Overstreet Archives: Séraphine (2008)

I'm delighted to publish, for the first time at Looking Closer, a piece I wrote for Image about Martin Provost's extraordinary film Séraphine, which I rated my favorite film of 2008. (Since then, I've come to favor Olivier Assayas's Summer Hours, but it's almost a toss-up between the two.)


Even though he’s the dinner party’s special guest, a world-renowned art critic surrounded by giddy art enthusiasts, William Uhde looks bored. These chattering know-it-alls make him visibly uncomfortable. He’s probably hoping to escape back to his quiet apartment, and get back to his work—studying and writing about Picasso and other artists he helped bring to fame.

But then, everything changes. Uhde’s meandering gaze settles on a shadowed corner, and what he sees brings him out of his chair.

We know the treasure buried in that corner; earlier in the movie, we saw the lady of the manor stash her housekeeper’s amateur painting behind a chair. She probably worried that work by someone as uneducated, untrained, and common as her washerwoman would offend her honorable guest’s artistic sensibilities.

But Uhde is not discouraged to learn that the work was painted by a dowdy housecleaner called Séraphine Louis. That information only enhances the thrill of his discovery. In the following days, he strives to get to know this shy, unschooled painter and her work. He invests in the fulfillment of her potential, eager to share her gift with the world.

In time, she’ll become a legend: Séraphine of Senlis (1864-1942).

Watching Martin Provost’s extraordinary movie Séraphine, I felt Uhde’s excitement. For I too was enthralled, both by Séraphine’s art—this is the first time I’ve ever been astonished to tears by a painting—but also by the artist herself.

Played by Yolande Moreau in an exquisite performance, Séraphine is a formidable presence. She has a limited vocabulary and an awkward, corpulent figure. She trudges about in a sort of trance, surfacing only to request the materials she needs for her work or to acknowledge housekeeping instructions as she earns her keep.

Moreau brings the same complexity and texture to her performance that Provost finds in the materials of Séraphine’s world—the filthy floors she scrubs, the rumpled layers of her garments, the colors on her paint-smeared palettes, the chaos of the roaring trees that capture her attention. It hurts to see her suffer insults and loneliness by day, but the fever of Séraphine’s late-night, candle-lit artmaking is a joy to behold. She paints to serve the Virgin Mary, and whenever she nears completion of a work, she begins to sing in a holy ecstasy.

Provost’s film has few equals in depicting the dangerous territory between artistic inspiration and madness. As Séraphine stumbles through that country, Provost seems to suggest that her artistic exhilaration is closely related to poverty. Living in constant humiliation and exhaustion, she knows a powerful longing — one that she expresses in explosive designs. And when her work gains an audience, we realize that fame might uproot her from the soil that nourishes her particular vision.

I suspect that, to some degree, most artists will relate to Séraphine — the exhilaration of her immersive artistic experience, the lack of understanding in those around her. I know I did. Photographer Brett Weston said “Composition is the best way of seeing,” and just as Séraphine’s painting is for her a way of comprehending the wonders she has seen, so I come away from writing exhilarated but also humbled and sometimes troubled by what I’ve discovered.

Sometimes I pray for inspiration before I write, but is that so wise? We’re told that when we see God as he is, we’ll be changed at once. Until then, “the truth must” — as Emily Dickinson explained — “dazzle gradually.” Lightning-strike epiphanies can fracture fragile minds. William Blake and Vincent Van Gogh both knew a holy terror. In Carl Dreyer’s Ordet, the prophet rants from exposure to “too much Kierkegaard.”

Perhaps I should pray for safety instead of revelation.

Nevertheless, while I am moved by Yolande Moreau’s glorious performance as Séraphine, it’s Ulrich Tukur’s understated turn as William Uhde, the quiet German expatriate, that wins my heart. I’m more familiar with Uhde’s bliss — the joy of stumbling onto treasure in unexpected places — than I am with the artistic epiphanies that Séraphine experiences.

Life becomes exciting when we’re mindful that wonders may be hiding in plain sight. It’s why televisions across the nation tune in to Antiques Roadshow every week.

Sometimes, they’re small and personal. I could have sworn I heard the Hallelujah Chorus when I found a little-known film soundtrack on vinyl — unplayed, unopened — in the racks of Seattle’s labyrinthine Bop Street Records. (I smugly carried it home for only $8.99.)

Sometimes they’re more significant. One day in 1988, I noticed a troubled high-school classmate scribbling, and I asked what she was writing. She shared a sheaf of typewritten poems that scared and shook me — searing images of abuse, rage, heartbreak, and a ferocious longing for healing. It was the beginning of an important conversation for us both.

At the conclusion of Pixar’s Ratatouille — another great film about art — the art critic declares, “Not everyone can cook, but a great chef can come from anywhere.” It's true. And yet, great chefs may well toil in anonymity their whole lives if they go undiscovered. The world needs seekers like Uhde as much as it needs visionaries like Séraphine. And, like art-making itself, that search takes work. Uhde’s life was a discipline of study and writing about art — especially Picasso. The closer he looked, the better he could see.

Still, the goal is not to become high-scorers in some treasure hunt for art. We’re drawn to the outrageous beauty of Séraphine's paintings, but what about Séraphine herself? She put her arms around a tree, embracing the particulars of a luminous language that surrounds us. Art, if we look closely, can fine-tune the undisciplined instruments of our minds and hearts, thus helping us see life-changing revelation beyond the canvas.

Glimmers of revelation through art, art-making, and nature have made me an disciple of all three. I’m learning to be ready, every day, to find beauty in unexpected places. I want my soul to “stand ajar,” as Dickinson said, ready in every way “to welcome the ecstatic experience,” that I may live in a posture of awe, humility, and gratitude.

Séraphine is one of those experiences. Seek it out.


Overstreet Archives: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Who would have guessed that the person in the Pirates of the Caribbean credits who would eventually come to mean the most to me would be ... Mackenzie Crook?

But it's true. In recent years, I have watched the TV series Detectorists again and again, delighted and moved by Crook's extraordinary talents as a writer, director, and actor. He's given us one of the most human television series I've ever seen. Detectorists is poetic, quietly funny, and full of perfectly cast actors crafting unforgettable characters.

Before that, I only knew him as "the skinny guy with the big eyes" from Gore Verbinski's adventures at sea. And I quit paying attention to the Pirates movies after the third one which, overcrowded and overstocked with cargo, sank like a ship in a storm.

I was sad to see this franchise, which had a strong start and an even stronger second episode, go to pieces. I still think Dead Man's Chest is one of the most wildly entertaining adventure movies ever made, and an exhibition of brilliant fantasy world-building.

Early buzz about the second Pirates film worried me. I remember being as unexpectedly dismayed by the reviews for the film as I was unexpectedly delighted by the film itself. I snarled about that right here at Looking Closer, grateful to have support from the ever-reliable Steven D. Greydanus.

But then things took a turn for the better, with several critics appreciating Verbinski's bold vision. I noted that as well.

I chronicled the reviews from Christian media outlets at Christianity Today, including these:

Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) says Dead Man's Chest is "the same sort of fun thrill ride that used to be the norm during the summer movie season," and that the filmmakers "deserve praise for making an old-fashioned popcorn movie that knows how to entertain. Audiences may have been doubtful of the first movie, and perhaps a little skeptical of this one, but you can bet they'll be clamoring for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End come May 2007."

He adds a caution: "Like The Empire Strikes Back, this second chapter is considerably darker than its predecessor, though not as much as, say, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) raves that the movie offers "most of what you'd expect: an even more convoluted plot, even more eye-popping special effects and makeup, and an even more powerful supernatural nautical antagonist. … [T]he filmmakers have let their imaginations run wild, taking chances, striving to outdo themselves on every level. It's an approach that can yield self-indulgent, bloated excess—or brilliance." He concludes that this is an example of the latter, calling it "one of the most memorably entertaining popcorn flicks in memory."

David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) says, "For a sequel, the new movie matches—if not tops—the original as first-rate popcorn entertainment with all the right ingredients: action-adventure, spectacle, screwball comedy and a bit of romance."

Taking a different tone, Marcus Yoars (Plugged In) opens fire on Captain Jack's ship. "I never thought the words swashbuckling and tedious could ever describe the same thing, yet that's the rare combination found in [Dead Man's Chest]."

And Christian Hamaker (Crosswalk) says the movie "goes on much too long, then makes no effort to provide a satisfying ending." He adds that it "includes heavy doses of the macabre that will leave some viewers more disgusted than amused." But he concludes that the film "has a cartoonish quality that leavens even its darkest moments, and it includes a couple of bang-up sequences that remind us of how summer-movie thrills can delight with their lunacy and inspiration."

And then, a week later...

Josh Hurst (Reveal) calls it "the most exhilarating and memorable big-screen adventure this side of The Fellowship of the Ring. There are elaborate set pieces; action sequences you won't believe; mystery upon mystery and secret upon secret; special effects and pyrotechnics that raise the bar for action movies everywhere; a thrilling sCcore that ranks among the most distinctive since Raiders of the Lost Ark; and more spirited adventure than a whole galleon of amusement park rides. It's also riotously funny."

At Looking Closer, I posted this lengthy blast of enthusiasm...


In a year when summer blockbusters have proven disappointing at best, disposable and joyless at worst, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest arrives like an emergency delivery of fun. And apparently it's more fun than some people can absorb in one sitting, judging from early negative reviews. Bursting at the seams with adventure, chase-scenes, comedy, and monsters so fantastic that Peter Jackson's gonna turn green with envy, it's making this moviegoer shout a hearty yo-ho-hallelujah.

Director Gore Verbinski and his cast know what they're here to do, and what they're not here to do. They're not here for some kind of ponderous action movie with timely and relevant social commentary. They're not here to indulge in any kind of angst. Leave that to someone else. Somebody somewhere needs to step up and deliver the kind of high-spirited fun that justifies the existence of popcorn, that reminds us that the alphabet of summertime moviegoing does not begin with "A for Angst," but rather "A for Adventure." These seafaring madmen are here to throw back big mugs of rum, put on elaborate costumes, slather on layers of makeup, and party until they drop. They're ready to unleash action sequences so masterfully choreographed that Rube Goldberg would stand up and cheer.

And having suffered through the frenzied flop of X-Men: The Last Stand and the burdensome solemnity and lifeless dialogue of Superman Returns, I say, "Count me in!"

Warning: If you want to enjoy this film to the fullest, avoid other reviews that will contain spoilers, and don't read the cast listing. You'll thank me when those delightful surprises arrive in the way they were intended.

*   *   *

Gore Verbinski's Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was surprising because it turned what was basically a big screen marketing tool for an antique Disney amusement park ride into a memorable adventure film, and gave Johnny Depp his defining role.

The sequel, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is even more surprising. It gives us much, much more of everything that worked in the first film, and somehow stuffs in all kinds of new surprises, making it one of the most hilarious,  imaginative, and relentlessly clever adventure films of all time.

Some will complain that it runs too long, and they're right. It runs long like some of the best parties.

Some will complain that there's more running back and forth than in the whole career of Benny Hill, and they're not far off the mark. It's like watching three games of "Capture the Flag" happening at the same time in the same park.

Some will cry out that this sequel commits the sins of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, giving moviegoers something much darker and more violent than they expected... and parents should indeed be warned. This is an extremely violent, phantasmagorical adventure movie in which crows pull eyeballs from eye sockets and pirates are blown to pieces, devoured, and lashed into ribbons. But it's the kind of grisly comedy that revels in the absurd — it's not gore for gore's sake.

Some will find the plot unfocused — and the first people to tell you that might be the screenwriters themselves, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. They were clearly having so much fun piling on the zany twists that I suspect they consumed a bottle or two of rum all for themselves.

But what does all of this matter when the movie, which is based on a ride that basically goes around and around, boasts more enthusiasm, humor, and creativity than the rest of this year's action films put together? The plot here is an excuse for action, not a reason to be.

Who's really going to complain about a summer movie that delivers too many good things, including the most spectacular big screen villain — in presence, design, and personality — since the shadow of Darth Vader first loomed in the smoky corridor of the rebel blockade runner?

And who can contend with Johnny Depp, who storms the screen with more confidence and charm than we ever knew was possible? Returning to the role of the irascible, irresponsible, irrepressible Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp gives one of those rare comic performances that would win an Oscar if the Academy was ever bold enough to recognize comic genius. Depp says he based his performance on Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones (who will, we're told, appear in the third film as Sparrow's father). But Sparrow shows us more than that. Here, this demented, dreadlocked sailor gives us hints of Tom Waits, Bugs Bunny, Errol Flynn, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. For all of Depp's great performances — from the rock-and-roll rebel of Cry Baby to the pensive Gilbert Grape to Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood — Captain Jack is the triumph of his career. He made an unforgettable entrance on top of a sinking ship in the first film. He makes another unforgettable entrance here. And the fun begins.

It would be insufficient to say that Verbinski's actors perform with relish. They throw in ketchup and mustard too, and all of the fixings.

The whole gang is back:

Refusing to let Depp have all the fun, Orlando Bloom shows he's still determined to become an engaging action hero, even though Will Turner is more a force of chivalry and virtue rather than a character. (And to balance out the reckless irresponsibility of Sparrow, we really do need a heavy dose of true heroism.)

Keira Knightley returns, radiant as ever, in the role of Elizabeth Swann, Turner's true love, and she shows more vim and vigor than any adventure heroine since Karen Allen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. One of this film's big surprises is just how complicated Elizabeth really is, and just how vulnerable to change. Just when the movie begins to wear out its welcome, heading past two hours, it's Elizabeth who suddenly takes center stage, one foot firmly planted in moral compromise.

Jonathan Pryce is back as her father, Governor Weatherby Swann. Jack Davenport is back as the disgraced Commodore James Norrington, who managed to redeem himself in the final moments of the first film, but who turns back to bitter villainy here. Kevin McNally reprises his role as Jack Sparrow's right hand man, a tipsy sailor whose job it is to provide lengthy exposition, lest we forget that there's a story going on. And the crusty old clowns Ragetti and Pintel, played by Mackenzie Crook and Lee Arenberg, are back stirring up trouble like the roguish scallywags they are.

*     *     *

The plot is basically a boilerplate adventure-film outline. Actually, it's more like several outlines.

When we last left Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann, they had set Captain Jack Sparrow free from his death sentence, and seemed well on their way to a glorious wedding. This film opens with a bewildering sequence in which we learn that Lord Cutler Beckett (Tom Hollander) of the East India Trading Company is going to punish Turner and Swann until they agree to find Captain Jack and capture something he keeps in his pocket... a magical compass.

The compass is a mystery. We don't learn until much later what it can do. But for our purposes, the compass is the closest things to a moral center for this frenzied film. It gets us thinking about each character's moral compass. What — or who — are they willing to risk their lives for? What do they treasure in this life?

Treasure — the bread and butter of any pirate movie. And there's a lot of treasure being sought here. Beckett wants the compass. Jack Sparrow wants something else... he wants a mysterious key. And soon, he's on the hunt for the heart of Davey Jones, that legendary sailor who lurks above and beneath the waves cursing unfortunate souls to slave away on his boat of nightmares. For Jack, the lost heart means freedom from the curse upon his soul... motivation enough. But for others, the heart of Davey Jones is the secret to ruling the seas. We're not sure how that works, but I have a hunch we'll learn.

And it doesn't really matter yet, because the search keeps us  busy contending with all manner of spectacular monsters and life-threatening ordeals, including a tribe of primitive savages who set up their captives as gods before eating them; a massive sea "beastie" called "the Kraken" (but how do you pronounce that?); and, of course, Davey Jones himself.

Dead Man's Chest is clearly a deliberate attempt to play The Empire Strikes Back to the Star Wars of the first film. It's an amalgam of great second-movie plot twists, borrowing liberally from Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There's a father-son relationship at the heart of the film. There's a rebellious jerk who just might turn into a responsible hero. There are grudges and chases and fiery clashes between battleships. There's a character whose heart has been yanked beating from a chest for all to see. There's a spooky Caribbean witch (Naomie Harris), like Yoda's wicked and meddling auntie, keeping secrets in the jungle. There's even a rope bridge crossing a chasm that looks like it could break at any moment. It is, in short, a return to all that was great about the adventure films of the early 1980s.

Playing the film's equivalent of the feisty Princess Leia, Knightley, having escaped Tom Hollander's clutches in Pride and Prejudice, must dodge him once again here. As Will Turner, Bloom is the earnest Luke Skywalker of the story, a young man who must reckon with a troubled legacy left to him by his father, Bootstrap Bill. And, like Skywalker in that second Star Wars film, Turner is separated from his friends, struggling with the evil emperor of the seas, and gambling to rescue one of Davey Jones's significant captives (Stellan Skarsgaard).

Meanwhile, we watch as the curse on Sparrow continues to gain ground, stalking him in the form of the Kraken (which is basically the granddaddy of the Watcher in the Water in The Fellowship of the Ring). He's not concerned about heroism, he's concerned about escaping with his life. But like Elizabeth, we have a hunch that somewhere in his rum-soaked heart, there's a glimmer of goodness. When she prods at him, hoping to ignite his sense of virtue, she reminds him that there are moments for men to rise and demonstrate selfless courage. He replies, "I love those moments. I like to wave at them as they pass by."

But the real surprise of the movie is Davey Jones himself. With a head made of octopi, a buccaneer's hat so commanding it will make other sailors blush, and a fearsome ship called the Flying Dutchman that looks like it could open up its jaws and swallow other ships whole, Jones storms about the deck of his ship, surrounded by some of the most imaginative and dazzling monsters ever designed. He has something that the villains of Superman Returns and X-Men: The Last Stand never mustered — a tangibly sinister presence. He's really scary, and not just because he's ugly, but because he's evil... really evil. As evil as Darth Vader, Captain Hook, Dracula, and Saruman combined. He revels in any opportunity to ruin something good, spoil a pending marriage, sink a beautiful boat, ensnare and possess a soul. As the tentacles writhe across the collar of his dark coat, so moviegoers will be writhing in their seats.

I'll be blunt: Davey Jones is the most convincing and arresting computer-generated character ever made, and that includes Andy Serkis's King Kong and Gollum. Just watch the expressions on that face, and look at the way he moves. He's as real as anything in this movie. And the great British actor Bill Nighy gives him real venom. He's a marvel, and I hope we see him again. I suspect we will.

Hans Zimmer's soundtrack brings all of the bombast necessary, stirring up the anthemic glory of the great John Williams themes. And, in fact, while the film is all about a quest for the heart of Davey Jones, the movie ends up making me think about another person of the same name... Indiana Jones. I don't think I've had this much high-spirited fun at the movies since Indiana and his hat set out for adventure. And Johnny Depp has made it perfectly clear that he's as good a match for the role of Jack Sparrow as Ford was for Jones. He's made these first two Pirates films unexpected classics, worth watching again and again.

And, if Verbinski can keep a firm grip on the wheel of this ship, maybe he can be the first to outrun the Curse of the Adventure Movie Trilogy: Pirates might just be the first adventure movie franchise to deliver three satisfying episodes in a row.


Overstreet Archives: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

In 2003, I approached Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl with trepidation. The movie caught me by surprise. Below, I'll restore my original Looking Closer review to this site — it's been missing for many years.

At the time, I was writing my weekly Film Forum column for Christianity Today. I noted these early reviews:

Some film critics in the religious press are offering early raves. Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) calls it "the kind of rousing, swashbuckling adventure that hasn't been seen since Errol Flynn last swung a cutlass."

Bob Smithouser (Focus on the Family) agrees that it "could've been a lazy attempt to capitalize on a brand name, but it actually delivers the thrills, laughs and romance audiences demand from a summer popcorn flick." He adds a caution about the film's heavy doses of "creepy violence."

The critic at Movieguide writes, "Despite some pagan, occult elements, Pirates…is a swashbuckling jolly good time at the movies, with some positive moral and redemptive themes." However, he seems to contradict himself by concluding, "The pagan, occult aspect… spoils its moral, redemptive elements." He adds that the film's fairy-tale-variety "curse" will be controversial for "Bible-believing Christians and Jews." (Non-Bible-believing Christians will apparently not be bothered.)

You can revisit that edition of Film Forum here.

And then I published this at Looking Closer...


Growing up, I had an aversion to amusement park rides. They looked noisy, expensive, and I had a feeling they’d make me sick to my stomach. After college I was reluctantly talked into a rollercoaster ride by a girlfriend. Lo and behold, I loved it. And the girl and I lived happily ever after.

Similarly, I have been dreading this idea of films “based on” amusement park rides. Disney has been hunting for ways to keep their vision fresh and engaging, and this idea smacks of desperation. But when I saw the cast lined up for Pirates of the Caribbean — Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Jonathan Pryce, and Orlando “Legolas” Bloom — I consented to sit through a screening. I was not optimistic. There hasn’t been a decent pirate movie made in my lifetime.

But five minutes into the film, my apprehension had walked the plank. (Yes, I'm going to say it now...) Shiver me timbers — Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl is fun! It’s also funny. It delivers everything I’ve wanted to see in a big-budget pirate movie since I was a kid. It avoids the pitfalls into which Spielberg's disastrous Hook plunged. Echoing the ambition, mischief, boyish glee, and whimsical wit of 80s adventure films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, The Goonies, and The Princess Bride, Gore Verbinski has concocted a film that manages to include all of the predictable pirate clichés and yet remains unpredictable and fresh. Following the Wachowski Brothers, Ang Lee, and other heavy hitters, Verbinski (who directed The Ring and The Mexican) steps up to the plate as the summer’s underdog and outplays them all, hitting a solid triple.

The triple — if I may continue my bad sports metaphor — consists of 1) yet another knockout performance by Johnny Depp (his funniest yet, in fact); 2) some impressive ILM special effects (truly astonishing in the film’s frenzied finale); and 3) one of the funniest and most unpredictable adventure-movie scripts to come along in a good while, credited to Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (AladdinAntz, and Shrek).

The best thing in the film is also a threat to its success. As Depp sails through, his performance as the lone pirate Captain Jack Sparrow is so inspired, so zany, and his costume so outrageous, that he nearly overturns the other actors in his wake. He keeps us slightly off-balance in every scene, because he himself is off-balance, staggering punch-drunk and stammering in slurred speech. The cosmetics crew used all 64 crayons on his face. The beaded dreadlocks framing his features are a giveaway that Sparrow’s more interested in the style of piracy than its substance. If there’s a sequel, he’ll probably be sporting more golden teeth due to the number of times women slap him for his infidelities. Depp clearly enjoys his makeup, and so does Verbinski, who never lets his puckish supporting character stray too far from the focus. Verbinski is one of the few directors who taken advantage of Depp’s splendid talents — the others would be Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton — and he gets a performance out of him that would earn an Oscar nomination if there were any justice.

Sparrow is a vigilante pirate with claims of famous escapes and derring-do. (The key word there is “claims.”) After the film’s spooky opening sequence has passed, Sparrow sails into port in the grandest entrance of any big screen character I can remember. We quickly learn that Sparrow’s not welcome in this harbor, and neither are any other pirates. Jonathan Pryce plays the local governor whose daughter Elizabeth is frowning at her suitors. Elizabeth is played by Keira Knightley, whose radiance reminds me of Uma Thurman. Even a tightly strapped bodice can’t hold back her, um, strong personality. She makes this independent young heroine more than just the cookie-cutter feminist that has become the politically-correct anachronism of films set in the distant past.

Elizabeth is being pursued by a stuck-up soldier (Jack Davenport), but her affections lie with a young blacksmith — Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) — whose secret she has quietly kept since she was a child. Turner was pulled from the wreckage of sinking ships after a pirate raid many years ago. Turner’s past and parentage are a mystery, but his future seems secure due to his skill as a swordsman and sword-maker. Like the governor, he hates pirates, and so he puts up a spectacular defense when the township is attacked by the legendary pirates of a ship called the Black Pearl. But the battle reveals that he may have more in common with his enemies than he’d like to admit. Before he can make sense of it, the laws of alliteration have placed the damsel in distress, and Will pulls on the boots of responsibility and sets out to rescue her.

He teams up with Sparrow, of course, who is in this for reasons of his own. The Black Pearl was once his ship, but his crew mutinied under the direction of a dastardly villain called Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush.) Barbossa, who leers and snarls in a pirate dialect that should have earned him subtitles, makes it very clear why he has captured Elizabeth. She has in her possession the last piece of treasure that the pirates once recklessly spent. In spending it, they brought upon themselves a terrible curse that consigns them to lives as living dead – ugly pirates by day, decomposing zombies in the moonlight. Thus they want their money back, so to speak. If they can recover the gold, they'll be healed and whole once again. So... to sum up... the pirates want the gold, Elizabeth has the gold, Elizabeth wants Will, Will wants Elizabeth, and Sparrow wants his old ship back. Thus the games begin.

Reciting the pirate’s code, a snarling seaman growls, “Any man who falls behind stays behind.” That’s true for the audience too. Pay attention to the specifics of the curse, and you’ll be impressed with just how cleverly Verbinski employs them in the finale. He uses this opportunity to pay tribute to Raiders, giving us a mischievous monkey, poisoned fruit, a medallion on a chain that everybody wants, a drinking contest, villains of the decomposing variety, and two scenes that resemble the opening of the Ark of the Covenant. But there are plenty of inventive twists as well. The best involves an unexpected stay on a remote and deserted island with two of the film’s leading characters. And Hans Zimmer’s score is one of his very best, a boisterous and dramatic accompaniment that John Williams could not have surpassed.

For all of its wit and whimsy, Pirates deserves a few cautions for the younger viewers. Pirates do not make good role models, so parents will probably want to make sure small children do not come away overly enamored of Sparrow the pickpocket, Sparrow the womanizer, Sparrow the vigilante. It’s the same dilemma facing Elizabeth’s father. When she fingers a piece of pirate treasure and murmurs, “I find it all fascinating!”, her father appropriately replies, “That’s what concerns me.” Fortunately, the film does not conclude with Elizabeth “going pirate”; she remains a virtuous, honest, and admirable hero who is more willing to see past a person’s status and mascara to the heart within.

In the end, greed is clearly drawn as wicked and self-destructive. True love gets a few moments in the sun. And when you come right down to it, Sparrow’s virtues overpower his imperfections. It’s what sets him apart from his nasty decomposing colleagues. When the legalistic authorities decide to execute Sparrow for his trivial wrongs in spite of his life-saving heroics, a self-righteous soldier declares, “One good deed is not enough to cure a man.” Sparrow snaps back, “But it is enough to condemn him?”

If viewers come away from the movie with any complaint, it will probably be that Depp’s efforts make him the more engaging romantic hero, and that Elizabeth's turn toward Turner is disappointing. The film’s most glaring weakness is that its hero, played by the capable and charismatic Bloom, is reduced to being a forgettable supporting character, eclipsed by his brilliant comic relief. Too bad Verbinski couldn’t find a way to show off more of Bloom’s capacity for action and stunts. Even when the cameras weren’t rolling on Fellowship of the Ring, Bloom was playing an action hero, jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping across New Zealand. In Pirates of the Caribbean, he crosses swords a few times and spends the rest of the movie on the sidelines gazing with longing at Keira Knightley… or is it with envy at Johnny Depp?


At long last — a substantial documentary on Flannery O'Connor

How I wish this film had been available last winter when my Seattle Pacific University students and I were politely arguing about Flannery O'Connor.

From January to March, I taught a course at Seattle Pacific University on literature and faith, and an introduction to O'Connor's short stories — we read "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and "Revelation" — was one of the main events. I showed a few videos of interviews with scholars who praise her. I showed an archival video of the National Book Award winner as a child: In 1932, she made the news because she had a pet chicken who could walk backwards. That set us up to talk about her eventual enthusiasm for pet peacocks. But what I really wanted was a vivid, compelling documentary, or a well-researched biopic as striking as the depiction of Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion. (In view of how often I hear O'Connor's influence in the Coen brothers' films, I'd love to see them take on a Flannery film.) To date, the only feature-length project worth talking about has been John Huston's Wise Blood, but that's the kind of film that could scare people off from O'Connor forever if they're not prepared for it. O'Connor is such an intriguing, controversial, and compelling character on the stage of American literature, she deserves a variety of portraits.

Alas, I couldn't find anything sufficient to make an engaging multi-media case for my class of O'Connor's relevance.

My timing for teaching O'Connor's work was either perfect or terrible, depending on your point of view: Pop culture has been stormy lately with the rise of "Cancel Culture." If you've been self-isolating from the zeitgeist: Cancel culture is a term referring to sneaker waves of popular opinion that rise up — primarily on social media — with demands to silence and erase important cultural figures, banishing them from respectful consideration altogether due to a sudden spotlight on something they've done or said that is judged as inappropriate or offensive. For example: J.K. Rowling? CANCELED — in spite of the fact that generations are in love with her literary legacy, and countless kids learned to love reading because of her Harry Potter books. Why? Because she revealed an unpopular perspective on gender.

I'm with Nick Cave on Cancel Culture: It represents the worst in human nature — a self-righteous negation of someone's complex humanity over one point of disagreement without any attention to nuance, dialogue, relationship, or appreciation of difference. It's a way of saying "You must check all the boxes on what I consider right and proper or I'm actively seeking to delete you from the world." Evangelical Christian culture is very, very good at this kind of rash judgement, and has been for a long time, and it has only served to amplify their reputation as a spiteful people possessed by a spirit of condemnation — that is to say, an Anti-Christ attitude.

I worried that Cancel Culture might happen to Flannery O'Connor, and a debate over her work that has been simmering for decades suddenly flared up into a blaze in 2020 with New Yorker article by Paul Elie and several substantial responses like this one. But my class was ahead of the trend: No sooner had these students ventured into O'Connor's stories than someone opined that we should cancel O'Connor. The stories were too offensive. The White Establishment was just making excuses for the inexcusable. Attention to her stories would only pour salt into open wounds.

Flannery O'Connor in the driveway at Andalusia, 1962. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Joe McTyre)

And now, a little too late to help my class, here comes Flannery — a documentary directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco. This spirited, informative, elegant overview of the Roman Catholic writer's fascinating life story makes a strong case for her genius and her ongoing relevance. While it reveals very little that will surprise O'Connor scholars, it narrates her complex history, style, and personality with efficiency and creativity, pausing at all of the obligatory landmarks while also taking us off-road to visit lesser-known spots, visit with friends and family and colleagues and critics, and zoom in on what makes her storytelling so distinctive.

The film's greatest gift is its gallery of insight from experts as diverse as Sally Fitzgerald (O'Connor's friend); her publishing partner Robert Giroux; Ashley Brown, founding editor of Shenandoah; Marshall Bruce Gentry of Georgia College and State University; actor Tommy Lee Jones; comedian Conan O'Brien; memoirist Mary Karr; the great journalist and memoirist Richard Rodriguez; and such prominent African American writers as The New Yorker's Hilton Als and O'Connor's literal neighbor — Alice Walker.

In fact, Walker herself makes a concise but impassioned defense of O'Connor's work: "If you just see the Southern writers, generally — the white southern writers — on the basis of more or less their racism, which is there... nobody should be locked into ideologies that they were born into and they often were were not able to see. So the writers get sold down the river, too."

Flannery O'Connor. Author. Photo: Joe McTyre.

Another feature of Flannery is the way the filmmakers infuse imagination and energy into Ye Olde Talking Heads Documentary Format with colorful illustrations that take hints from O'Connor's own cartooning, animating scenes from both her stories and her life.

Still, at 97 minutes, the film feels like more than two hours, and I suspect that playing the full film to a class of undergraduates might weary their attention due to its conventionality and its preponderance of testimony. For insights on (and from) O'Connor, it's a four-star affair; for documentary artistry, it's more of a three-star deal. While I wish I had been able to share this with my class, I am still waiting for the Great Flannery Film — something that will do for O'Connor what I'm Not There does for Bob Dylan.

Nevertheless, I'm recommending the film to everyone — curious beginners, O'Connor's admiring fans, and especially teachers as a worthwhile contribution to any conversation.

Full disclosure: Despite her flaws — a surprising fact of human nature: we all have them — few artists have inspired and influenced my life, my faith, and my creative work like Flannery O'Connor. Two of my lifelong passions are also hers: Exposing the prevalence of insidious hatreds and hypocrisies in Christian culture, and at the same time proclaiming the world-saving truth of Christ's Gospel, a message of God's love and grace that can and should set us free from all hatred and hypocrisy. So I am eager to draw readers into the thick of her Southern Gothic stories.

I know full well the trouble I'm courting in doing so: I'm wide awake to O'Connor's struggle with the fierce racism of the culture into which she was born, in which she grew up, and which she came to resist in the American South. And I am equally aware that she did not live a life unstained by that sin. I'm not sure it would have been possible to be white in the American South and completely avoid the racism woven into the language, lessons, laws, and traditions of that world. (In the same vein, I have been influenced by the cultural hatreds of the conservative evangelical culture in which I grew up, and have been guilty of hypocrisies common in that context. Should I be canceled?)

To study O'Connor's stories is to read about all kinds of racial prejudice, and to witness acts of physical, verbal, psychological, and spiritual violence. Having made this clear at the beginning of the course, I refused to drop O'Connor from the syllabus until we had brought some intellectual rigor to the matter at hand. I posed this question to my students: Isn't there a difference between an artist condoning evil and an artist exposing it? We pressed on — with clear disagreement in the room.

The class struggled uncomfortably with both stories (and I doubt any good reader is ever comfortable with O'Connor). And I found it difficult to give sufficient class time to exploring the poetry within those stories and the artistry in her character development because we were so frequently wrestling with whether her stories, laced with occurrences of 'the n-word' and other slurs, deserved our attention or not.

A finished portrait of a Roman Catholic soul who remained a "work-in-progress" until her untimely departure.

If we reserve our attention for only those artists we deem as Morally Blameless, we expose our own ignorance that there is no such thing. And we discredit those artists who are waking up to the very environmental toxins that that corrupt them, and who are beginning to kindle some kind of heat and light that will eventually help expose and purge those toxins. Artmaking is a process, after all — artists make art as a process of discovery, and often grow and change in response to those discoveries. With O'Connor as with any artist, the art is an enigma alive with the artist's DNA and that of the world around her, including her artistic influences, her landscapes, and, I would argue, some evidence of the God who made her. I appreciate how O'Connor's stories give us images of a shockingly broken world and an even more shockingly powerful grace. Her understanding and embodiment of Christian faith is so much more authentic and so much more courageous than almost other all other writers I've ever read. And her devotion to Jesus is clearly the source of her enlightenment on matters of race, an enlightenment that was liberating her from most — if not all — of racism's influence.

To put it bluntly, I can't imagine an adequate course in Christianity and literature that doesn't wrestle with O'Connor.

But don't prioritize my white-American-male take. Better to listen to the testimony most unfortunately missing from this film: the voice of Toni Morrison. In her book The Origin of Others, Morrison argues that discrimination is a social construct: "How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example." She then goes on to spotlight "The Artificial Nigger," O'Connor's 1955 short story in which a man tries to indoctrinate his nephew in an attitude of racism. While some of my students will immediately disregard the story for its title, the title itself points to the fundamental misconception that ends up damning the story's main character — an evangelist of hate.

Shouldn't the praise of a literary giant like Toni Morrison give us pause before canceling the artist in question? If she who is arguably American literature's most accomplished African American novelist finds O'Connor's fiction to be essential literature on the matter of race, surely that is enough to keep O'Connor's work on the table for serious critical scrutiny, if not to ensure its canonical permanence.

And there's this LitHub interview with Morrison from just a few years ago:

NM: You know, when I was growing up I thought you had to be at least 50 to write novels. I thought it wasn’t allowed, like it was against the law or something.

TM: I’ve read some fantastic ones who have written a lot but dropped dead at 50.

NM: Who do you admire now?

TM: There’s a woman I love, she’s really hostile, Flannery O’Connor, she’s really really good.

Anyway — I'm not posting Morrison quotes as "proof" that O'Connor must be forever established as top-tier English literature. I'm not qualified to make such a claim. And I'd love to attend a conference full of critical perspectives on O'Connor by African American scholars — that would be most enlightening.

But I am making the argument, supported by the new film, that O'Connor's work isn't beloved or admired just because white men say so — as one of my students seemed to believe. I'm with the global, multi-cultural community of readers who believe there is astonishing artistry in these stories that should continue to influence readers around the world for generations, and that they can serve as powerful medicine exposing — and even treating — a uniquely American strain of a disease that has run rampant through human history. And I am grateful for how they incline us toward repentance for our own sins and the sins of our ancestors, with inklings of some all-reconciling glory at work in the world.

What's more — I believe the stories are enhanced by O'Connor's own self-awareness of prejudice in her own heart. As a storyteller myself, I can only hope to aspire to that kind of humility, that kind of willingness to challenge and even illustrate my own failings. For the glory of God.

As O'Connor's faithful and admiring student, I am grateful for the gift that this film will be in helping us appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of a great artist, so we can carry the testimony of her life forward with wisdom, rather than reacting and canceling her for being as human as the rest of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwBBlgZ8LRc

 


Overstreet Archives: Margot at the Wedding (2007)

Once in a while, I stumble onto a review that was published in another journal that I never included in my Looking Closer archive. So here, for the first time on this site, is my original holiday-season review of a film from writer and director Noah Baumbah called Margot at the Wedding.

I'm a huge fan of films that Baumbach has collaborated on with Wes Anderson. And the films he has directed in collaboration with Greta Gerwig — Frances Ha and Mistress America — are both outstanding. In those partnerships, Baumbach is able to contemplate human weakness in a way that is troubling and enlightening. But when he's writing and directing on his own, his films, while powerfully acted, tend to sink into an off-putting cynicism.

Of all of his films, this is the one that troubled me most — and not in a meaningful way.

Here's the review from November 2007, originally published at Christianity Today.


It’s the holiday season, and what could be more discouraging than the annual parade of shallow, sugar-coated, sentimental trash that America calls “family entertainment”?

This year, there just might be something worse. Margot at the Wedding is an independent movie, powerfully acted, sharply written, and extraordinary in its character development and detail. But despite all of these strengths, it will leave audiences feeling like they just paid ten bucks to swallow a cup of cold gravel.

A rare moment of sisterly in a film full of familial disharmony.

It’s possible that Margot at the Wedding could be an example of reverse-psychology when it comes to the traditional family movie. By immersing us in one of the cruelest, most hateful families ever to grace the silver screen — and then by holding us under those murky waters for ninety-two minutes — writer/director Noah Baumbach will make almost anyone grateful for the family they have, no matter how damaged it might be.

And it’s a shame, really, because Baumbach is an immensely talented storyteller. His 1995 debut Kicking and Screaming (not to be confused with the Will Ferrell soccer-dad comedy) was an insightful, hilarious, and moving little movie about post-collegiate crisis and the hard work of moving on into a meaningful adult life. Two years ago, he returned with The Squid and the Whale, an observant and heartbreaking comedy about two boys caught in the crossfire between impossibly selfish and cruel parents.

Where The Squid and the Whale felt like a lament, an exposé of the damage that divorce can do to children, Margot at the Wedding feels almost like an act of revenge. It feels like the artist has opened up a journal where he chronicled all of the evils and ugly misdeeds committed by family members and friends. It may be true-to-life, but the effect of all of this harsh realism is a miserable moviegoing experience.

The title character, played with extraordinary complexity by Nicole Kidman, is a successful novelist who is absolutely insufferable in real life. Her books are ways in which she can vent her own misery, but it doesn’t seem to be doing her any good.

Nicole Kidman, an actress I will happily follow through almost any other film than this one.

When the film begins, Margot and her son Claude (Zane Pais) are off to “show support” for Margot’s sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is preparing to marry her fiancé, a loveable oaf named Malcolm (Jack Black).

But Margot’s idea of “support” is the movie’s idea of a joke. She cannot contain her contempt for Malcolm, nor can she conceal her desire to tear this relationship down. “He’s like guys we rejected when we were sixteen,” she sneers, doing her best to sabotage the pending nuptials.

And yet, Pauline and Malcolm make a fine match compared to Margot and her lover, Dick (Ciairin Hinds). She tells everyone that they’re collaborating, but Dick’s an arrogant and cruel man, quick to judge and punish others, and doesn’t hesitate to launch a humiliating attack against a friend in front of a live audience.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, another actress I will happily follow through almost any other film but this one.

Pauline and Malcolm are living in the Hamptons estate where the sisters grew up, and chairs for the wedding guests are being arranged in the yard, beneath a grand old tree that a younger Margot used to climb. If you suspect that the tree is a symbol, you’re right. And you’re likely to guess what will happen to that tree before this storm is over.

As if this family doesn’t have enough trouble among themselves, Margot turns a skirmish between Pauline and her creepy neighbors into a full-scale war. She’s quick to intervene if she sees a child being mistreated — a clue, perhaps, about the source of her psychological disorders.

But Baumbach doesn’t seem interested in investigating where such fractures come from. He just moves from one nasty exchange to the next. There is no variation in tone: It’s just characters spewing bile at all available targets and only occasionally collapsing into one another for something like comfort. The neighbors are carving up animals, but Margot and company are slaughtering each other.

Jack Black as a kind-hearted groom whose patience with an exasperating sisterhood matches my exasperation with the film's despairing vision.

And when Margot retreats into the house, frightened by the consequences of her own meddling, she starts popping pills that don’t belong to her and snooping through her sister’s underwear drawers, trying to expose more ammunition to use in her “shock and awe” campaigns against everybody in sight. Then she sits around hating herself — before starting all over again with the same tactics.

When Margot’s husband Jim (John Turturro) comes calling, it looks for a moment like a savior has come to the scene. He seems to have some resilience through Margot’s attacks, and when he comforts her he seems like some kind of guardian angel. But his faint light is squelched by the chaos that’s beyond his control.

And poor Claude, while sympathetic, is just a variation on the pubescent victims in The Squid and the Whale. (What’s with Baumbach’s preoccupation with alienated teenage boys who leave pieces of themselves behind? In Squid, one boy smeared bodily fluids on the school lockers, and Margot’s Claude leaves pieces of his skin in other peoples’ rooms.)

Only Malcolm seems to have any sense of the depravity on display, and we find some comfort in his presence until Baumbach — as ruthless in his search for ugly secrets as Margot herself — targets him and leaves him weeping over his own failures. There’s more hope for humanity at the end of the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men than there is here.

https://youtu.be/zhTk_SIhFEQ

Sure, we can muster compassion for these characters. After all, Baumbach draws them with intricate detail, so we can see potential in almost all of them, and pity them for the damage they probably suffered in childhood.

We can also marvel at Baumbach’s talent. His aesthetic is clearly influenced by the French New Wave films, especially the movies of Eric Rohmer. His sharp ear for dialogue — for the words people say, and the daggers they conceal within them — is a powerful gift. And his apprehension of the damage people do to each other, and how they do it, has served him well in the past, and may lead him to a masterpiece someday. Here, he’s drawn out some of the finest acting we’ve ever seen from Kidman, Leigh, and Black. This extraordinary cast makes these characters convincingly caustic and complicated.

But alas, the accumulation of scenes in which characters degrade each other is ultimately exhausting. Why do we need to see Pauline have a rather messy accident in the middle of a walk in the woods? Is this some sort of helpful metaphor? Do we need any more reminders that these people are full of… well… do I really have to say it?

Many other directors have brought us into family clashes like this. Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen come to mind. But each of them have enough insight to glimpse the possibility of redemption. Or they find enough humor to relieve the tension and prevent us from wallowing in misery. Baumbach’s focus on mean-spirited behavior is stifling.

At one point, Malcolm erupts in fury at the cruel and inhumane treatment that the people around him are demonstrating. When Pauline asks him to calm down, he declares. “This is the right reaction! Compared to everything else that’s going on, this is right!”

In the same way, viewers will have a right to complain after Baumbach has shoved their faces into so much smelly behavior. In the end, Margot at the Wedding is a story told from a perspective that’s as viciously condescending and critical as Margot’s own worldview.


In Bacarau, a town fights back against gunslinging predators

As he raged through the Coen brothers' Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, playing the murderous devil called Chigurh, was actor Javier Bardem taking inspiration from singularly menacing screen presence of Udo Kier?

That question crosses my mind as I watch the new film Bacarau, and see Udo Kier, playing a fearsome American murderer, bear down on the town of Bacarau, Brazil, with a machine gun and a silencer. He staggers rather like a demon wearing a human body suit, his eyes devoid of conscience, his view of Brazil as a place for exotic game hunting where the "game" are the people of Bacarau.

Udo Kier in <i>Bacarau</i>.

Meanwhile, converging on the same town are the members of his team — a contentious, uneasy band of Americans who have signed on for the thrill of walking into a foreign culture and mowing down strangers with their heavy artillery. They may as well be alien invaders from outer space bent on annihilating the locals.

But are they just doing this for fun? Or is there a relationship between the "hunters" and some greater power? The movie teases us with possibilities — like the fact that a UFO is swooping down over Bacarau (I am not making that up), and the fact that the mayor, seeking re-election, seems to have higher priorities than the people's desperate please for basic human resources... like water.

As if strangers with guns aren't trouble enough for Bacarau — UFOs are zipping around too.

What is Bacarau?

American moviegoers aren't likely to know — and the film makes a major point of that. Needy communities of indigenous peoples are so easily overlooked when the world's mapmakers, influenced by the global influence of capitalism, only mark those places that "matter."

Bacarau is a troubled multi-generational community of Brazilian people trying to find a way to stay alive through centuries of change. As the film begins, they have just lost their 94-year-old matrirach, Carmelita, and are observing traditions of mourning. The people are a communal neighborhood, carefully distributing the meager supplies brought in on trucks. "Take what you need and share," says an elder when bags of food are set out on a large table at a community assembly.

Despite their poverty, their often contentious relationships, the tendency of young people to abandon the town as soon as they're able, their reliance on vigilantes to serve as defenders against exploitative forces both local and foreign, and the compromises they make to stay alive (we catch glimpses of a local brothel that is accepted as a fundamental community service), the people of Bacarau have a sense of dignity and a grasp of human decency, cautiously extending a welcome to visitors.

The people of Bacarau are already grieving as the film begins, but their troubles are about to worsen.

When strangers — in this case, "tourists" on motorbikes, concealing deadly agendas — ask “What are the inhabitants of Bacarau called?”, a child, smiling cautiously up at them, says, “People.” And when the mayor's entourage haul a local sex worker out of town, the town doctor, a temperamental force to be reckoned with — and played by the fantastic Sônia Braga — sticks out her neck to defend the woman's dignity.

These assertions of human dignity for common Brazilian people resonate throughout the film as most of the gun-toting outsiders reveal that they don't view non-whites as people worth respecting. (Those who differ with them are non-whites doing their best to assimilate, believing that they'll escape the slaughter if they kiss up to killers.)  There is a strong 2020 vibe in this film with its intense focus on the consequences of white supremacist ideology and its connections to Nazism.

The first half of this was imaginative and exploratory, teasing me along with an intriguing narrative restraint. And at the first appearance of that UFO — which looks about as menacing as the spacecraft in Plan 9 from Outer Space — I thought this might represent a vision as ambitious in its genre ambiguity as Zhangke's Still Life.

Some of Bacarau's younger citizens have come home, and now they're taking up arms to defend their people.

Alas, no — in its second half, the film falls short of such visionary reach.

While I can respect its depiction of heartless Americans expressing their contempt for what our President calls "shithole countries," Bacarau lost me when it took a familiar genre route toward a predictably bloody finale. Granted, I've only recently recovered from the stylized bloodbaths of Let the Corpses Tan and Mandy, and I wasn't in the mood for another one. How many Westerns have we seen in which the vigilantes-for-hire, gunslingers-for-hire, or samurai-for-hire end up caring about their endangered community and thus coordinate them into a makeshift community army to defend their home turf? (At one point, I groaned "Is this movie taking notes from Three Amigos?") Do we need another of those stories?

Worst of all, after setting up an effective-if-simplistic allegory of America's utter disregard for indigenous peoples, the film revels in the kind of eye-for-an-eye gore-fest that used to win page space for art films in magazines that celebrated carnage — like Fangoria magazine. If a movie like this wants to stand strong as an earnest lament for exploited societies that don't show up on Capitalism's mapping apps, it needs to point to something more than wish-fulfillment vengeance and bloodbaths as an answer.

Teacher, why isn't our town on Google maps anymore?

Still, there are enough indelible images here — a dog dodging a late-night stampede of horses through town, a street littered with empty coffins, a museum in which handprints of fresh blood stand out in sharp contrast to the faded archival photos on the walls — to make me want to read a lot of reviews, essays, and interviews, and then to revisit this film. I suspect there is far more going on here than I can catch on a first viewing.

And, admitting my own embarrassing ignorance about the peoples, traditions, and history of Brazil, I take this film as rebuke: I need to know my neighbors better. Do I want to be one of those Americans who isn't paying enough attention to recognize when the agendas of my own country are inflicting suffering on communities like this one?

This is only the second film by director Kleber Mendonça Filho I've seen. (Aquarius is a film I need to catch up with, but Neighboring Sounds was on my top-ten favorites list from 2012). And this one is co-written and co-directed by Juliano Dornelles. I many not like their violent crescendo, but I am otherwise impressed with their symphonic blend of satire, sci-fi, and Western tropes.

From a distance, Bacarau looks quiet and vulnerable. Looks can be deceiving.

They even go so far as to salute one of their inspirations. Thanks to a review at The Film Stage, I'm loving a little detail that I missed while watching the movie: Bacarau's schoolhouse is marked with the name "João Carpinteiro." As Giovanni Marchini Camia writes, "If the throbbing synth track that introduces the opening credits, the film’s glorious widescreen photography, and the narrative’s Rio Bravo-indebted premise weren’t sufficiently indicative, Google Translate helpfully confirms that in English the name does indeed translate to that of the author of Assault on Precinct 13."

I'm also impressed by their inventiveness, and the way they can craft vivid, sophisticated cinema with seemingly few resources. And I'm grateful for their inclination to tell stories that ask us to pay attention and to care about vulnerable populations.

They seem to live in the world that Cormac McCarthy wrote about in No Country for Old Men — one in which a powerful, soul-sickening darkness is advancing. "You can't stop what's comin'," someone warns us as the murderer Chigurh marches through town killing whomever he pleases. In Bacarau, that may be true. But at least this community isn't going to ignore the danger. They're remaining vigilant, putting aside their differences, and working together to keep their traditions alive.


A Bright Moon Over the Dunes: Memories of Japan Become Music in Eric Gorfain's "Kyo Shu"

You may not know his name, but you've heard him play.

Eric Gorfain's intuitive way with stringed instruments — particularly his signature electric violin — has made him and the group he founded, The Section Quartet, vital contributors on albums as diverse and as influential as Kanye West's Late Registration, Beyoncé's Lemonade, Weyes Blood's Titanic Rising, and others by Queens of the Stone Age, Jenny Lewis, Foo Fighters, and more.

Eric Gorfain of The Section Quartet

I first heard Gorfain's name as I listened to the Quartet's inventive interpretations of Radiohead albums like OK Computer and The Bends. Later, he would demonstrate extraordinary discernment, marrying the woman who has been, for me, the single most influential singer and songwriter: Sam Phillips.

I'm eager to introduce you to his new solo album — released under the moniker tone-cluster — which I've been playing almost every day lately. I've been listening under headphones while walking, looking at the sky and the sea, and then, inspired by what I've heard, writing.


But first, some background:

When I was growing up, I was taught to listen for "the message" of a song. Songs had either good messages or bad messages — that's what influential voices in my religious community insisted. This was, I understand now, a terrible way to experience music. First-time experiences with songs were occasions of suspicion in which I strove to arrive at a judgment of the song's message. Consideration of the beauty of the music, the excellence of the musicianship, or the poetry in the lyrics were secondary — if they were considered at all.

Perhaps that is why I felt such freedom and joy in the world of instrumental music. If I wasn't sifting the lyrics, skeptical and distrustful, I could just listen and enjoy. My grandfather's library of classical music on vinyl was a wonderland of sounds and impressions. I began spending my allowance on movie soundtracks because, while I wasn't allowed to see movies because of "dangerous messages," the music was generally regarded as harmless.

I think I became a novelist because instrumental music had the mysterious power to fill my head with ideas and images. One enigma inspired the making of another. As my high school English teacher Michael Demkowicz once said, "Art is what happens when a person encounters mystery and feels compelled to make something of it."

I'll repeat that:

Art is what happens when a person encounters mystery
and feels compelled to make something of it.

Half a century later, I understand that songs, stories, movies, and other creative work that is heavy-handed with "messages" is, well... bad art. The purpose of art is not to deliver messages — that's what straight talk is for. Art is what happens when an artist shapes something that they cannot merely explain straightforwardly. Art reminds us that words cannot tell us everything. Even art made of words — poems, stories, lyrics — asks us to pay attention and reach for the "more" than the words are saying. As Elvis Costello once said, "People ask me all the time, 'What does that song mean?' Well, if I could say it in other words than are in the song, I would have written another song, wouldn’t I?"

That's the mystery — the "More" — of art. Its ambiguity is, for the patient and observant, endlessly rewarding.


A perfect example of this comes to us this summer in this strange and haunting tone-cluster album called KYO SHU (available here on Bandcamp).

It's the album I've been playing most often this summer in part because of the worlds that its experimental soundscapes invite me to explore. Listening to it the first few times, without any knowledge of the specific memories that inspired the various pieces, I was moved to write down images they were inspiring. I'm writing a new novel set in an imaginary world, and I could go back to other favorite instrumental albums, but those compositions are already deeply connected in my mind to stories I've already written. Gorfain's music... it's doing something different and new.

So, talking with him last week, I was astonished to learn how powerfully and precisely this music was speaking to me. In fact, even the artist himself was surprised at just how similar my imaginings were to the memories from his past that inspired this music.

KYO SHU is a Japanese term that means both "reminiscence" and "nostalgia" — and this album of experimental soundscapes finds Gorfain recalling vivid memories of his younger days in Japan, feeling a longing for the immersive sensory experiences, and making something of them that can convey his feelings. As he talked about his memories, I came to understand the sense of longing that weaves throughout the album.

Overstreet:

You've worked on such a consistently surprising array of projects, I'm surprised that when you started something so new and so personal that it was such a... surprise! This album is so different from your work with The Section Quartet. Where did this come from?

Gorfain:

I started working with this sonic palette a year-and-a-half ago. I was using guitar pedals and different effects and looping pedals with my electric violin to make sounds. It’s not song structure — it was just improvisation in my studio. I was recording these things; I didn’t really know what they were or if they were anything at all. When the pandemic hit and there was suddenly a bunch of time on my hands, I opened up these sessions on my computer and started listening and I thought, "Yeah, I really do have something.” And then I started doing more.

Right around that time, I had been really thinking about my time in Japan quite a bit. A little bit of nostalgia, a little bit of longing for being there — it’s been three and a half years since I was last there — and the nostalgia and the memories just collided with the music. I would listen to some music, and it would trigger a memory, and I would say, "Okay, here's a memory — now let me hold that in my mind and play some more music."

The first piece was "Yuki no Rotemboro (Onsen in the Snow)." I thought of a memory, an experience, and improvised a soundtrack for it. Then I did a little bit of cleaning up, adding some other sounds and things, and gave it a little bit of form, because it was just a freeform experiment at the time.

Other pieces followed and suddenly I had an album.

You can follow tone-cluster and learn more about this album on Instagram.

https://www.instagram.com/p/CCjM9O7hCMQ/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

Overstreet:

Your Japan memories have such a particular power for you. Can you describe something of your personal history with the place?

Gorfain:

I had a Japanese influence early, when I was growing up: I learned violin via the Suzuki Method, which Dr. Shinichi Suzuki developed in Japan to teach string instruments and piano. So I think a lot of the tenets of Japanese society were already engrained in my subconscious. I didn’t understand the language, but I got the societal things about it as much as an American can in a very different society.

After my freshman year of college, I was back home for the summer. A friend of my mother’s, who was an educator at California State University — Sacramento, was teaching in a program in which two groups of Japanese students came over, each one for three weeks of immersion, basically, to learn and practice English. So I spent six weeks hanging out with other kids my age and we hit it off. In the mornings they would have English lessons and in the afternoons they would hang out in small groups with American college students and put their English lessons into practice. They were learning through having to converse — so we’d go play miniature golf or we’d go to the mall and basically just talk. I kept in touch with a lot of them via letters — good old-fashioned air mail.

The following summer, after my sophomore year, I was going to save up some money and go on a trip. I spent five weeks over there just as a tourist. I only stayed in one hotel — the rest of the time I stayed in their homes or dormitories. I had a crash course in being in Japan. And I loved it. I loved Japan.

The following summer, there was an opportunity to do an exchange program at a small music college in Japan. I applied, I got it, and that changed my life. I spent a year and a half in a small mountain town of about 60,000 people — I’d never lived in a small town like that anywhere — and then spent three years in Tokyo. 

Overstreet:

My impressions of Japan come primarily from art: the films of Yasujiro Ozu, above all, but also literature — Shasuko Endo, Pico Iyer, and the writings about Zen Buddhism by the Christian monk Thomas Merton. I'm sure my impressions are limited and naive, but I am drawn to a sense of a more contemplative way of life. Is that just a fantasy, or is that something of your experience there?

Gorfain:

There is nothing slow about Tokyo. Tokyo and Osaka to a certain extent are their own places.

And then there’s rural Japan, which is very slow — a totally different life. I can’t compare it to rural life in America because I don’t know rural life in America — or Europe or anywhere. There are plenty of people there who are very Western, in that they’re 'go-getters,' going for success in their field, ambitious. But in general, it’s a slower, more contemplative life — because they’re a little more in touch, even subconsciously, with nature and with the spiritual, and a little less engaged in the hustle and bustle.

There’s a juxtaposition and dichotomy between traditional Japanese culture — which you think of in terms of tea ceremonies, or kimonos, or other things that have a ritual and are time-consuming — and the modern culture — which is more about pachinko parlors, neon signs, and blaring PA systems everywhere, and lots of noise on the streets and lots of light.

That’s one of the things about Japan that I love and that has always been fascinating to me. I don’t know that I’ll ever figure it out. But there is definitely a dichotomy. It’s fascinating to me that a country that had such a serene, pastoral cultural history then produced this other bright-lights, neon, fast-paced, modern society and that the people can exist in both in the same time.

Overstreet:

So, let's get into the album and its various sounds and colors. It opens with "Mangetsu (The Full Moon)." Hearing it, I wrote these words: "On a bed of dark, roiling clouds, suddenly a bright, cold, clear tone — like a mother bird calling for children she knows are lost. Come home." And then I jotted down "2001: A Space Odyssey!" because it reminded me so much of "Thus Spake Zarathustra."

https://youtu.be/l2OdLxWWjlc

Gorfain:

The moon is revered in Japan. It’s revered everywhere, of course. But I toured with an artist over there, and he had a song called "Mangetsu," about the idea of that gigantic moon hanging over the horizon. There was a moment when I was in my early 20s —  I remember rice fields, low hills, and then the moon coming up over that and lighting up the rice fields. It’s as simple as that. It’s magical. Is this really happening?

The imagery came back into my mind, and the circumstances. The music that came out is a little abrasive, and there’s a lot of dissonance, a lot of sound but not a lot of melody. It’s kind of spastic in a way. There was something about the energy of that moon shining down on that land and shining down on me — that’s what I had in mind.

In Taiwan there’s the Moon Festival every October. They have special sweets and they drink tea and they watch the full moon rise. They have such reverence for the moon. And I’ve always been someone who loves to just stare at the moon. Those harvest moons that come up low over the horizon — they always blow my mind. Whether it’s inherently Japanese or not, it’s something that is much on my mind.

Overstreet:

You seem very focused on inspirations outside of yourself when you compose, rather than what is probably the more common artistic impulse — to communicate your circumstances, your opinions, or something that you're going through. 

Gorfain:

For the track "Onsen in the Snow,"  I remember how it felt, sitting in the hot spring water with the cold winter air and snow in my face. It’s a very vivid image. I don’t remember if I was sad about something.

But then, having said that, I should say that another journalist I was talking to recently asked me a question that stopped me in my tracks: “Is her ghost in this music?” He said that out of nowhere, and I was like “I don’t know... probably? If I really think about it.” That kind of thing is coming from deep in our subconscious. I did go through some stuff — and there's got to be some of that in the music.

Overstreet:

Another track that inspires me to write is "Mayonaka Sakkyu (Midnight Sand Dunes)." But again, I was just playing the music, not looking at track titles or liner notes. And this is what I wrote down: "Wind dusting dunes, long sloping lines, marked by a measured pace, perhaps the pace of a heartbeat or of footsteps, as a man walks by night."

Gorfain:

I was an exchange student living in a small town, and I had befriended some people there. One of the staff members of the university grabbed a couple of friends and me, and we drove out to these dunes on the Japan Sea coast that were about an hour and a half away. I was 20 or 21. It was that time of life where you do crazy things — you leave at midnight and go out to walk over sand dunes with people you barely know. It was a youthful dalliance of a sort that then just turned into a surreal scene.

We got there at one o-clock in the morning. I’d never been to sand dunes, so that was new. It was dark, and it wasn't hot. And it was just surreal — you're in Japan, you're hearing waves, and then you come over the dunes and you see waves crashing in the dark. We walked around for a couple of hours and headed home. I don’t remember the thoughts that went through my head. I just know that I was already in a foreign land, and then suddenly I was in a foreign land in a foreign land.

For this piece, I went backwards. I had made a piece of music, I had created the bed of it, and the darkness of it. And then, independently, I had that memory of the dunes, which resonated. And the memory found the music. So I played a melody over it with the memory clearly in mind. In the studio, I gave myself a large distance between myself and the microphone in order to really get a sense of distance and expanse, and to capture that memory. The music sounded like that experience for me.

And apparently it sounded that way to you too!

Tottori sand dunes, from Wiki Commons — User:Geofrog / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

Overstreet:

My favorite piece is the last one: "Saishu Densha (Last Train)."  Apparently, my impressions of that weren't quite so exact. I did get a sense of a passing train, but mostly I was imagining standing on a porch or sitting next to a window and hearing rain on a tin roof or some other material that would clatter with differing notes.

Gorfain:

When I was living in the rural area, I would sometimes have to go to the nearby big city for something. I would take the train there and back. On the train ride back, generally speaking, there wouldn’t be many people or any other people on the train. It was a two-car train, very small. And it would go through these country roads and mountain passes along a river.

I remember just sitting there and staring off into the distance at the twinkling fires and lights of the farmhouses, the small country road on the other side of the river with cars driving up and down. It was about an hour and a half for the trip. Sometimes you were tired already, and you’d fall into a dream state, with the rhythmic sound — you could see trees blowing in the distance, in that blue dusk light.

Those are the memories. I can still picture it. It’s something I’d really love to experience again.

Overstreet:

The most challenging track is one that will probably raise the most questions for listeners. "Kon Ran" reminds me of some of the darker scenes in David Lynch films, when there is a clash of the natural world and the mechanized, industrial world. It often sounds like a propeller or a wind tunnel, but it's an ominous roar.

https://youtu.be/BbRwEbQEAaI

Gorfain:

I wasn’t afraid of noise, of creating something that was more drone than melody. It was a musical experiment.

As I said earlier, Tokyo is a dichotomy of the traditional and serene set up against a hectic, controlled chaos. At the end of the day, everything there is controlled. The chaos is within a box. It’s interesting to be able to see that from a distance.

When people rebel there, they rebel with other people in the same way — they find their clique, and then they go deep.

I like making a record like a set list, with peaks and valleys. Putting "Kon Ran" in the middle of the record, it felt like a peak. It was different from the other songs, but it fit and was a bit of a centerpiece.

I made a music video for it — I paired it with some footage I shot from the passenger seat of a car in Tokyo on the highway. A bit of an homage to Sofia Coppola in Lost in Translation. She captured Tokyo so well.

Overstreet:

This material could make for a surreal, transporting live show. Do you have any aspirations to take it on the road and play these pieces for live audiences? And, given that you play everything on this record, is that even possible?

Gorfain:

I would love to perform this stuff live. I would love to do shows here in L.A. But there are places outside of America that might be more open to this music — Europe and Asia, for example.

Having said that, these are all improvisation-based. I don’t know that I could ever reproduce what you hear on the record. I could come close and mimic it, but every performance would be different. There’s an indeterminacy to it, and there’s chance to it that I can’t replicate, not only because I didn’t write anything down, but also because of the pedals I was using. I don't know what the settings were — I was turning things and changing things.

But in terms of performing this type of music, even if I’m performing with a theme in mind, I would love to do that. Each performance would be unique.

 


Overstreet Archives: Days of Heaven (1978)

In September 2018, I launched a short-lived film website for Seattle Pacific University and began to write about films that have risen to a sort of legendary status that I call "sacred cinema" — films that routinely inspire spiritual reflection in dialogue with the Scriptures. Days of Heaven was the first film on that list.

That website was a great project, but my search for collaborators came up short, and it quickly became clear that I couldn't sustain it entirely by myself as my teaching responsibilities increased. So I shut it down, and now I'm hosting some of those reviews here at Looking Closer.

Here is the "Sacred Cinema" piece on Days of Heaven.


The world was on fire. At least, that's what it smelled like in Seattle during the middle of August this year. Those of us working on the Seattle Pacific University campus didn't need to look out the windows at the heavy haze half-erasing the scenery; we knew from the incense on the air that we were engulfed in the consequences of wildfires — several of them — raging around the Pacific Northwest. It gave most of us an ongoing sense of unease, as the sun became an angry red eye in the sky, and certain prophecies about "the Last Days" came to our minds.

For some of us who love the movies, something else came to mind: a movie that is now 40 years old, but that fills the screen with the spectacle of a wildfire that roars at the characters — and at the audience — in a voice of apocalyptic judgment.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of Days of Heaven, a film frequently celebrated as a landmark work of spiritual artistry and religious cinema.

In September 1978, Days of Heaven premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, earning Terrence Malick a Best Director award. While the initial critical reaction was mixed, over time the movie has become revered as a classic of American cinema. When, following this movie's release, Malick disappeared from filmmaking for three decades, its lasting impression and influence on other directors cemented Malick's reputation as one of cinema's greatest visionaries. And when he returned to filmmaking with The Thin Red Line in 1998, critics were eager to see if he could still work at this level. (Short answer: Indeed, yes!)

Here at NxPNW, we're remembering Days of Heaven as the beginning of an ongoing series we're calling "The Sacred Cinema Canon": films that inspire substantial and sustained engagement with questions of faith.

This story of adultery on the Texas Panhandle is set just before World War I, but it resounds with echoes of Old Testament drama. Blast-furnace worker Bill (Richard Gere) gets in a fight with his foreman, then goes on the run with his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and little sister Linda.

They settle as field workers for a rich farmer (Sam Shepard), who eventually falls for the irresistibly beautiful Abby. Bill sees this as an opportunity to get rich not-so-quick. But this involves pretending that Abby is his sister. And his plot is the first step toward violence, which blazes up in a conflagration that may be the greatest inferno ever filmed.

Sound heavy? It is. But the playfully poetic narration by young Linda (Linda Manz, whose voice is one of the film's greatest gifts) keeps the goings-on from becoming too ponderous. It's an enthralling story.

What's even more interesting to those seeking a sense of the sacred in cinema is how Days of Heaven has sustained a reputation over 40 years as being "biblical" in the character of its storytelling.

The great American film critic Roger Ebert noted that this story is "set  against a backdrop of biblical misfortune: a plague of grasshoppers, fields in flame, murder, loss, exile."

Christopher Runyon (Movie Mezzanine) writes,

Malick has always had a spiritual streak in him, and Days of Heaven was the first indicator of that side of him. Using the imagery, the mood, and the voice-over, he transforms this simplistic story into a Biblical parable. Not only do the vast wheat fields feel like an Edenic Promised Land, but it’s eventual end is brought about by none other than a swarm of locusts and a hellish fire (as foreshadowed in the italicized quote above). The way these days of heaven come to a close, it feels less like the end of a end of an era and more like an apocalypse.

Runyon goes on to read the film as an "Adam and Eve" story that explores the concept of original sin.

Michael Leary finds even more specific correlations between Malick's narrative and the Bible at The Other Journal:

At the center of the story is an image of Ruth (Abby) and Boaz (The Farmer) which is eventually ruined by the envy of Bill, Abby’s lover and partner in crime. And against this current of Ruth’s story is an allusion to Abraham and Sarah.

In a Cinema Journal essay back in 2003, Hubert Cohen offered an in-depth study of the film's Old Testament echoes, titled "The Genesis of Days of Heaven." (You can read that here.)

These close readings of the film can enrich our experience of it. But we don't need to identify parallels with Bible stories to appreciate Days of Heaven as a work of spiritual significance.

Here, Malick took a significant step forward from 1973's Badlands in the development of his particular style.

Captured indelibly by cinematographers Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler, Malick’s film has a visual syntax so eloquent and graceful—its fields of gold cause its quiet characters to stand out like mythic figures—it would play powerfully as a silent film. (Shots of a hand extended to brush across the wheat fields have inspired numerous imitators, including Gladiator’s Ridley Scott.)

By attending to the details of his characters' environmental context with as much reverence and patience as he does the characters themselves, he seemed to quietly insist that the created world itself was participating in the story: speaking into silences, carrying out both blessing and judgment, suffering the consequences of sinners' misdeeds, and — to reference Romans 8 — groaning with desire for some kind of supernatural salvation.

This attention to nature becomes even more prominent in his subsequent features—The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song—and his cinematographers find ever more creative ways to weave the suggestiveness of the environment into the subtext of the storytelling.

So yes, as you discover or revisit Days of Heaven, read up on how others have interpreted the story of Bill and Abby, and explore its "biblical" connections. But don't overlook the distinctiveness of this particular American story, which pushes back against the American ideal of "the pursuit of happiness" by showing what can result from a scheming and deceitful pursuit.

And note that it isn't just the story that is told, but also the way in which the story is told — not just the "what" but the "how" of the movie — that carries a particular and profound spiritual quality. Days of Heaven doesn't moralize in its narration or its narrative. It presents us with images glorious and terrible that speak in the way that nature itself speaks. As George Macdonald wrote,

When we understand the outside of things, we think we have them. Yet the Lord puts his things in subdefined, suggestive shapes, yielding no satisfactory meaning to the mere intellect, but unfolding themselves to the conscience and heart.

Days of Heaven refuses to be reduced to any paraphrase or moral. It goes on speaking. In its preference for visual poetry over screenwriting prose, it seems to have new things to say each time a moviegoer returns to it — that has been my experience as a film critic in conversation with other film lovers who go on revisiting it and writing about it. It's a film to have a relationship with. It still seems daring, ambitious, and at times almost miraculous—even now, 40 years later.

The Criterion Collection, which released the best home video edition of Days of Heaven, has just released an extended cut of Malick's 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life, which adds more than 30 minutes to a film that was already epic in every way, and which deepens the films engagement with texts from Job and Ecclesiastes. It also includes a narrative flourish lifted right from Augustine's Confessions.

It seems that Days of Heaven and its predecessor, Badlands, while standing strong as pillars of American cinema, were just the beginning of the most substantial and sustained cinematic engagement with the Bible in cinema history.

https://youtu.be/EzZ8phk8yYc

When I was in practicing the art of the personal essay in my graduate studies at Seattle Pacific University, my mentor, the celebrated memoirist and theologian Lauren Winner, encouraged me to strive to write about my subject in such a way that the reader would never again think about that subject without also recalling to mind what I had said about it. In that sense, Terrence Malick works a kind of magic in Days of Heaven: Whether I'm reading about the Garden of Eden, or reading about Abraham and Sarah, or reflecting on biblical prophecy, or waking up to smoke in the air... I find myself thinking about this magnificent film.

[This post is an expansion on a brief review originally published at Image.]

 


Hamilton (2020)

Having never listened to the soundtrack album, and having never attended a performance of the play, I was introduced to Hamilton through the Disney+ movie of the original production.

Instead of posting a review here, I am saving my response for the Looking Closer Specialists, that lovely community of readers who have chosen to show some appreciation for my work by making a donation — small or large — to help cover the costs of this site.

You can do that too and participate in our frequent conversations about movies, music, and more in that private Facebook group. Join the Looking Closer Specialists! Read about this opportunity here.


Overstreet Archives: A Very Long Engagement (2004)

Recent journeys back in time to World War One — in Sam Mendes's 1917 and Peter Jackson's documentary They Shall Not Grow Old — made me wonder what I would think of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's 2004 film A Very Long Engagement if I revisited it again.

Looking for my original review of it, I discovered that isn't included in the archives here at Looking Closer. (It was originally published at Christianity Today.) So I figured it was time to republish that review here. I'm a big fan of Jeunet's work — Delicatessen and Amelie are both films I find well worth watching again and again. But something about this one just didn't work for me. Here's my review — now sixteen years old!


During wartime, art about war can play an important role. It can coax us into contemplation and dialogue about the ethics of violent conflict. It may remind us of the lessons we can learn from the past. Sometimes it offers comfort and even hope during a time of fear, uncertainty, and loss.

You could probably name a few favorites with such redeeming qualities. For this moviegoer, David O. Russell’s Three Kings, Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Edward Zwick’s Glory, and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Kubrick’s later work, Full Metal Jacket, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, are all sobering and rewarding portrayals of the madness that war can unleash.

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement, based on a novel by Sebastien Japrisot, aspires to be a meaningful war film about holding on to hope against all odds. Unfortunately, it assaults our senses with imagery so intense, subplots so disposable, and tones so different that we’re likely to find ourselves bewildered instead of moved, overly entertained instead of enlightened.

Here’s the premise: In the wake of World War I, Mathilde, a beautiful young woman crippled by polio, longs to know the fate of Manech, her fiancé who went off to fight for France. Manech, convicted of self-mutilation on the front lines, was punished alongside four other condemned soldiers. He was ordered to make himself an easy target for the enemy, and he never returned. Conflicting reports about his fate have thrown fuel on the feeble fire of Mathilde’s hopes. She will stop at nothing to find out if Manech survived.

If you’re feeling any déjà vu, that’s because the premise is similar to another epic that arrived at this time last year — Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain. But it would be better to describe A Very Long Engagement as a collision of Minghella’s melodrama, Jeunet’s 2001 blockbuster Amelie, and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Watching it feels like going to an amusement park in the middle of a war zone while a battle is underway. We’re strapped into dozens of dizzying rides, some of which are sickening and terrifying, others that are goofy and strange, and every few minutes our faces are shoved into the grisly horrors of war. There’s no reason that a war film cannot blend comedy and tragedy. But Jeunet is in such a rush that he fails to give us enough opportunities to catch our breath, to consider what’s happening, or to care about the characters.

Engagement, one of only a few films to examine the Great War of 1914-1918, captures battlefield bloodshed in way that will test your nerves, your stomach, and your patience. Bayonet-impalements, shattered heads, bomb-blasted showers of body parts, corpses used as shields against bullets—some moviegoers should steer clear of such sights. In a parallel narrative, an assassin performs brief but severe executions, one involving shards of glass that will make even the toughest viewer wince in dismay. The bloody chaos is interspersed with tangents of Jeunet’s famously comical cleverness and fairy-tale whimsy. One minute, we’re watching French troops charge unshielded into machine gun fire, the other we’re watching Mathilde have sensual daydreams about her missing boyfriend, or we’re chuckling at the way her bicycling mailman tumbles onto her doorstep.

Just as our emotions are jostled back and forth, our sense of chronology is challenged as the narrative makes acrobatic leaps backward and forward in time. A narrator introduces us to enough eccentric supporting characters to fill a phone book. They each have their own particular histories, which are presented in high-speed flashbacks, Amelie-style. Like AmelieEngagement charges ahead like a runaway freight train, and if you miss anything along the way (which you will), Jeunet seems confident that you’ll take the ride again in order to catch glimpses of the things that you missed. You certainly won’t be bored.

But is all of this excitement worth the exhausting journey?

Some will think so, and they will defend it on the grounds of the cast and the visual wonders.

Amelie‘s Audrey Tautou is a beautiful and engaging Mathilde. Her performance seems like Amelie a few years older, quieter, and more melancholy, but that’s forgivable considering how powerfully she commands our attention. Gaspard Ulliel, who looks like a young Matthew Modine, plays her lost lover with innocence and gentleness. Jeunet gives them some wonderfully intimate moments, including an enchantingly romantic scene lit with matchsticks, that give us reason to believe this is true love that will last a lifetime … if Manech survives the war.

Many of France’s finest actors show up along the way. Fans of French cinema will be glad to see Dominique Pinon (AmelieDelicatessen), Denis Lavant (Beau Travail), and Jean-Claude Dreyfus (The Lady and the Duke) in memorable supporting roles. The true performance highlight of the film is a show-stopping turn by a famous American actress. (I won’t spoil the surprise here, but if you read other reviews, you’re sure to stumble onto her name.) She’s so fluent in French, so convincing as the tormented wife of a missing soldier, you’re sure to hear viewers whispering in amazement. This unfortunately works against the film; we end up marveling at a conspicuously clever acting stunt instead of being drawn into the story.

These actors move through a whole library of unforgettable—often stunningly beautiful—images. The animators who recreate France circa 1920 have done their work so well, viewers will never suspect that the backdrop is artificial. Production designer Aine Bonetto makes every frame exquisitely elaborate, and director of photography Bruno Delbonnel guides us through as many styles of cinematography as there are chapters in this story. Jeunet brings trenches, a Paris marketplace, and a train station up from the dusts of history, three-dimensional and beautifully illuminated. Even the most fleeting moments leave you awestruck, asking “How’d they do that?” If you blink, you’ll miss a glimpse of Mathilde’s face in a train window that looks like a breathtaking impressionist portrait. In the opening scenes, the famous trench warfare sequence from Paths of Glory is surpassed so powerfully that Kubrick, were he still alive, would have considered it a challenge. Near the end, there is an explosion that would be best described as “gorgeous” if the circumstances surrounding it were not so horrific.

Therein lies the central problem of the film: In his dedication to dazzling spectacle, Jeunet ultimately distracts us from attending to the central story. Instead of arriving at a meaningful conclusion, he wraps up his mixed-media marathon with a solemn acknowledgment of war’s consequences and an optimistic flourish. The film’s overriding sentiment — that hope is a good thing — feels trite and ultimately unsatisfying. If the film is seen by anybody with family members currently on duty in Iraq, it’s more likely to encourage their nightmares than to offer them comfort. In what are we to place our hope? Mere chance? This war movie seems to think so.