How cameras take control

In my new Faith and Film course at Seattle Pacific University, we're spicing up our post-movie discussions with some videos that train us to see more clearly just how filmmakers are using their cameras to influence our experience.

The more we understand how artists seek to capture our imaginations, the more discerning we can become about what they're hoping to accomplish, and the better we will be equipped for recognizing greatness.

Here are two videos I've made permanent parts of the syllabus. If you have a favorite video that taught you to look at movies a little differently, I encourage you to share!

https://youtu.be/GfqD5WqChUY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5V-k-p4wzxg


First impressions of My Life as a Zucchini

This weekend, I drove up to Whidbey Island for a reunion of alumni of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing program.

While I was there, I found myself talking with friends about the most memorable movies we'd seen so far this year. In particular, we talked about a new article at Good Letters, written by our fellow SPU MFA graduate Nick Olson, that focused on Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049 and Darren Aronofsky's mother!

One of them told me about an exhibit happening in Portland, Oregon, right now focused on the stop-motion animated films produced by Laika. We reminisced fondly about Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings. That's when I started talking about another recent film of hand-crafted animation, one that I only saw a few days ago and have been thinking about ever since.

On the drive home, I decided to tell you about it as well. Join me for a few moments on my sunny drive from the island to the ferryboat, and I'll tell you why I'm excited about this film.

Simon and Zucchini — an unlikely friendship in My Life as a Zucchini, directed by Claude Barras. Gkids.

My first impressions of Blade Runner 2049

"More Human Than Human."

"That is our motto," said Tyrell, head of the android-designing Tyrell Corporation.

And so began Blade Runner, a movie in which our human hero, Deckard the Replicant Hunter, began to wonder how human he really was, and in which his targets — ferocious replicants gone rogue — demonstrated their capacity to be vengeful Frankenstein monsters of humanity's own making and their capacity to grasp the concept of grace, something that humankind had apparently forgotten.

[This is a review in progress. Check back for revisions and expansions to this draft.]

In that sense, it's easy to imagine that the immeasurable influence of Ridley Scott's 1982 masterpiece played a part in the composition of U2's early '90s hit "Even Better Than the Real Thing." I suspect that they were consciously thinking about television, pornography, and consumer culture's inclination to sell us trouble-free substitutes for the good-but-challenging things that God intended. Replicants were the culmination of humankind's desire to be gods, to have slaves, and to find living beings that they could exploit to their heart's content.

Now, more than 30 years after that original, groundbreaking work of science fiction filmmaking, one based on the innovative imagination of Philip K. Dick, we have a sequel directed by Denis Villeneuve with a screenplay and written by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original with David Webb Peoples).

And like Replicants themselves, it is designed to please its customers. It does so by serving up all of the familiar Blade Runner things that we like: flying cars, that overpowering Vangelis soundtrack, a grim and bloodied hero with an identity crisis, sexy synthetic faux-females, brutal hand-to-hand combat in the rain, fleeting glimpses of characters from the original, and machines that confirm our sinking suspicion that humanity has forgotten its greatest distinction—love.

Moreover, it understands that Blade Runner's distinctiveness was in avoiding action-movie cliches and focusing instead on Big Ideas. So Blade Runner 2049 has some of those too. But it introduces them in a very different cinematic context than the original, one in which we are surrounded by ambitious science fiction films about artificial intelligence.

As a result, this film — we might call it Blade Runner: Even Better Than the Real Thing — plays like a variation on a popular genre, joining recent hits like Ex Machina and Her and Alien: Covenant in the game of showing us the dangers of manufacturing subordinate entities.

As a sort of Blade Runner Replicant, 2049 comes about as close as I can imagine a movie coming to succeeding as a worthy sequel. It's an immersive experience, often persuading us that this is, indeed, the same horrific future in which Deckard and Roy Batty fought it out in the rain. The cast is outstanding. The music is, at its best points, reminiscent of Vangelis's original score, and, at worst, just a variation on the standard-issue percussive/concussive style of Christopher Nolan's soundtracks. The story takes us to new locations, and wrestles with new twists on old questions.

Nevertheless, it cannot avoid the inevitable pitfalls of any Blade Runner sequel. And that is because the greatness of the original is due to its perfect limitations, its perfect restraint, its refusal to tell us any more than we needed to know.

I mean, for the love of all things holy — Blade Runner was the last Great Singularity in the world of science-fiction. It was a perfect snow globe. And any sequel that explores that particular narrative further expands the circumference of this big-screen world, placing that original snow globe within a bigger snow globe, which inevitably distances us from its perfection. Blade Runner's greatness was in its completeness, how everything contributed to the integrity of the whole. The origami unicorn, for crying out loud. Have we learned nothing from expanding on Alien? 2001: A Space Odyssey? Etc., etc., etc.?

Expanding Deckard's story — this was always Deckard's story, and the new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling isn't interesting enough to change that  — beyond what was originally established makes it more difficult for the audience (well, this audience, anyway) to suspend disbelief. The original worked for me because Deckard was just a cop and Rachel just a high-end Replicant that Tyrell used to show off. It was Chinatownin Space. As moviegoers, we revere the two of them for their everyman/ suffering-hero qualities as they discover things that show them their dark and troubling world is far more troubling than they'd realized. They have been born into an unjust cosmos, exploited, pushed around, bamboozled, led astray. All we want for them is escape and some sweet relief.

But this movie, like the original's reverent fans themselves, makes giants of them — characters of grand religious significance. There will be no escape for Deckard and Rachel. They are caught by a power more insufferable than Tyrell's corporate tyranny or the law's brutal prejudice. Though all they want is to ride off into the noir sunset with grim Chinatown looks on their faces, they now discover they've been caught by The Power of MythTM. And that means they are Important on a larger scale.

This has the effect of weakening what made me care for these two characters in the first place. It takes what was originally a solid science-fiction story and begins to turn it into a mythology of gods.

As a result, in spite of Fancher's role here, this will never feel to me like something more than fan fiction written by the overly reverent. If I have to accept it as "canon," then the whole affair is, in my opinion (and as I feared), diminished.

It doesn't help that Harrison Ford, for all of the emotion that he brings to this performance (he "shows up" for this, as NPR's Glen Weldon put it), doesn't remind me of Deckard. At all. He reminds me of, well, Grumpy Old Man Harrison Ford, which is pretty much the only Ford we see anymore.

Still, there is much to admire here. Deakins, of course. Gosling is just good enough to be interesting. Carla Juri, one of the most interesting young actresses going right now, gives this chapter a surprisingly note of human tenderness. And the film's bold venture into the new App-droid Genre (Her, Ex Machina) gives the film its most unnervingly fascinating turns, even if they feel more like they belong in Ex Machina 2 than Blade Runner 2.

And it sets up Villeneuve's next film very neatly with a big-reveal scene that feels like something right out of Dune.

Also:

Jared Leto is not scary. Which only makes his character's unnecessary and disturbingly graphic scenes of violence toward women that much more frustrating.


Carolyn Forché on the Image Podcast

The new episode of the Image podcast features an interview with the poet and human rights advocate Carolyn Forché. Here's the summary:

At the Glen Workshop in August, Image editor Greg Wolfe recorded a nearly hour-long conversation with poet and social activist, Carolyn Forché. Hailed not only for her exquisite poetry but also for her work in promoting greater awareness of “the poetry of witness,” Forché is at once gentle and passionate. Over the course of the conversation she ranges over a variety of topics, from her teaching style to the meaning of “presence” to memorable stories of her friendships with figures like poet Czeslaw Milosz and martyred El Salvadoran bishop, Oscar Romero—about whom she is writing in a new memoir.

Check out other recent episodes here, featuring Paul Willis, Harrison Scott Key, Scott Teems, Gareth Higgins, Gina Ochsner, Richard Rodriguez, and, for some reason... me!

In other Image-related news, check this out: They're publishing Flannery O'Connor's college journal!


I'm Blade-running behind

Good news: Anne and I are celebrating our anniversary with a much-needed break from work.

Bad news: That means that I'm on the road during the opening weekend of Blade Runner 2049, a sequel to one of my ten favorite films of all-time.

No regrets. Anne and I have been looking forward to this getaway for months.

And I should be able to catch Denis Villeneuve's much-anticipated, much-dreaded movie sometime in the next several days.

But since I'm eager to serve those of you who have questions about the movie, I'll interrupt my anniversary adventures to provide you with some substantial reading.

Here are some reviews that I haven't read closely. (For me, the element of surprise is one of the most valuable aspects of moviegoing.) Why am I recommending them? I respect the minds that made them.

Alissa Wilkinson at Vox:

...it’s not mere fan service; the film tries very hard to sustain interest with new characters and developments that draw on the past without being handcuffed to it, throughout its sometimes ponderous 163-minute runtime.

But far too often that attempt to be interesting fails.

Joel Mayward at Cinemayward:

Deliberately paced, with a strong sense of atmosphere and compelling visuals, this is a sequel which builds upon the original foundation without ever quite surpassing it.

Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com:

...one of the most deeply philosophical and challenging sci-fi films of all time, a movie that never holds your hand as it spirals the viewer through its gorgeous funhouse of the human soul.

David Ehrlich at Letterboxd:

It’s the first Denis Villeneuve film to be boring.

Josh Larsen at LarsenOnFilm:

2049 is a worthy successor, a moody, broody visual feast that taps into our unease about the advent of artificial intelligence—and the questions of what it means to be alive that will inevitably come with it.

Scott Renshaw at Salt Lake City Weekly:

As many different ways as there are to make a sequel—and Blade Runner 2049 is very good at some of them—it helps to pick one and go with it, rather than try to be every kind of sequel at the same time.

Check back for more...


The Dardennes speak!

I can't help but envy my friend and moviegoing mentor Darren Hughes, who had the opportunity recently to interview Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, two of the world's greatest living filmmakers, about their latest film: The Unknown Girl.

I reviewed it a while back — it's easily one of my favorites of 2017, and is currently playing in a limited theatrical release in the U.S.

IFC Films. Adele Haenel as Doctor Jenny Davin in The Unknown Girl.

Check out Darren's revealing conversation with the masters responsible for so many Cannes-award-winning films, including The Son (Les Fils), a film I love so much that I try to find room for it in every film class I teach.

And — no surprise here — to listen to things they say about their films, even things they say casually, is to learn to pay attention in a new way. For example, this, from Jean-Pierre:

For the kinds of films we make, we have to have our ears open to what is happening in the world, what is happening around us. And we also have to listen to our characters. When we create characters we do not watch them from above. We try to be in tandem with them while they’re going through the experience. Our characters are not puppets that we’re manipulating from above.

The Dardennes, all along the way, have been teaching us how to see one another by striving to see their characters, scenarios, and worlds as clearly and as humbly as they can.


"But then I listened..."

A close friend of mine from college, who I follow on Facebook, has contributed a substantial response to the last year's controversy regarding those professional athletes who kneel during the National Anthem. (His post is currently public, so you can see that I'm not making this up.)

His perspective is worth reading and sharing. He has a long history of service in the U.S. military—21 years—and has served as a prosecutor  recently as a Judge Advocate for the U.S. Army. As long as I've known him (more than 25 years), he's been a conservative voice that I admire and respect. His words here are powerful and demonstrate great discernment. Feel free to share this with your own social media community.

I proudly fly the American flag in front of my home. I wear it with pride on my right shoulder of my uniform. I always stand at attention for the anthem, whether I'm in uniform or not. If I'm outside in uniform, I salute. If I'm civilian clothing, I put my hand over my heart.

I was bothered by the kneeling football players last year at first. When Bronco linebacker Brandon Marshall took a knee it bugged me. From my perspective, he, Kaepernick, and others should have showed respect and made their point some other way.

But then I listened to what they had to say.

I realized they were not attempting to disrespect the flag, the anthem, or the country. In essence, they were doing what we often see players do when a fellow Soldier is hurt - they take a knee to show solidarity with the injured. Those taking a knee during the anthem were saying that our country is injured, that when there is injustice, then taking a knee is appropriate.

Consider that we often fly flags at half-staff when we honor someone who died. It does not diminish the flag to do so.

These players are not burning the flag out of hate or ignorance. They are not stepping on it just to get attention. They are not laughing and ignoring the flag or anthem while it plays on TV while they are hanging out in a bar. They are not, in my opinion, being disrespectful to the flag. In fact, they arguably are respecting it and the country it stands for by peacefully calling out what they see, and what likely is, a national problem of injustice.

How many young black men must die or be incarcerated for a problem to be addressed by us all? The BLM movement is not about other lives not mattering, it is a cry that, too often, black lives do not matter enough. I think we could benefit by listening more and finding offense less. And that is what the players taking a knee hope to have happen.

Brandon Marshall did not just take a knee out of ignorance or hatred. He turned it into a means to promote action, going on to meet with Denver Police Chief to discuss issues relating to the use of force. He worked with youth in schools to help make a difference at the ground level. He eventually determined that he had brought attention to what was an important issue and he stood again. Others did also, but not everyone. For many, the issue remains a problem not adequately addressed.

But now we have a President who has made the kneeling of a few players, I believe all of them Black, into a partisan political issue. If it wasn't a partisan push, he wouldn't have started this line of attack at a partisan campaign event for an Alabama Senate election. He has continued to push this because it gets his base on fire they will then ignore the underlying issues that give rise to the actions of those players and it galvanizes them to line up for him and it helps to equate loyalty to country to loyalty to him personally.

Using this issue as an attack on patriotism for political purposes does disrespect the flag and the freedoms it represents.

Coming back to my initial point about my respect for the flag as a Soldier (and a citizen), I am also bothered now at the implication that somehow kneeing during the anthem shows disrespect for me or any other Soldier.

It does not.

You don't stand for the anthem to honor Soldiers. You stand to respect the freedoms and liberty that our Country is founded on, or perhaps kneel to show dismay that such freedoms and liberties may not be equally shared by all. By now arguing, as Trump and his team are doing, that the players who kneel are disrespecting troops is to further politicize the anthem and the military. It is offensive to have our sacrifice be used in this manner to simply make political points. Those in uniform are not window dressing for partisan political snark.

I will not be kneeling during the anthem, not now, not ever. I will continue to teach my kids to stand with respect. That flag represents the best our Nation aims to be, our finest ideals. It also reminds me personally of the sacrifice of those who have died for the nation and whose coffins are draped with this flag. But I can also respect the decision to kneel as a visible and non-violent means to bring attention to injustice.

I respect what Kaepernick and Marshall and many other players have done even while wishing they could have done so in a different manner simply to have avoided the perception by some that they were disrespecting the flag directly or the military who fight with that on their shoulder. But they pushed a conversation through peaceful actions which needed to be had. They demonstrated their concerns for injustice. It was an appropriate action to make their points. And this past weekend, as we watched the President make kneeling football players into his top priority I applaud the actions of those NFL players, coaches, and owners who pushed back and would not let the president bully them or demean their actions.

God bless this great Nation and the Constitution we have established which seeks to protect our Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. God bless those who selflessly serve this country and our communities, whether they are wearing a military uniform, a police uniform, a firefighter's uniform, or standing in front of a class teaching our children. And bless those who peacefully seeks to raise awareness about injustice and who seek to help us all better confront such injustice in order to better achieve the promise of freedom and justice for all.

I am grateful for my friend's contribution to this conversation.

I am also grateful for this, from Dr. Theodore R. Johnston, who, on Twitter, reminds us that Colin Kaepernick did not #TakeAKnee out of disrespect, but because he was advised to do so by military veterans who explained that this would be a respectful form of protest.


Film Forum: mother! and the haters

You've probably heard that Darren Aronofsky's latest film, mother!, is polarizing and controversial.

You've probably heard that it scored an "F" on Cinemascore.

You may have even heard Christian media voices condemning at as blasphemous.

Cinemascores, of course, have nothing at all to do with the artistry, beauty, mystery, and truth at work within movies. They have everything to do with audiences experiencing something and reacting: "That's not what I wanted to see. You didn't give me what I like."

Sometimes, moviegoers react in protest because what they saw failed to intrigue, challenge, or inspire them. Sometimes they react merely because they were uncomfortable, and most people don't go to the movies to become uncomfortable.

This is happening with mother!, especially among Christian viewers who are jumping to conclusions that the movie is nothing more than a hateful attack on the church. Feeling that the movie comes from a hostile imagination, feeling offended, and feeling deprived of that familiar, reassuring sense of being entertained, they protest.

In doing so, they may be expressing how much the church means to them. I'm glad that the church means something to them.

Unfortunately, they're also demonstrating that they're not listening. They're not listening to other perspectives, to the artist, or — most importantly — to the movie itself.

Jennifer Lawrence plays "Mother" in Darren Aronofsky's strange, poetic, and punishing new fever-dream of a film.

Before I share some of those other perspectives, let me give my defense of this film a little more context. (If you're willing to read that, I'm grateful: It demonstrates a willingness to listen, and I'm not exactly accustomed to that.)

A couple of years ago, I watched a presentation by a popular Christian filmmaker. He presented a manifesto for Christians in the cinematic arts. He wanted to start a movement. He began by describing “the biggest problem we face today.” This "biggest problem" wasn’t poverty. It wasn’t the threat of nuclear holocaust or the threat of mass casualties to increasing natural disasters. It wasn't our own sinful nature. "The biggest problem we face today," he claimed with solemn conviction, is that young people are leaving evangelical churches.

He then presumed to present a primary cause of this mass exodus: there is better "entertainment" available to them elsewhere. Why would they stay in church when their desire to be entertained can be so easily satisfied elsewhere? The lack of high-quality Christian entertainment, he said, leads young people to immerse themselves in entertainment that exposes them to dangerous worldviews and offensive content. So, he declared, we must seize the resources available to us and create entertainment that will give them a safe and exciting alternative.

“I want three things when I consume entertainment properly,” he said. The screen lit up with his priorities in ALL CAPS.

First: “SEE WORLD VIEW REPRESENTED.”

According to the speaker, Christian moviegoers want movies that show them the world the way they already see it. They don't want to be troubled by a worldview any different from their own. This, he implied, should be our priority.

This strikes me as complicated. I know a lot of Christians. And their worldviews different dramatically.

Second: “DON’T WANT TO BE OFFENDED.”

Christians who “consume” movies, says the speaker, want to avoid anything that would run contrary to their moral sensibilities, upset them, or lead them into temptation. “I don’t want to cover my eyes or ears, or to cover my children’s eyes or ears,” he said.

This, also, seems complicated to me. I know a lot of Christians. They are "offended" by different things. And what does "offended" mean, anyway? I recently came across these words in a comment on David Dark's Facebook page:

"'Offended' isn't a feeling. It's a word we use when we don't want to name our feelings."

When we say we are "offended," what do we really mean? Does profanity offend you? Profanity can be spoken in hate and recklessness. It can also express anger or hurt or injustice. It can also express that someone doesn't have the language to express their frustration. Are we really listening? Does Jesus teach us to flinch and avoid people who are upset, or angry, or uneducated?

Third: “WANT TO BE ENTERTAINED.”

A slide from the manifesto in question.

 

 

 

The speaker says that Christians who go to the movies want to be entertained. He lists this among Christians' top three priorities in their engagement with media.

We want to be entertained as opposed to… what? Being bored?

That seems extremely subjective. I know a lot of people — Christian or otherwise — who are entertained by very different kinds of work. 

If I’m not misreading this passionate culture-warrior, I suspect that he means that Christians want something comfortably familiar and agreeable — something we can enjoy without trouble.

But here's the thing...

Art's purpose is not to show us our own way of thinking. Art invites us to pay attention to our neighbors, especially those who are different than us, so that we can experience new things and, through patient observation, grow to understand and appreciate them, perhaps even embrace and agree with them.

Art, then, becomes an essential way in which I can follow Jesus Christ’s admonition to “love your neighbors.” How can we love our neighbors if we don’t develop a quality of attention that enables us to listen to, contemplate, and engage with perspectives and experiences different from our own?

I'm a Christian.

When I go to the movies, I want to encounter a wide variety of worldviews.

I am not afraid of things that make me uncomfortable. When I feel offended, that often reveals my own weakness and fear and desire to withdraw from an encounter with a person who has urgent needs.

I want more than entertainment. I want to listen, to think, to learn, and to grow, even if that means experiencing works of imagination that reflect convictions different than my own.

And when I engage with art, I find that my faith grows stronger, my capacity for loving my neighbors increases, my appetite for experience and education grows, and I have greater courage to go venture beyond the faith-dulling comforts of home.

So...

When I watched mother!, I saw how easy it would be to read it as a narrow, simplistic, anti-Christian allegory.

But I also saw all kinds of things going on that didn't align with that reading, and that suggested other more complicated readings.

Mother is in tune with her house, a world of creativity that is being exploited, ignored, and rejected.

What I perceived most of all was a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the female figure in the film, for how her creativity was neglected, for how her pending motherhood was devalued and exploited, for how her hard work to make the world a better place was disrespected and destroyed.

I felt the "groaning" of creation, the cry of injustice from women, from nature, from the beautiful world that was spoken into being by a loving God but that is afflicted and tortured by definitions of God that are primarily concerned with all things male. 

While I'm still thinking through and discussing what I experienced, I found three things were crystal clear:

  1. I was not necessarily seeing my own worldview on the screen. I was hearing from a neighbor, based on his own experiences, and I was receiving some challenging ideas and questions. So long as I am concerned about beauty and truth, this can only lead to growth and wisdom.
  2. I was uncomfortable, and — yes — at times I felt offended. And yet, as I thought through what I had seen and engaged with other perspectives, I realized that those feelings of "offense" were more about me jumping to conclusions than they were about what the movie was actually about.
  3. And this was not about entertainmentThis was about art... which is better than mere entertainment. This was a call to a meal, not a treat; a challenge, not mere reassurance. This was a call for conversation, not applause.

As a Christian who grew disillusioned with conservative evangelical churches in America, I can tell you that I didn't leave because I wasn't "entertained." I moved on because of the self-centered, insular nature of those churches I attended. I moved on because of an unwillingness to listen to (and thus love) our neighbors. I moved on because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the power and purpose of art.

I'll share what I wrote down, in a sort of fever of inspiration, after seeing the movie.

But first, let me share some other perspectives from some of the moviegoers whose patient and observant interpretations have been blessed me with insight over many years:

Michael Sicinski (at Letterboxd):

On the one hand, it's about the eternal struggle to create, with a blocked poet (Javier Bardem) sacrificing his wife and muse (Jennifer Lawrence) in order to bring forth genius into sick and hungry world.

...

But on the other hand, mother! is a feminist examination of the denigration of the domestic sphere. Lawrence is a literal home-maker for Bardem, working to restore his destroyed family house and keeping him in food and drink while he attempts to write. Once he is able to produce, she is regarded as extraneous, the home front a menial distraction.

The central portion of mother!, which is marvelous on both an intellectual and a technical level, emphasizes the Lawrence character's needs and desires as trivial, the material demands of life as a nagging necessity for the vaunted poet. This is made evident when the older couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up, a kind of faux-benevolent home invasion that soon becomes one opportunity after another to humiliate "Her." Eventually, a swarming group of the Poet's acolytes takes over the house, treating Lawrence like a gauche interloper.

Like the suitors in Penelope's home in "The Odyssey," their sense of entitlement is both comical and shocking. At every turn, they seem to demand that "She" justify her very existence, and Lawrence's beleagured character is cast as a shrew just for attempting to maintain basic order. Aronofsky asks us to consider whether artistic creation really demands the orgiastic anarchy and unmitigated violence into Lawrence and Bardem's home devolves. And is Lawrence a "nag" for wanting her own work respected?

I find mother!'s critique of gender and creativity compelling because it speaks loudly and indicts the very worst parts of me. When I write, I frequently have to pause because my wife or daughter calls me away, to tend to some domestic matter, or to share some interesting idea with me. Sometimes it's frustrating. I would prefer uninterrupted solitude. But those flashes of frustration are momentary, because I recognize that I have made, and continue to make, the decision to live with other people, people I love more than I love myself or my work.

If "Him," played by Javier Bardem, represents God, he represents a deity who devalues creation and all things feminine. But there's more to him than a God allegory.

Evan Cogswell (at Catholic Cinephile):

The question at the heart of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream heavily infused with Biblical allegories, is what happens when an artist abuses that power.

...

Mother herself is another allegorical character, with touches of the Virgin Mary, Hestia, and Aphrodite, but she is primarily drawn from Gaia, or mother nature herself. Whatever combination of metaphors mother is meant to represent, Lawrence draws on them all effortlessly, creating a sympathetic character who never seems gullible or foolish for blindly going along with her husband or pouring all her energies into refurbishing their mysterious house, another process of creation and a sort of vocation that no one, including her creative genius husband, appreciates.

Aronofsky has said that his original idea for mother! was to convey a feeling of dread and helplessness as one watches their home destroyed, an allegory of mother earth’s helplessness in the face of environmental destruction That is an easy interpretation to see, especially considering the selfless giving of mother to her husband and the increasingly disturbing string of guests he parades through their home because they love his work. At the same time, if the invasion of the home is a parallel to humans destroying the earth, it also functions as an example of a self-centered artist allowing his wife’s handiwork to be abused and destroyed because he wants all fame and glory for himself, not much different from an abusive artist trying to usurp glory from God or misuse His creation.

Mother reminds me of so many women — single or married, mothers or sisters or daughters — whose sacrifices and creativity have been neglected or taken for granted.

Alissa Wilkinson (at Vox), in a review that, she pointed out on Twitter, got a nod from Aronofsky himself:

... [T]here’s so much pulsing beneath this film that it’s hard to grab onto just one theme as what it “means.” It’s full-on apocalyptic fiction, and like all stories of apocalypse, it’s intended to draw back the veil on reality and show us what’s really beneath. On one level, Mother! is also about what partners of artists have to deal with (that Aronofsky and Lawrence met while shooting this film and started dating is … confusing). And, like Noah, it’s about humans’ proclivity to wreck anything good with their own unfettered desires and selfishness. It evokes The Fountain in its view of history; it evokes Black Swan in its uncanny ability to get into the relationship between women’s physical pain and the soul.

And in case it’s not clear, this movie gets wild. If its gleeful cracking apart of traditional theologies doesn’t get you (there’s a lot of folk Catholic imagery here, complete with an Ash Wednesday-like mud smearing on the foreheads of the faithful), its bonkers scenes of chaos probably will. Mother! is a movie designed to provoke fury, ecstasy, madness, and catharsis, and more than a little awe.

But if he’s directing with abandon, Aronofsky is also entirely in control. Nothing happens in Mother! he doesn’t intend. The apocalypse works just as expected. Bits of his earlier creations are present everywhere, but this seems like it could be in its perfected state. The world he’s created feels practiced and familiar and yet entirely new. But by the end, he burns it all down. Time to start again.

Do these reviews give you enough reason to pause and question the hastily hostile reactions and the narrow interpretations elsewhere in Christian media?

Here's what I wrote as soon as I got home from the movie:

Note 1: I really didn't expect to be writing what I'm writing now. I expected to roll my eyes, thankful to have merely survived another blast of Aronofsky intensity.

Note 2: Your experience may be very different than mine. The woman who sat behind my friends and me stood up as soon as the credits began to roll and said "Disgusting!"

-

First impressions:

If Lars Von Trier so loved the world that he gave a rip about how women feel, then whosoever attended his movies would not feel revulsion, but would find themselves moved and rewarded.

Okay, that was a lame play on a famous verse—but bear with me. If the director of Melancholia and Dancer in the Darkdidn't take such obvious pleasure in tormenting women (both the actresses and the characters) in his films, but rather sought to respect and honor them through sculpting expressions of empathy, we might end up with something very like Darren Aronfsky's new film: mother!.

mother!—I'm lowercasing it because I'm told it's the right thing to do—is Von Trier-esque in many ways except the most fundamental: it is a film of deep compassion. Compassion for women. For what is often understood as the "feminine" forces, the womb-like qualities, at work in cosmos. For women whose lives are creative works of art. For Mary, the mother of God. For the mothers and wives who devote their lives to the impossible challenge of making a family and a home. For women whose creative expressions are neglected compared to those of men.

I've avoided reading reviews because I didn't want other people's interpretations in my head. And I am glad I did, because I'm playing with so many interpretations right now. And I think that's the way it's supposed to be. This isn't a film you'll "figure out." It's a film that offers you call kinds of readings worth considering, and it can substantially reward them. It's not the monumental work of ego and pretentiousness that I've heard some people say it is.

And I did not go into this as an Aronofsky fanboy. Of his many films, The Fountain is the only one that has stuck with me. I admire his mind, and have enjoyed my interviews with him. But his films have often felt like too much style and not enough substance—like wild exhibitions of his power that ultimately point back to him instead of to some deeply meaningful takeaway.

I went into this expecting the usual Aronofsky bombast: sound and fury signifying, well, not nothing... but not enough to justify the hurricane force of his style.

The style is significant. The cinematography feels improvised, but the more you think about it the more you see how purposefully and carefully edited it is. It shows us just what we need to see, and there's enough going on that I'm sure I'll go on discovering more in subsequent viewings. Yes, it makes us feel trapped and desperate, but not in a way that makes me resent the director; rather, I feel I'm being asked to consider what the world feels like to Lawrence's character (who just might be The World). It's not about making the audience squirm, but approximating the experience of its central character—a character of mythic proportions.

And the sound design: Oh, my. This film's force has as much to do with its meticulously crafted sound design as anything I've seen in a long time.

But here, perhaps for the first time, I feel that there is enough substance to justify Aronofsky's style. (Yes, I know—style can be substance. What I mean is that every choice contributes to the richness of the whole, complicating the network of metaphors in interesting ways, rather than just being another heaping scoop of sensory stimulation.

Comparing this to music: This isn't a symphony playing a shallow rock song or just showing off how loud it can be. This is a symphony playing a work that has a reason to be, a work woven from meaningful questions, and lamenting wrongs of a cosmic nature.

In locating this centrifugal force of a scorned woman's rage, Aronofsky unleashes what we are already seeing happen in nature around us: the world striking back at mankind's version of "God" and saying "You can't rightfully worship a creator god who devalues the natural world of his own creation, who perpetuates or excuses its exploitation, or who oppresses the feminine."

This film is not able to be boiled down to a Rosemary's Baby remake, or a critique of Christianity, or a critique of religion in general, or an allegory of the artist and his muse (although all of those things have some merit). It is open to a thousand interpretations, not because it's meaningless, but because it is making connections between realities in the manner of an ambitious poem. It is seeing correlations between people, archetypes, and phenomena. A good poem about the artist and his muse is a poem about God and his creation... is a poem about a marriage... is a poem about inequality... etc., etc., etc.

Most Aronofsky films have made me think too much about Aronofsky. This one does too. But this time, I feel like he isn't so much thinking of drawing attention to himself as he is interested in drawing attention to a cosmic tragedy: the exploitation of women, the exploitation of nature, and the blindness of men in overlooking and devaluing what the feminine force of the cosmos gives and gives and gives.

Having said that, I would be able to enjoy this film so much more if I didn't know about his past relationship with another leading lady and the child that came of it. I don't want to think about those things as I watch, but I can't help it. Yes, he offers a flamboyantly self-effacing portrait of the artist (and anyone with a god complex) as an egomaniacal monster; so there may be some attempt here at self-examination and making amends. But still... I'm not convinced that this stands as an expression of confession or repentance. It feels more an artist who has killed for inspiration and is now singing about the grief (as the song goes)*. [My friend Pete Peterson got to this lyrical reference before I did.]

And the fact that Aronofsky and this leading lady are now a new item makes the whole thing feel rather icky. I suspect that we will someday look back at this film and be as preoccupied with stories of the director's relationship with actresses as we are when we talk about Hitchcock films... and that's not a good thing. We should focus on the work itself and its possible interpretations, undistracted by the artist and his personal life. But Aronofsky is making that almost impossible.

Films I thought about while watching and then in the post-viewing conversation:
Melancholia (Von Trier)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
What Lies Beneath (Zemeckis)
Vertigo (Hitchcock)
The Fountain (Aronofsky)
The Tree of Life (Malick)
Black Swan (Aronofsky)

I'm in no way saying that mother! is derivative. I think this film will stand the test of time and earn its place in dialogue with those films as a strong piece of work, superior to anything Aronofsky has yet made. He's been a director who has intrigued me in the past, but I feel he's made a significant step forward here. Now he really has my attention.

 


Em-Bark on a new Wes Anderson adventure

Good dog, bad dog... Wes Anderson has rounded up a pack of 'em.

In the past, Anderson has talked about his love for Richard Adams's Watership Down, and that was evident in the way he borrowed elements of that story's climax for The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Will this be influenced by Adams's The Plague Dogs? (That's one heart-sickeningly vision of the world, and certainly not a story for children.)

Get ready. FOX Searchlight will "let the dogs out" in March 2018. If there's any justice, Over the Rhine will compose the soundtrack. (Not likely, but wouldn't that be perfect?)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dt__kig8PVU&feature=youtu.be


Innocence Mission: past, present, future

I awoke to find a new interview in Cordella Magazine with The Innocence Mission's Karen Peris, in which she talks about the band's history, recent work, and future plans (including plans for new albums!)

She also says this, which made me stop and think:

As a reader of poems, I have most often been touched by poems that are visual, that get at something true, but leave a lot of space for the reader to imagine and connect. So that is always my goal for what I write, in spite of how unattainable it may seem.

Recently, I've been looking at a lot of photography of undersea life. Anne has a magnificent book of vivid imagery of creatures no sci-fi movie could have imagined, and they are sparking new storytelling ideas for me. Somehow it doesn't surprise me that Peris's evocative lyrics are inspired by image-focused poetry. Pictures speak more powerfully than messages. 

She then goes on to talk about her favorite picture books:

Laura Carlin and Beatrice Alemagna are two illustrators I love. One daydream I have is to make a children's book, so I work on that sometimes.

That has me asking a question I don't think I've ever asked at Looking Closer: What are your favorite children's books when it comes to illustrations? Share some recommendations in the Comments, and I'll come back later this week with some recommendations of my own.

In the meantime, here's Karen singing a song that conjures all kinds of images from my childhood of reading and dreaming...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2s9LAtKPDg