Imagine this if you will: I’ve started hosting a regular evening discussion group where all of us who love to look closer gather and watch films, or listen to albums, and then stay up late discussing them. Imagine I give each one of you an opportunity to choose which album or movie we’re going to give our close attention. What movie or music would you choose? And why?

I posed this question to the Looking Closer Specialists, and here are their recommendations for this imaginary discussion group. Some of them wrote out their recommendations for you, and some addressed them directly to me.

You are free to take their suggestions and start your own group. We’ll be with you in spirit. You could even call it “Looking Closer” if you wanted to…

gattaca2Bob Denst retired from the Tucson Fire Department after a full career and is currently experiencing Life 2.0 as a student in the Seattle Pacific University MFA program for Creative Writing. He recommends:

Gattaca. Yes, there are better movies, but this is one that I can recommend unequivocally to just about anyone. It manages to combine a whodunnit with science fiction. But those genres serve as the packaging for a great think piece. I have had multiple wonderful discussions with people, especially my family, about the ideas and questions that movie raises. And the movie only becomes more prescient as our genetic reach and grasp increases. It’s also visually stunning. It never gets caught up in a futuristic look which so often dates itself within a few years. It still looks fresh even though it came out 18 years ago. The performances are a delight to watch: Ethan Hawke. Jude Law is fantastic. Uma Thurman. And Alan Arkin is so much fun. Even Gore Vidal, Tony Shalhoub and Xander Berkeley in supporting roles give more than they had to. All in all, thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking.

Moonrise Kingdom map readingPeggy Harris has written about film and theology for Cokesbury, the educational imprint of Abingdon Press. She recommends one of my recent favorites:

Moonrise Kingdom. Here’s why: I am the daughter, granddaughter, and niece of movie theater owner/managers. Movies have run in the family since silent film days. (Family legend claims my grandmother met my grandfather when she played the piano at a silent movie.) I saw every movie, including age-inappropriate ones, free — from early childhood until I left for college. That means I was awash in an unedited flow of stories, from the original Parent Trap to Cool Hand Luke, from The Love Bug to Midnight Cowboy and The Graduate. I escaped life through films, and I think escapism is a driving force for most movie watchers today. (That doesn’t set a high bar for art, unfortunately.) But I confess that’s where I began. Thinking about movies, engaging with them, and engaging with others who love film — that all came later for me. Your website and your book, Through a Screen Darkly, played a part in moving me beyond escapism and deep into the potentially life-changing aspects of the stories woven on the screen. Just one example: Not until I read the comments from you and others on this site did I begin to fully appreciate the work of Wes Anderson. I mean, really — most of his films are so PRETTY. It was easy to sit back and enjoy the escape of watching them. Now I interact with their underlying themes, which have enriched my life. And I’ll end on an ironic note — as Geoffrey O’Brien wrote in a post you recently shared about Moonrise Kingdom, one of those recurring themes is ESCAPE.

Taylor_Swift_-_1989Winston Chow has been singing since he was 5, but never formally learned to read or play music. When he’s not enduring the commute to software engineering work in Silicon Valley, he helps college kids learn to sing in the church choir. He recommends:

Both 1989 albums by Taylor Swift and Ryan Adams.

At the very least, compare/contrast the album tracks — “Blank Space”, “Out of the Woods”, and “Shake It Off”. I know some may roll their eyes and ask, “Why that fluffy pop-princess Taylor Swift?”, but I’ve been inexplicably drawn to listen to Swift’s 1989 much more than I thought I would. When Ryan Adams released his cover album of “1989”, I figured out why.

(Thanks, Jeffrey Overstreet, for posting Adams’s cover of “Shake It Off”!)

Certified Copy - stairsJoseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating just such an institution in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix. He picks another of my recent favorites:

I’m going with Certified Copy when my turn rolls around, for two reasons.

First, because it seems only appropriate for the unveiling of the new “Looking Closer” site that I select the transformative viewing experience for which Jeffrey was most responsible. I’d seen references to Kiarostami’s film floating around for quite a while without thinking much of it, but when his atypical review – OK, it wasn’t really a review; more of a reflection — appeared in Image, I was inspired to give it a watch, and it was as thoughtful, provoking, and spectacular as he suggested.

Second, it seems wise to pick a film that is not only sure to inspire discussion – this one will, without a doubt – but also one that has enough complexity, nuance, and ambiguity to reward a close examination by a group of thoughtful and like-minded folks. (Also, the acting is amazing. I could watch Binoche and Shimell in this film forever and never grow tired.)

ace in the holeJoshua Wilson is a singer, teacher, husband, and father of five. He occasionally blogs on films at fforfilms.wordpress.com. He makes a surprising choice:

Tough choice. I’m going to pick Billy Wilder’s bitterly dark Ace in the Hole.

In this film, Wilder presents a bleak picture of our contemporary media culture. A man who is tragically caught half buried in a collapsed cave provides the scoop of a lifetime for Kirk Douglas’s bottom feeding newspaperman. He intends to capitalize on the story for profit and career advancement, and sets the stage for a literal media circus, complete with tents and Ferris wheels.

But as easy as it is to criticize the disgustingly self serving and corrupt actions of the newspaperman, Wilder’s satire is directed just as much towards us who so frequently use the tragedy of others as a consumable form of entertainment. When the resolution comes, the crowd picks up and moves on, taking with them their “I was there” stories, and leaving only their camping garbage, caring little for the hurting people who remained behind.

It’s been described as misanthropic, and it does veer towards melodrama near the climax, but I feel that some topics require an extreme depiction in order to break through our callousness and shake us up a bit into paying attention. This is a film that has only grown in relevance proportionally to the growth of the influence of media in our daily, even hourly experience.

Sunday in the ParkEvan Cogswell is an organist, composer and film enthusiast who occasionally blogs about film at https://catholiccinephile.wordpress.com/ His recommendation is the most obscure of them all:

I’ve been mulling over what to chose, and I’m going to stretch the definitions to do both an album and a movie. This DVD recording of the 1984 musical Sunday in the Park with George. This production was recorded and aired on PBS in 1986, and it’s been a long time goal of mine to make as many people as possible aware of this musical about art, creating art, engaging with art, and the influence of art on both the public and the artist.

The musical doesn’t tell a traditional story (which makes many people bored quickly); it’s comprised of a series of fictitious vignettes about George Seraut as he paints his masterpiece Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte. More interested in his work than anything else, Seraut is so committed to his vision that he tries to use his art as a substitute for relationships. Jumping forward 100 years (with a very funny song about modeling from the characters in the painting), act 2 is about Seraut’s fictitious great-grandson who believes good art = $$, and has no commitment to his own vision or creating a good work of art. The theme of human connections runs through many of Sondheim’s musicals, but this is his most optimistic, because art does make life worth living, healing and connecting people from different times and cultures.

tokyo-story-5439_2Levi Douma recently quit his studies at the conservatory in Utrecht, Holland and became a practitioner of transcendental meditation. He chooses:

Yasujiro Ozu – Tokyo Story (Tokyo Monogatari)

In a book called Through a Screen Darkly, there is a part where the writer complains about how few people these days take time to endure a so-called slow movie like Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Childlike me felt up for a challenge. I would watch the whole thing without falling asleep, just to try to get better focus. That “not-trying-to-like-it” attitude would prove most effective, because I had in the doing opened myself to the voice of the art, and all other inside voices and thoughts were just quietly expecting.

I was deeply moved by the film, especially the character of Setsuko O Hara (Noriko) made a strong impression. Her kindness overwhelmed me. “That’s the person I want to be!” I thought. She made conservative-like virtues heartfelt and beautiful. Yasujiro Ozu shows quiet admiration for things many people think are boring; he takes you to that subtle level where the quiet virtues are. He shows us how valuable family bonds are, how we must cherish them.

I realise, although strong it was, this experience is only the beginning of grasping the deeply felt kindnesses one can give and receive in a family. Tokyo Story was for me a revelation, a first step into a healthier direction. I need to appreciate and understand Ozu’s movies more, that’s why I picked this movie to look closer.

oh mercyDaniel Melvill Jones is spending his early 20s working for a technology company while he anxiously waits for the right time to return to school. (Trusting the Grand Weaver’s plan is hard but fruitful.) In the meantime he is serving his local church, reading an ever growing stack of volumes, and posting on occasion at danielmelvilljones.com. I’m honored that Daniel would cast me as Bilbo in the scenario that he shares here (although I hope he means Tolkien’s Bilbo, not Peter Jackson’s):

What a dream discussion group! We would be like a fellowship of boisterous hobbits who have sat at the feast of Elrond and are now gathered together in some snug pub. Loudly we voice our opinions of the elvish lore we heard, pestering our guide Bilbo (Jeffrey), who has helped initiate our appreciation of music and stories. What tales or legends should we repeat amongst us? It would be tempting to dwell on the ones we all enjoyed the best; the all-encompassing spirit of a Terrence Malick saga, the delicate miniature of a Wes Anderson, the grit and humour of a Cohen Brothers volume, or the black and white beauty of a Wim Wenders or a Charlie Chaplin. Maybe we could search the depths of heartache and grace brought to us from just over the Rhine, sink our teeth into the Edge’s guitar chords, or dance to rhythm of Saint Paul Simon.

Yet having learned so much in this company, I seek further understanding. Already I’ve grown from our feasts together, but my appetite remains unquenched. Specifically, I would like to better understand one who has been a minstrel, poet, prophet, and storyteller to several generations. I’d like a primer on Bob Dylan. Which album should we dwell on? I say we choose Jeffrey’s favourite, which is, well, let’s look… ah, I’ve found it: Oh Mercy.

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