Category: Religion

Review of Mother!

Spoilers ahead

Darren Aronofsky and Christopher Nolan Continue to prove that they are the premier filmmakers of the 21st century. Dunkirk was most certainly Nolan’s most beautiful pure cinematic work to date. But Mother! is either Aronofsky’s greatest cinematic achievement or his first film failure. If it is a failure then it’s a very good failure. An interesting failure can do more for cinema than a moderate success. And if it is an artistic success it might be one of the greatest films ever made and certainly of the early 21st century.

Right now it’s been several days since I witnessed it and the feeling is still very fresh. I say witnessed because you don’t feel like you’re watching a film. You feel as if you are present at transpiring events. And not in a good way. In a traumatic way. It will be a much more enjoyable film when viewed at home. The images will be more decipherable and the constant shaky cam less disorienting. Of course that means the impact is reduced. But I don’t know if I want to be impacted by this film in that way again. It’s constant use of biblical and religious symbolism is rich and complex. And those who find the film compelling will spend countless hours discussing each and every piece of that symbolism for years to come. Currently the film is underperforming at the box office but it will develop a devoted cult following. Much like Blade Runner.

At this point I’m leaning towards the film being a masterpiece. That might just be the pretentious part of me that wants to be smarter than film critics, who currently are very split on this. But the film’s virtues are hard to deny. It is a completely uncompromising unrelenting artistic vision. Not once does it seem as if Aronofksy does not know exactly what he wanted in each and every shot. His collaboration with the great DP Matthew Libatique continues to produce visual magic. Even by limiting themselves to 16mm the film still looks better than the vast majority of theatrical releases. But shooting on film regardless of the mm lends credibility and beauty that digital lacks.

Mother! is unlike any film I have ever seen. It blends Hitchcock’s perverse voyeuristic dread with Lynch’s surrealism, Gilliam’s mania and Malick’s existentialism effortlessly. It is primarily a horror or dark fantasy film, which are the genres Aronofsky inhabits the most. This work has come from a deep part of his dark soul. A part that has been built upon a remarkably profound fear of religion and especially fanaticism.

Because ultimately this is a film about God’s indifference to his creation. God and humanity are essentially the monsters in this horror epic. Javier Bardem plays the character Him. A successful creative writer and a very self indulgent irresponsible person socially. He is emotionally distant from his wife, Jennifer Lawrence’s character named simply Mother, allowing strangers to live in their home. I did not realize that any of the characters even had names until the credits rolled. And all the names are simply descriptive nouns. Ed Harris is Man, Michelle Pfeiffer is Woman, other characters are named simply by what they do in a scene such as the Adulterer who attempts to “seduce” Mother into taking a walk with him. And truthfully none of these characters are actually characters. They are symbolic place holders. Exactly like the people in Jesus’ parables. One of the characters is even titled Good Samaritan.

Each beat of the “plot” comes from the Bible. It starts with a burned out house in a crispy wasteland. Him goes into his destroyed study and places a crystal into a holder on the shelf. This causes everything to be healed and restored. A new creation but not creatio ex nihilo. Mother is literally generated fully formed in her bed by this crystals’ power. But it’s unclear that Him is in fact supposed to be the god of the Bible until Man and Woman sneak into his office and break the crystal. After this he boards up the study saying this will keep them out for good. This is clearly the garden of Eden. When Mother says they should simply kick the trespassers out Him replies that they have no where else to go. Then the two sons of Man and Woman arrive and a fight ensues. Anyone who has ever attended Sunday school knows where this is headed. The Oldest Son kills the Younger Brother. So the older brother is clearly Cain. But they are arguing over their Father’s inheritance so the parable of the prodigal son is brought in as well.

And this is how the film is either genius or a complete disaster. Every single symbol actually represents multiple things. Mother is Gaia, Israel, and Mary the theotokos. Him is God, a prophet, Joseph, an existential poet, and maleness in general. This sort of nonsense does not work in propositional artforms like novels. But visual arts can simulate reality in more “objective” ways. In reality everything is multiple things. Every woman can potentially be a daughter, mother, sister, and wife. And most women are all four. But a character in a novel can really only be one thing at a time, whatever the author is currently calling that character to. A film is supposed to present a character rather than explaining that character. The viewer’s subjective experience of the character is limited to the viewer’s mind (a form of internal authorship or interpretation) but objectively the character is being presented as all the things that character truly is. This can work extremely well in climatic moments of normal films. When Oskar Schindler cries over the Jews he didn’t save or Captain Quint recounts the sinking of the USS Indianapolis the viewer has access to every piece of what has been revealed so far concerning that character’s humanity and experiences.

So if Mother! succeeds it is because the symbolism is powerful and evocative. If it is a failure the weight of the symbols was too much for the film’s legs to bear. After having seen the film only once I think it succeeds. Mostly due to Lawrence’s performance and Aronofsky’s writing of her performance. Each beat and reaction from Lawrence fits perfectly to the audience’s expectations.

Similar to the filming of his other most artistically divisive film, The Fountain, the director is in a relationship with the female lead. Whatever positive or negative effect that has is in no way obvious but both films portray neglected spouses married to geniuses. Whether Aronofsky sees this consciously doesn’t matter all that much but he clearly relates to this theme. Hopefully his romantic partners do not. Ultimately all his films are about obsession that leads to isolation. And after tackling washed up athletes, drug addicts, scientists, and ballerinas Aronofsky finally turns his focus on divine love. The love of God for his creation winds up being his most terrifying story so far.

A cynical Christian could chok this up to his version of secular Judaism. But I think this film represents a very honest fear. To quote the great philosopher Michael Palin God is “so absolutely huge” (https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=fINh4SsOyBw) that it’s easy to think he would probably be indifferent to us. And this has tended to be what people thought about divine beings. Judaism and Christianity are the exception to this. But man knows he is tiny. And if you are unsure about who or what God is it is easy to think that he must be scary. That he must be indifferent and selfish. That he creates for his own sake and not ours. And if Mother! means anything it is that life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I cannot think of anything more horrifying than that.

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

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog, I can’t say I still stand by this post in particular but maybe I will finally finish my series analyzing each of these films)

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

(I did not realize that I still had 2 blogs active on the old Blogger format, this is a post from about 7 years ago that I found on there, I’m going to rip a few of those old posts and place them here then deactivate my old blog, I can’t say I still stand by this post in particular but maybe I will finally finish my series analyzing each of these films)

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.”