Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crazy Heart. (2009) Scott Cooper

When you're alone in that blackened room with the windows shut and the blinds pulled down, with only the ugly white walls to greet you; when you can't tell whether that sneering clock says it's 6:30 am. or pm.; when the breath that you draw is by the second; when your scotch, your awful looking face in the mirror, your weapon and your falling tears are all you're left with -- it's in this moment of confrontation with self that a shift in your operations might occur. There's a choice of two roads close at hand: one option leaves you digging further into isolated, harrowing despair, but the other  -- should you have thoroughly bottomed out -- can help alter your course toward reboot.

In the unparalleled opening scene of Apocalypse Now, Captain Willard seemingly chooses the former. In fact, he makes no real choice, there is certainly no longing for reboot. He wants a mission, and for his sins they find him one, effectively making a choice for him, providing his course. "Harrowing despair," from this point on is a descent into hell, into the bowels of his very worst being. It's a staircase to nosferatu, the depths of the prison leading to Lecter.

Willard looks at the staircase: "Every minute I stay in this room, I get weaker... Each time I looked around the walls moved in a little tighter..." He takes the first step down: "I was going to the worst place in the world and I didn't even know it yet..." Another step down: "Someday this war's gonna end. That'd be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren't looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I'd been back there, and I knew that it just didn't exist anymore..."

Willard descends down the staircase like a snail on a razor into Coppola's configuration of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He tears a hole in the figure of half light and half darkness, the reflection he sees of himself. He leaves what is now his compound the same as if he'd never left his isolated room in Saigon.

Apocalypse Now is no more a film about Viet Nam than Crazy Heart is about country music. Both have a burdened central figure in the midst of insanity. Both have a person at war, trying to figure out the next right move. Crazy Heart gives us Bad Blake's rendition of a story all too familiar with the groveling addict.

Bad could be considered an amazing person. On a moment's notice there are words entrenched in melodies that simply float out of him to land on a listener. He can write in ten minutes what might take others a lifetime of work. But as he ages with his craft the tunes no longer appeal; he's simply not engaged with his talent anymore.

In fact, he apparently no longer engages with anything other than the road to the next liquor store and downing it fast.

That the course from his isolated room to better living seems too gift wrapped doesn't dimnish the rightness of his choice. In his moment of despair, whatever his reasoning, is a desire to move forward and not further down the tumultuous hole. He's burned out and lost in the numbing bottom of his bottle -- to live again means giving up his only friend. But it's a friend that has ruined him, made him socially awkward and messed up his shows. It's ruined relationships and made him age faster. It has drained him of luster for life.

In giving up his only friend he might regain that luster, but it will only happen one day at a time. A recovering addict will never predict tomorrow or three or thirty years down the road. A recovering addict has only one day, every day, to keep living.

From the dismal drunk to the guitar wielding singer, Jeff Bridges brings Bad and his resurrection story with conviction. He fills this role to its fullest, carving out a portrait of a man we hope and wish can become better.

In three days the nominees for Oscar will be announced. I really hope to see Bridges on the list. He paints a portrait of a life that needs to strive for sobriety. It becomes an honest picture of recovering.

We can only hope that Bad Blake is still doing OK when the closing credits have left the screen.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Single Man. (2009) Tom Ford

Loss can be heartbreaking no matter where it comes from or the form it takes.

I love how George, played by Colin Firth in a finely subdued performance, strives to become better -- to not lash out but to reach out, and lift up even the lesser known, as he quietly and personally grieves a wounding pain.

Truly, the eyes of the affected are a window looking in as they mourn the unexpected loss of one they loved.

Monday, January 25, 2010

35 rhums. (2009) Claire Denis

It's been quite a few years since I first encountered Haneke's Code Unknown. It was one of those viewings I'll never forget. I remember popping in the brand new R1 DVD and floating along for 118 minutes, and after seeping into its lasting, final sign-languaged scene, thinking, "Huh. Well -- OK." And that was that.

And that was that -- until I began discussing and dissecting all its elements with some friends. We realized that many of us had had the exact same reaction, but the more we talked we started to see this was something much more dynamic than we thought.

We sat down and watched it again and began to wonder and ponder together. Eventually we started to speak, and by the time we were finished with an elaborate post-viewing discussion I was left dazed and spellbound at how amazing it actually was. What I'd initially passed over was now washing over me. It takes more than one viewing when dealing with greatness.

Code Unknown has stood the test of time. It's one of those films you can go back to and watch over and over again. You can always draw new insights, unlocking wonderful filmic codes with each viewing.

It's been seven years and at least 800 films since I had this unique experience, but last weekend I came across something I think might be quite similar; I've been smacked in the same masterpiece kind of way, this time by a brand new little French film, a quiet ensemble piece called 35 Shots of Rum.

Claire Denis is known for weaving slow-paced stories involving fantasy and flight and the psychology of the character rather than a forward linear drive. It's the typical French style that Americans tend to hate. They'll say it didn't go anywhere, it didn't do anything, that it was plotless, meandering into some tedious unfocused pit.

I knew what I was getting into with Denis at the controls, and as I sat with this more subdued light and sound, this quiet, more careful directorial guidance, and these intense feelings of great desire and hope, I saw a relationship between a father and daughter that one could only hope for in every day life -- a beautiful relationship, but in a sort of disembodied film; a beating familial heart wrapped in uncracked cinephilic code.

As with Code Unknown, I knew I'd encountered something very profound that I couldn't quite put a finger on. How fortunate what happened to me next: strolling away from the theater and around the city, trying to consider what I saw, I continued trying to put the missing pieces together, only to continue strolling too much and miss the next train home. With an hour left to kill until the next train's departure, I ended up (where else?) at a Borders Bookstore.

I walked into the store and the magazine rack instantly taunted me. There were just a few copies left of the Winter Film Quarterly, and inside was Yvette Bíró's unbelievably insightful article on 35 rhums. I'd just left the theater only a few minutes before, and in front of me was a cover story on the puzzling film I just saw. This article, it turns out, was my way out of the maze.

Bíró's review "argues that Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum combines repitition and ellipsis to harmonious effect in telling a minimalist story about a Parisian father and daughter. Comparison is made with Beau travail and Nénette et Boni," (two earlier works from Ms. Denis).

I just recently blogged about the ellipsis in Lorna's Silence, although there I believe I referred to it as a "hard edit". And it is hard there, because it's so sudden, so unexpected, so, "What happened? Oh no!" But these ellipses, or edits, are not as "hard" in 35 rhums. There are many but we don't notice them at first. There are at least five or six that I can think of after a first viewing. (I'm certain there are even more than that.) But we're hit here with a new kind of "watching rhythm" which throws the mind into a different mode of understanding.

We normally have action/consequence in most of what we see, but here we're so busy piecing consequence together we rarely notice the missing action, like we did in that hard (jarring) edit in Lorna's Silence.

Of Bíró's two ideas, the repitition is more self-evident. It's usually used in opposition to ellipsis, but here in Denis's construct they work in tandem. Repitition is found in the daily life of the inhabitants of an apartment complex, the every day rituals of the father and daughter, the normality of daily living: cooking, cleaning, their laundry, their work. Repetition and normal life provide us a glimpse at the loving relationship between father and daughter with a "narrative economy," that sets the tone for what Bíró calls the "poetic sensuality" of the story.

The scene that best illustrates ellipsis happens when the group's car breaks down on their way to a concert. Our four characters have to push their dead vehicle in pouring rain and take shelter in a shabby little restaurant. There they carry on with what should have been a great night out -- eating, drinking and dancing together. Glimpses at what is to come are seen in a kiss from one couple and a suggestive dance from another (the second couple unintended). And then the ellipsis: we cut to three of them on their way home on a train, instead of four. We think we may know where the fourth is but we've had nothing to show us exactly what happened. All three on the train are intensely silent. Relations at this point shift dramatically, and it's all from something we never saw. The viewer is left to interpret the action from the consequence alone even as we are simultaneously trying to interpret the consequence. It feels like we're using that 90% of the latent portion of the brain, that place we don't often need when we usually see the action first, followed by the explained consequence.

Were the film only made of the repitition, I would have fallen asleep. Were it only made of ellipses, it would've been far too Lynchian for such a lovingly crafted family drama. Denis uses the techniques together so that it surges the almost "non-narrative" forward. It keeps us thinking in all three possible directions, an intertwining past, present, future. After time with the stories of the four main characters, it's no longer plot that we find ourselves following, but rather the emotional state of the story's tender folk.

And this is why the acting must also be classified as superb. In an almost word-less emotional state, fragile and sometimes unspoken, the acting is the icing on the cake that showcases an incredible group achievement.

I use this blog to try to put words to my own film reaction, how I "sweep" away at what has settled after an initial dusting experience. People like Yvette Bíró are a wholly different variety -- they write articles that explain why we love what we see, even if we sometimes can't put it to words.

A wonderful, loving portrait is painted in 35 Shots of Rum, one that's even better when someone who really understands it tells you why it's such an achievement.

I can't wait until it comes out on DVD and I can sit with it once again. I can't wait until others latch on to its beauty. I can't wait to find those who'll search out words with me, describing how repitition and ellipsis are really the key to ourselves.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The White Ribbon. (2009) Michael Haneke

The 2009 Cannes Palme d'Or went to one of my favorite directors and his latest work, The White Ribbon. I was able to catch all of its luscious black and white splendor on a giant Landmark screen opening night in Chicago.

Like many of my favorite films, it's not a story that you discuss in terms of "like" or "dislike". I'm still coming to terms with my own feelings on it. But I do know this -- it's a Haneke film. For a great many years he's been known for agitating his audiences in both wonderful and aggravating ways. I mean, do you really remember Michael Haneke? At one point he had the sheer fun audacity to write a character into the story who didn't like the direction of the script, so in the middle of the film the character picked up a remote control, backed the whole movie up (yes, he even rewound himself), and finished it to his own liking.

But as of late Haneke has been on a monster of a roll. He's growing older and growing up, growing wiser in how to fully engage an audience. He knows exactly which buttons to push, and when to push them. It's as if he flipped the power switch on high and his train won't be derailed.

This decade alone he's softened his well-known bad boy stance and cranked out four serious marvels discussed ad nauseam by dedicated cinephiles around the globe. Of those four, he's probably best known for La pianiste and Caché, which rocketed audiences with the unexpected sights and sounds of sexual and voyeuristic psychology. But it was the interlocking symbols of Code Unknown, and the dreamy apocalyptic nightmare of Time of the Wolf that had me forever hooked on Haneke. Three of these works I also saw on the big screen -- there's not a better way to squeeze light into a space.

We know what we're getting into when we stumble into Haneke film. It's never going to be an easy experience. The mood won't be light by any means. By the time one makes it to the scrolling end credits, you might be stuck in your seat, clawing the armrest. It's not horror, it's humanity, which is sometimes horrifying. It's not terror, it's trauma, and it happens every day.

The White Ribbon, then, is a pre-WWI creeping of sadness unveiled. I'm not persuaded Haneke's point is sadness for sadness' sake, nonetheless it accompanies the lush images like a conjoined twin.

The year is 1913. A village in Germany is subjected to a series of heinous, violent incidents. People are injured or beaten in the town. A note is left at one of the scenes of a grissly crime. Propelled by sweet-looking, uncommonly quiet children, their perfect doe-eyed Arian looks seize us: Are these kids the same adults who will in twenty more years instigate the atrocities of world war horror? Are the children as innocent as they look, even at this tender young impressionable age? Has something affected them already that's determined their destiny?

You can't suppose that the village crimes are committed by these pure kids, can you?

The children are constantly monitored, but they can gather at the edge of town to unwind. When under surveillance, either by the Church or the State, they are puritain moralists, just like mommy and daddy and the teacher and preacher too.

Unfortunately mommy and daddy and the rest of the adults aren't as moral as their influence suggests. When they punish the kids and make them wear a white ribbon (representing the quest for a moral life), the kids see right through all the falsity into the dark secrets hidden in the cracks of every home. A tension is built, the crimes continue, and the kids fall constantly into trouble, but never for the village crimes. This ordeal builds to an unforgettable climax, one that is very reflective of the times (then and now).

I don't understand all the intentions of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. I know that somewhere along the line, they feel we've done them wrong, and that our entire country should pay for the mistakes in our government. I don't want to say that I have empathy for them because honestly I don't know if I do. It's a situation I don't fully understand. I'm not one to typically spout off about politics that I just don't get.

Terrorism in general is on display in The White Ribbon, if indeed the children are behind the community crimes. And right here, in this context, I think we can understand it. Terror is what's left when you honestly feel there's no other play.

The moralizing system that the adults grind into the kids is closely akin to that of other black and white films like Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, or more likely, a film I recently wrote about Here, Day of Wrath. When religious and political oppression is lorded over you, when you really have no choice but to continue on -- when you have no voice and no way of electing better representation, hopelessness and fatalism reign.

The children have no chance to speak for themselves. If they really did speak for themselves, if their thoughts for one second were ever made known, the system would crash down like a ton of bricks on their backs, effectively burying them alive. It would totally destroy whatever is left in them that's not already dead.

When you are beaten down and offered no way to live other than what your oppressor says is right, and your will is beyond saving or hope, your options are less and your desire to live diminished. Of course, there's the option of suicide. There's also insanity and escape. And many of the adults' responses to the village oppression goes there. But there's also the option of responding, attacking, striking at the root without naming yourself. We're never certain who the attacker is, but it's someone who has realized the need to strike back.

It may sound insane to suggest that guerilla tactics be applauded among children. I would never suggest this to my own kids! But if my child were daily beaten up at the playground, would I continue to have him or her pray for God to intervene, or at a certain point would I teach how a fist is made? Maybe God's will is sometimes found in the fist.

I'm not saying that if it was the children then Haneke is right. What I'm saying, and I don't think this spoils anything because the point is not about the plot (and besides, you begin to suspect the kids immediately) -- is that if it is the children, Haneke might be right, and like the options I recently talked about in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, sometimes there is only the greater right of wrong.

It's hard and sad because it's supposed to be. The White Ribbon is a picture of the secular human heart in a brave new world, free of any miraculous intervention. It's not easy to watch; you desire to hope for something more. But nothing good awaits these characters. Even if they live to figure out the mystery of the village crimes, there's a greater threat lingering on the horizon.
Haneke reminded us in a recent interview that God was declared dead over 100 years ago. The White Ribbon is like a welcome sign to reality when belief has been left behind.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Top Ten Films of the Aughts

#1. The Son. (2002)  Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

A carpenter, a death, and the road to resurrection: The quietest of stories can also be the most tense.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne owned the decade in film. The Son is their parabolic ointment for grief.

#2. Code Unknown. (2000)  Michael Haneke

When language doesn't communicate, when words are fragmented like scenes on a cutting room floor:

"Morality," Cahiers du cinéma critic Luc Moullet famously said in 1959,"is a question of tracking shots."

And tracking -- understanding -- will win after the words.

#3. Dogville. (2003)  Lars von Trier

Through absurdist expressionism and a Brechtian minimalist stage, Lars von Trier brought us Grace, and Grace became grace --

And she entered the town of Dogville, where Law lay waiting.

Only the Father knows who won.

#4. In This World. (2002) Michael Winterbottom

An unclassifiable film that blends the borders between documentary and drama, you never quite know what you're watching.

And there are other kinds of blending borders and some will pay to be smuggled, some to rot on the trip, and some to die.

This riveting tale by Michael Winterbottom softens even the most hardened of hearts in the gun-em-down border guard patrol.

#5. Irréversible. (2002)  Gaspar Noé

The screen is meant for truth, and truth meant for the screen. Sometimes it attacks you, it rapes you repeatedly and beyond reason. Sometimes all you can do is look back and try to piece together what has happened.

These traumas in our lives are there for a reason. The hardships cannot be taken back. They are there to look back on as we set our feet to the journey ahead.

Is Noé a sadist for putting us through this torturous test? No more than he's an augur for asking us to look back before plunging ahead.

#6. Tarnation. (2003)  Jonathon Caouette

A tour de force from a brave and conflicted young man.

In the YouTube decade of self-made clips, Caouette battles with himself on full display. He's a Mac-loving cineaste in a generation of childish clipmakers.

#7. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. (2007)  Cristian Mungiu

The story that drills a hole in the heart of Vera Drake -- sometimes every path to go down is wrong. Sometimes every choice is the wrong one, and every ally a foe.

Romania has come alive and is to be celebrated with joy in their participation in the film party.

4,3,2, however, is like an entry on the Obits page. A sad, true tale of political and spiritual collapse, eyes for the blessing are blinded.

#8. Lilja 4-ever. (2002)  Lukas Moodysson

Outrage is the only expression for what we hear in the news every day. Lijla, as Ebert pointed out, is the human face that might rid us of callousness.

I will never forget the joy of the little Estonian, or the Lord's prayer that she prayed at night.

It is a true story in that sex slavery is still a constant in our world. We don't see it as often, but it's a constant in our midst. Moodysson serves an intention to help open our eyes. I know he widely opened mine.

#9. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. (2001-2003) Peter Jackson

I cannot separate the three films or it would be impossible to pick one for the Top 10. If one were left out it would be unfair to the others, but to not include any would be unfair to them all.

Quite simply, any notion of the "spiritual" nature of the stories set aside -- they are the greatest fantasy films ever made.

To be watched over and over again.

#10. The Passion of The Christ. (2004)  Mel Gibson

The brutal, terrifying ending to the Greatest Story ever told.

Accused of being sadistic, but no worse than other films on the list, Mel Gibson's version of the passion is violent, raw, bloody and revolting.

It's about time someone lent truth in image to Our Story.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lorna's Silence. (2008)
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

The meek and modest brothers from Belgium have once again flavored a film for us. Released in theaters in Belgium, in August 2008, it made its arthouse run in the states a few months ago. As of January 5, it has finally been reborn on DVD. (My rental has been sent back to Netflix; I can't wait to get a copy of my own.)

Lorna's Silence easily holds its own in the worship-filled oeuvre of the Dardennes. It's hard, as usual, to put a finger on exactly why the story moves us. That word that I hate, "Spiritual," comes to mind. Experiencing their works is often like spending an hour in emotive prayer at your church altar, feeling lifted up and assured when you're done, but leaving and forgetting what you prayed about in the first place. In Lorna's Silence, you might not forget what you prayed about -- but you might instead remember that you fervently prayed over a situation of your own invention. As in: a focused plea for help over something pretend, something you made up.

This strange "remembering prayer experience" is something like the feeling the Dardennes bring to the heart via the screen every time you encounter their latest film. It's euphoric, and certainly a treasure, but describing the why remains a constant linguistic challenge. Bresson's aura hangs somewhere overhead, heavily, like a ghost blowing smoke into the air.

In Lorna's story, we're introduced to a stubborn and beautiful Albanian woman who will show the world she will not easily be controlled. Belgium gives her a newfound sense of freedom, and everyone around her knows it. Even the mob of criminals she transacts with every day waver in how much they can trust her. Her decisions are based on her own gut instincts; her sporadic tendencies transform into danger.

It's a story of immigration, drug addiction, love, betrayal, loss, guilt, sadness, and... something else. It's the something else here that is like that moment of surrender that you can't quite put your finger on. It has something to do with the psyche of Lorna and how her brain deals with her own immorality. (It's in this sense that comparisons to Bresson, particularly Au hasard Balthazar, leap to mind.) Lorna was made to be a good character, but somehow, somewhere she got off track. Life hit her, perhaps from the borders of Albania. She responds, but in doing so she forgets that she is good. Isolated in nature, separated from all her bad boy city friends,she will recover a form of goodness. But it's still only a form.

Lorna is the character who was made to be good but the script bent her into other things.

I've been talking about Lorna with some friends, especially her fate in the final few seconds of the story. We've wondered whether the rather strange ending might have taken even the filmmakers by surprise. It went exactly where it was supposed to go; no force above or below could hold this ending back. Logically, there is no reason to fall in love with how it resolves. Emotionally, spiritually, and emotively, there is a reason for the heart to beat full-on with the head lodged out of sorts.

This is so typical of what I say when I see a new Dardennes, and that is --  I'll need to see this several times before really digging into the full plate of its intentions. All I can say for now is that it is "perfectly Dardennes"; that it is quiet and contemplative as usual, that it's somewhat a parable Story relayed on film, and it's not really abstract as much as it is mindfully complex.

Ebert pointed out that there's a very rough edit that's not typical of the Dardennes' style, which happens smack dab in the middle of an important moment. I agree with Ebert on this point. The rough edit was hard to take. It was like being thrown into the next room and trying to recover from the attack and stumbling back into the viewing room while the movie keeps playing. But you can get past this hard edit and lay claim with me on the most strange and perfect ending we've encountered in a while. It is yet another masterful ending for the Dardennes.

Again I will say this: It went exactly where it was supposed to go.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pedro Almodóvar, Dan Allender, and Me.
Part II of III.

Almodóvar's Broken Embraces (2009)

Almodóvar's Volver (2006)

I've been able to sit with Pedro Almodóvar's two most recent films in the last week. Both lead the viewer on an exciting trip to unexpected places, and I'd quickly recommend either to cinephiles unfamiliar with his work.

Both star Penélope Cruz in amazing lead roles. I'm really growing to admire Ms. Cruz as a tough, talented actress, surprisingly more than just a pretty face. She's capable of turning your emotions on a dime, inciting you to both hate and love, and sometimes she can incite that mysterious feeling of confliction between the two extremes.

If I had to choose only one to recommend it would be difficult. By a slight notch, Volver is my favorite of the two. There's a friendly, surprising twist that balances all the scales in the latter third of Volver. It takes the viewer out of the realm of the trip we originally thought we were on, but to a better, much more care-oriented and grace-filled place. I love it for its final few moments of serenity. The last scene is nothing less than beautifully penetrating: Something that was lost is now found -- a feeling of home, if not hope, for the brokenhearted.

However, I had such a good time with Broken Embraces, which I actually got to watch on the big screen, that I almost wish I could simply recommend my experience over and above the film itself. Not that the film isn't good, because it's actually quite fantastic. But my experience at the theater that night was very personal, and happy, and my wonderful moment was as good to me as the film itself. 

While I won't recommend the impossible, and that is for you to have my same experience, I will say just a bit more about mine: It rushed over me in the presence of my sister, the first film we've been to alone in many years. We had a great time together trying to piece together its broken chronology. We had fun going back over the darker, more noirish atmospheres present in the shadows. We both loved Cruz, and the approach with which Almodóvar related the story, and we loved the fact that in Broken Embraces there are actually two films within the film.

We took it in with a mostly gay crowd, and it was fun to share in that, too. At a certain point I realized Almodóvar is probably also a favorite for many in that crowd. It's not really my crowd, as I don't share many of the same needs or views that they have, but I loved the commonality in sharing a love for this director and the experience as a whole. We all had a great night together. It was like getting dressed up as individuals and ending up as a small community at Babette's Feast.

I loved hearing my sister gasp at a certain point in the story, and later how she explained that this isn't something she normally does at the movies. She was very engrossed in it, and for me this was quite a bit of fun to watch. When later she raved on and on about how great she found Ms. Cruz, I was relieved. I felt vindicated -- that it wasn't just my preoccupation with Penélope's beauty and my attachment to her as a man, but there is real talent in her bones, and it was good to have my sister verify my thinking.

So I ain't. just. seeing. things. Cruz is pretty, but she's also pretty darn talented in her skill.

I haven't searched around the internet, but I know this can't be a new thought: There hasn't been a director and muse that have bonded so well since the French New Wave of Godard and Anna Karina. Godard was as much as, and maybe even more of a genius in his day; Karina's beauty sometimes overshadowed her true acting talent. Forty years and tons of genre shifts later we remember them well in the Spanish chemistry between Almodóvar and Cruz.

In both films, Almodóvar once again follows the Allender priciples of Story. There is Shalom. There is the backward gaze into the painful past. There is tension in dealing with hurts that are still present, and there is the brave act of dealing with and surrendering to these tensions, and continuing to write the Story as you journey ahead. In both Broken Embraces and Volver, Penélope Cruz is the character who has to deal with the writing of her own story, even as its characters shift and change around her, causing her to react and refine herself within a constant changing paradigm.

The way I see it, film is the highest calling for a Storyteller. I'm fascinated at how Almodóvar deals with Story not only in terms of plot and narrative structure, but he adds to that: the direction of the acting, the best ways to capture light and sound, and the editing of the parts into a whole as the coup d'état in the storytelling process. It's simply fun to watch a master at his craft.

I was telling my friend Blake how much I've enjoyed the first hundred pages of the Allender book he recommended, and how I was doing something different with it. Instead of relating to Allender's suggestions of Story as a figurative way to live, that I'd already been in the mode of desiring to churn out the words of my own unique experience onto paper, or in this case by a keyboard. It was at this point that Blake told me that Allender is only warming up -- that he actually intends for the reader to sit down and write. It's not simply figurative after all. Allender literally wants us to do what I'd already set out to do. To write, with God as our co-author, the story of our lives, and to write into existence where our Story with our co-author is going. I decided to keep reading.

(To really let the book sink in, it has to be read slowly. OK, that's my Excuse For Slow Reading # 323.)

Allender had a friend drop by who basically told him that he loved the idea of the "Story of our lives," up until the point where he realized Allender really wanted the reader to take up a pen and write stuff down. At that point, a fear seemed to seize him. He didn't want to actually write out the hardships, or the trials he'd faced down, the horrors amidst the joy. He didn't want to invest the time and tackle writer's block and frustrations at dealing with self. He didn't know how to find his own voice in regard to his own unique Story.

Allender went on to explain the importance of actually sitting down and writing, and he shared -- right there in the middle of the book -- the Story of one of the greatest horrors that he's faced. And it is wrenching. Right there in a published work, he shares the punch in his stomach that altered the course of a good portion of his life. It isn't nice, it isn't fun, and it isn't pretty.

He has shared this story not only with the masses in this published book, but he's also shared and asked for help and opinions from the friends and loved ones closest to him. Their reactions and guidance have lifted him in times of despair; their prayer his continual comfort.

The importance of writing, then, isn't simply getting the words down and looking at them and thinking, "I'm a survivor!" The importance isn't even the fact that someone else may read it and try to figure out if it means anything to them. The importance is to the writer himself, when he sits down with his friends, his companions -- his editors -- and tries to piece together the subconscious reality weaving in and out of the written words. Life isn't only understood in the events themselves, nor in the subjective interpretation of the events. It is best understood when shared with close, careful observers. Those who are friend enough to announcing a blessing upon the Storyteller, and cry "Foul!" when the tale goes astray.

This subconscious reality is what I'm trying to understand when I sweep away where film grips me. There's always something left after experiencing another's story. There's such beauty in creative expression alone. The fingerprints of God are revealed in creation. Some see vapors of their Creator in engineering or in science, some in religion or in sound theology. I guess I've always been dusting at the fingerprints of the Creator behind the created work of art.

I'll never sit down and write anything like the auteur Pedro Almodóvar or the writer Dan Allender. They're not me. I am not like them or their character or their approach at their work and craft. But God has given me a unique voice in this world, and I'm still taking the advice of Allender to heart. I'm still inching day by day at little words on a double-monitor that begin to paint where I came from, where I went, where I went astray, how I'm trying not to continue that, and where I think we intend to head together.

I hope to find friends and editors who will help as I co-author this work with God.

I pray I grow closer to my Creator as I launch out on this creative endeavor. The greats have gone before me. I have no one to impress but myself. I know that with a co-author as big as mine, I really can't go wrong. The worst that can happen is that we get to know each other just a little bit better.

There are five films and a bit of time needed to let the ending of Allender's book sink in, before I can post Part III of the Almodóvar/Allender series. Regular posting will now continue, and Part III will post in a few weeks.

Also - as an aside, I do not know why I cannot respond to the comments at the blog. I never considered that this would be a place for correspondence as much as I thought it would be a place to organize my thoughts. Rest assured, I have been humbled and overjoyed at the comments, and when I figure out what I'm doing wrong here, I will immediately respond. I've also looked at, and quite enjoyed, the blogs of those who have commented here. Good to get to know you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Pedro Almodóvar, Dan Allender, and Me.
Part I of III.

Almodóvar's All About My Mother (1999)

Almodóvar's Talk To Her (2002)

At the moment I'm trying to catch up on two artists I've neglected until recently.

The first, Pedro Almodóvar, I only neglected because there just isn't enough time for every film in the world, much as I wish there were. It turns out I pretty much agree with everyone else -- he's a genius film director, with a heavy emphasis on character study, particularly female, and an emotionally alluring narrative drive. He's particularly fond of studying the nature of women in general -- how they relate to one another, how they function in different families, how they react, how they support, how they love. He likes to bump characters into each other who ordinarily would not mix, and then we get to watch as they interplay with each other and grow in their social support.

So I've seen my first two Almodóvar films, and they are All About My Mother, and Talk To Her.

All About My Mother is the 2000 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. It's about a grieving mom, a transvestite, a pregnant nun and a well-known theater actress, and how their lives intersect and entwine. It ends with Almodóvar dedicating the piece to his mom and all women everywhere. He relishes in the creation of "the woman," and he builds the film as a sort of tribute to her many stages. He shows us, too, how women build communal and familial homes in one another when separated, whatever the reason, from their own families.

Talk To Her is the strikingly unconventional story about two women -- a dancer and a bullfighter -- who end up in comas in hospital rooms as neighbors. As their families try to relate to them in their state, we see them continue their relationships with the women even when they doubt they will open their eyes again. To say more here would be giving way too much away about this wonderfully engossing spanish film. This one just has to be seen to be understood.

The second neglected artist I want to mention is a writer named Dan B. Allender, PhD.  I haven't heard of him until recently. He was brought to my attention from a friend who excitedly approached me, saying, "You've got to read this book, To Be Told! It is awesome!" And he went on and on about it. The book is in high demand, and it took a little while for the library to track down a copy. As soon as I dove into it, I was sold.

To Be Told is a book about Story, that is, "story" with a capital "S". Allender proposes in To Be Told his idea that your life is an important story of God's design; that no matter where you're at in life, you are always co-authoring the Story of your life with God. Yours is a unique story worth living out and sharing with others; it has the potential to be a blessing to listening ears.

It was odd timing for my friend to approach me with this particular book at this particular time. Lately, the thought of writing down some thoughts regarding My Existence On The Planet Earth has been at the front of my mind, anyway. I do, after all, have a truly unique story. It's not quite as unique as the writer's unfathomable story in Running With Scissors, or as crazily depressing as the nutty family in The Squid and the Whale, but it's a story, nonetheless, one that is mine, but shared with my family and friends and acquaintances along the way. It's a wild ride, with some crazier-than-usual moments. It is fun, and it's certainly not typical in any way that I know. You can call my story whatever you want, but typical, it ain't.

I'm the only person I know who has been a preacher's kid, a student, a missionary, a musician (a "mini-Rock Star" in the best moments of that season), a minister, a guy with a pencil in his shirt in a cubicle, a worker at a doctor's office, and a guy stocking shelves for a world enterprise that I hate. I'm a Christian (for lack of a better word), a lover, a father, an alcoholic, and the most broke person with the most hope you've ever met. (I am turning 40 this spring and right now there are $300 Big Bucks in the bank. That's it. No retirement fund, no 401K. There's nothing else, unless I sell a few vintage guitars. And honestly, I have more hope than ever before.)

I'm also the only person I know who got in a fight with a car wash -- and won! -- I kicked the crap out of that car wash!...  And I'm the only person I know who has gone into a country with a group of friends the day after it was militarily taken over.

I've faced total abandonment, divorce, rehab, anxiety, depression and defeat -- and what's been proven to me in some of the hardest moments I've faced is that at your lowest point, God will meet you. Some of us just need to bottom out to get it.

So my Story really is unique. I mean, everything I just listed was all off the top of my head. There's so much more! I'm the only American I ever met that played guitar and sang in a duet on The Miss Albanian show live in Albania, to over three million people on TV. See? I told you there was more. (Instant. Albanian. Fame!)

The timing on my friend giving me the Allender recommendation when he didn't know I'd already begun my memoir is odd. Some might call it a coincidence. I've given up on coincidences. Once you've said a prayer and seen a coincidence, only to offer another prayer and get a coincidence, after one more prayer and then once again an almost expected coincidence... Well, you get it. You see a bit more to it than just "coincidence."

But I still admit I'm intimidated at the thought of trying to write about "me". Writing an entire book about "me". I'm not writer, but I've felt that this is something I'm supposed to do -- it has been proven over and over through a series of "coincidences," and it's God ordained. It's more than just a sense. It's a fact in my heart. I've had an outline and a few rough drafts of chapters for three or four months now. But Lord knows, I will need an editor. (If you've read this far I'm sure you feel the same.)

Allender has this idea that all good stories are built on a certain kind of narrative arc. That at the beginning, you have peace. Shalom. It's that time when everything is as it is supposed to be, that moment when you're at one with yourself and your place in the earth.

But something enters into this sort of Eden, this peaceful placed called Shalom. And that is tension. Tension brings with it: Frustration. Tragedy. A shattered Shalom. Ugliness. Sin. Reality. Tension is unavoidable, and the reason it propels a good story is because it's a reflection of how life truly works -- certain hardships are unavoidable, and that's life. How good the story, or Your Story is, depends on how you choose to struggle through the hardships, the choices and decisions you're forced to make, the bad ones along with the good. According to Allender, the goal of your story is to determine what kind of an ending, or what kind of denouement you are going to co-author with God as your writing buddy.

I like this. It's one of the most simple structures for explanation I've seen, and it seems to make perfect sense. If this is all it takes to make a Good Story, I know I have a wowza of a story to tell.

So I've been reading Allender and tracking down the films of the gifted filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar. Most Americans know him even if they don't because all of the spanish films in which you find that righteous babe Penélope Cruz are Almodóvar's films. Essentially, he discovered her years ago, and now they are best friends. They make films together, they have coffee together -- she has said in an interview that when he's feeling depressed, she likes to be the "nurse" that gets him through it. So they're best friends. No more, no less. The relationship goes no further, because Almodóvar is gay.

In watching All About My Mother and Talk To Her, I've stumbled upon a filmmaker that, in my mind, is utterly brilliant. His cinematography is scrumptious, and his storylines are simply fun and peculiar. Perhaps "quirky based in classical" is a good way to describe them. He loves exploring the nature of The Woman, and he endlessly drops little nods to his love for world cinema. For instance, the sensational All About My Mother is actually a nod to the classic All About Eve, which even plays as a film within the film, setting the tone for much of the role-playing the women end up grappling with.

Almodóvar might get along quite well with Allender, too, for he really knows how to tell a good story: Shalom. Tension. Risk. Disaster. Desire. Honesty. Denouement. The films ride on an emotional roller coaster that is rigid with such precise tension that you can't help but hope for a good end for its characters. You really want to see a return to that peace, that Eden. You inwardly suffer for these characters to return to Shalom.

There are several Almodóvars now lined up in my DVD queue. It'll be interesting to continue comparing them to Allender's ideas on Good Story. It'll also be interesting to compare them to my Story, and whether or not I can honestly tell it well. Honesty, it would seem, is really all that it takes.

But if you think there's a tension around watching or reading a good story, try experiencing it and then writing for a while. It's not as easy as you might think. There are bumps to getting that pain out and onto paper. Good Story hurts.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Miracle Maker. (2000)
Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov

When our voting community talks about the greatest films of arts and faith, it's sad we don't have more noticeable children's films. In a key scene in The Miracle Maker, Jesus champions the faith of the little ones. He reminds us that they approach Him from the eyes of innocence, and out of a fearless need for life-affirming love. They know they can find their needs met in Him, and they're ready to be enveloped in the power of His life. They're ripe for seeking all the good they can hold onto, and they they're less apt to doubt that this good is found in Him.

Not that The Miracle Maker is necessarily a children's film, per se. It is animated, switching from very real looking puppets that are brought to life in a claymation-like process, to flashback scenes rendered in straight up cartoon. And we're somewhat conditioned to see this as only a children's medium and form. But when a story presents such a strong narrative arc -- (it is, after all, "The Greatest Story Ever Told") -- we can interpret it as a story that will reach any age, any skin color, any religion in any nation. Good Story does that.

This story in particular has a message that is to everyone, everywhere, and it is simple: God's Kingdom is here, and now, and it happens in how you take care of the creation the Father has created you in. Jesus' death and atonement for sin is only a part of the symbolic picture of how we are instructed to live and bless the world.

So even though it works for little kids -- and I watched twice as my own were completely engrossed in it (ages 6 and 4) -- it is a story that barrels through the age barrier, especially when told, as it is here, with such reverence for the original text, and piercing honesty.  

The Miracle Maker is personally amazing to me because I don't really like cartoons or kids' shows. Yet, even in a form that doesn't usually excite me, this story, when told this well, is the one that invades my heart and leaves me quietly stunned. Perhaps a tear can be found trickling from the corner of my eye.

Two pointed ideas are found in this version of the Gospel that aren't typically included in versions told to little ones:

One: That every political, social and economic view was present for Jesus to transform. That his disciples had loads of ideas about what their mission even was. That his crucifixion and resurrection overwhelmingly shocked as many as were on the outside of the circle, as it did the ones listening to his heart at the dinner table earlier that night.

And, TWO: That when Christ cried out and died, not only were the skies groaning and full of darkness, but somewhere off in the distance was a temple -- and as He gave up the ghost, the temple veil was shockingly torn in two.  The miracle of this event is what struck me in this rendition of the Gospel. After thousands of years of ritual and sacrifice, God still longed to fulfill the original promise he made to Abraham. That we who know Him are to be a blessing to all people, everywhere.

When the temple veil ripped, God picked up a universal bullhorn and shreiked at the earth: "Everyone is welcome! Every tribe! Every nation! Cast aside your judgment, and care for one another! The Kingdom is here, and now! There's no need to separate from those around you! Everyone, everywhere, come in!"

Watching this rendering of the tearing of the veil makes me wonder whether we, like the disciples at that time, are still floundering at the actual message of Christ. God rips the veil of a thousand-year religious process to make a point, and we, what? Somehow, we start a new religion called "Christianity."

I know there is hope. And I know God loves the church. The Story writes itself onto my heart, and I remain convinced that the way of Jesus is the only Way to truly bring heaven here to the earth. I just don't know how to do that, yet.

But I hope there are others who are wondering the same thing.

For a review instead of a reaction, check out my friend SDG's review Here, and my friend Matt's review Here. They are both excellent for further reading on The Miracle Maker.