Watching the “Watchmen”: A Beautiful Film from France

If you’re interested in seeing good men doing good work on behalf of the whole world, I can highly recommend a film which for some reason had skipped my notice until last evening, “The Watchmen of the Night”.  I was made aware of it through a tweet posted by my friend Sister Veronica Young, a member of the Sisters of Faith who lives in solitude in Utah, but whom I’ve come to know through social media.  [N.B. Incidentally, if you are on Twitter, Sister Veronica should be on your follow list, Catholic or not, as she regularly posts words of encouragement, prayer, and comfort for those who need it.]

No, this isn’t a review of the superhero movie “The Watchmen”, which in fact I debated about with someone the other day.  Instead, this film is about a Benedictine monastery in the south of France, the Abbey of St. Mary Magdalene in Le Barroux, a town in Provence.  The movie examines the day-to-day lives of the monks, as well as allowing us to get to know some of the monks themselves, and why they chose to enter the religious life. And fortunately, you can watch the entire one-hour documentary on YouTube by following this link.

If this sounds somewhat like another film about cloistered French monks, the German documentary “Into Great Silence”, you’d be forgiven for thinking they were rather similar.  Yet while that piece goes through a year in the lives of the Carthusian monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps, this film is not only shorter and somewhat lighter in tone, it reflects on a slightly different kind of spirituality.  The German film has no narration, very little dialogue, and an overwhelming sense of the mortality of man preparing to enter God’s eternity, whereas the well-narrated French film touches upon these subjects, but presents a more upbeat, joyful tone about the life shared by the brothers in Provence.

Whereas outside of the Divine Office or Mass, the Carthusians spend the vast majority of their day in total silence and rarely if ever see anyone from the outside world, the Benedictines spend a significant portion of their day working in their community and receiving visitors.  This could be overnight visitors making pilgrimages to the monastery for religious services, or interacting with patrons at the monastery shop which helps support the needs of the poor and the monks themselves. The Benedictines have their own periods of silence, particularly at night, but theirs is not the near-total isolation of their brethren in the Alps.

Yet like the Carthusians, the Benedictines in this film respond to the suggestion that what they are doing has no purpose by pointing out that they do not work for a purpose.  They work for God.  As such, they have no need for the secular materialist justifications of this world.  So as the saying goes, put that in your pipe and smoke it.

What I found particularly interesting about Le Barroux was the fact that these Benedictines are not the hippy-dippy sort which one sometimes associates with the Order here in the U.S.  In fact, this monastery was only founded in the 1980’s, although the complex itself looks like it was built 1000 years earlier. Originally, the monks here were aligned with the traditionalist schismatic movement which was spearheaded by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, but they eventually reconciled with Rome, and their monastic community was elevated to an Abbey in 1989.  To see how the monks live and how they worship is to see traditional Roman Catholicism at its most beautiful.

No doubt the lifestyle of the monks is not for everyone – particularly for those of us who could not bring ourselves to become vegetarians.  Yet it would be hard for anyone to look at the lives these men lead, and walk away unimpressed by the faith and the joy which radiates from them, as they go about following the great command of St. Benedict himself: ora et labora – pray and labor.  Particularly for those of you who are curious about traditional Catholicism, or what it’s like to be a member of a cloistered religious Order, or who want a very watchable film to show your children or students about Catholic spiritual life, this would be a fine addition to your film library.

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

The Benedictines of Le Barroux at prayer

 

 

“The Cosmopolitans”: Whit’s Still the Man

This weekend I had the chance to check out the pilot episode of “The Cosmopolitans”, the new series by writer and director Whit Stillman released on Amazon Prime.  If you’re a regular visitor to these pages, then you know that I’m an unabashed fan of his work.  Yet after the somewhat anti-climactic “Damsels in Distress”, it was great to see him return to seriously good form in this, a new series about young Americans living and loving in Paris.

Like much of Stillman’s work, “The Cosmopolitans” isn’t so much about a story moving toward resolution, but rather a series of stories that intertwine, punctuated by significant events.  He’s been described as the conservative, bourgeois version of Woody Allen, and there’s some truth to that observation.  For more often than not, the reason why someone either enjoys or does not enjoy Stillman’s work comes down to the question of whether the conversations taking place among his characters remind the viewer of conversations which they themselves have had.  If you can’t relate to Woody Allen – and I certainly can’t – then you probably find him irritating and perverse.  Stillman, on the other hand, is “The Man”, in a sense, because he is writing largely about the experiences of educated, cultured Americans from good schools and respectable backgrounds, exploring the world around them and always dressing stylishly as they do so.

It’s also interesting to see how effortlessly Stillman has transitioned to the small screen.  Like Amy Sherman-Palladino back in the first few seasons of “Gilmore Girls”, when it was one of the best-written things on television, Stillman has an ear for the witty comeback, the snarky cultural reference, and the perfect put-down worthy of the Ancien Régime. Yet because of the nature of the films which he has made so far, Stillman’s work usually has a drawing-room quality to it, like sitting at a party at the house of someone you don’t know – also a favorite plot device of his – and overhearing other people’s interesting conversations. These make the small screen just as good a venue for his observations as the big screen.

Stillman has also presented us with a combination of characters that we will try to figure out better as the series continues.  For example, writing Chloe Sevigny’s character as a kind of proto-Miranda Priestly seemed a surprise at first, seeing as how her outing in Stillman’s “Last Days of Disco” was as something of an ingenue. Yet watching her take a throwaway comment about how long it takes to become a Parisian and turn it into a recurrent thematic weapon is absolutely hilarious, and makes the viewer want to hear more of what she has to say.

The phenomenon of seeing prominent actors and directors like these creating on-demand streaming internet series is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.  The American version of “House of Cards” is, understandably enough, extremely popular and heavily advertised here in DC.  This is due not only to the fact that the series is set here, but also because a significant percentage of the population here is tech-savvy enough to feel perfectly comfortable with the idea of watching a show streamed via the internet.  As more investment in digital infrastructure takes place in the coming years, it seems reasonable to assume that more and more of these “online tv” series will be made.

Of course the best sign that any series, online or not, has completely sucked you in is when you are watching a scene, the music swells, the screen goes black, and you audibly shout, “Awwww NO!” You’ve been so caught up in the story that you weren’t keeping an eye on the clock.  That’s happened to me a few times, during some really engrossing series: the British series “MI-5″ for example (as “Spooks” is known in the U.S.) These moments are the sign of a good writer, good director, and good actors all coming together. And that same, telltale outcry of disappointment that the episode was already over arose from me and my group of friends watching the pilot for “The Cosmopolitans”.

As the central characters began to make their way home across Paris from a party they had stayed at too long, the credits began to roll, and we were all disappointed to see that the episode was already over. I was reminded at that point of the conclusion of Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan”.  In that story, his characters had to make their way back to Manhattan with no reasonable means of transportation at their disposal, leaving them to hitchhike along the highway as the picture faded into text.  Unlike in “Metropolitan” however, it appears that we are going to have the great pleasure of seeing what happens next to this new group of characters.  I can’t wait to eavesdrop on their conversations.

It's Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

It’s Whit Stillman. Of course there is a dance sequence.

Phone Booth Friday: Telling Super Stories

This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup.  The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains.  The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe.  Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.

If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.

There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology.  Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.

We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend.  However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot.  As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.

Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers.  While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers.  So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.

Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur.  Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them.  Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay.  Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.

Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture.  With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued.  Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.

TSDSUFR EC004