On Crude Humor

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You wouldn’t hit a man with glasses would ya?

No, of course not. I’d hit him with a bat.

In our culture of frivolity it is tempting for Christians to think that solemnity should be our defining attribute. The coarseness of the world impedes us from enjoying any sort of sexual or bodily function jokes because we do not want to be guilty of approving that which is sinful. Even though we know that the bed is undefiled and the body is good, and are therefore free to enjoy those aspects of life in humor, we are stunted in our ability to appreciate them due to the folly and poor taste of our age.

So while we are not to be characterized by coarse jesting, we must learn to distinguish jokes that laud wickedness (the ribaldry forbidden in Ephesians) from those jokes that merely highlight the glorious and comedic world. We cannot merely clam up and play it safe, throwing out the good jokes with the bad. If we are to be characterized by joy then we must be be leaders in laughter, but Humor is not a tame lion. It is invasive, subversive and mysterious. It is hard to determine where it is anchored, whether it mocks or praises, and what it is standing with or against. For this reason many hedge their laughter, guard their mirth like an untrustworthy servant. There is a temerity that would rather not laugh at something funny than to laugh at something sinful. So how can we train our minds to laugh wisely?

First, we must recognize sinful humor, and the way you recognize something is to see it. We should not object to sinful humor in our movies because we do not object to sinners in our movies. The fool gets a lot of screentime in the Bible. These negative examples are valuable. Certainly care for the young must be considered, but this is one of the great strengths of watching films or reading stories with children is the ability to demonstrate spurning foolish talk to them. While we would practice discernment in exposing impressionable minds to the coarseness of the world, there is a time and place to include them in this exercise. It is difficult to resist profane talk in public surrounded by peers, but all the more so if one hasn’t exercised that ability at home.

So the first step is to not shy away from movies or stories that includes sinful humor, humor that assaults righteousness and spurns God. Obviously a full diet of such fare would be unhealthy. The body would be beaten to pieces if someone jogs all day long or muscles would tear if weights are lifted everyday. Engaging doubt is an important role in the Christian life, but to exist solely in doubt would be deadly. In the same way, exercising our resistance to evil should be brief, intense and with an experienced counsellor.

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Comedy is tricky, protean, and often what is discovered when we examine it is that our first impression is wrong. Comedy is a mirror, but it is a convex mirror. Consider the joke of Bart Simpson’s prayer: “God, we paid for all this ourselves so thanks for nothing.” Perhaps on first blush you were offended, as I was. On the surface it seems to being arrogantly dismissive to God, but consider: 1) Bart is not presented as a rolemodel 2) Bart didn’t pay for that food and is therefore revealed as an ingrate, and most importantly 3) it is a joke and is therefore meant to be funny. That last point might seem tautological, but if it was true that we do not owe God thanks since we pay for food ourselves then it would be a fact and therefore not funny. If the joke was intended to mean there is no god or that we do not owe him gratitude then it is an absolute failure. If there is no god then you do not address him. A recitation of facts isn’t funny. However, if there is a God then as the creator and sustainer of all he is owed gratitude and such a blithe and ignorant attitude is funny; to laugh at it is to affirm the world of a creative and generous God.

To laugh at a joke is not a blanket approval of every element within it. Consider the joke that begins this article. To laugh at it is not to praise the hitting of people with bats, but is acknowledging the wordplay. Laughter can be inspired by absurdity, surprise, agreement, mockery, bitterness, sadness, fear and anger. The key is to train ourselves to laugh in gratitude and to reflect on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and praiseworthy even when the mode of expression is crude.

Secondly, since we are the joyous people we should not suppress our laughter for fear of abusing it. Part of the charge against Israel was that they did not serve the Lord with joyfulness and gladness of heart (Deut. 28:47). What does it matter that a man laughs at no wickedness and yet does not serve the Lord with joy? We cannot bury the talent of our laughter simply because the master is a hard man. Once we’ve grappled with the fool’s mouth and honed our sense of the obscene, then we may be free to laugh in order to learn. Humor is supra-intellectual and difficult to parse, therefore it is important to laugh first, to stake a claim in its world, and then to unpack it. This is not a careless “laugh and let God sort it out” mindset, but an acknowledgement that words often are food that must be tasted before they can be understood. To ponder a joke from a distance is to think a casserole can be judged by its selfies. Plus to invest yourself in something gives you footing to think through it.

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Penny Marshall’s 1988 comedy Big is about a boy who wishes he were grown up and the next morning wakes up as Tom Hanks. He is forced to run away, lest his parents discover a stranger in their house, he finds a job and, in the parlance of the day, hijinx ensue. In the scene depicted above Hanks is on a date and Susan, the woman, is expecting a far more lascivious encounter than what she gets. The humor of the situation is that they are both using similar words, but in very different ways. Her understanding of what it means to “be on top” flies in the face of his innocence. Certainly someone could delight in this joke for the illicit sex, just like someone can abuse anything, but to truly submit to the joke is to be delighted in the subversion of wickedness. Surprised by innocence, like the woman at the well in the Gospel of John looking for a temporary husband and finding the eternal husband, we are delighted when Susan’s expectations are turned pure. The final punchline is only funny if we are relieved that Josh and Susan avoided sin. If someone was enjoying evil then the sight of them in separate beds would be disappointing. So whether they love righteousness or not, their laughter turns them toward the affirmation of purity.

In researching for this article I found that the root meaning of Bawdy is Joyous. The shift in meaning from Joyous to Lewd is easy to trace. In old French Baudie (elation, high spirits) was connected to Fole Baudie to mean Shamelessness. Fole is from Follis meaning Mad. Therefore bawdiness in the modern sense is Mad Joy, which is perfectly emblematic of those who delight in cruel humor, who chortle over filthiness and corruption. Too often our conscience is warped and we exhibit the same mirthlessness as the bawdy, but His laughter is easy and his burden is light.

You get good at what you practice. If you practice not laughing because you are fearful of illicit jokes then you get good at not laughing. If, however, you laugh and combine that with a pursuit of righteousness, then you get good at laughing and better at discerning those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good reputation, virtuous and praiseworthy.

Furthermore, there is something prideful about refraining from laughter until you’ve given your intellectual stamp of approval. Take yourself less seriously. Admit that joy is better than your solemnity and laugh. For while it might be true that the master is a hard man, he also reaps where he does not sow and gathers where he did not seed. While the joke might have been intended for evil, God has subverted their humor. The one who rules in heaven laughs. God upturns the wicked and though they may seek to deride him, they are often found flipped into the dunghill of their own attempts.

A Ten Point Scale for Rating Movies

I’m not a fan of rating movies on a ten point scale, but my writing for the FilmFisher webside requires it as well as the film journal site I’m using (Letterboxd) so for the sake of consistency I’m going to use the below scale:

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (10) : Perfect
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2 (9) : Brilliant
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (8) : Full of Depth
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2 (7) : Enjoyed with some Depth
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ (6) : Enjoyed
⭐ ⭐ 1/2 (5) : Enjoyed but Flawed
⭐ ⭐ (4) : Okay, I guess
⭐ 1/2 (3) : Not good
⭐ (2) : Terrible
1/2 (1) : Hate and Terrible

Movies of the Year : 2014

The guidelines:

  • Any movie viewed this year that I haven’t seen before qualifies for the list. 
  • I do twelve top movies. Consider it cinema calendrics.
  • I never agree with my rankings three months down the road, but this list is at least a first impression ranking.

 

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 1. Before Midnight (2013, Richard Linklater)

Plenty of films show the difficulty of marriage, but few depict such a tenacious fight for the life of a marriage, particularly one stricken with such legitimate and longstanding problems. A charming and vital film.

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2. All Is Lost (2013, J.C. Chandor)

 In this minimalist tale, a man’s arrogance is stripped away and he is driven to repentance. J.C. Chandor is a superstar in the making. Read my in depth analysis and comparison with Cast Away at the FilmFisher.

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3. 12 Years a Slave (2013, Steve McQueen)

A devastating film that will grind you to dust. As Solomon Northup’s situation deteriorated I found myself also bargaining away my dignities as they were stripped from him.

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4. Enemy/Prisoners (2014, Denis Villeneuve)

 Both films, by Denis Villeneuve, are topsy-turvy morality tales, bleak and challenging. Each in their own way they question identity while highlighting wrongs and ambiguities. Here is my full review of Enemy.

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5. Locke (2014, Steven Knight)

It doesn’t seem possible that a man driving around for 85 minutes talking on the phone would be a compelling and dramatic film, but that would mistake Tom Hardy for a mere mortal.

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6. Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater)

In an industry driven by spectacle and special effects it is a marvel that the most impressive feat this year is watching actor Ellar Coltrane age twelve years over the course of the film. Touching as much as it is depressing, but a stark call to love your loved ones. Here’s my full review.

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7. Beyond the Hills (2013, Cristian Mungiu)

Cristian Mungiu is a crafty director and once again he’s proved himself too subtle for the critics. A movie about faith, calling for higher faith while eviscerating modern society.

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8. Like Father, Like Son (2014, Hirokazu Koreeda)

 Childlikeness is the forte of Koreeda and he once again nails the plight and delight of parenthood.

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9. Le Passe (2013, Asghar Farhadi)

The Past continues Farhadi’s exploration of broken marriages. A Separation showed the dissolution, The Past shows the fallout. Here’s hoping he makes a third film showing reunion.

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10. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, Steven Spielberg)

Richard Dreyfuss is a revelation. A unique alien film and the origin story of J.J. Abram.

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11. Under the Skin (2014, Jonathan Glazer)

An alien invasion film crossed with the Book of Proverbs. Do not let your heart turn to her ways or stray into her paths. Many are the victims she has brought down.

Film Bible Blockbusters

12. Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky)

More original screenplay than adaption of the Flood narrative, but one that is exciting and bizarre and rich.

My Wife’s (rapidly composed)

  • She did not watch all of the movies on my list.
  • She did not obsess or agonize about order hardly at all.
  1. Grand Hotel Budapest
  2. 12 Years a Slave
  3. Under the Skin
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy
  5. Cafe de Flore
  6. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
  7. Her
  8. Interstellar
  9. All Is Lost
  10. Beyond the Hills
  11. Boyhood
  12. Before Midnight

A Guide to My Reviews on Film Fisher

I occasionally write about or review films for Film Fisher. Here is a list of all that I’ve written so far:

Boyhood
Enemy
To the Wonder
Million Dollar Arm
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Wall-E
Nebraska
The Dallas Buyers Club
The Truman Show
Junebug
Blue Jasmine

COMMENTS:
Boyhood is one of the most highly reviewed film this year. Enemy and To the Wonder are two difficult films and in my reviews I tried to put away some common misunderstandings. Million Dollar Arm reveals a troubling aspect of American films. Marvel doesn’t think Captain America is interesting and that’s a pity. Wall-E is my favorite Pixar film. Nebraska is entertaining. Dallas Buyers Club fails entirely. The Truman Show is a modern classic. Junebug is a little known gem. I manage to talk about what I like about Woody Allen in my review of Blue Jasmine.

Studies:

A Discussion on Gattaca
Inside a Scene: The Social Network
Inside a Scene: The Dallas Buyers Club
24 Questions for Sunshine
24 Questions for The Terminal

COMMENTS:
Gattaca is one of the most rigorously envisioned futures of all time. Aaron Sorkin is really good at dialogue and David Fincher is a talented director. The Rodeo appears three times in Dallas Buyers Club and it says something different each time. 24 Questions are helpful exercises for film clubs in studying and understanding films.

Essays

Separation and the Sea: A Comparison Between Cast Away and All Is Lost
On Foul Language
An Experiment in Criticism for Film

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An Analysis of the Rodeo in Dallas Buyers Club

“I’m a rodeo!”
-Ron Woodroof

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Every movie tells its story using symbols. At the very least a movie will invoke cultural symbols and tropes, but a more attentive filmmaker will build new symbols specifically tailored to the story through repetition. These symbols embody the underlying themes of a movie and will shape the attentive viewer to subtle shifts while giving weight to the narrative. To simplify: a symbol is any word, phrase, event or object that gains meaning through repetition. One ready example are the names in Inception: there is a theme of mazes, spiderwebs, weaving and dreams hinted at in the names of Ariadne (mistress of the labyrinth), Cobb (meaning spider, hence cobweb), Saito (Japanese for Website), and Yusef (see Joseph the Dream Interpreter of the Bible). Any time an object reappears or an event or expression is repeated this is a clue to the viewer to pay attention.

In the Oscar nominated film Dallas Buyers Club, written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, the rodeo reappears three times and the protagonist of the film, Ron Woodroof, identifies himself with the rodeo lifestyle. There is some narrative signalling here, since the rodeo bookends the film as well as appears midway through, that requires examination.

The movie begins in medias rodeo, seeing a cowboy flailing atop a bull and hearing the roar of the crowd and the gutturals of illicit sex. Looking through the slats of a bull stall, as the rider is roughly tossed to the dirt, we see a grunting and heaving Ron Woodroof in carnal throes. There is a ringing in the air. Another woman snorts a line of coke and exchanges places with Woodroof’s partner, the animal thrusting resumes and the thrown rider gets stomped by the bull. The ringing grows louder. In the ring we see the cowboy dragged off by the rodeo clowns. Woodroof gasps and staggers, he braces himself. Something is wrong.

Continue reading

Nebraska : a Review

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The poster for Nebraska shows the profile of Woody Grant, the boozy paterfamilias of Alexander Payne’s newest film, lit up like a crescent moon. He looks confused, maybe crazy. His white wispy hair is reminiscent of Einstein and the winter torn terrain of the midwest farmland filmed in crisp black and white. In the movie Woody is frequently paired with this landscape, a pattern begun in the poster with “Nebraska” nestled inside his cranium.

Alexander Payne, who is perhaps best known for moving the wine industry with his 2004 film Sideways, is well practiced in the Midwestern art of stoic disappointment. A son of the cornhusker state, Payne uses their quiet turmoil even when his films are set California and Hawaii as was Sideways and The Descendants, respectively.

There’s some poor acting, accentuated by stilted exposition early on, but after the groundwork is laid the characters tilt at each other in grand Quixotic fashion. Bruce Dern as Woody Grant is wonderful with just the right amount of curmudgeonliness and gruff, if distant, affection. Packed between the wry chuckles are many laugh out loud moments, most of them by Woody’s spitfire wife Kate.

The movie begins with Woody Grant, whose name is no doubt a play on the American Gothic painter Grant Wood, hobbling down the side of the road, bent against the winter Montana wind. He is corralled by a sheriff and his son David comes to the precinct to pick him up. From there we are introduced to his wife, played perfectly by June Squibb. She bursts out of the house and unleashes all manner of abuse on Woody, who, with a deftness well-practices, bends into her scorn as heedless as Wood does the cold.

The reason for Woody’s trek is that no one will take him to pick up the one million dollars from Mega Sweepstakes Marketing he’s “won”. He’s so resolute that David, played demurely by Will Forte, decides to take him all the way to Lincoln, Nebraska. What follows is not so much a road movie as an impromptu reunion, a half-assed intervention, and, above all, an attempt by a son to restart the wrecked relationship with his father. This seems to be the last event between the father and his family before shuffling him off to an old folks home.

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Woody, by all accounts, was no good as a father, no good as a husband and only good to friends and extended family as his money allowed. This partly explains why the prize is important, for he is at the end of his life and has nothing to pass on to his sons, but more than that he is trying to recapture his dignity, thrown away by his own failures. When he arrives at his hometown of Hawthorne and the money hits the rumor mill, all kinds come out to gladhand him. David manages the situation as best he can, but Woody comes alive in the attention. A deeper understanding of his father emerges. David asks how he and his mother were married and what follows is the sort of humor endemic throughout the film:

David: How did you and Mom end up getting together?

Woody: She wanted to.

David: You didn’t?

Woody:I figured what the hell.

David: Were you ever sorry you married?

Woody: All the time. [He takes a sip of beer] It could have been worse.

David: You must have been in love. At least at first.

Woody: Never came up.

He seems as passive as he’s always been, but this response is so mysterious in his current unassailable course of action. Why is the money so important? he is asked and Woody is hardly able to answer. The picture of Woody slowly shifts as Kate arrives and tells her side of their romance. By her account, every man in the county was after her. While it is left unsaid, we get the idea that Woody was quite a guy. It is clear that David’s view of his father shifts, recognizing that the flawed man before him was not always under the thumb of the world. The movie concludes with an act of supererogation on David’s part and the audience is left to speculate whether the lessons learned will transform the family.

Payne’s characters dance so nearly to parody that many think Alexander Payne is having a bit of fun at the cost of his stomping grounds. This is nothing new. Grant Wood faced the same sort of accusations over his American Gothic. Imitation is an element of honor as in mockery, but Payne is affectionate even when he is biting and the movie is a sort of mystery, aptly noir, calling the audience to find, as David eventually does, what makes Woody Grant worthy of the tale.

Post Tenebras Lux : A Review

To review a film by Carlos Reygadas is a dangerous exercise. The Mexican born filmmaker blends his visuals with, as he says, “feelings, memories, dreams, things I’ve hoped for, fears, facts of my current life.” He aims for cinema where reason intervenes as little as possible.

“Real cinema,” says Reygadas, “is much closer to music. Music doesn’t represent anything, it is just something that will convey feeling. It doesn’t mean anything. I hate the idea that film is actually telling a story! The great part of film is to make you feel, not by the narrative.”

This expressionistic style lends itself to a very pure form of criticism, one that relies not on authorial intent, for as Reygadas himself said: “After I make a film I psychoanalyze myself retroactively so that I can give explanations to journalists and film people. But I don’t believe in those explanations myself.”

To the critic this is the equivalent of playing with house’s money, which makes it all the more surprising that critics are hedging bets when discussing Reygadas’ new film Post Tenebras Lux. It seems that most critics prefer to get little wrong and less right than to take the film by the horns.

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The movie begins with a little girl in a field, she wears boots and toddles amidst cows, dogs and mud. The sound of bells, barking and her own delighted yelps of “boca” give the scene a light mood, but as the scene stretches on so does the sky, dappled with clouds and the long hues of evening. A stampede of horses breaks into the scene, the girl approaches a black horned bull, darkness continues to close in on the solitary child. The dogs agitate a stallion, donkeys arrive, the sky, now the color of an ominous bruise, begins to crack and rumble. The child looks upward. After a nervous lowing from a cow the child laughs, but as lightning flashes and the storm untunes, she looks around and emits a worried, “No.” Then cries out for her mother. The child is lost in the black. In between flashes of lightning the title appears, one word at a time: Post. Tenebras. Lux.

The title is Latin for After Darkness Light, a motto of the Protestant Reformation (and perhaps a reference to the Vulgate translation of Job 17:12 which reads, Post tenebras spero lucem, meaning: after darkness I hope for light); and paired with the first scene the title becomes a sort of promise that hangs over the film. The film moves from physical darkness to metaphorical darkness, first in depicting a scene in which a glowing red, goat headed and hoofed figure enters a home with his toolbox. He orients himself, his dragon tail and bare pundendum wagging, and walks down the hall where a boy sees him entering the bedroom of his parents.

This scene is followed by Juan, the father of Rut, the little girl at the beginning, talking with Siete (who, we find out later, is a tree poacher and the owner of the home in which the devil entered). They attend an Addicts Anonymous meeting of sorts, where sins are confessed and accountability is taken. Juan confesses his sins are minor (internet pornography) in light of those he’d just heard, but over the next few scenes we see a darker more grotesque accounting of his deeds.

After brutally punishing one of his dogs, the movie cuts to a sex spa, where Juan shares his wife Natalie with anonymous men. Later he complains about their lack of sex, no doubt the fruit of his wrath and perversion, yet the movie skims over these repulsions as though nothing. No condemnation, no judgment, no hand wringing repentance; in fact when reckoning comes it is not due to any lurking moral, but mere conflict between the upper and lower classes.

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Juan is wealthy and fair skinned, something mentioned in a number of places (Rut even says Guera at the beginning which is slang for a light skinned girl), and on a trip to the beach his house is burgled by Siete and another man. When Juan has to turn around to pick up a stroller he interrupts them and is shot by Siete.

The movie leaps backwards and forwards in time, falling into dreams and visions without clear demarcation. There are a couple of scenes of a rugby game set in rainy England, there is a scene of a full grown Eleazar, Juan’s son, at the beach, eliding into a boyhood memory of the beach and the day’s decline into night. Siete returns home and is greeted by his children, then he returns home and his family is gone. Then the devil returns, walks down the hall, is seen by Siete’s son, older now, and enters the bedroom as he did at the beginning.

It leaps forcing the viewer to remember what comes after darkness. Toward the end the movie has Natalie serenading Juan, who acts as if he is on his deathbed, with Neil Young’s It’s a Dream:

In the morning when I wake up and listen to the sound
Of the birds outside on the roof
I try to ignore what the paper says
And I try not to read all the news
And I’ll hold you if you had a bad dream
And I hope it never comes true
‘Cause you and I been through so many things together
And the sun starts climbing the roof

It is a tuneless, wrenching rendition that ends with a broken duet and Natalie in tears:

It’s gone
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away
Only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay

It’s a dream
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Fading away

Siete comes, possibly to repent and turn himself in, but Eleazar tells him that his father has died. And maybe he did. In a movie such as this, even though we have seen him with an older Eleazar and Rut, perhaps that was a dream and he does indeed die. Siete wanders off and the film cuts to a series of trees falling in the woods. Few sounds are as satisfying as a tree falling in a forest, the tinny snap of branches and the deep earthy thump as it hits ground and we are treated to several falls before Siete wanders into an open field and kills himself as the rain begins to come down, building into a torrent.

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The evil in the film is never exposed nor condemned, but there is an abiding darkness and guilt that clings to the edges of the story, just as the filter used throughout the movie caused the edges to blur. There is the devil, the suicide, the marital difficulties, the slight guilt in porn addiction, and the fact that Juan calls his son “Little Worm”. This may seem nothing at all, but if his son is the little worm that makes him the big worm. Like the title, this may be a reference to the Reformation since Worm Theology is a derogatory term for Calvinism and draws from both the book of Job (25:6) as well as King David himself in Psalm 22:6, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people.”

On what may or may not be his deathbed Juan says, “Today I felt as I did as a little child,” drawing us back to the sense of innocence invoked by the beginning of the film. Reygadas depicts the failings of adults, their wickedness, greed, pettiness and lust, but gives no clues as to any form of redemption unless you count the cleansing rain and the sky who brings it. Grace is extra-narrative and all we can cling to is the hope and promise that after the darkness comes light, but at the very least we can say, as Job did that, “the womb shall forget him; the worm shall feed sweetly on him; he shall be no more remembered; and wickedness shall be broken as a tree.”

An Experiment in Criticism for Films

C. S. Lewis, the famous Christian writer and scholar, was no fan of the cinema. He once described himself as “rather allergic to films” and after attending one he added in a letter to a friend, “Do not worry it shall not become a habit.” Though he was quick to dismiss films, his fruitful discussion of story, myths and literature is easily adapted to an appreciation of the cinematic art.

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In An Experiment in Criticism, he argues that the distinguishing mark between good books and bad is not how they are written, which can be an arbitrary standard too often marred by personal taste, but how they are read. In judging books by the way they are read, Lewis defines good literature as that which “permits, invites, or even compels good reading”; bad literature being that which cannot bear this burden. The book then goes forward to establish what good reading and bad looks like. It is a tantalizing thesis, that of separating preference from our praising and censoring; to no longer have criticism undermined by the tu quoque of “Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” It is also inescapably snobby, for which Lewis, refreshingly, makes no apologies.

He begins his argument by positing two groups, the Few and the Many, his rough and ready term for the serious readers, the former, and the latter who merely read to amuse themselves. The bad reader, or the unliterary, differs from the good reader in the following ways: he never reads anything twice, reading is a last ditch effort to pass time, reading is not transformative and reading is never a matter of thought or discussion. A literary reader is the opposite of the unliterary and further identified as one who “reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, [he] makes himself as receptive as he can.” Being receptive is the primary marker separating the good reader from the bad.
According to Lewis, the Many use art and the Few receive it. The Many find what they want in art (affirming that which they already believe) and disregard the rest. The Few get themselves out of the way, they surrender to the artwork; but this isn’t passive, for, as Lewis says, “His is an imaginative activity; but an obedient one.” Being receptive to the movie is to resist imputing motive or external strictures for the film, to be challenged by its findings.
The hazard for us when we use literature, even to find truths or moralize, is that “increasingly we meet only ourselves.” Rather than be remade, we remake the work of art in our own image. Good books reward an attentive reader, bad books betray close attention to the work as an undue compliment.

This rapid summary doesn’t do justice to the width and breadth of his experiment, and I encourage you to read it, but my concern here is to apply his thesis to cinema. If good literature permits, invites, or even compels good reading, then can this serve as a definition of a good movie? Conversely, if a bad book cannot withstand a rigorous analysis of its words and figures, can a movie that folds under the weight of a serious, critical viewing be defined as a bad movie?

Like Lewis, how a movie demands to be watched is where we begin. Whether a movie rewards multiple viewings, whether it embeds its themes and develops characters through minor details is a major component to a good film. For example, in Chinatown the theme of chaos is conveyed, in one way, through numerous eye injuries (black eyes, crushed glasses); vision is often obscured and darkness constantly sweeps across the scene. In There Will Be Blood, it is no accident that Daniel Plainview, the deceiver from the beginning, is first shown underground and, before the scene is over, is injured and slithers upon the earth. For the rest of the movie he is shown on the ground. Or consider the names in The Truman Show: Truman, the True Man in a false world, lives under the cruel authorship of Christof (both “Of Christ” and “Off-Christ”) whose godlike control installs a fear of water in Truman. The fear is echoed in the names of his chief manipulators: friend Marlon (a variant of Merlin: sea fortress) and wife Meryl (bright sea). Contrasted with this is the name of his advocate and lost love Lauren Garland whose character in the show is named Sylvia, all of which point to Truman’s safe place of the land/forest. These details, combined with many more, build a picture that develops in complexity even as it enlightens, forming a rich and deep experience. Lewis says of words, which we here adapt to details, that they “are more than the clothing, more even than the incarnation, of content.”

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When we come to a movie that is less rigorous in its use of minor details and actions to convey meaning, we scale back our analysis, for we do not want to “munch whipped cream as if it were venison,” as Lewis suggests. In Signs, when we reflect upon the aliens- that they arrive with no discernible plan, naked, without weapons to a planet that is two thirds covered in water when they are deathly allergic to water- we realize we are not in an alien film, but an allegory and therefore must critique the movie as an allegory. We may critique it for presenting itself as something it is not, but we cannot accurately critique it for failing to be the movie we wanted.

So in romantic movies (the offenders are too numerous to snag a single example) when the leading roles are assumed to be attracted to each other for no other reason that they are the most beautiful and the camera lingers upon them the longest and the light flares and movement slows, perhaps a pop song cues up passionate rhythms, we are to adapt, put away our steak knives, perhaps tuck the edge of the tablecloth into our collars and belly-up to a meal of trifles. When at last, having exhausted the critical apparatus at each display of “monstrous psychology” and “preposterous coincidence”, after a parade of incoherence and thin pandering, we may be conclude that the film is bad.

Lewis gives five characteristics to identify the unliterary: 1) he reads only for the Event/ the Main Action 2) he reads without care for the sounds of the words 3) he is inattentive to Style, preferring plainness 4) he dislikes dialogue and 5) he wants a swift-moving narrative with as few “slow parts” as possible. The correlation to movies is easy. Many care only for the spectacle, they must have the action writ large and punctuated with explosions or else they get fidgety and bored. Combining points two and three we note that the fans of popular films do not heed the language of cinema, preferring straightforward storytelling: a heavy use of tropes (things falling in slow motion after a death) and nonplussed attitude toward cinematic cliches (how long must we endure the introduction of a female from the ankles up?). Points four and five skewer the Many’s disdain of “slow films”. Films that require thought and attentiveness are panned, “nothing happened” or “they just talked the whole time”.

Movies, due to their rapidly immersive qualities, can sway us and charm our critical faculties in the moment, but the test of a good film comes in the aftermath and, if worthy, in re-viewings. A literary appreciation of film begins with an openness to the film, to allow it to take you where it is going. A literary appreciation of a film demands that the details presented carry weight, bear the meaning of the film forward. A literary appreciation of a film notes how a story is told as much as what the story itself is. And while Lewis might not appreciate the cinema the way we do, at least he can approve of how we watch.

Some People Don’t Put Things Behind So Easily : Blue Jasmine : a Review

There’s something rote about Woody Allen films. In his sixth decade of filmmaking, both writing and directing, he has crafted and refined his own genre: neurosis plus jazz, adultery and A-listers; sometimes there’s murder, often there’s humor, but it is always with a deep sense of mortality. “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work;” to quote him, “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”

In early Allen films his work was a kind of morality play, often farcical, no doubt cynical, but there was a palatable guilt, a sense of wrongdoing, that permeated his tales. While he never anchored this guilt in the existence of God, one was always left with a sense of disappointment that there was evil in the world without justice.

Consider Crimes & Misdemeanors (1989) the most direct statement of his philosophy. Judah, an opthamologist forced by his mistress to choose between leaving his wife or being revealed as an adulterer, considers murder to resolve his problem, but worries that, as his father warned him, “the eyes of God are on us always.” Judah’s primary moral counsel comes from a Rabbi who is slowly going blind. The ordeal ends in murder and pity, but it is clear that there is no divine justice. Murder may out, but over the course of Woody Allen’s career the eyes of God have slowly gone blind.

Blue Jasmine begins in the air. Jasmine (Cate Blanchett) is midway through her fall from grace, as defined by the apex of the New York jet-setting lifestyle, to settle in San Francisco with her sister and her bluecollar boyfriends and ex-husband. Reduced to bankruptcy and shamed by not only her husband’s financial fraud (and subsequent arrest and suicide), but also by his serial adultery, she snaps and lapses into a nostalgia so intense that she breaks out in conversation whether or not anyone is listening or even present.

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But at the nadir of her shame, at the point of failing a computer class and suffering the advances of a neebish dentist in her loathsome job as a secretary, her life is charmed once again by meeting a suave, political aspirant, whose lofty life goals match her standards of accomplishment. She must lie and save face and hide her current indignities, but her pendulum is back on the upswing.

The movie begins with Blue Moon, the popular classic here covered by Woody Allen’s jazz band pianist Conal Fowkes. It is a song about finding love. The blue is a reference to the expression “once in a blue moon” but also, when laid over Jasmine’s narrative, the melancholy state and the bruised ego that she endures. Throughout the film Jasmine relates that she heard this song when she met her husband Hal. The lyrics of the song begin in loneliness and end with: “Now I’m no longer alone/ without a dream in my heart/ without a love of my own” which is a mirror opposite of what happens in the film.

A further texture of the film is Tennessee Williams’ classic play A Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche is played by Blanchett, New Orleans is played by San Francisco, Alec Baldwin shifts from his role as Stanley Kowalski in the 1995 film version to play the disgraced husband (the sin shifting from latent homosexuality to being a Bernie Madoff clone), and film critics get a nice paragraph or two out of it. But these concerns are tertiary to the genius of Woody Allen. In the hands of a lesser talent, Blue Jasmine would be maudlin with a chance of lachrymose.

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While most want to impute noble sentiments to tragedy, Allen is rigorous in his denial of attributing grandeur to suffering. The viewers are called to feel pity for Jasmine, though she is the architect of much of her suffering. Clearly she loves Hal, despite her self conscious naivety toward his wealth, and in his loss she is lost. The audience is also called to pity in seeing Jasmine’s estranged stepson who wants nothing to do with her (and vicariously for Allen and his estranged stepdaughter, though I would be remiss to point out that his biography is at best seedy, at worst perverted). There is pity for Jasmine’s sister Ginger, the peerless Sally Hawkins, whose luck is opposite to that of Jasmine’s, falling ever more lowly into tragedy despite her buoyant attitude. But this suffering is inevitable and unavoidable and happiness is fleeting.

Guilt apart from sin is merely a dysfunctional pity. Woody Allen, without a Vergil to guide him, heaps pity on the broken humanity that populate his films (and vicariously himself), but pity without piety is empty. This is what separates him from the other peddlers of drama who see innate value in suffering, who see happiness as the reward for persevering; Woody Allen refuses to accept the fruit from the tree he has rejected.

As Woody Allen put it himself in a recent interview: “It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone… The best you can do to get through life is distraction.”

Distract us he does, from the wounded glamour of Blanchett to the coarse schlub of Louis C.K., the film keeps us leaping from one character trainwreck to the next. But it’s bleak tonic that Allen offers. Watching a film by Woody Allen brings us to the brink of troubled waters and shrugs. Even as Jasmine receives her final comeuppance and Ginger regains her pyrrhic happiness we can only cry out “O Lord how long?” while we are buried by crimes and misdemeanors.

Come Home : Junebug : a Review

In Flannery O’Connor’s seminal lecture Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction she uses the expression “Christ-haunted” to describe the South. Since first reading this, I have been haunted by this idea of Christ-hauntedness. She goes on to say that the Southerner “who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” For the unbeliever this divine umbra can leap out at any moment and confront him with disastrous truths; you were made, he reigns on high, your life will never be the same. Southern filmmakers no less than Southern writers -if I may hazard a generality- are apt to cast the strange shadows and derelict numinosity of Christendom.

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Junebug (2005) is a Southern Gothic Drama about Madeline, an exotically educated art dealer in Chicago, who travels to North Carolina with her husband George to woo an artist and meet her in-laws. The meeting with the artist goes well, but her success runs dry as she encounters the pride and prejudice of her husband’s family.

Peg, George’s mother, who might be indelicately described as a battle ax in a broom closet, does not take a shining to Madeline. Put off by Madeline’s skinniness, Peg doesn’t even need to hear the British accent before turning the cold shoulder to her. At the end of the film the most she can muster toward her is that “she’s got beautiful hands,” which is a dig on her inability to work with them. Eugene, the father, is pleasantly anonymous and stands up for Madeline only so far.

The chief wound to the family is George’s brother, Johnny. Unhappily married to his highschool sweetheart, unhappily forced to move back in with his parents, unhappily compared to his brighter, better looking brother, Johnny labors mightily to show how nonplussed he is by his brother’s success and beautiful wife. He carries his old wounds and bitter jealousies as badly as the moustache on his face.

Madeline blunders through the various familial landmines, unaccustomed to the fine Southern tradition of letting sleeping grudges lie. If not for Johnny’s resplendently pregnant wife Ashley (the Oscar nominated role of Amy Adams), Madeline would have no allies at all since even George abandons her to the pitfalls. Ashley declares her love for her immediately and demonstrates it by taking the blame for a knickknack accidentally broken by Madeline. She is determined to not only win over the family for Madeline, but to win Madeline as her bestest friend along the way.

The director Phil Morrison provides an accurate picture of the South without the overweening grit and buttery oddness that mars most Hollywood films set in the South. Without belaboring accents or belittling the side characters, he pegs his setting with an array of well-wrought details; like a man in his workshop humming to let the bickerers upstairs know he can hear them, like the endless and aimless tinkering with a vehicle, like a wife needling and maneuvering her husband to “say something” but never overstepping her bounds or disrespecting his authority.

The story is about outsiders. Madeline is the initial outsider. She’s the agnostic, Japan born daughter of an English diplomat dropped into a fiercely southern Christian family. The artist she hopes to sign is David Wark, an outsider artist (a term for untrained artists) who paints violent, racially charged, Civil War themed battle scenes with soldiers shooting bullets out of their prodigiously large sexual organs. Above the carnage are banners with scripture that has been mediated to him by an angel only he can hear.

Johnny is an outsider in his own family. He is shown happy only at work where he jokes and laughs and talks about football. At home he broods, and barks at his wife, killing the day smoking and watching television. At some point the status of outsider is born by every character.

Throughout the film the camera has withdrawn from the action to fall into vacant rooms. We hear the sounds of fun or fighting, we hear life through the walls, along the outside, as though there’s a presence, a haunting. In these moments there’s a yearning to return. These regressions into an absence is like an invitation. Return. At the center of the film is a song that speaks to this very thing. At the potluck George is asked by the minister to sing for them. George takes up a hymnal and begins an a cappella rendition of Jesus is Calling.

Come home! come home!
Ye who are weary, come home!
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling,
Calling, O sinner, come home!

The viewer is constantly called somewhere and here in the middle of this film Jesus is calling, “Come home, O sinner.”

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Peg’s eyes water, singing along, Madeline marvels at this unseen side of her husband. It is clear that George has not mentioned to her whatever shred of faith he still bears. She skips church. At the potluck when the pastor prayers over the family she observes the bowed heads with a mixture of interest and discomfort. When she finds Eugene’s lost screwdriver and he mentions that he’d done some screwing in that room, she laughs assuming a crude pun. She is an outsider in every way.

Crisis comes for Madeline when she finds out that someone is trying to poach her artist and Ashley goes into labor. Madeline must choose between family or her career, to join the family or reaffirm her outside status.

The same is true of Johnny, to whom she is implicitly compared with throughout the film. It may seem odd that the successful, brilliant and beautiful woman is mirrored in the sullen, stupid and insecure Johnny, but the connection to him comes in realizing that of everyone in the house only they fail to create. George is self-made wunderlad, Eugene is a woodworker, Peg has her crafts and sewing and then there are the two uber-creators David Wark and the pregnant Ashley. Madeline, as an art-dealer, and Johnny, who works in the shipping of a store called Replacements Ltd, trade the work of others, contributing nothing.

The question of Madeline’s fertility comes up numerous times; they sleep in what will become the baby’s room, between cradle and crib, they make love night after night, but it is clear that she’s not interested in having children. In a movie titled after the chosen name of Ashley’s unborn child, the act of creation through children is key.

The reversals come fast at the end. What has looked like a totally fractured family at the end is renewed, and it is Madeline and George whose fairytale romance is at crossroads. The honeymoon is over, after six months of sex and swooning they have hit their first rough patch. George confesses to his mother that his wife will “discover all [his] faults sooner or later.” Ashley’s counsel to her husband holds true for everyone in the film, “God loves you just the way you are, but He loves you too much to let you stay that way.” This call is stretched out over the whole film and the characters divide into those who will attempt to change and those who will remain locked in their prejudices. The trajectory for George and Madeline seems ominous. As they leave the Christ-haunted South the spell wanes and George says “I’m so glad to be out of there.”

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