Thursday, June 26, 2014

Her: Why Is This A Movie?

We watched Spike Jonze’s Her the other night. I enjoyed it, and found the story, the aesthetic and dramatic execution gently provocative. But when the end credits rolled I was left wondering, “Why was that a movie?”
"Maybe for the movie poster?"
The reflexive answer (not the one I’m after, but let’s out with it) is, “Why shouldn’t it be?” No reason, of course. People make movies of just about anything, and good on ‘em. But my question isn’t directed against Her’s existence; it’s more of a “Why this, not that?” question. In this case, why is Her a Big Movie, and not a long short story? What does it accomplish as a Big Movie that it couldn’t possibly in the pages of the New Yorker (where it could have surely found a home)? My two cents: the aesthetic aside, not much. So why is it a movie?
It's a question I asked — a lot — back when Kenneth Branagh was throwing Shakespeare at the Silver Screen. Branagh's abilities as a Shakespearean actor were unparalleled, and he clearly had what it took to nudge similar levels of insightful performance from his cohorts. I had few doubts he was a sensational director for stage.
Branagh's grasp of cinematic potential, on the other hand, was rudimentary. Long, static shots, close-ups that forced the actor to twitch and snort to hold viewer attention. And one hoped in vain for any cut-away to supply ironic contrast.
In that same era, Richard Loncraine's direction of Ian McKellan was gloriously distinct from all that. Here's the memorable, “Now is the winter of our discontent” monologue, in which Loncraine and McKellen exploit cinema's full potential to dramatic effect.
It's brilliant enough that Richard begins by publicly toadying up to a roomful of people he justifiably holds in contempt, then morphs to the inevitable admission of self-loathing — in the pissoir. But using a dollyed close-up of the bathroom mirror to break the Fourth Wall? For the second time in two minutes? To invite and incriminate the viewer in Richard's evil scheming? Oh, bravo, sirs — bravo!
The closest Branagh came to realizing similar cinematic success was his We're-sayin'-all-the-words! Hamlet, an epic production that would have had a much harder run of it on-stage.
Anyway, I saw all the Branagh movies, usually more than once, and certainly didn't begrudge the time spent. But for most of them, the question, “Why is this a movie?” had only one plausible answer: “To reach a wider audience.” No small thing, that. Wider audience = industry recognition = a better shot at career longevity doing stuff that genuinely engages the artist, and not having to put on a Starfleet uniform to pay the bills.
Ditto: Her. More people will watch a movie than read a New Yorker story. Fair enough, no hard feelings. But coming from the director of Being John Malkovitch and Adaptation, I'm just surprised the bar wasn't set a little higher.

Related: P.T. Anderson, The Coen Brothers, Baz Luhrmann, Kathryn Bigelow, Wes Anderson love 'em, hate 'em, or both those cats are clearly making Movies, dammit.

Friday, June 20, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up: Finale

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Phase 4. Phase 5.

Kafka was a fan. Not just of The Man Who Was Thursday, either — I'm talking the whole ball of wax. Weird, huh? The man who gave us Gregor Samsa enjoyed reading G.K. Chesterton.*

Anyway, my conclusion to the debt we grubby Neo-Pagans owe Chesterton will be as scattered as the post that kicked it all off. Consider yourself forewarned.

If you head over to goodreads and check out the “fair-to-middling-to-poor” reviews of The Man Who Was Thursday, you’ll find a common observation among them. The book divides neatly into three acts. The first act enchants, the second takes some of the shine off that effect, and the third baffles and alienates. Frankly, it's a fair summary of my own experience as a reader.

Thursday’s first act presents itself as an ominous and enclosed mystery, which threatens to overwhelm the last of our compromised hero’s remaining virtues. The second act, to most readers’ surprise, subtly shifts from a paranoid fatalism to an absurdist caper. The third act is almost all explication — making sense, insofar as sense can be made, of everything that led up to it. A seemingly inescapable solipsistic tragedy has flowered into a great, romantic awakening.

The almost universal approval of the first act is curious to me. Fatalism has its own romantic appeal, of course, and who among us can resist a good conspiracy theory? The contemporary reader, however, is disinclined to be “freed” from the conspiracy. Philip K. Dick is commonly referred to by Thursday's goodreads reviewers, and with good reason. If there is a predominant (and predominantly appealing) Post-Modern narrative, surely it's that of the Grand Conspiracy. It can spin apart via entropy a la Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, or disappear down the solipsistic rabbit-hole a la the Wachowski Sibs' Matrix trilogy or V For Vendetta. Neither option dodges the sensational spectre of fiery, apocalyptic blood-letting. Nobody wakes up from the nightmare — the Post-Modern hero just does a subtler job of apprehending it.

This, then, is the predominant motif within the Magisterium of the Western Imagination. Approach with caution.

"Also: an adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered..."
*This, with other factual observations, comes courtesy of A.S. Dale's The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. The errors, on the other hand, are all my own.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 5: Re-Essaying Jacob's Ladder

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3. Phase 4.

The rabbi whose identity continues to morph from Saul to Paul spent the rest of his life trying to communicate how his understanding of things had changed after the interrupted trip to Damascus. Clearly, that change was radical.

Paul and his followers are not an easy read. I’ve read their letters all my life, and it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve sensed just what a revolutionary cross-pollination of religious* understanding they represent — and promote.

My penny-dreadful summary: in the death and resurrection of this itinerant Jewish rabbi “Jesus,” who’d devoted the bulk of his time, energies and teaching to the outcasts of the empire and his own religion, the entire species’ presumed Pantheon was turned upside-down. God-through-Jesus brought into harmony not just Jewish efforts at atonement, but pagan ones, also.

“Overturned” is not “obliterated.” Paul anticipated that at some point all Powers will submit themselves to the authority of Jesus — either as willing and grateful servants, or as damned subjects. “Powers” seems a vague appellation — a nearly empty metaphor — to a modern imagination beguiled by the West’s simplistic dualist execution of secularism. There was nothing vague about it to the ancient imagination, which saw an elaborate (and corrupt) Chain of Command that led directly into the ether.

I believe Lewis’s imagining of Bacchus’ place within Narnia’s Pantheon is an exercise inspired by, and respectfully aligned with, Pauline cosmology. Moreover, any Christian who presumes the banishment or outright obliteration of all pagan modalities has a severely impoverished and predominantly egoistic comprehension of the cosmology to which they claim subscription.

If it is true a person cannot comprehend Christianity without some comprehension of its Jewish origins, I would suggest this is equally (if not more) true of its pagan origins.

"Overturned," not "Obliterated."
*Or “mythical,” if you’d rather.

Finish it! The finale!

Friday, June 13, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 4: Aromas, Shades & Incantations

Phase 1. Phase 2. Phase 3.

In our third year in the house, I woke up to the smell of baking cookies — vanilla biscuits, perhaps, or shortbread. It was around 1:30 in the morning.

The house is semi-detached — we share a wall with the neighbours. They were a couple of single fellas, at the time — younger and a tad boisterous, but not to the point of being annoying. Girlfriends came and went. I figured somebody over there got a case of the midnight munchies, and whipped up a quick batch for a bedtime snack.

This continued through the winter, and picked up again the next. In February of that year, I woke up again to the smell — it was almost heavy and cloying — and thought, The neighbours, then rolled over onto my other side. Then I remembered: we had no neighbours. The fellas had each got serious with their respective girlfriends and were living elsewhere. Other than us, the house was empty.

Later that month, I hired a guy to put up drywall. He had access to our basement, for overnight storage. He spotted some iron rods lying against the basement wall and said, “Looks like someone used to work in a bakery.” He explained what the rods were used for, the purpose of which I no longer recall, because my brain went white hot with panic.

That night when I again woke up to the gentle smell of baking cookies, I shrieked, THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS THEE! Only the Mennonite version. And in a very soft whisper, because I didn't want to wake my wife.

This went on for the next two weeks. Nothing changed. So I did an attitude check. I mean, cookies, fer cryin' out loud. Not thumping in a basement room, or chains being dragged across the floor, or fingernails scratching from inside a closet — cookies.

My sleep improved. Then one night my wife shook me awake, said, “I think you left the oven on!” I rubbed my eyes, sniffed the air. Oh, that. Uh . . . it's alright, babe. I'll tell you about it in the morning.

Still, as the years accumulated and the aroma continued, I remained slightly ill-at-ease with it all. There were rational explanations: auto-suggestive-neurological . . . whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-it. It wasn't explaining away the odour, so why not resort to the irrational?

The ancient thinking on ghosts and hauntings is fairly straightforward: ghosts don't generally hang around because they're happy.

If someone was unhappily caught between Here and There, and “Here” happened to be our house, I hadn't the first clue what to do about it. But I was, and remain, a praying man. So when the “baking” woke me up, I gave thanks for and blessings to the people who made and lived in this house for several generations. I asked for mercy on their souls. I asked, on behalf of all who lived in this house, for the courage necessary to face the heart of Love, and Truth, and final release. On and on in that vein, until I drifted back to sleep.

It's been three years since anyone in the house has last smelled that aroma. There are rational explanations for that, too, I expect. Those will be more important to some people than they are to me.

Keep moving: Phase 5.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 3: Inside Jack’s Imaginarium

One saw sticky and stained fingers everywhere, and, though mouths were full, the laughter never ceased nor the yodelling cries of Euan, euan, eu-oi-oi-oi-oi, till all of a sudden everyone felt at the same moment that the game (whatever it was), and the feast, ought to be over, and everyone flopped down breathless on the ground and turned their faces to Aslan to hear what he would say next.

At that moment the sun was just rising and Lucy remembered something and whispered to Susan,

“I say, Su, I know who they are.”


“The boy with the wild face is Bacchus and the old man on on the donkey is Silenus. Don’t you remember Mr. Tumnus telling us about them long ago?”

“Yes, of course. But I say, Lu — ”


“I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

“I should think not,” said Lucy.

The Pevensee girls encounter Bacchus, in Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis. "But that's ****ing pagan idolatry!"  sez this homemaker.

Next: Phase 4

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 2: The Woman At The Water-Cooler

Phase 1, here.

It’s coffee-break, I’m at the water-cooler with my friend. She’s lovely, Jewish, a few years older and curious about the preacher’s kid, happy to ask the occasional provocation, and to oblige a few of my own in return. Today she asks, “Do Mennonites talk about the Pharisees at all?”

The Pharisees? Oh, for sure. Can’t have Jesus without the Pharisees.

“So how do you describe them? What do they represent to you?”

I provide the rote description: anal-retentive legalists whose lengthy arcana of behavioral restrictions discouraged potential seekers of God. Is that accurate?

“Well, not from our point of view, no. We think they’re the heroes.”

Come again?

“Absolutely. You talk about ‘lengthy arcana,’ but that’s precisely what they liberated us from. They pared down the Torah from an unimaginable burden to something that could be lived out and practised, even during generations of extreme pagan oppression. Thanks to them, our culture, our religion, our faith remains alive to this day.”

Huh. No kidding?

“Mm. Wup — look at the time. Fill your cup?”

"Wait: 'heroes'? Seriously?"
Next: Phase 3.

Monday, June 09, 2014

GKC Wrap-Up, Phase 1: Saul’s Difficulty

Messiah cults were nothing new. Stand in the courtyard of the Jerusalem Temple and throw a rock in any direction: if you only hit one “Messiah,” you weren’t throwing hard enough.

Zealots, every last one of them. Inevitably some putz off the farm, with just enough Torah to cause trouble.

All of these jokers had at least a smidgen of charisma. A few had genuine oratory skills. They might whip up a handful of supporters; they might whip up a mob. Either way, the Empire knew how to deal with the situation, and it was best to clear out and leave them to their methods.

Let the Enemy thin your herd; hold focus on the Pharasaic imperative.

So why the personal furor over this bunch? What was different?

The resurrection element was admittedly odd, but not entirely unheard of. “Assumption into Heaven”? A common enough motif for even the Greeks and Romans.

But “Son of G_d”?

Such language, coming from people — his people — insisting on their right to say this filth while in Temple?

Now that was fucking pagan idolatry.

From Martyr's Mirror: The persecution of Stephen, the first
Christian martyr. Saul observes, to the right.

Nor was he entirely wrong on this point . . . . (Phase 2!)

Friday, June 06, 2014

Hey, Look Over There!

Yahmdallah links to Time Out's 100 Best Animated Movies, here. I've seen 58 of these (missing the bulk of anything Japanese that didn't come out of Studio Ghibli), so I'm hardly entitled to quibble. But:

1) I really dislike The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and think it's way too high on the list. This isn't a knee-jerk “Not Wes Anderson!” response, either — I've enjoyed watching actors sink their chops into what Anderson hands them (I'm thinking particularly of Gene Hackman in The Royal Tenenbaums). And I won't deny TFMF its technical virtuosity. But as I snarked to Y-man, if you contrast Fox with The Nightmare Before Christmas you see the difference between a director who's really pleased with himself, and a director who's taken such a deep pleasure in the work that he has disappeared from view.

2) Rango has its amusements, but is a bust on all sorts of levels. I would have left it off the list and added Flushed Away, which came first, and told the same story — successfully.

3) Nice to see Waking Life included. I'm also a big fan of Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, and would have made sure it was on the list — probably a slot or two higher than Waking Life, actually.

Speaking of Richard Linklater: wow, does this movie poster ever look unpromising:

Still, the kids are fond of him. And it's not like I'm a Jack Black hater, per se. He just makes me . . . wary.*

So, remembering that I've yet to be disappointed by a Linklater movie, I went ahead and took it home from the library. I was hooked within the first 20 minutes. Better yet, the conceit of the movie never dawned on me until the end credits started to roll, at which point the whipsaw effect of realisation was so dramatic I had to go back and watch the damn thing from beginning to end again. What fun!

Enjoy your weekend.

*As does Will Ferrell, although Ferrell threatens to nudge me further. The LEGO Movie! would have been nearly perfect if Ferrell had remained nothing but a voice. I mean, I understand why they went “meta” by movie's end — much like a viewer can understand why Spielberg went with the mawkish opening and closing scenes for Saving Private Ryan — but dramatically that scene is the least engaging of the entire movie. Starkly so, when contrasted with the rest of the movie — again, much like Ryan. But rest assured: LEGO! is the better movie.