The Battle of Algiers

In many ways The Battle of Algiers has presented itself as a documentary. There are shots which could not possibly have been filmed in the moment, as when the self-styled freedom fighters are hiding behind a wall while the police search the house and the camera pans from one face to the next. Again, no camera man, no matter how influential, could have filmed both sides of a conflict so filled with hate (it is interesting that we never see a motive for the first of the attacks, we never see rancor, and we are left with something akin to understanding for all involved, which is a brilliant victory for Algerian propaganda); the camera flirts between a French colonel’s headquarters and the various homes of the Algerian rebels. In fact, upon reflection, it is hard to understand how such a movie could have the feel of a documentary, as it indeed does, and as I believe it is intended to have.
There are those elements which are absent which if they were present would bespeak a drama, and so their absence is helpful for not ruining the mood, even if they do not create it: there is no love interest, no slow motion shots of emotional angst, no demanded effect. But it is not the lack of dramatic influence which creates the mood, but that our understanding is intruded upon, that we are told to question whether this is a drama, by the barrier being broken between the camera and the people.
One intrusion, one rock removed from the foundation of our surety, is the unmasking of the drum beat we hear intermittently throughout the tense scenes following the beginnings of hostilities. We had believed it to be merely soundtrack (or just a racket), but it is given a source toward the end when in a tumultuous melee of a mob we catch the briefest glimpses of the drummer. This by no means relegates all the beating to the realm of the Algerians and out of the realm of soundtrack, for on many occasions there is no way the drums could be beating, and yet it is the source of some uneasiness concerning the narrative mood, and a revelation which jerks you suddenly into the midst of things and questions just how dramatized this film is.
The second instance is similar to the first: the quality of the shots, the camera’s ability to capture what it needs or wants to capture, the attention it asks you to pay to the one to whom attention ought to be paid, is too good for on-the-spot journalism. But here again a source, or in this instance, a counter-source, is given for the filming. You find yourself sitting with the French police watching film from hidden cameras at security checkpoints: the quality of the shots are superb; the focus is on the subject and the shots are even from nearly the same angle as the previous shots you’ve seen in ‘real time’; the subject stands out to the officers during the viewing, without them, however, having the least suspicion. So here we are shown film from within the movie, taken at the time, so to speak, and which is on par with the master-film itself, so why should we be so confident that this film is merely a drama? Because it has drumbeats and a little jazz motif playing instead of some French officer droning along in French?
The third is by far the most interesting, the least jarring, and takes place in the heart of the film, the scene which states the question at the heart of the film. Colonel Mathieu is holding a press conference and our camera is not out of place in the room, it belongs there along with all the reporters and microphones. This sense of belonging, for indeed it is nothing more, sets the stage for the most important statement of the film, upon which rest the whole import of the film (it is trying to give a message, and was produced, in fact, to do so), it does so with you sitting in a room full of other people also waiting with baited breath, and you find yourself also wondering with them (if you aren’t quite up on your history) what impact the speech will have on the outside world, particularly upon the U.N. …And so look at yourself, the outsider, the aloof moviegoer, now just one of the guys in the room, and looking around, as of course you do, you see others like you looking for the same answer and becoming frustrated by the same indirect questions about the use of force against the rebels.
This movie is exceptional in its unwillingness to explain the conflict. We are introduced to the uprising after the provocative stage and in some ways it ends before the cessation of hostilities. We are not meant to ask why this is happening and look to the past, but to ask why and look to the end. To put it bluntly, we are asked to excuse all means in deference to the end. The indiscriminate use of bombs and the police’s use of torture throw both parties under the same spotlight (and again, this very act of impartiality is a huge boon for the Algerians). In fact, I’m not sure this movie isn’t parasitically twisting the truth that if you truly desire an end you must will the proper means into a sometimes indistinguishable relativism.

Treasure of the Sierra Madre

We all have a friend or two who has ‘a big personality’, the sort who we can watch from across the room and smile to ourselves in the comfortable assurance that ‘there goes old Wyatt’. It seems though their words can sometimes be the stuffing of their character and nothing more; it matters less what they say than how they say it. I know an old Jesuit who at 93 is no longer as audible as he once was, but he can keep a table laughing although his voice no longer carries across it—his character does.

In a movie chock full of such characters, Fred C. Dobbs stands apart; we learn more about him from watching him then from listening to his words. His words are a reflection of his character, but his mannerisms unveil his soul. There is a scene where Dobbs and Curtain, his fellow American and partner in adversity, decide to turn from hired hands to prospectors and, while their sang-froid talk weighs the options, Dobbs’ whole person tells a more frightening tale and portends the danger they’ve already been warned of: gold tries man’s soul, how will Dobbs’ hold up? Not too well, it seems.  The little fixations, the rivulets of a character worn down by poverty and the desire to be a moneyed man, are there and ready to erode a man willing to be awash in the torrent of greed. Dobb’s put up no defense against greed, believing that gold itself holds no curse for the right man—himself.

From the beginning Dobbs sets himself aside from society, and not just because he is the film’s protagonist. Although in some scenes there are moments where he is merely the spokesman for the crowd within the art, in others he reveals his belief in the man-defining ability of money, and although we see him begging for a meal, we also see that he never buys that meal, instead buying smokes and getting haircuts. He may, in fact, be less interested in being a man than being a man apart—a go big or go home sort of attitude toward life itself—clearly seen in his disregard for water when gold is in the ground. The possession of gold is a characteristic of a great man, and so while the others dream of the quiet lives permitted by gold, Dobbs doesn’t think beyond the gold, while they discuss their odyssey into the mountains and away from civilization, Dobbs sleeps, already succumbing to the fate of riches he has coming to him. Leaving society is natural for him, why talk of plans?

For a man like Dobbs, though, there is a restraint in social living upon which he must lean if he is to remain upright. A concupiscent man needs to have a certain distance from the objects of illicit desires if he is not to fall. Society can be an obstacle to his passion even if it is nothing more than a familiar good (social norms are les questioned the more immersed in society you are) or used as a foil and a source of proper shame.  The tragedy is that we see Dobbs is no worse than many, lacks the irascibility to pursue his passions if safety ensconced in society, and even is capable of reform if forced to confront his passion in all its foolishness, and yet gold and the promise of more is too often brought too near him for his greed to be mastered. It is not what he has or doesn’t have which herald his fall, but what he almost has and thinks he can get. The gold within that middling state is his Achilles heel, and his fear of the worst and desire for more lead him slowly, inexorably onward. He never grasps, in the laconic wisdom of Curtain, that the worst ain’t so bad when it actually happens.

A Night to Remember

If you manage to begin this movie without knowing it is about the sinking of the Titanic, the opening scenes will cue you—and then all shall be known.

The first time you watch it you will feel as though you are re-watching it, and each time you watch it thereafter it will seem fresher than before. Suspense does not drive this movie, nor does any sort of Character development as we would generally understand it. There is no central love story, no main character (although the acting is superb), and as we bid adieu to each person our attention does not slacken. Each is introduced as a well-known character, and leaves as a good friend (including the card shark and the coward), but still we realize this tragedy transcends the fate of the passengers. This is a strange film: it is a film about a boat, or rather, three boats—The Titanic, the Carpathia, and the Californian—and their ill-fated night in the Atlantic.

The Titanic is the technological pride of the people, and that pride is taken beyond anything we see today, except perhaps the Apple-fanatic’s attachment to his operating system. A perceived slur against the ship prompts patriotic correction by nearby strangers, and we note the satisfaction of the principals aboard and the reverence shown them by the first-class passengers. If the Titanic is the tragic hero, then perhaps human pride is the flaw, and yet within the context of this larger tragedy, a more subtle conflict is developing.

One of the tactics of the film immediately noted is the jarring juxtaposition of silence and noise throughout the film. While whistles screech and rockets whistle, while water thunders over bulkheads and the third class passengers mob stairways and eventually the deck, the ships officers, engineer, and wealthy passengers remain composed and calm. Bookending the chaos between itself and those magnificent men and women, as though the chaos were the battlefield and humanity the soon-to-be-extinguished foe, is a sea strangely, silently swallowing the Titanic, a sea so strangely silent in its malice that the ‘plop plop’ of life boats striking the water is eerily carried across the waves.

Across these waters in the final moments of the Titanic, though, comes another sound: the sound of a hymn sung by a solitary bass. And perhaps music is a fitting expression for the final victory of humanity against fear and chaos as the ultimate expression of passion controlled by form.

The abyss, the chaos, loses both its fascination and its power before the presence of the one who orders. It is strange that we now believe that those things which are ordered, or repetitious, are not alive, or not powerful. Sameness once hinted at the presence of the divine: the stars and planets were Gods because they were unchanging. Now the discovery of patterns in our brains is leading us toward an acceptance of the belief that life itself is neither meaningful nor existent, as though order were contrary to life. Leave these considerations for those who doubt the existence of the soul and eternal life, you say, and rightly so, but be careful lest a similar error deprive you of that life.

Form is the backbone of the life of prayer, and of our prayer life: The Mass depends almost entirely upon the words said, the emotions of the priest matter not a bit, unless they influence his will; monks live a life known for its structure; The Church recommends the Daily Office to all Catholics, extolling it above private prayer. Even the prayers recommended for private devotion are structured: what is the rosary but the repetition of the same few prayers again and again in a set order, and yet it is the favored prayer of the Mediatrix of all Grace. I have found in my spiritual life unformed prayer (parading as an unmitigated and exclusive good under the name ‘prayer from the heart’) has always lapsed into nothing if unsupported by a structure—through its inability to withstand the emotions. The very desire to regulate this prayer is a recognition of the need to give it form: when I say I will spend 10 minutes a day in unformed prayer I have subjected it to repetition, and then isn’t a repetition requested by Christ (the Our Father; He doesn’t say ‘the first time you pray, pray Our Father…’), our Lady (the Rosary) or even our Spiritual Fathers (‘read scripture daily’) better? Well-informed form is in the end the subjection of ourselves in our emotions and our will to the Truth…and the Truth will set you free.

Approach this thought from another angle, which returns to A Night to Remember:  that of the good of social form. It is easy enough to no longer say thank you every time you are expected to, rightly believing that often it does not come from the heart; it is simple to forego handshakes and smiles, platitudes and apologies, in the hope of living a more honest life. Beware; isolation, pride, and hate lurk in the background. With few exceptions, the rejection of social norms stems from pride parading as honesty, and in the subjection of the polite to your judgment there is the danger of placing your opinion of your intelligence above your love for others.

I recently watched A Night to Remember with a group of friends and at the end the only criticism voiced was that the characters were unnaturally composed while facing nearly certain death. But this film closely follows eyewitness accounts, it in fact underplays the formality, giving each tendency to a single character (just one gentleman dresses formally to face death), which perhaps permits its attribution to eccentricity instead of to culture and custom. To counter our current fascination with individualism, which leads to isolation, perhaps as we watch A Night to Remember we might bear in mind that culture is the democracy of the deceased, that there seems to have been some consensus that fate is not the arbitrator of our faith, and that our human dignity is well defended by our adherence to tradition.

Ace in the Hole

Ace in the Hole is as ruthless as Chuck Tatum, its stiff-necked lead. The camera neglects all else in its fascination with Tatum, and only begins to take note of those around him when he himself does. He enters a newspaper office and introduces himself to us by introducing himself to the newspaper man, Mr. Boot, but in Tatum’s early interactions we seldom even see the faces of those he speaks to unless he himself is dominating the screen. He doesn’t care about them, and they are not given the courtesy of having their reactions noted by him, or us. But although the camera is as absorbed in Tatum as he is in himself, we are not sympathetic; the very egotism of the presentation is off-putting, and we are at once aware that Tatum’s appeal comes not from his charisma, which is undoubtedly there, but from the uneasy restlessness which the presence of such an impetuous man imbues. We know he is going, going… going where?  It is the fascination of the will—the will heedlessly acting.

Chuck Tatum knows where he is going, where he came from, why he is where he is. He offhandedly incriminates himself to anyone who will listen without a thought for how he is seen, although it seems, perhaps, he wants to be seen as uncaring and self-made.  He unhesitatingly proclaims his belief that those around him are to be used, and cynically assumes that he must market himself as someone to be used if he is going to fill the role he is determined to assume. He wishes to act on a cynical, simplified basis with those around him, and yet is forced to confront his conscience and the knowledge that his desires do not determine what is good.

You do not  have to act upon what you know is true, salvation lies in the will not the intellect—as does damnation. There is another path to damnation, and one more frequently traveled: you can accept what you know is true and align yourself imperfectly with it, walking two paths simultaneously, pretending that you stride confidently down both. You do your will not God’s, keeping them distinct in your mind, and thinking that since both are good, God will not permit them to truly separate. Where they deviate you take your desired path and delude yourself into thinking they conveniently intercept just around the corner.

I have found it impossible to desire God’s will while holding on to self-will: I cannot turn my worry into prayer, asking God for the grace to do His will while fundamentally demanding that He order His will to mine, that He act as I want. I have thought only of my happiness and thought to disguise this as an act of love, but must learn to give Him His due glory by loving Him for Himself and for the favors I have received or expect to receive from Him—then I can think of my own happiness, and see it is nothing else than the effect of this love.

Discovering this, there is a further step; I have found I must not only submit myself to God’s will, but let Him carry it out. I am not a soldier awaiting a command from the armchair strategist who demands I carry out the mission while he sits by. Nor is he even an Alexander the Great doing his part while I do mine. I must permit God to fully act in me so that, as Newman said, everyone will look up and see no longer me—but only Jesus.

Ace in the Hole is this story. Tatum desires his own end and considers everything and everyone else as a means toward this end, as indeed he must if he is to be consistent. When he must acknowledge another standard, he rejects it. When he accepts it, he must direct everything and see to everything still, unwilling and unable to give up control even as he begins to spiral into helplessness. And it is only in his helplessness that he is finally able to freely choose between despair and total surrender, unhindered by pride or self-love.

Blancanieves

Texture is the ignored ingredient: when describing one’s favorite dessert, taste takes precedence; in the Smithsonian, color compliments are noted; in film, shot composition is discussed. Talk to a cook or a painter, though, and they will stress texture, it determines a cut of meat’s quality, makes or breaks crème brulee, and attracts the attention in a painting without attracting attention. Artists from all fields stress it, perhaps because it is often the most difficult element to perfect. There is an art form, however, which unabashedly presses texture upon its audience—the nearly lost art of the black and white movie.
     With the removal of color, a distraction, this medium emphasizes the material of objects. Iron and cashmere need not differ in color, but they must in texture. Have you noticed in old movies the formulaic uses of focus, of attention to texture? For example, the overwrought romantic scenes are nearly always blurred, as though there is a slight removal from the world. Is it the same in colored movies? If the method is occasionally used, it is not used for the most part, instead being replaced by slow motion or ethereal lighting, which underlines the structure of pacing and color.
     Here, in Blancanieves, we have a movie which chooses to return to the beauty of black and white, and goes yet further: it is also silent. ‘Silent film’ is, however, a misnomer: the musical score is entirely engaging, and this is in keeping with the old ‘silent’ movies—they too relied on their music. The pace is set by the music, and it almost seems as though the music comes first, much as it does in ballet.
  Also like ballet, Blancanieves indulges extravagant gestures, and many critics dismissing silent film add exaggeration to their list of grievances. But there is a difference between extravagance and exaggeration: one is a free use of something because it seems good, the other is an overuse meant to accent an aspect of the thing exaggerated. Believing silent film exaggerates its gestures follows, as a rule, the supposition that the exaggeration is meant to fill the void left vacant by words. To look at gesticulations this way is to suggest that all silent films use them either from necessity (in the old movies) or from some tongue-in-cheek love of the gimmicky (all movies which could have talking, but don’t). There are movies which accept their silence as a gimmick (The Artist), but there is a better way to approach grand gesture—extravagant indulgence.
     Perhaps we are being asked to look again at gesture’s relation to speech. Instead of being an overzealous fill-in for speech, an understudy trying desperately to make an impression, gesture reads the soul and expresses it in his own way; a way usually restrained by a sense of decorum or from fear (a restraint permitted by the mastery of language). Are emotions best captured and conveyed by words? I’m not sure. Isn’t body language our most subconscious and universal language?
   You might be thinking, ‘all this is very interesting, I’m sure, but why does this recommendation entirely consist of examining the advantages of the medium of silent, black and white film?’
     The most striking theme in Blancanieves, the motif mulled over throughout, is the pain of elusive nearness to the beloved. Those who have lost a loved one often nourish the pain of loss as a way to have the distance of absence nullified: I feel those I miss are near me when I think of them—a bittersweet pleasure built upon the juxtaposition of nearness and distance. Again, there is a certain suffering which defines our lives, which struggles in the dual distances of nearness and remoteness: Christ ever present in the Eucharist, ever distant through our sins and our attachment to this world. This pain is innermost in each of us, unable to be struck from our souls. In some way, meditation is nothing more than bringing this great divorce before our mind’s eye, sin nothing other than the rejection of what we love. In forgiveness, though, we are given the grace to be happy in the return of what we had rejected.
     Watch Blancanieves and ask yourself, ‘would this still be good with color and speech?’ I think not—some sufferings are trivialized when put into words, or misconstrued by the very act of articulation. The movie’s texture will immediately arrest your eye and place you in the arena with our heroine, without permitting you to wonder if this fairy-tale might be ethereal. Once alongside Blancanieves, the music sets a pace too swift to permit abandonment, you will be caught up effortlessly and carried with her through her life. From of your nearness to her, her soul will shine through her looks and gestures; you shall see why she is heroic, how such an unhappy life can be so beautiful, and what it means to be a suffering soul.

What We Do

The film society is dead. With the advent of new technology we are now able to watch any movie we wish whenever we wish. Roger Ebert asserted that this has resulted in the neglect of great movies, and I agree.
The usual movie watching evening now follows an all too familiar trend. Perhaps one person decides to watch a movie by themselves, and after perusing Netflix, Hulu, and other sites, watches some lousy film whose greatest recommendation is either its availability or its cover art. Even more common is the strange group experiment of choosing a movie together. While this has its advantages, it is also true that this generally results in a compromise, and understandably so.
Let’s pretend that a movie is a person–a pretension not entirely strange. There is an interesting study which shows that a given group of people, upon slight acquaintance, is inclined to agree upon who has which attributes within the group: they all agree that Mike is the funniest, Joan the most artistic, Ben the most personable. But with time, and closer acquaintance, their opinions diverge more and more. Sara will find that John is the most personable, James will think Ben dull, and Anthony will find Joan the most personable, to the point of marrying her against the advice of Mike, who finds her a bore. The same is true with movies, with unfortunate results. Movies which do not stir us deeply, which remain mere acquaintances, are more easily agreed upon than those movies which strongly claim our hearts.
So, let’s watch great movies. We will use what seems like a subjective litmus test for films we recommend, but the couching of the terms does not subjugate the terms. So this is our criteria, the result of our principles: if I feel saddened by the thought that I cannot watch this movie again and again without sacrificing other movies I love just as much, than that is a great movie. Seem subjective? Yes, it does. Is it? No. There are movies I love which I could not possibly claim are great even by this seemingly subjective criteria (Hot Rod, and all the old Jim Carey films). But sorrow is, in the end, the result of a privation of some good, and so subjective. To have this sorrow for art is indeed high praise for that art, and it only arises for the most beautiful movies. Parenthetically, it is important to remember that criteria can be negative, or looking to a lose of the object, while the principle illuminated remains positive.
One movie shall be recommended each week. Watch it. If you’ve seen it before, show it to friends. Talk about it. If you don’t like the recommendation, tell me why. If you would like a movie recommended, recommend it to me. Let this be the beginning of a friendship ordered toward Christ and built upon our humanity as portrayed in great film.

Why watch Movies?

We all watch movies, otherwise I wouldn’t have written this nor would you be reading it, but why do we watch movies? Only after answering this question, at least in a vague way, can we begin to discern which movies are worth watching, which are only going to waste our time.
Great movies are not only entertainment, they are art, and all good art must assist in the perfection of our moral life. How do movies do this?
It is a mistake to believe that they must portray only good men, only virtuous ends, or must have unambiguously upright messages. Some films are not forcefully giving us answers, they are asking us a question (Silence); some watch as a man falls and falls further into sin (The Godfather); some are simply revealing the pain of those in pain, nothing more (Oslo, August 31st). What is important in film is the emotional impact, how we engage emotionally, but the realm of the emotions is a dangerous place.
A movie’s ability to powerfully combine every other visual and audible art can strongly influence us, often subtly. John Wayne’s films and The Batman Trilogy can, without attention to the motions of our hearts and the unique circumstances of the films (such as the lawlessness of The West), slowly form an inappropriate attachment to vigilante justice. Without proper reflection it is possible to have our morals undermined by movies, and as film operates on our imaginations without being filtered through our intellects, we must have some care to choose moral films, and to note to ourselves the imperfections of imperfect films. Film can be thought of as vicarious experience, to be carefully accepted, and sometimes mulled over afterwards.
We can participate emotionally in one another’s lives in two ways; there is a too often ignored distinction between empathy (feeling for) and sympathy (feeling with), and which of these a movie evokes in a scene can determine its moral implications. It is possible, though rare, that a scene naturally charged with sexual tension does not arouse a man so that although the character is desiring something reprehensible, we are not (as in Susanne Bier’s Brothers). On the other hand, a scene of something ordinary, like a girl walking out of the ocean, can be a overt occasion of sin (Just Go with It). So, there are times when empathy is emotionally perfecting where sympathy would be reprehensible.
In short, we watch movies to empathize with those in situations we may never encounter ourselves, and if encountered, may still not understand. How often are we brought up short by an icy reply to a friendly comment? My pride is often insulted by those around me, who, I’m sure, are sorry to have lashed out but are unable to express their sorrow because of the wounds they have received. We all wound each other: if we are called to find rest in God and only God, then every encounter with another which does not reflect Christ’s love is sure to wound us in some way, as we are guilty of wounding those we encounter. We must understand our imperfections and those of those around us, and our human frailty and the love of God in our lives (which, in fact, is our lives) is the subject away from which good art, and hence good film, cannot deviate. We need great minds to aid us in our understanding and love of each other, and so we turn to the great movies which God has bless us with.

 

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton