Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Tao of Film: Pure Cinema and The Christian Aesthetic Part 1

The concept of beauty is something that has been debated for centuries. There is actually a sub branch of the discipline of philosophy dedicated to it. There are three branches of philosophy: ontology, epistemology, and axiology. Ontology is the study of being, nature, and existence. Epistemology is the study of knowledge, belief, and intuitions. Axiology is the study of ethics, aesthetics, and value theory. Aesthetics deals with beauty. The phrase "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is commonly and rather flippantly stated whenever a discussion of beauty arrises. But what most people do not realize is that this is not just some casual cliche but is in fact an important philosophical statement. Essentially what this phrase means is that my response to beauty is more important than beauty itself. Taken completely literally this phrase means beauty does not exist outside of my mind. Beauty is a quality I give to something not something it actually possesses. So beauty is only perceived. But If beauty is only a perception then why does it matter at all? Well maybe it doesn't. Because if all we mean when we say "That waterfall is beautiful" is that "I am having beautiful feelings because of that waterfall" then all we are doing when having discussions of value is simply to express a state of affairs about ourselves. When I look at the sun setting and I feel awe because of the beauty my mind perceives from it and I express that in a poem I am expressing nothing except for my own feelings.

Is this such a bad state of affairs? Well yes and no. If it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder...well then its true and we should accept it. But if its true that "beauty" only exists in me then what do we say about God? When I finally "see" or experience God directly some day and I say to him "you are the most beautiful" all I have said to him is "I have never experienced such wonderful feelings." But that isn't what I mean when I speak of God's beauty. In fact that isn't what anybody means when they ascribe beauty to something. If they meant that they were having "beautiful feelings" they would probably say so. The statement "x is the most beautiful" or even simply "y is ugly" taken in its most strait-forward sense requires either assent or denial. Either the statement is true or false. It requires the same kind of commitment as a moral statement from the person who is confronted with it. It is wrong to kill innocents for fun requires either assent or denial. I don't mean by the statement "abortion, in cases where the LIFE of the mother is not in jeopardy, is always wrong" that abortions make me feel wrong. They may in fact make me feel wrong. In fact that might be my only justification for the moral claim that I have made but the claim still stands on its own. It is either true, false, or partially true (in which case further corrections will either make it completely true or completely false).

But for many in the west ethics and aesthetics have taken on this kind of reasoning. Everything is based solely on our feelings. Judgements can and should be based at least partially on feelings. But when you believe that feeling this or that is the criterion for what makes something whatever it is then you have destroyed objective value completely. The only thing that remains are feelings.

But how can beauty be simply a perception? We are drawn to beautiful things. The eye of the beholder recognizes the beauty in something. If we claim that beauty is subject to ourselves then what we are really saying is that I determine what is beautiful. And if I determine what is beautiful then you also determine what is beautiful. And when we disagree? Well we're both right because objectivity about beautiful things is impossible. I can only know that I think x is beautiful and y is ugly. And if you think y is beautiful and x ugly well, I guess it doesn't really matter.

I believe that this is false. Mainly for this reason: I know that we attribute beauty to external things. Even if beauty was in the eye of the beholder the beholder has to be beholding something. It's not as if propositions concerning beauty just spontaneously generate in our minds. They are reacting to something, they are in fact caused by something. And just because not everyone can see what you see in something does not mean that it is not there. It just maybe that something about you allows you to see the true value of whatever it is you are beholding. And vice versa, just because a thousand people believe a lie does not make it true. Consensus is not always a sure indicator of truth.

Now let us see what the Tao of film might be. If in fact objective beauty does exist let us see if we can find it in cinema.

“Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.”- Roger Ebert

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things."- Philippians 4:8

These two statements are what make up the film aesthetic that I am using to evaluate films. I am calling the first statement the basic essence of Pure Cinema: that film, being a primarily visual medium, is most powerful when it focuses on visual story telling or visual communication of meaning or information to the viewer.
I am calling the second statement the Christian Aesthetic: that we should value what is truly valuable.

I do my best to evaluate films with these two theories primarily in mind. My project is to try to demonstrate how the life of the mind should effect film criticism. Most film criticism centers around personal taste and originality/creativity. And it is due to this that most people are under the impression that things like films (artistic achievements like painting, literature, etc.) are valued subjectively. This is partially a symptom of the collapse of modernity and the rise of existenialism. Both of which are things that I think have helped and hurt us at the same time, but especially in the arts and art criticism it seems to have hurt us.

I once told a friend that I thought aesthetic value was objective. She said she disagreed and could demonstrate to me how I was wrong. I said okay. She asked me who my favorite painter was. I said Georgia O'Keefe (she probably still is). Well, my friend retorted, I don't like O'Keefe! You see it's all subjective. That's literally all she said. She though that settled it and didn't want to discuss it anymore.

I realize that there may be more robust critique's of objectivist aesthetics but this is a common argument that is put forth. But just because intelligent people disagree does not prove that there is no right answer. And if we are able to formulate some sort of criterion for determining what may constitute a right or a wrong answer it will help us even more. That is why I have chosen to stipulate the above criteria. I think that we need something to help us evaluate cinema as Christian intellectuals.

Now anytime a criterion is imposed to determine what is or is not x we run into an epistemic problem. This problem is called the problem of the criterion.

This problem is most elegantly postulated by Roderick Chisholm. The problem is essentially the very foundation of epistemology. At the very bottom of all epistemic thought are two questions.

Question 1: What do we know?
Questions 2: How do we know?

It is not clear from these two questions which one should be answered first. Because if we had the answer to the first question we could almost certainly answer the second question by examining the set of things we know to come up with what they have in common: namely what makes them knowable. But if we had the answer to the second question we could figure out the answer to the first question.

But if there is something wrong with our set of answers to question 1 how could we know it? We don't have a criteria yet to exclude the good pieces of knowledge from the bad.

But how do we know our criteria is effective in determining what knowledge is? We don't have any particulars to test it agaisnt.

If we begin the epistemic project by answering question 1 first then we are particularists. If we begin by answering question 2 then we are methodists (no affiliation to the protestant denomination thankfully).

Now then what should we be? Particularists or methodists? Well this is the conundrum. And like many things in philosophy...nobody really knows for sure (except God). When it comes to epistemology I am primarily a particularist. I think that the things we know are generally speaking quite obvious, at least the most important things. But we do need a method of evaluating. In the end we have to be methodists and particularists. Which one comes first? Well probably particularism. You have to start somewhere and chances are even if you tried to be a methodist first you would be harboring particularist notions that you were trying to find justification for anyway. But it is not a question to be shrugged off. And at this point I will be functionally shrugging it off. Now how this relates to our current endeavor is that we need to be able to figure out instances of great film. How do we do this? The two questions reformulated lay before us:

Question 1: What films are great?
Question 2: How do we evaluate a great film?

The method I have suggested above is both particularist and methodist. I have stipulated two criteria, pure cinema and the Christian aesthetic. The first criteria is based upon observing many many films. I eventually came to the conclusion that what all truly great movies have in common is that they rely on the very essence of film to tell their stories: the visual. But at the same time I am a Christian. And in order for something to be valuable it has to conform to the Christian aesthetic which is summed up in Philippians 4:8. It has to be something that God deems worthwhile for me to spend my time involved with. This conclusion is based upon many other reasons, mostly that I think Christianity is the way to God, some of which are basic and reasoned for as well.

I will continue to work out the Tao of Film soon.

Further Reading:

Here is an article dealing with Chisholm's formulation of the problem of the criterion:
C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man

Monday, January 26, 2009

Valkyrie

On Rotten Tomatoes Bryan Singer's latest film has a 66% tomatometer with the following consensus: "Given the subject matter, Valkyrie could have been an outstanding historical thriller, but settles for being a mildly entertaining, but disposable yarn."

I think that Valkyrie was one of the most underrated films of the year. I'm not saying it was snubbed by the Academy or anything like that but it was a good film. And I am going to use this film as a jumping off point for something that will become rather regular here: the integration of theology/philosophy with film. And also to further my examination of what I believe should be the only truly neutral film aesthetic: pure cinema or what has recently become my personal mantra “Films that explain nothing often make everything clear. Films that explain everything often have nothing to explain.”

As a Christian I do not think that it is appropriate to switch off my Christianity while watching movies. I think that many Christians think that it is at the very least permissible to do this, and at the very worst required if one is to make any serious attempt to be an objective and intelligent cinephile.

But there are also many Christians who refuse to watch and/or enjoy films that are not explicitly Christian. 

This seems to be the two sides of the Christian Cinephile coin. Either film is totally separate from their Christianity or it is so enveloped by their Christianity that they do not allow themselves to experience virtually any truly great films. How do we spin this coin? In other words how do we find the balance? Or even more appropriately how then should we watch film? A synthesis is not always the appropriate or necessary response to any two clashing ideologies. 

For clarity sake let's call the more conservative approach fundy and the more liberal approach libby. So we have fundies and libbies and now we need to figure out what to do with them.

Well let's start with Valkyrie. There isn't really anything in this film that would reach out to other the fundy or the libby. It isn't particularly artistic and it isn't overtly Christian. It was directed by a Jew, who also happens to be a homosexual so if there is anything "Christian" in this film it was most likely not intentional. That isn't meant to imply that Jews and homosexuals can't believe in Jesus, but I'm pretty sure Bryan Singer does not fall into this category. The subject matter does seem like it would be of interest to a Jew or a homosexual. After all this is a film about Hitler, which also happens to be Singer's second film dealing directly with the events surrounding the holocaust, and technically his third or fourth considering that the first two X-Men films are directly (Magneto is a holocaust survivor ironically with a genocidal bent who just happens to be played by a homosexual) and metaphorically about the events surrounding the holocaust as well.

So Singer is clearly interested in films that portray the human struggle against not just tyranny but the kind of tyranny that seeks to not only subjugate minorities but obliterate them as well. So we're starting to see a trend here. At first glance and taken on its own Valkyrie may seem to be a "by the numbers" thriller. But when placed into Singer's Canon we see it may have a deeper pro social meaning. I think it is always important to look into a director's self made context as well as his general context when trying to interpret the meaning of his films. 

Another interesting connection can be made between Superman Returns and the four films that we've already seen have an underlying thematic connection. Superman was initially a response to the Germanic Nietzschean ideal of the ubermensch (over man). When Shuster and Siegel (also Jews by the way) created Superman part of their intent was to respond to this idea of the over man. Their character would in fact be a super man, a servant instead of a king. This was even more heavily reinforced when Mario Puzo and Richard Donner created the first Superman film intentionally using Christological language to describe Kal-El's journey to earth and his relationship with his father Jor-El as well as his mission on earth. He was supposed to be a messiah in the mythological tradition of Christ. In Singer's film this was again reinforced in language and in action throughout the film. In any case this whole ideology contradicts the very essence of the holocaust that those who are better (or worse believe they are better) than the rest of society should subjugate and rule. Superman is far more powerful than anything Nietzsche or Hitler ever envisioned man could or would become and yet he only acts to protect others. He does not fall prey to the Ring of Gyges, he submits to truth and justice and serves his homeland and the rest of the world as best he can.

I am not trying to make the case here that somehow Singer is a closet Evangelical or Christian filmmaker. Simply that his films contain a common theme, a theme which Christians can and should celebrate. In fact out of all his films Valkyrie may be the most beautiful in light of the Christian aesthetic. 

This film is essentially about one thing: martyrdom. We all know that this plot to kill Hitler doesn't succeed because we all know that Hitler committed suicide. We know before the film even begins that what we are about to watch is at least 2/3 tragedy. We are watching a tail of doomed men. And as becomes more apparent towards the end of the film these men know they are doomed. 

The concept of martyrdom is described differently by different religions. Classic Islamic martyrdom was death while fighting in Holy "Struggle" against the infidel. For Christianity it was death at the hands of your persecutor's for refusal to deny Christ. For some it takes on the connotation of death to self. In any case martyrdom has always involved meaningful death. A true martyr is not someone who has simply thrown his life away. He has given it up for something far more valuable than life itself.

When Christianity spread to the Icelandic Nordic tribes of Europe it was accepted without a great deal of struggle. There are probably many explanations for this but I think the one that makes the most sense is that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ not only met but fulfilled and completed the highest virtue of the Norse worldview: "The hero who goes freely to his death in a battle that he knows is unwinnable." The Nordic myths were all about continuous cosmic conflict that ultimately ended with the good guys losing. Ragnorok or as it is called in Wagner's Ring Cycle: Gotterdammerung (The Twilight of the Gods). And this wasn't just defeat. This was the end of the world as we know it. But Jesus Christ meets this virtue and then does the Nordic gods one better. After he loses, he wins. God dies and then miraculously turns utter defeat into complete and total victory. And he wins because of his defeat at the hands of evil, not in spite of it. He freely and knowingly commits himself into the hands of death in order to defeat death itself.

How could these people resist The Christ? Maybe he didn't carry a sword or ride goats around killing frost giants but he did what was most important to them. He martyred himself not just for honor's sake but for our sake. The dark cold world that bred the Norse gods created deep despair in the hearts of those who believed in these myths. They had to believe that fighting against what were literally insurmountable odds was a good thing. They never imagined that there might be a way to do both. To lose, and by losing to win. Christianity allowed them (for lack of a better idiom) to have their cake and eat it too!

The small band of German insurgents that pull together to try to beat Hitler are direct descendents of these people. After trying to figure out the best way to kill Hitler and yet escape the wrath of the Nazi's they decide that in the end it only matters that they act. Regardless of whether or not they are successful they must act in order to tell the world that not all Germans were like Hitler. And in acting they secure their own deaths, deaths that prove to the world that not all of Germany was evil. They act as true patriots. Giving their lives for the sake of their country. In other words by dying they win.

Some of the criticisms of the film were along the lines of characterization. The characters were not fully fleshed out. Well, this wasn't a story about characters. It wasn't a deep study of humanity. It was a story about sacrifice. They could have drug the film out for another hour but instead Singer showed us the events (pretty much as they happened) and gave us the justification: Valkyrie. This reference to Wagner's opera is important. And we know it is important because Stauffenberg's light goes on while listening to The Ride of the Valkyries. The camera zooms in on the record spinning round and round keying us into its significance. The average viewer couldn't possible understand all the implications of this. Which is unfortunate. But by tying in these Germans to their Nordic heritage through Wagner we see that these men are acting in line with an ancient heritage and tradition. A tradition that became easily synthesized with Christianity. 

So do we love this film because of its genetic roots to Christianity? I don't think you even need this background to understand what this film is truly about. I think we can love this film because of its portrayal of self-sacrifice. All of the parts are well played. The script and direction are solid. But it is really the content that raises this film out of the tomatometer's gutter.

I think properly applied this Christian aesthetic should be able to please the fundies and the libbies, but it probably will not. In spite of this I think I have demonstrated in this review and commentary that we can be Christians and yet be good film goers. I will eventually deal with other films that seem even farther from the Christian world view and I will do my best to show their true value.

I think this was a very good film. Completely in line with the Christian aesthetic and the aesthetic of Pure Cinema. And now I leave you with the most important line of the film:

"We have to show the world that not all of us are like him. Otherwise, this will always be Hitler's Germany."

Battles without Honor and Humanity

I recently started watching the epic Yakuza Papers. I have only completed the first volume so far but I have to say that I am very impressed. Sometimes referred to as the Japanese Godfather this is probably the only other crime epic I have seen that can be reasonably compared with Coppola's Mafia masterpieces. There are many similarities between the impact, historical placement and influence that these two huge series have had on cinema.

Why The Yakuza Papers is not better known is a mystery to me. The only thing I can think of is that the film is so frenetic it can be hard for westerners to follow. The Godfather movies all take up at least three hours to tell very complicated and intricate stories. Whereas each of the five Yakuza films are only about 90 minutes each. When placed side by side 5 volumes of 90 minutes is still comparable to 9 hours, but the amount of information and story conveyed within the first film was almost ten years worth. 

Before Coppola translated Puzo's bestseller to the big screen Hollywood had never really seen criminals on film in any light but negative. Criminals were the bad guys. And the production code in America made sure that bad guys couldn't get away with much without seeing some kind of retribution. Maybe the good guys didn't always win but the bad guys ended up on the wrong side of a gun somewhere along the line. But in Coppola's epic this all got turned around. Now Cops are the bad guys, the heroes of our story are the most powerful Mafia crime family in America! Vito is almost comparable to Moses, or some similar religious patriarch. This changed everything. And the fall of the American Film Production Code made it all possible. After this cinematic interpretations of the nature of the criminal and the mafia were totally up for grabs. Criminals could now be rebellious anti heroes, fighting corruption or simply trying to stay alive. But in Japan the Yakuza films before Fukasaku directed this pentateuch of crime were tales of honor and chivalry. Basically they were samurai movies with guns and gangsters. Fukasaku changed all that. Just look at the title of the first film: Battles without Honor and Humanity. He took the honor out of the Yakuza and tried to portray what was really there right after WWII: desperation and chaos. Except for our hero. The main character Shozo Hirono is the only character during the first film that displays any honor or humanity. He was a soldier turned Yakuza after the war, because he didn't have many other choices. But over and over throughout the film we see Shozo selflessly trade in his freedom for his mob boss. He does whatever is needed for his Yakuza family. And finally by the end of the film he is sick of it. 

The Yakuza Papers began reaching theaters in 1973. The Godfather premiered in 1972. Both films were set right after World War II. Both films feature many brutal deaths and assassinations. Both films are allegedly based on "truth" to some degree. Both films changed the very nature of the crime genre in their countries. Both function on a metaphorical level as societal commentaries. 

The Godfather Trilogy is well known and praised for Gordon Willis' brilliant cinematography. The Yakuza Papers is well known for its revolutionary use of hand held camera work. I don't think I've ever seen such a vast difference in visual aesthetics for two series of films that have so much in common. The Yakuza Papers feels very gritty and realistic, like you're actually there seeing all these things happen. Yet all the information is still clearly portrayed, unlike a contemporary example of terrible hand held camerawork: The Bourne Supremacy. 

Conclusion:
I don't really rate films with stars or numbers. Here a film is either bad, okay, good or great. I think that when I am done with this film series I will have a better handle on its value, but so far I think that this first entry is very good. Good acting, good cinematography, good directing, complicated intense story line, harsh social critiques, historical significance, and a very honest view of human nature make this one of the best films I've seen in the Mafia/Crime genre and one of my favorite foreign films to date.

 

Let it be known that a certain famous film critic is an ass

I like Ebert. I think his form of film criticism is honest and deeply human. It is also deeply flawed. Ebert thinks that in order to determine the worth of a film you cannot make judgements about the content. This is inaccurate. Much of a film's worth has to do with the content. It isn't all about the "morals" of a film but in general we praise films that reflect our values, what we care about, and what we believe is good or bad. Take Citizen Kane. Citizen Kane is a masterpiece of film making. It is difficult to watch though. It painstakingly details the events of one man's very depressing life. It watches like Ecclesiastes reads. It is the inverse of It's a Wonderful Life. And we praise both films for this singular virtue: truth. As much as we'd like to think that our aesthetic for interpreting and watching and valuing film is somehow removed from the vulgar world views that we all possess to some degree. This supposed unmasking is utter B.S. As it should be.

The title of this note is rather rude because I think that Ebert has been rather rude. Rude to Ben Stein. I still haven't seen the movie Religulous, and I still want to, but when reading Ebert's review of this film I was painfully aware that Mr. Ebert had not yet reviewed one of my favorite films of this past year: Expelled. I understand that Expelled is controversial, and that the scientific consensus is staunchly agaisnt it. But that was one of the reasons why I loved it so much. It had balls to put it lightly. What does Michael Moore really have to lose? His opinions are generally agreed with by his peers. What does Bill Maher have to lose by being rude to religious people? When people like that create controversy it is considered bold and entertaining. The religious right is easy to pick on. They don't have famous attractive people defending them in the media, they have middle aged mustached philosophers, and now we have Ben Stein. The whole sex sells thing isn't doing anything for conservatives in this country.

Anyway in his review Ebert stated his mantra that he grades a film based on how well it tells its story not what the story is about. And if he was consistent with this I don't think I would have a problem with him right now. But he is not consistent with this principle. And this isn't just about Expelled. Ever since I saw his review of Hoop Dreams (which if you haven't seen it you should) I realized that this man does deeply care about the content of the films he reviews. Hoop Dreams is an epic documentary. One of a kind. But it was not the best movie of the 90's, an opinion which Ebert will defend till his dying day. That's fine, he's got a right to an opinion. But don't tell us it was because of the artistry. He cared about those two boys who desperately wanted to play Basketball. He liked the fact that it was about the littlest guy in the world: high school boys from poor families. And that those boys happened to be real, not characters written for the screen. And that is probably the best thing about the film, it is real. But Schindler's List is a far superior film in every way, which is also real (at least based on historical fact).

Well finally Ebert decided to "review" Stein's film. What he actually did was make fun of Ben Stein and misrepresent the film's content. The links are here:

http://blogs.suntimes.com/scanners/2008/12/ben_stein_no_argument_allowed.html

http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2008/12/win_ben_steins_mind.html

Now regardless of how you feel about Expelled Ebert never gave it a chance. And while we are all hypocrites at some time or other Ebert's hypocrisy is available for everybody to look at on the internet. I loved Expelled, but I also own (not just watched but currently own) three Michael Moore documentaries. I believe that, for a mulitude of reasons, homosexuality is an immoral and unhealthy lifestyle but I actually own Brokeback Mountain (I think it was overrated but a good film non the less). If open mindedness, tolerance, and honesty are the three most exemplified virtues of my generation then I just beat Roger Ebert with a big dirty stick in terms of "cultural righteousness."

Ebert also knows next to nothing about the controversy over evolution, science, theology, and philosophy in general which he has displayed on numerous occasions. I think he is justified in making comments about the content of Expelled or any movie for that matter, but he is being overly dogmatic about something of which he is truly ignorant. The man has won a pulitzer prize, you'd think he'd display a little more intelligence on a regular basis. This is the heart of the problem with film criticism today. Most of it just has to do with a few scant historical references and stating whether you liked this or that. There is no attempt at being objective at all. I'm aware that we hold most of our beliefs subjectively anyway, not just opinions, but why should anybody care about what you have to say when you don't know anything? I will continue to like Ebert and read his reviews, I just think any future film critics out there reading this right now should seriously examine themselves and their opinions. Learn about things other than film. Learn about things other than your preferences. You will be better because of it.

So in conclusion while I also can be an ass from time to time let it be known that Roger Ebert is an ass as well.

The Greatest American Films Part 4: #8 The Silence of the Academy

For my third entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen The Silence of the Lambs.

I feel like my last entry was boring, to say the least. Not because Schindler's List is boring, simply because The List is such an excellent film and I don't really think it rocked anybody's world to see it put on another top anything list. I'm not trying to shake things up, I'm trying to be honest but honesty is always a dish best served...controversially. I think my current writing topic has such flair.

There are only three films that have won the big five at the Academy Awards since the honorific's inception. Those films are It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). For those of you that have actual lives with brains filled with useful information the Big Five are the five most prestigious awards the Academy offers every year. They are the lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and buffalo. Unless you're not going on a Safari and happen to live in the United States. In that case they are Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). Now being nominated for all Five is a pretty big feat in itself. That group of films is a rather exclusive one as well. But as I said before only three have won the big five. But even after this The Silence of the Lambs distinguished itself further by being the only thriller to have won Best Picture. Given that the Academy has been so incredibly biased towards dramas for several decades now that is quite impressive. Another singular event happened that same year which is also worth mentioning. Beauty and the Beast was the first and only animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. I guess the Academy was feeling open-minded. And there is another special distinction that Lambs alone possesses. Anthony Hopkins' performance was only 17 minutes of screen time. That makes him the record holder for the shortest Best Actor Oscar ever.

The Academy Awards are one of those things that matter when you want them to and don't matter when you don't want them to. In other words we praise films that deserve the awards and deride films that don't. I praise the Academy for giving Lambs the Big Five. The reason is simple: it deserved every single one of those awards. Lambs is the only truly feminist film on my top ten list. Many of you may gawk at that label. Go ahead. Keep gawking I'm not taking it back. Few films give the setup for their movie with such subtle visual and musical economy. Even from the credits we are being told what this film is: menacing. The opening credits are shoddy black with menacing mysterious symphonic chords playing against them. Then we see our heroine. A little, delicate, beautiful, sweaty, tough, lady. She is exercising at the FBI academy all alone.

Feminism is one of those words that creates completely unnecessary polarizations. Liberals can't think of a higher superlative than feminist pros, and conservatives can't think of a worse one. But to be a feminist all you have to be is pro woman. Not pro woman over man, not anti man, not anti babies or children. You just have to value women. Which we should all do without exception. Now given this definition of feminism many of you are gawking even more. That is because you probably don't understand what The Silence of the Lambs is about. It is about a woman fighting for another woman in a world controlled by men. Not necessarily evil men, simply people that don't share the particular female point of view. We are plunged into this world immediately. Demme hired extremely tall males extras for the introductory scenes. Jodie Foster is a tiny woman anyway. But once she enters the FBI headquarters after her workout we see the male world she lives in. These giant extras tower over her tiny frame making her seem even more diminutive. Then in what is a devilishly clever shot she gets into an elevator filled with these huge extras and almost seems to shrink before our eyes, but her stature never grows smaller just her size. Needless to say this is very good visual storytelling. The point is made to the viewer without any words just pictures and some music.

But the most important and interesting thing about this film isn't Hopkins' or Foster's excellent performances; it's not even really the grotesque subject matter. The most important thing about this movie is that it is a face movie. It is a movie about faces. Most of the scenes involve either extreme close ups or directly frontal shots of the actors' visages. Whatever this film is it is inherently about persons. It never lets you forget that the characters who inhabit this story are in fact people.

But the most unforgettable face is of the demented psychologist who most people believe is the true antagonist of the picture. Don't get me wrong Lecter is a villain but his role in the events that unfold is more similar to that of Obi-Wan than Bates. During the course of the film Lecter actually enables Starling to become a better person and a better FBI operative. The true villain is Buffalo Bill, who isn't even truly evil. His role is more like the Shark from Jaws or the giant pen...I mean the Alien from Alien. Bill is truly sick. His actions are evil but he is not completely responsible for what he does. He needs help. So we have an antagonist that isn't free or completely evil and a mentor who is deeply evil and completely free. I mean Lecter actually puts Clarice through a kind of abbreviated therapy during the course of the film, hence the name. He helps her silence the screaming lambs of her past. Which is what makes the poster so brilliant. The crimes of Bill are silencing her mouth, silenced her screaming.

Roger Ebert thinks that we accept Lecter because all the evil things he does are just part of his nature. This is terribly poor reasoning. I pick on Ebert a lot because he is well known, I respect him, and he should know better. We don't "accept" the alien in Alien, or the shark in Jaws, or Pazuzu in The Exorcist. That's why they're villains, they are villains by nature. But we do find Lecter attractive. Because he is honorable and charming. Throughout the course of the film we actually don't see Lecter do very many things that we can truly classify as unjustified. They maybe wrong but they are not without reason. I am not saying Lecter is not vile, he is, he truly is evil. But his character forces the truth in our faces. He is not the devil; I think he actually represents the id. Much has been made of how Clarice has to descend so far into the asylum to reach Lecter and how that represents his villainy. He is like the devil because she has to descend to reach him. She has to make a deal with the devil in order to catch Bill. This is overly simplistic. The descent represents a descent into madness. She is in an asylum, Lecter is a psychiatrist, she is trying to find a psychopath. It is a very deep mythological motif, the descent. But in this case it doesn't have anything to do with good and evil. Good and evil are not nearly as important concerns to the characters in this film as psychology. Clarice is fighting evil but she is also fighting herself. Facing Lecter is like facing the pure id. She has to face him in order to stop Bill. She has to face herself. The film is full of faces. She has to descend several times to talk to Lecter. Faces, descent, Bill's victims are in a pit trying to crawl their way out. This film is about facing insanity and being able to walk away a better person. But when the id is released, not kept in check by the restraints of society it wreaks terrible havoc. I will now leave you with Hannibal's explanation for Bill's insanity. It is simple and common, yet it caused Bill to become a terrible monster.

"We begin by coveting what we see every day."

The Greatest American Films Part 3: #9 Oskar the Grouch

For my second entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen Schindler's List.

I knew that no one would be enthusiastic about my inclusion of Nolan’s Batman movies in my top ten list. They haven’t exactly had a lot of time to show their greatness. I believe that within the next few decades these two movies (and possibly a third or fourth depending on whether or not Nolan and Bale can make the magic work again) will be considered some of the finest films ever made. Their significance in the genre of superhero/comic book films cannot be overestimated. But the fact is these films really aren’t comic book movies at all.

I remember reading all the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes hoping that The Dark Knight would at least score above Spider-Man 2 (which it sort of did, the overall review is 95% and the top critics review is 93% for The Dark Knight, but for Spider-Man 2 it was the opposite). While I think the second outing for Peter Parker was a wonderful film and a fine comic book adaptation it has its feet firmly planted in the mind of Stan Lee. It is a moving comic book. But both of Nolan’s films have been first and foremost viewed as true movies. The first movie will probably never be as highly regarded as I think it should be. Begins was one of the most intimate portrayals of a man I have ever seen. It displayed great tragedy and great heroism all within a human being whose life spanned the globe. It also works on many levels, an excellent action/adventure, an original crime/thriller, an unrequited love story. The first film gave us an inspirational line that quite honestly trumps the advice Uncle Ben gave to Peter before he died: It’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me. This isn’t a truth that can only be applied to superheroes. This is for all of us.

While reading the reviews for The Dark Knight I began to realize something, while there are many things you could possibly criticize either of these films for none of the criticisms that were being used were valid. They were simply put preferential disturbances. One negative reviewer of the film said the film was too serious. I believe he actually said something like “for crying out loud this is Batman, not Hamlet.” While another reviewer said in praise of the film “there’s some Hamlet in this Batman.” Most people would think that attributing similarities to what maybe the greatest play in the English language a good thing. Some reviewers commented that the film was too dark; it’s tone oppressive and depressing. But to accurately portray evil one must be confronted with its true face. Batman and Commissioner Gordon shine all the brighter as the film’s heroes because of the great darkness they are forced to fight against. Another critique that was common of the first movie and was carried over by some to the second film was that the martial arts were hard to see. Sometimes this sort of critique is valid, but not when it adds to the intention and mood of the film as it has with Nolan's Batman. Batman's fighting style is brutal, economic and far from beautiful. These films were misunderstood by the few people who gave it negative reviews.

For what these two Batman movies do to us as viewers is what all truly great movies should do in some sense. To wake us from our slumber. Great art always reflects the good, the true, and the beautiful. Great films are supposed to honestly tell us who we are and why we are here. The accidental aspects of Christology that appear in the film aside we are presented with real problems in a real world, solved not by superheroes but real people willing to make sacrifices. Many people believe that we shouldn’t base our beliefs on films. Roger Ebert once said that it was wrong to let a movie change your mind about something like a moral or political stance, because films are entirely emotional experiences. This statement is problematic for several reasons. The first is that all truly great films should be responsible enough to portray that which is true and right to the best of their ability so that if the film does persuade someone of something it should be a benefit to their worldview not detrimental. Another problem with this statement is that Ebert really displays his ignorance of philosophy, especially epistemology. Many of our beliefs are based upon faculties which are inherently non rational. My belief that I am typing on a computer right now is based on my experiential relation to the external world. I’m not saying we should believe everything we see and read but simply that if a film makes you feel something differently and believe something differently than you did before that can very well be a good thing. Stories change people’s lives everyday. They keep us going, they keep us happy. Film is important to our culture. We should take film seriously.

Schindler’s List maybe the most deadly serious film ever made. In a nutshell it is the story of a loser who manages to save 1,200 Jews from the holocaust in spite of the fact that he was a war profiteer.

Any film that deals with the holocaust is a serious film but this film tries to portray the true nature of Nazi racism and in many ways the true outcome of hate. In the midst of this comes a man who is completely unremarkable in every way. He is unfaithful to his wife, he is a terrible business man, he doesn’t have very much money, he is a shameless self promoter. He has no other desire for the war effort than to make money off of it. But we see in his pitiful little heart a great love blossom. If there was nothing else to say about this movie that would be enough. It is a story of change, unlike any I have ever seen.

But in terms of pure cinema this film is a masterpiece. For this film tells its story with colors and images. That's right. Color is one of the most important elements of this black and white film. To see what I mean simply look at the poster. The image of Oskar's hand grabbing the little girl's hand clothed in red is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen, and in this image the entirety of the film is encapsulated. For it is the scene where the little girl appears that is the turning point of the entire film. Oskar is enjoying himself. Enjoying his war profiteering, benefiting from the pain of others. He is seducing young jewish girls who work for him. He is slime. But on the day that the Krakow Ghetto is evacuated by the Nazi's and the Jews are forced to move into the concentration camp he sees amidst all the violence an innocent little girl wearing red. She has no one to help her. Oskar sees this. Nobody else sees this but Oskar. And he knows. He knows this black and white world he's been living in, this dreary existence has something good in it, something innocent. At that moment he is confronted with the truth, the bare naked reality of the world he has been living in and feeding off. And for the rest of the film he starts to care for these people. He starts to defend them, to treat them with dignity. He loves them and eventually goes to any and all lengths to save 1,200 Jews from the Nazi regime. And in what is probably the most touching part of the entire film he breaks down crying that he didn't do enough. He weeps over the one or two more Jews he could have saved. And then at the end we see the truth of the inscription on Oskar's ring as all the survivor's of the List and their children come forth to place stones on Oskar's grave.

There are other color moments in the picture that clearly indicate to us what the film means. The film is bookended by two all color segments. The Jews before the holocaust preparing for the Sabbath and the Schindler Jews after the holocaust venerating Oskar's grave. Then there is the colored flames of the candles at the end of the film indicating the beginning of the Sabbath and the renewal of hope. The black and white actually represents the holocaust and the color represents better times. Spielberg wanted to shoot the film in black and white because he wanted it to look like the actual footage that is available of that terrible time. He wanted to portray the actual holocaust as it truly was. A dreary dark time.

This film is about a man who was not a good man. He was selfish and unkind. But when the opportunity presented itself he proved that within him there was a dignity, a goodness, an ability to help those that cannot help themselves. He proved that man can be good and sometimes it takes the worst circumstances to see him at his best. And now I will leave you with the words engraved on Oskar's ring:

"It's Hebrew, it's from the Talmud. It says, "Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire."

The Greatest American Films Part 2: #10 Batman's Second Coming

For the first entry in my list of the Ten Greatest American Films I have chosen a tie between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Whenever we choose to rank things we choose to polarize people. After all regardless of our metaphysical beliefs concerning value the way we determine so many aesthetic decisions is based on our preferences. We could refer to the experts to settle any disagreement but not only do they disagree amongst themselves about so many things but we (the vulgar) heartily find ourselves in disagreement with them constantly. I even started this project partially because I think Ebert's ten greatest films list is poor (though I do think he is a brilliant critic and a very intelligent man). So how will my judging be any different form anyone else's? Why should anybody care? I offer you two answers to this question. The first answer is simply that nobody should care; I can be and in fact am in many regards a moron. The second answer (which maybe less truthful but I like much better) is also simple: Pure Cinema. Allow me to explain.

One thing that many people seem to forget when watching movies is the very nature of the medium. A question that I always found hauntingly appropriate to this discussion came from arguably cinema's greatest villain: Hannibal Lecter. In one of the later scenes of the film Lecter tells Starling something very important.
"First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?"

I don't know much about Aurelius myself, except that he wanted Russell Crowe and not Joaquin Phoenix to rule Rome when he died. Which turned out to be a smart decision since Russell Crowe won best actor that year at the Academy Awards. So he seems like a smart guy to me. Let's take his advice.

So when we look at film what is it that we see? Well what was film originally? Did it have sound? No. Did it have music? Sometimes it was played live but generally no. So then film is inherently a visual medium. If film can exist without sound and even color then at its core it is a simple form of visual story.

Film is visual. But it has become more than that. Film scores have gotten so good that we even buy them and listen to them without the films. Film scripts so well written we quote their lines to make each other laugh or to impart an important truth. But remove everything else and what we have deep within the soul of cinema is visual storytelling.

I do not remember the first time I actually heard the phrase Pure Cinema. I'm sure it was in a DVD extra somewhere. I am fairly certain it was the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid DVD I purchased at the beginning of High School. During one of the documentaries somebody was talking about how there is no music in Butch and Sundance. At least not during the actual film. There are three musical interludes that have only music and no dialogue. So during all the dramatic parts of the film there are no cues to tell you how to feel about anything. All the information is conveyed visually or by the actors. I don't know very much about George Roy Hill as a director outside of his two masterpieces with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But whoever was speaking in the documentary said that Hill strongly believed in something called Pure Cinema. I didn't understand what that meant. All I knew was that it somehow related to music in film.

I think when I finally began to truly understand this concept was after my father bought Rear Window on DVD. This film was sort of a sacred thing in our home for long before High School. I was raised to believe that there were few if any directors better than Hitch. This belief has only grown stronger as I have become older. But while so many people will comment on the sophistication and dry wit that is so prevalent in all of Hitch's work, or even his ability to create such leering suspense that remains suspenseful so many years later what Hitchcock understood probably better than any director was that film is a visual means of telling a story. One of the DVD extras on Rear Window pointed this out to me. Just look at the beginning of Rear Window. The entire physical, emotional, and historical setting for what is about to transpire is conveyed in a few brief shots. Not a word is spoken. For another good example of this watch the first few minutes of Rio Bravo.

Pure cinema is truly the mark of greatness when discussing films. That is why I can never consider such well-loved films as Goodfellas and The Shawshank Redemption to be truly great. They are popular. They are intelligent. But they are not pure films. Both of these films are absolutely crippled by its reliance on voice over narration. Without the narration the films convey almost no information. They tell almost no story without their words. I have no problem with narration that adds to the quality of a film but these two films are essentially monologues with images attached to them. All About Eve or To Kill a Mockingbird or even the Fellowship of the Ring and The Return of the King are dependent on narration at certain points in the story because the information is too complex to be shown. But if you took out those pieces of narration the films would not really be any worse for wear. They would still be good films.

What Nolan's Batman films have accomplished is the most compelling visual characterization for a character ever in the history of Cinema. Everything you need toknow about why Bruce Wayne decides to become who he becomes is conveyed to you visually. Batman has what is probably the most ridiculous costume of all the mainstream comic book characters. He dresses like a bat. In the comics the primary reason he does this is because fate has ordained him to. But in Nolan's world it is absolutely essential to his character that he does so.

We see in the very first scene of Begins how deeply his fear of Bats has been pressed upon his psyche. First he is playing with his best friend. He is full of joy and excitement. Then suddenly his perfect world is shattered with a painful frightening fall that breaks his arm. He will associate all of these things with what is about to happen to him. Bats envelop him in the darkness of the hole. But even more telling than this about the necessity of the cape and cowl which he will adorn himself with nightly in the future is what will happen next to young Bruce. His fear of Bats kills his parents. Not really of course. A poor desperate man killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. In a sense Gotham City killed them. But not Bruce. But that is how he feels. As they watch the Opera Bruce is overcome with his fearful associations with Bats. If he had been stronger. If he had not been scared of Bats his parents would still be alive and Bruce will never forget that. Later in the film after he has received the means to fight for Gotham he returns. In so many ways this city represents his failure as a man. Everything he has ever done wrong in life is associate with this city, yet he still desires to save it. To fight for it. And how does he do that? When he returns home he goes into the cave of his childhood. Essentially his descent into the cave represents the probing of his psyche. He has to make peace with his fears. So he descends and lets the Bats envelop him. He is afraid. He never stops being afraid. But he has learned to control his fear. He has learned to control his hurt over the loss of his parents, over his own mistakes and become a man. But in order to do that he clothes himself in the very symbol of his weakness and makes evil fear that which he fears himself. The rest of the film is of course wonderfully realized as well. Upon its release I think many people realized that comic book/superhero films would never be the same. The film just took itself too seriously to be thought of as juvenile anymore. It presented a world too much like our own to be ignored.

The Dark Knight is one of those Godfather Part II, Empire strikes back things. Everybody knows the sequel actually surpassed the original in artistic achievement. But artistry is not the only mark of greatness. The Dark Knight gave us a further expanded world. It took everything we loved so much about Begins and gave us even more. Ledger's performance as the Joker is already iconic. Partially because of his death but mostly because his performance was iconoclastic. He destroyed all previous incarnations of the Joker. When you destroy the old icons new ones musttake their place. And Ledger's has done that in spades. An IGN reviewer said recently the fact that Ledger will never be able to reprise this role is one of the most tragic events in cinema history. And I think we can all agree on that. But this is not what makes the film great. Ledger is only a very important piece of a much grander puzzle. He exists to tell us more about the central character. A hero is judged by the strength of his villains no? And what we see in this film is every heroic character rising to the occasion except eventually for Dent. He has been hurt so badly he cannot be rational any more. But Batman has been scared by these same events even more deeply and yet he persists until the very end of the picture. He is even willing to give up his innocence so that the city will not fall into despair.

Nolan's Batman truly is one of the greatest heroes in cinema history. He stands alongside heroes like Atticus Finch as being truly noble when it truly counts. Like all truly great heroes he is not a hero. He is in fact a Servant. Near the end of To Kill a Mockingbird a lady says to Jem, in order to comfort him, that some people are born to do our dirty jobs for us. Atticus Finch currently stands at the top of AFI's list of heroes. I am confident that when the list is updated Nolan's Batman will either replace him there are come very very close.

These films are marked by great artistry. Nolan is a voracious visual storyteller. He uses great economy and poetry in his films to convey his stories. Visual story telling impacts us deeper than so many other forms of communication. In the last scene of Knight Gordon tells us exactly who Batman is with words. But his words would mean nothing if we hadn't seen Batman be everything Gordon says about him for the last two hours. Also Nolan is still conveying the story visually even during this small monologue. He shows you everything Gordon is saying right up until the very last shot where Batman ascends into Blinding light, reminiscent of Jesus' return to Heaven (in the future I dedicate an entire post to Christology in Nolan's Batman films). I will leave you with Gordon's closing remarks:

"Because he's the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now... and so we'll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he's not a hero. He's a silent guardian, a watchful protector... a dark knight."

The Greatest American Films

I have always loved lists. Especially ranked lists. Ranking things is fun. The Princess Bride is my favorite book of all time, and it is filled with rankings. I love it. I don't know why, but for some reason ranking lists makes me feel all warm inside. It's almost like a sport except that the only people involved didn't have anything to do with the original entree. Last year Roger Ebert came out and made his definitive statement on what he thinks the ten greatest movies are. Not as formidable as say the AFI, BFI, or even Tim Dirk's truly epic filmsite.org. But what Ebert's list lacks in quantitative omph, he makes up for with extreme pretension. This guy really thinks he can name the ten greatest films ever made? When all these other groups have to list hundreds of films? Well here is Ebert's list:

Ten Greatest Films of all time (alphabetically).

Casablanca
Citizen Kane
Floating Weeds
Gates of Heaven
La Dolce Vita
Notorious
Raging Bull
The Third Man
28 up
2001: A Space Odyssey

for the entire article follow this link: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19910401/COMMENTARY/40308035/1023

I think this list is flawed for several reasons. First off I don't believe that Citizen Kane belongs in the top ten of any great film list except for lists concerning technical achievement or influence. Even though Citizen Kane is an amazing film in so many ways, I am sorry to say it is boring (I am in no way a minority on this position, except among Film critics). Also Ebert has made his list too broad. He brings in documentaries and foreign films. I doubt that Floating Weeds is truly the greatest film out of all asian cinema. Likewise for La Dolce Vita and Gates of Heaven for their respective categories. The other choices on the list probably merit their places.

In any case I have been inspired by this attempt to name the ten greatest films of all time and have decided to do so myself. I am only 100% certain of several of these choices. I could change my mind about half of them simply by watching another movie that I thought better deserving of the honor of ten greatest films. I have also limited myself to American films, and non documentaries. It isn't that I believe American films are better than other films or that documentaries cannot compete. But this is a humble first attempt and I must limit myself if I am not to utterly fail. I have ranked my list chronologically. I believe this to be the closest approximation of the level of greatness of each film. The setting of precedent is vitally important in determining greatness. I have also not included silent films. I have a hard time with silent film and feel that I am a bad judge of their quality. I have also included several ties which many people will find troublesome. In actuality my list includes a total of 13 films. But I find these films truly to be of equal quality and import, so I see no reason to separate them from each other in ranking.

In any case here is my slightly less pretentious Top Ten Greatest American Films list:

Number 10
Batman Begins 2005 tie
The Dark Knight 2008 tie

Number 9
Schindler's List 1993

Number 8
The Silence of the Lambs 1991

Number 7
Star Wars 1977 tie
Stars Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back 1980 tie

Number 6
The Godfather 1972 tie
The Godfather Part II 1974 tie

Number 5
Vertigo 1958

Number 4
Notorious 1946

Number 3
My Darling Clementine 1946

Number 2
It's a Wonderful Life 1946

Number 1
Casablanca 1942