Moral Conundrums

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 11.]

What a tangled web we weave when we really, really want something. It’s a web that is woven inside a small Italian cafe called The Place, which is also the name of an engrossing film.

There were at least two Newport Beach Film Festival movies that revolved around moral or ethical conundrums, the ways we get ourselves into them, and the ways we try to get out. The Korean film A Day forces its three central characters to try to make right their past sins by re-living the same day over and over—a much more intense Groundhog Day.

But The Place (a film adaptation of a 2011-12 American television show, which I cannot find online anywhere) is a fascinating examination of free will, compulsion, desire, and what we’re willing to do to get what we want. There is a man who sits always at the same table in the same cafe. If you want something to happen (a happy marriage, a healthy child, to be more beautiful, or to feel close to God again), you visit this man. To nearly everything, he says, “It’s doable.” Then he looks in his notebook, and tells you to do something. If you do it, you get what you want.

The man neither tries to convince you to do the thing or not to do it. He simply tells you what the price of your desire is. And the price is often deeply immoral or criminal. You want your husband’s dementia to be reversed? Plant a bomb and detonate it where a large number of people will die. You want a happy marriage? Break up someone else’s. You want beauty? Steal this amount of money.

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Family Longings

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 4.]

I’m on my way back from the Newport Beach Film Festival. Of the films I saw, one of the recurring themes was youth and growing up in this cultural moment. Two documentaries in particular addressed this theme from different angles. The first was Minding the Gap, about three friends whose youth is documented by a fourth friend. Bing Liu is clearly a talented filmmaker from very early on, as he films his friends skateboarding around Rockford, Illinois.

With none of their families intact, their friends become a sort of stand-in family. But it’s clear from their experiences that friendship doesn’t provide them all the resources they need to navigate adulthood. They have been set adrift by missing, negligent, or abusive parents. There is no necessary repeating cycle of behavior, but escaping the patterns set by parents is easier said than done.

The effects and signs of family disintegration depicted brilliantly in Minding the Gap are everywhere, from the proliferation of parenting and marriage books to the reinvention of nearly every aspect of adulthood. Some of that is simply due to the results of our fluid world in terms of technology, communication, and information. But for many of the answers and solutions and skills which would have been handed down to us by our immediate and extended families even two generations ago we now require YouTube videos, books, blogs, and podcasts.

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In Short

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

By the time you read this, I will be at the 19th annual Newport Beach Film Festival. Since I started attending with my brother, Jay, six or seven years ago, one of the things that I’ve come to appreciate is the short film program. This will be my second year as a short film programmer, but even before last year, I found that short films were among the more interesting and provocative films I saw. In fact, short films often make a film festival worthwhile, because you’re unlikely to see many of them anywhere else.

Sometimes shorts are made to secure funding for a feature film. Sometimes they’re made as a side-project to get a filmmaker’s name out there. Sometimes they’re made as a labor of love, simply because there’s a idea there. But short films don’t usually make any money. Except at film festivals, short films are rarely seen in theaters. You can find them more often now on streaming services, but they still are not nearly as prevalent as features.

You have to tell the story in a different way from a feature if you make a short film, similar to the difference between a novel and a short story. You don’t have the luxury of letting a narrative develop over 90 minutes. Very often, if the opening scene of a short doesn’t set the tone immediately, it’s not going to be successful.

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Idaho Horror Story

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

There are some things that are too horrific to face straight on. You have to shield your eyes, take a side glance, observe from an oblique angle. One of the feature-length documentaries screening at this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival is Forever ‘B’ (now called Abducted in Plain Sight), and its story is almost beyond belief.

It is a story that, in some ways, resembles the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping in 2002. Both Jan Broberg (the subject of Forever ‘B’) and Elizabeth Smart were raised in Mormon households and both were kidnapped by older men who believed they should marry these young girls. Both kidnappers were adept at religious or superstitious manipulation—though Elizabeth, unlike Jan, was never convinced of the rightness of her kidnapper. Elizabeth’s kidnapper was sentenced to two life terms while Jan’s kidnapper largely escaped serious consequences (in this life).

Elizabeth Smart’s story is strange and horrible enough, but Jan Broberg’s story is even stranger. In its spiraling, strangeness-upon-strangeness unbelievability, it reminds me of another NBFF alum, Who Took Johnny?, which, if you have a strong stomach, you can find on Netflix.

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A Quiet Place

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on April 14.]

[SPOILERS]

First of all, if you haven’t gotten Movie Pass yet, what are you waiting for? If you sign up on the website, it’s only $6.95 a month, and if you see even one movie a month, it pays for itself. (Just make sure that it covers theaters in your area. It didn’t cover Wenatchee for a long time.)

My first Movie Pass movie was A Quiet Place, which has been generating a lot of buzz recently. It’s a film that confirms my view that horror movies can do things that other, straighforwardly narrative movies can’t do. In some ways it’s like a new song that you feel like you’ve heard a hundred times—or, if you haven’t heard it before, you wonder how no one ever produced this exact melody before. Post-apocalyptic movies have been done a thousand times. Monster movies have been done a thousand times. The fear of the unknown has fueled a thousand plots. And yet, A Quiet Place doesn’t feel like a cliché. It feels familiar, but it also feels new.

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