One Kind of Invitation

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on May 18.]

[SPOILERS]

There is only one story, told truthfully or distorted. Once reality has been shaded in a particular direction, there is no escaping it. One can deny it or affirm it, but one can’t pretend that it never happened. So whether one denies the Christian story or believes it, it is impossible to escape.

I don’t know if The Invitation (available on Netflix) was conceived to be a denial of or an attack on the generally religious or specifically Christian idea of an after-life, that there is “a better place after this one,” but there is much more beneath the surface of this “horror” film than is usual.

And for Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi), there is much more than just an invitation to a party at this house. They know it’s the house of Will’s ex-wife, Eden (Tammy Blanchard), but it’s been two years since they’ve last seen each other. Why this party, and why now?

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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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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.