Passion and Temptation

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 30.]

It’s Holy Week, so what else would I be doing but watching two films about Jesus’ last few days? Two long movies. Two movies that inspired controversy and discussion and debate. Two movies that present two different Jesuses. And, frankly, I don’t care if movies want to use different devices to try to understand the most divisive, explained, written-about person in history, Jesus of Nazareth. I have trouble understanding people who protest religious movies (or any movies for that matter). The only thing such protesting serves to do is draw attention and publicity to movies that might otherwise (and sometimes rightly) fade away into the oblivion of thrift-store DVDs. It is exactly for these sorts of protests that the phrase “all publicity is good publicity” was coined. Roger Ebert’s 4-star(!) review barely even touches the film itself, acknowledging “that this entire review has been preoccupied with replying to the attacks of the film’s critics, with discussing the issues, rather than with reviewing ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ as a motion picture.” (That, for Ebert, is a confirmation of the film’s greatness.)

So I re-watched The Passion of the Christ and watched for the first time The Last Temptation of Christ. Since I found a copy of Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel at the library, I decided to read it first, to get an idea of what Scorsese was working with. I was only nine when The Last Temptation came out in theaters, so I didn’t see it then, but I do remember going to a little theater in St. Louis to watch The Passion, sometime during Lent, 2004.

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There’s Hollywood and Then There’s Hollywood

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 9.]

Usually, I just check the internet to see which films won which Oscars. I don’t really have any strong desire to hear the rich and famous pontificate, posture, and “use their platform” to push this or that cause. I have nothing against them doing so; I just don’t want to watch it. This sort of exhibitionism has been given the name “virtue-signaling,” in virtue of the tendency to show how much more virtuous one is than some other one who has not shown the same virtues he or she holds up as virtuous.

But: those who seem to be most vehemently against this form of signaling one’s virtue are not quite as virtuous as they suppose themselves to be. In reference to movies, short-handed as “Hollywood,” they will say things like, “This is why I don’t go to movies!” Or they will talk about the cesspool of Hollywood and its filmmakers, and decry the immorality of it all (of which, of course, there is enough to provide a rich tableau of examples).

“Hollywood,” however, is no more univocal than any other segment of culture, popular or otherwise. Of course there’s trash. Of course there’s immorality, at least from a Christian’s point of view. There’s gratuitous (a strange word for it, with its connotations of grace) violence and sex, with which the film could clearly do without and be no less rich—if it is indeed rich. But music and books are no less subject to the inundation of trash. The point cannot be that Hollywood (as synecdoche for filmmaking) produces immoral things or low-quality things, since that is true of anything else that people produce. Hypocrisy and double-speak is no more endemic to Hollywood than it is to any other class of people engaged in the same kind of work.

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The End of the Tour

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on March 2.]

Well, now I have to finally finish Infinite Jest. I’ve been sort of superficially fascinated by David Foster Wallace since I read The Pale King. I’ve read parts of essays, plus my (so far) abortive attempt to read Infinite Jest. The comments I’d read by him seemed to frustrate any attempt to make him into any kind of authorial or celebrity cliché. His thought seemed genuinely original, at least compared to most of popular culture.

Consider this commencement speech, for example, in which we hear how excellently Jason Segel impersonates Wallace’s voice. It is interesting for the additional reason that Wallace stumbles upon a truth that Lutherans should know well: everyone worships. Everyone has a god, whether they know it or not. “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart” (Luther, Large Catechism, First Commandment). He does not, of course, come to the Christian conclusion (namely, that if “your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one,” but “where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God,” who has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ), but he apparently knew well the unlimited jealousy of those gods, being unable to extricate himself, except by taking his own life.

So I’d been wanting to see The End of the Tour (available on Amazon Prime), but, again, only half-heartedly. It’s difficult for me to watch biopics because I always wonder how true to life they are, which keeps me from enjoying them as movies. I haven’t read the book by David Lipsky on which this film is based, but Jason Segel is certainly believable as Wallace, from the interviews I’ve seen. The idiosyncrasies on display, including his junk food consumption and his contentment living and teaching at a small school in Illinois (at least during the time period of the film), add texture to the portrait of who the man was.

As David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) is quickly recording words and impressions of Wallace’s house toward the end of the film, one particular thing struck me as it seemed to strike Lipsky, something strange enough not to be made up. He is looking at pictures in the bedroom and he finds a card with a prayer by St. Ignatius, “Lord, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to labor and not to ask for reward, save that of knowing that I do your will.” An interesting decorating decision, to say the least, since he never appeared to embrace any form of Christianity. Apparently he also went through the Roman Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults a couple times, though he never became Roman Catholic.

Other than to note significant moments (like highlighting quotes in a book), I don’t really know how to write about this movie, nor do I really want to. I want to recommend it, however, for consideration and digestion. While there is a lot of flippancy in the conversations between David and David (as would happen in real conversations), there are also moments of profundity, as Wallace (or, at least, Segel’s Wallace) hits regularly on the depths of what it means to be human, or lonely, or an artist, or famous. Or, for that matter, how much we love to be mindlessly entertained—which, without even finishing it, is very clearly the main theme of Infinite Jest.

Though much of the film is funny, there is a pallor that hangs over the whole thing, because of the significant choice to begin the film with Lipsky receive a phone call informing him of Wallace’s suicide (nearly ten years ago now). The tension that runs throughout the film, walking the line between happiness and sadness, between public and private personas, seems to have run through Wallace’s life itself. And it is a tension that is produced by an actual self-consciousness, an introspection that often leads to depression and suicide.

This is one of the increasingly rare films that is primarily dialogue-driven, but becomes compelling for that reason. It is not abstract philosophy, but the philosophy of a life lived under a perpetual question mark. Obviously, for Wallace, the question never was answered. But that he was thoughtful enough to raise the question in a culture as superficial as ours seems to be, and that he foresaw what the internet and entertainment could do, makes him and this film well worth considering.

A Failed Project

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 23.]

I’d been waiting to see The Florida Project because of all the positive press it was getting. I purposely don’t like to read synopses, however, because I’d rather have no expectations and let a given film do what it’s going to do, and then take it on its own merits instead of being influenced by what a critic has to say.

The film is set perfectly in Orlando, very literally in the shadows of “The Happiest Place on Earth.” Sean Baker sets up shots against numerous backdrops and lets the characters walk through and in front of them. The scenes are both whimsical and depressing, as everything is influenced by Disney, and yet tawdry in comparison (as one unhappy Brazilian newlywed discovers).

I suppose this is what a free childhood summer looks like in 2018: children getting into mischief on concrete and metal rather than in woods and lakes, who can fling expletives as well as the adults, and whose mischief carries heavier fines and penalties than, perhaps, it once did.

The children are actually the glowing center of the film, natural and free within their particular boundaries. They are innocent enough in their own context, but there is always the threat of that innocence being destroyed (as it no doubt will be in the future). I wondered if all their lines were scripted, or if they ad-libbed some of it (in particular, the scene with Moonee and Hailey at the hotel buffet), because their words don’t sound as if they were put in their mouths by adults. They sound like children’s words, though picked up from and influenced by (as children’s words are) the adults around them.

The ending offers a little hope, but it’s hope by escape. And so I wonder what the “project” is in the title. Is it project as in “the projects”? Or is it project as in a work that is in progress? And whose project is it? Is it the American project? If it’s Hailey’s, it seems to be going nowhere. She’s content with where she is and what she’s doing. This is not the sort of down-and-out story where a central character is seemingly frustrated by external forces, preventing her from getting ahead. If her aspirations are frustrated, they are aspirations only for the short-term, the immediate, the next dollar, and the next week’s rent.

It’s not until the Florida Department of Children and Families shows up at her hotel room that she feels her contentment slipping. And even then, in her mind it can’t be because she has somehow failed. It is everyone and everything else that has failed her. They are interfering with her perfectly fine life, and she is perpetually offended. She has created her own circumstances, so she’s not upset by where she is. But she has no sense that her circumstances are unsustainable.

I love the film’s meandering freedom as it follows Moonee, Scootie, Dicky, and Jancey across hotel parking lots, to restaurant back doors, to strange and wild oases not yet covered by asphalt, including one very old tree, which is “still alive,” as Moonee says. But the movie leaves me with a bitter taste at the broken hopelessness. There is not, as far as I can see, a single intact family anywhere in the film. You don’t see families struggling together in hard circumstances. You see individuals, and children, and the other individuals with whom they come into contact. You see the approximation of siblings in the children who run wild, but only one of their parents is a father. The rest are mothers and grandmothers playing the cards they’ve been dealt or which they’ve drawn themselves. In that sense, it’s probably an accurate portrayal of how things are in a lot of places.

That’s why the ending doesn’t exactly inspire hope. It is escapism, sure, as Disney World is meant to be. But it also feels like an unattainable dream. The cinematography suddenly changes and becomes almost dream-like, as Jancey and Moonee run off, headed toward a castle that doesn’t exist in the real world. Isn’t that escapism exactly what Hailey and others in the hotel are actively pursuing? A few moments at a food truck and in a club, an hour with a beer and a joint in the pool. These are moments outside the norm of their day-to-day lives.

For some reason, I’ve seen a few films recently that deal with the inescapability of life as it is, even with brief moments of respite. The situation feels hopeless, whether or not the person is trying to do better. We find ourselves in this or that place, better or worse, and we do what we can. If not an indictment of the “American dream,” it seems like the downward spiral cannot be reversed, so why try? Sure, people might have made different decisions at critical junctures, but they made those decisions, and now what? They can be faulted for what they’ve done and left undone, but floating free from any anchor, all that action and inaction piles up more quickly than most of us realize.

Besides that, The Florida Project casts a cynical eye on the glitter of the rich “tourists,” who themselves are escaping whatever little existences they’ve created. It seems like a clear-eyed vision, but clear vision doesn’t make anyone happy—and the only happiness in this film is feigned. The only smiles that are occasionally genuine are the children’s.

If you want a happy ending, if you want redemption, if you want some hope, don’t look here. Even so, it doesn’t hurt for the eternal American optimist to look in the mirror once in a while.

Godless

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 16.]

I’ve never been a huge fan of westerns, although there are some notable exceptions. I probably need to fill out my viewing of classic westerns, including some Clint Eastwood films I keep meaning to get around to. But Godless (on Netflix) is a limited series I wouldn’t mind watching more than once.

There are classic western tropes, like the duel, the gun-slinging sheriff standing up for his town against a gang of bad guys, the (in this case, former) whorehouse, the saloon, cowboys and Indians. But in Godless, they are definitely not ends in themselves, but utilized to push a classic story in new directions. It doesn’t feel like it’s a simple retread, even with all the familiar characters.

Although there are multiple story lines, including how La Belle came to be made up almost entirely of women, the seven episodes of Godless orbit around the relationship between Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) and Frank Griffin (an excellently evil Jeff Daniels). What allows this main lode to be mined successfully is the father-son dynamic, explored between the orphaned Roy and the childless Frank, who says to the young Roy, “You’ve got a family now, son. These are your brothers, and I aim to be your pappy. And a good one, too. I won’t mistreat you. I won’t beat you. And I won’t ever lie to you. Ever. Welcome home, son.” The show plays on this theme by having Roy wear his own dead father’s clothes, as well as become a father figure to Alice Fletcher’s son, Truckee. Episodes 5 and 6 are particularly compelling in this regard.

Godless is not the sort of subversive western that becomes a political statement about the bad old days. It doesn’t play on the stereotypes of the oldest westerns in order to show that the “good guys” were really the “bad guys.” There are indeed cowboys and Indians. There are blacks and whites. There are men and women. But what Godless does so effectively is refrain from demonizing a group of people. There are good guys and bad guys, to be sure, but they are never good or bad simply because they have or claim some identity. They are good or bad because of how they live, how they act, how they treat people or horses.

As far as Lutherans are concerned, this refers to a civil righteousness, not justification before God. But it is a real righteousness and, in Godless, it doesn’t come from class, color, sex, or job. There are good and bad lawmen. There are good and bad women, good and bad men. There are good and bad cowboys and good and bad Indians. They all have different motivations and perspectives, and in this it echoes real life with real people. There are exploitative opportunists (like the journalist, A.T. Grigg). There are oily and smiling mercenaries pretending to be protectors (like Kim Coates’ Ed Logan). There are the women who resent being left alone, and those who simply get on with it.

There is a hardness to the characters that make them seem as if they inhabit a real, difficult world. Godless simply feels like how it must have been.

Obviously, the title implies the religious connection. Frank wears a preacher’s collar (while, in La Belle, Sadie Rose keeps waiting for the new preacher) and is continually quoting the “Good Book.” When someone asks which “good book,” Frank doesn’t answer. But none of his quotes are from the actual Scriptures. It seems that his good book is actually just a collection of his favorite sayings (which probably isn’t too different from how many people treat the Bible anyway).

When one of the Norwegians whom Frank terrorizes says that Frank is not a man of God, Frank responds, “God? What God? Mister, you clearly don’t know where you are. Look around. There ain’t no higher-up around here to watch over you and your young’ns. This here’s the paradise of the locust, the lizard, the snake. It’s the land of the blade and the rifle. It’s godless country. And the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.”

It would be easy to attempt some sort of theodicy, some defense of God, in this case. But when Frank’s holding the pistol, perhaps not so wise. He is, in a very real sense, the “enthusiast” of the show: literally, his god is within him (en-thuo). Theodicies always go wrong in the face of actual circumstances. They might hold up in one case, but not in another. If there is a God, then He’s a God far stranger, far more inexplicable than any god we could construct or imagine.

And while Godless doesn’t dwell on this theme in the dialogue, it is the over-arching narrative: look at what happens out here in this “godless country.” Look at what happens to your Creede in such a place. The preacher shows up only when the people are dead. (Although, this preacher doesn’t quote the Bible any more than Frank Griffin does. He quotes, instead, a medieval Jewish poet!)

But, it turns out, the criticism of religion is precisely the Christian point: “the sooner you accept your inevitable demise, the longer you’re all gonna live.” The preacher shows up to preach to the dead and the dying, because that’s the only sort of person there is. And this is what is so foreign to most understandings of God: His death is the only life in the midst of the violence and death of this world. It is not what God does or doesn’t do in a given moment, whether He prevents this or that disease or physical death. It is what God did in the given moment of the crucifixion, the eternal Son dying, rather than simply preserving a dying world.

And now I need to watch it again.

Competing Visions

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 9.]

From February 2-9, the Spokane International Film Festival celebrated its twentieth year, holding screenings of documentary and narrative features, as well as shorts blocks from around the world, including a Best of the Northwest program featuring local filmmakers. The festival opened with Benny and Joon, a 1993 film that was set and made in Spokane and which—I’m somewhat ashamed to admit—I had never seen.

I also saw The Fencer, a Golden Globe winner from 2016, about an Estonian man who is trying to avoid the Soviet secret police because they are hunting down all who had been conscripted by the Nazis to fight against the Soviets in World War II. It’s family-friendly and worth watching if you can find it.

My favorite narrative was The Endless, which is sort of a supernatural, psychological thriller involving two brothers who return to a compound where they used to live in shadowy, cult-like community.

But the film I keep thinking about is No Man’s Land (set to premier on PBS on May 7, but available now on Amazon Prime), a documentary about the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, south of Burns, Oregon. First, it’s simply a great documentary. It’s well-filmed, it allows the principals to speak for themselves, and it tells a compelling story. And second, it does what my favorite documentaries always do: it gives me understanding of something of which I was only vaguely aware.

Of course, I had heard of Ammon Bundy, and I knew something was happening in 2016 at an Oregon wildlife refuge where there didn’t seem to be much else going on. But I couldn’t quite understand what it was all about. Anti-government protest? Okay. Ranchers? Right. But why did they choose to do things this way and what did they expect the federal government to do or not do? The striking thing about this film initially is how close it is to the events. This is not a film shot years removed from what it documents, involving interviews of people who were present a long time before. The filmmakers are in and among, embedded right in the middle of everything.

There are also later interviews with others, including the county sheriff, and at least three members of the press. But that is analysis of what we watch unfold in real time on the screen. And what unfolds is a fascinating story with fascinating characters, and enough drama (ratcheted up by some of the players themselves) to keep the story moving.

As you might expect, and as other, recent protests have demonstrated, the overarching concern of a given protest puts out a wide umbrella. So the Bundys at Malheur draw to themselves anti-government activists of every stripe, nearly every one of them armed with rifles and handguns. For the first part of the story, those differences are drawn together by Ammon Bundy, LaVoy Finicum, and others. They seem to concentrate on over-reach of the federal government in claiming land in Oregon, the government not allowing ranchers to use the land as they wish for grazing, and a distaste for federalism in general.

If the viewer watches without already formed conclusions and biases, as I did, the Bundys and many of their concerns seem reasonable and considered. (What the film doesn’t say is that the Bundys are not from Oregon, and that they arrived there to protest the sentences of two ranchers who set fires on what the federal government said was federal land. But the film does show that apparently very few of those occupying the Malheur refuge were actually from Oregon.)

Because this protest (fed by social media) draws so many different people, with different complaints, it becomes harder and harder to hold it together. And, in fact, the lack of direction and the lack of any plan beyond the original protest causes it to fall apart. There do seem to be reasonable people with serious concerns (to me, Jason Patrick—not to be confused with Jason Patric—is one of the most thoughtful and reasonable, to the extent that he tries to calm some of the protesters when their rhetoric starts to incline toward inevitable violence).

But there are also unstable people with guns, the naive and inexperienced, and those simply spoiling for a violent confrontation. There are people motivated by racial concerns (although I wonder if the number of times an anti-Black-Lives-Matter sign is shown matches the percentage of the participants whose motivation is racial). What is clear is that very few of the protesters are concerned about Oregon or Harney County in particular. The location seems to have provided a convenient place to stage the Bundys’ protest against the federal government.

One aspect of the occupation that is shown, but not in its specificity, is the religious aspect. More than once, people at Malheur are shown praying, confident that what they are doing is God’s will. There is also one shot of a copy of The American Patriot’s Bible with a copy of the U.S. Constitution next to it. One is led to assume that the protesters are the “typical” American, “God and Country” Evangelicals. But, in fact, the Bundy brothers, as well as LaVoy Finicum, are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that distinctly American religion. Apparently, the Bundys have claimed to have received divine messages directing them to undertake things like the occupation of the refuge. That is, at least for most Christians, a step beyond simply “God’s on our side.”

Not only does it highlight some of the problems with a mystically inclined enthusiasm that claims private messages related to God’s will, it also shows a virtual interchangeability of “God” and “Country.” Further, this goes beyond the idea articulated in the film that the Bundys have a vision for America that is competing with the contrary vision of the residents of Burns—not to mention much of the U.S. citizenry. It is also a vision of the relationship of Church and State that is far distant from many Christians in general, and Lutherans in particular.

Whereas the Bundys and their fellow travelers (of whatever type) are absolutely certain about the rightness of their cause and their actions, Christians who belong to the Kingdom of God first will always be ambivalent about any political cause, process, or government. But what the protesters (or many of them) view as their constitutional stance, contrary to the anti-constitutional actions that they oppose, has become (I don’t think it’s too much to say) their de facto religion. It has ceremony, rituals, order, and martyrs.

While a Christian might, as a citizen of the United States, agree with some of the opinions and interpretations of what this country is supposed to be and be like, that same Christian cannot be whole-heartedly for “the cause.” No one can serve two masters. As concerned as I might be about what looks like an unjustified shooting, about the curtailing of freedom, about the way the federal government (and all government, really) always advances and extends its powers and never recedes in its authority, about the surveillance that seems to grow with technological ability, and about the complete lack of what the Roman Catholics call subsidiarity, none of that will ever lead me to put all my time, money, and energy into defending one or another competing vision of the Constitution, or of liberty, or of the American founders’ conceptions of the limits of the federal government.

That doesn’t mean I won’t exercise my rights as a citizen to promote the vision of the nation that best seems to serve the common good (which, in my case, would mean a governmental power far more limited than what we see today). But it means that, finally, my life is bound to the cross of Jesus and not to the Constitution or to any form of patriotism. There are, indeed, enemies of the American self-understanding—some of which have been and continue to be within this nation itself. (Read, for one example, Whittaker Chambers’ description of them in Witness.) It is right and good to oppose such enemies.

But that can never be an unconditionally certain enterprise, as it is for most of the people in No Man’s Land. As far as Christianity goes, since we are strangers and exiles within whatever land we find ourselves, it is always and everywhere a serious mistake to assume any kind of direct overlap between American and Christian understandings of citizenship. One is temporary and conditional, the other is eternal and absolute. As fascinating as this documentary is in terms of our current political and societal divisions, the division between a Christian’s finite loyalty and his infinite loyalty is the more interesting and the more fundamental.

The Real Us?

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on February 2.]

The shocking thing about watching Christine (available on Netflix) in 2018 is maybe not that Christine Chubbuck committed suicide on live television in 1974. The shocking thing is that we haven’t seen such a thing, or something like it, in the forty years since. She took the logic of “if it bleeds, it leads” to its extreme conclusion. What surprises me is that the Idiocracy hasn’t descended further and faster than it has. I wonder whether Christine (an excellently monotone Rebecca Hall) does what she does because her mind was clouded or because she was more clear-eyed than everyone else. Is she irrational and, therefore, “crazy”? Or is she mentally ill in a Nietszchean way, seeing what everyone else refuses to see?

While such events are, thankfully, few and far between, we know intuitively that where there is disaster and blood and death, there will be viewers. We condemn such naked grabs for attention, clicks, views, and shares, but I wonder how much of it is faux outrage so that we can be justified in watching. I’m intrigued enough to watch the recent documentary Kate Plays Christine, to see how it deals with the events in a film-making context.

Though the actual footage of Christine’s shooting has not been seen since 1974, I wouldn’t be surprised if it gained a lot of views were it ever to be released publicly. We are drawn to train-wrecks. Once we tire of the fake and false, we go searching for ever more realistic—even real—depictions of depravity. It’s not a coincidence that in nearly every serial killer’s background there is extensive use of escalating, violent pornography.

That’s where the film leads me culturally and philosophically. But I don’t want to let such questions cloud the human tragedy of mental illness and suicide that is the real subject matter of thousands of lives and therefore of this film. This is, in the end, not really a film about media and the news business and its crushing pressure to produce whatever will gain viewers. That theme is present, but mainly as a backdrop for Christine’s slow descent into inescapable despair. The film produces a realism as we watch people unknowingly make decisions that feed Christine’s depression. When all is said and done, the cumulative effect of all of those words and actions comes clear in an instant. I imagine that there was enough guilt to go around the newsroom in the days following that fatal newscast.

If Christine Chubbuck were in the news business today, would she have gotten the mental health assistance that she so clearly (in retrospect) needed? Or would her driven ambition been enough to hide her deep need, as it appears in the film? Her mother calls her outbursts of bitterness and anger her “moods.” If mental illness is simply “moodiness,” who needs professional help? And, of course, there are plenty of people who receive professional help who go on to commit suicide in spite of it.

Maybe that’s what strikes me about the film’s realism: no matter what signs a person exhibits, there will nearly always be a feeling of helplessness associated with serious mental illness. If the individual refuses to seek or accept help; if she knows something is wrong, but doesn’t know how to get help; if he thinks it will get in the way of promotion or professional ambition; how will anyone force a person into being helped? You can see, after the fact, what words or actions helped her along the road, but you can’t see how it could have been any other way.

Christine Chubbuck’s actions (at least, as depicted in Christine) are fed and pushed forward by the particular environment in which she worked, but you are left with the impression that if her suicide didn’t take place at a news desk, it would have happened wherever she had been employed.

At one point, an inebriated George (Michael C. Hall) says to Christine, “People are just so funny. … It’s like we all have these different versions of ourselves competing to be the real us.” And that, I think, suggests that maybe mental illness is more by degree than a black-and-white yes or no. While some of us live with the dissonance created by the different versions of ourselves, others are unable to do so. What we present to other people is—can only be?—one version of ourselves. Even in our closest relationships, we find it impossible to convey everything we think, desire, and hope for. We cannot make known in words the depth of our inner experience. No one can feel exactly what we feel, and vice-versa.

There are a number of effective films about mental illness. (The two that come immediately to mind are Krisha and The Beaver.) Add Christine to the list of realistic and heart-breaking depictions of depression on the screen.

Same Blood, Different Heart

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on January 26.]

[SPOILERS]

Sami Blood (Sameblod) is the one film I missed at the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival that I’ve been waiting to see. It’s finally been released for streaming on Google Play and iTunes, and I wasn’t disappointed. Though I’m nearly 100% of German ancestry (as far as I know), I will watch anything that comes from Ireland or Scandinavia. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scandinavian crime dramas are at the top of my list: see the Department Q films on Netflix, of which the newest one is under production. And though The Snowman—which I’ve not seen—did not get good reviews, the Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbø are excellent.)

I was only superficially aware of the Sami people in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and part of Russia. So I didn’t know about the prejudice and racism to which they were subjected (always called “Laplanders” or “Lapps” by the Swedes in the film). The film is the story, primarily, of two sisters (played by real-life sisters Lene Cecilia and Mia Erika Sparrok) who attend a boarding school for Sami children, where they learn to speak “proper Swedish,” and are compelled to undergo humiliating examination of their facial and bodily features, which seem to parallel some of the attempts to assimilate Native peoples in the United States.

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Necessary Horror

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on January 12.]

Dunkirk should rightfully take its place among the greatest of war films ever made (and I wish I had taken the opportunity to see it in its intended fullness on the big screen). It deserves the awards it has coming. The plot is not as straightforward as it initially seems, combining one week of soldiers trying to escape the beach at Dunkirk, one day of civilian ships rescuing those soldiers, and one hour of air battle.

There are movies that glorify heroism in war; there are movies that expose the absurdity of war; and there are movies that break the mold of what war movies can be. Dunkirk is that sort of film. If it weren’t for the intensity of Hans Zimmer’s score and the occasional burst of gunfire, the beauty of this film could lull you into reverie. In this way, it is much more The Thin Red Line than Saving Private Ryan. The music builds and falls back, rises and hums, without taking over or being repetitious. I watched it twice, and was more impressed the second time. In fact, it probably requires a second viewing to see—like a good book—everything that Christopher Nolan has seamlessly fit together.

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Holy Ghost Hypocrisy

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on January 5.]

There are more prominent hucksters in American religion, but perhaps none as honest as Marjoe Gortner. “Charlatan” is a word custom-made for him. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come across the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary Marjoe before I found it on Sundance Now (you can also see the full film on YouTube here). After watching it, I was all the more surprised I hadn’t seen it—until I found this fascinating interview with the director, Sarah Kernochan, who says it was all but lost until 2002, when she came across an original negative of the film. (Another essay by her is here [although her misspelling of “Pentecostal” and her facile connections make me grimace].) Even so, maybe because he was before my time, I’d never even heard of Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner.

Marjoe is the real-life Elmer Gantry, though perhaps more restrained in his pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh. He’s the embodiment of everything skeptics assume to be true about old-time-relijun, revivalistic, faith-healing Pentecostalism. And he is, in the most literal sense, a hypocrite.

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