Trojan Tub Entertainment

Sunday, February 27, 2011

For Your Consideration...

For the Christian, charity is the common form of the virtues, directing everything to the love of God and neighbor. In our culture, by contrast, the common form of all we are and do is entertainment. So much so that Neal Gabler, in his book Life: The Movie, refers to our polity as “the republic of entertainment.”

And if we live in a republic of entertainment, then tonight’s Oscars Awards Show is akin to the night of the presidential election, when the American People hunker down in front of their television sets to find out which political celebrity won, and then, like the crowds that swelled Grant Park after President Obama’s election, bask in the glory of the freshly-crowned paragon of all that is good, true and beautiful in American life.

Like presidential elections, too, the Oscars are fueled by money, power and parties, and come at the end of an exhausting and ever-lengthening “race” characterized by spin, posturing, name-calling, and all kinds of media silliness. Consider the following reply by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis to a question posed on the page of the Times’ new Question & Answer feature on the movies:

Q. What do you think accounts for the seismic shift from the total dominance of “The Social Network” on the awards circuit to “The King’s Speech” replacing it as the front-runner over the last few weeks?
Marina Fang, Pittsburgh
MANOHLA DARGIS The idea that “The Social Network” was ever an authentic front-runner for best picture is a nice idea and a total media fabrication. Every year entertainment journalists, aided and abetted by movie publicists, try to spin some kind of drama out of what has become an interminable “awards season.” The journalists do their part because, especially after the critics’ groups and guilds have doled out their tchotchkes, there isn’t much left to say about movies they’ve already covered ad nauseam. But the machine needs to be fed. Happily for them, the movie companies are furiously working to capture the imagination and, they hope, the support of the only people whose opinions actually matter here: the some 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Two easy ways to stir up interest and trouble are to locate a villain (as in late 2001, when nasty chatter about “A Beautiful Mind” oozed into the mainstream) or create a media-friendly slugfest, as with last year’s trivializing battle of the exes (Kathryn Bigelow versus James Cameron).

Dargis might as well be talking about a presidential election. But then again, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between election season and awards season, or which of the two dramatic entertainments has more of a hold over the public imagination. 

In Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose and Practice of the Movie Business, playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet has the following to say about the Oscars. It comes up as an aside in the midst of some withering remarks about blockbuster films, a good swatch of which is worth quoting:

There is a relationship of mutual exploitation fostered by the creation and marketing of the solely mercantile film. Someone said that the genius of the American tax code was that it turned everyone into a sneak and a criminal. Mass-market exploitation of the audience makes the producer and the viewer complicit in an adoration of wealth—the producer trying to mug the viewer, and the viewer submitting for the cheap thrill of the producer’s notice. In this, the viewer is in the same position as the star at the Oscars: he agrees to fawn and pant in return for a pat on the head. This is, of course, the reason for the Oscars’ success as entertainment: the audience gets to see their oppressors brought low. It is like Boxing Day, when the lords of the manor had to pretend to serve the servants (121-22). 

What Mamet has to say about the mutual exploitation involved in the selling of the “solely mercantile film” may well be true. But I think he’s wrong about the media lollapalooza the Oscars has become. For the Oscars’ audience does not tune in to see their so-called oppressors, the filmmakers, “brought low.” No, for the audience of the Oscars, the filmmakers, and especially the stars, are like the winning political celebrity, representative of all that is in human life thought to be good and best—or, more familiarly, cool.

Try a different analogy. The Oscars are like Homecoming Weekend in high school, when the King and Queen are paraded before their fellow students at half-time of the big game. Their coolness may indeed exert an oppressive force over the more socially backward. It may indeed invite jealousy and resentment and ridicule (“Did you see that hideous dress she’s wearing!”). Moreover, that coolness may be rejected by those confident enough, like Mamet, to walk away from the whole scene. But still, there’s a huge audience that can’t take their eyes off the King and Queen, for in all that coolness is the almost irresistible demand: you should be like us.    

And yet…

For all the hype and hilarity of presidential and other campaigns, sometimes a little justice does get done. And so it is with the Oscars. Tonight, in the midst of all the self-congratulation and moral and political grandstanding, there will nonetheless be recognition, to one degree or another, of genuine craftsmanship in the art of filmmaking, and of films that depict what is truly worthy in the human spirit. For that alone, the Oscars deserve a look in.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

Make 'Em Laugh!

One thing implicit in the 2011 Arts & Faith Top 100 Films is that nothing truly human is alien to the faith. As Steven Greydanus acknowledges in his commentary, many of the films on the list make no overt connection to the faith—any faith. Not that I see this a problem. However it may be for other faiths, Catholicism has always recognized that grace builds upon, rather than destroys, nature, so that films that portray truths about human nature, even without explicitly connecting those truths to the faith, can be viewed as “preambles” or “parables” of the faith. Thus it is perfectly appropriate to find on the list films that bring to light mysteries of the human condition other than religious ones—films such as Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

That being said, expanding the scope of consideration in this way leads one to think of other films that might deserve a place in the Top 100. My first impression on seeing the list was how—shall we say, lugubrious—it was. Where are the comedies? I mean comedies in the straightforward sense—films that make us laugh. I see that M. Hulot’s Holiday (an inspiration for Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean), on the shortlist in the past, didn’t make it this year. There is one Woody Allen film, Crimes and Misdemeanors—a great film to be sure, though more of a dramedy than straight comedy. And granted, there are plenty of films on the list with comic elements, like Fiddler on the Roof. (Is Sullivan’s Travels a comedy—or social satire?)

But by and large, it’s a list heavy on the drama. No Marx Brothers, no W.C. Fields. Not even Chaplin made the list.

Don’t feel bad Charlie, Shakespeare and Jane Austen didn’t make the cut either. But Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing might deserve a nod, as might either the A&E version of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or the BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Persuasion. (I don't think we need fuss that these films were originally made for television).

I wouldn’t mind seeing one of the Ealing Studios’ comedies on the list, whether Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Ladykillers (both starring Alec Guinness). Some might well argue for one of the Coen brothers’ dark comedies (Fargo or O Brother, Where Art Thou?), or a Pixar film (my vote would go to either The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Toy Story 3). Others will protest that any list without A Fish Called Wanda, or The Princess Bride, or The Court Jester, or Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or one of Peter Sellars’ Pink Panther films, or one of Hugh Laurie’s and Stephen Fry’s sublime turns as P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves & Wooster, is not a list worth listening to.

It may be said, “Of course all of these are funny. But they’re not great films.” To which I answer, “Why not? Is there some lack of artistry in them? Poor cinematography? Bad acting? Clunky dialogue? Arguably not—at least in some cases. So is it rather that the ridiculous is being judged less important than the dramatic? Yet isn’t the ridiculous just as human as the height of human suffering? Indeed, the ridiculous just is the height of human suffering, portrayed with an exaggeration (which creates a distance) that allows us to laugh at it.  

So I say we need one or two more big, broad comedies on the list—to remind us that we are also made to laugh.
When it comes to other kinds of films that depict the triumph of the human spirit or its tragic defeat, other films not on the list spring to mind:

Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V
John Huston’s adaptation of James Joyce’s famous short story, The Dead
Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront
Merchant & Ivory’s Howard’s End
Two adaptations of Evelyn Waugh novels: Charles Sturridge’s A Handful of Dust and the BBC/Masterpiece Theater version of Brideshead Revisited

I’m sure others will keep springing to my mind--and yours. But isn’t that the fun of attempting to restrict one’s favorites to a finite number?

Moreover, I can't claim to have seen many of the films on the Top 100 list, so a reshaping of my Netflix queue is in order. 

But to finish with the issue of outright religious films, was I the only one surprised to find Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ not on the list? However one feels about Gibson’s portrayal of the violence of Christ’s passion, it seems very odd to find it left out of a list of the top 100 religious films of all-time. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011

2011 Arts & Faith Top 100 Films

Check out this list voted on by the Arts & Faith Community, a group associated with the journal, Image. Each film on the list is linked to clips and other extras. See especially this commentary on the list by Steven Greydanus.


Anything surprise you on this list?

Is there a film you think belongs on this list but isn't?

Is there a film on this list you don't think deserves to be?

I'm still pondering my answers to these questions and will weigh in tomorrow.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Kickback of Grace: The Coen Brothers' True Grit

“She would have been a good woman,” said The Misfit, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Those who have had the privilege of reading Flannery O’Connor’s short story masterpiece, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” will recognize this as one of the last lines of the story, spoken by a mass murderer who goes by the name, The Misfit. The Misfit has just wiped out an entire family, a mother, father, two children, a baby, and finally, a silly, querulous old woman called in the story, simply, the grandmother.

At the story’s climax, the rest of the family dead, the grandmother begs The Misfit to spare her life. She urges him to pray. They begin to discuss Christ’s Resurrection. Christ’s rising from the dead, The Misfit says, “thown” everything off balance. He knows this much. What he can’t do is bring himself to believe it. But if he did believe it, he admits, he wouldn’t be this way.
Moved by this admission, the grandmother cries:
"Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children!"
She reached out and touched him on the shoulder. The Misfit sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest. Then he put his gun down on the ground and took off his glasses and began to clean them.
Hiram and Bobby Lee returned from the woods and stood over the ditch, looking down at the grandmother who half sat and half lay in a puddle of blood with her legs crossed under her like a child's and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
There’s a similar moment of violence and grace at the end of True Grit, the Coen brothers’ recent adaptation of the 1968 Charles Portis novel of the same name. The climax of True Grit is also reached by the pulling of a trigger. The gun is fired by a fourteen year-old girl named Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), who along with U.S. Marshall Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and Texas Ranger, Leboeuf (Matt Damon), has been hunting down a murderer named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), who killed Mattie’s father in a drunken spree. It may seem that the situation is the opposite of that in O’Connor’s story. For in True Grit, instead of a mass murderer wiping out an entire family, we have an innocent child meting out justice to a murderer. But closer inspection reveals a deeper similarity between the two stories, founded principally in the fact that Mattie is a “misfit” of her own. How so?
As Father Robert Barron has pointed out in his insightful analysis of the film, Mattie is driven by a single-minded desire for justice. The film opens with a quotation, white letters over black, from Proverbs 28:1: “The wicked man flees, when none pursueth.” The verse continues: “but the just, bold as a lion, shall be without dread.” Mattie is the lion who pursues Tom Chaney without dread. At the beginning, when she asks a sheriff for advice on where to find a man with “true grit” to help her pursue Chaney, the sheriff offers several possibilities…

The meanest one is Rooster Cogburn. He is a pitiless man, double tough and fear don't enter into his thinking. He loves to pull a cork. The best is probably L.T. Quinn, he brings his prisoners in alive. He may let one get by now and again but he believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake. Quinn is a good peace officer and a lay preacher to boot. He will not plant evidence or abuse a prisoner. He is as straight as string. Yes, I will say Quinn is about the best they have.                                                                 
Where can I find this Rooster?  

Mattie opts for the “pitiless man,” not the man “straight as a string” who “believes even the worst of men is entitled to a fair shake.” Mattie’s sense of justice is that of an eye for an eye. It is the justice of the Furies in Aeschylus’ The Eumenides. It is a justice driven more by blood-thirst than by respect for an impersonal order. Mattie’s father was killed, Chaney must die, and no pity or legal niceties must enter into it.

But as Father Barron points out, Mattie’s sense of justice leads to a string of brutal killings. Between Mattie, Cogburn and Leboeuf, eight corpses are on the ground by the time Mattie completes her quest. That is not to say that these killings are unjust—not, at least, in the moral territory in which these characters move. But the film has something to say about this brand of justice.

In the climactic scene, Mattie finally faces Chaney armed with LeBoeuf’s rifle. The theme of the force of a gun’s “kickback” has been set-up throughout the film. When Mattie blows Chaney away, the carbine recoil kicks her back so hard she is thrown into a pit. Her feet are caught in brambles, and she discovers herself near a corpse in which burrow several snakes. Before Cogburn can come and save her, she is bit on the hand by one of the poisonous snakes.

Cogburn cuts her hand and tries to suck out the poison. Then he takes Mattie on horseback to a doctor, many miles away. Cogburn runs the horse ragged until it collapses and he has to shoot it. He then carries Mattie the rest of the way, showing us, as Father Barron observes, that he is now moved by something other than cruel justice. He is moved by pity and affection for Mattie.

A dark pit…a corpse…snakes. Father Barron is right that these images of Mattie’s “kickback” are Christian in their resonance. Mattie’s desire for a very severe form of justice leads her into the very “valley of death” that she tells her mother, in a letter, the Lord will lead her through.

True Grit’s structure takes the form of an envelope. We begin with a voiceover narrated by Mattie in 1908, twenty-five years after her pursuit of Chaney with Cogburn and LeBoeuf. At the end of the film, we again hear the older Mattie, and see her too, and learn that she has only one arm, the other cut off, in order to save her life, by the doctor Cogburn brought her to. As Father Barron astutely perceives, Mattie’s one arm images the lack of symmetry in the justice that drove her to pursue Tom Chaney. A justice without mercy, that disregards the claims of even the worst of men to a fair shake, is not the justice God intends for human beings. It is a justice, rather, for “misfits.”

The film closes beautifully with images of mercy: in Cogburn’s transformative act of devotion in getting Mattie to the doctor; but also in the lovely spiritual with which the film ends, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song in which Mattie’s single armed justice is perfectly balanced by the two loving arms of the Father.

Flannery O’Connor professed to write about the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. About the ending of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” she wrote:

I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

O’Connor didn’t choose simply to equate The Misfit with the devil. She preferred to think that the grandmother’s final gesture, in which she calls him one of her own children and touches him with love and pity, “like the mustard-seed, will grow to a great crow-filled tree in the Misfit’s heart, and will be enough of a pain to him there to turn him into the prophet he was meant to become.”

The firing of a gun plants the mustard seed of grace in the misfit Mattie, too. Her recoil from the shot is the beginning of a costly but necessary return to the reality of what true justice requires. “She would have been a good woman,” says The Misfit, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Much like O’Connor in her fiction, the Coen brothers in True Grit have used dark comedy, violence, and a stark refusal of sentimentality to picture a territory held largely by the devil, but one still capable of surprising its inhabitants with the kickback of grace.