Friday, December 28, 2007

Films about religious camps: from Camp Out to Jesus Camp, to the kibbutz

In 2006 there were two contrasting small films about “Christian” camps that appeared at roughly the same time. They make a striking comparison.

Jesus Camp,” although shot as 4:3 digital video by A&E Indie (directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 87 min), got regular commercial theatrical distribution by Magnolia Pictures. I saw it at Landmark E Street Theater in downtown Washington DC. The film traces the lives of evangelical teens in the Kansas City area as they prepare for and then go to an evangelical summer camp near Devil’s Lake, ND (in winter, often the coldest place in the country!) Becky Fisher plays herself, and is most determined to communicate her Christian fervor (that’s how it comes across) with no apologies. This is a matter of Faith, of putting Jesus first, of being God’s warriors, and taking belief and religious authority over reason.

Camp Out,” directed by Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi (78 min), is also about a summer camp – this one in Minnesota (Bay Lake Camp) for gay teenagers. That sounds like it would be a world apart from the first film discussed here. Actually, most of the film chronicles the personal friendships developed among the participants. The film is very gentle and stays well within PG to PG-13 territory. There are talent shows and craft works; one of the campers wants to go to divinity school (which organizations like UFMCC can facilitate), and one of the counselors tells his harrowing experience getting ordained in a Lutheran church after coming out. (Like most denominations, Lutherans, common in Minnesota and northern states, vary widely from liberal to conservative congregations). This film was shown free in 2006 at the Lincoln Theater in Washington DC as part of Reel Affirmations 16, but I missed the screening. Since Comcast does not have Logo here, it was a while before I saw it, but I found it on in its entirety in ten chapters. (The link is here. Netflix shows the DVD as in save status.

MGM has a commercial film called “Camp” (2003, dir. Tom Graff) is a musical (music by Stephen Trask) about college age kids in a summer arts camp.

The Jewish community has a couple of small films about the equivalent of a religious camp, the kibbutz, although in a sense that’s different because a kibbutz is a more or less permanent residential settlement (with considerable political significance to problems in the Middle East). One of them is called simply "Kibbutz" (2006, directed by Racheli Schwartz, 53 min) and deals with the practical economic problems of the community. Another is called "The Children’s House", dir. Tamir Feingold (53 min) documents how children were separated from their parents in kibbutz life. I saw these films in 2006 at a Jewish Film Festival at the Jewish Community Center in Washington DC.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Oprah Winfrey presents: The Great Debaters (and Mitch Albom)

I had already touched on films that deal with debate on Aug. 19, 2007 on this blog. Christmas Day this year a somewhat more heavyweight film on debate started in theater chains, “The Great Debaters,” directed by Denzel Washington, produced by Oprah Winfrey’s production company (Harpo, her first name spelled in reverse) and The Weinstein Company, with major studio distribution by MGM.

This film gathers momentum as it progresses, and it’s instructive to talk about the ending first (I don’t think it’s a spoiler here), the 1935 debate between Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, a “negro college” according to the terminology of those days of segregation, and Harvard University. Wiley plays this game “on the road” (sounds like NFL playoffs now) and the film shows a steam engine passenger engine train ride through the woods and swamps of the South, headed north and east. (There are a couple of swamp scenes, which could be a reference to Caddo Lake, on the Texas-Louisiana border, the only natural lake in Texas, which has a large number of lakes formed by WPA depression-era-built dams).

The debaters have been forced to write their own arguments, on the affirmative side of: resolved: that civil disobedience is a legitimate form of activism. Earlier, their teacher Melvin B. Tolson (Denzel Washington) had made a “we give you the words” speech and said he would write their arguments. Harvard has actually found out about this practice, so it challenges the students to develop their own material – from a stack of books (including Henry David Thoreau ‘s “Civil Disobedience”). Still, each side has to argue one side (like a trial lawyer); this is no exercise in “objectivity”.

Wiley picks its 14-year-old kid James Farmer, Jr. (Denzel Whitaker) who has acted as the team’s researcher (though not wordsmith) to give the argument, which invokes Gandhi as an example. The Harvard boy talks about the rule of law and mixes things up with a homily about the doughboy sacrifices of World War I, and James is able to hit that one out of the park (even on the road – remember Lloyd Bentsen v. Dan Quayle in 1988?) After all, in the Jim Crow south, laws were being ignored and lynchings were common (one is shown in the film) and other laws enforcing segregation would soon (in two decades) have constitutional challenges. (At one point Tolson explains the origin of the word “lynch”).

There is an earlier debate where the white team tries to argue that integration should not be attempted because it will foster disorder – the same kinds of “blame the victim” or “heckler’s veto” arguments that were used to keep the military segregated (until Truman in 1948) and today are used to justify “don’t ask don’t tell” in the military.

The rest of the story deals largely with Tolson’s difficulties – his activism with unions and sharecroppers gets him in and his team in trouble, and James’s dad (Forest Whitaker) tries, for a while, to keep his son out of the running. We see a lot of paradox: African American children aiming for the American dream in the Depression era 1930s in the south, trying to verbalize their way out of their disadvantage, and yet being told what and how to argue.

The film looks grand. It is in widescreen, full 2.35 to 1, and the visual environment of the 30s is recreated well. At the end, an audience in Arlington VA (about 30% of the audience was African American) applauded.

Harpo films also recently produced the TV baseball movie “Mitch Albom’s For One More Day” for ABC (aired Dec. 9) in which a “failed” baseball player reviews his life while being united with his deceased mother, in order to get the will to live.

In 2004/2005, Winfrey (and Harpo Films) produced "Their Eyes Were Watching God," based on the novel by Zora Neale Hurston, which is often assigned reading in high school English classes. The story concerns a young African American women Janie Starks (played by Halle Berry) whose behavior with men confounds the social norms of the 1920s, which were not necessarily limited by race. The DVD is is 1.37:1 (maybe because this is a TV film for ABC), which means that some sense of space and breadth is lost, especially in the outdoor scenes toward the end around Florida's Lake Okeechobee, and especially during the hurricane. Janie says that her eyes are watching God as the storm approaches. It will lead to a fitting tragedy.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Classic movies at Christmas-time

During the Holidays, we see some of the same classic black-and-white films every year, often on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). Some of them we do take for granted. For example, there is “Miracle on 34th Street” (the street that houses the Empire State Building and is close to Penn Station), first made in 1947 by 20th Century Fox with George Seaton directing, and Edmund Gwenn as Kris Kringle / Santa Claus, and John Payne as Fred Gailey who makes the case that he is the “real” Santa Claus. Natalie Wood, as a child, played Susan. The 1994 remake (also Fox, this time in garish Deluxe color) is directed by Less Mayfield and has Richard Attenborough as Kris and emphasizes the point of view of the child Susan Walker (Mara Wilson). Now I learned that the fables were, in a “real world” sense, untrue from my parents one at a time, first Santa Claus, and then the Easter Bunny. The filming of the earlier version on location, including Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, was novel for its time. The earlier version is available on DVD in both BW and colorized versions; I have never been a fan of colorizing black and white, as many films communicate more through the abstraction of BW.

A more compelling film from its moral point of view is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” from RKO Radio, 1946, directed by Frank Capra. Here George Bailey is the Everyman (I mention the 15th Century morality play that they made us read in senior English: ) and he wants to end it all after getting accused of embezzlement (it’s a bit complicated). An angel Clarence (Henry Travers) shows him how barren the lives of his family members and townspeople would be or would have been without him.

The idea that one should take account of the end-result impact of his or her life on others (or of what his life would cause if he succeeded at everything) has gained moral importance, and fits into the concept of karma.

But the best of these may be I Remember Mama (1948, RKO Radio, directed by George Stevens), based on the novel by Kathryn Forbes, as a woman recalls her life as a girl in a large family in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, and traces her life in parallel phases: accepting the common sacrifices of family responsibility, something that earlier generations could not question, and her development as a storyteller and writer. A critical point in the film is whether it is all right to write about other family members. It isn’t in the beginning (according to the girl’s teacher) but during the course of the film it becomes so.

Don't forget the first VistaVision ("Motion Picture High Fidelity") film from Paramount, "White Christmas" in 1954 (directed Michael Curtz) with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, as a vaudeville team tries to save a Vermont inn owned by a former commanding general. I miss VistaVision (remember how it looked in "Vertigo" (1958)), and the depth and clarity that it achieved (compare to Todd AO). NBC Today this morning gave 1941 as the date for the film; imdb gives only 1954.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Lars and the Real Girl

Imagine you’re at an actor’s workshop, like the one I used to attend in Minneapolis when I lived there (link). The group will set up dramatic situations, to improvise. Screenwriting classes do this, too.

So imagine a married couple with an expectant mother (the Lindstroms, played by Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) has encouraged the shy and possibly almost autistic husband’s younger brother to come live with them because he spends so time alone, and the brother (Lars, played by a very restrained and dressed-in-layers Ryan Gossling) brings a new girl friend he met on the Internet (please not a Myspace friend) – the only trouble is that the girl is a mannequin. She is an imaginary companion.

Now go on, and wonder what you can do with this. The doll, Bianca, gradually becomes real to the household and to the townspeople. Eventually, Lars will have to outgrow her and be able to have a real girl friend. But how much can one do with this?

The film is "Lars and the Real Girl," directed by Craig Gillespie, written by Nancy Oliver, from Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, production company for a much larger film, “The Kite Runner”, from Dreamworks (reviewed Dec. 15), this film distributed by MGM (yes, our favorite trademark cat). It does seem a bit like an exercise; it could easily have been a stage play, and it seems minimalist.

There’s more of this. Lars has a job as a computer programmer, and some of his office mates (one of them played by Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) play similar tricks on each other, and have their little fetish objects in their cubicles. The film offers a sympathetic Canadian health system GP (Patricia Clarkson) playing psychiatrist (although with the family name, you think the film happens in Minnesota), an ambulance ride for a doll (with single payer you can get away with that) and even a funeral. All to give up a fantasy.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to extrapolate from this, for me especially, beyond the fact that as a boy I had an imaginary companion (I called him Back and worried about the day I would have to give him up). Sometimes media characters seem as real as people, especially the role models. Think of some of our most appealing characters: Clark Kent, Sam Winchester, Ephram Brown, Justin Taylor, Jake Foley, even soap opera’s Nick Fallon. (I’m afraid that right now too many of the females, real and imagined, have been bad role models.) Sometimes “they” seem like real people.

Monday, December 17, 2007

"My Kid Could Paint That" -- documentary explores "Truth" in art

My Kid Could Paint That,” from Sony Pictures Classics and A&E Indie, and Axis Films and Passion Films, will indeed probably become stable documentary on the A&E channel, although it enjoys a theatrical release now. Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev has made his own process of artistry the subject of controversy comparable to the artist that he examines.

Most people by now have heard the basic story. Mark, an amateur painter who sometimes sells realistic paintings of his upstate New York area, and his wife Laura let their four year old have at it with oil paint. Almost with a process of finger-painting followed by some brush and palette, she creates interesting impressions with her dabs, and out of fun, the parents display her work at a local Binghamton NY business. Soon people are making offers for her work, which is compared to the work of Jackson Pollick. After hundreds of thousands of dollars in sales, there is a CBS 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose show examining the family, suggesting that it is a hoax. But the family gets over it and she starts selling again.

The point here seems to be one of Einstein’s relativity principles: beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the observer can change what is seen. The film throughout examines whether abstract art is a put-on (John Stossel even appears). Any story, Laura says, generates its own change, and it’s inevitable if they stumbled into a happening with her art, they can wander into an un-happening. So they do. People write very nasty things about the parents on message boards on the Internet – the film shows images of the boards, and we don’t need to quote the words here; they hurt. But it goes away. The filmmaker is left to reflect: he wanted to tell this story, but is it a real story, or did the filmmaker create it himself? We are left to ponder the eternal feminine, whether art can ever express truth. Well, not exactly (mathematics can), but it can urge us to find the truth for ourselves.

I can think of a good parallel example in my own life, where the perception of my own work has taken sudden turns back and forth, just because the laws of physics and “stalking the wild pendulum” (Bentov) seem to require this oscillation.

One can wonder these things about music, which, after all, invokes art over another dimension, time. Some of the same questions about prodigy and talent can exist. But it’s easy to tell, over time, whether a composer’s work resonates with listeners and moves them into new perceptions, even as the language of music expands from composer to composer. Music, like art (even as Da Vinci knew), has always been systematized in mathematical relationships, and so it is as it moved forward into twelve-tone music and sometimes computer-generated music even back in the 50s.

The implications or art legitimacy and forgery were explored in Clive Barker’s massive 1991 novel Imajica with the character Gentle; perhaps this will see film one day soon.

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner, directed by Marc Forster, based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini, produced by Dreamworks with Participant, and distributed by Paramount Classics/Vantage, started its theatrical release today (Dec. 14), after a postponement of several weeks over concerns for safety to the two young actors, who are reportedly secure somewhere in the UAE. The radical Muslim outrage focuses on one particular scene early, in a culture that blames victims of assaults for bringing it on themselves. Although the film will not be shown in theaters in Afghanistan, certainly DVDs will appear. Many people in Afghan culture do not understand movies and that what is shown is fiction, and will believe that the boys were actually shamed in the real plane, and may want to take revenge. Apparently Paramount hired former CIA agent John Kariakou (discussed on the International Issues blog Dec 11 in "CIA Agent Speaks Out" on ABC) who felt that the danger was significant. The book author, Mr. Hosseini, says he has experienced no problems in the four years since the best-selling book was published, unlike the situation of Salman Rushdie in Britain. (As far as people "not understanding movies," I actually had a problem with a school administration believing that one of my fictitious screenplays that I had authored and placed on my domain was "real"; that's the heart of the infamous "Touching" case in California in the late 1970s.)

Actually, to focus on that misses the main points of the film, which might emanate from the Islamic belief (according to the film) that all sin gets down to stealing in some form. In a patriarchal culture, that means especially that family members owe their fathers (and Allah) inasmuch as everything they have (in a world that does not distribute wealth evenly) was given to them by religious and family circumstances. From that one principle a rich and layered story evolves.

As boys, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada) and Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) are friends in 1978 Kabul, and Hassan, though a bit shy, is an accomplished kite runner. Amir is more cerebral and writes stories, which his benevolent father Baba (Homayoun Ershadi) asks to look at, as if Amir was writing away inappropriate family secrets. That turns out to be a feint, but Amir may have a bit of a dark side. A neighborhood Pashtun teen Assef (Salam Yousafzi) complains that Hassan’s presence is a burden because he comes from a different tribe. (Hassan insists that he is not personally hurting anyone.) A beating and sexual assault follows, and it is absolutely clear the assault is about power (to conquer and degrade an “enemy”), and has no erotic meaning at all. It is carefully and obliquely filmed, and the film stays within PG-13 territory, probably because it is so clear that this is about political pecking order and nothing more. (Nevertheless, the outrage in some Islamic world segments, who see their culture humiliated and attacked.) Now Amir starts to taunt Hassan, trying to prod Hassan to hit back (that was done to me as a boy). Amir then “frames” Hassan for a minor theft, in an adolescent-brain even that seems hard to explain the same way similar false witness by the girl Briony in “Atonement” unfolds in a film reviewed Dec. 8. Hassan’s father (Nabu Tanhi) insists that Amir leave Afghanistan with his father Baba, just as the Soviet invasion begins. There are arrangements to look after Baba’s house and other family matters, but it should be no surprise that these fall apart under the pressure of the Soviet invasion.

One wonders here if it would be more logical for Amir to have become the target of bullying. After all, he is the more cerebral. Both boys seem somewhat sensitive and quirky. Even so, Amir could have wound up sent away with an even more subtle set of tribal moral problems. As the story is set up, Amir (Khalid Abdalla as an adult), though becoming a successful writer in San Francisco (his book is called something like “Heaven from the Ashes”) and marrying without being able to have children. The story intersects 1988 and 2000 and Amir hardly ages at all as he reaches his early 30s.

Amir gets a phone call in 2000, to the effect that he should return to Afghanistan to make things right. (Here the movie poster line, "There is a way to be good again" appears.) His mission is to pick up a nephew left from the family tragedy which his boyhood deception helped create. So there is the basic plot element here that makes “Atonement” work, although Amir could have felt considerable family pressure anyway even without a personal sin. The last third of the film, most of it shot in western China, is spectacular with the brown and snowy mountains and passes. (The film does have live footage from Kabul.) He puts on a fake beard to fool the Taliban, now in power when the Soviets are expelled. He witnesses a stoning of an adulteress in the stadium, and is detected. There is a final confrontation, where he is asked why he deserted his own people. Now that sounds more like tribalism than anything having to do with a personal sin. There is some irony in how he gets out that we won’t disclose, as a spoiler. Needless to say, he and his wife will have a family. But he might have been expected to be responsible for his nephew anyway in this bloodline-tribe driven culture.

The film does underline the Taliban's preoccupation with male beards, a secondary sexual characteristic that seems to have ritualistic significance and seems to fit in to their religious justification of an economic and social "pecking order." At one point Amir is told never to make eye contact on the street or stare at any other male. The incredibly strict religious environment seems designed to protect the ability of males to "perform" the way their tribes expect.

The film, then, comes across as a searing examination of the moral principles underneath Islamic society. Amir is the progressive, trying to bring culture and individuality back into Islam, a character that it had a thousand years ago before the Crusades. The film makes it appear as if the self-righteous Taliban came into power largely as a reaction to Communism, and that Islam took its negative turn in history because of external insults. That may be the case. The film, like the likable writer character, tries to nudge Islam into the a direction of accepting individual freedom within the context of its scriptures. The film may be banned in Afghanistan and some tribal areas of Pakistan where authorities fear it will trigger vengeful emotions.

The film does not take us up to 9/11, although it’s easy to imagine that it could have. I recall, in General Education in Ninth Grade, choosing Afghanistan (“a place at the ends of the Earth” according to Newsweek in the fall of 2001) as the Asian country that I would report on to the class, and the teacher’s making the comment that she knew that this was the country I would pick. There was some prescience in her mind a half century ago.

Here's another blogger's review, at this link.

A more conventionally styled film (a sort of satire-comedy) about the international "scheming" that it took a Texas Congressman (Tom Hanks) to respond to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is Univeral's "Charlie Wilson's War," directed by Mike Nichols, based on the book by George Crile.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Mudge Boy -- little film from Strand and Showtime has a lot to teach

The Mudge Boy is a little film, made back in 2003, that offers a couple of lessons in technique and thought for filmmakers with GLBT materials.

On the DVD, the director Michael Burke talks about the “catch 22” in small film: you have to have the cast to get money, and you have to get money to get a cast. Emile Hirsch and Tom Guiry, from opposite coasts, were willing to rehearse critical scenes on their own dime, and that helped. The film was developed for Showtime, and had a brief theatrical release from Strand Releasing. Films with compact, original stories and short-story-like dramatic confrontations and situations have the best chance of attracting investors.

The other interesting point about this film is that it tells gay men, particularly, how to get into the minds of their parents, especially fathers, and the emotions that parents of GLBT people face. In the movie, Richard Jenkins plays the father Edgar, left to raise his only “different” son when his wife suddenly dies of a heart attack (her sudden death while biking opens the film). He wants his son Duncan Mudge (Hirsch) to take over the chores now and be able to take over the farm some day. The events of the film – Duncan’s cross dressing with his mother’s clothes, his behavior with animals – especially chickens (“Chicken Man!”), his unusual approach to relating to more conventional other boys – force the father eventually to accept his son as different. And this is a blow to him. He will probably not have a biological lineage, he will go his own way in life. If the boy eventually inherits the farm, he will probably sell it to a large agribusiness corporation, take the money and go his own way with his own pursuits, likely in the arts.

People like Duncan’s father perceive the nuclear biological family as a social, physical and psychological safety net. Besides the Church, with the idea of salvation by Grace, it is the one institution that guarantees that people who otherwise would accomplish little from the global view of the outside world still have meaning. In the father's view, at least when the film starts, the moral justification of what the son will get in the world (relative to what people in other families get) depends on the son's loyalty to his own blood, and the son is obligated to maintain the saftey net. This is net is being poked with holes, allowing some people to fall through into an abyss, while others excel. Eventually, however, in this story, Edgar will learn to live with himself in a world with very different rules.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Smithsonian: Lions 3D, Sea Monsters 3D

The Smithsonian in Washington, the Samuel C. Johnson Theater in the National Museum of Natural History, shows some Imax 3-D (on a 90 ft w x 66 ft h screen) documentaries from National Geographic. All of the films would probably fit into the PG category.

Lions 3D, directed by Tim Liveredge, 40 min, traces the life of a lion pride in the Kalabari Desert in Botswana, north of South Africa. Much of the territory is a flat land salt delta, where seasonal dust storms actually give lions hunting opportunities. Lions are the only cats with a major social organization, and this seems to comport with the fact that males have visible secondary sexual characteristics (manes). A particular male “owns” two females, and the younger lioness is learning to hunt. The older lioness has cubs and trains and raises them, but a raiding male could kill them, if it fit the strategy of propagating one’s genes. The individual wild cats had distinct personalities (one wonders how they accepted human photographers in their territory) and took on the personas of characters in a more conventional film, even making a variety of roars and sounds as "speech". Lion society is somewhat like a primitive patriarchal human society. It starts with survival of the fittest genes, and it is up to civilization to make things more just. Other animals, including hyenas, are shown.

The film does provoke some social and moral thinking. Most of us think of cats as being a bit like us (leading us to become attached to them as having real personalities), and here they are trying to have a society. Without some kind of moral compass rooted in the family (and faith), the ultimate safety net is shredded for some people, and the “losers” after left to perish according to natural Darwinism (or Spenceriansism). Not that human family values don’t embrace their own moral contradictions.

Sea Monsters 3D (42 min, dir. Sean Phillips) has probably the very best realistic animation ever seen on film, when it comes to depicting underwater reptiles (somewhat like crocodiles), amphibians, fish, and mollusks like they would have lived 200 million years ago. Archeologists, mainly in the little known badlands in western Kansas (and some in South Dakota) study frozen-in-time fossils of these creatures from the inland sea (recreated in the NBC disaster movie “10.5 Apocalypse”). The film also shows digs in Australia and in The Netherlands. One water reptile died of gluttony, choking on a smaller reptile. Another small reptile survived an attack, to grow up with a shark tooth in its fin.

When I made still pictures as a boy, I called one of the movies “Sea Monsters” and imagined giant squid climbing onto ships. (That happens in the Sci-Fi movie “Eye of the Beast”).

The Museum also shows, in the Mammals hall lobby, a (conventional video) film called “Mammals” that traces how mammals evolved after the asteroid-based extinction 65 million years ago wiped out the predatory dinosaurs. The film defines mammals as warm blooded, having hair, and extra ear bone, and mammary glands for nursing live born young. They imagine a reunion party with 100 million year old rodents (gnawing animals). A lot of guests don’t make the cut. “You don’t have any hair.” Indeed.

Update: Jan 19, 2008

On Jan 17 Animal Planet had a one hour film "Big Cat Diary" with amazing close up African photos of a lion "family" (where a mother teachers her cubs to finish a kill she has started -- a first), a leopard (running from a baboon), and aggressive courtship among cheetahs -- the cheetah may be the most "tamable" big cat (the WB film "Duma" from South Africa), where a somewhat "dog-like" male cheetah raised in a household with children acts like part of the family (like a Labrador Retriever), even able to learn to operate a remote television pad with its mouth; he only learns who he is when he sees a female when taken in the wild. Large cats don't seem to object to man or to cameras as long as they are in the wild and are not cornered.

Update: April 6, 2008

On May 28 Discovery APL aired a similar "Big Cat Challenge" as lions, leopards, and cheetahs compete in the same space, with cheetahs working the day shift. The show maintains that in a lion pride, only the alpha male gets to have a lineage, and the dominant male will kill the cubs of all other males. Furthermore, the dominant males will take away the kills of younger "bachelor males." This sounds like a primer for the worst of human behavior, such as fascist societies. However, in the animal world, the show maintains, such practice means the strongest genes survive. That sounds questionable, as genetic variation is itself a good thing in the long run. We feel fascinated with big cats because they are problem solvers, have real personalities and emotions (such as the grief of the lioness when her "illegal" cub is killed by the alpha male), and real soap opera. They seem so much like us, and perhaps that is frightening. With a slightly large brain (that might have developed with more genetic variation, which "family values" tend to encourage), perhaps big cats could have developed the ethical perspective that a civilization (humans) needs to grow. Then the cats might have ruled the planet. Bonobo chimps have some of this perspective.

PBS Nature aired "Lions: Pride in Peril" narrated by Richard Attenborough, following a small pride living in an old caldera in Africa. The social structure of the animals is explored as the pride deals with reproductive failure and competition from nearby tribes. The animals are under tremendous pressure to learn to hunt and reproduce competitively, and the film seems to offer a subtle commentary on our own moral values.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Jerusalem Is Proud to Present (from WJFF Festival)

I preface this review is a little anecdote. Back in the summer of 2003, when I was working a telephone debt collector, I reached and mini-marandized someone who owed just a small balance, about $65. I said such, and he retorted angrily, “then why don’t you pay it for me, then?” (I didn’t.) Sounds like something out of the Bible, the sharing of burdens. It gives an insight in what some people expect of any hardline, fundamentalist religious faith. Life is unfair (Donald Trump always says that rather brazenly), life is hard, and bad things happen beyond people’s control. With a strong religious conviction and black-and-white ideas about right and wrong, it is possible to share some identity with others of the faith, and rationalize the hardships that are imposed.

Today, Sunday Dec. 9, The Washington DC Jewish Film Festival presented (at the Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater of the Jewish Community Center on 16th St) a screening of the sensational documentary "Jerusalem is Proud to Present" (“Yerushalaim geaa lehatzig,” 2007, Kesnet/Israel Channel 8, dir. Nitzan Gildady, in Hebrew and English with subtitles, 86 min) along with a Q&A afterwards with Special Guest: Sa’ar Netanel, Member of the Jerusalem City Council (Meretz Party), presented in Partnership with the J’s Stuart S. Kurlander Program for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement, Co-sponsored by the Embassy of Israel, New Israel Fund and Reel Affirmations. The WJFF link is here. The Jewish Quarterly link is this.

Actually, Israel has enjoyed significant GLBT Pride celebrations in Tel Aviv for some years, but the 2006 was the first major such event in Jerusalem. The film traces the difficulties encountered by Open House in putting on both the festival (in August 2006) and then in attempting a 1500 foot march. Of course, there was tremendous religious opposition, most of all from the Orthodox community that at one point has a march screaming “Woe.” But there were also many individual characters with their own stories. For example, there is the attractive Palestinian young man who police allow to cross into the Jewish quarter to go to the one gay bar (the Shushan, now closed) where he performs as a drag queen, with actually rather minimal makeup or change. Israeli police consider someone like that “safe,” yet his own Palestinian people (Hamas) eventually tell him he must leave or offer himself as a martyr. On the other hand, there is Andy Russo, an intense young man whose forearms bare the scars of past violence, and who was stabbed in a Pride event in Tel Aviv. His mother begs him not to participate, and to regard his own life and family as more important than his political causes. But such is not the way things are in the Middle East, or a lot of other places.

The film, which is quite professionally made (it seems to be in HD video, 1.85:1 and digital stereo) shows a street-level look at ordinary life in Jerusalem like few films have. It builds up real suspense, that outlasts what sound like senseless antigay harangues from the fundamentalists (who often enough are women, saying that “these people” will capture the young with AIDS). There is a confrontation in the Jerusalem city council, over whether the rule of Law can trump over religious intolerance and intimidation. People are backed into situations where they are threatened with total breakdown of the usual application of security and law. In the background, other conflicts in the West Bank and Gaza are reported, and the Israeli military must consider the diversion of resources to protect the gay events in Jerusalem. (It's interesting that Israel allows open gays to serve in its conscripted military, in contrast to the United States.) The irony is, of course, is that GLBT issues transcend religious differences, and sometimes would encourage personal bonds from both sides of the Wall, and encourage peace in the region. We are left to ponder what fundamentalism (and the belief by both sides that their tribes have God- or Allah- given rights to the land) really means to people. Marx once wrote “religion is the opiate of the masses.”

There is one curious home scene where, in the midst of crisis, three playful house cats appear, as if to make us question what the sense is of our fighting each other all the time. They don't care.

In the end, the festival is held, and the march is postponed, and then a replacement event is held for the march in an outdoor stadium which I believe is the same venue where Leonard Bernstein once conducted Mahler’s Second (the “Resurrection”). In early 2007, a short (500 meter) march finally was held, according to Netanel.

The film is said to be making the festival circuit. Let’s hope an American theatrical and cable distributor (maybe Picturehouse / HBO, for example) picks it up soon.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Atonement: a great example of layered screenwriting (head to head with "Golden Compass" on spiritual matters)

Of course, many of us (New Age people particularly) understand personal atonement as required by the Law of Karma. From a Christian perspective, only Jesus Christ can personally atone for all of our sins, and we find ourselves self-negotiation out of a maze of contradictions. I personally believe that we must atone for our wrongs and for unfair takings, and that how we are situated in the next life (in whatever universe) is affected by it. But, in this film, we’re reminded of how we can atone for the sins committed by others. It seems that Grace is necessary because no matter how hard we try, we cannot prevent our subordination by events we cannot prevent.

So it goes with this mesmerizing British film from Universal Focus Features and Working Title, “Atonement,” based on the novel by Ian McEwan, directed by Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice). With hypnotic piano and orchestra music by Dario Marianelli (it vacillates between (C) major and minor in Mahlerian fashion “G—E Ab D# G—“ etc), it casts the spell of a Hitchcock thriller, with lots of close-ups (Wright eschewed widest aspect ration in order to keep a focus on the characters, even though many of the war scenes could have used it), and it turns out that the mystery in the story is in the reality of the events itself. As the film opens, talented 13-year-old girl Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan) has written a perfunctory play (she types “The End” and typewriters in this period piece set between 1935 and 1940 really do have the social consequences of computers). By the end of the film, you won’t remember the name of the play. She gets her little twin brothers to rehearse it, all buttoned up; but then soon her imagination runs wild in a series of plot steps that require the moviegoer to pay attention to detail (the focused direction – no pun here – helps) to compare her later accusations with “reality.” Now much of her bad judgment, jealousy or vindictiveness (it’s hard to separate them) revolves around her teenage crush on groundskeeper Robbie (James McAvoy, who looks in this movie a little less than perfect in the midsection, and he smokes – that’s depressing), who is falling in love with his older (and more mundane) sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley). There are several incidents that mince words and intimacy, and they are carefully set up. A crucial plot point has to do with Robbie’s playfully typing an “obscene” sentence (the camera lingers on the typeface here, a scene that would have wasted wide screen) and Briony’s accidentally finding it and delivering it. That sequence makes the point that in the physical world of English manor estates, mislaid letters or notes can be as dangerous as emails or social networking profiles today. Finally, the accusation comes, and so do the police. Briony even realizes that she could be misunderstanding things, but she has already been told by the headmistress that she did the right thing already.

At this point the film’s narration gradually moves out of real space. Robbie tells us that he was invited to join the Army to get out of prison for a crime he didn’t commit. (Here is the opportunity for Christian fundamentalism that the film wisely skips.) He sees Dunkirk, and in a series of scenes catches up with both Tallis girls. Briony has become a nurse (rather like Louise May Alcott) to atone for now what she realizes is a horrific sin. Gradually, we realize that the personal confrontations make less sense in the real plane (or brane).

The payoff, we learn, is that some of the denouement is layered itself into Briony’s last novel, as Vanessa Redgrave, soon to die of a dementia, is interviewed about her final novel. The effect is similar to the flashback that forms almost all of James Horner’s “Titanic.” Resolution is to be attained only imagination; in real life, there was only tragedy in the early days of the War, before the United States was present in Britain (where most World War II movies pick up).

The screenwriting concept itself is fascinating: to mix imagination with “reality” as if they were interchangeable because the writer himself or herself wants to change the world.

The trailers for the film summarize the “real” story pretty well, and the closing credits make it clear that Universal itself was pretty involved with the film. This movie is quite ambitious, and could have been distributed under Universal’s own “Valkyries” trademark. Starting in a platform release, it sold out at matinees today at Landmark’s E-Street downtown Washington DC.

The device of mixing "real life" narrative with events from an author's story has been tried before, often in "science fiction." In fact, Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" (2007, Samuel Goldwyn), following two nuclear attacks in Texas, gravitates toward a July 4 apocalypse in LA, but it is only gradually that we realize that some of the apocalypse comes from a circulating screenplay "The Power" by character Boxer Santoros (Dwayne Johnson), particular when Sean William Scott's character splits into doubles approaching a violent rendez vous, and Justin Timberlake (his character, that is)is just so plain goofy. Earlier, Kelly's "Donnie Darko" had experimented with imagination and reality. But also look at William Malone 's "FearDotCom" (2002, TriStar) where the police detectives go into a website, or Joseph Rusnak's "Thirteenth Floor" (1999, Columbia) where a virtual reality world replica of 1930s LA becomes quite circumscribed at the end. Of course, David Lynch played with ideas like this ("Lost Highway") as have some "puppet master" movies.

This weekend New Line’s latest pride and joy “The Golden Compass,” based on Philip Pullman’s novel opening his “Dark Trilogy”, opened in multiplexes this weekend. (New Line insinuates that it will reproduce the phenomenon of "Lord of the Rings" with this. Well, probably not.) This film also relates to the "faith card." Many evangelicals have challenged it’s “faith,” but I don’t think it is necessarily less honoring of Christianity than the Narnia Chronicles. True, souls don’t inhabit animal doubles that accompany people. But the idea of parallel universes connected by “dust” (branes in quantum physics) itself is interesting. After all, to exist, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, the Islamic Paradise, etc. all have to exist in some location in some universe. God cannot change mathematics. The "alethiometer" reminds me of the astrolabe, a kind of ancient mechanical computer that is an interesting toy now.

Friday, December 07, 2007

True Love, a short-film anthology by Michael J. Saul

True Love (2004, Waterbearer / Moonspinner, 72 min) is an anthology of seven GLBT related short films all written and directed by Michael J. Saul. Each film is like a short story, an incident or “slice of life”, and each film is rather open-ended as to what the follow-up would be. The films seem more interconnected than are the films of most anthologies. The filmmaker says that the stories are about how people view others as having sexuality based on their own perceptions and needs (especially as parents). The film deals with very sensitive issues but treats them with great restraint (except for one simulated scene in a car). It is unrated but would probably correspond to a “kind and gentle” side of the MPAA “R” rating.

The DVD adds a featurette, “True Stories About True Love” to analyze the stories. It adds “On the Set of True Love,” in which Mr. Saul explains how he achieved his dream of making his feature film for about $10000, which included auditioning a lot of actors and paying little money (but giving meals), and editing on a Mac (Final Cut) in his bedroom. He did not mention using SAG; I discussed SAG for indie films on Oct. 15, 2007 on this blog. Mr. Saul says that technology has allowed emerging artists to produce and distribute their work with relatively modest resources compared to the established industry as a whole. The cast includes John Ainsworth, Michael Bierman, Michael James Crowley, Cameron Northey, Mark Weathers, and Ryan Thomas as “Tristan.”

A Christmas Story is framed as a Super-8 miniature, of a boy celebrating Christmas morning with his mother, and we notice that he is a little different from other boys.

Going Gay starts with a confrontation between well-aged, balding father and a teen son as the drive around LA. The dad keeps trying to get the boy to “tell.” The father threatens to take the boy to a place that will make him the way he is supposed to be. The boy gets out of the car and visits the teenage friend that his father is suspicious of, and has another confrontation that end inconclusively.

History starts out with a West Hollyood restaurant dinner scene in a style than reminds one of the famous 1981 film “My Dinner with Andre.” A middle aged man is conversing with his gay grad student age nephew. The nephew starts to confront him about the possibility of past abuse. All he wants is an admission.

Sunday is a miniature where two late middle aged men, apparently committed lovers, wake up on a Sunday morning. Benjamin Britten had named one of the episodes in “Peter Grimes” this.

He Was Perfect starts with a familiar but not often discussed situation in discos: one man on the sidelines ogles another “Mr. Perfect” on the dance floor. “Mr. Perfect” ‘s boyfriend thinks that creates a problem. (I found myself in a situation like this at least twice; one time a woman came up and asked me “what’s your next birthday?”) Nevertheless, they steal away for a moment in a car, and the ogler gets what he fantasized he wanted.

Staying Together has an out-of-sight country kitchen confrontation between two young gay men in a relationship, at a party.

A Little Drama has the sound man of a stage school production of the Liebestod scene from Richard Wagner ‘s “Tristan and Isolde” (that was a film in 2005) starting at the actor playing Tristan, and the actor notices and offers a reward. (Anyone notice that Jared Padalecki ‘s middle name is “Tristan”?)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Awake, and aware

Well, if you’re awake on the operating table, but paralyzed and immobilized, and you hear the surgeons talking about their plot to murder you – well, that sounds like the ultimate cliffhanger crisis. In fiction writing and particularly screenwriting, pundits always say to create the sharpest possible crisis to keep the audience from putting that book down or from going to the concession stand for teeth-cleaning popcorn with rancid melted butter. The situation that Clay Beresford (a very natty looking Hayden Christiansen) finds himself in certain fits the bill for the ultimate plot crisis.

I won’t spoil things too much here to say how rookie British writer (and director) Joby Harrold resolves the plot, other than to say what’s obvious: about the only way to get out of this mess is to go “out of body.” Maybe try a little astral projection. You need more than email and search engines to contact your loved ones: you need telepathy. If it could really happen, yes, the world would change. This idea has been tried before, as when Lucas (Chad Michael Murray) goes out of body after his accident+genes triggered heart failure in TheWB series “One Tree Hill.” I could add that a little remote viewing, the kind that the CIA supposedly teaches in a country estate near Charlottesville, VA could help, too.

The trouble with this new flick from MGM, The Weinstein Company and Greenestreet Films (the credits mention a lot of resources from London but carry the “made in NY” seal) is that Hayden looks way too healthy and robust to be believable as a heart transplant candidate, all the way from the shaggy legs drooping from the OR table to the upper arm definition. He looks like he belongs as another Krypton phantom on "Smallville". They do play games with his body all right in the OR (and a little bit before), although in the scenes that matter (with the telltale heart exposed – literally) the body is obviously a mannequin, attached to his head with CGI.

The medical issues is, of course, anesthesia awareness. I’ve been under the knife only once, for six hours, and lost all memory before reaching the operating room as the sedative started. They are supposed to give you a drug erasing memories of the operation. It’s as if this movie tells you why.

Hayden Christiansen is one of today’s most appealing young actors, but the characters he plays do “get it” sometimes. In the third Star Wars movie (Revenge of the Sith) as Anakin Skywaker his character gets burnt to a crisp and turned replaced by the robotic body that becomes Darth Vader. In "Shattered Glass", he plays a New Republic writer who succumbs to pressures and commits journalistic fraud.

But go see this movie to find out how the rich heir Clay Beresford saves himself (if he can).