Saturday, July 31, 2010

Arts and Crafts, and a French Guy

Art is the ingenuity of the message, and craft is the clarity of its expression. I've always tried to be more of an artist than a craftsman. The reason is simple. I'm lazy. Rather than admit that, though, what I'm more likely to preach at you is that art, or rather, Art, "should not be corrupted by technical details. Purity and honesty of vision is above parameters." Honestly, though, I'm full of crap. You shouldn't believe me when my voice takes on that transcendent tone. The truth is that art is never fully actualized, never sublime, until its practitioner is sufficiently trained in her craft. Elegance, balance, tone, voice—all of these expressions require skill to be effectively communicated. Craft, however, rarely needs art.

Consider, say, any film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He's the madman who made the beautiful movies Delicatessen, City of Lost Children, and Amélie, just to name a few. His movies are brilliant and original. Every aspect of the work conveys an overall style discernable at a glance. That is his stamp; his craft. The artistry comes from another place. His stories are imaginative and characters surprising. There is always something unusual but charming to his films. Delicatessen, for example, is a post-apocalyptic and romantic story where society functions with an economy of old corn kernels and stale beans while hapless renters of a particular flat tend to find themselves in the butcher's shop, but on the wrong side of the display case. This creepy story of cannibalism and love is disarmingly cute. The lighting, the costumes, the editing are the craft. The dissonance and its resolution is the art. This point is further made on the distinctive face of Dominique Pinon, the lead actor in a cast of mildly distorted individuals. Jeunet has a liking for exaggerated physical features on a person, like a particularly broad mouth, long nose, or stout body; even better if all three are on one guy. What might appear off-putting in any other context becomes adorable when Jeunet creates the scene for it.

My point is that a hallmark of artistry is that the viewer is taken by surprise. This isn't to say that jumping out and scaring you is necessarily artistic, of course. It's not quite that simple. What I mean is that oftentimes in art, elements which shouldn't work together combine to make something better than the individual parts would suggest. This can be easily seen by the efforts of certain filmmakers, but the same is true for great musicians, painters, dancers, etc. Bach is artistic because of the surprising ways that he interprets a theme. He, and Jeunet, and Escher, and all the rest of the people I consider master artists, are also master craftsmen. They have to be. Having a great idea is one thing, but if it's packaged poorly and lacks tireless attention to detail, then it's only a good idea poorly executed.

Jeunet's films work not because he has great ideas, but because he is technically adept. Perhaps his subjects are bizarre, his color choices unique, and his camera angles surprising, but they are always chosen with precision. For that reason the story is elevated from interesting to fascinating. We are sucked into his world, and we don't really mind that we may end up on the dinner menu.

To put it simply, craft equals technical ability. It is learned by rote and developed through practice. It is the instrument used to communicate a message to as many people as possible. Let's compare it to quilting. If you can stitch a good one, and you can keep a person warm, that is craft. If you have a good eye for colors that work well together, then you have made a warm covering that's also pleasant to look at. This is, well, crafty. If you can do all of that, but make your high-quality quilt in the shape of a giraffe, that is art. On the other hand, cut a ratty old piece of denim into the vague silhouette of an animal, and it may be art, but who cares?

This gets to the proof of my argument that art needs craft but craft does not need art. Most cinema, as most "art", is simply not good. But hundreds of thousands of people line up to see new releases of the same old stories every weekend. The reason is that if technical skill is in place then whatever Tom Cruise happens to blow up will make us feel good. That's his job. But a truly creative film with no technical expertise will not make us feel anything very deeply. Frustration, maybe—or indignation, but not much else. We will either decide to hate the attempt for its conceit, or love for it for its intellectual challenge. Either way, we are not exactly moved.

As I said, craft is what makes a message clear. Even if that message is the same thing I've heard thousands of times. The phrase, "I love you," has meaning so long as I believe you when you say it. But if you express your feelings in German, I won't have any idea what you're talking about, and I'll probably think you're angry at me. Great film, like all great Art, requires an original perspective in a comprehensible format. It requires Art and Craft. -dg

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood

I have a queer fascination with Ridley Scott, and I was quietly pleased to find out I would be required to see this movie. I can never entirely dismiss the man who made Blade Runner, not that he's ever done anything nearly as fascinating since then. Most of the credit for that one probably went to the screenwriters and Rutger Hauer. But even still, Scott is the one who brought it together, and he's the one who can take otherwise mediocre or maudlin screenplays and turn them into something moving in at least one formidable respect. Take, for example, the surprising passion of the blockbuster Alien, or the pitch-perfect pacing of Matchstick Men, or the philosophical depth of Gladiator. In most other hands, these films would have been hard to believe, let alone enjoy. But Scott can make even Demi freaking Moore more interesting than she deserves to be (G.I. Jane, of course).

All of the usual elements were in place for an average adaptation of Robin Hood, and for the most part that's what we got. The film is shallow, predictable, forced, and in at least one respect, formidable.

It is shallow because except for Marion Loxley and her Father-in-Law, Sir Walter Loxley, no character gets any time to really develop and make us care about him. The enemies (supposedly dark and sinister King John or assumedly deplorable Sheriff of Nottingham) are equally as sympathetic as the main character himself. I find myself unconcerned over the fate of any of them right when I should be cheering for the hero and despising the antagonists.

It is predictable because, well, because you already know how this sentence will end.

It is forced because in the moments we are to be most moved, the dialog becomes a campy, Mel Gibsonian tribute to democracy that is so out of step with the times as to be almost as funny as The Life of Brian. Robin Hood basically quotes the first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, but in a hokey, colloquial way that we are supposed to feel aroused by. He's over 600 years early for any of that sentiment. The idea of "liberty and justice for all" would have made as much sense to these people as socialism does to our modern political sensibilities. There were no small land owners at the time, and while it was certainly fine to loath your king, or even go to war against him, you simply wanted to replace him with a new monarch who would be more generous for at least one generation.

When Scott made Gladiator, he understood that historical accuracy could be sacrificed so long as the story bore a deeper, more important message. His use of classical romance in that film made for a picture that was viscerally pleasant, but with a high-brow nod to the stoics, it was equally intellectual. Robin Hood is just as heroic as Gladiator. It has the crucial elements; your fall from—and return to—grace. But there's no braininess to this movie and it means that all I have left is a collection of killer battle sequences and jaw-dropping cinematography. But as it turns out, these are good enough for one good viewing.

The settings in this picture were sublime. I can't think of any other epic reconstructions of the European Feudal Age that make such a convincing backdrop. Large elements, like the Tower of London, are remade in painstaking detail. Small elements were equally as moving. I remember being distracted from a bit of dialog between Robin and Marion when in the background an old man with a missing leg trundled along the path behind them. He was completely unnecessary to the story, but exactly what made this universe so real. Truly inspired. In fact, despite all the complaints I've made, I had no notion of the film's length. That's how engrossing this world was. It was like I could actually smell the pigs, feel the wind from the sea, and sweat with the patrons in the bar. The overall color scheme was plain old dark, and perfect for what light would have been available at the time. Middle-ages films regularly over-light everything, as if these people weren't living in windowless, stone fortresses or shuddered, thatch-roofed shacks. (The fire, mostly computer generated, could have been a bit more believable, but I was even impressed with its digital rendering.) For a story that lacked any other surprises, the scenery was unexpected enough. Without belaboring the point, the same fine hand was lent to the battles, which worked for me. If you're cut from a similar cloth, you'll probably enjoy the film, like I said, at least once.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Jesus Camp

The experience of watching Jesus Camp is not unlike that of looking into a mirror—a magic mirror that shows you your beliefs rather than your visage. It’s a film about too serious children, highly charged sermons, being “Born Again”, and people who just never stop talking about their religion. It’s a film about the eccentricities of the Evangelicals, and the people who fear them. It is documentation of unashamed indoctrination. Your own life experience will determine how the movie plays out for you.
The main player in this real-life drama is Pastor Becky Fischer, a loud and imposing woman who takes her greatest joy in molding the minds of 5 to 15 year olds. In one scene she is able to make an entire congregation of young people cry in shame at the way that they act “one way in church and then another way at school with [their] friends.”  The kids all come forth to be washed clean, which is to say that she pours small amounts of bottled water into their outstretched, pleading hands. An assistant stands by with each new bottle uncapped and ready to dribble. After the scrubbing each child goes back to her pew and wails.
This fodder for Fischer’s church is characterized specifically by two children. One, Levi, is a precocious boy with a disturbing rat tail hair-do who seems willing to climb every mountain in order to spread the word. He wants to save the world, or he wants to impress the adults around him. He engages in high-minded dialog, coached by his mother, about how global-warming and evolution are impossible and how creation is the only explanation for humanity. He is very charming and outspoken, and is given an opportunity to preach to the congregation as a guest pastor at one point in the film. His sermon follows along the same basic lines of what’s been said by the adults. We are a special generation. The world is a big mess. It’s our job to fix it. Amen.
The other child under scrutiny is a girl a bit younger than Levi, maybe 9 or 10, who is even more zealous. She is the one who feels “moved by God” to approach strangers and ask them, “If you died today, do you know where you would go?” If they answer “heaven”, her response is a skeptical, “Really? Are you sure?” She is one of the most gullible and audacious children I’ve ever seen, with absolutely no temptation to stray from her pious lifestyle. She explains that she has no fear of reprisal from other children in the community, because it is God who will judge her. She goes out of her way to put her faith in between herself and anyone who might want to talk to her. She speaks wistfully of martyrdom, and when she bowls, she prays over her ball, commanding it in Jesus’ name to get a strike. The gutter balls don’t challenge her faith, though.
The counterpoint to these three outspoken fundamentalists in the film belongs to Air America radio host Mike Papantonio. He is a Methodist and a lawyer and a critic of the “Religious Right”. The film includes snippets of his radio show every so often to offer a strikingly different view from the others. Papantonio rails against the ambitions of the Evangelicals, criticizing everything from their political ambitions to their designs on their own children. The film ends with an honest and argumentative conversation between Papantonio and Pastor Fischer, the latter of which readily admits to practicing indoctrination. The excuse Fischer uses for her treatment of kids is that if she doesn’t indoctrinate them, someone else will. She believes with the conviction of the paranoid that an evil world of spiritual zombies is hungry for the kids.  It is her job to eat their brains before anyone else can.
The buffoonery of the film is provided by a guest appearance of Ted Haggard. This is Ted Haggard back when he was still uncertain about his sexuality, blowing boys and doing blow on a regular basis while preaching against the sins of drugs and homosexuality. You have to watch out for these white men in power who go further than anyone else in their anti-gay sentiments. They seem to continually fulfill the stereotype of the sexually inverted homophobe. At any rate, knowing the downfall of Haggard while watching this 2006 film gives you a sense of vindication or embarrassment, depending on your politics.
The viewer really is left with his own mind when deciding what he thinks of the movie. Sure, the filmmakers use creepy music while the congregation is “speaking in tongues.” The editing could be seen as making the worst of out Haggard’s comments. The pastor seems vain and egotistical if judged by her fastidious hair treatment and comments like, “I’m ready for the cover of Rolling Stones.” But these are the impressions that I get, and I’m a crazy tax-and-spend pinko liberal. But what about the choir? What do Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular think?
If you dig a little you find out that the film tells every sector of America something they already believe. Moderate Christians cringe at the way these people make them look. Evangelicals see the film as a powerful tool in showing what a kick-ass job their doing. And Ted Haggard sees the film as a direct attack on his own person. Well, can’t blame him for that, as quoting Ted Haggard on anything is, in a way, a direct attack on his own opinions.
I really like the film. As far as a documentary goes, it’s one of the less contrived versions of the genre this side of National Geographic. Without going to the extremes of directors like Michael Moore and whoever made “Michael Moore Hates America”, this movie does the job of maintaining an apparent air of impartiality as it exposes this highly sensitive and charged subject. As we then speak about the film it is impossible to hide our own political opinions and still maintain any sense of humanity. You can’t watch this movie without feeling some spiritual or political stirring, a connection to something therein, and repulsion to its doppelganger.
It would be easy to blame the filmmakers as having a political bias going into this picture. I have read and watched enough post-film media to be convinced that they were staying as neutral as possible, while still letting the movie be edgy. Every character in the documentary is energized and opinionated and loud. There is very little need for the ladies who made the film, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, to put any further drama into the compilation of scenes. The film was just the beginning of the debate, though. Ever since, people have come out to argue about it, each side using it as a touchstone for their own personal belief. Really, this is an example of what documentary film should be.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Malcolm X

I have no idea how accurate a portrayal Spike Lee’s Malcolm X is, so I can only share my thoughts on the merit of the character as portrayed in the film. I suppose this article should really just be my thoughts on the film itself, but the story is so interesting that I can’t help but just focus on that. Many others will have written about the technical aspects of the film. My meager efforts will be bent only toward Malcolm X himself, or at least, the story of the man as portrayed in this picture.
The film follows the arc of X’s life from his unfortunate childhood to his days as an indolent and criminal youth to his years in prison and finally to his life as a minister for the Nation of Islam. The boy who grows up smoking, drinking, using drugs, and engaging in organized crime becomes converted to a faith in black supremacy through the efforts of one fellow inmate, an apostle of Elijah Muhammad.
Elijah Muhammad was the second leader of the Nation of Islam, an American Muslim offshoot founded in 1930. He reigned for 45 years, preaching a doctrine recognized by no other Islam sect. The film exposes a large number of the religion’s articles of faith, which in large part are bizarre at best and violently racist at worst. Malcolm Little finds himself easily convinced of the white race being comprised fully of devils, and other such nonsense.
The main thrust of the religion, however, is one of empowerment. Even if the faith itself is strange, the message is benign. Black people should put aside all forms of addiction, own the businesses in their communities, and ensure their own education. Eventually X would convert to Sunni Islam and change his mind about racial equality. He would no longer preach a message of segregation, but turn to a more cooperative effort in his last days. There is an interesting argument to made, however, for the extreme views of his original church. It’s entirely possible that without Malcolm X, there would have been no sense of righteous indignation amongst the African American community. Though other Black leaders had attempted to change the state of racism in America, it was Malcolm X who made white people begin to feel afraid. While that fear may no longer be useful, it was an important stage in the drama of segregated America.
This opinion was hard won. Early in the film I resented the message of the Nation of Islam on general principle. But as I listened to Malcolm X in his early sermons, when the main thrust of his message is Black empowerment, I can’t help but agree with him on most of his points. It’s only later in his career when he preaches full segregation that I find myself turned off by his sermons. Even the controversial “Chickens coming home to roost” quote (his response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy) makes a sad sort of sense. In the end, it was the best quote he ever made, because it led to his separation from the Nation of Islam.
Long before this, however, X gives a speech to an all-white university classroom. He denies the common perception that he hates whites. He talks about how his communities need to get off drugs and take care of their families. That is how you gain respect, he says. Any man can make a baby, but it takes discipline and commitment to truly be a father. It means taking care of your family. This is his message. Who can argue with that?
According to the script of the film, the day of the assassination seems foreordained and unavoidable.  X and his family have been terrorized for weeks up until this point by members of the Nation of Islam. He has recently left the organization and followed his own path. He has taken the trip to Mecca, he has prayed with men of all colors, and he has changed his mind about the fundamental principles of his faith. He has sworn off his resentments toward both Christian black leaders and sympathetic Whites. He has become an even more potent message for change, as he has undergone so much change himself, and found an even deeper conviction to truth and justice. His talent as a speaker and organizer can more fully impact the nation now that he has embraced the concept of integration and brotherly love. This is, of course, when civilizations tend to kill a man.
The film claims that Malcolm X knew that he was walking to his death that day. Despite the warnings, he decided to go on with a regularly scheduled sermon. He told his security staff not to search the members of the congregation as they entered the temple. He told his personal guard to leave him and run petty errands. He made apologies, embraced his friends, and walked out to the podium from which he would be shot once by a shotgun in the chest, and 16 times by two handguns.
Just before this happens, when he was alone with his personal guard and just before sending him off to make an unnecessary phone call, X says, “It is a time for martyrs.” What Spike Lee is telling us is that rather than maintain strict security, rather than go into hiding, rather than take any practical measure to protect himself, Malcolm X willingly if not eagerly walked into his own death. I believe that we’re supposed to admire his strength and courage. But I have never really bought into the martyr thing. It’s possible that this death amplified his message more than old age and natural causes could have. But then again, how clear is his belief to us today?
I remember the fashion craze which led up to the release of this film. The few Blacks, many of the Polynesians, and thousands of White kids came to school decked out in baseball caps and t-shirts emblazoned with the largest capital X the fabric could fit. I suppose some of them listened to Public Enemy, but I doubt, many of them read the autobiography. Once the movie was released, most of that gear went away. Did the explicit, tangible expression of X’s life as portrayed by Lee stop the X gear? Was his message so complex that kids no longer felt comfortable attempting to make it marketable? Or was the fact that Ebert called it one of the best movies of the decade just too much adult acceptance for hip teenagers to bear?
But I was talking about his martyrdom. Perhaps it will cause more children will learn about the faith he held for equality, and the ability he showed of a black man to overcome an exceedingly difficult upbringing. His father had been killed by the KKK, after all, and his brothers and sisters were all taken from the mother by a heartless social services system. There is indeed a powerful lesson in Malcolm X’s life. Perhaps the manner of death is just as important.
But here’s my problem with it. If he really did know what he was walking into, and if his six young daughters really were sitting in the front row, and he could have avoided it, how does his decision square with his definition of being a father? The man isn’t perfect, for sure. And it’s easy to judge his decisions sitting here all white and male in the Salt Lake exurbs of 2010.  I don’t take any of my thoughts here too seriously, because, as I mentioned, all of this information comes from a film, and movies always lie. In the end, the opinion I have is that the film is well-made, Denzel Washington, along with the rest of the cast, is remarkable, and as for Malcolm X, I do admire his strength and courage, even as he left his daughters behind. In the end, I suppose I can only say that he was clearly trying to do one last good thing.