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Archive for April, 2009

Hero Worship

On Bookslut, the author has a great excerpt from W. Somerset Maughan’s autobiography about the danger of knowing exactly who our heroes and legends are, which I will now show here:

We are shocked when we discover that great men were weak and petty, dishonest or selfish, sexually vicious, vain or intemperate; and many people think it disgraceful to disclose to the public its heroes’ failings. There is not much to choose between men. They are all a hopscotch of greatness and littleness, of virtue and vice, of nobility and baseness. Some have more strength of character, or more opportunity, and so in one direction or another give their instincts freer play, but potentially they are the same. For my part I do not think I am any better or any worse than most people, but I know that if I set down every action in my life and every thought that has crossed my mind the world would consider me a monster of depravity.

I think he sums it up pretty well. It’s something we should strive to remember in this celebrity based culture.

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This question was asked on a forum I sometimes participate, and I thought I’d cross post my answer, rough as it is.

When I watch a film, first and foremost I desire a complete world. I don’t care if afterwards I think the story was lousy, the characters were evil, the film was too long or badly edited – I want to be taken into the filmmaker’s vision.

Yesterday my wife and I caught a film called Sita Sings the Blues at the Nashville Film Festival. (this film is incredible on its own, one woman wrote directed and animated the ENTIRE thing) I took in a notebook to write down some notes because I’m writing some reviews for a local site. But I was so entranced by the film I didn’t take one note. The director created this world and sucked me in, and it was amazing.

That’s step number one. A world I can believe in. I don’t care if it’s completely fantasy like Lord of the Rings, or completely realistic film like the French films I’ve been watching lately, or something in between.

Secondly, (and admittedly, step number one is big picture under which everything else falls) I look to the writing and acting. I want to believe the characters. Do they seem like real people? Why does this matter?

Because I love love love foreign films and indie dramas – films that challenge my perspective of the world. Films that open my eyes and help me better understand what it means to be a human. And good filmmakers create characters who feel human; meaning that despite their geographical, sociopolitcal, racial, and economic differences from me – there are things that I connect with in them. When a good character is created, then I can’t hold them at arms length. Whatever happens to them becomes more personal to me.

Take for instance, the film That Evening Sun that I saw this weekend. It features Hal Holbrook as the lead (An 80 year old lead – how awesome is that?!) – a farmer from the hills of TN who leaves the old person home his son has placed him in because he wants to die on his farm. Only, when he comes back he finds his son has rented the farm to a family who the old man despises because of class. The film is a class war, a meditation on aging, and features no characters that arguably have anything in common with me.

But the filmmakers worked so hard to create genuine, realistic characters, that I, in my humanity, have a great deal in common with them. And so as I watched this (phenomenal) movie unfold, I wasn’t just watching a story and being entertained, I was understanding my sin nature, the ways I fall.

Last of all (not really, but this feels long), I look at the technical elements of the film. The cinematography, the usage (or non-usage from those crazy Europeans) of music, the pacing and editing, continuity and such. These things matter to me, and they disrupt from my viewing of the film if they are not done well.

But I have one final thing to say about watching films – and this may be the only thing of value I say. In my 4 or 5 year long quest to understand whether I thought filmmaking was my true desire and how I felt that fit into faith (which, isn’t over, that’s just where I am in the question), I have finally come to some sort of conclusion on the biggest value of films to me. It’s simple but it’s now the basic framework by which I approach all films.

Films expand my understanding of what it means to be human. And since God is personal, and I will always always only understand him through my own experience, the more I watch good and challenging films (and read great literature, and listen to great music, and read great poetry), the more I expand my understand my understanding of this experience of being human, and the more I am able to deepen my understanding of the mystery of the Gospel and the mystery of the God who is the author of my faith and salvation.

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500 Days of Summer

Marc Webb’s debut film finally made it to Nashville last night, as part of the Nashville Film Festival (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, very cool). The trailer bills the movie as a story about Boy Meets Girl, but not a love story, and the trailer is accurate, thank goodness. We don’t need another romantic comedy, and this film doesn’t attempt to give us more of what we don’t need.

Instead, the film, in its light-hearted and whimsical style, is concerned with what exactly love is in modern times. Both of the main characters come from homes with divorced parents, but Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) believes in true love and finding “the one” while Summer (Zooey Deschanel) does not believe in any of that stuff. Their story; told in a great non-linear fashion that examines the 500 days that Summer is in Tom’s life, examines whether either of their ideas about love hold up in reality.

Much has been made in early reviews about Webb’s experience with music videos, probably because there is a dance scene and the music is heavily tied to the visuals in the film (look for a great split-screen sequence with Regina Spektor’s song Us), but I think most of those reviewers missed the subtle touch that Webb brought out in the post-film Q&A last night. The narrator that we hear in the trailer is the narrator of the film as well; a deep, soothing voice that sets the tone for a storybook-ish movie. By beginning with the narrator giving us the setup – Girl doesn’t believe in love, boy does believe in love, and boy knows that girl is The One at first meeting – the film gives the viewers the normal cues of a fairy tale story.

But the film isn’t intending to be a fairy tale, nor is it intending to subvert fairy tales by setting your expectations and destroying them. Rather, it is questioning and wrestling with my generation’s takes on love – the fear of labeling relationships, the generation of kids who’ve grown up after divorce, the desire for some concrete idea of love but the complete lack of any model or definition. By using fairy-tale aspects, 500 Days of Summer did well to ask the questions that I’ve heard lots of friends ask (that I myself asked), and while the film didn’t really have any good answers, it wasn’t willing to forsake all hope in the idea of love.

I identified with the movie a great deal because I’ve been in those positions before; finding someone who I thought was the one, being with a different someone who just really really wasn’t the one, and finally finding The One who I’m now happily married to. I still don’t know exactly what love is; but I’m a lot closer and I do know a litany of things that it is definitely not. This movie, rather than being a “happy ending all things tied up neatly but nothing of substance provided” Hollywood film, successfully (to me) asked some questions and wrestled with them in a way fitting its characters and story, then ended on a note of hope. It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was far better than anything that Hollywood normally produces on the subject of love, and I hope it has a great deal of success at the Box Office.

Off Topic:

And I think that somewhere down the line there is a critical essay waiting to happen about how this film identifies another shift in culture; with Summer being representative of this generation’s wrestling with the 70’s generation (which might be defined as Spring – the birth of free love and love as a self-centered, self-seeking concept). If I were to write said essay, I would place the modern generation right at the end of 500 Days of Summer (which I won’t spoil), and explore the themes of the film as suggestions of ways that culture is changing. But that’s just me.

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