Gareth Higgins (garethhiggins.net) is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Who Is My Enemy?
I HAVE A SIMPLE view of what makes a movie great: Technical craft and aesthetic vision operating at their highest frequencies come together in service of a story or images that help us live better. How does the movie interact with what Mennonite peace theorist and practitioner John Paul Lederach calls the choice to participate in escalating dehumanization or escalating humanization? In other words, does the movie help us become less human or more? In a narrative film, do the characters’ doubts and loves, the pain they suffer, and the results of their actions leave us with a deeper sense of our own humanity?
No aspect of popular culture more urgently deserves our attention than how “enemies” are presented. What motivates “bad guys,” and how are they dealt with by “good guys”? What side is the audience on? It has been noted by some that every audience watching Star Wars wants to believe that it’s the Rebel Alliance, fighting a titanic battle against an Evil Empire. Some viewers may imagine the Empire is North Korea. Others may imagine it is the U.S. Then, of course, there is the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s clarity: that the line between good and evil runs through every person, not between us.
To See and Be Seen
2017 WAS A YEAR of vulnerability at the movies, beginning with the Best Picture Oscar going to Moonlight, a film about the potential to heal broken masculinity through male tenderness, and ending with real life stories of how some men abuse power and all men need to take responsibility for changing masculine cultures of domination. Here are some of the films that meant the most to me this year and help to illuminate that onscreen journey.
First there was Endless Poetry, the 88-year-old Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biographical wonder, about a mother’s love, a father’s distance, an artist’s emergence, and the wisdom of looking back and letting go.
Then, Patti Cake$, where the future of America is bright, embodied by a white working-class woman who makes hip-hop out of her struggles, an Indian immigrant so selfless that Patti Cake$’s success is what makes him happy, and an African-American street prophet raging against the machine, each falling into a community where flaws are loved.
Mother! was the most controversial film of the year: Before truth sets us free, it sometimes hurts. A lament for mistreating the Earth, which by dramatizing the burden of being the target of misogyny seeks to honor all women.
Third Way Movie-Going
“Where did we get this capacity to imagine that horribly complicated messes have been ironed out just because someone has looked us in the eye and told us so? I don’t know about you, but I keep getting it from the movies.” So says novelist Jim Shepard in his provocative new collection of essays on movies and making the American myth, smartly (and depressingly) titled The Tunnel at the End of the Light.
In Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Shepard sees sociopathy at the root of the desire for celebrity. He also reflects on how Saving Private Ryan was a “war movie found pleasing by conservatives and liberals, and it’s not hard to figure out why: ... more than enough war is hell to satisfy the left, and ... an even greater helping of well, it may be hell, but it sure brings out the best in us, doesn’t it? raw meat for the right.” Shepard makes a useful point— something can be remembered by one group of people as the antithesis of how another sees it.
Being Present to the Present
A FEW YEARS AGO, Woody Allen made a subtle cinematic joke about writers and artists harking back to “the good old days,” while soaking up—and co-creating—the atmosphere of 1920s Paris. If ever there was a “good old days,” some might think it was 1920s Paris. The joke of Midnight in Paris was that even people who live in the good old days are nostalgic for their own version. People feel the same way about movies: “They don’t make them like they used to” is the common refrain.
A Caper Film with More
LOGAN LUCKY, the new film from Steven Soderbergh, is a delicious surprise. It’s about working-class Southerners robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race, and its weaving of the intricacies of planning, executing, and living in the post-heist glow is hilarious and even warm.
More than that, it’s a heist film in which ordinary people (not slick, hypermasculine Armani warriors) employ imagination instead of heavy artillery to take money from an institution that doesn’t need it anyway. The fact that the target of the theft got the money through selling overpriced, undernourishing food and drink is only one piece of bonus philosophical content. It’s a rare thing: a thoroughly entertaining movie with real things to say about the moment it is released. At a time when left-right political division in the U.S. has intensified, Soderbergh, a Southerner who works from New York, has made a red-blue reconciliation comedy.
I GREW UP with Raiders of the Lost Ark—wildly entertaining, dancing brilliantly with movie craft, speeding up and slowing down in perfect measure, delicious humor and giant thrills aplenty.
But like us all, the filmmakers were subject to the prejudices, pressures, and knowledge of their time. So Raiders stereotypes the “Arab street,” and its casual approach to violence, while typical of action cinema, is ugly. The joy of the ride makes it easy to ignore that Raiders is about a Westerner using Africans to get a Middle Eastern sacred object into an American museum. It may be taking things more seriously than they deserve to even mention this, when the goal was merely a hugely enjoyable Saturday morning serial throwback. The problem with Raiders may be only visible in retrospect—it’s certainly not a bad film; just a popular one with gaps.
A Shortage of Empathy
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a strange sequel, both better and worse than the first. Better: It centers characters who in other movies would be marginalized; there’s a large dose of wit and tenderness (sometimes at the same time: such as a wonderful Mary Poppins joke that brings a huge laugh of endearment); a fluid visual imagination; and an actual idea: What happens when Ego rules the universe?
Worse: While in the original, violence was meted out sparingly, in this second Guardians outing, killing solves everything. One of the most brilliantly designed special-effects scenes in the post- Jurassic Park era is also one of the most nihilistic: A lovable rogue liberates a prison by means of a magic arrow that can kill dozens without needing to be re-aimed. He does it whistling a happy tune, accompanied by a wisecracking raccoon and a pop song. It’s cartoonish, of course, but I don’t recall Tom or Jerry ever killing anyone; this scene, in a film that elsewhere exhibits imagination and delight, merely invites us to revel in carnage.
Couldn’t we see the guardians dance their way into something other than annihilating their opponents? Couldn’t the character who can transform suffering by touch have been employed in the service of healing the bad guy’s megalomania? Guardians Vol. 2 gets a lot right, especially in allowing unconventional characters to take the stage. But it also carries on the tradition of family first and last, even if it means destroying everyone else.
David Foster Wallace once wrote, “If ... fiction can allow us ... to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own ... We become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” It might.
There’s no reason why this can’t be true of blockbuster action movies—indeed, I think Marvel is trying to get there. One of the many things to grieve about the recent death of the great filmmaker Jonathan Demme is that he never got to make a Marvel movie. His works always invited empathy: for a young woman investigator targeted by misogyny in The Silence of the Lambs, for the father of the bride at a messy wedding in Rachel Getting Married, for gay characters previously ignored or pathologized in mainstream cinema in Philadelphia. Demme lived as if the purpose of art was to lead us to understand each other, or at least to recognize when we don’t. He knew violence was a part of life and so should be a part of movies. He also had the kind of moral imagination that goes beyond merely playing killing for laughs.
I HAVE LOVED movies as long as I’ve loved anything, but these days I don’t love going to the movies. Multiplexes often feel like overpriced and overstimulating factories, in which we pay to be bombarded by advertising for other products. Industrial movie houses are more like planes going through turbulence than spaces for paying attention to art or even merely the pleasure of being entertained. Not an escape, but an ordeal.
This shadow has, however, provoked alternatives. Life-giving ways to watch movies are popping up—new independent theaters, community screenings, and festivals that interrupt the conveyor-belt method of get ’em in, sell ’em stuff, and get ’em out.
Small Stories with Big Meaning
JAPANESE DIRECTOR Hirokazu Koreeda tells delicate, exquisite tales—small stories that invite huge responses. They hold expansive space in which human beings can see what we really are—a little lower than the angels, deciphering what it is to live between the steeple and the gargoyle.
Koreeda’s early film After Life imagines death being followed by a week of decision during which the deceased are invited to choose the memory they wish to live in forever. It takes place mostly in a nondescript office building, in which ghosts and bureaucrats talk over desks and filing cabinets. But magic is at work. After Life is one of the great alchemical films—light and words dance with the viewer’s perception, transforming thoughts we thought were ours alone into a recognition of the universal need for love and our aspirations to live better.
Other Koreeda films—such as Like Father, Like Son; Our Little Sister; and Still Walking—are firmly rooted on earth, but the distance between the characters might be cosmic: a family confronting the discovery that their biological son was accidentally switched with another, three siblings meeting their teenage stepsister after their father’s death, the survivor of a near-drowning unsure what he owes the family of the boy who saved him.
Oppose Without Hatred
ONE OF the characters in the original King Kong (1933) says that “it was beauty killed the beast.” This line is spoken after the magnificent ape is hounded to his death by buzzing planes that knock him off the side of the Empire State Building, so it’s not strictly true. Beauty is actually what he wanted to save; I guess we could say it was the military-industrial-special-effects complex that killed him.
It’s a nice turn of phrase, nonetheless, and it came to mind recently when two of the biggest-scale movies of the year were released a week apart. The enormous monkey homage Kong: Skull Island and Disney’s live-action remake of its own Beauty and the Beast don’t immediately invite comparison, but the stories they’re based on are actually about the same thing: finding vulnerability behind terrifying facades.
The tenderness of the original Kong’s approach to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and Belle’s openness to the light that might be hiding behind the Beast ’s frightening demeanor are mirrors. But it’s inaccurate to think that the transformation—or the risk—in these stories travels only in one direction. Ann gets rescued and the Beast turns back into a man. But Kong also experiences love and Belle undergoes a rite of passage that leaves her more whole than before.
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