Posts Tagged Evan’s favorite films

Through a Glass Darkly

Year of release: 1961          Directed by Ingmar Bergman.          Starring Harriet Andersson, Max von Sydow, Gunnar Björnstrand, and Lars Passgård.

“Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.

“Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?” – C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, chapters 1 & 2 respectively

In wrestling with the grief caused by the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis gave voice to some of the darkest fears and notions that anyone can experience in a life of faith: not that there is no God, but that He’s a cruel, heartless sadist. Ingmar Bergman’s “faith trilogy” wrestles with similar questions, wondering how an omnipotent being could also be all good.

Through a Glass Darkly serves as the opening film of the trilogy. The title is a very obvious reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12, indicating the (very slightly) more optimistic outlook of this film compared to the two that follow it—Winter Light and The Silence, the titles alone which suggest the dimming light and dying faith of their protagonists and their director.

However, Through a Glass Darkly holds onto hope of one day seeing face to face, acknowledging both the terror and joy of such a possibility.

The frightening potential of beholding God can be seen through Karin (Harriet Andersson), a mentally ill woman who believes her schizophrenic episodes are visions of God. Her final vision—a frightful and horrific analogy of God as an attacking spider that is further explored in Bergman’s subsequent two films, which led to them being labeled a trilogy along with this one—is starkly reminiscent of Lewis’ line, “Deceive yourself no longer.”

At the same time the arc of Karin’s younger brother Minus (Lars Passgård) shows the hope and joy of direct communication with God. After spending the majority of the film trying to please his emotionally and physically distant father David (Gunnar Björnstrand) and having his relationship with his sister fall apart in increasingly destructive ways, the final scene is a heartfelt face to face exchange with his father about the nature of God. Minus’ takeaway is one of the most startling lines in the film, which summarizes everyone’s need to give and receive love, not just with other people but with God as well.

The lone outsider to this dysfunctional family is Karin’s husband Martin (Max von Sydow), who has clearly understood the “for worse” part of his vows. He confides to David that after Karin was released from the mental hospital, the doctors told him she would never recover. Her illness takes an increasing toll on their marriage, and her family is not much support with Minus’ stony disgust toward his sister’s behavior and David’s selfish artistic desire to exploit his daughter’s illness for one of his novels. In spite of this, Martin’s loyalty to Karin never wavers, regardless of the pain outside forces and people bring into their relationship.

I believe that is an additional metaphor for faith. It is a relationship with God, and while outside factors and other people may attempt to poison it, it is still a relationship from which we should not flee. Even if those forces turn it into a burden, faith is still something beautiful and worth preserving.

As the son of a Lutheran pastor, faith and doubt is at the center of many of Bergman’s films, perhaps nowhere more explicitly than in this film, Winter Light, and The Silence. The necessity of doubt as a means to enrich one’s faith, or learning to see with clouded vision, is captured through the insecurities and harshness of the world which the characters here inhabit.

Karin’s mental illness compounds those insecurities, and her explanation that voices tell her what to do may seem as if Bergman is saying religion is a form of mental illness, especially since her final breakdown is caused by her encounter with her malevolent notion of “god.” However, Bergman follows that scene with a moment of salvation for all the characters, which can first be heard approaching in the midst of the Karin’s encounter with the spider god.

It is this moment of salvation where the notion that God is Love starts, but only starts, to become clear. Prior to that, any role of the divine in the lives of the characters was seen, in the words of the title, through a glass darkly. That darkness was intensified by the unhealthy ways Karin, as well as her lonely brother and workaholic father, sought love. In the end, Love wants her healthy and for the family to have a functional relationship.

A lakeside family visit that goes to hell is not an unusual premise for a film, but Bergman’s use of that setting to depict a literal walk through hell with all its doubts and uncertainties creates two parallel journeys about doubt and mental illness that coalesce at the same rock bottom moment. Both trajectories are beautifully captured by Sven Nykvist’s quietly observant camera, inviting us to reflect on what’s before us, but also reminding us there’s more out of the frame that cannot be easily explained.

To continue the Bible verse referenced in the title, for now, we and the protagonists know in part, and when faced with the evil in their lives, it may remain that way. However, there are tangible moments of goodness and grace, even if the coexistence of those moments with tragedy seems like a contradiction. Or as a quote from St. Augustine says, “If you are able to comprehend it, it is not God.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

 

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The Lion in Winter

Many thanks to Darryl Armstrong for inviting me to contribute to Rise Up Daily with a review of one of my favorite movies, which happens to be one of my favorite Christmas movies as well.

 

 

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All That Jazz

Year of Release: 1979      Directed by Bob Fosse.  Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, Leland Palmer, and Deborah Geffner.

“And they’re dread wrong, I know they are/’Cuz I can play this here guitar/and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star on Broadway.” I remember in an undergrad pop music class analyzing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s song On Broadway, from which those lyrics are taken. The one thing I remember from that discussion was the professor pointing out the irony of immediately following that line with an unremarkable guitar solo, which is quickly swallowed up by the band.

Bob Fosse uses On Broadway for the opening number of his quasi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz. Over the course of the song we watch director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider in a career best performance) run a grueling day of auditions for his next musical as the mass of starstruck wannabes grows smaller and smaller. It could seem like a cynical song to open a cynical movie, but Fosse’s musical is every bit as much a love letter to the glamorous showbiz life as it is a critique.

On the one hand, All That Jazz is in many ways a seedier and more unflinching version of Fellini’s with elaborate song and dance numbers. Joe Gideon is a famous director who is facing a midlife crisis, struggling to finish a film that is well behind schedule and over budget, while simultaneously unable to make up his mind how he wants his next Broadway show to go. In the midst of these work conflicts, he recalls his formative experiences working in showbusiness and looks to the various women in his life for inspiration from the ingénue actress he cast in his latest show so he can sleep with her, to his current girlfriend, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his angelic muse.

If this set up sounds like a version of the “sexist man abuses everyone he knows and gets away with it, because he’s a great misunderstood artist” trope, it is because All That Jazz is a sort of confession for Fosse, who himself was a womanizer who abused drugs and alcohol, the same as Joe Gideon. However, Fosse is not interested in absolving Joe (or by extension himself). Indeed, he focuses more on the pain caused to the women by Joe’s selfishness, and the viewer’s sympathy is always with his resigned ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his heartbroken daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) who wishes her dad took better care of himself, or his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) who quietly accepts the other actresses he decides to sleep with.

In addition to Joe’s mistreatment of women, he also abuses drugs. There’s hardly a scene when he does not have a cigarette between his teeth. His carefully choreographed morning routine involves pills and eyedrops so he can get an inspirational high before putting his nose to the grindstone. However, the passion he throws into his abusive behaviors is an equally strong driving force for his work, which the film makes clear is a vocation for him.

On the most basic level, All That Jazz is a cautionary tale about wasting one’s talent and the dangers of throwing one’s life away on copious sex and drugs. At the same time, it is also more than the story of a super talented director and choreographer who dances and drugs himself to death. A sense of vocation permeates the film, from flashbacks of Joe’s childhood to interactions with his own daughter and Joe’s desire to leave the hospital as soon as he arrives there. All of these scenes show a burning drive to create that no amount of drugs or sex can replace or squelch.

Importantly, the creations are marvelous to behold. For my money, this is the best Fosse choreography ever captured on film. (No argument though with anyone who prefers his film of Cabaret.) A lovely scene of father-daughter bonding when Michelle stays late in the studio one night and dances with her dad shows how Joe has shared his talent and time with his daughter, the two gifts she wants more than anything else. Later she returns that gift with her dad’s girlfriend Kate in a two-woman performance choreographed to Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again. Erzsebet Foldi and Ann Reinking (Fosse’s own partner and collaborator for several years) are fabulous dancers, more than doing justice to Fosse’s dance routines.

Life imitates art imitates life. This is true both of the film and its creators and of the creations and characters within the film. The one scene we see edited over and over again from Joe’s upcoming movie is a monologue from a stand-up comic about going through the five stages of grief when one finds out they’re dying, which Joe himself starts enacting as his health begins to worsen. An elaborate striptease in a musical that is going to be a star vehicle for Joe’s ex-wife showcases the brilliant choreography and tremendous talent of Joe (and Fosse) while adding a sexual tension that is present in many aspects of his life. Finally, the way Fosse turns the final scenes into grand production numbers is the zenith of art and life blending.

As someone who works in the performance industry, it is rare to see anyone who lives life quite as recklessly as Joe Gideon. It is not uncommon to know people with substance abuse problems or a history of unhealthy relationships. However, even when an artist’s passions are misspent on destructive choices, that desire to create and partake in the divine creation is an unconquerable force. It’s a force Fosse understood, which is made clear throughout this entire film, especially in the fantasy sequences involving an angel (Jessica Lange) who forces Joe to reflect on his life even as she inspires him.

I suppose it is strange to find inspiration in a destructive tale of excess, but the celebration of beauty and art becomes a form of grace offered to even the most undeserving. While the film is cynical in critiquing the destruction an artist can choose to inflict upon himself and others, it simultaneously is a joyful celebration of the achievements the same artist can do if he applies his talents the way they were meant to be used.

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Heathers

Year of Release: 1989      Directed by Michael Lehmann.  Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannon Doherty, and Penelope Milford.

A friend once quipped, “There are two rules of humor: 1) nothing is funny; 2) anything can be funny. Both nothing and anything must be taken absolutely literally.” That is not to say that any and all jokes are funny and sensitive subjects are a free for all when it comes to humor. Rather, it is to say that with proper care and diligence, laughter in response to sensitive subjects can be an appropriate means of attacking the powerful and defending the weak.

Heathers is a film that makes jokes about taboo subjects including, but not limited to: teen suicide, date rape, homophobia, body shaming, bullying, eating disorders, narcissistic exploitative teachers, neglectful parents, and school shootings. And in every single one of its jokes, the target is the victimizer/abuser and the way our culture’s unhealthy obsessions with popularity and trying to make sure our team is the winning team perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable.

Exclusive tribalism is mocked from the first scene when the titular clique of high school mean girls, all named Heather except for their lackey Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), exert their self-claimed superiority over the rest of their high school first through humiliating an overweight girl named Martha and then by forcing the entire school to participate in a lunchtime poll, thought up by the ringleader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker).

The cruelty of humiliating Martha is contrasted with the sadistic glee of the Heathers, which sets up an unremarkable mockery of high school cliques for being exclusive and mean. However, the lunchtime poll is carried out with unapologetic aplomb by the Heathers despite its inherent stupidity, for which any other student would be mocked. This contrast makes it clear that things such as fashionable and the “in crowd” are determined by the whims of whomever can be the bossiest and most snobbish while getting others to envy them.

The first push back Veronica experiences against that poll, “If you received five million dollars, and on the same day aliens said they were going to blow up the planet in three days, what would you do with the money?” comes from obvious cool kid and scoundrel JD (Christian Slater, blatantly channeling Cuckoo’s Nest Jack Nicholson). We know JD is cool because he wears all black, openly tells Veronica how stupid Heather Chandler’s poll question is, and says “Greetings and salutations!” instead of hello. When threatened by the two school bullies, he also pulls a gun and shoots two blanks at them after calling them assholes to their face.

At this point every future plot point has been foreshadowed, and the stage is set for one of the darkest and funniest high school comedies, surpassing the similar high school satires of subsequent decades: Clueless and Mean Girls. One substantial reason that Heathers resonates so much more strongly for me than those other high school comedies is that is not afraid to follow its premise to the morbid conclusion necessitated by the tribalism and obsessive desire for coolness. Indeed, with its blend of horror and comedy, Heathers serves as a sort of link between Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the high school comedies of the ‘90’s and later decades.

Veronica’s trajectory in Heathers follows that of a horror film, albeit one punctuated with many moments of humor. Witnessing JD intimidate the two bullies whom she despises sparks an instant attraction, which leads to an inevitable partnership as Veronica transitions from a Heathers wannabe to a vigilante agent for justice within her high school. The problem is she abandoned her snobbish clique for an even more exclusive and dehumanizing one.

This blend of comedy and horror is perfectly captured in Daniel Waters’ brilliant dialogue, which is mannered enough to be obviously artificial compared to actual teenage talk, and yet is simultaneously pointed and stinging. Lines such as: “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count,” and “I use my grand IQ to decide what color lip gloss to wear in the morning and how to hit three keggers before curfew,” expose a broken world while belittling the mentalities that lead to such distortions.

The obsession with coolness and being a member of the right team or club is the primary target of Heathers’ satire. What is most remarkable, however, is not the film’s ruthless critique of that attitude among high schoolers nor how it shows the horrific yet logical conclusions of such selfish worldviews, but that it shows such shallowness also extends to adults as the teachers, parents, and principal respond to the increasing number of tragedies by selfishly using the supposed teen suicides as a platform to push their preconceived notions.

The destructive phoniness on display throughout the entire film is succinctly summarized by the highly stylized opening montage of the three Heathers playing croquet in outfits matching their balls, walking straight through flower beds, and hitting the balls into Veronica’s head instead of croquet hoops. This entire sequence is underscored by “Que será, será,” both a reminder of the childhood innocence which has been lost by the high school preoccupation with cliques and a commentary on the tragic inevitably such mentalities lead to when taken to extremes.

As Veronica, Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances, torn between the desire to be a member of the cool club and wanting to make the world a kinder place for everyone. As that tension leads her down an increasingly horrific road, the film capitalizes on several moments for her to experience actual humanity and compassion, serving as a sharp prick to her guilty conscience. Her delivery of her final line to JD is pitch perfect in its condemnation of their bad choices and as a triumphant rejection of the mentality that caused so many of the film’s tragedies in the first place. “You know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

Content Advisory: Long distance shot of date rape, multiple non-graphic murders, underage promiscuity, drinking, and smoking, recurring foul language. MPAA rating: R

Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

 

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