish my pedantic prose and abundant non-sequiturs before publishing. I received an acerbic e-mail from a Catholic movie critic who took exception to a passing comment on this blog that identified Bella as a pro-life movie; thus, I want it to be as polished as it can be before publishing. In the meantime, I've got some great posts planned.

Last week I posted on The Lives of Others, an awesome German flick about the conflict between East Germany's state security and an artist. It illustrated the tension between art and Communist state. Today I want to post a clip from Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin. Eisenstein was one the foremost Communist film propagandists, and one of the finest directors history's ever produced. Even a talented propagandist like Eisenstein couldn't escape eventual censorship though, which was such a devastating blow to his tremendous ego that he promptly suffered serious health problems (an illness which eventually killed him). Eisenstein innovated a whole new style of editing. His "collision montage" strove for as much pictorial, temporal, and spatial discontinuity as possible, breaking many established tenets of film. Watching Eisentein is a disorienting experience. Each image in an edited sequence differs drastically in lighting, movement, and composition, while he also has no inhibitions against distorting the audiences' perception of time and space.

Eisenstein is the perfect director for anyone who suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. He loves to string together radically contrasting images, which collide so rapidly that you feel like you've come down with epilepsy. This scene from Odessa Steps is famous for his distinctive editing style. The scene is really fun to watch, and Eisenstein's editing makes the action take longer than it would in real life. I'll post more on this tomorrow; now I'm off to catch a plane to Minnesota!

Click here for the scene.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Unparalled Wit

My post on the classic Decalogue films, which are ten brilliant Polish movies based on the ethical tenets of the Ten Commandments, was unfortunately filled with more tangents than substance...even more than usual. I wasn't able to finish it last night and had to shelve that project while I write my review of Bella for tomorrow's post.

I decided to use today's post to wax nostalgic about my favorite movie reviewer Steve Sailer, whose wit and insight are unparalleled. Check out his incisively funny reviews of V for Vendetta and The Davinci Code. Just don't drink anything while reading, some of his more devastatingly funny passages can cause your sinuses to explode. He's the primary reason I keep subscribing the The American Conservative.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Lives of Others

Last night, my wife and I went to The Lives of Others, a German film about the secret police in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were blown's arguably the best film I've seen in years-- artistic excellence, penetrating insight into human nature, and a thrilling story are only a few compelling reasons to catch this movie before it leaves theaters. No other movie has so powerfully captured the spiritual oppression and despair that naturally emanates from Marxism's flawed conception of human nature. It is rated "R", however, and for a good reason. The more salacious scenes are not gratuitous though, and are carefully filmed so as to reveal poignant insights rather than to prick our nerve endings. One particular lascivious scene, for example, is carefully filmed in a repugnant way in order to expose the spiritual death that occurs when serving such a corrupt regime and setting the stage for that character's spiritual regeneration. I have so much to say about this movie and will write a review as soon as I finish my review on Bella.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction's Sentimental Materialism

The word "materialist" conjures up various disparate images in my head - phantasms that are paradoxically appropriate and true to materialism yet at wide variance with each other: Neitzsche's frenzied Dionysian ideal, Marx coldly calculating the human soul out of existence, the debonair and cultured nihilist, and the slavish "last man." Our country, however, is overrun by a materialism that is of a distinctly different sort. This eureka moment came to me while watching Stranger Than Fiction, a disappointingly banal movie whose novel premise couldn't sustain its unexpected grave seriousness.

At the beginning of the story, Will Ferrell, the grossly miscast protagonist, is in a state of stultified existence, calculating with insensate precision his way through a comfortably drab life as an IRS agent. The first tingle of "life" that makes its way to his spine is a feeling of lust for a young baker, a feminine Ché Guevara who (instead of killing people) exhibits her liberal ideals by refusing to pay taxes and by baking cookies for the underprivileged. Ferrell's torpid rationalism begins to undergo rapid transformation by the liberating influences of a guitar, lust, and the novelty of going without a necktie.

Sparks inevitably fly between the awkward IRS agent and this liberal apotheosis. The way in which the sparks fly, though terribly clichéd, was extremely telling for me. Ferrell approaches his lustful object with only the words, "I want you"; she, feeling wanted, invites him up to her apartment, though she cautiously "has to make sure first" before...well, you know. The confirmation she was looking for comes in the form of a sentimental song Will Ferrell reluctantly sings. This relationship, forged on promiscuous sex, is elevated to life-giving status, though Ferrell never shares with his intimate lover his struggles with imminent death, which is the driving conflict of the story.

This is nothing new; we have seen this countless times in innumerable movies. What struck me after watching it was an entirely new image of materialism for me: the sentimentalist. Squishy and sentimental Oprah-style emotion is the dominant trait of American materialists today, who build their loving relationships, ideals, values, and goals on the rock solid foundation of a poignant feeling. Ferrell's relationship in Stranger Than Fiction is the marital ideal for many people today, so full of tender feeling and absolutely lacking in anything that could be called substantial.

It's no wonder that The Secret, a new book that is a cross between a New Age religion and a self-help tome, is selling millions upon millions of copies. The Secret claims to expound the one and true metaphysic, which is based on the simple principle that you get whatever you want by simply imagining it. The "universe" (whoever that is) understands nothing except the imperative to give displaced adolescents whatever they imagine. The author of The Secret is laughing to the bank, of course, cashing in on this widespread sentimental brand of materialism.

Christianity vs. Hollywood Part II

A reader just posted an interesting comment:

"Very good insights. But wouldn't be better to put the exclusion of Christianity from Hollywood in the context of the movie industry's overall political and cultural infiltration by Communism, as shown in books such as 'Hollywood Party'?"

Good point. So far I've only written about one side of the issue, but I'm very aware that there's more to our failure in Hollywood than merely a flawed mindset. Currently I only have cursory knowledge of Hollywood's political and cultural history, and I've wanted to really dive into that subject for awhile. I'll definitely check out Hollywood Party by Lloyd Billingsley. Has anyone else come across any useful books on that subject?

Thank you!

I am sincerely thankful to Mark Shea for his generous introduction of my film blog to his readers! Please feel free to generate discussion by commenting on my posts. This week will feature a full length review of Metanoia Film's Bella, a new pro-life film and the winner of the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, and analyses of several classic films, notably including Kieslowski's masterpiece The Decalogue, which are ten hour length short films inspired by the Ten Commandments. I hope you enjoy!

Christianity vs. Hollywood: A Brief History

I have a personal interest in tracing and analyzing the history of Christianity’s tumultuous relationship with Hollywood. It’s critical for committed Christians to identify the underlying causes of our inability to have even the slightest effect on the malignancies of today’s film industry.

This is a small excerpt from my ongoing research to attempt to trace and identify the cause of our current impotence:

The splendor and inspiration that line the halls of the Vatican museum witness to the symbiotic relationship that has existed between art and Christianity throughout history, and it’s natural for believers that it should be so, since in exercising our artistic powers we participate in our divine Creator’s image within us. Century upon century, men and women have united their passionate love of divine truth with technical and artistic skill, forging masterworks in painting, sculpture, literature, music, and poetry. Catholicism’s illustrious history with these artistic mediums is well documented, especially as one bewilderedly strolls through the Sistine Chapel.

The twentieth century, however, introduced us to a powerful new artistic medium; one that, as Tolstoy foreshadowed even during his day, would eclipse the others in power in its ability to mirror and illuminate human experience. Our success in film, however, is much less significant, if not completely negligible. The joint role that Christianity has chosen for itself throughout history of film is that of antagonist and propagandist, not artist. I do not deny that there have been notable exceptions, but assert that a defensive and aggressive stance has governed Christianity’s relationship with film throughout its short history. In my personal estimation, it is this stance that is partly responsible for impoverishing our cinematic artistic output.

The Production Code, a set censorship guidelines governing movie content throughout the 20’s and 30’s, used political means to clean Hollywood’s house. The Code, given economic muscle by the Catholic Legion of Decency, was effective. Nostalgic Christians often hearken back to these years as the golden age film, since these movies were swept squeaky clean by censors backed by the economic power of a culture that abhorred glorified depictions of vice.

As the sexual revolution started to permeate the public square, the economic muscle that was wielded so deftly by the Legion of Decency began to atrophy, and Christianity’s ability to prevent the moral decay of this new powerful medium died with it; yet, so often we see Christians flex as if their economic weight still mattered, even though their boycotts are promptly ignored by producers who don’t particularly care for the purity of innocent children.

A far more egregious mistake than engaging in a doomed power struggle with Hollywood has been the use of film to create thinly veiled sermons. The Left Behind series among others hides its artistic impoverishment behind good intentions. This is a destructive development; it results in the Christian film industry confining itself to merely catering to a small Christian ghetto. This propaganda mindset has forged an unwelcome gap between the artistic talents of secular filmmakers and Christian filmmakers. Until we learn to engage the secular media and learn from their artistic and business techniques, we will not impact the industry in any meaningful way.....

As my research progresses, I will post my thoughts on this issue. I would love to hear input from readers. My ideas on this subject are still in their formative stage.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Into Great Silence

While waiting for the box office to open, I inadvertently caught snippets of a cell phone conversation of a fellow movie goer, a man in his twenties whose soul patch and Family Guy t-shirt exuded hipness. He explained that he was waiting to see Into Great Silence because he had heard that it was a great escape from the fast-paced modern world; little did I perceive then how greatly the poor man had been misinformed. Far from being escapist fare, Into Great Silence plunges its audience into an arduous three hour journey. Stripped of comfortable and familiar movie conventions, one must actively follow the monks’ example of self-denial in order to share in their flight towards union with the great I AM, a search that slowly, cyclically draws you into the silence beyond time and rationality. The Carthusian path to God isn’t easy, even for those who only desire to vicariously participate in it for a brief three hours. There was much audible snoring and fidgeting in the theater, and slumber constantly cloyed its way into my mind and body, leaving no doubt in my mind as to the difficultly of the disciples’ call to watch with Christ in Gethsemane. In achieving that impossible task, I was aided by copious amounts of Easter jelly beans and a particularly uncomfortable chair.

The first scene begins with a close up of a monk’s faced bathed in shadow and tensed in prayer, an image which is immediately juxtaposed with an extreme close-up of a ponderously slow burning flame. This brief montage comes as close as is possible in cinema to visually depicting the soul’s ardent desire to fly towards the Light of Christ. Groening realizes the limits of his medium in capturing this ineffable subject matter, and never again uses editing to force meaning upon his viewer. He captures the Carthusian life as unobtrusively and artlessly as he can, forcing us to either sleep or uncomfortably enter into the silence, where, according to Elijah’s experience in the cave, one hears the voice of I AM. In the second scene, for example, we are shown a monk kneeling in silent prayer in a long take…an extremely long take. The viewer, after visually digesting every texture, shape, line, and lighting contrast in the composition, has no where to look—left stranded with an image that is visually exhausted. Since our eyes have no where to go, consciousness of time becomes ever more apparent; yet Groening still leaves us with that static image for minutes until we realize the truth: the monks are entering into a silence that transcends time. The movie invites us not only to observe the monk’s silent prayer with detached modern curiosity, but to actively participate and seek out that silence where God dwells.

Groening restrains the aural content he presents us, letting nothing distract us. When one is confronted with a rare spoken spiritual monologue, it’s evident that it was included for a vital reason. The first monologue we hear consists of a monk reading St. Basil’s explanation of the Trinity, a passage which explains the ultimate simplicity and transcendence of that divine mystery. Through this rare aural stimulation, Groening invites the audience to further enter into silence, which, reflecting the nature of the Trinity, is entirely transcendent and inaccessible to reason yet possesses a divine simplicity.

Throughout this journey beyond reason and time, Groening continually reintroduces the images of the same expressionless monks; yet each time we come across them, we sense a change that is not evident in the austere exterior. The encounter with the light of Christ has transformed them. Our suspicions are confirmed until the very end, when an older monk authentically describes his indescribable joy in knowing and loving Christ, an ecstasy that even death is unable to shake.

Into Great Silence is a torturous movie for anyone who cannot watch anything that doesn’t abide by conventional artistic and plot film mores. At times during the three hour marathon Groening seems to get carried away with the eccentricity of his movie, and its spiritual momentum dissipates. This can be aggravating for even a patient Christian viewer; yet, if one forgives Groening’s occasional excess, the movie rewards the patient heart in the end.

It also has no discernible external plot, other than the slow cyclical turning of the seasons. Even the short scripture passages Groening quotes are repetitive, seemingly leading in the audience in a cyclical rather than linear way. There is a narrative progression, however, one which is so subtle that it is easily missed. The progression traces the monk’s journey beyond time and rationality towards a transcendent Being, whose light brings about complete internal transformation and unending joy.

Into Great Silence is definitely worth the price of time, money, and effort. The potential viewer, however, should be warned of the investment before entering the theater, otherwise he or she will leave the theater better rested, but will have missed out on a great movie. I’m personally indebted to a jelly bean induced sugar high, for I would have paid $8.50 to sleep, something I could have easily done more comfortably at home.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mel Gibson's Sacramental Imagination

On Good Friday I was able to watch The Passion of the Christ for the first time in several years and the sacramental and Marian qualities of the film made an extraordinary impression on me. Gibson's Catholic vision is what makes the movie so compelling to me; his sacramental imagination, reliance on tradition, and reverence for the role of Mary all add to The Passion's distinct power. Without these aspects, The Passion would have been impoverished. I haven't seen Nativity Story, but it would be interesting to contrast the power of Gibson's vision with the Nativity Story, which, from the accounts I've heard, was slightly insipid. The general reaction of most Catholics to the Nativity Story was that there was nothing specifically "objectionable" in the portrayal; layered conspicuously into this comment is a sense of deflated expectations, of not living up to the high standards set by The Passion. Why did Nativity Story, an intrinsically compelling story, leave most of its audience feeling disappointed? If anyone can illuminate this question for me, please don't hesitate.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Thank you!

I am indebted to Michael Barber for generously introducing me into the blogging community! I hope to rouse quality discussions on popular films, so please don't be afraid to post your comments.

...A Lemon

I’m currently writing a review of Into Great Silence and in the spirit of stillness I decided to post a clip from Hollis Frampton’s classic Lemon, an oddly compelling film despite the fact that the protagonist is inanimate. Avant-garde filmmakers in general strike me as simultaneously condescending and silly, a perception I suspect is shared by the majority of the film going public; yet, I found myself strangely transfixed by Frampton’s lemon. I even went so far as to inflict all four minutes of it on my second quarter visual storytelling class. In Lemon, Frampton experiments with compelling contrasts of light and shadow, transforming an ordinary lemon into something extraordinary. It’s a testament to the importance of lighting in infusing mundane realities with dramatic energy.

Link to Lemon:

Monday, April 9, 2007

300's Expressionism without a Point

It took only one comically short game of Halo to ensure that I would never receive an invitation to play Xbox ever again. Since my inability to simply walk straight exposed me to a rapid succession of execution style deaths, I voluntarily agreed to “sit one out.” Watching other people play a video game is one of the most boring activities on the face of the Earth. Neither the eye, mind, or soul is engaged on any level by viewing the random grotesque spilling of pixilated blood. I wasn’t repulsed as much as I was bored out of my mind.

Sitting through two agonizing hours of Zach Snyder’s 300 elicits the same irrepressible ennui. Rather than being a significant contribution to cinema through its Matrix-style expressionistic take on ancient Greece, 300 represents a new low in film’s brief history, and perhaps for our culture as well.

Expressionism is a general film term often used to describe a flamboyant cinematography style that distorts the surface of the material world for spiritual, lyrical, or psychological reasons. Rather than recording events objectively and preserving film’s natural photographic realism, expressionists employ high levels of distortion in attempt to express their own idiosyncratic artistic vision.

Expressionism’s heyday can be traced back to post-World War I Germany before Hitler’s absorption of the industry put the kibosh on its artistic efforts. This brief era produced the silent classics The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, and Nosferatu. These films created their surreal and futuristic worlds through the careful distortion of shape and proportion. This manipulation of reality communicated symbolic truth, whether it be psychological, spiritual, or densely intellectual. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, for example, director Robert Wiene recreated the delusional subjective world of the narrator through acutely angled shapes and jagged set designs. This symbolically reflects the narrator’s skewed and psychotic reality. German expressionist filmmakers like Ernst Lubitsch and Fritz Lang didn’t distort just to create a cool looking image, but to reveal the essence of reality hidden beneath the surface.

300, though brimming with distortions of surface reality (practically all of it was filmed in front of a green screen), differs significantly from these great expressionist works. Zach Snyder distorts reality not to communicate anything of value, but to prick the nerve endings of his audience. 300’s surreal video game style contributes nothing to the overall meaning and inhibits the storytelling. Many, however, have found this sundering of cinematic form and content appropriate. Victor Davis Hanson, for example, drew a parallel between Synder’s style and the Greek’s own form of storytelling:

"The Greeks themselves often embraced such impressionistic adaptation. Ancient vase painters sometimes did not portray soldiers accurately in their bulky armor. Instead, they used “heroic nudity” to show the contours of the human body. Similarly, Athenian tragedies that depicted stories of war employed contrivances every bit as imaginative as those in 300. Actors wore masks. Men played women’s roles. They chanted in set meters, broken up by choral hymns. The audience understood that dramatists reworked common myths to meet current tastes and offer commentary."

One must take into account the reasons the Greeks employed such highly imaginative techniques, and what they communicated to the audience. Firstly, the impressionism Mr. Hanson describes was intrinsic to the artistic mediums of the Grecian theater and pottery art; thus, the Grecian audience was sensitive to the subtle truths communicated through it. The “heroic nudity” portrayed on ancient vases is a subtle distortion that communicates the greatness of the human person and the glory of the ancient Greek civilization. Similarly, the elaborate contrivances of the Grecian theater had a point: to more powerfully communicate the essence or deeper meaning of the story. The choral interludes, for example, commented on the themes of the story and helped guide the audience into a deeper understanding of them.

Like the artistic forms of ancient Greek theater and pottery, cinema also has a distinct form of communication: a powerful blending of word, image, and music. While avant-garde directors would disagree, the cinematic style is not an end in itself—it must be subordinated to the subject matter or else the audience is left with striking images and nothing else. 300’s expressionism is an end in itself and ultimately this lurid style leaves us empty, feeling as if a compelling story had just been lost under the menagerie of digital blood, ridiculously cartoonish fighting, grotesque creatures, pulsating rock music, superfluously lascivious scenes, and a whole host of other excesses.

All genuine emotion drained down this sensationalized gutter. We are supposed to feel, for example, the pain of the captain’s loss after his son’s head is graphically sundered from his shoulders, but instead feel the same amount of emotion as we would watching a cyber teammate spit blood after being shot in the game Halo. A wonderful story of Grecian heroism and sacrifice was lost, and, instead of leaving the theater with cleansed emotions and a renewed understanding of virtue and truth, one leaves with merely jangled nerves.

Yet I have been told by many people, young and old, of the emotional power and of 300—many comparing it to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Gladiator, a comparison that fatally prompted me to see it in the first place. Gladiator is a powerfully moving story of nobility, honor, and courage—a movie that imparted on its viewers a deep understanding of the nature of evil. The most 300 can offer, on the other hand, is sensual stimulation and nebulous musings on the value of freedom, and 300’s Spartan freedom never moves convincingly from the level of abstraction. The only indications of a free society we are given are a few scattered scenes stressing (in an overly affected manner) the equality of Spartan women and the free choice the 300 make to oppose the Persians. It was not enough to convincingly establish the nobility of their freedom, and Zach Snyder seemed too busy with his pointless visual effects to bother about drawing the audience in emotionally to the importance of Spartan liberty and culture. Gladiator, on the other hand, persuades the audience of the stakes: Rome, despite its excesses and perversions, is the civilized light in a dark, barbaric world. Gladiator convinces us that Roman liberty is worth defending, and we respond emotionally to threat of tyranny posed by the ambitious emperor.

Millions and millions of people, however, left the theater compelled and in love with 300’s edgy and sensuous recreation of the ancient clash between East and West. An indication that the general public’s sensitivity to the cinematic language and the subtle truths communicated therein has been numbed. If flamboyant visual style is an end in itself, than the cinema has been reduced to the level of a fireworks display. This is also not a good sign for our culture. The general populace, or at least those who aren’t video game enthusiasts, ought to see through the cheap thrills and gaudy exterior to the nothingness underneath.