Cannes-winner can't live up to the hype

If you've been reading reviews for long, you're familiar with my annual rants about the Oscars' lack of credibility and the Academy's embarrassing record of prioritizing popularity and politics over artistry. And you may have noticed that I often point people to international film festivals — particularly Cannes — as examples of how, elsewhere in the world, great art is not only recognized but celebrated.

This year, my admiration for Cannes jury discernment has taken a hard hit. They've given Titane, from French director Julia Ducournau, the Palme d'Or.

The Golden Palm! This is the award they gave to transcendent titles like Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Coppola's Apocalypse Now; Wenders's Paris, Texas and Malick's The Tree of Life; Olmi's The Tree of Wooden Clogs and Campion's The Piano; the Coens' Barton Fink and the Dardennes' Rosetta; Leigh's Secrets and Lies and Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives! Granted, I've sulked over a few Cannes jury choices (particularly the reportedly pornographic Blue is the Warmest Color, which sparked charges of abuse against the director). But I'll rush out to see a Cannes award-winner over an Oscar winner on almost any occasion.

And here's a rare occasion: They've given this award to a film directed by a woman! Yet another reason for celebration, right?

Alas, no. This time I'm going to recommend you give the 2021 Palm winner a pass. Why?

It's complicated.

Let's consider the narrative — a rollercoaster, wild and strange. Titane traces two painful journeys, both of which are, "on paper," interesting. I'm not troubled by what their stories are about; rather, I'm troubled by how the stories are told.

First, we have the growing-up of a girl named Alexia (Adèle Guigue), who is strangely (inexplicably, really) obsessed with automobiles. This is true even before she's in a car accident that results in surgeons implanting a metal plate in her head. Later, as a grown woman (Agathe Rousselle), she's drawn to motor vehicles sexually — yes, sexually — and to such psychotic extremes that anyone who disrupts her obsessions is likely to end up impaled on the knitting needle that she keeps sheathed like a samurai sword in her hairdo.

Young Alexia's love for machinery gets a boost: a car accident leads to the installation of a metal plate in her head.

That's enough of an interesting premise for any psychological thriller or body-horror nightmare. Artists — filmmakers especially — have been intrigued by the seductive nature of technology since movies were first made, and the subject raises questions we need to investigate. I'd be intrigued if I knew that idea was being explored in a conscience-driven vein, like something we might see from Claire Denis (her High Life took us dark psychosexual sci-fi turns), Guillermo del Toro (with his penchant for stories of persecuted outsiders), or the Davids Lynch or Cronenberg (with their willingness to explore the darker recesses of human nature for purposes of caution or lament).

But wait — there's more.

Second, we have Vincent (Vincent Lindon), the commander of a squadron of firefighters and the father of a long-missing boy named Adrien. The crisis has probably influenced his leadership; the men of his muscular brigade regard him with a mix of fear, incredulity, and humor. Driven to distraction, he enjoys losing himself in their trance-like dance parties. Worse, he has become addicted to some kind of drug that reinforces or amplifies aspects of his masculinity — perhaps to help him compensate for the sense of powerlessness that stems from his irreparable loss.

Fire chief Vincent fuels a deep sense of grief with steroidal injections and a god-complex.

Again, this sounds like thematic territory we've seen artists like Denis explore before (Beau Travail, for example).

But we're just getting started. As Alexia becomes more and more desperate in her quest to be loved and understood, rather than cured of her alarming lust for chrome and machinery, she becomes more and more murderous, moving from the swift stabbing of a stalker to the full slaughter of a girlfriend's housemates. Before long, she finds her face is on wanted posters alongside pictures of missing persons — and so, of course, she decides that the rational thing to do is disguise herself as one of them. She happens to choose Vincent's missing son, Adrien. This involves a disfiguring body wrap, a severe haircut, and more.

But there is still no resemblance between Alexia and Adrien. Nobody could mistake them. Nobody. Especially Adrien's father, who soon finds himself staring intently into Alexia's anxious face. He may guess that this is a stranger, an opportunist. But he cannot guess the darker secret: that Alexia is pregnant with — are you ready for this? — the child of, yes, an automobile.

Nevertheless, Vincent, deep in his depression, decides to take Alexia at her word in a moment of ... what? grief-triggered delusion? Implausible as it all is, they begin to make a life together as father and "son," much to the confusion and dismay of Vincent's firefighting boys' club).

If that sounds jarringly erratic and surreal, it is — and more so than my summary suggests. But that's not why I find Titane so difficult. I love unpredictable narratives, and I love it when ambitious directors take big swings. What matters to me most is meaningfulness. You can learn a lot about an artist by where and how they invest their time and attention. You can learn a lot about a movie by asking what it loves with its resources, its camera, its energy.

What does Titane love? Although the arc of the story might suggest it loves the dangerously unhinged Alexia and the poor broken-hearted Vincent, aiming to bring them together into a healing experience of love and trust, the absurdity of their desperate decisions makes it impossible — for this moviegoer, anyway — to take either of them seriously. And, worse, it shows them incapable of forming a bond that might bring actual healing, as reliant as it is on lies, delusions, and denial.

So why has Titane charmed the Cannes jury? Does it do anything particularly new?

Agathe Rousselle plays Alexia, and her performance — careening from simmering rage to flamboyant violence — is compelling but uninspiring.

Like a loud, rattling, unsteady automobile pieced together with parts of luxury cars, Titane is a marathon of allusions and references that has me wishing I was watching those other films — any of them — whenever they come to mind. As many critics have observed, Titane welds together the central conceit of Cronenberg's lurid Crash and some truly imaginative twists from Leo Carax's spectacularly strange Holy Motors. But I'm also reminded of the kamikaze, hell-for-leather energy of Noomi Rapace's Lisbeth Salander in Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; the tragic co-dependent bond between vampire and aging familiar in Let the Right One In; the sentient, serial-killing car tire in Rubber; the mysterious charity of a grieving father in the Dardennes' Le Fils; and the carnage-slinging relentlessness of Uma Thurman's "The Bride" in Kill Bill (particularly Volume 2, from which Titane steals a key needle drop). And then, in its climactic moments, I can't help but think about an unforgettable sequence from a film too recent to have been an inspiration: Nikole Beckwith's Together Together.

Having said all of this, I'm tempted to reconsider my review. I mean, any movie that creates a compelling collage of such a wild array of movies is certainly a freakshow worth seeing... right?

Not for me. I have no desire to return to Titane ever again. I mean, maybe the Cannes jury was like, "Welp, so many technical aspects of this film are achieved with excellence that we really have no choice but to give it the Palme d'Or." And yes, Ducournau demonstrates remarkable skill with staging crowded and complicated scenes, as well as an imagination for startling juxtapositions that keep us guessing about what's around the corner. She's also good with actors. For all of the spectacular color, light, and energy onscreen, there's nothing more visually compelling than Vincent Lindon's commanding physical presence.

But is the whole of Titane greater than the sum of its chrome-and-steel-and-multilated-body parts?

Alexia's exotic dancing inspires a stalker — which is no surprise. But her reaction to it is... disproportionate, to put it mildly.

This is a film that has a very specific audacity that I do not understand. I'll be the first to admit that, while I understand the importance of stories that imaginatively challenge our traditional definitions of gender and sexual orientation, I cannot figure out how a story like this would come as any comfort to those who have suffered in their search for love, family, and societal acceptance. Titane seems to think we will care about Alexia and Vincent even as their tentative and discomforting agreements and contracts take them to greater extremes of self-deceit and a refusal to reckon with the destruction they are wreaking in the world. Instead of summoning from its audience a sense of empathy, it glorifies a sort of anti-humanity, dismissing as collateral damage several victims of brutal murders, and celebrating the allure of a lie over the fact that the truth can set us free.

I've asked myself if I might be misreading it all. Could this be a cautionary tale about how, if we are scarred deeply enough, we might easily be persuaded to embrace lies for the sake of comfort and thus invite new forms of corruption into the world? I suppose that someone could read Titane's bonkers conclusion that way. But I can't shake the sense that the movie wants us to root for Vincent and Alexia, and to welcome the new beginning in its final frames as the dawning of a new post-human era. Self-annihilation, it suggests, may be humankind's only acceptable option.

And besides, all along the way, scenarios in which human beings are making self-destructive choices are filmed with a sense of revelry. Alexia's exotic dancing is filmed with lusty enthusiasm, Ducournau making no effort to avoid filming Alexia and the other dancers with the lascivious gaze of the lust-driven men staggering like zombies through the explicit exhibition.

It's not just an act: This is really how Alexia feels about cars. Why? The movie gives us no real hint. Thje heart wants what it wants, I guess.

Thus, it feels disingenuous when Ducournau tries to make a victim of Alexia later. When one of Alexia's drooling worshippers dives in for an unwanted kiss, Ducournau celebrates his mistake by subjecting him to an excruciating execution, one of several that are staged in ways that suggest she's with those misguided moviegoers who seek out and revel in particularly perverse varieties of big-screen bloodshed. Sure, the stalker's a creep. But Alexia's wild response — to pluck the knitting needle and plunge it into his ear, like like an evil Buffy staking bloody claims on an unremarkable vampire — is so extreme that any moviegoer with a conscience is going to be rooting for her to be caught and locked up as soon as possible.

As the story unfolds — or, better, goes on breaking down in so many ways — we're asked to accept, and even enjoy, how Alexia turns against her girlfriend Justine when her appetite for metal isn't immediately understood and endorsed. This leads to an all-out slaughter that I can't imagine the most bloodthirsty Tarantino fan justifying, and it's played for laughs.

I'd be curious to know what trans moviegoers think of Titane, but I can't imagine any of my trans friends watching this and saying "This movie gets me." (In this regard, I find Jude Dry's indieWire review enlightening.)  If anything, I'd suspect that they would be distraught over how this movie makes the prospect of transitioning seem like a decision motivated by fear or insanity. Titane feels so hell-bent on troubling us with its relentlessly lurid assaults — “You think that’s disturbing… wait’ll you see this!” — that it’s culminating episodes, which illustrate The Guilty’s rubber-stamp platitude of “Broken people save broken people” seem disingenuous and smug.

Afterward, I felt like Hayao Miyazaki after he watched digital animation of mutant humans: "Utterly disgusted," he called what he had seen "an insult to life itself."


Sunday Song: Von Bieker and Knathan Ryan sing their quarantine longings

I'm thinking about places I miss: Santa Fe, New Mexico. Vancouver, B.C. The trails around Macdonald and Flathead Lake in Montana. Concerts at The Triple Door in downtown Seattle.

Is there a place you've been longing for that you haven't been able to visit during the pandemic?

I'm thinking about the people whose company has made these long months of isolation more bearable: Anne, who has stayed with me for 25 years (our silver anniversary is October 5). Our friends Kirk and Kirstin — the "bubble couple" with whom we've enjoyed meals, streaming concerts, and encouraging conversation. My colleague Dr. Traynor Hansen, who was one of the only humans I saw regularly on SPU's campus during the year of online teaching.

Is there a person who has helped keep you sane as we've grown accustomed to heavy limitations on our lives?

The complications introduced by COVID-19 have complicated my own creative life in myriad ways. I miss the places where I know I can go and experience creative inspiration, where I can lose myself in imagination and art. But I am grateful for those artists who have found ways to be meaningfully productive during the last year. And if their work resonates with expressions of struggle and hope that ring true during lockdown, all the better.


For two singer songwriters I've been listening to this week, it's been a time to lean into gratitude — gratitude for the places they long to be, gratitude for the women they love who share these quarantine spaces with them.

Dave Von Bieker's new solo album Long For This World opens with "Places We Can't Live," a track that has me remembering U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name." It doesn't sound like that song — Von Bieker's pop style is more intimate — but the soulful lyrics will have you thinking about those places in the world you find yourself longing to go, those places that tune the instruments of your spirit.

And I know Dave Von Bieker well enough to know that we have similar lists of favorite places. So this record speaks to me directly. Von Bieker has grown as a songwriter in a community of creatives called The Glen Workshop, hosted by Image journal, over the last decade, just as I have grown as a writer, teacher, and speaker there. There's something about the light, the color, the weather, and the culture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and there is something special about the community of art and faith that Image has cultivated. I hear references to the The Glen Workshop throughout the album.

Here's what Von Bieker's website says about the song:

All of us have places we love to visit, but will never call home. These places may be exotic, wild and beautiful, but resistant to our roots. Von Bieker’s heart is spread among such places – the cool sandy shores of Vancouver and the stark high-desert of New Mexico. The deafening life of Manhattan and the graffitied walls of East Berlin. There are also smaller places – diners and bars that hold their appeal only so long as we visit just often enough. Lastly, there are emotional and spiritual places that we must visit to stay alive but would kill us if we stayed too long. Grief. Ecstasy. The valley and the mountain top. To live is to keep moving – always between these places we can’t live.

This song took on new resonance for Von Bieker during the Pandemic. Suddenly these places became impossible to visit except by memory, imagination and music.

https://youtu.be/noqxuHydaZg


Knathan Ryan, a Seattle singer-songwriter and bandleader I've been listening to for more than 20 years, has a new album — Where The End Begins — coming out on October 8 (just in time for me to listen on my birthday on the 9th).

And you'll hear more direct references to the pandemic in one of the first two singles he's sharing with the world at his Bandcamp site.

The first one is called "Quarantine Queen," and you can hear the studio version on Bandcamp here.

About the song, Ryan says,

My daughter Flannery (age 12 at the time) and I were goofing off on the back porch. She plays the cello and had it across her lap like a bass guitar. I started strumming this here song and she started that wicked bass line. The song came together in a few minutes — a tribute to my Jessie who was putting up with all our asses indoors during quarantine.

He, too, seems to be longing for the places where he and his loved ones have known flourishing:

Do you remember, once upon a time? When we used to go,
Where we wanted to go on the outside?
Or was it just a dream, I don't seem to remember anything?
Was it just a dream, a beautiful dream?

And now I'm locked inside this ol' house —
day and night, day and night.

But I don't really seem to mind,
with you by my side, by my side.

Here's a live solo performance from May 2020:

https://youtu.be/stwBE3IbxGc

I can't wait to hear the whole record in a few weeks.


Soderbergh is suddenly back on his 'A'-game with No Sudden Move

"This is going to be a punch."

The scene in which David Harbour looms, trembling, over his boss and delivers this line is one of those rare genre-movie moments in which I find myself wide awake, leaning forward, and loving the movies.

How many movies like this — populated with crooks on the streets, crooks in middle-class American families, crooks in the police force, and crooks as corporation heads, all chasing after money in a game of schemes and double-crosses — have we seen? Director Steven Soderbergh has made his fair share of them, from the stylish and sexy Out of Sight to the Oceans heist comedies (with their distinctive blent of glamour, smarts, and smart-assery). So it's a surprise and a delight to slip into the familiar murkiness of these moody color schemes, these moral quagmires, and find myself delighted by engaging characters, surprising scenarios, and inspired twists.

Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) wants to be an "ex-con," but he's still entangled in shadowy scheming, hoping to settle some scores. [Image from HBO Max trailer.]
There are quite a few moments like these peppering No Sudden Move's narrative: funny, suspenseful... complicated. Ed Solomon's screenplay is literary, challenging, wise, and ultimately quite satisfying — I think it's his best work. The busy web of storylines is cleverly spun, rewarding close attention. And the characters are sharply drawn. (Note: If I recall correctly, Solomon was my first filmmaker interview, way back in 2003, when he was promoting Levity, which remains the only feature film he's directed.)

The less said about this story the better — there's a lot of pleasure to be found in connecting many mysterious dots. Suffice it to say that it's 1954, and Jones (Brendan Fraser doing his best best Orson Welles) — rounds up three accomplished crooks who sniff at each other like dogs that can't get along. There's Curt (Don Cheadle) who is fresh out of prison and well aware that he's marked for death; there's Ronald (Benicio Del Toro), a man of dubious judgment — which is immediately clear as we meet him having an affair with a mob boss's wife (Julia Fox); and then there's Charley (Keiran Culkin), an aggressive, violent wildcard who takes the lead in a job so full of secrets that everybody's nervous.  They're tasked with holding hostage the family of Matt (David Harbour) until Matt retrieves an important document from the safe at his workplace. What is it? It'll be a while before we find out. And when we do, we see the truth dawning on the crooks that they've been drawn into deeper and more dangerous waters than they anticipated.

Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) has his eye on a fortune. Does he have enough lucky breaks left to get away with it? [Image from HBO Max trailer.]
I love stories like this — they remind us that there is no such thing as small-time crime. Everything is connected, and before you know it, your indiscretion — an affair, a theft, a lie — makes you vulnerable in ways that more ambitious evildoers can exploit. Soderbergh is wise to the value of noir — a genre that reminds us that nobody is truly innocent and there won't be any fairy-tale endings in this world, in this life. We're all complicit in some ways. And those who act on their conscience, as Matt's young son Matthew tries to do, may learn the hard way that deeds done with the best of intentions can make a bad situation worse.

But the greatest pleasure of this, as with most Soderbergh films, is the technical execution. Unless you're allergic to the fish-eye-lens style — and it's been bothering a lot of people, so you might be — you'll savor the light, the colors, the effortless grace of the camera. I did, anyway. Soderbergh has always seized upon any kind of narrative as an excuse to dance, and man, he still has the moves. After the modest and quirky pleasures of Logan Lucky's heist hi-jinx, No Sudden Move is evidence that he's still capable of taking a strong script and making something masterful from it.

Young Matthew (Noah Jupe) gets caught at home when his father (David Harbour, offscreen) gets a visit from armed crooks.

As usual, he seems to have a long line of Hollywood A-listers — aging veterans and fresher faces — eager to work with him, and, with smart casting by Carmen Cuba, he stirs up a spicy stew of stars. They find a cool, easygoing chemistry here, and the secret of their success is that nobody overreaches. ("Overreach," by the way, becomes a very important word in this film.) Every one of the big stars here dials it up to, oh, about 7 out of 10, and that keeps things from feeling too showy, too eager to please, too ambitious for awards. That carefully sustained tone gives the film a convincing cohesion. The ensemble is (with one exception) uniformly strong — Cheadle reveling in his meaty role (one of his greatest performances), Del Toro enjoying playing a fool who catches a few lucky breaks, Harbour leaning into his Desperate Harrison Ford voice, and Fraser making a major impression in what could have been a forgettable role. (He's better than ever. Glad to hear that Scorsese has given him a role in his next film.)

The only casting misstep comes late in the film. While it's clearly meant to be a sneaky surprise, it's also a doozy of a spell-breaker. (I think the last time a surprise appearance disrupted a film for me as severely as this came in the middle of Nolan's Interstellar.) I won't reveal who it is here, as you may find the choice inspired. But it knocked me sideways.

The storytelling stays strong all the way to the end, despite the stunt-casting stumble, bringing us to what strikes me as one of the more cynical conclusions I've seen in a long time. Brian Tallerico sums it up as "a story of men with ulterior motives, in which only the truly corrupt come out on top." Having said that, I have to admit that it also stings in its truthfulness. This is a picture a capitalism so corrupt that those at the top, like the almost-soulless restaurant millionaire in Michael Sarnoski's Pig, are well-aware of, and on some level disgusted with, their own miserable inhumanity, but they have no capacity for change. Everyone is compromising, and nobody sees a way out unless they're momentarily seduced by that fantasy that tells them to take the money and run.

The law, represented by Joe Finney (Jon Hamm), is on the case. Or is this officer just another opportunist? [Image from HBO Max trailer.]
I can't help but wonder what this movie would have felt like in a theater. The imagery certainly seems worthy of that grand canvas. But even watching it on HBO Max's streaming service, I think I can say with some confidence that this is substantial new volume in the library that includes masterpieces like Chinatown and gems like Cutter's Way that fly lower on the radar. And it comes unexpectedly from an artist who doesn't seem driven to make major, self-important statements or to draw attention to himself. Soderbergh seems to be playing for the love of the game, and playing it with patience and mastery. Patience isn't a word I often think of in describing a genre film, but this one takes the time it needs to tell a rich, panoramic story about America. Soderbergh, whose most famous American movie set up Julia Roberts' Erin Brockovich against cruel and corrupt corporations, seems to see almost all of human society as a giant web of con games. But he still believes in the possibility of occasional justice. And he's not so jaded as to give up on occasional flickers of grace. There's a sense in his storytelling by which those who hold to some sense of honor and conscience can show us a way toward redemption or at least some relief. Villains, meanwhile, rule the world, but in doing so they are damned to hells of their own making. Sounds like a God's-eye view of the world to me.

And I think No Sudden Move, like a bottle of Scotch that retails for $88, and like the great Don Cheadle himself, is going to age well. I can imagine bumping this up a half-star on an other viewing. We'll see.


If you had to pick five movies that were "formational," what would they be?

If you were asked to name five films that have been influential in shaping your faith in some way, what five films would you choose?

I found this question extremely challenging, and the list I ended up sharing in this Renovaré. conversation, hosted by Carolyn Arends, might have been different if you'd asked me the next day, or even an hour later. But that's because — as this website demonstrates — there have been so many films that have influenced my faith.

I am thrilled to share this video of my conversation with film scholar Catherine Barsotti, Renovaré president Chris Hall, and show host Carolyn Arends. Enjoy! And then, if you'd like, post the titles of the five films you would have talked about.

https://youtu.be/GgI_EPNFFN8


Leo Carax's Annette sparks a conversation with "Catholic Cinephile" Evan Cogswell

In the latest episode of the podcast Looking Closer with Jeffrey Overstreet, "Catholic Cinephile" Evan Cogswell (visit his blog and read his reviews here) makes an argument that Annette is a great musical and, in fact, his favorite film of the year so far.

https://youtu.be/l_EaNpL16SU

I'm skeptical going in, but Cogswell makes some strong points.

Caution: We do talk about most of the movie, so you might want to watch the film on Amazon Prime and then come back to hear our conversation about it.

UPDATE: Since we recorded this, Cogswell has published a full review of the film at CatholicCinephile.com.


Quo vadis, Aida? (2021)

On Wednesday of this week, as the headlines were overwhelmed with news of America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, and as we all began to realize the brutality — especially against women and girls — that would quickly be unleashed across that country, I did what many of us did: In the interest of learning, I read until I felt sick and helpless. And then, obligations and responsibilities pulled me away, heavy hearted, back into my routine.

Later, weary and given an occasion to rest, I decided to distract my brain with a movie. And, well, I sure picked a hell of a day to check out Quo vadis, Aida?, the best-reviewed film released in the U.S. in 2021.  Hell of a day? How about a hell of a month?! I don't know... maybe there hasn't been a "good moment" in the last five or six years for watching movies about events as horrifying as the genocide in Bosnia. How does it make any sense to give our attention to the dramatization of some other society's violent overthrow while we we are watching it happen right now, either elsewhere in the world or here, either swiftly or in slow motion?

Or, on the other hand, you could argue that this is the best time for us to watch Quo vadis, Aida? 

The calm before the storm: Srebrenica on the verge of an invasion that the U.N. seems incapable of stopping. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
Directed with grit and precision by Jasmila Žbanić, this film tells the story of Aida Selmanagić, a Bosnian schoolteacher-turned-translator in about as tight a spot as a translator can find herself. She's aiding Dutch agents of the United Nations in negotiations with the hostile Serbian army as they advance on the city of Srebrenica. Srebrenica has been marked as a safe zone, but does that mean anything? The more Aida attends to and relays the unfriendly words being exchanged, the more she sees how little power the "peacekeepers" really have, and her hopes for peaceful resolution quickly collapse. Then, as the temperature rises and as promises are broken, she begins to sense the jaws of genocide closing around her her neighbors, her friends, and even her husband Nihad (Izudin Bajrović) and sons Hamdija (Boris Ler) and Sejo (Dino Bajrović). If she can't save the thousands of panic-stricken people in her community, can she at least rescue a few?

That central question might sound very familiar. But although Quo vadis, Aida? is not as sweeping in its scope as Schindler's List, and though it lacks that film's conclusion contrived for emotional catharsis, this is for the Bosnian war what that landmark film is for the Holocaust. It just doesn't have names like Spielberg or Neeson or Fiennes to sell it — which is a shame, because as difficult as it is to take, it is an essential memorial and a reminder that, as Faulkner said, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."

Aida Selmanagić (Jasna Đuričić) is a translator in a tight spot. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
Putting the screws to the audience the way director Paul Greengrass in films like United 93 and Captain Phillips, Christine A. Maier's camera careens from wide-angle shots that give us the scope of the crisis to close-ups of faces so drawn with tension they seem likely to tear open. Actress Jasna Đuričić has one of those faces that is immediately convincing in these circumstances; she is tough, fierce, and quick-thinking, but you can see the horror like flames rising behind her eyes and burning through her capacity for wisdom and restraint. Đuričić carries the whole film on her shoulders, we follow Aida into crowds, up to fences, into long corridors in search of high-ranking officials, into meetings where she is not welcome, into possible hiding places for her family. This is a performance of such ferocious intensity that I hope Đuričić had good care around her after the film's production wrapped. How can it not have been a scarring experience?

And all the way through, we are never allowed to forget the physicality of bodies being pressed into a warehouse like sheep being driven into the paths and pens that contain them for slaughter. This is a movie you can smell, and that ratchets up the suspense and the terror of it. This is the most harrowing thing I've seen since, what... Son of Saul, perhaps? Actually, that's a pretty good reference point, in that it's about an actual hell of human history revealed through the eyes of one character. As we follow this desperate soul through jarring errands and investigations (edited expertly by Jaroslaw Kaminski, who edited Ida), we learn the Kafka-esque geography of a maze of so-called "diplomacy" that has no evident escape.

One of Aida's most challenging tasks is to translate announcements she doesn't believe herself to her people, whose are easy targets for the advancing Serbian army. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
As difficult as this movie is to watch, I'm glad I saw it this week. I needed the education. And I needed the reminder that the horror and despair I feel as I watch naive and self-obsessed Americans sabotage their own democracy is not unique. In fact, my life so far has been one of immense privilege. Empires are destroyed from the outside and from the inside all the time. And here's a movie to remind us of what it was like to be there, in the company of our neighbors, as they suffered a living nightmare, and as we read about it — or didn't — from just around the corner, and then went on with our days.

In 1995, when the events depicted in this film took place, I had just graduated from college, and I had just lost the most significant relationship of my life so far. I felt as if the world had turned upside down on me. So I wasn't paying much attention to the news. If I had been, then news of this single-day slaughter of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (mostly men and boys), and the subsequent rape of many women who were allowed to live, might have given me some sobering perspective.

I've read about this chapter of history since then, but the reality — the madness, the satanic hatefulness, the tactics clearly designed to imitate the murderous machinery of the Nazis — is a necessary subject for our attention, as even the most famously humane nations in the world can be so easily manipulated into carrying out horrors like this if the wrong people are given power. (The most difficult thing about my past few years as an American has been the discovery that many — perhaps most — American Christians would be easily duped into handing control of their country over to a fascist who, given the occasion, would slaughter populations without flinching. There are songs celebrating America I don't sing anymore, histories I was taught that I no longer believe, hopes I once had for America's future that now seem far from possible.)

Aida and her husband make a last, desperate plea for deliverance from the slaughter she knows will come. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
Maybe it would do us some good to be reminded, right now, of how feeble are the powers upon which we depend for any measure of peace, justice, and hope. Maybe we need to see how quickly basic human decency is callously dismissed when hateful human beings are granted power and weapons. Maybe we need to see what could become of populations right here, in our own neighborhoods, if we do not defend hard-won civil rights and continue to improve and diversify our democracy. This is the world. Same as it ever was.

As the end credits rolled, I found myself scrolling back through the film, searching for any glimmer of hope, any suggestion of a Holy Spirit hovering over these troubled waters. It is good to learn that General Ratko Mladić, the malevolent general who ordered the murders, is locked up for life, but my heart remains unconsoled. All I find is that groaning that the Scriptures describe, the lament of the Spirit that runs "too deep for words" — God's heart breaking as the gifts given to the God's children are sharpened into weapons of mass destruction. All I read in Aida's traumatized face is Christ's own echo of the Psalmist's despairing cry: "My God, why have you forsaken me?"

As Aida, Jasna Đuričić gives us an indelible image of grim determination, terror, and despair. [Image from the Curzon trailer.]
But then I read Justin Chang's Los Angeles Times review, and he highlighted a surprisingly obvious reference to the Scriptures, one that hadn't occurred to me:

The title’s invocation of the Latin phrase “quo vadis?” (“Where are you going?”) — a reference to the apostle Peter’s flight from crucifixion in Rome — here feels like a moral inquiry, both sympathetic and reproachful, directed at Aida’s conscience. Her concern for her family above all else is an entirely human reaction, to be expected from anyone in her shoes. But even as it acknowledges this, the movie ... keeps feeding us sidelong glimpses of those for whom Aida can do nothing.

I wonder what this film will inspire in audiences. Will it just seem like a cautionary tale that we suffer and then go back to work? Me, I'm reminded to heed the vision of Sheriff Bell at the conclusion of No Country for Old Men: Our ultimate hope lies in the dreams and visions of prophets and poets. We can't stop the destruction already being wrought; we can't undo the accelerating decline of the planet's delicate balance that has made human life possible. So, you who are doomed to die beside me, one way or another, as the wages of humankind's sins catch up with us... what do you believe in?

May the promises of God — ultimate justice, boundless mercy — prove true.


The Inner Language of Wolfwalkers - a guest post by Micah Rickard

Today at Looking Closer, I welcome a new guest reviewer, Micah Rickard.

I met Micah at a very special occasion a few years back — the awarding of the Denise Levertov Award by Image journal to the poet Marilyn Nelson. Talking about art, faith, and criticism during the reception there, we knew right away that we were kindred spirits. Then, he joined my Glen Workshop film seminar this summer and contributed to our conversations about a wide variety of films with expertise and wisdom. When he showed me a sample of his writing about film, I was eager to introduce him to you.


Robyn Goodfellowe is feisty, but her courage will take a hard hit when she runs into dangerous wolves and Mebh, a girl who runs with them. [Image from GKids trailer.]

Since I haven't published a formal review of Wolfwalkers in writing here — I've published two special podcast episodes instead, including a conversation with Tomm Moore, who co-directed the film with Ross Stewart — I'm glad to share some of Rickard's reflections on the film here.

So, without further ado, here is Micah Rickard:


Internal change is one of the trickiest things to express in movies.

When movies do try to convey nebulous concepts like inner transformation, they often turn to plot-based mechanics — a recent adept example being Inside Out’s use of emotions as characters to express the inner life of a young girl. Wolfwalkers, the new animated film from Ireland’s Cartoon Saloon (The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea), carves a markedly different path, eliding exposition and crafting a unique visual language to express its emotional and spiritual depths.

Wolfwalkers follows Robyn Goodfellowe, who has recently moved to Kilkenny with her father, Bill. Bill’s help has been enlisted by the Lord Protector, the English-appointed ruler of the town, whose aim is to tame the surrounding forest and, likewise, the Irish people. The Lord Protector’s rule — and religion — is law and order; anything wild is anathema and accursed. Bill is commanded to eradicate the wolves in the forest, and Robyn, eager to hunt, delves into the forest against her father’s wishes. There she encounters Mebh, a Wolfwalker: a human who can communicate with the wolves and who takes the form of a wolf when asleep.

The Christianity of Kilkenny's Lord Protector (right) in this film is a religion of coercive force that does harm to people and nature (wolves included). [Image from GKids trailer.]
This encounter powerfully challenges Robyn’s understanding of the world. The simplistic distinctions of innocent people and evil wolves, of morally ordered society and wild, wicked forest are uprooted. As she and Mebh become friends, Robyn must learn to bring both sides into harmony. Robyn’s encounter with the unexpected leads to a sudden transformation and a new form of being, which then guides her to unique growth and maturity.

To fully communicate these aspects, directors Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart and animators make use of shifting visual styles, finding a new, wordless language of expression. It is a language of both revelation and invitation, bringing unstated, inner truths out through artistry and inviting the audience inward to share these moments with Robyn and Mebh.

As they did in The Secret of Kells, Cartoon Saloon animators emphasize a contrast between the order of civilization and the wildness of nature. [Image from GKids trailer.]
This begins with the setting itself. The town of Kilkenny is a place of order. It carves a sharp rectangle in the landscape, all gridded streets and harsh, angular houses cast in somber grays and purples. In contrast, the forest is awash in soft light that illuminates winding paths and circular groves. What’s more, the flourishing color presses against any rigidity, even escaping the lines of the objects. The green of the trees reaches beyond its border into the sky, and piles of leaves project reddish hues greater than the leaves themselves.

This style distinguishes the forest as a liminal space: a space where the tangible and ambiguous merge, where the spiritual collides with the physical world. It is mystical, beautiful, and dangerous all at once, a wild place where one may find deep magic but may lose themselves in the process. These spaces can also be seen as echoes of encounters found in the Bible — from Mount Horeb to the Holy of Holies — places where God dwelt among his people in specific and mysterious ways. Through the contrasting style, Wolfwalkers creates a visual language of wonder, readying the audience for encounter — an encounter that brings its own sense of transformation.

After being bitten by Mebh, Robyn discovers that she herself has become a Wolfwalker. This new way of being comes with freeing abilities and unexpected dangers, as the townspeople — and even her father — try to kill this perceived threat.

The experience of the wolfwalkers is represented with a sensual stylistic shift. [Image from GKids trailer.]
But how to convey what it’s like to be transformed? Just as with any language, different forms are needed to communicate different concepts. In the scenes where the lupine Robyn runs through the forest, far faster and freer than she could in human form, the movie occasionally shifts to her point of view. The landscape darkens, leaving people and animals brightly lit, a trail of scent behind them as they move. As she runs, the background movement staggers a bit, the frames jittery, conveying the strangeness of her speed.

Again, the movie not only reveals that something is different about Robyn, but also brings us into feeling her transformation. We see with her new sight, we feel the foreign, free sense of movement she now has. We, along with her, experience the world around us differently. And here, too, we find spiritual echoes, even if distant. For we ourselves know what it is to be transformed by an encounter with a mysterious Other, to find that we are suddenly something new, no longer our old selves. And, like Robyn, we are called to learn how to put on the new self, to live in this transformed state.

One of the most interesting choices in the movie is to leave penciled arcs on many of the character drawings. The circles, remnants of early sketches, give a sense that these characters are not yet finished. It provides a visual cue to the journey of transformation that these characters are on. They are not so roughly sketched as to be vague — we still recognize and know them — but we feel that there’s still growth remaining for them.

Works-in-progress? Images often preserve some of the sketchbook qualities that brought them to life. [Image from GKids trailer.]
This is one of the most brilliant methods of expression in the movie: the animators convey maturation without turning to heavy handed explanation. We understand that Robyn, Mebh, and Bill are all still in the process of growth. And in them, if we search, we see a reflection of our own call to sanctification. In Christ, we are made new creations, saved by his generous grace. Yet we are still called to grow in right living, to increasingly live out this new, redeemed way of being. In the already but not yet, we ourselves bear the “sketch works” of what we will become.

Robyn’s story is not an explicitly Christian journey, but it is an expressly spiritual one. If we are attuned to its language, we can find much that is edifying within. While the Lord Protector is the most direct representative of religion, he clearly wields his Christianity for the aim of dominance and earthly power — a corrupted belief. In contrast, Wolfwalkers creates a unique, visual language to express Robyn’s spiritual arc from encounter to transformation, onward to growth.


Micah Rickard is an aerospace engineer and freelance writer living in Seattle. He enjoys writing about film and literature and how they orient our being-in-the-world. Micah's work has been published at Think ChristianEkstasis, and Fathom.

In Cowboys, a father and child head for the hills to escape the simplistic opinions of others

You know the old saying about where a road "paved with good intentions" can lead.

And it's true. I've watched passionate, purposeful, principled artists pour their lives and life savings into projects that, while meaningful for the artists, amounted to unwatchable results.

But it's not a binary proposition, of course: Good intentions can lead to the achievements of masterworks, too — and everything in between, including destinations like 'Mediocrity' and 'Fairly Decent.'

Director Anna Kerrigan's inspiring generosity of spirit is evident throughout her second feature film: Cowboys. And — good news for moviegoers — the result is a large-hearted movie, admirable for its ambitions and its embrace of its environmental contexts as more than just backdrops.

This is the first film I've seen about a trans child, one named Joe (Sasha Knight) whose mother Sally (Jillian Bell) strives with increasing desperation to force her child into the cultural norms for girls when it is very clear that there's something going on here more complicated than childish stubbornness or delusion. Joe isn't interested in Barbie dolls or jewelry or anything else that typical girls are interested in. Fair enough — a lot of girls aren't. But the fact is that Joe's objections go far beyond strong feelings about toys and accessories. Evident body parts are, according to Joe's fierce convictions, not nearly enough to resolve questions about gender identity. This whole "girl" thing is a mix-up. And her father, Troy (Steve Zahn) is willing to listen, to pay attention, and to believe.

Troy (Steve Zahn) strives to help his child Joe (Sasha Knight) escape a world that insists on binary categorization when it comes to gender. That means heading off into a "wild west" of empathy, faithfulness, and love.  [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
But here's the problem: The only one willing to show Joe love rather than trying to muscle a child into a simplistic mold — an act that all too often pushes a child down a path toward suicide — is an ex-con, one who is trying to stay on his carefully calibrated medication menu, trying to win back the woman he loves, and trying to do what is best for his child. That proves to be a lot to juggle. And once Troy impulsively takes Joe away from his mother and heads off on horseback into the Montana wilderness, with police and a determined police detective (Anne Dowd) on their trail, we know that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better... if they get better at all.

There's a strong concept here. By drawing a child who identifies as a boy out into the familiar genre trappings of misjudged outlaws on the run from police, Kerrigan gets to play with a variety of tropes. She provokes us with vivid reminders that guns, so typically appealing to boys, can be a dangerous obsession no matter who gets excited about them. She intrigues us by finding the right landscape for evoking a history of pioneers, cowboys, and crooks on the run while also openly challenging those cliches.

Sasha Knight plays Joe, born with enough physical evidence to be categorized as a girl by those who categorize human beings in simplistic binary terms. But — as countless people in every era, location, and culture have been persecuted for believing — human beings are more complicated than that, and such limiting definitions do real damage. [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
As Troy, Zahn finds some quieter, softer tones to play than we're accustomed to seeing from him — even though the movie seems to think we frequently need to see him do that high-anxiety meltdown thing he does do well and so often.

I appreciate that Kerrigan prioritizes casting a trans child actor to play a non-binary child character, and Sasha Knight is persuasive in conveying Joe's sense of alienation and their strong affection for their father Troy. But I wonder if making that a priority made it difficult to find a young actor with a real gift for portraying complexity. Knight's Joe is basically a small gallery of wounded expressions, which means that most of the character's idiosyncrasy and personality comes from costumes instead of behavior.

Steve Zahn gives a compelling performance as a father who dares to listen to, and love, his distraught child. [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
Jillian Bell manages to invest the character of Joe's mother Sally with some affecting distress when her child does not fit neatly into the gender roles that Sally's culture recognizes. And Ann Dowd does what she can with the unremarkable character of a beleaguered police detective. But the movie can't find much to do with either character. Sally's big scenes come in the context of shopping where she gets anxious about toys that Joe doesn't want and refuses to purchase those that Joe does.

Ultimately, Sally ends up being the one character bearing the full burden of representation for those who struggle to understand such complex aspects of human sexuality. And, yes, there are plenty of people in the world like Sally who refuse to accept anything but binary definitions when it comes to gender. I was brought up in Christian communities that argued that very thing. I eventually began to wrestle with the attitudes I was seeing and the opinions I was being conditioned to hold fast. Some thoughtful believers raised questions about Christ's example of favoring a spirit of Grace over the letter of the Law. Others dared to question whether the ruinous effects of Evil in the world might also extend to causing disharmony in an individual's physical, psychological, and spiritual chemistry, resulting in external details that contradicted the rest of a person's makeup. Don't the Scriptures remind us that human beings tend to "look at the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart"?

In the myriad ways that human beings are born into trouble, Joe's conundrum is a problem that calls for the kind of listening, empathy, compassionate counsel, and faithfulness that Christ models in the presence of outcasts and "exceptions" who have been harshly judged by the pious and the unimaginative. I believe that we are all born into bodies, hearts, and minds that are at war with each other — and this Joe's experience, as portrayed in Cowboys, is representative of one of the most difficult conflicts a human being can suffer because it finds them struggling not only to find peace with themselves but also peace with a hostile and condemning society that hates difference and complexity.

But, just as the complicated experiences of non-binary individuals require patient attention and understanding, so do those who judge them. We see Sally and only Sally causing trouble for everybody by insisting on narrow ideals, so it becomes too easy to judge her as merely obstinate and awful, someone who really needs to just "catch up with the enlightened." I appreciate that Kerrigan's script makes a few moves to suggest that there might be hope for Sally's growth and education, but I'm still uncomfortable with how the film suggests that such prejudices are just something that people need to get over. It rarely ever goes that way.

Jillian Bell plays Sally, whose desire to raise a daughter overrides her ability to recognize and attend to what is her child is actually experiencing. [Image from Samuel Goldwyn trailer.]
When right and wrong are sketched so starkly as they are here, a movie can't arrive at much in the way of insight. Thus, in order to engage us, Kerrigan has to cultivate suspense by steering her fugitives into conventionally episodic adventures about avoiding capture rather than taking on the harder job of a nuanced, detailed investigation of gender issues.

And the final scene strikes me as a bit of wishful thinking, a contrivance meant to make us feel hopeful... but it just rings false.

Still, I'm glad Cowboys exists. We need more movies like this and Barry Jenkins's Moonlight — films that are willing to take on complicated and discomforting questions about sexuality, that explore the struggles of young people who don't conform to the strict, binary definitions forced upon them. (I'd go so far as to say that, while Moonlight is the stronger film in many ways, Cowboy's Joe is better defined as a character here than Chiron is in Jenkins's film.)

And I'm pleased that Anna Kerrigan unfolds this story at a contemplative pace, with a strong appreciation of quiet, and with a meaningful appreciation of its Montana context.

Hopefully, we'll see stronger films soon that explore this territory, films that avoid easy scapegoats and villains, and that help us reach more meaningful conclusions than "Why are some people so narrow-minded and cruel?! Why can't we all just love everybody?!" We need to get into more productive explorations of causes, consequences, and possible, productive paths forward. Otherwise, it's just another Us-Versus-Them dynamic that makes the "enlightened" feel righteous without kindling questions in anyone who might be open to exploring them.


Here is the trailer, although I would caution you: This is one of those trailers that gives away important moments from the full span of the motion picture, so it should come with major spoiler warnings.

https://youtu.be/jKSxBCatIKA


In Jarmusch's world of bus drivers and poets, Paterson inherits the earth

During last week's online edition of The 2021 Glen Workshop, hosted by the literary arts journal Image, a group of seven thoughtful explorers joined me to study work by more than a dozen extraordinary filmmakers. It was a multi-genre adventure: Our tour included stops at Days of Heaven, The Secret of Kells, 35 Shots of Rum, Boys N the Hood, and Moonlight, to name only a few. Our goal? To discover how the places, the contexts, the environments of these films become a form of poetry — suggesting themes, influencing characters, creating vocabularies that we could read and learn from.

On Monday, we watched the first two films by Terrence Malick and saw how the natural world revealed the world as it is, a paradise lost, while also whispering rumors of glory.

On Tuesday, we focused on films about cities: Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, Jacques Tati's Playtime, Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, and Jim Jarmusch's Paterson.

Much to my surprise, several of my fellow adventurers hadn't seen Paterson yet.

I couldn't help but feel as if I had failed in some sacred trust. Paterson is five years old now, and I've been talking about it non-stop! Have I not done enough to spread the word about this movie that I love so much? I hurried to find a link to my written reflections on the film and discovered, to my dismay, that I haven't posted them here. Sure, I published some first impressions here at Looking Closer, but the more substantial piece I wrote for Christianity Today has sunk beneath the paywall there.

So I'm re-publishing it here now. I hope that it might be helpful as I seek to persuade my friends and readers to discover this richly rewarding film, in which I hear echoes of so many great films: Wings of Desire, Taxi Driver, and more. On the massive map of cinema, Paterson has become, for me, one of the most meaningful characters ... and one of the most meaningful places.


[The following article was originally published at Christianity Today on January 30, 2017.]

Paterson (Adam Driver) and wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) are a memorably creative couple full of poetry, art, and dreams.

To tell you about this movie, I need to tell you about my wife.

Sometimes, lying awake at night, side by side, Anne and I listen to our neighborhood. Traffic becomes the ocean, waves breaking on a beach. Wind in the evergreens is the roar of a crowd. Fire trucks: trumpeting elephants that charge from the circus tent of the fire station next door. Anne’s favorite is the rush of the midnight street sweeper. She has written poems about the driver’s rumbling reverie, out there “tracing the bones of the city.”

Anne’s attentiveness to poetry is what drew us together in the first place. I strive to learn from her compulsion. Like the angels in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, she carries empty journals with her into her days and fills them with glimpses of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Her patient watchfulness quiets my fears and helps me hear the still, small voice of the Spirit.

That’s why Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s meditative new comedy, feels so necessary, essential — even medicinal for me.

Paterson, a bus driver in the town that shares his name, lives a liturgy of strict routines and playful variations — just like poems do. 

Movies about poets are a hard sell. Perhaps I can get moviegoers’ attention by telling them that the movie’s lanky leading man, Adam Driver, is the same guy who threw spectacular tantrums as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. (He’s also onscreen this month as a brave and emaciated missionary in Martin Scorsese’s masterful Silence.) But here, Driver’s a driver, steering a bus around Paterson, New Jersey, the town that shares his name and wins his heart. His bus in non-articulated, but he’s as articulate as they come.

The movie’s heartbeat is our driver’s creative process — his line-by-line composition as he makes his introspective way about town. And if we surrender to the film’s meditative pace, we may find ourselves discovering suggestive implications in common sights along the route: a road sign that says “Prospect Street,” a building’s bold letters that say “Department of Recreation.” As in the poems of Paterson’s favorite poet, local legend William Carlos Williams, “so much depends upon” details that seem commonplace.

I’m not the first to notice this film’s formal resemblance to Groundhog Day (Variety’s Justin Chang got there first). But although every well-structured day looks alike—he begins each one with an alarm check, then puts on the same old uniform—he’s vigilant for variations on the form. Paterson proposes, “Hey, what if you woke up each morning and discovered, to your delight and astonishment, that it’s another day?!”

We see almost as much of the city reflected in the glass of Paterson's bus as we see passing by.

Jarmusch seems to take an almost perverse delight in teasing us with familiar plot possibilities, and then bypassing predictable turns. He’s too in love with his characters to reduce them to “delivery devices” for meaning. That’s been the strength of his films from the beginning. Down By Law, Broken Flowers, Coffee and Cigarettes, Only Lovers Left Alive — in these films, the people, in their exquisite idiosyncrasy, are the purpose.

He never knows what to expect when he comes home to his impulsive, dream-driven wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani). One moment she’s an aspiring country singer, the next a painter, the next the Cupcake Queen of Paterson. But there’s no crisis brewing. He just loves her. And so do we.

Then there are his mass-transit passengers, the familiar faces at his daily Happy Hour hangout, and unlikely pedestrian encounters — a high school girl waiting for a ride, a subwoofing carload of vaguely threatening punks, a dejected actor recently heartbroken. None of them exist to advance the plot; their value is in the moment to which Paterson closely attends.

Paterson engages in a battle of wills with Laura's dog Marvin — his nemesis.

Even the crowdpleasingly adorable bulldog, Marvin, who scowls jealously at Paterson as a rival for Laura’s attention, refuses to be leashed to any movie-dog conventions.

But not even the dog can steal the show from Driver, who makes Paterson one of the most interesting men I’ve encountered at the movies. His younger self, in uniform as a Marine, stares dutifully from a picture frame at home, assuring us that he’s ready for action. But what kind of action? As Steven Greydanus notes in his review at The National Catholic Register, Paterson’s “an unconventional if appealing icon of masculine virtue: the farthest thing from a Hollywood action hero — humble, quiet, poetic, committed, yet capable of heroism if necessary.” Think Taxi Driver reimagined by Fred Rogers.

That’s why Paterson is so refreshing. Our hero’s not watching for a way to save the day. He’s watchful because he’s interested. And his watchfulness makes him capable of action when it’s necessary. But even though his story is, in fact, headed to a moment of heroic decision, it arrives without fanfare, in a quiet exchange, a serendipitous gift for both the character and the audience. Call it an “a-ha!” moment. And it comes as a reward for Paterson’s willingness to be open, to listen, even at a most inconvenient time.

Even residents of Paterson might be surprised at the beauty of this city through Jim Jarmusch's eyes and Paterson's poetry.

That humble watchfulness, more than any Braveheart bravado, shows me the kind of man I want to be. These small but carefully calibrated expressions that he scribbles in his notebook make me want to love my world the way that he loves his. Paterson’s story isn’t about something he does for the world. It’s about the way that he is: an open satellite dish catching glory, his humble posture enabling him — and by virtue of our proximity, us — to receive such rich rewards as love, friendship, and the contentment of belonging.

In his meekness, he inherits the earth. Or at least the part that bears his name.


[I recommend Paterson to viewers 17 and up.]

Questions for Discussion

  1. Paterson is divided into chapters that begin each time he wakes up. How does this structure accentuate the film’s focus on poetry?
  2. Describe Paterson’s relationship with Laura. Are they a good match? How or why? What words would you use to describe the nature of their love for one another?
  3. How are Paterson and Laura different from other movie couples?
  4. How do people treat Paterson, and why do you think that is?
  5. How would you describe Paterson’s poetry? What does it reveal about him and the things that are important to him? How does the discipline of poetry influence his life and demeanor?
  6. When the crisis comes for Paterson, what challenge does it present for him? What might he learn from the experience?
  7. Is there anyone who resembles Paterson in your life — who seems unburdened by angst, contented with their work, and consistent in their demeanor? Are they appreciated for their work and reliability?
  8. Who are the most joyful characters in the film? What makes that joy possible for them?
  9. Look up a few of William Carlos Williams’s most beloved poems and read them aloud with each other. Discuss what you think they might be about, what their details suggest to you about the world.
  10. Have you ever kept a daily journal, either for poems or other creative expressions? How might that discipline change your own day-to-day routines?

Animator and author Ken Priebe talks about his three fantastic children's books in the latest Looking Closer podcast episode

In the latest episode of the podcast Looking Closer with Jeffrey Overstreet, Vancouver B.C. author, illustrator, animator, and educator Ken Priebe talks about his three outstanding children's books: Gnomes of the Cheese Forest, Let There Be Owls Everywhere, and The Ice Cream Truck at Midnight, all of which you can enjoy by ordering through the website of your favorite independent bookstore... or through the corporate giants, if you need to.

Author Ken Priebe is amazed that Overstreet has the strength to hold all three of his substantial storybooks at once!

Listen to our hour-long conversation here!

Priebe has been a friend and kindred spirit for many years, enthusing with me over the Muppets, favorite animated films, beloved children's books, and more. It's extremely rare that I meet anyone whose lifelong passions overlap so much with mine.

Ken Priebe reflects on his career of animation, illustration, and storytelling.

He's also a generous artist. He's surprised me with illustrations from time to time, like this one of one of a viscorclaw, one of the creepy wooden monsters from my own fantasy series The Auralia Thread:

A "viscorclaw" from The Auralia Thread, drawn by Ken Priebe.

Here are a couple of portraits he has done for my endeavors at Looking Closer:

It's been a goal of mine for many years to feature Ken Priebe at Looking Closer in a way that will inspire readers to discover his imagination for themselves. So listen in to this wide-ranging conversation about monsters, mayhem, and the life-saving power of play.