Turn and Face the Strange: a challenge to artists and churches

In April, I spoke at Brehm Cascadia's Sacrament & Story conference.

As usual, I was asked to speak for about half an hour, so I prepared notes for a full hour, and then just moved really, really fast. I packed in a lot of David Bowie, David Dark, Madeleine L'Engle, Over the Rhine, Sam Phillips, Moonrise Kingdom, The Secret of Kells, Babette's Feast, a scene from The Fits, and more. Oh, and even though my voice was in bad shape from a week of heavy lectures at school, I sang a little. Very, very badly.

Anyway, if you're interested, this is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth.

It's also about the need for churches to trust, support, and attend to their artists.

Enjoy. And I'd love to hear from you if it inspires any thoughts or questions.


First Impressions of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance

What's the longest you've ever had to wait for a story that you love to continue?

I remember the long three-year wait between the original Star Wars movies, so I had no patience for those who complained about the "long wait" between Harry Potter movies or Lord of the Rings installments. I yearned for new chapters of Twin Peaks, and had to wait decades — but then, that just seemed like wishful thinking: there was no promise that they'd ever make more. 2017's it Twin Peaks: The Return came as a mind-boggling surprise.

By contrast, I've had to wait even longer for a new film about The Dark Crystal, the Jim Henson fantasy film that rocked my world when I was 12. I've heard plenty of people talk about the movie the way others talk about childhood trauma. I suppose it has its creepy moments, sure — but The Dark Crystal's handcrafted creativity of that film inspired me to write fantasy stories of my own and even turn one of them into a puppet show for friends in my neighborhood. In this case, there have been indications of plans for new chapters—talk that's lasted more than 15 years. And I've been hoping and waiting and wondering if they were ever going to get something made.

Well, here it is: Netflix's new series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance landed last week.

I don't review television series, typically. I'm too preoccupied with film reviews to devote much time to TV. So, rather than review Age of Resistance, I think I'll share a conversation I'm having with the person whose opinion about the series matters most to me: Ken Priebe, author of two books about the art of stop-motion animation, author of the children's book Gnomes of the Cheese Forest (and the upcoming Let There Be Owls Everywhere), a resident animation guru at VanArts (where he serves as a communications manager), and... well, I could go on.

Me and Ken Priebe: Yes, we hunt trolls in our spare time, but only so we can hang out with them.

I can't think of anyone I know whose passions for animation, fantasy, and play align with my own as much as Ken. When I met this guy and started reading his thoughts about the Muppets, I knew I'd found a kindred spirit.

So, after I watched the first episode of the show, I emailed him. In short, I was nervous. I loved the first episode so much, I was worried that I was setting myself up for a major heartbreak. And I'm glad I checked.

Here's our conversation...


I've been tied up in knots about the idea of a sequel for a long, long time. Back in 2005, I blogged about reports that a sequel was in the works, and I expressed my concerns about the likelihood that any return to the world of Gelflings and Skeksis would end up overwhelmed by digital animation, minimizing the hand-crafted animation that made the original such a mind-boggling work of creativity.

I've just watched the opening episode of the new series, and I'll probably go back for more tonight. At the same time, I want to go slowly and make this last. That probably tells you that I am, at the very least, willing to watch more. It doesn't look like the disappointment that I feared.

But you've seen more than me. Can you, without major spoilers, share some of your first impressions?


Like a gluttonous Skeksis, I ended up binge-watching the entire series in one day, but I know I shall return for a more leisurely visit and watch it again.

The idea of returning to the world of The Dark Crystal has been on the tables of the Jim Henson Company for a long time. Netflix also has a nearly-90-minute documentary on the making of this new production, which is fascinating to watch and provides a good overview of how the writers and producers arrived to it, including some previously-unreleased visual material.


Whoa, cool! I hadn't noticed that yet. Any behind-the-scenes show on a Henson project is worth my attention.


As you will see, they did some unsuccessful attempts at merging CGI Gelflings with actual puppet Skeksis, which luckily convinced them to go all-puppet — and only using CGI for specific needs here and there to enhance the story.

And it works. O, does it work.


I agree! I was nervous during the prologue, which felt a bit clunky and obligatory — but let's face it, the narration in the original movie was just about as bad as the puppetry was extraordinary. Once we plunged in and started following characters, though, I was completely immersed.


I'll admit the prologue was clunky, yes. Later when I realized it was Sigourney Weaver, I gave it another chance, but still an odd choice, I think. Forgivable though, as so much more in the series makes up for it, and it helps set the stage for those who are unfamiliar with the original movie. Much could be said about comparing this to the original, which is folly in some ways, for the original was literally made in "another world, another time" when it comes to technology and the limitations the filmmakers were faced with. The original laid the foundation, and since then we've had the collective consciousness of a legion of fans, plus novels, comics, and other lore to develop the world over 30+ years, while the technology has improved at the same time.

If anything, I was most nervous going in to Age of Resistance about the director, Louis Letterier, whose work I was unfamiliar with.


I saw his The Incredible Hulk, and, except for the fact that Ed Norton was in it, I don't remember anything. And that's saying something, considering how much of the Ang Lee Hulk movie, which came out several years earlier, that I can remember vividly.


I tried watching scenes from Now You See Me and his Clash of the Titans remake, and couldn't continue because the camera literally would not stop moving and it made me sick to my stomach. But I've been pleased to find that his directorial style has not spoiled his stamp on Dark Crystal, and his sweeping camera moves actually do allow us to explore the environments and hand-made detail of the sets, characters, and landscapes. It's less restrained than Henson, but restrained enough to still bring us fully into this world. Even the action scenes are riveting and easy enough to follow without headaches. I think hiring a live-action director like him was ultimately a good choice, for as the documentary shows, he treated the puppets like real actors.


It would be interesting to see a director with a particular, personal style take on material like this. But I imagine it's hard to find a director who has the patience and expertise to work effectively with puppeteers and capture their intricately detailed work in a way that makes it feel natural and lifelike.

And in Episode One, I'm already surprised at how willing he is to dramatize the violent prequel narrative that was only implied in the original. More disturbing aspects of the story — like the Skeksis pursuit of Essence, which they drain from victims like vampires sucking blood — are portrayed in a way that makes me cringe about the thought of young children watching this. I was 12 when I saw The Dark Crystal in the theater, and I remember my dad thinking that it was too dark and creepy. I, of course loved it — but then, I'd read and seen Watership Down by that time, which is also considered too troubling for kids.


Without spoiling too much, I will say that as the series continues, it gets darker... and at times it gets weird. The "essence" of Jim Henson and his multi-faceted surrealism, playfulness, philosophy, humor, whimsy, and darkness is all over everything. I think his daughters Lisa and Cheryl have done their father a great service by spearheading this project. Jim would have loved it. 


And that, in itself, makes this new series easier to embrace than the recent Star Wars movies. I have to keep reminding myself, watching the J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson installments of the Skywalker saga, that this is not the way the story's original visionary imagined things would go. These new films are fan fiction, at best.

Age of Resistance qualifies as 'fan fiction,' in my opinion, in that these are stories that were only partly imagined by the original artist. But there's nothing wrong with fan fiction. Sometimes, the fans have better ideas than the original artists, and in fact they often understand the characters more deeply than the first authors.


Great galloping Gelflings, what they've done here with Dark Crystal goes worlds beyond what Star Wars has become, and as a prequel, these puppets are better actors than anyone George Lucas "directed" in his own prequels especially. Outside of The Last Jedi, which I still love, the new Star Wars films read more like Wikipedia pages and fanboy quote factories. But that's a another conversation for another time.

The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance honors the original while improving upon it, and unlike most prequels, it doesn't merely exist to show us "how things got that way." For sure, there is still some of that to be found here, but it also graces us with new surprises to explore. Strap yourself in — you're in for a wild ride.


[long pause]

Okay, I've just watched Age of Resistance: Episode Two, and I'm even more surprised at their willingness to "go there" with the graphic violence. I won't spoil anything specifically, but the last moment of Episode Two might've given me nightmares as a kid.


Just a bit, yes? So awesome, though. I showed that scene to my 10-year-old son, and he literally just said "What the heck? That's creepy." (Had he been a lot younger, I would have been like, "Yyyeah, you're not ready for this."


More importantly, though, I'm surprised — and a little concerned — at the scale of the storytelling. There are so many characters, so many corners of the world of Thra coming to life, that I hope they don't cast their net so widely that it's hard to develop strong attachments. So far, Deet, Brea, and the Chamberlain seem like the most interesting and fully-developed characters. I'm following them most closely.

But the original only looked back on a story of genocidal violence from the Skeksis, and I guess it's starting to sink in what must be done in the crafting of a prequel series. I've already seen some critics comparing this series to Game of Thrones, and I hope that they aren't going to take it so far that I can't recommend it for middle- and high-school-aged viewers.

Having said that, I'm amazed and delighted to see how the writers are devoted to developing a story that speaks with such immediacy and wisdom into the world's current crises — and that they do so without winking at the audience. (The only clear nod to current events I've caught is when a Skeksis, brazenly stealing from the poor out of sheer cruelty, makes the poor sound like the real problem, and then shouts, "Sad! So sad!")


It's subtle, just enough to be relevant without making it the whole point. I see parallels to our current climate crisis in the dying world of Thra and rulers who deny it so they can hold on to their own power. I think of the "resistance" of young activists like Greta Thunberg traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to fight back (on the same weekend this series is released).


Shifting our focus from big themes to smaller creative decisions: I was stunned to find out that Simon Pegg is doing the voice of The Chamberlain, that most wicked and conniving of Skeksis, because he's imitating Barry Dennen's voice work from the original perfectly. Similarly, Donna Kimball sounds just like Billie Whitelaw playing the role of Aughra. In both cases, I would've guessed that they'd brought back the same actors.


I know right? I am so amazed by this. Mark Hamill does a pretty wicked Scientist too, and you can tell he's having a great time playing him. The only one who sounds a bit "off" to me is the Ritual Master Skeksis, compared to his original voice by Jerry Nelson (and that's pretty hard to top). The voice cast overall though, it's fantastic.

In the original film, most of the Skeksis are one-note baddies, with only the Chamberlain starring in a few extra scenes to further develop his character. This time, he is developed so much more, and not only him, but other Skeksis as well. The Emperor is far more well-rounded and layered than the snarling Garthim Master was.


The wildernesses of Thra are coming alive with so many fantastic creatures. I had to laugh at the miniature version of Salacious Crumb who chews up library books, and Anne and I both thought that you've invented so many fantastic monsters and characters in your own work. Do you have any favorites in Age of Resistance so far?


There are so many characters I adored right away, especially Deet and Brea. In Episode Two, I love the Sifa Clan gelflings and the exchange between them and Brea in their tent. They reminded me of Marion and Belloq in Raiders. Other favorites of mine you shall meet in episodes to come!


Obviously, I need to keep watching to the end. But I'm not a binge-watcher — not at all. When Twin Peaks: The Return came along, and made it last for weeks because I didn't want to wake up to a world in which there were no new episodes. I think I saw you post that yo've already watched this thing all the way through twice!


If I fall in love with a show, the temptation becomes too great, possibly to my detriment. Twin Peaks of course was broadcast a week at a time to begin with, which I do prefer over having access to the entire season at once.  I liked having that option of an episode each week. Makes it more of an event, like the old-school ways of television lore. We’ve become very spoiled.


I just read a wonderful appreciation of this series by RogerEbert.com's Matt Zoller Seitz. He zoomed in on the opening scene of Episode Two, in which a Podling named Hup wakes up, gets dressed, and has breakfast. The attention to detail is glorious.

I'd like to hear from you in more detail, as an animator, what you appreciate most about the emphasis on hand-crafted puppets over digital animation. What's something you notice, as the author of heavy textbooks on the art of stop-animation, that the casual viewer wouldn't appreciate?


What I like about puppets is that they have presence. They are actually there in real space, with real textures, real materials, and real lights hitting them. Whether it be Dark Crystal, the Muppets, Coraline, or Isle of Dogs, I think audiences respond to these characters on a more subconscious level. Seeing real dolls twitching and wiggling onscreen triggers those memory pangs from playing with real stuffed animals, action figures, or dolls as children. We remember the sense of touch from plastic and fur on our fingers, and the weight of them in our hands, imagining they are alive... so when we see them come alive on screen, we relate to it in that way without realizing it.

But with that movement on screen also comes limitations, more so with characters like Kermit or Kira than with Coraline or the Fantastic Mr. Fox. As stop-motion puppets are articulated a frame at a time, with intricate armatures, details like lip sync can be more in tune with actual human speech. When making a sound like ooo or aaaa or ppp, animation can pinch or pucker the mouth for more naturalistic expression. Turn the sound off, and you may still be able to "read the lips" of an animated character, in any medium (2D or 3D included). But turn the sound off on the Muppets or Dark Crystal, and you may think they should sound like the aliens from Mars Attacks!: "ACK ACK ACK ACK." Take that a step further with Mister Rogers' puppets, and their mouths don't even move at all!

For those of us who grew up with Sesame Street, the neighborhood of make-believe, or even one of my childhood obsessions from the '80s, the animatronic characters from The Rock-afire Explosion at Showbiz Pizza Place, we understand this is a different medium and will behave differently. Today's young generation may not tune in to this as much. My own kids even commented at scenes from Age of Resistance that "their mouths are just flapping." I reminded them, it's because they're puppets, even though they've grown up with plenty of Muppets and "old dad-shows" themselves. How quickly we can forget, when the possibilities of digital animation are dominating most of what they see.

And yet, look at Japanese animation! In shows like Pokemon or the feature films of Hiyao Miyazaki, the whole style is based on mouths simply "flapping" without much articulated lip sync. The important thing to these filmmakers is simply that you know who is speaking. Perhaps because the Dark Crystal puppets are more detailed and life-like, we expect it should look more life-like.

But I don't think it needs to. It's still a puppet show. Jim Henson himself said "a puppet is a symbol of whatever you are wanting to portray, therefore an evil character can be totally evil, evil incarnate. You're not dealing with a person or an actor you are imagining in that role. So there's a kind of purity to it."

When we watch a stage play or a physical puppet show, we bring to it a certain suspension of disbelief. Puppet films bring what you would normally do on stage into a cinematic realm where you can have close-ups, cut scenes, and other illusions the stage can't give you. But it still has that texture and presence that digital worlds can't give you. When they try too hard to mimic reality, they fail miserably.

You had a great post recently about the photo-realistic Lion King and that great quote from Georgia O'Keefe: "It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” I think the same interpretive symbolic nature of puppetry comes into play here, and why we respond to it. That's a rather long-winded answer, but I geek out over this stuff.

The sweetness and the sting of Honeyland

So there I was, sitting on the front porch of a Whidbey Island vacation cabin with two of my favorite writers — let's call them Bret and Scott — and feeling grateful for this rare opportunity to commune with great minds. They were taking turns telling stories about writing and traveling that made me jealous of their experiences.

Bret was commenting on how grateful he was for this rare opportunity to soak up a view of the snow-capped Cascades. So enchanted was he by the sight that he didn't see a large hornet crawling across his wrist. I cringed, then quietly pointed out his bright yellow visitor. He flicked his wrist and the bee flew off.

Since that particular threat looked strangely familiar, I launched into a story of my own: "I've only been stung once — and it makes sense that I would get bee-stung in a movie theater, right?" They blinked at me. "It was like a bad joke," I continued. "I'm standing in line for popcorn, and I feel a needle pierce the base of thumbnail. Feels like it penetrates all the way up to my shoulder. I got through the rest of the movie by numbing my hand in a cup full of ice."

There was an awkward silence.

Then Scott quietly asked, "Well, okay, but... what movie was it?"

Bret started laughing. Then Scott started laughing. Then they both kept on laughing — a lot. Too much, perhaps. And I stayed pretty quiet the rest of the afternoon.

Okay, so my bee-sting story isn't particularly compelling. I get that. Not relative to the stories they were telling, anyway.

Allow me to direct you to a much more compelling story about bee stings that you'll never forget. They happen — again and again and again — in a new film called Honeyland.

Buried treasure in a different kind of gold rush. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

Honeyland begins as a startling portrait of an extraordinary beekeeper, and then turns suddenly into a suspenseful drama with life-and-death stakes. And that detail that makes it so much more compelling is this: It's a documentary, comprising footage from four years of attentiveness in the rocky wilderness of the Republic of North Macedonia by the filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevska.

Their subject, Hatidze Muratova, is a genius — she seems to be known and even welcomed by swarms of bees as she carefully and routinely extracts honeycombs and honey from the rugged rises of rock near her home, leaving plenty behind for the bees to continue their architecture and art. She sings to the bees. She speaks to them. She reminds them of the terms of their contract. It's the central principle of her stewardship: half for her, half for them. And she seems to goes unstung — which is hard to believe, considering the immensity of the swarms and the sizes of those hives that are so impressively concealed in the landscape.

Hatidze at her mothers bedside, her mind alive with bees. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

It's a good thing that she's found her calling: She and her elderly, house-bound mother Nazife, living in the wild more than ten miles from the nearest city (the Macedonian capital, Skopje), are dependent on the income from that rare, raw honey. And Nazife is blind and completely reliant on her daughter's care and earnings. I would be hard-pressed to think of any other mother–daughter relationship I've seen on a screen that is as intimate as this one. Nazife is as striking a physical presence as the grandmother in Sajiyat Ray's Pather Pachali, kept alive by Hatidze's honey and by her love (which seem symbolically synonymous), even as each day seems to pose more challenges to her health and spirit than most human beings could withstand.

But bees aren't the only agents in this environment that have the capacity to sting.

We watch as a family living out of a trailer moves in "next door" to establish a small farm of cattle and chickens. And we suspect that this will lead to trouble. But Hatidze proves to be friendly, generous, and fond of hanging out with Hussein, his wife Ljutvie, and their several children; it's almost as if she is getting to experience what life might have been like if she'd been blessed with a family of her own.

Hatidze welcomes her new neighbors and their children, as if she doesn't see trouble coming. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

Time proves to be a punishing revelation for Hussein and his family. Striving to earn as much as possible, they try to replicate Hatidze's successes. You might imagine that the many possible conflicts that might come of this. Will they drive her out of business? Will someone die from adverse reactions to bee stings? (Whether you're allergic to bees or not, you'll find yourself twitching at how many times you see someone get stung, especially when you remind yourself that these aren't actors on a stage.) Will they be as frustrated in their beekeeping as they've been with their efforts to raise cattle? Should we be concerned about the businessman who persuades Hussein to make deals on honey delivery that he cannot fulfill?

This is the kind of "reality cinema" that makes me want to investigate and find out just how the filmmakers could have been so fortunate as to have their cameras rolling during so many dramatic turns. I suspect that their "collaboration" may have involved some efforts to give a conventional narrative shape to events that were probably more complicated than they seem here. And I'm more than a little concerned that we're not given enough context for understanding the pressures that might lead Hussein and his family to trespass on Hatidze's territory. It's easy to brand them as monsters and villains, but I suspect that the truth is much more complicated than that. Aren't they like worker bees themselves, struggling to keep a hive alive and fruitful in harsh conditions? Aren't they, like the bees, anxious workers being exploited by outside forces?

Hatidze feeds her dependent mother in their tiny home as trouble brews outside. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

To the filmmakers' credit, though, I never get the sense that actual events are being forced into a crowdpleasing shape, even though these events unfold in a way that will inevitably have critics reaching for terms like "folk tale" and "parable." The story becomes a psalmic lament over injustice. The righteous and innocent suffer the consequences of action taken by the wicked — or, at best, the desperate and irresponsible. And creation groans under the abuses of industry. (A.O. Scott, in his wonderful review for The New York Times, even compared this story to The Lorax!)

The implications for the rest of the world, in the film's contrast of conscientious stewardship and arrogant exploitation, are clear, but never underlined. This is a profound example of that most fundamental ethic of artistry: show, don't tell.

And the whole thing looks gorgeous, especially Hatidze herself, whose face is exquisitely detailed, expressive, and surprising. She, like the country in which she has found buried treasure, seems toughened by many years of harsh conditions, and yet her generosity and humor are as radiant and rich as honey from those rocks.

Real honey, harvested from a real place, by a real beekeeper, in a story that's hard to believe. (Credit: Deckert Distribution GmbH)

Her sufferings, her successes, her losses, and her loneliness will inspire from attentive audiences something akin to a prayer — a desire for some benevolent spirit to bless her with a future and a family, so that she can find happiness and so that her work can go on. She is this Macedonian landscape's greatest wonder.

Now, this is a story about bees worth telling.

And, in retrospect, I wish that this had been the movie (not 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene) during which I'd been stung. That might have given my own story a punchline that would make it worth telling after all.

Apocalypse Then, Again, and Now

What more can be said that hasn't been said about this film?

Apocalypse Now is not a film that we can synopsize, paraphrase, or sum up with a lesson. We can't do that with any great work of art. But this is a case of a film the existence of which is hard to comprehend. How was it accomplished? How did so much that was captured in contexts roiling with uncontrollable elements come together into something that coheres so powerfully, so completely? And how is it that it now exists in three different versions — the original theatrical release (2 hours and 27 minutes), the 2001 expansion (3 hours and 23 minutes) called Apocalypse Now Redux, and the Final Cut version (3 hours and 3 minutes) — all of which have such remarkable strengths?

Let's put aside the question of the film's greatness: That it has been, and still is, so frequently referenced in film criticism — reviews of movies about war, movies about American history, movies about America's contradictions, movies about monsters, movies about how we deal with monsters, movies about assassins, movies with jungles, etc. — and usually as a standard by which some other film falls short... well, that pretty much settles it.

A hero will rise reborn... as a monster. (Credit: Lionsgate)

Captain Willard's journey upriver to find and "terminate the command" of an American war hero is, in the opinion of this lover of literature and film, more important to the history of cinema than Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the source, is to the history of literature. The narrative, grounded in a specific time, a specific place, and a specific American error — it merges with any branch of human history you place alongside it. Its observations about ambition and arrogance speak meaningfully of what is happening in the world in any particular age — and, I'm tempted to say, this one more than most. Power makes the powerful mad and makes monsters of them. And those who have the wisdom to see the folly in those evils are tempted to make monsters of themselves in their drive to drag down such devils.

Yes, Frances Ford Coppola had to be half out of his mind with ambition and ego to make this movie. And he brought Martin Sheen along with him to a point of such brokenness and despair that only the grace of God, according to Sheen's own testimony, saved him. (Thank God for the kindness of filmmaker Terrence Malick, who stepped in and provided guidance. Sheen has told this story in an interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being.) That's nothing new: Revisit the documentary Hearts of Darkness if you want to see things get out of hand and then get completely out of control. (Lost in La Mancha looks shrug-worthy by comparison.)

Chasing the whims of madmen — Kilgore's air command rides the waves. (Credit: Lionsgate)

Yes, it raises all kinds of ethical questions about how and why to make a war movie. Does this film glorify warmaking? In some ways, yes — those helicopter assaults on the coastline are thrilling even as they are horrifying and ridiculous. Yes, there is something iconic and superhuman in the image of Willard rising from the muck, baptized, armed to bring down the axe on the living sacrifice. Viewers vulnerable to the glamour of power, even power gone mad, can easily take pleasure in such imagery.

Yes, the movie is deeply rooted in Conrad's classic river quest, even as it responds to its recontextualization to extraordinary effect. It must have played as unbearably burdensome horror for those with enough conscience and wisdom in 1979 to have conscientiously objected to the Vietnam War. It's exhausting, fascinating, maddening: the sheer absurdity of America's involvement in that conflict, the incalculable waste of soldiers' lives; the reliance of soldiers on various and extreme forms of fantasy and escape in order to survive each grueling day; the ways in which stress can break down resistance to fear, break down restraint from violence; the hero's harrowing failure (or, the Grownups' Version of the Luke Skywalker Test, in which Skywalker, seeing what war-making can do to a man, chooses not to throw down his sword, but to raise it, at the potential cost of his soul).

Dennis Hopper's photojournalist seems a lot like a Speaker of the House for Kurtz's mad tyrant. (Credit: Lionsgate)

But here it is again, made new, with substantial excisions from the expansive Redux version (which I love for its epic meanderings), and yet substantially deeper dives than the original.

This 183-minute cut preserves the hilarity of Captain Willard's theft of Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore's prize surfboard; keeps the solemn ceremonies acknowledging deaths among Willard's crew; and refuses to give up the bizarre French Plantation chapter and its not-quite-a-love-story tangent (complete with cheesy synths and gratuitous nudity, assuming that we will see a difference between this carnal indulgence for the sake of escape and the lust-gone-wild of the Playboy Bunny USO scene).

It also improves upon the already awe-inspiring and immersive soundscapes, making me even more convinced that what I hear in this film has just as much influence on my experience as what I see, if not more. (My double-LP soundtrack, which includes music, narration, sound effects, and more, is a nightmare that I revisit only occasionally, like a prayer of lament.)

"Someday this war's gonna end." — Wishful thinking from Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall). (Credit: Lionsgate)

What was substantially different about this journey upriver with Willard and company? This time, Apocalypse Now surprised me, as if a sort of graphic equalizer for genre-classification had been adjusted, amplifying the comic elements so that it seemed as much an Absurdist Comedy as a Horror Movie. And I'm trying to figure out why it seemed that way.

Perhaps it's just the times in which I'm seeing the film. Our context influences our experience of art.

The first time I saw Apocalypse Now, I saw it on a TV screen with a VHS tape when I was a senior in high school, and I found it hypnotic, harrowing, and also very exciting. It made me feel like a grown man, watching that film. This was a movie of complex questions, one that refused to indulge my patriotic sensibilities or my desire to see soldiers as heroes.

More than a decade later, watching Redux, the film was a revelation of literary significance, aesthetic achievement, and moral substance.

Here and now in 2019? Here in the midst of what may be an horrific end to American Democracy, as we are led by compulsive liars and traitors who look likely to plunge us into more unnecessary wars for their own financial gain, my bullshit detector is turned up to '11.' I am utterly cynical now when I hear patriotic Americans throw around terms like "liberty" and "justice" and "the American dream," while a sort of cult rallies around a man who this very week praised a man for calling him "the second coming of God." Exhausted by the prevalent absurdities, I find that this movie — precisely because it plays as an absurdist comedy — feels like The News. It feels like we're watching one of the first major strokes that struck the American mind, one of the nation's first major heart attacks. And now we know that they would be ongoing, and that we will probably never recover.

Thrilling? Harrowing? Heartbreaking? Yes. (Credit: Lionsgate)

In response to this week's live footage of the President of the United States declaring, on camera, that he is "The Chosen One," friends reminded us of what the Scriptures say about such a man.

Specifically, Daniel 11: 36:

“The king will do as he pleases. He will exalt and magnify himself above every god and will say unheard-of things against the God of gods."

And then, Acts 12:20-23:

"Now Herod was angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; and they came to him in a body, and having persuaded Blastus, the king’s chamberlain, they asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and made an oration to them. And the people shouted, 'The voice of a god, and not of man!' Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give God the glory; and he was eaten by worms and died."

Apocalypse Now is a story of a man who, overcome by the violence he had witnessed and the violence he had committed, could not bear the grief of it, and declared himself God in order to cope with it. That did not go well, and soon he began fantasizing about his own assassination. And another man, himself crumbling under the burden of humankind's wrongdoing, took a step too far himself.

Thus, this movie increases my conviction that I must ground my identity in a different kingdom. I must find my identity among a different people. I must take the path of suffering saints who see this world, America and every other failing culture poisoned by its toxins — as a strange land in which we serve as embedded agents of love. As Tolkien asserted, human history is a story of decline due to human weakness. On our own, we cannot save the world — and if we try to do so by seizing power, we will awaken within ourselves the very monsters we seek to destroy. But the horrors of evil are horrifying only because we have been blessed, by something or someone, with a capacity for self-knowledge and a potential for understanding grace. We know that we are meant for something more than this. And if that's true, then the hells we make in this world, like the one this movie depicts so vividly, are not all there is, and we, the authors of these horrors, do not get the last word.

That Coppola, in a madness of his own, could give craft such an eloquent lament in the midst of such chaos should give us hope. Even a man caught up in a current of madness can become a conduit for truth, capturing "the horror" in a vision of terrible beauty that might provide a cautionary nightmare. It might remind us, even in revealing the cancer of sin, that this is all part of a song — one full of evils and folly and loss —  and yet, that song is meaningful, meant to turn our hearts away from folly... and toward... what, exactly? That is the question.

Nicolas Cage gets enraged in Mandy

When Mandy had its theatrical run in 2018, it played at the Edmonds Theater, a cozy one-screen cinemas , old-fashioned with old-fashioned style (it opened in 1924!). It features crowdpleasers for a community of mainstream tastes — most weeks, you'll find a Disney movie, a Marvel movie, or a film that's an Oscar-nominee for Best Picture.

It's about a ten-minute drive from my home, at the center of a neighborhood made up of middle- to upper-class families and retirees. Although it's far too pricey for me live there, it's full of evangelical Christians: I hear the words "Bible study" and "prayer meeting" almost every time I sit down to work in one of the local coffee shops. I see more evidence of right-wing extremism here than in most other Seattle-area communities: Across from the Theater you'll find a bakery that sells heart-shaped cookies that say "Build the Wall" on them, just a few blocks from a house that has only two distinctions: the "Hillary for Prison" signs in the windows, and the security fence that shouts warnings about the house's security surveillance systems.

This isn't a judgment of the neighborhood: While I'll never spend a penny at a bakery that flaunts hatred toward the brown-skinned neighbors I love, I know some wonderful families that live here who have bigger, warmer hearts than the racist baker and the Hate House resident. And hey, it has the best cafes for writers within easy reach of my home.

Still, I can't help but wonder what I would have seen if I'd looked out over the Edmonds audience on the week that Mandy played here. That must have been something.

Yes, that's Nicolas Cage as Red Miller, wreaking revenge with an axe by firelight. (Credit: RLJE Films)

Let me try to describe Mandy for you: Take LSD, listen to '80s heavy metal at an earsplitting volume, and imagine Nicolas Cage, at his most manic, playing Red Miller, a broken-hearted avenger, wildly intoxicated, and questing to bring down holy hell — with guns, knives, axes, and chainsaws — on villains who have set his heart on fire. That'll get you started in imagining what awaits you in this blood-soaked fever dream by director Panos Cosmatos.

Though there are moments of absurd humor, the movie is never very funny. Though there is severe and gore-soaked violence, I wouldn't really call this an "action movie." For all of its excesses, it moves slowly and ponderously as if it has big ideas on its mind — but it doesn't really. It's just grim, dire, and relentless. It seems to want us to share its hellbent hero's grief, but the film's first hour is so perpetually and absurdly exaggerated that I found myself detached from the film, somewhat curious about its wild style, annoyed and eventually oppressed by its zeal to revel in bloodshed,

Here's the bloody scoop: It's 1983. Red and his lover Mandy live in isolation, deep in the woods, like that doomed family in Robert Eggers' The Witch. Mandy likes it there — she can wander around in her Black Sabbath t-shirt, read pulp-y fantasy novels, and paint imagery in the style of old fantasy paperbacks and early '80s heavy metal album covers. (It's that very specific kind of pulpy fantasy-novel kitsch that you sometimes see on t-shirts, posing flamboyantly naked women against images of eagles and mountain lions.) Red clearly worships her and finds something meaningful in her art — it's good that somebody does, I guess. He comes home from hard days of forestry to adore her, to stand slack-jawed before her artwork, and to ride Mandy's rollercoasters of conversation from the playful ("What's your favorite planet?") to the disturbing ("My father taught us to kill baby birds!").

Yes, that's Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), enjoying another paperback in her deep-forest hideaway. (Credit: RLJE Films)

But Red is uneasy with their remote hideaway. He has a premonition that it might not be the safest place, and we know he's right. In the deep, dark woods of independent cinema, nobody can hear you scream except the audience, and they're probably murmuring "Get out of there! Get out of there!"

And there are monsters in these woods. More specifically, there's a cult roiling around a self-proclaimed I'm-Better-Than-Jesus messiah: Jeremiah (Linus Roache, committed fully — and full-frontally — to this madness). His entourage is made up of a bunch of dangerous idiots who resemble expendable bad guys from leftover Twin Peaks episodes. Apparently altered by botched batches of drugs, these willing disciples have dedicated themselves to appeasing Jeremiah's insatiable appetite for  appetites for psychotropic drugs, sex slaves, and Hard-R-rated blood. (The movie's promotion has made its simplistic revenge plot clear, although Red doesn't have a reason to wreak bloody havoc until almost an hour into the movie.)

And, yes, that's Satanic cult-leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache) and two of his true believers.

Long-but-predictable story short, Jeremiah will dismember Red and Mandy's bliss. Red will lose his mind, turn his Nic Cage-ness up to '11,' and "get medieval' on his enemies (to borrow a phrase from Tarantino, who probably loves this movie). But before Red can punish the cult, he will have to round up some weapons — including a chainsaw and a gun called The Reaper and an axe that looks like a prop from Game of Thrones — and fight his way through a biker gang who are quite Medieval themselves, a Satanic militia who look like hybrids of villains from Mad Max and the the Black Knight from Monty Python's Holy Grail.

Along the way, Red will be battered and beaten, punctured by blades and the stinger of a creepy crawly critter, numbed by alcohol, supercharged by illegal substances, tormented by dreams animated in a style that recalls (yes) Bakshi's Heavy Metal, and baptized in carnage.

I'm not going to avoid spoilers in what I say next, so if this movie sounds like something you need to see, well... depart now, do you what you must do, but don't tell anybody I sent you. If you want my detailed, spoiler-ish opinion, then here it is: I recommend that you steer clear of Mandy.

Here's why:

Our hero on the warpath. (Credit: RLJE Films)

When the blood-soaked hero finally fights his way past all of the guardians, faces his ultimate foe, and prepares to commit the aforementioned eye-for-an-eye "justice," I'm still trying to understand just what kind of confrontation I'm watching. Red marches out to face villains who have been described as hippies and "Jesus freaks." Does he represent some kind of political conservative? Early in the film, we find him listening to President Reagan speechify about morality. But his enemies don't look like liberals, exactly: It's easy to see Jeremiah, the stark-raving-mad villain, as an avatar of the Trump-Supporting Conservative Evangelical Christian, a fascistic misogynist who openly rejects the Jesus of the Gospels in favor of a self-serving faith characterized in the midst of an all-white community.

Mandy has a lot of midnight-movie fans, and they're going to think I'm taking this too seriously. This is a film about style, not substance, they'll say. And I don't deny that it's an ambitious and imaginative endeavor, aesthetically. Those who celebrate its distinctive qualities — its wild color schemes, fantastical imagery, the Johann Johanssen score that wants us to experience the hallucinogenic highs of its hero and villains, and the enthusiastic performances of Cage and Roache — are responding to powerful stuff.

A shiny tool for a dirty business. (Credit: RLJE Films)

So it might seem silly to go looking for meaning in a movie meant to live on as a midnight-movie cult classic — but the movie's overbearing ponderousness seems to insist on its own importance scene by overblown scene. What — or who — are we supposed to be rooting for? If I may bring up my favorite question to ask at the beginning of a post-movie discussion: What does this movie love? Not the megalomaniacal devil who kidnaps women, drugs them, and directs them to fulfill his oh-so-unimaginative sexual demands in front of a live audience. No, obviously not him. But are we then to empathize with the aggrieved avenger charging headlong into war with his arsenal of instruments designed for cruelty?

Let's face it: This is a movie that celebrates the intoxicating adrenaline rush of embracing  Trump's favorite Bible verse: "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth." That is, of course, an ethic that Jesus himself specifically overrules and replaces. For all of this film's impressively purposeful over-indulgence, for all of its efforts to make us laugh at its Antichrist Villain, it has no answer for evil except another two hours of graphic vigilante justice.

In an era characterized by increasing violence, lawlessness, toxic tribalism, and leaders openly campaigning on messages of fear and hate, I find revenge movies that revel in, and invite us to revel in, the vivid desecration of human bodies to be dangerous. They worry me. Audiences are goaded here to take pleasure in, to cheer for, the dismemberment of human bodies, and to accept Red's quest for blood as a solution for evil. This must be one of the Devil's favorite tricks: to get us to embrace the very tactics that wounded us and ignited our anger in the first place. While Mandy is so absurdly over the top as to be frequently hilarious, it is also designed to indulge "wants and needs" that run directly counter to Conscience.

I've checked Mandy off my list of Movies I Should Probably See Because of Their Cult-Classic Status.

But no, never again.

What a failure of imagination.

Frame 3: Unlearning to Read Along My Commute

The streets are lined with people shouting all at the same time. As I propel my insulated capsule along my 30-minute commute, my armor does not muffle the shouts — countless voices in a clamor, everybody casting bated hooks at every passerby. I hear each loud word distinctly.

Shouts, printed on billboards. Shouts, flashing neon in windows. Shouts across storefronts, emblazoned. One shouts from a flag unfurled behind a propellered plane. They seek to persuade me that I am needy, and they're quick to offer happiness. They illustrate mystical experiences, guarantee sexual adventure, tease salivation with sweet and sour lures. Some promise justice after asking if I’ve been wronged — and maybe I have been, let me think. These might seem friendly, but many are mere flattery and false promises — and they're all intent on the same thing: my money.

All of these are messages preached from a pulpit, verses in a liturgy for a church I have rejected. This is the Faith of the Self, a creed that complicates every expression of freedom and justice in the foundational American script. It's the constant insistence that I am incomplete and that I can be made whole if I just buy what they're selling. (And look — is that an Empty Billboard to an Unknown God!)

You need. You need. You need. We will make you happy, hiss the serpents of a thousand fonts, these seducers in a thousand stock photos.

But you know this.

And you might also know what I am only now beginning to learn. I learned the value of reading at a very early age, and the value of seeking out a bargain at the very same time. Ever since my eyes have had their own voracious appetite for text, compelled to seize upon anything that might give me the satisfaction that I got something I wanted or needed for less than the advertised price. So my eyes take it all in, scanning every sign, seeking an advantage. All of it. By habit. Unconsciously. I'm not aware of it as it happens, but if I stop and think about it I can feel the toll it takes. I might just look at the road as I drive, but I'm exhausted after driving through the city. It isn’t just the traffic — it’s the text, the endless assault of attention-seeking adjectives and claims. Every sign is angling to persuade.

Reading every sign, I do not see the more substantial thing: the gift offered outside any urge to advertise. I do not see the necessary, nourishing beauty in its indifference. I do not receive the heavens’ declarations, for I cannot hear the still small voice that translates their announcements. I do not read the sign language of trees in breezes. I do not tune in to the transmissions of birdsong, or their gestures of graceful suspension. Invisible goes unseen, the space that is offered, the moments between notes — the sigh, the pause, the occasions for a Word not bound by letters or punctuation. Instead, it’s bumper stickers and billboards for suckers.

So I crave corridors of trees that quiet all of the clamor. Like those that shelter the path around Green Lake from the roar of the city: paths crowded and busy with people, busy with their talk — but such talk. Human voices in earnest conversation, not competitive agents of consumer culture, not the seductive invitations of saleswomen, not the urgent appeals saying Fear! Fear! Take what we offer and your fears, those we have just kindled in you, will cease! Instead, intimacy. Storytelling. Questions.

So I choose these corridors and practice prayers, weaning myself off the titillation and terror of text. Text. Text. Text. Turning attention to the origin of images, to the things that are diminished by the exploitation of imitators, I receive the light, I read the scents, I taste the textures, I attend in ways that awaken all of my being into eyes and ears. I attend to the indifferent creation, where Christ plays in countless spaces and waits for me to discern a dance.

But it isn't so easy. I've been conditioned by the constant stream — the blaring and the subliminal — that has made Self-Awareness my Default position. Runners that pass me spark surges of insecurity, jealousy, even anger at how they remind me of how far short I fall of any physical ideal. “Comparison is the thief of joy,” says the hummingbird tattoo of a friend at the top of her class; even she, in what others measure "success," in the adoration of fans and the applause of crowds, suffers that flinch. It's an American right: the pursuit of happiness. And yet, in framing our experience that way, happiness is always out of reach, and so we are always striving. Joy, by contrast, is always freely offered, a reassurance, a contentment, found only in what is given with no expectation of return.

Road trips are, for me, no longer about a point at which to arrive. They are a search for the sigh of an open road — a road, open. Open to trees. Open to sky. Open to hills and to space and to birds. Roads unlined with alphabet signs, and obscuring walls, and the self-consciousness of mirrors. Roads that allow for signs of life. I've become a slower driver, quick to move aside for those who suffer urgency. The journey is the reward.

Is this why I am reluctant to wake after sleeping? In dreams, I rarely read signs. I rarely hear an advertisement. And I am rarely ever still — I am moving, often through landscapes. Moments after waking, when I’m grasping at fading fragments of a world that felt charged with meaning, I am dragged back down into the urgent, the tyranny of messages, calendars, reminders, and alarms.

I do not read in the shower. So, of course, I want to stay in that stream of elemental sensation. It is a stronger language. It asks nothing of me.

I rarely read something during a movie, except during trailers and ads. I love being lost in the film. Especially if it knows the language of pauses, of spaces, of sky.

This tree before me now, as I rest here on this park bench, it tells a story here in a thick web of stories. Somehow, burdened early, it grew horizontal to the ground, warped for years, and then suddenly released to answer light's call. It grew straight, tall. I marvel at how the weight of such a skyscraping tree is held up by that bend at its base. Somehow, in that season of suffering, it grew strong enough to defy the pull of the earth and to support a weight of years beyond most others around it. A living word for me, I suppose, if I consider it. If I know how to read. I recall a song: "Must we choose to be slaves to gravity?"

I look up through the branch-weave of birch and aspen and cottonwood, through windows: one frames a mountain of snowdrift cloud, and blue clouds of fog are burning free of that somehow, wisping away. Another frames pale blue, another bolder blue. I hear bald eagles; they're soaring out of frame in a larger, fuller world.  I look down into the undergrowth and see tiny pink ribbons tied around tiny stalks. Generous children and their guides have been here planting, striving to ensure that this stand of trees along the lake line continues to speak, the manuscript always revising. I receive shade, surprise, suggestion, all in the color and ease of the gossiping leaves. The only investment I've made is to go, to be, to receive.

Someone strides through, between me and the trees and the glitter of the lake beyond. They stare, of course, at the tiny glass frame in their hand. I see, for a moment, myself in most hurried journeys. I see myself driving. I see myself in the supermarket. I see myself scanning the shouts. And I'm reminded of all I'm not seeing. I want to leave town.

When I drive north the I-5 corridor from Seattle through Mount Vernon, I rise into a winding span just before the descent into Bellingham. High hills, dark with evergreen. Fog rises and tumbles and dissipates, turning all the world to rumor. Light surprises. Shadows suggest. This is music I was meant to receive. It goes on playing whether I attend to it or not. It loosens me from the tethers and tensions of self-awareness. I breathe more freely. I become permeable, half-suspecting that this is what it will feel like when the last buckle snaps and I rise into an offer I cannot refuse, no strings attached, no bill brought to the table.

Guest review: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Today, I'm handing the microphone to my friend Damian Arlyn, whose views on cinema I seek out, and whose comments on Quentin Tarantino's latest film got my attention on Facebook. I asked him if he would mind saying a few words about this film for Looking Closer, while I continue arguing with myself and setting up a review of my own.

Take it away, Damian!

For a while now, I've found Quentin Tarantino to be one of the most dynamic and yet simultaneously frustrating filmmakers working today. Dynamic because he tells stories with such passion, directs with such panache, and makes immensely entertaining movies filled with wit, intelligence, charismatic characters, and endless movie references (some would say rip-offs) for the amusement of his fellow cinephiles. What I find frustrating, though, is the fact that all that talent and enthusiasm is always in the service of shallow, empty narratives. Tarantino's films are primarily surface: all flash and sensation. No real meat, no ideas to chew on (outside of whatever ethical questions he's courting through his usual controversies like extremely brutal violence, liberal use of the N-word, or troubling abuse of female characters... the last of which is certainly not going to be quelled by this movie).

His pictures are immensely enjoyable to watch (repeatedly) and dripping with style. This was more than enough for me when I was a twenty-year-old in college first discovering a whole new world of film, but over the years, as I've become (I hope) more sophisticated in my tastes and more demanding of my cinema, I've found Tarantino's work, while still hugely entertaining, regrettably shallow. I grew up, but his movies didn't. A Tarantino joint rarely says anything outside of "Isn't this cool?"‚ and when he does attempt to say something through his art — see his three most recent "historical" movies — it's been rather trite and simplistic. Tarantino has an adolescent worldview, essentially, and his movies betray that. They may be very "adult" in terms of content, but they are not very mature. I have long felt that if Quentin were to finally grow up, he might realize his full potential and produce something truly great.

Tarantino lovingly recreates 1969 Hollywood in his latest film. But are we down with everything he loves about this time and place? (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

Well, having just seen his latest opus Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, I can report that Tarantino still hasn't grown up... but something very interesting has happened. He has grown old.

Quentin Tarantino is not a young man anymore. Now in his mid-50s, he has achieved a level of success, celebrity, and adulation afforded to very few filmmakers. He has said many times that he plans to retire after 10 films (referring to this one as his 9th... counting the two Kill Bills as one apparently) because he doesn't want to become sad or pathetic trying to hold on to something long after it should have been let go, a theme that is central to this particular work. Thus, while his films typically just reveal Tarantino the film geek, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood actually reveals Tarantino the man far more than any film he has made yet. He is much less reliant on his usual bag of tricks (his quick-zooms, for example, are never used this time, except for a "movie-within-the-movie," and his signature "trunk shots" are nowhere to be found... even when there is an opportunity for one). His filmmaking is uncharacteristically restrained and subtle. Despite how bright, colorful and generally joyous the film is, there is an elegiac tone to it that is new for Tarantino. He has always looked back in his films, always romanticized older formats, songs, genres, etc. Every Tarantino film is infused with nostalgia, but Once Upon a Time is the first one to carry with it a tinge of melancholy, a yearning, a longing to return to a time and place that he has known mostly through TV and motion pictures... and which, in fact, never really existed at all.

Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), feeling like "a has-been," gets a pep talk from stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

The time and place is Los Angeles in 1969 and the level of detail here is stunning (if this movie doesn't win the Oscar for art design, I'll pull a Werner Herzog and eat my shoe), achieved, as I understand it, with very little CGI. Tarantino recreates this era of Hollywood beautifully, right down to vintage clothes, old cars and gorgeous posters for movies both real and imagined. It is convincingly authentic (or at least it feels that way; I don't know from personal experience as I was born in '76) as are his simulations of old TV shows and B-movies... all of which star an actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). Dalton isn't a "has-been" so much as a "never-was": a handsome but aging leading man-type who never quite got the big break he needed to become the A-list movie star he always wanted to be. He was the lead in a successful western program called Bounty Law, but now is being forced to play walk-on villain roles in someone else's show. At his side is his friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a driver and former stuntman who gets even less work than Rick but seems a lot more content with his lot in life.

The movie primarily focuses on Rick and Cliff over the course of several days that prove to be seminal in their lives. This has been referred to as a "hang-out" movie and that's a fitting moniker aa it doesn't really have a plot. There is a sort of story, but it mostly just follows these two men as they struggle with their impending irrelevance in their changing world. There is a laid-back, leisurely quality to all of their scenes that is very intoxicating (although it does, on occasion only, cross over into being a bit lethargic). The dialogue has the usual Tarantino-eqsue polish but is sharper and less indulgent than it has been lately. Tarantino started his career writing memorable dialogue that just crackled with wit and intelligence (Who can forget the "Royale with cheese" or "I don't tip" exchanges?). Somewhere along the way, though, he seemed to become enamored with the sound of his own "voice" and his dialogue became unwieldy, redundant, tedious and forgettable (particularly in Death Proof and The Hateful Eight). The dialogue here is something else entirely: it smart without being smug, it is concise without being taciturn, it is interesting and yet still believable. There are fewer speeches and far more give and take between the characters. It's the best dialogue Quentin has written in a long time.

Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) — icons in Tarantino's temple. (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

There may not be a plot, but there is, however, a ticking clock in the form of the film's third major player, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). While Rick and Cliff are fictional creations inspired by real Hollywood figures, Rick's new neighbors on Cielo Dr. are the very real Roman Polanski and his pregnant wife Tate. The film frequently cuts from Rick and Cliff's storyline to the Polanskis living the high life and the audience's knowledge of the impending brutal murder of Tate, her unborn child and several friends of hers at the hands of the Manson "family" lends these scenes an uneasy, haunting quality that only grows more ominous and suspenseful as the movie goes on. We even catch glimpses of Manson himself and his gang of girls throughout the film, always on the margins, never really brought center-stage until the third act.

Cliff investigates strange goings-on at an old friend's ranch, where a fellow named Charlie Manson is cultivating... a cult. (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

The movie builds to a climax that is... well, it's a lot of things, most of which I can't discuss without dropping huge spoilers, so I'll say as little as possible. It is — not surprisingly, given that this is a Tarantino film — very violent, and it threatens to undo the very delicate spell that the rest of the film manages to cast. (Whether it actually does or not will no doubt prove divisive for audiences.) It is shocking, it is arguably in bad taste, and it is a bit out of character from the film as a whole. And yet, at the same time, I will admit that it does seem like a fitting conclusion to a movie that is about the end of a very specific era of the entertainment industry (one touted as a more innocent time) and the beginning of a new uncertain one. The film's final shot is a very telling one indeed about the director's vision of what a fair and inclusive Hollywood circa 1969 would look like.

One of several controversial scenes: Cliff spars with an egomaniacal Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). (Image from the traler / Sony Pictures).

While I still have issues with it, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood might possibly be Quentin Tarantino's best film (though, at this point, I'm still inclined to go with Inglourious Basterds). For me, it's definitely his most cohesive work since the tragic loss of his friend/editor Sally Menke (whose absence is still felt even now as the film, like QT's other recent movies, is a bit too long... although it's almost understandable this time as Tarantino clearly just wants to spend as much time in this world as he can), but what I think is undeniable is that it is by far his most personal film yet. Yes, we get his usual obsessions and fetishes (still with the gratuitous shots of bare feet), but we also get some of his hopes, dreams, and, I think, regrets. Just as one of my favorite films of last year, Spielberg's Ready Player One, showed a director dealing with the complicated legacy of own creations, Once Upon a Time is Tarantino facing into the inevitability of his own time passing. It is him (finally) allowing himself to be present in his work as more than just the "god" pulling the strings on everything and everyone else. This is Quentin Tarantino at his most vulnerable and contemplative.

Overstreet note: I recently heard a critic describing the gasps throughout the theater at this exact Brad Pitt moment, when the results of intensive training and dieting are revealed. The power of cinema, I guess. (Image from the trailer / Sony Pictures)

Its title may have been inspired by Sergio Leone epics like Once Upon a Time in the West or Once Upon a Time in America, but I think this movie is more like Tarantino's own personal Wild Bunch, a eulogy to a bygone era that never was, a fairy tale that mythologizes a land of princesses, knights and dragons. One felt the sadness in Peckinpah's meditation on the vanishing West and its code of honor... and one can sense the wistfulness in every frame of Tarantino's love letter to the City of Angels in the last gasp of the studio system, a place where dreams were made before the place itself turned into a waking nightmare.

Damian Arlyn is a Dallas, Texas resident who divides his time between his job, his lovely wife, producing short animated videos, watching/reading/writing about cinema and listening to music. 

Trailer of the year?

Perhaps they should re-title the new Terrence Malick film: Timely and Relevant.


Wild Rose rises above star-is-born clichés

Aretha Franklin in Amazing Grace. Beyonce in Homecoming. Elizabeth Moss in Her Smell. 2019 is proving to be a big year for movies about women standing at the microphone, raising their voices, and transporting audiences.

And sometime soon — this year, perhaps, or next — actress Michelle Williams will play Janis Joplin for director Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene). This could be huge. Major talents have been lining up for years to play what should surely be a demanding and sensational role, but project after project has fallen apart before cameras could roll — even one that was to star Amy Adams. Durkin's Joplin film, though, seems like it might have some traction. If it happens, an actress whose career has continued to impress and improve looks poised to step into an Oscar-style spotlight.

As a fan of Joplin, Durkin, and Williams, I'm hopeful. But I know who I'll be thinking about when the theater darkens and that movie begins: I'll be thinking about an unexpected newcomer who has just rocked my world with her lead performance as a Joplin-esque country singer in Wild Rose.


When it comes to dream-come-true stories about performers, I'm rarely moved. Case in point: I was more annoyed than impressed with the recent remake of A Star is Born. Bradley Cooper's big crowdpleaser kindled a few scenes in which characters resembled human beings, and Lady Gaga's performance was engaging, sure. But the star's rise seemed too fast, too furious, too easy. The film seemed intoxicated with glamour and money, accepting without question that celebrity status, big stages, and big audiences equal "success." (And its director seemed awfully eager to style himself as an object of worship.) What's more, too many of these films take severe dramatic turns merely for the sake of insisting that we feel things — like the embarrassingly contrived onstage humiliation of Cooper's Jackson, the gobsmackingly severe tragedy that follows, and the way in which these crises conveniently set up Gaga's major Oscar-hopeful moment.

But I'm exercising restraint in praising Wild Rose as one of the best times I've spent in the theater this year... with a suspicion that I might enjoy it even more the second time. For all of its formulaic turns, Tom Harper's fairy tale cut right through all of my skepticism and made me a fan.

Rose-Lyn (Jessie Buckley) is released — or, rather, unleashed — from prison. Look out world! (Neon)

That has a great deal to do with actress Jessie Buckley, who is everything you've heard about and more. She rules the screen as Rose-Lyn Harlan, a Glawegian 23-year-old who, released from prison, immediately launches herself into a mad pursuit of her dream to conquer Nashville as a country music star.

Buckley, who apparently took second-place in 2008 on a BBC talent show I've never seen (I’d Do Anything), is absolutely convincing in every aspect of this complicated character. Rose-Lyn radiates recklessness, convincing us that she was rightfully incarcerated. She implodes under the pressure of crushing anxiety when she looks at two children she has somehow introduced to the world, children she must raise at the risk of her dreams. She clashes spectacularly with her well-mannered and understandably exasperated mother (Julie Walters, in top form).

Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) may have the connections to get Rose-Lyn's voice on the radio. (Neon)

And — most importantly — she burns the house down whenever she sings, the microphone unlocking an irrepressible charisma. Some rising stars wear their hearts on their sleeves, but Rose-Lyn's is not a mere accessory: Her whole body—from her golden throat to her furrowed brow to her dancing feet in those white cowboy boots—is a heart, red-blooded and passionate and vulnerable.

(Buckley might have struck me as too energetic, too supercharged in her performances... but I know better. I know a performer name China Curtiss Kent, lead singer of the band Alright Alright, who could easily have been the inspiration for Rose-Lyn's onstage persona. Those she doesn't speak with Buckley's Scottish brogue, she looks a lot like her, and her friends joke about how it's almost impossible to snap a picture of her in which she isn't just a blur of motion.)

For Rose-Lyn, housecleaning is rehearsal. (Neon)

My admiration for Wild Rose also comes from its smart casting for supporting roles. Sophie Okonedo is outstanding in the role of Susannah, a posh and perceptive woman who takes a chance by employing Rose-Lyn as a housekeeper. Her extravagant home becomes a stage upon which the ankle-tagged singer dances and sings when nobody's looking: think Patsy Cline playing the role of Mary Poppins, singing her way through her chores. Inevitably, those private performances will be discovered — that's hardly a spoiler. And Susannah, her sweetness perfectly contrasting with Rose-Lyn's whiskey sour, will reveal another level of generosity.

I mentioned Julie Walters. I need to say more about her. As Marion, Rose-Lyn's mother, she's charged with playing this formula's most familiar (and typically limiting) role: the disapproving parent, the doubter, the nay-sayer — and yet still surprises by creating a convincing, complicated, and ultimately endearing character. How often have these movies been all about brushing aside the one who dares to question and reprove the rising star? How often have they been merely an obstacle, a villain, an example of How Not to Be? As Marion, Walters carries off one of the film's most satisfying twists: Mother knows a thing or two. And the best possible outcome is for the movie to acknowledge her wisdom.

Julie Walters is given a richer role than the disapproving parent usually plays in stories like these. (Neon)

But Wild Rose's victory over my deep-set skepticism has even more to do with its final act. I was actually nervous, stressed out in my seat, during the the film's last 40 minutes, fully expecting the spell to be broken, betting that these filmmakers would blow it. Movies about juggernaut talents can go wrong in so many ways. Some kind of deus ex machina will catapult the hero to automatic fame just when all seems lost. The big final number that is meant to be a showstopper will turn out to be mediocre. The screenwriter will steer the protagonist off-road for some cringe-worthy calamity, hoping to send us home in sobs.

But Wild Rose doesn't go wrong in any of these ways. To the credit of writer Nicole Taylor, it demonstrates wisdom far deeper than almost any road-to-stardom story I can think of. It's more about how a soul is saved than how a star is born.

What's harder than becoming a Nashville star when you're an ex-con in Glasgow? Parenting two children who barely recognize you when you're released from the joint. (Neon)

And the finale's big closing number is strong enough to send us out eager to pick up the soundtrack — which features Buckley's own performances, thank goodness. I'll be turning up the volume on her voice for the rest of the year, hoping she sings her way to the kind of Oscar-stage moment that Rose-Lyn herself might have dreamed about — not because that would signify success, but because I love this movie and I don't want it to disappear unnoticed.

Frame 2: Another Psalm 12

As I recently read, ruminated upon, and prayed Psalm 12 aloud, I found that oh-so-predictable Bible magic happening again: The scripture proved itself a living word. The words seemed to revise themselves upon their canvas. That is to say, they applied almost too perfectly to the world I'm living in, the troubles happening all around me... and within me.

Here is how this particular psalm, as I read it in the ESV, sang itself like a new song. The italicized words here are those that seemed to revise themselves as I read.

Save the world, O Lord, for the godly one is gone; for the faithful — yes, those who are truly faithful to the Gospel of "love your neighbor" —  have vanished from among the children of man. Well, it certainly seems like they're vanishing, anyway.

Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. (And by the way, Save me, Lord, for I know you know that I do this, too.)

May the Lord cut off all flattering lips (and all flattering tweets), and cut off the tongue that makes great boasts — whether they be about himself or his self-interested supporters — those who say, “With our slogans and our red hats we will prevail, our nationalist propaganda is with us; who is master over us?”

"Because the 99%, the immigrants, and the refugees are plundered, because the needy groan — especially those African Americans still waiting to experience equality, and those children who are suffering inside American cages, stolen from their parents, traumatized for life, sick without their medication — I will now arise,” says the Lord; “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”

The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

Remember, then, your promises, O Lord! You told us that these we have treated as 'the least' and 'the last,' they shall be first, and no white-supremacist agenda will go unnoticed by your omniscience or escape your justice.

You, O Lord, will keep them — all my neighbors, brown and black, Jew and Muslim, Mexican and South American — you will guard them from this [hateful, cruel, hard-hearted, "Christian"] generation forever. Even if they die under this oppression, you will be ever faithful to them, and they will not fall beyond the reach of your grace.

On every side the wicked prowl, as vileness is exalted — on the news, in the White House, and beyond.

God, do bless America ... but bless America just as America blesses those who come to it for help. If such suffering is what it will take to wake up American hearts, let it be.

And to those with eyes to see, those with ears to hear, Lord, send comfort, hope, and swift relief from this fear-poisoned nation, this hypocrite, Anti-Christ church.

Let this present darkness only amplify my exaltation of your love, O Lord. Let it not darken my heart into any loss of compassion or grace.

[This personal revision is based on the English Standard Version of Psalm 12.]

Of course, the Psalms give us examples of all of the thoughts and feelings that God allows us, even invites us, to raise up to him. In praying words like these, we are not guaranteed that God will act as we would wish him to. It's more likely that, in the act of praying, we might discover our own weaknesses and blindspots. And so I offer this as a sincere prayer, but also expecting that I will, in time, see the flaws within my own fervor, my own heart.

And I am finding other psalms, more contemporary laments, that suit these circumstances beautifully as well. Consider this, my favorite song about America, my own National Anthem, composed and sung by Joe Henry:


[Comments are welcome. I will read them. But I will only post the comments I'm grateful to have read. Mean-spirited comments will not only be rejected — the senders will be blocked.]