Decent Films Blog
The celebratory media frenzy over the 50th anniversary of The Pill has reached even the pages of Variety, where past editor and current vice president and editorial director Peter Bart has written a strange essay called “‘Sex’ and the summer franchise” (subscription required) that somehow contrives to link a blip in summer movie patterns to five decades of contraception.
Bearing the subtitle “Fifty years ago the Pill changed everything, including the movies,” the essay is an odd mishmash of social commentary predicated on a tenuous entertainment news note: This summer’s movie roster features two (2) chick-flick franchise sequels (the third Twilight movie and a Sex and the City sequel), and only one (1) guy franchise sequel (Iron Man 2).
An unusual state of affairs, certainly, but not much meat to build an article from. Has Hollywood’s guy-centricity changed in any fundamental way? Probably not. And what exactly has this got to do with the Pill? Bart strains to connect the dots:
The Pill celebrated the sexual liberation of women, but 50 years later it has also ushered in an era in which women are paying the bills, delaying the babies and also looking after the sputtering ids and egos of their guys, most of whom have been laid off or never had a job to begin with.
It’s a fascinating trade-off: Controlling your reproductivity means increasing your productivity.
There’s an odd tone of feminist gloating here, as if Bart considers the increased financial pressure on women a small price to pay for the downgrading of the male id and ego. I hadn’t heard, though, that even in these days of 10 percent unemployment (or 17%, or 22%, or whatever adjusted figure you prefer) “most” guys were unemployed if they ever had jobs in the first place. Perhaps it’s only “most” of the guys with whom these luckless career women are saddled? If so, who knew that male unemployability was such a key indicator of success with women?
The first few years of post-Pill America were a time of hubris. Women rejoiced in their sexual freedom and the boys did all they could to help. Businesses started hiring more women because they knew their new recruits wouldn’t automatically start having babies. Women got the message: In the 1970s alone the percentage of women in law schools soared from 10% to 36%.
Translational note: “Hubris” seems to be viewed as a positive thing here. Oh, and why “women” and “the boys”?
Then comes this howler:
A couple of generations later, however, society is at once more liberated and more repressed. Conservatives and evangelicals have decided that contraception weakens the marital bond by separating sex from procreation.
“Conservatives. And. Evangelicals. Have. Decided.”
Bart. What are you smoking? Do you even know any conservatives or Evangelicals? Reading this, I picture you as the polar opposite of The Blind Side’s Tuohy family: “Who would have thought we’d have a black child before we knew a conservative Evangelical?”
Where do you start critiquing all that is wrong with this statement? First, there’s the absurdity of crediting “conservatives and Evangelicals” with recently “deciding” what has always been taught by the largest religious body in the United States, and what every major Protestant tradition affirmed until exactly 70 years ago this year. Second, as a statement about current conservative and Evangelical attitudes toward contraception, it’s about as wrong as it is possible for any statement beginning with the words “conservatives and evangelicals have decided” to be.
The droplet of truth in this ocean of absurdity is that Protestantism by nature is incorrigibly heterogeneous, and very few uncontroversial propositions can be formulated beginning with clauses like “All Protestants believe” or “Evangelicalism unambiguously affirms.” Seventy years after Protestants began defecting from the historic Christian opposition to contraception that previously united Catholics and Protestants, that defection is, to date, not 100 percent absolute. Fringe groups and movements under the Protestant umbrella can be found rejecting contraception (and even natural family planning), such as the Quiverfull movement, which Wikipedia describes as numbering “a few thousand.”
But the massive, overwhelming sociological fact is that conservative Evangelicals have embraced contraception about as wholeheartedly as they’ve embraced anything. Christian rock is more controversial among conservative Evangelicals than contraception. Acceptance of homosexuality is more widespread among self-described Evangelicals than rejection of contraception.
But Bart’s not finished. He goes on:
Thus in Sarah Palin’s America, young people aren’t supposed to talk about sex, just engage in it.
This, of course, is really a dig at Bristol Palin, the culture of death’s poster girl du jour for Christian hypocrisy. The really amazing thing here, though, is how 18 months after the election here we are living in “Sarah Palin’s America.” You’d think the Administration would have done something about that by now. Last I heard, even Sarah Palin’s Alaska was under new management. Way to confirm the Palin Derangement Syndrome stereotype, Bart.
Then there’s this brilliant observation:
Meanwhile marital bonds have weakened, not because of the Pill (the only relevant pill these days is Viagra) but because couples live too g**d*** long. The inventors of marriage were thinking of short-lived peasants, not 90-year-old geriatrics.
Riight. That’s why divorce courts today are jammed with 90-year-old geriatric couples who just can’t take it no more. Thus the famous “hockey stick” graphic showing how divorces rise sharply the longer a couple stays together. Oh wait. No, in this reality, divorces follow a ski slope pattern, with the most divorces occurring in the first five years, then tapering off after that. Yes, there has been an increase in long-term marriages breaking up too, but the steep part of the slope, the early years, is still where the bulk of the increase has occurred.
Still, longevity, not contraception, must be the key factor. It must be because twentysomething newlyweds find themselves looking across the breakfast table asking themselves, “This is fine for now, but can I really live with this person into our geriatric years? It’s not like we’ll both be dead in a decade or two, like short-lived peasants in the good old days.” That’s the ticket.
“The only relevant pill these days is Viagra.” Gosh, I hadn’t heard that oral contraceptives were so irrelevant these days. The pope must be pleased.
Bart wraps up:
Fifty years after the Pill, society is giving off very mixed signals. Sexual freedom was supposed to bring enlightenment. I actually believed that. What was I smoking?
Last week Peter Chattaway blogged an essay on Avatar and religion originally written for Anglican Planet (which is an awesome name for an Anglican periodical on so many levels, although I know nothing else about it).
As always, Chattaway is worth reading in full, but here’s how he begins:
Like me, Chattaway thinks that Ross Douthat was reaching a bit (in what I would otherwise call an excellent column) in calling Avatar a long “apologia for pantheism.” Citing resonances with aspects of Christian belief, from stewardship of creation to the intercession of the saints, Chattaway argues that for “those who can approach the film on its own allegorical level, and with the right kind of discernment, there is definitely something we Christians can work with here.”
James Cameron has given many interviews over the past few months, promoting Avatar and discussing the ground-breaking technology that went into it. He has even defended the film from those who take issue with its politics or its depiction of the military.
But I have yet to see an interview in which anyone encourages Cameron to talk about his religious influences.
This is a shame, as Cameron’s films have often been peppered with religious names, symbols and story elements, and Avatar … represents his most explicitly religious film to date.
This is not to say that the film advocates a specific religion, per se, but it does raise questions that are essentially religious in nature, about our relationship to Creation, to one another, and ultimately to some sort of spiritual reality that is higher than us.
A couple of busy weeks on the air: Next Friday, 5/7, I’ll be doing an hour of Kresta in the Afternoon from 5pm–6pm EDT. Then the following Friday, 5/14, I’ll be back on Catholic Answers Live from 6pm–7pm EDT. (See homepage Spotlight for “listen live” links.)
The big topics for both of these appearances will be Thomas Balmès’s Babies and the new Iron Man 2, both opening on 5/7, over Mother’s Day weekend.
American Mother’s Day, that is. A friend in England wrote this morning to remind me that the UK celebrates Mother’s Day on the fourth Sunday in Lent, also known as Laetare Sunday. (Usage in other countries varies, although it most often falls in May, according to Wikipedia. In Balmès’s native Framce, Mother’s Day falls on the last Sunday in May, unless pre-empted by Pentecost, in which case it moves to June. So there!)
Rereading my ten-year-old essay “Dogma in Dogma” today, it occurs to me that I was basically trying to beat Kevin Smith at his own game, to treat Dogma more or less the same way that the film treats dogma.
When I started Decent Films, one of the first tasks I set myself was to offer a critical defense of the objections of believers to controversial films like Dogma and The Last Temptation of Christ — to respond critically to the films’ defenders, and particularly to their criticism of believers and their objections to the films.
In both of these cases, my strategy was to begin by acknowledging all that could be acknowledged on behalf of the film before going on to nail down where I felt the essential problem lay. In the case of Dogma, it was easier to find things to acknowledge on behalf of the film (such as its satiric jabs at the kind of religious banality represented by the “Buddy Christ” image) than in the case of Last Temptation, which I found pretty excruciating from start to finish.
My review of Dogma, also written ten years ago, is about half positive and half negative. I think the basic points still work, although today I prefer the energy and creativity of the companion essay “Dogma in Dogma.”
Taking as its point of departure Roger Ebert’s remark that Kevin Smith’s Dogma “takes Catholic theology absolutely literally,” “Dogma in Dogma” spends most of its time noodling the movie’s theological conceits with straight-faced satire before pulling out the serious punches. That’s basically what Smith does with Catholicism, and I’d like to think that Smith himself would appreciate the turnabout.
Roger Ebert, a long-time opponent of 3D and a skeptic of most 3D movies, has an essay in Newsweek explaining why. His opening salvo is typical both of his views on the subject and of his lucid, vigorous writing style:
3-D is a waste of a perfectly good dimension. Hollywood’s current crazy stampede toward it is suicidal. It adds nothing essential to the moviegoing experience. For some, it is an annoying distraction. For others, it creates nausea and headaches. It is driven largely to sell expensive projection equipment and add a $5 to $7.50 surcharge on already expensive movie tickets. Its image is noticeably darker than standard 2-D. It is unsuitable for grown-up films of any seriousness. It limits the freedom of directors to make films as they choose. For moviegoers in the PG-13 and R ranges, it only rarely provides an experience worth paying a premium for.
Judging from the box-office success of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans and now How to Train Your Dragon (which bounced back on amazing word of mouth from initially tepid performance and regained the #1 spot last weekend), Ebert might be preaching to a pretty deserted choir loft. Still, he clearly has a point—several in fact, some more telling than others.
3D is dim, true (I noticed this especially on Clash of the Titans). In fact, each eye gets only half the usual amount of light. Still, that’s a tech problem that can be corrected.
More enduring are Ebert’s objections that 3D is unsuitable for grown-up films—Crazy Heart in 3D, anyone?—and that it limits the freedom of directors to make movies as they choose. How does it do this? Partly because, in one very important way, traditional 2D movies are more like real-world 3D vision than 3D movies.
When you look at the real world with two eyes, your eyes have to choose where to focus: on objects close at hand, far away or somewhere in between. Regular 2D movies can mimic this effect, cueing the viewer where to pay attention, and sometimes redirecting the viewer from one part of the image to another by shifting (or “racking”) the focus. 2D movies can also use “deep focus” to bring the entire field of vision into focus at once.
A 3D movie uses two different points of view to create a fairly convincing illusion of 3D—but there are catches. In reality the entire image is the same distance from your eyes: the distance of the screen. Superficially it seems to your brain as if certain objects are closer and others farther away; in principle, this ought to mean that you could refocus your eyes on closer objects or farther objects—but you can’t. Try to focus on a blurry far-away object, and it remains just as blurry as before.
This wrecks the illusion of 3D, so 3D directors are basically obliged to rely on deep focus, to minimize the problem of seemingly 3D objects you can’t focus on. This, though, isn’t what real depth is like either; in the real world, everything isn’t in focus all at once.
What’s more, by relying on deep focus, the director loses the use of shallow focus and racking focus to guide the viewer’s attention. This is a bigger deal than casual movie watchers may realize, precisely because of the effectiveness of these tools at guiding the viewer experience, often without the viewer even noticing. You might think that Jurassic Park would be even cooler in 3D, but consider, for example, the shot in which Tim becomes aware of the velociraptor behind him: the focus rack from Tim’s face to the alarming silhouette behind the screen, and back to Tim’s terrified face. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t work well in 3D.
And that brings me to one of the least appealing aspects of the 3D craze: the push to retrofit older films for 3D. Converting 2D images to 3D is and will always be a flawed process, since you have to invent information that isn’t there about what objects look like from different points of view. Does anyone really need to see Titanic in dodgy 3D? Raiders? Star Wars? The Wizard of Oz?
Those words, uttered by Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell in Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning Apollo 13, plastered across posters for the film, have become a ubiquitous part of the English lexicon—even though they’re not exactly what the real Jim Lovell actually said. According to Wikipedia, Lovell, repeating his fellow Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, actually said, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” All rightee then.
Speaking of which, “All rightee then” is another one of those phrases you hear everywhere, often from people who have no idea where it comes from, or even that it comes from anywhere at all. When Morgan Freeman as God said it to Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty, it took me a beat to process that Freeman was repeating the phrase to the actor who had originated it—in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.
Movie quotations suffuse our language. Sometimes we use them knowingly, sometimes not. A recent article in the Guardian, “The Universal Language of Film Quoting” (warning: offensive language), took stock of this phenomenon. “Pop quiz, hotshot,” the article begins: When you hear the phrase “Pop quiz, hotshot,” what do you think? The source is Dennis Hopper in Speed, but you don’t actually need to know that to pick up on the vibe.
From the article:
[A]fter a lifetime of saturation-exposure to pop culture, soaking through our brains like solvents through sodden cotton wool, we have at our mental command a quote to fit every situation. And we draw on it constantly and frequently, sometimes without even thinking. Quotes accentuate our dialogue: they make it funnier, richer, deeper and more engaging. Of course, they also make it rather childish and trivial, but we won’t let that bother us …
There is absolutely nothing to beat the exact right line from a movie or TV show – whatever suits that precise moment best. Something goes well and you hiss “Exxxcelleeent” like Mr Burns [from “The Simpsons”], and everyone laughs along. Recently my dad stood as godfather for my brother’s baby: cue lines about kissing the hand of the “padrino”, may your first-born child be a masculine one, you’ve never invited me over for coffee. And so on and so on.
Such quotations can be universal, or they can be idiosyncratic to a particular family or circle of friends. Like the Guardian writer, I do say “Exxxcelleeent” in that Mr. Burns voice. But I wonder whether the Guardian writer or his circle of friends would recognize some of the sources of movie quotations in our household.
A Man for All Seasons, for instance. “I wish rain water was beer!” my wife Suzanne will say mockingly in response to some utopian political proposal. And if I tell my children, “Well, he cahn’t!” in the tone of Paul Scofield’s Thomas More telling Meg that Will Roper can’t marry her, they know it’s final.
Other sources are more familiar, even if the usage is idiosyncratic. Suzanne is fond of “Why does the floor move?” from Raiders of the Lost Ark. She may use it if she sees bugs in the house, or perhaps if a child is slinking along under a blanket.
Even baby Catie, a year and a half, drops movie quotations. She’s discovered Havarti cheese (it comes in the Costco party pack), and when she wants more she says, “Cheese, Gromit!” (Actually, it comes out more like “Tee, Dromit!”)
More obscurely, when she’s fussing for something, she sometimes interrupts herself to shout, “Haaam!” That’s from Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo, but Catie doesn’t know that. She’s just quoting her siblings, whom she’s heard say “Ham” in response to her fussing.
Sometimes during our family rosary, I may expand upon the mysteries with a brief meditation. One line I like for the Nativity is: “Behold, I have become human. If you should not want to join me in becoming God, you would do me wrong.” I think it’s a quotation from Meister Eckhart—but I know it as an intertitle from one of my favorite films, Into Great Silence.
Miracle is one of the better sports movies of recent years, dramatizing one of the most memorable American Olympic victories in the last 30 years. My review is this week’s Spotlight piece. (This post is a bit belated, as I’ve been snowed under by deadlines, but the homepage Spotlight was updated on Monday on schedule.)
Incidentally, as for what I’ve been working on, keep watching from now to Mother’s Day — and hold on for Father’s Day in June, too. In the meantime, read the review.
In 2009, two films were released with the title No Greater Love. One, with shades of Fireproof, is an Evangelical-produced drama about marriage woes and recovery. Forget that one. The one I’m interested in suggests shades of Into Great Silence, Philip Gröning’s transcendent cinematic portrait of Carthusian spirituality.
British filmmaker Michael Whyte’s indie documentary No Greater Love takes us into the silence of Most Holy Trinity, a monastery of Carmelite nuns unobtrusively situated in the fashionable Notting Hill area of West London. (My interview with Whyte is in today’s Register Web Exclusives.)
Much like Gröning, who waited 16 years for permission to film the monks at the Grand Chartreuse monastery, White corresponded with the nuns for 10 years before they opened their doors to him. Unlike Gröning, he didn’t have to go to the French Alps to film his subjects—the monastery is across the square from where he lives. Another notable difference: Where Gröning wasn’t allowed to interview the Carthusians, Whyte did interview the Carmelites. Here’s an excerpt from an intriguing article on the film in Sight & Sound, “The Big Wait”:
It’s these interviews which give No Greater Love such a distinctive feel, helping differentiate it from Philip Gröning’s more abstract study of Carthusian monks, Into Great Silence. The nuns here talk eloquently about the difficulties of maintaining an existence of religious contemplation and affirm their belief in the value of silence and prayer.
I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet, but I’m intrigued by the reviews I’ve read so far. Here’s the Independent:
[White] captures something of its severe self-discipline … but also its strange merriment, as the nuns go about their work (gardening, laundering, cooking) and talk on camera about their vocation. Their honesty is sometimes poignant, and humbling - one sister talks of a period of doubt that lasted 18 years; another describes her own torments of the soul as ‘darkness, boredom, dryness, deadness’. It absolutely discredits the idea of a nunnery as an escape from reality, for these women are obliged to face their own self all day, every day: what could be more ‘real’ than that?
Here’s another from Empire:
The sisters’ insights into a life of seclusion, contemplation and intercession are courageous and compelling, while the revelations about self-discovery, doubt and divine consolation are laudably frank and deeply moving.
When is No Greater Love coming to the States? You’ll know as soon as I do. In the meantime, here’s my interview with Whyte.
From the beginning the rodents were always there, tiny sidekicks running around in the periphery of Disney animated features, starting with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White’s woodland attendants included chipmunks, squirrels and rabbits as well as raccoons, bluebirds and other critters — everything but mice, it seems, though there is at least one mouse in the picture, an irritable little fellow in a mouse-hole in the Dwarfs’ house who objects to the sweeping squirrels using his hole as a dust-bin.
Bambi’s many woodland-creature cameos include a meadow mouse who takes shelter under a mushroom during a rainstorm. I don’t remember whether there are any mice in Pinocchio (where the key sidekick role goes to a cricket) or Fantasia — other than Mickey himself, of course, the Big Cheese of the Mouse House.
At any rate, Cinderella marks a notable turning point, with mice not only taking over the sidekick role as the heroine’s attendants, but threatening at times to take over the picture, too. They have names now, Jaq and Gus-Gus, and they become integral to the story and even to the climax to a concerning degree. It is here that the Disneyfication process begins to show signs of wear.
After Cinderella, they crop up here and there in other pictures, but their next big break is The Rescuers, where the mice actually become the stars of the picture. There is still a nominal human heroine, Penny, whom the mice are helping as their predecessors did in earlier pictures, but the movie is not about Penny, it’s about Bernard and Miss Bianca. The sidekicks have taken over.
Finally, the mice’s ultimate triumph: The Great Mouse Detective, in which the mouse heroes aid a damsel in distress who is herself a mouse, leaving humans out of the picture entirely. (There were no humans in Robin Hood either, but that movie was populated by lots of species, with mice in only a tiny role.)
At last the mice have taken over completely, and the only hint of human personality is the occasionally-glimpsed silhouette of Sherlock Holmes, playing his violin and murmuring in the background in the sampled voice of the late Basil Rathbone. If Mickey was behind the scenes from the start, pulling strings on behalf of his species, this is the picture he wanted to make all along.
It didn’t last, of course. The mice were back to helping humans in The Rescuers Down Under — and then came the Disney renaissance, starting with The Little Mermaid and then Beauty and the Beast, with human beings (half-humans in the case of Ariel’s folk) firmly in the spotlight again. The physical smallness of the mouse heroes of The Great Mouse Detective as well as the Rescuers flicks mirrors the modest ambitions and achievements of this stage in the studio’s history; once Disney found their groove again, the mice were back in the shadows.
On a side note, it was also during this time of post-Walt doldrums that Disney animator Don Bluth, frustrated with the studio’s creative stagnation, broke away to form a rival animation studio. What did he make? Among his most notable pictures are The Secret of Nimh and An American Tail — both starring mice (and both with murine-created gadgetry, just like The Great Mouse Detective). Ironically, although Bluth’s pictures never quite fulfilled the animator’s promise, some credit his efforts to compete with Disney with snapping Disney out of their funk and sparking the Disney renaissance.
At any rate, as Disney features of the post-Walt years go, The Great Mouse Detective isn’t half bad. Based on the series of children’s books by Eve Titus, the story centers on a Holmes-and-Watson-esque pair of mice, Basil and Dawson, who actually live at 22B Baker Street, in the same flat as the real Holmes and Watson.
Dawson’s similarity to Watson is ostensibly coincidental, but Basil consciously emulates his human counterpart, at least in the books (the cartoon doesn’t make this explicit). That Basil’s arch-nemesis, Professor Padraic Ratigan, in many ways resembles Holmes’s Scottish antagonist Professor Moriarty, must be regarded as another coincidence. (That Basil shares the name of the most famous big-screen Sherlock Holmes is an in-joke.)
The story plays to a number of familiar Disney motifs including the ever-popular parental separation anxiety, a flamboyant villain (nicely voiced by Vincent Price) with a scary sidekick, hairsbreadth escapes and a high-flying action-packed finale. There’s a slightly risqué scene set in a tough waterfront pub, but kids are more likely to be struck by the kidnapping of young Olivia’s father Hiram, a brilliant craftsman whom Ratigan wants to build a clockwork Queen to replace the real Queen (the Queen of the Mice; you didn’t think the story would bring human royalty into the story, did you?).
Oddly, in the books Professor Ratigan is a mouse who pretends to be a rat, while in the movie he’s a rat who pretends to be a mouse. Apparently he knows that in Disney cartoons, mice rule.
Last week the US bishops conference released a survey inquiring about parental concerns about inappropriate media content and its effect on children. Called Parents’ Hopes & Concerns About the Impact of Media on their Children, the survey suggests that most parents are concerned about their children being exposed to inappropriate content, and that many are interested in parental control technology such as the V-chip.
According to the survey:
- More than 80 percent of respondents say they want control of media content involving violence, sex, illegal drug use, alcohol abuse and profane language.
- Parents are more concerned about inappropriate content on television and the Internet than other media types such as video games, music and cellphones.
- Sexual content rated highest in parental concern, with violence a not-so-close second.
- Depictions of drug and alcohol abuse, not currently considered by many ratings and parental control systems, are of concern to virtually all parents, with high percentages rating both as very important.
- Nearly all respondents (94 percent) say their family has rules about media consumption for children. In spite of this, 27 percent admit that their children are exposed to inappropriate content.
- Three-quarters of respondents believe that media product makers should do more to help protect children from inappropriate content, and 58 percent say the government should do more.
- Over two-thirds of parents (69 percent) would like to see a standard rating system for all media types rather than separate systems for each type of media.
Some of the results are odd. Parents consistently responded less emphatically when asked how concerned they were about various types of objectionable content than when asked how important it was for them to be able to control those same types of content.
For example, 84 percent of parents said they were concerned or very concerned about sexual content, but 93 percent said it was important or very important that they be able to control it. Likewise, 61 percent said that they were concerned about inappropriate content in television commercials, but 75 percent said they would use parental controls more if they could block such content. I don’t know why some parents want to control content they aren’t concerned about, but there you go.
I suspect that parental control technology is most useful on the Internet, and may also be useful in controlling access to TV shows. When it comes to objectionable advertising, I have my doubts how useful it will ever be. Certainly advertising is often deplorable—not even always because of objectionable content, sometimes just because the ads are so unpleasant. We watch little if any commercial television, but even on the radio, or perhaps especially on the radio, there are ads that cause my wife Suzanne to fly across the room to switch off the box. Sometime she forgets to turn it back on later.
When that happens, obviously, it hurts the programming as well as the advertiser (and any other advertisers coming along later). You’d think triggering that switch-off reflex would hurt an ad, and that advertisers would figure that out and make ads that people don’t mind being exposed to, but I guess advertisers aren’t necessarily as smart as you’d think they would be. (Even when she doesn’t turn them off, Suz often finds commercials insulting and a turn-off for the product rather than a positive association for it.)
Advertisement-blocking technology would be great, but it’s hard to imagine the industry going for this. The ability to deliver eyes for advertisements is the media’s lifeblood, it’s what pays for the programming. Advertisers won’t pay to air commercials only to have them blocked by three-quarters of the audience. In theory, this might make them want to adjust their commercial content so that viewers wouldn’t block them—but that assumes commercial-blocking technology ever got off the ground. (As it is, they apparently don’t have enough incentive to adjust their content so Suzanne doesn’t turn off the box.)
In many ways, we live in a toxic culture. There’s no chip to block outdoor advertising for last weekend’s #1 movie plastering the word “Kick-Ass” across billboards and buses, or to offer parents control of sexually explicit headlines in the magazine racks at the supermarket checkout aisle. No one can stop their children from seeing offensive bumper stickers or T-shirts. And of course there’s always the neighbor’s television or computer, the cellphone of the kid next door.
Ultimately, the problem isn’t parental controls, it’s that these things are socially acceptable at all. I’m not talking about censorship. I’m talking about cultural standards.
For some reason, while the survey asks whether media product makers and the government are doing enough, it doesn’t ask about media content producers, even though it is they who bear the principal moral responsibility for the proper use of the media, according to the Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica (On the Media of Social Communications).
Then there’s the parents themselves to consider. When you see parents bringing young children to R-rated movies, you realize that no chip can protect children from their own parents’ callousness and apathy.
That’s not to say the system couldn’t be better. (A ratings system capable of effectively blocking children under 17 from many of today’s R-rated movies, even if accompanied by a parent, would help.)
As it is, like it or not, conscientious parents are largely on their own.
Parental guidance: It’s a way of life, not just the rating after G.
This week’s Spotlight piece is another older review you may not have read, for a film you may not have seen: Touching the Void.
Thomas Balmes’s Babies opens on May 7, just in time for Mother’s Day.
After the population-collapse anxieties of Children of Men, all the unwanted-pregnancy movies of 2007 and a slew of apocalyptic disaster films, is Hollywood moving toward a posterity state of mind?
Babies are everywhere this year, it seems. Babies is the name of a Focus Features documentary, opening on Mother’s Day weekend, about the first year in the lives of four babies from different corners of the world. Also opening that weekend, Rodrigo García’s Mother and Child tells three overlapping stories of women and adoption, including a mother seeking to adopt a baby born during the course of the film.
Then there’s a problematic pair of romantic comedies, The Back-up Plan and The Switch, that turn on that most unromantic method of conception, artificial insemination—in both cases gone wrong, appropriately enough. (Ironically, both films have undergone name switches: The Switch originally bore the more graphic title The Baster, and The Back-up Plan was originally planned as Plan B, unfortunately echoing a brand of “emergency contraception,” i.e., morning-after abortifacient.)
More baby connections in upcoming films are noted by Paul Bond in Hollywood Reporter. Currently set for December are a pair of new-parent films: Due Date stars Iron Man hero Robert Downey Jr. as an expectant dad trying to hitchhike home in time for the big day, and the romantic comedy Life as We Know It casts Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel as otherwise unconnected godparents who unexpectedly become foster parents when tragedy befalls the actual parents of their goddaughter. (Yes, you can have a romantic comedy that starts with a tragic accident; see Return to Me.) Oh, and there’s a baby on the way in the coming sequel to Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers.
Even in 2007, there was a latent pro-life vibe running through the string of unwanted-pregnancy movies: Juno, Bella, Waitress and Knocked Up (starring Life as We Know It’s Heigl), as well as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. This year, it seems, wanted babies may be back—even if the babies in The Back-up Plan and The Switch are wanted by single mothers without even a baby-daddy, and the baby in Life as We Know It was wanted by the real parents rather than the foster/godparents. The Hollywood Reporter piece suggests that perhaps current economic and global crises have something to do with it: “During hard times, family becomes even more important,” Life as We Know It executive producer Denise Di Novi is quoted as saying. “It’s been proven. Parents spend more time with their children—it’s that nesting instinct.”
While I’ve seen none of these films yet, the one that most intrigues me is Thomas Balmes’s Babies. “Everybody Loves…” is the tagline for a film that takes us to Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo for a year in the lives of four babies. In fact, Babies just might be ahead of Iron Man 2 as my most anticipated release of May (which is saying something for me). While we’re waiting, check out the trailer.
Note for Win/IE users:
Every so often in the past I’ve gotten a note that made me wince, asking whether I’ve reviewed a particular movie that I have indeed reviewed and adding, “I searched for it but couldn’t find it.”
Right away I know three things about those users: (a) They’re using Internet Explorer on a PC, (b) they hit Enter instead of clicking Search, and (c) they tried a quick search in the header and then gave up without trying the Power Search page.
I don’t know what exactly the problem was with the quick search specifically, or why IE was so allergic to whatever it was compared to other browsers. I do know that for some time the problem has been on the to-do list for my volunteer developer, Simeon — and now he’s finally gotten around to fixing it. Thank you Simeon!
So, the search function should now work correctly for all users in all circumstances. IE users should still feel free to upgrade to a better browser anyway … but in the meantime their searches will all be supported. Search away!
Ian C. Bloom of Illumined Illusions has the most amazing analysis of The Sound of Music I’ve ever read. His commentary on Singin’ in the Rain is the only critique I’ve seen to eke such interest out of the the modernist production number in the third act. And I like how he breaks up his thoughts on Beverly Hills Cop into bullet points (something I’ve done a few times myself).
In a word, Illumined Illusions is worth checking out. I must reluctantly note one drawback: The site design is a literal eyesore. I don’t like to say this, because I take critical comments about my own site design more personally than I do critical comments about my reviews. But white-on-black text is a particular peeve of mine, since the reverse contrast burns into the reader’s retinas and makes it hard to focus on normal pages afterward. The varied background gradations don’t help, either.
But deal with it. Bloom’s thoughts are worth it. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he (or any other critic) writes, of course, but then I don’t always agree with everything I wrote five years ago either. That’s not the point.
I like his style, too. Here is a sentence I wish I had written, regarding Fantasia: “Instead of the music ‘Mickey-Mousing’ the action, here the action ‘Micky-Mouses’ the music, sometimes with Mickey, himself, providing the action.” The last paragraph of his long essay on Spartacus is also worth quoting, but I won’t quote it here. Read it for yourself.
Word that Eagle Eye co-writer Travis Adam Wright has been tapped to script a planned adaptation of James A. Owen’s fantasy series The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica has kicked off a flurry of coverage on Owen’s series, which casts the Inklings—J. R. R. Tokien, C. S. Lewis and Charles Williams, as well as Owen Barfield and Hugo Dyson—as heroes of epic fantasy adventures weaving together Arthurian legend, Greek mythology and the writings of other British writers, not to mention the writers themselves … among other things. (Hat tip to the vigilant Peter Chattaway, who first reported on this project four years ago.)
In Owen’s series, H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle appear side by side with King Arthur and Mordred, Peter Pan, Daedalus, Captain Nemo and Don Quixote in a story involving the Holy Grail and the Spear of Longinus, Pandora’s Box, fairy dust, Plato’s cave and a book called the Imaginarium Geographica, an atlas of all mythological locations. Owen has completed four volumes so far of a projected seven. Wright has been contracted to script the first two installments, Here, There Be Dragons and The Search for the Red Dragon.
What would the Inklings themselves have thought of such a project? One thing is certain: Tolkien would have hated it. This kind of imaginative pastiche throwing together all sorts of disparate mythologies would have given him hives. Tolkien objected to precisely this sort of mythological sloppiness in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, with their juxtaposition of Greco-Roman and Nordic mythology, Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame, Genesis and Revelation and the Gospels, Hans Christian Anderson, Arthurian legend, and even Father Time and Father Christmas all jostling hugger-mugger, without apology.
Tolkien felt strongly, on aesthetic grounds, that a lamp-post in fairy-land is an affront, and that nymphs and dryads do not belong in the same world, let alone the same story, as Father Christmas or sewing beavers. To this objection Lewis had an answer: He argued that all these diverse creatures do happily coexist—in our minds. Tolkien’s retort: “Not in mine, or at least not at the same time!”
Might Lewis have been more sympathetic to Owen’s project? It’s hard to guess, especially without having read The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica myself. Lewis could appreciate pulp adventure as well as classical mythology, and in principle a project like Owen’s might hold some appeal for Lewis the Rider Haggard fan, Lewis the classicist, or both. (For sheer aesthetic affinity, the author-character with the most sympathy for the hodgepodge character of Owen’s work might have been J. M. Barrie, whose Neverland of tiny fairies (just the sort Tolkien detested), Caribbean pirates, American Indians, mermaids, crocodiles, flying “lost” boys, flying pirate ships and detachable shadows was expressly described as “a map of a person’s mind.”)
Lewis’s own mythological synthesis, in addition to reflecting his love of the mythologies in question, was also an act of imaginative piety, of “taking every thought captive to obey Christ.” The scope of Lewis’s imaginative vision was clearest in The Last Battle, which revealed all worlds real and imagined as mountain spurs or roots jutting out from the mountains of Aslan’s country. Lewis believed that whatever was true or good in mythology or science fiction found its fulfillment in the revelation of Jesus Christ. Narnia embodied Lewis’s rejection of Emerson’s maxim that “When half-gods go, the gods arrive”—a rejection Lewis elsewhere expressed with a Chestertonian reversal: “When God arrives (and only then) the half-gods can remain” (The Four Loves).
If Owen’s pan-Western synthesis of Greek and Arthurian legend lacks any significant or overriding Christian dimension, that’s one thing. If it entails a sort of an un-Christianing or paganizing of Tolkien and Lewis, that’s something else. Plot points from the synopses at Wikipedia raise possible red flags: For instance, the materialist H. G. Wells is presented as a kind of mentor figure to Tolkien and Lewis, and Mordred is initially presented as a villain but is later revealed to be a victim of fate rather than a villain.
Perhaps most troublingly, a dragon named Samaranth, described as the first dragon and possibly the oldest living creature, is said to advise and aid the heroes. I’ve defended the legitimacy of friendly dragons in certain contexts—but not all dragons are created equal, and I suspect that both Tolkien and Lewis would consider Owen’s Samaranth, as described, to tread too close for comfort to the traditional Christian iconography of Lucifer—particularly in a story predicated on the conceit of giving the imaginary back story supposedly inspiring Tolkien and Lewis’s faith-inflected fantasies.
P.S. Peter’s earlier post also mentions a seven-year-old graphic novel called Heaven’s War that pits the Inklings against the British occultist Aleister Crowley. I’ve not read that one either, but from plot summaries it sounds as if the story may be more shaped by the Inklings’ Christian faith than it seems Owen’s stories are.
“Prince Drool?” Did this baby cuten up and become a fan of pull-string cowboys and space rangers with karate-chop action?
More insightful analysis on patterns at Pixar from Peter T. Chattaway:
That’s a sharp observation … but what I really love about this post is Peter’s speculation about a deeper connection between Tin Toy and the Toy Story series:
If Toy Story 3 really does play up the children-as-happy-monsters angle, then it seems Pixar will have come full circle in its treatment of the toy world. And no, I do not mean that Pixar will have returned to the themes of the original Toy Story. Instead, I mean that Pixar will have gone, in spirit, all the way back to the short film Tin Toy (1988), which was heralded at the time as the first computer-animated film to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short.
So, whenever my kids and I watch the Toy Story movies, I like to start with Tin Toy -- partly because I have very fond memories of seeing it on the big screen at animation festivals back in the late ’80s, but also partly because I have a theory that the baby in Tin Toy is identical to the boy named Andy that we see in the Toy Story movies.
That’s so neat. And it ties in with an opening gag in Toy Story that already harkens back to Tin Toy, with Andy’s baby sister Molly in the “happy monster” role, and Mr. Potato Head as the blithely abused plaything. (“Ages three and up! It’s on my box! Ages three and up! I’m not supposed to be babysitting Princess Drool!”)
If there’s anything to Peter’s theory connecting Andy to the baby in Tin Toy, perhaps some of those toys in Andy’s bedroom have been putting up with that sort of treatment for the better part of a decade. (Maybe that’s why Potato Head is so much more blasé about it than the terrified playthings in Tin Toy. How will this play out in Toy Story 3?)
(Now I’m trying to remember whether the Luxo, Jr. ball appears in Tin Toy. If so, that would be another connection, although a weak one, since it appears in nearly every household in Pixar’s films, including Boo’s from Monsters, Inc. and Jack-Jack’s in Jack-Jack Attack.)
For no particular reason, here is an older review you may not have read, for a film you may not have seen: My Architect (2002).
I’ve linked it on the homepage spotlight also, where I’ll leave it for the rest of the week. Next week I’ll spotlight something else from Decent Film’s older or recent past.
If there’s something to tie into to make a piece timely, like last week’s spotlight on Faustina for Divine Mercy Sunday, I’ll note that as appropriate. Otherwise, it’ll just be a random selection of something I thought worth highlighting.
I’m not a big box-office watcher, but I pay enough attention to be frustrated by audiences rewarding films that I think are undeserving and ignoring films that I think merit attention. Not always, of course. It’s gratifying to watch movies like Green Zone and The Wolfman flop. But then along come films like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans, both of which critics generally saw in a dim light, and audiences flock enthusiastically to them.
Especially frustrating is watching a particular target audience or demographic embrace a less worthy film over a more worthy one. For example, early box-office reports for the charming, critically acclaimed cartoon How to Train Your Dragon were not encouraging, yet the same family audiences neglecting How to Train were making a hit of Alice in Wonderland, a chilly exercise in Burtonesque art direction and aggrieved feminism.
Well, there’s no accounting for Alice’s success — but it’s heartening to see How to Train Your Dragon now rebounding to unexpected heights on fantastic word of mouth. In the analysis of Box Office Guru’s Gitesh Pandya:
The big story this weekend came in third place where the 3D animated film How To Train Your Dragon witnessed a remarkably low 13% decline in its third round for an estimated $25.4M gross boosting the 17-day total to a terrific $133.9M. Short-sighted film industry watchers and impatient Wall Street investors prematurely dismissed Dragon and DreamWorks Animation after its less-than-stellar opening weekend two weeks ago. The company’s stock dropped 8% on the first trading day after the debut with analysts lowering their estimates for the final domestic take to just $152M. Dragon will now crush that mark next weekend and looks on course to break the $200M barrier too becoming the second biggest 3D toon of all-time behind just the $293M of Up.
Beating Pixar’s Oscar winner may not be possible, but outgrossing other competitors like Monsters vs. Aliens, Ice Age 3, and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs makes Dragon a powerful performer. The PG-rated film was indeed slow out of the gate, but amazing word-of-mouth coupled with school holidays for spring have made Dragon the must-see film for kids and parents. Competition for families and 3D screens remains extremely light for the next five weeks so the Viking pic’s strong run should continue. Reaching $250M cannot be ruled out at this point given the road ahead since Dragon will be able to earn at least five times its opening figure, if not more.
I wasn’t a fan of either Ice Age 3 or Monsters vs. Aliens (another family flick marred by aggrieved feminism), so it’s nice to see the initially underrated How to Train soar past them. Then again, I also thought that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs was a better film than either of them (looking back at my review of Cloudy, I see that I drew explicit contrasts to both Ice Age 3 and Monsters vs. Aliens).
At least films like Cloudy and How to Train are finding the audiences they deserve, even if less worthy films often do better than they deserve.
For the benefit of RSS readers who may not see the homepage Spotlight notice, I’ll be on the first hour of Catholic Answers Live this Friday, 4/9, from 3pm–4pm PDT (i.e., San Diego time, where Catholic Answers is), or 6pm–7pm EDT (i.e., New Jersey time, where I am).
It’s hard to imagine any filmmaker making the final, and probably the most perverse, of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books into a good movie—let alone two movies, which is the plan. But Summit Entertainment is giving it their best shot: After discussions with a list of respected directors including Sofia Coppola, Steven Daldry and Gus Van Sant, Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Kinsey) has reportedly emerged as the front-runner, according to Deadline.com.
Summit’s Twilight series is the latest fantasy franchise to postpone the inevitable by doubling down on the final installment. Warner Bros’ Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows opens in November, but we won’t be saying goodbye to Harry until July 2011 when Part II opens. The coming Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit, is also being developed as two films.
All of this may make financial sense, but in moviemaking terms it seems to me to be asking for trouble. Wasn’t the first half of J. K. Rowling’s Deathly Hallows mostly a holding pattern, with Harry on some endless camping trip or something? Do we really need a whole movie about that? And of course The Hobbit is a far slighter work, in more ways than one, than the three parts of The Lord of the Rings. I know, they’re going to pad it out with material from Tolkien’s other writings, but still.
Perhaps Peter Jackson should have considered splitting The Return of the King in two. It might have mollified the people who complained that the ending kept going on and on, and perhaps he could have got in the Scouring of the Shire, too. Certainly one good film of The Last Battle seems too much to hope for; I don’t need to see two. (I’m just saying; this isn’t something the Narnia producers are talking about, as far as I know.)
Of all these split ends, though, forking Breaking Dawn into two films seems the dodgiest proposition. Not that it isn’t understandable that Summit, an upstart studio whose Twilight success was their first claim to fame, should want to milk (or suck) the franchise for all it’s worth. (More recently, Summit won critical and awards acclaim, if not huge box-office rewards, with The Hurt Locker.)
But have they read the book? Um, ick.
Bella’s self-destructive lion-and-lamb romance with Vampire Dreamboat culminates in marriage (yay Mormon chastity), and all in all her wedding night, which leaves her covered with bruises, could have gone a lot worse.
Then, though, comes pregnancy. Unholy Alien reproductive anxiety nightmare pregnancy, Batman.
Convinced that Bella is incubating a monster, Vampire Dreamboat wants to abort. The werewolf contingent, less delicately, want to kill the child without the bother of saving the mother’s life.
Some say that pro-lifers should rejoice that Bella decides to keep the baby. I say pro-lifers should rejoice when pregnancy is treated as beautiful and holy. The placental miracle of a mother’s blood nourishing her baby’s blood without commingling is one thing; a li’l bloodsucker nursing on its mother’s blood supply from the womb is something else.
Childbirth (I know very, very well) can be grueling and life-threatening; it is not gruesome and monstrous. That Bella massively exsanguinates while giving birth is not, so to speak, beyond the pale; that her vampire-human half-breed offspring shatters her bones and shreds her viscera, trying to chew its way out while mama vomits fountains of blood … sorry, “pro-life” is not the term that comes to mind. That Vampire Dreamboat must turn Bella herself into Vampire Consort Chick to save her life—not my idea of “breaking dawn.”
Looking on the bright side, the book is split into three parts. Maybe we’re getting off easy with only two movies.
It was only the beginning of Lent that the last two mailbags went up — and now, here in time for Easter Week, are the next two, Mailbag #18 and Mailbag #19. (Unfortunately the RSS feed still isn’t picking up the Mail columns, so for RSS readers, this blog post is your heads up. Hopefully it’ll be fixed soon.)
On tap this time around: Clash of the Titans, How to Train Your Dragon, Alice in Wonderland, Green Zone and more.
I’m happy to say that in keeping with my Lenten resolution, my responsiveness to reader mail (while not without occasional bumps) has improved dramatically. I’ve got a more effective process in place now (well, and I’m just working harder, too).
So, write me! I'll write you back promptly (if you include a working email address). Especially if you’ve written in the past and didn’t hear back from me … let me make it up to you!
A couple of days ago over at the Arts & Faith message board, for reasons I won’t recount, someone started a thread called “Review Haiku,” dedicated to three-line, 17-syllable movie reviews. Merriment ensued. Here’s an early contribution:
Jaws: The Revenge (1987, Joseph Sargent)
Shark has G P S
To locate Chief Brody’s wife
In the Bahamas
So far, so good. I contributed a number myself … then last night I proposed a twist: What if we wrote review haiku without giving the film title, so that readers had to identify the movie being reviewed?
Here, for your amusement, are the eight haiku I’ve written so far. The first two are the most self-evident since I didn’t originally write them as riddles and the references are pretty explicit. After that they get progressively harder, depending of course on which movies one has seen.
Answers are below. Don’t check them too quickly — and don’t hie on over to Arts & Faith and read the thread (which reveals most or all of the title reviewed below) until you’re done here!
- Xanadu is dark
He had it all, then lost it
Rosebud is no more.
- It was a great show
Tokyo calls, you don’t hear Buzz
Not your finest hour.
- They awakened us
Called from the moon and beyond
Childhood starts anew.
- She watched from the tree
Now the moon reaches for her
Who will miss the boat?
- Heroes aren’t wanted
An old fan shakes all you love
You should have been kind.
- Lie boldly, sweet girl
And speak truth more bravely still
See, the sun still shines.
- No more us and them
You can’t go home, but he can
You see through new eyes.
- Together again
Past fire and tears. Nothing left
But a battered tin.
Opening on Good Friday and setting a new Easter weekend box-office record, the new Clash of the Titans features a divine father in the heavens (Liam Neeson, the voice of Narnia’s Aslan, as Zeus) who tells his divine/human son, “I wanted [mankind’s] worship, but I didn’t want it to cost me a son.”
The son (Sam Worthington as Perseus, once again caught between humanity and something else) has descended into the realm of the dead and returned, not to do his father’s will or out of love, but on what boils down to a mission of revenge.
Not only does the son not consider divinity something to be grasped, he doesn’t want it at all; he spurns the worship that his father craves, though his father tells him that men will worship him anyway. In the end, his father rewards him with a resurrection—not his own, but another character’s.
Is the release date accidental? In my review of the new Clash, I wrote:
The gods of classical mythology have always been selfish and capricious, but in a tempestuous, grand, passionate style, sort of like “Dallas” in heaven. In the new Clash of the Titans, the gods are about as grand and passionate as “The Simpsons,” and not a tenth as interesting. The original 1981 Clash of the Titans gave us Zeus portrayed by Laurence Olivier with a sort of dissolute patrician dignity. As played by Liam Neeson in the remake, he’s merely grumpy and vacillating. No wonder his half-human son Perseus (Sam Worthington) keeps telling anyone who will listen that he’s a man, not a god.
Clash of the Titans takes the secularizing bent of the 2004 film Troy a step further. Troy retold one of the best-known Greek myths as a purely human story, leaving out the gods. Clash of the Titans goes further: The gods aren’t just ignored, they’re all but dethroned.
Of course the false gods of classical mythology, with their all-too-human foibles, ultimately deserve to be dethroned—by the true God. As noted above, though, the gods of this Clash of the Titans sometimes appear not just as unworthy rivals of the God of revelation, but as parodies of Him.
Zeus has always “tempered his wrath with love,” Hades says, almost quoting the Bible. A wild-eyed prophet proclaims doom unless the people make reparation to Heaven, which in this case means offering the princess Andromeda as a human sacrifice to the Kraken. In the end, he’s just one more murderously zealous Hollywood true believer.
Perseus, of course, has a divine father in the heavens and a human mother on earth, and is raised in poverty and obscurity by a human foster father and his wife (not Perseus’s true mother, who dies). That much reflects the Perseus myth, but Perseus’s prickly relationship with his divine father is more reminiscent of the Jesus of The Last Temptation of Christ than anything in classical mythology.
Writing for Christianity Today Movies & TV, Russ Breimeier contemplates viewing the film as “a thinly veiled metaphor for the dismissal of religion, similar to the desire to kill God in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.”
The religious subtext is worth comparing and contrasting to Worthington’s other big 3D epic, Avatar. In that film, as I noted in my Clash review:
Worthington rejected his humanity and embraced otherness (big blue alien otherness). It wasn’t that tough a decision, since mankind in that film was pretty ugly and unlikable. In Clash, Worthington rejects Olympian otherness and embraces humanity—but humanity isn’t much more attractive or appealing here. The peaceful Na’vi in Avatar got a benevolent nature goddess. Perhaps in the movies everyone gets the gods they deserve.
Top: Brendan and Aisling from The Secret of Kells; Bottom: Hiccup and Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon
In theaters right now are two charming and visually engaging animated films at opposite ends of the budget spectrum, different in many respects but with some interesting overlap as well. One is How to Train Your Dragon, DreamWorks’ big-budget CGI adaptation of a popular children’s book. The other is The Secret of Kells, an Oscar-nominated Irish animated indie made on a comparative shoestring budget, now in limited release.
Both films are European-set fantasy period pieces, with Vikings and mythological creatures both friendly and decidedly unfriendly. (In How to Train the Vikings are the hero and his people; in The Secret of Kells they’re the bad guys.)
In each film, the protagonist is a young boy living in a rugged, isolated island community in which the undisputed leader is the boy’s own father figure, a stern, towering authoritarian. In How to Train, young Hiccup is the son of the Viking chief, Stoick the Vast; in The Secret of Kells, Brendan lives in an Irish abbey where his uncle Cellach is abbot. (There is no mother figure in either film.)
In each film, the boy is a loner, slight and sensitive, clever, curious and creative. While on his own in the wilderness, he encounters and befriends a mythological creature of whom the father figure would certainly disapprove as a friend. In both films, the friendly creature later ventures into the human community to aid the boy when he is in trouble. It also turns out that the friendly creature lives in fear of another mythological creature: a serpentine, cave-dwelling monster whom the hero must confront and defeat.
For the record, I enjoyed and recommend both films. At the same time, one notable similarity underscores a motif in family entertainment that has long been a concern—a motif that isn’t necessarily a problem in any one instance, but with repetition becomes a troubling pattern over time.
In both films, the young hero’s father figure is an implacably stern authoritarian who seems nothing but disappointed in the hero, and who adamantly refuses to hear what the boy has to say. The boy’s pursuit of discovery causes him to defy the father figure’s wishes, first surreptitiously and finally openly, leading to a confrontation in which the father figure’s disappointment and anger reaches a crescendo. The father figure’s stubbornness endangers the whole community as he leads them into an ill-advised conflict with an enemy whose strength he underestimates. In the end the hero is vindicated, and is ultimately reconciled to the repentant father figure.
The imperious, authoritarian father figure who doesn’t understand is nothing new to family entertainment, from The Sound of Music and Peter Pan to The Little Mermaid and Happy Feet. What is striking about both How to Train and The Secret of Kells, though, is the one-note portrayal of the father figure throughout the entire film, right up to the end. By contrast, The Sound of Music redeems the father figure roughly halfway through the story, while Peter Pan and The Little Mermaid separate the young protagonists from the father for most of the story. (I think the same may be true of Happy Feet, although the specifics of that tale haven’t stayed with me.)
As another point of contrast, consider last year’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, another film about a clever, creative young loner with a lumbering, uncomprehending father and no mother in an island community, one who like Hiccup is a figure of much mockery and derision. In Cloudy, the hero Flint’s taciturn father doesn’t understand his son’s interests, but here the father’s concerns aren’t necessarily groundless, and the hero isn’t necessarily on the right path. Unlike How to Train and The Secret of Kells, there’s no “Junior Knows Best” dynamic in Cloudy.
Flint’s father isn’t imperious and authoritarian, merely undemonstrative and unable adequately to communicate either his love or his concerns to his son. Finally, one senses a sort of stoic humility about Flint’s father, a possible awareness of his own inadequacies. He isn’t abjectly disappointed in his son, merely concerned for him. I still wish he were more humanized than he is, but he’s a lot better than the implacable father figures in How to Train and The Secret of Kells.
It’s fair to say that each of these films offer their father figures some measure of redemption—Cloudy most touchingly and fondly, How to Train most effectively and heroically, and The Secret of Kells, alas, with little more than pathos. Both How to Train and The Secret of Kells compensate somewhat for their overbearing father figures with a more sympathetic, avuncular authority figure (the tough old trainer Gobber in How to Train, the puckish illuminator Brother Aidan in The Secret of Kells). This tension is more reassuring in How to Train and more problematic in The Secret of Kells, where Brother Aidan is complicit in Brendan’s repeated defiance of Abbot Cellach’s orders, and the themes of disobedience and conflict are given maximum punch.
None of this makes any of these films objectionable in itself, and each film has significant merit in its own right. It’s the pattern more than the individual film that matters most.
Balanced by sympathetic depictions of fatherhood and family life in films like The Incredibles, My Neighbor Totoro, Stuart Little 2, Spy Kids and Finding Nemo, the problemic father figures of How to Train and The Secret of Kells recede in significance. On the other hand, a steady diet of overbearing father figures à la The Little Mermaid and Happy Feet can become a virtual pedagogy in filial contempt and rebellion.
P.S. Read more about father figures in the movies in a short interview I did recently with the Knights of Columbus Fathers For Good website.
Kimberly Williams-Paisley stars in Amish Grace as an Amish mother bereaved of her daughter in the 2006 Amish school shooting.
Buy at Amazon.com
Amish Grace (book, movie)
Three years ago, coinciding with a rash of post-9/11 deaths from respiratory and circulatory ailments about five years after the attacks, my brother-in-law David succumbed suddenly to an incredibly aggressive form of leukemia. He had been in the ash cloud emanating from Ground Zero on 9/11, and my wife Suzanne suspects his death was 9/11-related. As she’s the one with medical training, I usually accept her judgment in such matters.
Do I forgive the 9/11 terrorists? It’s a question I can’t remember asking myself before this week after screening the upcoming Lifetime TV movie Amish Grace. Inspired by the nonfiction book of the same name, the film is based on the real-life Amish school shooting in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2006.
The gunman, Charles Carl Roberts, left behind a wife and three children, but was apparently haunted by the death of a newborn daughter nine years earlier. Perhaps it was to punish God for his daughter’s death that he walked into the one-room Amish school and dismissed the boys and adults before shooting ten girls between the ages of 6 and 13, half of whom died. When police intervened, he turned the gun on himself.
What happens in the schoolhouse isn’t shown onscreen, though late in the film there is an inspiring first-person account from one of the survivors. Like the book, subtitled How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, the film focuses not on the crime but on the response of the Amish community, which captured the nation’s attention and was much discussed by an often baffled, occasionally critical media. Within hours of the shooting, the Amish reached out to Roberts’ widow, assuring her of their forgiveness to her husband and their lack of ill will for her. When Roberts was buried, dozens of Amish were in attendance.
While the Christian ethos of forgiveness is still on some level widely honored as an ideal in the U.S. today, it is not well understood, and uncomfortably coexists with equal or greater acceptance of an ethos of vengeance, one celebrated in far more movies than forgiveness.
Amid widespread genuflecting to Amish forgiveness, some voices raised uncomfortable questions: Is it healthy or right to forgive so readily and completely, without first passing through necessary stages of grief and anger? Is forgiveness meaningful or desirable where there is no sign of remorse or wish for forgiveness? We are all familiar—perhaps too much so—with the gap between our ideals and our behavior. The Amish actually expect each other to live their beliefs with integrity.
That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Amish Grace offers a fictional account of what must have been a very real struggle with grief and anger. Bereaved mother Ida Graber (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) already wrestles with Amish mores over the “shunning” of her sister, who left the flock after being widowed in order to marry an “English” man. How, Ida demands, can they offer forgiveness to a murderer, yet ask family members to cut off one another for such offenses? For Ida, forgiving the killer is tantamount to betraying her daughter—yet a powerful revelation toward the end suggests that this is the opposite of the truth.
Ida’s husband Gideon (Matt Letscher) stoically insists that God demands forgiveness, and argues that the alternative only punishes themselves. “I will not make my heart a battleground of hate and love. It’s too painful,” he cries. Amish Grace gradually finds a thoughtful balance between Ida and Gideon, sympathetically cross-examining both points of view.
Then there’s the killer’s widow, Amy Roberts (Tammy Blanchard, Bella). Devastated by the revelation of this unfathomable side of her husband, Amy is perhaps more lost and desperate than any of the Amish victims. “I thought we had a good life, and I would have bet money Charlie thought so too,” she laments incredulously. “He actually chose going to hell over staying here with me.” Amy can’t imagine forgiving Charlie herself, and is utterly at a loss to understand the Amish grace extended to Charlie and her.
A subplot involving a TV news crew investigating the sincerity of Amish forgiveness is the film’s most notable weakness. These outsiders are meant as bridge characters mediating between the audience and the Amish, but their merely journalistic investigative curiosity about the facts of the case is an obvious screenwriting foil. A more effective approach might have been to give the journalists complacent, dismissive assumptions about the Amish, about whom they presumably know little or nothing, and then gradually challenge and overturn those assumptions over the course of the story.
It’s a forgivable flaw in an earnest film that gets better as it goes, with the most insightful revelations and the best scenes in the last act. Amish Grace is a commendable celebration of a Gospel mandate more often honored with lip service than with actual commitment. If I do not forgive the 9/11 hijackers, I have no right to call myself a follower of Jesus. It is as simple as that.
This is not Bedrock Studios co-founder Cary Granat.
If the name Bedrock Studios doesn’t sound familiar, you might think it’s because you haven’t watched “The Flintstones” lately … especially since the new production company was co-founded by Cary Granat—not the Hollyrock star, the former CEO of Walden Media—and Ed Stones, er, Jones of Industrial Light & Magic.
Like Walden, Bedrock Studios aims at family audiences. Their first project, an animated buddy film bravely named Turkeys, stars Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson; their sophomore project is an eye-popper: In the Beginning, a 3D live-action adaptation of the creation story of Genesis. Granat is a Christian, and I have to admit I’m curious where this will go.
Bedrock is also developing a few Waldenesque projects based on award-winning children’s books, including the Newbery Award winners A Wrinkle in Time and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (the latter of which was previously adapted, or misadapted, in the 1980s by animator Don Bluth).
If Bedrock didn’t have such direct ties to Walden, the company that has made a mess of Narnia and other great children’s books, I wouldn’t be so worried.
But I love [all] of these stories. If they must be made into movies (or in the case of Kiki, into another movie), I’d like them to be in the hands of patient, thoughtful artists, not hasty crowdpleasers who fail to understand why these stories shine.
All of this just makes me increasingly grateful for the folks at Pixar, and for folks like Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are) and Henry Selick (Coraline). And Miyazaki, of course. Artists who make movies that will last.
The Narnia films should have been movies like those. And the stories that Bedrock is preparing to film deserve to be glorious movies as well.
I’ll try to be hopeful. But it isn’t going to be easy.
That about nails it, I think.
Positive sign: Turkeys is slated to be directed by animator Ash Brannon, who co-directed the classic Toy Story 2 and directed the oddly winsome Surf’s Up. Less positive sign: The screenplay is by John J. Strauss, whose previous writing credits include a pair of Santa Clause sequels and The Lizzie McGuire Movie, as well as, um, a story credit on There’s Something About Mary.
It would be nice if Turkeys were only the name of that first flick.
I won’t make a habit of this, I promise.
If you live in the United States and haven’t yet done so (or haven’t done so recently), take action on the health care debate.
- First, learn why the U.S. bishops insist that the current Senate legislation must be defeated.
- Next, go to www.usccb.org/action to email your senators and representatives.
- Support Bart Stupak and his remaining Democratic allies in resisting the Senate bill.
- Learn more at American Papist.
Do it now!
Buy at Ignatius.com
Today is the Solemnity of Saint Joseph. Last year, Ignatius Press released a Region 1 DVD of Joseph of Nazareth: The Man Closest to Christ (2000), an Italian production from Lux Vide and Mediaset billed as the first feature film on the story of St. Joseph. The film is the first in a series of four “Close to Jesus” films, though I understand it’s by far the most biblical, and certainly the Gospels give us more of a story-arc for Joseph than for the other three subjects, Mary Magdalene, Thomas and Judas Iscariot.
Matt Page of Bible Films Blog has a review of Joseph of Nazareth as well as an interesting post analyzing the notable similarities between Joseph and The Nativity Story, which also focuses significantly on St. Joseph (many of which I noticed also).
My take on Joseph of Nazareth is pretty close to Matt’s. I watched it with my family this Advent, and it was a nice change of pace from The Nativity Story, though regrettably it’s nothing like the definitive birth of Christ movie we’re still waiting for.
To start on a positive note, I don’t often discover a new angle on a biblical text from a Bible movie, but Joseph of Nazareth suggests an attractive approach I had never before considered to a deceptively knotty passage in St. Matthew’s Gospel, namely, the passage in Matthew 1 in which Mary has been found to be with child by the Holy Spirit, and Joseph resolves to “divorce her quietly.”
The passage is full of hidden ambiguities. When St. Matthew tells us that Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit,” is that final prepositional phrase Matthew’s aside to the reader (she was found to be with child — but it was by the Holy Spirit)? Or does it suggest that the divine origin of Mary’s condition was part of the discovery, at least for some? Does “being a just man” have conjunctive or disjunctive force — that is, was Joseph “unwilling to expose Mary to shame” because he was a just man, or in spite of being a just man? Was it the resolution to divorce her, or the decision to do so quietly, that is related to his “just” status? Does “just” here bespeak primarily observance of Torah, or a broader sort of righteousness?
Most concretely, what exactly is meant by “divorcing her quietly” and not “putting her to shame”? Divorce was a public act; there would seem to be no way to abandon Mary in her pregnant state, however undramatically, without “putting her to shame.” I remember puzzling over this passage in scripture studies classes at St. Charles Borromeo.
I was struck, then, by Joseph of Nazareth’s portrayal of Joseph deciding to go through with the wedding and then divorce Mary quietly after the birth of the child. As far as I know, the usual assumption is that the “divorce” in question refers to breaking off the betrothal, a bond with marital force. Movies often depict Mary’s pregnancy coming in the middle of a year-long betrothal period in which Joseph and Mary are pledged to one another but have not yet come together, as Matthew tells us.
On the other hand, Matthew also indicates that Joseph took Mary into his house immediately after the dream of the angel. Thus, the prospect of going through with the wedding and then divorcing Mary quietly afterward would seem to be a viable option. The child would be assumed to be Joseph’s, and Mary would not be shamed. It’s so simple I don’t know why I never thought of it before. That doesn’t make it the correct solution, of course, but as far as I know it could be.
Peter Chattaway has just posted some thoughts he’s previously shared elsewhere regarding the shape of Pixar’s body of work to date, and I’ve long thought it’s a brilliant theory. In essence, he proposes three phases of Pixar history, which might be labeled thus:
- the “Disney distribution” phase, consisting of the first seven films up to Cars, which were all made under contract for distribution by Disney;
- a transitional “looking beyond Disney” phase, consisting of the next three films — Ratatouille, WALL-E and Up — which may well have gone into development at a point when Pixar believed they were likely to part ways with Disney; and
- the “Disney purchase” phase, consisting of Pixar’s roster of coming films — Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Monsters Inc. 2 and The Bear and the Bow (or Brave?) — all of which began life very much under the Disney umbrella, either by Disney itself or by Pixar after it was purchased by Disney.
What makes this theory so interesting is the way it illuminates the differences between the films belonging to each of the three phases. I’m not sure it’s entirely persuasive to say, as Peter does, that the three phase 2 films, initiated when Pixar was likely thinking outside the Disney box, necessarily “aim higher” than the seven films of phase 1. In particular, I think The Incredibles aims as high as any film in Pixar’s oeuvre.
I would put it this way: The basic premise of each of Pixar’s first seven films fits comfortably within mainstream expectations for Hollywood animated family films. Anthropomorphic toys, bugs or cars; friendly monsters saddled with a human child; a father-and-son fish story; even a family of incognito super heroes — these are all concepts that could easily be pitched to Disney execs without making anyone blink or sweat. Pixar might take these concepts in brilliant directions, but there’s nothing about the basic concept of any of these films that especially pushes the envelope of family entertainment.
With the next three films, on the other hand, there is something audacious and outside-the-box about the premise itself, in terms of family-film expectations. A talky picture about a French rat who wants to be a chef? A substantially dialogue-free slapstick adventure about a lone robot in a post-apocalyptic world of trash? An elderly widower absconding with his house via balloon to South America? None of these hits you over the head as a ready-made idea for an animated family film. There is something counter-intuitive about each of them. Here is where Pixar pushes the envelope, not just in terms of how to make a animated family film, but even what it is possible for an animated Hollywood family film to be.
Yesterday I wrote about the possible effects of the box-office success of Alice in Wonderland on fairy-tale revisionism in family films to come. The flip side is the box-office disappointment of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which hit DVD shelves yesterday.
It looks like concern over The Princess and the Frog’s poor performance is translating into branding concerns for upcoming animated fairy tales, including the Disney project formerly known as Rapunzel, and possibly Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow.
I found The Princess and the Frog to be an engaging blend of classic Disney themes and contemporary sensibilities, despite scary, morally mixed voodoo imagery too intense for younger kids. It didn’t click with audiences, though … and there’s some feeling that the title may have been part of the problem.
With its classic fairy-tale cadences and Disney princess branding, “The Princess and the Frog” may have lacked the unisex (i.e., non-girly) appeal that seems to be a key factor for successful family entertainment today, from every Pixar film to date to the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Even J. K. Rowling’s sex was downplayed behind authorial initials.)
Consider: One of the few successful cartoons in recent years with a female protagonist had the extremely boy-friendly title Monsters vs. Aliens, as well as a virtually all-male supporting cast (and a trailer that emphasized rude humor). A few films have bucked the trend, notably the ambiguously named Coraline and Burton’s Alice, both of which benefited from dark, Gothic sensibilities and 3D punch (as well as Alice’s use of live actors including Johnny Depp).
In a word, princess branding may move product at the Disney Store, but it may no longer be a viable niche on the big screen.
Apparently taking the lesson to heart, Disney recently cast a nervous eye at its Rapunzel feature in development—and has retitled it Tangled, a title with all the fractured fairy-tale cred of Enchanted and its ilk.
That’s not all. Many sources are reporting that Pixar’s The Bear and the Bow—billed as Pixar’s first fairy-tale and first film with a girl protagonist—may be re-branded Brave, a one-word, monosyllabic concept title much like Up or Cars (compare also the polysyllabic Ratatouille and the eponymous WALL-E).
Even though “The Bear and the Bow” makes no mention of princesses, perhaps the traditional rhythms of the title (compare to “The Bear and the Wolf” or “The Princess and the Pea”—or the frog!) may be thought passé.
This last change, if it takes, seems to me a bit melancholy. “The Bear and the Bow” is a lovely, evocative title; “Brave” isn’t bad, but are all Pixar titles going to sound the same now? What seemed, well, bravely unconventional with Up seems less so with Brave, and could quickly become dull. (Not to mention the difficulty of targeting these short, generic titles with search engines…)
What happens, too, when the issue percolates past branding issues to story development? I’m no fan of the Disney princess phenomenon, but on the other hand I don’t want girl protagonists to become even rarer. Or all fairy tales to be more determinedly non-traditional and fractured than they are now.