Another long hiatus from this site, which I've felt moved to end because of the most difficult review I've ever had to write - Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ. Inspired by D.K. Holm's multi-part musings on Kill Bill, Vol 1, I'm going to have to break up my thoughts on the film into three or four discreet entries, the first of which is about the charges of anti-Semitism brought against the film.
The next will probably be about Judas, Pilate and Satan, three of the principal characters surrounding Jim Caviezel's curiously cypher-like Christ. Another will be on Mary, played with beautiful restraint by Maia Morgenstern, and the final will probably be an attempt to come to grips with the violence with which Gibson tells his story, the part of the film that I - and most of the critics I've read - have had the most trouble dealing with.
I'm not sure how many people are still reading this site after my long vacations from posting, but for those who are - watch this space. And thank you.
#0148 - I HAVE WRITTEN WHAT I HAVE WRITTEN (Gibsons's Passion, part one) - I have never agonized over a movie review like the one I finished yesterday. I've talked with my wife and had an e-mail exchange with our priest and ranted aloud to everyone at work and I still don't think I've been able to get to the root of what disturbed me so much about Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ.
My review, which my editors at the paper ran without complaint despite it being twice the length of most of our film reviews, was barely adequate, I think, in describing the real turmoil I felt sitting through a critic's screening Monday morning. I've only read a sampling of the critical consensus today, and somehow that fact that my take lines up more or less neatly with everything I've read doesn't feel comforting.
The leading edge of the controversy that settled around the film last year - the charge of anti-Semitism, the revival of the "blood libel" in movie form - has abated somewhat, especially since Gibson has apparently trimmed from the film as much of the provocative dialogue as he could. The high priest, Caiphas, no longer excuses Pilate from responsibility by saying that the guilt for Christ's execution - "his blood" - will "be on us and on our children." (In the Revised Standard Edition of Matthew, the line is spoken by "all the people"; the King James version is substantially the same. It's the theological kernel of the blood libel, and you have to give Gibson credit for turning away from it, at least.)
But while it's easy to cut lines, it's harder to edit imagery already shot, and the film has been released with scenes of glowering, malevolent pharisees, and kipa-wearing demon children who hound Judas to death. At some earlier stage in making his film, you can't help but imagine that Gibson wasn't nearly as sensitive to the latent anti-Semitism in his conception of the story.
As I said in my review, I'm willing to give Gibson a qualified pass on the charge of intentional anti-Semitism, if only because he shifts the greater burden for the physical torture and death of Christ (with one notable exception) to the Romans, or rather the Roman soldiery, a collection of psychopath brutes drunk with the sheer thrill of inflicting brutality.
But the fact remains that, while there are precious few Romans around these days to implicate in a search for historic guilt, there are plenty of Jews, and they have every reason - especially nowadays - to fear anything that would reinforce a bigot's worldview. It's one thing to defend a controversial work of art by disowning responsibility for how an idiot will react to it, but it's another to pretend there are no idiots out there.
It would be nice to think that a nice theological explanation would curtail a revival of anti-Semitism's millenial grudge. Would that it were possible to explain to a budding anti-Semite that among Christ's final words is an overwhelming refutation of any specific guilt - "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.": Luke 23:34. Would that reason were enough, and a bigot's fury could be negated by pointing out that Jesus was a Jew, condemned by Jewish law under Roman authority that regarded him as a Jew:
The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." (John 19:21-22)
And would that you could shame a bigot by pointing out that blaming Christ's death on Jews is a craven attempt to shrug off the essential burden of sin that Christ died to redeem mankind from, and that answering love with hate is a refutation of Christianity's essence.
Would that this were possible, but we've had a millenia's worth of experience trying to cope with anti-Semitism, and nothing seems to have worked. More profound is our shame.
(posted 11:58am | 02.25.04)
#0147 - MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE - A couple of months ago, I was in Peru, covering a trade fair and doing a bit of travel writing for the paper that employs me. It was a great trip, and while I was there, I ended up hanging around a bright young man named Alejandro, the nephew of Juan Jose, the Peruvian consulate's economic attache, my guide for the trip. Alejandro told me about his girlfriend, a former TV host who was studying at the London School of Economics in order to move into harder political reporting.
It sounded like an admirable move, especially since I knew of more than a few TV "experts" at home who didn't seem to think they needed any kind of degree or course of study to hold forth on political or economic subjects. Last week, I recieved an e-mail from Alejandro's girlfriend, asking for help with an essay she'd been assigned in a course called "Politics of Resistance". Ximena - her name - had decided to write about Canada's political and cultural relationship to the United States, and her boyfriend had mentioned me as a possible resource.
I was somewhat stunned to hear that students at the London School of Economics take courses with sections on "cultural imperialism", but considering the rather biased reading that she'd been assigned on the topic, I decided to try to counterblance what she was being taught with my own observations, which while hardly academic orthodoxy, were based on years of trying to wrestle with the particular question she was being asked to grasp in a week. Here's my e-mail to Ximena, only slightly polished from its raw, dashed-off state, which I think goes at least a little way toward exploring the question of Canada and the United States joined together through the making of movies.
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You've asked a fairly complex question, if only because Canada's relationship with the U.S. is complex, and in my opinion hardly as simple as terms like "cultural imperialism" might dictate. I'll try to answer you point by point, but keep in mind that many of the frames of reference you're using aren't ones I particularly share.
I was thinking that maybe Canada's problem was a problem of identity, because through the movies the US has been able to "export" their culture and practically they have co-opted the peoples imagination.
Canada does indeed have a problem with identity, as any small country would have, sitting adjacent to a large, industrious one like the U.S. (Ignore our landmass - the population of the whole country could fit in one Eastern American state.) Keep in mind that this isn't new; Canada had a problem with identity long before America became ascendant. Historically, we have the French/English divide to deal with, and as any scholar of Canadian history will tell you, it's a considerable burden. As well, Britain's pull on the country's definition of itself - its traditions and mythology - has only started to disappear in the last generation or so.
Canada's "identity" basically hangs suspended between the French, British, and American poles, tugged one way or another depending on events, circumstance, and where you live across our long border. To say that Canada defines itself in opposition to America is a simplification, though America has become the defining factor with the passage of the last century into this one.
There was, until a few years ago, a school of Canadian nationalism that defined itself by what Canada was not: Not Britain, not France, not Europe, and adamantly not America. The pianist Glenn Gould refined this "identity" with the "Idea of North" - that Canada was defined by it's wide, cold, sparsely-populated northern spaces - his Canada wasn't even urban, despite the fact that Gould lived his whole life in Toronto. It had a certain cachet for a few years, assisted by people like our epochal Prime Minister, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who like much of Canada's elite had physical experience of the place through camping and recreation in these vast, harsh, beautiful spaces. Their Canada was a Group of Seven canvas, and we were all encouraged to imagine it as they did: vast, stirring, brutal, epic, and largely empty.
But it was hardly adequate, especially for the vast majority of Canadians who live within an hour's drive of the U.S. border, or the increasing number of immigrants who've never seen that huge, uninhabited region of Canada. For them, Canada was a place that looks remarkably like the nearest American city: Toronto is much like Chicago, Halifax much like Boston, Winnipeg much like Minneapolis, Vancouver much like Seattle. Same stores, same television, same clothes, similar accents and - as you've pointed out - almost exactly the same movies playing in our theatres.
I mean, through their movies they've exported their "American way of life" and in this sense, everyone knows what North American identity is like. But Canada is also North America and people know little about canada and their people because of that. I was thinking maybe through Hollywood, the US has "opaqued" Canada....
If America has "opaqued" Canada through movies, it's usually because Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax) often stand in for American ones in movies shot here, with American stars, for less money than it would cost to shoot "on location" in the actual setting. Thanks to our dollar being an average of thirty-five cents less in value, and the huge pool of technical talent on hand, it's more convenient for Americans to shoot here than in their own country - this has become such an issue lately that Gov. Schwarzenegger made "runaway productions" a plank in his platform, and the South Park song "Blame Canada" was embraced by Hollywood as a shot at Canada "stealing" Hollywood films.
Which is deeply ironic, if you think about it. Basically, Hollywood productions choosing to shoot in Canada is globalization in action, and the exercise of the free market imperatives beautifully at work. We offer services and talent at competitive rates, and they go where profit can be maximized. You'd think Americans would have no problem with that, but then you'd be taking U.S. talk about "the market" at face value - always a mistake. (Just look at the Bush gov't policy on steel, or agricultural subsidies.)
That said, you'd also be mistaken if you thought that the "American Way of Life" was substantially different from any such idea in Canada. Canadian nationalists like to assume that we're somehow different, more European - more specifically Scandinavian, if you talk to our current Governor General, and her left-of-centre colleagues who aspire to European "social democracy" ideals. But there is no substantial difference, in either Canada's demography (an immigrant society, with porous borders, like the U.S.), or basic economic and political model (a government divided in power between states/provinces and a federal "central" centre, mostly under the considerable influence of lobby groups, unions, and special interest "citizen's groups".)
Canada, like the U.S., is a society weighted towards its middle - class, that is. Like the U.S., we experienced a fantastic period of prosperity in the post-war years (WW2 was probably the watershed event that made Canada more like the U.S. in the last century), the aftermath of which is an idea - a fantasy, in my opinion - that everyone can be middle class. It's an idea that's perpetuated by simple demography: the generation that grew up during that period - the baby boomers - now hold unprecedented political and social sway, and their "perception" has become reality, as it were.
I hope I've addressed the "South Park" thing. As for Michael Moore's Bowling For Columbine, you have to understand that Mr. Moore told a very selective version of the truth. Canadians do not leave their doors unlocked at night, not do we truthfully regard ourselves as living blissfully free of "American violence". Moore is an American mirror image of our left-of-centre liberals, like our Governor General, who looks to Scandinavia like Mr. Moore looks to Canada - as a model of a more "perfected" society. In both cases, it's a pipe dream, that requires you squint and ignore a lot if you want to continue to believe. Canadian liberals dream of Sweden and Norway and ignore the crippling taxes, excessive legislation, and social inertia; Mr. Moore and other American liberals dream of Canada, our gun laws and our socialized medicine, and ignore the higher taxes, sometimes poorer quality health care, excessive legislation and hobbled enterpreneurial culture. It takes a lot, in both cases, to maintain the illusion; for Mr. Moore, it sometimes demands an outright lie or two here and there.
As for American films shot in Canada, it's not a problem. Hey - I recently saw a film set in Peru (John Malkovich's The Dancer Upstairs) that was filmed in Ecuador. It costs a lot to make a film, with a very unhappy chance of making a profit - you can't blame a filmmaker for trying to cut costs. I have a lot of friends in the film industry here, and I'd hate to see them lose work because a Republican Governor of California decided that free market precepts didn't apply to his industry. But then, I'd also appreciate the very, very rich irony.
As for Canadian films, well, I don't know what to tell you. I see quite a few of them every year, and it's with a heavy heart that I admit that there's a good reason you haven't seen them, in Lima, or in London, or in New York or Los Angeles, if you lived there. The simple fact is they're not very good. Not as good as American films, or most British films, or many French films, or even the majority of Mexican or Argentine or Brazilian films I've seen lately. We're a small culture, very regional, and very provincial. It's hard to make a hit film here for the same reason that it's hard to run a magazine, or a publishing house: a relatively small population spread across a very large country.
The numbers are against us, for one, and for another, we've "bureaucratized" our film industry, making the development or scripts and the funding of productions dependent on a government-subsidized grant and loan system, one where trends and mandates can override quality, and where cronyism can favor a poor project over a decent one. There's little time or incentive to re-write scripts, and no star system to endow actors with mystique or charisma, or to reward them for attracting an audience. In all of these ways, Hollywood has us at an unbeatable advantage. If I had to choose between yet another Canadian film about an unhappy rural family morosely struggling against the emotional scars of the past, or a big, bright, technically dazzling American film, I'm afraid I can see why most of my countrymen - indeed most of the world - tends to love Hollywood films. There's just no comparison.
We're afraid to compete with American comedies or dramas, and we haven't the resources to make anything like their action films, so we try to make "art films", and we do it badly, by compromising the art in committee.
I've gone on too long here, I know. But I'd just like to ask you to contemplate America's other neighbour, on its southern border. Mexico is also a formerly colonial country, with regional disparities and an economy dependent on U.S. trade. But no one one would say that Mexico has problems with "identity". In fact, Mexico's "identity" has as much influence on America's southwestern states as vice versa, and is slowly turning California, New Mexico and Texas into bilingual cultures.
One more thing - don't trust anything you read about Canada written by a Canadian. As a people we're good at quite a lot of things, but we excel in one most of all: whining. Canadian intellectuals have made an art of complaining about America, about our compromised, threatened, and endangered "identity". It's hard to imagine a book about Canada being published here, or selling decently, or being put on a course syllabus, that doesn't adopt the stance of victim, withering in the arms of our threatening neighbour.
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ONE MORE THING: Canada's film funding bureaucracy just recently decided to change its funding expectations, and to concentrate on films with a chance of being a hit - that is, films with a distributor already attached, hopefully with the expecation of casting a "star", and with a budget large enough to attract stars, or to simply try to compete with American films in visual or marketing terms. It's a decision that's attracted a fair share of criticism, naturally, but not for the right reasons.
We've gone from trying to make art films based on the fashionable obsessions of the juries and bureaucrats who hold the purse strings, to trying to make commercial films in a country with no star system, few marketable or recognizable names, and none of the brutal but necessary advantages of a real studio system in place. It's like we've decided to compete with Hollywood head on, without understanding just what Hollywood is, or does, to make it such an undeniable market force.
I know what happens next. We'll see a few films made for a few million bucks each, with much of the budget going to hiring second- or third-rate American or British stars desperate for a gig. Worst of all, these films will bomb for the same reasons that our "auteur" art films bombed - we'll remain unwilling to put our writers (or writer-directors, as they often are) through the brutalizing but necessary process of re-writes and script revision that almost every Hollywood film has to undergo before a cent is spent on pre-production.
Anti-American attitudes in the Canadian film industry often take the curious form of an anti-Hollywood conviction that it's the business of making movies - the agents, the stars, the executives, "turnaround" and "green-lighting" and the chain of credited and uncredited writers working on draft after draft of screenplays - that makes Hollywood films so essentially terrible. While no on will deny that the byzantine workings and metastasized egos that power Hollywood can make an unwatchable mess as often as a blockbuster or even a masterpiece, it's harder to justify turning a second or third draft script into a finished film like it's a hothouse orchid that wouldn't survive the cold blast of air outside the greenhouse, simply because we don't want to make films the "Hollywood way".
(posted 12:03pm | 12.10.03)
DVD UPDATES: I've updated the dvd review section of this site, finally getting that neglected section back up to speed. Included are reviews of the Alien box set, the latest X-Men film, the James Bond box sets, and my favorite film of all time: Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West, which must now be dropped from the lead position in my "Films Not On DVD" list. I'm happy to hear nominations for films still not issued - or not issued properly - on DVD. More updates to come.
#0146 - A FAN LETTER - A long lay-off from this site has given me plenty of time to read about film without the time to comment blog-wise on what I’ve read. I have about a foot and a half high stack of print-outs of articles on my desk that have to be housecleaned sometime soon, since most of them are of purely antiquary interest at this late date.
During the long hiatus from this site (thanks to fatherhood and the day job, in a 70-30 split), several of my left-column links and lists have changed. Several of my “missing in action” DVDs are suddenly available (more on that later), while at least three of my must-read critics or papers have suddenly been dragged into pay-site status. The L.A. Times and the Times of London are now subscription only, and Stanley Kauffmann’s New Republic column is exclusively for the eyes of subscribers or purchasers of the dead-tree edition of TNR. A shame, because I was looking forward to reading what Kauffmann had to say about Shattered Glass, a film mostly set in the New Republic’s offices.
My one consistent read over the last few months has been D.K. Holm’s weekly “DVD Diatribe” column on director Kevin Smith’s moviepoopshoot.com site. There are a handful of movie critics I read regularly because they never fail to say something interesting (Edelstein, Lane, Kauffman – and Kael, through her books, since I was a child when she was doing her best writing), but it’s rare that I actually hit a site every day hoping that some fluke of inspiration has moved a writer like Holm to write more than his regular obligation to Smith.
The format of “DVD Diatribe” is simple enough: a half-dozen or so new releases analyzed from a first-person perspective, with personal anecdotes, and occasional, lengthy digressions. Holm has classic film geek tastes – “classic” Criterion-edition foreign films, genre connoisseur interest in yakuza, samurai and Hong Kong action flicks, deep familiarity with the American indie scene, an eager but skeptical attraction to recent blockbusters, and an only vaguely shamefaced interest in sci-fi TV franchises.
Holm obviously adores films, which is the least you’d expect from a movie critic. (It’s something I envy in all the movie writers I love reading, mostly because I know, deep down, that I don’t love movies, or that I don’t love the experience of movies nearly as much as I love music, or reading.) Unlike many movie critics, however, Holm is brutally candid about why he loves movies, as in this self-lacerating passage in his review of Punch-Drunk Love:
"Like Barry, I do things out of momentary loneliness and end up embroiled in complicated situations (Barry calls a phone-sex service and gets taken by hoodlums). Like Barry, I start to say yes when I mean no. Like Barry, I am a terrible liar. Like Barry, I tend to say things at the most inappropriate time, as if I don't really know what's going on around me (which is true), or use the wrong word (Barry says 'very food' when he means 'very good'). I don't cry all the time, like Barry, but I want to. Like Barry, I have an older sibling(s) (me one, Barry seven) who had a disastrous impact on my life and destroyed my ability to have normal relations with women. Like Barry, I look away quickly when women catch me looking at them. Unlike Barry, I've never had a fox like Emily Watson get a crush on me from a distance and chase me down."
When was the last time you remember Roger Ebert or Elvis Mitchell admitting that movies, or rather their deep identification with movie characters, help them cope with apparently crippling personal failings? Perhaps Holm is overdramatizing for effect, but while the whole paragraph blindsided me as a reader, it made me take everything he said about Punch-Drunk Love more like testimony than casual aesthetic reaction.
On the whole, Holm is no dazzling prose stylist – few movie critics are, though the closest I can think of would be Kael at her best - or a droll wit like Lane. What he excels at, though, are personal observations, like this one, of Dick Clark, in his review of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind:
"Outside of the safe environment of 'softball' questions and carefully lit sound stages, people like Clark are not nice. You can see it in their eyes, in the very corners of their eyes. There is a reptilian coldness, a mean appraising wariness that is at variance with their efforts at being warm and agreeable. They are the eyes you see in Michael Keaton and indeed most old-time style comics when they are 'relaxed.' This is why such people excel at TV; those hard eyes are hidden in plain sight from the viewer. On the big screen those slits are revealed in all their serpentine coldness."
Even when I don’t agree with him – which is often – I look forward reading what he has to say, as in his review of The Two Towers, which he calls “the best film of last year”, a sentiment I couldn’t even begin to share.
I get nothing from the ongoing Lord of the Rings saga. Holm states that Jackson has “studied the masters well“, makes parallels between The Two Towers and Kurosawa, and invokes the first Star Wars film as a venerable predecessor in the adventure epic canon. I find the LOTR saga overamped and finesse-free, an alternately cloying or deadening experience that, with both films, evaporated immediately upon leaving the theatre. And have yet to find the tonic note of resonance many people find in Star Wars.
But no matter what I may take from Holm’s review of The Two Towers, I’m immediately gratified to learn that he has the same reaction to the film work of Jonathan Miller, the polymath and celebrated wit. He’s the sort of individual who seems to have formulated an articulate position on almost every subject, a man who (like Leonard Cohen) gives interviews that frequently explain more than the work that he’s supposed to be promoting. Miller, according to Holm, “is not a natural filmmaker, and I don't think he understands what people enjoy in movies, or what they need to make a film comprehensible.”
As someone who also writes a weekly DVD review column, I can’t help but envy Holm his forum, the virtually unlimited space that writing for a website affords, and the luxury of being able to illustrate his reviews with screenshots. I don’t know what Smith pays him, if at all, but he’s become a highlight of my online time these days.
Imagine my pleasure, then, when I discovered that Holm had taken to writing reviews of current release films for Smith. Once again, his freedom to indulge his obsessions is allowed free reign – he’s currently on the seventh part of an ongoing fascination with Kill Bill, Part One. And true to form, he’s unleashing some devastating observations, such as this one, from his review of Shattered Glass:
"(Journalists) tend to be a mixture of sagacity and stuffiness. Despite their reputations for roguishness, I've never met a more prudish lot. They tend to be conventionally minded middlebrows. They all dress the same (khaki trousers, blue shirts, brown corduroy jackets), and they hate getting ideas for stories from the public. Never sidle up to a reporter at a party and say, 'Have I got a story for you!' or call a newspaper with a passionate plea that a certain subject should be covered. They don't care and they don't listen. They assume you have an 'agendum' (because they have agenda, too). They prefer to 'stumble' onto their stories themselves... They rarely have a continuing interest in one particular story. They cover a matter, and then move on, and can be irked when people keep seeking them out to get them back on a topic they abandoned mentally last week in favor of their current deadline. They like to get excited about issues, especially issues pertaining to the ethics of journalism itself, and they love to be in meetings batting their ideas back and forth."
If half of what Stephen Glass wrote had this much truth, he could have lied for the rest of the day and still ended up with Ben Bradlee’s job.
P.S. – I shouldn’t be so unfair to the rest of the considerable content on moviepoopshoot.com. Michael Sampson’s "The Bottom Of Things" column is a festival of cruel but undeniable one-liners, especially his recent two-part preview of next year’s major studio releases, which includes this devastating distillation of something called 50 First Dates:
"Drew Barrymore plays a woman who falls in love with Adam Sandler but her lack of short-term memory prevents her from remembering. It’s like Memento meets crap."
(posted 02:38am | 11.28.03)