Hitchcock in 2018: Rear Window

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 3.]

I’m not proud of it, but Alfred Hitchcock is one of the gaps in my film self-education. It’s sort of like those classic books of the Western canon I always tell myself I’ll get around to. I’ve got good intentions to read more Dostoevsky or Greek dramas or Moby Dick or Les Misérables… well, they look good on my shelf, at least. So I finally watched Vertigo last year, and now Rear Window. Rope and North by Northwest are next. (I know, I know. By the way, have you all seen these great new shows, Breaking Bad and Justified?)

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We Are Not Our Own Saviors

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 27.]

[SPOILERS, BUT YOU CAN PROBABLY GUESS THEM ANYWAY]

That seems like far too important a title for thoughts about a dinosaur movie, but underneath the fantastic and seamless CGI, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is claiming to be far more than simply an adventure movie with dangerous animals. The tired part of the movie is that people always do stupid things when it comes to dangerous animals about which they really know nothing. Yeah, we get it: if you’re ever in a room with a caged dinosaur, do not open the cage, no matter how much you want a trophy or a closer look. Don’t pretend to be Chris Pratt if you’re not.

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Revenge or Atonement?

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 20.]

[SPOILERS]

Another recent film is often compared to Taxi Driver, but it’s both better and worse than First Reformed. I had a free Redbox rental, which is as good as Movie Pass for seeing movies on which I’m not sure whether I want to spend actual money. So I rented You Were Never Really Here, a story that I liked more than First Reformed, though it’s not nearly as beautiful. I will watch almost any movie that features Joaquin Phoenix, because he’s brilliant. And he needs to be in this movie, because it’s so understated that anyone unwilling to think a little will lose patience very quickly (as many reviews on IMDB prove).

I’m not claiming it’s anything new or groundbreaking. It’s sort of an art house Taken: not nearly as straightforward (which is what was great about that movie), but punctuated by brutal violence in pursuit of young girls being kidnapped, used, and exploited. This is not an explainer movie; more like a painting, where you have to do a little work to put the pieces together. I think the pieces are there, but there are still some unanswered questions. Who is the man for whom Joe works? He has an office, he gives Joe jobs to go out and rescue kidnapped girls, but that’s about all we know.

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Listening for the Past

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 13.]

At one point in the documentary Karl Marx City (streaming on Netflix), the narrator (Matilda Tucker) translates two German words for dealing with memories. The first is Erinnerungskultur, or the “culture of remembrance,” and the second is Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or “the process of coming to terms with the past.” These are fitting terms for a country that seems to have more than its share of recent past with which to come to terms. It’s an interesting juxtaposition to watch this film so soon after seeing Hitler’s Children (which I wrote about here).

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Last Men in Aleppo

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on July 6.]

“Harrowing” is a word that was invented for a documentary like Last Men in Aleppo (streaming on Netflix). It follows a group of men who have come to be called the White Helmets as they go about their work of digging people, dead and alive, out of the rubble of the Syrian city.

These are not soldiers, not UN workers, not employed by anybody. They simply view it as their duty to do what they can in their city. They remain when most of the other citizens have gone. Khaled, in particular, sums up both the hopelessness and the determination of their cause. Looking around at a ruined and half-empty city, he says, “Nobody cares about anybody any more.” But he and his fellow White Helmets are the living proof against that proposition. They are there. They remain. They care.

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Faith Deformed

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 29.]

I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if a movie was hyped over and over, time and again, as being an incredible, profound meditation on faith and doubt, that it was unlikely to be anything of the sort. If someone has left or been scarred by Christianity, or an American Fundamentalist version of it; if someone is quick to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; or if someone is fully convinced that what the Church should do is take up the apocalyptic cause du jour, then that person is the perfect candidate to be over-impressed with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.

I don’t mean that those aren’t authentic responses to a real emotional and intellectual experience of viewing this film. But if you don’t find yourself resonating with one or more of those categories, you might well wonder if you’ve completely missed the point of the film. Is there an additional scene after the credits? Did I miss the profundity? Am I too stupid to understand the basic elements of serious film and thereby misunderstand Schrader’s intentions? The last two might, of course, be true. But the simpler answer is probably more accurate: It’s an attempt to be profound about religion, faith, and doubt, without actually achieving it.

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A Hated Inheritance

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 15.]

Since high school, I’ve been interested in the genealogy of my family. Nearly all of us German Lutherans as far back as I can trace, all of those generations are part of who I am. So far, there haven’t been any shocking discoveries, but there are certainly intriguing gaps in the records. At what point did my German ancestors settle in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (my father’s side) or Russia (my mother’s side)? What is the connection between the German town of Winterstein and my family? (One interesting speculation is that our ancestors were Sinti [Christian Roma or Gypsies] who took the Winterstein name after working as tailors for the minor nobility of Winterstein).

What about that one great-uncle who was kicked out of the pastoral ministry for some form of false teaching (and later reinstated)? What about that one cousin in my mother’s family who spent nearly her entire life in a mental institution? Why, on the same census, do my great-grandfather and his family appear to live in different locations?

Those sorts of questions are normal with the gaps in knowledge that open up when those who know the answers begin to die. But what if you were born with a last name like Goering, Himmler, Hoess, or Goeth, names infamously connected to the Nazi regime and particular concentration and death camps? I don’t know why it has never occurred to me that while no one (that I’m aware) shares the surname Hitler, many of the other significant members of the Third Reich would indeed have children and grand-children and other relatives sharing their names.

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A (Not So) Wild Story

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 8.]

On the one hand, Wild Wild Country (six parts, on Netflix) is about as strange a religious story as there is in the United States. On the other hand, it’s not very strange at all. The divisive nature of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (a name I would be okay never hearing again), the completely opposite stories told by the Rajneeshees and everyone else, and the weird, magnetic pull of the Bhagwan’s personality make this a compelling story. It’s salacious, with the (accurate) rumors of a sort of sex cult, but it doesn’t seem that the Bhagwan was all that involved in the sexual aspect of his commune, as you might expect a sex cult leader to be!

But even though the free-love aspect of the Rajneeshees seems to attract the attention, that’s only a side story to this documentary. The people interviewed are limited to four major people on either side of the controversy in Antelope, Oregon, in addition to law enforcement and legal participants. While normally I might want more breadth and more input from various people, the limited number of main players actually works well in a six-part series. You actually begin to get a pretty good feel for where they’re coming from and their individual personalities.

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Not Quite Holy

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on June 1.]

I can’t believe that I’ve been writing these for a year! Thanks to The Jagged Word for the opportunity to watch more movies and write down whatever I think about when I watch them. I don’t know if any of it is worth anything but, at the very least, I hope you’ve discovered some good movies.

In spite of some controversy stirred up by this film, I had never heard of Holy Air until I came across it randomly on Amazon (free for Prime users). The synopsis begins, “Adam and Lamia are a Christian Arab couple from Nazareth – members of a vanishing minority in the Holy Land.” and I was in. But if you go by the synopsis, you might, like me, start to wonder after 15 minutes or so what you’re actually watching. Adam and Lamia are not what you’d call observant Christians. In this, they parallel many (most?) American Christians who are in their 20s or 30s and children of observant Christians. Adam’s discussion with his parents at the Christmas dinner table probably sounds a lot like many conversations around holiday dinner tables in the United States.

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The Swedish Theory of Love

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 25.]

What would happen if an entire country took independence and individualism to their logical and extreme ends? We don’t have to wonder. We have Sweden. For the last 40+ years, Sweden has been engaged in a social experiment which now has borne its desiccated fruit. The Swedish Theory of Love is the documentary telling that story. (You can find it online here. If you don’t want to subscribe, you can simply share the movie—I shared it to be visible only to me on Facebook—and you can watch it for free.)

It is the story of the inversion of Genesis 2:18: “It is good for a man or a woman to be alone; too much human dependence is evil.” I found myself both repelled and interested, because my default is alone and quiet. And yet the effects of this as a national ideal are clearly destructive: the end of husbands and wives; the end of the home with two parents as the natural location of a child; the beginning of loneliness as the more-than-likely outcome of a life.

This is the end of an “old-fashioned, outdated family structure…that made us deeply dependent on one another.” In order to call this progress, complete independence with complete control and choice must be the goal. But that begs the question: is that a good or worthy goal to be pursued? Does such “progress,” in fact, work against what is hard-wired into the human creature, whether one believes that to be the result of a Creator or the result of evolutionary adaptation? Can natural law be so easily contravened?

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