The Reader: Shame…

I’ve said elsewhere that it’s hard to treat Holocaust films purely as films. The subject matter looms such a long shadow over everything that it feels impossible to take view them simply as films. That’s the very fact that a film like The Reader plays on – some might say cynically – that we’ll see past the weaknesses and be swept up in the story and its supposed significance.

The film presents itself as a traditional rites-of-passage fable as a teenager is given sexual initiation by an attractive, more experienced woman (played by Kate Winslet) in 1950s Germany. A third of the way in, the film twists into all together darker territory. The woman who seemed so distant and unknowable in the first section is found to have been complicit in Holocaust atrocities, and is now facing justice. We follow the young man’s struggle with his conscience as he seeks to decide what to do with evidence that may swing the trial more favourably for her. Years later, all parties are dealing with guilt, and the secrets they have long held dear. All the pieces are in place for a gripping and moving work.

It isn’t, though. Why? The problem lies in the film’s greatest strength – Kate Winslet’s brave and brilliant performance. She spends most of the first part of the film either naked or in her bus conductor’s uniform – all she has is the roles she plays, as a way of protecting her from exposing the depths of who she is. It’s a great performance, and utterly worthy of acclamation and award. She is, though, deliberately unknowable. Which means we never really know why she goes to bed with the teenager at all – in the end, it just feel like a contrived adolescent male fantasy played through the lens of Holocaust (and other) guilt and shame. The teenager’s in over his head – and only realises just how out of his depth he is later in life. It takes most of his life to come to terms with it – but the journey’s so spread out that it never feels like travelling with him, just teleporting from one staging post to the next.

It should be a great film, but it isn’t. Kate Winslet deserves a better film than this for such a brave and humane performance, but she doesn’t get it. There’s another great Holocaust film somewhere in here, but it’s not the film we’re given.

Shame, a real shame.

Slumdog Millionaire – Fear Not.

Occasionally a film comes along that I’m actually nervous about seeing. It’s because I don’t want to be let down. Director Danny Boyle’s films are like this. I really enjoyed his debut – the blackly comic thriller/morality play on the subject of greed (Shallow Grave – 1995). But it was his second film that, like for so many of my age and stage, changed everything. Seeing Trainspotting for the first time is one of those experiences I can never forget – not sure whether I liked it or hated it, but sure that what I expected from the cinema had been changed for ever. The style backed up by substance, the visual tricks, the music, the script, the subject matter, the performances…all blending into a whole that defied you not to be blown away by the very force of its presence. I was stunned – and going back a second and a third time, I decided that I loved it and that anyone who thought it was peddling some sort of message portraying drug-addiction as somehow a good thing was clearly brainless. It’s now one of my all-time favourites – with each re-viewing I see new depth and new power.

Since that time, I’ve awaited Danny Boyle’s films with trepidation; I want that feeling again, but I don’t want to be disappointed. Some have got close: 28 Days Later – but for me that’s just too bleak to really love; Sunshine – promised a lot, but never quite added up to enough. Some really disappointed – The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary (though not without merit). Some I have inexplicably not been able to see – Millions, though I understand it’s good.

So I approach his latest, Slumdog Millionaire, with real fear. So great has been the advance buzz that, surely, I can’t be anything other than disappointed? At the same time… just sounds great. What to do? It’s been a long time since excitement and nerves have combined this way for me.

Frankly, it’s stunning. I’m going to be in danger of gushing here, but it’s magnificent. Funny, touching, thrilling, exciting, romantic, shocking, alarming….it has, literally, everything, without overwhelming you. I find it hard to imagine a person who won’t enjoy this.

It should be cheesy – the story of a boy from the Indian slums who gets on to that country’s version of TV’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire as a way of getting the attention of his now lost childhood sweetheart. It should be woefully implausible as the story takes us through his interrogation regarding the charge of cheating to show how each question he answers through a life experience told in flashback.

It should fail – but it works, perfectly. Why? Simply, it’s a contemporary urban fairy tale, told with such style and respect for an audience which wants to be entertained, that in the end you can’t help but be swept along. Yes, it’s a very tough watch at times – the violence and depravation of slum-life are not skimped on. This is a fairy tale that smells unmistakably of the street. It leads, though, where you want it to lead. In that fact, though, is the film’s real miracle  – whilst centering on a TV show with a huge prize as part of a rags-to-riches tale, it actually subverts the consumerist dream that drives the show and so many stories like this one. Money brings nothing but suffering to those who seek it – to Jamal, the young man at the heart of it all, it’s clear that he’s never in it for the money. All he wants is his soul-mate.

Really, it’s magnificent – right down to the seeds sown in the lives of the local children used to act in the film. The director has provided them all with transport to school until the age of 16, and trust funds to be released to them at age if they stay in school.

In every way, I love this film – both gloriously of it’s time in its setting, style and subject matter and yet challenging and subverting the age’s obsession with money and consumption.

I need not have feared.

Che Parts One & Two

A four hour subtitled political biography may not seem like the wisest way to spend New Year’s Day. The potential for stamina giving way early on is obvious in the aftermath of festive excess. That, though, is how we spent the first evening of 2009.

It’s a joy, then, to report that director Steven Soderbergh’s (apparently) box-office unfriendly attempt to tell the story of one the 20th century’s most iconic political figures is a towering success. It’s very different to The Motorcycle Diaries, the 2004 film that took us into the formative years of the Che’s life; there is little of that film’s relational warmth, little attempt to explain or understand. Instead the film is really dealing with a very contemporary concern – celebrity. Just how do people get famous and influential? Guevera’s real significance has been lost to many behind the t-shirts and posters; these films try to help us why he became such a figure in the first place. Hence, there’s little in the way of his relationships – little of him doing anything other than speaking to, training or fighting alongside, men. Such is the strength of Benicio Del Toro’s screen presence that this doesn’t make him feel unknowable – it becomes very clear that this is a man born to lead. It’s as simple as that. It’s a study in leadership – the ability to connect with, inspire and call people to a goal bigger than themselves, the cost of which may be the very highest possible.

The almost academic, documentary tone serves to make this all the more involving – rather than turning the viewer off, the subtle design and direction involves, grips and stimulates whatever you political viewpoint. Resisting the temptation towards hagiography makes subjects like this all the more accessible.

Of course, there are gaps as subjects are left uncovered or only briefly referred to – the break with Fidel Castro being the most glaring. But all that does is to reinforce the film’s study of leadership – with only the viewer’s own preconceptions and knowledge to add, the film seeks to place the viewer in the mind of one Guevera’s followers. He may be flawed, events may be ultimately beyond his control, and ultimately his will would be broken on the wheel of greater powers – but he’s followed because he’s willing to lead. Which can only make one sad as we survey the leaders around us.

Australia – relax & enjoy

It’s a truth often overlooked, but no less true for all that, to say that it takes just as much skill to make good out-and-out entertainment as it does a small, independent masterpiece overlooked by audiences and awards-givers.

Baz Luhrmann has thus far made a career out of proving those who they think know better wrong. He did with his first film – Strictly Ballroom – which many who thought themselves wise told the director would never succeed. The film was too quirky & ballroom dancing would never make for a hit. A glance at prime-time Saturday night television schedules shows just how wrong they were. 1996’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet showed that he knew as well as anyone how to make the greatest English writer relevant to the global-village/MTV generation. He completed the set with the almost absurdly ambitious Moulin Rouge single-handedly rebooted the musical as a viable cinematic form; two years later Chicago won a hatful of Oscars.

So we come to Australia. It’s the film that adjectives like sweeping, epic and grand were invented for. It’s a western/love-story in the grand style of Gone With The Wind, with colourful and photography, simultaneously celebrating and making gentle fun of typical Australian stereotypes. It has A-list talent in Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman; it tries hard to tick the right ethical boxes with a story-line that touches on the ‘Stolen Generation’.

There’s a lot that could be criticised or analysed – and it may be right to do so. But really, this is a film that just wants to have fun. And it does so admirably; it’s to be enjoyed and celebrated, the work of a man who, with the full backing of the Australian tourist industry, has made a film that just wants to entertain. It’s as skillful and accomplished as many more ‘serious’ works, and could only be made by someone supremely confident of his own ability, but who doesn’t feel a need to prove it to anyone.

Amen to that.

Farenheit 9/11 – Calm Down!

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Michael Moore is not renowned for his subtlety; you don’t sit down to one of his films or books expecting nuanced argument and debate. That is, of course, both his genius and (in the eyes of some) his downfall. What you get is a barrage of facts crammed thorough the lens of sarcasm and barely disguised vitriol. He’s over the top, funny and rich. When the subject matter is the Bush administration’s response to 9\11 and the subsequent Iraq war, you expect the emotion to be ramped up a gear or two. It is. Inevitably, there are times he shoots himself in the foot (or other, potentially more fatal places). It’s best to get those out of the way first.

There a few small issues, but three big ones really loom over this film. First, there’s his approach to the armed forces. At one stage there’s a series of interviews with US soldiers serving in Iraq, talking about the adrenalin rush of battle and the heavy metal music they listen to that soundtracks the killing for them. Moore allows us to see them as testosterone fuelled morons, with no moral grid. Later, we come to the mother of soldier who lost his life in Iraq. She is a rare individual; consumed by rage and grief, but compassionate and articulate too. Unlike Moore. He listens to her story, follows her tearful journey to the White House in an attempt to gain some closure. But as we watch, the earlier portrait of her son’s colleagues is inescapable in the memory. Would she have agreed to the interviews if she had seen these sections of the film? It’s unlikely, and it’s hypocrisy and manipulation on an alarming level.

Second, more briefly, there’s the coalition of the willing. This is dismissed as a series of minor states with no armed forces of their own. Their cultures are satirised and patronised. Apparently, the US army did all the fighting themselves. Wrong. My countrymen and women died too. So did others. That these are ignored is downright offensive. An acknowledgement would have been valuable.

Third is the bizarre implication that before the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, Saddam’s country was a peaceful, happy place where children played innocently on the street. Need we say any more about that?

It’s difficult to lay those concerns to one side, but as you do, you reflect on some brilliant moments; the portrayal of 9\11 is a masterpiece of heartbreaking simplicity; a black screen, the sounds, and a series of shots of the faces of onlookers. Truly it’s the shadow that hangs inescapably over the film and a generation. Also remarkable is the fact that a complex train of argument over the Bush family’s links to Saudi oil money is traced in an entertaining fashion. At times, you almost sense the gift of a great teacher.

But then you remember what makes a democracy – the right of reply, or at least to have a case stated. There’s nothing of that here; no-one gets a word in; images and words are manipulated as skilfully by Moore as by any politician. The findings of the independent 9\11 commission are barely mentioned, particularly where they contradict Moore (such as on the issue of Saudi flights out of the USA after 9\11). Of course the commission may be wrong, but why’s Moore so scared of even acknowledging the possibility?

Rage of the type Moore vents brooks no reason, which is ironic when you consider that lack of reason is what he hates so much in this administration. There is sin to be confronted here, for sure. But compare Moore’s approach with the Biblical prophet Nathan. Calmly and clearly, he goes to the top. And as with all prophets judgement is bought in the context of the possibility of grace, mercy and restoration. It’s been to shown to us, but it never even crosses Moore’s mind. He’s too busy getting angry.

The Exorcist & The Fear Of The Lord

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When I was a student, there was a way of speaking as a Christian that nearly all of us took on board. If something was good – helpful to faith, orthodox, able to tick the doctrinal boxes – then it was referred to as ‘sound’. If it wasn’t helpful, if it seemed to be unorthodox or unhelpful or troubling in some way, then it was labelled ‘dodgy’. What started as a simple piece of conversational shorthand soon developed into a whole-sale dismissal of a way of living, a life’s work or, worst of all, a life itself. A person made in the image of God was simply either dodgy or sound.

Much of that language remains in circulation; it could be convincingly argued that much of the public Christian debate we see today works in these same terms. Sound is good, dodgy is bad. The Exorcist is a film that has long been subjected to this debate, and the verdict is clear. Even Billy Graham spoke of the film’s “genuine power of evil”. Obviously, given the title and subject matter, it must be dodgy.

Over the years, however, I had discovered a number of people I respect telling me the film could not be so easily dismissed. A couple of times I nearly rented the film and then decided against it – I doubted the store would provide a brown paper bag for the discreet carrying of such a film. The advent of online DVD rental was a relief here, though. The postal service carried all the guilt on my behalf, and all the films arrive in a brown padded envelope so nobody would know the difference. However, when I slid the disc into the player it was midmorning on my day off, and I pulled the curtain across my living room window. I told myself this was to stop sunlight reflecting on the screen, though I suspect that is not the whole truth.

So to the film. I’m not going to rehearse the plot in detail here; the essentials are a doubting Catholic priest, another priest who has struggled with demons in the past, and a young girl who appears to be either mad or possessed. Or possibly both. Their stories start off separately, and only come together as the film moves into its second half. If you want a detailed summary, there’s a stimulating and readable chapter on the film in Gareth Higgins’ book “How Movies Helped Save My Soul”.

The DVD starts with a brief introduction from director William Friedkin who points out that the film gives you whatever you take to it – if you believe the world is hopeless, then this is a film about the power of evil. If, he says, you believe that evil can be defeated, then this is a profoundly hopeful film. I was surprised to discover he is right.

It would be remiss not to point out that at times this is immensely disturbing and shocking – the possessed girl (around 13 years old) says and does things that stay with you; as you watch, you think no one should have to do these things, even if they are ‘only’ acting. I suspect that if I had children of my own I could not have finished watching the film. While I still hold to that, and to the fact that it would be plainly daft of you to watch the film if you are squeamish or prone to being frightened, I still stuck with the film. And I was glad I did so. In the end, I felt full of hope, and my faith affirmed in a way few films have ever done for me before. It’s not power religion that saves the girl – all though that helps and is compassionately as well as honestly portrayed. What does save her is an act of remarkable self-giving love, which couldn’t but remind me of Christ’s own sacrifice on the cross. The doubting priest finds his peace in a way no right-minded person could commend – he tells the girl’s demons to come into him, and like the Gadarene pigs, he destroys the evil by letting them throw him out the window to his death. It may not be right-minded, but isn’t that the point of the cross too?

There’s so much to commend here. There’s the honest portrayal of the supernatural, achieving a documentary realism lacking in the slightly bizarre depictions of evil in The Passion of The Christ. There’s a willingness to let events and characters speak for themselves – this was based on a book inspired by real events (where fact stops and fiction starts in the source material, I don’t know). If the film feels occasionally clichéd, then it’s only because this is the film that popularised many of the clichés in the first place. There are also many layers of possible meaning, as the director’s introduction points out. Consider, for example, the interpretation (doubtless voiced many times before by film studies types) that this is a film about the fear of female sexuality. A young teenage girl is kept in an out of the way room upstairs as her body undergoes all sorts of frightening experiences  and changes, leading her to do or say things of which she has no control. In this respect the film recalls Victorian gothic fiction and its scarcely repressed sexual passions, portrayed as madness rather than a natural human experience.

The film remains disturbing and shocking. If we do watch it (and we must not feel obligated to do so), it should be approached carefully and with wise guidance. But there is an honesty here that we often lack. When we read of God appearing to His people, He often starts by telling them to “fear not”. This is a film that goes to the heart of fear and asks us to question who and what we fear, and why we do so. It asks us to choose to be either a slave to fear and doubt or to acknowledge that these are a reality but to serve sacrificially anyway. We all hold this treasure in jars cracked by fear and weakness. The choice a film like this leaves us with is whether to serve our fear and failure or depend on the mercy and grace that makes itself known through our own weakness and inability. We may all feel that we are slaves to fear but like the film’s doubting priest, we all still have that choice to make.

Schindler’s List & The Good News of Blockbusters

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Blockbusters are bad news. That’s the received critical wisdom. Star Wars, while undoubtedly an iconic movie, is credited with inventing the modern summer event movie that dominates the high concept world of the packed summer (and other holiday) schedules that we now live with. Blockbusters are effects dominated, money driven and are at best the cinematic equivalent of a roller-coaster; exhilarating while you’re on it, but pointless as soon as you’ve finished.

However there’s another side to it. Consider this: Jurassic Park – perhaps the definition of a 90s blockbuster – enabled the production of one of the 90s’ masterpieces, Schindler’s List. This was, as now well recorded, the project Spielberg waited years to make after acquiring the rights to Thomas Keneally’s book. When he finally felt ready to do so, he took his proposal for a three hour black and white documentary style film to MCA president Sid Sheinberg who agreed with one condition – that Spielberg make Jurassic Park too. He obliged, and the fact that he worked on the special effects for the latter while shooting the former in Poland is the bizarre truth. That one financially guaranteed the other is clear; that it maintained the director’s emotional sanity is possibly a reasonable assumption.

It’s said by many that Schindler’s List is beyond criticism because of its subject matter. However, as I approached the recent DVD re-issue, ‘appropriate’ criticism lurked in my memory. Don’t I remember being told that the film makes Schindler too simplistic and one-dimensional? Isn’t the girl in the red coat a touch too far? Isn’t it just a little, well, sentimental?

These questions remained unanswered on viewing the film itself. I was angry and tearful at times, yes. But it wasn’t the devastating experience I remember as a student. It’s good, of course, but I left thinking time had played a trick on me and that the few critical voices that had remained in my head had something to say.

Then we come to the main extra on this DVD. It’s a compilation of accounts from survivors. As you listen, you realise you’re hearing the film in the first person. There’s the boy who escapes the ghetto liquidation by telling the SS he’s been ordered to clear the road of debris. There’s Goethe’s servant girl, saying she knew how many people he would kill that day by the hat he chose. Here are the women who huddled into a large room, waiting to see if they’d be gassed or showered. You realise as you listen, that Spielberg simply put memory on film as faithfully as appropriate.

What you realise next is that the masterstroke is indeed the black and white documentary style of the film. One survivor describes the concentration camp as having “no colour”. This, then, was more than an artistic choice. He simply recorded what he heard. Some of it –  you hear words in this documentary from survivors that make it clear that Spielberg left out some things that should never be put on film. Some things, he realised, we don’t need to see. We should only hear some things first person, because, to be honest, we just wouldn’t believe it. What he gave us is enough.

So the DVD package, while light in the number of extras, gives us enough to remind us that what we’re seeing is indeed more than a film; in a sense, it should be beyond criticism. On reflection, the choices that Spielberg made seem appropriate, helping us to absorb all that we need to. Who in their right mind can talk about this the same way we do about American Beauty or Casablanca, however great they are?  – one of the survivors talks of the importance of individual names going on the list, being called out and singled out. The film shows us lives, with names and histories and (in the haunting colour epilogue) futures. Without Jurassic Park’s money, millions of people may never have heard them.

One last thing came to me after pressing stop on this DVD. My father’s mother was a Jew who converted to Christianity. She and her young family escaped invading German forces by the skin of their teeth. As a child, when my father told me this, I often had a dream. I heard boots racing upstairs. Silence. Then shooting. I survived because I was secured to the bottom of a mattress, out of sight. There’s a boy like that in this film. I don’t recall right now if he survived, and I can’t bring myself to check.

These are lives. With names and histories. And thanks to one man, with futures.