Tag Archives: movies

They’re Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock

The other night the classic 1953 film version of “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” was on; I’ve seen it many times, as it’s one of my mom’s favorite musicals.  When the movie came out in Spain, she and her friends obtained a recording of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from the soundtrack, and would loudly sing along to it in their schoolgirl English.  This apparently horrified my grandmother, who had a better grasp of the subtleties of English, and therefore of what the gold-digging Lorelei Lee – played by Marilyn Monroe in the film – was singing about.

I mentioned to an elderly neighbor that I had caught the movie on TV, and he recalled being a graduate student in Paris in the 1950′s, and seeing it premiere at a cinema on the Champs-Elysees.  As he recalled, back then Europe was still in poverty and recovering from World War II, even though over here in America, we were filling our homes with the products of the first wave of middle-class consumerism.  So people flocked to see upbeat, colorful American movie musicals like this one, because their own lives were often so harsh, unhappy, and colorless.

It’s funny that back then, people like my grandmother looked at this film and found it scandalous.  True, it’s about two women performing a musical more suited to a so-called “gentleman’s club” than the Broadway stage.  Yet when you watch the movie now, in light of what we see not only on the big screen but the small screen on a regular basis these days, you realize how far we’ve fallen as a culture since that time.

The racy jokes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” are definitely still racy, but they’re not insulting.  The women are clearly objectified by the men, from their suitors, to the policemen in the courtroom, to the entire U.S. Olympic Team, but at the same time, the women are in complete control of the situation.  They insist on being treated with respect.  They like to look beautiful, go dancing, drink cocktails, and have beautiful things.  They work hard at what they do, and they’re pretty happy with who they are.

For the generation that enjoys soul-sickening programs like “Girls” and other such societal take-downs of women disguised as entertainment, I imagine it’s difficult to”get” movies like this.  Not to mention the fact that I’m sure Lena Dunham would recoil in horror at learning that the film’s other star, Jane Russell, became an outspoken pro-life activist, one of the few in Hollywood.  Yet if you strip away all the cheap basement rumpus room plywood veneer that’s been foisted on us over the past 40 years about what men and women are supposed to be like, you can just enjoy being in the presence of two beautiful women who enjoy having a good time, coming close to the line but never crossing over it.  They’re just two little girls from Little Rock, after all.

Marilyn Monroe ad Jane Russell in a scene from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"

Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in a scene from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953)

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under culture

Picking at the Scabs of Self-Hatred

Probably many of my readers have seen the classic 1943 film, “The Song of Bernadette”, but if you have not, I would like to recommend it to you – even if you are not Catholic.  The older I get, the more I “get” the film, and the more its meaning changes for me.  Oftentimes viewers are so caught up in the miraculous visions, or the pressures put on Bernadette to recant what she reported to have seen, that they forget Bernadette had a different life once the visions ended, and she left Lourdes forever.  And it is there, I think, that what might otherwise have been just a pious, respectable film takes on a bit of greatness, when it comes to examining the human condition.

The character of Sister Vauzous – played by the great English actress Gladys Cooper, who received a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for her performance  - is something of a parallel to the older brother of the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable.  Like him, Sister Vauzous does not go out to seek fame and fortune, nor does she want to live in depravity, sexual hedonism, and dissipation.  In fact she does everything she is told to do and more, with copious amounts of fasting, prayer, lack of sleep, and so on.

However she has done none of this for the right reasons. One gets the distinct impression that she has spent all these years living in a form of perpetual penance not out of love for God, but rather out of self-hate.  And self-hatred is a very dangerous road to travel.

As the character tells us in the scene where she finally confronts Bernadette, informing her about how much she has suffered compared to the peasant girl, she expresses what is obviously a deep-seated sense of jealousy, yes, but also of self-hatred.  This little nobody from Lourdes, whom she knew years before, gets the opportunity to see the Mother of Jesus, while she herself is denied any such gift.  That seems to Sister Vauzous fundamentally unfair.

Of course the real person Sister Vauzous is upset with is not Bernadette, but God. Why, she asks herself, do you bless that one and not me, with such consolations?  The root of that anger is self-hatred: we are unhappy because X has something we wish we had, which seems better than what we have.  Sister Vauzous is so unhappy with her own life, that she has rather childishly deluded herself into believing that she is ascetic penitent, when in truth she is a self-righteous Pharisee.

So often reviewers of this film focus on the character’s doubt and skepticism of Bernadette’s story as the wellspring of her harshness, but truthfully it is Sister Vauzous’ hatred of herself that is the real issue.  She has run away to the convent not to serve God, but to add to her own sorrows, and pick at them like scabs until they bleed, over and over again.  She is a figure of morbid self-pity, who cannot see beyond her own unhappiness to do anything out of love for anyone else.

In the Gospel parable, the father tells the older brother of the Prodigal Son that he must come rejoice that his brother has come alive again and returned to them, but Jesus does not tell us what happened next; He leaves it to our imagination to decide whether the older brother did change in his heart or not.  In “The Song of Bernadette” however, we actually see the complete redemption of Sister Vauzous.  Not only does she seek forgiveness after Bernadette reveals how horribly she has been quietly suffering for years, but she herself changes: she becomes Bernadette’s greatest friend in the convent.  So much so, that she literally carries Bernadette around when the girl becomes so ill that she can no longer walk.

I suspect that many of my Christian readers would like to think that they are more like Bernadette than Sister Vauzous.  The truth is that we can very easily fall into the same traps as the latter.  We can be so rigid with our formulae on how we are supposed to live our Christian lives, that we forget the whole point is to act in imitation of Christ.  And one of the common complaints about Jesus from His contemporaries was that He went about chatting and dining with people whom the supposedly religiously upright of his day categorically saw as sinners, instead of basking in the glow of the religious authorities’ high opinions of themselves.  What they did not understand, and I suspect oftentimes we all forget this as well, myself included, is that it is not only possible, but necessary, to try one’s best to follow and witness to God’s law, without simultaneously causing others to completely lose heart in the process.

Today being the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when Catholics recall the first apparition to St. Bernadette at Lourdes on February 11, 1858, if you have seen “The Song of Bernadette” before, go back and watch it again, in light of this reflection.  If you have not, then find it online and take a look at it.  And have the honesty to ask yourself, which of these two nuns am I more like, right now?  The answer may surprise you, but the real benefit will be what you do with that realization.

Sister Vazou (Gladys Cooper) reacts in "The Song of Bernadette" (1943)

Sister Vazou (Gladys Cooper) reacts in “The Song of Bernadette” (1943)

5 Comments

Filed under culture

Review: The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

When you’re right, you’re right.

Regular readers of these pages will know that a few weeks ago, I posted a piece titled, “In Defense of Peter Jackson”, in which I shared some common-sense perspective on the director’s films based on the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien.  That piece was subsequently selected by WordPress for their “Freshly Pressed” feature, and received many favorable comments, for which I am grateful.  Last night I finally managed to see “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. For “An Unexpected Journey” is wonderful: full of life, fun, adventure, and something very important which not a single review I read mentioned, and that is love.

There are a number of threads woven together into why I found this not only an enjoyable film, but a successful one that actually improves the more that you think about it.  First of all, let it be said that no, this is not “The Lord of the Rings” re-booted.  It is a different story altogether.  The company of travelers in “The Hobbit” are going on an adventure, for different reasons – treasure, revenge, the thrill of it, etc. – even if there are some larger themes that are explored.  They are not out to save the world, as are the Fellowship in “The Lord of the Rings”, and because of that we need to adjust our expectations accordingly.

Jackson takes us right back to Middle Earth, and it looks just as lovely as it did the last time we were there, if not more so.  For technology has continued to advance since the first “Lord of the Rings” film came out ten years ago – hard to believe! – and a number of things are even better now, from a technical perspective.  Jackson creates a whole word, but whereas in the first trilogy some of the string-pulling, as my filmmaker brother put it last night, was more obvious, in this film it is virtually seamless.  The mountains  open up into gigantic vistas in one scene for example, rather than being dependent solely upon what can be seen from a helicopter camera.  The light of the moon mixed with fire in a fight sequence feels real, rather than the product of special effects.  And the things which were beautiful to look at in the first trilogy – Bilbo’s comfy house, the Gaudi-style pavilions at Rivendell, etc. – are all there to be enjoyed in even more detail.

Those not looking for gee-whiz technology or action, will find the acting here uniformly excellent.  Martin Freeman is a far more likeable Bilbo than I was anticipating, and you warm to him very quickly; he is someone whom you actually look forward to going on this adventure with, and he carries the heart of the film absolutely beautifully.  The wise and the great are back and in proper form, from the engaging Ian McKellan and Ian Holm, to the radiant Cate Blanchett,  the cerebral Hugo Weaving, and the majestically malevolent Christopher Lee.  And Andy Serkis outdoes himself in interpreting Gollum, if one can even imagine that, reminding us that Gollum was a frightening, cannibalistic, and murderous thing, especially when he had the twisted self-confidence of his Precious to support him.

For me, the revelation here is Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the company of travelers heading to the Lonely Mountain.  I must confess, I have been a huge fan of Armitage since his days on “Spooks” (called “MI-5″ in the U.S.), and he was probably the only good thing about the insipid, juvenile, and Occupy-esque “Robin Hood” series, which I have written about previously.  However as I have only seen him on television, when I learnt that he would have this major part I was slightly doubtful as to whether he would be able to carry off such an important and prominent role in the story.

I need not have worried, for Armitage is superb.  He embodies leadership and physical prowess, certainly, but also carries a sense of personal dignity mixed with a willingness to engage in self-sacrifice for his people, even if it means his own personal humiliation.  There is also a kind of sorrow fired by a desire for revenge, against those who destroyed his family and his world, which is going to be interesting to see develop over the next two films.  At one point in a fight sequence, faced with impossible odds and no chance of escape, he decides to turn round and go attack his enemy head-on, to buy the others time even if it means his own death.  One of the dwarves comments [forgive my paraphrasing], “Here is the one whom we can follow to the end,” but by that point in the film the viewer has already made that decision as well.

As to complaints about the schoolboy humor of the dwarves, or the length of the film, or the references to the other films and other books, or the like, I will leave that to those with small hearts and large opinions of themselves to squabble over.  For what I came away with after seeing this film was first and foremost that I had an absolutely terrific time: I was ENTERTAINED.

Remember when movies used to entertain us, rather than serve as nothing more than expensive pornography or soulless, giant-screen versions of video games as they do now?  Those days are practically gone   Yet here, we have an exception.

Like his previous films, Jackson’s “An Unexpected Journey” has something very special about it, which clearly represents the love that he has for the material itself, the people he is working with, and those of us who will see it.  To walk out of the theatre these days being thoroughly entertained, having had the chance to laugh, be scared, think about things like decency and goodness, and even shed a tear or two, is no small thing for a director to be able to achieve.  The ability to play all of these different notes in a harmonious composition is something that is sorely lacking in the bulk of modern mainstream cinema.

And that sense that I had a really good time watching this adventure unfold, which is still with me even as I type this, naturally leads me to a sense of gratitude for its director.  For Jackson did what I said he was going to do, in my earlier blog post.  He took the talent and resources given to him at this particular point in time, and used it to make something for us to enjoy. And I am very grateful that he did.

unexjour

Richard Armitage and Martin Freeman in a scene from “The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey”

5 Comments

Filed under culture

In Defense of Peter Jackson: The Value of Interpretation

freshly-pressed-rectangle

This blog post will no doubt annoy a number of my closest friends, and particularly infuriate those who are the Middle Earth equivalent of the SSPX – i.e., more Tolkien-than-thou.  However my intent is not to make pleasantries, but rather to challenge perceptions and preconceptions in our culture.  To paraphrase Addison DeWitt, my native habitat is the blogosphere: in it I toil not, neither do I spin – I am simply a critic and commentator.

That being said, I will now freely admit that I am looking forward to catching Part One of Peter Jackson’s new film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” this weekend, if I can manage to snag a ticket at my local multiplex.  Rather than review a film which I have not yet seen, I want to address two points which all of us ought to keep in mind, and not just with respect to Jackson’s work.  The first and most important is to remind the reader of the value of variation and interpretation, in expression of the artistic imagination.  The second, which flows naturally from it, is to consider Jackson’s work within that context, as well as to judge it on its own merits.

Our cultural history is replete with examples of theme and repetition, not only because human beings enjoy variety, but also because the human imagination takes new pieces of insight from each reinterpretation of something which is already known to us.  We see this idea all the time, in literature, music, architecture, and so on.  If we look at art, for example, let us consider the subject of David, the shepherd boy from the Bible who became the King of Israel.

Were I to ask you to imagine a work of art representing David, the first image to come into your mind would likely be that of Michelangelo’s giant statue which stands in the Accademia in Florence.  This image of the shepherd-king has been famous since it was completed, an iconic and influential piece of sculpture known all over the world.  The serenity and confidence, the strong determination of this “ruddy youth”, as he is described in the Book of Samuel, who is growing into a man’s body and will soon become a great military leader, may have been intended as an allegory of Florence, but over time has come to represent the very idea of the Italian Renaissance for many.

Yet there are other images of David, created both before and after this particular work, which can bring about other levels of understanding.  Take Bernini’s David in the Borghese in Rome, for example, which was created during the Counter-Reformation as the Catholic Church fought back against Protestantism.  In this image, the young shepherd boy is shown about to slay Goliath with his slingshot.  He is wound up like a professional baseball pitcher, chewing on his lower lip with a look of keen concentration on his unseen target, narrowing his eyes to see exactly where to aim his weapon in order to do the most damage.

Whereas Michelangelo’s colossal David is rather static, Bernini’s is about action.  They are each a product of their time.  The former represents the newly-found confidence of a culture which believed that it was reviving the lost arts and knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, and expressed that confidence in the way it presented saints like King David.  The latter is that of an institution under attack from all sides, which is not going to roll over and play dead, but rather will fight back against those who would see it fail.

Ever since Peter Jackson released the first installment of his film version of “Lord of the Rings” ten years ago this month, there has been a mass of criticism that he has not done proper justice to the books.  Despite the total length of the three films extending to many hours, the refrain from Tolkien fans then was that Jackson had cut too much.  While some of this is made up for in the Extended Editions of the films on DVD, which are even better than the theatrical versions, Jackson admittedly had to make editorial decisions about what to put in, what to leave out, and so on, in bringing the story to the screen.  Similarly, now it seems that a common complaint among the commentariat is that turning “The Hobbit”, a much shorter book – comparatively – than the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy of novels, into three films is making it too long.  In other words, Mr. Jackson is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t.

Let us take what we have considered above with respect to the image of David, and apply it to what we are seeing here, with these films.  What Jackson himself has said in the past about his work, and it is a point with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that we need to keep in mind that these are HIS interpretations of the stories, using his talents and the resources available to him as best he can.  Moreover, he fully anticipates that at some point, another director will come along and make his own film version of Tolkien’s books.

It is a bit unfair – and frankly rather illogical – to expect one artistic medium to be able to express itself in the way that another does.  King David, after all, was a real person, who lived a long time ago, and his deeds are described in the Bible.  That, in itself, is an interpretation of his life through the inspired Scriptures.  Do we complain that Michelangelo or Bernini’s statues are unfair representations of David, because they do not actually move?  Do we whine because paintings of David by artists like Castagno or Caravaggio do not speak?

Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, we look at these works of art, and value them based on their own merits, but also in how they bring us back to the person of David and the stories about him in the Bible.  If Mr. Jackson tells an otherwise good story in a way which is unwatchable, then his film will fail; if he tells that story in a way which draws audiences in and makes them interested, then he will succeed.  And in so doing, then perhaps his work will cause people who have never heard of Tolkien or read his work, to go read the books for themselves.

The value of cultural reinterpretations of our values and virtues is that they constantly remind us to reflect on great topics, which with all of our everyday cares and concerns we so often do not get to do.  Tolkien himself was a novelist, not a filmmaker – and neither were Count Leo Tolstoy, Victor Hugo, or any of the other writers whose works are coming to the big screen this season.  While some may not like Jackson’s particular interpretation of Tolkien’s writing, the real question to be asked is not whether it is a complete representation of Tolkien’s work on screen, but whether there is enough virtue in what appears in the film to reflect favorably on at least some of the author’s concerns.

In the spirit of cultural maturity, we need to give Mr. Jackson the chance to tell his version of Tolkien’s story, and enjoy the good parts of it even as we acknowledge those portions which we may not like.  For the next cinematic interpretation of these novels will no doubt be just as different from Jackson’s version, as Bernini’s David is from Michelangelo’s.

Hobbit

63 Comments

Filed under culture

Creating a Habsburg Comic Book

The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize.  For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds.  People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images.  Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.

In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes.  Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale.  Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.  Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives.  It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian.  The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.

The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well.  The piece  is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments.  Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially.  Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.

Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted.  This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums.  Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply.  Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.

Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture.  And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie.  Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.

As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient.  Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea.  Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.

Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored.  Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time.  By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.

Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna

5 Comments

Filed under culture