Archive for the Faith/Spiritual Category

John Knox: Film Critic

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Fun, Reviews - Film on May 8, 2012 by N.W. Douglas

A couple of years ago I took a class in the history of the Scottish Reformation, which centred on John Knox’s voluminous accounts of that upheaval. Instead of writing on yet another of Knox’s dry theological pieces, my professor allowed me to submit a final paper in the form of a pair of film reviews written in an approximation of Knox’s voice and style, discussing a topic that was near and dear to Knox’s heart. I’m posting it here for fun after seeing Victor Morton’s and others’ jokes on Twitter about #TheologianFilmCriticism. Without further ado:

What follows is a speculative piece that attempts to borrow the distinct voice of John Knox as expressed in his many writings, and imagine what it might say in response to seeing two films of a similar subject: martyrdom.

Dear brothers,

Fear not any reports of my backsliding; nay, slay the very thoughts as they enter.  Have you no faith in our Lord, who watches with loving care over every soul who flees from heresy and death?  Have I not proven my deepest devotion to our true King, our Almighty God, and to our struggle, watered by the blood of our dearest friends and warmed by the flames of that unquenchable hope that God set within me, and others, for the advancement of his Evangel in Scotland and the world?  Do you think he would allow myself to fall into the abyss at this late hour?  Though I am but mortal and as ever tempted and prone, as in my worst days of papistry, to fall deceived by the Father of Lies, so our Lord is good and gracious to deliver me, and chasten me, and hold me above the rot that consumes so much (emanating from Rome, its source), such that I might be a good professor to all of you.  So do not pay mind to that which is being bruited from here to St. Andrew’s.  Indeed, I was seen by many at the ‘cinema,’ where I first beheld what the commonalty call ‘moving images,’ but I have not cast in with the Antichrist, nor Sathan. I shall explane all in this letter.

My first conviction in this matter, before even nearing that hall, was to order against its profit, certainly through the avoidance of Christ’s own, and we hoped, of all the commoners. The graven image is not to be worshipped, said our Lord, and such strong clear proclamations from His word must needs have settled any remaining query.

Still, some of our brothers, laden with insight of such worldly matters as the use of moving images for the crude and temporary placation of the folk, undertook to persuade those of us in sole pursuit of the advancement of Jesus Christ’s banner in this land, to stay our admonishments, and our swords, and labour to meet these diabolical creations as moving paintings crafted for God’s good pleasure, to deliver the word and its good lessons in a manner appealing to the common man.

Upon beholding these suspicious crafts in their entire luster, I became aware of how desirable their experience must seem to the common man, who lacks for wisdom and means to receive correction, whether by his illiteracy or his simpleness.  And so my opinioun did change.  Surely as the scriptures attest to their own necessary value to reprove and rebuke, we may take these images, suspect as they are, and put them to similar use.  Though I do not give the images or those who partake of them my blessing, neither must I condemn them outright.  Some mysterious fruit is being borne here.

If these images are yet golden calves, let each man attendant watch his own fate carefully, and that of his brother, and flee accordingly at the first signal of malicious intent.  For it does not profit us, friends, to test the patience of our God Almighty, even as he lovingly withholds his judgement; rather his lenience is all the better for his servants to act as one mind in pure and holy obedience and render these images unto ashes, as with all temporary things.

I will now offer you my opinioun on two of these ‘moving images’.  One is vile; the other will be useful for instruction, particularly to those of us who have been squeezed by the presses of Rome.

A Man For All Seasons (1966) Directed by Fred Zinnemann

As much as this work bruits a noble report of that wretched traitor More, one of Satan’s chief agents in the history of England, it is wholly satisfying to impart to you, brothers, the news that Fred Zinneman’s artistic decisions that cannot be understood as anything but efforts to encourage the wolves in their blind stumbling, and for the persecution and dolour of Christ’s true kirk in England, are themselves blunted and turned by the great hand of our Lord, who returns such attacks against his flock to his enemies sevenfold.  To cite one such passage from the work: the opening images, which show naught but statues — demons and gargoyles — give way to the sight of a rich gold chain hanging limply from the fat neck of that pig Wolsey.  What a summary of the Roman kirk: slothful, hideous, sweating and stinking in their chains of power!  How appropriate that this psalm for one of Satan’s agents, for the bruited depth of his valour and reported strength of his conscience, should undermine the Papists in its very first moments!

The work endeavours to sully the good memory of King Harry, of course an early friend to the cause that binds us.  No man is without fault, and yet as each tree is known by its fruit, so the branch that bore the dear young Prince, who departed our company hastily and not without little grief, should not be so castigated and burnt in such falsehoods as are proffered here.  The king, who in his time and through what wisdom was granted him realized the need for separation from Rome, is here cast as a saucy fool, a braggart, a petulant child-king (the artists, were they seeking such a waif and monarch in one person, need only have turned their faces north).

What gives greatest offense is not the lowered record of a friend of Christ’s evangel, but the piety attributed to the plot’s central figure, that traitor More.  That such malevolence and unyielding devotion to the Roman Antichrist is refashioned as the most pure and gracious of spirits to be found in all the realm of England, and even, (the artists presume, though we shall not speak for them), the isles themselves, is enough to sicken the heart of any good and faithful soul so beholden to its sight.  Nowhere to be seen is the devil that laboured to destroy Tyndale, to corrupt the minds of the commonalty with twisted tracts and soothing lies, the butcher who even sought, unknowingly, but no less damnably, to prevent the very birth of good King Edward by holding King Harry to the hypocrisies of Rome.

Further condemnation may be heaped on the opulence of the images themselves; the richness of the locations and robes belies the artists’ intent to revel in excessive colours and pleasures.  To look upon these sights and sigh with delight takes too much attention, I fear, from the contemplation and adoration of our Lord himself, and merely replaces one idol for another.  I fear for the commonalty, who look upon these images and desire the wealth in one scene after another.  Flee to His word, and seek the Lord there!

Ignoring More’s stubborn loyalty to Rome, the virtuous watcher may suffer a twinge of sympathy for the Chancellor, if only in recognizing the press in which a righteous, convicted soul is placed for obedience to his conscience.  Were More replaced with any one of Christ’s true martyrs slain these last long years, it should be a work of great encouragement and truth.  As it is not this, brothers, I beg you to cast it out of your midst should it find shelter among you in any form.

Sophie Scholl: The Final Days (2005) Directed by Marc Rothemund

As much as that irreconcilable wreck above is symptomatic of the impurity and hypocrisy of the Roman kirk, here is a work of images that many of Christ’s own in this land, and other realms; that all who have toiled these long ages for His evangel may seek as sustenance for the weary spirit.  For in this account, (which, it is agreeable to note, works less powerfully through its images than through its words) there is to be found a most affecting display of courage and love for Christ himself and his Gospel, unto the cruel hands of death and the greater glory of God.

This exemplary lesson in martyrdom must be tempered, however, by its flowering in a young woman.  One must be careful of the admiration that swells at seeing the girl, made inappropriately large by the projection, remain unconquered in spirit and in mind, lest that admiration remove any attention from our worship of Christ.

The plot details the brave efforts of this girl, Sophie Scholl, to profess the truth of Christ, and the wrongdoing of her Nazi oppressors, to her own people.  I confess I felt more than a little kinship with her, so closely does each image follow her journey through courts and jails, that tumultuous path of righteous imprisonment that many of us have known in our time, and by which many have perished for the advancement of the true kirk.

Here, captured in moving images, is the experience of God awarding his servant grace under pressure.  And how my heart swelled to see her exercising her pure conscience in the face of Sathan’s attacks, of resisting the evil conduct of her rulers and remaining loyal to God alone.

Standing before her persecutors, she proclaims the truth to their sneering faces just as a woman of God should: quietly, humbly, sure in its strength.  To her butchers, she says “You will soon be standing where we stand now.”  And lo, the historical record does indeed indicate her prophecy came to be.  Any work that so purely shows God’s spirit at work in one under the most dolourous of circumstances deserves to be commended.

I must make mention that, as stated in the film, the girl is closer in persuasion to Luther than to our good friend Calvin, but this is not a major flaw.  She resists the godless persuasions of her captors with as much skill as any of our number might, and our mutual agreement on major doctrines (though she never states her views of Rome, we can gather from her conduct that they are wholly good and satisfying), is more than can be said about that other work I have written about.

One last note, regarding Sophie Scholl’s pictorial splendour, or rather, it’s lack: it appears very dull; very gray and without colour.  This must be celebrated, as it draws the attentive watcher’s mind to the words being spoken, not to the idolatrous beauty so obvious in More’s work.  The ears may listen closely to Sophie’s answers, and the mind, undistracted by papist opulence, may offer thanks and praise to God even while still in a viewing.

This second work I commend to you brothers, and so approve of its spread among out kirk.  There is much truth to be learned from it.  Though my cautions about the ‘cinema’ are not yet fully allayed, there is clearly some excellent progress being made towards purifying it for the work of Christ.

Amen.

On Masterpieces and The Tree of Life

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film with tags , , on June 29, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

I think it’s pointless to try to label this a “masterpiece” in any way. Not because it isn’t skillfully made, but because the film indicates a filmmaker who is groping so passionately with matters far beyond his grasp, with such a sense of reckless pursuit, that any attempt to bring the sort of control and perspective needed to create a “masterpiece” – the greatest work of a craftsman – is useless. Masterpieces keep a grip on their subjects; some looser than others but none ever losing complete control. Masterpieces enthrall while reminding us of their maker’s skill. The Tree of Life has moments that approach that, but I find this film’s formal humility places it on its knees more than any other work by Malick, and in a way that Kubrick would never deign to suffer. For all of the charges of overambitious efforts and grandiose pretentiousness and maybe/maybe-not autobiographical details, The Tree of Life is not *about* it’s maker. It’s about ours.

That might be stating the obvious for a film that opens with a quote from Job. What I’m trying to get at is this: masterpieces may bubble up unplanned from blissfully unaware talents, or they may be ultra-controlled and premeditated, or most likely, an unqualified marriage of the two; either way they always draw our attention back to the maker in some way. Tree of Life is too messy, too lumpy, too unrestrained in the right places to really do that in a way that ratchets up my opinion of Malick as someone with a handle on what he’s doing with complex themes. He clearly doesn’t; not like the sublime balance he achieves in The New World, nor even the comparatively shallow “mastery” of The Thin Red Line. This is different. This is a man being mastered by what he doesn’t know. This is a master learning that he is still a babe. The Tree of Life is a blessed mess. Sort of like us.

Of Gods And Men

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , on March 10, 2011 by N.W. Douglas

The following was originally written in October 2010. I have revised it slightly for publication here. Of Gods And Men opened in limited US/Canada release on Feb. 25.

Prior to seeing Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men at the VIFF last year, I had read a few positive reviews from its screenings at Cannes.  The reception in Toronto and New York was no less encouraging thanks to positive pieces penned by Michael Sicinski and Glenn Kenny, both of whom are well-known for their insight, scrupulousness, and grounded opinions of any film, whether prestigious or not.  These are not fellows who will offer knee-jerk praise to any Palm-baiting arthouse flick that makes it over here.  The advance word was very good, to say the least.

I mention this in order to talk about a couple more reviews that were filed from Cannes, both somewhat negative and similar in one specific way.  Both Michael D’Angelo and Matt Noller criticized the film for being, in Noller’s words “somber and respectful to a fault: the Cannes equivalent of Oscar bait.” D’Angelo unenthusiastically described it as “mass hagiography.” Watching the film, I couldn’t help but reflect on these words and the assumptions behind them — especially the hint of an attitude that seems to automatically roll its eyes at works that approach subjects of intrinsic gravity with reverence.  As a film about men who gave up lives of comfort, romance, and eventually their blood for the spiritual path to which they felt called, a certain amount of seriousness should be expected.  Faith, religion, doubt, and death are all “heavy topics,” and a film that tackles them, as this one does, is bound to be “somber” in places.  Why all the fuss?

I’m frustrated by this seemingly detached way of viewing and dismissing a film that deals with difficult subjects as “too reverent.”  The implication of this complaint is that Beauvois’ respect for his subject somehow morphs into a technical flaw in the film’s storytelling. “Beauvois is less interested in humanizing the monks than in sanctifying them” writes Noller, while “Of Gods & Men never sets a foot wrong, but neither does it challenge the viewer to feel anything but passive admiration,” says D’Angelo.  “Good” people doing good things. Ho-hum.  Compounding the situation is the fact that Beauvois has made an intensely detailed film, materially and intellectually, about religious devotion (which may or may not make either critic uncomfortable, though wondering about that reads too much into brief comments) that does nothing to coerce the viewer to take one side or the other (Christian or Muslim), but also doesn’t leave plenty of room for the atheist to make moral claims about the problems of religion. It takes great pains to portray its characters’ faith in action while avoiding adopting any religious opinion (including atheism) as a worldview for the apparatus.  Its reverence is almost anthropological in nature; full of deep respect for the way a long-held tradition inspires courage in its adherents.

Of Gods and Men is an inherently “spiritual film,” in the sense that most of its scenes seem haunted by a spiritual presence.  I do not invoke these terms to describe something vaguely intuited during the film, but to give weight to a presence, even a character, that is rooted in the religious identity of the subjects.  What’s intriguing is how this presence is evoked not necessarily through obvious formal choices, but through performance and character.  One monk tells a young woman of how he used to be in love with a woman, until he encountered “a greater love,” which he followed into the monastery.  Later we see this man’s loving care of the villagers around him, whom he heals and binds, acting in the manner of Christ.  The words of the monks tell us how God is moving in their lives, but this sort of interaction is never physicalized in a supernatural way.  Everything that happens is internal, both on the screen and off.

Keeping that in mind, a certain scene late in the picture inspired a curious effect in me as I watched.  Somewhere during one of the monks’ communal prayer times, I felt compelled to close my eyes as they prayed.  What’s fascinating to me about this compulsion was not that I felt like I too needed to pray along with the characters, but that I had an inexplicable sense that closing my eyes would actually allow me to “see” the scene in front of me “better”, or perhaps, more clearly.  I did close my eyes, briefly, and certainly felt like I didn’t miss anything by doing so.  Indeed, I think I had a brief moment of perception where I felt in tune with the monks on screen, with the rhythm of their lives and their worship, such that this late scene of religious devotion invited me to participate.  I sensed that I what I was seeing and hearing was not the whole picture, that something else on another level entirely was going on, and that closing my eyes might bring me closer to seeing it.

The whole film is conventionally narrative, but punctuated by regular interludes showing the monks at chapel together, chanting and praying.  These moments become a ritual within the editing, allowing Beauvois to shape the film into something approaching a liturgy.  This cycle of prayer and praise sinks in over time, easing the viewer into the film and pointing them towards the Holy.

I believe that Beavois’ evocation of a sense of the Holy is also result of a phenomenology closely attuned to the monks’ faces and bodies, both individually and collectively.  Or to put it another way, if Beavois is deploying a spiritual or transcendental aesthetic, it’s one that hews closer to Rossellini than to Bresson.  The film’s formal asceticism only extends as far as the sparseness of its subjects’ lives.  If Beauvois’ frames seem bare, it is because of the settings he’s capturing: outside, it’s uncomplicated mountains, deserts, and fields; inside it’s sparsely furnished rooms of people with few possessions.  The images seem devoid of distraction because that is precisely the world these monks have created for themselves — Beauvois is ultimately operating in a tradition of historical realism that recalls Rossellini’s own picture about monks, The Flowers of St. Francis.  Beauvois’ monks, like Rossellini’s, are miles removed from Bresson’s inexpressive “models;” and like Rossellini, Beauvois spends most of his time meditating on the human face in flux, not set in stone.  There is a rich humanism humming under the surface of both films, a deep respect for each man as he struggles with doubts.

The film is intriguing in its refusal to follow Bressonian models of transcendental filmmaking, or to dabble in Bergman-style expressionism.  Except for one shot — a praying monk backlit by dusty rays — Beauvois avoids the sort of austere flamboyance that spiritual and existential dramas have typically indulged. And except for a climax of flat close-ups of each monk listening to a cue from Swan Lake, Beauvois also eschews the visual purity favoured by Bresson (and even this, Beauvois’ most Bressonian moment, is dominated by cathartic music; a choice that, diagetic source or not, is a direct affront to Bresson’s values).

If the film speaks to our time, it does so by addressing the gap between Christians and Muslims, particularly in taking steps to care for and humanize Muslim believers from the perspective of its protagonists – that is, from a peaceful, loving worldview rooted in the specific traditions of these Christian monks.  Beauvois avoids trying to reconcile Islam and Christianity as equally viable paths within a fundamentally secular world – indeed, the issue is never raised — but instead focuses on how the two might respect each other while gently affirming their own exclusive creeds.  A deep respect is preserved between the monks and the villagers, with neither side feeling compelled to shuck their beliefs and convert.

The final shot is a masterful summary of faithfulness in general, for both sides involved.  It’s a wide shot of the monks and their kidnappers, Muslim extremists, marching up a mountain into a snowstorm.  The monks walk gracefully to their fate; the would-be killers go matter-of-factly.  There is no judgment to be found in the framing; it is just a simple statement of the faith dynamics that drive these two groups.  One will love and keep dying for that love, regardless of who’s pulling the trigger; the other will keep killing, as they believe they must.  The viewer may pick sides but Beauvois’ staging doesn’t force it.  It’s a fitting end to a film that coolly examines faith tested by doubt and decision-making.  It’s a moment of facts, not opinions.  It is a moment of natural reverence, of understanding the gravity of what’s about to take place.  It needs that breath of anticipation, of waiting, in order to register an effect.  If there is no holiness to be found in that moment, then it’s all a waste of time.

Maybe that’s what the naysayers were looking for. And they can keep on looking. This is one of those rare films that observes the religious experience and does not blink. It does not preach.  It simply records. If one can’t help but feel reverent, then so be it. This is about as unobtrusive as a film about this subject gets.

Happenings Elsewhere

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, Reviews - Film with tags , , , on October 15, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

I promise that I have some new posts coming soon.  This year’s edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival ends this evening.  I saw five films, and not one of them was a dud.  Recaps are on the way.

In the meantime, hop on over to Christianity Today Movies, where I talk about Letters To Father Jacob one more time.

Review Bag IV: Three Men On The Brink (Ray, Ferrera, Romanek)

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film, Reviews - Film with tags , , , , , , , on August 4, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

Shattered Glass (2003) Billy Ray

The first viewing was satisfying, the second was refreshing, and now the third time proves ever more the charm.  Quietly released in 2003 and soon after forgotten, Billy Ray’s dramatization of the outing and fall of Stephen Glass — a wunderkind writer for The New Republic who fabricated dozens of stories in whole or in part, and was fired in 1998 — is holding up very nicely.  The plotting always impresses me; it’s lean, subtle, and guided with a steady hand through several layers of flashbacks, lies, and supposedly objective narrative.  For such a static, indoors-set film, the choice to shoot it in scope seems puzzling at first, but the results speak for themselves: Mandy Walker’s images are sleek and satisfying, and beautifully framed on just about every straight line to be found in an office setting.

What most stuck out on this viewing was the open ending: TNR editor and Glass-inquisitor Chuck Lane reading off the titles of various Glass stories he believes were cooked, while Glass remains silent, indicating that each title listed was indeed fabricated in some fashion.  The scene jumps back into Glass’ little narrated world that began the film – a sort of journo-dreamland in his head where he’s contentedly waltzing around a convention – before being pulled back to reality, sharply, by Lane’s voice: “Steve?”  Glass looks up and the image cuts to black.  On the one hand, it’s a simple reinforcement of the flimsy fantasies that Glass has cooked up – he’s deluding himself as much as he’s trying to fool us – and only the hard voice of Lane, the true journalist, can shatter the illusion.  Lane defeats Glass one last time.  This is an effective and understandable reading of the film and its stated themes.

At the same time, I wonder if Ray is quietly commenting on the subjective nature of narrative filmmaking itself, and especially that of film narratives that are “based on a true story” or “true events.”  After all, the title of the film refers to Stephen himself, so the uttered “Steve?” and subsequent silence from Glass almost seems like a veiled admittance that the very film that contains it is itself “fabricated in part,” however small or necessary the changes may be.  In fact, one might begin to question the ethics, if any, of docudrama filmmaking, especially in how the end result of such endeavours often results in a condensed “record” that replaces (or outright creates) the public’s perception of the real incident, which may or may not have already been specially crafted by various media outlets.  It is this, Ray’s focus on a storyteller — a facts-based one by profession, but a storyteller all the same — justly condemned for his falsehoods,  that allows the film, caught in its own tension between truth and fiction, to fold back on itself.

The audience is left in a similar position to Glass’ colleagues, who chose to disbelieve the evidence of his lying because they liked him so much, except the only relationship viewers have with the film’s “heroes” is through the virtuous portrayal of Chuck Lane; Peter Sarsgaard’s acting is efficient in quickly establishing Lane as a no-BS truth-teller and allying him with the viewer, while the audience grows irritated with Glass’ shenanigans.  But like Glass’ friends, we too are placed in a position of epistemological bias, and once Lane has won the day, the viewer that is convinced of his own objective sight (established by Ray’s navigation of perspectives; by beginning with Glass as a sympathetic if somewhat irritating kid and ending with him as the king of weasels, slain by the righteous Lane) may find it hard to return to a more balanced view of these determined people, seeing both the truth-tellers and the liars in all of their humanity.

How many novels does Stephen Glass have to write before he’s redeemed and maybe even appreciated for his supposed gift for fiction making?  Can this film, with its condensed account of the events, be blamed for writing Glass’ story sort of like Glass might?  By all accounts and the assurance of involved parties, Ray’s reconstruction sounds accurate.  But it will never be perfect.  I wonder what real-world consequences have been added to Glass’ plate because this film exists and tells the story in this particular way.  And what that might mean for docudrama type films in this age; its own ability to entomb certain accounts of incidents bolstered by the all-seeing, all-remembering networks that make up our daily lives.

Bad Lieutenant (1992) Abel Ferrara

It’s a slog.  It may be one of the most rewarding slogs in it’s genre — it leads to a climax that proves genuinely affecting, depending on your tolerance for the miraculous — but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch.  Ferrera treads a fine line between exploiting the sordid situations of his anti-hero — see how far I can go with this bit of depravity! — and allowing them to shock, horrify, and browbeat the viewer into harboring absolutely no hope for the salvation of the Bad LT (Harvey Keitel).  By the time Ferrera lingers over a long heroin-shooting scene, all feelings, including revulsion, seem to have fled the picture.  For both the (resilient) viewer and the LT, only numbness remains.  For any other film, this would be the appropriate point for declaring the picture dead.  Not here, though.  This vacuum of feeling is Ferrera’s secret weapon.

It is because of that numbness that the film’s climax registers with scalpel-like accuracy, and painful intensity.  Numbness is destroyed by realization, by inner conviction, and by trickles of grace.  Ferrera plays the LT’s breakdown completely on the nose, and yet still it feels understated.  It’s difficult to evaluate Keitel’s performance on a simple “good/bad” scale; surely my generation, for whom sarcasm is a sacrament, would scoff at his animalistic moans as “overacting.”  There is a sliver of truth in that view.  And yet when he groans under his sins, I can see into the abyss with him.  I can feel the weight crushing him.  Few performances that I’ve seen have so clearly, so painfully, so poignantly expressed the world of a man who by his own reckoning (and probably most of the audience), is completely beyond hope.  A viewer who is spiritually tuned into the film will understand that there is no way to overstate the anguish of a lost soul, a realization that gives the scene and its antecedents, and the film as a whole, an overwhelming and perhaps undeserved power.  It shouldn’t be any other way.  After ninety minutes of filth, the last thing you’d expect would be an invasion of total, scandalous grace.

One Hour Photo (2002) Mark Romanek

Fine.  I was tense.  I was in suspense.  But let’s get one thing clear.  This is not Kubrickian.  This is not Hitchcockian.  What it is, is just plain sadistic, without any of the psychological depth that Kubrick would bring to the table, nor any truly thrilling formal approach that would accompany Hitch.  It’s sadistic in the sense that Romanek’s sterile visual scheme, his lingering (but not long) shots of William’s sad puppy expressions indicate to me a director more interested in toying with his strange specimen of a character than revealing him.  Well, I’m not playing.  This is porn for people who enjoy watching pathetic, awkward souls go off the deep end.  Is he or isn’t he a pedophile?  Oh look he’s watching the kid!  Look he has a hospital-clean, sparsely furnished apartment!  Psycho!

Maybe I wouldn’t be so angry about it if Romanek didn’t try to have his art-film cake and eat it too.  There are techniques used here that belong in a more humanist examination.  Take the aforementioned “lingering” takes: many shots of Williams’ somber face seem to go on a bit longer than your typical Hollywood picture, and, as they linger, seem about to invite the viewer, acclimated to briskly paced-cutting, to get comfortable and peer closer at the sight.  I think there’s a certain timetable to how observation of long shots work, which involves the viewer realizing after about thirty seconds or so that this shot is going to be longer than usual; that there must be something more to it.  At that point, the viewer’s perception of the shot resets and begins combing the image for details; the viewing effort exerted by the viewer increases in order to meet the curiously protracted shot length on its own terms.  If the viewer is game, the more active engagement rising from the “reset” helps the viewer to glean some sort of meaning, whether they project it or actually “get” some of the director’s intent.  One Hour Photo seems poised to take advantage of this technique, except the decision to linger — but not to wait (or to put it differently, to tease in an art house kind of way) — destroys any chance of the viewer getting to spend some sort of realistic, organic time with Sy; and make no mistake, in a film as sewn up in pre-ordered creepster character clichés as this — the stiff walk, huge glasses, fussy neatness, the stunted social skills, that damned empty apartment, his art-department pristine wall of photos, and on and on it goes — the only hope we have of connecting in a human-to-human sense with the man would be through a sense of having shared real time and real moments with him.

In a similar sense, I would chalk up the failure of Williams’ performance to really affect me as another casualty of Romanek denying us the time we need to get to know Sy, however blank he might be.  It’s difficult, and in this case I’d say impossible, to genuinely engage with Williams’ blankness while watching from a mental framework wherein each slightly longer-than-usual-shot is under girded with the expectation that this boring face will soon be replaced by another image anyway, so there’s little point in trying to connect with it.  I’m not convinced that Williams’ performance even has any real depth, but the stunted editing eliminates any possibility of an open-ended result, and subsequent interpretations.

So that’s what the film isn’t — actually insightful on any human or formal level — but there are nice Fincher-esque close-ups of film being developed and bright PTA-style shots of store aisles, and the overall feel of a train derailing in slow motion for the sick amusement of all us normal folk — thank heavens we’re not weird like Sy the Photo Guy!  And it is strange to see how Sy’s wall of pictures, however silly and overblown it comes off in the movie, visually anticipates Facebook, Flickr, and other digital means of sharing thousands of personal moments with entire strangers.  Sy had to steal his clients’ memories in order to put together his wall of obsession; eight years later we offer our most intimate selves freely and even assemble the collage for him.  Make of that what you will.

On PUBLIC ENEMIES, Part III: Mann’s Transcendental Cinema

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film with tags , , , , , , , , on March 5, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

This is the third essay in a three-part series on Michael Mann’s PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009). Part One discusses ENEMIES’ role as a thoroughly “Mannian” work, completely at home in his filmography and rife with his familiar themes, while pushing them into a more emotionally tumultuous direction. Part Two focuses on the film as evidence that Mann is engaging with his audiences as direct participants.  Part Three examines PUBLIC ENEMIES’ relationship to and embodiment of transcendental style.

If PUBLIC ENEMIES signals a new connection between Michael Mann and his audience, it’s due in no small part to his application – whether consciously, or not – of a transcendental style within the film.  I do not believe that PUBLIC ENEMIES fully achieves the sort of stark purity of image and editing that is found in a Bresson or Ozu film; but when we consider this director in the context of his own developing canon, and the larger canon of working American filmmakers, I believe there are strong signs pointing to Mann as a slowly ascending mantle-bearer of transcendental style within film.

My main purpose with this essay is twofold; first to show the way that PUBLIC ENEMIES, in ways both broad and focused, fits with Paul Schrader’s three hallmarks of transcendental style: the evocation of the “everyday”, the use of disparity in conflict, and the finale built around “stasis.”  Second, I would like to explore more specific aspects of the film’s evocation of a transcendental sensibility.

As always, a transcendental experience through cinema is a highly subjective event, but I believe that a close study of Mann’s creative choices will shed light on how this director is transforming and purifying his own way of seeing. To begin, it is worth noting that of the great American auteurs currently working, Mann’s career-long affinity for using film to build powerfully atmospheric moments of emotional and psychological intensity, combined with his equally fascinated fixation on themes of cool professionalism, death, and existentialism, places him in a position already strongly tied to transcendental style.  Those themes he typically returns to already have a strong relationship to matters of spirituality and what Schrader describes as the “Wholly Other,” or transcendental being.

Schrader identifies the first key trait of transcendental style as presenting the “everyday,” or how a film shows normal, day-to-day life as a means of becoming in touch with and expressing reality.  PUBLIC ENEMIES doesn’t show daily life in the gradual way an Ozu or Bresson film might, simply owing to the differences in subjects, but even within the scope of his topic, Mann takes pains to show the ins and outs of his gangster’s lives.  The details are thrown out along the way – frantic eating and refueling while on the run, the expression of a dying criminal, the banality of machine gun fights.  Other crime films have shown the details of their characters’ lives, but Mann differs in how he dwells on these items and moments, details that would just be texture in a lesser work.  Mann spends as much time on the wrapping of food in newspaper as he does on some characters’ deaths.  In focusing on the elements, large and small, that keep the criminals and the G-men up and running, Mann communicates the essences of these lives spent in perpetual motion.  Their lives differ from ours, but we receive a sense of what their “everyday” is like.  Not limited to Mann, it is this sense of the everyday that helps obliterate “screens,” Robert Bresson’s term for cinematic techniques and styles that worked to distance a viewer from a film.

Speaking of screens, while I don’t yet ascribe to the superiority of HD in portraying realism, I am intrigued by the notion that Mann’s use of the format might please Bresson, were he still alive, in the sense that it theoretically removes the screen most intrinsic to film itself – the emulsion and its slightly dreamy look we associate with cinema.

The second key element of transcendental style as described by Schrader, is the presence of disparity, or the conflict or potential for conflict between man and his environment, leading to a major decision. Besides the obvious physical conflict between the law and Dillinger, there is a deeper tension between Dillinger and the world around him.  The film is largely framed around whether he will leave the country or not, returning to this dilemma at key points.  He could get away but he doesn’t; he seems listless and sticks around.  He’s disowned by the mob, hunted by the law, and yet he seems disinterested in really escaping.  Mann attributes this lethargy to Dillinger’s love for the captured Billie Frechette, but Johnny Depp’s performance is cryptically low-key and hints at a deeper turmoil.  In his DVD commentary, Mann notes that Dillinger spent ten years in prison and had difficulty adapting to the technological and cultural changes that came about during his term.  It is this sort of inner conflict that Depp expresses quietly.  His alienation from the world reaches its peak as he explores the police station; confronted by the faces of his deceased gang, he seems to realize how alone he truly is – a sentiment only confirmed and justified to himself by watching Clark Gable play a last-man-standing, Dillinger-esque character on the silver screen.

According to Schrader, the disparity builds to a sudden and powerful release, and in PUBLIC ENEMIES we can easily identify that release within the death of Dillinger.  What’s more interesting is how Mann achieves “stasis,” the final and most important element of Schrader’s theory.  The final scene – a prison-set meeting between Charles Winstead, Dillinger’s killer, and Billie, Dillinger’s love – coasts on the lingering effects of the previous scene and its release, but also preserves a sense of a frozen moment begun when Dillinger falls to the sidewalk and mutters his last sentence.  As Winstead relates Dillinger’s words to their intended recipient, the stasis thaws somewhat (and Mann violates Bresson’s rule against audience manipulation by bringing Elliott Gould’s insistent score into play), but enough is maintained in that final image of a prison door shutting, bolstered by the preceding image of a grieving Billie, stone-like in her lack of expression.  Stasis allows the viewer to “read deep emotion into the inexpressive faces and cold environment,”1 and that is exactly what PUBLIC ENEMIES’ final moments seem to be aiming for, a sense of encroachment and imprisonment, but more importantly, a deep sorrow that transcends psychological and physical realms.  Personal experiences and readings will vary, but the sense of emotion that Billie hints at and the viewer completes, along with the simple finality conveyed by a closing door, are powerful indications of how much Mann has embraced a transcendental style. These are open and cathartic images, entirely dependent on a viewer’s immersion in the emotional moment, but tremendously moving for those who give themselves over to the work.

To call PUBLIC ENEMIES a work of transcendental style on the same level as Bresson or Ozu would be misleading, but the way it embodies and embraces such a style within its own structure deserves to be highlighted.  To that end, I would like to offer a few more observations of how the film achieves a transcendental effect apart from Schrader’s theory.

In his essay “Devotional Cinema,” Nathanael Dorsky highlights a kind of cinema tied up with spiritual expression:

The word “devotion,” as I am using it, need not refer to the embodiment of a specific religious form.  Rather, it is the opening or the interruption that allows us to experience what is hidden, and to accept with our hearts our given situation.  When film does this, when it subverts our absorption in the temporal and reveals the depths of our own reality, it opens us to a fuller sense of our world and ourselves.  It is alive as a devotional form.2

As with Schrader’s theory, PUBLIC ENEMIES contains moments that match Dorsky’s description, even if the whole does not.  The most important element of Mann’s film in this regard is what Dorsky calls “nowness:”

Nowness is always…nowness.  Every moment of time exists in the context of nowness, the eternal now.

Being able to experience nowness and experiencing it in a work of art allows you to participate directly with the very heart of that work and its maker.3

Mann achieves a superficial “nowness” by shooting a script that never literally revisits the past, and keeps its exposition brief.  Everything there is to learn about a character’s past is delivered quickly through bursts of dialogue.  On the other side of time, Dillinger expresses the nowness of his own life by exclaiming “We’re having too good a time today. We ain’t thinking about tomorrow.”  Only in the very last scene does the script make a specifically noted callback: “Bye bye, blackbird.”  Otherwise, it is a relentless machine pushing forward while avoiding much foreshadowing.  On a formal level, the editing is equally propulsive, but the use of quick cuts serves as a reminder that time is always changing, and yet the events onscreen keep unfolding in the present.  Mann’s men of action always live and move within the present, caring little  for past or future.  They are always in their own state of nowness, leaving Mann to keep up.

In regards to how PUBLIC ENEMIES’ rough visual style facilitates a more transcendental effect, a couple of approaches are worth considering.  On the one hand, it is the viewer’s own familiarity with Mann’s more flamboyantly expressive visuals that helps make PUBLIC ENEMIES play as a more stripped-down, purified exercise that tilts towards Bressonian sparseness, particularly found where Mann repeatedly points his camera: the human face.  Viewers introduced to Mann through PUBLIC ENEMIES will have a reduced awareness of just how far his aesthetic has been distilled, and perhaps a reduced experience of ENEMIES’ asceticism.

On the other hand, there is something deeply compelling about Mann’s steady focus on faces.   PUBLIC ENEMIES is dominated by the human face, including and especially during the gunfights.  Sean Burns commented that the film is one without establishing shots, and even if it’s factually inaccurate – such shots are present – in the grand scheme of the film’s experience, their presence is rarely felt.  Most of PUBLIC ENEMIES is shot from the eye-level of an average man’s height (or so it would seem), and framed in such a way that the eyes of the onscreen faces match up exactly with where we would see them in real life.  Many of the group shots are marked by stony, inexpressive visages that draw us closer to each character in the frame while allowing our attention to focus on the one face that isn’t functioning as human wallpaper.  I’ve read complaints about the hand camera that mention how it seems to remind the viewer of home-movies.  Home movies are shaky, yes, but they are also primarily about the faces of those we love.  In a strange sense, might that association aid the sense of familiarity, of getting to know the faces of these cops and robbers?

I am especially intrigued by how Mann seems to cut into closer shots with each successive gunfight, spending more and more time on bringing the viewer into intimate space with the characters.  This is the same director who staged the blistering battle in HEAT, and here he is less concerned with the impact of bullets as he is with the expressions of those shooting them.  By putting us in this sympathetic space, Mann makes the faces and heads of his characters the planets by which the camera (and thus, the audience) orbits.  In the theater scene preceding his death, Dillinger is shown in increasingly tighter close-ups of his head, both front and back; this relationship finds its release when he falls dead, a camera seemingly anchored to his shoulder, keeping his body the center of attention while the world spins out of control.  PUBLIC ENEMIES is a long, winding journey into the Dillinger that is presented for our nearly uninterrupted observation, and this shot (accompanied for a couple seconds by a sparse, ethereal sound design) is its most precise release and purest evocation of stasis.  It lasts but moments, and a lifetime.

In closing, I would like to share more about my personal reaction to the film.  I’m frankly surprised to still be writing about it, eight months after its release, especially considering that my initial theatrical viewing (the first of two) had its share of frustrations – the slowness, the sense of pointless drift, the generally empty dialogue spoken by Dillinger in a fairly inscrutable Depp performance, – but something about the whole experience, of having so many vantage points in 140 minutes with which to observe the human face in a believably real and historical context, and especially those last few minutes inside and outside the Biograph, burrowed deep into my memory.  I let it stew for a few weeks and then had a second look, which only increased my appreciation for this picture.  Like any film-watcher with a favourite flag to wave, I can’t deny that some of my response was and may continue to be fuelled by what I perceived as a generally muted reaction from established critics.  Did they not see the film I saw, rich and buzzing with a current of spiritual life?

What did I experience?  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn best described it:

Art can warm even a chilled and sunless soul to an exalted spiritual experience.  Through art we occasionally receive – indistinctly, briefly – revelations the likes of which cannot be achieved by rational thought.

It is like that small mirror of legend: you look into it but instead of yourself you glimpse for a moment the Inaccessible, a realm forever beyond reach.  And your soul begins to ache.4

For all of my reservations towards Mann’s exaltation of Dillinger – my uneasiness with the way his crimes seem to be celebrated, the lionization of Dillinger’s free spirited fights with the law – I cannot deny that this whole work did what very few films manage: it made my soul ache.  I do not know why; perhaps for the realization of my common bond with Dillinger as an imperfect human being, or for the sense of knowing Depp’s Dillinger deeply through endless observation of the face, an intimacy afforded only by the camera.  Maybe it was seeing the powerful, vivid portrayal of someone I felt I knew passing into death.  I do not know.

What I know is that I had the sort of transcendental experience that, as always, comes unexpectedly and builds a ladder between the soul and the screen.  That, and that this experience was strongly facilitated by Mann’s directorial choices, decisions that reflect a movement towards more purified images surrounding human beings, and the interaction of those images with sound to achieve these effects, these steps – everyday, release, stasis, nowness – we identify with the dense, ever-mystifying, ever-illuminating mist we call transcendental style.  PUBLIC ENEMIES is that rare work that attains the highest, and best effect of which the cinema is capable, that artistic impact that penetrates the viewer’s soul and makes one aware of life itself.  Above all else, PUBLIC ENEMIES made me see.


1. Schrader, Paul.  Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. p. 83

2. Dorsky, Nathanel “Devotional Cinema.” The Hidden God. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2003. p. 261

3. Dorsky, p. 270.

4. Johnston, Robert K.  Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue (2nd Ed.) Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing, 2006.  p.126

“It’s very much about human frailty and who we are when we are at our weakest.”

Posted in Faith/Spiritual, film with tags , on January 4, 2010 by N.W. Douglas

So says Klaus Härö, the director of Letters to Father Jacob, who was recently interviewed by Cinema Without Borders.

Excerpt:

When we were shooting the film more than a year ago, nobody was talking about an economical crisis or recession of any sort. When the film opened in April of 2009, people all over had lost their jobs and their lives had changed, and this really hit a nerve here. We did not expect a big audience, but here in Finland we had great numbers especially for a film this quiet and still. So this is what this film is about for me: who you are when you are your weakest and do human beings have values within them. (Emphasis mine)

Interesting.  The economy hits the bricks and the filmgoers turn to something “quiet and still.”  Can you imagine that happening here?

Read the whole thing.

EDIT: Also relating to Father Jacob, a shortened version of my personal-essay-review-thing on this film has been posted at Jeffrey Overstreet’s website, Looking Closer.  You can find it here.  Thanks Jeffrey!