Archive for March, 2009

The Movie that was Saturday

March 31, 2009

Over the past several weeks, I have been trying to think of ways to better prepare myself to participate in Resurrection Weekend (AKA Easter), because to be honest, I just haven’t been into it the last couple of years. I had too many things distracting me, and I let myself focus on those distractions to the point where I didn’t especially care about the most important event in my religion’s calendar. 

I know that music helps a lot of people to find their right frame of mind, but for me it’s never helped that much. I like music, and I can (somewhat) participate in it if my perspective is already good going in, but it doesn’t exhort me the way it might for you. The artistic medium I connect with best is film–yes, even though I want to be a writer when/if I grow up–so I began thinking about the themes of the days of the Easter weekend and which movies could help me better align my attention. 

It didn’t take me long to decide what I’m going to watch on Friday and Sunday. While I understand theologically why we call this particular Friday “Good”, that adjective has never sat well with me. The more time I’ve spent in the Gospels, the more I look at Good Friday as the darkest day the world has seen. Jesus gets betrayed multiple times in several different ways, his closest followers are so confused and scared that they abandon him and isolate themselves from the community of one another, all sorts of really weird things happen (read Matthew 27), the earth itself goes dark in the middle of the day, and God can’t bear to look at the Son he loves. 

The film that most deeply and viscerally reflects these themes for me is Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light,” a day-in-the-life story of a pastor who seemingly can’t do anything right. No one in his congregation cares about his sermons, and when a troubled man does come to him for counsel, the pastor is too distracted by his personal demons to even listen to him. And yet, “Winer Light” concludes on a note of bitter hope (perhaps sarcasm, but I’ll take the optimist’s route here) that brilliantly encapsulates the divine irony of the crucifixion. 

For Resurrection Sunday, my movie is “Ordet,” an obscure (though that depends on the circles you inhabit) story of a fractured family, featuring a son who has become convinced he is Jesus Christ. He wanders around the house, quoting Scripture as if he wrote it, but no one listens to him. They know he has a disease, and they’re waiting for him snap out of it and become normal again. The son eventually realizes he isn’t Jesus and runs off into the wilderness, but his return–as himself once again–sets the stage for the most supernatural moment I have ever witnessed in a movie. I can’t think of Easter without “Ordet” coming to mind.

Which leaves me with Saturday, or as I have been calling it recently, “The Day When Nothing Much Happens.”  All the drama of the cross is over with, and the magic of the tomb and the women and the angels hasn’t happened yet, so basically what you have is a bunch of bewildered disciples wondering who they should try following next and a few paranoid adversaries who are afraid Jesus’s body will get stolen in a grave-robbing resurrection hoax. What could I watch to help me connect with all of that existential angst? 

I thought of “The Fisher King,” mostly because I love that movie and it’s been a while since I’ve watched it, I think, because it’s really more of a resurrection story than a purgatory story. “Wings of Desire” (the German film “City of Angels” was based on) came to mind, because the hidden activity of angels in it illustrates the tension of God’s whispering presence and his shouted absence, but I decided to reject it because it ends too happily. To really get me in the mindset of Saturday, I realized, I needed something depressing and disturbing, a film that makes it so hard to envision redemption that you’d lose sleep over it. 

Mike Leigh’s “Naked” came to mind. It’s the kind of movie where after you watch it, you say, “Okay, I’m glad I watched that because it’s brilliantly acted and realized, but it’s just so dark that I can’t imagine ever wanting to go anywhere near it ever again.” The movie, essentially, is about a man (David Thewlis, whom you’ll recognize as Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter movies) who goes about town doing nasty things and spouting tantalizingly cracked philosophical rants. I like to think of him as Christopher Nolan’s version of The Riddler. And it doesn’t end well, for him or anyone who encounters him. His darkness is so pervasive that by the end of the film, it’s hard to remember what smiles look like, or why anyone would want to make one. 

I think my Resurrection Weekend movies are set.

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Movie Thoughts: Rachel Getting Married

March 17, 2009

You could make “Rachel Getting Married” into a pretty debilitating drinking game by taking a shot whenever a new religious symbol or ethnic group shows up onscreen. The wedding incorporates everything from a blue Genesh wedding cake, to a Hendrix-like rendition of “Here Comes the Bride,” to belly-dancers at the reception. I tried for a while to figure out what spiritual background these people represented (my best guess was Baha’i, mostly because I have no clue what Baha’is actually do), but the reality is that the wedding was basically assembled based on its entertainment value. 

The two people getting married are Rachel (Rosemarie Dewitt), obviously, and Sidney (Tunde Adebimpe, singer for the band TV on the Radio), and the fact that they are an interracial couple is refreshingly never mentioned in the movie, by anyone. Like the plurality of the ceremony itself, their families have been so thoroughly assimilated into the cultural melting pot that no one seems to care about the color of anyone’s skin, or to even notice. 

That’s not to say that the wedding is a tension-free affair, however. Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel’s sister, is released from a rehab center a few days before the wedding and shows up with a trunkload of familial baggage in tow. Much of this is revealed in a rambling confessional monologue Kym delivers at the rehearsal dinner, a scene that forced me to reassess what Hathaway is capable of as an actress. She has played a serious role before, in “Brokeback Mountain,” but here she displays a depth and vulnerability far beyond anything I have seen from her before. 

Rachel is understandably ambivalent about Kym’s presence at her wedding; the day is about her, she believes, and her drama-queen sister will only draw attention away from her and generally bring everyone down. In most movies, this is the point where Kym would whip out her pouty heart of gold and show everyone just how lovable she really is. In “Rachel Getting Married,” though, Kym does want to be present for the wedding, but she is also an attention-seeking recovering addict who has been institutionalized for so long she has largely forgotten how to be around normal people. 

The greatest strength of “Rachel Getting Married” comes from its willingness to allow so many of its characters to have competing interests and points of view. An easy writing trap to fall into is focus solely on one character’s perspective and only define the other characters as far as it is necessary to advance the main character’s story. “Rachel,” though, provides space for Rachel, Kym, their divorced parents (Bill Irwin and Debra Winger), and even some of their friends to have their own voice. The documentary shooting style of the film also contributes to the “lived in” sense of the characters by showing their minor reactions as well as their major close-ups. I felt like these characters could be real people, an impression I never had during another recent dysfunctional family wedding movie, Noah Baumbach’s “Margot At the Wedding.”

Strangely, “Rachel Getting Married” spends very little time getting to know Sidney and his family. We learn that Sidney’s brother has recently returned from Iraq, but little backstory is given to anyone beyond that. Even Sidney himself remains essentially undefined. I think he is a musician of some kind, but that comes more from the fact that most of his friends are singers and performers than from anything he does himself. He does incorporate Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend” into his wedding vows–one of the best moments of levity in the movie–but Adebimpe is not given much responsibility as an actor beyond that. Some critics have even seen a kind of reverse racism in the lack of family dysfunction in Sidney’s family compared to Rachel’s. 

The soundtrack of “Rachel Getting Married” is primarily supplied by Sidney’s visiting musician friends, who seem to be jamming and riffing in some part of the house throughout the entire weekend. It’s an amusing choice that enables the movie to maintain the documentary tone while also having a background score. Their performances at the rehearsal party are also one of the highlights of the movie. This probably won’t mean anything to you, but the musicians reminded me of the omnipresent animal sounds in Carl Dreyer’s “Ordet.” 

As part of Kym’s release from the rehab center, she is required to attend Narcotics Anonymous meetings throughout the weekend. The automatic acceptance and lack of judgment she feels there underscores how out of step she has become with her family; addicts are the people who “get” her. I also saw a connection between the smorgasbord spirituality of the wedding and the nondescript Higher Power to whom NA members are asked to surrender. 

A final word about the style of “Rachel”: The roving camera, which at times seems to be catching only snatches of the action, works greatly to enhance the flow and drama of the movie. The performances, especially Hathaway and Dewitt’s, feel free because of it, but also carefully thought through because of the way they react against the action instead of just getting swept along in it. Kym’s exhaustion toward the end of the reception matched how I have felt at some of my friends’ weddings. It also lends the argument scenes (there are several) a sense of unpredictability and danger; you can’t pinpoint where the next comment is going to come from or who is going to say it. At times, it felt like I was really in the middle of the family reunion from hell. (That’s praise, by the way.) 

The largest weakness I found in “Rachel” comes from a chance encounter Kym has at a hair salon that triggers one of the more wrenching family arguments in the movie. Up to that point, director Jonathan Demme and first-time screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Oscar lifetime achievement award winner Sidney Lumet) had done such an effective job of bringing out the drama from the characters’ personalities that the abrupt introduction of a new character felt unnecessary and forced. On the whole, though, “Rachel Getting Married” was one of the most absorbing and involving movie experiences I’ve had in the past year.

Evangelicals Select New Anthem

March 12, 2009

Colorado Springs, CO. — In what many call a long-overdue move, Evangelical Christian leaders have selected a new anthem for their movement. Previous Evangelical anthems have included “Breathe,” “Shout to the Lord,” and “Sing Your Praise to the Lord.” 

In a statement released to the press, a spokesman stated, “Our previous song, ‘Blessed Be Your Name,’ no longer expressed the overall upbeat attitude and soteriological assurance we want as the hallmark of our movement. We decided it was time for a change.” 

The song the leaders selected for their new anthem is a reworked version of the classic children’s hymn, “Jesus Loves me,” titled, “Jesus Love Me More Than You.” 

“We know that for almost 2000 years, God wasn’t happy with the way his people were handling His Word, The Holy Bible,” the spokesman continued. “He was waiting for us [Evangelicals] to come out with the New International Version of the Bible and all of its accompanying study helps and devotional guides. By selecting ‘Jesus Loves Me More Than You’ and requiring it to be played at every Evangelical church service and summer conference for the next two years, we can assure ourselves that the world never forgets how much it owes us.”

The Authorized Recording of the song is scheduled to take place within the next month, with the upcoming single saturating the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) radio market immediately thereafter. In keeping with tradition, the recording will we produced by Steve Taylor and sung by Michael W. Smith, who will then be credited by acclimation with the writing of the song. 

“Jesus Loves Me More Than You” will have its world premiere at the Saddleback Church in California. 

****If for some reason you’re still reading this, let me assure you that this is a completely fake news story. I made up the whole thing. It isn’t happening. Don’t try to call anyone and complain about it, as they will have no idea what you’re talking about.****

Movie thoughts: Synecdoche, New York

March 11, 2009

“Synecdoche, New York,” the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman (previously known for writing whacked-out screenplays like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Adaptation,” and “Being John Malkovich”) is an expansively claustrophobic experience. It seeks to tell the story of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman, under increasing layers of makeup), a playwright who is awarded, or perhaps cursed, with a MacArthur genius grant. 

Dissatisfied with his previous theatrical efforts, Cotard uses his grant money to purchase an abandoned warehouse that he envisions as the setting for his upcoming effort, a sprawling play about truth and death, with Cotard himself and his friends and family among the cast of characters. Included among these characters are Cotard’s wife Adele, a painter who uses miniscule canvases, Claire, an actress who starred in Cotard’s adaptation of “Death of A Salesman,” (a play that takes place in its protagonist’s mind; can you say, “Foreshadowing?”) Hazel, the box-office girl at the “Salesman” theater, Sammy Barnathan, a mysterious character with a bit of a Caden obsession, Caden’s daughters Olive and Ariel, and Ellen, a cleaning woman.

“Synecdoche” boasts an impressive cast, including Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams, Dianne Wiest, and Emily Watson. Trying to explain which actress plays which role is an Ouroborean task, however; they all play at least two characters (or characters playing characters) in the course of the movie, as Caden continually recasts his love interests in the play. Toward the end of the movie, Cotard even joins in on the identity-switching himself. 

I know all of that sounds deliberately confusing, and to some extent, that’s the point. At its core, “Synecdoche, New York” is a horror movie, and the identity confusion is a large component of the movie’s scare-factor. “We wanted to talk about things that were scary-scary, as opposed to horror-movie scary. So we talked about dying, aging, time passing, relationships gone bad, regret, illness, isolation, and loneliness,” Kaufman said in an interview for Image Journal. All of these every-day scary things are seen through the lens of Caden, who appears to be dying in the beginning of the movie but stays alive through the 20-some years his play is in rehearsals. He doggedly convinces himself that if he can just find the right way to stage the play and tell his story, then his whole life will fall into place and gain the meaning he needs it to have. 

As the play progresses, though, it becomes obvious that Cotard is not up to the challenge he has set himself. His play is simply too big and too complex for him to remain in control of it. The set gradually grows to encompass a recreation of Caden’s New York world, with actors struggling to act like real people and Caden traversing it endlessly, doling out notes and directions, all the while trying to figure out what his play is actually about. He is essentially trying to be a god, while all the while he is trapped in his own creation.

And here is where the real horror of “Synecdoche” shows itself. There is no God on Caden’s New York stage, so he (and later, his friends and characters) muddle through as best they can, trying to take up the mantle for themselves.