12 Angry Men

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s most famous movie, is deceptively simple in its presentation. The tricks employed are famous: the continually sinking camera and the continually narrowing lens bring you closer and closer into the claustrophobic action; the parts of a single heated dialogue were often filmed weeks apart as part of a lighting scheme meant to keep the film within its budget. All of this heartache was for a strange purpose: having a movie that seemed to be shot in a single, small, shrinking room. The smaller the set the simpler and cheaper the production, no? If filming on the smaller set costs so much, why not work with something a bit bigger? There is a Russian adaption of this movie which sidesteps many difficulties by having the jurors meet in a gym, but by doing so the play is irrevocable altered; in such a visual medium as film the sense of place can be protagonistic in its effect.

The room into which the men first file is an uncomfortable one: greasy walls, sticky windows, a broken fan, a bare table and a dozen chairs (trials were probably shorter before the advent of AC). It is a room meant for a single purpose and demanding undivided attention for whatever case is to hand: as the truth is approached there is less room—the walls themselves force confrontation with oneself. What is it like to have the world collapse upon you?

Lee Cobb, credited as ‘Juror 3’ and known as ‘The Big Man’ in our discussions about the film, expresses his boredom and feigns an open mind when he attempts to label the matter a clear-cut case. Since only Henry Fonda’s character does not immediately agree with Cobb the focus seems to shift to Fonda, and also, since Fonda is thwarting a quick and easy decision, around him the conversation centers. There are ways to understand this film while taking Fonda as the protagonist, but I believe there is more here than a good man willing to make space for the truth, and that Cobb is the man to watch—if Cobb had held out for another ten minutes he may well have been the only man left in the room threatening him with isolated self-reflection.

We do not wish to be found guilty of our sins, we hope to deny them, or, finding that impossible, we wish others to take them upon themselves. Not thinking the latter is likely, we choose to impose the guilt upon those around us and use their supposed grime to wash ourselves clean.  A man might wish to blame his boss for his own lousy performance or a father his son for their differences; an uncompromising man, however, would know that to rest there is not to escape guilt, for who is party to the strife but themselves? It must go further, the blame must be attributed to a nature, the nature of bosses, of sons, of whomever else can have the accusation laid at their feet: ‘If all sons, if all bosses, are like this, then clearly it is simply accidental that I am involved—the blame couldn’t be mine’.

There is another way, a way which ends in admitting that all are guilty for all before all. ‘I am guilty’ is the beginning of this way, and an understanding of universal guilt the result of seeing the evil around you. Once you can understand this, you can love Him who is willing to come and take your guilt upon Himself although He alone can truly say ‘I am not guilty’. And in that love, and through Him, you can love those around you for the good He has universally given.

Holding to a belief in your innocence will lead you to a solitary isolation as those around you necessarily abandon you and you abandon them to your despair. In your mind, if not in further ways, they shall switch sides and stand against you and your world shall shrink heedlessly into a cell built of your own pride and hate. Forced to confront the truth you must despair or cave beneath the pressure of a collapsing world, condemn yourself, and say of the other: ‘not guilty’.

Braven

There has been a surge in gritty dramas set back in the woods and trying to give you a solid sense of place: the best is Wind River (although a slight back-look would bring Winter’s Bone, the exemplar, to view); the most highly acclaimed, Three Billboards. Braven follows their lead, and signals the cementation of a niche in film. Frankly, it is formulaic and uninteresting except to show that the genera is now established enough to have a formula.

The film is short, only 90 minutes, but could have readily been cut down to a happy  40 if you would be content with watching a logger, Joe, defend his family by repeatedly neglecting the gun near at hand and wielding instead a burning ax, or a winch, or a bear trap. Some movies are the survival by your wits type; Braven makes you wonder if Joe can survive the onslaught of his wits.

If you are not the sort to be so contented, perhaps watch the opening credits which at least will not disappoint you. The best scene of the movie is the felling of a tree just before the predictable 50 minute character build-up, or pile-up, begins. It was nice to see the absence of a troubled past replaced by the presence of a troubled old man who mistakes the present for the past and causes trouble. Other than that, and the slightest deviation of musical score, we are looking at a man who works, who expresses his deep love for his wife by horseplay and teasing, who is followed, even in restful moments, by a camera man who needs to cut back on the coffee and a director who needs to cut back on the cutting. I don’t know if the advent of drone technology is to blame, but it seems you can’t have a car drive down a snowy road these days without the camera peeping over the top of the trees and looking for an epic shot.

Buster Keaton never shot the same stunt twice, if it didn’t work he found another; a scene lost life when filmed again. Braven tried to mimic shots already produced and then when dead shots was all that it had, it tried to bring itself to life by imitating the musical score of the living members of its genera.

The Truman Show

Sometimes a movie will ask a question; sometimes it will ask so many follow-up questions that you become lost. You might even start to question the honesty of the question, and wonder if what might have been the mystery of unanswered questions isn’t the mere vacuity of the cynic. Film is well able to ask questions, but there is always the fear that in the asking and answering of the question it will devolve into preaching at the expense of art; this is the so-called ‘wholesome’ movie. The strength of a message will seldom pardon a poor script.
     Sometimes, though, a movie will ask questions and seem to be on the cusp of failure, and yet remain a wonderful movie. ‘The Truman Show’ is one of these daring movies. Why does it succeed? It has, in Truman Burbank, a lovable man who endears himself to his audience. This endearment is the secret to his success and also to that of the movie. The questions asked strike us powerfully, but they are yet more powerfully, all-importantly, relevant to our friend Truman. His life depends on the answers. And so we are not presented with a heavy-handed queue of questions, but are instead acquainted with a new friend from idyllic, small Seahaven. And as we see his world start to collapse around him we begin to ask the only question explicitly demanding his attention, buttoned to the blouse of the girl he loves: how’s it going to end?
     All other questions are only distractions for Truman, although they shape his every interaction, and they unambiguously threaten to crop up again in his future life. The cynical idea that life is a zero-sum game, that all interaction is only tempered by the leaden rule of doing the least harm to others in the process of self-interest, that love itself is a facade, manifests itself starkly in the townspeople of Seahaven. Every interaction may be pleasant, but some seem aggressively friendly, and one wonders what ulterior motives lie behind them. There is odd product placement, and a strangely consumerist approach to relationships. All of this cannot fail to influence Truman, but he reverses the process in a touching way. Instead of attending to how he presents himself to others, instead of surrounding himself with pictures of how he would like to be seen (notice the photographs in the houses of Seahaven), instead of searching for the one who might satisfy preconceived ideals of the perfect woman, he takes the very vehicle of person-consumerism and uses it to rediscover, albeit in a strangely imperfect way, his lost love.
     The way he expresses himself may at first resemble the masquerade of those around him, but as we continue to watch him a deeper truth is revealed in him, a truth by which even those who thought they knew him best are flummoxed. Determination and grace are infrequent companions, yet they seem chummy enough in hapless Truman. In his final scene, which brings to mind C.S. Lewis (and may suggest why this is an appropriate movie to watch this week), he effortlessly and almost comically reverts to his original persona, yet in doing so does not lapse into his former life. Instead he bows out with a poise which could only be supplied by the grace of forgiveness.