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