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.

The Hustler

There is no movie quite like The Hustler for its seemingly bottomless supply of powerful actors portraying weak characters. Now, that isn’t quite properly put, but what is meant by character is at the heart of this film.
     From when Fast Eddie first enters the local pool hall we know that we are looking at a career defining moment for Paul Newman—he stands apart from the midday riff-raff and in his cocky assuredness we believe. But he is waiting for a man, and in doing so, he reveals his boyishness. So the question becomes, who is this man for whom he waits, and for what do we need him? At eight on the dime Minnesota Fats strides into the hall, and at once we are struck by Jackie Gleason’s command of the floor and by how he dwarfs Fast Eddie. He has presence; we say to ourselves Fast Eddie is just a kid, a cocky kid. But somehow Fast Eddie continues to demand our undivided attention, and so we make the best of the bind and give it to the two of them together. The menial nature of the game they play is forgotten for a moment as we see their contest take on the character of something heroic. Surrounded by onlookers, absorbed in the play, even dressed up for it, Fats and Fast Eddie participate in a ritual glossed by talent but relying on character, high-stakes pool. The spell is broken by the entrance of Bert, called onto the scene by Fats, and immediately assuming the dominant role, giving advice and proffering judgement. As Bert, George C. Scott claims the first position, and in doing so makes a distinction between character and talent, which will both bear out our believe that his possession of the one cannot mask his dearth of the other, and reveal the question the movie wishes to pose.
     It comes as a surprise to Fast Eddie when Bert claims that great talent can be paired with a loser and it comes as a surprise to us that Bert himself is betting on the wrong answer. We see Bert refuted in the end, and yet we are not given an answer to the question. What is character?
     I don’t know that this question is answered, but neither am I sure the question is meant to be answered. Strong leading roles permit the question to be merely raised without answer. Think of the recent superhero movies: since the action is clear-cut good versus evil (even if the studios like to indulge in shallow psychoanalysis and love drooling over the lesser of two evils) the character need not act or be interesting; all they must do is hurt the bad guys. If there is no clear right or wrong in such a movie it cannot help devolving into shallow cynicism, the film must emphatically answer any worthwhile questions it raises or fail. And since films are short and our emotions slow I doubt we often see questions at all but only the answering statements, right or wrong.
     There are perpetual questions in the art world, or rather, assumptions (the questions are in the philosophical world surrounding art): how is it possible for a bad man to be a great artist how is it possible for a great man to be a poor artist, how does art contain more than the artist intends and in what manner does it do so? Fast Eddie and Minnesota Fats are artists and consider themselves as such (it is evident in their disdain for Bert), but who is the better artist, and who has character?

Samurai Rebellion

This movie was going to be called ‘Rebellion’, but the producers thought it would be more enticing to American audiences if it included the word ‘Samurai’.  Knowing that, it is not as surprising to watch the movie and see no fighting until the last ten minutes. This is not a martial arts flick, but a family drama, and the situation into which the father (Mifune, who is most famous as the fool in Seven Samurai) is placed is one in which he is only concerned with holding the family together though dishonor and death might come. Again, as in Kobayaski’s other great film Hara Kiri, those who insist on holding to the hollow forms of the Samurai code must in the end see the form ring hollow as they confront a powerful warrior dedicated to those he loves.

There is a beautiful visual effect toward the beginning of the movie where a story within a story within the story is being told, and the story tellers and audience are sitting in such a way that the camera is able to move seamlessly back and forth between each storytelling in such a way that all are woven into the same emotional tapestry.

This is a great movie, and worth re-watching.

Siberiade

I don’t know another movie which does what Siberiade does so well, but then again, I don’t know another movie that even tries to portray the relationship between two families over a span of eighty years.

What did the rise of Soviet Russia mean to Russians? A big enough question, one that doesn’t have a tidy answer—is an answer even attempted? The little village of Elan which the story revolves around is full of Dostoievskian  characters who must face folks straight from ancient fables: a man endlessly cutting a straight road through the forest to reach a star births a man who becomes a war hero and a vicious soviet puppet; the character billed as ‘the eternal old man’ hovers around a young dandy with a fixation on discovering oil and giving earthy reason to the cutting of the forest road by his lunatic grandfather; an axe murderer and a chorus of old-believers lend context and surreal aspect to the final dramatic scenes.

Interest in the characters was furthered by having known their ancestors, and was not dissipated by the somewhat brief encounters with them that such a movie demanded.

Although this movie is over 4 hours long, I’ll give it another viewing.

 

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.