After the Wedding

Eyes and hands dominate the screen in this beautiful story from Denmark. By foregoing a violent, manipulative musical score for simple thematic motifs, ‘After the Wedding’ asks us to immerse ourselves in the mannerisms of a small, familial cast. It is through the unique bodily motions and habits of speech of those we love that we understand their inclinations; in the eyes of those we love we can see their souls. Pain, joy, and calculated fawning all reveal their presence in the eyes of these characters whose troubles we are asked to observe… we are asked to observe them in the same manner we observe our friends: we are not driven to feel good around our friends by some mystical aura of uplifting music, but are attracted by the loved familiarity of their intimate actions. And among this cast, the agitated figure of Jacob, our protagonist, cannot be contained and belies some suffering deeper than financial woe. He seems the odd man out in a world of people content in the world.
“You’re an angry man. That’s good. It gives you lots of drive.’ says Jorgen to Jacob; indeed it does, that is what anger is meant to do, and anger drives the first part of ‘After the Wedding’. From our first glimpse of Jacob we see this anger, notable in his disdain for this rich man, Jorgen, whom he has never met but who wants to meet him. He is rich, this forty-something year old Jorgen Hannson, and a perplexing man. In every interaction we find him expansively asserting himself, building a façade upon his fear; as the camera follows him from each encounter with his family and associates his face falls to a determined, hounded expression and we are left wondering what is rotten in the state of Denmark aside from the dead fox in the road. Jorgen’s fear will chart for us the structure of the story, although hardly determine the story. To determine the lives of others, particularly recent acquaintances, requires something more powerful than fear: we discover what that is, but (here is the crux of the matter), not immediately, and first each character must vomit up the filth of their suppression. And it is this interlude which both provides the meat of the story and reveals the beauty of Helene, Jorgen’s wife.
People fail us every day, as we fail them. The shame of failure will drive us to hide our suffering from those we love, and the failure of others will make us unwilling to place our trust in them. This is one result of the bondage of sin and leads to further isolation and greater fear; we all see this and know this. We must desire to end this vicious cycle, but this is hard. Psychologically, we become attached to our vice, and the act of separation can be a violent, and often a lengthy process. In myself and in the experience of those around me I have often seen deep-seated changes of heart accompanied by anger or instability, as a long neglected fountain coughs up mud in unsteady streams before running clean.
‘After the Wedding’ gives us, in Helene, a woman capable of weathering the outbursts of those who mean the most to her. And she does this with love, a love which she must first embrace as the innermost foundation of her own character. That is the only place that love can have in our life, for that is where Christ is, and it is where Christ is that those who are burdened will find their rest.

And what do I think of this movie?

I’ve been torn between watching new movies with the hope of unearthing gems, and watching films I’ve seen before with the hope of writing a recommendation. I watch a dozen or so new movies a month; some I can’t finish, some are mesmerizingly ill-made, some boring, many good, a few might be great.  Here, in this list, will be movies which I will not unreservedly recommend, and some I have thrown straight in the trash. I’ll do no more than write a quick note for each, unless I hated it enough and found that it needs to be toppled from some gaudy and pretentious pillar. If you watch the movies on this list, let me know what you think of them. I myself will usually indicate whether I think the movie is worth a re-watch, is potentially great (I didn’t love Citizen Kane until the 3rd time I watched it), or if it is being heaved into a garbage truck next Wednesday.

Dunkirk

Excerpts from Nolan’s diary:

1

I awoke this morning feeling today will be extraordinary, ambitious, and groundbreaking. Not ordinary thoughts of ordinary men, but I am no longer an ordinary man. Last night I got my hands on a camera with untapped potential, and I am going to tap it. I’ve had ideas since when I was a kid of breaking the barriers of film, and this camera should be the very tool I need. It shall be the star of my movie, the best in a cast of one.

2

I’ve been having difficulties with this camera, I’m afraid it is not all it was toted to be. I had hoped so much to forgo particulars and capture ‘isms’ in their essential transcendence, but I can’t seem to focus on universals with this thing. It is always nearsighted, and so I think I will need to rouse up some people to stand between the camera and the essence of humanity; a few old planes and boats should do to represent the utmost of human endeavor. Sandhurst rang me up, and they have three Spitfires I can use. This is a most excellent bit of luck as I believe the Spitfire is just the craft to represent glorious individualism. (remember to use the Spitfire whenever I don’t know what else to film)

3

Upon reflection, I am glad I only have about ten planes in all: three Spitfires and a half-dozen German planes. This removes the temptation to film a battle while I’m filming my survivalist humanist pic. But war is the sort of thing I need to set my particulars in…damn technology and its inability to transcend.

4

I’ve thought of the perfect event, Dunkirk. It has all the elements I need: individual-humanism against God-nature-indifferentism, human-individualism against human-machine-destructionism, humanity against rationalism and defeatism and big government. I want to do something different here, put in some twist. I am thinking of making the Germans be the ones on the beach and the British be the bad guys with the Stukas.

5

I’ve decided to go with the complexity of three different timelines instead of a twist. The more I thought about it the more I realized that the movie couldn’t be affected by the swapping the Germans and the British and I didn’t want to bother with the German accents which I find not as convincing as the British sentimentalism.  If the audience is German or sympathetic to them, I am sure their accents will not get in the way of their imagining that the British are the Germans. (I sometimes think now about how humanity in its essence is able to be impacted by events and my films)

6

I’ve come a long way with the timelines. One is a day, one a week, and one an hour. This is very exciting and groundbreaking. I thought of also making it meaningful, but was afraid I might have to add a story line or human interest on a particular level to do that, and I must continue to stand firm against the flaws of the cinematic medium. Another possibility was to have the different threads meet up in an interesting way, but have opted for a couple overlaps in shots and a little backtracking. I am afraid that if I start putting characters together they might come to resemble government, or community, or something other than the quintessential individualism that has brought humanism to the fore.

7

Spitballed with Hans today. Sketched the idea for him and he was aboard in a moment. He told me he was inspired and would start working on something pronto. 45 minutes later he phoned me back and told me he had just sent over my soundtrack. I was of course delighted and surprised. Listening to it I realized it was just the sort minimalist modernism I needed, with a lot of that brilliant squeaky fast stuff which is SOOO suspenseful. I was flummoxed by the note he attached:

I’ve long wished for a visionary to bravely come forward and make this film. Raymond is a danger to our culture, my involvement with his creation and deification is truly the one regret of my professional career. Euthanasia is the new frontier, and I am glad that having worked together on the last frontier in Interstellar, we have together broached the next. DUA.

But the score was perfect, and so I merely thanked him for his ingenious help and chalked up the note to his eccentric humor.

8

Began filming today and found my lead. I had an excellent idea for the opening shot. It is going to be quite the most perfect shot of the movie. I had a few guys in British uniforms browsing a street and told some of them to die when shots were fired. They took it a bit far and all of them died but one and I figured that I may as well make him the focus of the week-timeline until he decided to fling the old arms up. It was a bit confusing really, since I hadn’t meant to be quite so focused on a single person in the beach scenes, and it didn’t help that he seemed to be one of a set of triplets, but now I think that my decision to run with him is justification enough for H calling me a visionary.

9

I added an old man in a boat today. I was only going to have a boat going across the channel for the day-timeline, but Kenneth Branagh said that he had difficulty bring the tear to his eye when the home pleasure fleet arrived and that listening to Hans’ wailing violins on loop was only making him irritated, not tearful. I thankfully remembered a punch article I read as a kid which listed the 40 stereotypical lines sure to invoke English stiff-upper-lip patriotism and not so formal gratitude. So I gave my boat a captain and a mate. There was some kid hanging around the wharf who insisted on being in the movie, and I was feeling benevolent so I let him onboard. It is a bit crowded on this boat and the kid can’t act, but I’ll figure something out.

10

I’m a bit worried about where my boat captain is going with this part of his. Give a mouse a cookie…

I brought Mr. Rylance on board to help Kenneth relate to the arrival of the fleet, and now I find he is threatening the whole endeavor; he is trying so hard to break through the script and be a virtuous hero. Thankfully he is erring on the mushy sentimental side, but even that is not quite as abstract as I could wish for.

11

Whenever I become too stressed from MR’s attempts to portray a character I switch over to Tom Hardy and his Spitfire: thank God for Sandhurst and Tom’s eyes. (Those eyes!) He is perfect in the role, and the role is perfect: no real interaction with anyone and the surreal voice of Michael Caine self-consciously proclaiming Oedipus prognostications. Humanity and Fate alone in the void—that is the fiber of my vision. I really didn’t write much for Tom to say, but I spent much ink on the stage directions ‘zigzag with a ME 109 for a long time and stagger gunfire effects too late on all the passes’. HVH is a master at interpretation here.

12

It has been a long time since my last entry, the work has been overwhelming. Of the 400,000 extras I had hired only a few thousand showed up. Of the extras that did show up some  thought they were not extras at all, the strangest being some dude who just started talking in the beached boat scene, and accused one of the other extras of being a spy. It was very strange and I thought we would have to continue to reshoot the scene, although we are going to use it after all now that we have been through the first full screening. Thankfully he hadn’t said anything which would date his accusations and we could use his paranoia to our advantage.

That screening was rough. No one there understood what I was doing. They wanted story, plot, character, involvement. No ‘ism’ was even mentioned. They insisted that I add development, climax and resolution. I haggled with them and pleaded with them to leave my brainchild essentially untouched, and eventually we compromised. I didn’t have to add any story arcs or structure, but instead was permitted to add vignettes, little burps of climax without resolution, which incidentally solved some residual problems, like the dockhand who couldn’t act, and permitted us to insert a very pretty Stuka dive we hadn’t found a place for.

I think this is a masterpiece.

Winter’s Bone

Winter’s bone seems to have been shot in only two locations, the Dolly’s cabin and an imposing old barn with an incongruously new door. Although Ree Dolly spends her time begging rides and knocking on one door after another, we can’t describe any home other than Ree’s as the camera only apologetically intrudes into the homes of those she visits, and seems anxious to move on. In this strange backwoods world of Missouri there is a code which is never explained to us, a code which ignores meth cooking while condemning the snitch, which permits one hand to distribute alms while the other throws sucker punches, which permits murder while demanding human respect. Ree knows this code inside and out, while we are left in the dark, and it is our awareness of this knowledge which lends to this film its strangely stationary mood.
Ree is not trying to overcome obstacles, but is trying to endure a trial which never for a moment deludes her. Her choice to save her family is not softened by ignorance, by the delusion of youthful optimism, and we grasp this only afterwards when the camera pauses with ruthless intensity upon the end of her resolution. It is the acceptance of her duty within her community and within its code, an acceptance which perhaps she never expressed before this crisis, which elevates Ree to sublime heights—there is nothing so wonderful as an ordinary girl buckling down under extraordinary circumstances and shining throughout her trial. The thought of leaving home, even for such good cause as supporting the family through her work is nothing other than a temptation, and indeed, Ree has no chance to run, but only the opportunity to endure. She must accept her cross or perish; there is no running. She endures, and so perhaps we shouldn’t speak of the camera following Ree at all, but instead of Ree standing still while the camera catches the world washing about her.
Now, how does Ree’s understanding of the code lead to the strangely stationary mood? I don’t much care for those who neglect the external aspects of a film to weave psychological explanations, propounding that entire movies are dream sequences or outward expressions of desires. That said, we see something forbidding and permanent when we see the structure of the barn with the automatic door and we know that this is the crucible Ree herself clearly saw and accepted when we first met her. She may have known where her quest would lead all along, but wisely choose not to go there alone and without warrant, instead enmeshing herself entirely within the community around her, building upon the support of her uncle Teardrop and those who love her, inevitably drawing nearer to the barn. That may be saying nothing more than that she approaches the barn by acceptance of her duty.
Someone once said ‘Some people are born great, some achieve greatness, while some have greatness thrust upon them’. Perhaps the last is the quiet way of Ree Dolly.

The Seventh Seal

Heavy-handed allegory can be avoided by pretending that there is no allegory at all (there is a certain cleverness in the big lie), but it can also be hidden away and denied by a refusal to admit the sign, not the thing signified. Ingmar Bergman does just this in The Seventh Seal: he has Death enrobed as the grim reaper and going through the common, medieval paces. Death plays chess, leads the danse macabre, and appears forebodingly in corners of grim castles as he is supposed to do while incarnate.
This is Death doing what he must, and yet there is an odd self-deprecation in this death, it is as though Death is whimsically doing what he ought, what people expect, while all the time being aware that by doing so he strikes a slightly ludicrous figure, a masquerade of seriousness over a pointless abyss. Thanks to his tongue-in-cheek thoughts, we catch glimpses of his humor—he cannot hide it—and with this assumption of character his allegorical nature is forgotten. To reinforce this confusion, Bergman has Jof, of the simple type, see visions of Mary and Christ which we also are permitted to see and to believe in… since we are able to see them, why should we doubt the authenticity of Antonius Block’s chess match against Death? So it seems as though Death is both common and not out of place.
Death, now well disguised as a character, flirts in and out of our vision without evoking the attention due to him from those he encounters, and we are brought almost to the point of belief in his humanity. He goes so far as to kill those he encounters in human, all-too-human, ways, and here we are struck by the reactions of those he meets; it is not Death as a walking and talking man that suggests something amiss, but the surreal calmness with which he is often met: a man patiently sits in a tree and suggests mitigating circumstances as reasons for keeping his life, without attempting to hop out of the tree, while death busies himself with felling the tree.
And here, in the reactions of those who die, we see Death unmasked; there is too strange a calm, too objective an approach to death. When we realize this we abruptly see the entire outlandishness of our companion, Death, standing upon the idea of taking the common expression ‘he met death’ most literally—too literally to permit conscious analogy, too seriously to avoid the comic depictions of Death. Bergman embraces death in all aspects, and only by doing so is he able to move beyond a morality tale (or, perhaps, its cynical cousin) to this stark, masterful study of the human soul and the soul’s belief in its own immortality.

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 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 British 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

The Third Man

On watching The Third Man I was surprised to find the most cliché of stories hitting hard. From the first scene we are introduced to one and then another of our standard detective story cast: a friendly policeman and an efficiently ruthless one, a helpful frightened servant, a sinister foreigner (somehow more foreign then all the others, and, of course, a baron), and, after the others have made their appearances, the love interest first seen on stage and then accosted in her dressing room. Throughout the introduction, Holly, our idealistic American protagonist, is driven by his own zither soundtrack from one encounter to the next at a pace so rapid that he even outpaces the scene setup crew and exposes the movie’s first secret: Holly, a writer of pulp westerns, is furiously creating in his mind a story to explain everything around himself, and it nearly works. But he didn’t account for Graham Greene, who screen wrote The Third Man.

But even in Holly’s near-miss the movie works, it works even before Graham Greene breaks down the dime-store façade with true moral dilemmas and the emergence of subtle temptations. How?

Films can embrace and explain what, if unembraced, would be stylistic flaws. This is most readily done by bringing the art of the whole into the story itself somehow, as we saw in The Battle of Algiers. Perhaps musicals are a good example of this: the sorts of characters we are introduced to are the type who break into wild song without provocation, and it does not, then, seem so strange that these same people will live somewhat wild lives—you may think they are a bunch of clowns, but you do not feel unduly manipulated by the director. There is a danger here since there is a great correlation between your appreciation of the music and your acceptance of the characters: if you find the music in Phantom of the Opera or Les Choiristes over the top and sentimental, then you will find the characters the same, but if you love the music you will love the movies. Maybe this effect should be called the breaking of walls one through three, when the machinations are embraced in some way by the protagonists.

Unique, perhaps, among these strange films, is the Third Man since it takes the machination itself as a theme. It embraces the dime store masquerade through the workings of Holly, a writer who just off the train sees and is convinced of foul play before he ought to be. Midway through the film, however, the façade is blown by the all too dangerous man in the doorway, and raw post-war Vienna dominates the screen. The transition is rough, although playfully presented by Orson Welles as something ordinary. And this presentation of the crude life of the Vienna black-market as acceptable is not unreasonable, not to Holly at least, for in the alluring veneer of Holly’s façade there is a flaw lurking, and waiting in this weakness is the great temptation of the film. A temptation which, perhaps, Holly is not directly tempted by, but which is in some way artistically tempting and a natural companion to the way Holly lives his life. The temptation is presented under the semblance of money-wise crime, not the ideals Holly operates under, but nonetheless serves as a vehicle of dehumanization with the same destination.