#haveseenmonday: Who Is My Neighbour? Attack The Block Asks Some Questions That Won’t Go Away

Over the last few years I’ve learned about ‘the other’; the person or people we keep at a distance, see as a generic group where the individuals who make up the group all share the same characteristics. These are traits that I don’t like, and they’re almost all people with whom we disagree in some ways. We can ‘other’ (it can be a verb also – like ‘medal’ can be a verb at the Olympics – which is a linguistic development about which I hold reservations) anybody. Take your pick: liberals, conservatives, Leave voters, Remain voters, non-voters, Trump supporters, the EFF, the ANC, whites, blacks, coloureds, gays, women, trans, bi. And so on; all of these and more I see being ‘othered’ in some way. Sometimes by me. It’s a way, I’m understanding, of keeping the challenge the person or group being othered presents to me at a distance; a way of not listening. A way of preserving my comfy echo-chamber (which was a human trait long before social media made it more obvious).

This was what was going through my mind when I revisited the 2011 British science-fiction/horror/comedy Attack The Block. I hold this film in great affection; a film which reminds me of London even more 9 years after moving to Cape Town. Starring a young John Boyega and Jodie Whittaker (they’ve done alright since, haven’t they?), it starts with a startling sequence of a young nurse (Whittaker) walking home from a shift on Bonfire Night. She’s on the phone, walking down a quiet, dark street. As she finishes her call, she realises she’s surrounded by a group of young men (teenagers, led by Boyega), on their bikes, armed with blades. They want her phone and jewellery; it’s a frightening scene, one which will play with familiarity to so many. All of a sudden a parked car next to them blows up as something falls from the sky on to it; there’s something inside the car. Whittaker runs away. The something turns out to be an alien, which the boys kill. As they head back to their home in the tower block (which is also home to Whittaker), the dead alien’s compatriots seek the boys out for revenge. What follows is a funny, violent, at times scare-inducing, play on all sorts of familiar film tropes, with dialogue that expertly picks up the language and intonation of many a South London teenager (or at least it did 8 years ago; in preparation, the director rode the top bus of London busses for a few weeks, listening to and recording teenagers speaking to make sure his film would sound authentic).

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It’s no spoiler to say that along with a multitude of nods to influential and cult films and books (I’m not even going to start down that rabbit hole), the film takes us to a place where the nurse and the teenagers who began the film in conflict end up finding each other and working together. Where initially they ‘other’ each other (most notably in a brilliant, breathless, funny scene where they all end up in the same flat together), by the end they’re working for and sacrificing for one another. The boys confess to Whittaker’s nurse that they carry weapons because “we’re as scared as you”, a moment which causes her to pause in the middle of a comedic yet urgent situation. Are we invited to consider that the boys are ‘othering’ the aliens (who are, after all, trying to defend an attack on one of their own); as the boys say at one point “They’re f***ing monsters”, a phrase often heard on the lips of an angry person lashing out a group perceived to have inflicted wrong?

The film ends on a note I’d forgotten, that resonated with and challenged me. Faced with the chance to get justice for the mugging, Whittaker refuses to identify John Boyega’s gang leader. “They’re my neighbours; they protected me.”, she says. For the follower of Jesus, that’s a phrase eerily reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, where Jesus challenges us to care for the very people we are most likely to describe as enemies, ‘the other’; a parable told in response to the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’. A few hours later I watched this TED talk (click on these words) by a South African journalist who was very public on the receiving end of a social media shaming for a mistake she made, ending with her losing her job. In it she reflects on the costs and consequences of shaming, and how we might go about things differently with those with whom we disagree; I reflect that when I shame someone out loud or in my mind as sexist/racist/whatever it is, I can easily ‘other’ them, the better to shut out any challenge from them which I may need to hear. Not that I excuse whatever the prejudice may be; but the question remains: how do I, we, do this better? And where is that same prejudice prevalent in myself?

Attack The Block appears to be a frivilous, esepecially British, sort of film that is entertaining but forgotten quickly. But it’s hard to forget; not only does it work well because it respects science-fiction, horror and comedy equally; and that it’s simply endlessly quotable, stacked with some great jokes and set-pieces. It’s also hard to forget because it asks me to confront in myself my gravitational pull to ‘other’ all sorts of people who upset and discomfort me; people who are in fact my neighbour; people who I maybe should seek to defend rather than shame.

Which is after all what I believe Jesus does for me.

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?

 

As of the beginning of 2019, you can find all my reviews by following me on https://letterboxd.com/vicardave/

 

Fear and love, Or How Horror Movies Help Me Worship

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The Bible, Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8

How many times have I heard that verse? So many.

Quoted so often, so many times, sometimes in relation to so many things that I’m doing that people think I shouldn’t be doing.

You see, there are certain types of shows and films and books that certain types of Christians think I shouldn’t be seeing or watching. Maybe it’s the language in them; maybe it’s the fact that some of them could be classified as ‘horror’. Some examples of titles I’ve enjoyed …  The PassageThe Walking DeadParanormal ActivityPenny DreadfulThe Blair Witch Project; Pan’s Labyrinth; Alien; 28 Days Later. There are plenty of others. If you’ve never heard of those, Google is (in this case) your friend.

I’ve had that verse used on me a few times. I’ve also thought more than once about if I should even write this post, admit to these interests in such a public way. Will it cause people to stumble’? Well, if it causes you to stumble then don’t read it on your phone whilst walking along a busy street.

Those titles don’t fit with that verse, I’m often told.

I’m not so sure.

Fear is true and real. I get scared, sometimes. I’m scared of bees, wasps, certain people and a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur. I know perfect love drives out fear. But that verse (the one about perfect love driving out fear) is about how we relate to God and His judgement, not movies and books (or even drone warfare or terrorism or cancer or drunk drivers or a lot of other things I’ve heard this verse misused in relation to).

Sometimes  – well, once or twice – people stop and ask me why I watch or read these things. Because I enjoy them, and they’re true. Fear is part of life; I find I know the sort of films and books I’ll enjoy and the sort I won’t. I find it helps me, makes me feel more alive – and yes, somehow more in awe of the God who holds me in His palm – if I get on a roller-coaster like the ones I’ve named. I know the roller-coaster can’t hurt me, really. I know that in watching a show about a virus outbreak (for example, about which I used to have nightmares), I know it can’t hurt me so I’m less likely to actually be fearful of it even if the show itself makes me jump and sweat and maybe even say something naughty out loud.

I find that when people use that verse on me about these shows and books and films, they usually follow it up with ideas of what I should watch or which they enjoy (and they rarely do it in a way that I would call ‘lovely’). Often I find that what they suggest to be dull, or just not very good. I have a ‘good’ degree in English literature. I read and watch ‘good’ stuff, too, by that measure. But I also know that Macbeth is about witchcraft and child murder; Hamlet is a ghost story; King Lear features an eye-gouging; I’m not even going to start on Titus Andronicus (that’s all Shakespeare, by the way). You should see some of the images John Donne uses about God. People who know about these things probably won’t be surprised to learn I have a love for the work of Shakespearean influencers/influencees John Webster and Christopher Marlowe. Have you even heard of those two? They’re two of the greater English writers. Ever. You may not have heard of them; they’re utterly brilliant, and contain some ‘fearful’ stuff. Actually, have you even read the Old Testament – properly? Some of the stuff in there doesn’t fit my definition of ‘pure and lovely’, so please leave off me a bit.

I find this stuff cleansing, cathartic, life-enhancing. I feel more alive and more thankful to my creator for it afterwards. Yes, I sleep better for it. I may still be able to physically feel the shock and fear of the season finale of The Walking Dead this year, but thinking about it helps me sleep.

I’m not expecting you to feel the same. I have no problem if you only watch things rated 13 or below. If that’s what helps you, that’s great. But I’ve arrived where I am before God, in relationship with people (especially my wife who really gets me and tells me if I’m out of line or wrong or watching something I shouldn’t). And actually there are a few Christians out there who enjoy this stuff too and could do with talking about it in church as well as out of church.

None of it defines me; none of it changes my worldview. But sometimes it makes me just a bit happier, a bit more grateful to be alive. And yes, even a bit more worshipful of the one I’m told I should love and fear at the same time.

World War Z

We like a good story, and every now and then film journalism alights upon a film to prophesy certain failure about. There are some common ingredients to these stories: the budget of the film must be both high and perceived and ever-expanding; it must be a high-profile film, often adapted from a much admired source; it must involve at least one very well-known star or director. Journalists and readers salivate at the prospect of high-profile failures like this  – it punctures hubris and we all laugh. Heaven’s Gate. Bonfire Of The VanitiesWaterworld. We do love a good story about a bad one.

World War Z had all the ingredients, and was frequently presented as such. It stars Brad Pitt. It’s directed by Marc Forster – he’s clearly not that well-known, but he did direct the critically adored Monster’s Ball as well as the messy Quantum Of Solace. It’s adopted from a book loved by many as ground-breaking, challenging example of what you can do with the familiar material of a global zombie-crisis. And yes, the budget kept rising. To complete the picture there were re-writes and ending changes.

The scene was duly set for disaster and blood-letting.

Here’s the thing, though. Despite the gleeful promises of doom, it’s quite good and it’s making enough money to already have had a sequel commissioned.

I haven’t read the book, but those who have read it tell me it does diverge significantly from the source. Clearly this was done to translate what was a deliberately un-structured narrative into something more coherent. The coherence is only partially there in the film, which is a real mix of genres and tones. Brad Pitt is a former United Nations worker who narrowly affects the escape of his family from a zombie epidemic to UN safety. In return he agrees to help get to the bottom of the crisis sweeping the world. What is the virus and why is it spreading so quickly? Improbably the answer is in Wales.

The first section is solid zombie-shocker fare. There’s a few jumps and scares; the chaos of suddenly spreading epidemic is well-handled. Pitt’s family, importantly, do feel like a family. Then the first change of gear. After some family deliberations, Pitt is off to solve the crisis. The film moves off too – away from shocker to action movie with a few jumps. It’s well handled, directed and choreographed action – especially when there are large crowds involved. The main tone is suddenly thrills not fear, though. Then in the final 3rd we’re into haunted house/hospital territory as a solution is honed in-on. Again effective, again odd.

It’s all entertaining. It’s all clearly the product of an uncertain vision of how to take the film forward. It’s exciting and gripping, but I was jolted out of the film too often by the changes of tone and shift from one genre to another. It’s a let-down to the zombie genre in that it doesn’t use the format to explore bigger issues – witness Romero’s classic …Of The Dead films, 28 Days Later and sequel or even Shaun Of The DeadWorld War Z verges on indelicate issues of geopolitics and even religion on one or two occasions but never has the guts to explore the themes properly.

Speaking of guts, this is (as the title implies) an action film not a horror one. There’s not of the literal or metaphorical guts of those films named above or TV’s The Walking Dead. There are a few winces, but this is a zombie film lacking teeth.

World War Z is uneven, clumsy and imperfect.

It is also fun, exciting and entertaining.

I look forward to a sequel with more confidence and coherence.

And maybe some guts.

I rated this movie 7/10 on imdb.com and 3.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com

Paranormal Activity: Less Is More

Well, well, well. In my last post I talked about the empty vacuous spectacle of 2012; that it’s one of those all surface movies that’s the equivalent of pornography. No depth, no care and no soul. The very next day along comes a film that in many ways is the exact opposite. The story behind Paranormal Activity is well documented; made by a young director for a budget of around only $15,000, it’s become one of the most profitable films of all time. It’s a ‘found video footage’ story in the tradition of films like (recently) The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.  Micah and Katie live together, and Katie’s experiencing some strange things; Micah buys an up-market video camera to record everything that’s happening – most crucially, to place in their bedroom overnight (which is where most of the instances are happening) in order to get to the truth. Things slowly unravel from there. Friends are of limited help (we meet two of them); a supposed psychic is a calming influence the first time; when he returns towards the end, his fear and inability to do anything only adds to the escalating sense of panic. On such a small budget, there are no special effects to speak of – we start instead with some odd sounds, and a door that opens or closes at its own pace. From there, stranger and stranger things happen, but crucially very little is seen. Probably the film’s single most haunting moment involves nothing more than one of the characters simply standing up.

There are two places that a film like this will stand or fall. The first is in its understanding of genre and tradition. This is it has in abundance. I’m not really horror film, but clearly the director loves the genre and understands it. It uses conventions cleverly without feeling forced. It draws from outside the more obvious horror pool also – without wishing to spoil the surprise, let‘s just say that certain aspects of types of Victorian fiction are bought to bear here to devastating effect. This lends depth and weight to the scares and shocks – and makes you think it’s actually trying to do something, in addition to the genre convention of fear and fright.

The second place the film will stand or fall is on the central relationship; and here’s where it really soars. We don’t know the actors, but this is a realistic portrait of what the director has said he wanted to show – a relationship under pressure. Ill-timed jokes, misunderstanding, apology, the slowly emerging secrets of the past…..it’s all here as Kate and Micah start to be overwhelmed by fault lines so much more memorable and damaging than those we see in 2012. Drawing on the Victorian fiction just alluded to, this is all played out in the bedroom. Metaphorically, that is – we never see any sex, but it’s no coincidence that most of the shocks and scares take place around the bed. A different and terrible intimacy overwhelms them, and even if you see the ending coming it’s no less powerful and memorable for that. By the end there’s shock, fear  – but also a kind of sadness and grief that’s invests a genre horror film with depth and soul.

It would be silly to say this is a film for all. Most will find this deeply scary – in a way that for some will stay with you for a long to come. Some in the screening I was in ended up in tears. It may do that to you – if so, you may want to stay away; and if you do see it, try to make sure it’s a fairly busy showing. There’s a lot to be gained from an awareness of how others are (or are not) reacting to what you’re seeing. This, though, to ponder. There’s more truth and weight in this film than in the ponderous nonsense of 2012. Paranormal Activity has a depth that 2012 could never reach, for all its millions of dollars and billowing sweeping tsunamis. Think on that next time your Pavlovian response to the latest big-budget eye candy kicks in.   Restraint can release an ingenuity, intelligence, creativity and profundity that gets lost in the blaze of box office chasing high-concepts. Less is so often more.

Let The Right One In

This film arrived on a wave of critical adoration of the type that really made me sit up and take notice. It was frequently compared to Pan’s Labyrinth. That’s one of those rare films that both lives within a genre and yet utterly transcends it – it’s a dark fantasy/fairy-tale, but it’s all together more than that. It also happens to be one of my all time favourite films. I adore it.

So to hear Let The Right One In talked of in the same way by the same critics was a strong indicator that I needed to see this. It’s a Swedish film, about a teenagers and their parents. The twist is that one of the teenagers just happens to be a vampire. But this is no Buffy – it’s mood, beautifully shot and not a little existential. The performances are fine, and the story unfolds at a pleasingly languid pace, all the while hinting of all sorts of hidden motivations and history. There’s a deeply moving and rather horrifying act of sacrifice which will stay with you (in a good way) for a long time.

But it just doesn’t add up for me. Whereas Pan’s Labyrinth took was effectively a stock story and pointed to far greater truths, this film ambles around with a disappointing lack of direction. There’s also a last minute rescue that makes no narrative sense whatsoever, and only seems to exist to allow a happy, upbeat ending that’s totally at odds with the tone of all that’s gone before. It’s a shame, as on the surface there’s much to commend this; but I felt badly let down. Maybe I should never read another review, never allow another comparison into my head. But this could have been so much more, and clearly has an ambition to be that. Which makes it all the more disappointing.

The Exorcist & The Fear Of The Lord

This post first appeared on http://www.joyofmovies.com

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.