Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mormonism-- Can it be a Third World?

Today has been a day of reading for me. I caught up with a blog thread on the Chicago Reader website where Jonathan Rosenbaum criticizes a NY Times review of Opera Jawa, an Indonesian film that is part of the New Crowned Glory series produced in the Third World. The link to the fascinating back and forth between (someone I suppose is) Mike D'Angello, Matt Zoller Seitz, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Jeannette Catsoulis is here.

This led to thoughts I've had previously about what is going on in 'Third World' cinema, how I would desire that honesty and fearless filmmaking for our theological culture, but it's in opposition to the 'mainstream' that financially and socially any film culture strives for.

I have to reconsider the term 'mainstream,' because what I really mean is 'Classic Hollywood,' as it currently controls most every film market that I'm aware of regardless of the country.

I remember a promotional film that MK2 did about Kiarostami where Michel Ciment spoke about 'Third World' cinema, saying that the modern world believed that everything had already been expressed so its cinema relied only upon post-modernism and meta-cinema. Only places like Iran, Thailand, Taiwan, and the so-called New China has things to say that were worthwhile.

In view of how backward the rest of the United States considers our world view to be (note a recent Church statement on this), perhaps we shouldn't just rush to point out the similarities and "build on common interests" with our BRT-ing, but perhaps we should be take a lesson from the power and vitality of Third World cinema and tell our stories drenched with
Mormon peculiarity, ritual and doctrine.

I later read an article in the current issue of Cinema Scope where Micheal Sicinski places our present historically quite well while reviewing the films of Micheal Robinson (none of whose films I have had the pleasure of viewing). I cite a paragraph to entice and encourage all to read:

"Michael Robinson’s work is at the heart of this new shift. In fact, the development of his film work could be seen as a response to this precise problem: How can experimental cinema retain its connection to history, remaining cognizant of the various crises of representation, without lapsing into nihilism? Or, for that matter, how is it possible to harness filmic effects in order to produce feelings of dread, longing, or even spontaneous release, without veering into ridiculousness or self-importance? How can we accept the failure (for now) of the grand designs of modernity and still operate on a plane of sincerity, commitment, and belief?"

If nothing else, that last sentence should encourage some to read: sincerity, commitment and belief. If we forgot everything else but those three terms, I think our films would be in better shape.

The whole article can be found here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

On President Hinckley's Passing

We woke up to a phone call from a good friend of ours who is in charge of the Polish page our church publishes. She asked about the Perpetual Education Fund and its reach. She then said: "You know that the President died, don't you." I thought she meant that our Branch president had died. I don't know exactly how I figured it out, but eventually President Hinckley's name came out and I didn't know how to react. It was inevitable, but there were many times when it would have been so much less of a shock for me. I remembered that I didn't get to listen to his last talk. That was all I seemed to be concerned with for the longest time. I didn't get to hear him speak that last time. A man I never met but from whom I felt so much love.

Later in the day Ashley surprised us both when before one of Anna's meals while she said the prayer she was overcome with emotion while thanking God for his life and service. What a good wife, yes, but how many lives will feel his loss. Praise to the Man who communed with Jehovah.

I thought about the great leaders that I have known in my life and how they have inspired me, and simply because they were at the helm, more people got more things done and loved one another deeper. It was only then that I realized how powerful his leadership was. One of the greatest periods in the history of our Church has come to an end, and I'm glad to have been conscious of it.

What a great role he played even before his presidency. I wish that I could recount all the times I had witness born to me that this man was not alone in his call, and that God was with him. He was so strengthened from above.

I pray that President Monson will be so strengthened. I can't say what high hopes I have for the new first Presidency. It is a bit presumptuous to say that President Monson will be our new prophet, as that isn't guaranteed, but its a short hand from likelihood. A friend proposed that President Monson's approach will change when he is prophet, and I wonder, but I look forward to his presidency regardless. There are few shoes that will be harder to fill.

Our prayers are with him and President Hinckley's Family.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A few reasons why I think Jared Hess should be interested in Aki Kaurismäki's films

Why single out Jared Hess? Because we're all aware that he has significant skill and a fresh take on humor that caused a cultural tidal wave across the country (and I've seen "vote for Pedro" shirts in Eastern Europe). But its more than that.

Unfortunately, Jared Hess has become an icon for Mormon's, aspiring filmmakers or not. Hopefully we're not still under the illusion that one person makes a movie (we don't often talk about Jerusha or the producers), but Jared has come to stand for something than we all hope for: some kind of success without compromising "LDS values." There are red-flags all over what I've written thus far, but I hope you'll stay with me. I am not suggesting that "LDS values" are simple or universal, but his two features have been widely well received and lack obscenity, nudity or even allusion to it. A slap in the face to all claims of the rest of us sometimes less-gifted folk parading as abused moralists.

But I also think that humor is a tricky and ugly thing at times. A little self-revelation: I don't watch TV and I haven't really watched any for close to 8 years. Likewise, we weren't aloud to watch The Simpsons in my house growing up. One Thanksgiving break, Ashley and I decided to watch all of season 4 together. In the beginning, I didn't think I had laughed so hard, so consistently all my life. But then as we kept watching, episode after episode, I began to feel sick. It wasn't the laughter, because I had stopped laughing at that point. Neither was it the content of the jokes-- I think I got enough of what was going on and was sufficiently distanced to observe and appreciate. I began to realize that it was the form of the joke telling that affected me so centrally that I became physically sick. I had to stop the episodes to go to the bathroom and be sick. It was the pattern of joke-cut, joke-cut that wrenched me. You'd be surprised how different the editing styles are in television if you never watch it and only watch film. In my first exposure to TV editing there was no room to breathe. I couldn't laugh when I wanted to, I could only laugh when Matt Groening wanted me to. Not only was I losing on a "cease all your loud laughter" front, but I gave myself to be fully manipulated. And my organism revolted.

Abbas Kiarostami (the Iranian filmmaker, not the Finnish one yet) talks about "those" movies ' actually tak[ing] something away from you.' So I think about humor in very cautious terms. I thought that Wes Anderson was a step closer to what I think a more "Charitable Humor" would be, but on repeated viewings of The Royal Tenebaums I see the same joke-cut, joke-cut film grammar. I also feel the same sickness.

So when I recently saw Aki Kaurismäki's addition to "Ten Minutes Older: Trumpet" an ambitious omnibus dedicated to Chris Marker, among others, and a meditation on the passage of time, I was dazzled. Victor Erice's moved me to tears, and Werner Herzog's reached a profundity I haven't seen in any of his other films and one I'm not likely to forget for years to come, but Aki Kaurismäki's did something for humor that I hadn't know was possible: it encouraged me to laugh, but let me do so at my own pace and desire. Now this film, "Dogs Have No Hell," was only ten minutes, and season 4 was meant to be watched over months of time with commercial interruptions (an evil notion, if i might add), but I dare venture that watching this ten minutes for several hours straight would not make a visit to the toilet necessary. And I learned more about time, love, and interpersonal communication than I would from most mainstream features.

I think that Jared Hess has a gentleness in his filmmaking and in his world view to have him very susceptible to the mastery of Kaurismäki (in this article I will only be referring to Aki, as I have yet to see any of Miki's, his brother's, films).

But the two main reasons I make the comparison between these filmmakers are their use of characters and their use of actors.

One thing that stood out to me in the criticism surrounding both Napoleon and Nacho was that the director mocked his characters, notably less so in Nacho. I don't know that I completely agree with this notion, but it is for sure that they are not meant to be our ideals. Though I'm excited that they are what they are, much of the films humor come at the characters expense. This concerns me for reasons that are obvious to anyone who has gone through public schooling. Even when the movies laugh with the characters, they are still laughing at them. Or am I being too careless in this statement? I'm not completely sure on this, but it seems to me to be the case.

Kaurismäki, on the other hand (of whose films, truth be told, I've only seen four-- two feature and two short) who populates his films with humorously subtle, dead-pan characters, does not derive the film's humor from the characters, but from their situations. This is something that Jared Harris does better than Wes Anderson, I believe. But the difference is that I, for one, look up to Kaurismäki's characters, and pity their situations. Somehow I admire them and laugh at the film (an example is the genre-conscious medium shot- to- close-up movements. We laugh at the conventions, not the characters). But in both Napoleon and Nacho we either loathe or pity the characters as we laugh at them.

Which brings me to my final point: Kaurismäki requires dead-pan acting to accent the sheer precision of his meaning and rhythm. Though Jack Black refined Nacho, and I would guess Hess's filmmaking abilities, I found the picture struggling between to gifted and differing personalities. The contrast didn't bring harmony or counterpoint, but an unwanted muffle where both intentions were lessened because neither was subservient to the other. I think Hess would do better with the dead-pan that Kaurismäki requires of his actors.

Are my suggestions for a 'better cinema'? I don't think so. I don't know what that means, but I do believe that they look for a more 'Charitable' cinema. I have never met Jared Hess, but I respect him nd what he's done a great deal. But who am I to suggest this? It could be that Jared Hess is best friends with Kaurismäki, while I'm just dreaming about his 3 volume set that was just released in England in recent months. Whatever the case, I hope this will be some sort of spring board for the rest of us.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kayela added this:

This was listed as a comment to another post below, but I thought it worth reading and discussing, and thought more would read it here:

Thus religion would not be religion if it did not make some place for the free combinations of thought and activity, for play, for art, for all those things that renew the spirit worn down by the constraints of daily labour; the very causes that called religion into existence make it a necessity. Art is not simply an external ornament donned by the cult to conceal its excessively harsh and austere side; rather the cult has an aesthetic aspect in itself. Due to the well-known relationship between mythology and poetry, people sometimes wanted to place mythology outside religion; the truth is that there is poetry inherent in all religion.

This is another one from elementary forms of religious life.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

William Wyler

We've been watching a lot lately, and some of it has been very beneficial, but nothing has left so large an impression as Mrs. Miniver. I've heard Wyler so often placed in between
John Ford and Orson Welles and left lesser than both, but I was dazzled by his story-telling and his consistent visual inventiveness. There were a few shots that were bolder than anything I know of American cinema from that period, save perhaps Welles (but I just have such a hard time with the canted angles: what is he going for? Guess I should read the Rosenbaum book, or the Bogdanowicz book when I get back to the States). I don't think I've seen that kind of inventiveness in American genre pictures since, either. Anyway, thought I'd share.

Instances that challenge this are more than welcome.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The power of cinema: Robert Benton's "Feast of Love"

I have felt that some of my highmindedness might, in some way, have contributed to this blog's thus far near-nonexistent readership. Tonight Ashley and I returned from an outing with a fellow Fulbrighter and friend of ours, David Jackson. We saw Feast of Love, which was directed by Robert Benton. We had high hopes for the movie, since Robert Benton is such an important name in American film history. His Places in the Heart is a favorite among the BYU film crowds. And before we moved to Poland, I had recently read Richard Corliss's book on screenwriters that has a great deal to say about Robert Benton. In preparation for the movie, Ashley and I found a copy of The Human Stain from 2003. We enjoyed the movie despite the sometimes forced dialogue, the slight awkwardness in handling certain scenes, and the obvious racial absurdity that is at the narrative's core. Nonetheless all were disappointed by Feast of Love.

From the beginning, when the dialogue wasn't cliché, it was usually weak, unmotivated, or forced. More shocking than the dialogue was the gratuitous, oh so gratuitous, nudity. Perhaps the nudity would not have been so bad if we had known what motivated it. Likewise, the nudity served as a glaring reminder of how virtually without nuance each of these naked characters was. Not to mention the remaining dozen characters who likewise lacked nuance. The script told us who the characters were rather than showed us who they were, what their motivations were or why we should believe them at all.

Yet the movie, which was a meditation on the meaning and different manifestations of love, ended and, in some way, left me satisfied.

While we were in New York last fall, I had the opportunity to either go to a screening of Feast of Love, where Robert Benton would answer questions after, or a screening of My Brother's Wedding that Charles Burnett would introduce. I chose Charles Burnett, and every minute of this film reaffirmed that decision, but I still enjoyed seeing Morgan Freeman do the thing at the end of the movie that everyone knew he was going to do. His act was not profound, was not original, and was drenched in sentimentality. But I enjoyed it. I left the film thinking it would have been better to have read the screenplay than to have watched the movie, yet I don't believe that I would have enjoyed what happened if I had read it.

All I can do is attribute that to the power of cinema.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Films I think LDS filmmakers should be interested in:

This is a post I'll continue to add to and revise. These are not films that I recommend, as many of them have questionable material, but they are worthy of interest by filmmakers and scholars, I believe:

The 'body' films of David Cronenberg: Lately he's had a lot to say politically (and his last three are maybe his most mature), but doctrinally his focus on the body should remind us that we don't have all the answers and that there are ways to pose questions in art that are at the very core of our doctrine. What other religion has the ambivalence to the body? We try to forsake the flesh, but also regard it as central to our purpose in becoming like God as well as having families. The flesh is death, but it is also eternal lives. I haven't seen all of Cronenberg's films (his Crash for instance), but I think we should seriously consider them.

Junebug: An homage to Ozu set in the South and filled with religion, but never didactic. We could learn volumes, but it does have some nudity.

Yi Yi: So complex and completely expressive about an entire culture and its relation to the rest of Asia right now. But it is a parable about man's relation with the divine with more than middle-aged maturity.

Me and You and Everyone We Know: There is some sexual content involving people younger than 18, but I wasn't put off by it: it did no glorifying of the sexuality and the view was extremely tender. The film is an affirmation of how fragile relationships are. But the thing that makes me think of LDS filmmakers is how incredibly sincere and complex the characters are. Not only is it an amazing debut film but it is an amazing film. It straddles a line of being an "art film" while being so tender and real at times that I highly doubt it being anything but autobiographical. The film searches for meaning in small things and is concerned with ethics at its core . Unlike so many "indie" sundance-bred pictures, it has more on its mind than just psychology.

J.R. Jones' difficult and refreshing standard

I admit I have a degree of hero worship with Jonathan Rosenbaum, so it's interesting that this post contains a link to J.R. Jones' end of the year list of the best movies. He shares what he calls the Finding Forrester principle that I think we as LDS filmmakers could, and should, consider seriously.

Please share your thoughts.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Some shortcomings

I realize that I've never taken a film history class or studied it formally, but I have felt at certain times that I had a grasp on certain aspects. I've tried to watch a lot and read a lot and I feel I've succeeded to some degree. But being here, I have realized how many nations' cinemas I will never even be able to scratch the surface of. Kieslowski, Wajda, Zanussi were essentially the extent of my knowledge of Polish film, unless you count Polanski or Agnieszka Holland. There were a few odd Polish historical films I'd seen, but their merit came from the source Mickiewicz, I thought. Now I'm seeing that there are dozens of Wajda's films I have yet to see, let alone the dozens of other directors who are just as prolific as Wajda.

Anyway, I thought it fair to mention some gaping holes in my historical viewing (this, of course, isn't all I haven't seen — just the omissions I'm feeling most inadequate about):

I've wanted so badly to see more Mizoguchi, as virtually every opinion I respect on the subject raves about his "inexhaustibleness." But though I agree he's greater than Kurosawa in his artistry and depth, I would trade the weakest Ozu for my favorite Mizoguchi. Now, I've only seen 5, and I realize that I probably just don't have the context. I fantasize about having screenings from the earliest surviving prints (but I don't speak Japanese, and probably never will), to Street of Shame. I have ordered the four films MoC (region 2) has just released, however, and I look forward to the experience and challenge.

I could say something very similar about Jean Renoir. But I'm working on it. Perhaps I need a different place to start. I've only seen five, but all but one I've seen more than once. I just think there's more there than I realize.

I also realize I have seen so very little from 30s and 40s Hollywood. I've read a lot, but I haven't seen enough to feel confident.

I also haven't seen anything from Bela Tarr.

My viewing of virtually all Italian cinema is spotty.

I'd like to see Wong Kar-Wai's work from the start to now.

I've only seen 4 of Hou's films. and Cafe Lumiere had Polish subtitles.

I haven't seen anything by Edward Yang earlier than Yi Yi

I wonder what I'm missing that other than their first films (400 blows and Who's That Knocking at my Door?... well, and Taxi Driver) I don't get either Truffaut or Scorcese. And most often I find them boring. Especially when I find Tsai Ming-Liang invigorating and I'm often on the edge of my seat even when he's repleat with references to Truffaut.

I want to see more Rivette. The four I have seen seem to be the most mature works of the New Wave to me. I seriously thought of flying to Chicago when Out 1 and Spectre were playing this year.

I know very little about Chinese cinema, comparatively, and I don't understand why critics seem to dismiss Zhang Yimou so readily. I know nothing about pre-1980 Chinese cinema.

I also know hardly anything about Hong Kong cinema.

Anyway, I guess I just wanted to make it clear where I'm coming from currently.

Feel free to share what movies you haven't seen that you wish you had.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

A Priori assumptions

I guess I should clarify a few things that I may have taken for granted. There are assumptions that I've made, which I assumed would not be debatable, but I realize I should also bring the following to the discussion:

1. That a discussion of what is "essentially LDS" will be beneficial to those who are creating cultural and artistic output both inside and outside of the Church's official channels (i.e. that the films at the conference center and movies made outside the church's facilities by members might be stronger and/or more thoughtful if their makers took part in some kind of dialogue on the implications — doctrinal and cultural — of their form and content).

2. That this same discussion will be likewise beneficial for and greatly benefited by participation of Latter-day Saints (and, therefore, hopefully thoughtful) consumers as well as intellectuals from all fields, not just cinema or media studies.

3. That this discussion acknowledges both content and form as intrinsically linked to the philosophies and ideologies they propagate, denounce, address, etc. (i.e. that both what a movie shows or what story or lack of a story it is telling is just as important as the form in which it tells that story or lack thereof). This also suggests that cinema which does not explicitly discuss LDS doctrine may still be viewed/scrutinized in terms of the discussion this author hopes will take place.

4. That escapism is not in harmony with LDS thought. As far as a Latter-day doctrine is concerned, the Word of Wisdom (an abstinence from addictive and harmful substances outlined by revelation as well as a respect for the body) and the Law of Chastity by extension pertain especially to film construction: Both laws forbid behaviors that substitute dealing with life's difficulties. In the opinion of this author, promiscuity, infidelity, drunkenness, as well as any form of addiction, weaken us spiritually and socially in the same way escapist cinema does. "Escapist" could be further expounded upon, but in short it is anything which encourages retreat into "the world of the film" rather than confronting and challenging, communing with and celebrating with its audience. This is a complex issue, both acknowledging that everyone needs some kind of release from tense situations and thinking of 1 Cor 10:13. However, as a general guideline, escapism does not lead to godliness.

5. That such a discussion's goal is NOT to come to any kind of consensus, but to provoke thought and discourse, to challenge and refine. While scripture teaches that Zion is "of one heart and one mind," unity, if brought about before the needed study and work, leads to passivity and a compromise of values. However, this can be accomplished without contention.

6. That such a discussion MUST take place outside of a Church context, though it is designed for those who belong to its ranks. The Church cannot, officially or unofficially, endorse such a discussion. The Church's focus, in this ever more PR-run present, has rightfully turned to correlation committees rather than "by lines." This is at odds with the nature of such a discussion as well as the subject in many ways. The Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price, Isaiah, and John's two narrative books are unique among narrative-based scripture in that they have explicit authorship. However, outside of General Conference, this kind of personal storytelling must be discouraged within the Church.

7. That the LDS culture is in need of personal films from LDS filmmakers. This need stems from a desire to see LDS life portrayed on screen as well as a desire and need to have discussions (since the best films are a conversation between the audience and the film) about the morality perceptions and culture of the Latter-day Saints. It is this author's belief that these goals can best be brought about by strong artistic voices strengthened and formed by Christian ideologies.

8. That the films created and produced by the church are not and should not be considered scripture, no more than the architecture of temples and meeting houses should be considered scripture. The church has found a style and functionality that fits its aesthetics and purposes for its buildings, but nowhere is the suggestion that all Church architects should design all their buildings in that manner. It is also worth noting that the Church's architecture varies from country to country and culture to culture—that even its official buildings change according to the surroundings and the members.

9. That the films produced by the Church should be scrutinized and analyzed. If the goal in this is fault-finding, it is obviously wayward and of evil origins. But if the goal it to learn from the first and earliest attempts and Church films, then, again, this author's hope is that such scrutiny will be done in the spirit of Moroni's words: "Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been. (Mormon 9:31)"

Likewise it is this author's opinion that as the architects for the Salt Lake Temple studied European architecture as an influence (ironically one secondary source for that information is Mountain of the Lord), it occurs to this author that the production of Church films could benefit from a greater acquaintance with world cinema and cinema history. Furthermore, supposing that some architectural style that was suggestive of hedonism, atheism, or commercialism, would definitely NOT be the suggested style to build temples in, we should also assume the same for film style. If any of these things apply to the Church's films, or could apply to future projects, it is this author's suggestion to discuss such things, again, in the spirit of Moroni's words cited above.

10. That as the Church has three goals (to proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, redeem the dead), likewise we should realize that not every film has the same goal. It is my opinion that the films at the conference center fail as a means to perfect the saints. However in discussion it is important to remember that the goals of those films are to proclaim the gospel and should be held to that rubric first and foremost.

11. That there is a distinct difference, though the two are often connected, between what is spiritual and what is emotional. A tear-jerker may toy with, even manipulate emotions, but it may have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus Christ or His Spirit. Emotions may be manipulated, but if we agree with Nephi and Joseph Smith, the Holy Spirit is Deity and has a divine will which not only should not but cannot be controlled. Something should not be considered "spiritual" because it is emotional. It is also this author's opinion that "sparseness" is superior to "abundance," in allowing for the Spirit of God to take a role in any given cinema experience. A "Christian" model would be in opposition to a commercial model, where cinematic tools replace the Spirit of God rather than "making room" for that Spirit.