#haveseenmonday Brilliance but little wisdom in Reservoir Dogs

When I first saw this, I was the perfect age. An 18 year old student, film enthusiast, living away from home for the first time and thus in the right space for something that promised subversion and a bit of rebellion. I can’t remember much of what I felt about the film, other than I really liked it and stumbled out in to the streets of my university town disoriented but energised, even adrenalised. I remember talking about it with my then girlfriend – who if I didn’t know it by this point, would later (plot twist) turn out to be abusive. She said something that’s stayed with me (although to be fair, because of what I’ve just shared with you about her, quite a bit of what she said and did has stayed with me). “It wasn’t really about anything; it was just really good.” Fair? I’m not sure if it was at the time, and deep into Tarantino’s career I’m still not sure. I don’t remember seeing it again since then. Even so, revisiting it now with a new film from him on the horizon and the video stores he so loved now just a distant memory, I find my reactions to it even more confused all these 27 years later.

Reservoir dogs

During the opening exchange around the diner table, I reflected that though this dialogue was establishing character and the undercurrents of tension within the group which would soon erupt, the apparent misogyny was unnecessary. Like I remember someone saying of Eminem, there’s no doubt Tarantino is clever but there’s precious little evidence that he’s wise. His insistence on putting the n-word in the mouth of white characters is more troubling now, understanding what I do. Tarantino’s insistence on acting in all his own films, in relatively minor parts admittedly, is an early sign of his hubris and inability to hear the word ‘no’ from anyone (if, indeed, there’s anyone willing to say it to him); his complete dearth of acting talent, even in small doses, robs scenes he’s in of the total immersion he so craves for his audience and otherwise can create so brilliantly. He’s no Hitchcock; at least not in this regard.

Nevertheless, I was absorbed against my better judgement, wanting to dislike it but sucked in nonetheless. The threat of explosive, graphic violence is everywhere, but rarely seen. Of course the movie’s most infamous scene of torture allows the camera to drift off to the side as the brutal act occurs, rendering it out of sight (or off-stage … ‘obscene’ as the Greek tragedians would have termed such an unseen event). Does Tarantino know more Greek than we think he does? Whichever way you answer that question – and I’m still not sure – I was so gripped and absorbed in to the tension of the scene that the ending to it I deep down knew was coming was all the same a complete shock. I was open-mouthed. It’s quite a trick to pull off, and a masterful piece of (mis)direction, performance and writing.

It strikes me now that it’s brilliantly edited; an irony that’s not lost now that he’s seemingly incapable of discipline and economy. The reveal of the undercover policeman, and the final standoff, is also a masterpiece in how to achieve much by doing very little; the back and forth structure of the story-telling, filling out character backgrounds in repeating circles, adds a gracefulness to the structure at odds with the bleakness and moral chaos of the film’s story.

What to say, then? The film’s influences and the films it has influenced are even clearer, of course, now. There’s no doubt it’s a clever use of genre tropes. But for all its cleverness, is there any wisdom in there? The question still hangs over Tarantino’s output if he’s cleverly exploring the consequences of nihilism and amorality within the confines of technical skill and increasingly baggy stories; or if he’s just a naive kid who doesn’t understand the forces he’s playing with. For me, what’s clever and brilliant about this debut has dimmed little with age; but knowing what we know now about his career, the questions and dis-ease it provoked at first have grown much louder. One suspects that even Tarantino himself doesn’t know how to answer these questions; that we don’t either suggests his wisdom really does fail to measure up to his cleverness.

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#firstimefriday: What Beyoncé, the Boss and Taylor Swift might have to teach church leaders about vulnerability

“He likes you because you’re really … real.” This was said to me about 20 years ago, not long before or after I was ordained to ministry in the Anglican church. I’d been at some party with family, and my brother-in-law fed the comment back to me about a non-Christian friend of his. It might seem like an odd turn of phrase, but it’s meant positively. He had expected a priest to be distant, removed, somehow inaccessible. He seemed to appreciate sharing a beer with a priest at a party, shouting a conversation over the loud (almost certainly Britpop) music, about football, life, death and other things. It’s a phrase and an idea that has kept coming back to me at different points over the last 20 years or so. How ‘real’ am I supposed to be? How vulnerable? How much of myself do I share in sermon and other ministry? How should I dress? Some people seem to think pastors are battery-farmed; should we be organic? Free-range?

Which brings me to this week’s #firsttimefriday (the viral sensation where I write about films I’ve seen for the first time). 3 films this week. Specifically, Netflix’s trio of exclusive concert films released over the last 6 months or so – Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé. Yes, dear reader; I watched all 3 of them in the space of 24 hours. Unashamedly, I had a blast.

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Photo by Erin Biafore on Unsplash

On the face of it, they couldn’t be more different. Springsteen’s is one of his nights of residency at a Broadway theatre; him and an acoustic guitar and occasionally a piano. He gives a long, rambling, funny, moving spoken word autobiographical introduction to a song; which he then plays. It’s stark, intimate, brilliant and compulsively vulnerable; the nature of the show, and the idea of a long residency of Broadway shows, seems to be quite unlike anything such an artist has attempted before. He’s in his late 60’s, and never sounded better. The Taylor Swift film is at the other end of the live music spectrum. A solo female pop star, on the closing night of her tour, in her home territory of Texas. Her music is the sort I would have dismissed; but now I have a 10-year old daughter and I’m forced to pay attention. I don’t think Swift has the greatest voice, but when she gets a song right, she gets it very right. Some of her best songs are borderline perfect pop songs, with a gift for melody and lyric-writing that many artists would sell their souls for. She also shows an admirable ability to challenge herself musically, flitting between genres. The show filmed here is the classic big pop production; about a million costume changes; big screen videos; a band that manages to keep up (although it took me most of the film for me to realise that the keyboard player was not actually in a dark underground lair). It’s not a brilliantly shot or directed film; but you get a sense of what Taylor Swift means to her fans; and as I said, at her best the songs are irresistable. Then we come to Beyoncé’s film, Homecoming; a film of her already legendary show at American music festival Coachella in 2018. It’s frankly staggering. Laced with behind the scenes footage of rehearsals – it took 8 months to rehearse for one show  – this is an adrenalised jet pack of energy, celebration and empowerment that leads to an inevitable sense that this show has changed something in the air. Beyoncé’s voice could be one of the natural wonders of the world; if weaponised, it could cause the planet to spin off its axis or bring about world peace. Or both. She’s backed by a brilliant band of percussionists and brass instrument players in a pyramid-shaped bleachers behind her; she also has a troupe of frankly astonishing dancers. The film is beautifully shot and edited, and manages one head-spinning visual trick which convinces you her costume is magically changing colour (it isn’t – Google it). 

Which of these you enjoy the most is really down to what your musical poison is. But I would suggest giving all three a go, the better to get a sense of how different artists and types of music function live. What links the three is, for me, a sense of what is real – and searching to make that available. On the face of it, Springsteen’s performance is the most ‘real’ because … well, he tells his story, there’s no big production. But from early on, Springsteen is keen to point out that, in his words, he’s fraud; he’s built his career on a magic trick. He’s seen as the great poet of the American working-class male, and yet he’s never worked a day in a factory. So is he really a fraud? I would argue not. In the story-telling, artistic business, truth is rarely literal. Springsteen connects because people see themselves in his songs. Take The Rising, a song and album written and released as a response to the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks. The title track is performed here; written from the point of view of a firefighter killed in the attempt to rescue people inside the Twin Towers. Clearly Springsteen hasn’t experienced this; but is it truthful? Listen to it here, and judge for yourself.  

Taylor Swift’s show is covered in performance and production, so she can’t be truthful, right? Well, not so fast. At one point she says to the crowd that what connects them all is that ‘we all like the feeling of something real’. This is, of course, to an extent part of the performance. But not completely. Listen to Shake It Off or Blank Space; watch a young girl respond to them, and you start to see that along with the melody and pop sensibilities there’s an invitation to something truthful and in some songs, a neat subversion of the expectations layered on women. If she’s a fraud, then so is Springsteen. But they’re both connecting with people who find something real in them both.

So to Beyoncé. In part this concert was significant even before it happened; the first black woman to headline one of America’s biggest festivals. But in conception and performance, from the way cultural tropes and traditions are appropriated in to the show, to the choreography and musical arrangements, to the songs themselves, everything is about celebrating black (female) American culture in the days a white supremacist sits in the White House. At one point I found myself thinking that some of the dancers looked to be far more ‘normal’ and varied body shapes than I am used to seeing on a stage like this; then in one of the interludes we hear Beyoncé say ‘I want every person who has ever been dismissed because of how they look to feel like they’re on that stage.’ For all the dazzling production, that’s real; I found it so refreshing to see people with normal bodies on stage. Why does it all matter? Because here, on one of the biggest stages in the nation, a black woman was taking control and making things bend to her will; not being who people think a black woman should be. Her lyrics and choreography are at times explicitly sexual; she is often criticised for this (usually by white men) and told she can’t therefore be a feminist. Which, as far as I can tell, is to miss the point. For myself, I didn’t find it erotic; the whole show was just a joyous, intoxicating sense of someone being only who she wants be, not defining herself by what others tell her that her sexuality, her politics, her anger, her relationships, her art should be. Take the remarkable Formation (with ‘adult’ lyrics), a highlight of the show for an example.

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All three of these concert films present us with performers who are in different ways a layered in artifice and production; yet each of them are their own kind of ‘real’, connecting with people who see themselves in the show in front of them. Back to being a real pastor; what do people want in pastor? In my experience, it’s someone who’s both real and yet not; strong and weak; vulnerable and strong. I don’t really have an answer; I do know that when I am open with my own vulnerabilities and weaknesses, some people are helped, and some are troubled. In recent weeks I have done some of my preaching from a sitting position due to elevated levels of my chronic pain, and it changes something in the room. No doubt it’s good for some, not so good for others, neutral for still more. Ultimately, our example is one who is profoundly real; who takes on flesh and moves in to the neighbourhood, as one New Testament translation puts it, that God may have a body that sweats and bleeds and smells and everything else normal human bodies do. I’m no Jesus, and neither is any other pastor; and whilst there must be an appropriate awareness of context and self-care of keeping some things for just a few to know, the example of Jesus – and these 3 performers – is to allow myself to be seen for who I am, not project a version of who I’m not or would like to be.

For me that involves little in the way of singing, absolutely no dancing, very few costume changes; but the simple reminder that I am here to help people Jesus, and that it’s promised that happens best through weaknesses rather than strengths and successes. It’s likely to attract far fewer crowds and rather less money; but the ripples will run longer and further and deeper, and are gloriously independent of my skills and abilities.

Everything Happens, but not ‘for a reason’

It’s possible to fill a book (and a few people have done so) with lists of things Jesus did say. Some of them are quoted so often by well-meaning Christians that they attain some kind of untouchable status. The one I’ve heard the most is ‘Everything happens for a reason’. It’s been quoted to me when I’ve been ill or sad or having a tough time; I’ve heard people who are ill or sad or having a tough time say it back to me. It’s helped me get through, they say. The idea seems to be that even if things are awful, God has secret plan for this and we’ll find out in due course.

I don’t believe that, and never have. I believe something rather different that can sound rather similar if it’s not spoken to or listened to carefully. It runs like this: God doesn’t make or cause bad, painful things to happen to us. But so good and creative is he that he’s able to recreate even what seems lost to make something better out of it. I don’t know if it’s right, but it makes sense to me.

Everything Happens

I also don’t know if Kate Bowler, the author of this book, believes that. She’s a Canadian theologian and church historian living and working in America, who has stage four cancer. As someone who has researched and written a lot about the prosperity gospel movement (the idea that God wants Christians to be happy, healthy, and wise and we can be if we just ask the right way), the idea that ‘Everything Happens For A Reason’ is something she was well used to hearing, along with several other sub-Christian truisms that just don’t work when things go wrong. Hence on the logo of the excellent podcast she hosts, the last 3 words of the main part of the title are crossed out. So it simply reads thus: ‘Everything Happens’.

Jesus didn’t promise health, wealth, success or even happiness. He asks us to take up a cross and expect to suffer. I’m writing this in Holy Week, so Jesus’ cross is even more at the forefront of my mind than ever. This books is an account of Kate Bowler’s journey with diagnosis and illness, processing the different responses she hears herself and others giving to the situation. It’s short, easy to read, and painfully, beautifully honest. You might say it’s the story of a woman taking up her own cross, and just how bloody hard that can be to do – and for those who love the one carrying it to watch.

I’ve been in pain for 20 years (Ankylosing Spondylitis), and there’s no prospect of that changing. I have depression, anxiety and PTSD. I have 2 learning disabilities. Having scoured the Bible, listened to countless talks, read a lot, prayed some, listened and been spoken at, cried a lot, considered suicide a few times and much else besides not least working as a priest for 18 years … I too have concluded that everything can and does happen to Jesus-disciple and the rest alike. The rain, cancer, depression, Ankylosing Spondylitis and mental health issues and everything else all fall on the just and the unjust alike. They don’t bother to check what you believe before invading your life; there’s rarely a reason apparent; and it’s often hard to see what beautiful something God may bring out of it. I trust that God will do that, but I may be wrong. I do know, though, that even if I am wrong God is still good, and He’s still with me and not letting me go. So when everything happens to me, as it does to Kate Bowler, and is it does to all of us, I am not alone. I am seen and accompanied and heard and held. I just wish it didn’t hurt so much in the meantime.

This books offers no answers; but it gives us a story we can find ourselves in. Which is why we all need this book, an inoculation against the seemingly appealing lies of finding a reason when there may be none to find.

#haveseenmonday: The Long And Winding Road Less Travelled in Arrival

I didn’t realise Arrival was such a dark film. Seeing it in the cinema on release I had been so overwhelmed by the sound, the cinematography and Amy Adams’s mesmeric performance that this passed me by. I’m not talking about tone, of course; this films ends in a place of hope and invitation. I mean in light levels. Most – or all? – of the exterior scenes of the film take place in shadows, or with the sun evidently just one side of the horizon or the other. Interiors are low lit also; I notice two exceptions – the spotlight shone from a helicopter in to Amy Adams’s face when Forest Whitaker returns to pick her up in the early stages of the story, the second towards the film’s end, when the whole screen is bathed in white smoke as one character goes behind the screen that had separated people from the alien visitors up to that point. It all points to a person – and a human race – living in the half-light of partial understanding; unaware that there’s a light that can be turned on until someone (or something else) does it instead.

In many respects Arrival tells a familiar story of alien first contact with earth, and tells it as a thoughtful drama rather than an action spectacular. Like many science-fiction stories, this is one concerned with how we as a species and as individuals understand ourselves, and how we conceive of ‘the other’ – whether that’s people or beings different to us, or God. It’s certainly the case that even on the small screen this is a film that’s deeply effective in evoking a sense of wonder; it may only be just over 30 minutes in to the film when we first see the aliens, but the lighting, the camera’s repeated reminding us of Amy Adams’s aloneness, the sound design and the remarkable score all evoke a sense of encounter with something that is truly different, alien in every sense of the word.

Arrival

Amy Adams’s performance is towering; she seems to be on screen for at least 95% of the run time; for much of that time we seem to be following her from behind or looking in to her face, a face blessed with the ability to express volumes. This film was always going to stand or fall on her performance; as a result, it stands very tall indeed.

The film initially sets itself up as a struggle between science (in the shape of Jeremy Renner’s character, a theoretical physicist) and language (Amy Adams); but it becomes more than that. Breakthrough in communication with the aliens is only achieved when Adams, followed by Renner, break out of the strict, rigid almost ritualistic structures laid down by science and the military; maybe it’s because I’m a priest and I was watching it in Holy Week, that I saw more than a hint of a reference to the curtain in the temple, separating people from God, through which only one priest could go and which was torn in two by Jesus’ crucifixion.

There’s something in that, however. So often words and laboratories, religion and science, mind and heart are pitted against each other. In Arrival we see the fruit of something else; something the film calls a ‘non-zero sum’ game, a movement beyond linear, binary thinking in to something more fluid, more supple. If moving beyond the boundaries laid down by military and science gives humanity a breakthrough in communicating with the aliens, it’s a departure from conventional ‘zero sum’, straight line thinking that is the key to the whole mystery and crisis that forms the heart of the film.

Like Arthur C Clarke’s classic 1950s novel Childhood’s End (clearly an influence on both this film and its source text), the vision of humanity presented could easily be something so optimistic and naive as to be of no use. Certainly that’s where Childhood’s End left me; but I felt differently on rewatching Arrival. Of course, right and wrong, truth and falsehood and many others are binaries we need – too much blurring of the lines leaves with an epidemic of uncertainty and fake news. This time around, however, I was reminded of how I characterise my own thinking as someone with ADD and two learning disabilities; not neuro-typical, I guess you would say. I say that I don’t think in straight lines; I think in blobs. Then I try to string the blobs together, make connections in order to form coherent thought and output (or not … ). Straight lines can be helpful; but I find it very difficult to follow them.

 

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A valuing of intuitive, relational thinking can also make us a bit more humble, a little less keen to make it all about us. Especially useful when it comes to the ‘other’ – the other person, culture, lifestyle or God. Trying to build bridges with something or someone utterly different to us needs more than a straight line-rationale; it needs a humble willingness to take the long, winding road of presence, listening and submission. When it comes to God, it comes with the awareness that we can’t build the bridge ourselves; we have to accept that all our rationality will only get us so far, and instead accept the invitation to the humble submission of walking across a bridge which we had no hand in building – and which for much of the time, we can’t see the other side of, or even much more than a step or two in front of us.

Arrival, in the form of Amy Adams’s portrayal of a linguistics expert learning a new of way of speaking and thinking, presents us with a humbling invitation to engagement with others and the Other; a vision which requires us to step beyond the straight lines we naturally default to, a commitment to the long and winding road of another’s design. It is in the letting go that we take up, the losing that we find, the dying that we live.

Have Seen Monday is a (hopefully) weekly series in which I reflect on rewatching a film I haven’t seen in a while. 

 

First Time Friday … Fyre: selling paradise at the price of the poor.

First Time Friday is a new, what I hope will be weekly, series where I write about a film I’ve seen for the first time. That won’t, of course, preclude me from watching films on other days …

It feels like there’s not much left to say about the Fyre festival debacle, the people behind, and even the two recent documentary films trying to tell the story. A con job that was enabled and bought down by social media , now the subject of short notice films that gain traction through … you guessed it, social media.

This film – the Netflix production – tells the story through footage shot for the festival organisers from conception through to aftermath. It was, as is explicitly said in the documentary, an attempt not so much to put on a music festival as to sell a dream; an exclusive weekend on an idyllic island with supermodels, stars and social media influencers, staying in luxury accomodation, eating the best food and partying. It fell apart in real time, finally exposed to the world by a viral photo of a cheap cheese sandwich taking the place of the best in catering.

That just about everybody fell under the influence of the charismatic, persuasive Billy McFarland is a matter of public record. Several things become apparent as we watch this film. One is that, to quote Leonard Cohen, the people involved really don’t care for music, do they? As quoted above, they didn’t care about the music festival; they cared about a buzz of exclusivity, exploiting FOMO, making money by selling an ephemeral dream. That one of the staff involved, interviewed for the film, is wearing a Nirvana t-shirt whilst he talks about the vision of an island paradise makes this point eloquently; the icons of grunge, repackaged as a fashion accessory.

fyre picture

Even as it becomes apparent that the whole thing is a disaster, and the people trying to make it happen are telling the story, they are laughing. Of course, this may be a trick of the director’s editing, or it may be the laughter of regret and disbelief; either way, they laugh as they talk about sleeping on soaking mattresses and the disappearance of vast amounts of money. At no point do these people show concern for the real victims – the local islanders, who laboured hard to build and set up for the festival and received no money; the local club owner who tearfully tells us of the extra staff she took on in anticipation and had to pay from her life savings when promised money never materialised. The locals – many of whom are poor – will never be paid back. Billy McFarland has been convicted, and others too; but what use is that when you’ve worked for weeks without pay, or shelled money out of our lifetime savings? The rich mostly escape, relatively free; the poor bear the brunt (and this divide is also expressed largely but not exclusively on skin colour lines also). It was ever thus, and it’s a failing of the film that it never really gives full voice or the last word to those who suffered most. We get to peak behind the curtain of deception, but the human cost is never really examined.

The problem is that this was a disembodied project from the word go. Relying on the myth of the perfect sun-kissed island and celebrity lifestyle, the myth was sold, and turned out to be nothing but smoke and mirrors. We can blame it all on social media hype; and yes, that was the vehicle used for this con. But it’s really a story as old as time; it’s always just out of reach, around the next corner, as intangible as it is expensive. No one looks behind the curtain until it’s too late; those that do visit the site in advance or raise a warning word are ignored or sacked. It’s an attempt to parachute a paradise into the backyard of some real people; and leave them to pick up the pieces afterwards. And when they do pick up the pieces, they find they have even less than they started with; no one to pay them back, no one to sit and weep with them, no one to help them rebuild.

As a Christian, I can criticise this – and I do. But that’s a dangerous road; how many megachurch or rich foreign, usually white-skinned missionaries have parachuted in to poorer places promising revival and renewal, not sticking around after to remake what they have broken – or to use the language of the moment, ‘disrupted’? It seems it’s in our nature, all of us, to keep our poor and our mistakes as equally out of our site as each other. Embodiment, incarnation, long-term rooting in the one place; such is the way to which we are called.

Hope or despair: which do we choose?

This is the first in a what I hope will be a regular series where I rewatch a movie I’ve seen before and liked, and write about it from a personal perspecitve. I would give the series a cool name, but I haven’t come up with one yet … 

Jaws – a film that is often credited with launching what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon – is justly famous for many things. It’s a masterpiece of slowly building fear, in part because the shark itself is unseen by the viewer for a long, long time. David Fincher’s 1994 serial killer thriller Se7en (Seven) takes inspiration from Spielberg’s game-changer in that respect; we don’t see the face of the killer until 30 minutes before the film’s end, at a moment of revelation of his own choosing. Neither do we see the murders take place; in the film’s memorable rain-sodden foot chase we only see his back; his face remains out of focus even when he’s pointing a gun in Brad Pitt’s face, deciding his fate. David Fincher knows what most good horror films and thrillers have made apparent over the years: the unseen is more threatening and frightening than the known.

Rewatching this film for the first time in years in 2019, I’m struck especially by how normal the abnormal events it portrays are made to seem. A serial killer who bases his work on the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition is nothing especially original; religious references are a familiar serial killer trope. Fincher places this killing spree in the hands of an apparently ordinary figure – one who goes by the name of John Doe (the name given by American police to an unidentified deceased male). As John Doe himself says, as the film’s unforgettable ending hoves into view: “I’m not special; I’ve never been exceptional … it’s more comfortable for you to label me insane”.

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It’s dangerous to quote the words of a killer as if they contain some kind of truthfulness, but this is the heart of the film: that evil is ubiquitous; it’s in all of us. In each of the serial killer’s victims, in the police chasing him, in the killer himself. In an age where the mass shootings that still stalk America are so routinely passed off as committed by someone with ‘mental health problems’, personal responsibility is avoided. The truth is we’re all to blame; Se7en holds a mirror up to us, and it’s not a pleasant sight. To summarise what John Doe says near the conclusion, we tolerate sin in ourselves and others because it’s normal. It’s this, it seems, that as the credits roll and those involved are left to live with the terrible consequences of their actions, that drives Morgan Freeman to utter the film’s final words in voice over: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It’s a brutal way to leave the story, and one which the makers of the film fought the studio to keep in, and no less powerful for it; though now, having seen many more films than I had on seeing Se7en in the cinema, it seemed a tad too much of tell as opposed to show.

This seems bleak – and it is, if we conclude that the fight of which Hemingway is speaking is fruitless. For those who believe following Jesus is worthwhile and eternally meaningful, it’s a profoundly hopeful place to be; the world may not be as fine a place, as was intended; but there is a better way; and that better way will, eventually, be seen by all.

It is a battle, though, and in the meantime many suffer. As long as any of us – like John Doe in this film – take matters in to our hands, take the judging as something for us to execute, then there will be casualties. Not least ourselves, but also those unfortunate enough to be in our orbit.

All of which leads us to the Kevin Spacey question. With the revelations about his alleged sexual harassments and assaults, the question remains: should we watch his films? I have no easy answer here. I have been bullied to the point of suicide by someone who used to speak on big conference stages; I know how painful it was to see that person lauded by thousands when I knew different; I have forgiven the person, but still my stomach lurches with nausea and I’m wracked with anxiety if I see his name alluded to in a social media feed. I was sexually and physically abused as an adult by an adult; if I were to see her in a public role, it would be very hard to take. So I argue that Spacey’s victims must be given much consideration here; I would want the same for myself. With that in mind, I rewatched Se7en for the first time since these allegations came out. As I reflected on the film’s themes of the ubiquity of evil I found myself asking uncomfortable questions. If Spacey’s past work is not to be considered any more; if my bully’s speaking is no longer to be listened to; if my abuser is never to have a relationship … then what of me? I have not done any of these things – but if I believe sin and evil are ubiquitous (and I do), then that means I’m as guilty of sin as anyone else. I hope I own my sins and seek forgiveness, in large part through the regular discipline of confession; but I also know I am prone to err. Let he who is without sin …

I do not have an answer, at least not yet. Certainly it seems to me that Spacey, and those like him, should not be widely spoken of or employed in the public eye – at the very least until fault has been admitted, responsibility taken and justice served. Fittingly for this film, for now I remain with this tension unresolved.

What remains true is that it’s still a beautifully constructed, chilling and gripping thriller that haunts and shocks even after all these years; even when I know the point to which the story is heading. More culturally significant films still lay ahead of Fincher, not least Fight Club; many would cite Zodiac (2006) as his best film; The Social Network (2010) tells at least part of the story of one of the era’s dominant themes. Of course, we don’t know what more is to come from him. Se7en sets the template for his best work: morally complex, darkly thrilling, and directed with a flair that fits the story and the theme. If not quite as dynamic as I remember, it’s still a film to be reckoned with, that ultimately asks us to choose between despair and hope.

Finding The Prophet We Need

Finding The Prophet We Need

Early in Quentin Tarantino’s career it was hard to tell what type of film-maker he’d turn out to be. His early films were so soaked in pop culture references, sly allusions and dialogue about comic book characters and the like, that the task of decoding what, if anything his films were about was a largely fruitless one. It could be argued that we still don’t know; we do know that he needs a more ruthless editor, but there seems to be little (if any) thematic consistency. Two films in to Jordan Peele’s career, we know rather more. His films so far seem equally replete with pop cultural references; there’s little sign of the ill discipline that has come to define Tarantino (though in Quentin’s defence, Pulp Fiction was just the right side of baggy. Just.); and whilst we can see the fingerprints of Tarantino in, for instance, Peele’s use of music, we can also see the larger themes he’s reaching for. It helps that Peele is sticking to the horror genre; but taking Peele’s calling card of Get Out and his second film Us together, it’s apparent that he may well be one of the key film-makers of the era. He may also, it seems, be the prophet our times need.

Whereas Get Out was clearly and obviously about race, Us could be about any number of things. Peele has been articulate about how this is in itself a breakthrough – a major film by a black film-maker with black leads that isn’t about race shows, he says, a development in the conversation. The way Us appears to light up like a forcefield whichever of a number of themes you bring near it could be a weakness, and lead to a game of decoding that causes viewers to lose the power of the film’s concerns; for me, that would be a mistake from the viewer rather than Peele, but I can see why it may be a problem.

Us movie

Let’s be clear; Us is scary, funny, technically brilliant, stuffed with standout performances, and profound. Is it better than Get Out? Who knows. That seems a daft game to play. Like Get Out, you can decode any number of cultural and genre reference points; I’ll throw one in to the ring I haven’t seen mentioned (yet) – HG Wells’s ‘The Time Machine‘, the science-fiction book that more or less created the time travel sub-genre. The influence here isn’t in time travel; but rather, to me, in something hinted at in the film’s opening shot that becomes a central part of the film’s plot. I’ll say no more on that for fear of spoilers.

It’s an adrenaline ride, for sure. A home invasion movie, a doppelgänger movie, a family in crisis drama, a slyly satirical/comic take on and deconstruction of the American dream, consumerism, capitalism, celebrity charity drives (prefiguring the Insta-charity brigade); it touches too on animal testing. Like many horror movies it looks at the consequences of early trauma on later life, throwing in a dose of imposter syndrome for good measure.

For me it says most about privilege. During apartheid in South Africa, the governing party banned any art that would be deemed to subvert their rule. Sometimes they missed the point. Bright Blue’s song ‘Weeping’ snuck through, because it appeared to be a song about a man with noisy neighbours. It was, of course, a parable; a parable about the way white South Africa kept the rest of the country at bay. In the words of the song, in the quest for peace and order, the threat of the angry underclass was stifled. The mistake made was that what they thought was anger, wasn’t; it was weeping. But if the weeping remained unheard for too long, it may well turn to anger.

That’s the thematic territory that Us seems to me to tread. As the moneyed classes bury themselves in consumption and comfort, an underclass is increasingly alienated, and increasingly desperate. The underclass might be seen as angry; in fact they are weeping. But when the weeping is unheard, and instead patronised and then forced to continue to pay the price of the privileged’s comfortable life, we watch it eventually turn to blood-soaked, murderous anger.

It should go without saying that, controversies about accents notwithstanding, Lupita Nyong’o’s central performance is remarkable; each cast member who’s asked to play two versions of the same character is similarly terrific. Elisabeth Moss is superb in her supporting role, which does not give her enough to do (but in fairness, no film gives an actress of her remarkable talents enough to do). There are jump scares to rival most, but it’s the chilling, creeping dread and the final, head-scrambling twist that lives in your (sub) conscious for days after. It has what may be the bleakest final shot since Frank Darabont’s The Mist, made bearable by the film’s well-judged wit and laugh out loud tension-breaking.

As with Get Out, Peele is tackling one of our era’s most urgent issues, calling us to listen and act before it’s too late. Whilst churches squabble, politicians drown in self-interest and celebrity culture demands its tribute, Jordan Peele may well be the prophet our times urgently need. Maybe many won’t give credence to that, soaked as his horror stories are in blood and fear; but therein lies the challenge. Prophets rarely invite us to comfort.

Have we ears to hear?

 

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